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Back on track

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

To compete against road and air, rail must play its environmental trump card. But, says Professor David Begg, former chairman of the UK’s Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT), that will require the right transport costing.

The amount of taxpayer money that has gone into the rail industry in the last eight years has quadrupled. Taxpayers should really be asking the question: are we getting value for money? A few years ago the answer was a resounding no, with huge cost-escalation and inefficiencies. However, in recent years, the rail industry has started to turn things around.

In future, the passenger will have to pay for a substantial part of developing the network. I think that’s right and, in the past, funding has fallen too much on the taxpayer. Today it accounts for around 60 per cent of rail funding, compared with only 10 per cent for buses.

However, considering the high level of taxpayer funding that has already gone into the industry, much more should have been achieved for the passenger. Looking forward, we must keep our eye on the task – delivering that value.

Real transport costs

The rail industry is far too myopic, focusing on rail alone without thinking about how it fits into the wider transport strategy. The best way to encourage more private sector investment is to make rail more competitive against road and air.

If each mode of transport was costed to include its external costs – including pollution, contribution to climate change and congestion – more environmentally favourable forms such as rail would have a competitive edge.

There would then be more incentive for firms to invest in rail capacity and to embark on more imaginative long-term development plans, such as a high-speed rail network.

Closing the gap

When it comes to rail’s environmental advantage, however, the industry needs to get its finger out. Progress has stagnated in comparison with the car.

Part of the problem is the life expectancy of a car is far shorter than a train. People upgrade every four or five years with the latest technology, which is greener and more efficient. In the rail network, it is more like every 20-30 years.

Also, trains are becoming heavier and may have fewer seats in order to accommodate the disabled, for example. We haven’t made the progress we should have in terms of CO2 per passenger kilometre, so the gap between rail and car and rail and aviation has narrowed.

Bids for new franchises should be assessed on their environmental credentials, rather than on cost alone. As it costs to invest in new rolling stock and measures to reduce carbon output, there has to be an incentive for train operators to bid for franchises. The best way to do this is to ensure that pricing across the transport sector takes carbon into account. Whenever a passenger takes a journey by car, train or air, they should be paying for their carbon. In this way, rail would become a more favourable option for the passenger and a more competitive business proposition.

Prof Begg has worked closely with Atkins on a number of studies, including an extensive report of European best practice in delivering integrated transport, comparing the UK and other countries.

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