Public Transport

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Why can public transport reduce our emissions?

Public transport is an easy way to reduce emissions. As a report by the Institute for Welsh Affairs put it, “having many people transported by one engine ought to be more efficient than having one person transported by one engine”.

However, at the moment, the UK’s public transport system is not an attractive alternative to private vehicles. The bus network has the lowest coverage since the 1980s, while rail travel is often prohibitively expensive, with the UK having some of the highest train fares in Europe. Therefore, central and local government need to invest in public transport to make it a better substitute for private car use.

Though, while encouraging people to shift towards public transport will reduce emissions, it won’t cut them out altogether. Indeed, most of our trains and buses are still powered by fossil fuels, such as diesel. Therefore, the UK also needs to shift towards low carbon trains and buses.

Overall, public policy needs to increase the number of people using public transport, while also making our bus and train stocks more environmentally sustainable.

What is being done to support environmentally sustainable public transport?


The UK’s bus fleet is steadily shifting towards low carbon sources, such as electric and hydrogen power. London has introduced 3000 low emission double decker buses and is aiming to make all its buses zero emissions by 2037. Similarly, in Manchester, the bus operator, Stagecoach, has announced £56 million of investment in electric buses. Meanwhile, in Leeds £71 million has been invested in 284 new low emission buses.

The work of local authorities is being supported by central Government investment. In 2018 the Government committed £48 million towards low emission buses. However, funding for bus services has been cut for eight years in a row. As a result, the bus network has the lowest coverage since the 1980s and bus services are increasingly unreliable.

Therefore, while our buses are becoming greener, the quality of service is poor. That means it is often too difficult for people to substitute private car use for bus travel.

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The Government has set the rail industry a target of phasing out all diesel-powered trains by 2040. There are two main ways in which this can be done.

Firstly, train lines can be electrified. At the moment, 42% of the UK’s train lines are electrified but this needs to increase if we are to phase out diesel powered trains. However, electrifying lines is very expensive. Indeed, in July 2017, the Government scrapped its existing plans to invest £38 billion in electrification because of the high costs.

Due to the high costs involved, it isn’t cost effective to electrify all lines. As a result, in some cases hydrogen powered trains will be a more appropriate replacement for diesel trains. Hydrogen trains are a relatively new technology but the first of these should be on the UK’s train lines by 2022.

However, as with buses, train services need to be improved to ensure more people are willing to substitute their car journeys for rail journeys. In 2018, only 63% of trains arrived at their stops on time, prices were among the highest in Europe, and complaint rates remain high.

What can I ask my MP to do?


There are a number of things you could ask your MP to do in order to improve train services and make them more environmentally sustainable:

  • In 2017, the Government cancelled the planned electrification of a number of routes, including Swansea to Cardiff, Kettering to Sheffield and Windermere to Oxenholme. You could talk to your MP about the need to electrify these routes and ask them to ask the Transport Secretary a question about his department’s plans on this.

  • It is important that the UK decarbonises its rail industry as soon as possible. You could talk to your MP about moving the diesel phase out target forward from 2040. In particular, you could ask them to write to the Department for Transport on this issue.

  • If trains are to be a viable replacement to car journeys, then the services need to be improved and prices need to come down. This will have to require government investment in rail infrastructure, and, potentially, subsidized rail travel. You could talk to your MP about your own experiences of rail travel and what improvements you think need to be made.

  • Furthermore, re-opening rail lines and ensuring more comprehensive rail coverage would also help to make rail more attractive. The Campaign for Better Transport has a list of stations and lines that across the UK that need to be protected from closure or that could be reopened. You could ask your MP to support local campaigns on rail lines.


The Campaign for Better Transport have said that the Government should develop a National Investment Strategy for buses and coaches:

  • One aspect of this would be to set a national target for achieving zero emission buses. The Government has already set targets for the phase out of petrol and diesel cars, as well as diesel trains. Therefore, an obvious and important next step is to look at buses.

  • In order to achieve any such target, funding is needed to support bus operators in shifting their fleet towards electric or hydrogen powered buses. At the moment, the Government’s funding has been ad hoc and short term. As a result, a more long-term funding solution is needed.

  • Another key aspect will be reversing the decline in bus use. The strategy could set targets on increasing bus coverage and on the number of people using buses, in a similar way to the targets set out by the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy published in 2017.

  • Increased central Government funding also needs to be made available so that these targets can be achieved. This is particularly important given funding for buses has fallen every year for the last eight years.

You could talk to your MP about the individual issues raised here or about the need for an Investment Strategy for buses and coaches more broadly.

You could also talk to your councillor about what your local authority can do:

  • You could talk to your local councillor about the need to invest in low-carbon buses. While many local authorities have taken some steps to shift to low emission buses, they need to make this transition faster.

  • In some places, OAP free bus passes are being scrapped. You could talk to your councillor about the importance of these passes, both to encourage people to use buses instead of cars, but also to avoid elderly people becoming isolated.


Date published: 17/01/2019

Last updated: 17/01/2019