Transport - Road v rail: making the case

As money is pumped into the transport infrastructure, what decisions should companies be making about how best to get around the country?

First, we had leaves on the line, then it was the wrong type of snow and finally this summer it got too hot. Rail passengers were left not knowing whether to laugh or cry at this latest news from rail companies across the UK which struggled to maintain services in August's heat wave.

As passengers boiled on the platforms, many must have wondered why they were using the trains and questioning whether they should switch to the roads - the train companies admit they do lose passengers after such incidents.

Likewise a major rail crash will result in lost customers as confidence in safety systems disappears. But those who switch to the roads often find that those journeys are not much better - last winter's snow left hundreds of motorists trapped on freezing motorways while the fuel crisis of two years ago highlighted many motorists' frustrations of an inadequate network combined with ever-increasing running costs.

As individuals, there may well be little choice in how we get to work, get the children to school or reach the shops, but as businesses there is often a wider choice. For senior managers it can be a critical mix of keeping costs to a minimum but also ensuring staff are in the right place at the right time.

Law firm Addleshaw Goddard is typical of many UK businesses. It has some 1,200 staff and offices in London, Leeds and Manchester. Not only do staff have to travel between locations but also reach their clients whose offices are scattered nationwide.

Corporate affairs manager Christian Collinson says that, for the most part, staff are encouraged to use the train. They do not have company cars, although they can reclaim mileage costs.

The firm has an internal travel office which books and buys tickets as required. But they do consider all the options - sometimes it is actually cheaper and quicker to fly between locations than to use the train. Equally, on occasion, they will turn to the roads to ensure they get to a meeting on time.

'We offer a service and it is very important to us that our staff arrive on time and in the right frame of mind to do a good job,' Collinson says.

Generally staff have been able to rely on trains but the company has also introduced video-conferencing both internally and externally to save time and money.

The view that public transport will be used when available is shared by thousands of other businesses and is also encouraged by environmental groups. Friends of the Earth's (FoE) transport campaigner Tony Bosworth says it is about far more than environmental reasons alone - the road/rail debate goes to the heart of our social fabric.

FoE research found that, in Bradford, the poorer communities suffered the highest levels of through traffic, highest levels of pollution but also the poorest levels of public transport. And the higher up the social ladder a person is placed, the more likely they are to use the railways.

Likewise a study by Glaister & Graham in 1996 found that most households whose head is economically active and in a profession have at least one car, while more than half have two or more cars. On the other hand, less than 45% of unskilled manual and economically inactive households have a car.

Under its much heralded 10-year plan the government aims to have 50% more passengers and 80% more freight on the railways, with less overcrowding, by the end of the plan.

But the improvements rely not only on 29bn public investment but another 34bn from private investors. So what is the history behind the figures and will the travelling public really want to switch from road to rail?

The railways

In 2000, the current government set out a 10-year plan for the railways which included increasing passenger and freight usage of the rail network, combined with a reduction in overcrowding on London services as well as improvement in punctuality and reliability.

This seems a fairly tall order for a system that was close to collapse only last year with public confidence reported to be at an all-time low.

But the rebirth of the system under the auspices of Network Rail and the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) may help to pull the situation around.

It was back in 1992 that the then Conservative government first began to push ahead with its plans for privatisation of the railways when pressure from the Treasury ensured that the network should be split - with operating companies separated from Railtrack, which would be responsible for track renewal and maintenance.

It did make the sale of the operating companies much easier and the first franchises were awarded in December 1995.

Railtrack was not quite so easy to handle because of its high debt burden.

Originally separated in 1994, it was only after the government agreed to write off 1bn of debt that the company was finally successfully floated in 1996.

But Railtrack continued to struggle, despite its private investment.

The fatal crash at Hatfield was one of the main triggers in the downfall of Railtrack - the company had to not only spend millions in trying to improve track across the country but also compensate the train operators which were losing business because of the resulting delays and confusion.

And government investment continued to fall. In 1994-95, before privatisation got underway, the government allocated a total of 3.3bn to the railways - in 2001-02 that figure was down to 1.5bn.

By October 2001, the then transport secretary Stephen Byers put the company into receivership saying its losses would have spiralled to 700m by December and to 1.7bn by the following March.

The next move was to set up Network Rail as a not-for-profit company which would plough any profits from running the railway system back into track maintenance. Under accounting rules it is a quasi-subsidiary of the SRA.

In its annual report, published in July, the SRA chairman Richard Bowker said: 'Passengers will not get in the way of improving services and neither will I.

'I assure them that the work done in the last 18 months will change the railway for the better: its services, its planning and its delivery to customers. Our work has been about laying the foundations on which to build a transformed railway.'

He has also described the existing system of one company in charge of the track and 25 in charge of the trains as 'bonkers' and has made it clear he would like to see the number of train operating companies fall to nearer a dozen.

In its progress report on its 10-year plan, the Department of Transport says it has started on the second phase of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link into London. The 1.9bn, 46-mile first half of the line was opened by the prime minister last month.

