Above the noisy chatter about Brexit and the NHS, transport remains a key issue for voters and both Labour and the Conservatives have detailed what they would do to keep Britain on the move should they win a majority in the general election on 12 December.

With just over a week until we go to the polls, how do the two main parties compare when it comes to planes, trains and automobiles?

Transport is at the heart of the Labour manifesto and rightly focuses on buses, the most used form of public transport. One in six public transport trips are made by bus – 4.8bn a year. However, austerity measures have hit bus services hard: since 2010 more than 3,000 routes have been cut and local funding almost halved – £163m lower in 2018/19 versus 2009/10. Labour will reverse this.

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They also plan to give local government the powers to manage their and run their own bus networks services by rolling out the ‘London-style’ bus model nationwide: instead of private bus operators deciding where, when and how often to run services based on commercial interest, cities would be in control.

The Conservative party promises cheaper, more frequent and faster bus journeys. However, the promises might ring hollow as the Tory manifesto has no funding earmarked to deliver these pledges. Also, Conservative-led governments since 2010 have imposed local government budget cuts that led to the withdrawal of many socially necessary but unprofitable bus services.

Investment in local rail is also direly needed. Both parties trot out the popular evergreen policy of undoing the 1960s Beeching railway cuts and reopening closed railway branch lines. Yet, both fall short of actually committing to the required investment. Labour will consult further on the policy, while the Conservatives budget only £500m for the project – a drop in the ocean of railway project costs that will certainly make little to no difference.

Affordability is key to encouraging use of public transport. Labour promises cheaper and, in some cases, free public transport: free buses for under 25s (on government run bus services), free rail travel for under 16s, at least a third off regulated (your commuter and local) rail tickets and limiting the cost of a single ticket to a tenth of a weekly season ticket (in particular helping part time workers).

Significant price cuts and free travel will undoubtedly lead to more public transport usage. However, without further investment, services will suffer and that will discourage use. 

By comparison, the Conservative manifesto promises are more nebulous and vacuous: flat fares on buses in urban areas and “keeping bus fares low”.

Investing in regional connectivity between cities in England is a high priority for both parties. Labour promises a long-term investment plan to improve rail connectivity and services, including track upgrades, signalling and new trains. Both propose delivering better rail links between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool (known as the Northern Powerhouse or Crossrail for the North). The Conservatives also propose the Midlands Hub at Birmingham, creating better rail links to cities and towns surrounding Birmingham.

Crucially, Labour and the Conservatives disagree on High Speed 2 (HS2), the fast railway network from London via Birmingham to Manchester, Crewe or Leeds. Labour support completing the Y-shaped HS2 network to Scotland. The Conservatives are non-committal and cite cost overruns and delays during the ongoing construction of the London to Birmingham route for why HS2 beyond Birmingham needs to be reviewed and potentially scrapped.

New railways for faster services, such as HS2, are crucial to improving local transport links: when fast services move onto the new track, this frees up space for more frequent local services on the ‘old’ railway track. Therefore, the Conservatives not committing to HS2 North of Birmingham is seemingly at odds with their commitment to improve local rail links.

Both parties lament Britain’s complex and fragmented railways management. Labour’s proposed solution is to return the railways to public ownership. The Conservatives think rail nationalisation is not the answer but propose no alternative. 

To tackle air pollution, Labour commits to electrifying the whole rail network, promoting a switch to rail freight and phasing out combustion engine vehicle sales by 2030 (10 years ahead of the Conservative’s previous 2040 pledge). The Conservatives manifesto is vague and non-committal, promising ‘more rail electrification’ and a consultation on when to end diesel and petrol car sales. Both parties commit to investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure – crucial to encouraging a switch to electric vehicles but also an easy political sell, as it requires no real change in travel behaviour.

Importantly, neither Labour nor the Conservatives rule out London’s airport expansion, only requiring that any expansion would have to demonstrate meeting air and noise pollution limits. Both parties’ non-commitment possibly reflects the division of opinion among individual politicians from both parties on the topic.

On cycling and walking, Labour is promising a step change in investment and policy focus: £7.2 billion, the most of any of the political parties. Labour pledges to create 5,000 kilometres of cycling lanes, with safe cycling routes to 10,000 primary schools and training for pupils and their parents. In addition, grants will be available for e-bikes – which could replace the car for many short and commuting trips. By comparison, the Conservative’s commitments are ho-hum – only £350m for their Cycling Infrastructure Fund.

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Labour’s manifesto demonstrates that they understand that to compete with cars, public transport must become more integrated, reliable and frequent, and cycling safer, enjoyable and common place. Promisingly, there are no commitments to road building from Labour. However, their manifesto is missing policies that actively discourage private car use, such as congestion pricing and motorway tolling.

The Conservative manifesto is a commitment to the current status quo, not to creating a sustainable transport system. It is a jumbled mix of policy ideas with most being underfunded or entirely unfunded. One exception to this is the £28.8bn commitment to building more roads. This is completely baffling the age of the climate emergency.

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