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Ten points that expose the big railway lie

Paul Withrington Director Transport-watch Northampton NN2
20 March 2020

I see, a little belatedly, that you cited my calculation that it would take the PM’s aide Dominic Cummings 6,000 hours to find the ideal genius or weirdo if he were to spend ten minutes on each of the 35,000 applications, of which I am one (In Passing LTT 7 Feb). 

So far so good but I am then cited as applying as a genius. That is a mistake. I applied as a weirdo – so weird that I believe that applying the rules of arithmetic to national statistics should inform policy. Doing that produces the following startling results, (references are on www.transport-watch.co.uk):

  1. If all London’s crushed surface rail commuters were seated in 75-seat express coaches then, in the am peak hour, those coaches would occupy only one-seventh of the capacity available if the network were paved (See the calculation in Topic 15).
  2. If the railway function were discharged by express coaches and lorries, using rail’s right of way, then the average flow per track would amount to a trivial 450 vehicles per day – enabling countless other lorries and vehicles to divert from the unsuitable city streets and rural roads which they now clog (Fact Sheet 1).
  3. The nimble bus would use terminal space far more efficiently than does the cumbersome train (again, Fact Sheet 1). 
  4. If the railway function were discharged by express coaches and lorries using rail’s rights of way there would be a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in energy consumption (Fact Sheet 5).
  5. If trespassers but not suicides are included then rail kills more people per passenger-mile than does the strategic road system (Fact Sheet 2).
  6. It costs the taxpayer seven to ten times as much to move a passenger or tonne of freight by rail as it does by road. Furthermore, tax taken from road users exceeds expenditure by a factor of five (Topic 2).
  7. Widths and headroom on double track railways are wide and high enough to accommodate the carriageway of a two-way trunk road but of vastly superior alignment (Fact Sheet 3).
  8. Replacing the tracks with asphalt would cost between £20bn and £30bn (Fact Sheet 12).  In comparison rail has cost the nation £80bn over the past decade (Topic 2).
  9. Except for the longest journeys, the express coach would match the train for speed. For instance, the train takes 77 minutes to cover the 77 miles between London and Southampton. Railway enthusiasts will note that an express coach motoring at 60mph would match that time while offering a service frequency four to 12 times higher than the train.
  10. Nearly half of us use a train less than once a year. 

If the Poorhouse of the North wants to become a Power House – take the tracks off its vast, costly and substantially disused rail network and convert them to roads. It’s obvious. Despite that, and the fact that rail carries less than two per cent of the region’s passenger journeys (Topic 35), Transport for the North expects to spend tens of billions of pounds on rail. 

All very weird, but Frances Cairncross, writing as the economics editor of The Guardian in 1974, had the answer as to why the railway bandwagon rolls on. She wrote  “...when trains are still the theme of nursery rhymes and children’s stories, it is small wonder that the railways have a romantic fascination for most adults. Only years of nursery conditioning can explain the calm with which the public has accepted a bill of £3,000m (£24bn at 2016 prices) to subsidise British Rail over the last decade.” 

Railway enthusiasts will be relieved to know that Dominic has not contacted me yet. 

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