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Railwatch 071 - April 1997

Taming the beast

The Road Traffic Reduction Bill received a surprising second reading on 24 January after a deal between the Government and the Bill's Liberal-Democrat sponsor Don Foster (Bath). He said hundreds of thousands of people campaigned for it.

Fellow sponsor John Marshall (Con, Hendon South) said: The choice facing the British people is simple: increased gridlock or very much better public transport?

Mr Foster: It is critical that we find ways of improving public transport so that it is sufficiently attractive to convince people to leave their cars and use it. Excess traffic creates problems for the health of the nation. One in seven young people already suffers from asthma, which is exacerbated by air pollution caused by traffic fumes. A study by Lancaster university shows that some 15 million people - a staggering number - suffer ill health as a result of traffic fumes. Sadly, the research shows that there are some 10,000 premature deaths each year because of traffic pollution. There are wider environmental problems. There is evidence that, each night, 63% of the British population live with noise levels above the upper limit set by the World Health Organisation. Traffic problems represent a major contribution to acid rain - a major environmental problem. It is estimated that 700 sites of special scientific interest are likely to be seriously damaged by acid rain, to which air pollution from car fumes is a major contributory factor. We should also be concerned about energy consumption. In Britain, transport accounts for 33% of energy consumption and 80% of that is used by road transport. Given that the problems are bad now, we should think how serious they will be in 25 years time if we do not take action to tackle them.

The Bill places a duty on councils to draw up local traffic reduction plans, set targets for reducing or curtailing the growth of different types of traffic in their area by 2005 and 2010 and set out measures that, in their opinion, are necessary to achieve those targets. The Bill would also expect them to provide an estimate of the cost of the measures, an assessment of the effect of each of them on the reduction in road traffic and an assessment of the likely reduction in carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds and PM10 emissions - particles of less than 10 microns - in the atmosphere. Measures could include encouragement of cycling or walking, alteration of planning policy to reduce the need for travel, provision of more and better public transport, reductions in the speed of road traffic by traffic-calming measures and the creation of pedestrian-only or restricted traffic zones, backed by effective park-and-ride schemes such as those in my constituency.

Nigel Evans (Con, Ribble Valley): Yes, we need to reduce traffic, but we should not forget the usefulness of bypasses.

Mr Foster: Some Members and people outside the House have suggested that the Bill is in some way an anti-car Bill. It is not: it is an anti-excess-traffic Bill. This is a Bill whose time has come.

Car sense

Nigel Forman (Con, Carshalton and Wallington): I have not owned a motor car since 1976. That is not to say that I do not drive or that I am incapable of driving, but I make the minimum necessary use of the motor car. My habitual mode of transport when going to and from my constituency is the train. Air pollution is obviously a contributory cause, although not the only cause, of asthma in children, bronchitis in elderly people, and so forth. We are legislating against noise from stereos, videos, ghetto blasters and neighbours. Why should we not legislate more rigorously against traffic noise? Carshalton village is a lovely place, but if one stands on the pavement there one can scarcely have a conversation without shouting because of the traffic noise.

For too long, planning policy has been driven by the needs of the motor vehicle industry. One has to get the matter into perspective. We must return to encouraging the use of private rail sidings, which would make it feasible for more freight to be carried on the railways rather than in large lorries, which often have to travel on unsuitable roads. What is definitely not part of the solution is the idea of red routes through suburban areas on circumferential routes. I believe that it would be better to abolish the vehicle licence system and put the tax burden on petrol.

Labour transport spokesman Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington): Within its existing budget, Labour fully supports the Bill's principles and aims, which are consistent with Labour policy.

We want an integrated, balanced transport strategy and are committed to working with local communities and business to find effective, equitable and environmentally sustainable solutions to congestion, pollution and traffic growth.

Peter Luff (Con, Worcester): I am a great enthusiast for boosting rail travel. However, I still sniff the smell of an anti-car Bill. In my constituency of Worcester and throughout the county of Worcestershire, hundreds if not thousands of jobs have been generated by car manufacture at Rover and Land Rover, as well as by component suppliers.We have unanimously welcomed the inward investment made in this country by Honda, Nissan, Toyota and BMW. Car manufacture is an important part of our economy, with which we must not tamper.

