• UK transport system one of the worst in Europe
  • Congestion costs the UK £15 billion a year – 1.5 per cent of GDP
  • Road traffic predicted to grow by 50 per cent
  • ‘True cost charging’ a key part of the way forward
  • New arm’s length agencies – a National Road Corporation and parallel National Rail Corporation – proposed

To help improve one of the worst transport systems in Europe, people should pay the real cost of every journey they make, according to a report published today (9 March) by The Royal Academy of Engineering. Transport 2050 presents the Academy’s 50-year vision of the UK transport system and identifies actions to be taken now to combat congestion and control emissions in the long term. The report also argues that implementation of transport policy for road, rail, sea and air should be the responsibility of effective agencies, working at arm’s length from government but coordinated to ensure a coherent strategy.

“It is essential that transport is high on everyone’s agenda,” says the Chairman of the Academy’s Transport working group, Professor Tony May OBE FREng. “Our transport system is among the worst in Europe. Congestion costs the UK £15 billion a year – that’s 1.5 per cent of our GDP. This figure is 15 per cent worse than France and 40 per cent worse than Germany, and the EC predicts that congestion costs will double in the next decade.”

Controlling emissions is a serious challenge for the future. “Transport already accounts for 28 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions yet we estimate a 50 per cent growth in road traffic over the next 50 years,” says Professor May. “Travelling on our roads is currently about eight times as dangerous as the rest of everyday life, with 3,400 deaths and nearly 300,000 casualties a year. And while pollution levels have fallen, the impact on health is becoming clearer.

The key requirement to build a sustainable transport system in 50 years’ time, says the Academy, is ‘true-cost charging’ – the cost of journeys should reflect their actual costs in fuel, labour, maintaining and enhancing the system as well as their impacts on congestion and pollution. This would require distance-based charging for road travel using GPS, electronics and mobile communications – some of these technologies are already included in new cars and the Department of Transport has looked recently at possible charging formulae. “Instead of taxing people for owning a car and imposing fuel duty, we should charge for how they use it,” says Professor May. “We think about 80 per cent of road journeys would cost no more than they do under the current fuel duty, and in rural areas they should be a lot cheaper.” Air travel should cost more to reflect the cost of the pollution it creates – the Academy supports the government’s aim of seeking international agreement on taxes to address this.

But true-cost charging is not a solution in itself. It will only be effective – and acceptable to the public – if the charges go directly to improving the networks, as experience of the London congestion charge has shown. The Academy recommends a National Roads Corporation, responsible for management, maintenance, development and charging – and funded directly through road pricing. A parallel National Rail Corporation should oversee the rail network and both corporations should operate at arm’s length from government. “We also want to see consistent planning and objectives,” says David Bayliss OBE FREng, another member of the Academy’s working group. “At the moment the Highways Agency, Strategic Rail Authority, regional assemblies and local authorities all produce forward plans with different time horizons and from different data. With more consistency in planning it would be much easier to identify the most important infrastructure projects. Infrastructure priorities should reflect users’ choices, which will become more obvious with true-cost charging.”

Bus services nationwide should operate under regulated competition, as in London, says the Academy. Bus use in London has increased by 48 per cent since 1986 while it has fallen by 37 per cent in the rest of the country since deregulation. The report also suggests more use of high-quality guided buses, which can provide many of the advantages of light rail systems to larger urban areas at lower cost.

The Academy is not convinced that there is a case for investment in new high-speed railway lines, such as Maglev, as the costs exceed the benefits. The main focus should be on relieving bottlenecks and upgrading heavily used corridors – Crossrail is an excellent example. Where it is inefficient for passenger and freight traffic to compete for the same track capacity then passing loops and parallel lines should be considered.

Over 90 per cent of UK imports and exports are transported by ship but the country’s very mixed freight economy requires a sophisticated port infrastructure, the ability to handle larger ships, and above all an improved road and rail access network.

During the last year the government has published The Future of Transport: a Network for 2030, The Future of Rail and The Future of Air Transport, providing the best basis for many years for addressing the UK’s transport problems. While applauding government for squaring up to this most challenging area of public policy, the Academy believes that an even longer term strategy is needed for transport as a whole.

“Transport in the UK has for too long been dogged by a lack of a long-term vision,” says Academy President Lord Broers. “Many of our continental neighbours have benefited from coherent strategies for transport and land use whereas the UK has seen major changes with each new government. Road and rail often find themselves in competition when collaboration would be more sensible. Transport needs a commonly agreed strategy that can be planned and implemented consistently over several decades.”

Notes for editors

  1. Copies of the report are available in the reports section of the publications page:  Transport 2050 report (823.13 KB)
  2. Transport 2050 was prepared by the Academy’s Transport working group, comprising:

    Tony May OBE FREng, Professor of Transport Engineering, University of Leeds (Chairman)
    Richard Allsop OBE FREng, Professor of Transport Studies, University College London
    David Andrews FREng, Professor of Engineering Design, University College London
    David Bayliss OBE FREng, Director, Halcrow Consulting
    Charles Betts CB FREng, Director, British Maritime Technology Ltd
    Michael Cottell OBE FREng, Consultant
    Alastair Dick FREng, Consultant
    Roger Kemp FREng, Professor of Engineering, University of Lancaster
    Martin Lowson FREng, Professor of Advanced Transport, University of Bristol
    Tony Ridley CBE FREng, Emeritus Professor of Transport Engineering, Imperial College
    Stefan Tietz FREng, Consultant
    John Wootton CBE FREng, Rees Jeffreys Professor in Transport Planning, University of Southampton
  3. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering