The electric vehicle revolution, rail and reasons to pause for thought?

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For very good reason in recent months and years the majority working to manage destinations, be that  local, sub regional, regional or national destination management, have been largely focusing on the here and now.  Horizon scanning has been necessarily restricted to the coming season, at best the one after that.  A number of recent snippets, rather than any one big news item have led me to conclude that there is now equally good reason to lift our gazes again to the seemingly far horizon or risk losing fleeting opportunities to tweak some fundamental strategic shifts.  In particular, I am thinking here of UK transport policy and especial, at this moment about the promised Electric Vehicle (EV) revolution.  A revolution that could so very easily be more akin to coup; a coup which could so very easily leave domestic tourism sat on the wrong side.

Three years ago, when HMG change the proposed target date for a ban on the UK sales of new fossil fuel vehicles (FFVs), largely in favour of EV’s, from 2035 to 2030, British Destinations began raising potential concerns from a general domestic tourism perspective. These were based on little more than the simple logic (often the best) that: in an industry that is totally reliant on people being able to travel and where broadly 80% on average travel to and from their voluntarily chosen destination(s) by private motor car, there is little room to leave it to chance that HMG, as a whole, and specifically DfT within it, are totally attuned to our particular needs and the implications of our arguably, unavoidable level of reliance on “the car”. In reality we know that that average of c 80% quickly becomes plus 90% for the vast majority of non-major city destinations, rising in the more remote, and consequentially more vulnerable popular and more niche rural and coastal destinations, to nearer 100%. 

Given the complexities involved ranging from: how the new and subsequently the used car market functions, through the current cost and operational lifespan of EV batteries, to where the strategic, policy and operational control of the UKs automotive industry actually lies (more Berlin, Beijing than Birmingham), the popular, entirely plausible presumption that this will involve no more than a simple one for one swap from FFV to EV is at the very least questionable, if not leaning towards the improbably. With good cause some may say, well of course this is the case: reducing unsustainable levels of car ownership and usage is an entirely legitimate objective and a welcome positive outturn.

This prompts subsidiary questions like: does fewer, potentially far few cars, necessarily equate to fewer, potentially far fewer visitor choosing or being physically able to get to all the popular UK destinations, historic houses, rural areas etc. that they get to now?  If they can’t get there by motor vehicle will rail, coach, bus or other forms of “public transport” really ride to the rescue? And if they do, will that serve everyone’s best interests or just those already currently reasonably connected? Or, faced with an additional barrier to domestic travel, will many more of us just choose the least line of resistance, hop on a train or take an EV taxi to the nearest airport and “save the UKs environment” by exporting the problem and flying off abroad?   To be totally frank I don’t really know, nor do I suspect does anyone else. What I do know is that collectively we do need to know ASAP the direction of travel, preferably long before there is absolutely no choice left for us in the matter and less time and fewer options to successfully adjust.

Three years ago, during the hight of pandemic, it was probably entirely acceptable to say things like: it’s a decade plus away, alternative power train technology, enhanced battery or charging technologies, government sales and manufacturing incentives, new automotive industry policy approaches or, whatever, will at the eleventh hour save the day. Three years later it isn’t as acceptable to keep saying much the same things. Moreover, in the last 6 months there has been a drip feed of events and Government and motor manufacturing news that combined suggest that the master plan for an EV revolution might be less a plan and more a lot of good ideas and unproven aspirations. My own hopes of a new alternative powered by fresh air and fun allowing the tourism industry to capture the lion’s share of both the domestic tourism and transport markets in a oner, are now rapidly fading!

My current “back of fag packet” assessment is that we have at best a couple of years to try and influence national strategic or policy direction in some small way, 3 or 5 years before levels of EV ownership starts to have real and meaningful consequences for domestic tourism and a little over 7 before a relatively rapidly escalating set of circumstances begin to set in, post the current target date for a ban on new FFV sales. A revolutionary set of circumstance that will undoubtedly have the potential to radically change how we do business, where and with whom and how, how often and by what means Mr and Ms average, travel to our destinations (or not) in the decade and beyond that follow the 2030 trigger point.

We can choose to either try and influence and/or begin proactively predicting and adapting to possible changes and starting doing that now.  Or alternatively we, the domestic tourism industry, can just carry on regardless, in the forlorn hope that DfT and the automotive industry get on and do a perfectly adequate job of it all. Leaving us all with no more to do that just worry about any unpleasant consequence, if and when they occur, with luck, a good decade or more away. I for one think the former albeit a difficult ask of and a difficult task for a disparate domestic sector is preferable to the latter, a high risk, if not utterly reckless approach. Hence, I guess my compulsion to write this piece now.

