Is ‘Working From Home’ Impacting Belfast ? Transport Gives an Indication…

History has taught us that major pandemics create lasting behavioural change, and often in unexpected ways. One of the most significant impacts of Covid 19 has been the rise of ‘Working From Home’ (WFH) and ‘hybrid-working’ (employee time divided between the office and home). Doing a full day of desk-based work from the comfort of one’s home was usually a rare treat before the pandemic, with office blocks in towns and cities populated by people and businesses who assumed that being there five days a week was the way to perform desk-based roles.

All that changed with Covid – and since the end of the pandemic, many staff and companies have been slow to return to their old office-based ways. This was evidenced in a Bloomberg survey in Summer 2022 which found that UK workers were settling into a pattern of spending on average less than 5 days a week in offices. Some companies have also seized on WFH as a way to downsize their space requirements – with considerable cost savings.

Major companies like Unilever and Nationwide Building Society have stated publicly that swathes of their staff will never return to the office full time. And warnings abound that the UK’s regional towns and cities could be flooded with unwanted office space as existing leases expire. More locally, a March 2021 survey by KPMG found that 17% of CEOs across NI expected to reduce their office space following the pandemic – and some large employers have already been doing so.

Tech company Allstate undertook a major expansion before Covid, but a large portion of its 2,000 NI-based employees now work from home at least part of the time. In 2022 they abandoned plans to move into a brand new 400 desk Grade A office building in Derry, and last year they withdrew from a 30,000sqft facility in Strabane when their lease there expired. Meanwhile, the latest annual crane survey from Deloitte (released February 2024) noted that office development in Belfast had “slowed to a near standstill”, with developers switching to residential and hotel projects instead.

The rise of Working From Home has impacted cities in everything from restaurants and sandwich shops to the commercial property market and public transport. Nowhere in NI has been more impacted than Belfast – for two very simple reasons. Firstly, decades of over-centralisation have made Belfast the undisputed economic and employment hub of NI – with almost 10% of all NI’s jobs located within central Belfast alone. This over-sized employment concentration makes the city prone to a similarly over-sized impact from any significant changes in the way people work.

Secondly – as the proportion of NI’s total workforce that lives within central Belfast is significantly lower than the 10% employed there, a large chunk of those city centre jobs are fulfilled by people who travel in from elsewhere. NI’s road and transport networks largely revolve around the needs of Belfast – with, for example, 20% of Northern Ireland’s 54 rail stations located within Belfast city and 41% within the Belfast Metropolitan Area. This has traditionally enabled thousands to commute into Belfast daily, even from as far away as Derry city and mid/west Tyrone. Employees that commute will have the strongest case to justify home working – so a rise in WFH would reasonably be expected to have impacted the city’s travel patterns since Covid. And there is indeed evidence of this when it comes to rail.

RAIL DEMAND ACROSS NORTHERN IRELAND

Prior to Covid, NI had been experiencing solid year-on-year growth in its use of rail :

In fact – the last full year before Covid (2018-19) was a record year for rail travel across NI, with more than 26 million journeys in total. The following year saw Covid start to impact behaviour from March onwards, and therefore ended with a slight 6% fall in demand. And as the pandemic raged across 2020-21, rail journeys plummeted by three-quarters (highlighted in blue above). Passenger numbers have bounced back impressively since – almost trebling in 2021-22, before climbing by a further 50% in 2022-23. But total rail journeys across NI as a whole in 2022-23 were still 22% below their pre-Covid/2018-19 level. And whilst the current 2023-24 year is likely to see further recovery in passenger numbers when published, rail usage across NI is still tracking well below pre-Covid levels. A number of factors will doubtless be contributing towards this shift in travel patterns, but chief amongst them is likely to be the impact that working from home is having upon weekday commuting.

RAIL DEMAND IN BELFAST

This change in travel patterns is even more stark if we focus specifically on Belfast. Belfast city contains 11 railway stations – a high number for its population (345,000), and a jigh proportion of all the stations within NI (20%). Only 1 of those 11 stations has so-far recovered to its pre-Covid level of passengers – and that is Yorkgate, where Ulster University’s relocation of 15,000 students and 2,500 staff has increased passenger numbers by 26% (the 3rd largest increase on the NI network). In contrast Jordanstown station, where the new UU campus was relocated from, suffered the single largest fall in rail demand over the same period – down by almost half. Across Belfast city’s 11 rail stations annual passenger numbers have declined by more than 3 million journeys since the pandemic (see Figure 2 below). This equates to the disappearance of 1 out of every 4 pre-Covid passenger from rail stations in Belfast :

Almost half of the total decline in Belfast’s rail passengers has occurred at one station alone – Great Victoria Street (NI’s busiest transport hub). That station is now carrying 1.4 million fewer passengers a year than it was before the pandemic. And it is due to be replaced by the new £200m+ Grand Central Station later this year, with double the current size/provision.

