Transport policy is a strange UK battleground between car enthusiasts and rail fans. There is a reluctance by some of the participants to recognise that both trains and cars require burning large amounts of fuel, they both pose safety hazards which increase as speed increases, but both are important to many people’s lives. They are both noisy neighbours. New roads and new railway lines are equally unpopular with the people living near to the proposed route.
Rail enthusiasts try to claim their preferred mode is greener. This depends on how many people are making the journey. A full commuter train where most of the passengers live near the entry stations and work near the destination stations should burn less fuel per passenger mile than if those people drove. In contrast, a little used cross country train,where passengers need to drive to the station to catch it and get a bus or taxi at the other end, may entail a lot more fuel being burned than if each passenger drove to their destination. You need to measure point to point total journeys, not just the rail bit. You also need to take into account the journeys of the train crews to and from work. When it comes to the external impact of the railway, we also need to understand that a shortage of vehicle crossings over the railway can cause extra congestion and fuel burn for road vehicles.
It is claimed that railways are safer. This is because railways enforce complete exclusion of all cars, vans, cycles, pedestrians and others from the tracks, whereas most roads allow mixed use with pedestrians, cyclists and others using the same infrastructure as the cars. The road lobby has secured a few higher speed roads where most other potantial users of the road are excluded, which are the safest roads as a result.
It is assumed in the UK that ways must be found to make trains go faster, whereas road vehicles are always limited to well below their maximum speeds. Allowing faster trains does increase the danger of a very bad crash in the exceptional circumstances that the train derails or encounters a vehicle or other obstacle on the tracks. Trains have far less adhesion to the infrastructure than cars with rubber tyres, and cannot of course be steered around an obstacle in the way motor vehicles can. Seat belts are life savers. They are mandatory in road vehicles but not supplied in trains.
There has been a large and expensive programme of bridge improvement to protect the railway from the unwelcome intrusion of stray road vehicles. Bridges have been rebuilt with high and strong sides, and with strong safety fencing in the approachs to the railway embankments and cuttings. There has been far less spent on removing level crossings, where motor vehicles and trains can be in conflict through accidents or deliberate and dangerous actions by motorists.
As the UK is short of transport facilties of all kinds, we need a better analysis of our needs for improved transport links. Where we have rail routes we need to make more productive use of them. They are probably best for peak hour demand into and out of our major cities, for big sporting and cultural events, and for fast long distance city centre to city centre travel where enough people wish to do that regularly. We need to improve the technology so more trains per hour can use these precious links right into the heart of our major cities.
We need to spend more on segregating roads from rail, and improving the crossing of rail lines by roads. We need to do more work to segregate different users of the roads, given them the safer space they need. Road can learn from rail when it comes to limiting the danger of conflict. Rail can learn from road when it comes to maximising throughput on the network.