Article - Issue 8, May 2001

Where are we going? Land transport in the UK

Julia Tompson

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In January the Royal Academy of Engineering held an evening of seminars and discussion on the vexed questions surrounding the future of land transport in the UK. The briefing had originally been scheduled for November 2000 but on that occasion the answer to the question ‘Where are we going?’ proved to be ‘Back home’, after a power cut put an impromptu end to The proceedings. Clearly the contractor who had damaged a power cable in the street outside was not aware of The Academy’s mission to promote excellence in engineering. Happily the rescheduled briefing went ahead without a hitch and opened up many key issues to informed debate. This article gives an overview of the points raised at the seminars and aims to encourage further debate, rather than providing a definitive report on the subject.

Four speakers contributed presentations to the seminar. Lucy Robinson of the DETR explained the key policies and priorities of the government’s Transport 2010: The 10 Year Plan. Professor Phil Goodwin of University College London described the UK’s transport infrastructure, how it is used and the major changes that have taken place over the past 20 years. The consultant Alastair Dick FREng discussed the need for improved freight services and suggested how this might be achieved. Professor Tony May FREng of the University of Leeds looked at the growth in road traffic and the key measures that will be needed to match demand to capacity.

In 2010 the cost of running a car is expected to be 20% lower than it is today. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) predicts that there will be a 22% overall increase in traffic in the UK but a 5% decrease in time lost through traffic congestion. This sounds too good to be true: cheaper running costs and quicker journeys even though we will make one extra journey in 2010 for each 5 journeys today?

As we look at the state of the UK’s transport networks in 2001, it might not be easy to foster much enthusiasm for the future or believe that it will hold anything except further congestion and disruption. But it is vital that we try to predict and plan for the future and this is what the government has done with the publication in July 2000 of Transport 2010: The 10 Year Plan. The merits of this plan continue to be hotly debated but the fact remains that it is a step in the right direction and one that we cannot afford to ignore, because it aims to set the agenda for transport policy for many years to come.

The situation today

Years of economic growth have led to a rising demand for transport for both people and goods. The two graphs show the rapid increase in freight and passenger transport in the UK over the past 40 years, and the clear link between GDP and the amount of freight moved. These increases have not, however, been matched by investment in land transport resources and infrastructure. The recent tragic train crashes are a sad reminder of the serious need for repair and updating of the networks. Most freight travels by road but there is a huge backlog in road maintenance.

Our roads are subject to increasing congestion and our railways to overcrowding. There is very little redundancy in railway capacity – British Rail had not planned for growth in traffic. Recent events have led to a crisis in public confidence over the railway companies’ inability to deliver improvements to the service. In a climate in which basic repairs to railway lines have not been carried out, the prospects look bleak to the passenger for the introduction of modern (and very expensive) signalling and safety systems such as ATP.

Public transport is inadequate in many areas, especially rural areas, but also for commuters. The quality of service is often low: buses and trains are too often old, dirty and unreliable. But fares continue to rise and many passengers have opted to return to their cars. Car use in London stands at 60% of all mechanised travel: for many, sitting in a traffic jam seems preferable to standing like a tinned sardine in the Underground. The fuel price protests last autumn show that the government would be well advised not to introduce increased road taxation and pricing until viable public transport alternatives are in place.

There is a large sector of society which has to rely on public transport. Cut-backs in local bus services have led to social exclusion and all its attendant problems.

The environment is gradually becoming a major agenda item as we realise that we are living with unacceptably high levels of chemical and noise pollution. Many of us understand the need to use more environmentally friendly methods of transport, such as walking and cycling, but in practice we value more the convenience of the motor car.

Proposals and predictions

The government’s Transport White Paper, published in 1998, put forward policies aimed at reducing ‘less necessary’ travel and providing a coordinated approach to public transport, walking and cycling. The White Paper emphasised the need for better management of roads, not for building new ones. The ‘predict and provide’ mentality of the 1980s and 1990s – the belief that we could keep pace with increasing road use by providing more capacity – was rejected.

Last year the policies in the White Paper were fleshed out in the 10 Year Plan. The government wants to demonstrate that it will deliver on its transport promises, and quickly. It is also trying to prove that its policies are not anti-car: there are no specific targets for traffic reduction but rather targets for reducing emissions and traffic congestion.

