Glasgow Is Integrating its Public Transport System – for the Elite Only

There is no fully integrated public transport system in any British city outside of London – but Glasgow has created one for a fortnight, for diplomats only, during COP26.

Delegates visiting Glasgow for COP26 will get free transport smart cards. Credit: SWNS / Getty Images

In simple terms of what it has—the extent of its stations, lines, and routes—Greater Glasgow has roughly the sort of public transport that an urban area of a million people ought to have, especially compared to, say, Birmingham, which has the same population. Two underground lines, one of them, the Subway, a pioneering if never-extended tube of the 1890s, the other the partly underground heavy-rail Argyle Line of the 1970s; an extensive suburban railway system that reaches into most corners of the city, its suburbs and its satellite towns; and a bus network that fills in the gaps.

But, like most cities on this island, unless you know it’s all already there, the city’s transport companies make no effort to tell you any of this. There is no co-ordination, no integration, no neat Harry Beck-style map. Despite the public ownership of the Subway and imminent renationalisation of ScotRail, each part is run as if entirely separate from the other.

As there’s no unified regulation or integration, there’s no system of integrated ticketing, because of course each part is a totally separate business that couldn’t by any means collaborate with another on getting people around the city. There are two smartcards available here, one of which is Subway-only, one of which is for season tickets on heavy rail. That is how things stand, until a load of diplomats turn up in Glasgow, at which point they get their own, free smartcard for an integrated system that exists only for as long as they’re there.

It’s unsurprising that our privatised transport companies—many of them, notoriously, branches of the nationalised transport providers of Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, occasionally in partnership with Scottish mogul and bigot Brian Souter—lobby against nationalisation, as it would dispossess them of their cheaply-gotten gains. What is especially galling is that they also often complain about regulation, too. Numerous British cities have attempted to regulate and integrate their transport systems, for the simple reason that this is the secret of the success of Transport for London.

Though it is not a fully nationalised system, combining the nationalised tube, public-private partnerships like the London Overground and the DLR, and privately operated buses (where working conditions are far worse than on the rest of the system), they are all regulated and integrated by the publicly owned TfL, to which they are ultimately responsible; there was a clause in the 1985 act that de-regulated buses across the UK which exempted London. In recent years, the disparity has become incredibly obvious, with London’s transport, though imperfect and more expensive than it ought to be, vastly easier and cheaper than anything else in this country. This, not any metropolitan elite propensity to avoid cars, is why far more Londoners take public transport than anyone else.

So there have been calls in Glasgow to regulate the bus network, which have so far been dismissed by the city council (until very recently, Glasgow’s buses would only accept fares paid with exact change); Tyne and Wear’s transport authority tried to bring in a London-style system in 2015 and was defeated in the courts by the bus companies; Greater Manchester is in the process of trying to do the same, and aims—as it has every right to—to make taking a bus and then a tram and then a train as easy and cheap there as it is in Greater London. While it is true that transport does not eliminate poverty, and that life expectancy goes down sharply with each eastwards stop on the Central Line, these are the facts, and irrespective of the illiterate claims of one of the more toad-like London Labour MPs, the capital’s public transport is so vastly superior than anywhere else that it is insulting to compare.

The idiocy of privatisation is seen at its most spectacular in the ludicrous fiction that an urban area’s buses, trains, trams, or tubes are completely separate means of transport that should compete with each other, rather than part of a comprehensive system; that idiocy is compounded by the climate crisis. Any efforts to get people out of their polluting, congesting cars, which clog up nineteenth-century cities that were not built for them, and into public transport relies on that public transport being intuitive, attractive and cheap. Yet successive governments—including Labour ones—have made a conscious decision to allow only one place in the country to have the kind of provision that would be considered normal in any other western European country.

That’s what makes the temporary, diplomats-only Glasgow Oyster card at Cop26 so outrageous. The delegates coming to Glasgow will be coming from countries and cities where it is completely expected that a city of this size will have a legible, integrated, planned system of public transport where you can, without knowing the city already, get on a bus, a Subway tube, or a commuter train and quickly work out where you are, where you need to go, and how to do it cheaply and easily. Because of that, the organisers of the event will have been able to lean on the transport companies to make them provide that service just for them, just for a fortnight. It’s entirely possible to do—easy, in fact—it’s just that there has otherwise been no political will to do it.

What is so ironic here is that Greater Glasgow did once have a decent, integrated, well designed transport system, just before it was wilfully smashed to pieces. In the 1970s, a few UK cities made efforts to reverse some of the notorious Beeching cuts—which hit suburban rail outside of London very hard—and create new, London-style systems. Merseyrail in and around Liverpool, the Tyne and Wear Metro in Newcastle, Gateshead, and Sunderland, and the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive in and around Glasgow, all were managed by elected metropolitan authorities, bringing together buses, trains, and tubes.

Watch the delightful 1980 documentary on the Trans-Clyde network, and you’ll see chic signage and good design rolled out across the network whether to bus or tube station—and the documentary’s voiceover constantly stresses how integrated the system is, and how easy it is to go from one part of the system to another; in a subsequent advert, they even managed to sum up the idea in 30 seconds, in rhyming couplets. It’s astonishing to think that over 40 years later, something so basic has become a luxury, a temporary gift for wealthy guests.