Many elections, not so much transport policy

Following the local and mayoral elections we now have a month until the General Election.  Given the amount of Brexit up for debate and the parlous state of the health and education sectors, it isn’t a huge surprise to note the dearth of interesting transport policy being debated – both at regional and national levels.

National level – not even much high speed rail discussion!

With the recent passing of the High Speed Rail Act enabling work on Phase 1 from Birmingham to London to commence, HS2 is not really up for debate (well, the 1st phase at least).  With George Osborne no longer at the Treasury, the HS3/Northern Powerhouse Rail plans seem to have a lower profile – not that they have slowed down by any means.

There is less discussion on the broader principles of devolution and powers to push out from Whitehall to the regions.  Rail franchising continues with the West Coast, South Eastern and East Midlands all in process following the recent award of South Western.  Presumably, Labour will promise rail ‘renationalisation’ while the Conservatives will continue.  I don not imagine there will be much else from a public transport perspective.

Otherwise it will be Heathrow third runway and roads.  Maybe London will get another Crossrail as well?

Sadly there will be precious little ambition to plot a more effective, data-driven national transport vision and long-term strategy that will provide a framework for increasing devolution of powers and funding to the city regions, devolved regions and wider regions allowing for a national guiding mind out of Whitehall with the ideas, schemes and delivery responsibility moving out to regional bodies.

Regional level – come on people

The 6 new Metro Mayors are a welcome addition to the Mayor of London and the sub-national bodies for the North and Midlands, along with the devolved nations, in delivering powers out from Whitehall to the regions.

However it is going to take a long time for places like my home region of the West Midlands to catch up with London in terms of clout and ambition.

The Bus Services Act has finally arrived and will enable certain places to franchise bus services, similar to the successful scheme in London that over the last 17 years has truly transformed bus travel and patronage in London.  Hopefully the suite of opportunities it might provide will be used to good effect in a number of places.  The cost of bus travel needs to act as an incentive to increase bus patronage.  In addition, bus prioritisation schemes equivalent to generating bus rapid transit routes must be rolled out as quickly as possible to make choosing the bus as natural choice in cities outside of London as it is in London.  This includes providing 24/7 public transport access, integrated fares and ticketing, vastly improved passenger information and a more integrated transport network for customers.

With Network Rail devolving management responsibility out to the Routes, there is a great opportunity for the regions to work with their respective Network Rail Route and Train Operating Company to demonstrate the opportunity to work beyond the DfT management of rail services to provide a more targeted approach to specific opportunities across the network.

As for trams, well it seems unlikely that any major new light rail schemes are on the horizon for any British cities.  Ongoing extensions and developments are being promoted but I do not hold out hope for new tram networks being introduced in the near term.

On active travel, the Government’s recent Walking and Cycling Strategy reinforced the position of active travel as a relevant and key part of 21st century transport policy (at long last!).  But there needs to be a major focus (as with public transport) on local areas championing  active travel and delivering schemes that do prioritise it over the role and favouring of cars.

If the Department for Transport were to be framed as a guiding strategic mind for the role and purpose of transport, providing macro transport policy outputs and priorities – as well as the evidence, funding and powers to enable local and regional delivery – then local and regional bodies need to step up to the plate with what they want to achieve.

I suppose that my key point is the need to reappraise the role of transport and transport policy, to affirm its key wider role in supporting many social, economic and environmental policy objectives and should therefore be treated as a much more important and significant enabler to delivering the outcomes we all seek to achieve.  To get there, we need to frame the radical vision for how this could all be achieved.

Going further…

Most transport policy debate is really perspectives on the balance between public and private transport; buses, trains, planes and cars.  Active travel is now a part of the debate as well and very welcome it is too!  But it isn’t really enough, the sophistication is not there to appreciate how much more could be achieved.  But I wonder if now is the time to change that – for several reasons:

  1. air pollution – now a major public health issue with a high profile, responses are clearly required
  2. appraisal methodology – the pressure is on to more effectively forecast and assess value for money and the full opportunity of schemes against a tight public finance budget
  3. private funding and business models – there is a much greater openness and recognition of the need to bring in private funding to transport schemes but for this to happen, there needs to be a change in business models to allow for a return on investment
  4. congestion – ever increasing, bringing a huge cost to our economic performance and productivity as well as increasing emissions
  5. population growth – and the ever increasing travel demand, which will not be abated by technology regardless of what some might think!
  6. technology – the rapid development of new technologies has opened up a myriad new possibilities to disrupt the transport sector; with customers now using smartphones, data analytics providing more and better insights into customer demand and behaviours, along with the trends for electrification, automation and sharing and the emergence of Mobility as a Service, mean that there is a very real possibility to drive change

Taken together there is a huge opportunity to drive transformational change in the transport world.  Will it happen, i’m not going to hold my breath.  There needs to be significant change and no doubt a number of us will lobby and champion this – can we do it?  I am the eternal optimist so yes, of course we can.  But i doubt the General Election manifestos will start down this path.

One thought on “Many elections, not so much transport policy

  1. “Ongoing extensions and developments are being promoted but I do not hold out hope for new tram networks being introduced in the near term”

    Given that the Midland Metro only has one tram line for now, I think building extensions for it would definitely create a new rail network for Birmingham and the West Midlands.
    I’ve written a little something about that on my blog, feel free to check it out.

    I think you’ve definitely got a point on the need for regional transport planning. Surely, our big city regions know what’s best for themselves and would be perfectly capable of implementing a devolved transport budget.

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