Paving over the tracks: a better use of Britain’s railways?

Liberalising the transport sector will offer huge benefits over the tracks_web.pdf

  • The politicisation of the transport sector has stifled the market processes that reallocate infrastructure to higher value uses. As a consequence, government transport spending is misallocated on a grand scale. This is particularly apparent on the rail network, where high levels of taxpayer subsidy are combined with poor levels of service.

  • Commuter trains are often expensive and overcrowded, while government plans to increase capacity will take decades to implement and will impose further costs on both taxpayers and passengers. A combination of rigid state control and powerful vested interests means there is little consideration of alternative ways of transporting large volumes of commuters.

  • There is strong evidence that allowing some commuter railways to be converted into busways would provide higher capacity at lower cost, reduce fares for passengers and cut subsidies from taxpayers. A related policy of phasing out government support for the railways could save around £6 billion a year.

  • It is estimated that busway fares would be at least 40 per cent cheaper than current rail fares, while on longer journeys all passengers could expect to be seated.

  • In combination with the existing road network, busways would facilitate fast and direct services into city centres from suburbs and villages not currently linked by rail, increasing the choice of routes and reducing overall journey times for many commuters. Express coaches on congestion-free infrastructure could match the train for speed except on the longest journeys, and would also deliver much more frequent services.

  • For a given traffic volume, busways would typically require far less land than rail, both at terminals and along routes. The sale of surplus land would further enhance the commercial case for conversion.

  • The environmental gains could be substantial. High-volume bus/coach transport would appear to be more energy efficient than rail when the full impact of operating the networks is compared. Lower fares and a greater number of direct routes could also reduce car use. In some locations, spare busway capacity could be sold to other road users, diverting traffic from congested urban streets and delivering further environmental benefits.

  • There are few technical obstacles to conversion. On most of the commuter-rail network, track beds are wide enough and bridges high enough to accommodate two-way bus traffic. On the approaches to Central London there is often sufficient width for several lanes in each direction.

  • The deregulation of infrastructure use should form part of a wider policy to liberalise the transport sector and reduce harmful government intervention. Key reforms include harmonising the tax treatment of different modes, phasing out state subsidies, and removing barriers to entrepreneurship and innovation.

The publication was featured in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times, The Metro, and CityAM. Richard Wellings appeared on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Wales to discuss the report, while Paul Withrington appeared on BBC Five Live.  

To view the press release here.

2014, Briefing Paper 15:01

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