Chapter 15                                                                                     Public opinion


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The Conversion League failed to convince road transport operators and road engineers of the practicability of their dream, (see chapter 4). They failed to convince Transport Ministers, who were mostly road-minded, in particular Ernest Marples, partner in a road construction business. They failed to convince MPs, who noticeably did not take up the cause. Their white knight - Sir David Robertson, MP - deserted the cause, (see Chapter 6). Finally, they failed to convince the public. They tried to give an impression of support, by some selective editing of media reports, (see Chapter 7).  

The public clearly saw through the generalisation and irrelevancy. Views on the subject in the Letter pages of The Times are a good indicator, because of easy accessibility through its comprehensive index. In addition, a computer programme - Infotrac - available in Cheshire libraries, brings up a list of relevant letters. A search from 1954 onwards, revealed that, excluding letters from the League chairman, the ratio of letters against conversion, compared to those in favour was 15:1. This was during the era when criticisms of BR were the bread and butter of the Letters’ pages of newspapers, and it was rare to see one voicing support for BR. (The author had written over 90 letters on railways, railway conversion and road transport to the national media, mostly to the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, all based on researched fact and figure. Not one was published. The tally has now passed 150 – with one published).

Significantly, no letters of support appeared in this search from anyone connected with road transport, proving that such roads would be of no benefit to them. A director of SMMT wrote that ‘in 1981-2 taxes paid by all road users were £8.3bn including £1.6bn VAT on new vehicles*, whilst road building and maintenance by local and national gov­ernment amounted to £1.7bn’, (The Times, 30.6.81). This is a chalk and cheese argu­ment. Besides its irrelevance to conversion, (see Chapter-9), the real question is what is the tax paid by road haulage, and what is the amount of extra costs of road construction and repair caused by their heavier axle weights? The road haulage industry is hiding be­hind the subsidy which they get from taxation of motorists, for whom road costs would be much lower, if public roads catered only for cars, and HGVs had to use segregated roads 

*BR is not exempt VAT on new vehicles or any other of its £1.2bn external purchases. Private sector industry quote prices exclusive of VAT - as if it were an add-on optional extra, but later add it to your bill


Operators have not objected to conversion. The reason is clear. They know a converted system would be useless for them because of the restrictive loading gauge and flat junctions. Their hope of benefit from conversion, is that motorists would use a converted system, and free up motorways and dual carriageways for them. Motorists would not use the system. They urge transfer of freight to rail. If railways were converted, they would look for freight to transfer from trunk roads, unaware of physical constraints. Every user of trunk roads would hope that someone else will take to 50-60mph roads with flat junctions, thousands of traffic lights, no roundabouts and little scope for overtaking.


Letters to The Times, supporting converting the rail network - as urged by the League, for use by existing road traffic as well as traffic conveying ex-rail traffic - were:

Peter Masefield quotes LT data showing the hourly capacity of a bus lane is two per minute, but it is only relevant to a normal street, interrupted by intersections. A lane on a motorway - which a converted railway would be - with no buses stopping in the lane has higher capacity (See his letter – below)... Statistics are available from New York where one lane in the Lincoln tunnel carries a peak hour flow of 600 buses plus 100s of cars. (N Seymer 19.1.76).

Mr. Posner (See his letter – below) challenged Professor Day to debate conversion and posed the test whether money could be raised in the City for conversion. There have been no examples of conversion. (Posner was referring to the real cost of total conversion, not short pieces).

As far as I know, no group would be allowed to operate a toll road (N Seymer, 30.6.81). (Existing toll roads included Mersey tunnel, Dartford bridge, M6 Expressway & Severn Bridge. There is an alternative: funding by Treasury Stock. Given their conviction of the success of conversion, Treasury Stock at par & a very low interest rate should have quickly sold out to the lobby. Putting money where the mouth is sorts out realists. His negative assumption is typical of the apathy of UK business, which caused it to lose its longstanding lead in exports, see Britains Railways - The Reality, Chapter 14).

Specially trained drivers on a converted network would not be required for safe higher speeds. Electromagnetic cables in the road could guide vehicles, as I proposed in 1957. Drivers would only be required at both ends of the journey. (RH Tizard, 14.12.82). (It would need close control to have drivers ready for vehicles at the end of a converted road, and would cause some delay, unless they were going to snooze in cabs en route).


