Rethink network planning to revive demand

Rail nationalisation is back on the political agenda. How firmly it's back depends on your view of Jeremy Corbyn's prospects at the polls, but there is no doubt that the Labour Party's rediscovered enthusiasm for public ownership is striking a chord with a lot of people. Some of this has to do with perceived high fares, of course, but lack of investment and the sense that much rail provision is chaotic and poorly planned is a big part of it. What the nationalisers promise – and what many voters want – is a properly integrated, centrally planned system of national rail.

It's not hard to understand why this might seem attractive. Deregulated public transport services in parts of the country have created networks that are inconvenient, unreliable and unresponsive to local needs. This is not only, or even mainly, to do with rail. Bus services are often the worst culprits of poor planning.

Even following consolidation in the bus industry into a number of big groups, some high streets remain clogged with buses from competing firms while other essential routes are neglected, including lifeline links to many rural areas.

It might be that regulatory changes are part of the solution, even if full renationalisation is a step too far. London's transport success story, for example, has at least something to do with TfL's powers to plan and direct services over the range of public trans- port modes. When it was recently announced that TfL would extend its control to suburban train services, nearly all com- mentators welcomed the logic of the move, and support from the travelling public was strong.

But whatever the regulatory framework, it has become obvious that many transport authorities need to take a radically different approach to planning. Some urban bus routes seem barely planned at all. It is as if the planners had simply looked at a map, picked out roads with no bus provision and sketched in the route from there.

It means that the service isn't going where its users need it to go, and so passenger numbers drop and it enters a vicious circle of falling revenue, less reliable services, fewer customers and so on.

But it doesn't have to be that way. If the authority is willing to take a hard, analytical, data-driven look at the service as a whole, asking "why is this bus here?" a rational and effective network that generates demand can emerge.

There are already many successful examples. Systra's work in Galway and Cork, where the bus network was sclerotic to the point of fossilisation, identified key links between towns and major destinations and under- took a radical re-routing of the service. This in turn led to a 12% increase in demand in a year – and that is just the beginning. But it required a culture change, a step back from the detail of route planning into a more strategic analysis of what the bus is good for and what it's not.

This process has already been seen at work on the railways. In 1960, before Beeching, the rail service was the product of an unplanned historical evolu- tion that meant that countless train services were running without any real commercial or social justification. They were just the wrong tool for the job. After Beeching, demand for rail in the UK exploded because the trains were doing what they were best at doing.

This isn't always a popular message, but what is need- edtodayisabitmoreofDr Beeching's clear-eyed analysis if countless urban transport networks are not going to be left to wither and die.

We need an army of Dr Beechings, able to respond to the very local nature of many urban transport systems, unsentimental but with the optimism that best practice can breathe new life into the network and leave a system robust and vital enough to increase demand and adapt to an uncertain future.

It won't always be easy, in some places the treatment will be drastic and the benefits, at first, unclear from the custom- er's point of view. There will be losers as well as winners.

But the alternative will be far worse. If we don't find the new doctors, many local services will be better off calling for a priest.

Reference: Transport Times October 2016 Issue

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