Tracks to Tarmac?

Is rail-to-road conversion an unheralded idea whose time has come?

Beeching was Right

More than forty years after his report on "The Reshaping of Britain's Railways", the name of Dr Richard Beeching remains notorious. The "Beeching Axe" was responsible for the closure of thousands of miles of rail route and hundreds of local stations on routes that remained open, facilities which in many cases had been accepted as part of local life for a hundred years or more. In some places, even now, Beeching is regarded with resentment and bitterness.

Yet the irony is, far from trying to destroy the railways, Beeching was actually doing his best to save them. Rural branch lines had been rendered hopelessly uneconomic by the advent of the motor bus and the motor lorry, and represented a dead weight of cost that was dragging the whole system down. Beeching recognised that the railways needed to concentrate on the types of traffic where they had the greatest competitive advantage, rather than trying to offer a universal service.

Despite the protests and the nostalgia, basically Beeching has been proved right. Although the rail network is only about 60% the length it was in 1962, passenger traffic has now reached a post-war record, and overcrowding and lack of track capacity are problems in many places. Since the mid-Seventies, very few passenger-carrying lines have closed, and substantial lengths have in fact been reopened to passenger traffic. There are concerns about the level of subsidy required, but much of that is a result of the ill-thought-out privatisation of the 1990s, which mired the railways in a morass of contractual relationships and gave no clear overall incentive for cost-effectiveness. The healthy traffic levels, despite frequent complaints of high fares, are a clear indicator of the fundamental viability and usefulness of the system.

But did he go far enough?

However, for some people, Beeching did not go anywhere near far enough. If you've closed a third of the country's railways down, why not go the whole hog and convert the rest into roads? So in the 1960s was born the Railway Conversion League to campaign for this option, led by one Angus Dalgleish. To be honest, this was never more than a tiny body enjoying no widespread support, but for a while its ideas proved attractive to some Conservative politicians exasperated by rail unions holding the country to ransom. They reached the high water mark of success when, in the early 80s, the Serpell Report on the future of the railways suggested, as one of a range of options, reducing the rail network from 11,000 to around 1,600 miles. But even Margaret Thatcher, who may have had some instinctive sympathy for the idea, realised it was a political non-starter, and it was rapidly consigned to the waste bin.

Since then, the Railway Conversion League has become moribund, and the subject now rarely comes up. A Google search was unable to unearth a single website or even web article arguing the case. But, if you should ever encounter one of the dwindling band who still believe in the idea, it is worth reiterating what in my view is the overwhelming case against it.

Nobody else has done it

The fact that nobody else has pursued a particular policy does not necessarily prove that it is wrong. But it generally is a strong indicator. If rail-to-road conversion was such a good idea, then why hasn't anyone else done it?

No major developed country in the world has gone down the path of rail-to-road conversion, and most, particularly those with similar distances and population densities to the UK such as France, Germany, Italy and Japan, are investing a lot more in improving their rail networks than we are.

Over the years, the UK has closed about 10,000 miles of railway track, but less than 5% of that has been turned into road, and that usually many years after the railway in question had closed. Former trackbeds provide some useful bypasses and relief roads, but they don't provide any long-distance roads.

Even in the US, the thing that really did for long-distance passenger rail was not the car but domestic air travel. The US still has many busy and expanding commuter rail networks around major cities, and enormous amounts of long-distance bulk rail freight. Most closed railroads in the US have simply been abandoned; very few have been turned into roads.

Even where small countries such as Mauritius have completely abandoned their rail networks, the trains have been replaced by buses and trucks running on existing roads, and the tracks left to be recolonised by nature, or, in the case of Mauritius, turned into leisure footpaths.

It's just not practical

The UK currently has a rail network of about 11,000 miles, most of which is double-track. This could only be converted into single-carriageway roads with a width substantially below current recommended standards, particularly when traversing bridges and tunnels. If single-track, even worse. Only about 1000 miles of the network is four-track, mostly in the London area, and even that isn't wide enough for a high-standard four-lane road.