The situation is similarly echoed in the stations located just beyond Belfast city. Of the 20 stations that have registered the greatest falls in rail passenger numbers since the pandemic, 17 are located within the Belfast Metropolitan area (including 9 within Belfast City).

RAIL DEMAND ACROSS THE REST OF NI

With NI’s rail network revolving around Belfast, and significant numbers of those who work in Belfast living elsewhere, any fall in commuting caused by WFH is likely to echo throughout the entire rail network. Thus Belfast’s 26% post-Covid decline in rail passengers was reflected in a slightly lower 22% decline across NI as a whole (a fall of 5.9m journeys). And if you look at the network without Belfast, there was a much lower 18% drop in journeys (i.e. a 2.8million decline in passengers) – which again highlights how the decline in rail usage has been concentrated upon Belfast :

However – there is one rail route from Belfast which has experienced a boom in passenger demand since Covid, and that is the Enterprise service to/from Dublin. This points towards a trend that has been echoed elsewhere in the UK and Ireland – which is a rebalancing in rail usage away from short weekday commuting and more towards longer distance and leisure usage instead.

WHERE HAS RAIL DEMAND GROWN ?

Figure 4 below highlights the 9 rail stations across NI that have managed to buck the trend of declining passenger numbers post-Covid. All but one are located outside Belfast City, and most are located some distance away from Belfast :

Some of the above increases have obvious explanations. As already highlighted, Yorkgate has benefited from the creation of a new car-free university campus on its doorstep. Trooperslane saw a new Park & Ride facility open in May 2022 (212 spaces). Portrush will have benefited from the increase in ‘staycations’ and leisure usage of rail. And Derry has been the island’s rail growth hotspot for a number of years now – experiencing continual year-on-year demand increases since it received the modest improvements of an hourly service to Belfast (2017/18) and a new EU-funded station (2019/20). Those changes have seen Derry rise steadily from being NI’s 17th busiest station in 2016/17 to its 8th busiest by 2022/23 – more than doubling its passenger numbers along the way. Yet it has done so despite having a significantly poorer service than other locations on the Derry-Belfast line. As so often happens, the River Bann serves as the barrier beyond which rail suffers a significant decline in frequency/quality. For example – Derry and the 2 other stations West of the Bann (Castlerock and Bellarena) only have one rail service every two hours on a Sunday on the Derry-Belfast line (six in total across the day), whilst every station East of the Bann on the same line has an hourly train (13 services in total). Likewise when it comes to evening travel from Belfast.

The last train to Derry leaves Great Victoria Street at 9:10pm Monday-Saturday, and 7:10pm on Sundays – which rules out the viability of rail for attending the theatre, concerts, live sports event, or just wanting a half-decent night out in Belfast. In contrast, anyone travelling to every stop East of the Bann on the same line (i.e. as far as Coleraine) has the benefit of their last departure being 10:40pm seven nights a week. And every stop East of the Bann on the Derry-Belfast line has 50 more train services per week (2,600 more per year) than Northern Ireland’s second largest city gets. So Derry’s growth in rail usage is merely the result of it climbing closer to the level of usage that should be expected for a city of its size were it not held back by substandard service provision. And the city has room for further significant growth in rail demand if it can finally receive a fairer/equitable provision of services.

Some of the post-Covid increases in passenger numbers highlighted in Figure 4 have been rather modest in real terms – but nonetheless buck the NI-wide downwards trend. And they reinforce the picture that it is primarily the Belfast city and metropolitan areas that have experienced the greatest reduction in rail demand in this post-Covid era. Whilst more research would be required to secure a better understanding as to why that is (e.g. analysis of other indicators in Belfast such as bus patronage, road usage, parking levels etc) it is likely that WFH has been a key contributor to at least some of that change. And this point is reinforced by the experience of other sectors where WFH is also having an impact upon Belfast, such as its hospitality industry (e.g. the popular Mourne Seafood Bar in Bank Street recently announced it would no longer do lunchtime opening on weekdays as “There are fewer people in offices”).

CONCLUSION

As a lifelong campaigner for public transport, it gives me no pleasure to report a post-Covid decline in demand for rail in NI – even whilst noting that it is a situation replicated across many other cities and regions in Europe. But I also believe it is important to understand what is happening with our public services at any point in time, and to ensure that decisions are being taken in the full light of that knowledge.

