Railway conversion

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On 26 July1989, the Railway Conversion Campaign took out a full page advertisement in the Telegraph & other papers to reiterate the discredited conversion theory. It claimed: The railway system is only working at 3% of its potential.  A Department with such poor utilisation ought to be sacked’ and expressed concern for ‘our precious green land’.  Conversion would keep heavy freight away from people and homes The advert called on readers who agree with their theories, to send this advert to their MP. It must have fallen on stony ground, because Parliament took no action. 

 My unpublished response to the Daily Telegraph pointed out:-

Due to the poor utilisation achieved on roads, on the basis of published DoT road traffic data in 1986 (my last year with BR) road transport required 22 times as much road mileage, and vastly more acreage, for 10 times the traffic. The disparity is really likely to be much worse, due to the unreliability of road traffic data, (see page 153 of Railway Conversion – the impractical dream). Studies published by Transport 2000 and others reveal a substantial element of empty running by road haulage, further wasting road space. Converted railways would not accommodate existing rail traffic, leaving no space for traffic to be transferred from existing roads. In addition to converting 10,400 miles of railway, it would be necessary to build 10,000 miles of new roads merely to cope with traffic displaced from rail.

If the League is concerned as it claims about ‘our precious green land’, 60% of roads should be closed to bring road utilisation up to British Rail’s level. 

Under-utilised lines are mainly in rural areas, kept open by government, without subsidy for the first 20 years of nationalisation. BR had to fund them from interest bearing Treasury loans which, with fares held below inflation, caused the deficit. See The Railway Closure Controversy.

6,940 miles closed since the 1960s was available for conversion, but remained unused.

To be proved fatally wrong, anyone believing that rail utilisation is 3%, need only sit on a main line for a few minutes, not 58 minutes in an hour, which is the 97% that they claim is unused. 

Rail track widths were almost invariably inadequate even for single carriageway roads, whilst limited bridge heights would restrict use to cars and small commercial vehicles.

Roads are built on the basis of social benefit, an ingenuous formula based on the time road users may save by using new roads. British Rail in contrast, had to justify investment in cash terms with reduced costs or higher revenue. 

They said that a Department with such poor utilisation ought to be sacked. On the contrary, anyone who produced such mis-aimed, error-ridden statistics as theirs, should be sacked. 

I asked for the source of the ‘published statistics which claim only 3% utilisation’. There was no response to the letter, other than another acknowledgement card to add to a growing collection. (It is now apparent that the source was not independent as implied, but some creative arithmetic by the chairman of the Conversion Campaign in his paper The Truth about Transport (see Railway Conversion – the impractical dream, pp82-88).


11.12.00 Sunday Telegraph (Not published)

Ref your article: "My railroad revolution" 3.12.00.  This was mooted 50 years ago.  It has been regurgitated several times. In my book, Blueprints for Bankruptcy, I set out the original proposal & views of road engineers & road operators who stated, inter alia, lines were not as straight as you believe; that major clearance problems would restrict their use to light vehicles; that bridges, tunnels, viaducts & drainage would pose problems, which could only be resolved at formidable cost.  These experts included a spokesman for BRF.  My book also refers to claims conversion had already taken place. These relate to "conversion" of a closed single line to a dual carriageway road.  Anyone with the barest appreciation of railway construction would have pointed out that even a double railway line isn't wide enough for the minimum widths prescribed for a single carriageway road!


23.1.01 - Sunday Telegraph (Not published and no reply)

 In December, you quoted a Minister who said there was a location where the North West railway line was slightly wider than the M6. As the precise location was not mentioned, I saw it as a challenge to find it. I failed. Would you kindly inform readers of its location? Clearly to make a true comparison, locations which include stations or sidings can only be compared with service areas. The Highway Agency states the width of a motorway between bridge abutments is 35.6 metres.  DoT requirements for railways show a four track railway is 15.35 metres between abutments, a double line only 8.08 metres. About half of the distance between London & Glasgow is double line only. Some years ago, it was reported a closed single line had been converted into a motorway. It neglected to mention the compulsory land & property purchases required to make the narrow railway strip wide enough. Those living near the West Coast main line will be alarmed to learn conversion would result in doubling or quadrupling its width over some 200 miles. Incidentally, the idea was debated by road engineers 45 years ago & dismissed as totally impractical & that double lines were not wide enough to convert even to ordinary single carriageway roads.


7.2.01 - Sunday Telegraph (Not published and no reply)

I have received your Ack card to my further letter of 21st January on the impracticability of railways being converted into roads.  It included facts on the respective widths of railway & motorway, which confirm the idea of conversion is a non runner. Had it been practical, some 6,940 miles of railway closed would have been converted before 1984, as I pointed out to the BRF in 1984 & to Daily Telegraph in 1991. Most of it never was. I hope that, as a "quality" paper, you will publish an alternative - researched - view to that aired in three editions.

Thereby, readers would not remain in ignorance of facts which reveal a different aspect from that published. I have put together an article on the origin, history & technical consideration of the subject, together with other statistics. As an alternative to publishing my letter, would you be interested in publishing my article?


