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UK transport

UK transport

Dr John Shaw lectures in the Department for Geography and the Environment at the University of Aberdeen.

I have been informed that the transport in the UK can never improve to high standards (compared with a country like France) due to how the cities are spread through the UK. Apart from people driving cars less and using public transport more (when possible) is there anything that will improve the transport situation in the UK?

There is an element of truth in this statement, but overall, the opposite is in fact the case. It should really be easier to construct a high quality transport system in Britain than in many other countries. This is because many of our major centres of population are relatively close together, and many of them line up to form simple, major corridors. For example, London, Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds are all on a single corridor running 200 miles north from London; and Coventry, Birmingham, Stoke and Manchester form a similar corridor to the north west. Although further from London, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow can also be served by the same key routes. Part of the difficulty in improving the transport infrastructure in Britain comes from the fact that the majority of the country is very densely populated. This makes it difficult to plan new transport corridors effectively because many people are affected by their construction, and also means that they become more congested more quickly.

Elsewhere, there are different problems. To take France as an example, it is over twice as large as the UK in terms of surface area, and so it requires many more, longer transport corridors to connect up its major cities. So although there is more space to build transport infrastructure, and many links are not as congested as in the UK, the sheer size of the country and the need to provide high quality links in all directions from Paris means that more motorways, railways and airports are required than in Britain. In other words, the failings of our transport system cannot simply be attributed to the geography of our settlement pattern.

On the second part of the question, see the answer to Question 6.

Why on earth dont the government stop trying to build more roads as a solution to congestion in the UK and adopt a more integrated system of transport? In my personal opinion the government needs to offer incentives to entice people off the roads such as in Germany, as well as renationalise the railways, which are at present too overpriced. Unless this happens we are heading for gridlock.

In essence, Labour underestimated the difficulty of getting people out of their cars. The mindset of the car owning democracy popularised by the Conservatives has proved hard to challenge as people expect to use their cars when and where they like. Drivers also perceive there to be no, or very limited, alternatives to most car journeys. Care must be taken when interpreting this view because the majority of journeys made in Britain are under two miles in length and many of these could easily be made by foot or bicycle. For longer journeys, excepting many of those in rural areas or which involve non-radial urban movements, alternatives probably do exist but are often perceived as too expensive and / or of too poor quality to entice motorists out of their cars.

The government was at first too slow to invest in major public transport improvements ministers committed themselves to the Conservatives pre-election spending plans for two years although a greatly increased investment programme has now been put in place. Unfortunately, however, a range of further obstacles, the most notable being the crisis in the railway industry, is frustrating progress. The railways are unlikely to be in a position to achieve any major increase in capacity over the next few years despite the partial renationalisation of the industry through the creation of Network Rail.

In countries like Germany and Austria, large and sustained investment in public transport over a long period of time has resulted in the world class systems we lack (see the answer to Question 5). Despite Labours funding programme, such systems are likely to remain absent from much of the UK since the kind of capital required to build them is vastly in excess of anything to which ministers will commit themselves. What is worse, where they do sanction major investment schemes such as the West Coast Main Line or the London Underground, they tend to require the involvement of private finance through complicated funding mechanisms. This can result in projects being delayed and / or running significantly over budget. An obsession with private financing and operation of public transport systems also goes a long way to explaining why bringing railways back into full public ownership is unlikely.

This is all in some contrast to road investment, where virtually all of the network remains in public ownership. While private contractors build the infrastructure they have little to do with its financing and operation. Largely because of this, road schemes are now much easier to complete than their rail equivalents and, given that so many of us drive cars, they are often much more popular with voters. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that despite its original intention to pursue roads as a last resort, the government finds itself falling back on the kind of large scale road building favoured by the Conservatives to address the countrys congestion problems. Indeed, one recent study has found that if all of Labours road proposals come to fruition and there are good reasons to assume that they will by the end of the current decade the Party will be responsible for as many roads per year as the predict and provide Conservatives. Quite why simpler procurement techniques are not employed for large-scale public transport projects is a matter for the government, but there can be no doubt that this remains an impediment to the development of a world class public transport system in the UK.