Some 45 letters in The Times opposed the concept:

As an engineer, I can see a very large number of problems in conversion. Most railways use the DoT formation width of 30 feet - down to 26 over and through bridges, (see photos). A moment’s thought will convince one that the wholesale reconstruction and widening of cuttings, embankments, bridges, tunnels, and viaducts could not be met from our capital resources.  (J Aitken, 6.7.54).  

A Saturday at Woking, Ealing or Willesden would destroy this dream [conversion]. A visit to congested railways in South Wales & the Midlands would make him wonder why he had entertained this illusion. What happens to his system in fog? (N Williams, 8.7.54).

Branch lines may be capable of conversion, but it would be national folly to scrap main lines & substitute a form of transport relying on imported fuel & rubber. (D Day 8.7.54).

A train carries 600 or so passengers with luggage and a crew of only three, compared to a bus with a crew of two. This is the reason we have trunk line railways, which are bulk carriers. (A Mordaunt 9.7.54). (This was in the steam era. It has reduced to two, and even to one man operation - see below).

Several years ago, a not very serious suggestion was made in Parliament to tear up the GC [Marylebone-Nottingham railway line] and make way for a road. (J Pertwee, 9.7.54).

It must have been obvious to most readers - unlike those advocating conversion - that the width of land for a road is not the distance between the fences, but the formation which, for a two-track railway, is 23 feet. The cost of widening embankments and cuttings to provide additional width involving heavy earthworks and massive retaining walls would be out of the question. Some years ago, conversion was considered at Canterbury and dismissed, after a very brief examination showed it would be quite impossible to provide any greater width than the existing 23 feet. Any large scale proposal would only provide a comparatively narrow roadway. (C Gribble, 9.7.54).

The York-London service is three hours for 188 miles and is usually very punctual, often early; good catering, comfortable trains ride well. What has the League to compare with this? (J Latter, 19.3.71). There was no response.

No country of our size can function without a modern railway service. (R Bonwit, 27.3.72).

There is inadequate width, lines are not necessarily correctly sited in relation to the road system, and would require construction of additional access and junctions. Because only 20% of freight goes by rail, does not mean there could not be more. The Conversion League should re-name itself  the ‘Railway Re-construction League’. (G Jenkins, 12.4.72).

If similar investment as is needed for conversion were put into railways it would go as far, if not farther to solving the problem of inadequate roads. Railways have to observe strict safety procedures. If one person is killed on railways, it is of national importance, whilst 20 killed on roads in one day are not mentioned. Any attempt to impose similar standards on motor transport would be crippling. (P Sain-Ley-Berry, 12.4.72). 

The eulogy of road transport depends on being given the necessary routes. Why should taxpayers give operators routes the railways maintain, control and police? BR is only compensated for running uneconomic services. (W Whitehead, 13.4.72). (These are retained by political decision. They were not funded by the taxpayer before 1969).

Those who are not train drivers can travel by rail, but non-car drivers seldom go by road; road speeds cannot increase whereas trains can achieve vastly superior speeds; road travel results in great loss of life. (R Colyer, 14.4.72).

Disturbed by devastating cuts in what is the safest & least polluting form of transport. Do the plans involve an increased allocation to the NHS to deal with increased casualties on roads which would result? Another objection is to the spurious argument rail transport does not pay. Road transport is heavily subsidised by the public. (Dr J McFie, 11.10.72).

The recommendation for railway cuts is based on narrow accounting considerations, without relevance to social and environmental needs.  (A Holford-Walker, 11.10.72).

If it is correct to claim [The Times, October 17], that rail is outdated as a means of carrying freight, how is it explained that West Germany, the most prosperous nation in Europe, sends 40% by rail, 23% by road and the rest by water. It is claimed that road transport is flexible. How flexible will it be when they are limited [by their size] to the present route system of the railways. (Dr L Taitz, 21.10.72).

Has no one the courage to suggest that the rail network should be increased? There would be no risk of industrial action by the medical profession if casualties were reduced by a transfer of traffic from road to rail, (Dr J McFie, 7.3.73).

An £0.45m conversion of railway to road in Cornwall was short-sighted. (D Lock 14.4.73).

