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Great British Railways must put trains at heart of green recovery

The Westminster government has unveiled the state-owned Great British Railways to shake-up rail services in England. That shake-up must boost the planet and passengers, says Campaign for Better Transport chief executive Paul Tuohy
Campaign for Better Transport believe Great British Railways must get passengers back on trains to avoid a return to polluting cars during the Covid recovery. Image credit: JJ Jordan / Unsplash

The pandemic hit public transport hard. The number of rail passengers fell to its lowest level in 170 years. Buses ran at a fraction of capacity and bustling coach stations became echoing voids.

When we had essential journeys to make, most of us got in our cars. Traffic levels rose. In many cities, air pollution was soon worse than before the pandemic.

As we begin to come out of the crisis, there’s a risk that these habits will stick. The dangers are real: climate change, pollution and traffic-clogged streets, dwindling public transport leaving non-drivers stranded (45 per cent of low-income households have no car).

Which is one reason why the Great British Railways rail reforms announced in today’s white paper are sorely needed. If we’re to avoid a car-led recovery, it’s more vital than ever that the rail network properly meets people’s needs.

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On the face of it the rail shake-up looks positive, with its focus on the needs of passengers, contactless ticketing, a more straightforward compensation system and growing the network.

With rail producing just 0.5 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions, the urgent need to shift more journeys to this, the greenest major form of transport, is clear. So the statement “we are growing the network, not shrinking it” should hardly need making, but it is a relief to read nonetheless. At present a lot of communities are ‘transport deserts’, many having lost their rail stations under the notorious Beeching cuts. We hope that talk of growing and transforming the railways will be backed by proper funding so that these disconnected communities can access the opportunities that rail brings.

And we are especially glad that at last, part-time commuters will be able to buy flexible season tickets. We have called for this for years, but the need is now urgent to cater for the growing number of people planning to return to workplaces part-time – otherwise many will get in their cars instead, adding to traffic jams, air pollution and carbon emissions. We will be watching closely as full details of the tickets emerge – it’s vital that they offer a decent discount to help steer us towards a green transport future.

The government should introduce an incentive scheme to promote travel by public transportCampaign for Better Transport chief executive Paul Tuohy

But perhaps even more urgent than the Great British Railways reforms announced today is the need for the government to begin actively encouraging people back on board buses, trains, coaches and trams as restrictions ease.

To that end, Campaign for Better Transport took a double-decker bus to the House of Lords yesterday to launch its biggest campaign for years, The way forward is public transport.

Great British Railways
Jenny Jones visits a campaign bus in Westminster, London, organised by Campaign for Better Transport. Photo: David Mirzoeff

The campaign is calling on the government to lead the way in encouraging people to see public transport as a safe and sensible way to travel. To coincide with the opening-up expected in June, the government should introduce an incentive scheme to promote travel by public transport. Last year, we had ‘eat out to help out’ to support cafes and restaurants. A similar scheme providing discounted travel for a period of perhaps a month should be introduced.

We’re also calling on the government to continue emergency funding for public transport services as a bridge to a financially sustainable future. Support should taper off as passenger numbers grow, rather than ending in some sort of cliff edge over which the industry plunges.

We are at a fork in the road as the country emerges from Covid. One arm of the fork leads to car dependency, increasing air pollution and carbon, more congestion and more isolation for those without access to a private car. The other offers the opposite: less carbon, cleaner air, lowered congestion and more social inclusion. Frankly, it’s a no-brainer. Support from the government has been invaluable in sustaining the transport sector through the health crisis so far, but now it must set out a vision for the future that places public transport at the heart of a green recovery. Our campaign is designed to ensure that it does.

For more information on the Campaign for Better Transport’s The Way Forward campaign, head to their website, and find more information on the Great British Railways proposals here