The End of Rail

This year there were more large increases in the cost of rail tickets.

I was largely uninterested, though by no means disinterested, in the subject. Passenger rail travel is just inherently enormously expensive. The government taxes road travel heavily through road fund duty and fuel taxes, and at the same time subsidises rail travel heavily, and the net result is that for most journeys, rail is not an option, and for most of those that rail travel is available, it is about three times the cost of road travel. If you take the true cost, without the effect of the taxes and subsidies, rail transport is probably about ten times as expensive as road transport.

Privatisation was an obvious response to this long-standing situation, but the improvements were small, and the cost differential has only increased over time.

I’ve never clearly understood where the huge costs of rail come from. There are several sources I can think of, but whether some of them are insignificant, or if one of them dominates all the others, I’m not sure.

One obvious contributor is the safety standard that rail is held to. Rail travel is about a hundred times safer than road travel, and that is achieved through massive expenditure on signalling, inspections, pre-emptive maintenance and staff to supervise.

A second factor is evolution. Cars are sold in their millions, and the industry is subject to constant, intensive competition and improvements. Trains, by comparison, are rarely-produced items. The result is that trains evolve relatively slowly: a ten-year-old train and a thirty-year-old train are barely distinguishable, while cars of similar vintages are very obviously distinct. The manufacturing process is affected as well as the finished product.

The third is the lack of flexibility which defines rail travel. A road vehicle can go anywhere provided the ground is hard and flat. A train can only go where the network has been built for it. We do talk about a “road network” in the same sense as a rail network, but the concepts are not equivalent for that reason. A motorway might be planned and engineered to just the same degree as a railway line1, but the defining feature of road travel is not the motorway, but the driveway — the thing that allows anyone to join the road network at almost any point. That makes the road system an open network, while the rail system is a closed network, and the differences between road and rail are mostly the differences between open and closed systems. (That also covers the evolution factor above: vehicles for the rail network are selected by the network operator; vehicles for the road network are selected by the network users).

If road travel is so far superior to rail travel, why am I paying £4000 a year to sit on the train and write this?  One reason is of course the subsidies — but the commuter routes into London aren’t directly subsidised; they run at a profit (though they gain from the subsidised local routes that feed into them). The fact remains that  for the one case of bringing a very large number of people to the same place at the same time, rail still has benefits. It has the advantages of a closed system as well as the disadvantages.

I am on a packed 12-coach train currently at St Pancras station. About a thousand people will get off within the next mile. Eight minutes ahead is another train, and eight minutes behind, yet another.

The chaotic open system of road cannot achieve the same peak efficiency in terms of use of space and labour, just as TCP/IP cannot achieve the same peak efficiency as a circuit-switched connection. That peak efficiency gap is very visible, whereas the very large cost gap the other way at lower levels of utilisation is not so visible. These packed carriages will spend most of the rest of the day empty or near empty, trundling around the network with almost the same cost in fuel and supervision. An unused car has significant storage costs, but because the costs are concentrated on the vehicle rather than the network, the overall cost is much more sensitive to levels of usage.

The other reason for taking a train rather than a car is that I would have to actually drive a car, whereas I can sit in a train and blog.

The crucial fact for the future is that the two decisive advantages that rail has, in a limited set of cases, over road — better peak space-efficiency and better labour-efficiency in the form of driving — are both on the decline because of the technology being applied to road. Self-driving cars are twenty years off at most, and I would expect nearer ten. That allows vehicles to travel faster and closer together, since human reaction times are taken out of the process of maintaining separation. I will be able to read, blog or watch television in a car as I do on the train. Parking costs will reduce because the vehicles will be able to disperse themselves until needed, instead of all having to compete for scarce parking space at the highest-density destinations.

That’s another way in which the rail/road comparison resembles the closed/open network comparison. Rail’s advantage is that it takes away the need for intelligence in the vehicles; road is best placed to take advantage of putting more intelligence in the vehicles. As intelligence becomes cheap, road could even exceed rail’s peak efficiency, by being more adaptive and responsive to conditions — using alternative routes or schedules. Rail’s throughput is limited by the flow of people through the chokepoints at stations more than by the capacity of the rails themselves.

Those changes take away any reason for passenger rail to continue to exist. (It’s possible that rail vehicles are more suited to very heavy loads, and so will remain useful for rail freight. I doubt it, but I don’t know enough to be sure).

Any forward-looking, integrated transport policy today will be oriented towards phasing out rail and preparing for self-driving cars.

Whether the Luton Guided Busway meets those criteria is anyone’s guess. It’s not out of the question.

 1. It probably isn’t, but let’s pretend it is.

9 thoughts on “The End of Rail”

  1. Probably depends on population density, the lower the density the more the balance shifts from rail to road. Have you ever been to Tokyo? The highways are choked most of the day as it is, there's no space to build more and the addition of millions of cars, driverless or not, driving in and out every day, will paralyze the road system completely.

