Despite the best efforts of many, the mood music around public transport is pretty gloomy. The challenge we all have to address is how to make people fall in love (again) with the idea of public transport.
Mixed picture at best
Across rail and buses there is a general story of a recovery in passenger numbers post-Covid but not at the levels seen before the pandemic. There are falling satisfaction levels on trains whilst the story on buses, not least helped by the £2, is better with "a rise in bus passenger satisfaction with value for money", as Anthony Smith of Transport Focus recently blogged about for Transport Times.
"Now is the time for the right support to help passengers continue accessing reliable and affordable bus services", he suggested.
There is no doubting the fundamental challenges of reliability and cost need to be addressed if the use of public transport is going to be the default choice. But there is a need to deal with the bigger issues that are hitting the perception of public transport as well.
What are some of the wider challenges that are detracting from the public transport story?
HS2 – the costs of the project only ever go north while the line itself may not make it there for 20 years. Constant stories about what may or may not happen to it, what elements are 'in' or potentially 'out', and what may be cut constantly circulate.
Buses – whilst the story on fares is helping, service cuts impact many and stories of 'quiet cuts' regularly feature in the media. The BBC recently ran one such story but at a local level there is a more constant drip of cut stories.
Rail – across the rail sector there are regular and last-minute cancellations meaning that people cannot even plan their travel, not least across the Transpennine Express. But the West Coast Main Line has seen timetable disruption for Avanti. The near complete outcry from the Westminster political bubble including journalists, when they couldn't book their rail tickets to the Labour Party conference in Liverpool brought the issue to much wider attention.
Rail improvements – many proposed improvements have failed to materialise and local leaders have not been quiet on these matters.
Structural reform – in his recent Bradshaw address, Secretary of State Mark Harper MP, came out clearly for Great British Railways (GBR) and promised a government response to the consultation on its legislative powers 'by the summer'. He also said that would be a "guiding long-term strategy for rail" which will be published later this year. Quite how this will be different from other recent papers is unclear ('not another one' as Brenda from Bristol might say), as is the chance of any necessary legislation being introduced and passed before the next General Election.
Political changes have meant there has been a 'hokey cokey' on projects as well. Just take Northern Powerhouse Rail. Is it a new line, infill, a rebrand, or just something a government might like to do in future? Depending on the PM in charge at the time, the answer varied.
And who can forget the ongoing strikes....
And we cannot ignore the strength of the competition. The private car is looking like a more attractive option not least because of its reliability. If people have taken the decision to invest quite heavily in an electric car, then they want to make use of it. That cost has actually increased not just because of inflation but also the removal of government grants.
All this leaves us in danger of being in a position where public transport simply isn't an attractive option.
As ever, to move forward, we can look to the past. In some ways, we need to take note of how people were attracted to the use of the railways and underground in the first place. Communications and advertising were fundamentals of the success but so was the sheer joy and excitement of having the country opened up.
We need to consider what is it that we want public transport to achieve and for who?
We have become slightly fixated on public transport as means of accessing work. That is, of course, critically important but is only one part of the public transport story. We need to explain the wider opportunities and benefits to a much bigger audience.
Without addressing perceptions, failed realities and opening up the prospect of a better future, we risk consigning public transport to a past golden era. We need people to fall in love with the idea of public transport again.