How we can achieve a joined-up public transport system

18 March, 2019

What follows is an outline of how we can achieve a joined-up public transport system:

  • bringing the hidden treasure of the nation’s interurban bus network in from the cold
  • delivering a solution to the most intractable problem facing the rail network today: its incoherent fares system
  • from the outset, adopting an access for all strategy.

Here we take ‘public transport’ to centre on bus and rail, but also include other modes including cycling and personal transport: the sustainable transport family.

Prospering but Lacking Coordination

Right now, Britain has a national rail service that has had the fastest growth in patronage of the major European nations, having quadrupled its passenger revenue since 1994-5.  It is prospering, but faces two major problems: it has significant capacity challenges that are proving expensive to address; and it has an incomprehensible fares system.

Alongside rail, and largely hidden from view, is a high quality interurban bus network, also prospering, unaffected by the reduction in bus service subsidies that have devastated local bus services in rural (and some urban) areas, and which offers access for all, including wheelchair users

The stability of service and the use of high quality bus fleets in the interurban sector makes them an obvious first stage alongside rail to create a joined-up public transport network. Alongside rail, the interurban network can ensure national coverage at a strategic network level. In subsequent stages, local urban and rural routes (where these exist) can be added in.

In looking to conjoin these two networks, the approach proposed is to concentrate investment in the digital world; the funding needed can come from the private sector, provided Government signals its support for the initiative, because this is a growth area, and a highly competitive one. The additional patronage will cover the investment involved. But Government needs to end its habit of assuming the two modes exist in different universes if is to ensure that the deployment of new IT systems is to meet wider policy objectives.

Exploiting digital systems

Existing information obligations including those in the Bus Services Act of 2017 are readily capable of supporting user-friendly service information platforms and ticketing systems that could be readily integrated across road and rail.

Astonishingly, but only occasionally, this type of cross-modal integration already happens. It is possible to plan a few rail-interurban bus journeys (for instance from London to Wisbech) by reference just to the national ‘rail’ timetable (on-line or print versions) and even buy through tickets (for example from Trainline). There is no reason why this joined-up facility should only exist for this journey and a handful of other cases across the country.

Finding out about most interurban bus services is not easy. As our research has shown, interurban bus services may be well-known locally, but their extensive, indeed nationwide, coverage – which, unlike coach services are subject to information obligations and which accept concessionary travel passes – is pointlessly secret. (see The Interurban Bus Network report)