  2. I basically agree with your points. I live in a medium-big city (Boston) and public transit is lousy unless your beginning and end points are very near the stops. Point to point is simply more time efficient than routing through hubs.

    One problem with cars as they exist now, is that they are too big. One reason trains can be more efficient in some circumstances is that per unit of volume they can convey more passengers. This means they are more efficient in terms of fuel, cost, and capacity.

    My pet policy is that the transporation infrastructure should be optimized around mini-commuter vehicles (for example – or ). Such cars would be especially useful in Boston, where our streets are very narrow, and are already way beyond capacity for full-size, American-style cars. Giant cars also create a hazard for bicyclists and smaller vehicles.

    Optimizing around such cars would ease congestion and lower the cost of living for commuters (due to much less fuel use and potentially these vehicles could lower the cost of cars).

    If you combined these commuter cars with self-driving technology, then you really would have the best of all worlds.

  3. Further to Devin’s points, and in answer to candide3’s, it is worth noting that, while road is not as capable of moving people at very high densities, those high densities are not only enabled, but actually dictated by the nature of rail.

    When siting any home or office, “near a station” is a major positive — and the bigger the station, the bigger the positive.

    If we were actually trying to locate activities efficiently, “At a major traffic choke-point” would instead be a strong negative. No, it is not clear that road can offload fifteen thousand people an hour, or whatever St Pancras Station handles. But a large proportion of those people have no reason to be anywhere near St Pancras, except that the mechanics of the rail network mean their route has to pass through that major interchange. Even current road networks emphasise a single preferred route from A to B, because the design assumes it is difficult to efficiently share the load between alternative routes. Of course, with even today’s technology, that becomes relatively easy.

  4. I never liked car travel: it made me sick. That you can speak so favourably of it is a remarkable triumph of ideology over personal body chemistry. The Party (Libertarian) says that something does not taste of puke, so it doesn’t. Another remarkable feature is your calculation of the cost of car travel. Apparently roads, flyovers etc in England do not involve any expense whatsoever, they just build themselves. Traffic police work for nothing. There are no Road Traffic accidents, and they do not cause hospital bills, loss of earnings or insurance payouts. Railway lines however need expensive subsidies.

    The statistics on safety are more believable. It strikes me that Pensions Providers should be lobbying heavily for motorised transport, since this ensures they have far less to pay out. I attribute my long life to my lack of a driving license. A system which requires 1000 people to work a full day, drive home tired, and drive in the next morning having only just woken up is infinitely less safe than one where the driving is done by a professional, with strict limits on the hours worked, who is never drunk and is incapable of veering to the left or right.

    Italy has never ever had a left wing government, yet no railway in Italy has ever been shut down. I suppose that they have never been seduced by the false, contrastive statistics that you are purveying. With a human body you cannot decide that arteries are making a profit, but veins are bad and should be shut down. Equally, a transport system is fed by all its parts. The local routes which you assert run at a loss are feeding the commuter routes which make a profit. The whole rail system serves to remove from the roads sufficient vehicles to allow what remains to function efficiently. If car travel were to be outlawed, you would not be able to get on your train; if rail travel were abolished there would be a permanent traffic jam on the M1 from Luton to London (in my experience, however, there already is).

  5. It strikes me that I could formulate a political theory from what I have just said as to the relevant merits of political ideologies. This is my theory which is mine. Political ideologies are not automatically right or wrong: some are better suited to particular locations, and there is a marked tendency for the population of this location to choose the system which works best for them.

    So, the tendency of Paris and Rome to elect Communist mayors, and Wyoming and Montana Republican executives, and the people of Monaco to put up with an Absolute Monarchy is not because the inhabitants of one area are stupid and the others sensible: it is because the particular conditions of the various areas are best suited to the ideology they choose. A major city with transport and heritage issues needs an interventionist and Left Wing government. Wyoming and Montana do not need a rail network, or an environmentalist stance (within reason). Each area chooses the system that most suits it (in the main).

    London needs an interventionist government which will tackle sewage, pollution, public transport, gun crime, etc. Toadsuck, Arkansas can be left to function under a completely different system, run by gun-toting gas-guzzling rugged individualist commie-hating rednecks.

  6. What can I say to Nonny Mouse? I have been ex-libertarian for some years now: I have no ideological objection to a state-run rail system, I think a government should have a transport policy that takes account of long-term social effects, and I don't think that rail vs road is a left vs right issue.

    The tax and subsidy issues are extremely clear-cut and I find it hard to believe you would seriously question them. See e.g. this analysis – the most recent figures there show the government spending 8 billion on rail and 9 billion on road, while collecting 46 billion in road tax, petrol tax and VAT on petrol. Note that train tickets are VAT-exempt.

    Without self-driving cars, rail is still essential, and I will continue to choose to use it myself, as I have done every working day for the last sixteen years, but we are in the final decades of rail's importance. Do you even read these articles, or just skim a couple of lines and then write a comment on something I might have said to you twenty years ago?

