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A motorway-based national coach system

Latest News March 2009 Dr Storkey has published a response to the Department for Transport’s DaSTS consultation on a long-term sustainable transport policy.

Though it sets out the goals and challenges, the consultation document seems to lose its way. Clearly, to cut greenhouse gases the most fuel efficient forms of transport must be used to the maximum. Coaches cut fuel consumption per passenger by 90%, cut congestion and offer a viable alternative to the car for most longer distance journeys. This submission shows their significance for transport policy. If DfT want to score goals, they must not examine the touchlines.

Dr Storkey’s submission can be downloaded here

Dr Alan StorkeyDr Alan Storkey has studied bus and coach transport and concluded that improvements to our coach system could save energy, reduce congestion, pollution, the need for car ownership and stress, while improving safety.

The full paper from which the ‘Summary’ and ‘Main Argument’ are reproduced below can be downloaded here. (PDF Format). Other links below:

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Hear Dr Alan Storkey on BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme
Monday 12th March 2007.
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We face two long–term crises in road passenger transport, both created by cars. The first is global warming. Anyone seeing thousands of cars daily, in and out of traffic jams, emitting fumes and CO2 knows that climate damage is being done on a long term crisis of road congestion largely created by the expansion of car traffic. The only policy discussed at present to address this crisis is road charging which has an implementation process of fifteen years, costs billions and does not add capacity to our roads.

The constraint in the present system is road space. It is forty or fifty metres per passenger in cars moving at reasonable speeds. Coaches cut this by a factor of fifteen or more, simply by grouping people. They take up less road space per passenger at sixty mph than people in stationary cars. Each one hoovers up a mile of car lane traffic. They offer the opportunity used on a large scale to eliminate most congestion. They are also the most efficient form of powered transport, five times more fuel efficient than cars.

At present, coach transport is atrociously organized, moving a relatively small number of people at 20-30mph. Yet, coaches, properly organized, could provide a fast, comfortable, and efficient transport system which would radically cut congestion, pollution, energy use and transport costs. They just use existing capital – motorways – far more efficiently. The system needs reorganisation. The Government has focussed on rail and ignored coaches.

Modern Bus The key to a new system is a motorway-based transfer system which allows swift off-on movement and high frequency services, rather than the present city-centre based one surrounded by congestion. This in turn requires an orbital coach system with a necklace of transfer points round the M25, Birmingham, Manchester and other cities to allow coach movement where most people use their cars. The system is described in detail in the following document.

This way millions of car journeys can become coach and public transport accessible. Coaches expand the good speed passenger capacity of the M25 from 15,000 to a quarter of a million and can drastically address congestion. Properly organized, they could be fast. They offer cheaper travel. They increase vehicle capital efficiency (in say journeys per week) a hundredfold. They reduce fuel consumption and pollution by a factor of five or more, cut driving time by a factor of twenty, improve safety and offer a frequency of service in excess of the underground. Properly used, they are the only viable form of orbital and inter-city transport to replace the car. They could rapidly transfer traffic from cars, making more room for the remaining ones.

With good organization, some coach priority and the kind of system suggested in this paper, they could create a national transport system based on the motorways which would eat up much of our car traffic, obviate the need for road charging and provide the best ecological form of transport available. The overall capital cost of the system would be, say, a billion pounds, far less than other transport projects and the system could be running and commercial within a few years as people transferred expenditure from cars to coaches. It is possible for a quarter or more of car journeys to transfer to coach. It would be the right policy for an oil scarce age and cut greenhouse gases substantially. It is the right policy now for the era of oil scarcity.

The Main Argument.

It has been acknowledged for at least fifteen years by governments and the public that we face a problem with the car as the dominant mode of transport. In the UK cars carry us for seventeen of every twenty miles we travel; they are convenient, comfortable and reasonably fast; yet they clog cities, motorways, and trunk roads with increasing regularity and congestion costs tens of billions.

The key constraint created by cars is road-space. A car at a good speed requires 70 metres of road, and there is not enough space at certain times on many roads to accommodate the cars that want to use them. The room available per car contracts and cars slow or stop. They also consume vast amounts of fuel, create pollution and have a number of other destructive consequences. Yet we love them, and there is usually nothing better. The present Government has moved from bold words to palliative measures and there is no overall strategy for addressing this transport problem. Road pricing is merely a way of containing it.

This paper suggests a way – a mode of transport which economises on road space by a factor of fifteen or more. Used substantially it could increase the capacity of our motorways and roads multiple times and cut congestion precisely where it is greatest. The suggestion is a fast, good quality, interconnected coach service based on motorway rather than city centre transfers. A passenger in a coach travelling at 60mph uses less road-space than a person in a stationary car. Each coach at normal occupancy hoovers up a mile of cars. This is the mode of transport which economises on road space, cuts fuel consumption and pollution by a factor of five and travels fast which we are presently ignoring.

It could be argued that we have no alternative. We have no effective long distance public transport system other than rail and air which are limited in the car journeys they can replace. By contrast coaches can replace a high proportion of car journeys and an integrated system could be quickly in place. Moreover, it is the green form of transport, two or three times more energy efficient than trains. As oil prices and scarcity increase, here is the form of transport which will grow worldwide. At present coach transport suffers from a number of disabilities, not really the fault of the companies that run them, but arising out of a failure of public policy for this mode of transport. Few people are going to use coaches when their ambient speed is 20-30 mph and they need booking.

