Chapter 7 Railway Conversion League
In 1957, Brigadier Lloyd sponsored the formation of what he called the Railway Conversion League, (Commercial Motor, 6 December 1957).
Submission to the Special Advisory Group
In 1960, the Conversion
League submitted a paper to the Stedeford Committee - the MoT’s Special Advisory
Group, (PRO: MT124/559). It was expected
to prove that BR was inefficient, but instead concluded government & the
Transport Tribunal caused the problems by holding fares & freight charges
below inflation. It said BR should be run by professional railway managers and
freed from political & other external interference, (see
League claimed the railways belonged to the nation. Unfortunately they didn’t,
as the nation had not put down a penny to buy them. The railways were acquired
compulsorily from owners, without
arbitration, at a price dictated by government, in contrast to the purchase of
the coal industry which had been subject to prolonged negotiations and
arbitration. No money changed hands to acquire the railways and other assets -
canals, road transport, ships, ports, etc., - owned by the Big Four railway
companies. Shareholders were given IOUs in the form of British Transport Stock,
to be redeemed over 30 years or so, of which, at least, 18 years remained, when
the Conversion League submitted its letter to the Committee. Under the 1947 and
1953 Transport Acts, the cost of capital redemption and the annual interest on
the Stock was to be paid out of BR revenue. BR made these payments until 1963, (see
payments to redeem the Stock were not made until 1988. The State could only then claim to have owned railways. The
intention was the railways would buy themselves out of revenue, and then donate
the assets free to the Nation. Unfortunately, government decided that a unique
form of operation would be introduced for BR, which had never been tried out in
any other business, in the private or public sector. It required BR alone to seek permission of a law court
to vary prices, whilst the cost of everything BR purchased was increasing
without let or hindrance. No court was more dilatory than this one. (See Blueprints
for Bankruptcy, Chapter 3 &
Had BR been allowed to determine
prices, decide which traffic to accept & which branches to close, decide
wages without interference by ministers who were pushing wages up, then it could have succeeded in doing what no
other industry does - redeem its entire capital. In 1956, Tory MoT Harold
Watkinson stated ‘by applying the ordinary principles of enlightened private
enterprise, we are going to show how BR can make a profit’. He did not identify
one role model in the private or
public sector, which had to accept political interference in decisions, much
less one also making a profit. To make matters worse, he promptly froze BR
fares, then trailing inflation by 43 points for a year! (See
The paper from
the League referred to the conversion of parts of the M&GR [sic] Railway in
*Their 1970 booklet (see below), shows under 8 miles in that area, comprised of small sections. The costs are not accepted by local authorities. The MoT told Parliament, in 1960, that a total of 23 miles, in different areas, had been converted, - see Chapter 13).
conversion cost would be low, referring to the estimated conversion cost of the 155 mile Inverness-Wick line to a
22 foot (below DoT standards).road of £36,000 per mile or £2.8 per sq yard.
They prayed in aid the conversion cost of an M&GN section of single track
to a 24 foot road of £40,000 or £2.84 per square yard.* They said it included the cost of purchase of
additional land at £200 per mile – but didn’t say what that width was. They
said it did not include sections in cuttings as the cost would have been
considerably more. *The M&GN ran through some
of the flattest terrain in the
Inverness-Wick line, which indicates that the cost of converting the latter was under estimated).
They stated the area occupied by the entire BR system was 320,000,000 square yards - but gave no source for this figure* - and to convert at £3 per square yard would cost £960m. Costs would be slightly higher at junctions! Such a codicil in a plan to a Board of any self-respecting business would lead to its disposal in a waste paper basket. They claimed there would be considerable credits from scrap sales and sale of land. They had yet to learn scrap value was variable and falls when supply expands.
*This figure will not be found in BR Annual Accounts or published statistics.
It would still cost £1 bn. There was no mention of the cost of land for widening, nor of the implications for compulsory purchase powers to acquire adjoining property needed for widening. They stated that the cost of 100 miles of motorway built in mid-1959 was £0.32m per mile, or £7.6 per square yard.* On this basis, they claimed, conversion would be £2.24 per square yard in open country and £13 in urban areas.
*The original estimate for the M1 was exceeded. It cost £0.4m per mile, excluding bridges and acquisition of land, (BR Study of Rail & Road Costs, 1964).
They did not include any costs for the provision of tens of thousands of new road vehicles to convey displaced rail traffic, nor any costs that would be incurred during the conversion period, including transfer stations - see Chapter 4
The League said that the system would be managed by a body which would have no powers to put vehicles on the system except for maintenance and breakdowns. They did not specify how it would be funded to maintain and police the system.
They went on
to compare the profitability of road transport against BR, showing a failure to
study the facts. (See
they sought to compare the whole 50m [sic] population as being at risk on roads
compared to 3m on railways, reduced to 1.5m on the basis that they were the
same people making a return journey. They did not, of course, halve the
journeys of bus and car passengers who were also making return journeys. They
assessed highway fatalities at 5,970 in 1958, and railway fatalities at 454
[including suicides and trespassers]. They included 147 suicides on railways -
‘an evil characteristic of railways’ and 103 trespassers - ‘as they are a
characteristic of railways’ - to inflate railway fatalities. In 1958, a total
of 53 passengers were killed on railways, (see
This desperate attempt to prove that the whole population was at risk on the roads, ignored those confined to prisons, hospitals, nursing homes or away abroad on holiday or business. They assumed that not one member of the whole non-rail using population ever crosses a railway on foot - at level crossings or designated public footpaths.
They assumed no one went on a line intent on suicide, but changed their mind & failed to tell the media, or HMRI. To suggest suicides are an evil characteristic of railways, implies that without railways 147 suicides would not have taken place is absurd. In the absence of speeding trains, speeding juggernauts will probably prove an acceptable alternative!
