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Spending Review special: a chance to renew public transport

Silviya Barrett's picture
Photo: boy wearing mask on bus

Later this autumn the Government will publish its spending review, setting out spending plans for the various Government departments for the coming months and years. The plans that it makes for transport will shape provision, impacting on our environment and our health, the wellbeing of our communities and the future of our economy.

In a series of blogs, we'll be making the case for more and better public transport, walking and cycling for a successful, green recovery. In the first, we look at buses and rail. 

The pandemic has hit passenger numbers hard. Bus use is teetering at just over half of pre-lockdown levels, whilst on the railways the number of journeys is at its lowest since the mid-nineteenth century. With the corresponding drop in fare revenues, the danger is that services could be slashed in response, with devastating effects. Not only would people with no access to a car be left stranded, but an increase in car use would blight our streets, the air that we breathe and the future of our climate. 

Instead, the Government must take this opportunity to reform the transport system, so that public transport is an affordable, attractive, reliable and accessible option for all – and to prevent a car-led recovery. 

Set buses on the road to a brighter future

For the immediate term, the Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant should continue. But in the longer term, the Government should reform bus funding so that it is targeted at delivering specific benefits, such as connecting transport deserts, increasing passenger numbers, integrating buses with other transport and shifting to zero-carbon buses. The current fragmented system should be replaced with a single, ring-fenced, multi-year funding framework.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor should enable councils to invest in infrastructure to make buses the easy, speedy, modern choice for many more people: bus lanes, bus stops and stations, and interchanges where buses can connect with other modes.

Get rail back on track for great, green journeys

We welcome the Government's Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements, designed to support train operators through the pandemic, while bringing rail franchising to an end. The Government now has a unique opportunity to design new contractual arrangements and fare structures for the railway. The reforms should make rail more passenger-centred, affordable to use and better integrated with other modes. Devolution of responsibility to regional and local government would enable rail services to better meet local needs. 

The Government should also be bold in improving rail connectivity and capacity, including building and reopening rail lines and stations. Such projects can transform left-behind areas, boosting the local economy, creating better places to live and reducing carbon emissions – all things which are more important now than ever if we are to rebuild the economy in a way that is fair and sustainable.

The long-term economic and social costs of permanently diminishing the public transport system would be much greater than the short-term costs of protecting and renewing it. Passengers will return to buses and trains: the Government should make sure they return to something better than they had before.

"As a disabled person who is unable to drive, I rely heavily on public transport to travel around independently. Unless our public transport providers are supported financially to weather the coronavirus storm, they will not be around to continue to provide such a vital service as we look to emerging from the pandemic and rebuilding our lives."
- Michael, Bristol

Read the second blog in our special Spending Review series, Stemming the tide against a car-led recovery