From our correspondent on the M4:
Trains are an extremely safe way to travel. Safe, environmentally friendly and, in many ways, more civilised, yet our system is still geared towards the car and rewards its use, and has been at least since the 1960s when the then Conservative government commissioned huge cuts to the rail network — the infamous Beeching Axe.
The “Axe” was seen as inevitable and forward-thinking, yet half a century later the tide of expert opinion may be shifting, and with it the serious possibility of undoing some of the cuts. It is an idea with serious merit, and growing in popularity as the problems of a car-dependent society become clearer. Only recently, former transport secretary Lord Adonis, a man who probably knows more about trains that anyone else in Britain, laid out how part of the Beeching Axe could be reversed, with a special focus on the revitalisation of regional economies.
Beeching is one of the most universally hated figures in British politics, yet I have no doubt that he was that rare creature, someone working for the state who actually got things about right.
What Dr Richard Beeching mostly did was a cold, analytical report into the railways and recommended cutting large chunks of it that no-one was using. This was done because the railways were losing a fortune every year. And he mostly got it right. He assumed that we would replace trains with buses, which isn’t a bad idea at all.
It’s not just about the deaths, injuries and illnesses that result from car accidents, pollution and sedentary lifestyles; cars also distort urban environments and make cities and towns worse places to live, damging communities and the economy. As car numbers have increased and population density risen, the external costs of car use have increased each year.
I’m not sure anyone really likes driving. I don’t mean driving as it appears in adverts for flashy 4x4s, where a square-jawed male model speeds effortlessly through the Highlands on deserted roads in the light of a perfect sunset. I mean actually existing driving, the kind that we motorists spend most of our car miles doing; pottering along urban clearways to get to Tesco or pick up the children; stop-start progress on ring roads and one-way systems to get to work; cursing silently as we see a huge sea of brake lights ahead of us on a congested motorway.
One of the reasons I think Beeching ended up more right than he thought was the arrival of the car. Yes, cars can be environmentally damaging, cause deaths and so forth. Personally, I lean towards the bus or train as a preference. But you can’t ignore the upsides of cars.
The biggest problems with trains are connection time, flexibility and that there’s no market in there. Rail is quite poor at doing their one job: getting a train from A to B. You’d think after 150 years, they’d have it going pretty good, but crew not turning up, signal failures, electrical failures, doors not closing properly. industrial action are not that rare. The problems are certainly more common than if you drive a Toyota Corolla on the motorway to work. Your driver will turn up (because it’s you), the doors will close, the car will run pretty much perfectly. You also have no connection time in that Corolla. You turn off one road straight onto another. You can also go when you please. Middle of the night, middle of the day.
Since 1900, a staggering 400,000 people in Britain have been killed by motor vehicles, while total fatalities on the railways since their introduction in 1830 are are less than one per cent of that number. Even if you look at deaths per passenger mile rather than raw numbers, trains do far better than road vehicles, especially cars.
Yes, but death isn’t everything. There’s also life. If I take my kids to Bournemouth University by car, it takes 1hr 55 minutes. By train, it takes 2hr 55 minutes. So, that’s 6 hours of our lives lost if we take the train. It also costs at least £100 more. That’s £100 that has to be earned, which means me losing some of my life to work to pay for it. If you look at train delays, 613,200 people being delayed by an hour is the equivalent of 70 years, the 3 score years and 10 of a human life. Yes, a car is more dangerous than a train, but we accept the risk for the benefit. We might be one of the unfortunate 1800 per year, but we like those odds.