12.1.02 The Times (Not published)

Mr. Bevan (letter, January 16) raises an old chestnut: converting railways into roads. As the only author to examine the subject objectively, may I direct him to my findings - in my book Blueprints for Bankruptcy (which exposes the real reasons for BR problems), & in "Focus", (Inst of Logistics & Transport Journal, Oct, 2000). Road transport has 22 times as much road mileage, & 100 times the acreage, to convey 10 times as much traffic as rail. Because of this disparity, railways replaced by roads would require 16,000 miles of new road in addition to converted rail mileage merely to move existing rail traffic, leaving no space for existing road traffic. The attitude to reducing road fatalities is "jam tomorrow". If a train driver fell asleep, the train would stop using technology introduced in the 1950's. In contrast, haulage drivers admitted to falling asleep at the wheel on TV, & not taking rest, because it would increase costs! Given comparable technology, a road vehicle would not have crashed on the line at Selby. Fatalities would rise on converted railways.


22.12.06 LTT (Local Transport Today) Published 4.1.07 in full.

I refer to the letter from Mr. Withrington regarding Green Transport. I am a loss to comprehend how anyone at Network Rail could compile diesel consumption for 2002/3 for Network SouthEast, Regional and InterCity services.  These three bodies ceased to exist in 1994/5. It is not meaningful, nor reliable, to try to relate the existing 25 Train Operating Companies back to the three former organisations. As Network Rail has no responsibility for diesel supplies for train operations, the Train Operating Companies would probably tell Network Rail to mind its own business if asked for such commercially sensitive data. Even if the data was reliable, it is valueless in any comparison with road transport for which no comparable national consumption data by mode exists. It is untenable to compare, as he does, one hypothetical road vehicle with a national average of all rail services - whether estimated or precise. No self-respecting statistician would accept such a basis. These and many other similar claimed benefits of road transport, have been disproved in my recent book: Railway conversion - the impractical dream, which contains a thorough analysis of his and other conversion theories. It is of interest to note that the Eddie Stobart web page shows that their use of rail freight saves about 71% of fuel consumption pa to comparable road transport. To undermine this, Mr. Withrington suggests that on converted railways, an even better road consumption can be obtained than on rail or on the motorways which would otherwise carry this traffic. This is despite the reality of the delay and accident inducing incidence of thousands of “level crossings” and the unavoidable incidence of right turns! His reference to managed motor roads must bring a wry smile to all road users, who would agree that the word “managed” is totally inapplicable to the road system! When the use of roads is managed, there will be no need to campaign for conversion of railways into roads! Instead, thousands of miles of road would become surplus. It is worth noting that in comparing road and rail, Conversionists compare only motorway and trunk length with railways, whilst comparing every ton and passenger on all UK roads, whether or not they go near a major road. They also claim massive accident reductions would arise on these not-to-be-counted roads. Without 200,000 miles of non-trunk roads, there would be virtually no road traffic! It is claimed that all this traffic from these “ghost roads” would somehow find its way onto converted railways of which there are only 10,000 miles. Some tortuous journeys would ensue to get to the nearest ex-railway line! A sound appreciation of mathematics and geography will highlight the flaw.


7.3.07 railwatch (published)

Those advocating conversion of railways into roads make naive assumptions. For instance, they calculate a minimum number of replacement lorries on the assumption that as rail traffic is all of a bulk nature, lorries will carry an outward 30 tons each. This figure is divided into rail traffic volume. They are unable to grasp that bulk traffic falls into two primary groups - bulk by weight, & bulk by volume. It includes traffic that fills a wagon - or lorry - by volume - but not weight. Cars & motor car parts by rail are of low weight & high volume. A road transporter would carry say 8 cars per lorry, about 6 tons out, zero return, an average of 3 tons per round trip. They ignore the reality that it wd be impractical to have bulk traffic handled by hauliers of the minor size typical of UK operations. One could not rely on hundreds of one-man businesses & sundry cowboys moving a million tons of coal imported by one ship to a Scottish port, to middle England. Therefore, where are these entrepreneurs to spring from, with the massive investment required to buy hundreds of new imported juggernauts with premises to match, & to recruit the hundreds of already qualified HGV drivers & mechanics? A recent claim on the internet is that the "father" of conversion based his proposal on properly measured railway formations. He never made such a claim. Indeed, when he was called upon by the editor of The Engineer to validate his theory with such detail, he & his supporters were up in arms - claiming that it was government's job to put costly flesh on the bones of this superficial idea & prove or disprove it! The editor doubted that answers would be favourable to the conversion proposal. The internet claim goes on to try to dismiss my revelation that road engineers & road transport operators rubbished the proposal at the very beginning, stating that the debate continued until 1958. This implied that the crucially important opinion of those engineers & operators was later overturned in The Engineer by like qualified professionals. In fact, an examination of the correspondence in that journal shows that 13 people wrote 31 letters in favour, & 37 people wrote 43 letters against. Members of the Railway Conversion League wrote 21 of those 31 letters. No supporters claimed personal road transport experience. The irony is that conversionists try to claim that reasonable people must be convinced by their arguments, when the evidence is that neither MPs nor the population has ever favoured conversion, & that an endless line of road-biased Ministers of Transport has steadfastly refused to accept their arguments. They included Ernest Marples whose background was a Partner in one of UK's biggest road construction companies. He dismissed the idea in writing.