They assumed that all trespassers were killed, i.e. none trespassed without being killed - which is clearly complete nonsense. They speculated on the safety of road transport on a railway system converted to roads. These figures - they cannot be graced with the word statistics - were not worth the paper they were written on.
They claimed that motor patrols would prevent trespass on the converted roads, and that, in any case, trespassing is not dangerous as there is no electricity on roads and vehicles can steer to avoid trespassers! This assumed that the roads will always be free of other vehicles, at the precise moment when trespass occurs, or otherwise there would be a risk of collision for the swerving vehicle! Given that an approaching vehicle, would, under Brigadier Lloyd’s concept, be within the braking distance, swerving would be disastrous. Sadly, too many vehicles steer into pedestrians on pavements.
They overlook that these motor patrols would have to be very frequent to be effective, and would thereby eat heavily into the 100 yard headway around the clock envisaged in the Lloyd plan, and would require a virtually continuous hard shoulder to enable the patrol to pull off and deal with offenders. The loss of headway would destroy any prospect of cross traffic at level crossings, which Lloyd had belittled.
To claim that trespassing is an evil characteristic of railways is total nonsense and merely exposes their ignorance as to the objective of trespassers. The aim of almost all is to get from A to B in the shortest possible time. The railway line is in the way, so they damage fencing to create an entry, or climb over or through it. If a road replaces a railway, they will be still determined to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, and will do so whether or not there is still a fence - which, the conversion league seemed to envisage there would be. The replacement of difficult-to-walk-on ballast by easy-to-walk-on tarmac will make trespassing easier! The shorter headways of motor vehicles will render it even more dangerous. Whether such people will cease to be classified as trespassers, but simply be pedestrians is irrelevant - some will still be killed in the process. A few trespassers are ‘playing chicken’. This is also a practice on motorways, hence, it is likely to continue on converted railways. Trespassers who are less likely to transfer their interest, are trainspotters, who by and large, have to remain at a distance from the track, or otherwise would be unable to read the numbers of locos as they streak past at 100-125 mph. They tend to sit on a fence, parapet of an underbridge or something similar.
The League claimed that ‘existing roads will lose much of their traffic to the converted roads, making existing roads much safer’. The assumption of surplus capacity on converted roads is completely destroyed by their motor patrols, and by new statistics, (see Chapters 8 & 12). The cost of these patrols and the cost of acquiring extra land for a hard shoulder was totally ignored. They claimed that accident rates on the converted single carriageway system with no central reservation would be at the level of those on three lane motorways with a central reservation. There is no evidence to justify such a claim.
The Stedeford Group sought the comments of the MoT, who at that time, was likely to be even more road biased than his predecessors or successors, being a partner in one of the biggest road construction companies in the country. They should have been preaching to the converted. If they could not convince the most road minded MoT the country has ever had, clearly their case was full of holes. His advisors in the road dominated Department of Transport did not give any credence to the proposal.
The MoT replied to the Group: ‘The idea is open to insuperable objections. The most serious is that most double track widths are sufficient for only one traffic lane in each direction with clearances as narrow as 3 feet over bridges. This is below the standard we set for any main road and far below motorways. The Department believes that the estimated cost is much too low and does not take account of construction of junctions. Unless all over-bridges and tunnels are rebuilt, it would be unusable by large vans or double deck buses. New type vehicles would have to be constructed to carry required loads at the speeds contemplated. It would require a very high capital investment for very doubtful advantage. The possibility is not ruled out of conversion of disused lines where the necessary widening can be arranged.’
was from the MoT, Ernest Marples - partner of one of the biggest road
construction companies in the
It is significant that after 1958, the League dropped all references and estimates to the number of lorries and buses, and of manpower, that would be required to move displaced rail traffic. No proper comparison of the costs can be made without such data.
The 1970s campaign
Little was heard of the Conversion League from 1960 to 1970 aside from occasional letters in the media, which were often countered by others.
In 1970, the League published a 29 page book (Conversion of Railways into Roads, re-issued September 1974) endeavouring to prove the advantages of conversion, and to claim that - based on very limited evidence of closed railways ‘converted’ to roads - complete conversion of the whole railway system was practical.
Re-using a closed railway is irrelevant to the League’s objective of converting all railways. Using a closed route as part of a road is not conversion in the sense that it would apply to an operating railway. There is no displacement of rail traffic, with its consequential costs of thousands of new road vehicles to new designs, nor transfer stations, nor diversions over existing roads whilst conversion took place. Ex-rail traffic is already on existing roads.
It said that over the past fifteen years, railway conversion had received a great deal of attention. No evidence was produced in support. A survey of the media will find only scattered evidence of their activities, and will also find dismissals of their ideas by opponents. This is, despite the fact that the media has published regular criticisms of BR, which certainly destroys the claim that there had been ‘years of anti-road, pro-rail propaganda’, as quoted in the book as an extract from the Daily Telegraph in 1974. The author believes that the Daily Telegraph, if anything, tended to be anti-rail. His failure to have one pro-rail, research-backed letter published in response to criticisms of BR, led him to write to the Editor suggesting that the paper was anti-rail. He disagreed. True, the views in their columns seem to be mirrored in some other newspapers. A few examples of his 90 unpublished letters may be seen in his previous books on railways.
They refer to
a ‘failure of BR’s modernisation plan’. They ignore as others - who failed to
carry out basic research - have done that the cause of the poor return on the
railfreight investment was the unforecast decline of major UK industry*. No one
in industry, government or media foresaw the 1958-60 decline of industry, nor
its later emigration to the
*Government departments & industry had been forecasting expansion! See Britain’s Railways - The Reality.
They claim that ‘railways are supposed to cause less environmental disruption, because their track is not shared by pedestrians’. It is not usually related to that factor. It is arguable that, as pedestrians preceded motor vehicles in using roads, it is the latter who share roads with the former. Moreover, railway track is shared by pedestrians: at level crossings and when taking a short cut elsewhere [trespassers]. Both categories will continue unabated after conversion, should that catastrophe ever occur.
