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RAIL 823: Every pound must count

Britain has always fudged getting to grips with a genuinely integrated transport policy, which has rarely amounted to anything more sophisticated than trying to put bus stops close to railway stations. Incredibly, we often get even that wrong.

Nearly 20 years ago, Labour Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott asked us to judge him in five years if his integrated transport policy didn’t take cars off the road. It didn’t… and we did. Prescott appointed Professor David Begg as chairman of CfIT (the Commission for Integrated Transport) with a brief to “hold the Government to account” on its transport policy. Begg made a valiant attempt, but Prescott gave him little of substance to applaud and CfIT withered on the vine. 

Since then we have seen precious little effective integration of rail, road and light rail. In the capital, Transport for London (TfL) has done a good job of bringing together heavy and light rail, bus and water transport. There’s plenty more to be done, but there’s clear
evidence of a ‘controlling mind’ at work in both the operation of existing services and infrastructure and the provision of new
capacity. But nationally? There’s nothing remotely comparable to speak of.

That this needs to change - urgently - was brought into sharp focus for me this week by the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE’s)  latest report: The end of the road: learning from previous road schemes for a better future. In the light of the Government’s 2014 announcement of the biggest road building programme since the 1970s, this CPRE report makes frustrating, damning and frightening reading.

For decades through the 20th century, successive Governments of all colours largely pursued the so-called ‘predict and provide’ policy of forecasting traffic growth and building roads to meet the need and attempt to keep traffic flowing. Then there was an effective moratorium on large-scale road building, which that 2014 decision comprehensively reversed. 

Here’s a cross-section of the report’s more alarming comments and conclusions:

New road building induces new traffic at a faster rate, including on surrounding and
connecting roads, far above background trends over the longer term.

New roads show little evidence of economic benefit to local communities often used to
justify their construction.

New roads cause very significant environmental harm.

Evidence that new roads create more traffic first emerged in 1925 with regard to the Great West Road in West London, and this evidence was validated and proven afresh in a series of ten empirical studies between 1937 and 2006.

Within the CPRE’s 2006 report - in an
article entitled Induced traffic again. And again. And again - Professor Phil Goodwin says: “For 80 years, every eight years on average, there has been the same experience, the same conclusions - even, for goodness sake, more or less the same figures. The
evidence has been consistent, recurrent, unchallenged by serious countervailing evidence - but repeatedly forgotten.”

And we’ve forgotten it again. In the face of ever-increasing congestion, urgent concerns about air quality and intense environmental worries, we are nevertheless embarking on another wave of Tarmac laying which, on the basis of nearly a century’s properly-researched evidence, simply won’t work. 

Politically, of course, the Government feels it has no choice, given the billions of pounds raised in taxes from motorists and the fact that over the past few years we have spent three times more on rail than road investment. That is of course the right thing to do (yes, I know I would say that), but the evidence makes clear that rail investment DOES deliver a return.

Take the Borders Railway as an example. The Northern third of the through ‘Waverley’ route to Carlisle reopened as far as Tweedbank in September 2015, and in its first year more than 1.3 million passengers used the railway - 22% more than forecast. Even more incredibly, usage at the Tweedbank terminus was fully ten times more than forecast, largely because of the problem of accurately assessing the big unknown of unserved demand.

Reopening a closed railway does minimal environmental damage and it does pay back - it would be foolish to rely too heavily on ‘build it and they will come’, but that has been the experience thus far. New railways (like new roads) also cause environmental damage, but the land take is smaller, the damage therefore much less severe, and rail consistently pays back - as the more than doubling of total
passenger numbers from 800 million to 1.7 billion in the past 20 years clearly proves.

But we do also need roads, so we need to make sure rail investment is not only timely and effective but also better value. But
railways still cost too much and NR (through devolution and opening itself to competition from new investors) must drive those costs down. Where otherwise is the challenge to runaway costs going to come from?

For example, the Great Western electrification (and every other infrastructure enhancement) currently carries substantial and pointless extra costs because of the requirement to abide by European Union Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs). 

During his time as TfL’s Commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy successfully resisted a requirement to build the Crossrail tunnels to the much bigger (and far costlier) TSI diameter for European trains because “I am not anticipating too many German freight trains through Tottenham Court Road station and it would be a massive waste of money”.

Where is that challenge coming from on our national network? I understand that enhancements such as Doncaster’s Platform 0 were built to full TSI standards, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing too many TGVs among Northern’s Pacers! Likewise the forthcoming remodelling of King’s Cross station throat could be much more expensive as a result not only of TSIs but also because of new and much more generous electrical clearances. Because I hear that while Hendy successfully resisted EU TSIs on the Crossrail central tunnel section, NR did not do likewise beyond the east and west tunnel mouths, where compliance with those TSIs has been implemented at significant extra cost.

Opening up NR to contestability (the subject of the ongoing Hansford review) is our best hope of reinventing common sense, because a much more cost-conscious competitor would undoubtedly challenge those TSIs. They would also question whether or not those new electrical clearances are appropriate for that remodelled King’s Cross station throat, given that the other 400 miles of East Coast Main Line have been perfectly safe for the last 27 years. 

Maybe there should be a change. Maybe we should use those TSIs. But shouldn’t we at least challenge these and other soaring costs more than NR has been doing? If rail is going to make its full contribution where the
evidence proves roads can’t, then every penny of that investment must be better spent.

Comment: RAIL 823: March 29 2017 - April 11 2017



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