Saturday, 31 December 2016

"Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain has no Transport Policy" by Christian Wolmar

Recently read a very interesting book by Christian Wolmar called "Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain has no Transport Policy" that, quite concisely, reviews how policies have have changed over the years. This post is based on the book, with a little added linkage.

Wolmar starts back in the 19th century, describing how roads were not up to the challenge of supporting the heavy steam engines being developed at the time, and that the necessary steering and transmission technologies had not yet been developed. This resulted in the 1865 Locomotive Act (knows as the Red Flag Act) which restricted the speed of self propelled vehicles to 4mph in rural areas.

1875 Grenville Steam Carriage

But it also resulted in focus moving towards railways, which did not need steering, were more efficient and could handle the heavy steam engines of the day. By 1900 there were some 18,700 miles of track and mainline speeds averaged about 45mph. Meanwhile, within towns, tram systems became increasingly popular.

An interesting point made by Wolmar is that it was cyclists, in the 1870s, who lobbied for improved roads. Unfortunately for them, these improved roads proved ideal for the first motor cars and soon motorists were lobbying for roads to be prioritised for cars over cyclists, people or animals. These latter groups came to be seen as "obstructing the highway" - a view that still colours thinking today.

Wolmar also mentions that, at the time of WW1, imported cars were being hit with an import duty of 30% - which seems incredible in todays globalised world.

After WW1, the newly formed Ministry of Transport had road and rail in separate sections, with road getting increasing importance as the years went by.

Lobbying by the British Roads Federation during WW2 resulted in postwar commitments and action by Labour and Conservative governments to build a national motorway network, starting with the Preston Bypass in 1958.

In contrast, all of Britain's tram networks (except Blackpool seafront) were closed between 1930 and 1960. Trollybus systems lasted a little longer, as they were cheaper than trams. But soon all of the approximately 50 systems in the UK had closed too. This was happening elsewhere as well - France closed all its tram systems after WW2.

A 1925 Dick Kerr Type Tram,from Leeds.

Wolmar notes however, and with some surprise, that the Conservative Government of the mid 1950s had spent a lot of money (some £26bn in 2016 prices) in modernising parts of the rail network) in order to make it profitable. Something the rail network failed to do.

Huge cuts were made in the rail network following the Beeching report in 1963, again to bring the railways to profitability.

Government started to face the facts in 1968, with a Transport Act that recognised that railways needed government funding for socially useful lines, and closures slowed down dramatically.

Remarkable, even after this there were determined attempts in the 70s and 80s by BR managers and civil servants to cut the rail network very significantly, for example in many of the options presented in the 1982 Serpell Report . [Incidentally, a debate at the Science Museum claimed that 1970s Labour "assumed that as only rich people travelled by rail, it was not right to subsidise the railways by taxpayers"]

From this rail nadir of the early 1980s, passenger numbers increased and there is now cross party support for investment in the rail network, with a planned £38bn of investment between 2014 and 2019.

Wolmar comments that many European cities took a very different view about the value of trams and public transport in general.

Rail Passenger Numbers

Roads are not an infinite resource, so roads lobbyists looked to remove capacity constraints and, with government resigned to a future that was built around cars, the result was the Buchanan Report in 1963. This report tried to reconcile the need to accommodate traffic growth with the need to avoid excessive use of motorways within cities. One of the key recommendations was for the separation of motor traffic and pedestrians. Another was that towns should consider redesigning themselves to meet future car traffic volumes. There was no consideration in the report of how how the recommendations would other forms of transport.

The sheer cost requirements of "Buchananisation" meant that many towns could only afford to implement it in part, as can be seen in the short stretches of dual carriageway, ring roads etc that can often be seen in towns across the UK - with these sections often being built by bulldozing the previous infrastructure.

Fast forwarding to the 1990's and the government mood began to change. This was the era of the Twyford Down bypass and also of a report, in 1994, that found evidence that new roads were, of themselves, attracting new traffic. For example, just 18months after commpletion in 1986, the M25 had reached the traffic flows expected in 2000. This dramatically changed the cost-benefit calculation for a new road and many proposed new road programmes were cancelled.

According to Wolmar, this was when a major opportunity was missed in that a coherent approach to the alternative approaches (public transport, car pricing) was never really developed.

The M4/M25 motorway junction, near Heathrow Airport

Commenting on buses, Wolmar describes how, following reduced passenger numbers (and higher subsidies) in the 1980s, there was a free-for-all privatisation and how the cherry picking of popular routes by the commercial companies has left local councils having to pick up the tab for rural services. All of which is in marked contrast, according to Wolmar, to the way whole operations are franchised out in many European cities, with the authorities specifying what levels of service are required. Wolmar notes how council run bus franchises, such as Nottingham's, routinely win industry awards, showing that the public sector can deliver a high quality service.

Wolmar also comments on the efforts by John Prescott in his 2000 Transport plan to use road pricing to pay for 25 tram systems around the country - but neither the trams nor the road pricing came to pass (with the exception of London's Congestion Charge and Nottingham's tram system) - Wolmar comments on how this partly because other cabinet members did not see transport as a high priority and partly because politicians were terrified of provoking a truckers fuel protest like that seen in 2000.

Modern Tram in Nottingham

Thinking further about (the lack of) joined up government, Wolmar shows an email sent by transport author Oliver Green in which Green explains how Oxford desperately needs trams due to severe traffic congestion and that the trams could link to nearby rail services - but all efforts are stymied by the fact that the City Council, County Council, Network Rail and Highways Agency are incapable of working together effectively. So all that happens is that half hearted park-and-ride schemes and bus lanes are provided.

A very interesting book, concisely written and with some gems of information about the history of transport policy in the UK.

Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain has no Transport Policy"
by Christian Wolmar

A Little Note
Just wanted to mention that the only reason BFTF read this book is because it was mentioned by Jilian Greenwood on Facebook and BFTF happened to later see it on sale at Five Leaves Bookshop. Funny how these thin threads of chance can knit together, no?

Related Stuff
Train Manufacture in Derby
History of Coal Mining in the East Midlands
Nottingham Architecture and Urban Design
Relevant article of Notts urban design by Jones the Planner

Image Sources
Steam Carriage, Tram, Rail Passenger Numbers, M25, Nottingham Tram

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