Better Transport Week is a chance to celebrate the good work and enthusiasm from those involved in delivering public transport
The creation of a wonderfully updated St Pancras station, officially reopened in 2007, offered a powerful and confident statement about the future of the railway and its place in society
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Campaign for Better Transport, and what better way to mark that milestone than by devoting a week to a celebration of all that is good in public transport.
The charity was set up in 1973, with help and encouragement from the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), now morphed into the RMT. The catalyst was the plan for a Beeching Mark 2, which would have slashed the network even beyond what Beeching did. Fortunately for us all, that dangerous idea was headed off, and the independent and well-respected charity has been working to promote sustainable transport, especially rail, bus and light rail, ever since.
Campaign for Better Transport, the country’s biggest transport charity and the only one that covers all modes, was originally called Transport 2000 but the passage of time forced a change, actually into a more positive name. The charity was not alone, of course, in being tied to a year. There was Thameslink 2000, which carried on well into this century, but in that case, the use of a specific date was more of an embarrassment. It is perhaps fortunate there is no year attached to HS2.
In general terms, the politicians and the public are now more favourably disposed towards public transport than they were in 1973, when the general assumption was the car was the future, rail was yesterday’s mode of travel, and anyone who was still on a bus when aged over 25 was a failure in life
A huge amount of change in the transport world has of course happened in the last 50 years, including bus deregulation, and on the railways privatisation, and then a bewildering succession of bodies that have come and gone including the terrible Railtrack and the not so terrible Strategic Rail Authority.
But in general terms, the politicians and the public are now more favourably disposed towards public transport than they were in 1973, when the general assumption was the car was the future, rail was yesterday’s mode of travel, and anyone who was still on a bus when aged over 25 was a failure in life.
That last quote is attributed to then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, not least by The Economist, who dated it to 1986, the time of bus deregulation. It is not entirely clear if she actually uttered the words, but that is almost irrelevant. It certainly fitted her view.
The same might be said of “crisis, what crisis”, creatively but wrongly attributed to her predecessor as PM, Jim Callaghan, and indeed “Elementary, my dear Watson,” words never uttered as a phrase by Sherlock Holmes, and likewise “Play it again Sam,” in the film Casablanca.
There are, I believe, two events that arrested what was seen as an inevitable decline in the railways. One was the renaissance of the Carlisle-Settle railway line in the mid-1980s. Here was a line that had seen cut after cut to try to save costs, leading to the inevitable downward spiral with eventual closure as the terminus.
But a spirited campaign successfully argued that the opposite approach was the way forward: reopen closed stations, breathe new life into the line. Nowadays the line is thriving, not least of all as a vital freight route, and any suggestion of closure is now a long way back in the rear view mirror.
Saving Carlisle-Settle also served to bring to an end the prevailing mindset that the network would inevitably contract. It killed off the Beeching mentality once and for all. Now, of course, we are busy (though not busy enough) reopening stations and lines that should never have been closed, and redoubling track that should never have been singled.
This, incidentally, is an object lesson for today’s pen pushers in government who are busy suggesting cuts to make the railway more sustainable financially. Take the bonkers idea that Wi-Fi should be switched off on trains. Numbers are still below pre-Covid levels so let’s make the offer to the passenger less attractive! That should work….
The second, and even more totemic event, was the creation of a wonderfully updated St Pancras station, officially reopened in 2007. For years, the rail industry had almost been ashamed of rail. At Euston, the magnificent arch was removed, and at Victoria, the platforms were hidden away behind retail units.
Now at St Pancras, for the first time in decades, the railway industry offered a powerful and confident statement about its future and its place in society. It produced a wonderful architectural achievement, seamlessly blending the old and the new. A classy remake at King’s Cross has followed. Rail believes in itself again.
So in rail, there is much to celebrate, 50 years on. Light rail too has seen a renaissance with schemes up and running in many of our major cities, though not yet in Leeds or Liverpool. But back in 1973, the trams and trolleybuses had long slipped into history, leaving only the Blackpool tram, then seen as some sort of quirky tourist attraction.
In the bus, we still have the means of public transport that carries most people, yet despite innovation from the private sector, and support from the public sector, including stout support from the government since Covid, routes have been lost and passenger numbers have declined. A further round of service cuts seems likely.
Yet there are positives. There is more commitment to the bus in government at national and local level than at any time in my memory, there is a resilience among the bus operators and a determination to make things work, and a service that is much valued by its users.
And so to Better Transport Week, a new concept but one which Campaign for Better Transport has in mind to make an annual event in the calendar. The idea has been widely welcomed by government, with participation from ministers at key points, by industry, by other campaign groups, and by the public at large
And so to Better Transport Week, a new concept but one which Campaign for Better Transport has in mind to make an annual event in the calendar. The idea has been widely welcomed by government, with participation from ministers at key points, by industry, by other campaign groups, and by the public at large.
Each day will have a theme: Monday for rail, Tuesday for bus and coach, Wednesday for light rail and local transport, Thursday for health, Friday for engagement with business.
The week kicks off on Monday 12 June with a gathering in the well of King’s Cross station, featuring the rail minister Huw Merriman and the great and the good of the rail industry. In the afternoon, there is a roundtable discussion on the future of rail, held at the RIA offices in London. GBR-TT, Eurostar and Trainline amongst others will contribute.
More widely, “love your station” events will be taking place at various locations.
On Tuesday, the main action switches to Nottingham where the buses minister Richard Holden will be meeting the bus driver of the year, and there will be an event involving Nottingham City Transport, the well respected independent Trentbarton, and National Express, who have recently launched new coach routes, including one linking Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.
Across the country, people are being encouraged through social media to get involved and to “thank your driver”, and to tell the charity why the bus is important to them.
Meanwhile Campaign for Better Transport’s chief executive Paul Tuohy will be in Brighton, a success story for the bus industry where passenger numbers are growing. He will meet both Brighton and Hove Buses, and the sparky independent Big Lemon.
On Wednesday there is a roundtable in Manchester, which has a big appetite for transport innovation, and an event to celebrate light rail, Light Years Ahead, with a visit to the test track at Dudley. There are also events in Birmingham and London.
There is in addition an opportunity to win a prize through a “ride to rail” challenge, linking two forms of sustainable transport.
On Thursday, which is Clean Air Day, the charity will be in Aldwych in London to launch a paper which highlights the role public transport, through modal shift away from cars, vans and lorries, can play in improving air quality and so lessening the impact on the NHS.
On Friday, there is the launch of a business toolkit to encourage good practice within businesses in the transport choices they make.
There is more! But space constraints mean I can only give you the highlights.
There is a great deal of good work and enthusiasm from those involved in delivering our public transport services, and that should be celebrated
The overall message is clear, however. There is a great deal of good work and enthusiasm from those involved in delivering our public transport services, and that should be celebrated.
Of course there are challenges: the changes to working and shopping practices that Covid has generated, or at least accelerated; the ongoing industrial disputes on the railway; the acute shortage of cash at local authority level; and the general backdrop of a squeeze on household budgets with inflation roaring away and wages lagging behind. And a few more besides.
But for a week at least let’s put these behind us and be positive about all the good aspects of our great public transport industry.
Let us learn the lessons from Carlisle-Settle, and from St Pancras and King’s Cross.
Let us shout about what is good about public transport and show we believe in it. That can become infectious.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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