Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

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 mistaken—all 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.


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 argued—although I have not seen either this justification or any other given—that 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 encouraging it.

  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 environmental reasons.

  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.

October 2000

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