When will the government take a radical approach to reduce traffic on our roads? Until public transport is made safe, efficient and affordable people will continue to use their cars. Would you agree that the drivers/owners of large vehicles (4x4s, Jeeps, Fast Cars etc.) should be taxed more heavily due to their high consumption of fuel? If they can afford such expensive vehicles that are so damaging to the environment, then surely they can afford to pay higher road taxes. What do you think?

There are a couple of separate questions here. On the first one, I wouldnt hold your breath. The answer to the last question set out a few reasons why Labours transport policy has not delivered as much as many hoped it might. Radical options remain available, though, and one of them is road user charging. London and Durham have recently introduced charging schemes. In London it costs £5 to enter the central zone throughout much of the day, and in Durham the charge is £2. Both schemes have been successful at reducing traffic. Ministers are consulting on introducing charging for road use across the country at the moment, but even if they agree to this in principle, it is unlikely to happen before 2011. This is because: a) they have already ruled it out until then, and b) the technology necessary to operate such a system probably wont be sufficiently reliable until then in any case. The answer to Question 6 deals with road user charging in more detail.

Regarding fuel tax, drivers of large vehicles are already taxed more heavily than those with small cars because they pay more road tax and use more petrol / diesel. The government could certainly increase road tax even more for drivers of particularly gas-guzzling cars such as Jeeps or (God forbid) Hummers, but ministers are unlikely to pursue a large raise in fuel tax for large cars given the sensitivity of the subject. My preference would be for road user charging to be brought in and road tax to be abolished for drivers of cars with engines of (say) 1600cc and below. Drivers of cars with larger engines would face a continued road tax and a higher road user charge than everyone else, to be determined on a sliding scale according to the size of their engine.

I have been reading about the development of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. I wondered if you thought the large vehicle manufacturers are ever really likely to want to develop them (or any other environmentally friendly powered vehicles) to the level of mass use similar to that of regular vehicles today?

On the face of it, the widespread adoption of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells seems a panacea in terms of resolving transport-related pollution problems. The fuel cell takes in hydrogen (which can be produced from water and solar energy) and produces electricity with water and heat as its only by-products. Although they have been known about for around 150 years, increasing environmental concern in some cases manifested through legislation and deregulated electricity markets in many countries have led to a great deal of research and development being undertaken recently. Iceland has embarked upon a major project to become the worlds first fuel cell powered economy, and large companies such as Daimler-Chrysler and Shell became involved. Daimler-Chrysler is also supplying 30 fuel cell buses for trials across 10 European cities, including London. Madrid received the first of these buses in May 2003.

As with any new source of energy, though, there are drawbacks. Some of these are relatively minor and should in theory be straightforward to overcome. There is, for example, a lack of dedicated infrastructure (petrol station equivalents), and storage difficulties will arise in the immediate future. Developing standardised specifications will also be necessary in order to maximise convenience and / or economies of scale.

But the biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of the hydrogen fuel cell is its dependence on platinum as a catalyst. (Techno enthusiasts may like to know that, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, platinum is dispersed on the surfaces of the proton exchange membrane to catalyse the dissociation and ionisation of molecular hydrogen at the anode and the oxidation reaction at the cells cathode.) Platinum is comparatively rare and it would take 66 years to convert only the American vehicle fleet even if around half of current world production levels were dedicated to the task. If US platinum consumption remained at its present level of 16 per cent of world production, fleet conversion would take 146 years. Moreover, a large increase in the demand for platinum would result in the already-precious metal gaining considerably in value and this additional cost will be reflected in the cost of fleet conversion.

