An expert committee under Sir Robert Hall has just demonstrated that road traffic—which has already doubled in density since 1952—will certainly double again by 1980, and may treble. At the same time, Dr. Beeching submits a Report to the Government, which, in order to “save money”, envisages a large-scale railway closure that will mean even more road congestion. Nothing could better illustrate the folly of a transport system where decisions are taken separately, amateurishly and secretly. But the lessons are not only the traditional Socialist ones; discussion of British transport, whatever its political orientation, is permeated with mythical pseudofacts. For example, the British railway system is often alleged to be unusually large; yet West Germany, with a similar population, area and economic structure, has almost exactly the same length of track, about 50,000 milesfootnote1. On the other hand, the British road system is allegedly inadequate: in fact it is the best in Europe, perhaps in the world, but its virtues are in the wrong places. It will emerge from this discussion that the faults of the British transport system lie mainly in the maldistribution of traffic, not just between road and rail, but among roads, among railway lines, and over time. Decisions as to “what runs where” are taken by thousands of small hauliers, millions of private car-owners, several bus companies, and the British Transport Commission. This muddle has produced a situation in which each traffic medium has acquired almost exactly the volume and type of traffic for which it is least suited. The problem—as always in planning—is how to get the “best” allocation of resources, with the “least” impingement on choice; the double superlative shows that the task is quite impossible unless conflicts of aims are recognised.
In order to assess a transport system, it is necessary first to decide what the aims of an economy are.. To the five “Radcliffe aims”—economic growth (of total output, income per head, and output per worker), full employment, price stability, an adequate balance-of-payments surplus and adequate foreign-exchange reserves, most people, and presumably all Socialists, would wish to add three further aims. Income distribution should be made more equal, for the capacity for enjoyment is not greater among higher earners, and
Clearly these aims may co-operate, conflict or interact in complex ways. For example, the much-debated question of whether economic growth in the U.K. helps or hinders the balance of payments must depend on what sort of extra output is produced, and who gets the extra income corresponding to it. A programme for economic growth would involve setting up a plan to maximise total output after (say) five years, possibly repriced as suggested above; but this maximisation would be subjected to certain restraints derived from the other aims, and also from the limitations of the initial resource base, as well as to policy restrictions (e.g. “no child labour”). Despite the complexity of economic aims, and hence of economic planning, it is quite possible to enquire how any sector of the economy—such as transport—can help towards the fulfilment of each aim in turn.
To ease the path towards rapid and steady economic growth, a transport system must be able to provide passenger and freight capacity as needed. Growth always involves structural change, as inferior products—and techniques—are eliminated; and structural change means changing transport needs, and changing locations of both industry and residence. A “growth-oriented” transport system must therefore be flexible, even if this means carrying excess capacity; false economy in the transport system during the Indian Second Plan, for instance, led to the slowing-down of steel production because the right trains were not available in the necessary places. Obviously, too, a transport system contributes to overall growth by carrying traffic with the minimum use of scarce resources of labour, and of steel as embodied in lorries, cars, locomotives and track—in other words, by internal efficiency and growth.
How can the British transport system aid full employment? Not, certainly, by providing a vast, wasteful and degrading system of out-relief. The right to work should not be confused with the right to be employed in a specific post at a specific time; there is no demand either for my services as Prime Minister, or for more than (say) twenty porters’ services at Paddington Station. A Labour Government, abandoning bogus regionalism, would presumably institute a “point employment policy” on the Swedish model, so that transport workers might be swiftly retrained and re-employed as necessary. No, the contribution of a transport system to maintaining
The other aims are more simply dealt with. It is not, I suggest, part of the function of one sector of the economy to maintain price stability. Naturally, changes in the level of transport prices, that seem desirable on other grounds, might sometimes be deferred to moments when their effect on overall costs would be least felt; but it is absurd to handicap part of the economy by making it responsible for overall price policy when other parts escape this responsibility. A transport system can make some small contribution to the balance of payments; much of the expansion of Yugoslav tourism in recent years is due to the improvement of roads, and to cheap rail services; and there might be a case, if international obligations allowed, for special concessions to foreign tourists, in the shape of lower rail fares; but clearly this is a minor aspect of policy. Only through this channel can a national transport system influence the level of the U.K.’s liquid reserves. The effects on income distribution are more important. Once an optimum rail fare, or car-licence charge, has been decided on economic and social grounds, the distributional effect has to be considered; at present, the Surrey-City commuter is served by many stopping trains, which run at a considerable loss, thereby subsidising the rich at the expense of the poor. As for output composition it might well be thought that lorries delivering cigarettes for domestic consumption—other things being equal—should be much more heavily taxed than lorries delivering machine tools to the ports for export.
The issue of free choice is perhaps a context for decision-takiag, rather than an independent criterion. There are several cases in transport economics, however, where it comes forward as an end in itself. Consider the “right” of a small firm to send its goods by a bulky lorry on a congested road. Its exercise of choice here severely restricts the choice of others, for it forces them to take longer in making their journeys. In such cases, the answer is probably to condition the firm’s choice by making it pay heavily for the inconvenience it causes to others—instead of, as at present, making this sort of lorry transport the cheapest of the alternatives open to the firm.