Ten years is a very long time in politics but a rather short time in which to make major improvements to the UK’s transport systems. The government has deliberately chosen not to take the usual short-term (1–3 year) approach but to establish a long-term framework in which more substantial changes can be carried out. The obvious problem with this is that governments change: the Conservative Party has indicated that it will not be committed to the 10 Year Plan. Given that one of the key objectives of the Plan is to produce a transport strategy that is properly integrated, it would seem important that the Plan is carried out in its entirety. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.

The strategies of the 10 Year Plan are based on an analysis of what our future transport needs will be and on what is perceived to be achievable in the 10-year time frame. The government has published the details of this analysis on the DETR web site (www.detr.gov.uk/trans2010/). Of course, any analysis of this type is open to criticism because it is necessarily based on predictions. For example, the Plan aims to produce a 33% decrease in road deaths. Why 33%? Because experts believe this figure is achievable. Some of the target figures are of a different kind, for example the emissions reductions for carbon dioxide set by the EU, and these would have to be implemented in whatever policy is put forward.

Future expectations

It seems logical to expect t hat our transport needs will increase in the future. Freight traffic by road and rail will grow, as will our use of cars, buses, trains and cycles. But the 10 Year Plan aims to embrace this increase while at the same time reducing congestion and emissions from their present levels. It predicts a 5% decrease in time lost through road congestion. How can this be?

On closer inspection the 5% figure is based on a comparison of actual vehicle speed with the speed reached if every vehicle could travel as fast (legally) as the driver wished. The figure is an average for all vehicles over all days at all times. It reveals nothing about any possible reduction in queue lengths and gridlock or daily variations. Unfortunately, figures like these are prone to generate false hopes which are unlikely to be matched by experience. Such statistics are unsuitable as indicators of real change; planners need to find alternative indicators that more closely reflect the actual experience of the road user.

Many of the difficulties in setting targets spring from the fact that predictions of such things as environmental impact may be incorrect. Many of the local assessments required to assess changes at sites of special scientific interest have not yet been carried out. It is dangerous to make predictions without a clear idea of the current situation. Some of the emissions reductions included in the plan depend not on changes in vehicle use but on changes to the vehicles themselves, which will have to take place with or without the Plan.

Delivering the goods

It is easy to overlook the huge part that freight transport plays in the overall functioning of our transport systems. We move about four times as many non-human goods (measured in tonne kilometres) around the UK as human ones. Passengers are from one point of view nothing more than self-loading freight.

But there are important differences between passenger and freight transport. Freight does not think for itself, does not know if it is too hot or cold, and (usually) only makes a journey in one direction. A major problem for many freight hauliers is obtaining a return load, which clearly has a big impact on costs and profitability.

The market for freight has changed in recent years, away from bulk deliveries towards items packaged in units ready for the consumer. Goods are moved as they are wanted rather than as they are produced. A typical consignment now is 3–5 pallets rather than a full lorry load; these smaller deliveries have to be more frequent and are much more difficult to move efficiently.

Four-fifths of freight transport within the UK is by road; only a very small percentage moves by rail. Why is this? Part of the answer lies in the changing nature of the freight business which used to centre around heavy industry but now relies far more on work for industries such as food, drink and tobacco. Enormous train loads moving from port to factory have been replaced by fleets of refrigerated lorries. Another part of the answer lies in the lack of predictable and reliable freight train paths: today it is impossible to book a freight train path through London during the day. Without scheduled train paths there can be no significant increase in freight transport on the railways, and at present there is no likelihood of such paths becoming available.

Regulations for freight are also changing: the EU is attempting to establish open competition but this is made complicated by differences in fuel duty, taxes, labour costs and so on. Many foreign hauliers are able to operate far more cheaply than UK operators.

Prospects for freight travel in the UK do not seem to be too good. We have to find ways of increasing efficiency and competitiveness to allow freight movement to keep pace with economic growth. We need to manage the congestion on the main transport infrastructure and provide for environmentally friendly deliveries in urban areas. New technologies and e-commerce will be crucial for the future growth of freight movement.