In short, given current technology hydrogen fuel cells are no quick fix to the pollution associated with vehicle operation. Even if they were, they would do nothing to address congestion and would still need to be introduced as part of an integrated transport strategy to suppress demand for car transport which may otherwise increase as the environmental imperative to reduce car use would disappear (see the answer to Question 6 below). Continuing research into fuel cells should yield positive results, however, and if nothing else the finite nature of oil reserves means that vehicle manufacturers and legislators will and should maintain a keen interest in their development as a highly promising alternative to the internal combustion engine.

Is the UKs transport the worst? How does experience of the UKs users of public transport compare with those from other countries?

The UKs transport system is certainly not the worst there are many less developed countries around the world which have extremely poor infrastructure and services but among other Western countries even the most generous comparison would conclude it is some way short of the best. The Commission for Integrated Transport, a government advisory and monitoring body, has investigated how the UKs transport system compares with those in our partner EU countries. Although the study was constrained by data availability, meaning the results have to be treated with some caution, some telling points were identified.

Travelling through other European countries it is not difficult to see that their transport systems are in many ways so much better than our own. In short, this is because the UK has underinvested in its infrastructure compared with other EU states. In 1996, we came 12th out of 15, spending just over 0.6 per cent of GDP compared with, for example, 1.5 per cent in Italy. In the period between 1990 and 1995 we fared slightly better, but still woefully, in 10th position. During these six years France invested almost 50 per cent more per person than the UK and Germany two thirds as much.

Another key point to note is that the UK also has, at 85 per cent of person kilometres, the highest proportion of travel by car. We also have among the smallest shares of public transport usage, and this is despite a relatively low level of car ownership of around 400 per 1,000 population. The combined effect of limited investment and high car use is the most congested road network in Europe, and at 46 minutes British people have the longest average commuting time.

With reference to public transport subsidy, Austria pays up to 70 per cent of the running costs of its bus services, and Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands all provide 60 per cent or over. Our bus services receive 32 per cent, the lowest in the EU, although, in fairness, they are the most efficient as measured by operating costs per passenger kilometre. The amount we spend on railways has actually increased quite considerably in the past few years, but the mess created by privatisation has led to most of that increase being swallowed up by increased costs (see the answer to Question 7). The low subsidies result in fares which are high by European standards. For any mode of public transport, fares in the UK are on average 15 per cent higher than in Germany, 60 per cent higher than in France and nearly three times as much as in the Netherlands.

One area in which the UK does perform well is road safety, with the lowest road death toll in EU at six per 100,000 less than half the levels of Italy and France. The risk of fatality on British roads is also continuing to fall.

Against this background it is perhaps no surprise that the public are rather pessimistic on transport issues. According to another CfIT study, although 64 per cent of people in England are satisfied with their local bus service, and 58 per cent with their local rail service, most expect the transport system to worsen over the next 10 years. More than three quarters think that congestion will increase over the coming decade, and around three in ten are now of the view that transport is one of the major issues now facing the country. Interestingly, perhaps borne of desperation, support for radical solutions to transport problems is strong, with nearly 60 per cent supporting road user charging provided money raised is invested in public transport (see answer to Question 6).

Do you believe congestion charging and road pricing is the right way to achieve a better balance of public and private transport usage in the UK?

Yes. The main advantage of road user charging is that it promotes a more rational use of road space by making drivers pay something approaching the real cost of using it. A common perception in the UK is that driving a car has become far too expensive, but this is highly questionable. Since 1974, the cost of running a car in relation to income has remained more or less static, while bus and rail fares have increased by 50 per cent and 75 per cent respectively. With only a couple of exceptions (due to engine size), the tax paid by UK motorists on owning and running a car is less than that in the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark and Ireland and very similar to that in Italy and France.

