Why passengers need improved public transport options

To shift attitudes and behaviours to the extent that the decarbonisation agenda requires, the ‘stick’ of taxation would be far from enough – passengers need the ‘carrot’ of improved public transport options, writes Helen Fry, Senior Associate at BDB Pitmans.

There are few elements of 2020 that anyone would want to hold onto long-term, but the reduction in emissions brought about by lockdown might be one of them.

Cities across the country saw their clean air agendas unexpectedly boosted at the start of the year as traffic ground to a halt.

The easing of restrictions, however, has seen the roads filling back up, while passengers remain wary of public transport. Road traffic is back up to pre-pandemic levels, but National Rail use languishes at around 25% (having sunk as low as 4% at the height of the crisis).

That reversal sits uncomfortably with the decarbonisation agenda which, notwithstanding the other calls on the government’s attention, remains an urgent priority.

Transport is undoubtedly the crucial battleground; 28% of UK domestic emissions emanated from the sector in 2018, of which cars were responsible for more than half.

Earlier this year the government kickstarted its Transport Decarbonisation Plan (due to be published this Autumn) with the publication of ‘Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge’.

That document evinced an ambition to make public transport travellers’ ‘natural first choice’.

If that is to be achieved, the government will need to do much more to prevent the shift away from rail – described by the European Environment Agency as ‘by far the most energy-efficient mode of passenger transport’ – from becoming entrenched.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has argued that increases in taxation of alternative modes of transport, together with changes to the rules governing how rail companies set their fares, would allow rail to compete on a ‘level green playing field’ – and give the UK a fighting chance of meeting its decarbonisation goals.

In submissions in response to ‘Decarbonising Transport’, the RDG points out that the CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometre produced by planes are some six times higher than those produced by rail travel – yet, they say, aircraft fuel is exempt from tax, whereas levies on electricity to power trains have more than doubled in the past four years.

If the government really does want to lure passengers onto the railways, it may well see the logic of the RDG’s proposals.

To shift attitudes and behaviours to the extent its decarbonisation agenda requires, though, the ‘stick’ of taxation would be far from enough – passengers need the ‘carrot’ of improved public transport options.

The government continues to focus on plans for road improvements (with a £27.4 billion investment in the English road network on the cards); alongside those improvements, plans to ramp up the electrification of vehicles, coupled with more renewable generation of electricity, should go a long way towards reducing the percentage of domestic emissions produced by cars.

In tandem with those changes, ambitious rail schemes – and the creation of better modal interchanges between bus and rail – will be essential. Similarly, the short-term focus on aviation sector bailouts will have to give way at some point to serious efforts to promote rail as a viable alternative to both domestic and European flights.

The Department for Transport’s newly announced ‘Acceleration Unit’ looks like good news; it aims to boost the delivery times of major rail and road projects, launching with a promised investment of £360million (£343million of which is earmarked for ‘levelling up’ Welsh railways). Beyond that, though, the Unit’s remit remains somewhat vague.  

One action which would certainly accelerate infrastructure delivery would be a wholesale review of the government’s suite of National Policy Statements (NPS), which are increasingly criticised for being outdated and incompatible with the government’s net-zero commitments.

Such accusations have found their way into a number of recent infrastructure-related judicial reviews (JRs) – most notably the Plan B Heathrow challenge, which saw the Airports NPS declared unlawful in the Court of Appeal (due to be considered by the Supreme Court next month).

The granting of a Development Consent Order in respect of the Drax Re-power project was challenged by ClientEarth on similar grounds (they lost, but have appealed), and the Good Law Project recently launched a JR challenge to the entire set of Energy NPS (designated in 2011), arguing that a failure to review them in light of the government’s evolving climate change commitments is irrational.

A rethink across the board would help to ensure that the government’s overarching approach to infrastructure is compatible with its climate commitments, and in so doing reduce the scope for new projects to be delayed by litigation.

The government seems to think it has spotted a shortcut to resolving this (and other) problems, however – simply limiting the scope of JR as a mechanism for challenging decisions made by public bodies.

A recently announced review of JR suggests that the government plans to ‘accelerate’ down the path of limiting governmental accountability rather than improving governmental decision-making – an approach which seems more likely to hinder than help the success of its decarbonisation agenda in the long-term.

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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