27 June 2007
Why railways are doomed
Patrick Crozier
The future of rail

As promised...

The British rail network peaked in 1912.  After that, vehicles based on the internal combustion engine, such as cars and lorries, started to eat into rail’s market. They did so because for all sorts of tasks they were better.  They were more convenient, more flexible and, in many cases, both cheaper and faster. they also gave the traveller with private space when travelling - the freedom to listen to his own taste in music and pick his nose.

From 1950 or thereabouts the British railway started to lose money.  In the 1960s the network was cut back dramatically.  Since then it has stabilised.  It needs about £1bn a year in subsidy but due to the crazy way it is structured receives far more.

Frankly, if railways were forced to stand on their own two feet - freed of both subsidy and regulation, there would be little left other than the main lines and the London commuter network - something that the Serpell Report concluded way back in 1982.

But it gets worse than that.  If Britain’s ridiculous planning laws were abolished, there would be a vast expansion of the city into what is currently the countryside.  This would be very bad news for the railway.  Railways need density.  They thrive on moving large numbers of people or large quantities of goods from point A to point B. Take the density away as urban expansion (not, not, not sprawl) would do and railways would find it ever harder, if not impossible, to exist.

Against this background, the one hope for the railways is climate change.  Or rather the hope that it is happening, that it is caused by CO2, that it is a bad thing and that the proper response is to cut down on CO2.  Because, in most cases, though by no means all, for the same length of journey, railways produce less pollution.

But rail is not the only alternative.  Staying at home is another - something that the internet has made massively easier.  I have even heard it said that when cities are allowed to develop naturally ie without the dubious benefit of state intervention, less, not more CO2 pollution is the result.  Possibly because drivers spend less time in jams.  Possibly because people live nearer their places of work.  Who knows.

Worse still, worries about climate change are cyclical.  People can forget about it pretty quickly when they are wondering how to pay the mortgage.  When lots of people are worried about paying the mortgage…

The more I think about it the more I think the “hope” of climate change is a forlorn one.

Railways appeal to people in all sorts of ways.  To some it’s nostalgia.  To some it’s the system.  To some it’s the promise of planetary salvation.  To some it’s the promise of not having to drive.  Unfortunately for the railways, none of these desires are strong enough when competing against the “hard needs” of flexibility and convenience that only the internal combusion engine can satisfy.  Railways, have changed the world in all sorts of wonderful ways, but their days are numbered.

  1. The issue isn’t so much the “internal combustion engine” but rather giving up both fixed lines and steel-on-steel traction.  I’d still like to know, though, why buses are always built to be peculiarly uncomfortable (for me, at least) and driven with the intention of depositing passengers on the floor.  I suppose that the second of these is explained by the routine dislike felt by members of the Great Unwashed for each other, and the first by the circular reasoning that since their passengers are mainly wee wifies and schoolchildren, it makes no sense to build buses for well made males.

    Posted by dearieme on  27 June 2007 at 06:42 pm

  2. I disagree about trains being doomed. What about the massive passenger rail building projects currently underway in China, Spain, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Japan, etc? What about the steep rise passenger numbers in the last 2 decades? Sure trains need high density, but high density is a geographical given in many parts of the world, especially Asia and island nations. There simply isn’t any SPACE for many cities to expand into anymore, even if they wanted to. Saying that planes are better than trains because they are faster is narrow minded. The train is a far superior product. For journeys below 800 km it is overall faster than the plane because you don’t need to spend hours waiting at the airport and going through the tedious boarding/unbaording procedure. An economy seat on a train is like a business class seat on a plane, the ride is smoother, and you get to spend your 3-4 hour journey productively (or sleeping) without interruptions rather than standing in line after line on an airport. Also, the rising oil price is making high speed trains more competitive again because you can run them on nuclear power, coal, or hydro.

    Posted by Steve Holt on  10 May 2008 at 02:38 am

  3. Steve

    Interesting comments.  Many thanks.

    To some extent I was exaggerating for effect.  As a niche product I think rail has plenty of years left.  But as the main means of transport its day is past and even its niches it is likely to decline.

    I would take issue with you on a couple of points.  Personally, I find airplanes more comfortable and easier to sleep on than trains.  A lot of this has to do with the new seats which make sleeping more or less impossible.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  16 May 2008 at 02:05 am

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