It has overseen 1bn of new rolling stock since April 2001 with a further 2,100 vehicles on order, worth around 2bn. On safety it claims that incidents of signals passed at danger have fallen to their lowest on record while the train protection warning system has been installed on about 70% of the track and around 90% of the passenger fleet.

There seems no doubt that the government is trying to boost rail usage but only time will tell whether it is enough to get travellers off the roads.

The roads

In his progress report on the 10-year plan, Alistair Darling, secretary of state for transport, admitted that the state of the railways is far worse than recognised even two years ago after the Hatfield crash.

But looking at the road network, he also admitted that forecasts were wrong there, too. He said: 'The latest analysis suggests there was more traffic in 2000 than had been thought. That, coupled with the fact that economic growth over the next 10 years is now projected to be higher than anticipated, means that the forecasts made two years ago almost certainly under-estimated the future levels of congestion we are faced with.'

The government has been heavily criticised by environmental groups for increasing motorways and building new roads - a move which they say will do nothing to reduce congestion but will add to pollution.

As part of its 10-year plan, the government says it has completed five major new road schemes, started work on the M6 toll road and 17 other major road schemes, increased the Highway Agency's programme of targeted major road improvements to 66, started a programme of more than 100 smaller trunk road improvements, started a programme of 92 new junction improvements, begun work on a new national traffic control centre and maintained the condition of the network at 'optimum' level.

The government says it is putting 59bn into local transport plans but its critics question whether the plan is working.

A survey by leasing and fleet management giant LeasePlan shows that company car drivers spend a massive 6m hours a week stuck in traffic jams - equivalent to losing two working weeks a year. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that congestion costs the economy up to 20bn a year.

And traffic levels are still rising - the Department of Transport admitted in July that traffic volume had risen 2.5% between 2001 and 2002 - and were up 7.9% in the five year period from 1997.

The RAC Report on Motoring 2003 shows that the mean annual mileage for all working car drivers (excluding commuting) is 3,800 while the mean annual mileage on business expense is 11,900 and using company provided vehicles is 15,600. The report also shows that some 25% of drivers use their car in connection with their work, while 51% use their cars to commute to and from work.

Tony Bosworth, of FoE, says we need only look to Europe to find a better examples of transport usage.

'One of the greatest examples is Germany where they have higher rates of car ownership than we do but usage is less because they only use them for journeys where they are really needed.'

He says trains are of a higher quality, more efficient and more reliable while buses and trams are of a better quality and transport links mean travellers can reach a greater variety of destinations more easily - the UK rail links tend to be radial from major cities.

Bosworth says both the Germans and French have benefited from decades of sustained investment that have been lacking in the UK - now few of us have little choice in our mode of transport and the only real choice left is whether or not the journey is necessary rather than in the method of making it.

ROAD V RAIL Percentage of passenger transport by mode: 1961-2001 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 All road 86 91 93 94 93 Rail 14 9 7 6 6 Air 0.3 0.5 0.6 0.7 1.0 SOURCE: NTS/SRA/Civil Aviation Authority/DfT

State aid into railways, 2001

Germany: EUR9.5bn (6.6bn)

France: EUR6.06bn

UK: EUR2.36bn

State aid into railways as a percentage of GDP in 2001 and 1996 respectively

Germany: 0.48%; 1.1%

France: 0.45%; 1.1%

UK: 0.19%; 0.8%

Size of rail network

Germany: 25,370 miles

France: 19,850 miles

UK: 10,490 miles

Trains on time

Germany: 90%

France: 80%

UK: 79%

Train speeds

Germany: 179mph

France: 186mph

UK: 125mph

Average number of kms travelled by rail per person in 1999

Germany: 72.8

France: 66.5

UK: 38.8

SOURCES: Financial Times; BBC News


Potters Bar, 2002: Seven die and more than 70 are injured

Selby, 2001: A car slid off the motorway on to the railway track, causing a train crash and leaving 10 dead and more than 70 injured

Hatfield, 2000: Four die and 35 were injured in a derailment

Ladbroke Grove, 1999: 31 people died when two trains collided

Southall, 1997: Seven people died when an express ploughed into an empty freight train

Watford, 1996: One person died and 69 were injured when two trains collided

Aisgill, 1995: A guard was killed and 30 others injured

Cowden, 1994: Five dead and 12 injured in a head-on crash

Stafford station, 1990: A train driver died and 25 injured

Cannon Street station, 1990: Two dead and more than 240 injured

Newton station, 1990: Four dead and 22 injured

Purley, 1989: Five dead and more than 90 injured. Two days later, a crash in Glasgow left two dead.

Clapham, 1988: 35 killed in a rush-hour collision

Moorgate, 1975: 43 dead and 74 injured

Lewisham, 1957: 90 dead and 173 injured in a head-on collision

Harrow and Wealdstone, 1952: 112 dead and 340 hurt in a three train pile-up

Quintinshill, 1915: More than 200 dead after a passenger train collided with a troop train

560 deaths in total since 1915

3,450 killed on the road in 2001

SOURCE: Office of National Statistics.

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