How people use the transport system should be a very important indicator in how the transport budget is prioritised. Two reports released recently have further contributed to this debate. The Transport Select Committee report Priorities for Investment in the railways assessed the value of further investment in future rail projects. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) release Social Trends looked more broadly at Transport trends, discovering (perhaps unsurprisingly) that most people still use the roads to get around.
TPA research has looked specifically at transport spending for road and rail in the context of passenger kilometres for the two modes of transport. Regular readers will be aware that rail receives 10 times more spending per passenger kilometre than road.
The point here is not to suggest that because less people use the rail system, and because it is expensive to run, nothing should be spent on the system. In fact if you delve a little deeper into the ONS statistics you will find that for the sixth consecutive year passenger journeys on the national rail network exceeded one billion. Interestingly London Underground accounted for 42 percent of all rail travel, just behind network rail journeys at 50 percent.
Of the 50 percent using the national rail network the majority of journeys will be on commuter rail and inter city rail journeys. The Eddington Transport Study, cited in the committee’s report, predicts that further passenger increases on commuter and inter city rail will push many lines beyond capacity. The Eddington's study suggested that:
"transport improvements should be aimed at "tackling problems and shortages", as these are most likely to offer real benefits to passengers and freight users and offer best value-for-money"
This pressing transport concern is taken on board by the transport committee and they rightly place network enhancement to increase capacity on commuter routes into London and the Manchester hub at the top of the list of priorities in the medium to long term.
However transport prioritisation based on demand is not the focus in the rest of the list, as high speed rail is the second priority in the medium to long term. Demand for high speed rail is not cited as a reason for spending such vast sums of money on it. ‘Regeneration’ instead is used to suggest that building high speed rail lines can revive areas, particularly relatively poor ones. Such economic analysis is somewhat dubious. In fact, Eddington boldly stated that the
“build it and they will come" approach to transport projects which attempted to regenerate areas and regions was "dangerous”
Cost- benefit analysis is even more important in the context of the fiscal crisis. The transport budget is one that is likely to face cuts therefore it is crucial that future transport projects deliver the most passenger kilometres per pound spent. However politicians continue to focus on grand transport schemes, which grab the headlines instead of being realistic with a shrinking transport budget and aiming to improve the transport systems which people use the most- road, commuter rail and inter city rail.
What becomes clear is that analysis for new transport projects can too often be dominated by expensive rail projects and consequently cheaper and more effective options are overlooked. As the Committee’s report stated:
“Eddington too warned that investment in "grand" enhancement projects were "rarely assessed" against other interventions that would achieve the same goals”
New road projects have a good record of attracting enough users to make the investment worthwhile. With road carrying ten times the amount of passenger kilometres than rail for equal amounts of spending it is hard to deny this fact. Amazingly the fact that there are high levels of traffic on newly built roads is cited by some groups as the reason why spending on roads should not be a priority. But this just ignores the crucial fact that the majority of people in Britain use the roads to do essential daily tasks like access services or get to work. To ignore this fact and continue to push for hugely expensive transport projects which may not deliver economic benefits would be foolish. And at a time when the public finances are in such disarray hugely irresponsible.