The US Dept of Transportation study of the problem [bus v. train] fails to compare like with like. Unlike buses, trains are separated by a signalling system which is proof against weather and sudden illness of the driver. American trains - but not buses - are forced to carry three redundant staff, in addition to the crew. Rail can be automated in response to chronic staff shortages. No technical innovation seems likely to eliminate the need for a driver on every bus. The bus weight per passenger is less than a train, because of reduced space and comfort. (R Hope 28.1.74)  (First Group is recruiting drivers from Europe and the Balkans. Bus unions complain that wages are inadequate to attract staff. This distorts comparisons. Higher wages are paid to BR drivers, but these are less than industrial wages).

People have been immobilised by rail closures & withdrawal of replacement buses. A study shows if accident costs are taken into account, many subsidised lines are profitable. (R. Colyer, 30.8.74)

I have news for those who see no role for railways in a small island surrounded by all-weather ports - Japan has opened a new line and is extending it, as passengers carried soar. BR is to introduce 125 mph running next October. Professor Hall’s unpublished report (See Chapter 10) is alleged to demonstrate that buses can provide a faster service than trains on a converted double track railway where overbridges and tunnels are 25 foot wide. This conveys the spectacle of buses, running in poor visibility without signalling, some three feet from similar vehicles moving in the opposite direction, at a relative velocity of 250 mph - for how else could a bus service be faster than rail? (R Hope, 17.12.75).

A confidential study by the DoE* suggests that £1,000m could be saved [The Times December 17] by changing from railways to busways. It assumes the majority of those using trains would switch to bus. With every railway closure the vast majority change to cars; transport costs will rise, not fall. (L Kohr, 23.12.75). (It was not by the DoE.  It was the Hall/Smith report funded by DoE, who told the authors they could publish).

The League claims [The Times, December 19], there is no role for railways in a small island surrounded by all-weather ports. The Isle of Man, Channel Isles and Malta closed theirs long ago. I hope he is not putting Britain and Japan in that context. The League had unparalleled opportunity to prove its convictions. BR has released 8,540 miles of track bed over 28 years but only few hundred miles * are converted. We could have led the world - but where to? (M Page, 23.12.75). *(By 1975, it was only a few dozen miles).

Critics of the Study into conversion of railways into express busways must await publication, but it is ironic that the announcement appeared the day after [The Times] report Fog and ice affect flights and roads, with a 17 mile queue in fog on the M4; and A12 closed for hours after 30 vehicles collided. (S Hawtrey, 23.12.75). 

Not impressed when the government proposes to wield another axe on the railways, which we shall need when exhaustion of oil supplies results in the extinction of the internal combustion engine. (D Green, 23.12.75).

The Transport Studies Group, Polytechnic of Central London had evaluated conversion based on studies in recent Report. It concluded that the case for conversion was weak, and costings assumed were highly suspect, especially in respect of road construction where there is an under evaluation by a factor of eight. (J Cooper, 25.4.77)

In response to the Hall/Smith study, whatever the theoretical comparison between BR and a hypothetical new busway, for routes of any substantial density and distance a railway is inherently cheaper and faster. Practical statistics are published by an operator of both: London Transport, which shows virtually the same passenger miles by bus and train. For one exclusive track or bus-lane, the practical capacity is 120 buses per hour carrying up to 8400 passengers compared to 20,000 per hour by rail. A 7-coach train having about 65m passenger place miles pa requires 43 operating and maintenance staff. The same annual output is achieved by 24 buses requiring 134 staff. On energy consumption, BR electric InterCity trains achieve 295 capacity ton-miles per million BTUs compared with about 260 for an inter-city road coach. (Sir Peter Masefield, 5.1.76).



The lunacy of DoE transport plans is illustrated by Hall’s crazy scheme to pave over miles of excellent track, and transport commuters in buses we don’t possess, (J. Daly, 21.1.76)

A USA study of highway wear, 15 years ago, revealed that damage caused by a 6-ton axle load was 10,000 times as much as a car, a 12-ton axle load was 160,000 times more. (R Calvert, 18.6.76).

The [alleged] positive tax contributions by road users are turned negative if true environment and other costs are taken into account. A recent true, rather than perceived costing has given a debit approaching £1 bn pa, plus the cost of accidents. Far from rail freight being subsidised, it meets track and signalling costs that would be avoided if there was no rail freight business, together with administrative charges. Most freight is on InterCity routes which are not subsidised. (D Henry 25.4.77).  

