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Public transport fit for the climate emergency

More services, more jobs, less emissions
Kam Gill
Former policy officer - (left post in March 2024)
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

Public transport has a vital role to play in decarbonising our economy and safeguarding a planet fit for our children and grandchildren to live in. Improving our public transport is not only about protecting our environment, it’s also about the quality of life in communities all over England and Wales.

Decent public transport is essential for access to work across the economy, it also means that grandparents get to see their grandkids, and working parents get home earlier to spend time with their children, we call get to share in culture and entertainment. It means that teenagers can get to school and adult learners can access training that can transform lives. It means people on low incomes can visit town centre shops, and businesses can get the customers they need to reinvigorate local economies.

For too long, people have had to put up with inadequate services. All too often, buses are expensive and infrequent, with routes that get cut because the private providers are driven more by private profit than by a public service ethos. Train services are expensive and chaotic, with services frequently delayed – when they’re not cancelled at short notice due to staffing levels cut to the bone and maintenance services outsourced and short-staffed. The transport workforce has suffered alongside passengers. Years of frozen pay and attacks on terms and conditions are a poor reward for those on the frontline during the pandemic.

Public transport fit for the climate emergency sets out a plan for the investment in public transport throughout England and Wales that has long been needed. From town and cities, to villages and rural communities, this plan would mean more services, new routes, cheaper fares and modern fleets of low emission vehicles. This radical transformation must be funded by central government and delivered by local and regional transport authorities.  And we should all get a say on the transport needs where we live and how this investment is allocated. Passengers, local communities, and transport workers should all be consulted on public transport improvement plans where they live and work.

The investment proposed by this report would achieve the transition to low-carbon transport needed to honour our climate action agreements with the rest of the world. It would generate green and sustainable economic growth in regions across England and Wales. And it would directly create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the transport sector, plus many more in construction and manufacturing supply chains.

As well as cheaper, more extensive and reliable buses, trams and trains, we would have cleaner air to breath. And the roads would be less congested for all road users.

To make sure that every community benefits as fully as possible, with ongoing investment and the best value fares, our public transport should be publicly owned.

The climate emergency means we must act. But the benefits of affordable, reliable and extensive public transport are so great that we should want to anyway – for the lower cost of living and higher quality of life it will bring. This report lays out the blueprint for 21st century public transport, all that’s left is to build it.

Paul Nowak, TUC general secretary

Download full report (PDF)

Executive Summary

1. Transport is the ‘problem sector’ that has failed to reduce climate damaging emissions, due to our structural dependence on private vehicles, yet we have so far lacked an analysis and vision of what it will take to provide and fund public transport of a quality sufficient to break that dependence.

2. This report seeks to fill that gap for Wales and England not including London (London is excluded due to its unique features that require different consideration to other parts of England, whilst recognising that London's transport also needs improvement to meet the climate emergency). It provides an indicative assessment of the step-change in funding needed to provide sufficiently good public transport services that car users will shift to public transport on the scale scientists indicate is necessary to stabilise our climate at 1.5˚C.

3. The results show that Britain needs to place a value on public transport services similar to parts of Europe that achieve much higher levels of public transport use per capita.

4. To address the climate emergency, we need significant modal shift as well as a zero emission fleet. This report estimates that, across Wales and England (not including London) we need:

    a. Over 47 billion car driver and car passenger kilometres per year to shift to public transport by 2030.

    b. Around 120% more bus/tram passenger kilometres and 80% more rail passenger kilometres than pre-Covid levels by 2030.

    c. Additional operating expenditure by 2030 of around £7.5bn per year for buses, £0.5bn per year for trams and £10.9bn per year for trains, to provide public transport services good enough to attract the necessary          extra passengers.

    d. Additional capital expenditure of around £24bn by 2035 for schemes to speed buses past traffic jams and to make buses zero emission.

    e. Additional capital expenditure of around £5bn by 2035 to expand the light rail/tram network and around £89bn by 2035 to expand and electrify the rail network.

    f. An annualised total additional capital expenditure on buses, trams and rail of around £10bn a year up to 2035.

