Fixing rail fares and investing in bus services will be key to addressing the devastating impact of the pandemic on public transport, argues Silviya Barrett from Campaign for Better Transport.
Public transport is vital – for our economy, our communities, our health and the environment.
Rail and bus users contribute £200 billion to the economy every year.
People and goods travelling by public transport prevent needless journeys by road, reducing congestion, air pollution and emissions.
A single double decker bus can replace 75 cars, while freight trains remove 20,000 lorries from the road every single day.
This benefits everyone, not just transport users.
Good public transport is especially important for people who have no cars, who are more likely be on low incomes, older or younger people, and those with special mobility needs.
But given the climate emergency, we all need to use our cars less and walk, cycle or use public transport wherever possible.
How has the pandemic impacted public transport services?
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on public transport.
Early in the pandemic, the government advised the public to avoid public transport, causing nervousness about virus transmission that has persisted among many passengers.
Despite operators’ best efforts, changing work patterns mean that local bus and rail use are both still at approximately 75-80% of pre-pandemic levels.
While the government has provided welcome funding to support operators through the pandemic, this is tapering off at precisely the point we need to attract people back.
Instead, both rail and bus operators are being asked to reduce services to adjust to “a new normal” of decreased demand.
Campaign for Better Transport found that almost 1 in 5 bus services was lost in the first year of the pandemic alone, despite government grants being in place.
Further reduced frequencies and route cuts will isolate people in more remote locations and cause commuters to avoid the office.
So can public transport have a bright future?
Fix fares to get more people travelling by train
The government has ambitious net zero targets and the railway has a central role to play in achieving them. But for a long time now, the pricing signals have been all wrong.
Since 1997, overall motoring costs have increased by 58% while rail fares rose by 132%.
Fuel duty has been frozen for 11 years and was cut in March – apparently in response to the cost-of-living crisis, but it mostly benefits the rich.
Yet, there was nothing in the Spring Statement for bus users, and in the same month, rail fares saw the biggest increase for nine years.
In some cases, it’s even cheaper to fly between UK cities than to take the train.
This needs to change.
But with the railways back under government control, the Treasury has been keen to recover its investment during the pandemic.
Reducing fares could actually increase revenue
For years Campaign for Better Transport has argued that reducing fares will enable people to make more journeys and increase revenue, especially in a market where commuting is now an optional activity for many, just as leisure travel is.
We’ve also called on the government to lead a national campaign and incentive scheme to encourage people back since we launched The Way Forward campaign in May 2021.
Finally, the government has listened and introduced the first ever nationwide rail ticket offer.
While the package is far from perfect and only temporary, it’s a chance to prove that cheaper fares can mean more passengers and revenue, and hopefully pave the way for long-term changes.
However, for lasting impact we need an end to massive annual fare rises, wholesale reform to make fares and ticketing fairer and simpler, and wiser infrastructure investment to deliver more improvements for the same money.
Invest to halt the decline in vital bus services
Buses are the backbone of the public transport system but have suffered from years of underinvestment.
The National Bus Strategy aimed to reverse their decline and promised £3 billion to transform services across the country.
The government asked all local authorities to submit ambitious Bus Service Improvement Plans. All 79 authorities did, asking for a total of approximately £10 billion.
However, it later emerged that less than £1.1 billion was available and only 31 local authorities – 40% of the 79 – got a slice of it.
Even those that were successful will not receive all the money they requested and will have to cherry-pick which improvements they can deliver.
But the allocations also left most authorities with nothing and wondering how to plug gaps left by the expected service cuts.
This will be most acutely felt in smaller and more rural communities that tend to continually miss out on competitive funding pots.
Improving buses in only a minority of places leaves us far short of the promises of a national bus strategy.
Rather than this fragmented, competitive way of funding local buses, we need a single, bigger, long-term pot focused on revenue funding to ensure every community gets the bus service it needs and deserves.
Public transport services are essential and of vital public benefit. They should be treated and funded as such.
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