23.5.07 Local Transport Today

Withrington (LTT 466) prompts me to mention he gets facts wrong in field that underlies his anti-global warming claims. His objective is converting railways to roads. Limitless oil use is a pre-requisite. My recent book on conversion theory, mentions a debate at the Inst Civil Engrs 1955, at  which conversion was rubbished by road engineers & road operators. To this I added a catalogue flaws that are obvious to a rail operator. Withrington claims in a new web page 'railloons' that the "debate was carried on in 'The Engineer' until 1958". Its pages show "debate was not carried on until 1958", but began in 1958, sparked by a conference on solving road congestion which ignored conversion. It must have irked Brig.  Lloyd, initiator of the idea. In 1958, there were 21 letters/articles from 6 Conversion League members, including 13 from their arch-priest: Lloyd, & 10 supportive letters from 7 non-members. None claimed to be road engineers or transport operators. If he did not have their support, it had no merit. The letters merely re-arranged the deck-chairs, producing no new evidence. In contrast to this biased support, there were 43 letters from 37 opponents, only two from Railway people. Two were road experts. The journal reveals that neither Lloyd nor any other member of the League had measured any bridges or formation, contrary to Withrington's claims. The editor of The Engineer argued that Lloyd should provide all such detail, but his supporters argued that this was Government's job. On that basis, any crackpot theory should be researched at taxpayers' expense. Thus 13 supported the idea - of whom 6 had a vested interest, 37 were against, of whom only two had a vested interest. Withrington had earlier claimed that the BTC published Railway width data in 1961. Asked to identify the source, he admitted that the 1961 data referred only to the length - not width - of the Railway. Elsewhere he stated on the Internet that Railfuture had claimed that a twin-track Railway had 6 times the capacity of a 6-lane motorway. They told him that their booklet stated they had equal capacity. On the Internet he compared one hypothetical max size lorry fully loaded by weight, returning empty with the documented average of all freight trains - a chalk & cheese comparison. As every road & rail freight operator knows, 'bulk' commodities fall into two primary groups - bulk by weight & bulk by volume. Thus a lorry load of cars displaced from rail wd weigh about 5-6 tons, & the lorry wd return empty, giving an average of 3 tons max. Many other commodities are volume sensitive. He woke up to this reality, when he read it in my one-page paper "Answer to Transwatch claims". In "railloons", he alleges that my book is inaccurate, but makes no quote from the 220 page book, merely, selectively, from the one-page "Answer". He wrote to an acquaintance that he would "buy my book in order to rebut it", & later that he had "yet to buy it, but looked forward to destroying it in due time". The "Answer" mentions that the Eddie Stobart web page shows that transferring some road traffic to rail gives massive fuel savings - undermining Withrington's fundamental claims. His response was to claim that those Lorries could achieve better results on converted Railways, by inference, than on motorways! Withrington is looking for trials on rural lines. These have taken place. A list in my book reveals that, after 10,000 miles of Railway have closed, 250 miles have been "converted", mainly in short lengths widened by a factor of up to eight. The majority were converted to footpaths or cycleways, for which limited rail width & height is not a problem. At that rate, if Lloyd had succeeded, we wd have had 500 miles of new road, much on unwanted alignments, & 19,500 miles of new footpaths! That 500 miles would have had to carry all ex-rail traffic, plus some existing road traffic to relieve congestion - which is the raison d'être for conversion! Another foible of Withrington is to object to total road length being compared to total Railway length, in order to make roads appear to be more productive than Railways, since there are 22 times as much road length for about 8 times as much traffic. Thus 200,000 miles of roads - on which most road traffic originates, & must of necessity move for some distance, is taken out of the equation. If they did not exist, there would be no viable road haulage. My book contains photos showing underused main roads. To enhance his comparisons, he claims that all rail traffic is carried 20 miles by road at each end. Anyone who troubles to examine Railway accounts & records will discover that most does not go on roads, being from port or colliery to power station, siding to siding, port to siding etc.


26.7.07 fax The Guardian, (Not published)

On Tuesday 24 July, Jeremy Vine proclaimed on BBC radio a "New idea - to pave over railways and run express buses on them". That "new" idea had its 53rd birthday last month, which he should have known as I sent him an e-mail last autumn informing him of my research into this old - recently regurgitated - chestnut, in the hope that he would discuss it on his show. I enclosed a synopsis of my book “Railway Conversion - the impractical dream”, which examines all conversion proposals and demonstrates with fact, figure and photo why it is impractical, costly and would not deliver the benefits claimed. On his programme, Jeremy took at face value a claim by Paul Withrington (the sole advocate of conversion), that only one quarter of a main rail terminal was required to enable replacement buses to turn round after arrival, and depart. Only one study of a named rail route and terminals has ever been published, and it showed that the same area would be required for replacement buses, even on the impractical basis used to calculate fleet numbers and the impractical design proposed for the bus terminal. The study envisaged peak buses departing at 8-9 second intervals, whilst crossing on the level, the walking route of 28,500 passengers - 490 per minute. It would have 7 times as many departing buses as Victoria bus station in half the area! There would be no timetables. Consequently, bus numbers were assessed by a method unused by bus operators. This study was praised on Withrington's web-site, who claims that rail formations are wide enough and bridges have sufficient clearance. Railways have published no data on formation widths nor bridge heights. The scheme he praises specified that on that 160 mile railway, clearance would have to be increased at 61 bridges, still leaving most bridges below DfT standards. Many bridges were not even mentioned. Adjoining land and property would be acquired at 13 locations to create required widths. This scheme would abandon 26 miles of main line double track railway, and build a new road to divert ex-rail traffic around the abandoned section, onto the A12. This section of line happens to be mostly on embankment or in cutting and has 53 bridges. Withrington diverted attention from inevitable longer journey times, by saying buses would be 10 times as frequent. That inevitably means some commuters would depart earlier. Frequency is a red herring. He claims that coaches can be configured to produce any comfort level required - but overlooks that this increases cost per seat and will thereby have a worse carbon footprint.


