Railway conversion is a pipe-dream.

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17 December 2008

This article was prepared to respond to an article published in “Public Service Review”, entitled “Road not rail?” by P. Withrington. The claims made in that article are addressed below. The Journal now cannot find space for the following.


The idea of railway conversion was originated in 1954 by Brigadier Lloyd, who claimed that all rail passenger journeys required only 3,433 buses, one at every station at any time, departing when full. There were 5,600 stations! Since then, most advocates avoided calculating bus fleets; none produced timetables, nor staff rosters. All assume passengers transferring to buses, when experience shows they prefer cars if lines close, parking problems notwithstanding. Mr. Withrington ‘pleads for an in-depth examination of the facts’. They have been examined many times.


In 1955, Sir David Robertson, MP, advocated converting the 161 mile Inverness-Wick single-line railway to a road.[1]  When closure was announced, he opposed it! After much pleading by him [2] and local authorities, Transport Minster Ernest Marples – a road contractor by profession – blocked closure ‘in the public interest’, but, as usual, declined to cover losses – there was, then, no subsidy, only interest bearing loans


Lloyd’s concept was debated by the Institution of Civil Engineering in April 1955. It was demolished by ten road and four rail experts, being supported by only five.[3] Having read this in my book [4], Withrington’s web-site declared that the ‘debate following the original discussion lasted until 1958 in The Engineer’. His web-site claims that ‘the railway lobby denies that a two-way road can exist, whereas those who have seen a road know how effective roads are’, [sic]. Paradoxically, in comparing rail and road capacity, he excludes 200,000 miles of such roads whilst including single-track railways. Those ‘ghost’ roads accommodate most hauliers, bus companies and factories, are used daily as diversions for blocked trunk routes, and carry massive volumes of traffic throughout. Without them there would be no road traffic. Geography and arithmetic prove that 10,900 miles of converted railways cannot become an alternative for 220,000 miles of roads. Journeys to reach them would be circuitous.  


Conversion is not mentioned in “The Engineer” [5] from May 1955, when it reported the debate, until 31 January 1958, which reported the newly formed Railway Conversion League. In 1958, thirteen – including six League members - wrote supporting conversion, and 37 opposing it, including a road engineer and two from railways. Between 1959 and 1967, seven people wrote in favour (mostly League members), and twenty against. Interestingly, in November 1957, it reported a conference on road congestion, which ignored conversion, although some speakers had attended the 1955 debate.


He states that the width of a double-track railway tunnel is sufficient for a two-way trunk road, but quotes no source, and ignores the width of single-line tunnels, and the costly problem of ventilating and lighting tunnels. Network Rail engineers told me, that without research, which is not warranted, they cannot provide the width of the narrowest double-track tunnel. Withrington wrote [6]: ‘the people who produced it [width and headroom data] were engineers, ex-army’. ‘Ex-army officers’ in the League [7] never claimed to have measured railways – it would have been an impossible task. When The Engineer’s editor asked the proposers of conversion to provide these - and other - details, a League member retorted that government should do so! Conversionists base assumptions on a publication specifying widths and heights required for passenger lines - first issued in 1858. It was not retrospective. By 1858, 9,542 route miles had opened [8], largely between main centres and, thus, most of today’s 10,900 miles.


The League submitted plans to Ernest Marples’ [9] Special Advisory Group in 1960. Marples rejected it: ‘The idea is open to insuperable objections. The estimated cost is much too low and does not take account of construction of junctions. Unless all over-bridges and tunnels are rebuilt, it would be unusable by large vans or double-deck buses. It would require a very high capital investment for very doubtful advantage. The possibility is not ruled out of conversion of disused lines where the necessary widening can be arranged.’


In 1970, the League published another plan, listing closed lines, totalling 43.7 miles, ‘converted’ to roads. Lengths were from 109 yards, and averaged 1.47 miles. Some 8,000 miles had closed, including routes over 100 miles long! Widening occurred in 48% cases, with single-lines widened to 190 feet! A prediction that 112 routes totalling 211 miles would be converted, I found, on contacting local authorities 35 years later, was limited to 48 miles, and widening was commonplace.    


An investigation in 1975 - praised by Withrington’s web-site, “Transwatch” - was funded by the Department of the Environment which rejected it, having ‘major reservations about some calculations’.[10]  It focussed on a route from Liverpool Street station in London and five branches – selected by the scheme’s author, who claimed it was the busiest commuter line in the world. Waterloo was busier. Moreover, the scheme concerned only half of Liverpool Street’s commuter journeys. Buses, crossing through 28,000 passengers, would depart on a single-lane every nine seconds in the peak! My book reveals that the width available leaving the station would accommodate only one single-lane for two-way traffic. The scheme specified widening at 13 locations and increased clearance at half of the bridges, and even then, most would be less than Ministry standards. A 26 mile length of double-track main line would be abandoned and ex-rail traffic diverted onto the A12 via a new link. That line is mainly on embankment or in cuttings and has 53 bridges. To reach towns located on the main line, buses would leave the A12 and travel over minor roads. They would be unreliable. Claims that accidents would fall by diverting traffic from existing roads were not matched by the logical corollary that diverting ex-rail traffic onto existing roads must cause more accidents. The crucial changeover plan was impractical.


Withrington claims that ‘all London’s surface rail commuters would find seats in express coaches’. The author of the praised scheme wrote [11] that ‘there was no assumption that all peak passengers would be seated’. Who would prevent excess commuters boarding full driver-only buses is overlooked in that scheme.


In 1979, the League – renamed the Railway Conversion Campaign – published new ‘plans’. In 1989, their advertisement urged readers to call on MPs to promote the idea. No parliamentary action followed.