It is important to stress that commuter transport is and will continue to be important here – even given the shift towards Working From Home. Large numbers of people still commute in and out of Belfast everyday, and rail needs to provide an attractive and viable option for them to do so (it actually needs to attract more of them). There are signs that some companies are starting to row-back on the level of freedom given to staff with regards Working From Home. And when released in the coming months, the passenger figures for 2023-24 are likely to show a further recovery in rail demand here. But our current rail network still leans too heavily in favour of weekday commuting to and from Belfast. And it is likely to be some years yet before we get back to the kind of rail demand that we witnessed prior to Covid. WFH appears to have created some long-term or permanent shifts in travel patterns here – and with its position at the epicentre of NI’s economic, employment and infrastructure networks, Belfast is feeling the greatest impact from this.

The appropriate response to all this would most definitely NOT be to spend less money on rail. It should in fact be the complete opposite. As Figure 5 shows below, Northern Ireland already spends the lowest per-capita sum on public transport of any part of the UK or Ireland :

Figure 5 : Per-Capita Expenditure on Public Transport

The persistent annual increases in rail demand prior to Covid suggest that the decline in passengers since is NOT because people don’t want to use rail. Instead it is because the rail network we currently have – one heavily concentrated around short-to-medium-distance commuting in and out of Belfast – has become less suited to people’s changed needs. We have a pre-Covid rail network in a changed post-Covid world. At the same time we need to reduce our dependency upon car use – particularly in Belfast, which has some of the highest congestion levels in the UK. And unless we provide people with viable alternatives that can meet their travel requirements, NI’s growing population will instead lead to even more private vehicles on our roads (with even greater inequality and marginalisation for the 25% of our population who don’t have access to a vehicle). We therefore need to get MORE people using rail and public transport right across NI.

I would therefore propose three steps that should be taken to ensure our rail network can respond appropriately to the changed post-Covid reality in which it now operates :

1) Sense-Check Plans Already in Place

There should be a review of the plans for rail in NI (and all other forms of transport) in the context of Working From Home. The objective of this should be to ensure that we are reflecting the part-shift in demand away from weekday commuting in and out of Belfast. In particular – the plan for the new Belfast Grand Central Station to accommodate 10million passengers a year feels ambitious, given that the Great Victoria Street station it is replacing has seen a 26% decline since Covid. Has the Grand Central project been revised and updated to reflect the fundamentally altered reality between when it was designed and the era in which it will operate? If not it would surely be prudent to do so – even at this late stage.

2) Rebalance NI’s Rail Network

Even a cursory glance at the NI rail map makes it clear that transport here exists primarily to serve Belfast. The high density of stations in close proximity to that city, combined with the daytime emphasis of the network’s timetable, also make clear that rail here is largely about weekday commuting in and out of Belfast. It is not in the interests of Northern Ireland to be so infrastructurally and economically reliant upon just one city, as it leaves the entire jurisdiction vulnerable to shocks and behavioural changes. What would happen if, for example, Greater Belfast became the epicentre of significant political trouble in a way that wasn’t replicated across NI as a whole (e.g loyalist protests) ? If you shut down Belfast you essentially shut down NI’s entire rail network. Likewise – it is surely not in Belfast’s interests to have its economy so heavily reliant upon commuters, as it also leaves the city prone to shocks and changes (as we’ve seen with the impact hybrid working /Working From Home has had on certain sectors).

Two significant changes in how rail operates here should therefore be pursued. Firstly – there needs to be a shift towards a more balanced provision of rail/infrastructure across NI as a whole. This should include prioritising implementation of the recommendations within the All-Island Rail Strategy for restoring rail to key towns like Omagh, Armagh, Dungannon, Limavady (and Enniskillen). Secondly there should also be a degree of shift within the existing rail network – to place less of an overwhelming emphasis upon commuting in and out of Belfast. Timetables should be reconfigured to reflect the growth in leisure usage of rail – to ensure, for example, that trains run later in the evenings and on weekend nights than they currently do. This is particularly important given the post-Covid decline in taxi provision in our larger towns and cities (especially Belfast), which is having a negative impact upon night-time economies.

3) Back The ‘Winners’.

As we’ve seen, there are places in NI that have bucked the post-pandemic decline in rail usage. Chief amongst them is Derry – which has witnessed NI’s largest growth in rail demand for a number of years now. Despite Derry being the star performer on NI’s rail network there are no plans to address the blatant east-west discrimination it faces in rail services. Portrush has also registered increased demand for rail since Covid, whilst the town is regularly choked with traffic during holiday periods, so is another success story that should be built upon.

There is therefore a need for Translink to better understand the locations where demand for rail is expanding, and to ensure those places receive the support they require to continue their positive growth journey. Perhaps a portion of the £200m+ being spent on just one commuter station in the centre of Belfast could have more productively been used to back the areas in NI which are showing an increased demand for rail travel? Whilst that opportunity has sadly now passed, we should ensure that future decisions on rail investment here reflect the altered reality and changed priorities for travel demand which we appear to be facing in this new era of hybrid working/Working From Home.

 


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