The case for free public transport and getting on with (rather than talking about) bus re-regulation

Vintage Ribble bus photoed at the West Lancs Light Railway in 2018

Very soon after I got involved in politics I attended a Liberal Party conference in Blackpool, I think it was in 1980. On the agenda was a motion for debate that was all about making public transport free to use in and around towns and cities. If memory serves David Alton, MP for Liverpool Edge Hill, was backing the motion and he must have made a powerful case because ever since I’ve held the view that free public transport (or with a nominal fare) would one day become a reality.

David Alton MP

That conference motion of 40 years ago was clearly well before its time so to speak but the reasons for it were sound then and look even more sound now as we have arrived at a Climate Emergency and are suffering air pollution problems that are quite literally killing us!

Of course the underlying reason for that 1980 debate was to try to start a process of reducing reliance on cars by making high quality public transport a viable attractive alternative particularly in urban areas. That only 2 years later the Conservatives passed the Bus Deregulation Act pushing things in totally the opposite direction is at best ironic! What’s more urban areas like Manchester and Liverpool are presently trying to find ways to re-regulate bus services because they are in crisis, but more on that later.

In rural areas, sadly, bus services are all but extinct in parts of Lancashire although that’s as much about the lack of public money to subsidise vital routes as it is a cause of the Bus Deregulation Act. Add into all this the chaos created via the privatisation of our railways, which are now widely seen as dysfunctional, and it should make politicians who created this mess (and those who have failed to get us out of it) feel very much ashamed – but of course it doesn’t.

So whilst we should have been developing high quality subsidised public transport to tackle road congestion, air pollution and accessibility to all kinds of services for those without access to cars our governments have been pushing public policy further towards reliance on cars!

Merseyrail train at Maghull North Station

But across Europe’s cities and regions there’s been experimenting with and policy changes in favour of free public transport, whilst they’ve rarely gone down the road & rail to ruin routes that the UK has chosen for itself. I think Luxembourg is the latest convert. The downside to public transport being free (other than paying for it of course) is the potential for it to have the unintended consequence of encouraging folk to do the exact opposite of what they need to do. I’m talking here of walking and cycling because if we create a system where say short walkable journeys reduce because folk get on the free public transport we’ve solved one problem but inadvertently created another with negative health consequences.

But to go back to that re-regulation issue, which I’ve heard talked about for more years than I care to mention particularly on Merseyside, is it going to be action or more taking? I ask as the Liverpool City Region Mayor has popped up recently to rehash all the old arguments in favour of re-regulation. Now don’t get me wrong I with him but I just wish he’d get on with it! No more talking Steve!!!!

310 Ribble bus in Maghull – Photo credit Arnold Richardson/Photobus

We know the bus companies and their shareholders won’t like it, that’s a given, but we need as a matter of some urgency an integrated public transport system of high quality buses and trains. What’s more we need it to deliver far less CO2 emissions (thinking of diesel powered buses in particular here)and be good enough (punctual, fast, reliable and running 7 days per week) to make us want to ditch our cars for many local journeys.

So yes re-regulate the buses, integrate them properly with the trains and start to look seriously at either free public transport or nominal ticket prices.

Liverpool Echo story says what many of us have been saying for years about air pollution

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/nearly-300-deaths-just-one-17614406

But how long do we have to keep saying it before the powers that be, nationally and locally, actually take useful and positive action to stop us all being poisoned?