The Londoners among us may feel like we’ve had enough of thinking about transport this week, with tube strikes ravaging the Capital, and persistent rain making the need to walk for hours all the more unpleasant. But putting aside our shared British rage at strikes, transport remains a crucial sector for the UK economy, for levelling up, for connectivity, for tourism, and for decarbonisation.
This week, we launched the inaugural edition of our new essay series, The Field of Transport, with the theme of this edition centring on all things net zero. Publication of the essay series was accompanied by a breakfast panel, where four of our authors from a range of transport backgrounds shared their insights. We were joined by Lord Patrick McLoughlin, Chair of Transport for the North; Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group; Tim Morris, CEO of the UK Major Ports Group, and Jim Steer, Director of High Speed Rail Group and Founder of Greengauge 21. Our huge thanks go out to them.
Transport is too often understood as a series of discrete options rather than one integrated system. To decarbonise the sector, the panel were in agreement that we must work together. Modal shift – or changing the ways we travel, to use the plain English term for it – is clearly key. Jim Steer explained that while 98% of our journeys are short, and many of these can be replaced with walking, cycling or e-scooting, the 2% of journeys that are long distance account for a third of all passenger miles travelled. This is where rail must play a bigger part.
But passengers won’t just change their behaviour at will. Of course there are altruists among us who genuinely want to take the lowest carbon route, but there are also pragmatists who are focused on things like cost, time, and convenience, and why shouldn’t they be? We need policy to create incentives. Ever increasing rail fares accompanied by freezing fuel duty creates incentives, but perverse ones.
Government policy on decarbonisation is a complex beast; even Patrick, a recent member of this Government, agreed that much. Tim Morris asked the simple but very important question of who is in charge? Transport – well that’s DFT. Energy – no that’s BEIS! Infrastructure – take it up with DLUHC, or whatever they’re called these days. There are a lot of cooks in the climate kitchen. At least we have a strong Prime Minister who can bring together the competing interests of his various Departments…. right?
To add to the above challenges, we are going through a worsening cost of living crisis. As Maggie Simpson pointed out, the Government are in a tough bind. They need to do more to incentivise behaviour change, but if they start adding massive expense to people’s lives, wave bye bye to re-election.
It is not all doom and gloom though. No really, it isn’t. Lord McLoughlin reflected on the ten years since he became Secretary of State for Transport and painted a picture of how different things were even then. Electric cars were seen as fringe and unappealing for instance. Climate change was on the agenda but was far more peripheral than it is now. In order to decarbonise the sector, we must accelerate our efforts. But the historical precedent suggests that we will.
To download a copy of The Field of Transport, please click here .