The recent reports I refer to include: the failure to meet, indeed come anywhere near the installation rates for public EV charging points, needed to achieve the 300k, 2030 target and serious doubts that this can/will now be addressed, combined with growing concern that some, particularly, seasonal or event-based scenarios will ever meet viable cost/benefit thresholds.  This year one very senior automotive source has gone on record saying that all manufactures are entirely focused on quality marks and high-end market production, with the least expensive EV’s on the UK market coming in at 1/3 more than the current least expensive FFV (c£30k v c£20k), with downstream consequences for who can in future afford to own/lease new and subsequently own a used car.  Of more concerning, they also doubt that EV production for the European/UK markets will ever move back into the popular, affordable market space. 

Meanwhile, motor manufacturers are currently asking Government to consider subsidising the sale of second hand EV’s to the middle-income market to the tune of upwards of £8k per unit.  The supply of second-hand EV lease vehicles is only now starting to ramp up but is apparently, already out of kilter due to insufficient demand in the used market. Excess supply of relatively new, relatively low milage used EV’s means an unexpectedly lower resale returns for the leasing market that dominates the new car market.  That in turn effects the value ratios of new to used, forcing up future leasing costs further destabilising the present leasing model.   If the used sale market for current EV’s isn’t functioning now (without heavy public subsidies), then potentially what hope for the yet to evolve second, the third and subsequent hand sales market? When there are fewer or no FFV alternatives the used EV market may of course stabilise, it may not.

Although, the predicted average life span of an EV and EV battery in a European climate (12 years 100k to 200k miles) is not that dissimilar to the proven average for an FFV (12 years and 200k miles), the former is still just that, a prediction and one with up to a 50% fudge factor applied. It will remain so for a good number of years to come.  Some sources serious doubt the claimed battery life span, not least because battery life is related to the number of recharge cycles and not use/mileage.  Poor charging practice, seriously effects battery life span. That in a country where one of the commonest FFVs failures remains the classic user error of wrong fuel type, there is not too much hope of the required care and good practices needed for longevity being universally applied. In addition, batteries tend not to die overnight but to gradually hold less and less charge, reducing range and reliability over time. Older cars will by definition be less efficient.  Battery repair or replacement, the only solution to that is also current prohibitively expensive. More in the order of an FFV engine replacement, than an engine repair or something manageable like a new exhaust system.  This makes second or subsequent hand EV purchases potentially far riskier and far less affordable and doing so to those who use the used market mainly for reasons of affordability. 

All of these  factors have a potential implications on the used motor market and increasingly so the more towards the cheap and cheerful end you progress.  Does a potentially radically changed second-hand market and a different ownership dynamic or model make any difference to a currently largely car using customer base?  Probably and does that matter to tourism? Almost certainly but who knows yet just how and by how much? I may be wrong but I do now think it is import to know quite a bit more, quite a bit sooner than if we just leave it to non-tourism interests to tell us in their own good time what the realities are or more accurately may possibly be.

In parallel the future of UK railways under the newly created direction of Great British Railways was set to undergo significant and, in rail term, a relatively rapid change in its own post pandemic revolution. That now seems more likely to be a rather more evolutionary process progressed at a slightly more leisurely pace.  Aspiration, practicalities and competing interests have hit head on in the last 12 to 24 months and halted, slowed or changed some of those original ambitions.  Changes will happen but whether they amount to a major switch away from a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday commuter driven network, to something that also proactively serves the needs of other markets, including within that leisure travel, remains to be seen. 

What is clear, or at least more readily predicted, is that if rail doesn’t already play a role in the destination, for example because there is no rail connection or existing connections are already inadequately serviced, then realistically things aren’t going to change much, if at all very soon. Other than the the trains themselves, nothing move fast in the rail industry at the best of times and these are far from the best of times for the rail network. It is also important to be mindful that rail travel involves connectivity at both ended of the process.   The destination may have adequate connectivity to adequate rail services but your potential customer base may not. Not everyone lives manageably near enough to a station to make rail the panacea that those who do have the luxury of living manageable near rail station, might naturally assume it to be.  

The nature of the rail service you have, or have not, has obvious read across to the issues of the future of the “family car”.  In short, if you have rail connectivity and good services then at least you have a potential alternative, should the EV revolution leave domestic tourism or your particular destination out on a limb.  If you haven’t got access to rail or your current services are poor, then as of today’s date, I am far from sure what the future holds for your destination. Or, to be frank, if indeed some will actually have a future, in anything other than more niche and/or high end, low volume markets.  For some that equates to no change and no problem, for others it equates to a manageable change. For some, probably larger destinations majoring in the popular, more seasonal family leisure markets, it could equate to a major challenge. A radical redrawing of how UK rail is owned, operate and run, for what purposes, can’t of course be ruled out, albeit again it would not result in a quick fix.

I would welcome views from both members and from wider domestic tourism interests other presentative bodies and anyone who might have an informed view.  Am I right to pause for thought, are there some genuinely serious issues here and do we jointly need to do something proactively about them?


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