Decades of propaganda have established the myth that railways cost much less, are far safer, have much more capacity, use less fuel, less manpower and are far kinder to the environment than road transport ever can be. Surprisingly the myth turns out to have no basis in fact. Indeed the reality is so different from the myth and the propaganda so powerful, that people suddenly faced with the facts are usually unable to accept them, even though the data and the associated calculations are easy to check.
Here are some key comparisons:
(1) Government expenditure on rail divided by passenger-km or tonne-km provides unit costs that are five to six times as large as those for the strategic road network.
(2) If the national rail function were carried out by express coaches and lorries on an uncongested network, such as enjoyed by rail, then the fuel consumption would be reduced by 24%.
(3) A dedicated express bus lane has three to four times the capacity of a single railway track. An example is the contra-flow lane serving New York’s bus terminal. That carries 700 45-seat buses in the peak hour, offering over 30,000 seats. In comparison the 30,000 crushed passengers who arrive at Victoria Main Line in the peak hour require four inbound tracks, each wide enough for an express bus lane.
(4) Astonishingly, in London and in the peak hour the surface rail network is in highway terms scarcely used.
(5) The passenger or freight flows per track or lane are three times greater on the motorway and trunk road network than on the rail network.
Despite rail carrying only 6.3% of passenger-km and 8.5% of tonne-km it enjoys subsidies and capital grants running at £5 billion annually, equivalent to £200 per year in taxes for every household in the land, or to £150,000 per track-km, or to 10 pence per passenger-km or, if passengers and tonnes are added, to 7 pence per mile travelled.
In contrast the strategic road network makes a profit for the exchequer of £13 billion per year, equivalent to £250,000 per lane-mile or to 5.6 pence per passenger-km or to tax of £520 from every household in the land.
Such data underplay the poor financial performance of rail compared with road in that rail track is 6 to 7 times as expensive to build. Consequently, in terms of capital employed, the productivity of the strategic road network may outperform rail by a factor, not of 3, but of 20 (and that is before taking account of the relatively low value of rail freight, for the most part bulk minerals etc).
Moreover, nearly half the population uses rail less than once a year and those from the top quintile of household income use rail four to five times as much (the National Travel Survey) as those from either of the bottom two quintiles. Why on earth should taxpayers be subsidising the better off?