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Topic 6, The Case for Rail by Railfuture - A critique by Transport-Watch

4th April 2005

Amended March 2009 – see end note

The Case for Rail, published in 2004,  is a booklet used by the Rail lobby in its continuous campaign to have taxpayers subsidise the railways to the tune of billions of pounds annually. The booklet is available at £2.50 from Norman Bradbury, Railfuture Book Sales, 30 The Mount, Worcester Park , Surrey , KT4 8UD . Tel: (020) 8394 0675 . The Item numbers below follow the numbered headings in that booklet. Generally the comment can be understood without recourse to the source.

Item 1. Background  

Tables 1 and 2 (of the Case for Rail) make an unreasonable comparison in that they compare the length of the rail network with length of the entire road network. That network is nearly 400,000 km long but most of it consists of minor rural roads and urban back streets. The reasonable comparison would be with the Motorway and Trunk Road network. That has a length of 15,500 km and a lane length in the range (50,000 to 55,000) km. In comparison the national rail network is some 16,000 km long and offers a track length of 32,000 km.

Item 2. Carrying Capacity

This item starts with the extraordinary statement that a twin track railway has the same carrying capacity of a six-lane motorway. Those interested in the truth may like to know that there is a single express bus lane serving the New York Bus terminal. That lane carries 700 45-seat coaches in the peak hour providing 31,500 seats - 4 times the number of crushed peak hour passengers alighting per track at Victoria London. (For notes to do with the peak hour arrivals at Victoria see End Note 1)

The item continues by carrying forward the misrepresentation at Item 1 in that rail usage is related to the usage of the entire road network instead of to the comparable Motorway and Trunk Road network. On that basis Railfuture say rail uses its rights of way 1.74 times as effectively as does road with regard to passengers and 3.1 times as effectively with regard to freight.

However when rail is compared with the motorway and trunk road networks the facts are reversed. The data summarized from Facts Sheet 1 follows:



Per day per track or lane in 2010

National Rail


M'ways and trunk roads





Per day per track or lane in 2010 

National Rail


M'ways and trunk roads





Comment: despite the rail network occupying corridors of intense demand and penetrating to the hearts of our towns and cities the density of use is one fifth to one third of that achieved by motorway and the Motorway plus Trunk Road networks. Those networks have the disadvantage that they do not generally penetrate urban areas. Additionally most of the passenger movement is by private car. Further and separately from that, averaged over the network as a whole, the average flow by rail is equivalent to 300 buses plus lorries per day per track - a flow that would be quite lost on a motor road capable of carrying 5,000-10,000 vehicles per day per lane.

Item 3. Energy

The publication says rail is significantly more energy efficient than other modes. However, system-wide national rail returns the equivalent of 94 passenger miles per gallon. That is no more fuel efficient than a diesel powered family car containing two people and very much less efficient than an express coach returning 10 miles per gallon with 20 people aboard.

The Transport Watch Facts Sheet 5 provides the detail substantiating the above. The Facts sheet concludes with the unchallenged statement that, given rail's rights of way, express coaches and lorries could discharge the national rail function using 24 % less fuel than the trains whilst emitting less carbon.

Item 4. Environment

The item starts with the phrase "due to its more efficient use of energy and space.." a phrase overturned by the above.

Separately from that we comment, the environmental consequence of preserving Rail's rights of way as railway is that the immensely wide routes serving the heart of London are substantially disused while lorries and other traffic clog unsuitable city streets. The publication makes no reference to that. Instead it compares rail with air overlooking the fact that 50% of rail journeys are less than 25 miles long and that 90% are less than 80 miles long.

Item 5. Speed .

Much of this item compares rail with air. However the discussion overlooks the journey length data cited above. Hence, for nearly all rail journeys air is an irrelevance and for 90% of journeys the express coach would match the train for journey time, given the rights of way, offering a service up to 10 times as frequent and at a fraction the cost.

Item 6. Safety

The emboldened text on page 10 grossly exaggerates in favour of rail by (a) ignoring usage - currently there are 18 times many passenger miles by road as by rail and (b) comparing deaths in the narrowly defined class of railway accident called "Train Accidents" with all deaths, system-wide, on the entire road system. Similarly the table on page 9 should be struck out - it misleads by lack of clarity E.g. (a) are pedestrians included for road and are trespassers (but not suicides) included for rail? (b) the casualty rates for different classes of road vehicle are vastly different from each other. Hence to provide an all-road value invites misinterpretation.

The reality is that the death rate in the envelope bounded by the ticket barriers including trespassers but not suicides amounts to 4.1 per billion passenger-km compared with 2.45 on the motorway and rural trunk road network.

