Chapter 9                                                                      British Road Federation  

 

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The British Road Federation, which had around 100 companies and organisations as members, was formed in 1932 to ‘promote intelligent, balanced and comprehensive transport planning throughout the country, and to press for an adequate network of national and local roads’. It ceased to exist in 1999/2000. It was by definition, in opposition to railways as a method of transport, and thereby had much in common with the conversion league. Each year, it produced a booklet entitled Basic Road Statistics, the purpose of which was ‘to bring order to the confusion which arises from the use of contradictory or conflicting road statistics. It is hoped that these statistics will be adopted generally’. It was expected that the slant placed on this source of data would achieve their objectives. The booklet tended to become regarded as the ‘tablets of stone’ of road transport statistics. Regrettably, the source of this data can now be revealed to be less reliable and accurate than readers had assumed, (see Chapter 11).

 

The BRF ‘Roadshow

In 1984, the BRF held meetings around the UK to pursue a campaign - ‘Room to move’ - for improved roads. BR was invited to attend one in Manchester, on 20th March 1984, and the author of this book represented them. The speaker was a Director of the BRF. There were around two dozen present, who with few exceptions - were biased in favour of road transport. In addition to calling for more road construction, the speaker suggested converting underutilised or unused railways into roads. His views were in conflict with those of his predecessor at the Institution of Civil Engineers debate in 1955. On conversion, except for the author, none of the others present had any facts.

 

The author responded as follows:

Only sixty out of 7,000 miles of track closed in the past twenty years had been converted into roads and before they set their sights on lines that they thought were underutilised, they should convert the 6,940 miles of closed routes begging to be used. 

A survey by Coopers & Lybrand Associates (see BR publication “Management Brief”, 15.3.84. See also Chapter 12), showed only one of ten lines recently considered for closure had any prospect of conversion. Even that [Marylebone-Northolt], had less width than the standard 7.3 metres required by the Department of Transport for carriageways: being 6.7 metres or less, with 5.9 metres only at one location. Use would be limited to cars only, feeding into the already congested Baker Street. Widths on some other routes were down to 5.3 metres, also ruling out LGVs and large buses. (BRF Report circulated after the meeting, misquoted these figures and then related them to a financial rate of return!). 

The glossy cover of their publicity booklet depicted a High Speed Train on a single line passing under a hump backed single arch bridge of low clearance. This clearly exposed the conversion problem. 

BR had to justify all of their investment by a rate of return expressed in pounds sterling, whilst roads investment is ‘justified’ by an aggregation of the estimated time that would be saved by users.

The speaker referred to the ‘surplus £7,000m of road tax revenue’. (Applying this idea to tobacco would see those taxes applied solely to treating lung cancer).  Chris Bannister, Lecturer in Town & Country Planning, University of Manchester, challenged this surplus, saying ‘it disregarded the debit to the Health service and emergency services caused by road accidents’. Some said this was academic nonsense. 

It is not academic nonsense when forecast reductions in accident costs are used to justify road improvements! The speaker also disregarded the costs of emergency services (a 1994 Police Stop video stated that road accidents cost £5.5bn p.a.), pollution, structural damage to buildings, pavements and verges and double glazing all of which fall on others. Contrary to opinion in the motor industry, road haulage pays much less than it should for road use. Recent research shows that ‘LGVs only pay for around 59-69% of the costs they impose on society. Per tonne carried, rail produces around 80% less carbon dioxide than road’. (“Goods without the Bads, Transport 2000 Booklet).

In closing the Manchester meeting, Mr. H. Phillipson, [Director, British Aggregate Construction Materials Industries] said that the ‘revelations on the 6,940 miles of [unconverted] closed railway and narrow widths were new to him, put a new perspective on the hypothesis of rail conversion and would doubtless open many eyes’. This comment was not included in the BRF post-conference Report. There is no evidence that it opened any eyes, outside of that meeting.

In his internal report on the BRF Conference, the author recorded his views that the presentation was unimpressive, compared to others experienced at conferences and public meetings. There were no slides or charts. It included, in the list of projected road schemes in the Manchester area, some which, it transpired from local authority representatives, who spoke later, had already been cancelled.

The BRF Report of the conference incorrectly stated that conversion of the Marylebone to Northolt railway line to a road would produce a rate of return of between 6.7% and 5.9%. The author wrote to the BRF, pointing out that figures of 6.7 and 5.9 quoted by him related to available widths in metres on the railway line mentioned, and were from a BR Management Brief, which made no reference to a rate of return. The standard MoT width was 7.3 metres. Furthermore, the BRF Report referred to ‘8,000 miles of railway closed in 1969’, whereas the author, quoting from the Brief - and being well aware of the length of time taken to secure TUCC approval or Ministerial authority for closure of uneconomic lines - had spoken of 7,000 miles closed by 1969 (i.e. in the 20 years from 1948). On request, the BRF issued a brief, but incomplete, correction.

