More responses to mis-aimed jibes

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Railway width

When challenged as to the location of his claim that the width of railways was published in 1961, Paul Withrington (aka Transwatch) admitted that the document related only to the length of railways – which was no surprise to me. Anyone with a knowledge of railways would realise that the measurement of the varying widths between fences of railway land over the then route length of 18,000 miles would have been costly and valueless. BR had data on the width of the usable formation inside the structural gauge (that is under bridges) which was not the same throughout the country – even for double track routes. He “challenged anyone to overturn the width and headroom data cited”. Well I have. He responded: “The people who produced it were engineers, ex-army and scarcely given to flights of fancy or lying. The width between the stanchions (he means ‘masts’) carrying the overhead electrification on the two track railway near me is nearly 10 metres.”

As BR never published the width between fences, his ex-army engineers could not have got such information from BR. They could not have measured it – yard by yard – throughout. Edward Smith (co-author of the only route-specific conversion proposal) states that he “made his own measurements” because no others were available.


I have walked the track on many parts of BR. The original 1000+ railway companies ‘did their own thing’ because Parliament did not have the wit to foresee the potential of a nationwide joined up system. (French, Belgian and German governments did). In a letter (20 March 2009) he said that “it would not take Ted Gibbins more than a few minutes to find the level widths of two track railways typically amounts to 28 feet”. Ted Gibbins already knew that that width is not typical from a lifetime’s experience over a large part of British Railways. I had walked that area near his back door long before he embarked on his crusade. In the early 1960s, it was part of my job to organise the modernisation of the Rugby District of BR, which included Northampton.

His reference to the width between stanchions (correct name: ‘masts’) on the limited route mileage equipped with overhead electrification equipment is irrelevant, because the area between sleeper ends and masts (the cess) has had nothing heavier than mens’ boots, rather than the “heavy freight trains compacting the ground” which is advanced to justify claims that a thin layer of asphalt laid thereon is adequate for HGVs and PSVs. Land beyond the masts up to the fence has had not even that weight – but conversion theory envisages asphalting up to the fence! Having been personally involved in the erection of the overhead masts in the Northampton area, I know that deep holes had to be bored to erect the masts. The use of uncompacted cess and uneven bankside is crucial to claims that sufficient width exists on double track – and even single track routes - for good “motor roads” which are envisaged.!

Data regarding a minimum width for a two track tunnel is not available from Network Rail and was not published by BR. In tunnels, because of limited width, both side walls were provided with frequent refuges in which staff could stand safely as a train went by.


Fuel consumption

Transwatch claims that “a proportion of bulk freight would obtain return loads, e.g., coal in ash out”. Ash is conveyed in special enclosed pressurised wagons to avoid contamination and does not go to collieries. Likewise ore and stone from quarries, oil & petrol from refineries have no return loads. If lorries wander off seeking a return load, they would need to be thoroughly cleaned to avoid contamination of other products. Triangular journeys would leave collieries grounding coal when lorries did not return immediately. Recovering coal from stacks would involve costly double-handling.

When told that Stobart - one of the UK’s biggest hauliers - had transferred freight to rail and substantially cut fuel consumption, he argued that they could get better fuel consumption on a converted railway – despite its thousands of level crossings, and delays caused by traffic turning right – than they could on the M1/M6. Transwatch advocates railways converted to roads “being managed to avoid congestion”. It is not clear how this would work or what it would cost, nor how it could function with buses and lorries entering the system at completely random moments. If such a system could be designed for existing roads, we could well find that we do not need all the roads we currently have – without converting railways, and without building more roads, with massive savings to the economy, and in fuel consumption and carbon emissions.


The mysterious Mr. Morin

In LTT (Local Transport Today), Paul Withrington asked if ‘the word of Don Morin is not good enough for me’ to try to prove that railways would provide adequate capacity for existing rail traffic in road vehicles plus millions of diversions from existing roads.

My unpublished response to the LTT stated: “Until I see Morin’s Report I cannot comment, and he has never revealed its location”. No one should have posed such a question without adding where to find the words of Mr. Morin – of whom I had read nothing other than a brief sentence on the Transwatch web site.

