Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Friends of the Earth (FOR 93)



  Friends of the Earth is pleased to be able to the Committee's enquiry into the future of the railway. We have responded to the questions posed by the Committee in order.


  We believe that the Regulator is right to highlight the value of the railway. Rail is not outmoded—it is the essential core of an integrated transport system. Whilst current performance falls short of passengers expectations the railway is a success in the sense that it is carrying more passengers now than at any time since the Second World War and on far fewer track miles.

  The railway plays a major role in the economic and social life of the UK. 41%[48] of commuters travelling into central London use heavy rail. Rail also has a significant and in some cases a majority modal share of journeys between many of our city centres[49]. Commuter rail travel also has significant economic, safety and environmental benefits estimated at £819 million[50]. Rail carries a significant proportion of freight traffic with major environmental benefits in terms of relief from HGVs and reduced CO2 emissions as a result. Many other European countries recognise the value of their railways and invest in them accordingly[51].

  However, the railway has major problems at the moment with soaring costs. The cost of running franchises, maintaining and upgrading the track have exploded since privatisation[52] and as result the SRA has had to resort to drastic measures to save money. The SRA, Regulator and Network Rail have recognised the urgency of tackling this issue and they must do so quickly if we are to have an expanding railway.


  The present network is basically the right one: it serves most of our major centres and many rural areas. However, there is much that should be done to improve the capacity and reliability and size of the network and to make it easier to access and use.

  Friends of the Earth believes that the following measures are necessary:

    —  Significantly increased investment in the network to provide more capacity and better reliability. Railtrack's Network Management Statement 2000 listed numerous schemes to provide additional tracks, diversionary routes and remove bottle necks many of which have now been abandoned or delayed indefinitely by the industry's financial crisis. Examples include the upgrade of Manchester local network to eliminate bottlenecks; quadrupling of track between Coventry and Birmingham to provide more capacity; and the upgrade of the East Coast Main Line loops for freight and diverted passenger trains.

    —  Investment in new/reopened lines and stations to put more places on the rail network. Station re-openings have slowed to a trickle since privatisation[53]. Several large settlements and new traffic magnets are not rail served and could be relatively easily. Examples include Dunstable, Beds. and Fleetwood, Lancs.

    —  Investment in a North-South high speed line to provide extra network capacity and facilitate journey time improvements, if it is proven that it will achieve significant modal shift from environmentally damaging short haul flights rather than simply generate new journeys.

    —  Investment to improve the quality of the rail networks around our regional cities like Birmingham and Manchester. A recent SRA study[54] found that the Manchester rail network was underused due to its poor quality. Another study by the Commission for Integrated Transport found that cars had a much higher modal share in Manchester than in Munich, a city of comparable size[55].

    —  Provision of faster, higher quality direct rail links between our regional cities that are poorly served at present. (ie Leeds-Nottingham, Glasgow-Manchester[56]) In many cases these improvements would not require large scale investment in new infrastructure, just TOC and SRA commitment.

    —  Investment in electrification. The UK has a low proportion of electrified route kilometers compared with many of our European partners[57]. Electric trains are quiet, pollution free at point of use and have the potential to be completely pollution free with the planned expansion of our renewable energy generating capacity. Hardly any electrification has taken place since privatisation and whilst it is unrealistic to expect the whole network to be electrified, there are glaring gaps in the electrified network and important trunk routes that should be electrified as soon as possible.

    —  Commitment to and investment in "soft" measures that will enhance the accessibility and ease of use of the network and thereby significantly increase passenger numbers. As well as investment in big infrastructure improvement schemes, the railway needs to get the smaller things right that often really matter to passengers. Walking and cycling routes to all stations should be safe and well lit; fares need to simplified and consistent across the network; information provision needs to be improved especially when things go wrong; and stations should be graded according to size and offer guaranteed facilities commensurate with their size. Some measures are underway to achieve some of these aims but more investment and enforcement of standards is needed to ensure standards are met and maintained.


  Rail is an efficient mode for carrying large numbers of passengers in urban areas and over long distances. It is also ideally suited for bulk freight traffic. However, rail has an important role to play in serving rural areas, particularly popular tourist locations and/or those threatened by heavy road traffic.

    —  COMMUTING It is inconceivable that London could function without its rail system which carries 41% of commuters into the city centre. Less appreciated is the valuable role rail has as commuter transport in other UK cities. Rail (including underground rail) accounts for 31% of commuters in Glasgow[58] and a significant share of commuters from the Aire and Wharf valleys into Leeds. Rail has a less impressive modal share in some of our other major cities. The SRA's 2001 Manchester Strategic Rail Study, already mentioned, found that rail was under used in comparison to cities of a similar size in other European countries because of its perceived poor quality. The study identified a £1.5 billion package of improvements designed to deliver a three to four fold increase in patronage on local and regional services. Unfortunately, due to budget restraints, the SRA is unable to deliver this programme before 2010. Friends of the Earth regards it as essential that measures such as these and a similar upgrade scheme planned for Birmingham are re-instated into the SRA's plans as soon as possible. High quality rail services to bring commuters into our major cities are essential, particularly as many are considering introducing congestion charging designed to effect modal shift to public transport.

