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Topic 2, Road / Rail comparisons - Summary findings

Addendum (August 2013)

The text under the heading below was produced in 2003, and is therefore out of date.  However, the strategic conclusions will not changePending a larger update we have annotated the original text slightly.

We add that it costs the Government five to seven times as much to move a passenger or tonne of freight by rail as it does by the motorway and trunk road system.  The spread sheet (updated December 2016), available here, provides the data, where the ratios of costs per passenger or tonne-km by rail and road, based on the Public Support published in Transport Statistics Great Britain, are in the last column of the table on the first sheet of the work book and where, to the right of that there are other ratios are based on Network Rail's expenditures and upon the differences between those expenditures and income void of grant.

Also our evidence to the Transport Committee adds substantially to the case, see topic 18.

The original text as annotated follows:

Road/rail comparisons - Summary findings

Very much against public and political sentiment roads managed to avoid congestion would offer 3 to 4 times the capacity to move freight and people at one quarter the cost of rail while using 20% to 25% less energy and reducing the annual death toll.

The problem with the proposition is that (a) it is so very much against expectation (b) the numbers are so overwhelming as to inspire disbelief rather than belief (c) few people have ever seen a motor road managed to avoid congestion - the UK road network is (with the exception of motorways and some modern single carriageways) a collection of access roads never designed for motor traffic (d) rail is so romantic.

The primary proposition is expanded below. Nearly all the statements were tested at the Public Inquiry into the West Coast Main Line Modernisation Programme. There, Railtrack's immensely expensive Inquiry Team could do nothing in the face of the research presented. Any person who doubts that may have copies of the relevant closing statements in PDF Format. Additionally, the whole is supported by a series of facts sheets also available in PDF format, list appended.

1. Capacity and use

(a) Rail has one third to one quarter the capacity to move people compared with motor roads managed to avoid congestion - go look at Waterloo.

(b) National Rail carries an average flow per track equivalent to only 340 to 400 buses plus lorries per day, see Facts sheet 1. It is difficult to find a minor road anywhere in the country so lightly loaded in terms of vehicles.

(c) The density of use (passenger and freight flows) achieved by the National Rail system is two to three times less than achieved by the Motorway or from the Trunk road network despite rial having the advantage of serving the hearts of our towns and cities, see facts sheet amended

(d) Only 3% of passenger journeys go by national rail corresponding to just 6% of all motorised passenger miles. (Now, August 2013,  7.5%)

2. Energy consumption

In 2003 the fuel consumption of national rail in the UK was equivalent between 280 and 298 million UK gallons of diesel - passenger rail returning 115 passenger-miles per gallon and rail freight 181 tonne-miles per gallon, ignoring the drag in and out to the rail head, and 144 tonne miles per gallon if the drag in and out is 10 miles at each end of the line haul. In comparison: 

(a)  An express coach may return 10 miles per gallon in uncongested conditions. With 20 people aboard that yields 200 passenger miles per UK gallon

(b)  A lorry may return 8 miles per gallon and deliver and average of 15 Tonnes (30 tonnes out back empty). That yields 120 tonne-miles per UK gallon

Applying those values to the national rail function yields 222 million gallons - 20-25 % less than by rail.

New data is available at facts sheet 5, leaving the conclusion intact

3. Journey lengths, speed and fares

(a) Dividing passenger-km by passenger journeys available from Transport Statistics Great Britain yields an average passenger journey length of 41 km (25 miles).

(b) The 2004 National Travel Survey data shows that 50% of passenger rail journeys are less than 30 km (19 miles) long and that 90% are less those 120 km (75 miles) long. For most of those journeys the express coach, given the right of way, would match the train for journey time particularly after taking account of a service frequency up to 12 times greater.

(b) Fares by express coach are often a fraction of those by train despite the coach paying taxes and making a profit. If rail were to operate without subsidy fares would have to double at least without loss of passengers.

4. Safety

The railway lobby has embedded in the public mind the notion that rail is overwhelming safe compared with road. That has been achieved by (a) ignoring usage, so exaggerating the relative safety of rail by a factor of 18 and (b) comparing passengers killed in so-called "train accidents" with all those killed system-wide on the road network. E.g...

In contrast to that we find that (a) if ordinary traffic, void of motorcycles, pedestrians and cyclists were to be transferred to railway alignments, then the deaths per passenger-km (the death rate) would be similar to, or below, that imposed on society by the railways and (b) if rail passengers transferred to express coaches using rail's rights of way the death rate suffered by those passengers would be significantly reduced - see Facts sheet 2)

5. Widths and headroom  (See Facts sheet 3)

Despite many examples of successful conversions the railway lobby pretends railways are too narrow and lack adequate headroom to be converted to roads. The reality is that although greater widths may be desirable:

(a) A two-track railway typically offers room for a UK standard 7.3-metre carriageway with one-metre marginal strips but no other verges.

(b) On the approaches to towns and cities there is often room for a dual two or three lane highway.

(c) Where there is overhead electrification headroom would often be adequate for a triple-decker.

6. Costs

(a) The annual capital cost of rail passenger rolling stock is 3 times as high as equivalent floor space in express buses.

(b) Track maintenance for rail costs are between 5 and 10 times that required by road transport. 

(c) The cost per track-km of the West Coast Main-Line Modernisation programme is 10 times higher than the cost per lane-km of building the M1 built from scratch including the cost of land.

(d) The net tax revenue per lane-mile for the Motorway and Trunk Road network has the range £(275-360) thousand per year. In contrast the 20,000 miles of rail track is being subsidised to perhaps £5 billion per year or at the rate of £250 thousand per track-mile. 

(e) The rail Modernisation Programme was to cost over £60 billion. Its target was to increase passengers by 50%, e.g... from 6% to 9% of passenger-km, and to increase rail freight from 11% to 17% of tonne-km. However, that could have only a negligible effect on traffic - reducing growth from 15% to 13% over 10 years. Further, despite the Government's guarantee Railtrack's share price collapsed prior to receivership. Hence, in purely financial terms, the £60 billion was and is being almost entirely wasted - equivalent to burning the residential accommodation for a city of 1.5 million people. 

(f) In contrast, replacing the railway lines by a road surface managed to avoid congestion would cost at most £20 billion. The effect would be to offer faster journey times for all but the longest journeys at fares a fraction of those charged to most by rail passengers. 

For more detail see the facts sheets 7 to 9

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