How railway conversion could end the commuter squeeze


Economic Theory
Housing and Planning
London’s population is forecast to hit 10 million in 2030 and it’s difficult to see how the transport system will cope. A high proportion of commuters already endure severe overcrowding, standing in jam-packed carriages or even struggling to find enough space to get on trains.

The government sees additional rail capacity as the best way to address rising demand. But this is unrealistic. With further spending cuts needed to reduce government debt, there is simply no way the Treasury will be able to fund the scale of investment required.

Part of the problem is that rail schemes in London are hugely expensive. The proposed Crossrail 2 scheme, which will add relatively little to the capital’s transport capacity, is predicted to cost an astounding £27 billion. Many more big projects would be needed for the network to accommodate the projected additional numbers of passengers. This is simply unaffordable. Public transport subsidies already cost taxpayers £12 billion a year, with roughly half of this spent in London.

An alternative strategy would be to manage demand by raising fares. Yet despite the economic logic, fare hikes have become politically toxic. Even rises of just 1 per cent above inflation are now deemed unacceptable.

Future governments will therefore face a difficult predicament. They won’t be able to afford to increase rail capacity to cope with growing demand and they will struggle to manage congestion with fare increases due to political constraints. Fortunately, there is a potential solution if policymakers are prepared to think outside the box and take a more flexible approach to the use of transport infrastructure.

Rapidly-growing cities in Latin America and Asia have faced similar issues: rising demand but severe budgetary constraints. But rather than investing in hyper-expensive rail infrastructure, local governments have often decided to build much cheaper high-capacity busways instead. From Istanbul to Mexico City, these busways carry vast numbers of commuters while offering cheap and affordable fares.

So why not do this in London? One apparent reason is the lack of space, with the city lacking the wide boulevards used for busways elsewhere. But London does have an extensive rail network, with often vast corridors reaching right into the centre. This raises the question, would some of these routes deliver better value for money if they were converted into busways?

There is certainly strong evidence that this would bring a major increase in capacity. A single bus lane in New York’s Lincoln Tunnel carries up to 30,000 commuters in the peak hour, compared with a figure closer to 10,000 for a typical railway track entering Central London. And on former railway routes managed to avoid congestion, the potential capacity of busways would be much higher.

There could also be a big reduction in fares. Operating costs are likely to be much lower than on comparable rail routes. Busways are far simpler to manage and maintain.

Concerns about journey times can also be dismissed. On the shorter commuter routes where busways would be most appropriate, a combination of more direct services and increased frequency would deliver faster door-to-door travel times for the vast majority of passengers.

While busways may not be the best option in every location, the next government should not set transport infrastructure in stone. A more flexible approach may be the only way to avoid a severe capacity crunch.

Richard Wellings is the co-author, with Paul Withrington, of Paving Over the Tracks… a better use of railways?

This article was originally published in City AM.

Deputy Research Director & Head of Transport

Richard Wellings was formerly Deputy Research Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He was educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics, completing a PhD on transport and environmental policy at the latter in 2004. He joined the Institute in 2006 as Deputy Editorial Director. Richard is the author, co-author or editor of several papers, books and reports, including Towards Better Transport (Policy Exchange, 2008), A Beginner’s Guide to Liberty (Adam Smith Institute, 2009), High Speed 2: The Next Government Project Disaster? (IEA , 2011) and Which Road Ahead - Government or Market? (IEA, 2012). He is a Senior Fellow of the Cobden Centre and the Economic Policy Centre.

15 thoughts on “How railway conversion could end the commuter squeeze”

  1. Posted 03/02/2015 at 10:29 | Permalink

    The barmy army are at it again. Wasn’t this idea floated a couple of years ago and then fell flat. Seems to be introduced by people with a vested interest in road transport.