With no help from him, I found – quite by chance, whilst researching Parliamentary records – that he had identified the source of Morin’s words in his written submission to a Select Committee in 2004. This stated that Morin’s statement could be found in “Highway Progress” (August 1970)., but did not say where this document could be seen. The nature of “Highway progress” was not revealed. Was it a monthly journal? No one seemed to know.

There is no copy in Parliament nor the British Library, and no University library nor public library could produce a copy. Nottingham University even sent to its’ satellite university in China without success. Engineering Institutes and Management Training establishments were unable to help. Assuming that it was in an American publication, I tried the USA embassy in London and USA transport magazines. None could  locate the report.

Finally, I tried the British Embassy in Washington, who referred me to the library of Congress. They directed me to the University of Missouri, which provided copies of Morin’s 1000 word article and the other articles in Highway Progress. A crucial statement is made by Morin that ‘traffic signals to control flow through intersections does not achieve 100% user compliance, [but], on the whole motorists respect such devices reasonably well’. In the UK it is undeniable that traffic signals and signs are endemically ignored by motorists, despite CCTV. Cars have been up-ended by rising bollards after trying to sneak past prohibitive signs behind a bus.

I found that Morin’s paper was an arithmetical calculation. Morin states that his theory is to be subject to “a feasibility test in Cleveland, Ohio by the Federal Highways and Transit Authorities”. Neither has any record of a study. Nor has Cleveland Transit Authority. The only bus lane in Cleveland is a four mile city bus lane with 34 breaks for cross traffic! There are, however, four heavy rail and two light rail systems in Cleveland. Morin recognised the need for feasibility tests on a freeway – not a converted railway which would be irreversible if the test failed. But, wait. The UK has had a feasibility study on a ‘freeway’ – the M4 which has been a disastrous flop as bus operators failed to attract motorists to buses using an exclusive bus lane!  Click Morin

The lead article in Highway Progress, by Francis C. Turner, Federal Highway Administrator (Morin’s boss) “endorses without reservation Government’s approach, which looks to all possible modes - rail transit, bus transit, or others to be developed. We welcome the contributions that rail rapid transit can make to meeting urban travel demands”. Click Highway Progress

Highway Progress contains another relevant article which: “advocated protective barriers for overhead sign trusses, bridge parapets & supports, etc., on roads, to reduce the severity of potential collisions”. UK conversionists make no such provision. The only route-specific study on conversion (by Hall & Smith) made no protective barrier provision for its 160 bridges. It is significant that Morin does not advocate conversion of operational railways. Theories relating to exclusive bus lanes are irrelevant to conversion of UK railways as there would be no capacity for railfreight: coal, ore, oil, containers, etc, and zillions of road vehicles supposed to transfer from equally narrow roads to cut accidents. Morin’s theory is based on a stream of buses - not stopping or slowing to turn off, nor having vehicles coming into the exclusive bus lane at various points en route – and which do not have zillions of vehicles crossing at thousands of level crossings. The theories cannot be extrapolated to 11,000 miles of railway on which intermediate locations will have to be served.

The ‘financial justification’ for conversion advanced by Edward Smith - in the only route specific conversion study ever published - was that conversion costs would be covered by time gains for motorists transferring from existing roads to use the new routes! Smith also said converted railways would be used by freight. Hence, comparison with bus-only lanes in the USA is invalid. I do not accept that Morin proved that British railways could be converted to roads.


Had he read my book with an open mind:

In his open letter to me, Paul Withrington (LTT 544) remarks that I ‘would say that my book demolishes the conversion theory’. He can’t say it didnt, because he hasn’t read it. How do I know? Because he asks whether I have read Comments & Rejoinders, when my book has a whole chapter on it! He refers to it as a ‘Companion volume’ which it was not. It was to respond to criticism of flaws in the Hall/Smith Paper. It is undated, but includes criticisms dated 14 months after their Paper

In his letter, Paul Withrington refers to “Smith’s all-in conversion costs”, but that envisaged laying asphalt on raw ground, including uncompacted cess, ditches & embankments, where it wouldn’t last long with double deckers every nine seconds. They would tip over. Potholes would proliferate! Smith’s scheme required land acquisition and bridge reconstruction even to clearances below DfT standards – proving that railway width is inadequate for conversion. Withrington refers to ‘The fools, who challenge conversion costs’. They include county engineers, construction companies, scientific and road transport media. This is typical. Withrington – and maybe one or two others – are right, the rest of the world is wrong.



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