The news of a near 20% fall in diesel car sales came hot on the heels of a further substantial hike in rail fares, prompting quite a bit of disparate media comment on transport policy. It could also be said that transport strategy itself is somewhat incoherent, however, with each mode having its own Ministry as well as attracting separate media comment. There appears to be little attempt to think across the wider issue of transport as a whole.
There are three modes of surface transport - rail, car and bus - but each is overseen economically by different Departments: Transport, HM Treasury and Communities and Local Government. So:
- rail fares spiral ever higher, pleading the need for ‘investment in the rail network’;
- successive chancellors hail the fact that they are freezing the fuel duty escalator each year; and
- local buses just plod on, with the assistance of local subsidy.
Meanwhile transport issues also affect the Departments of Environment, Health, Work and Pensions, Justice .. - to name but a few.
A joined-up economic strategy for transport would set broader objectives for the role of public and private transport, and set income and investment flows accordingly. For example, if we want more people to use trains rather than cars there is no point in making trains so much more expensive: many train fares are currently competing with taxi fares! There should also be more accommodation for group travel on trains – at present a family has no choice but to go by car.
A serious reduction in rail fares can only be achieved by ‘investment in the rail network’ being financed from additional income from the fuel duty escalator on road transport: and this calls for a joined-up transport strategy within Government.
Ideally the Government would defer all transport economic strategy to the Department of Transport, which in recent years has come to look more like a Department for Infrastructure Spending rather than a facilitator of mass transportation.
Relative priorities may indeed be set by the Cabinet as a whole, but they need to ask the question as to whether railways are really there for just commuters, business people and the affluent. We may have largely phased out first-class travel, but we’ve done so by applying a first-class fare structure to standard class travel: that’s not mass transportation. If investment in the rail network were drawn entirely from road transport charging, train fares could be halved.
The bus network is also a hugely valuable, but generally under-used, resource with lots of capacity for more passengers. Away from the South-East it’s widely used by those who cannot afford the trains, co-ordinated by local councils to ensure coverage in most of the parts that trains cannot reach following Beeching’s annihilation of the rail network in the 1960s.
Over the past few years I have come to use the buses substantially, with my driving licence being removed due to optical challenge. The bus network is an amazing service: very versatile, and very reasonably priced. For example, the cost to Government of providing an annual bus pass for the over 65s is just £125 per annum.
If that were offered to all-comers as an annual season ticket for using local buses throughout the country, and accompanied by well-coordinated publicity and clearer network explanations, I am confident that a large number of working age people would transition from cars, taxis, trains etc.. to use the buses. It could also be accompanied by an annual family buscard, thus enabling buses to be a realistic alternative to travelling by car.
Bus companies would thrive and develop new services, and the environment would benefit accordingly - so mass transportation for the wider public would improve.
Of course we may find that all of this is overtaken by driverless cars (which will indeed be welcomed by those of us denied a driving licence), but they will not overcome congestion. Public transport will continue to have a big role to play, and should not be divided into one system for the rich - the trains - and another system for the poor - the buses.