For more detail see  facts sheet 2  

Item 7 Economics

Railfuture’s table 7, Infrastructure Costs Compared, misleads by way of lack of definition – pretending that rail construction is cheaper than road construction. It should be struck out. What is required is a statement of the track length and lane lengths along with costs for comparable schemes. True comparability is not easy to find but the Treasury estimated that the replacement cost of the M1 built from scratch, including land, is £2.1 billion at 1999 prices - let us say £2.5 billion at current prices. The lane length, excluding hard shoulders, is 1800 km. Hence the cost per lane km is £1.4 million. Alternatively consider the Highway Agency's estimate of the cost per mile for dual 3-lane motorway construction of £25 million per mile including 17.5% VAT and 40% optimisation bias. That yields £2.6 million per lane-km but shorn of VAT and optimisation bias it amounts to £1.3 billion. ( Since the source data was from historic sources the 40% bias seems excessive. The inclusion of VAT is certainly inappropriate since it is the Government that collects).

In any event the West Coast Main Line Modernisation Programme now has a cost of some £8 billion, concentrated on the core 1,000 km of track. That provides £8 million per track-km. Alternatively, consider the proposed East Coast High Speed Line. Its cost is currently 36 billion for 4 tracks over 600 km requiring 2400 track-km. Hence the cost per track-km is £15 billion - over 10 times that for the M1.

Item 8 Social Exclusion and Regeneration

This section starts with the statement that "it is certainly not true that most rail passengers are well heeled". Whatever that means we note the RAC's report on motoring for 2004 finds that 50% of fare revenue comes from the households within the top 20% band of income. Further we note that if the rights of way occupied by rail were available to express coaches then the fares would be reduced by a factor of at least 5 - or at least that is often the current differential.

As for Regeneration - we field a picture of Rugby 's 100 year attempt at that leaving the reader to contemplate other vast areas of derelict railway land that would be business park, industrial estate or retail park, given good road access.

Product of Rugby's 100 year attempt to attract development                                        Better from the platforms?


We conclude that "The Case for Rail" is consistent with the railway lobby's propaganda down the decades. That propaganda has created a myth that bears no relationship to reality - leading to massive Government expenditure on a system which half the population uses less than once a year.

The truth is that the national railway function could be carried out by express coaches and lorries, given the rights of way, at one quarter the cost of the train, halving the death rate, using 20-25% less fuel and offering all London's crushed rail commuters seats at a fraction the current fares.

We believe that it is in the national interest that the above should be investigated by a body such as the Advertising Standards Authority, ASA. However it appears that for technical reason the booklet is "not an advert" and hence it is outside the purview of that body.

End Notes

1.      In correspondence , Norman Bradbury of Railfuture cited London Rail Director, Ian Brown, claiming 75,000 passengers arrive at Victoria in the peak hour. We suspect that is actually the peak 3-hour number (7.00 am to 10.00 am). Mr Bradbury also cites the terminal as handling 250,000 passengers per day, presumably arrivals plus departures. If so, and if 20% of arrivals are in the peak hour they would number 25,000 - broadly consistent with the 30,000 that we quote. Subsequently we inquired of Network Rail's staff at Victoria Main Line. Our contact said the number of passengers using the terminal on a weekday is 310,000 (arrivals plus departures). We pressed him to say how many of the 155,000 arrivals were in the peak. He said 40% over the 3 hours 7am to 10am. When pressed further for a peak hour number all he could say was that it is very busy for the whole of the 3 hours. Against that background it seems generous to suggest that as much 20% of the daily arrivals (half those from the peak 3 hours) actually arrive in the peak hour. If we use that number, we get 31,000 - remarkably close to the 30,000 we have quoted previously. Against that background, we believe Mr Bradbury should withdraw his assertion that the number is 75,000.

Norman Bradbury has subsequently confirmed that his75,000 in the peak hour is a blunder in that the number represents a peak three hour flow.

The amendments are:

(a)            Item 2. In the first line. In error we previously cited Railfuture as saying that a two track railway had six times the carrying capacity of a six-lane motorway when we should have written the same carrying capacity as a six lane motorway.  We comment, despite our blunder the strategic conclusion remains unchanged.  The idea that a twin track railway has the same carrying capacity as a six-lane motorway has no basis in fact.  Instead one lane of a motor road appears to have 4 times the capacity of the tracks serving Victoria Main Line.

(b)           Item 3 the numbers have been updated

(c)            Item 6 the numbers have been updated and the comparison with express coaches deleted following the update to Facts Sheet 2

(d)           Item 7. The cost of the West Coast Main Line Modernisation has been updated from £7 billion to £8 billion.


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