The changeover problem






Fact 1 –  As with other aspects of conversion: widths, bus and lorry fleet sizes, benefits, etc., the problem of changing over from rail to road has been addressed in vague generalised terms, with the exception of a study relating to East Anglia, and that was irretrievably flawed.

Fact 2 – In 1955, when Brigadier Lloyd presented his proposal to convert railways to roads, he had not considered the problems of changing over. He was saved by one of his few supporters at the Institution of Civil Engineers’ debate in 1955, who suggested that conversion would start at the coast and proceed inland in stages of 30 miles at a time. For each stage, two transfer stations would be needed on each route for passengers and freight to be transferred between train and road transport. This would be a most unappealing prospect for passengers, especially in bad weather.

Fact 3 – In 1982, Major Dalgleish, chairman of the conversion mini-lobby advocated, in The Truth About Transport, that conversion must start in the cities. The rest of the railway system would be immediately useless, and all rail traffic would have to transfer at once to existing roads.

Fact 4 - The East Anglian study envisaged that compaction of the formation needed only a few mm of asphalt more than recommended for domestic driveways, which could be laid in hours. It was claimed that changing over from trains to road transport would be achieved for a 113 mile route in 2 months, with the first 26 miles being converted in 9 days. The first 26 miles would involve structural changes, excavation, rebuilding or demolitions of bridges, removal of overhead power supplies, construction of slip roads, etc., whilst rail traffic continued to pass alongside on the same formation. These electric trains were to be double length trains of up to 24 carriages formed by one fully loaded train pulling out of the station and reversing onto another fully loaded train before departing. That method would be disallowed by Ministerial Safety experts and railway operators. Whether it would be feasible for a 24 carriage train to take power from the overhead line is ignored. The plan was completely flawed as an analysis reveals in Railway Conversion – the impractical dream. Demolitions include Ilford flyover which would immediately block the continuance of train services, upon which the scheme depends during the transition period. In fact, the envisaged method of changeover would be impractical in any time scale without a temporary, costly, increase in the envisaged bus fleet, because the study overlooked that in the constructional stage, buses would not be able to turn round to return to the starting point, as there would be no access to slip roads on one side until the whole railway infrastructure had been removed. That would leave passengers with no transitional rail service, and throw all onto existing roads.  (For track diagram showing the problem – click flyover)

Fact 5 – In 2002, the Transwatch strategy was to stockpile materials and plant at 5 to 10 mile intervals alongside each route: ‘Then on the appointed day, tracks would be removed and replaced by a road surface sufficient for buses in a matter of weeks, at least to the edges of town and city’. Over the 10,000 route miles of railway, leases would have to be arranged with landowners, householders or businesses at 2000 or so locations, with access created to bring in plant, materials and ready-mixed concrete, over temporary roads created for the purpose. Any government forcing this measure on householders would soon be in Opposition for a very long time, even if it could persuade its own backbenchers to vote for it. Some lineside locations are hemmed in by houses, where serious restraints would arise. In those weeks, all traffic would be thrown onto existing roads, requiring a big increase in the number of vehicles theoretically required for operation on the converted route. Even then, that would only be to the edges of towns, and the most congested roads would continue to be inundated with ex-rail traffic for a months or years. More cost, waste, congestion and delay. It is another deeply flawed concept.

Fact 6 – An aspect in conversion changeover that has been ignored is that of manpower. No meaningful assessment has ever been made of the number of people required by the road transport companies which would take over transport of existing rail freight & passenger traffic. The East Anglian study by Hall & Smith postulated a figure, but Railway Conversion – the Impractical Dream shows that the figure was wildly inaccurate. Brigadier Lloyd postulated that all rail train drivers would happily become road transport drivers. The prospect of the best paid railway staff working a fairly regular 8-hour day, 40-hour week changing to a poorly paid lorry driver working excessive hours, sometimes lodging away from home or to a poorly paid bus driver working excessively long hours with split shifts into the bargain is nil. Even if any were willing to take this work, rather than better paid factory employment in all those factories forecast by conversionists to be built on railway land, the time lag for training after rail lines closed presents a serious problem. The consequent gap would leave ex-rail passengers & freight with no alternative for many months. The need for managers, supervisors and clerical staff were totally ignored by all conversionists. Those who are managerially immature may point to recession as an opportunity for conversion assuming that train drivers will seek any job. Those of us with hands-on experience recall that in previous recessions we were reluctant to recruit people who were paid more than the job on offer, realising that come the end of recession, they would be off like rockets to some better paid job.

Fact 7 – The 2% of closed railways that have been – in the loosest sense – ‘converted’ to roads are no basis for determining what could be achieved. All such work took place after traffic (which was, by definition, light) had been transferred to existing under-utilised roads. Construction work took place on virgin land from which railway assets had usually already been removed for re-use or scrap value.

Fact 8 – Conversionists suggest that a line be selected for a trial conversion. What they did not grasp, was that, if unsuccessful, a trial has to be reversed. Considerable costs would be incurred in converting and reverting. No suggestions were made as to the donor of these funds. Usually, the suggestor should pay.

Fact 9 - Conversionists frequently quote the case of a small part of a closed railway at Southport which was made into part of a road. Mr. Tovey, the Borough Engineer said that the Southport 1½ mile conversion of a closed double line railway – from which signalling and track had been removed - took 3½ months. He publicly admitted that the subsoil was favourable. On that basis, two tracks of the 26 mile East Anglian fully operational main line - requiring removal of track, signalling, electrification, platforms, etc., and many bridges modified - would take 5 years rather than the 9 days Hall/Smith claimed. The remaining two tracks would take a further 5 years rather than the few months envisaged.


 More information will be found in “Railway Conversion – the impractical dream” by E.A. Gibbins


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