How do we revitalise public transport in Britain’s rural communities?

21 / 02 / 2024

In the green expanses of rural Britain, where pastoral landscapes stretch far beyond the bustling cityscapes of London, it’s easy to forget how public transport serves not just as a convenience but as a crucial lifeline to keep local communities connected.

6 min.

public transport

And yet, all it takes is a quick look at the current state of public transport across the peripheries of the UK to see it’s far from a rosy picture.

Since 2008, bus services have been cut by more than 80% in parts of England and Wales. Furthermore, a long list of cancelled tramway and light rail systems includes the Tees Valley Metro (2010), Merseytram (2013), and Cambridge Autonomous Metro (2021). The scrapping of the northern legs of HS2 beyond Birmingham further underscore the perception that parts of the country are being cut off from a transport network increasingly skewed towards the nation’s capital.

The huge gulf between London’s comprehensive and integrated transport network and the patchwork of services elsewhere in rural Britain, along with the continual budget cuts and service cancellations bode ill for the future of connectivity in countryside communities. It is time for government to stop regarding public transport as a cost to be managed and squeezed, and to return to the view that it is the lifeblood that binds the communities and struggling economies of rural Britain.

Defining ‘Rural Britain’

First and foremost, it is important not to paint rural Britain with the same brush. Some families and individuals often opt for a pastoral lifestyle driven by personal means and economic stability, and not necessarily because they live in a state of poverty. Despite this, certain farming communities England’s bucolic settings may find themselves in a nuanced juxtaposition, whereby they’re not experiencing the perceived affluence associated with rural living.

The socio-economic landscape in rural areas presents a unique challenge, marked by a notable lack of services. However, it is crucial to recognise that the needs of these rural communities diverge significantly from those in bustling urban centres. The complexity of rural life requires a tailored approach, acknowledging the distinct challenges and opportunities that characterise these less populous landscapes.

What reduced public transport really means for rural communities

It is easy to wax lyrical about an idealised Britain with buses, trams and trains happily chugging between contented communities across the land. Everyone recognises that these services must be viable, or at the very least be able to demonstrate the benefits coming from subsidy. Those benefits are the ones that have been increasingly overlooked in recent decades.

Public transport provides direct routes to education, healthcare, and employment. Funding cuts and service cancellations directly damage affected communities.  Research by the Social Market Foundation shows where public transport of the same standard as enjoyed by London provided in communities across the UK, up to 1.5 million people would be lifted out of poverty altogether. An improved integrated transport network would increase access to employment by reducing travel time and costs, allowing people to seek job opportunities further from where they live.

The real risk of deprivation and isolation is demonstrated for example in Wales, where usage of public transport is alarmingly low. Recent cuts to bus routes have been particularly at odds with the Welsh government's ambitious goal for 45% of journeys to be made with public transport by 2040. This goal becomes increasingly unrealistic when the number of bus routes is getting lower by the decade.

The loss of public transport links leaves local community members isolated and vulnerable, challenging the community's very way of life. Frustration is palpable and it's in the stories of individuals—a student's missed class, a worker's lost job, a senior's forfeited independence—where the true impact of these cuts and cancellations is felt most deeply.

The case for integration

The city of London has one of the most comprehensive integrated transport networks in the world, so it makes sense to replicate that model on a smaller scale for Britain’s more isolated communities.

A multi-modal system where different forms of transport are seamlessly linked with each other is the sort of initiative that would ensure small towns and villages aren’t effectively cut off from the rest of the nation. Given that we’re living in an increasingly digital world, this shouldn’t be challenging to achieve.

An underground transport system isn’t needed to mimic London’s integrated network. Stations that combine bus, tram and train services can be just as effective as a Tube stop, while Park & Ride facilities offer another viable alternative. If we think beyond the physical, digital maps and route planners that include different modes of transport can show interchanges between buses and rail services, along with a timetable feeding live updates. A ticketing platform that allows transfers between systems via a single payment completes the picture.

Of course, realising such a system requires a level of coordination of planning and infrastructure that we’re not used to seeing in rural parts of the country. It would mean that, to ensure seamless connections between buses, trams and trains, these modes would need to complement one another, rather than compete. But ultimately, it’s not a technological or logistical challenge getting in the way – it’s a question of commercial viability.

Balancing cost and accessibility

Affordability remains at the centre of the public transport debate. The dual challenge of managing operational costs while keeping travel affordable for rural dwellers is not an easy task.

Volatile fuel prices, maintenance, and labour costs put pressure on service providers, often resulting in fare increases or, in the worst-case scenario, service cuts. Conversely, high fares can deter ridership, creating a vicious cycle of decline and disinvestment over a prolonged period of time.

In a time when London's transport infrastructure is getting a £250m boost via a government-backed funding package, perhaps it’s time innovative funding models are rolled out for the benefit of other parts of the country as well, taking as  their starting point, the recognition of the role of public transport in economic growth and social well-being.

Government subsidies can be a powerful tool in maintaining and expanding rural public transport services, especially when aligned with environmental and social goals. This type of initiative may offer a solution to preserve affordability and ensure the continuation of essential services throughout the country.

By offsetting operational costs, government subsidies help keep fares low, encouraging higher ridership. This not only benefits users but also contributes to environmental sustainability by reducing the number of private vehicles on the road. Furthermore, subsidies can be structured to support the adoption of green technologies within public transport fleets, such as electric or hybrid buses, furthering the government’s environmental goals.

Bridging the gap

The lack of public transport options in parts of country is however spawning a rise in customer-centric travel solutions being introduced in some rural communities.

For example, a new on-demand bus transport service was recently launched in West Berkshire to give villagers more control over their mobility. Users can book journeys through an app, online, or by phone, meaning they do not have to rely on sporadic bus timetables that aren’t aligned with the needs of the communities they purport to service.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platforms have a crucial role to play in these on-demand public transport schemes. By allowing users to plan, book, and pay for multiple types of transport services via a single application, the travel experience is simplified significantly, encouraging increased public transport use. Integrating contactless payments, real-time data, and even AI to understand true customer demand and to predict travel patterns will bring about unprecedented responsiveness from public transport to the needs of populations in rural areas of Britain.

However, the County Councils Network, which represents rural councils in England, has already warned that on-demand bus services aimed at plugging gaps left by commercial operators are going to need more funding to keep them going in the long run. So while these transport schemes have so far been a welcome solution for some communities, they also shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for long-term investment in commercial bus services.

The road ahead

The challenges faced by rural public transport in Britain are as complex as they are critical. Yet, within these challenges lie opportunities to revitalise and reinvest in parts of the country that are already seriously isolated.

Public transport is not just a service; it is a social commitment to the vitality of our rural communities. Stakeholders, from policymakers to technology firms such as Worldline, must come together to make the case for an integrated network that not only moves people but also supports economic growth and indeed, the very fabric of rural life.

As we look ahead, the integration of innovative funding and cutting-edge technology will be pivotal in steering rural Britain toward a future where no one is left behind.

Martin Howell

Transport Markets Director, Worldline UK&I
Martin is Director of Transport Markets, UK & Ireland for Worldline. He was formerly vice president and Chief of Staff at Cubic Corporation in San Diego. He spent 12 years with Cubic Transportation Systems in business development, public affairs, marketing and operations management with a particular interest in smart cities. Previous roles have included business development at HP Enterprise and military service as an officer in the Royal Marines Commandos.