Scale of conversion claimed
They claimed ‘more than 100 lines had been converted’ when it was just over 20 and stated there were ‘many instances of similar conversions abroad’. Not one foreign instance1 is mentioned in the Report. They claim the conversion of railways to modern motor roads has now been demonstrated. They define a motor road as ‘one formed by straight conversion with no widening of the [railway] formation of two-track railways into a single carriageway road with two lanes 24 foot wide with no frontage access, no standing vehicles & negligible cross traffic’.2 In fact, of their list of schemes implemented, not one is defined as a motor road! Of their maybe list of 112 schemes, 11 were forecast to become motor roads, of which three were single lines. Only five were converted into roads totalling 5.9 miles. All required widening, (see chapter 13). On the grounds these motor roads would have limited access, they claim their capacity would be a third higher than normal. They ‘assume 25% of commercial traffic consisting of equal numbers of light and heavy vehicles’. They claim new roads would accommodate more traffic than existing urban trunk roads, whose capacity is quoted as 1,500 PCUs [passenger-car-units] per hour in an MoT Report, (Urban Traffic Engineering Techniques) . In 1978 DoT dropped “PCUs” , (Juggernaut page 132) There are no grounds for the assumptions - not least because of limitations imposed by bridge, viaduct and tunnel widths. Neither are there grounds for clutching a figure of one-third increased capacity from thin air. Having conjured up an imaginary figure, they compare it to a known rail capacity figure, to try to prove that a converted system would have greater capacity! No self-respecting statistician would accept the validity of such a comparison. It does not compare chalk with cheese, but compares chalk with nothing.
1..A letter to The Times identified some in very minor countries – (see Chapter 14).
2.There is no evidence that the volume of cross traffic flows had been evaluated.
They add the scale of conversion ‘depends on the extent and placing of railway lines that become available for conversion’. This clearly implies acceptance not all lines are suitable for conversion. They repeat the claim BR land was owned by the nation.
The book lists
29 instances, totalling 43.7 miles, of closed railways in
*Fence costs do not fall on road transport
but on owners of adjoining land. Railways always had to bear fencing costs.
This is another disparity in road-rail comparisons ignored by the road lobby,
Fifteen of the conversions listed were less than a mile in length, one was 109 yards. This shows a measure of desperation in scraping the barrel for anything that can - in the League’s judgement - be remotely termed a conversion. From 1948 to 1970, the rate of conversion was 1.9 miles pa. Closures had averaged 355 miles pa.
A 1970 study for the Countryside Commission (see Chapter 13), shows that, by 1968, 1037 miles of closed railway had been sold. As the League identify only 43 miles of railway converted to road by 1970, this suggests that most closed lines were unsuitable for roads, since the lines were first offered to central and local government who would consider that option. Most lines were converted to footpaths or farm use.
Their list of ‘conversions’ was
expanded to 29 from 25, by entering, as if they were separate schemes, short
sections of the same railway line and the same road. Thus, ‘500 yards Flood
Lane to Combens site’ was merely an extension of ‘109 yards Crown hotel to
conversion of 4.5 miles of closed railway into a 24 foot motor road at
Southport1 and quote a recent
statement2 by N.E. Tovey, the Borough Engineer responsible for the
task. It states that ‘the road has a very good safety record’. It doesn’t now,
according to the media.3 They go on: ‘the roads previously used by
this traffic did not have a good safety record, which means that there are
people alive today who would not have been but for the conversion of this
stretch of railway’. It doesn’t mean that, at all. It is pure conjecture. There
is not one statistic to prove that there were fewer fatalities. There is no
evidence that the roads previously used by motorists were identified so that a
comparison could be made. Their lack of skill in making valid comparisons, is
exposed in the book. An example is that ‘it is interesting to note that the
length of six-lane motorway, which could have been built elsewhere for the same
cost as this 4.5 mile road is roughly 125 yards’. It is
uninteresting and irrelevant, given the different speeds and capacities. In
stressing the cheapness of this conversion, the League neglected to mention
its’ construction benefited from ‘free tipped material’, a fact revealed in a
report of the retirement of Mr. Tovey (Southport
Visitor, 26.7.78).. They neglect to mention that the majority of the 20
1.The use of this term motor road, appears frequently throughout conversion proposals from 1955 onwards. It seems to be trying to imply that a 24 foot wide road is just one step below a six lane motorway. Of course, it isn’t. Without a central reservation and barriers, collisions are as likely as ever.
2.They do not quote the location of this statement, in which they insert an ellipsis, which experience shows excludes facts which undermine their claims. None of the professional bodies of which he was a member, can trace this statement in a Paper, Lecture or letter. Reports in the technical media, including his address to the League, do not refer to safety, (Municipal Engineering 20.12.68; Civil Engineering & Public Works Review April 1968).
see Daily Post 7.4.04, which refers to ‘a notorious blackspot on
their two page list of ‘successful’ conversions after 22 years was not
convincing, they looked for another barrel to scrape. Nine pages, with wide
margins, list proposed conversions
which were implied to be almost certain. They list 112 sections of mostly
single line, in 45 local authority areas, totalling 211 miles. It equates to an
average of 1.8 miles per scheme, which is not breathtaking, even if they were
fully implemented, which they weren’t, (see
chapter 13). The list included a reference to a completed conversion in
Glamorgan* with ‘a very satisfactory safety record’. No facts were given to
enable a comparison to be made to safety on the roads hitherto used by the
traffic. This sort of claim, unsupported by proper statistical data,
demonstrates the amateurism of the League. Tucked away in the text of this
‘maybe’ list the reader will find ‘
*This anonymous line was probably the Heads of the Valley road, whose safety record is poor, (see Chapter 10).
instances, their ‘maybe’ list was vague and unhelpful in enabling a researcher
to trace the railway that it was claimed may be converted. Descriptions such as
‘a section of disused railway’ - with no clear geographical pointer as to their
location - proliferate. Some 37 schemes had no precise information regarding
the length of the railway line to be converted. Schemes were peppered with
‘proposal’, ‘possibility’, ‘consideration is being given to the feasibility’,
‘no decisions have been reached’, ‘the Council has no proposals, but has
declared an interest’. As with the list of ‘conversions achieved’ they append
A reference to a revival in public [road] transport identifies West Riding as dependent on conversion of a rail to a bus route. In fact these schemes listed in the Report have not been progressed by the local authority, which is expanding rail travel, (see Chapter 13).
