Gridlock and congestion

The roads versus the railways.

Road traffic in London, 1965.
Credit: National Railway Museum

Despite nationalisation of the railways in 1948 there was no coherent transport policy after the Second World War. Investment was channelled into road building.

Although electrification encouraged the growth of new towns, cheaper motoring began to create suburbs with no rail links at all. So when British Railways introduced its modernisation plan in 1955 it was already being overtaken by events. New diesel and electric locomotives couldn’t compete with roads, and towns and cities became increasin gly congested as commuters abandoned public transport in favour of private cars.

Planners in the 1960s and 1970s spoke of ‘integrated transport’, but railways were increasingly viewed as old fashioned, dirty and unreliable. In the 1980s and 1990s the drive towards gridlock accelerated with increasing car ownership despite investment in roads at the expense of rail.

Railway privatisation in the 1990s, followed by a series of accidents, provoked a crisis of confidence.

Today, the ‘freedom of the open road’ is disappearing, and private transport isn’t an option for many commuters – 85 per cent of London’s commuters travel to work on public transport. New transport technologies that serve commuters’ needs are, however, slow to emerge. Railway privatisation in the 1990s, followed by a series of accidents, provoked a crisis of confidence, with passenger groups arguing that rail managers were putting profits before safety.

Because Britain’s railways were built to meet the planning needs of the nineteenth and not the twenty-first century new suburban or intercity rail links require massive construction projects and cause huge disruption. Light railways and tramways, which conform to existing street patterns, are often regarded as preferable alternatives to both the car and the railway.

The railway helped to develop sprawling towns and cities that could only operate effectively with sophisticated public transport systems, but years of neglect and under-investment have meant that it can no longer meet that need.

The suburban dream brought clean air and better living conditions for many people, but meant that city centres were neglected. Now few people live within walking distance of their work, and cities are becoming ever more gridlocked. Many argue that the problem can only be solved by a new transport revolution, with the railway at its heart.

Background: Class 87