    By the way, I think Wyoming and Montana probably shift more tons of freight over more miles of railway than the UK does.

  7. I generally find that the conclusions of statistics are anterior to the survey which produces them. Do the stats you refer to take into account the cost of traffic police, the amount of time ordinary police spend on traffic related matters, the cost of road traffic accidents?

    And as for rail, what is used to power the engines? Is it subject to VAT? If it is, how does the profit from the VAT raised on rail fuel, together with the profit extracted by companies such as Virgin and Arriva, compare with the alleged 5 million subsidy on trains?

    All I can observe is that in other countries, including Germany, it is feasible to keep open tiny stations on branch lines for tiny villages, and rail travel is still cheap and efficient, while in England major conurbations, even in the Greater London area, can be denied access to an efficient rail system.

    Part of the problem, I am told by an expert in rail, is the enormous cost of adapting stations and trains for wheelchair access, but if this is the case it should be budgeted under care for the disabled and not rail.

  8. It occurs to me that the flaw in your argument is that you are comparing an imaginary road system of 2033 with the actual rail system of 2013. If technological advances mean that we can have self-driving cars by 2033, might not the same technological advances lead to efficiencies in the rail system which bring the cost of rail travel down?

    One of the important disparities between road and rail is the cost of collecting the fares. If it required a whole army of toll-takers to collect the money to pay for their maintenance, roads would be considerably more expensive to use. A frequent complaint of rail enthusiasts is that by adding a couple of pence to the rates, it would be possible to get rid of the ticket collectors and make the whole system free. Because of the widespread prejudice against paying for something from which you do not directly benefit, I don’t see this as taking off.

    So in my imaginary scenario for 2033, everyone has a chipped signet ring with which they conduct their financial transactions. To pay for a train journey, you just get on a train. The chip in your signet will signal to the billing system installed in the train.

    Equally, technology has already brought down the number of ticket collectors, guards, drivers and signal-box men on the system, and we have every reason to imagine that it will do so further.

    A little commercial nous would tell us that stations and trains, being places where people are forced to gather together, might be a good spot for a business. The stations will be converted to restaurants and pubs, the trains will have on-board hairdressers and mobile phone shops. The result should be a steep decline in the price of rail travel.

    But at the same time, we need to take a look at the progressive absurdification of society which has taken place since the invention of the bicycle. You cannot take a goat, or a cow, on a train or bus, except as a Borat stunt. However expensive it may be to hire an appropriate vehicle, that expense has to be paid. This is elementary discipline. There are other disciplines which need to be imposed on society.

    1) Working people should not be allowed to buy houses. It restricts the freedom of movement of labour, the first pillar of prosperity. However, there should be some way that they can build up credit towards the purchase of a house when they retire.
    2) Houses should not increase in value.
    3) Children should travel to school by bus, not parental 4×4. Their school should be chosen for its proximity.
    4) London was not built for cars, and neither were hundreds of other historic Old World cities. These areas should be reserved for people who do not like cars (we do exist) and vehicle friendly environments created elsewhere.

    Over the years, people have used greater access to transport and cheap petrol to push the number of vehicles and journeys undertaken beyond what is reasonable. At no time is it going to be feasible for you and all your sort to drive from Luton to London to work, even if your car parks itself in the outer suburbs. We have to act to make sure that the distance between residence, school and workplace is reduced. In Chicago, as I understood it, you could not be employed as a school-teacher (and sundry other state jobs) unless you lived in Chicago, a very useful rule. Equally, if the housing market were rationalised, people would be more likely to move closer to where they worked.

    However in Liverpool, everything you say is feasible. The trick seems to be to keep the size of the city down. Merseyside has 1.5 million people. Berlin, though aided by an excellent public transport system, still works with 5 million. London is a mess.

  9. Most of the developments you predict happened about ten years ago – the chip tickets are still only used in London, but will presumably be available beyond within a few years. Of course, owing to the normal efficiency of public IT projects, the system has if anything added to costs. Major stations have been shopping centres with platforms hidden away somewhere for a long time too.

    That is in a sense to your credit, but suggests you are a little out of touch. (Your comment about Italy not having closed any railway lines appears also to be some years out of date)

    Since the existing rail subsidies add up to something like £600 per year per taxpayer, it is preposterous that "a couple of pence on the rates" (which were abolished when I was still at school) would make a lot of difference to fares.

    Certainly technology will continue to affect rail, but the big effects that are coming will be that less labour will be required to control the vehicles, and vehicles will be able to travel closer together without congestion or accident. Rail will be affected in the same way, but these are the specific areas in which rail is already excellent – there just isn't similar room for improvement.

    Very large cities are indeed a mess, but the attraction of the concentration of people and business balances the problems of overcrowding and congestion. Were it not that London is a mess with the current amount of population and business, then it would have much more population and business, and would still be a mess.

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