The league claimed that conversion was a straightforward engineering job, quick and inexpensive compared to new road construction. Their naiveté was breath-taking. New road construction involves little or no disruption to existing traffic; conversion would involve 100% disruption to existing rail traffic, and as it moves over existing roads, interference with that as well. How it could be organised without bringing cities to a stand, is not addressed. This traffic problem during conversion of operational lines was ignored. Traffic would have had, at least, temporarily, to go onto existing roads.
Traffic on existing major roads could not be diverted onto converted closed rural railways, which were nowhere near the major route, nor between the same towns.
They state ‘normally, land in railway ownership is of such width vehicles using it are substantially from inhabited buildings than in existing roads’ [sic]. This is meaningless. They add ‘railway property comprises a network of routes clear of older town centres and shopping areas’. It is erroneous. Railway construction in urban areas required property demolition, leaving other buildings close to the line. Elsewhere, industry and houses were built close to the railway to reduce journey times on foot, by horse or horse drawn vehicles.
They claimed that railways as roads are vastly superior in width and alignment to present highways. This proves a complete failure to study maps, which prove – beyond dispute - that railways have neither of those attributes. The inclusion in their conversion list of 12 foot wide railways widened to 102 feet or more, should have cautioned them to avoid such claims. They were confident that motor transport would be able to perform, better and more cheaply* and with greater safety, every task performed by railways. This would exclude prevailing 100 mph safe running applying on railways, as the League plan was for 60 mph.
*There are no figures and no field study to substantiate this sweeping claim.
Their argument proceeds ‘in places, construction of verges and hard shoulders would require the acquisition of additional land, but over most of their length these routes have ample additional room between fences* for whatever provision of this nature might be deemed desirable’. Any planner or manager submitting an investment plan on this vague basis would promptly be shown the door! It is, as with the generality of their theory, pure speculation. In a serious study, each route would be surveyed.
*This uncompacted ‘room’ would be soft shoulders that proved disastrous on the original M1.
They refer to the ‘average four track rail width’ without saying what it is, so that reader can judge whether it is practical or not. They claim that these can be converted to a four lane motor road.* An average width is no help in a below-average location!
*This implies something more important than a mere road, and just below a motorway. Local authorities asked by the author could not define it. The League dreamed up a definition, but did not adhere to it.
They add that routes with three to ten tracks account for nearly 2,000 miles and they are the predominant constituent of the inter-city network. On the contrary, the very much wider formations are on heavy commuter routes into big cities.
They claim double line rail routes are of sufficient width for a standard two-lane 24 foot carriageway road.1 It is based, not on any proper survey but on pure speculation. They claim such a conversion ‘can show a very large saving’.2 Stating that a motorway costs £1m per mile, whilst ‘it is difficult to give an accurate assessment of the saving which would result from substituting conversion for new construction, they claim that a reasonable expectation of saving might be a quarter’. Where this “reasonable expectation” originates is a mystery. Elsewhere, they refer to ‘studies conducted by them’. Unfortunately, no data is produced for examination, nor is the reader directed to the location of these studies. In trying to compare costs, they completely ignore speed in any comparison. They try to compare the cost of building a six-lane 70 mph road with ‘converting’ a 100 mph railway line to a 60 mph single carriageway road. Clearly, the capacity of the former will be higher, even if users keep strictly to 70 mph.
1.Brigadier Lloyd had said he would get three lanes onto a two-track formation (see Chapter 4).
2.A scheme that can be profitable - i.e. with luck, could show a profit - is not one for the wise investor.
They state that ‘a fair proportion of these [7,000 miles of single line track] could be classed with two-track routes since their formations were constructed with sufficient width to allow for a second track’. Possibly, some were so planned, but whether that was a fair proportion, in the absence, once again - of any detailed appraisal by the League, is pure guesswork. To emphasise their amateurish approach, they then insult the reader further, by adding that ‘the remaining formations are too narrow for a 24 foot width, but the width between fences would over much of their length allow widening without acquiring more land’. This envisaged tarmac laid up to existing lineside fencing to provide the width. It would be dangerous. This area would not have compacted formation upon which Lloyd depends to provide a cheap sound sub structure for a road, on which he would lay concrete, not tarmac. This is another example of speculation; comparing chalk and cheese. Every new motorway and road has a substantial verge, and many roads have a pavement as well. To try to prove the adequacy of rail formations, they ignore that, and propose roads without verges. It would not permit one extra vehicle to pass through a bridge or tunnel, most built to minimum width with a narrow cess. Again and again, they fail to compare like with like. Rail histories record rural companies were under funded, had questionable traffic prospects, and consequently, bought minimum land to meet their needs. Lineside fences often run in ditches or hollows, the filling in, or culverting of which, would add to costs of creating adequate road width. They had not surveyed the actual widths of a main line route.
They state that problems associated with widening narrow routes are irrelevant, because, single line routes have been actually converted to new four lane dual carriageways. They quoted in support five cases of genuine single lines so converted, that are listed in their book. Their book shows that everyone was significantly widened, up to widths of 190 feet. Some members of the public may become convinced - had the League produced detailed drawings and costings of every such individual case.* After all their attempts to prove that the railway is wide enough already, they later admit that ‘much of the length would involve widening’. With complete abandon, they continue: ‘If the actual formation is not wide enough, this fact is comparatively unimportant; it can be widened as necessary!’ Just like that - destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods.
