Back to Home Page

 

 I came across the idea of converting railways into roads in 1958, whilst researching for material to use in a debate between the Station Mas­ters’ & Goods Agents’ Discussion Groups based at Sunderland and Newcastle on Tyne. I was, then, Assistant Goods Agent at Sunderland. These groups met on one evening per month, and were addressed by someone from outside businesses or by senior BR managers. Senior Managers attended our meetings. As a change, the Newcastle secretary came up with the idea of a debate. The motion he proposed was: That it is in the national interest to restrict the carriage of passengers & freight by road. Sunder­land had to speak against the motion. Not surprisingly, our secretary had difficulty finding someone to take on this task and eventually asked me to be the lead speaker for our side, despite me telling him that I had no experience of public speaking or debates. Eventually, I said that I would. To prepare a case, I wrote to every road organisation that I could trace. A directory in Sunderland library listing their names, mentioned Brigadier T.I. Lloyd - author of a concept of converting railways into roads. I did not tell him - or the road organisations - that I was a railwayman; they may have been less helpful. He sent me a copy of his booklet and a transcript of proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, inviting me to make full use of these items. They were useless for the subject being debated, but, having a tendency to hoard papers, I kept them. The material supplied by the other organisations - BRF, AA, RAC, British Road Services, Road Haulage Association, Municipal Bus Operators and Private Bus Operators proved to be of use. The Seconder against the motion was Len Wright.

The debate was attended by Norman Payton, the Divisional Operating Superin­tendent covering Newcastle and Sunderland Control areas. After­wards, he told Len and me: ‘You won the debate, but lost the vote - as you would expect among railwaymen’. The irony is that those who proposed the motion - to place legal restrictions on road transport - had history on their side, although the full scale of restrictive railway legislation was not catalogued. It would not have been easy to collect in a short time. I later discovered that railways were delib­erately impeded, over many decades, by government, from competing on a level playing field with road transport. The facts gleaned from post-retirement re­search proved this beyond doubt, and were brought out in my book: Square Deal Denied

The impression that I gained of many critics of railways, was that they were trying to demonstrate the railway skills that they had learned on the playroom floor. It was my belief then, and still is, that had railways been treated on a comparable basis as road transport, no special favours were needed for railways to be successful. However, I was to learn that politi­cians had never had any intention of giving railways equal commercial freedom as that enjoyed by other businesses, including other transport and nationalised industries. The evidence of this is recorded in my books Square Deal Denied and Britains Railways - The Reality. Ministers claimed that they knew how to run businesses, but enforced policies on BR which would have bankrupted any company, however skilled their management. However, playing to the gallery, by interfering in pricing and other management decisions, had major electoral advantages. Anyone who reads recent critiques by leading historians, of political blun­dering in other fields, over the last 90 years or so, should see how railways came to be decimated by political incompetence. Had that not happened, the basic premise for conversion would never have arisen.

 

My book Blueprints for Bankruptcy - which demonstrated how government policies had bankrupted BR - included a Chapter on the subject of conversion. This included the text of an unpublished letter to the Daily Telegraph which - using publicly available data - destroyed the basis of an advert by the Railway Conversion Campaign. Material from that book and some new sources was used for an article for Focus - journal of the Institute of Transport & Logistics - in October 2001, which was prompted by an article in the Sunday Telegraph urging conversion. I wrote to tell the editor that it had been put forward 50 years ago and demolished by road experts. He thanked me, but made no correction, but pursued the idea again in two subsequent articles. 

The article in Focus prompted Frank Paterson, (former General Manager, Eastern Region, BR), to suggest to me that the subject required a wider audience. Hence this book, which contains a few facts and statistics included in my original draft article - but which being too long for publication, were left out - together with a plethora of new material.  When I began to research for this book, I discovered that Brigadier Lloyd’s proposal had first appeared in the Royal Engineers Journal in June 1954, under the pen name Monstroviam, literally, I show the way. I fear that he was showing the way to catastrophe in terms of finance, fatalities and congestion. He certainly demonstrated that he knew precious little about commercial road transport - never mind railways! Having managed cartage operations at three railway goods depots, my experience embraced both road and rail transport. My job entailed a good knowledge of the law of inland transport relating to both rail and road - the principles of which we, in BR, adhered to, in marked contrast to the attitude and behaviour of our competitors. Little has changed, in that regard, since then.