The eccentric fantasies of the League are still given credence. Most of their claims and statistics were long ago shown to be bogus. It was never clear how Prof. Hall supposed that two coaches could pass on a 15 foot carriageway at speed. They will still be uttering platitudes about alternative fuels when the last oil well runs dry. (J Nearstead, 13.6.81).

To suggest replacing rail by juggernauts and coaches is to fly in the face of all logic and experience. By the time railways are converted, oil will be prohibitively expensive. This is the conclusive argument for rail electrification to proceed. (S Steward, 13.6.81).

Criticises anti-rail views of A. Sherman. Their factual basis is exposed. (M Oakley, 13.6.81)

Sherman’s concrete solution for railways is insubstantial in many respects, but becomes flimsy when applied to cities like London. Twice as many people come into central London by train than by car. Before investing capital in another panacea, it is time we learnt to make better use of what we have got.  (H Sherlock, 13.6.81).

Some champions of conversion have done more harm by making excessive claims. It is unlikely that objective study would justify converting the whole network. (A Day, 17.6.81)

The plan for electrification was examined as a business proposition [not a cost benefit analysis, as applies with roads], but a hard headed examination of the commercial ROI of 11%. I have always regarded concreting over as a humorous introduction to an academic lecture not a serious suggestion. If any experienced businessman can produce a serious business proposition, I will debate it with him [Prof. Day, The Times 17.6.81] before a jury of our peers. My test would be whether its supporters can raise enough in the City to buy a bag of readymix, let alone a few million tons of concrete. (M Posner, 18.6.81)

A comparison of changes in Europe 1955-80 shows our railway route cut by 41%. The average is 10%, and 12 of the 25 countries in Europe have extended route miles. Who is right - Britain or Europe? Our poor industrial* and economic performance hardly justi­fies the sublime insular conceit that rest of Europe is wrong. (E. Nicholson, 30.6.81). *(This is a crucial point. If major UK industry: shipbuilding, cars, engineering, etc., had been expanding instead of contracting, UK railways would have been highly profitable. See Britain’s Railways - The Reality, Chapter 14 for some interesting revelations).

It is never in question that it is technically possible to convert railways into roads. It is cripplingly expensive. Trackbeds have been converted with a loss to the nation of the potential to rebuild the [rail] network. What converters fail to show is why it is desirable to emasculate the only large scale transportation this country possesses, which could be made invulnerable to interruption of oil supplies. (J Nearstead, 4.7.81)

Letters from the vociferous lobby which wishes to convert railways into roads are silent in one highly relevant point - safety. Every year, thousands are killed on our roads. It is reasonable to predict an increase in road mileage will lead to an increase in casualties. This is inevitable with a system that relies on people using millions of vehicles, many in a dubious state of roadworthiness. Perhaps the lobby can suggest an effective way of reducing road deaths before they deprive us of our one safe system. (A Everson, 4.7.81).

The study of conversion [Times, March 24] leaves much unsaid casting doubt on its conclusions. The DoT recently turned down electrifi­cation to Cambridge as the ROI is only 18%. What ROI is expected from conversion? A double track railway is 20 ft wide - same as a suburban back street. Unless a modest road is accepted, the cost of building a road will not be reduced because a railway once ran there, on an alignment that would never have been chosen for a road. (W Barter 31.3.82).

Guided transport systems allow uninterrupted services in poor visibility, very high safety standards, high levels of energy efficiency from a variety of fuel sources, and free of pollution. BR anticipates running one man operated trains, carrying up to 1,000 passengers*. If the roads system proposed by Mr. Ibbotson, (see below), is restricted to existing rail users with people and goods in buses and lorries instead of trains, the same level of infrastructure costs will have to be covered by the same customers. If, on the other hand, the road is open to all and sundry, the discipline necessary to secure high standards of operation will be lost. No mention is made by him of the cost of converting or the need for extensive access works, to safely allow buses and lorries to join in a closely spaced procession of vehicles moving at 80 mph. A fraction of the investment required would thoroughly modernise railways. In the movement of bulk loads of freight and passengers, railways provide excellent value. (W Bradshaw, 4.12.82).        

*The first such service began in March 1983 between St.Pancras & Bedford.

That London’s commuter trains could be replaced by buses running in a disciplined manner on converted routes has mainly academic support*. It falls down at practical hurdles: system control, junction working, terminal layout and safety. (D McKenna, 4.12.82)  * An important point. Conversion has not been supported by practical people in the road transport industry.

