A report from the TUC and transport unions calls for a massive increase in investment and financial support for public transport outside of London – rail, tram and bus…
Transport is the glue that holds the country together. It is essential for most workers get to their workplaces and to access vital services like health and education. And we need transport for food and other shopping, to go on holiday, or to take part in cultural or leisure activities.
It is also the means by which many goods and services reach our homes – whether online shopping deliveries or social services. And goods must be transported from where they are manufactured to where they are needed.
The government’s current approach to transport lacks joined up thinking or any sense of an effective plan or strategy. Decisions on both investment and cutbacks appear almost random. Typically, the Budget in March made no mention of transport apart from an unrealistically small sum to fix potholes!
The government seems to favour private cars over public transport, no doubt driven by its dislike of the strong unionisation of public transport workforces, and its slavish devotion to individualism.
But its overriding approach is to restrict people’s freedom of movement rather than improving it. That leads to cuts in rail and road infrastructure investment, reductions in subsidies for bus and train services. It encourages local authorities to implement measures such as low traffic neighbourhoods, congestion zones and low emission zones.
The government has allies in that aim. One element of the so-called “green movement” applauds restriction of movement in the name of protecting the environment. That’s no more than an anti-working class and anti-industry world view that seeks a return to the living standards of pre-industrial times on the grounds that a “climate emergency” exists.
The TUC and most trade unions effectively support such notions when they accept arbitrary net-zero targets for carbon emission reduction. They ignore the enormous damage this dogmatic approach would have on workers – it won’t be the rich and powerful that will suffer.
The TUC along with transport unions Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite launched a new report on 12 April entitled Public transport fit for the climate emergency. It called for a huge increase in investment and financial support for public transport outside London – rail, tram and bus – which would if implemented provide around 870,000 new jobs.
The report predictably justifies a massive shift away from car use and towards affordable public transport on the basis of a “climate emergency”. It largely ignores the many other good reasons for doing so.
Much of the report makes good sense. The problem is that the almost exclusive focus on carbon emissions will distort decision making and lead to restricted rather than improved transport.
Around 75 per cent of British households have a car. But that still leaves around 17 million people reliant on public transport – particularly buses. And many people in households with a car are reliant on public transport – especially young adults increasingly forced by rocketing housing costs to live with parents.
Undoubtedly many value the flexibility and convenience afforded by car ownership, even though cars are ever more expensive to buy and run. And as public transport services are cut, more people will be forced to find the money for a car and those with cars will use them more often.
While it is desirable to reduce road traffic, excessive and disproportionate restrictions – especially ahead of public transport improvements – are likely to meet huge opposition. People need viable, safe and affordable public transport alternatives.
The benefits are clear. Public transport is much safer, it is less polluting, uses much less energy, and it is far more efficient at moving large numbers of people.
We tolerate around 1,500 deaths and 26,000 serious injuries every year on Britain’s roads. Fatalities and serious injuries caused by road accidents have fallen considerably as both vehicle and road design have improved.
Further reductions in road accidents could be achieved by even better design, improved road and vehicle management, as well as more rigorous driver training, standards and enforcement. But the most effective way of doing so is to reduce road vehicle use through enhancing public transport provision.
The government announced on 15 April that it is scrapping all new smart motorways, but that is about saving £1 billion, not improving safety.
Many rightly regard smart motorways as dangerous because the lack of a permanent hard shoulder gives no refuge for broken-down vehicles, but other features of smart motorways can enhance safety. And there’s no reason why a smart motorway can’t also have a hard shoulder.
Fewer road accidents and injuries would directly benefit the NHS and emergency services. Fewer people would be away from work or school. And not least, many thousands of people would not have their lives devastated after a loved one had been killed or seriously injured.
Around a third of road accidents involve people actually at work – driving or travelling in the course of their employment. Employers have only begun to take their responsibility for managing road safety seriously in the last decade. Significant reductions in accidents have been achieved by some, although far too many ignore road risks. Workers are seen by capitalism, successive governments and many employers as expendable.
In contrast, deaths and serious injuries involving users of public transport are tiny. A death on the railways is so rare that it is usually headline news. Accidents involving bus users are also very rare.
There are nearly 33 million cars on the road in Britain, along with around 5 million vans and heavy goods vehicles. That’s nearly 6 vehicles for every 10 people. Road vehicles are considerably less fuel-efficient than buses, trams and trains. And cars in particular are not a good use of resources.
