Sunday, 10 May 2009

Integrated transport in Birmingham

I'm a real believer in fully-integrated public transport systems, like that found in Zurich or even London. In Zurich, trams and trains make up the bulk of people-carrying capacity on a number of main lines, and strategic bus routes link the ends and mid-points of these lines together. All fares are based on paying for the zone in which you're travelling, regardless of the mode of transport used. It's a fantastic system, and it really works, as evidenced by the incredibly low numbers of cars on the roads of the Swiss financial capital. London's system adds the highly-successful Oyster smart-card ticketing solution, meaning you can hop from one mode of transport to another at will and know that you will always pay the lowest possible fare for your journey or journeys.

Move up the road a bit to Birmingham, however, and unfortunately the picture is very different. Although the system of main train lines exists and is reasonably well-used, and bus coverage of the city is practically complete, the two modes of transport are completely separate, even in competition with each other in places.

A student living in Selly Oak has the choice of three bus routes or the train to get into the City Centre and back; at £3.30 return on the bus (with a TWM daysaver) or a faster journey for £1.10 on the train (with a 16-25 railcard; £1.70 without) the choice is obvious; so why is so much resource on the buses being diverted to duplicate the train route on the road? As another example, travelling from point to point in the city will cost more and require different tickets if you have to go by both train and bus for some of the route, if you have to change to a second bus, and if your bus journey is two fare stages or less in length.

In short, the system is totally fragmented and running in competition with itself, to the ultimate detriment of the passengers of Birmingham. This isn't even taking into account the 50-odd different bus operators in the region, none of whom accept each others' tickets. It's a bit of a mess, and the transport authorities realise this (see my next post for an email on the subject from Centro's customer relations executive). Centro are doing their bit for the moment to bring in an 'integrated' ticket which they're calling the nnetwork, valid on buses, trains, and trams in the West Midlands. But even this has its issues -- the one-day nbus card costs more, at £3.60, than the biggest bus operator's daysaver (£3.30), so unless your journey absolutely requires the use of two or more operators' services, there is no incentive whatsoever to purchase it. The ticket for all three modes of transport costs a whopping £6.50 a day. And again, the very fact that the transport system is so segregated into "bus, train and tram" goes against the whole principle of an integrated, well-thought-out transport system as we've seen in Zurich and many other European cities.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in Birmingham to achieve a truly integrated public transport system which will actually tempt people out of their cars.

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