Towards a transport strategy for Scotland: consultation on rail priorities
Editor's note: I received the following letter from members Tony and Valerie Bradford with a copy of their submission to the above Scottish Executive consultation. Their response makes interesting reading and they have agreed to an edited version appearing in the newsletter. Space considerations prevent me printing their full response which can be seen on the Scottish Executive web site.
16th February 2006
We are new members who joined last autumn, and the work done since the AGM in responding to public enquiries was very impressive. We can appreciate this because we have sent answers to the Scottish executive's consultation, "Towards a transport strategy for Scotland: consultation on rail priorities". We have enclosed these (together with a simplified version of the questionnaire) as an attachment; not for general printing, but in case any members would be interested in the approach of amateurs, whose only qualifications is a lifetime's experience as passengers.
Sadly, because we are of that age, we would either have to be very rich or stupid to travel any more by train. All we can do is to ask our MSPs to explain the logic of encouraging more people to use the train by providing free travel on buses.
We find your questions invidious, because they use the ancient trick of begging the question. The paradigm, which you appear to have assumed, is of a declining system - based on obsolescent technology - being overtaken by a superior one - recognised as such by astute consumers. Therefore it would follow that any desire to slow the decline - based on nostalgia, or populous green notions - should be rationed to affect the best use of limited resources. We have seen the effect of that attitude, over the 48 years we have lived in Caithness, as a massive investment in the A9, north of Inverness, (including three bridges over firths and a length of dual carriageway), whilst it was questionable that the railway even received adequate maintenance; especially over the last 26 years.
However that paradigm is impossible to justify on any realistic grounds. If roads and rail were considered, in isolation from any historical or political associations, as two competing systems of land transport, rail would win on every count bar one. Rail is cheaper to build and run, is safer, is capable of higher speeds, is more efficient and can cope with much higher traffic densities and vehicle loading. This of course presupposes that comparisons are made of similar conditions. Your comparison of empty trains and full cars for carbon dioxide emissions (Para 15) is plainly ridiculous. The only comparison it fails on is in providing localised transport. In an ideal world, road and rail would be complementary; not competing. This would mean that most transport investment would be in local secondary roads, served by buses and trams; together with railways for trunk routes.
The reason that ideal has never been realised in the real world is more a consequence of government policy than any underlying economic or technological causes. Governments have subsidised railways by offsetting the lack of income from customers. In return they require strict conventional accounting; even under the weirdly arcane privatised system that appears to serve no other purpose than to finish off a hated remnant. Roads have traditionally been provided by adjoining landowners with an assumed right of access for all. Except for a few attempts at tolls, the costs of maintenance, improvements, construction and policing have been borne by local and central government. No attempt has ever been made to keep a total account of these costs; with the level of support merely determined by demand measured by congestion and wear. Some would claim that these costs are covered by road fund licences and fuel duty. However, like most taxes, they are not hypothecated, and are clearly not proportional to use. Most of the cost of wear and congestion results from heavy goods traffic, whilst most of the tax income comes from light vehicles. Though safety always comes at a price, it is not exacted with an even hand: railways are rigorously restricted to tens of deaths per annum, yet motorists may kill thousands. The result of all this vague inequity is that the cost of motoring is artificially low and dropping; whilst rail prices are high, and are increasing above the rate of inflation. Yet we could confidently predict that, should rail operators only be charged with a similar rail fund licence and fuel duty, in return for their freedom of access to the network, trusting that they would obey regulations; then their profits would be the greatest since the invention of drugs, gambling and prostitution; and there would be inexorable pressure on government to convert all the motorways to railways.
While this approach might appear to be serendipity, there could be harder reasoning for considering savings on road costs. A lot of the schemes for road improvements are necessary because of the increasing rise in freight transport. Any diversion to rail would show direct savings on capital investment and maintenance costs on the roads; especially compared with extrapolated demand. To realise these benefits, it would be necessary to have a holistic approach to land transport, where road and rail are considered as complimentary systems. It would also be necessary to consider complimentary modes of road transport. Thus the individual motorist would only be encouraged where trams, buses, cycling or walking are not more appropriate.
We realise that all this is way beyond any relevance to your consultative process. However the points do need making as often as possible in the hope that eventually we will get a sensible transport policy - more in line with most other European countries. We will now attempt to answer your questions in the spirit in which they are intended. Our answers will be more relevant to the railways north of Inverness, but we will try to also deal with questions of priorities more relevant to the major cities.