It seems to be a bit of an anniversary year for transport reports this year. First amongst them is of course the one report that no self-respecting professional has not read: Traffic in Towns, or the Buchanan Report – 50 years young this year. A much younger report is celebrating its 10th birthday this year: Making the Connections – for me the most important transport-related report of the last 20 years. Another biggie that is also celebrating its 50th this year (1961 and 1962 must have been big years for transport consultants) is The Reshaping of British Railways, or to use its more common and sinister name, the Beeching report.
It is not the purpose of this post to debate in depth the nature of the work undertaken by Dr Beeching and his team. This has been more than covered elsewhere. This post has been prompted by an article in The Observer at the weekend entitled “How Beeching got it wrong about Britain’s railways.” As you can guess from the title, this article goes on about how with the benefit of hindsight, and with growing traffic on the railway, Dr Beeching’s plans were flawed and have held the railway back. A particularly good quote is from Christian Woolmar:
Transport planners in the 60s simply could not conceive of the idea that a line, once closed, would need to be reopened. Their mindset saw trains as dirty and futureless.
Now we should be fair to Dr Beeching, for as the Zelo Street Blog rightly points out he was brought in by Ernest Marples – the then Minister for Transport – with a specific aim: to make the railways profitable. He was not to be a fortune-teller, nor a professor in transport. His role was simply to turn the finances around.
The context in which Dr Beeching was undertaking his works is of greatest interest to us, and I am sure that it played some role in his thinking for the future of British railways. At the time, car use and ownership was rising, and rising fast, while rail patronage was dropping like a stone. The philosophy in transport at the time was clear: predict growth in car travel and reductions in rail travel, and provide for it by building new roads, and closing lines. All of this is based upon evidence at the time that shows these trends, so why should they not continue?
Ultimately, transport forecasting is the product of the data and understanding of its time. Professor Phil Goodwin produced a very interesting graph in Local Transport Today showing the variance between traffic forecasts as predicted by the National Transport Model and actual traffic levels that resulted. I have no doubt that such predictions were based upon the best evidence of the time, and that research of the time was undertaken to the highest of technical standards. But as the graph shows, forecasts are always doomed to fail.
Our understanding of travel patterns, transport behaviours, and the interactions of transport with society and economy continually evolves through research. Painstaking research has developed our transport knowledge in ways never thought probable. This is a problem for predict and provide, which assumes the current knowledge as an almost absolute truth, and our plans must be based on current travel patterns.
The fundamental truth that we must accept as professionals is that the data on travel behaviours always lags behind said behaviours happening, and our understanding will lag even further behind as the research catches up. This understanding is fundamental to future forecasting as a sense-checking mechanism. To use an example local to me, traffic flow data from my local motorway junction shows no changes in Annual Average Daily Traffic Flows for about 7 years. But there have been major works on the M1 during that time, including a complete junction rebuild at this location, there has been a recession, the number of trips annually per annum has not changed in that time. This sense-check, informed by wider and continuing knowledge and research into travel, stops me from taking the current data at face value. But my understanding of this has lagged behind these events occurring, because the research has too.
So interventions based on predict and provide will always lag behind our understanding of transport and travel. Dr Beeching and the Ministry of Transport at the time suffered from this same dilemma. They knew the current travel trends, and based upon the evidence of the time, and they sought to deliver upon that. They could not have predicted the rail renaissance since the 1990s, changes in freight traffic on the railways, and changing lifestyles.
The impression that you may be getting from this post is that I think that predict and provide is fundamentally rubbish, and that we should not even try guessing the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. Predict and provide has its place, but the lesson to take from Beeching is that it is not the place that we traditionally think of it being.
Predict and provide provides us with a base case scenario – if nothing changed, what would be the implications of this in the future? Would there be more congestion? Would our kids get fatter because they aren’t out cycling? Would trains be utterly rammed to the rafters all day, every day?
The question then is whether or not we feel that this base case is acceptable – economically, socially, environmentally. Assuming the answer is ‘not good’ (lets face it, it usually is not good) we then ask the question of most fundamental importance: “where do we want to be in the future?” From there, we define the objectives of what we want to achieve, and based upon the best available evidence deliver interventions that will achieve those objectives. How we deliver these objectives should continue to be subject to rigorous scrutiny and review as our transport knowledge develops through research. But objectives should always guide your strategy and plans, not just historical or current trends in travel patterns.
That is the main lesson that transport planners should take from Beeching. Beeching was set up with a purpose to make the railways profitable in an age when they were seen as a dying mode of transport. His remit was narrow, and his recommendations were based upon the narrow view that current trends in rail and car use would continue ad infinitum. It is just sad that many of my fellow professionals – even those whose views are similar to my own – still have such a view. We shouldn’t plan for what we think will happen necessarily, we should plan for what we want to happen.