Memorandum by Stephen Plowden (RI 25)
1. Many people, including, sadly, many environmentalists,
seem to believe that any investment in rail must be a Good Thing.
This belief has led to some very expensive and undesirable rail
projects, which I hope the Sub-committee will be able to stop.
2. The idea that rail travel, in contrast
to road, is environmentally benign is of course mistakenall
motorised travel imposes a heavy environmental cost. Even the
idea that rail is always environmentally superior to road is questionable,
and, even when there is a real environmental advantage, there
must be a limit to the amount of expenditure and resources that
can justifiably be spent on obtaining it.
3. The fact that rail construction can be
as damaging as road construction is evident from many British
cities, London especially. But where the damage has already been
done, and where the existing rail infrastructure is capable of
accommodating much more use, it may make sense to take advantage
of that fact.
4. The following figures, taken from Table
2.7 of Transport Statistics Great Britain 1998 Edition,
suggest that, given present technology and levels of occupancy,
trains have a distinct advantage over cars, and sometimes have
an advantage over local buses, with respect to carbon dioxide
emissions, which of course reflect fuel consumption. (Unfortunately
the table does not show the position for long-distance coaches.
The figures must exist and I hope that the Sub-committee will
obtain them.) The advantage over cars is likely to be whittled
away by the advances in car design that are already coming about.
It could be eliminated altogether, and a substantial advantage
in favour of cars created, if Governments had the guts to regulate
their top speed and acceleration. Such action would also bring
huge benefits in road safety, the reduction of noise and modified
travel behaviour, and I hope that the Sub-committee will turn
its attention to this subject as soon as possible. It may well
be that advances in technology could also reduce the fuel consumption
and emissions from trains, and I hope that the Sub-committee will
look into that as well, but it seems unlikely that the opportunities
for improvement are on the same scale as for cars.
TABLE: ROUGH INDICES OF CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS
PER PASSENGER KILOMETRE, EARLY 1990S, PETROL CAR = 100
Petrol car 100
Diesel car 91
Rural rail 85
London Underground 82
Local bus 74
Inter-city rail 57
Urban rail 51
5. Proposals for investment in rail should
be treated initially like any other commercial investment. If
the costs can be recovered from users, there is a prima facie
case that the investment should take place; if users are unwilling
to pay for it, there is a prima facie case that it should
not. However, some investment which is not commercially viable
may be justified on environmental or social grounds and should
therefore be subsidised (this assumes present conditions; ways
of avoiding subsidisation by reforms in transport policy are discussed
below). It is also possible that some schemes which users would
be willing to pay for would impose such heavy environmental costs
that they should not be approved.
6. These principles are not observed in
the plans for rail set out in Transport 2010 the Ten Year Plan
(the Plan), published by the DETR in July 2000. To the contrary,
the Government proposes to subsidise rail schemes that are both
commercially unviable and environmentally and/or socially damaging.
7. The first example is the Channel Tunnel
Rail Link. There is no need to rehearse once more the arguments
against this folly, but it was startling to see in paragraph 6.13
of the Plan that the Government now proposes to spend £5
billion of public money on the CTRL and the associated works at
St Pancras. It is difficult to compare this figure with the previous
estimate of just under £2 billion, since, presumably, unlike
that estimate it is not discounted and also reflects future inflation.
Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that these differences of
presentation entirely account for the increase, which cries out
for an explanation.
8. According to paragraph 6.14 of the Plan,
the Government also intends to spend something approaching £4
billion on the West Coast Main Line. It seems that maintenance
on this line has been neglected for years, so it is not surprising
that a large amount of money now needs to be spent on it. But
it is not clear why the money should not be raised on the market,
to be repaid ultimately from fares, like any other commercial
investment. Passengers on this line will be much richer than the
average taxpayer, so the subsidy represents a highly regressive
tax. Perhaps it could be arguedalthough I have not seen
either this justification or any other giventhat assistance
from the public purse is required as a once-and-for-all transitional
payment in order to give the private sector a fair start after
years of neglect by British Rail. But even if that argument were
accepted, it could only justify helping to restore the line to
carry the 100-mph trains that formerly used it, not to upgrade
it to carry 140-mph trains (these figures may not be exact). There
is nothing environmentally friendly about a high-speed train.
Fuel consumption, pollution and noise rise very sharply with speed.
High-speed trains reduce the capacity of the track to carry other,
slower trains, whether passenger or freight. They may also induce
a more dispersed pattern of activities, contrary to one of the
most basic principles of transport planning. It seems from the
Plan, although the wording in the box on page 45 is rather obscure,
that the work on this line will cost £5.8 billion initially,
with further "substantial sums" to follow, and that
about one-third of the £5.8 billion and an unspecified amount
of the subsequent expenditure is accounted for by the upgrading
rather than the restoration. The DETR should veto the upgrading,
not assist it.
9. According to paragraph 6.19 of the Plan,
the Government intends to spend money on upgrading commuter services
into London and on other lines, including London-Brighton and
Chiltern lines which, though apparently not included in that category,
also depend heavily on commuters. The amounts of money are not
stated, but presumably, to be mentioned specifically in the Plan
they must be substantial.
