Transport User Voice – July 2019 – Chief executive’s editorial

01 July 2019

Has something shifted in the heated debate on climate change? The Extinction Rebellion protests, Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and others have seemingly tilted thinking to a point where every initiative, every organisation and all of us must think a bit more about the effect we are having on the planet.

What is the transport user view on all this? We plan to do some more work to find out as, especially in the context of the work we do with young people where green issues are mentioned more and more frequently, this will become an increasing force.

While for many people car is preferable or the only realistic option for their journeys, how those cars are powered is changing. Electric vehicles are spreading, but the places to charge them are not – this is a big debate where the consumer voice needs to be heard loud and clear.

Making public transport a better choice will benefit both existing and new passengers. A lot of the work done by Transport Focus is about achieving this. The latest National Rail Passenger Survey shows that when the industry and governments focus on reliability it buoys up satisfaction. New trains with more seats, wi-fi that works and power sockets means more room for everyone to have a better journey experience whilst on the move.

However, when Transport Focus did work in 2007 on rail passengers and green issues the ‘greenness’ of rail travel validated passengers’ choices, but didn’t guide them. Last year Transport Focus also asked rail passengers whether the last train on which they travelled was electric or diesel-powered. A full 80 per cent considered electric trains better for the environment than diesel but almost half admitted if the train is on time and comfortable they don’t care how it is powered, suggesting even a year ago passengers placed more importance on the potential operational benefits of electrification (i.e. improved reliability and speed) than on the positive environmental impact of this change.

More research in this area is now essential, so we have a more up to date picture of how far environmental concerns are – or are not – already driving different consumer travel choices.

The target set in mid-June by the Welsh and UK governments to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will have practical consequences for how people travel – and far sooner than many of us might like to imagine. Public transport needs to remain a choice, not become a forced decision. We each make our transport decisions based on netting off choice, cost, convenience and control – the four ‘C’s’. Why do so many people will take a taxi to the airport? It’s often seen as more convenient; can make you feel more in control and may well be a rare pleasure – and even a highly cost effective one for a group of friends or an entire family – well worth the cost.

Shared transport can only bear part of the load. Many trains are full already and stations are becoming swamped – and there must be a point when it won’t be possible to add more carriages to the long trains already coming into city centres? We might need to think about hubs and then massively boosted metro and tube services for onward journeys.

Continued efforts to boost the space for more and longer trains is vital – let’s get on and build HS2 as it will offer more sustainable travel choices in future*. Bus use has been declining for a variety of reasons, but local authorities must now become brave politically and make the changes that will keep bus travel reliable and therefore attractive. It’s clear from the Bus Passenger Survey that the core product is OK – where they run people love their buses. Coach passengers also love their choice this mode offers them, but policy makers can’t really seem to get their heads around how to break down some enduring stigmas that surround that product – more thinking needed here.

So, Transport Focus will be doing work with transport users on green issues to make sure the work it does going forward will reflect and amplify their views. What do you think?

*Phase one of the HS2 project to build a high speed rail line linking London and the West Midlands was the first UK infrastructure development to be awarded BREEAM certification for its sustainability.

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