This discovery led me to investigate what had been written or published since Brigadier Lloyd’s book. This turned up a number of other papers, reports, media articles, etc., which are covered in this book. All have something in common with the Lloyd thinking - all are impractical and, where they venture into finance, it is proved - with their own figures, that they would be disastrous.

When researching for a previous book: The Railway Closure Controversy, I visited the offices of the Transport Users Consultative Committees in England & Wales and those of the Central Transport Users Committee. Among hundreds of files on closure cases examined by me, not one contained a representation that closure be approved and the line converted to a road. Why these opportunities were missed, when every case was advertised in the media, with the address of the Consultative Committee which would conduct a public hearing, is not clear. It was probably, a fear of public ridicule or worse. 

In my first book on railways, published in 1993, on the eve of the privatisation, in a Chapter on the external misinterpretation of complaints statistics, I coined the phrase: If you are criticised on statistical grounds you must first check the source data. That proved even more relevant and important for this study. This book reveals that statistics quoted to prove the alleged cheapness of conversion have no basis in fact, as costs claimed have been dismissed by the local authorities involved (and published by the Railway Conversion League) in ‘conversion’ of invariably small lengths of railway into part of a much longer and wider section of new road. No separate costs were prepared for the railway section, since there was no need to do so. All other statistical claims made by the conversion campaign have been closely examined and shown to be wrong.

My investigation into conversion theory led to the discovery of the unreliability of road traffic statistics used by the road and conversion lobbies. I learned that the impressive volumes of traffic: billions of tonne miles/km and billions of passenger miles/km prepared by the Dept for Transport - copied dutifully by ONS and freely quoted by the road and conversion lobbies - are really valueless, when making comparisons between road and rail. They may be adequate for other less accuracy sensitive matters. The second discovery is to find how different the objectives of the road and conversion lobbies are. The true self-centred road lobby counts every tonne and every passenger originating on every road whether rural or residential. Conversion campaigners count only motorways and trunk roads in comparisons of highway mileage and accidents. Perversely, they then seek to count all road traffic wherever it flows, including that originating on rural and residential roads. They ignore that no traffic originates on motorways, and relatively little on trunk roads. Most fatalities occur on those roads, whose existence the conversion campaign endeavours to air brush out of any comparison with railways. Thus claims that using converted railways for express buses would cut accidents caused by buses, overlooks that most accidents - i.e. in residential and business areas - will remain there because otherwise they will be virtually empty! They keep losing the plot. Their endeavours to beef up road traffic volumes, and downplay rail volumes, led me to research the reliability of their data. It opened a can of worms. Road traffic volume is based on little more than crude estimates.

So obsessed are the conversion theorists with the desire to prove that railways can be converted to good roads, they are willing to accept sub-standard width roads - really no better than tens of thousands of miles of existing roads. At the same time, they decry the inadequacy of those tens of thousands of miles of similar width roads as having been built in the horse era, and air-brush them out of any comparison with rail. They envisage covering the full width of railways between boundary fences with asphalt – erroneously believing that it is all compacted by heavy trains. My diagrams in the book show that a wide area on either side of the compacted formation are only compacted by someone’s boots as they cut grass, and repair vandalised fences. They also ignore the irregular contours of these uncompacted areas.

I discovered that they had commissioned a study for conversion of a particular route, having hitherto restricted comments to vague generalisations. They should have continued to do so. I obtained a copy of their book which was completely full of holes. I devoted three Chapters to demolishing their idea. Apart from anything, it was a very badly written book with items which should have been presented together spread throughout the book.

 

When Transwatch Director, Mr. P. Withrington, became aware of the publication of this book, he wrote to his informant, Mr. N. Bradbury of Railfuture, that he would acquire the book, so that he could rebut it - having not read or seen the book! This is incredible. How can anyone know, without studying entirely new data and research that it can be rebutted? It serves to underline that the anti-rail lobby are unwilling to consider an alternative argument objectively.

 

The Cover photos are of Waterloo station – off-peak, and the M6 (near Crewe). Other photos in the book illustrate other comparisons of road and rail. I adopted Mr. Withrington’s style of not quoting the date of a photo he published of an empty railway track (it could have been Christmas Day!)

 

Top of Page