Saturday, 27 June 2015

Roads are much more important than railways - public investment should reflect this fact. It doesn't.

A bit of Britain's most important transport network
No matter how desperate the banana republic, the international airport is always a shimmering palace of perfume and croissants. It is only when you get out onto the dirt roads that you realise where you are.

The government seems determined to take the same approach to our own transport system: all the money gets sucked into vanity projects while transport used by the rest of us remains creaking.

And the biggest vanity project of all is Britain's rail network. The truth of the matter is that most of the public seldom if ever use a train - they are expensive compared to buses, inconvenient and crowded. But more to the point we prefer - and will continue preferring - to use the car. Just 2.4 million people - overwhelmingly in London - commute to work by train or tram. This is just over 9% of commuter journeys and compares to the two-thirds of journeys to work on the roads (by car, bus or motor cycle - adding in walking and cycling gets us to eight out of ten commuter journeys on the roads). Nearly half the population (45% in 2009/10) simply didn't use a train at all for any reason.

Yet whenever we talk about transport investment, we talk about trains. Billions is promised for new railways like HS2, for ever shinier stations, and for the polishing of existing (and admittedly creaky) networks. The need for rail investment is always hogging the headlines while the scandal that is our underinvestment in looking after the network of roads and pavements that carries 90% of journeys barely gets a mention. In 2012 the government invested £7.5 billion in the road network split roughly 50/50 between the strategic network and local roads. This compares to around £13 billion spent on railways (split between subsidising fares to the tune of £3.8 billion and the rail investment programme).

So Ross Clark is right, government in the UK is starving the everyday transport network - our roads - of funding while promising ever shinier new rail infrastructure (best part of £20 million on a new entrance into Leeds station being a fine example). Here in Bradford we need around £11 million a year to sustain our road network but are only spending about £6 million each year. With the result that the standard of the roads deteriorates year on year - the government responds by bunging one off funding for fixing potholes at councils when what is really needed is an adequate capital budget that would allow the proper maintenance of the road over a 25 year cycle.

The problem is that building grand railway schemes is popular with rail users. And rail users are mostly in London where the decision-making is done:

In 2009/10, 59 per cent of all rail journeys started or finished in London. The South East and the East of England were the regions with the next highest number of journeys but 65 per cent of journeys in the South East and 75 per cent in the East of England were to or from London.

And those train users - even in London - are more likely to be in their twenties or thirties and more likely to be in well-paid professional employment. The profile of rail users doesn't reflect the national demographic profile but the very different profile of London commuters (and higher income London commuters at that).

So we have a transport system that provides just 2% of journeys, costs the taxpayer over £13 billion a year, has incredibly low levels of customer satisfaction, is unreliable and still requires some other form of transport for people to complete their journey. How exactly is this the transport system of the 21st century? And why does it suck up so much of the attention (and investment) while the much more important road system isn't provided with the cash to even maintain it to a safe standard let alone improve it?


Woodsy42 said...

That 59% of journeys having an end in London is inevitable, most main rail lines end in London.
What is needed to know is also how many people stop and start in London to change trains (and often drag themselves to different stations) in order to get somewhere else.
If one trip from (say) Manchester to Paris counts as a trip to London on the west coast line then a trip from London on Eurostar the planning stats are useless.

asquith said...

Speak for yourself, I cycle :)

Curmudgeon said...

Good post - it's almost universally underestimated to what extent rail subsidies flow into the pockets of the better-off.

Anonymous said...

Roads = Freedom.
Railways = Control.
Which explains why governments don't like roads, but they just love Big Train Sets, especially when they can spend the road-users' money on them.

Robert said...

Railways are for the rich or single.
Statistics revealed by the AA show that the tax raised from motorists is 10% of all all UK tax taken and is broken down
£26.9bn fuel duty
£6.1bn vehicle excise duty
£25bn from VAT on fuel, car sales, company car tax and insurance premium tax.
Total £58bn

This does not include the VAT on MOT Tests, vehicle parts and repairs and VAT on other car related purchases through super markets and other retail outlets. Nor does it include the take from the various tolls on our roads.