29.6.07 Local Transport Today

Mr. Withrington (LTT 471) is the last person to criticise anyone for personal attacks & ignoring facts. He created a web page attacking me for criticising Conversion in my recent book. Significantly, he told a third party that he will acquire my book ‘so that I may rebut it’. He later wrote that he had still not seen the book, but will get it so that he can destroy it. No one can be taken seriously who takes this stance. In his web-page he disputed my assertion that road experts demolished conversion at an Institute of Civil Engineering debate in 1955, claiming that the ‘original discussion continued until 1958’ in the ‘pages of the then prestigious magazine The Engineer’. I have researched that still prestigious magazine. Its pages reveal that the debate was not carried on until 1958, but began in 1958. Comments were not from road engineers nor road operators reversing the views of those who rubbished the idea in 1955. There were 21 letters/articles written by 6 Conversion League members, including 13 from arch-priest Brig. Lloyd. Ten other supportive letters were from 7 people. None claimed to be road engineers or operators. If there was no support from them, it clearly had no merit. Their letters merely re-arranged the deck-chairs. In contrast, there were 43 letters from 37 opponents to conversion, two from road experts, two from Railway people. The correspondence confirms that neither Lloyd nor any other member of the League had measured any bridges or formation - as Mr. Withrington claims.  Lloyd’s papers nor his book made such a claim. The editor of The Engineer argued that Lloyd should provide all necessary detail, but his supporters argued that this was Govt’s job. On that basis, any crackpot theory should be researched at taxpayers’ expense. Thus 13 people supported the idea - of whom six had a vested interest & 37 were against, of whom only two had a vested interest. In criticising others for inaccuracies, he exposes his flank. He claimed that Railfuture published a statement that a twin-track Railway had six times the capacity of a 3-lane motorway. It had to be pointed out to him that Railfuture said that the capacities were equal. He stated that details of Railway widths were published by the BTC in 1961. I was sure they didn’t. He had to admit another error. He praised a study on converting East Anglian lines. My analysis of this study reveals a massive catalogue of flaws: operational, commercial, practical & financial; & exposes that the study called for widening & increased height at many locations. It planned to abandon 26 miles of main line double track Railway, which just happened to be mostly on embankment or in cutting, & had about 50 bridges, whose heights & widths were not quoted. Displaced rail traffic would be diverted onto existing roads! Lloyd, who claimed that 3 road lanes could be built on a double track, must be turning in his grave! His web pages compare the national average load of all freight trains with one hypothetical fully loaded lorry, claiming, when challenged, that rail traffic was in bulk. ‘Bulk’ falls into two primary groups - bulk by weight & bulk by volume, as every road & rail freight operator knows. Thus a lorry load of cars displaced from rail wd weigh about 5-6 tons, & the lorry wd return empty, giving an average 3 tons. Other commodities are volume sensitive. Only recently has he acknowledged that some lorry loads would be low, but has not re-assessed his hypothetical figures. His response that the one hypothetical lorry is not hypothetical because he has ‘allowed for it to return empty’ is pathetic for its irrelevance to the point. His comparison included an assumption that all rail traffic has a 20 mile road journey at each end, when most is between ports, collieries, power stations & industrial sidings.  Conversion theory depends on all displaced rail passengers transferring to buses. Experience of closures of lines with lower than average rail speeds, is that most transfer immediately to car, & within months, so do the rest, when buses are withdrawn. Withrington ‘can see no reason why they would transfer to cars’. A 2004 RAC Report gives the answer: motorists see rail as the best alternative to the car.  The converse must apply. He envisages converted Railways: right turns, cross roads, warts & all - being managed to avoid congestion, but is oblivious to the failure to manage purpose built motorways now. The theory also depends on excluding 200,000 miles of roads in comparing rail & road utilisation, oblivious, that without them, there would be virtually no road traffic. It ignores that 10,000 miles of Railway cannot provide alternative routes for 220,000 miles of roads. Had he read my book, he may have avoided quoting Stewart Joy, whose Railway experience was, as I mention, a supernumerary clerk in Australia. As there wd have been no mad rush to buy Joy’s book by Railway managers - I encountered it by chance 19 years after it was published - & as no person was named, none could have brought a case for libel as is argued on Mr. Withrington’s web-page. The inference that much denigrated rail managers could pull the wool over the eyes of the First Class Honours mandarins who stalked the corridors of power is ludicrous, & was ridiculed by the media when first advanced 87 years ago! If anyone was libelled, it was those mandarins. Two of my books rebutted Joy’s criticisms in every operational, financial & legislative field with fact & figure. I did not hear from him.


