Scotland’s railway after the pandemic

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Iain Docherty

This report provides an overview of the challenges facing Scotland’s Railway as we plan for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the key questions to be addressed in planning for a sustainable future. Transport in Scotland more generally is at a critical juncture given the unprecedented changes to travel behaviour that have been seen since March 2020. Decisions made in the months ahead will set the demand trajectories for car travel, public transport use, walking, cycling and digital communication for years to come, and probably for the timescale over which we must achieve decarbonisation.

Before the pandemic, we were planning for a continuation of several established trends. For the railways, above all this meant significant investment in providing more capacity on key commuter routes serving our largest cities. Yet over the last year, people have walked and cycled more, and working from home has become commonplace than ever. For many, commuting has given way to staying local. These enforced changes underpin the substantial falls in public transport demand that have been seen over the last 12 months, and the roughly doubling in public sector financial support required to keep the railway operating over this period.

The extent to which these changes in behaviour ‘stick’ as we emerge from the pandemic is by far the most important short-medium term challenge facing the railway given the implications for passenger demand and taxpayer support.

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