  2. Posted 03/02/2015 at 16:07 | Permalink

    This is a great debate, although it gets overly emotional at times. Railways are expensive, and very often the cost to users is prohibitive. On the plus side it doesn’t pollute as much as cars. But a lot of people aren’t ready to renounce their cars, with their own space, regardless of the consequences on the environment. But the bottom line is the cost, as long as the prices remain so high for train tickets in general, adoption rate will remain too low. Busways may be the best alternative between the 2 as the costs are much lower.

    Kind regards,
    R. Park
    the IRTF

  3. Posted 03/02/2015 at 19:47 | Permalink

    I’m far from being a great expert on the subject, but I seem to think that this is a subject that has come up from time to time, and very little progress has been made on bus lanes. I believe the last attempt was the Cambridgeshire guided busway, and I am not sure that this has been an unbridled sucess. In general buses are slower and give a more uncomfortable ride than trains. I am a great fan of buses in rural areas where there is a low density of population and make great use of them with my bus pass! However, Qto dismantle existing rail infrastructure seems very perverse at a time when other parts of the world are extending their rail links. Look what the French are doing with their TGV. In a world where we are trying to cut down on CO2, these proposals seem to offer nothing to alleviate emissions.

  4. Posted 04/02/2015 at 12:54 | Permalink

    You have both ( Withrington & Wellings) been told, in a public forum, that your figures are wrong.
    There are gross factual inaccuracies, not to say deliberate falsehoods in the report:
    Page 9 paras one & three stand out immediately as simply flat untrue.
    There are plenty of others, but that will do for a start!

    So, please stop peddling these lies in public?

  5. Posted 04/02/2015 at 21:52 | Permalink

    This is a non-starter. I live near a major commuter line into London. It simply isn’t wide enough to accommodate conversion to bus lanes without knocking down huge numbers of houses or depriving people of their gardens.

  6. Posted 05/02/2015 at 08:21 | Permalink

    Look too at the disruption during conversion. We all saw the disruption this Christmas when rail engineering work overran by a day or two. Given that a route (even if wide enough to be converted) could not run buses and trains simultaneously, then the route would be out of action for months, if not years. How would that go down with commuters and other travellers, I wonder? Think also about how the great railway terminuses in London would cope, given that they mix local trains and long distance trains in the same facility (and often along the same approach tracks) – how would this be managed? It’s a recipe for disaster (probably literally).

  7. Posted 05/02/2015 at 10:02 | Permalink

    This article does not appear to be based on real world data. The most favorable assumptions are used at every point. Where do you find 75 seat buses which give 12mpg at highway speeds? And is it smart to be increasing demand for diesel fuel, replacing electricity? The 40% fare savings are based on buses using roads which are free. On one hand the buses have low paid drivers, and on the other hand they are automated to maintain tight headways. Rather than wasting billions on conversion, wouldn’t it be better to invest in making rail more efficient?
    Sydney (Australia) had one of the world’s biggest tram networks, until it was all ripped up in 1961, because lobbyists told the government buses would do a better job. Fifty years later, with roads clogged with buses during peakhour, they have started rebuilding the tram network.

  8. Posted 05/02/2015 at 14:15 | Permalink

    @HJ – I use a commuter route everyday and I too have difficulty imagining how it could be a bus route. However, I think the point is that it should be possible to transfer infrastructure from one use to another on economic grounds. Sure, it might be decided that the costs are too great, but there may also be cases where the benefits are much higher than the costs. A good example here is the Hull/Scarborough line (which is dual track to Bridlington). There is now a chronic lack of road capacity in some of the local area and yet the rail line spends most of its time empty. This could easily and fruitfully be turned into a bus route or road.