*The author had long experience of working on single lines, from which he can say that formation widths were the very minimum.
With wild abandon, and not a penny allocated, they state that ‘intersections - where not eliminated by under or over passes - would occur only at existing level crossings’. The cost of providing such bridges was not even crudely estimated.
They argue that the alternative to converting railways to roads, was to displace occupied property, but that arises with conversion of closed routes, because the width of railways is inadequate for a road. Inquiries of local authorities reveal that this was often the case, (see chapter 13). As there are no verges under bridges or in tunnels, their use is restricted.
They focus on
‘narrow roads, steep gradients, sharp bends, many junctions and limited sight
lines as the sole cause of road transport having failed to take over all rail
traffic’, despite the helping hand given by government. (See Square Deal Denied &
hey do not address the objections and criticisms to conversion of members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, (see chapter 4). Instead they say: ‘In this report, it is not possible to go into particular aspects of the adaptation of railways to roads, as for methods of dealing with tunnels, embankments, viaducts and suchlike’. Resolving the problems and costs arising from these structures, is fundamental to the whole issue. If it hadn’t been addressed after fifteen years of study, when did they intend to get around to it? One imagines, it would be after conversion has begun of the easy bits - should that catastrophe ever be visited upon the public! They claim - without proof - that ‘all such problems have been overcome in actual conversions which have been carried out’. Even assuming that this claim were true, no data is produced to prove that the unconverted structures would pose exactly the same problems. The conclusion is that the sole reason for not converting thousands of miles of closed and unused lines is the insuperable engineering task associated with such structures and the costs of acquiring additional land, and the fact, that rail routes are often not the shortest between two towns.
Neither had they addressed the problem of the turning circle of a juggernaut leaving a converted railway to turn onto an existing road at a converted level crossing to make a delivery in a town or to a farm.
According to the League: conversions so far carried out by local authorities suggest a final cost per square yard of surface could be as little as one eighth or less than the current cost of motorway construction. Local authorities concerned stated that they were unable to separate costs for conversion of the ex-rail element of such new roads from the total costs, (see chapter 13).
They claim that ‘in railway costings, no account is taken of the opportunity costing of land occupied’. The same, of course, would apply to road accounts, if governments were ever to publish any.
The book claims that freight has switched to road because it provides the most economic and efficient means of moving goods. As the late Professor Joad used to remark: It all depends what you mean by economic and efficient. If delays caused by road haulage, and lorry-initiated accidents involving other users, and costs arising therefrom are excluded, one might be deluded into believing that it is more economic and efficient. Likewise, if the dangerous hours that road transport drivers are allowed to work are ignored, then a different perspective of economic is perceived.
They claim that one tenth of the new capacity would be utilised for existing rail traffic, without explaining why 22 times as much road route was required for ten times as much traffic, (see Chapter 8 & 12). At least 60% of the existing road system should have been closed to bring its utilisation up to prevailing BR levels. No spare capacity would arise unless they could force all existing rail users to spread their demands equally around the clock and across the four seasons, as Brigadier Lloyd envisaged in 1955, and spread it across the entire railway system. Even then there is no certainty until every flow is studied and rescheduled. They ignore that two thirds of the rail system carried 99% of rail traffic. (British Railways Board Report & Accounts, 1963, para 4) There can be no doubt that if the rural routes which are under-utilised were converted to roads, the buses on them would require subsidies, and fares would also rise, (see Chapters 10 & 10-II). This fact has been confirmed by bus operators and others when rail closures were proposed or had actually been implemented. (See The Railway Closure Controversy, pages 16,95,169,170). The idea of frequent buses on such routes is laughable. Regrettably, this issue was not raised by road experts at the Debate in 1955 (see chapter 4), who concentrated on the problems on busy routes. Buses on these rural routes would not have been 100% loaded, undermining League arithmetic
The League’s book claims that 75% of ton-mileage and over 90% of passenger-miles are by road.1 No breakdown is advanced which would expose that a massive proportion is over short distances, in or near towns which has no relevance. Every passenger-mile by an urban bus, every passenger-mile to a village that never had a railway, every car mile to a supermarket, local shops, schools, etc.,2 is completely irrelevant, along with deliveries to houses from shops, farms, milk suppliers. etc. When the League begin to reflect these aspects, and provide the aforementioned ignored data, will be time to study their proposal. It is pertinent to point out that the road lobby and the League try to downplay the excessive road mileage in use for its market share, and to claim that what is relevant is the length of trunk roads. Thus they count all traffic, but only part of the road system! They switch from argument to argument at will.
1. Inquiries by the author have established that official statistics of road traffic are unreliable, (see Table 2 Chapter 11).
2.73% of car journeys are less than five miles, 47% less than two miles, (see TRL Report No 104)
that ‘commuters would leap at the chance
of a high speed bus route to their place of work’. Unfortunately very few
work on terminal stations, so buses would add to town and city congestion to
get commuters to their place of work.
The parking of the extra vehicles was not seen as a problem. They said that ‘The line into Marylebone would be an ideal
stretch.’ It has very severe restrictions as a consultant’s report showed. (See Chapter
12). Traffic would have to feed into the heavily congested
They allege conversion would reverse rural depopulation and industrial decline, but do not support it with any data. (Objectors to the Inverness-Wick closure held precisely the opposite view, (see Chapter 6) .By 1970, thousands of miles of rural railway had closed, and county councils would not have missed the opportunity to reverse these rural trends. The fact is that the League are preaching revolution, but failing to advance their own money to finance it. Any rural conversion of a full length rural line which takes place, without reversing de-population can be attributed to incompetence of the local authority concerned in overlooking some important elements, rather than the fallacy of the theory itself.
