Trains: What we’re paying for – and what we’re losing

Rush hour travellers throng the platform at Manchester Piccadilly station as a suburban train approaches. May 2005, United Kingdom. (Photo by Rail Photo/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

It has emerged this week that free access to train wifi could be stripped from passengers. (Getty Images)

During the first pandemic lockdown the rail network became a ghost train service. With commuters forced to work from home and many people scared to use public transport in case they picked up COVID-19, passenger numbers plummeted to their lowest recorded levels.

The government continued to fund regular rail services during the pandemic – and three years on passenger numbers have surpassed pre-COVID levels.

But rail travel costs more than ever and now the government wants to change the extra services provided to passengers.

We ask if rail travel is still offering value for money.

So what’s going on? The Department of Transport has told the companies that operate trains to remove wifi services[1] unless they can prove it represents “value for money” for passengers. It is one recommendation being made as part of a big shake-up of the way train services are operated across the country.

How many trains could this affect? Almost all trains now offer free wifi to passengers, but the Department of Transport has told train companies that they now think it’s a low priority service for passengers and is no longer necessary – particularly for short journeys. It could mean a change in service for most regular rail travellers.

What do passengers think? Rail commentator Christian Wolmar described[2] the decision as “ridiculous”, warning that passengers would be angered by the change in service. “My view is that wifi is as essential as toilets now – people expect to be connected,” he said.

Everyone has 4G or 5G on their phones now. Does this really matter? For some people, yes. Disability campaigners are also outraged at the suggestion, warning that lack of wifi could prevent people who need extra assistance to travel safely being able to organise their journeys while out and about.

How else has train travel changed recently? Even before the pandemic, the number of trains offering catering services was dropping fast with many train companies choosing not to offer drinks or snacks on board. Chiltern Railways dropped this service altogether as early as 2017, while Avanti, which operates long haul journeys along the west coast, has recently canned its at-seat service.

Is that all? No, many trains have also swapped to having just one member of staff[3] on board – the driver – dispensing of the guard who previously operated the doors and helped passengers who needed assistance on board. The decision has prompted recent industrial action among rail unions, even though London’s trains have had driver-only staffing for almost a decade.

Hang on, so I’m paying more to travel but getting less in return? Rail fares are higher than ever, but the rise in the cost of travel is actually much lower than the hike for most other services this year. Train fares rose by 5.9% in March, much lower than the rate of inflation due to a cap on rail costs imposed by the government. Nevertheless, it’s still the highest rise in a decade.

Proportion of Passenger Arrivals and Departures by Hour, London stations: Autumn 2019, 2020 and 2021. (
Proportion of Passenger Arrivals and Departures by Hour, London stations: Autumn 2019, 2020 and 2021. (

Proportion of Passenger Arrivals and Departures by Hour, London stations: Autumn 2019, 2020 and 2021. (

I’m not the only one still travelling. It seems trains are becoming popular again. They are. For the first time since the pandemic began, rail passenger numbers are surging again, and are now even higher than they were back in 2019[4]. More than 990 million journeys were taken by train in 2021-22. Meanwhile, overcrowding on board has reduced as people are now spreading their journeys to work over a few hours rather than commuting during the pre-pandemic “peak” hours.

Are there more trains running? This depends on the area you live in. After the slowdown during the pandemic, trains are back on the rails - but in some areas there are fewer carriages running, partly as a result of ongoing industrial action and partly due to a lag in training new drivers.

Isn’t that bothering people? Yes. Passenger numbers are up but so are complaints. Fewer trains arrived on time last year, and the latest Department of Transport data release shows complaints about rail services more than doubled.


  1. ^ to remove wifi services (
  2. ^ Christian Wolmar described (
  3. ^ just one member of staff (
  4. ^ even higher than they were back in 2019 (