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Strengths and weakness of railway transport

Capitalizing on strengths

In the light of the points raised in the preceding sections, the current phase can be defined as one of intense turbulence, many uncertainties and some opportunities. Despite this complexity, it is essential to try to map out scenarios for the future. This and the following sections constitute an attempt to sketch the future development of the sector by evaluating rail passenger transport's comparative strengths and weaknesses.

Frequently cited strengths of the train are that it is relatively environment-friendly, it is safe, and it is reliable. Its frequently cited weaknesses are its lack of flexibility, its generally unreactive and cumbersome organization, and—with a few exceptions—its poor performance and image. Any revival of the train would have to capitalize on the sector's strengths and find ways of overcoming its weaknesses. The following sections are devoted to each of these points.

On the plus side are especially the train's comparatively lower external costs. Accordingly, any revival appears to be closely connected with a more adequate internalization of transport's social and environmental impacts. The current financial balance in favour of automobile use has a direct effect on the modal split. This has been demonstrated, among others, by Pucher (1988) and Pucher and Lefevre (1996). From an environmental point of view, the advantages of rail transport seem significant. While the visual and acoustic impacts of road and rail transport are roughly comparable, rail scores much better on land uptake, chemical pollution, energy consumption, and safety. Congestion is another area of externalities where a shift towards the train would be welcome. The costs of road congestion are high and growing. According to an OECD study (Railway Gazette International, 1996) the annual cost of road congestion in the EU is 120 billion ECU, or 2% of the Union's GDP. And this sort of evaluation does not include the less quantifiable negative impacts of road transport, such as the loss of public use of streets for other than traffic purposes.

These general findings for the European Union are supported by material from individual countries. Troin (1995) for France and Ellwanger (1990) for Germany report the following figures on the environmental and social impacts of road and rail:

• Land consumption. In France, a two-track high-speed line has a net width of 12-13 m, while a 2x2 lane motorway is 34 m wide, though the former has a much higher capacity. One thousand passenger-kilometres consume 15 m2 on the roads but only 3.2 m2 on the rails. Similar figures are reported for Germany.

• Chemical pollution. In France, the train is responsible for 2.1% of the carbon emissions attributable to passenger transport (while carrying 11% of the traffic); in contrast, private cars account for 94.8% of the emissions. In Germany, road transport pollutes eight times as much as rail transport per unit transported.

• Energy consumption. In France, consumption per passenger-kilometre is a factor of 1 for the TGV, 2.7 for the car and 4.2 for the aeroplane. In Germany, road passenger transport consumes 3.5 times more energy per unit transported than rail.

• Safety. In France, the yearly average of deaths per billion passenger-kilometres in the period 1977-1992 for train and plane was 0.18; for road it was 18, or 100 times as much. In Germany, accident rates in 1985 (number of victims per million kilometres) were a factor of 1 for train, 0.8 for air transport and 24 for road.

• Environmental and social costs. Environmental costs in France were calculated for 1993 to be Fr 87.5 billion for road transport, Fr 4 billion for rail transport, and Fr 16 billion for air transport. In Germany, the internalization of social costs (accidents, traffic jams, air pollution, and noise) would have amounted in 1989 to 30.4 ECU per 1000 passenger-kilometres for road and 1.65 ECU for rail. The Environment and Forecasting Institute of Heidelberg has calculated in detail the social costs of road transport on the basis of the full life-cycle of an automobile (The Guardian, 1993). These would amount to DM 6000 per car per annum—

including the external costs of all forms of pollution, accidents and noise after deducting income from all sources of vehicle and fuel taxation. While the numbers may differ, the same general picture is confirmed by other studies (e.g. Renner, 1988; World Resources Institute, 1992; De Volkskrant, 29 July 1995).

The implication drawn by Rommerskirchen (in Ellwanger, 1990, p. 11) is that 'liberalization concepts, which are geared solely to market mechanisms, will fail to cope with ecological issues as long as external effects are not internalized.' Also, Pucher and Lefevre (1996, p. 207) contend that 'the pricing of automobile use at its full economic, social, and environmental costs must be regarded as a long-term objective if any improvement in urban transport is to be achieved.'

Overcoming weaknesses

There are signs that Europe might, albeit partially, move in the direction indicated by Rommerskirchen. However, little will be achieved if the structural weaknesses of rail passenger transport are not also taken into consideration. Some of the lessons that Webber (1986) learned from the evaluation of BART (the mass transit system of the San Francisco area) provide useful material for reflection. Webber concluded that modal choice is made on the basis of money and time costs for the entire door-to-door trip; that time spent waiting is charged at several times the time spent travelling; that large-vehicle systems are most appropriate where there is high density at both the residential and the employment ends of the trip; and that there appears to be a point of no return in the land-use transport nexus, beyond which land-use concentration cannot be simply induced by transport concentration.

