Public transport in the UK

With the UK only covering 243,000 square kilometres – making it the 80th largest country in the world – visitors might anticipate that public transport would readily connect every region seamlessly. However, while travelling between major towns and cities by bus and train is generally straightforward, accessing the UK’s many rural locations can prove to be more challenging, or be subject to extreme limitations such as infrequent services.

The reputation of public transport in the UK has improved considerably in recent years with major investment following privatisation, but pressures on some parts of the network – particularly London – continue to cause headaches for commuters and residents alike, meaning that the issue of public transport is never off the political agenda for long.

Train travel

The train network in the UK is not as extensive as it once was, due to major reductions instigated as part of the so-called ‘Beeching Cuts’ in the 1960s; nevertheless most cities and towns, and some rural villages, are well-served by trains. The national train network is operated by different companies under franchise, with each provider assuming responsibility for a region or series of lines. Services between cities allow for rapid journey times (though slow compared to trains on the continent) and most airports are also accessible by train.

The HS2 project, planned to connect London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds from 2025, will offer improved journey times with trains travelling at speeds of up to 250mph. With the budget for the development set at approximately £50 billion, HS2 has already proven to be a political hot potato.

Since the privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s, the cost of running the network spiralled, reaching £5.4 billion by 2010. Consequently, annual price rises in fares, often in excess of inflation, are commonplace.

Urban rail

In some cities, urban rail networks provide the travelling public with fast and regular services, both above and below ground. The London Underground serves 274 stations and accommodates 1.2 billion passengers each year, while smaller subterranean and tram networks operate in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.

Like the rail network, prices depend on the distance travelled but tend to be set at fixed prices, whereas travelling by train can be more economical if tickets are purchased in advance or journeys are at unpopular times of the day.

Bus and coach travel

Buses and coaches offer travellers convenient options when journeying between local, region or national destinations, and also serve many suburbs of towns and cities. Bus services to remote villages tend to be infrequent or even non-existent.

Services between major cities and towns are predominantly operated by National Express, Megabus and Scottish Citylink, although other companies run routes regionally or to and from airports. Coach prices for long distance journeys tend to be considerably cheaper than trains, although travelling times are much longer.

For travel within a town or locally between destinations, the UK’s extensive bus network offers convenience and reliability at low prices. Approximately 80% of routes are operated by one of several major bus companies; services often run from early morning to late at night, with some restrictions not uncommon on Sundays and public holidays.

Four-fifths of bus and coach services function without taxpayers’ money but this does mean that providers tend to operate routes which are popular and therefore profitable. Consequently, rural areas are not universally well-served by the bus network, with reduced or limited services. Clearly for some residents this may be problematic, so local authorities are able to partially fund services if it is deemed that a social need exists. Over one half of taxpayers’ subsidies currently support bus services in London.

Taxi travel

In most cities and towns, particularly near airports and bus and train stations, taxis are readily available, offering convenience for travellers who need to reach a destination quickly, have copious luggage or are unable to walk far due to disability. Taxi companies must be licensed by the local authority, so travellers are always advised to check that the vehicle displays the relevant credentials before embarking on a journey.

Fares are usually calculated either as a fixed price (if travelling to an airport, for example) or through a combination of time, mileage and fuel usage. In the UK, offering a tip equivalent to 10% of the fare is not compulsory, but widely observed.

Taxis are rarely found in rural areas. Arranging a taxi in advance is a possibility, but it is feasible that a taxi company would be unwilling to travel a long distance to a remote area, at least not without charging an additional fare.

The contrasting picture in urban and rural areas

The underlying picture of public transport provision in the UK is one of availability, convenience and reliability in towns and cities. In rural areas, however, services are, by comparison, limited; unsurprisingly private car usage in these locations is considerably higher as residents are unable to access public transport services as readily as in urban districts.