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Topic 22 Commentary on Railway Conversion the impractical dream by E A Gibbins

6th August, 2007: WP ref, Gibbins02

The Preface

In the first paragraph we read that in 1958 Mr Gibbins was researching material for a debate between the Station Masters & Goods Agents based at Newcastle on Tyne and Sunderland. The proposal was “That it is in the national interest to restrict the carriage of passengers and freight by road”.  Nobody could be found to oppose the motion so Mr Gibbins was pressed into that role.  He reports that despite being congratulated on his performance the motion was carried.

Now at that time 44% of tonne-km were by road, 33% by rail and 23% by water. In terms of Tonnes lifted we had 78% by road 18% by rail and 4% by water. By 2004 the numbers were 64% of tonne-km by road 8% by rail 23% by water, and 4% by pipe line.  In terms of tonnes lifted the numbers were 83% by road 4.5% by rail, 5.9% by water and 7% by pipe.  We comment, fortunately for the nation that railway group’s vote was not reflected with any force at the national level.  Instead it provides a glimpse into the unreal world that the railway enthusiast inhabits. 

Nevertheless, because the railway enthusiast is so widespread there remains a determination to “get freight off the roads and onto rail”.  Unfortunately very few of us have noticed that the way to achieve that is to remove the rails.  Lorries, along with other vehicles, would then divert in their tens of thousands from the unsuitable city streets that they currently clog and from the unsuitable roads that they currently burden.  The environmental benefit of all of us would huge.

Meanwhile, just consider what would happen if the nation paved the motorway and Trunk Road system with rails - the place would come to a near standstill.  Conversely, it must be clear that the steel rails have ensured rail’s rights of way are, in highway terms scarcely used. See facts sheets 1 and, for widths, facts sheet 3.

On page vi we read that Mr Gibbins:

 “discovered the unreliability of road traffic statistics …. prepared by the DfT and copied dutifully by the ONS…… and used by the conversion lobbies”. 

We comment that the differences between road and rail that follow from those statistics are not a matter of a few percent but of hundreds of percent.  Hence statistical errors in the sources are unlikely to reverse the conclusions. In any case when a critic starts his case by attacking the well respected national data sources there must be doubt as to whether it is worth reading further, but we do (for a bit).

Also on page vi we read:

“Conversion campaigners count only motorways and trunk roads in comparisons of highway mileage and accidents”.

We rejoin, of course we do.  We are not interested in back streets and minor rural roads whose main purpose is to provide access.  Instead we are interested in comparing the performance of the strategic road network with the comparable rail network.

Mr Gibbins goes on to say:

“Perversely, they then seek to count all traffic wherever it flows, including on rural and residential roads.  They ignore that no traffic originates on motorways and relatively little on trunk roads. Most fatalities occur on those roads, whose existence the conversion campaign endeavours to air brush out of any comparisons with railways. The claims that using converted railways for express buses would cut accidents caused by buses overlooks that those causing most accidents – i.e. in residential and business areas – will remain there because otherwise they will be virtually empty! They keep losing the plot”.

We are bound to say that that statement seems to be complete nonsense.  For clarification, supposing any is needed, - we are interested in comparing the casualty rates on the strategic road network with those by rail and that is all.  There are two constituencies, namely (a) passengers and (b) system wide rates. Since the casualties per passenger-km on the strategic road network suffered by those travelling by express coach are less than suffered by train we conclude that if the rail network were converted to a reserved road system and if passengers had transferred to express coaches then those passengers would suffer a lower death rate than previously.

We also found that if ordinary traffic, void of pedestrians, cyclists and bikers transferred to a reserved system, such as the railways offer, then the system wide casualty rate would be less than currently imposed on society by rail after the inclusion of staff, postal workers, people on railway business and, crucially, trespassers but not suicides.

Of course converting one to the other would not alter casualty rates on other roads but then that is scarcely part of the plot.

Later we may extend this commentary but, if view of the above, is it worth the effort?

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