‘Public transport is much safer, less polluting, uses less energy, and is far more efficient…’
Around 60 per cent of car journeys are made with just one occupant. As the TUC report notes, “public transport offers the best opportunity to reduce the distance travelled by cars (and lorries). A fully loaded bus can take 65 cars off the road. A full light rail/tram can take 90–150 cars off the road…One passenger train can take 500 cars off the road. One freight train can take 76 lorries off the road.”
According to the RAC Foundation’s figures, the average car is underutilised, being driven for only about 4 per cent of the time. Otherwise it is parked – at home or elsewhere.
Air pollution from road vehicles has fallen dramatically as vehicle emissions have been brought down by better engine designs.
Road vehicles emit around 70 per cent of all transport CO2 emissions, but that’s not the whole story. The TUC report is fixated on CO2 emissions, but cars and lorries are also responsible for many other airborne pollutants. These include half of all nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, and a quarter of all hydrocarbons. These pollutants increase respiratory ailments like asthma and bronchitis, heighten the risk of cancers, and so burden health and social services.
Airborne particulate matter from rubber tyres and brakes is thought to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths. A new report by Imperial College estimated that in Greater London alone over 3,500 deaths in 2019 were due to NO2 and airborne particulates. But this type of pollution would not be wholly overcome by using electric propulsion instead of petrol and diesel engines.
Many fewer road vehicles would mean much less pollution. Trains in particular have the capability to easily run on electricity generated by low polluting sources such as nuclear, wind and hydro. Urban buses can also easily use electricity – and modern trolleybuses can operate from overhead wires and then run many miles using batteries.
Electrically-powered public transport uses proven technology. The infrastructure investment would be significant, but achievable. Its expansion does not rely on exaggerated claims like those made for electric cars – that would need vast investment in electricity distribution and undoubtedly lead to scrapping perfectly usable vehicles to force change through.
With road traffic well past pre-pandemic levels and growing, congestion is getting worse, even in rural areas, exacerbating pollution problems.
Britain is the world’s 10th most congested country and London is Europe's second most gridlocked city after Moscow. According to one traffic data firm, British drivers wasted on average 31 hours each in rush-hour traffic in 2017.
Continuing growth in road traffic will also lead to gridlock for much of the day in even more urban areas, and in many rural ones too. Experience has shown that the large scale construction of expensive and environmentally damaging new roads does not in the main solve congestion: it merely induces more traffic and yet more congestion – whatever the type of propulsion.
In contrast, public transport alternatives of the sort argued for by the TUC report can much more easily cope with increased demand induced by improvements. That’s happening for example with London’s new Elizabeth Line (Crossrail).
But the answer to congestion is not restriction. People move around for a purpose, working and living their lives. The TUC report misses the point when it says, “We suggest that the best way to constrain traffic…is to introduce a national system of road user charging”.
That would mean that freedom to use a car when and where the driver wishes would be constrained. Signs of that appear in plans for “low traffic neighbourhoods” and congestion charge and other road management schemes. A failure to radically improve public transport provision will make road charging and other restrictions a near certainty.
According to the TUC report “moving more freight to rail would generate enormous benefits, including carbon reduction, reduced congestion, improved road safety, better road maintenance and wider economic and employment benefits.
“Currently rail freight generates economic benefits worth £2.45 billion annually, including benefits to customers, reduced congestion, reduced carbon and improved safety. A large proportion of these benefits accrue to communities in former industrial heartlands.”
Just as there will be a continuing need for cars, there will be a continuing need for freight vehicles on Britain’s roads, from large heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to the ubiquitous white van. Goods will still need to be transported from railheads to their final destinations; the key point is to reduce the number of goods vehicles needed. The opportunities for greatly increased rail capacity that HS2 would have provided are now being squandered.
The headline costs of rail infrastructure investment are high, but that is true of roads too. And the full cost of road freight is not taken into account in such comparisons.
Research carried out for the Campaign for Better Transport in 2016 stated that “HGVs meet less than a third of the costs they impose on society. HGVs are up to 160,000 times more damaging to roads than cars, five times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal accidents on local roads and pay nothing for their contributions to air pollution.”
Millions of people have mobility difficulties or conditions that prevent them from driving. Improved public transport is crucial for them to better access education, employment and leisure opportunities.
Better and more affordable public transport services would improve people’s daily lives in the same way that better education, health care and social services would do. Like these other services, public transport should not be about making profits – such services should be run for the collective good.