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Railways myths and Mathematics

Posted by Transport Watch on January 8, 2004

Railways: myth and mathematics
Published in The Business 15-16 June 2003 (Page 20)
Save were emboldened

Thomas the Tank Engine is an expensive toy. Network Rail, Railtrack’s successor, which is already guzzling money at the rate of £5 bn (E7.05 bn, $8.25) a year, has gone to the Rail Regulator to ask for more. The Regulator need only look at the facts to make a decision. Rail is outrageously expensive.

After allowing for the difference in life span and in size, a railway carriage is 3-4 times as expensive as equivalent express coach space. The track maintenance cost of rail is probably 10 times as high as for roads. The costs of the west coast Main Line Modernisation Programme and the proposed High Speed East Coast Line amount to £10-12 million per track-km, some 10 times the cost per lane-kilometre of building a motorway from scratch.

If the real subsidy to rail is running at £5 billion per year then each kilometre of track costs the tax payer £155,000 per year. In comparison the Motorway and trunk road network contributes about £200,000 net per lane-km to the Treasury.

The rail Modernisation Programme, coupled with the proposed East Coast High Speed line and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, will cost every household in the land over £4,000 over 10 years. It is clear that rail generally, and the Modernisation Programme in particular, is catastrophically expensive compared with equivalent road transport.

This can only be tolerated if there are very large operational and/or environmental reasons for maintaining the railways as railways. That they should be maintained follows from some common and strongly held beliefs, which include the following: Rail has a far higher capacity than road. Rail commuters to central London could not get there any other way. Rail uses much less fuel than road transport. Rail is far safer than road ever can be (perhaps 27 times as safe). High speed rail is essential. Rail is in some way "sustainable" or essential to the life of the nation. Rail brings development in its wake.

Can this belief set be sustained in the light of the facts? Sadly not, but fortunately for the Government, the gap between the maths and the myth is so large as to beggar belief.

For example, only 1.5% of passenger journeys go by rail, representing just 6% of passenger-km. Those journeys are concentrated in the South East and are generally enjoyed by the better off. Only 11% of the nation's freight goes by rail.

Rail has only one quarter to one third the capacity to move freight and people compared with motor roads managed to avoid congestion. (Published varied the original and said: And then there is the issue of congestion). Consider Waterloo main-line. There 50,000 crushed passengers alight in the peak hour. Rather than Thomas the Tank Engine, they would be better off on Bertie the Bus. All those passengers could find seats in 1,000 50-seat coaches; 1,000 coaches would fit on one lane of a motor road. At Waterloo there is room for three or four lanes in each direction. The waste is lamentable. Meanwhile lorries from the area pour out onto unsuitable city streets (past the houses of the poor) bracketed text omitted from the printed version .

At Euston the situation is even more dire. There, 60,000 passengers alight all day. They could all find seats in 3,000 coaches each containing only 20 people. Those coaches could pass in 90 minutes in the width available to the trains, but, at Euston, the railway has run out of capacity.

As to network-wide use, the average flow across national rail amounts to the equivalent of some 300 buses plus lorries per day per track - a flow so small it would be quite lost on a motorway.

Turning to the safety issue, rail killed 65% more passengers per passenger mile than did buses on rural roads over the 18-year period ending 1999.

But surely rail is at least fuel efficient? Probably the most recent data in the land is that provided by British Rail in 1990. Certainly today it appears impossible to obtain system wide fuel consumptions. The 1990 data shows that, in that year, the fuel consumption per passenger-mile by national rail was equivalent to 83 per gallon for Network South East, 64 for provincial services and 112 for intercity - generally worse than a diesel powered family car containing two people.

Meanwhile an express bus containing 20 people would return 200 passenger-miles per gallon. For freight the fuel consumption on the line haul is in favour of rail by a factor of 2 but, when the drag in and out to rail freight terminals is considered, rail probably uses the same as road door to door. Combining the two shows that the rail function carried out by lorries and buses would use 30-40% less fuel than required by the steel tyred option.

As to speed, no doubt rail beats road in some circumstances. However, half of all rail journeys are less than 25 miles long and 90% are less than 80 miles long. Over distances up to 80 miles a Motorway coach would beat most trains while providing up to 10 times the service frequency. Meanwhile rail fares are up to 5 times those of equivalent buses despite rail subsidy of billions of pounds per year.

Gosh - with all these numbers flying about I had better bury my head in the sand quickly or, better still, in my Thomas the Tank Engine book and flee to the peace and quiet to be found on the platforms of Central London rail terminals at lunch times, or perhaps to the quiet dereliction of the railway sidings gracing the hearts of our towns and cities, thankfully leaving development to go where there is good road access. Failure there will leave me wondering why it is, with a mere £4,000 per household being spent on the rail system, the country cannot afford decent health care, pensions for war heroes and their widows or text books for school children!!!!!

In place of that they published

Surely all these statistics make the case clear: per passenger- mile, rail is the most expensive from of travel. Taxpayers are being taken for a ride.

P F Withrington Director Transport Watch



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