Can the Train Take the Strain? Sustainable Inter-Regional Travel

Sustainable Inter-Regional Travel – Can the Train Take the Strain? 

UPDATE:  SSM discussion paper on investing in transport infrastructure.
Now available HERE

A discussion paper by Dominic McCann   Click here for the report: Long Distance and Inter-Regional Travel final (second edition)

This discussion paper was written by Dominic McCann in response to a debate on twitter about capacity issues on the West Coast Mainline and the High Speed Rail proposals. We at Steady State Manchester see his paper to be a coherent and challenging contribution to the debate. We do not necessarily agree with all the assumptions made, nor with all the conclusions Dominic reaches, but we welcome the systematic analysis that he makes based on an engineer’s understanding of the issues. Indeed we consider the report a model of the kind of contribution that is needed to inform democratic debate and decision-taking on our social and economic future.  Of particular interest is that Dominic looks at transport options from the perspective of a modal shift from cars and flights to rail (and bus) transport.  He also takes seriously the Steady State perspective and the need to de-carbonise transport.

Steady State Manchester invites constructive responses and debate on this topic, with particular reference to transition to a local and regional economy that supports ecological, social and economic well-being. You might want to consider the following questions.  Are the assumptions about the rate of de-carbonisation sufficient? Does such a transition mean more or less local and inter-regional travel, and how does this relate to future projections and needs for inter-regional rail travel? What about freight: how will a reduction in unnecessary consumption, a rebalancing of production and distribution on a more regional and local basis, and the de-carbonisation of road haulage interact an shape the need for rail? And how would a re-localisation of he economy impact on passenger travel? How will increasing and qualitatively different kinds of virtual communication reduce the need for meetings where people are all physically present? Will people actually be able to afford to travel on this new railway? Will HS2 tend to suck resources out of the region (as has been the case with other high speed railways elsewhere)?

Click here for the report: Long Distance and Inter-Regional Travel final

Do contact us at or leave a comment on our website at

We are also making available a spreadsheet that enables you to explore the model that Dominic has used.  For example you can propose a greater rate of reduction in journeys or a faster shift from road to rail.  Dominic has not assumed any economic growth – reasonable in our view, but you can explore the impact of varying levels of growth by putting in an annual percentage figure (we assume a linear relationship between growth and travel – debatable of course, but the government does the same.  The spreadsheet is not a finished product, we would like to develop it further, for example by adding in a variable for the rate of re-localisation of the economy, but this will prove difficult since we need to simultaneously look at re-localisation global-to-national and re-localisation national-to-regional.
Click for spreadsheet: Long distance transport projections for modeling

Finally here are some links that you might find helpful – mostly about High Speed rail (HS2)

Paul Salveson, The National Network: Is High Speed the Answer? Chapter 8 in Railpolitik: Bringing railways back to the community

The National Audit Office critical report on the economic case for HS2

New Economics Foundation alternative report on HS2

John Tomaney. The Local and Regional Impacts of High Speed Rail in the UK: A Review of the Evidence

The government’s original economic analysis of HS2 benefits

Zero Carbon Britain – includes analysis of how to decarbonise transport

HS2 Action Alliance – with various alternative statistical analyses – although they are definitely not making a de-carbonisation case

51M an alliance of mostly Southern local authorities (now why would they oppose a new railway to the north) but with some useful material (and some broken links)

Another forecasting spreadsheet from Wendover HS2 action

Christian Wolmar, rail and transport writer (and Labour candidate for London Mayor) some interesting material here too.

Right lines charter – pro HS2 but critical of both sides of the debate

We haven’t linked the neoliberal Institute of Economic Affairs or Institute of Directors critiques, you can find them easily enough, if you must.

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7 Responses to Can the Train Take the Strain? Sustainable Inter-Regional Travel

  1. Shirley Judges says:

    Thanks for a very detailed and thoughtful discussion of the issues. Reading it quickly there seemed to be a couple of points missing and that is travel reduction. It is Government policy, although almost never heard about, to try to reduce the amount people travel and the Minister responsible is Norman Baker MP. A travel reduction policy doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t travel, it i about trying to reduce their need to travel, eg through encouraging and enabling them to work closer to home to reduce commuter distances, which are a major issue in this country. Also by encouraging sustainable tourism which is why it is a concern that the proposed route for HS2 rips through the most accessible part of the nearest Area of Outstanding Beauty to London. It is the exact area which is currently being funded by the Department for Transport to develop cycling initiatives to encourage people to take days out, short breaks and holidays by bike.

    Secondly, as became clear during the Public Accounts Committee hearings, the impact of broadband on long-distance rail travel has not been taken into account in drawing up the projection for HS2 and it should be. And as a country the infra-structure we really need is a world-class, ultra-high-speed, fibre-to-the-building, truly national braodband network.

    We do have to try to move away from a ‘predict and provide’ model in terms of transport infra-structure. Enabling more and more people to travel further and faster, however they do it, is not sustainable. There are alternatives and they should be part of the discussion. Asking the right questions and looking for honest, sensible answers is a good start.

    • Thank you. Dominic does make the assumption of an overall reduction in the level of travel – see the total journeys in his table 1. However it is arguable that a greater overall reduction should be aimed for through active policy, along the lines you outline. And indeed there are a number of potential variables that need to be taken into account.
      SSM will be making our own response to the paper. For now it is worth noting that all the dominant discourse about the question asumes the goal of ever increasing GDP/GVA growth in both national and regional economies. We need to focus with more precision on the nature of desirable economic activity and indeed on the nature of real prosperity rather than assuming that more is better, whether that is in terms of consumption, speed journeys or railway lines.

    • Dominic says:

      I have made what I thought were reasonable assumptions about overall travel reduction. I am also asking people or groups to quantify the extent of this travel reduction if they think it could go further than that set out in the dicsussion paper. I think it would also be useful for people to think about their own annual travl in terms of trips over 50miles; do you exceed 6 return trips per year? If so how would you go about reducing your need to travel?
      I agree that ‘predict and provide’ is a broken model. In my opinion this applies especially to roads, because roads in the UK are effectively free at the point of use and because they have such large negative health/social effects combined with negative impacts on the environment. Whether trying to assess the extent of future overall demand for rail set against a modal shift away from cars and air travel ammounts to ‘predict and provide’ is something I have wrestled with. Essentially I’d rather not have to decide either; but I feel that looking at overall travel demand is a necessary ‘evil’.

    • Dominic says:

      One further comment I would make is that I did not intend the discussion paper to be “pro H2”. Instead it seeks to assess whether railways can assist in reducing the dominance of cars for iner-regional travel and air travel for journeys typically 300-500miles in length.
      If people are saying we need more rail capacity (eg for local or regional transport) how is this going to be provided on the key routes into Mancheser. Also if you only want to improve local or regional rail travel does that imply that ‘do nothing’ is sufficient for the rest of the rail network and specifically for trips over 50miles?

  2. We’ve added a couple more useful links and also posted a corrected spreadsheet (there were some cells with formulae mising, and the total journeys was wrongly calculated.

  3. Dominic says:

    It has been pointed out that the document does not state how building new rail infrastructure would in and of itself result in a modal shift.
    I would agree with that and state that it is implicit in the document that other mechanisms may be needed in order to encourage that modal shift. Those mechanisms might be; lower rail fares (greater subsidy), increases in fuel duty or additional carbon taxes etc. This would interact with demand reduction and is an area where comments / ideas would be welcome.
    What the document does try to establish is the passenger numbers (or car trips) associated with modal shift.

  4. Pingback: Steady State Manchester discussion paper on transport infrastructure #HS2 | Steady State Manchester

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