Transport after the General Election: A conference report

Transport – have politicians lost their appetite for innovative solutions?

"I don't see either main party putting forward radical policies," said Prof David Begg, introducing last week's Transport Times conference Transport after the General Election – which took place the day after prime minister Rishi Sunak announced July 4 as election day.

The first session addressed Transport Priorities for the next UK Government. The UK, Prof Begg added, had not had a coherent transport strategy since HS2 was scrapped last autumn, a decision he described as "bad government".

HS2 had been the central point of rail policy for the last 14 or 15 years. "The first thing I think Labour has got to do is make sure high speed rail goes at least to Crewe," he said. "That frees up so much capacity on the West Coast main line for local trains and freight."

Transport policy had gone backwards since the time of John Prescott in the early years of the Blair government, and even the Major government before that.  "John Major's government realised we had to change direction," he said. As Major's chancellor, Kenneth Clarke had introduced the fuel duty escalator, under which fuel prices rose by 5% above inflation annually. It was announced as a way to change travel behaviour.

"When was the last time you heard a politician say 'we need to manage demand' or 'we need to constrain car use'?" he asked. Now the political line was to let people travel however they want. But this meant "They will travel by modes that don't cover their external costs – driving and flying' he said.

In the years after rail privatisation, patronage doubled – because of the fuel duty escalator, and because roads were not being built and congestion was rising. Now, people are using rail less because driving is cheaper.

"A level one issue is getting the price signals right," he said, calling for the escalator to be reintroduced.
He accepted that "it is much more difficult today for a politician to be radical on transport because of social media". But he added: "Transport is critical to the economy"; it was no coincidence that towns and cities least dependent on cars, such as London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Brighton and others – were the most prosperous.

Lee Waters MS, former Labour deputy minister for climate change in the Welsh government, argued that the Welsh government had tried to do transport differently, with initiatives such as the default 20mph speed limit. He said "Were I to become transport minister, I think there are three specific challenges to be addressed."

First, the cost of rail. This was made even greater because of the impact of climate adaptions to deal with extreme weather, flooding and destruction. But the influence of the Treasury would loom large in the next government, and he suggested examining first what could be done in the first two years to make a difference, while developing a plan for the years beyond that.

Second, fragmentation. The policies of the new metro mayors carried weight in the Labour party, so the mayors, and the Scottish and Welsh governments, should try and influence policy, he said.
The creation of Great British Rail should go ahead, and delegation of bus powers and franchising should be extended.

Third was "how to achieve modal shift in a culture war". "How do we have a sensible conversation about that in such a fractious environment?" he asked.

Courage would be required, not just from politicians. He called on transport professionals: "What are you going to do to challenge misinformation and reframe the argument?"

He said orthodox thinking and "following the manual" needed to be challenged. The Welsh government had published a Roads Review, a new set of policies on roads. "We're not anti-road, we are building roads but we're building a different kind of road," he said. He gave the example of the Llanharan Link Road, which had been paused as a result of the review.

The government challenged TfW and it rethought its plans. As a result, "Instead of a 50 mph dual carriageway it will be a 30 mph road. That immediately reduces the design standards required, it reduces the land take and the materials used, there's much less embedded carbon in the scheme." The original plan was to go through an area of ancient woodland. The new plan avoids this, there are bus priority lanes, crossing points, and extra bus services are being added." All of a sudden this is now longer a through road that encourages new traffic, it's a road that has a purpose ... with slower speeds and lower impacts.

"That goes to show that, properly challenged, the profession can absolutely rise to that challenge. If we do that we can change and in Wales we're showing we are changing."

Baroness Jenny Randerson, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, said: "Our starting point is that we face a transport emergency. Some systems are on life support. We urgently need to renew our transport system."

But HS2 showed "we have forgotten how to roll out big projects".

Short-term thinking had "played havoc" with long-term investment as well as making it more expensive – adding up to 30% of the cost of future infrastructure, by some estimates, because companies bidding for the work "will have to factor uncertainty into their costs".

"Getting transport right is a whole -system issue," she continued. It affects economic, social and environmental issues. "A fairer society means much greater investment in public transport," she said. Ministers talk about buses and trains in terms of subsidy rather than investment. "We need to change the terms of the debate."

Because transport faces an emergency, the LibDems would start by addressing bus services, the most widely used form of public transport. Services can be quickly transformed – with modern buses, improved rotes and fairer fares.

"They would transform many areas that have been left behind economically, including rural areas which have become bus deserts," in particular benefiting the poorest, the youngest and the oldest in society.
Public transport has to be more affordable, she added, and fairer fares – including a young person's bus card offering a third off fares to 19-25 year-olds – was a LibDem commitment. Local authorities would be given more powers to organise the bus services their area needed.

Rail services had become unreliable and LibDems would immediately press ahead with setting up Great British Rail, coordinating track and train and taking day-to-day decisions out of the direct control of ministers. "The Williams report got it essentially right," she said. "It's a pity it's been left to gather dust."
However, unlike Labour, the LibDems would not renationalise franchises. This would create more uncertainty, and waste time and inevitably money, she said. Instead LibDems would invest to extend electrification, upgrade stations, improve access and press ahead with long-delayed integrated ticketing systems.

LibDems would invest in a national active transport strategy, and aim to achieve a London-style intensity of public transport in urban areas. "Transforming UK transport systems will take time so it must be a top priority, starting on day one of the next government," she said.

Session two: Rail Reform, Delivery and Funding

Session three: Devolution and Transport

Session four: At the sharp end: de-carbonising our transport system