We know that running train services is a very expensive way of travel for taxpayers to support, and we know that fourteen times as many journeys are made by car as by train. Rail has a small market share despite all the subsidy and encouragement.
The case for trains has increasingly relied on the assertion that they are good for the environment. It is time to examine this proposition again.
The first thing people should understand is that all forms of motorised trransport entail burning fuel. Much of that process is still done by burning fuel which produces exhaust gases and carbon dioxide. The aim should be to minimise the polluting exhausts, and to maximise fuel efficiency for cost and conservation reasons.
The second thing to understand is that we neeed to look at the total carbon impact of any mode of travel. That means looking at the carbon expended to complete the whole journey, as users of the train often use cars and taxis at both ends of their train journey. It also means looking at the carbon costs the mode of travel imposes on other modes of travel. So often people have to expend a lot of energy and exhaust emissions to get into very congested town centres by car, as most stations are in town centres which are increasingly difficult to reach thanks to anti car policies.
Train travel can be very fuel efficient at peak times when a modern train carries a full load of passengers into a busy town or city, or takes a full load of people long distances with few stops . It may even be fuel efficient for each person on that train, depending on how far from the station they live, how far from the destination station they wish to go and how they travel the first and last leg of the journey.
At other times of day heavy and often old fashioned and fuel inefficient trains lumber around the country with few passengers. This is the opposite of efficient and environmentally friendly. It is greener to go by car than by a old train which is half empty. Some say that if all trains were electrified this would change. Not given the way we generate our power in this country. There is all the extra carbon from the coal and gas power stations that you have to attribute to the electric train using that fuel.
More importantly, train tracks are one of the primary causes of congestion for the large majority of people travelling by car or bus. Many towns and cities are bisected by railway lines. There are too few bridging points, so there is much increased congestion on the few routes that go to a railway bridge. In some cases delays and congestion are compounded by the use of a level crossing rather than a railway bridge.
One of the greenest policies we could pursue would be a big programme of increasing the number of bridges over railways to allow the easier passage of cars and buses around our towns and cities. It would also be safer if we replaced more of the level crossings with bridges or underpasses. It could also lead to more use of the train for the commuter and longer distance journies if more of us could get to the station and park easily. That would be a greener way to spend any money we have on railways, rather than on electrification.
We do need to look at how efficiency on the trains can be improved and fuel use reduced, as losses and subsidies are very large.