Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by PJ Thompson


  1.1 I wish to comment, at sections 2 & 3 below, on just two of the strategic issues specified by the EAC, followed by a brief comment on aviation at the end. Although I have no professional qualifications or business involvements in this general area I have been interested in transport, town planning and the environment for many years, and I use public transport (and very occasionally my car) to get to work. I am a local and national taxpayer and am interested in our general state of affairs at national and local levels.

  1.2 It seems unprofitable to discuss transport and its consequences without reference to land use, given that this determines transport patterns. The creation (in 1997 ?) of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) seemed an ideal arrangement, but this was dismantled after a short life, and "Transport" was put back under a single ministry.

  1.3 If we are now really faced with life changing and threatening challenges, then no major emissions generating sector can just continue on a "business as usual" basis. So some unpalatable, awkward and embarrassing questions must be asked and faced, and some long-held assumptions as well as long-entrenched vested interests must be re-examined and challenged so as to protect our quality of life and even our very existence.

  1.4 It seems that the DfT's brief is to cater for any and all road traffic demand, rather than first examining why it is there and whether its presence is desirable or undesirable. The Highways Agency used to monitor (and no doubt still does) the vehicles per day (VPD) flow on roads, and when VPD came near the design capacity of a road then a widening case was made. There seemed to be no analysis of traffic into trips which were purely "voluntary" and those which were "compelled". The latter would comprise those who would choose a non-road mode if one were available, and those who did not want to make the journey at all but were forced to do so by change in work location outside their control. The HA just assumed each VPD was a sort of vote in favour of more roads.

  1.5 There is a difference between mobility and access. To cater exclusively for the first can hinder the second, as well as prompting many journeys.

  1.6 There is the issue of whether transport is a cost or a benefit. It depends upon one's standpoint in the process; to the producer needing to move his product to market it is a cost; it is a benefit to the transport provider who will want to encourage as much of it as possible; to the bystander affected by increasing traffic it is an unadulterated nuisance. Excessive use of transport might be a sign of wasteful activity not true economic gain (eg: out-going holiday flights ?). The government has to balance these conflicts somehow.

  1.7 There are increasingly sophisticated facilities based on telecommunications technology which lessen the need to make personal journeys, and these should be encouraged and integrated into life- and work-style packages, to save us all time and effort as well as the climate.


2.1   To the lay person, the answer seems to be a resounding "No"

  2.1.1 This may be unfair because central government is funding Quality Bus Corridors in partnership with Passenger Transport Executives in the (six ?) former Metropolitan County Council areas; these are achieving some increase in bus ridership. I do not know if this funding is via the DfT or via ODPM.

2.2  Given road traffic's emissions problem, one would expect to see alternative travel modes being encouraged in a really major way, but this is not so.

  2.2.1 The Manchester "Metrolink" tram expansion scheme—which will switch many commuter journeys from cars, as well as regenerate poorer areas of that conurbation—is still on hold because of price increases. Then early in November 2005 the DfT rejected the Leeds and Liverpool plans for new tramways.

  2.2.2 Far worse, the DfT is currently reviewing the Northern Rail franchise on grounds of excessive cost. Actual rail closures are feared—even of lines through up-market car commuter areas—and this (unbelievably) in the congested and urbanized Greater Manchester area where rail can greatly help to relieve road congestion. Even more fatuously it is suggested that some local trains be replaced by buses using already congested roads. To close a train service is to destroy commuters' consumer choice.

  2.2.3 In other parts of the UK, small scale rail improvements could bring considerable benefits but these are rejected while much more expensive local road improvements are nodded through.

  2.2.4 The trolleybus is not on anyone's agenda. Most UK residents, politicians and policymakers don't even know what it is, despite London having had the largest fleet of them in the world during the 1950s, and San Francisco using many on its hills to good effect.

   Trolleybuses are to be seen in many Eastern and not a few Western European cities (they have just returned to Rome), and they are a useful hybrid combining the advantages of the tram and the diesel bus. Many UK cities and larger towns had them until the 1960's.

  2.3 Historically the DfT worked on the basis of predict road traffic and provide road space for it. Currently it is being said that we cannot build our way out of congestion, ironically after we have built our way into it. This stated change of policy would be most welcome if it were accompanied by corresponding changes in DfT attitudes and practices, see 2.2.1 to 2.2.3 above. "Predict and provide" may indeed be a very hard organism to kill, but kill it we must.


3.1  A good "shopping list" would be:

  3.1.1 Examine the origins of and reasons for the traffic flows which cause the congestion.

  This is the land use issue, eg green field site developments which generate new journeys by car because they cannot have the public transport access characteristic of in-town locations. The plans for many thousands of houses in SE England will also generate many new car journeys, as well as destroying farm land which might be sorely needed in a globally uncertain future; these housing plans seem additionally undesirable when it is learnt that water supplies for them could be problematical.

  The under-use of train services through high income car commuter belts because of sheer lack of imagination, co-ordinated policies and appropriate road pricing and rail funding is another failure to limit car journeys. Car users will use trains if they are reliable, convenient and reasonably priced; they will not use buses. Many do use trains, and the railway should be able to claim a "double credit" for such users who have paid to use the road but do not; instead they pay out even more to use the train and so relieve the roads at peak times.