    —  LONG DISTANCE TRAVEL Rail plays a valuable role as an efficient high speed travel mode over medium and long distances. Indeed GNER has a significant modal share of city centre to city centre traffic between Leeds and London. However much could be done to improve this modal share further. Reliability must be improved, more capacity must be provided and fares must come down. The recent SRA Capacity Utilisation Policy identified several routes which are already running at over 90% capacity, including the East Coast Main Line, however the SRA has radically scaled back plans to upgrade this important route. Improvements are needed to ease bottlenecks such as four-tracking Digswell viaduct, installing new tunnels near Welwyn North and four tracking Huntingdon-Peterborough. Reliability could also be improved by these measures. Major delays often result from incidents that escalate due to inadequate infrastructure combined with poor contingency planning. For example, a train failure in the autumn of 2002 on the two-track Huntingdon-Peterborough section resulted in several hours delay for several train loads of passengers. The lack of bi-directional signalling on this section meant that a flag-man had to be transported from London to flag trains through one by one on the remaining track. Both four-tracking and/or bi-directional signalling would have cut delays suffered by passengers significantly. Alternative routes can also provide a contingency when things go wrong as well as an alternative during engineering works. Friends of the Earth believes that upgrades of routes such as Peterborough-Lincoln-Doncaster as alternative route and electrification of routes such as Leeds-York are essential if the railway is going to have the flexibility to deliver the robust reliability that passengers and freight customers want.

    —  RURAL RAIL Whilst rail is not the ideal mode to serve sparsely populated rural areas, it performs a valuable role serving congested tourist "honeypots" such as Whitby and Windermere. Many rural cross-country routes which also have (or should have) a vital dual role as duplicate diversionary routes for main lines. (for example:- Settle-Carlisle, Calder Valley and Peterborough-Doncaster via Lincoln. Friends of the earth supports the initiatives proposed in the Association of Community Rail Partnerships submission to the enquiry. Rural lines viability should be enhanced by reducing maintenance costs, better promotion and better integration with other modes such as buses.

    —  FREIGHT Rail has an important role as a freight carrier and we welcome the SRA's ambitions to increase rail freight tonnage further. Rail has clear environmental benefits over road transport. Per kilogramme carried, rail produces only 20% of the CO2 emissions compared to road transport[59]. Having said that, even with the increase in modal share envisaged by 2010, the UK will still lag behind some other European countries in terms of modal share of rail[60]. More must be done to encourage rail freight including the provision of additional network capacity through adding extra tracks and re-opened lines to the network. (ie re-open Matlock-Buxton and Manchester-Sheffield via Woodhead).


  Although the UK has a substantial rail network that compares favourably with others in Europe on some measures such as service frequency, there is much we could learn from our European neighbours. Many European rail systems put the UK's to shame in areas such as punctuality and reliability, state investment levels, fares, integration and electrification.

  The key to addressing many of these shortcomings is more investment. Although investment in the UK network is running at record levels, per capita it is still less than several of our European competitors. As already acknowledged, costs also have to also be brought under control. Friends of the Earth has shown how the Government could raise the necessary finance by simply keeping motoring costs level with gradual fuel tax increases[61]. This would also partly address the increasing disparity between motoring and public transport costs, an outcome of Government policy that the Select Committee previously described as "incomprehensible". Another possible source of funding that would be to end the effective subsidies that the aviation industry receives by introducing fair taxation. It is estimated that these are currently worth over £9 billion per year. [62]

  The chief areas of comparison, what we can learn and Friends of the Earth's recommendations:

    —  PUNCTUALITY AND RELIABILITY On the UK rail network, punctuality and reliability are poor compared to that on other Countries rail networks[63]. It is not easy to apportion reasons for this but they are likely to include:

    Comparative, historic lack of investment in infrastructure.

    Congestion on the UK network due to lack of additional capacity being provided while more and more trains are being run.

    Flawed penalty/incentive regime which makes it financially prudent to delay further a late running long distance service in order to allow a stopping service to depart on time in front of it.

    Lack of contingency measures such as spare trains and crews being provided as is common in some other European countries.

    —  FARES High fares are cited by the public as one of the chief factors that dissuade them from using rail more[64]. UK rail fares are the highest in Europe[65]. One cause of this must inevitably be inflated costs within the industry, an issue which must be addressed (see first section). Friends of the Earth's submission to the SRA fares review called for three improvements:

    Introduction of an off-peak national railcard. Recent research by Railfuture[66] showed that such a measure would be likely to increase TOC income and therefore reduce the subsidy requirement.

    Regulation to simplify the fares system with common ticket names and conditions laid down for the industry to follow.

    Regulation to prohibit further extortionate fare rises that have seen (for example) a standard open return from Manchester to London increase by 82%[67] in the six years since privatisation.

