THERE were two announcements last week that may not have seemed much associated with each other but which actually could point to a significant transformation in transport policy in Britain – and to the railways’ competitive position, in particular.
While the Conservative Party’s conference was under way in Birmingham – including fringe events organized by groups seeking to halt plans to build the new High Speed Two network – Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin gave an interview to The Independent newspaper in which he said the Government will defy “grief and hassle” from its own backbenchers and “fast-track” the plans for HS2.
Mr McLoughlin added that he would “love to” complete the HS2 project within five years, although he admitted that it would almost certainly take longer, and said he was prepared to work with Labour to ensure the legislation necessary to start construction was not bogged down in Parliament.
Then, just two days later, the Confederation of British Industry published a policy document proposing that road charging should be introduced on the strategic road network in England, comprising the motorways and major A roads overseen by the Highways Agency.
Indeed, the CBI went further and proposed an arrangement very similar to the policy adopted 10 years ago when Network Rail was set up – including funding for road maintenance and enhancement based on a Regulated Asset Base overseen by an independent Regulator. And the Department for Transport would set out investment plans in a High Level Output Specification every five years, just as it does now for the rail network.
The CBI says these measures are necessary because of what it calls a £10 billion “hole” in Highways Agency funding – resulting from financial cut-backs by the Coalition Government – as well as the prospect of revenue from taxes raised from motorists going into decline as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. Indeed, the CBI contended: “Greater vehicle efficiency will mean cars will fall into lower Vehicle Excise Duty emission bands, which could result in 85 per cent of new cars being exempt from VED altogether by 2030.”
But the CBI overlooks other reasons why road use is already declining and reducing tax revenues for the Chancellor.
Recent Department for Transport figures show total passenger kilometres are going down year on year, while figures earlier this month from the Department of Energy and Climate Change showed that in the first half of this year only 16.7 billion litres of petrol and diesel fuel were sold on forecourts in the UK – compared with total sales of nearly 19 billion litres between January and June 2008. The Automobile Association’s President Edmund King said this reduction in four years was “a huge drop.”
But the reality is that in developed countries all over the world people are driving cars less than they used to, and the trend looks set to continue – “even in America, still the most car-mad country in the world,” according to a report last month in The Economist newspaper, which added that in Britain “total traffic has not increased for a decade, despite a growing population. For the past 15 years Britons have been making fewer journeys; they now go out in cars only slightly more often than in the 1970s.”
The impact of the Internet, enabling people to move to on-line purchasing, is also apparent. “In Britain trips to the shops have been the category of car use that has dropped off most steeply since 1995,” reported The Economist.
Another reason to suppose car use is going to continue to decline is that young people today are much less likely, compared to their parents, to take up driving … partly because of high costs, including fuel and insurance premiums, and also because their devotion to hand-held devices – such as mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers – makes public transport an attractive alternative. The boom in the sale and use of the 16-25 Railcard is further proof of how popular trains, in particular, have become among this group.
The Economist’s report confirmed this trend, pointing out that “all over the rich world, young people are getting their [driving] licences later than they used to.” And it suggested that when people do obtain a licence, they drive less often. According to Oxford University’s Gordon Stokes, people in Britain who learn to drive in their late 20s drive 30 per cent less than those who learned a decade earlier.
Another reason for less car usage is the tendency for more and more people to make their homes in cities. As The Economist put it: “It is in cities, especially their centres, that car ownership and use is declining. And city living is on the rise: the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] expects that by 2050, 86 per cent of the rich world’s population will live in urban areas, up from 77 per cent in 2010. … In London car ownership has been falling since 1990, with a plateau from 1995 to 2005. The percentage of [London] households without cars has been growing since 1992. In other British cities the proportion of car-less households has been growing since 2005.”
And, of course, it is cities that can best be served by public transport. Peter Newman and Rob Salter of Curtin University in Australia have calculated that one road lane can transport 2,500 people per hour by car, versus 5,000 by bus – and 50,000 by train on a single track. The latter figure assumes the longest and largest trains, which are not possible at present in Britain due to our restricted loading gauge. Nevertheless, when finished and operating its (planned but not yet ordered) new trains, Thameslink at peak periods should run 24 trains an hour each way. With a crush load of 1,600 passengers per train, this will still give a theoretical capacity of 38,400 passengers per hour.
HS2 is ultimately intended to carry 18 trains per hour (at up to 400km/h, 250mph), and the operators of HS1 say that route can cope with 20 trains per hour (at up to 300km/h, 186mph). With High Speed Trains trains capable of carrying 1,100 passengers, both routes can therefore carry between 19,800 and 22,000 passengers and hour – right into and out of city centres at high speed, something no other mode of transport can achieve.
Plans for new High Speed lines, like HS2, are predicated on the need for additional capacity to cope with expected future growth in passenger travel; for, while the decline in car use in Britain continues, so does the growth in rail travel continue – with the total number of passenger journeys in 2012 likely to exceed 1.5 billion, which will be a peace-time record. It will also mean the number of rail journeys has DOUBLED in only 15 years.
And with the move of people back into cities, and the overall continued growth of the total population, much of it due to increased life expectancy, it is likely that demand for rail travel will continue to grow, while road trips continue to decline.
What does this all mean for our railways?
(To be continued)