  3.1.2 Re-examine forecasts of road traffic growth and evolve policies to prevent this growth or to transfer it to other modes.

  Measures to cope with the problems in 3.1.1 would be to stop further developments on green field sites, and locate them to existing urban areas; also road congestion charging coupled with improvements to local commuter rail services. Tighter urban parking controls would assist public transport which must be visibly good enough to offset these disadvantages imposed on the motorist.

  3.1.3 Give maximum support to alternative transport modes to lessen road traffic.

  Reverse the recent Light Rail delay and rejection decisions. Protect all local rail services and get them better used. Give statutory protection to all abandoned but still intact former rail routes for future re-opening to freight and passenger use, or conversion to tramway. There is a case for re-nationalizing the railway to get its operating costs down and pass these on in lower fares and freight charges. Ensure the trolleybus option is put back into the planning mix. Consider the old canals for some freight journeys.

  3.1.4 Reject once and for all any further increase in the size of lorries.

  Existing large lorries damage localities by being run along totally unsuitable roads; they are parked on pavements, damaging not only the paving but also water and gas mains underneath. The last time lorry size was increased there was a definite shift of freight from rail to road. To move to 60-tonnes would intensify all these problems. The lorry sector needs far tighter supervision. The Classic FM radio travel report at around 6.40pm Monday to Friday almost always features at least one major lorry accident each day, causing great congestion. Unbelievably many of these are lorries on fire; others are lorries overturning, and this all in moderate weather conditions. These sound like stories from the 1920's with primitive vehicles on solid tyres with wooden bodies and indifferent petrol engines; fires and overturning then were fully understandable. It is quite incomprehensible that such accidents still occur in 2006. In the bus and rail industries they would result in major public outrage and enquiries. Punitive fines should be imposed in such cases, specifically to drive incompetent and negligent, even criminal, lorry operators out of the business, and rules devised to prevent the individuals involved from re-entering it.

  3.1.5 Cease all further roadbuilding, and limit construction to junction improvements, traffic management schemes and provision of local access to new local developments. This seems Luddite, but stems from the fact that over 40 years I have never seen a road scheme which has done what it said on the tin, ie: cure the congestion it was aimed at; for a time traffic flowed well but within five years it had increased, and was creating the delays which had prompted the earlier scheme; any further road expansion would have meant destruction of part of the locality, and sometimes this was undertaken. It seems that to expand road space merely increases road traffic, which is self-defeating and a waste of public money, given the many other competing social priorities far more important than traffic. Indeed the Treasury in John Major's time blocked any road expenditure designed to cure peak time traffic problems; "peak spreading" was the preferred solution. New roads were often justified as creating jobs; they will have done so, but there seems no analysis of the loss of jobs inflicted on many of the localities involved. Easier road movement enables big business to concentrate its multifarious activities at a very small number of key locations after having shut down a larger number of smaller ones. This increases profits but also car and lorry journey lengths. "Just in Time" deliveries also raise profits by minimizing/eliminating warehouse space. This is good for business but not for the local economy, nor the public purse (infrastructure demands) nor for those who have to endure the resultant traffic and who are compelled to drive the longer distances. The view that new roadbuilding is needed to keep traffic moving to prevent emissions from standing traffic is profoundly suspect (see, and it also torpedoes any policy aimed at road traffic limitation.

  3.1.6 Scrap the annual vehicle excise duty (except for a nominal annual re-licensing fee to accredit the vehicle on the DVLA system), and replace it by either a very much higher fuel price, or by road pricing which would vary according to congestion.

  This would more accurately show the cost of each vehicle trip; at the moment, once the tax is paid and the tank full, road use "feels" free, even though everyone knows it isn't; perversely, the annual VED could be a spur to more vehicle use, so as to get the most use out of the road network for that year's payment. Whereas "pay as you go" on the road would provide some saving if a car owner used public transport or just did not make the trip. Modal switch might occur more often. Car usage rather than ownership is the problem.

  3.1.7 Re-regulate all provincial bus operations so as to provide the same standard of network stability and route predictability as exists in the still regulated London bus system.

  The UK is said to be the only Western (and westernized) country to deregulate its provincial urban bus transport. Bus loadings had been reducing since the late-1950's start of mass motoring, and continued slowly ever since. The October 1986 de-regulation unleashed so much instability in services, timetables and operators that passenger decline accelerated and service quality plummeted.

  It also brought great concentrations of poorly maintained buses on to profitable routes, causing local air quality problems.


  4.1  Public transport is regulated, and each city has only one provider for the area, even if there are various modes (tram, trolleybus, bus, underground metro). Other operators from other areas ran in, but they appeared to have some arrangement with the main urban provider. The passenger vehicles are painted in a livery distinctive to the city, and staff wear uniforms to a house style. Route networks and service numbering are co-ordinated and stable, and route maps of the overall area are generally available. Stopping points are well provided with timing and route details of services calling there. Railway stations are well served, making interchange with trains quite easy.