10.8.08 Local Transport Today (published 22.8.08 – first para left out which “others had dealt with”)

Paul Withrington’s worries about coal fired power stations producing additional electricity for railways are misplaced. Only 42% of UK electricity is produced from coal, and that proportion is set to decline as others are increased. The delayed ‘retirement of coal-fired power stations’ does not imply an increased proportion of coal fired electricity, merely, that it will not immediately decline with increased nuclear power if more railways are electrified.

Paul Withrington’s jibe of ‘the fun there must be in developing policy in defiance of the facts’ is an own goal. He claims that rail passengers would transfer to bus if railways were converted to roads, when the real facts are that every rail closure was followed by most passengers transferring to car, and the few who transferred to bus – which were subsidised by British Rail by up to £1m pa – eventually made other arrangements and the bus services were withdrawn. It is a fact that when railways closed, bus companies put up fares (see Hansard vol 590, col 202). Before closure, some companies warned bus fares would be higher. Objectors to closures stated that they would have to pay higher bus fares after closure, and quoted the relevant fares. These and other facts are documented in: “Railway Conversion – the impractical dream”, and “The Railway Closure Controversy”.

Mr. Withrington quotes no source for his claim about car journeys. When petroleum becomes too expensive or is rationed, only journeys of less than about 10 miles are likely to transfer to cycle. Essential longer distance travel will transfer to another mode. An RAC survey of motorists published in 2004 revealed that the first alternative for motorists was the train. He will not accept that, because it undermines his irrational claim that if railways were converted to roads, rail passengers would happily transfer to bus – despite the incontrovertible evidence of past closures. The fact that some car journeys are made to non-rail served destinations does not invalidate motorists’ preference. Given oil shortages, a journey can be made by rail to a convenient point, followed by transfer to taxi or bus. A holiday or excursion now made to a non-rail served destination may switch to a rail served destination. Politicians cling to costing road transport plans on out-of-date and unrealistic oil prices. Like Mr. Micawber, they believe that ‘something will turn up’ to preserve their road transport fixation. Bio-fuels is the new abracadabra. Regrettably, they ignore experts’ views - revealed by David Strahan in ‘The last oil shock’ - who calculated long ago, that oil from agricultural production would cause hyper-inflation of food prices and more starvation. These scenarios are already revealing themselves, but politicians’ heads are firmly in the sand. However, even they comprehend that future electricity demands will not be met if the UK does not switch to non-fossil fuel power generation.


12.6.09 LTT

Pau l Withrington must not make untenable claims. My book (Railway Conversion – the impractical dream) – which he has seen, explains the issue of trespassing, which will not cease with conversion. I had to attend inquests into trespassers deaths; therefore, I know the facts. Trespassers are pedestrians taking a short cut, and will continue to do so if railways are converted. In all probability, the incidence will increase as pedestrians consider there is less risk, and deaths will increase as they dodge between more frequent traffic. Trainspotters do not trespass, but stand well back to catch loco numbers at 125mph or travel to main stations where trains are slowing down or stopping. Brigadier Lloyd, who initiated the conversion idea, acknowledged that trespassing would be a problem, but would be banned! Its’ statutory prohibition on railways has not prevented it.  

Withrington proclaims more use will be made of converted railways, but every photo published of “conversions” shows utilisation is worse. Typical, are the converted Edinburgh expressway containing in a space adequate for one train each way, 13 cars with a statistical occupancy of 21 people! He insists that rail passengers would all transfer to buses running on converted railways. However, of scores of Conversionist propaganda photos published – only one has a bus in it! Every rail closure led to most passengers transferring to cars, and so few transferred to buses which BR had to subsidise, that after a few months they were withdrawn!

To prove his claim that railway width is not a problem, he claimed to use data published by the BTC, but now admits that he was mistaken. Annual Reports which contained up to 400 pages contained everything but width data, for very obvious reasons – cost and zero value. His claim still stands on the Web. To resolve this ‘minor’ difficulty, he sent a photo of a railway viaduct converted to a concrete road viaduct on the North Devon Link Road. This also figured in his submission to the Transport Select Committee. I append his photo and one of the actual railway viaduct from a book by Mitchell & Smith. A trifling 1.6 miles of the 40 mile Taunton-Barnstaple branch was used as a base for this road. Unmentioned is a tunnel a few hundred yards beyond the viaduct, which had to be bypassed by the road because it was too narrow.

His claim of low occupancy of converted railways is disproved by the Conversion Report of the Liverpool Street scheme where buses – if they avoided knocking down too many passengers crossing their path - would depart at 8 second intervals in the peak. Worse, this was based on their assumption that there was room for a bi-directional road, where there was only enough space for a single lane for 2-way traffic. (see my book). His hero – Edward Smith co-author of this scheme wrote elsewhere that not all peak passengers would secure seats. It is complete nonsense to say that most single track lines have double track formations. Unlike him, I have walked more miles on single – and double lines – than he has had hot dinners. Conversionists produce no bus timetables, but use formulae which no bus operator would entertain.

Given his belief that railways are so poorly used, perhaps he will put his life where his mouth is, and sit on a rural track nominated by me. I will be there, camcorder ready, to record his demise, and will cheerfully face risk of arrest for having induced someone to commit suicide.

