Those who argue that it is more effective to divert public investment into improving bus services than spending vast sums of money on rail and tram services can at last sense a glimmer of good news.
Years of decline in Birmingham and the West Midlands have been halted, with the latest figures showing a relatively modest 5.1 million increase in passenger numbers to the year ending September 2008.
This is, according to passenger transport authority Centro, evidence that the tens of millions of pounds spent over the years on installing bus lanes, priority measures and better vehicles is beginning to pay off. Travelling by bus, it is claimed, increasingly is no longer a frustrating, dirty experience The unexpected increase in bus usage could just be a blip driven by rising petrol prices.Far from embracing public transport, motorists may be driven unwillingly by market forces into leaving their cars at home and will happily take to the roads as the cost of fuel continues to come down.
Only time will tell whether the latest statistics are a rogue sample but the figures do at least offer an opportunity to revitalise the debate about how best to improve public transport in the West Midlands. It seems unlikely, following Government approval for the £600 million New Street Gateway scheme, and Chancellor Alistair Darling’s failure to throw any more transportation money this region’s way in his pre-budget report, that the planned £180 million Midland Metro tram extension through Birmingham city centre is going to get off the ground any time soon.
But, as the chairman of Birmingham’s transportation scrutiny sub-committee reminds us today, it would be possible to buy an awful lot in the way of bus service improvements for £180 million.