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A "Forensic demolition" of the Transport Watch Advert?

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In issue 505 of the magazine "Rail" dated January 19 th 2005, Nigel Harris, the Managing Editor, and Adrian Lyons, the Railway Forum Director, attempted to discredit the Transport-Watch advertisement placed in Private Eye, The New Statesman and The Week. (Click here to see the advert)

Nigel Harris' comment depended almost entirely on The Cooper and Lybrand Report published in 1984. That report was guided by a steering committee chaired by Sir Peter Parker, then the Chairman of the British Railway's Board. One conclusion was that "none of the 10 routes examined could be converted to roads conforming to the minimum standards laid down by the Department of Transport except by the expenditure of substantial capital sums." Nigel Harris goes on to say that "the DoT stipulated that new through two way roads should be at least 7.3 metres wide - and the blunt truth is that double track railways cannot accommodate even this minimum requirement without buying extra land".

Reference web site facts sheet 3, we comment - the blunt truth is that nearly everywhere the clear width between bridge abutments, viaduct parapets, and tunnel walls on double track railways is 7.3m. Elsewhere the level width is 8.5m but wider on the bends. Hence it is clear that, provided width standards are not gold plated by adding 3 metre verges and the like, railway alignments are wide enough for carriageways the same width as those for modern two way trunk roads. On the approaches to towns and cities there is often room for 4 or 6 lanes.

As to headroom, clearances above rail top are normally 4.16m (13ft 8in) increased to 4.77m (15ft 8in) where there is overhead electrification. Road level would be 300mm (1ft) below rail top. Hence, without altering tunnels and bridges, the clearances available are 4.46m up to 5.07m. In many parts of the world the required headroom is 4.5m or below.

The international height for a road vehicle is 4 m high. Most lorries in the UK are less than 4.3 metres high. Double deck buses range from 3.9m to 4.44m. Headroom clearances above the vehicles of 200mm are adequate.

Against that background the notion that railways are "too narrow" or lack adequate headroom for conversion should be dismissed.

Nigel Harris also cites Sir Peter as asking the rhetorical question "does it really makes sense to replace one man driving a 1,000 tonne goods trains or 800 commuters with buses and lorries individually driven?" That comment can do the railway case no good at all. After all:

  • Passenger trains often have 2 or 3 other crew.
  • Many if not most passenger trains are 4 cars long or less. Off peak, and in the off peak direction they are often nearly empty.
  • Armies of men are required to man the signals - none of which would be required by replacement road vehicles.
  • The track is lightly used compared with roads and incredibly expensive to maintain - requiring other armies of men.

In any event, in 1990 British Rail employed two people for very item of rolling stock, consequently a twelve-car train needed not just the driver but at least 24 people to run it. The true number for passenger rail may be substantially higher since the freight wagons may be less labour intensive than the coaching vehicles. London Underground required five people for every carriage.

As for Sir Peter's Steering Committee, we note - Professor Christopher Foster, a committee member, attacked BR's management saying the presentation had "misrepresented" the report. Michael Posner, another member of the Committee, and a part-time BR Board Member, said, "Boards are not arbiters of intellectual Honesty"

Turning to Adrian Lyons allegedly "forensic demolition" of the Transport Watch advert and taking his points in turn:

Safety: Mr Lyons says that bus and coach is only 1.03 times safer than rail. However he does not give the source. Probably the data refers to a single year and limits rail deaths to passengers killed in Train Accidents. Those deaths exclude people killed boarding and alighting, falling out of trains, falling off platforms, and crossing the lines not to mention staff, postal workers and those on (railway) business. In any event there is little point in comparing death rates by bus with rail since a bus stopping every 200 yards on a city street is not comparable to a train. Also single year data varies greatly year to year.

To overcome that we obtained, by special request from the DfT, the casualties to passengers in buses and coaches on non-urban roads for the period 1996 to 2002. We added an allowance for deaths immediately before and after boarding and divided the total by an estimate of the passenger-miles. The death rate to passengers came to 0.2 per billion passenger-km. The same calculation for rail passengers killed in the envelope bounded by the ticket barriers came to 0.4. We excluded staff etc. from that. Mr Lyons does not attack our analysis although a summary is available on our web site.