They also claim, without evidence, conversion would produce a revival of public road passenger transport. In this context, they take a tilt at windmills, by saying that the prospective ‘comparison between rail and road transport has been obscured by meaningless comparisons between rail and the private car’. However, the League and its founder argued these converted roads would be open to cars. Indeed, the restrictive nature of tunnels, viaducts, earthworks and other features of railways would render it necessary to maximise use of converted railways by cars to free space on trunk roads and motorways for PSVs & juggernauts carrying displaced rail traffic. Moreover, the reality is that when railway lines closed, despite alternative bus services being subsidised by BR until 1968, many of these services were subsequently withdrawn. (See The Railway Closure Controversy). The reality is that whereas bus patronage has declined, it is car travel that has expanded. It is complete nonsense for the League to argue that displaced rail passengers would all transfer to buses and not cars. They claim that ‘a satisfactory solution of future commuter traffic is possible, however, it is a subject which cannot be treated at depth in this report!’ How did they expect to be taken seriously? Providing detailed assurance on the adequacy of proposed road transport arrangements is merely a first essential step in selling the theory of conversion to commuters.
rail subsidies, but ignore hidden and overt subsidies to road transport. Road
transport employees subsidise operations by virtue of their long hours, a
practice that will be brought to an abrupt end if there is no rail benchmark
with which to compare pricing, and which can be used as a threat by senders to
hold* down charges. As if the legally permitted long hours were not enough
subsidy, exceeding legal hours is almost endemic*, as is the failure to take
proper rest - a practice which the MoT urges on ordinary motorists.
Overloading freight transport is common. Judging by blown out tyres and vehicle
parts to be seen on roadsides, maintenance leaves much to be desired. Reports
of court cases into accidents arising from badly maintained vehicles do not
instil confidence that the problem is being tackled vigorously. Some involved
may be ‘cowboys’, but their existence makes road transport more competitive.
Bad design which permits lethal spray to be thrown up by LGVs to blind
motorists, should have been resolved long ago, the method of doing so was known
years ago. All these are hidden subsidies, which have been ignored in the
equation. In the near future, the
In addition to these hidden subsidies, are costs borne by the emergency services and NHS arising from accidents, and the knock on effect of insurance premiums for motorists resulting from accidents precipitated by LGVs and PSVs. They ignore all these issues. It would be interesting to know by how much, car insurance premiums would fall if cars were driven only on roads bereft of LGVs and PSVs. They claim that railways would no longer survive the removal of artificial supports. A brief consideration of the above, would reveal, that neither would road transport.
The road lobby places great emphasis on the subsidy paid to keep open rural branch lines, which BR was prevented from closing by the government. (No road operator would have provided a below cost rural service without a subsidy). They focus on the subsidy, paid in 1969 for the first time. Hitherto, BR had to carry rural line losses. Prior to 1969 when BR closed a line, it usually had to subsidise a bus company to provide alternative services. Not infrequently, they then went on to increase bus fares as well.
The 1968 Act
belatedly accepted that retention of loss making lines for social reasons was a
state - not a BR responsibility. Government did not pay retrospective
subsidies. The League alleged InterCity passengers were subsidised - again
ignoring publicly available data. The Annual Reports of the BRB show - quite clearly - where the subsidy was
allocated, by listing every unremunerative line or service which the government
was subsidising for social reasons. It shows the amount each service was
allocated by government, and the total for the year. No
They focus on subsidies to rail passengers, but air-brush out reference to subsidies for bus passengers. For example, their 1970 book lists quotes from experts - who were nearly all journalists or academics. In these quotes, an ellipsis is frequently used, apparently to abbreviate a quote. Investigation reveals embarrassing phrases have been left out, which undermine the picture they try to depict of profitable buses competing with subsidised rail. For example, a quote from the Economist of 22.6.74, inserts an ellipsis in place of
‘and subsidies for bus fares could cost even more in a few years. More costly and wasteful [than rail subsidies] in the long run, are the operating subsidies provided for buses, just to prevent fares from rising’.
By juxtaposing railways and subsidies, and leaving out the damning reference to bus subsidies in their quote, gives credence to their criticism of rail subsidies, and lends strength to conversion. They also left out a statement from the same article that
‘building more roads helps the rich more than the poor’.
Their chairman made the same claim with regard to rail travel! (Chapter 8 ).
Grants of 25% of the cost of one-man buses were given to operators in 1968. It was later increased to 50%. (Buses Yearbook, SJ Brown). Operators were given subsidies of £40m over three years to support rural buses. Support and grants for local bus services [concessionary fares, support and rebate] totalled £351m in 1978. (Transport Retort 2001).
The book would have caught few eyes. Hence, its meagre six pages of unconvincing text was expanded with a list of ‘maybe’ conversions, four pages of photos1 and appendices:
A claim of traffic capacity, that fails to explain why roads are 22 times as long as rail for ten times as much traffic. They fail to see that a rural line with capacity for 1,500 PCUs is never going to see that volume. To arrive at undreamed-of capacities on a converted system, they said there would be negligible cross-traffic. That means thousands of roads crossing railways on the level, would become cul-de-sacs.
A statement of passenger carrying capacity, which claims that displaced passengers would transfer to buses - rather than as experience proves - to cars, which would destroy their claims of a surplus of route capacity for existing road traffic to transfer onto.
Statistics, which lump private and public road passenger transport,
thereby concealing the decline of bus usage, but excludes data which would show
the improved productivity of BR staff and assets. (See
A claim of one seventh increase in tax revenue, without any mathematical proof. It ignores the capital cost of conversion, renewals and interest thereon, and maintenance costs of the converted system. They assume all income and no expenditure. Whilst rail subsidies - paid only for rural services - that would be ended are shown, increased subsidies for rural buses are ignored. The postulated savings are invalid.
A statement of ‘expert views’ is mainly the views of journalists or academics, for whom no evidence is catalogued that they have ever managed any transport activity.2
A two page response to a seventy page thoroughly argued Paper by the Civic Trust (Heavy Lorries, 1970) on heavy lorries and their hidden costs.