  4.2 There is therefore a high degree of predictability in the service, and it is quite easy to get around these places by public transport which is frequent with affordable fares and multi-ride tickets valid over the whole system. It was also very well used at most times of the day. There is an intangible feeling that the system is a valuable asset which belongs to the city and is valued as such by the local inhabitants.

  4.2.1 A recent visit to Oxford revealed at least two competing bus operators with their own exclusive tickets and route networks. To travel about there needed two sets of tickets; car usage is more convenient when faced with these frustrations.

  4.3 Belgian Railways (SNCB) have a basic hourly frequency on all lines, with more journeys on busier routes and extras at peak times. SNCB seem to have aimed at a memorizable timetable—the hourly times on a given line are always the same "minutes to or past" throughout the whole day. The UK has improved here but there is still a way to go. SNCB, although it makes a loss like all the other European State railways, is very well used with fares which feel very cheap to the UK visitor; on every journey made, the train ran more or less to the minute, rolling stock was clean, and the smartly uniformed train conductor checked tickets after every station.

  4.4 Dutch Transport Planning. In 1989 discussions there advocated not allowing public transport fares to rise faster than the variable costs of motoring. Another proposal was to reduce a motorist's annual car tax by the cost of public transport season tickets, should he/she buy these.

  4.5 The public transport contrast between the UK and much of Europe is stark, and shows us up very badly. It is often said that we have the worst public transport and (to rub salt into the wound) the most expensive. Buses outside London must be re-regulated and railways either re-nationalized or run on a not for private profit basis. This would restore the predictability and community stakeholdership we once had, the aim being to provide an improved and co-ordinated set of networks to induce people to use their cars less and to attract some freight off the roads.


  Transport impacts upon numerous areas of our lives outside the DfT's remit, so there should be productive inter-departmental working between the DfT and those ministries which deal with these other areas. Four areas are at 5.1-5.4, below. To remedy the transport related problems which affect these will both assist the carbon emission problem and improve these areas of life.

  5.1 Health and Safety. Transport's impacts include accidents/fatalities, noise, pollution, stress of journey to work (duration and quality), lack of exercise because of the tendency to drive everywhere and not walk or cycle. Rail's very low accident rate should be contrasted with higher road casualties. Driving is—unless one is specifically paid to do it—ineffective time; on a train or tram (less so on a bus) one can read or do some work while in transit.

  5.2 The Urban Built Environment. Transport's impact here has been quite brutal in the past; some good properties were swept away with those which admittedly were expendable; the longer term social consequences of neighbourhood disruption may not have been appreciated. We are now faced with a re-run of this in Liverpool, partly for road widening reasons.

  5.3 Loss of Open Space and Farmland. Easier road access (provided at public expense) to such areas has resulted in their development for substantial private profit, in preference to urban brownfield sites. The result is more travel emissions and loss of irreplaceable natural resources. Loss of local open space also forces people to make longer journeys to open space further afield.

  5.4 The local economy. To revive this with all its multifarious "co-located" activities would surely lessen the need for lengthy passenger and freight trips. It is not clear how this can be done in today's global era. Local light rail systems, especially the currently stalled Manchester "Metrolink" expansion plans, would be a start because a fixed track network knits together the areas it serves and encourages many trips between and among them, so fostering a sense of local identity. More roads, by complete contrast, just promote even more "anywhere to anywhere" journeys and even further dispersal of dwellings, journeys and economic activities.

  5.5 Blocks to Progress. Recent tram scheme delays and rejections seem to stem from the dead hand of Treasury control, and this must be contested; how much is caused by the costs of the current controversial defence involvements? Stopping tram schemes just to save money seems like cutting the funds to repair the New Orleans levees, and we all saw what happened there.

  5.5.1 Historically, road expenditure has been seen as "investment" and desirable, whereas rail expenditure has been seen as "subsidy" and undesirable. This is most ironic because the rail sector has from its very inception 170-odd years ago always had some sort of an accounting system to show profit and loss, which with some extra effort could produce analyses by individual railway line. The road sector is totally deficient in this respect, and in strict accountancy terms road expenditure is money thrown into a black hole.

  5.5.2 Road, rail, air, canal and coastal sea should all be planned together so as to produce a balanced transport system where all the modes work together to best advantage and with minimum environmental impact. I fear however that this is quite beyond the abilities of the government machinery, although there must be people within it who could ably rise to the challenge, given the chance.

  5.6 Aviation. Given that we can now get almost anywhere by air, it seems reasonable that aviation, because of its significant emissions problem, should be limited to function within a pre-determined emission quota on journeys where it performs to best global advantage. Short haul overland flights must be replaced by trains, and aviation's tax loopholes and exemptions must be entirely and immediately stripped away. Cheap fares airlines must be carefully examined to ensure they are not breaking safety and hygiene rules. The policy for increasing air travel by a large amount by 2030 should be rejected.

  6. Finally, I wish the EAC every success in its deliberations which I hope will achieve action on this fraught subject to bring us all some long term benefits and safety.

February 2006

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