In the latest Scottish Transport Statistics published in February there is an interesting analysis of the patronage at railway stations opened since 1970. The context in 1970 was of a railway network that had seen decades of falling patronage. In contrast, the current statistics show a generally rising trend in rail, car and air travel usage but it is now bus patronage that is falling. What can the shrinking transport services learn from the growing ones?
The opening of Duncraig station on the Kyle of Lochalsh line in the West of Scotland in 1971 was not seen at the time as being the pre-cursor to 40 years of rail patronage growth. Nevertheless, one of the most important factors in economic growth is business confidence. Transport investment such as new stations helps to nurture confidence. Plockton near Duncraig is now a tourism hotspot, partly as a result of being used for a television drama.
The stations analysis also shows the strong growth on inter-city links and in widening employment catchments for the economic centres. Adapting to a changing economy is important. The "new" stations opened since the 1970s achieved 20 per cent higher patronage growth than the average of all stations. 'New' stations experiencing a notable decline in patronage over the last decade have all been affected by some wider change. The IBM station near Greenock is being used by only 6 thousand passengers compared with over 200k in 2008. Prestwick Airport station opened in 1994 but patronage has fallen rapidly to 118 thousand passengers in 2017 as airlines have moved their routes, only 15 percent of the number of users in 2008.
Rail investment is no longer as controversial as it was in the 1970s when many argued railways should be closed to make room for more roads. Instead the controversial changes are more likely to relate to new networks such as for shared taxis, electric vehicle charging, and new types of information and organisation or multi-modal transport. Of the established networks, air travel is at the front line of many of the high-profile controversies. Reform of Air Passenger Duty (APD) and airport capacity has replaced rail investment as amongst the most controversial transport changes.
When Norwegian Airlines announced in January that they were transferring some transatlantic flights from Edinburgh to Dublin they cited the delay by the Scottish Government in reducing APD as the main reason for the switch. Then in February, Ryanair cited delays in reducing APD and Brexit as factors affecting its decision to close its Glasgow airport operations. Is Government tax policy becoming a relatively more important factor in aviation market development, or are the airlines making tactical moves to replace tax with profit where the market price can be maintained? This is a difficult topic to research easily since the business, tourism, travel, family spending and household surveys are all undertaken separately and are difficult to connect. Many factors will be important, yet this critical economic issue affecting global competitiveness lacks the evidence from which to build consensus. Transport and wider economies are inter-dependent. Airlines go to the cities that are attracting people. Cities attract growth when they are places where people want to be. Will tax breaks for airlines have greater impacts than competing policy options for boosting city competitiveness?
National statistics are one of the most important ways of making knowledge available to all of society to ensure a balanced debate, but there are some important gaps where links between transport and other sectors need to be made. Perhaps most important, is the lack of walking and footfall data in the main shopping streets and access routes of towns and cities. Such data is critically important to understand the economic health of places, so increasingly the gap in national statistics is being closed by commercial services such as Springboard's footfall index. This helps business to plan but does not make these important statistics available for wider dissemination.
The supporting data in national statistics needs to expand its coverage to enable these linked issues to be evaluated more easily for all modes of travel. Rebalancing national statistics towards personal door to door travel by trip purpose would help. The gaps in data reflect old perceptions of transport business models, which assumed each asset or service would cover its costs. Increasingly value comes through the delivery of packages of change that include profit and loss-making services.
Nobody thought that Duncraig station re-opening would ever cover its costs. However, investing in the rail networks to build confidence in places cemented rail's place in the economy. A successful future for transport more generally is not a random aggregation of unmanaged demand, but a coherent network of complementary services delivering better connections. Until statistics report trends in these emerging networks, value capture from transport will be harder. Poorly informed decisions on issues with multi-£bn consequences, such as for air taxes and access in towns and cities, are a costly price to pay. The data on the usage of "new" stations in the latest Scottish transport statistics shows the benefits of making more data openly available.