Financial and other car-restraint policies (such as traffic buffers, pedestrian zones, bus lanes, parking restrictions, and bicycle lanes) can be successful only if an adequate train and public transport system is developed at the same time. This must also, and most notably, include a lower-cost, low-capital, flexible approach for suburb-to-suburb and 'rural' trips. For instance, there must be (connecting) van services, minibuses or shared-ride taxis. The conclusion of Webber (1986, p. 49), while geared to the West Coast US context, is thought-provoking: The design criteria for an alternative future transport system must reflect the (flexibilities) that the modern city form requires.' Ideally, a mass transport system is needed that is 'capable of providing random access, just the way the telephone network connects everywhere to everywhere—directly, and on demand.'

Next to the development of innovative, hybrid forms of public transport, the main issue is the consideration of journeys from the point of origin to the destination point, and thus of chains of trips and combinations of modes. More attention to transfer points, to terminal trips (before and after the train) and to fare integration is thus needed. Rail transport integration is indeed a leading theme in the European Union's transport policy. Two concrete translations of this policy are investment in trans-European networks (TEN: 9 out of the total of 14 planned are rail links), and interoperability (to allow high-speed trains to run non-stop between cities in neighbouring countries). Integration is also the key word in a recent green paper by the EU transport commissioner Neil Kinnock (Railway Gazette International, 1996). In this document, which considers ways to make public transport sufficiently attractive to get people out of their cars, integration is the key concept. It calls for physical integration at nodal points, coordination of timing of services to connect operationally, and coordinated fares, ticketing and information. The starting point, we may add, could be the integration in wider transport networks of commuter and high-speed links, which are the railways' most competitive services, as discussed below.

Development prospects 1: commuter trains and intra-metropolitan mobility

From a quantitative point of view, the great majority of rail trips, as of trips in general, are in the short and medium range. For instance, on an average day 2 million suburban travellers pass through Paris's stations, as opposed to 35 000 TGV and 100 000 main-line passengers. In Tokyo, 30 million persons commute daily by train, as opposed to 300 000 long-distance passengers on Shinkansen, which is the world's longest-running high-speed rail system, with 1800 km of railway tracks through Japan's densely populated areas. It is thus at this regional scale that the battle for transport share is fought. Suburban travel is a captive market for the train, especially in dense, highly populated metropolitan areas around the world, as there is often little or no alternative. While an increasing percentage of trips are made for reasons other than work (about three-quarters in most European countries), commuting, together with study trips, is an area of relative strength of the train. In the Tokyo region, the train has an astonishingly high share of home-to-work trips (75%). In London, with a share of 45% this is more than significant. In the Netherlands (Van Nierop, 1993), as many as 30% of all train travellers were commuters, 21% were students, while shopping and recreation accounted for only 9% and 8% respectively of all trips by rail. This relative orientation is confirmed by data elsewhere. In London, for example, 65% of all train trips may be ascribed to commuters (Bayliss, 1991). Against this background, two crucial questions arise:

• Is the train sufficiently equipped to retain its relative strength in commuting and student transport?

• Can the train capture a bigger share of the faster-growing categories of nonwork, non-study trips?

In order to answer these questions in the affirmative, the decisive move appears to be improved integration between train and other forms of transport, both public and private, as sketched above. Train travel is seldom, if ever, an isolated experience. For instance, of all the commuters that come to London by train, 40% also use the Underground (Bayliss, 1991). In the Netherlands, 52% of all train passengers arrive at the railway station by bicycle, while only 22% are close enough to walk (Ministerie VROM et al., 1992). As Webber (1986) emphasizes, transport options are perceived—and evaluated—by passengers as part of the door-to-door package of a full intermodal chain, and time spent waiting is weighed particularly heavily. As a result, the quality of connections is especially important. There are some successful examples: the RER system in Paris, fully co-managed by SNCF (the French railways) and RATP (the local transport company); and the S-Bahn systems in German and Swiss cities. Also promising may be the development of car-train complementarity. This has been introduced in numerous French and Swedish railway stations. It is also in place at commuter interchanges on the edges and in the hinterland of metropolises such as London and Milan. Furthermore, there are some unconventional approaches. One is the train-taxi fare and service integration, as in the treintaxi system in the Netherlands. Another consists of rent-a-car and rent-a-bike facilities (the former expanding at HST stations, the latter being a standard provision at Dutch railway stations). Last but not least, it is important to have an excellent connection to local pedestrian routes.

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