If the 220,000 miles of ghost roads – most not near a railway - that he ignores did not exist, millions of tons of traffic which never sees a motorway would never move. Most hauliers, bus operators and suppliers are located on these roads. Furthermore, motorways would be gridlocked daily, when traffic was unable to circumvent an accident by diverting onto the ghost roads. I have created a web site to rebut his entire claim about conversion: www.railconversion.co.uk  It should avoid the need for you to ventilate this dreary subject again. It is linked to another site dealing with transport myths.


30.7.09 e-mail Daily Telegraph (Not published)

I refer to the advert (26.7.89) by the Railway Conversion Campaign, which claims BR works at 3% of potential. The utilisation of roads is far worse, carrying approx 9 times as much as rail on 22 times as much highway. If they are so concerned about "our precious green land" why do they not propose closing 60% of roads to bring road utilisation up to that of railways? Under-utilised lines, particularly single lines, are mainly in rural areas. Independent studies show the standard width of double line railways in urban areas is well below the minimum width for a single carriageway road & that limited bridge heights would preclude juggernauts & large buses. Hence, it would be motorists who would use these "railways-into-roads" since they could not be used by large vehicles. If the road lobby believes railways would make good roads why didn't they snap up the 6940 miles closed before 1984, which I told a 1984 meeting of the British Road Federation (BRF) was still available. They should try telling South East commuters that lines are under-used; you couldn't get a fraction of the volume through on the network by road. Roads are constructed on the basis of social benefit, an ingenuous formula based on the time users may save as a result of new construction, not on the amount of money the State receives in return for that investment. BR in contrast, has to justify investment on strict financial criteria. Anyone believing lines are used only for 3% of their time would be foolish to sit on a main line for 58" (3% of an hour).


5.4.10 LTT (published)

Paul Withrington claims (LTT March) that “the 30,000 seats provided in the peak hour on the New York busway could double, given larger buses”. He praised Edward Smith (co-author of the deeply flawed report on converting to a road part of the rail route from Liverpool Street), who claimed the New York bus lane was “said to carry 25,000 seated passengers at 43mph in a peak hour”. Neither quotes a source for their statements. Hence, I e-mailed the New York Transit Authority which replied that the “bus lane’s peak (06.15-10.00), traffic is 62,000 commuters, including standees”. That equates to 16,500 per hour. The New York Times reports collisions and breakdowns which cause horrendous delays. Withrington claims that UK buses would run at 60 mph on a converted system in the peak; Smith said 50 mph. New York applies 35mph in the peak. UK commuter train speeds range from 90 mph.

Withrington ignores the implications of larger buses – whether longer or higher – on the structure of the New York bus terminal. The multi-storey terminal cost $24m in 1949, and took two years to build!  Elsewhere, he claims that Britain’s rail terminals could easily be replaced by such terminals. He neglects to mention what will happen to the economy when rail traffic is diverted to existing roads for two years for 50 such terminals! He states that: “Probably a bus would use terminal space 3-4 times as efficiently as the train given three levels, with 30 bays on each”.  A claim must not begin with probably and conclude with certainty. There is no assessment of the cost of a terminal or the time loss in passing between street and upper levels. Finally he adds: “terminal capacity is a separate issue and more difficult to demonstrate simply”. It is crucial and only difficult in the absence of a timetable based on an analysis of the journeys which passengers make, which conversionists consistently ignore.

On his website, he claims that ‘the 50,000 passengers who alight at Waterloo could all find seats in 1,000 50-seat coaches – sufficient for one lane of a motor road managed in a way that avoids congestion’. Their 3.6 second headway at his specified 60 mph is only 0.5 seconds above the recommended safe stopping headway. Every bus would have to depart to a timetable based on seconds to maintain that headway. The idea is completely preposterous. Moreover, that will be the day, when any road is managed to avoid congestion. Not a penny has ever been allocated by conversion theorists to a road management system or a passenger information system. An assumption that all passengers would present themselves in orderly groups of 50 all conveniently going to one and the same place within the space of a minute before departure is untenable. It makes no allowance for those with luggage, cycles, or prams, passengers in wheelchairs or other disabled, and those with dogs, which would prolong idealistic loading times.

The claim that the substitution of buses would ensure all passengers have a seat, was undermined in an article by Smith which said that there was no assumption, peak passengers would be all seated , (Journal of Transport Economics & Policy, September 1973).

A major ‘if’ by Withrington is that all rail passengers will transfer from train to bus after conversion. This is completely surreal. The reality is that all railway closures led to most transferring to car, followed often by the balance, as bus services were withdrawn due to lack of patronage. This fact is so well documented in public records and the media; it is incomprehensible that conversionists continue to dismiss it.

In February 1976 Motor Transport commented on the Smith Report that ‘for the heaviest peak flows, buses are unable to offer the level of service, safety and efficiency that fixed track systems can’. Not what the conversionists expected too hear from a road transport magazine.

Noticeably, when quoting journalist Frances Cairncross, Withrington pointedly ignores an adjoining article in the same issue of The Guardian stating that “road transport appears incapable of developing beyond a point where 50 passengers or 30 tons can be handled by one driver, whilst one train driver can cope with 500 passengers or 2,000 tons”.

His claim that trains are so popular in Europe for sentimental reasons shows that he is grasping at any straw to bolster up his ridiculous rail conversion theory, which I demolished in my book Railway Conversion – the impractical dream, and on my website: www.railconversion.co.uk . To suggest that the two or three who believe in railway conversion are right and 830m people in Europe are wrong defies belief. At its peak the conversion lobby numbered 75 – worldwide!