1. Covering about ½ mile of open and 1½ mile of closed railway against 11,000 open and 7,000 closed at that time. One closed line was so distant as to make impossible, an assessment of width, another featured one small car unrealistically close to a bridge abutment, a photo of an open line had a train loaded with Minis, not HGVs!
2. They neglected to draw attention to views in the Economist in 1952 which called for BR to be given equal freedom with road transport, (see Blueprints for Bankruptcy, page 35). Long experience as an accountant, banker, architect, engineer, doctor, journalist, or any profession is a definition of expertise. In only one profession is it dismissed, by critics - that of railway manager.
In this brief response to the Civic Trust, the League claimed ‘most old villages have rail routes which could act as bypasses, keeping lorries away from the awkward corners found in them, and their historic buildings and bridges’. It is a claim entirely without foundation. It is beyond dispute that most villages never had a railway. It should be perfectly obvious that if 220,000 miles of roads are needed to link all villages and towns, the original 20,000 miles of railway had, by definition, left the majority without railways. Any serious study on the subject, would have listed every such village where they proposed a bypass. The League’s report didn’t. They ignored the fact many offending vehicles enter such towns and villages to make deliveries because government allowed the building of juggernauts despite the fact that they would have to leave motorways, to enter towns and villages to make deliveries, as hauliers did not intend to have tranship depots to transfer goods to smaller lorries. The road lobby focused listener’s minds only on the evident capacity of motorways to accept such large vehicles, and concealed the necessity to enter towns. The Civic Trust Report stated that HGVs entering towns for deliveries had increased, causing vibrational damage. The Report over-looked that these vehicles also delay other traffic.
Not content with inaccurate generalisations about village bypasses, they proceed to another: ‘Often rail bridges would require only the decking to be replaced’. Clearly, they have not had tens of thousands of bridges inspected by an engineer, or they would have tabulated fact and figure. The absence of any £ sign in this connection merely confirms the superficiality of their proposals. The Civic Trust Paper, in contrast, abounds with financial data, which the League ignored. The Trust draws attention to the underpayment by road haulage for roads and damage and consequent overpayment by motorists.
In seeking to dismiss the views of the Civic Trust on safety they claim roads are twice as safe as railways, praying in aid - not an independent analysis - but a document by that most biased transport theorist – Brig. Lloyd. They claim J.J. Leeming in his book* has ‘shown the way to prevent road accidents is to provide good roads’, and - the League claims - the only way to do so is to convert railways to roads. As, even the League does not claim bad roads would be closed and replaced by converted railways, the Leeming policy would still require all roads to be re-designed to create safer conditions. Moreover, he does not say good roads would eliminate accidents, but forecasts a reduction. The cover of his book states ‘the first essential in preventing accidents is the investigation of causes and the financing of road improvements which must inevitably follow.’ This implies no accident is caused by driver error, poor vehicle maintenance, bad vehicle design or assembly!
*Road Accidents - Prevent or Punish? In seeking to show accidents caused by motor vehicles have not risen when compared to pre-motor age travel accidents, he has included, drownings on the basis that river, canal and sea transport were involved. There is no indication how many drownings occurred during recreation, or were due to accidentally falling into water or tomfoolery, nor those arising from a water based employment - e.g. fishing.
They dismiss a comment by the Civic Trust that there is ‘irresponsibility to the point of madness’ in the conduct of road users, on grounds that the irresponsibility lies with those who have failed to make adequate provision of roads for road users. The reality is that the creation of more roads has not ended the madness of tailgating, not even on motorways.
They likewise dismiss the issue of parking nuisance by lorries on the grounds that there is plenty of railway land that could be converted to lorry parking. No money, of course, would change hands to tip the illusory balance of the economics of road transport. Again, they ignore the reality, which is that lorry drivers park where it is convenient to them - in streets and lay-bys, often close to their homes or lodging place.
‘Modern road transport is much more economical in its demands on space’ is another claim by the League without a single figure in support.* They dismiss another statement by the Trust regarding the cost of building roads on the grounds that they claim that a railway line can be converted for £15,000 per mile. Replies from local authorities demonstrate that the cost of widening and provision of drainage have been ignored, and there is no confirmation by local authorities of the claimed conversion costs.
*See Diagram 8, Chapter 14 illustrating comparable headways.
It is not without significance that the League comments on selected parts of the Civic Trust Report. These relate to seven Sections of the Report, namely: IV, V, VI, IX, XIII, XIV, XV. Without explanation, they ignore the intervening eight sections, namely: I, II, III, VII. VIII, X, XI, XII.
Edited ‘expert’ opinions
Their selected quotes from the Economist excludes a letter from an academic disputing claimed benefits from conversion set out in an earlier Economist article* which is extensively quoted in the book. They exclude reference to an Economist article (10.5.52) warning against government policy which prevented BR from competing with hauliers on a level playing field, and another (24.11.73), revealing that rail was cheaper than road, (see Chapter 16).
*Anti-conversion letters, which the League ignore, in the media include one challenging the facts in respect of the USA Pennsylvania Turnpike, which had been claimed as proof of the practicability and benefits of conversion, (see Railway Magazine, January 1965 referred to in Chapter 12).
claims that there is no transport corridor in
attributed to experts include an extract from Municipal Engineering (2.2.73).
It states the ‘turning point was a report by the Countryside Commission, (see Chapter 13), which showed disused rural
railway lines could be put to a wide variety of amenity uses ...... however,
many authorities are making roads out of disused lines’. This implies the whole
article was extolling the practicality and advantages of conversion to roads.