The BRF focuses undue attention on road related taxes: licences and fuel duty, which they believe should be spent on road improvements. During the 123 years when railways were privately owned, they were subject to corporate and other taxes, not a penny of which was ever returned to them to spend on their highway, which was built and maintained entirely at railway company expense. BRF moans regarding the ‘raiding of the Road Fund’ to aid the Exchequer in the years before nationalisation, are in respect of sums quite insignificant in comparison to what government skimmed from railways. (In World War I, Government had free use of railways & was estimated to owe £400m for that use, (see The Times, 14.2.21), but paid £60m - less tax! In World War II it benefited to the tune of £1bn - see Chapter 2).

The BRF in its annual publication Basic Road Statistics reprints - every year a section detailing amounts taken from the Fund from 1915 to 1936, and totalling £42.1m. (The Fund was set up in 1909 to produce cash to convert roads from those suited for horse drawn traffic - funded by municipal Rates, to which railways were major contributors - to those suited for motor vehicles, which destroyed surfaces and caused massive dust clouds. Hitherto, motor vehicles paid nothing to use roads). 

‘Research by NERA and other consultants [working] for the government show that 40-ton 5-axle lorries are under taxed by £13,700 pa once pollution, health, road damage costs are included. Other consultants [OXERA] have suggested that congestion, accidents and interest on capital spent on roads need to be included, making the figure £30,700 pa’ (Transport 2000 press release 7.3.01).

The idea that tax levied on road users should be spent on roads is from the Kindergarten School of Economics. Carried to a logical conclusion alcohol tax should be used to treat alcoholics, tobacco tax on lung disease, income tax for the sole benefit of taxpayers, etc. The quick witted will realise that nothing is left for NHS, police, fire services, unem­ployed, retired, defence or government employees. Government never spent a penny of railway taxation to construct or maintain railways. These in­cluded one levied only on railway passengers. In addition to corporate taxes, and sums skimmed from railways in two Wars, ‘Passenger Duty’ - was imposed on railways from 1830 to 1929. (Square Deal Denied, page 18)  It was originally imposed on stage coaches, but after their demise not transferred to other road transport. Not a penny of this tax, nor sums skimmed out of railways during Wars, was spent on railways. When government reluctantly ended this discriminatory tax, after pressure from rail passengers and a few MPs, the Chancellor insisted railway companies spent the capitalised amount on works which were not otherwise financially justified to reduce unem­ployment. The Federation of British Industries had the gall to propose to govern­ment that railway companies should spend this money in UK industry and none in railway factories! (UK industry was struggling to compete with other countries)

No similar tax was levied on road passenger transport, despite them making substantial profits, e.g. the London General Omnibus Company - which later became part of the LPTB in 1933 - was making 10% profits and did not pay this tax.

During the two World Wars, government sequestrated railways and froze rail prices to hold down Government expenditure. After the First World War, railways’ taxable profits were limited when government froze rail profits at 1913 levels - in perpetuity, and without adjustment for inflation, and set up a unique court of law to control railway freight charges thereafter, (see Chapter 2). No comparable control was exercised over the profits or prices of any other industry or business.

During WW2, government skimmed over £1bn out of railways and imposed discounts in addition to tax and Ex­cess Profits Tax  (Britains Railways - The Reality, page 18)., whilst road transport profits were untouched, and even allowed to esca­late. (Square Deal Denied, Chapters 12 & 13). Unlike all other businesses, railways were not refunded 20% of Excess Profits Tax after WW2, nor a penny piece of the £1bn immorally sequestrated from profits. Nor when BR wished to modernise the assets which the public erroneously assumed were bought by the State, did Government donate a penny towards that task.

In 1992, on BBC TV, the MoT said that unlike road transport, BR paid no taxes. Acts of Parliament did not require BR to make a profit, merely to break even, and not even that before 1962, when it was the BTC which had that directive. Government policies never allowed BR to earn profits from which to pay tax. 

Interference by the Transport Tribunal - a court of law - and politicians held fares below industry-fuelled inflation for 40 years - peaking at 55 points below - cutting potential profits by £11.6bn, excluding interest. (Britains Railways - The Reality, Appendix A). Politicians caused other losses. For 20 years, for political and social reasons, BR had to fund loss making services, whilst being prevented from charging sufficient on main routes to cross-subsidise - a situation which would have given road operators apoplexy. Ministers forced the payment of higher wages to rail staff, and blocked closure of uneconomic lines - all for electoral reasons. (Britains Railways - The Reality).

Studies have proved that road haulage pays less than its’ fair share of road costs, (see Chapter 12) - ordinary motorists are subsidising hauliers. ‘Non-payment of vehicle excise duty by illegal road transport operators is a significant problem’, (Plowden & Buchan).

The road lobby ignores that the road users gain in several ways from the construction of new roads, motorways and road improvements. Journeys are quicker, accidents reduced and the facility to drive at more constant speeds reduces wear and tear. Fewer gear changes and less brake wear further cut costs. Journey time gains and accident reductions are used by the DoT when new road schemes are planned as a means of justification. (See Juggernaut, by J. Wardroper, pages 36-43, which reveals the limitations to objections at Public Inquiries).

