The future of bus and rail

Published 13/01/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Much change is anticipated over the coming years for both bus and rail services. The Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure (CCEI) Committee says bus and rail is key not only to meeting climate change targets, but to creating a society where people can easily access the services, education and work they need.

The direction of travel for Welsh Government transport policy is clear. The Wales Transport Strategy introduced a sustainable transport hierarchy prioritising active travel and public transport over private motor vehicles. The First Minister cancelled the much debated M4 relief road project, with alternative solutions centred on public transport being taken forward instead. Work to develop three metro systems is underway and the Welsh Government has paused its new road schemes to review whether they should go ahead.

Bus and rail services have a huge role to play in meeting climate change targets. The CCEI Committee recently undertook an inquiry on the future of bus and rail with Members set to debate the Committee’s report and the Welsh Government’s response in Plenary next week.

As part of its inquiry, the Committee also undertook its annual scrutiny of Transport for Wales (TfW).

A sustainable direction for Welsh transport policy?

The Welsh Government aims for 45% of journeys be made by sustainable modes (public transport or active travel) by 2040.It estimates 32% of journeys are currently made this way.

Net Zero Wales aims for the most polluting 50% of buses to be replaced by a zero tailpipe emission bus fleet by 2028. It also commits to decarbonising rail – pointing to a “comprehensive programme” to introduce new trains, including electric traction on the Core Valleys Lines.

By the Welsh Government’s own admission meeting its modal shift and net zero targets present “a big challenge”.

Changing behaviour and demand

Those who gave evidence to the Committee’s inquiry were unanimous in their view that encouraging behaviour change is the key challenge to overcome.

The Committee heard from Transport Focus that sustainability was not a priority for people when thinking about how to make their journey - cost and convenience were more important.

Fundamental changes to demand and behaviour were already underway before Covid-19 hit, including increases in online shopping and remote working. However the pandemic led to unprecedented reductions in public transport use. Passenger numbers have not fully recovered nearly three years later.

Recovery presents an opportunity to accelerate plans to reform the sector, not only to help achieve decarbonisation but to redesign services vital to so many people.

Transport poverty

Access to public transport – particularly bus travel – is essential to address social deprivation and mobility. Evidence from Transport for Wales says 13% of Welsh households don’t have access to a car, and 25% of bus users have a disability or long-term illness. University of South Wales research found the most deprived areas saw the greatest decline in access to services due to the pandemic.

A Sustrans Cymru report on transport poverty found that people across all parts of Wales are experiencing transport poverty with services unaffordable. It also found transport poverty has disproportionate effects on certain groups and irregular public transport services have bigger impacts on those living in rural areas of Wales. Similarly, Public Policy Institute for Wales says that public transport in rural areas is “infrequent, inadequate and more expensive than elsewhere”.

The CCEI Committee is concerned about these issues being exacerbated by the increasing cost of living. The Committee’s report points to steps taken in other European countries to tackle such issues, including measures announced by the UK Government to cap single bus fares across England (outside of London) at £2 until March 2023.

In her paper on the cost of living, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales suggests the Welsh Government should “develop a route map to free public transport, starting with young people”.

However, Professor Graham Parkhurst suggested to the Committee that making public transport cheap, or even free, would not solve the problem around perceptions of public transport. The Committee heard evidence from Campaign for Better Transport that messaging to avoid public transport at the beginning of the pandemic is having an ongoing impact. There was however praise for TfW’s recent advertising campaigns.

The Committee recommended the Welsh Government bring forward proposals to address transport poverty including subsidised fares.

The Welsh Government responded

There is a lot of interest in low fares initiatives from public bodies across the UK. Whilst we haven’t ruled out such a policy we must be realistic about the budgetary restrictions within which we must operate.

Bus and rail reform

Much change to bus and rail governance is anticipated over the coming years – plans that were accelerated by the pandemic with rail services brought under direct public control and greater partnership working between the Welsh Government, local authorities and bus operators developed through the Bus Emergency Scheme.

The Committee’s inquiry found mixed views on the Welsh Government’s proposals for bus reform. The introduction of franchising forms a key element of the proposals. Despite significant support for reforming the sector, the Committee heard views that the potential costs of franchising are huge.

The Welsh Government has now published a summary of responses to its White Paper consultation, with the majority of responses showing support for the proposals, and is working to finalise its plans.

Exploring UK Government plans for rail reform, the Committee voiced concern over comments made by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change that the planned new body - Great British Railways - “is not showing much sign of being a co-operative arrangement”.

The case for devolution of rail infrastructure once again emerged during the Committee’s inquiry. Arguments around underfunding of Welsh rail infrastructure are well rehearsed.

Professor Mark Barry told the Committee that overcoming such issues is essential in order to develop an integrated transport network. He said

…the rail investment required provides the backbone services that, actually, a lot of our bus services will integrate with.

And that “if Wales wants to decarbonise, it needs those powers and that access to…funding.”

The Committee agrees that until issues surrounding rail infrastructure are resolved, it will be difficult for the Welsh Government to meet its net zero targets.

Looking to the future

It’s clear that the coming years will see much change for both bus and rail transport. Meeting modal shift and net zero targets presents a complex challenge with multiple factors at play. Changing public behaviours amidst recovery from the pandemic, the increasing cost of living and plans for reforming the sector from governments on opposite sides of the political track presents a huge challenge.

But put simply, by one respondent to the Committee’s public engagement work, if modal shift and decarbonisation targets are to be met “you’ve got to make public transport better than the car”.

Article by Francesca Howorth, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament