Tuesday, 24 April 2007

switching to rail

These horrific scenes were on the A37 in Pensford a few days ago. They outline very clearly why our roads are such a dsiaster area. Ironically not 200 metres to the right there is an abandoned section of railway, moronically closed in 1968 due to flood damage, even though the road suffered just as much if not more.

The problem with roads is that they are a cheap 'solution' to carrying traffic. But they carry everything - pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, milk floats, tractors, lorries, emergency vehicles, fast cars, old bastards stuck in first gear. So everything sinks to the lowest common denominator and travels at the speed of the slowest.

And could even the most idiotic car-fan argue that the above scenes are acceptable? This is a small village with houses on the road, why should people have to suffer this?

But what has this got to do with economics I hear you ask? Well the above represents inefficiency, pollution, diminution of quality of life. These are all economic minuses.

Think back 50 years. Most of the freight would have travelled by rail. So would most of the passengers in cars. Everything was delivered efficiently because there were no delays. Pollution was less. Villages were quiet. The quality of life was far superior. Cheap oil has done this, the end of cheap oil will end it.

The solution is to create traffic paths for each sort of flow. Pedestrians, bikes and horseriders can use dedicated ways between towns and villages, freight can all be switched to a massively expanded rail network, cars (at least for a few more years) can enjoy fast and near-empty roads. We all win, nobody loses.

Does anyone else agree, particularly with the rail freight idea? Oh yes, none other than Warren Buffet, the second richest person in the world and a genius investor. He's just invested $4.4 billion in three US train companies. There's been a 25% increase in rail transport volumes in the US since 2002. Old style 'trucking', using lorries, is in retreat. The reason? Rising fuel prices. (Source Money Week 20/04/07 p8). We're already seeing Peak Oil effects changing the way freight is carried, where the US leads the UK follows. But why not go one better and force the switch now, in tandem with a massive rail construction programme? Invest in new lines, new freight terminals, private sidings into every business ... and alongside create a network of light railways that can take products into just about every corner of the UK at low cost and efficiently, with no pollution along the way? Impossible? Hardly, the US and much of continental Europe did it 80 years ago.
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