LETTERS: Air travel and roads more efficient than rail? That's just pla in loco

Click to follow
The Independent Online
From Mr Stephen Tindale Sir: Hamish McRae ("If we had no railways, we'd never invent them", 19 January) makes some challenging points about the strengths and weaknesses of rail travel, but gives a very selective account of the environmental arguments. Hedismisses rail freight as too costly and inflexible. Yet road freight is five times as polluting as rail. As trade grows in the European Single Market, and goods are transported increasing distances, a much greater share of the freight market needs to be taken by rail if we are to avoid serious environmental damage.

Mr McRae also argues that air travel will undercut rail for passenger transport between cities. This again ignores the fact that air travel is far more polluting than rail. Indeed, the projected increase in air travel is one of the most difficult environmental challenges facing governments. Last year's Royal Commission report on transport and the environment called for a significant shift from air to rail for inter-city travel. Here, then, are two reasons why we would need to invent the railways.

Mr McRae's main argument against rail is based on cost - he suggests that "to rely on subsidies is a desperately dangerous strategy". But there is more than one way to give subsidies, and it is now accepted, by the British government and many others, that because road transport is taxed at a rate that does not cover all the costs to society of pollution, congestion and accidents, car drivers and road haulage companies are, in effect, being subsidised by the Exchequer. If the price of road transport roseto cover these external costs - a policy Mr McRae has supported in previous articles - the relative costs of rail would look very different.

Yours sincerely, STEPHEN TINDALE Institute of Public Policy Research London, WC2