Integration

An integrated transport policy is an ideal that may be hard to reach but is likely to be far more effective than a series of independent proposals. Integration should not be thought of simply at the operational level – coordination of bus and train timetables and combined information services, important though these may be – but also at the strategic level: coordination between transport and land use and other social policies, between local authorities in urban areas, between entire modes of transport (car/bus/rail/cycle), between management and information services, and so on. The government’s drive to provide new housing outside cities will almost certainly lead to an increase in commuting. A similar drive to regenerate inner cities and provide attractive, affordable housing so that people can live close to their workplace would seem to be essential to a more integrated solution.

Only by introducing coordination at all levels can we hope to achieve the right balance of sticks and carrots in order to reduce congestion and pollution and encourage use of public transport. There is some evidence that changes in land use can lead to an increase in walking, cycling and use of public transport, but these changes are long term. If land-use policies are continually changing there is little hope of achieving these benefits.

The 10 Year Plan is encouraging in that it aims to take a long-term and integrated view. But we must be careful not to focus on some mythical ‘end state’ of transport bliss and lose sight of the processes needed to get us there. Any policy needs to be worked out as a year-by-year implementation of measures that build on what has gone before, not as a journey towards transport equilibrium.

Key elements in any solution

We can identify various key measures that will have to be present in any solution to our current transport difficulties. We need to find combinations of these measures that complement one another, are acceptable to the public and financially feasible.

The first issue is that of land use in both rural and urban areas. Intelligent development patterns and appropriate densities of development can, as mentioned above, lead to increased use of walking, cycling and public transport. Secondly and most obviously, the road, rail and bus infrastructures need improving. Thirdly, management issues must be considered: traffic management, parking, and service levels for public transport (frequency, reliability and so on).

The fourth issue is that of information: the efficient and appropriate use of information technology in all areas of transport. We also need to address the ‘hearts and minds’ problem – to challenge our complacent attitudes to travel and make us aware of the impact our travel has on the environment. Lastly there is the vexed question of pricing: public transport fares, parking charges and the possibility of congestion charging.

Studies in Edinburgh and on the Continent have revealed that three factors in particular make a difference to the way we travel. They are: car user charges, frequency of public transport services and public transport fares. It is possible to develop ‘optimal’ user charges for cars and public transport that can actually finance the other elements of the transport strategy. The 10 Year Plan may suffer in this respect because the government has very little control over service providers and lacks influence over fares and service levels.

Another point that seems to have been too little considered is this: where are the management, engineering and technical experts to put the transport strategy into operation? We have a serious shortage of skilled people to take on all the work that will be required and make effective use of the considerable amount of money that is to be spent (£180 billion over 10 years). Again we find ourselves asking: where are our engineers?

Afterword

The transport challenges we now face are a consequence of the way we live our lives. We take it for granted that we should be able to go where we want, when we want and at a cost we consider acceptable. We have already seen the consequences of this change of attitude in other areas, notably the National Health Service, which we now expect to provide a high level of free service for every problem and ailment. Is it any wonder that the Health Service is in semi-constant crisis? We must ensure that our transport system does not go the same way. We need to look at the larger issues and attitudes of modern society to find the real heart of the problem.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all those who contributed to the seminar on which this article is based. Particular thanks go to Mr David Bayliss OBE FREng for his able and insightful chairmanship and to the four main speakers for their thought-provoking presentations.

Any Ingenia reader who would like to offer further insights or solutions to the issues raised here is invited to contribute a letter to the editor or an outline for a future article. Email: ingenia@raeng.co.uk

Key outcomes of 10 Year Plan

Rail

50% growth in passengers

80% growth in freight

Increased frequency and reliability of trains

New safety systems

Strategic roads

5% reduction in road congestion

33% reduction in fatalities

Roads properly maintained

Better public transport alternatives

Local transport

10% increase in bus journeys

Trebling of cycling trips

Roads properly maintained

Reduction in air and noise pollution

London

50% increase in bus use

15% reduction in road congestion

More reliable, less crowded

Underground

Less overcrowding on commuter trains

We move about four times as many non-human goods around the UK as human ones

We need to challenge our complacent attitudes to travel

Julia Tompson

Managing Editor, Ingenia

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