Monday, 31 December 2012

Public Transport Moving Forward - as ever!

So here we are, on the final day of 2012, and the temptation is to look back and review where we've been over the last 12 months.
For buses, these are challenging times. The continued economic squeeze has its effect on the industry. Cuts in subsidy affect marginal services, the concessionary pass continues to spark debate on the buses as to the cost of the scheme and both commercial and tendered services are under constant review.
Yet the bus industry remains remarkably resilient. My own feeling is that, despite some of the damaging rural cutbacks, the whole situation could have been a whole lot worse. Of course, there's still more to come, and word from several councils is that we face more cuts on tendered services. Only time will tell, but we're surely at the point where there isn't much more available to face the knife?
Politically, transport continues to be a revolving door. Only Norman Baker survived the reshuffle and that can only be a good thing, not only for a bit of continuity, but also because I believe Mr Baker "gets" public transport, unlike so many politicians who pass through Transport on the way up or down.
It was the year that public transport shone, during the Olympics. The Great British public took a collective breath and almost resigned itself to chaos during the greatest show on earth. Boris boomed across railway station platforms up and down the land, asking us to "get ahead of the games". And.....nothing happened! We held our nerve with much co-operation and dedication, proving that public transport CAN work - and work well.
It was also the year that transport hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. The West Coast Main Line franchise debacle is a sorry tale that should never have happened, and hopefully the two enquiries will lead to lessons being learnt, even if the effect on the public-facing day-to-day operation was one of no change. Locally in the West Midlands, the staff shortage at London Midland also provided a major headache, badly affecting the image of rail travel. But this was almost a "who would have predicted that?" scenario. With 3 months notice to leave and 12 months to train a new driver, the maths are evident. I'm not sure the scenario could have been predicted, but the image of train travel to the general public was dented. Let's hope we can repair some of that damage with a quieter, more regularly efficient 2013 on the railways.
As with the London Midland issue, the wider image of public transport is one I still believe there is work to be done with. With our crowded towns and cities becoming ever more congested, I sit firmly in the camp that says public transport is very much the future, not a mode of last-resort. For as far back as I can recall, buses and trains have been easy pickings for news reporters looking for negative headlines. It's par for the course that something as large and comprehensive as a transport network will have problems from time to time, and that news outlets will seize on that for headline making. But it really is time that public transport hit back and highlighted - continually - the excellent job it does, day in, day out, in providing the lifeblood of the economy. Greener Journeys has had an excellent year in its promotion of buses, and its reports have provided vital ammunition for transport advocates like me to hit back on the doom-sayers. We need to shout more about the good things that are going on in public transport - and there are many.
In my own home town of Stourbridge, we might moan when the rats chew through a cable and disrupt the trains for hours, but lets look at where we were 5 years ago and where we are now. We have a new, truly state of the art transport Interchange that has replaced a motley collection of 1970s bus shelters. We have a high-frequency, innovative, environmentally-friendly people mover link between Interchange and main line railway station that has flat-level entry, higher frequency, and more journeys than ever. We have new, comfortable, trains on the Snow Hill lines that also run at high frequencies with more seats, continued free parking that takes cars off the road and puts people on to trains, and new buses with the cleanest engines yet. It's a world apart from even 5 years ago, but we haven't shouted about it!
On my travels around the UK I see areas where public transport operators have made real efforts, and others where its in the doldrums. Where transport providers and local authorities work together with shared visions, a little bit of magic occurs. Nottingham has won award after award this year, and its richly deserved - but actually, despite all of the hard work that goes on there, its actually blindingly simple. Its just a vision that says public transport is not only important, its vital. It gives the impression that its buses, trams and trains are what makes the City's heart beat. It charges firms for its car park spaces and reinvests that cash into public transport: how cool - and blindingly simple - is that? Its the one place in the UK that feels almost like a continental city when it comes to public transport - and we need more of it. Perception is everything - look at the Passenger Focus report on what non-transport users thought in car-dependent Milton Keynes. People who hadn't used a bus in 30 years had hardened perceptions of what buses are like - and were simply not aware of the improvements. That scenario is repeated up and down the country, and whilst we must shout longer and harder about the benefits of public transport, I also firmly believe that answer also lies in more carrot and stick, especially in large urban areas. Remember the howls of derision that greeted the London Congestion Charge? Who would be without that now? The best examples around the World of towns and cities are ones where people have priority, with a mix of regular, easy to understand public transport. This isn't "anti-car" - it's common sense!
It's natural to look back, and we can only move forward if we know where we've come from. History is important - especially in transport terms - but it's the future where we must concentrate our ideas. In transport, we need continued - and more - investment. We need long-term plans - and a commitment from politicians to see those plans through. We need to see public transport for what it is - a solution to our ever-growing traffic congestion. So it needs to have priority at all costs, however unpopular with some people that may be. We need to shout, shout and shout some more about the successes that our buses, trains, trams and coaches achieve, every hour of every day, and we need to lobby our politicians until we're blue in the face about the tools we need to make our public transport even better.
There's still huge amounts to be done despite the achievements of public transport in 2012. The future is bright, with cross-party support (a rare thing!) for High Speed 2. New high-quality railway stations on the horizon at Birmingham New Street and Reading. Midland Metro trams proudly rolling through the streets of Birmingham City Centre will be a reality in the not to distant future. New buses - some of them with cutting edge hybrid technology - continue to appear onto the streets, raising the levels of quality. And in the West Midlands, Centro continues to be a force for good when it comes to public transport.
As someone who works within public transport on several different levels, I can see the difference the transport industry makes to people's lives every day. Public Transport Moving Forward - as ever!

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the blog this year, and on my blog at - it's always good to hear your thoughts about public transport! A very happy new year to all!

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