Yet potentially they could offer a fast, comfortable, motorway-based system with easy transfers that could pick up millions of longer distance and commuting journeys. Coaches are fifteen times more efficient than cars in their use of road space simply by avoiding the space between cars and grouping journeys; they are made for the issue of congestion. Land and capital for rail and other mass transit systems is not available; coaches just use existing capital – motorways – far more efficiently. They thus address the key transport constraint, road space, with a massive improvement in its use. They can be as fast as cars and can be comfortable and reliable as we choose to make them. They are more effective at saving road-space than any Minister can be in building roads. If a fast, regular quality coach system were created nationally, we could radically eat into the problems of congestion and make life better for car users.

At present coaches are used very inefficiently. They are centred on inner-city transfer points, surrounded by congestion. These often involve a further journey of an hour or more out to home or destination in big conurbations. Tickets usually need booking. Many journeys are not possible, and often transfers are slow. They are cheap, but often too slow or incomplete a system for most journeys. Key is a systematic redesign of the way coaches are used. This again is relatively easy in terms of infrastructure and other capital costs.

The main reform is to move the main transfer points from city centres to motorway and other main intersections. This allows rapid transfers to be made away from areas of congestion and slow moving traffic. Linked with this move is an orbital coach system round the M25, Birmingham, Manchester and other cities allowing swift movement around, in and out of these great centres of population. With these in place, a system of coach priority, and good links to bus and car transport, millions of journeys become possible with swift on-off coach transfers. Later we will look at the system in detail. Moving to high frequency, unbooked journeys cuts waiting and preparation time. Coaches can become more comfortable, have flat entry from platforms, and can be given priority to avoid congestion. Quickly a reliable national system could be established which would move people to make near identical journeys in groups, rather than in expensive, isolated, space-consuming units called cars.

These changes are economically practical. The orbital systems could be created by the establishment of transfer points, or stations, at motorway intersections at a cost which is a fraction of most transport innovations, say £150 million for the whole M25, and smaller amounts for other orbitals and motorways. An expenditure of £100 million on coaches would buy a fleet that would eat up a high proportion of the daily M25 passenger trips. For under half a billion pounds a whole public transport system could be created in the South East feeding into existing transport links and new, partly privately provided, motorway coach services. Similar developments, on a smaller scale, could happen all over England, Scotland and Wales. Compared with all other strategic changes the technical problems are small and the development time is remarkably short. A mixture of public and private investment would be readily available, and the system could grow with demand.

More than this, the need is urgent. Congestion builds and costs a rising number of billions each year. Indeed, the pay-back time for this investment in terms of savings in congestion costs could be only a few years. By comparison the alternatives are vastly more expensive and disruptive. Before motorways can be widened there are five years of road works making road-space more restricted. Road pricing research and development costs dwarf coach system costs, and cannot be produced within a decade. Oil can only get scarcer and prices are rising. This policy would raise the efficiency of our use of fuel in the most dramatic way. The 2012 Olympics need efficient outer London passenger movement. Everything indicates that this is the possibility which should have priority in government policy.

Yet, the Department of Transport has not considered this possibility properly. A quality M25 orbital coach system and a strategic authority to set it up were strongly recommended by the £3.6 million ORBIT multimodal study of the South East set up by the Secretary of State for Transport, but the advice to set up a quality coach orbital system was ignored. Alisdair Darling was asked in the 9th July 2003 Transport Debate by the Conservative spokesman “why he specifically rejected the recommendation of the M25 ORBIT multimodal study for a strategic authority to create a high quality orbital coach network?” His response was, “Given everything that the hon. Gentleman said about bureaucracy, I am astonished that his own new policy announcement is that he wants a strategic authority for coaches. I should have thought that running buses and coaches was best left to existing organisations, rather than a new quango set up to do it.” This was an inadequate way to respond to a serious policy issue. In June 2003 the Regional Transport Strategy Task Group of the South East scored an M25 Orbital Coach System highest and highest but one in priority of all the possible transport initiatives on a number of key indicators. Then and since, neither Alisdair Darling nor the Department of Transport have shown any evidence that they have thought of the possibilities of this mode of transport in relation to the M25 and nationally.

The preferred policy is congestion-related road pricing. The long established economic justification for this is that it internalises to the motorist the externalities of using vehicles which cause congestion. While congestion did not exist throughout much of the network most of the day, this policy was not necessary. The growth of congestion over the last few decades has made this policy seem inevitable. Yet, it has considerable weaknesses. It makes road travel difficult for the poor. It is extremely complex to set up and to use. It will not be available for ten years or more. It adds substantial road costs, but adds no capacity in heavily used areas. It could break down. By contrast, coaches can quickly be expanded as a mode of transport. They substantially cut road-space use, and therefore passenger-based congestion, by a factor of fifteen, and therefore radically free up space. Coaches should therefore be a prior policy focus, considered before road pricing. They could defer the need of road pricing for decades.

A substantial motorway-based national coach system could result in reductions of vehicle traffic of 10% to 30% or more, and higher reductions in congestion. It would result in one of the biggest conceivable drops in energy use and production of greenhouse gases. However, as yet, little has been done to develop the kind of strategy necessary to develop such a system. This study seeks to set out the kind of changes required. It is exploratory and would need further refining. Yet they are not technically difficult and could happen quickly. The UK hardly has a car industry, but the movement to strong coach design and manufacture would allow us to lead a transport model which must be replicated across the world. We are a small, well populated island with thousands of people making near identical journeys all over the Britain, driving about 1.6 people. Not to group these journeys would be a criminal mistake. This reform could make travel more efficient, pleasant, sociable and available for millions of people, radically cut our transport expenditure and address the transport contribution to global warning. It should receive urgent consideration.

The full paper from which the ‘Summary’ and ‘Main Argument’ are reproduced can be downloaded here. (PDF Format).