Time to act

Joan Walley (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent North): I was amazed to discover so much cross-party support for the Bill. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that we would debate, in such a calm manner, a way in which to put road traffic reduction on the political map. The time has come to deal with the issue of road traffic reduction. The air that we breathe has been polluted.

Many people, particularly the elderly and those on low incomes, are becoming isolated because they no longer have proper access to public transport. Road traffic reduction is not only an environmental issue but an issue of social equity. I am delighted that the Minister is supporting the Bill. However, in the past 10 years, we have suffered from the tunnel vision of the Government's multi-billion pound roads programme. The proposals cannot be implemented soon enough. I note that the Government has finally recognised the need to act.

David Chidgey (Lib Dem, Eastleigh): We must change planning guidelines so that we can reduce dependency on the car and make it much more viable to walk, cycle or use public transport.

Norman Godman (Lab, Greenock and Port Glasgow): If I thought for one moment that this was an anti-car Bill, I would not support it.

'Mr Jagsworth'

Minister for Railways and Roads John Watts: The Bill is constructive. I think I have surprised some of my officials, who I am sure had me marked down as an unreconstructed J Bonnington Jagsworth.

I hope it will be possible for us to agree on arrangements that do not impose enormous new burdens on local authorities, but enable them to implement measures that help relieve traffic problems and, where appropriate, reduce them. Public transport use represents nearly 90% of commuting journeys to central London but is typically only a few percentage points in rural areas. Those are the extremes; there is a wide range in between. A single national target would bite on different parts of the country in different ways. I should make it clear that the Government have not suddenly become anti-car. Nor is the Bill anti-car. After all, if we fail to tackle the problems of congestion, that will not do much good for people who want to use their cars, or for the important industrial uses of road transport. We already have a range of targets that bite directly on the environmental impact of transport, which is sometimes forgotten. Those include our targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from all sources to 1990 levels by 2000, and air quality targets that are proposed in the draft air quality management strategy.

The Government would want to see a number of clauses in the draft Bill changed before we felt able to offer our support right the way through to the statute book. I extend an offer of help with the technical drafting, so that, if amendments are incorporated, the Bill will be able to go on the statute book.

Mr Foster: I am very pleased to accept publicly the Minister's offer to work together constructively to get the Bill through as quickly as possible.

West Coast line

During a debate in the Lords on investment in the West Coast main line, Viscount Goschen announced that Railtrack was to invest £1.35 billion over a ten year period, plus £150 million on a 'passenger upgrade.'

On being reminded by Lord Dean of Beswick that 10 years was a long time to wait for improvements to what were the 'much inferior conditions' of the WCML, Lord Goschen described the plans as "very exciting indeed." and that the time scale was "appropriate."

Did he mean the WCML didn't need improvements until 2006?

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos wanted to know if the Euston to Holyhead line would receive any part of the £1.3 billion?

Lord Goschen: I would need to have a map in front of me to tell which parts of the main line one would have to go on and what money would result from the programme I have talked about. I should be delighted to send the noble Lord a copy of the map and indeed the investment programmes for all the destinations on the way to Holyhead.

Countess of Mar described the rolling stock on the Euston to Birmingham route as "in a terrible state." She said there were constant signal failures, Railtrack failures and "heaven knows what on this line."

She wanted to know what was being done to improve the situation now, particularly as new trains were promised 12 years ago!

Viscount Goschen: We have been over this ground with regard to the new and exciting developments happening in the railway industry new rolling stock being purchased and new investment and services being put on. All of that is very good news for the travelling public, especially for the noble Countess."

Lord Monkswell was worried that the rail regulator has suggested that franchisees might use tilting trains on inter-city services thus implying that other operators such as Eurostar trains through the channel tunnel would have to make do with track standards as they are now, and so have to run at slower speeds.

Viscount Goschen said the simple fact was that the opposition just couldn't stand good news. The 'possibility' of tilting trains had to be an exciting development. The option for that to occur is exciting. The noble Lord does not appear to want faster journey times; he does not appear to want more modern rolling stock; we on this side of the House do.

Shifting freight

During a Lords debate about freight transport, Lord Clinton-Davis for the Labour party asked what measurable progress had been made in shifting freight from road to rail since the days when Malcolm Rifkind, as Secretary of State for transport had said the Government was determined to secure such a shift?

Viscount Goschen said that there were clear financial incentives to move freight on to the railways and to put on more services. He cited EWS expanding its enterprise wagonload service and planned new routes to Immingham, Goole and Avonmouth docks.

