Will it be ‘all change’ on the railways after Dawlish? More likely just the usual service

Spend to save, or just spend when needed? Ben Birchall/PA

With the collapse of the line at Dawlish in Devon cutting off railway services to Plymouth and the southwest for months, Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin MP and Network Rail chiefs were brought before the Transport Select Committee to answer questions about the implications.

In terms of future investment, while losing a railway line or road undoubtedly inconveniences some, the two questions to answer are over the economic impact of such a loss, and how often losses of such severity are expected.

Within hours of the news, calculations adorned the backs of hundreds of envelopes, producing seven, eight or even nine-figure sums of economic turmoil. Any transport economist would first calculate the cost to the system’s users, following a well established tradition which shows that users value loss of their time during a disruption at around three times the rate that they value time saved on a journey. Typically these are for disruptions over the course of a day, not over a month or more as will be the case due to repairs at Dawlish. There are also well understood penalties for travellers that have to change between modes of transport – the dreaded replacement bus services do not score highly.

So these costs can and will be quantified. As a rough measure, Plymouth station serves around 2.6m passengers per year and Penzance another half a million, so the costs generated by these comparatively quite modest passenger numbers (London Underground carries 3.36m passengers a day) won’t take us close to vast sums bandied about by the back-of-the-envelope economists.

Figures to lay foundations on

The really big figures are derived from the effects on the wider economy, as put forward by the Local Enterprise Partnerships, town and county councils from the southwest appearing before the select committee. They provided figures that claimed losses to tourism, trade, and potential investment of £4m-£5m a day to the Plymouth economy and £8m to Cornish tourism.

Can it seriously be argued that losing a train service alone has led to a 75% drop in tourist bookings? Clearly any research based on self-reporting by the local chambers of commerce is limited, and the impression given at the hearing by the councillors and executives was that the collapse at Dawlish was also an opportunity to argue for a reversal of historic underinvestment in the region.

So while there will certainly be economic losses, we don’t know what or how much, nor how to disentangle the short term effects such as tourism bookings from the long term effects, for example of major businesses not locating to the region. To me, the figures thrown about are not credible, but to quibble is to miss the point: the effects of major transport disruptions on the wider economy are not well understood, and are not properly accounted for in the decisions that underpin infrastructure investment.

The implication is that those areas that are particularly vulnerable to severe damage and disruption from events like Dawlish will have been short-changed in terms of past investment.

Doing nothing may be the right thing

The second question is how often this scale of service outage is likely to occur. Network Rail and the Met Office have concluded that the combination of high winds, high seas and rain had led to a scale of damage not seen before – but the past is not necessarily a good guide to the future. While it was good news for the representatives of the southwest that it had opened up discussion around proposals for alternative bypass routes, or additional breakwaters around the Dawlish stretch of the line, that was as far as the good news went.

Network Rail’s chief executive reeled off tales of weather-related woe: flooding at 250 sites across the network, and more than 50 landslips in Kent alone (compared to the usual three) at an estimated cost of £170m. Such extreme weather has led to calls for investment from areas besides just the southwest, and while £170m is a significant spend, the demand for investing in network resilience will surely force some re-evaluation of priorities.

The problem is that we don’t know how often these types of events will happen – and that information is a major factor in whether to carry on with business as usual, or to call “all change”, and launch a much greater programme of investment in resilience measures throughout the network. New investments are assessed over a 60-year period: if we think another Dawlish-level-event will remain a rare, it makes little sense to spend heavily on preparing for it – however inconvenient it may be if, or when, such a severe event happens again. And if we should adopt some kind of precautionary principle, the question is what it would look like, and how much would we (the passenger or the taxpayer) be prepared to pay?

When the water recedes and attention moves on elsewhere, I believe that in the absence of any clear evidence the purse strings will close and it will be business as usual. History is full of examples of major events that fail to bring significant change to policy, despite initial interest – security incidents on US domestic flights before 9/11 are a prime example, and the largely unfulfilled calls for institutional change in the UK after the MP’s expenses scandal another. This is a phenomenon Jones and Baumgartner call the Politics of Attention.

The UK’s limited infrastructure spending is allocated on the basis of what benefits the user, primarily time savings on journeys that affect thousands of passengers every day. The recent passenger satisfaction surveys suggest that many louder voices will reassert themselves, each with arguments for different investment priorities. But it’s difficult to see an under-used emergency rail bypass around Dawlish making much headway against demands to tackle overcrowding on trains servicing London and the southeast.

I hope to be wrong in some of what I have written above. I believe that the UK does not invest enough in its existing infrastructure, instead focusing on the promise of what economic growth new infrastructure might bring. In the absence of better evidence or perhaps a sudden lurch towards a more risk-averse attitude towards resilience, Dawlish will most likely be consigned to history as a particularly memorable storm in a tea cup.