It is generally reckoned that high-quality trunk roads need to be at least four-lane dual carriageways with grade separated junctions, whereas converted railways would be two-lane roads with at-grade signalised junctions. Tunnels and bridges would pose a particular problem as on double-track railways they are typically of much smaller profile than is appropriate for a two-lane main road, and so would require either very low speed limits or alternate one-way working.

Many new interchanges with the existing road network would need to be created, which would be subject to frequent congestion. These would also in urban areas require a large amount of additional land take. No residential properties have direct access on to railways, so virtually all journeys would need to use the existing road network for some distance.

The idea that the railways represent a potential alternative network of high-speed, high-quality trunk roads is, on close examination, pure fantasy.

And if it was done, the whole network would have to be converted. Partial conversion would be the worst of both worlds, making no significant difference to road while lopping off vital bits of the rail network. If everything north of Edinburgh was converted to road, rail traffic south of Edinburgh would drop off and make that less viable.

If these new roads were open to all traffic, then they would be subject to the same problems of congestion, and accident risk on busy single carriageways, that we have today. Narrow single carriageway rural main roads are far from ideal for carrying large volumes of traffic (ask anyone who lives in East Anglia), tend to reduce all traffic to the speed of the slowest, and have a high accident level.

If they were restricted to trucks and buses, then conceptually they would be little different to railways, and would deliver much slower end-to-end times.

The point is made that buses, which can safely run at close headways, can achieve a much greater throughput in terms of passengers per hour along a single track than trains. But capacity is ultimately limited by constraints on embarking and disembarking passengers, not by throughput in free-flowing conditions, and large fleets of buses would pose much greater logistical difficulties than trains. Also, on a converted railway where traffic density prevents overtaking, the whole convoy of buses would need to stop behind each other at each station. Appealing in theory, perhaps, but slow and impractical in reality. And surely if buses provide such compelling capacity advantages, the best way to take advantage of that would be to strongly encourage their use on the existing roads in preference to cars.

Rail has its uses

The main thrust of this website is unashamedly pro-road and pro-car. I am no diehard pro-rail sentimentalist, I do not consider that any part of the current network is sacrosanct, and I am seriously concerned by the current level of subsidy to rail. But I do firmly believe that rail has a part to play within an overall transport strategy, although not necessarily with a network of precisely the current size and shape.

There are three areas of traffic where rail has major advantages over road:

  • moving large numbers of people into and out of city centres
  • high-speed inter-city travel
  • long-distance bulk freight
and it is on these areas where rail investment should be concentrated.

Our current transport problems require large-scale investment in both rail and road, and creating false "either-or" options is mischievous and counter-productive. It is the kind of beggar-my-neighbour argument that the opponents of the private car like to indulge in.

If they didn't exist, you'd have to invent them

It is argued that railways represent what is basically 19th century technology. We only have them now through inertia, because we had them in the past.

If you were designing a transport system from first principles, obviously the basis of the system would be all-purpose roads, as it always has been, even in the heyday of railways in the late 19th century. But conceptually there would be a very good case for "premium roads" where:

  • Access was restricted and controlled so that there was no congestion and traffic always flowed freely
  • The right to use them was restricted to professionally trained drivers so that higher speeds could be permitted than on roads open to all
  • Larger vehicles could be used than on general access roads, and they could be linked together to allow several vehicles to be controlled by a single driver
  • A guidance system could be installed to reduce or eliminate the possibility of head-on collisions

The main uses of such a system would be commuting into large cities, fast inter-city travel and heavy freight movements. But, given that the network existed, it would also make sense to allow it to be used for more local movements where they could be accommodated.

So if railways did not exist, we would probably end up inventing them.

(March 2003)

Note: in a sense this article is arguing against a straw man. Rail-to-road conversion is not a serious option in the UK or any other similar developed country, and probably never will be. The piece grew out of an argument I had with a supporter of rail-to-road conversion on an Internet discussion forum. This particular individual was very passionate in his beliefs and had assembled a mass of evidence to back up his case. My gut feeling was that he was totally wrong, which led me to consider the case for railways, hence this piece. If the idea was ever seriously mooted I'm sure far more eloquent and expert voices would be raised against it.

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