Promoters of juggernauts - including the BRF - forgot that they had to leave motorways and enter towns where they cannot negotiate corners without crushing pavements and blocking traffic whilst deliveries are made. Repairs are not funded by the haulage industry. If rail operations caused damage to third party property, BR had to fund repairs.  

To avoid delays to other traffic and damage to pavements, etc., would require costly compulsory acquisition of millions of perfectly good houses and commercial properties to create wider turning circles and more substantial road widths and depths. Damage repair costs are not paid by hauliers, but by ratepayers - another hidden subsidy.

Most hauliers buy imported lorries, some buy abroad. Some register lorries abroad, some fit double fuel tanks to enable them to use cheaper foreign fuel. Profits and taxes from those purchases goes abroad. The effect is that claims that hauliers pay more in tax than the UK spends on roads is even further undermined, increasing the hidden subsidy. 

 

A Radio 4 programme ‘PM’ (17.1.96), included a statement by an AA spokesman, that ‘Winston Churchill diverted money to railways’. After prolonged correspondence,* the AA supplied the author with a copy of a BRF document, which was the source of this claim. It stated that Winston Churchill, in his 1926 Budget speech, ‘wanted to protect railways as far as possible’. Hansard (vol. 194, col. 1710), reveals that he did not use the word ‘protect’ at all. He said that ‘it was impossible to watch the development [expansion of road transport] without considering the reaction on railways’. The Budget did not allocate a penny to railways. This is confirmed by annual railway audited ac­counts, which had to be deposited with the MoT. Had any cash been conceded, railways would have been compelled, by law, to account for it. Government concern for the reaction on railways was not altruistic. They were concerned that loss of profitable traffic to road, may undermine the statutory concept of cross-subsidy to controlled low freight rates, which railways had to charge UK industry, to enable them to compete with more efficient foreign industry.

*Initially, the BBC told the author that it was made by Lord Montagu, who told the author that he had not done so. The BBC then said it was probably the AA. The author was only able to obtain details of the source of this unfounded claim, after writing to the Director General of the AA, having failed to get the information from their spokesman. When the answer - that it was from the BRF - arrived, it was accompanied by a letter which ended ‘I am sorry that you feel it has been necessary to raise this matter’. This is similar to replies to complaints from industry that ‘you found it necessary to complain’, which imply that a complaint was trivial. The author was concerned to establish the facts and for the statement to be publicly withdrawn. The BBC, when told the facts, did not broadcast a correction.

This erroneous BRF document inferred that pre-war railways were subsidised by road transport, when the boot was on the other foot. (In 1938, the privately owned railways in their publication Clear the Lines, stated that Britain’s railways were alone in Europe in not having been given any government subsidy  see also Square Deal Denied, page 102).

Railways had to maintain and strengthen bridges for competitors’ use and paid heavy municipal Rates to fund roads for decades, whilst road transport paid little or nothing. By 1926, they still did not produce enough to fund their own roads. Taxation of railways was always for use by the Exchequer, it was never re-deployed to benefit rail passengers or freight customers. Hitherto, the road fund had been applied to road costs, albeit small sums were extracted, mainly to help the war. However, since government had subsidised the cost of buying motor vehicles before WW1, and after that war, sold surplus military vehicles - often in mint, unused condition, for a fraction of their value, this was not unreasonable. These were examples of the favoured treatment government meted out to road transport. They were free of restrictive legislation which tied and controlled railways. Later, when government was trying to cut unemployment, it offered interest bearing loans to railways to fund capital projects to that end, whilst providing grants for road building. Of these matters, the BRF made no mention!

This is not the only example of misinformation regarding pre-war railways. In 1946, an MP claimed that railways only remained solvent because of £27m given by government in 1929. This money was an interest bearing loan, repaid at the end of its term, (see Chapter 2). It contrasts with £129m railway companies invested pre-war, plus £1bn in working expenses which included renewals of assets. Another MP claimed in 1951, that govern­ment bailed out railways after the First War, with £30m, (see Chapter 2). This was a half pay­ment of the sum paid to recompense railways for having screwed them in that War, having taken them over and had free conveyance of every person, horse, vehicle or item remotely connected with War. In contrast, road transport was paid generously for its wartime work. After both wars, railways were left to restore assets badly depreciated by unfunded government use, including thousands of wagons, coaches and locos, and miles of track transferred, in both Wars, without a by-your-leave of the owners to war zones abroad, where much fell into enemy hands when our Army retreated. The sum paid, after the First War was a fraction of that due, but was held down by duplicitous politicians, whilst nothing was paid after the Second War. No civilian road transport vehicle left these shores without full payment, and none were sequestrated by government for use in the UK, without generous payments, in either war. Despite these facts, the road lobby has the gall to claim it has funded the Exchequer, whilst railways have not.

 

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