The strain of the train

The board of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers probably groaned very loudly this morning. Just as they were hoping to see sympathetic coverage of their latest report, which discusses the importance of getting people to use trains, rather than cars, for their journeys, they would have been faced with a screaming headline in one of the more hysterical tabloids, fulminating about the government’s ‘Latest Potty Plan to Clobber Motorists’. Now there’s a neat demonstration of how difficult it is to persuade people to change the way they behave when it comes to cars.

As it happens, the headline in question wasn’t even about the IMechE’s report — it referred to a proposal to introduce toll lanes for cars carrying passengers. The IMechE’s argument, however good intentioned, is likely to lead to even louder howls of protest. The CO2 emissions from road transport are so high, the report says, that the best way to make a serious impact on it is to persuade people that having a high carbon footprint is as socially undesirable as drinking and driving or smoking in public. People should then be convinced, through information on the smaller emissions profile of rail travel and by new pricing policies, to take the train where previously they would have driven.

There’s no doubt that this is a laudable goal, and far from impossible — take a look at Japan, where the majority of journeys are by train. The IMechE doesn’t soft-pedal the difficulty of the task, either; it says that considerable investment will be needed in new infrastructure, including high-speed routes similar to the new Channel Tunnel line, following the East Coast and West Coast lines and segregating passenger services from freight trains; new rolling stock with WiFi at every seat, to make rail travel more pleasurable and productive, and to ensure more frequent and reliable services; plus urban planning regimes encouraging high-quality development of the areas around railway stations. Recouping that investment while keeping ticket prices attractively low would be a serious challenge.

But where it is underestimating the problem is in the sheer difficulty of persuading people to forsake their cars. Why is it that people complain bitterly about rail delays but seem to put up with traffic jams, they ask? Well, it’s because when you’re in your car, you’re in your own environment, with your own comfortable seat, listening to your own music or choice or radio station; you can even have a smoke if you want. You don’t have to put up with other people’s mobile phones, unruly children, drunken conversations and tinny iPod bleedover, and you never have to stand up all the way to Crewe. The psychological connections of car travel and personal freedom are very strong in this country. If, as the IMechE recommends, extra taxes are introduced to make the cost of driving reflect its environmental impact — such as road pricing, increases in car tax and more fuel levies, and a moratorium on the building of new roads — the howls of indignation are bound to reach deafening levels.

While it’s very seductive to think of standard rail travel being an equivalent experience to business-class rail travel but a quarter of the cost, it’s going to take more than environmental arguments and extra taxes to get people off the motorway and onto the train. While it’s easy to persuade people that drinking and driving is immediately dangerous to themselves and others, and the arguments about smoking and health are overwhelmingly accepted, it’s notoriously hard to get people to change their behaviour to help the environment; the actions of any one person are very small and difficult to gauge against the massive global problem. The IMechE is clearly right in its goals, but finding a route to them is going to take clever, subtle, innovative and brave thinking by politicians.

Stuart Nathan, special projects editor