Words matter when we debate transport

Rishi Sunak Telegraph
Jason Prince

After years of wrangling, I have decided – rather boldly – to use my first Passenger Transport article to come out.

I am a motorist. Yep, I drive a car. A plug-in hybrid that serves me well. There we go, I’ve said it!

But hang on, I also use the train (I am a bit of a train geek). I use trams – mostly the bright yellow ones in Greater Manchester. I enjoy a good bus journey, sitting on the top deck watching the world go by. I ride my bike (an e-bike that I love), admittedly mostly at weekends. And I also walk. Usually around 100,000 steps per week.

The question you may be asking is why does this matter? The reason is that in a world of identity politics, I cannot be all these things. I am sure that many readers will have seen the recent comments by the prime minister that he is “on the side of motorists”. All well and good. But where does that leave me, who as well as driving a car, also uses different forms of public transport each day? To be honest, I am like many ordinary folk across the country – using a mix of private and public transport options to do what they need to, depending on the demands of the journey, the location and so on. Which is why I am feeling a bit confused and conflicted by the “on the side of motorists” comment.

Now let’s take a step back. The prime minister was announcing a review into low traffic neighbourhoods. When you remove the politics from his comment, I have no issue with the premise that transport investment ought to be scrutinised. That is how you develop a robust evidence base to influence policy. As operators, transport providers and transport authorities, we should welcome scrutiny, embrace it! If we want to ensure we are getting the best bang for our buck, and meeting the needs of our communities, then we must monitor the success of our spend.

But the rub for me is that in the countdown to a likely general election next year, words matter. Why? Because the decisions made at the ballot box will have a significant impact on the future shape of transport for many years to come.

Now some may be thinking that I am being overly dramatic, but in all seriousness, I believe that public transport as we know it is under pressure. There are significant challenges everywhere. Affordability – both to use our transport systems but also to operate them. Trust – can we rely on transport networks to get us where we want and when? Safety – the real and perceived safety of our transport networks, especially for women and girls. Climate change – and the need to transition to green transport while at the same time, dealing with the increasing regularity of extreme weather events.

And these challenges are compounded by a new normal. The world has changed. Travel patterns too, with an unevenness of recovery playing out in different countries across the globe.

In Great Britain, public transport patronage does appear to be returning at a higher rate than some other countries, like the United States, but we are still below pre-pandemic levels. For example, in the recent Office of Rail and Road annual review, passenger journeys are improving, with levels in the last quarter of 2022-23 near those of the last quarter of 2019-20. However, revenue is still well below that of the same period. As for buses, this is a story of continued decline when comparing to pre-pandemic statistics, with bus miles 9.2% lower in England (outside of London) compared to the financial year ending 2020.

Now I do believe there are reasons to be optimistic. We have new trains entering service across the Merseyrail network as well as new fleets of trains coming online soon on the Tyne and Wear Metro and the DLR in London. And we have seen Greater Manchester and the West Midlands sign devolution deals that have the potential to re-shape local transport in their areas, with greater control and flexibility being handed down from government. For Greater Manchester, this is closely aligned with the launch of the #BeeNetwork this September, where franchising of bus services becomes a reality.

At a national level, the government introduced a £2 fare cap on buses in England, with the scheme extended up to the end of October 2024, albeit with an increase to £2.50 from November this year. They also launched a summer campaign, one which the Urban Transport Group supports, to get concessionary users back on the bus.

However, against this we have the ongoing debate about intercity transport investment (most notably HS2) inflation eating away at the capital pots of money that were announced a few prime ministers ago and the continuing rigmarole of local areas having to bid tirelessly for relatively small pots of money to support their local bus networks. There are some areas that are hugely dependent on buses but are getting no funds at all.

This brings me to my fundamental point: that now is the time, in the run up to the next general election, for a proper debate about how we sustainably fund our public transport systems.

We are approaching a tipping point, with the path before us hugely uncertain. And this is frustrating. It is frustrating for local transport authorities who need to plan now, to design and implement transport networks that will support their economic, social, and green ambitions for the next decade and beyond.

It is frustrating for operators, who as businesses need certainty to spur investment. And it is frustrating for passengers, who just want to be able to get where they want, when they want, reliably, in comfort and in safety.

The narrative needs to change, so that we see spend on public transport as an investment, not a zero-sum game. We need to maximise the opportunities that greater devolution can bring, with a new approach of how we fund transport investment between local and national government.

We also need those involved in delivering public transport to come together, with one voice, to drive this message home. Whether you are a transport authority, an operator, or a passenger group, we all start from the same point that we want to deliver good transport networks that support thriving places and vibrant economies.

So, in the run up to the next general election, I ask politicians to think carefully about what they say because words matter – they shape and influence the debate about what our future transport should look like. A debate that is more nuanced than simply ‘coming out’ on the side of motorists versus public transport users or those who walk, wheel or cycle.

There is a sector that is willing, able, and frankly eager to help deliver sustainable public transport networks across the country with a new funding approach at its core. We stand ready to help. roller skates, and dreaming like Frank Pick – not just cost benefit analysis, consultancy reports and press releases.

Jason Prince is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.