His web-site claims the case is already made, but his ‘Fact Sheets’ contain flaws, e.g.

Sheet 2: “Railway trespasser deaths would end with conversion”.

       Trespass arises because people take short cuts, which would continue after conversion – but endangered by more traffic. Railway accidents are split into groups in Ministry Inspectors’ Reports. One covers accidents on stations where no train is involved. No comparable statistic exists for bus stations and bus-stops. Instead of logically excluding those rail figures from his comparisons, he creates a figure from a formula which cannot be designated as a Fact.

Sheet 5: “Fuel consumption assumes all railfreight involves a ten mile road journey at both ends”.

       Coal is direct from port or colliery to power station, and other bulk flows have no road journey at one or both ends.

Sheet 5: “No timetables are compiled to assess bus fuel consumption”, a system operators would reject.

Sheet 11: “Buses would travel at an average of 60 or 65mph”.

       That would mean exceeding the 60mph maximum motorway limit for buses. Railways have 4362 level crossings [12], 2290 footpath crossings and thousands of flat junctions, all of which would produce delays and casualties.


His claim that ‘thousands of acres of derelict railway land would become valuable’ ignores millions of acres of unsold derelict sites, where industry threw in the towel, because of wage levels, not road access problems. In Clough Street, Hanley within 150 yards there are ten sites that have been derelict for decades; see derelict sites. Short walks will reveal scores more. There are 6.2m acres of derelict sites in England alone, most owned by local authorities and private sector companies. Unused railway land pales into insignificance in comparison.


He quotes haulage boss Sir Daniel Pettit, M.A, [13]: ‘the lorry has come to the rescue of the city’. They destroy pavements, block junctions, unload in streets, and damage walls! Sir Daniel did not quote any scientific data or expert to support his personal views on environmental pollution. In contrast, Stobarts - one of UK’s biggest hauliers – have transferred traffic to rail to cut fuel consumption and pollution. A report for the DfT [14] states that others are doing likewise.


There were other views on the effect of lorries on the environment from independent sources:

The Civic Trust published damning criticisms. [15]

The Conservation Society criticised a Report on lorries by a Committee set up by the Minister: ‘It contained the usual dreary recital of excuses for damage to the environment by lorries. The Committee, chaired by Pettit, says there should be greater co-operation between road, rail, sea & air transport. It recommends “improved haulage driver training, enforcement of lorry drivers’ hours and controls of car routes in cities, with priority being given to freight”.[16] This attitude towards others is typical of the haulage lobby.[17]

Seven MPs spoke at a conference, and none believed that lorries were better for the environment than rail. One said that ‘uncontrolled public transport was wasteful of resources and less efficient than BR’s controlled track transport’. Another said ‘juggernauts are destroying buildings’, arguing amid applause, ‘to move all heavy traffic on rail which can carry all containers’. It was said that the smoke and smell from lorries is intolerable.[18]

D. Hammett Chairman, Royal Institute of British Architects: ‘We are failing to control existing lorries which are daily eroding the environment’.[19]

Sir George Pickering FRS: ‘rail is safe, relatively clean, and under-used; road is unsafe, relatively dirty and over-used. The cost to the public, not only of road subsidies but in terms of loss of life, disability and hospital treatment of the victims of road accidents is large’.[20]

Professor RH Tredgold (Professor of Physics): ‘It is generally agreed world petroleum resources will be largely exhausted by the end of this century. At that point, we will depend on nuclear energy and coal. Transport will depend on electric traction. Trains will come into their own and replace lorries for heavy transport.’[21]


Since 1954, 10,000 route miles of railway have closed, with only 250 ‘converted’ using a very liberal interpretation of that word. If, despite this catalogue of investigations, anyone wants another, let them pay for it. Government hands out too much taxpayers’ money already. The subject has been thoroughly researched, from 1954 to the present day, and shown to be impractical.[22]


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[1] Hansard, vol 543, col.1682

[2] Hansard, vol. 624, col. 1707. He said that closure ‘would cause the gravest hardship’

[3] “The Engineer’s” editor wrote that it was supported, ‘grudgingly’. None were road engineers or operators

[4] Railway conversion – the impractical dream

[5] Birmingham Central Library, ref BF 620.5

[6] To Norman Bradbury of Railfuture, 24 December 2006

[7] League founder Lloyd and League Chairman Dalgleish

[8] Board of Trade Returns 1858

[9] “A Minister of Transport, who was not only road biased, but a successful road contractor”.  “Some, like Marples had positive personal and financial incentives to see railways close”, (D.Henshaw - The Great Railway Conspiracy, pages 110, 234)

[10] The Times 23 December 1975, and Hansard 4 February 1976. See Railway conversion – the impractical dream, which reveals the impracticalities of this and other proposals

[11] Journal of Transport Economics & Policy, September 1973

[12] Office of Rail Regulator - Railway Safety Report, 2007, page 30

[13] The Times 17 October 1972

[14] TRL  PPR285, & Heriot-Watt University, page 48: several large hauliers are using rail

[15] Heavy Lorries, 1970

[16] The Times, 1 November 1973: ‘Lorries & the world we live in’

[17] John Wardroper in Juggernaut: “in 1980, to alleviate the forecast decline in oil reserves, the Road Haulage Association, backed by the Dept of Transport called for others to cut oil consumption”

[18] The Times, 12 October 1972

[19] The Times 30 November 1970

[20] The Times, 12 November 1972

[21] The Times, 13 November 1972

[22] See Railway Conversion – the impractical dream


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