5. In addition to giving us public transport fit to tackle the climate emergency these investments would bring major economic and social benefits:

    a. Around 140,000 direct jobs in bus, tram and rail operation created by the uplift in public transport services (a new job for every two existing jobs).

    b. Around 620,000 jobs created through the proposed bus manufacture and construction of bus priority infrastructure up to 2035.

    c. Around 110,000 jobs associated with tram construction up to 2035.

    d. Up to 1.8 million jobs supported indirectly in association with the additional rail investment up to 2035, although not all of these would be ‘new’ jobs.

    e. This investment is estimated to be sufficient to deliver an increase in GDP in England (not including London) and in Wales of over £50bn a year through the agglomeration effects of the much improved and more rapid public transport connections. This is based on research that suggests if agglomeration benefits in the UK are as significant as in France, this would lead to an increase in GDP/capita of 7% 1

6. The split of these benefits and expenditure requirements has been calculated by nation and by region outside London as shown in the summary table below. Note that the allocation of rail capital costs by region/nation is indicative only due to a lack of a fully costed pipeline of rail schemes in the UK. The table shows that the increase of GDP generated across England and Wales far outstrips the increased transport expenditure.

    a) All revenue costs draw on sources that pre-date Covid and do not take account of the escalating supply chain and operating costs and inflation.

    b) Monetised agglomeration benefits minus costs. Note this net figure does not include all types of other monetised benefits associated with investment in public transport such as economic benefits to non-urban areas, direct and indirect jobs from public transport investment, the value of carbon savings, the value of other environmental benefits, social benefits from better connectivity (linking friends and families, access to shops, facilities, leisure, green spaces), health system savings from more public transport and more active travel trip stages and increased tax revenue.

    c) Rural regions will have lower agglomeration benefits but there will be wider economic and social benefits not shown in this table that will mean that the benefits of investment for all areas, including the South West, will be very significant. For example, the GVA associated with rail investment in the SW is £25bn alone.

7. In the absence of a national light rail/tram investment plan or published pipeline of schemes, the figures above are calculated on the basis that only existing tram/light rail networks are expanded. However, new tram systems can be transformative for urban areas and should be seen as urban regeneration schemes as much as an essential part of an integrated transport system, because they enable major public realm improvements through reconfiguring streets and simultaneously replacing road space in favour of pedestrians and cyclists. As provision for a number of cities and large towns, particularly those in regions without existing networks, to develop tram systems we have estimated an indicative additional capital cost of £14.3bn. To meet both transport and climate goals, trams can enable high passenger flows along major road routes into cities, using space reallocated from cars rather than heavy rail capacity, which is crucial for accommodating additional rail passengers and freight.

8. The analysis in this report shows that a very significant increase in public transport investment is required to address the climate emergency. This investment will not only protect the climate, but also offers major economic and social benefits just as England and Wales try to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Investment on the scale proposed would yield a very large benefit in the form of jobs and increased economic activity, much of it in areas in the most urgent need of economic recovery and ‘levelling up’.

9. The investment needed would more than pay for itself in benefits. Reallocating funding from high-carbon projects (eg the £60bn roads programme), bringing rail and buses back into public ownership to avoid leakage of profits, and introduction of an Eco-Levy as a fair replacement for fuel duty can all help to fund these additional costs.

10. Public transport improvements on this scale would greatly expand travel horizons for millions of people, enabling greater access to work, education, training, services, shops and amenities, and to friends, family and leisure. Better public transport does not just mean more trains and buses, it means better lives.

At this moment when families are suffering severely from a cost-of-living crisis, investment in public transport would help cut households' costs and provide valuable new income opportunities from high quality job opportunities in an expanded green economy. In the wider context of a climate emergency the case for rapid expansion of transport investment is overwhelming.

Download full report (PDF)

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