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Article
20 January 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Concrete over the railways
The combustion engine is streets ahead of the obsolete piece of Victorian engineering that is the British rail system.

by Stanley Feldman

The rail network in the UK is as extensive as the motorways and trunk roads combined, according to the organisation Transport Watch. The network covers over 10,000 miles. It is subsidised by the taxpayer to the extent of 5billion a year. It has had billions of pounds lavished on it over the past few years and is estimated to need another 50-100billion investment over the next 10 years.

In spite of each rail journey being subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of 20p per passenger mile, its fares are much higher than comparable journeys by coach. Megabus return fare to Birmingham is 2.50 compared to a rail fare of between 20 and 92. The fuel efficiency per passenger mile travelled by train is no better than that of an average diesel car carrying two people. This pampered darling of the transport lobby only carries about two per cent of travellers, compared to 98 per cent carried by road and air; and it transports just over 10 per cent of the freight. Half the population of England use the train less than once a year, and it is four times more likely to be used by the richer sections of society than the poorer ones.

This obsolete piece of Victorian engineering has passed its sell-by date; the newer, highly efficient, internal combustion engines have superseded it. It is time to announce the railway's impending demise.

If the 10,000 miles of railway lines were concreted over and turned into trunk roads, with no traffic lights and crossroads, to be used only by lorries and coaches, it could carry between five and 10 times as many passengers per hour as the railway. The advantages would be enormous. Instead of one train of several coaches leaving every 30 minutes, dreamliner coaches carrying over 50 passengers, in considerable luxury, would be able to depart at five-minute intervals. The system would be flexible and cheap. Even with the existing congested road system, a coach fare is on average five times cheaper than the lowest rail fare - with dedicated roads free of congestion and traffic lights, a coach would be even cheaper.

With the coaches and heavy lorries off the roads the congestion on our highways would be greatly reduced. This type of transport system would no longer be a burden on the taxpayer; indeed there is no reason why a modest toll should not make it produce revenue for the exchequer. It has been estimated that the cost of concreting over the railways would be a fraction of the projected expense of upgrading them for rail transport.

There may well be a strategic reason for retaining a single high-speed train track
It is pertinent to consider why railways are both expensive and inefficient. A single railway coach costs over 1.2million, while a diesel train costs about 10million. These leviathans weigh many tons. A dreamliner coach costs about 150,000 and it weighs a fraction of that of a single train carriage. Since the energy used in moving an object depends on the mass (weight) multiplied by the distance travelled, it follows that the train is at a major disadvantage. In addition, the traction of pneumatic tyres is more effective at transferring energy into motion than metal wheels on metal rails, which waste much energy as heat.

There is the specific problem of freight, most of which is at present carried on the roads. This is because of the inefficiency of transporting heavy goods to a railhead to be loaded on to a train, only for the same expensive operation to be necessary when it is off-loaded at its destination. A dedicated coach and freight track would solve this problem. One of the major disadvantages of rail transport is that a fast train cannot run on the same line as a suburban, stopping slow train without sidetracks and expensive signalling. No such problem exists with road transport.

There may well be a strategic reason for retaining a single high-speed train track, like the French TGV, for journeys to Scotland and to Dover to link up with the cross channel tunnel, but it would require a heavy subsidy by the taxpayer.

It is time to stop pouring money into obsolete, uncompetitive technology when science points to a future with even better and more fuel efficient cars and coaches.

Stanley Feldman is author of Panic Nation (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Much of the information in this article comes from Transport-Watch (email enquires@transport-watch.co.uk).


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