According to the Department of Transport’s figures people travelled around 680 billion km by car van or taxi in 2009, and travelled 50bn km by train. This gave private sector vehicle travel 85% of the total passenger kms, and rail just 6%. This demonstrates that people overwhelmingly prefer car to train , or find they have no choice but to use the car for many journeys owing to an absence of train services for their needs.
Previous contributors to this site have explained why cars are so much more popular than trains. They go when you want, where you want. You can be late for your car but your car is not late for you. You can often go door to door, as most people park their car very near to their home, and can drive a car to a park next to the shop, lesiure facility or workplace of your choice. You can take heavy luggage, work tools and belongings with you by car which you could not carry when walking to the station or bus stop. You can stay in the dry when it is raining, and keep warm in winter with the heater on. You can drive the shopping home, however much bulk you have bought.
It is true you cannot work in the car if you are also driving. You can listen to a radio programme or music of your choice, receive a call on a hands free phone or talk to a fellow passenger. The train may allow you to eat and to work, but limits your freedom of conversation and noisy entertainment.
The Department of Transport in its most recent Business Plan sets out to spend £13.1 billion this year compared to £12.7 billion last. It is talking of rail projects totalling £69 billion over the years ahead, with HS2 the dearest, followed by Crossrail which is now underway.
In the current year the department plans to spend just over £2 billion on national roads, and £4.3 billion on railways. In other words, the mode of transport that is used for 85% of the journey miles is getting less than half the money spent on the travel mode that accounts for just 6% of passenger miles. So each rail mile attracts thirty times more spending than each road mile. If you add in the relatively small sums spent on local roads, the imbalance is still very great.
The reason is of course rail travel is very heavily subsidised. The comparison is even less favourable to motoring if the high motoring taxes are factored into the equation. Some rail fans like to claim that motoring does not pay enough to take account of road damage and pollution. The evidence abounds that motorists pay many times over the costs they make the state and the neighbours incur, whilst trains are generously endowed with public subsidy.
The last government spent little on expanding and improving the road network. More needs to be spent, preferably raising private capital, on new road capacity. We also need improved junctions, and more bridges over railway lines and rivers in busy areas. We need to make roads safer by learning from railways that you need to keep other users away from fast moving vehicles. We need trains to learn from cars that better brakes, better adhesion to the track or road, and safety belts, increase safety markedly.