12.5.10  LTT (not published)

Paul Withrington remarks that I ‘would say that my book demolishes the conversion theory’. He can’t say it didnt, because he hasn’t read it. How do I know? Because he asks whether I have read Comments & Rejoinders, when my book contains a 21 page chapter on criticisms by civil engineers, bus engineers, scientific and road transport media, plus my criticisms. These were more serious criticisms than merely ‘the cost of surfacing’. He refers to it as a ‘Companion volume’ which it was not. It was an own-goal afterthought to respond to criticism of flaws in their Paper. It is undated, but includes criticisms dated 14 months after their Paper. Smith’s ‘all-in conversion costs’ envisaged laying asphalt – only a few mm thicker than recommended for domestic driveways - on raw ground between fences, including uncompacted cess, ditches & embankments! On the cess and bankside it wouldn’t last five minutes pounding by double deckers’ near-side wheels every nine seconds. Buses would be tipping over. Potholes would soon appear everywhere! Smith’s scheme required land acquisition and bridge reconstruction even to clearances below DoT standards which Withrington claims would not arise. Turning to the Southport scheme – even the Engineer publicly admitted that its low cost arose from favourable subsoil conditions – which when the unfavourable arises elsewhere is dismissed by conversionists!

‘The fools, who challenge conversion costs’ - as Withrington puts it - include county engineers, construction companies, scientific and road transport media. An estimate by one ‘prestigious firm of engineers’ may not be set aside by me, but my book shows conversionists sarcastically dismissed estimates by ‘prestigious engineering firms’ who rubbished conversionists’ estimates.

He wouldn’t have mentioned converting the Inverness-Wick line, had he read my book which reveals that the author of that proposal – Sir David Robertson, MP – objected to closing that line a few years later! He was supported in this objection in Parliament by John MacLeod, who had been a strong supporter of conversion! Sir David stated that the ‘gravest hardship would beset people if this line closed!’ Why did they change their views? They must have found serious flaws. My book catalogues 12 other closed routes - up to 180 miles long - which were golden opportunities missed by the conversion mini-lobby, which has fallen from its peak of 76 worldwide to one. My research revealed that all railway closures were vehemently opposed by MPs, councillors and users. In not one case did anyone advocate conversion.

My book reveals that it is impossible to lay a crucial bi-directional road to replace the two tracks to be lifted on the approach to Liverpool Street station in the Smith scheme, that his changeover plan would not work and that the HSE would prohibit a bus station in which, every nine seconds, a bus crosses a walkway used by 28,500 passengers per hour.

My chapter on the extent of ‘conversion’ of closed lines – on the loosest definition - is a revelation. To bolster the number of ‘conversions’, the Railway Conversion League counted sections of closed line as short as 100 metres. Their 29 ‘separate schemes’ included two adjoining schemes totalling less than 600 metres from the same 15 mile branch line and three adjoining schemes from the same 22 mile closed branch line totalling 1.6 miles! The average length of all ‘conversions’ was 1½ miles from 25 lines, whose lengths ranged from 15-180 miles. In Withrington’s own 255 mile ‘conversion’ list, nine are under ¼ mile, 75 are under ½ mile, and 131 under one mile. Only one of the 204 listed is in double figures - and then only just: 10.2 miles. Roads which cross a disused line at a tangent are included. His list includes entries which read: ‘it is unclear if the road has been widened onto the railway or just very close’; ‘A466 widened onto the railway for 0.6 mile’; ‘road took route over river, but unclear if railway bridge re-used’; ‘line closed in 1930s, not clear if bypass actually built on railway’; ‘conversion not confirmed’; ‘looks like realignment’; ‘A148 round Hillingdon - this make [sic] not be a conversion, A148 may just be running close to railway’; ‘industrial estate road - less than ½ mile’.

Compared to 9,000 miles of railway closed, the Conversion League claimed 91 miles converted by 1970 – using a loose definition – and Withrington 255 miles by 2003, including those above. Highway authorities (central and local government) had first refusal on the use of closed routes. Most lines converted had to be widened to create the necessary width. One was widened from 12 feet to 102 feet.

Conversionists are fond of quoting situations that are remote in time or distance, probably expecting no disputation. Thus, they claimed that Pennsylvania Turnpike was built on a closed railway by private finance, when the reality is that no train ever ran on it and it was publicly funded to relieve unemployment. It was only partially constructed before being abandoned in 1880 when the promoters secured the concessions they had sought from an existing railroad. The Turnpike was over 200 feet wide when it opened in 1940! Tunnels had to be bypassed. Likewise, Withrington claims that rejection of Brigadier Lloyd’s presentation on conversion to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1955 by road transport operators and engineers was not final because ‘the debate continued until 1958 in the pages of the then prestigious journal The Engineer’. No page numbers or dates were mentioned. I was unsure whether ‘then’ implied publication had ceased, but dogged research found that it hadn’t, and Birmingham Central Library had back copies. I discovered that the pages between 1955 and 1958 were devoid of mention of conversion. The subject only re-appeared in January 1958. Significantly, this followed the report of a well-advertised conference of road engineers in November 1957 to discuss ways of overcoming road congestion. The only option not considered was railway conversion, and noticeably absent was engineer Brigadier Lloyd (originator of conversion).