In fact, their quote represents 16% of the article. Their prolific use of the
ellipsis, air brushes out 84% including: ‘Cheshire CC’s chief landscape
architect, like many other planning officers, discourages suggestions lines can
be used as roads. He says the track is too narrow’. More damning is the
excluded sentence: ‘It [the Commission] encouraged the growth of the planning
school of thought which rejected the argument the only thing to do with disused
railway lines was to convert them into roads!’ Also left out are references to
West Sussex County Council using 26 miles of closed railway to extend
footpaths, Cheshire County Council doing likewise with 12½ miles of closed
lines, and ‘the most exciting footpath scheme in Stoke’ [on Trent]. The latter
is 7 miles long. These together exceed the 43 miles of railway converted to
roads. The article mentions
The League book says that the Commission’s Report (see Chapter 13), recognises that ‘it is difficult to put railway land to other uses’. The League claim it is ‘ideal for transport purposes, provided that the necessary adaptation can be carried out’. The inference is that there is no other realistic use, except roads, whereas the Commission’s Report itemises several other uses, which significantly outnumber conversions to roads.
An ellipsis in another article they pray in aid (Economist, 18.5.74), air brushes out the words: ‘the railway route is not ideal’, and ‘the benefit may not justify the cost’.
An extract of the views of another of the League’s experts was stated to be in The Times of 15.4.74, but was found after much effort to be in the edition of 29.4.74. It made no reference at all to conversion, but was merely a letter about relative fuel consumption of bus and train, which are but one element in costs. An important cost is the depreciation of vehicles. The life of rail coaches is much longer than buses
Another highly selective extract from an article (17.10.72), by The Times transport correspondent, leaves out the statement by a road haulage operator: ‘Nothing I have said should be taken to mean that I am against railways - which I am not’. The extract also judiciously ignores a comment by the transport correspondent, regarding a government plan to slash the railways: ‘It has been difficult to find anyone speaking out intelligently and openly against the view that railways should be retained at their present size, even if that means a large and growing contribution from the taxpayer’.
Experts’ views includes one by academic Peter Hall1 (New Society, 23.11.72), on the use of railways as roads - but he was advocating replacing lightly used rural lines by roads. He envisages reserving a new road for buses if it becomes congested. No figures are quoted in this article, except to repeat the erroneous claim that hundreds of lines had been converted. In praying the opinion of this academic in aid of their campaign, the League airbrushes out from its book anything inconvenient: ‘though many of these conversions are short’, ‘in these areas, traffic densities are seldom high’; ‘overbridges pose a minor problem, either they can be raised2 or be replaced by grade [i.e. level] crossings’; ‘where a new road met the remaining track system, buses would run into the railway station. Rural areas would get an integrated system’.
1. Professor Peter Hall was co-author of the East Anglian main line conversion study, (see chapter 10).
2. A requirement consistently dismissed by the League.
The League ignores an article on the same page of New Society which points out that rural bus services are declining, and that even urban bus services frequently fail to generate an adequate surplus. This article states that the NBC has instructed abandonment or drastic reduction of buses, including on routes of closed railways. ‘A public service confers benefits to car users in event of breakdown or bad weather. A bus service provides insurance to car users. Is it not reasonable to ask society to pay a premium for such services? The premium will be paid either by the state or regular bus users, not solely by motorists who gain the benefit.’ It is an incredible proposition and analogous to the attitude of objectors to proposed rail closures.
They also ignore letters in the next edition of New
Society which rubbish the idea: ‘A slightly more detailed examination of his
[Hall’s] argument will reveal many absurdities. Most of the rural routes he
envisages disappeared years ago, What remains are provincial urban commuter
with loads that labour intensive buses cannot cope with, and Inter City lines
with freight and local services on them’. ‘Hall’s scheme has validity for lines
already closed, but for existing lines it would be wasteful and futile. As an
Land Use Inquiry
Their book admits that ‘thousands of miles of railway route have already become redundant’, but do not explain why only 43 miles had - by then - been converted. In the light of their admission of the paucity of conversion, there is no evidence - as they claim - that ‘the conversion of railway routes to modern motor roads has now been demonstrated as a practicable proposition’.* They called for an inquiry into the uses to which all railway land could beneficially be put to provide the UK with an adequate road system. Anyone genuinely interested in UK transport needs and claiming the moral high ground, should advocate a wide ranging inquiry, which would look at all land used for transport. This would consider airports and roads. The latter then using 22 times as much as rail for ten times as much traffic, should be item one on the agenda. The use of airports for short haul flights should be item two. It was long ago obvious to inquiring minds that the Channel Tunnel would increase rail traffic, whilst reducing air, sea and road traffic. Of course, NIMBYs could and did obstruct BR attempts to create a fast route from the coast. BR prepared five separate route plans - all rejected by government following orchestrated objections supported by MPs and councillors. NIMBYs objected in vain to the M2, M25, and airport expansion. Having peppered their document heavily with ‘assuming’, ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’, the League arrived at a precise conclusion!
later, the author drew the attention
The Chairman of the League, M.J. Douglass wrote to The Times: There would be difficulty if railways closed, and traffic was thrown onto existing roads, but no problem if government changed its attitude and permitted closed railways to be converted into roads, (The Times 6.4.72). It is unclear what changes were sought. No attitude problem seemed to arise in ‘converting’ closed rural railways into roads, if there was - in the eyes of central and local government any merit and benefit therefrom. It will be seen that this represented a climb down from the objective of replacing all railways by roads.
Other contemporary supportive views
told the Conversion League that it would be wasteful to apply modern railway
An article (The Times,
21.1.74), stated that an American study had shown that buses are cheaper
than trains for moving urban commuters.* It states that the conclusion was
based on certain assumptions. The principal ones were that buses would have
reserved lanes and that it was assumed that all train passengers would be
collected by feeder buses perambulating around residential streets, whilst Express
buses would pick up in the same streets and run direct to cities where they
would discharge at several points. These assumptions make the study invalid for
*The article fails to mention that American trains carry more staff than BR trains, (see Chapter 15).
It is noticeable that the conversion league focuses on this particular American study - because it appears to suit their case - but ignores the more widely known American research into the cost of road haulage wear on roads, (see Chapter 12).