Over the last decade, the Government has reduced fuel duty year on year so that motoring costs have fallen in real terms, even with recent fuel price rises. In comparison, it has raised rail fares above inflation for nearly every year since 2010. Meanwhile, the increase in traffic caused by making driving cheaper has pushed bus fares even higher: people abandon the bus, jump in a car, cause more congestion, increase service costs for buses stuck in traffic, which forces higher fares leading to a further wave of people abandoning the bus, and so the cycle continues.
On top of this, there is a shortage of bus drivers, which the DfT has done little to address, while attempts to recruit more HGV drivers are exacerbating the bus driver shortage, leading to further cuts in services and higher fares. A solution for both sectors would be to get more freight on rail, but that’s being ignored too.
This shows a worrying and widening gulf between rhetoric and action. With the publication of Bus Back Better in March 2021, there was an optimism that Government had finally woken up to the importance of the bus and the need to address decades of neglect. It told councils to draw up Bus Service Improvement Plans by the end of October. It even provided funding to give transport departments, much depleted after a decade of austerity, the capacity to draw the plans up. Now it looks like the £2billion or so set aside to invest in buses will be nowhere near enough to meet the appetite for improvements. This will mean either most schemes being scaled back (making little difference on the ground) or most local authorities left disappointed with little or no new funding. This will only engender more cynicism with many local authorities giving up on buses and focussing on new roads where funding seems more assured, if not guaranteed.
However, an even bigger problem is that Government support for buses during the Covid pandemic is due to finish at the end of March. In addition, current funding levels may not be enough to support existing services as Plan B and a drop in patronage was not factored in. Given that operators have to give local authorities four weeks’ notice of any changes they want to make to bus services, ahead of the seven weeks’ notice they have to give the traffic commissioner (longer in Wales), unless they hear about new funding by 13 January, many operators may simply cut services altogether, rather than risk running them at a loss next year. That would be a hammer blow for an already struggling industry, leaving many people stranded who are without access to a car. This matters, not just for tackling climate change but for levelling up, with around one third of the poorest households having no access to a car.
Rail seems to be in a similar boat after the fanfare around the new rail strategy, Great British Railways, and the Government’s trumpeting of its £500m fund to reverse the worst of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. While small scale re-openings are going ahead, the £30bn needed for electrification, to make the railways zero carbon, looks set to be abandoned by the Treasury. The Government is also seeking significant ‘efficiency savings’, i.e. service cuts, which also risk impacting on the viability of the industry, while loading it with yet more bureaucracy as it refuses to give up on its broken and dysfunctional privatisation / outsourcing model. In sharp contrast it seems happy to fund £90bn and more building new roads over the next 15 years making the problems worse.
In 2022, we need to see a much stronger commitment to public transport from the Government, starting with a reduction in bus and rail fares. and proper reform The Government’s deferment of rail fare increases until March is gesture politics and will have little impact. With bus and rail struggling to attract passengers in the numbers seen before the pandemic, putting up prices as household incomes are squeezed, while cutting the cost of driving, is undermining their chances of recovery. It almost seems deliberate, as could anyone be that incompetent?
If we want to restore the economy after the battering of the pandemic and Brexit, we need to make it easier and more efficient to move around, as well as taking advantage of digital connectivity. Unless we’re all going to sit in one big traffic jam, which no amount of road building will ever resolve, we need a high quality, affordable, efficient and universal public transport network. To do that we need to stimulate the demand by cutting fares and giving people the confidence and incentive to use public transport again and we need to do that urgently.
Main photo: Shutterstock.com
JOIN OUR NETWORK
Signing up will allow you to access our monthly newsletter and the latest actions and events