Withrington asked if ‘the word of Don Morin is not good enough for me’. Until I see Morin’s Report I cannot comment, and he has never revealed its location. Having seen how conversionists selectively quoted from reports and media, I do not accept any extracts of reports. Withrington has had to admit that crucial statements he attributed to two sources were wrong. Despite trying the USA embassy and USA transport magazines, the report cannot be located. I am aware that The Times (21 January 1974) stated that ‘an unpublished American study had shown that buses are cheaper than trains for moving urban commuters’. Is this the mysterious study that he quotes?

He asks if the rules of arithmetic have changed. The only people to change them are conversionists. With data used by Smith who claimed that with conversion, fares would fall by 64%, I proved - using his unsound fleet assessment and with basic arithmetic that he was wrong. He was comparing 7 day revenue with 5 day costs and had not included holiday and relief costs!

Withrington insists that all displaced rail passengers would transfer to bus when every closure caused most to use cars, and after a short time, replacement bus services were withdrawn. He overlooks that the ‘financial justification’ for conversion advanced by his hero – Edward Smith - in the only route specific study, was that conversion costs would be covered by time gains for motorists using the new routes! Smith also said they would be used by freight. Hence, comparison with bus-only lanes in the USA is invalid. On the subject of the capacity of the New York road he exposes a lack of grasp on the definition of capacity. The length of a road is irrelevant. Capacity is based on vehicles passing a bottleneck or specified point. Withrington continues to claim all commuters would have bus seats when his hero admitted in an article that he could not ensure all would have a seat. Even in New York there are some ‘standees’ (i.e. standing passengers).

He then says railwaymen believe that ‘a railway must be a railway for ever or abandoned for ever’. He has lost his thread – if it is abandoned, convert it. I don’t care what happens to a closed railway. Nothing would please me more than to see the conversionist mini-lobby rustling up real money for conversion to see how little traffic uses its sub-standard width roads with its low overbridges. I apologise for my long letter. Anything less does not address the main issues.


As my letter to LTT responding to the open letter to me was not published, I sent a shorter version

19.6.10 LTT (It was not published either)

Paul Withrington (LTT 544) remarks that I ‘would say that my book demolishes the conversion theory’. He can’t say it didnt, because he hasn’t read it. How do I know? Because he asks whether I have read Comments & Rejoinders, when my book has a chapter on it. Smith’s ‘all-in conversion costs’ envisaged laying asphalt on raw ground, including uncompacted cess, ditches & embankments, where it wouldn’t last long with double deckers every nine seconds. They would tip over. Potholes would proliferate! Smith’s scheme required land acquisition and bridge reconstruction even to clearances below DfT standards. Regarding the Southport scheme – the Engineer admitted that its low cost arose from favourable subsoil – which when the unfavourable arises elsewhere is dismissed by conversionists! The Smith scheme proposed converting part of Liverpool Street station to a bus terminal with a bus leaving every 9 seconds crossing on the level 28,500 passengers per hour. The HSE would prohibit it.

‘The fools, who challenge conversion costs’ - as Withrington puts it - include county engineers, construction companies, scientific and road transport media. An estimate by one ‘prestigious firm of engineers’ may not be set aside by them, but my book shows conversionists sarcastically dismissed estimates by ‘prestigious engineering firms’.

He wouldn’t have mentioned the Inverness-Wick line, had he read my book which reveals that the author of that conversion proposal – Sir David Robertson, MP – objected to closing that line a few years later! He stated that the ‘gravest hardship would beset people if it closed!’

Withrington asked if ‘the word of Don Morin is not good enough for me’. Until I see Morin’s Report I cannot comment, and he has never revealed its location on his web site or elsewhere. Having seen conversionists’ selective quotations, I do not accept any extracts. He asks if the rules of arithmetic have changed. The only people to change them are conversionists. Smith claimed that conversion would cut fares by 64%. I proved, with basic arithmetic that he was wrong. He was comparing 7 day revenue with 5 day costs and had not included holiday and relief costs! Withrington’s web site uses unsound calculations

He says that I misrepresent the New York contra-flow bus lane. The length of road is irrelevant. Capacity relates to vehicles passing a specified point. He claims all commuters would have bus seats when his hero (Smith) admitted in an article that he could not ensure all would have a seat. Even in New York there are standing passengers. Withrington insists that all displaced rail passengers would transfer to bus when every closure caused most to use cars, and after a short time, replacement subsidised bus services were withdrawn. He overlooks that the ‘financial justification’ for conversion advanced by Smith - in the only route specific study - was that costs would be covered by time gains for motorists using the new routes! Smith also said they would be used by freight. Hence, comparison with bus-only lanes in the USA is invalid.

My book uses researched, source-identified data. Withrington uses assumptions which do not bear scrutiny. He tries to prove that casualties would decline after conversion because they would not slip or fall on station steps, overlooking his plan to replace step-free terminals with three-storey bus stations. These would take a year to build forcing commuters onto congested roads.

He says railwaymen believe that ‘a railway must be a railway for ever or abandoned for ever’. He has lost his thread. If it is abandoned, I don’t care what happens to it. Nothing would please me more than to see conversionists rustling up real money for conversion to see how little traffic uses its sub-standard width roads with its low overbridges.




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