What is more, some analysts estimate that there is a significant gap which could easily run to several billion pounds per year between the amount of revenue raised through motoring taxes and the overall cost to society of road vehicles. Such a gap comes about because the costs associated with the externalities of vehicles use the time penalty of congestion, environmental damage associated with pollution, noise, land take, visual intrusion, ill health, accidents, community severance, etc. are greater than the total amount raised from fuel duty, road tax, VAT on new vehicle purchases and so on. It is very difficult to measure the value of some externalities, and although various accepted methodologies exist, there is debate over the accuracy of individual studies since so much depends on the assumptions made by the researcher and these can vary depending on the purpose of the research.

A distance-based road user charge is being introduced for freight vehicles in 2006 (Germany is introducing one in November 2003). It will use satellite technology to track lorries as they drive around the country. The further lorries drive, the more they will be charged, although haulage firms will receive some rebate on their fuel duty. Effectively, this means that the main effect of the charge will be to make foreign users pay for the use of British roads since they normally buy their fuel abroad where it is cheaper.

The introduction of the charge is nevertheless important because it will use and therefore offers the opportunity to trial technology which will allow for variations in charges to be made depending on, say, the time of day travel takes place, with higher charges applying during rush hour. Under this kind of system, traffic not contributing to congestion such as that travelling between peaks or in rural areas would pay only a very minimal road user charge or even nothing at all. As a result drivers would be given an incentive to spread their journeys over more of the day and thereby avoid, and help reduce, congestion. It is such a scheme that would probably be employed if the government decides to press ahead with road user charging for all vehicles.

Until recently, ministers have been lukewarm to the idea of road user charging. Provisions for local authorities to introduce a charge, and keep any proceeds provided they are spent on transport projects, were included in the Transport Act (2000) but never pushed by ministers who almost certainly were wary of the potential political fallout. Initially around 35 local authorities expressed an interest in starting up road user and workplace parking charging schemes, but now it seems likely that only three (including London and Durham, where schemes already operate) will have pursued the former, and one the latter, by 2010. But the success of the London scheme vehicle numbers have dropped by around 20 per cent in the charging zone has led the government to realise that road user charging works, and consideration is now being given to the introduction of a UK-wide scheme in a minimum of 10 years time.

The Commission for Integrated Transport estimates that a scheme designed to vary charges according to time of day or road conditions could reduce congestion on the UKs road network by up to 44 per cent even if it were revenue-neutral, i.e. where charges are offset by reductions in fuel duty or road tax. A scheme which operated alongside existing taxes could therefore achieve even more while at the same time raise considerable funds for simultaneous (or preferably advance) investment in pedestrian, cycling and public transport schemes to offer motorists leaving their cars at home an improved choice of alternatives. Continued road investment would also be necessary where localised congestion remained, not least since drivers paying more to use the road network would feel they had more of a right to demand it (although this is a debatable point).

There are many obstacles still to overcome before UK-wide road user charging could be introduced successfully. Among these are technological shortcomings (difficulties remain with GPS based systems and refinements are needed), cost (the London scheme has proved extremely expensive to operate with a large proportion of revenues being swallowed up by installation and administration expenses) and concerns over civil liberties (satellite monitoring will enable the government to track drivers movements, speed and other motoring habits at any given time). Nevertheless, provided road user charging is not used simply as a means of raising money for the Treasury, it should be pursued nationwide as soon as practically possible.

We hear a lot about the trains getting worse compared with the old British Rail. But my memories of the railways have always been tinged with a general sense of dissatisfaction are the railways worse now?

Well, the $64 million question! There have certainly been some positives since privatisation. Passenger and freight traffic has increased in both absolute and relative terms. The number of passenger kilometres travelled rose to the higher than the 1950s (although the number of passenger journeys is still some way behind) and the amount of freight moved was returning to 1991 levels (the early 1990s were particularly bad for BRs freight business).

