It is over twelve years since the last passenger fatality on the British rail network, during which time 23,000 people have been killed in accidents involving cars and other motor vehicles.
Such is the inherent safety of rail travel that Boris Johnson’s three most recent predecessors as prime minister all served their entire time in office without a single passenger being killed. Indeed, it is a tribute to recent advances in design that only one person died at Grayrigg, a very serious accident in which several carriages fell down a high embankment.
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.
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.
And there is no escaping that cars are bad for us, a major source of urban air pollution, and a threat to health and wellbeing. Air pollution can seriously damage memory in later life, has been shown to worsen children’s health and is even linked to low achievement at school.
There is some evidence that the dominance of public space by cars makes children and the elderly less likely to get out and about, while Britain has some of the worst traffic congestion in Europe.
On top of the thousands killed in road accidents since 2007, hundreds of thousands have been hurt, and this is with road deaths at historic lows — between 1,700 and 1,800 per year. In 1926, when records began, there were almost 5,000 road fatalities, at a time when car ownership was still very low, and the population about two-thirds of its current level. This had increased to just over 7,000 by 1930, reaching its nadir in 1966 when 8,000 people in Britain were killed by cars, the worst peacetime year for road deaths (road deaths during the war were even higher, due to the blackout).
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.
There are other, less material, issues involved. It is often said that trains are the most civilised means of transport yet devised, and it is hard to disagree. Trains can incorporate restaurants, bars and beds. You can get up and wander about. You can write. You can look out of the window and have a sense of being part of the landscape in a way that just isn’t possible on a motorway or on a plane. By comparison with, say, a six-lane motorway, train lines cause relatively minimal disruption to the environment, and are responsible for far less noise and light pollution.
But railways have often had a bad deal from policymakers, stretching back a century. For instance, competition from road freight became a serious problem for the train companies in the years after the First World War, not least because railways were legally obliged to accept all freight at unprofitable fixed prices, under what is sometimes called the “common carrier” rule.
Road haulage companies were not bound by this rule and so could cream off the most profitable work. Road freight operations also received a heavy indirect subsidy from local and national government in the form of high spending on road infrastructure and almost no taxation on roads.
How to make Britain One Nation again
After the Second World War came nationalisation. British Rail was not itself run badly, but for much of the latter half of the century government policy heavily favoured cars. Parking was cheap or free, and roads free at the point of use, with the cost of building and maintainance exceeding the income from motoring-related tax.
Urban populations declined, cars were considered icons of freedom and success, and any interference with “motorists’ rights” was opposed with great vigour. By the 1970s around 90% of all journeys were made by car, and rail journeys had fallen to half their 1913 levels.
Dr Beeching, the industrialist whose 1963 report recommended a huge programme of closures on the British rail network, has always been a bête noire to rail romantics like me, people who regret the loss of charming branch lines and once-famous routes. But in the political-cultural context of the post-war period, the belief in the inevitable death of the dense traditional city, the mania for Le Corbusier-style “modern” urban centres dominated by wide multi-lane roads, and the seductively misleading idea that the car brought freedom — it made a sort of sense for Beeching to slash railway lines.
Of course, this conventional wisdom was wrong. The city was far from over; the worst insanities of Brutalist urbanism have passed; the car eroded freedom and quality of life in important ways. Rail did, after all, survive and thrive. Passenger journeys have more than doubled since privatisation, returning to their 1913 peak.
The town that should shame our politicians
Today some high-profile Beeching casualties are effectively having to be built all over again: HS2, with a price tag of around £100 billion, is in many ways a resurrection of Sir Edward Watkin’s Grand Central Main Line (the world’s first dedicated high-speed line). The planned new route between Oxford and Cambridge is a recreation of the old Varsity Line, the destruction of which is one of the most incomprehensible transport policy decisions of the post-war era.
And it is not just these high-profile lines whose closure now looks remarkably short-sighted. The loss of some smaller regional routes may have been equally foolish, given the issues facing modern Britain, one of which is the increasing concentration of high-skilled, high-status jobs in a small number of large cities and the economic falling behind of the regions.
The best hope for many mid-sized towns within commuting range of large urban centres lies in fast, reliable transport connections, but the cuts to rail infrastructure in the second half of the last century have made this more difficult.
Research suggests that areas affected by the Beeching cuts suffered permanent population decline afterwards, especially of skilled workers. The attempt to replace train routes with buses didn’t work, since road congestion and circuitous routes meant buses were slower and passengers gave up on them.
The pulling power of Tyneside's great steam train
One needn’t be a reactionary standing athwart history yelling stop to think that it may have been a mistake to close hundreds of miles of railways around Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, and Cardiff. It is indeed possible to maintain an extensive network of railways serving relatively small population centres in a modern developed economy; in Japan, small private railways support almost every tiny village in the country.
Partially reversing the Beeching Axe is not some romantic eccentricity, a quixotic return to a real or imagined golden age of steam trains, rural branch lines and avuncular stationmasters. There is a real, practical need to reduce road usage in general and private car use in particular, and there is a hard-headed business case for better rail links.
Excessive dependence on roads is harmful to individuals and communities, to the fabric and aesthetic appeal of our cities, and to the economy. It is increasingly hard to deny that the governments that chopped the railways chose the wrong future. Perhaps it’s time to think again.