Mr Lyons goes on to deny that trespassers should be included when considering system-wide safety - overlooking the fact that the railway lobby routinely compares passengers killed in so called Train Accidents with all those killed on the entire road system. We comment, such comparisons are to be deplored not least for the damage done to the reputations of those wishing to support rail. After all the numbers (a) exaggerate the relative safety of rail compared with road a factor of 18 by ignoring usage (b) include all those killed on the road network while limiting the rail deaths to passengers in a special class of accident.

We insist - system-wide, including trespassers but not suicides, 2.5 times as many people per passenger-mile die on national rail within the envelope bounded by the ticket barriers as die on the motorway network. That shocking fact is not our fault - but it is a matter of fact.

Cost and subsidy: Mr Lyons cites the subsidy to rail passengers as approximately 8 pence per mile. He provides no basis for that but probably it is operating subsidy. In contrast our number (20-40 pence) is based on capital plus operating expenditure as follows. The SRA confirmed to us in 2003 that the industry's wish for the decade is to spend £100 billion on capital projects. If the £100 billion is to be repaid at 6% over 30 years then the annual cost is £7.26 billion. Add operating subsidy, which has a long run average of £2 billion per year, and get 9.26 billion. Divide by the 25 billion annual passenger-miles and get 37 pence. Against that background we cited the range 20-40 pence. The underlying data for that is clearly supported by the SRA. Hence Mr Lyon's "forensic demolition" of our case on this issue can be set aside. (We note Roger Ford writing in Modern Railways, February 2005, estimates that the Government will support Network Rail to the tune of £5.9 billion in 2005).

Mr Lyons attacked us for saying "half of us use the train less than once a year". He suggests that this important comment is in some way unimportant or meaningless. However, the reverse fact (that half of us use the railways at least once a year) is used in paragraph 2 of the SRA publication Everyone's Railway to demonstrate how incredibly important rail is to the nation. We comment - what greater illustration of the capacity of the rail lobby to deceive itself do we need?

London's rail Commuters. Mr Lyons says the normal maximum carrying capacity for buses using a bus lane is 7,000 seats per hour per direction. Presumably Mr Lyons is thinking of a bus lane on a city street. In any event he does not appear to know about the single express bus lane serving the New York Bus terminal. That lane carries 700 45-seat coaches in the peak hour every weekday. If the coaches had 90 seats (as offered by Megabus) there would be 63,000 seats per hour - 9 times Mr Lyons' value.

Mr Lyons goes on to say that "suburban rail (presumably double track) can deliver 50,000 seats per hour per direction". We challenge Mr Lyons to find anywhere in the UK (other than the London Underground) where a single rail track delivers as many as 10,000 passengers per hour let alone 50,000 seats.

In any event, and as a matter of fact, each track into Victoria Main Line London delivers only 7,500 passengers in the peak hour. Many of those passengers will have travelled in crushed conditions. Hence it appears that the seated capacity of the New York bus lane may be up to 8 times the " crushed conditions" capacity offered by each rail tracks serving Victoria Main Line.

Environment - Mr Lyons talks of emissions. We have not spoken of them. Instead we have pointed out that, given rails rights of way, the national rail function could be carried out by express coaches and lorries using 20-25% less fuel than does the train. At the same time death rates would be halved, and capacity increased by a factor of at least 4 if not 8. The latter would allow countless lorries and other vehicles currently clogging unsuitable rural roads and city streets to divert to rail routes - bringing relieve to those living alongside our historic road network.

Speed. Mr Lyons opens by expressing astonishment that coaches "travelling nose to tail on an uncongested road may average 60-65 mph". We comment - on an uncongested road it is routine for a coach to motor at 60 mph. In 1960s and prior to the speed limits on motorways coaches used to motor 90-100 mph on the M1. Hence we ask - What is the problem?

We conclude that, far from Mr Lyons mounting a "forensic demolition", there is no effective challenge to our case.

Paul Withrington for Transport-Watch February 2005

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