How unfortunate for [the League] that on day you publish their letter - which flies in the face of all intelligent and technical reasoning, you carried a report of the first of this winter’s motorway pile-ups in fog. When will they grasp that uncontrolled movement of road vehicles is bound to lead to accidents in fog, heavy rain or snow. If drivers are unable to behave sensibly on roads built specially for them, how can any rational person believe they will do better on roads made out of railways. (R Faulkner, 13.12.82).

Why are we arguing conversion of highly developed railways into undisciplined roads without considering a device that combines both: RoadRailer? It has interchangeable rear road & rail wheels, and used in USA. It was tried in the UK, but displaced when the container [revolution] began. US tests prove it is four times as fuel-economical as trailers. It would rid trunk roads of many juggernauts. (G Freeman Allen, 5.1.83).

55% UK railways have closed - action taken by Cyprus, Guyana, Haiti, Libya, Mauritius, Sierra Leone, Surinam, Trinidad & Venezuela. Five of these forward looking nations eliminated them altogether. There are signs of backsliding by Libya & Venezuela that are toying with building new lines, the former with the aid of British consulting engineers. (R Hope, 12.1.83).

In the 50s we had a thriving motor industry. Costly state intervention is the reason it still supplies 30% of demand. The attempt to boost private transport has been disastrous - BR’s record is a comparative success. As you observe [editorial, 21.1.76], why do other nations not concur with those, who wish to scrap railways. Perhaps the answer lies in the influence of irresponsible interest groups such as the road lobby. (Prof C Harvie, 1.2.83)

Three favoured conversion of lines not needed for rail or a system limited to high speed vehicles, excluding exist­ing road traffic. The League demanded total conversion and a system open to all existing traffic, claims that it would ease congestion are crushed:  

1. Government should fund a 20 mile trial conversion with separate routes for fast [200 mph] and slow traffic and road freight ‘trains’ like those in Australia. (C. Nockolds, 3.7.54)

2. The solution to congestion is convert some lines. No land would be re­quired1 and construction limited to surfacing. A 2-track line is 23 foot wide, sufficient for a 4-lane road! Where widening is expensive at tunnels & bridges2, roads could narrow to two lanes. It may be possible to use parallel routes as one way roads3. (Prof. Bondi, 7.7.56)

 1. This belief was not borne out by experience. See chapter 13. The Hall/Smith scheme requires acquisitions.

 2. In reality, all tunnels and viaducts and virtually all bridges. The Pennsylvania Turnpike had two lane tunnels at first, but had to widen them, or divert around them at high cost.

3. He had made this suggestion at the ICE meeting in 1955. It is an impracticable proposal, (see Chapter 4).

3. Railways should be converted & reserved for 80mph public transport. They would not be open to all1. Buses would call at locations not served by rail & go to centres of population from which, stations are remote2. At the terminal, buses could turn round, or go on into central areas. (L Ibbotson interviewed, 29.11.82).

1. Motorists would not wish to share a single carriageway with lorries and buses at that speed!

2,He did not explain how buses calling at additional points and going into town centres could run at faster schedules than trains permitted to run 20 mph faster!

The League disagreed with Ibbotson (The Times 7.12.82) about high speed only traffic, but envisages low speeds on converted railways which would increase capacity. This is nonsense. Transport Operators know that higher speed improves transits. Speed variations worsen utilisation of track/lane capacity.


On the Internet ( March 2003)*. it is asked if conversion is a good idea, why hasn’t anyone else done it? No major developed country has done so. Most, with similar dis­tances and population density [France, Germany, Italy, Japan], are investing more to improve rail. The UK has closed 10,000 miles, but less than 5% has turned into road. The USA has many busy and expanding commuter rail networks round major cities, and enormous amounts of long-distance bulk rail freight. Most closed railroads in the USA have simply been abandoned. Even where small countries such as Mauritius aban­doned rail, trains have been replaced by buses and trucks on existing roads, and tracks left to be recolonised by nature, or, turned into leisure footpaths. Many new interchanges with the existing road network would need to be created, requiring a large amount of ad­ditional land. If buses provide such capacity advantages, the best way to take advantage would be to encourage their use on existing roads in preference to cars. Our transport problems require large-scale investment in rail and road. Creating false ‘either-or’ options is mischievous and counter-productive. So if railways did not exist, we would probably end up inventing them. 

This organisation promotes better & safer roads!)

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