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The UK’s rural roads are more under-used than railways

John Helm, Chatham ME4
18 April 2020

Paul Withrington has a thing about railways: he doesn’t like them (Letters LTT 20 Mar). 

If his case for rail to road conversion is so compelling – and the advantages are as great as he makes them out to be – then why are the coach operators, haulage companies and highway contractors not all queuing up and clamouring for the transformation he demands? Why have only 250 miles of 10,000 disused miles of railway track been converted to date? Why are leading haulage concerns – such as Stobart – switching traffic to, not from, rail? And why is there no demand from the travelling public for such a conversion?

Mr Withrington has his answer off pat: it’s all due to our irrational fixation with trains implanted during our formative years (LTT 20 Mar). We are all closet train spotters! Everyone, it seems, is out step but himself. 

The practical barriers to his conversion plans are obvious. No transport manager with a brain in the head would divert his trucks, or his coaches, from motorways and shoehorn them onto narrow rail formations where they are likely to be buffeted, or blown off, viaducts and high-sided embankments by strong side winds – or worse still – run the risk of bashing in their roofs and sides by driving them through narrow tunnels only to collide head on with oncoming traffic. Not unless he’s in the kamikaze business or contemplating hari-kari.

Rail tunnels lack sufficient clearance for conversion and would need to be lit and ventilated as well as being widened and deepened. Since Network Rail has around 600 tunnels – more than 40 over a mile in length – that would require an awful lot of electricity (and money). Emergency access and exit would also need to be provided with walkways on either side (meaning even less space to squeeze a road into). Every year Network Rail suffers over 2,000 bridge strikes from HGVs. That figure would be multiplied many times should HGVs and public service vehicles start running over converted tracks.

Ernest Marples – the UK’s most pro-road minister of transport (hardly a closet railfan or anorak) – had no time for conversion: “The idea is open to insuperable objections. The estimated cost is much too low and does not take account of construction of junctions. Unless all overbridges and tunnels are rebuilt, it would be unusable by large vans and double-deck buses. It would require a very high capital investment.”

It’s not just tunnels, viaducts, cuttings and embankments; Network Rail also has around 6,000 level crossings, of which some 1,500 cross public highways. Conversion would mean they would need to be remodelled or removed, adding further complications and upping costs.

Britain’s road network (246,700 route miles) is roughly 25 times the size of the national rail network (9,870 route miles). However, according to Transport Statistics Great Britain 2019 – road freight only carried 8.9 times more traffic than rail (152 as against 17 billion tonne kilometres, in 2018), and road passenger traffic (of all types) was only 8.8 times more (718 as against 81 billion passenger kilometres, in 2018).

Therefore taking the country as whole, it is the road, not the rail, system that is underutilised. TSGB stats also show that the motorways – which make up less than one per cent of total road mileage – carried 21 per cent of all traffic, while the corresponding minor road shares were 87 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. I’m sure if Dr Beeching were still around he would have something to say about the latter! Underused roads carry less traffic than underused railways (but are never closed, please note).

Rail also takes up less acreage. A four-track main line is about 50 ft (15.3 metres) wide, about twice the size of a double track one. A four lane motorway – including central reservation and hard shoulders but excluding verge areas – measures between 126 ft (38.4 metres) and 143 ft (43.5 metres) according to Highways England’s Design Manual for Roads & Bridges (DMRB). Rail formations are less generous (width-wise) than is generally supposed. I do not have the current figures to hand, but in 1948, multi-track route mileage (four tracks and more) accounted for less than eight per cent of total BR route mileage (1,507 out of 19,630), whereas the single track proportion made up more than a third (7,234 miles).

Mr Withrington fantasises about the efficacy of the express coaches. Coaches are bound by a statutory 70 mph maximum limit (60 mph for vehicles over 12 metres), and have a maximum 2.55 metres (8ft 4in) width. Trains can travel at twice these speeds in complete safety, whilst carriage widths – despite the cramped confines of the British loading gauge – are more generous, ranging from 2.7 metres (8ft 10in) to 2.82 metres (9ft 3in). Conversionists dream about buses/coaches leaving Liverpool Street and Waterloo every few seconds to provide a more frequent service. Thousands of coaches – and drivers – would be needed but they have produced no timetables, or come up with any traffic management schemes for coping with such huge traffic volumes. How they would run in ice, snow and fog still goes unexplained. The result would be chaos and anarchy. The not so ‘nimble bus’, would soon find itself gridlocked (especially as it needs space to turn, something a train does not have to do).

Mr Withrington also repeats the old canard about the government making money out of the road system. As he full well knows – or should do – revenues from Vehicle Excise Duty and fuel go (like the taxes on tobacco and drink) directly into the Treasury pot to pay for the NHS, education and other services, and that VAT is largely recoverable [Since this month, VED in England is ringfenced for the new National Roads Fund – Ed]. Toll roads apart, roads in this country have never been required to make a profit or show a return on capital, and have always been funded less stringently than rail. By contrast, the GB rail infrastructure was built by and paid for by private companies, at no cost to the taxpayer. For over a century profits from private railways not only paid out dividends to shareholders, they went in taxes and rates to governments as well.

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