Train or Bus? Travellers’ Perceptions of Public Transport Modes: a Qualitative Analysis from a Regional Line

Train or Bus? Travellers’ Perceptions of Public Transport Modes: a Qualitative Analysis from a Regional Line


David DUBOIS, Cerema Centre-Est, Emmanuel PERRIN, Cerema Centre-Est, Christophe HUREZ, Cerema Centre-Est


The aim of this paper is to bring elements of knowledge about passengers' perception of regional train and bus. It is based on a qualitative survey among 1,200 passengers of a regional route served by both train and bus.


When they set up public transport services on a given route, transport authorities usually choose the mode of transport according to technical and financial criteria, such as capacity, transport time, investment and operation costs.

However, the "image" of the different modes of transports by policy-makers can also influence this choice. The train is generally considered as safer, more reliable and more comfortable than the bus, and would benefit the preference of travellers. Thus, replacing a train service by a bus service, without any change in the level of service, would automatically lead to a drop in attendance, considering the image of quality and status typically associated with rail-based modes of transport.

But what do passengers really think? Images and perceptions, whether or not based on objective factors, certainly play on their choice of the mode of transport, but are these representations convergent with those of decision makers? There is a certain lack of knowledge of the criteria used by travellers to choose their mode of public transport, especially for regional travel. It appears that passengers seldom really have the choice of their mode of public transport for regional travel – Or when they have that choice, transport provision is often very different from one mode to another, making difficult any comparison.

With regard to these aspects, the route between Voiron and Grenoble, in central-eastern France, is an interesting study case. Along this 25-km long route between these cities, the high and increasing number of commuters lead transport authorities to set up two public transport services: a regional train line, and an express bus line that can be considered as a "high level of service" line. During weekdays, the service provision is very close from one line to another: the bus line serves the train stations and benefits a dedicated right-of-way on part of its route, and the train lower frequency is balanced by better travel times. An interesting point is that many passengers have already experienced both regional bus and train on this route – and most of them also use their cars on an occasional basis. As a consequence, their perception and representation of the different modes of transport is based on a practical, facts, and not only on a priori. This allows to objectify the analysis, as several studies have shown that people who do not use a mode of transport tend to "downgrade" it to justify their choice.

The objective of this paper is twofold. First, it aims to bring elements of knowledge about passengers' perception of different modes of transport, and to examine the potential influence of this perception on the decision-making of the modal choice. Then, it intend to determine the criteria considered by passengers to choose their mode of transport, when they can effectively choose between several modes of public transport, in this case regional bus or train. Toward achieving these aims, a survey was conducted among about 1,200 bus or train passengers between Voiron and Grenoble.

The key findings indicate that passengers, mostly commuters in our case, base their choice on technical criteria, such as frequency, travel time or fares, whose general assessment seems to fit with the facts. They do not really pay attention to the mode of transport in itself, but more to the quality of service provided (and particularly to reliability). Finally, this survey shows that the image of regional bus is not less attractive than the image of train – In other words, there is no significant "train bonus" in terms of modal perception among public transport users on this route between Voiron and Grenoble.


Association for European Transport