Train in Vain? How Labour Can Reconnect Britain’s Failing Public Transport Network

With the railways beset by cancellations and strikes, Nathan Farrington suggests reforms to create a user-centred, integrated public transport system 

The passenger railway station of the village I grew up in closed six years after the end of the second world war. Despite substantial population growth since then, commuting to the nearest city requires catching an hourly bus that has been subject to exponential and extortionate fares in recent months. For many other Northern communities like mine, the public transport system is broken.

The ongoing train strikes have exposed the fundamental issues with these services not just in the North of England, but throughout the UK. These recent events are a manifestation of the short-term, low-investment approach engendered by a series of Conservative governments. Comprehensive reform of public transport is desperately needed, and Labour are in a strong position to construct a vision of the role these services have in a citizen-oriented and reliable network. By converting the recommendations of the Brown Commission into a fully-fledged plan, Labour can develop a transport system that is affordable, integrated, and convenient.

In an era of greater environmental awareness, public transport represents an alternative to road travel, and European governments have already implemented plans to reduce dependency on cars. Recently, Ireland has lowered railway fares by 20% to “encourage eco-friendly behaviour”, as only 7% of all travel in the nation is done via public transport. This follows Germany’s €9-a-month scheme which was enjoyed by 31 million passengers in June alone.

These continental developments emphasise the authority national governments have in shaping travel network priorities. The British government also has significant historic precedent in this regard. The first trains accessible to the working class came in 1844 when private rail companies were obligated to run “parliamentary trains” for the benefit of this social group. By intervening on public transport regulation, governments can ensure social objectives can be applied and met. In a modern state, the government can have a similar impact by making prices low for passengers and ensuring equal environmental standards.

Leadership on this matter must come from Westminster, and affordable trains should be at the heart of the party’s green project. Reducing prices, however, would only be one element of a government-initiated plan for public service growth. Any transport plan has to combat the greater convenience offered by motor vehicles and propose a satisfactory alternative.

Transport, ultimately, is about the ability of the passenger to travel from one location to another, not just from station A to B. It’s hard to dispute the superiority of private cars over the current transport system in this respect. If buses, trams, and trains are to challenge this, an integrated system should be advocated on a wider scale.

Andy Burnham’s plan for integrated transport in Manchester resembles the model offered by London’s transport system, with a shared regulatory body and joint ticket system between networks. These transport systems prioritise inter-connection, enabling passengers to seamlessly transfer between different modes of public transport on the same ticket, thus minimising travel times. Moreover, integration offers the possibility of coordinated schedules, further reducing transfer times.

Any government should strive to achieve this level of convenience of transport on a national scale. While we have seen these developments in major metropolitan areas, regional districts would benefit greatly from an integrated system. There cannot be one homogenous form of this across the country as each city has different transport modes and priorities. The government should instead empower local areas like mine to develop their own form of integrated travel. As the Brown Report notes, Manchester’s endeavours will cost £134 million and involve significant legal challenges. It is vital then that the government expands regional powers and financially support these transitions.

The task of the Labour Party is to make the purpose of public transport explicitly clear; these services are for the benefit of the people using them. For too long, the rail service and others have lost sight of this objective.

Labour’s Transport Act of 1947 instituted a nationalised railway system precisely to benefit those it served. Yet since the Beeching Report of 1963, which terminated 2,363 stations and 266 services, cost effectiveness has been the overriding objective of this industry. The Conservative Party have extended Dr Beeching’s legacy to the present day. The Party has ensured that our public transport system remains unaffordable, disconnected, and inconvenient.   

And who are the greatest losers from this? It is communities like mine that have lost direct access to larger cities; it is ordinary workers who depend on poorly managed services to travel to work; it is railway employees who are not part of a long-term plan for the direction of these services; and it is the environment that has suffered due to the pollution caused by increased private car ownership.

Public transport has lacked a sense of direction for decades. The solution comes from Labour developing a realistic plan that incorporates people, local authorities, and private investment into a vision of what these services represent and what they can achieve. As European examples and our history illustrate, substantive change is possible to create a service that works for the population and the environment. Long-term planning and policy boldness can help reconnect our networks, and Starmer’s Labour Party is more than capable of fulfilling this.

Nathan Farrington is a History and Politics Student at the University of Birmingham whose current research includes early Indian Nationalism and Franco-Moroccan relationships. Other policy areas of interest include education reform, post-colonialism, and the legacy of industrialisation. He tweets at @Nathan_LF2

Image by Robert Owen-Wahl from Pixabay

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