10. This is an extremely perverse use of
public money. The Deputy Prime Minister has rightly said that
people should live close to where they work. Long-distance commuting,
whether by road or rail, involves huge amounts of fuel, pollution,
noise and other danger and nuisance and a colossal waste of time.
In country areas rich commuters price poorer local people out
of the housing market. They feel no allegiance to the city where
they earn their living, so no wonder some of the most deprived
parts of London are to be found adjacent to the City and Docklands.
The railway lines which bring the commuters into London disfigure
the areas through which they pass while being of very little benefit
to the inhabitants of those areas in terms of transport. Policy
should be directed to phasing out long-distance commuting, not
11. Home working is an increasing trend.
Although policy should not in general be based on identifying
and following trends, an increase in home working is desirable
and should be encouraged. Fares policy is one useful instrument.
If a season ticket covering four working days cost substantially
less than one covering all five, that would be a powerful inducement
to work at home one day a week. Prices should be set in such a
way that demand was equalised over the five working days. That
would probably mean, for example, that tickets which excluded
Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday would be cheaper than those which
excluded Monday or Friday.
12. Train operators may be reluctant to
endorse this idea, since although their passengers would enjoy
more pleasant conditions, they themselves would stand to lose
some revenue. But that is only because of rail travel is now priced
in a way which allows the standard of comfort to plummet without
the operators having to make a corresponding reduction in price.
If prices had to reflect the quality of the product, as happens
in markets where there is genuine competition, train operators
would have to charge less for crowded services and would therefore
not lose money by carrying fewer people in more acceptable conditions.
The DETR, the Rail Regulator and/or the Strategic Rail Authority
should devise ways or regulating fares in such a way that they
do take due account of comfort, or alternatively they should introduce
penalties for overcrowding.
13. A transfer of some long-distance freight
from road to rail would bring significant benefits, so one aim
of public policy should be to encourage such a transfer. But subsidies
are not the best way to do so. The best way is to revise the legal
and fiscal framework within which road freight activities take
place, thus creating the famous level playing field for rail freight.
Such action would be at least as effective as subsidies in bringing
about transfers from road to rail, and also from road to coastal
and short-sea shipping, and would also save public money. Even
more important, it would bring a rationalisation of road freight
itself. The tendency for lengths of haul to increase would be
checked and reversed; vehicle utilisation would improve; operators
would take care not to use a vehicle larger and more intrusive
than the particular task requires; in town, there would be some
replacement of firm- or product-based methods of distribution
by area-based methods, which have many advantages both in efficiency
and environmentally. For a full discussion of this topic, please
see the report A New Framework for Freight Transport prepared
for the Civic Trust by Keith Buchan and myself and published by
the Trust in 1995.
14. The Plan envisages that £8 billion
of public money and £10 billion of private money will be
spent on investment in transport in London in the next ten years,
together with a further public resource expenditure of £7
billion. It seems that most of this money will be spent on the
Underground. One of the projects envisaged for private investment
is a new east-west link, the cost of which is put at £3.5
billion with an unspecified sum of revenue subsidy from public
funds to follow. In addition, it is envisaged that the private
sector will spend £5 billion on Underground maintenance up
until the year 2015 (Plan, Chapter 3 paragraphs 6.71 and 6.72
and Annex 3 paragraphs 8 and 9).
15. The neglect of maintenance on the Underground
has created a backlog which will require a lot of money to put
right, and rather than simply replacing what was previously there
it will obviously sometimes be sensible to take the opportunity
to make improvements. But no new lines should be considered until
this work has been done and until also the situation on the road
has been reformed. Many people now travelling by Underground would
prefer to travel by bicycle or bus if conditions for those modes
were improved, as they should be anyway for the sake of the present
and other would-be users. An increase in home working will also
help to relieve congestion on the Underground.
16. Transport by road, including walking,
cycling and bus travel as well as cars and lorries, is and will
remain predominant. The problem for transport policy is to devise
new rules for the use of the roads, including the design of the
vehicles that are allowed on them, to replace the largely indiscriminate
use that is made of them at present. With such a reformed regime
in force for road, rail transport could be treated like any other
privately financed commercial enterprise, except that its monopolistic
character would continue to require a special regulatory regime
for the protection of passengers, and plans for new rail lines,
if any, would have to be scrutinised and possibly refused for
17. The need for rules to ensure a more
rational use of the roads has been apparent at least since the
publication of the Buchanan Report, Traffic in Towns, in
1963. Successive Governments have tried to avoid what they thought
would be unpopular reforms by building more and more roads. The
fact that this was not a solution seems to have been acknowledged
by John Prescott when he said that building new roads would be
a last resort, although the Government has since partly resiled
from that position even while pretending not to. But if road building
is not a solution to the problems, neither is pouring money into
railways. Wishful thinking and splashing money around are not
substitutes for political courage and a coherent transport policy.