Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 11:49 UK

Is this the new age of the train?

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Inspector checking tickets
More people are travelling by rail than at any time since 1946

With motorists facing rising fuel prices and rail companies reporting growing passenger numbers, are we entering a golden age for public transport in the UK?

Rail and bus firm Stagecoach declared a "fundamental shift" in attitudes to public transport when it announced a rise in profits this week.

Last year, the National Road Traffic Survey recorded its first drop in car use since it began its annual study.

But the "two rails good, four wheels bad" theory might not necessarily hold for those who have suffered rising prices and disruption on mainline services.

Road or rail?

Motoring organisation the AA found that more than a third of 17,500 surveyed members had made a decision to start leaving their cars at home.

Many of these, it appears, are getting on the train instead - with passenger numbers up by 40% in the last decade. More people are now travelling by train than at any other time since 1946.

Four in five are satisfied with the service, according to one survey, but lack of speed, overcrowding and difficulties for those not on mainline routes are regular gripes during discussions led by local authorities.

Numbers are expected to grow by another 30% in the next 10 years, but people are going to have to pay more for the privilege.

Stagecoach train
Stagecoach reported a 16% increase in sales for the year to April

Independent rail passenger watchdog Passenger Focus hit out at the rail companies in January for "inflation-busting" fare rises.

Government-capped fares went up by 4.8%, but rail operators put prices up by more than 9% in other areas - mostly for turn-up-and-pay tickets.

Government policy is also steered towards making fare-payers carry more of the burden in the future, so taxpayers can pay less to subsidise the service.

Meanwhile, Stagecoach - saying there is growing public concern about congestion and climate change - is benefiting from the boost in popularity in trains and buses.

Its pre-tax profits for the year to 30 April rose from 162m to 174m, as sales increased by 16% to 1.76bn.

The operator of South Western and East Midlands Trains said the UK rail sector was undergoing a "renaissance" due to increased demand, investment and more effective marketing.

Similarly, another operator, the Go-Ahead Group, said rising petrol prices meant it was likely to beat profit expectations.

And most recently Arriva, which runs 13,000 buses and trains, said in its outlook for the year that its first-half revenue would increase by more than 50%. It highlighted strong growth in its UK bus division, including more passengers in the regions.

On your bike

One union leader called for the increased profits to be spent on better customer service and safety.

Network Rail workers
Network Rail has received criticism for rail infrastructure

Reacting to the Stagecoach results, Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said: "People want to see more staff on stations, not fewer, and it is time for the government to stop rail privateers milking ever-bigger profits out of what should be a public service and not a cash cow."

There have also been concerns raised about the state of the infrastructure, most notably engineering work on the West Coast Main Line, where there are plans for more services between London and Manchester.

It also remains likely that drivers will jump back in their cars if the price of petrol starts to fall.

Those switching vehicles because of environmental concerns might look to expanding tram systems in some UK cities.

Nexus, which runs the Tyne and Wear Metro rail system, said there had been a "surge" in annual season ticket sales since 1 April, despite a 6.5% rise in fares.

Manchester and Nottingham both have the carrot of tram systems, in addition to the stick of planned new congestion or car parking levy schemes.

But, of course, drivers might turn away from motorised vehicles - including public transport - altogether.

"We have definitely noticed an increase in buyers in the last few weeks mentioning it [the rising fuel price] as a factor in their decision to buy a bike," says Patrick Trainor from Evans Cycles, the UK's biggest independent bike retailer.

"People who wouldn't previously have considered buying a bike realise it now makes financial sense, particularly at the cheaper end of bikes.

"Because petrol prices are going up, it can cost 50 to fill up a tank. So people are finding they can buy a bike for the equivalent of a month's worth of petrol."

Emissions drive for company cars
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25 Feb 08 |  Business
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13 Jun 08 |  England

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