    @Greg – please be more specific

  9. Posted 05/02/2015 at 14:32 | Permalink

    @Philip – obviously I am not against ever considering a change of use – I am just against impractical solutions such as this one. Of course, the biggest congestion/lack of capacity problem we face in transport in this country is in urban areas which are choked with traffic. As the majority of journeys are less than 5k (and presumably a very high proportion in urban areas are) this could be addressed by changing some of the road space to accommodate safe cycling facilities and better pedestrian facilities, as this is a better use of limited space. This has been shown to work in the Netherlands – they suffer far less traffic congestion as a result because there are fewer cars used in urban areas. It is also better for those who need to drive, so it is not ‘anti-motorist’. Even the RAC report (cited by Richard Wellings in a previous post of his) acknowledges that investments in cycling/pedestrian facilities have easily the best benefit-to-cost ratios. However, despite this, Richard Wellings is on record as dismissing the importance of cycle and pedestrian facilities – why?

  10. Posted 05/02/2015 at 16:12 | Permalink

    @HJ – There are several reasons to be cautious about government investment in cycling infrastructure. As experience now shows, cycle lanes are often badly designed and located in areas where cycle traffic is tiny. In many cases, cyclists avoid the lanes and carry on using adjacent roads. Another problem is that cycling infrastructure often offers little in the way of time savings, which puts a major question mark over the economic benefits. Finally, there are the costs imposed on other road users, which seem to be almost completely ignored by the transport authorities.

  11. Posted 05/02/2015 at 16:21 | Permalink

    @Richard Wellings – all the more reason to do them properly, as they do in the Netherlands. People use them there because they are safe and fit for purpose. They do save time (not least because car traffic is less congested) and they certainly cut down on the cost of transport for people who cycle rather than drive. I’d be interested to know what the supposed costs to other road users are.

  12. Posted 05/02/2015 at 16:27 | Permalink

    @HJ – as it happens, Richard and I have just been talking about this. We did conclude that, space permitting, putting cycle routes alongside bus routes on railways that converted to roads might well be a good use of space. That is especially true for routes like the one I have suggested that are very, very flat.

  13. Posted 05/02/2015 at 17:31 | Permalink

    @Greg Tingey – Paragraphs one and three on page 9 are based on the evidence examined in the main body of the paper. Real-world examples demonstate that very high capacities are achievable on busways, including the Lincoln Tunnel XBL in New York and bus rapid transit systems in cities such as Istanbul, Bogota and Sao Paulo. On former railway alignments, capacity is likely to be even higher.

  14. Posted 08/02/2015 at 11:01 | Permalink

    Interesting idea.

    Of course if you had several buses on the same route departing at more or less the same time, there must be some way that they could be coupled together, saving on drivers.

    And for higher speed, there could be some kind of guide rail system to keep them stable.

    No doubt there must also be some way that they could be powered by electricity rather than polluting diesel engines…

    Oh. Hang on a minute! We’ve already got vehicles like this. I believe they are called TRAINS.

    On a more serious note, I would make the following observations:

    1) Is commuting something that we should be encouraging anyway? Is it actually necessary on the scale the takes place today? Should the state have any role in promoting or facilitating it?

    2) The UK rail industry is an obvious disaster area, thanks to distorting subsidies, crushing regulation and restrictive practices. Would it not be better to remove these damaging influences first, before ripping up the tracks?

    3) Rather than another top-down transport scheme, why not free up the whole UK transport market? Do we need a DfT? Why should any mode be subsidised? Why not sell off all state owned transport assets and see what free enterprise can provide?

  15. Posted 11/02/2015 at 17:35 | Permalink

    I’d be interested to know what genuine studies either have been or could be commissioned to look into how realistic it might be to undertake rail to bus conversions on busy urban commuter routes.

    Very high frequency bus corridors may well work well elsewhere around the world. But how about some genuine research into converting a particular line – how about the c2c route into London Fenchurch Street for example? (Not the route I live on, by the way. Just one picked out of the air).

    Issues I can see straight away include loading gauge (height, width), sharing the route with other trains (especially for freight) and – probably the killer – what happens during the period of months (at least) while the route is converted to all its users?

    Introducing a new, purpose built route may be one thing. But I could see converting an existing commuter route going down like a lead balloon for the likes of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (not me, by the way).

    I know this is a hobby horse of Richard’s. But to what extent does the idea goes beyond what some might worry is mere dogma?

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