Britain is witnessing the dawn of a new era of rail travel as an unprecedented demand for environmentally friendly transport encourages people to take more train journeys than at any time since the Second World War.
Figures released yesterday revealed that the number of miles travelled on the rail network reached a record-breaking peacetime high of 30.1 billion during 2007, capping a huge rise in popularity in which passenger numbers have increased every year for the past 13 years.
The rise in passenger miles, documented by the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), indicates a boom in demand for rail transport at a time when the threat of climate change is encouraging more people to find greener ways of moving around.
George Muir, director general of Atoc, described the resurgence of train use as astonishing. "We knew that we were growing but it was only when we looked at the graph that we realised how sudden that growth was," he said. "If you take out the war years, for much of the past 80 years passenger miles have hovered around the 20 billion mark, but within the past 10 years it has grown dramatically."
The only time that train passenger miles – calculated as the number of journeys taken multiplied by the distance travelled – has been higher was during the Second World War when the rail network was twice the size it is now and large numbers of troops were being transported around the country. The previous peacetime record was set in 1946 – when vast numbers of soldiers were being demobilised.
Atoc's figures represent one of the most detailed attempts to gauge the popularity of Britain's railways over the past 170 years and show how demand for rail travel has reached unprecedented levels over the past decade since privatisation. Last year the network handled 1.21 billion rail journeys, the equivalent of 20 journeys for every citizen and a 7 per cent rise on 2006. Traffic on the railways, meanwhile, has increased by 67.6 per cent since 1994 when just 17.9 billion passenger miles were travelled.
Tim Leunig, a historian from the London School of Economics who helped compile the figures, said current trends meant passenger miles were likely to continue breaking records "time and time and time again" as demand increases. A White Paper last year estimated that Britain would need to double its rail capacity by 2030 to meet demand.
Passenger groups voiced concerns that the cost of expanding the overstretched rail network will be paid for by yet more above-inflation ticket price rises. The most recent, which came into effect in January, saw some rail operators put up the cost of fares on some routes up by as much as 15 per cent.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, said: "We need a fares policy that encourages rail and bus use, and that means cheaper tickets, not more expensive ones. If just 5 per cent of people travelling by car turn to rail it would require a 50 per cent increase in rail capacity, so the task is huge and it needs dramatic action."
Environmental groups also warned that rising ticket prices could remove the incentive to travel by train at a time when car use and short-haul flights are also at record highs. "We're delighted that the demand for rail travel is increasing and that more and more people are choosing to use this greener form of transport but we do have concerns about the rising costs of using our railways," said Cat Hobbs from the Campaign for Better Transport.
"We're also not convinced that the Government has adequate long-term plans to expand and fund a railway network that will meet future demand."
Concern was also expressed yesterday that, as demand for rail travel grows, the already chronic overcrowding on some sections of the network will only get worse. Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus, the independent national rail consumer watchdog, said: "These figures graphically underline the urgent need for more and longer trains. Passengers left standing on a crowded peak service will find this announcement hard to believe."
A Department for Transport spokesperson rejected any suggestion that the Government would fail to meet future demand. "We are ahead of the curve and planning for growth," she said.
"On top of the opening of the UK's first high-speed line and securing funding for Crossrail last year we announced £10bn investment focused on increasing capacity.
"We are planning a rail network which can carry 180 million more passengers over the next six years, growth of 22 per cent."