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ASA adjudication, A05-00133

 Advertiser:                             Transport-Watch UK

Date of adjudication:            2 November 2005

Basis of complaint

Objections from members of the public, the Railway Forum and the Rail Development Society Ltd trading as Railfuture, to a magazine advertisement that was headlined

All the complainants challenged:

  1. whether the advertisement exaggerated the safety of road users, particularly because they believed it misleadingly compared network-wide fatalities with motorway fatalities only and
  2. whether the advertisement, and in particular claims related to the speed of express coaches, was misleading because it did not take into account safe average speeds on urban roads.
  3. The Railway Forum, Railfuture and a member of the public challenged the basis of the figures used to calculate rail subsidies.
  4. The Railway Forum challenged whether the advertisement misleadingly implied that more London commuters could be transported by road during peak hours than were currently transported by rail.
  5. The Railway Forum, Railfuture and a member of the public challenged whether the advertisement, and particularly the claim "Express coaches and lorries could discharge the national rail function using 20-25% less fuel than required by rail", misleadingly implied that road transport caused less environmental damage than rail.
  6. The Railway Forum and a member of the public challenged whether the comparison of rail and road fares between London and Birmingham were misleading.


The advertisers said the claims in the advertisement were based on published data and sent figures extrapolated from Government statistics, Railtrack Network Management Statements and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to support them. They also submitted a feasibility study conducted in August 1974 entitled "Better use of Railways" by Hall and Smith.

The Authority acknowledged that the feasibility study conducted in 1974 made some plausible arguments for converting some railway lines to roads, in terms of costs, but noted the report did not substantiate the specific claims made in the advertisement, which were presented as "fact".  The Authority noted the claims in the advertisement were based on information collated from various studies of existing railway conversions and the advertisers' projection of the potential benefits of converting railway lines into roads for express passenger coaches and goods vehicles in the UK, and especially London.  It noted the advertisers' comparisons between the safety, the financial cost and the environmental impact of road and rail made assumptions such as that all existing track and environs were capable of conversion to roads on which coaches could match or surpass trains for speed, whereas the complainants believed this would not be possible in all cases because of the variations of verges on some roads and because the coaches the advertisers advocated would have to travel at speeds that would not be attainable given the national speed limit.  The Authority also noted the advertisers had included subsidies to national rail in their calculations for the cost of rail transport, but had not included the unavoidable cost of converting railways to roads in their claims for the financial benefits of road transport.  The Authority was concerned that the quoted fare of £3 was an unrepresentative example of the cost of return coach travel from London to Birmingham, because not all travellers would be able to book tickets online and in advance. 

 The Authority noted, although the claims appeared in a strongly-worded campaigning advertisement, they were presented as fact, not opinion.  It considered that, while the large amount of evidence presented by the advertisers constituted an in-depth assessment of the shortcomings of rail travel, it reflected only one side of a hotly debated issue and did not set out comprehensively the assumptions on which the claims for the benefits of conversions to roads were based.  It considered that citing specific examples of previous rail to road conversions in the UK and in the US did not, in itself, show those benefits would extend to the situations quoted in the advertisement.  The Authority concluded that the advertisers were entitled to express their opinion about the shortcomings of railways and how factors such as rail safety, speed, and the circumstances of London commuters might be improved by converting some railways to roads, but considered that the tone of the advertisement, which presented the advertisers' claims and comparisons as "facts", was too strongly worded.   The Authority told Transport Watch to tone the advertisement down and urged them to consult the CAP Copy Advice team for help doing that.

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