Last week, the British government lowered the price of petrol, and put £100 million towards fixing potholes on the roads. Falling back on car culture is a tried and tested way of boosting the economy, although in the past it was geared towards the car industry,rather than just driving them about.
It’s not a growth strategy with legs, so to speak. Oil prices are only really going one way in the longer term, and that’s up. We don’t have the infrastructure to switch wholesale to electric cars, and personal motorised transport may turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. In twenty or thirty years time, the idea that everybody needs their own car might seem rather dated.
Instead of wasting money on a technology that is utterly dependent on a rapidly depleting resource, we’d do better looking at public transport. A good place to start might be the Beeching Report, the legacy of another time when we threw our weight behind the automobile to boost the economy.
Richard Beeching was the chairman of British Rail in the early sixties. It was a tricky time for trains. Ordinary people could afford cars by the 1950s, and there was increasing competition from road haulage. By the time Beeching took office in 1961 the railways were making a loss, and he was commissioned to cut the cost of the national rail network. He did this by producing an infamous report in which he called for the closure of hundreds of stations and thousands of miles of track. It was controversial, but the plan pressed ahead. Although the closures were not as extensive as Beeching himself proposed, a quarter of the rail network and half Britain’s stations closed.
Because of the ‘Beeching Axe’, a trip to Oxford from my home would take an hour by car, or two and a half by train. All the east-west connections have closed, and you have to go all the way into London, across town and out the other side. Luton to Oxford is 45 miles by car, and about 85 by train. It’s also the reason why, if you’re cycling the beautiful cycle path between St Albans and Welwyn Garden City, you’ll pass mysterious overgrown train platforms in the hedgerows.
Now, the rail network needed reform, and cuts to some services may well have been unavoidable if they were no longer profitable. But it was also a matter of strategy, a deliberate choice. Trains were a Victorian invention, and this was the century of the car. It’s also worth noting that the Conservative Transport Minister at the time had previously been the head of a road construction company.
In an era of climate change and oil depletion, the Beeching programme looks short sighted, but it probably made sense at the time – unlike last week’s oil gamble, which makes no sense at all. But given that the oil price is going to push the price of transport to breaking point in coming years, isn’t it time to re-consider the railways? Not least because road haulage is one of the UK’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions, and rail freight is more efficient.
We don’t have to replace every last obscure branch line, just the ones that would be financially viable. And we don’t need to build rail necessarily. There are more options than there were in the 1960s, from light rail to trams to guided busways.
Speaking of which, Luton is home to one such scheme. A new busway is being installed along the route of a disused railway line between Luton and Dunstable. In my mind, it ought to go all the way to Milton Keynes before it becomes truly useful, but it’s still great news. Unfortunately I appear to be the only person in the town who thinks so – the plan has been opposed for years, mainly because it’s expensive. It is, but it’s not nearly as expensive as building new roads in a post-peak oil age.
Interestingly, the Lib Dem manifesto for last year’s election recognised a rail renaissance as a serious option. Their proposal was to “switch traffic from road to rail by investing in local rail improvements, such as opening closed rail lines and adding extra tracks, paid for by cutting the major roads budget.” That’s just what we need – a reversal of strategy from roads back to rail. Unfortunately that’s not something that made it past the coalition agreement, but at least somebody is thinking about it.
So that’s the challenge – can we undo Beeching? That would be the kind of bold leadership I’d like to see on Britain’s transport needs. How about we start by mapping the disused railway lines, and comparing them with car traffic on the routes they would serve.
- The UK isn’t the only place that might benefit from revisiting its rail network. Here’s a previous post comparing the rail networks in India and Africa.