The Conservatives have promised £4.2bn of new spending on local train, bus and tram services if they win the 12 December general election.
The party said the cash, which would become available from 2022, would help fund transport projects outside London.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it would transform services “in towns and cities across the country”.
But Labour called it “pathetic” and the Liberal Democrats said the Tories “simply don’t get public transport”.
There has been much criticism of transport services outside London and particularly in the North, where fares are often higher and investment lower than in the capital.
Figures from centre-left think tank the IPPR published on Wednesday suggest transport spending in London is almost two-and-a-half times more per person than across the North of England.
But Mr Shapps said the Conservatives’ Local Public Transport Fund would “kickstart the transformation of services so they match those in London”.
This would ensure “more frequent and better services, more electrification, modern buses and trains and contactless smart ticketing”.
The investment, which would be funded through the party’s decision not to cut corporation tax, would go to eight mayoral or combined authority areas in England.
They include the North East, Tees Valley, West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands and West of England.
Local authorities would have to bid for the cash. They would also be given more control over things like setting fares, station upgrades and service patterns.
But they would also be expected to put money towards the schemes themselves. Examples of the sorts of projects that might get money include:
- A new metro or light rail in West Yorkshire, including to Dewsbury, Pudsey and the Spen Valley
- extensions to the Metrolink tram system in Greater Manchester, including to Stockport and Bolton
- upgrades to the Tyne & Wear Metro and new heavy rail lines in the North East
- extensions to the West Midlands Metro tram, including to Solihull and Birmingham Airport
The Conservatives also promised a “national bus strategy” and a long-term funding settlement for buses in the 2020 Spending Review.
They said the new fund would not cover pan-regional transport projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will be paid for from different budgets.
There are a couple of important caveats to this announcement. The first is that the funding will become available from 2022.
So although it would amount to a £4.2bn fund over five years, just £1.68bn of it would be made available for English city regions by the end of the next parliament.
The second is that £840m a year, shared among several city regions, won’t go a very long way on transport infrastructure. However, the Conservatives are clear that the fund wouldn’t cover all of the projects on their wish list.
And they expect local authorities to generate extra capital through initiatives such as commercial developments in or around train stations.
What’s clear is that all of the parties want to be seen as champions of transport infrastructure outside of London.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “This announcement is a pathetic attempt to cover up the government’s disastrous and incompetent failure to invest in public transport.
“Tory cuts have caused public transport fares to rise at twice the rate of wages and thousands of bus routes to be cut, worsening congestion on our roads as a result.
“It’s time for real change. Labour will invest in transport across the country delivering the major and local infrastructure projects every region of our country deserves.”
Labour’s plans for local transport include slashing rail fares by a third across the country and making train travel free for under-16s.
The party also promises to reinstate 3,000 bus routes that have been cut and says it would deliver rail electrification and expansion across the country, including in Wales.
The Liberal Democrats have promised to invest more in buses, trams and railways, while encouraging walking and cycling to protect the environment.
They would also freeze peak-time and season ticket fares for five years.
Liberal Democrat shadow transport secretary Wera Hobhouse said: “The Conservatives have overseen a decline of more than 200 million bus journeys since 2015 and failed to invest in our railways across the UK, all while Johnson dreams up vanity projects like his island airport, a dud garden bridge and London buses that simply don’t work.
“The Tories simply don’t get the need for excellent public transport which gives people a real alternative to individual car use.
“At the same time, Boris Johnson’s reckless Brexit plans would be disastrous for the economy, meaning less money to fund vital transport and infrastructure projects.”