    —  ELECTRIFICATION The UK has one of the lowest proportions of electrified lines in Europe (see note 10). After a flurry of electrification schemes prior to privatisation, there has been none other than14 miles in Staffordshire between Crewe and Kidsgrove as part of the West Coast Main Line modernisation project and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

    —  INTEGRATION Although there are many examples of good practice in integration between rail and other modes evident on the UK's rail network, there is again much we can learn from our European competitors in the areas of:

    cycle routes to stations, rail-bus links and through ticketing.

    —  STRUCTURE OF THE INDUSTRY/COSTS Our rail network has encountered huge difficulties since privatisation, although some of these might have occurred anyway even if the network had remained in public hands. It is noticeable that no other European countries have attempted privatisation on the same scale to that attempted in the UK. Privatisation is mainly responsible for the explosion in costs already mentioned. We welcome the fact that the SRA and Network Rail are taking action on numerous fronts to address this issue, however it remains to be seen if they will be reduced to a level comparable with British Rail. Network Rail is experimenting with taking control of track maintenance and signalling contracts in house. The SRA should not shy from conducting similar trials with franchises and rolling stock leasing.


    The Government must provide substantial extra investment to bring our rail network up to the best standards in Europe. The Government could do this by stabilising motoring costs and ending the tax exemptions that the aviation industry receives.

    The SRA and Network Rail must take urgent and if necessary, radical action to reduce costs, this might involve taking more sections of the rail industry back "in house".

    The SRA must make fares simpler and more affordable by introducing a national railcard and tougher fares regulation.

    The SRA should adopt best of sector standards in integration by introducing national standards that TOCs must meet as part of their franchise contracts by working with stakeholders such as passengers and local authorities.

    Once additional funds are available, the SRA should devise a plan of infrastructure enhancement schemes that will enable the network to operate more reliably and serve more destinations.

    Once additional funds become available, the SRA should develop an electrification strategy, prioritising strategic gaps and main lines. New electrification equipment should be of suitable quality to resist the effects of bad weather.

Richard Dyer

Rail Campaigner, Friends of the Earth

September 2003

48   "The Case for Rail"-Transport 2000, (June 2002). Back

49   Estimate modal shares for rail, Liverpool-Leeds 56%, Manchester-York 78%-"The Case for Rail"-Transport 2000, (June 2002). Back

50   "The Case for Rail"-Transport 2000, (June 2002). Back

51   Comparisons of state aid as percentage of GDP, 5 European countries, F-0.45, D-0.48, NL-0.47, S-0.36,UK-0.19-Financial Times (12January 2002). Back

52   Estimate of infrastructure scheme cost inflation since British Rail = factor of 2.5-Roger Ford, Modern Railways magazine (July 2001). Back

53   Number of station re-openings 1987-25, 2002-02, 2003-03 (planned)-Railfuture (2003). Back

54   Manchester Strategic Rail Study-SRA (June 2001). Back

55   Car Modal Share (percentage all trips) Manchester 59%, Munich 41%-Study of European Best Practice in the Delivery of Integrated Transport-CFIT (November 2001). Back

56   More details of these examples were given in the Friends of the Earth submission to the Committee's enquiry into Railways in the North of England (June 2003). Back

57   In 1999, only Denmark in Western Europe has a lower proportion of electrified lines (26%) than Great Britain (30%), Belgium, Luxembourg , Sweden and Switzerland all have more than 70% electrified-"Britain's Railways An Alternative 10 Year Plan"-unpublished report produced by Transport and Information Network for Friends of the Earth (November 2001). Back

58   "The Case for Rail"-Transport 2000 (June 2002). Back

59   "Facts and Figures"-The Railway Forum (September 2000). Back

60   Goods Transport Rail Modal Share by Country (tkm in %, in year 2000) Sweden 38.2%, Austria 37.2%, Finland 26.2%-"EU Energy and Transport in Figures"-European Commission (2002). Back

61   Keeping motoring costs constant with gradual increases in fuel tax would provide between £16.7 and 30.2 billion by year 2010-"Paying for Rail"-Friends of the Earth (2002). Back

62   Result of introducing:- tax on aviation fuel, VAT on all aspects of aviation, and abolishing Air passenger Duty and Duty Free (2003 prices): "Budget 2003 and Aviation"-Commons Environmental Audit Committee (July 2003). Back

63   Trains on time: GB-79%, F-95%, D-96%, Japan-99%, Metro newspaper (11/01/2002). Back

64   "Level of fares" received the highest number of "very poor" or "fairly poor" votes in a survey of general public's attitudes to train service conditions and services-CFIT: Public Attitudes to Transport in England (2001). Back

65   Cost of travel per mile in UK is 1.7 times higher than in France, Finland and Austria, 2.2 higher than in Sweden and Belgium. "UK fares highest in Europe and Rising"-Independent (18/06/03). Back

66   "National Railcard Economic Research"-Railfuture (April 2003). Back

67   Price of Virgin London-Manchester Standard open return: £96(1996), £175(2003). Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 11 May 2005