COP26 has a whole day of negotiations dedicated to transport, reflecting its importance in getting to net zero emissions.
My constituency of Warrington South is located in what I call the golden triangle of the M6, M60 and M56 motorways, equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool, and on the route of the west coast main line. I’m also Chair of the APPG on Light Rail and a public transport Champion for the Conservative Environment Network.
So I know full well how important trains, buses and trams are, not just to my local area and my constituents’ lives, but nationally to the economy and environment as well.
Since the pandemic brought the country to a standstill, though, the need for more public transport provision has been questioned. This is primarily due to passenger numbers, which were decimated during lockdowns and are still recovering. But postponing or cancelling infrastructure projects as a result of Covid would be the wrong approach for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we need to future-proof our transport provision. Since the pandemic began, passenger numbers have of course reduced. More people are working from home and appetites to be in close quarters with other commuters have lessened. But this is recovering steadily. Passenger numbers on the London tube, for example, are regularly meeting 50% of ‘normal’ levels and those using buses are up to two-thirds.
If the option of working from home is here to stay, some people might not commute in the future. On the plus side, this could cut toxic pollution as fewer people use cars to get to the office.
But we still don’t know exactly what the future of working will look like. Current passenger numbers are not indicative of future use and shouldn’t be a reason for cutting services.
Fewer services leads to overcrowding, which puts off potential passengers. This encourages people to get back into their cars and by a vicious cycle reinforces the argument of service providers that fewer services are needed. The converse will be true – more services with more space will encourage people to use buses and trains, and ease congestion on the roads.
It’s also not just about the number of services on offer, but their reliability. Bus priority measures, like dedicated lanes, help make bus travel a quicker, easier and more environmentally-friendly way to get around town than by car. Passengers in the North have a historically unfavourable view of bus travel compared to train and car use but the funding the Government has committed for new zero emissions buses will help carve out new routes and increase uptake. Warrington has had good news on this front, with funding recently confirmed for 120 electric buses to match the significant investment secured to build a zero emission bus depot.
Public transport also plays a central role in levelling up the country. Investment in transport improves connectivity, opens up countless opportunities for economic growth and makes places more attractive to live. The Government’s £4 billion Levelling Up Fund recognises the impact that better public transport links can have on people’s lives, particularly for those who can’t afford or don’t want to own their own car. And the Chancellor’s Budget announcement that English city regions will receive £6.9 billion for local public transport networks was extremely welcome. To maintain this momentum, the government should next look to expand Northern Powerhouse Rail through areas like mine and continue to reverse Dr Beeching’s cuts to Britain’s railway network in the 1960s.
Despite the many encouraging measures in the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan and recent Net Zero Strategy, and the sharp rise in electric car sales, transport is still the UK’s highest emitting sector in terms of greenhouse gas. Public transport can help us reach our net zero target by 2050.
Providing alternatives to cars will also improve the air we breathe and reduce congestion. Electric vehicles are really important in helping us cut emissions, and there will always be a need for private cars in many parts of Britain. But battery-powered cars still contribute to congestion in urban areas and release harmful particulate matter into the air from tyre wear. If we are to encourage more people to swap their car for a bus or train, we need a reliable, resilient and far-reaching transport network to take on this extra capacity.
We have only just begun to recover from the pandemic and it’s true that we don’t yet know how working life will evolve. But we also can’t forget that trains, trams and buses are more than just a way to get to work. They provide vital connections between communities and offer a low-carbon way forward. Public transport is our one-way ticket to protect the environment and level up.
Andy Carter is MP for Warrington South.