Some of this growth in traffic, which is welcome in the context of an integrated, or sustainable, transport policy, is attributable to the efforts of the private sector railway companies. Innovative marketing campaigns allied with good value off-peak deals (Apex-style tickets have fallen in cost by 5.6 per cent over the past eight years) have attracted more leisure travellers on to the trains. Heavy investment in new and refurbished rolling stock has improved the comfort of many journeys. Around £3 billion has been spent on new passenger rolling stock and £803 million has been invested in freight rolling stock. The average age of passenger trains in service has fallen to 19.33 years, and this will fall further when the Mark 1 rolling stock operating to the south of London is withdrawn.

The number of passenger train kilometres is 20 per cent higher than at the time of privatisation in other words, more trains are running on the network. This has, however, produced problems of overcrowding and congestion, and the Strategic Rail Authority is beginning to remove certain trains as part of the Capacity Utilisation Strategy it has designed to increase punctuality. There are also a range of other benefits, such as first class lounges, the National Rail Enquiry Service (getting telephone information out of BR was quite a challenge at times) and its associated website, nationalrail.co.uk. Rail magazine editor Nigel Harris also argues that the customer service on some companies, such as GNER, has improved beyond all measure since privatisation. It is worth saying in addition that although there have been a number of high profile accidents since privatisation which some commentators attribute directly to the privatised operating regime the railways safety record remains impressive and, statistically speaking, has not worsened.

All of this has, however, come at a price. As noted, there has been increased congestion and this, coupled with the effects of the Hatfield accident, has resulted in punctuality falling to around 80 per cent (70 per cent on long distance lines), worse than under BR. Although fares have been partially regulated, they have increased on average by 3.4 per cent in real terms since 1995. What is more, this conceals some rather larger increases around the network. First class fares which are unregulated on long distance companies (such as Virgin) have increased by an astonishing 36.1 per cent in real terms, and regulated long distance standard class tickets (e.g. Savers) have gone up by 15.2 per cent. (The system of regulation is quite complex this is allowed so long as reductions apply in other areas.)

The most significant increase has been in the amount of government subsidy required to prop up the privatised railway. Support in the last year of BRs operation as a single unit (before it was reorganised for privatisation) was £1,627 million. The figure had hovered around the £2,000 million mark in the early 1990s, although this historically high amount was influenced by necessary Channel Tunnel works. Subsidy increased immediately after privatisation to around £2,500 million and then fell back to around £1,800 million before rising again to £3,387 million last year (and that is not including £374 million provided to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link constructors).

Some of the increase in subsidy following privatisation has been offset by proceeds from selling railway assets, but much more is accounted for by the blunders of Railtrack (now replaced by Network Rail), train operating companies and, inevitably, politicians. The costs of running the railway have increased so much that although last year over £4,000 million was invested (there is overlap with the subsidy figure here), comparatively little of that will be spent on actually enhancing the system. Such levels of investment were all but unimaginable in the days of BR but it is extremely likely that had they been forthcoming, they would have bought a great deal more at far better value.

One final point worth considering is that a reasonable proportion of the growth which has occurred on the railway since BR was sold has probably been nothing to do with privatisation at all. Road traffic is up, people (wrongly) perceive that car travel is too expensive and the fortunes of the railway are bound up with the fortunes of the economy. The recovery of the latter from recession in the mid 1990s will undoubtedly have impacted upon passenger numbers. Although the increase has been more swift and consistent than in earlier, pre-privatisation booms, it is unlikely that the number of new journeys would have been anywhere near as high in the absence of sustained economic growth.

So, from this short collection of evidence some conclusions can be drawn. In essence, taxpayers are coughing up a lot more money for a higher but ultimately unsustainable number of trains, which are newer but less punctual. On average, all passengers are paying more to use the trains but some are paying very much more and some are paying a fair bit less. It is much easier to find out about the trains you want to use and you can still have a very high degree of confidence that it wont be involved in an accident. Still, given the extraordinary amount of additional subsidy which is now required to run overall a similar level of service, my judgement is that wed have been better off giving BR which was always starved of finance the additional cash and letting them get on with running the railway.

John was interviewed in October 2003

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