"We are seeing new services and new customers being attracted to the railways."

Lord Clinton-Davis: I asked the Minister to give an adequate explanation of the measurable improvement that has been achieved. What percentage of freight transport is covered by rail today as compared with, say, three years ago?"

Viscount Goschen said it was a young process and was not yet fully complete.

Lord Richards (Lab) wanted an answer to the specific question put by Lord Clinton-Davis: Either he has the figures or he does not have the figures. If he has the figures, he ought to tell us; if he does not, he ought to get them.

Viscount Goschen said he would be delighted to write to the noble Lord with every figure he could find to illustrate "the historic decline we have seen in the railways."

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton wanted to know how the Government could fulfil their stated commitment to improving the environment, including levels of air pollution, when the Minister cannot even say what percentage change there has been from road to rail over the past three years?

During a debate in the Lords on Railtrack and freight services,

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos said there were serious charges of incompetence against Railtrack right across the country. He cited the example of an estimate for adapting the WCML to take Piggyback traffic as £100 million two years ago, having risen to £340 million now.

Lord Monkswell said it was a sad reflection on 17 years of this administration that all they can come up with are more studies on how to modernise the route. Would it not be better if the Government modernised it rather than just studied the modernisation?

Baroness Platt of Writtle (Con) invited the Minister to agree that it was a great pleasure to travel by train as a passenger because the services had improved so much!

Lord Cledwyn suggested it should be arranged for her to travel from Euston to Holyhead!

In the Commons, David Evennett (Con, Erith and Crayford) asked the Minister if he was aware that "people in my constituency" are looking to a new road crossing of the Thames between Woolwich and Dartford?

Bob Dunn (Con, Dartford) said: May I first make it plain that we do not want another river crossing in Dartford, thank you very much!" Isn't it amazing how constituents' views vary between neighbouring constituencies?

Bikes on trains

On 10 February, Harry Barnes (Lab, Derbyshire NE) asked Transport Secretary Sir George Young to get on his bike and sort out the carriage of bikes on trains. Sir George said franchisees were being ever more responsive to cyclists'needs and said he "was anxious that when rolling stock is refurbished or new rolling stock ordered, adequate provision should be made for the bicycle. Audrey Wise (Lab, Preston) said Sir George should make it obligatory for all trains to have adequate space to carry bicycles.

Martyn Jones (Lab, Clwyd SW) asked what progress had been made in establishing who is responsible for clearing litter from the sides of railway track.

Mr Watts: Where station leases have been granted by Railtrack, train operating companies are

responsible for litter collection on these stations and for a distance of 110 yards from the ends of platforms. Railtrack is responsible for cleaning the tracks and embankments - beyond stations - and

for the major stations it operates. My Department and the Department of the Environment intend to make orders which will make clear who has the statutory responsibility for litter clearance. The current extent of trackside litter is a matter for train operators and Railtrack.

Comment by Michael Weinberg

It was the Nazis who developed the idea of the big lie.

Something of the sort is happening now in regard to the railways. It seems to have gone out from Conservative Central Office that the message must be "Privatisation of the railways is a success."

Despite the fact that most transport experts insist that it will be five to ten years before we can tell whether or not the exercise has been 'successful', depending on how that success should be measured, Conservative spokespersons and MPs are falling over themselves to tell us what great improvements have already taken place, even to the extent of privatising the London Underground on the strength of it.

Even if we accept at face value all the plans so far announced by the new companies, there is nothing to compare with the various modernisation schemes carried out under much maligned BR. Where is there anything like the scale of the original West Coast main line electrification, the East Coast main line modernisation, the huge urban electrification schemes in Manchester, Glasgow, and London, the introduction of high-speed trains which revolutionised inter-city travel and was a model for the rest of Europe?

In the main, the proposals now put forward are replacing clapped-out stock. Where are the new electrifications, the upgraded or new lines, the new cut-offs, the new stations and modernised urban train systems equivalent to those being built abroad?

British Rail was allowed to deteriorate in order to exaggerate the strictly limited improvements by the new franchisees and hailed by political yes men as the new millennium. Let us wait until we see what really happens in the next few years as the taxpayer's money gradually runs out. It is going to be a rocky ride to the new Jerusalem, with the possibility of several derailments on the way!

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