The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Economy

Passenger and freight traffic is carried mainly by road. There are about 22 million vehicles, licensed for use on the roads of Great Britain. Of these 19 million were motor cars. In general the car is the most popular form of travel. Buses and coaches account for about 8 per cent of passenger mileage within Great Britain, rail for 7 per cent and air 0.6 per- cent.

Road haulage has a dominant position in the movement of inland freight, accounting for about 80 per cent of tonnage carried and for some three-quarters of tonne-kilometres. Railways and, to a lesser extent, pipelines and inland waterways are important in carrying certain types of freight, particularly bulk goods. The railway and much of the bus industry are state owned, but road haulage is almost entirely in the hands of private enterprise.

The revival of road transport came with the development of the internal combustion engine. Although motorways account for less than 1 per cent of road mileage, they carry 10 per cent of traffic including over one-fifth of heavy goods vehicle traffic. In 1989 the road network totalled over 376,000 kilometres, of which nearly 3,000 kilometres were motorways.

Railways were pioneered in Britain, and the first public railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was opened in 1825. Gradually railways took the place of the canals, and towns grew up and developed at railway terminals and junctions and along the main lines. The building of the rail network took place rapidly after 1830 and, by the end of the century, almost every town of any size had its rail link. The railways reached their peak in the early years of the present century and since then they have faced increasing competition from road transport. This has resulted in a decline in the importance of the railways and the closure of many lines, Some of these closures were the inevitable result of the way in which the railways were built. During the boom years rival companies built several competing lines between the major cities and, as traffic declined, some of these lines became seriously under-used. After the nationalization of the railways such lines were closed. Despite the many changes introduced in the running of the railways, including electrification of most main lines, railways in Britain fail to compete with road transport. Many railway lines are scrapped and railway workers become redundant.

As a result of postwar nationalization the British Railway Board was set up in 1962 to manage railway affairs. Today the railway network is 18,000 kilometres long, of which about 4,000 kilometres are electrified. The most important freight commodities handled by the railway are coal and coke, earth and stones, petroleum products and iron and steel.

There are underground railway services in three British cities: London, Glasgow and Liverpool. London Transport serves 278 stations, while its trains operate over 408 kilometres of railway of which about 167 kilometres are underground. The London underground (the Tube) is old with many problems to be solved. Urban rail projects are proceeding in several areas. A most ambitious project is the Channel Tunnel — a fixed railway link across the English Channel between Britain and France. The project was endorsed by the governments of Britain and France in January 1986. The system 50 kilometres long is to be completed in 1993 and is expected to cost about 9,000 million pounds.

The inland waterways of Britain have a long history of use and disuse. For centuries the most effective way of moving freight was by boat and, by 1750, coastal and river traffic had become very important. Unfortunately Britain has few navigable rivers and, during the eighteenth century, plans were made to build a canal network which would link the major rivers. Construction started during the second half of the century and, within the space of seventy years, most parts of lowland Britain were served by the network. At the same time, however, there were within the system problems which were to render it incapable of competing with later forms of transport such as the railways. The canals are, in fact, too narrow and too shallow, and, with the building of the railways too slow and too much affected by relief.

Today the inland waterways of Britain are experiencing a considerable revival of interest in their use for recreation, freight-carrying and for their contribution to the environment. They play an important part in land drainage and water supply. Of the 3,219 kilometres of canal and river navigations controlled by the state-owned British Waterways Board some 547 kilometres are maintained as commercial waterways for use by freight-carrying vessels.

Ports. Almost all of Britain’s trade is handled at a comparatively small number of ports. Most of these are old established and have been involved in trade for several hundred years.

The majority of ports have grown up in the mouths of rivers which give sheltered water, deep enough to take the comparatively small ships which were common before supertankers came into use.

Many of the dock systems built during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became too small to handle the larger vessels afloat today and this resulted in the abandonment of old port areas and the building of new docks nearer the open sea or even the construction of entirely new ports (called outports). It is at these new sites that most of the modern facilities have been installed.

Another type of port which has grown rapidly in recent years is the ferry port. Originally designed to handle passengers and mail, the leading ferry ports provide regular sailings, often at very short intervals. Most ferry ports are old established. They grew up to provide services to Europe and Ireland and the sites chosen were usually those controlling the shortest crossing points, e.g. Dover and Folkestone on the Channel coast; Holyhead and Stranraer on the west coast.

Traffic through the ports of Britain amounted to about 457 million tonnes in 1989 comprising 153 million tonnes of imports, 150 million tonnes of exports and 154 million tonnes of coastal traffic (mostly petroleum and coal). About 61 per cent of the traffic was in fuels, mainly petroleum and petroleum products.

Britain’s main ports in terms of total tonnage handled, are as follows: Sullom Voe, London, Tees and Hartlepool. Milford Haven, Grimsby, Forth, Southampton, Orkney, Liverpool and others. Offshore oil developments have had a substantial effect on port traffic by greatly increasing the flow through certain North Sea ports, such as Tees and Hartlepool and the Forth ports, creating new oil ports at Flotta in Orkney and Sullom Voe in Shetland, and reducing oil traffic at traditional oil importing terminals such as Milford Haven and the Clyde. There has been a decline in the volume of conventional cargo handled by traditional ports, such as London, Liverpool and Manchester. Liverpool, once Britain’s leading port, is in deep decline. The shift from Liverpool also reflects Britain’s increased contacts with Europe.

The British merchant fleet at about 17 million deadweight tons is the fourth largest after those of Liberia, Japan and Greece. (Deadweight tonnage denotes the maximum load which a vessel can carry before submerging the loadline. One deadweight ton = 1 tonne.) Half this tonnage is accounted for by the oil tanker fleet, the third largest in the capitalist world. However, the merchant fleet of the country experiences serious difficulties due to a recession in world shipping and increasing international competition, especially from ships operating under ‘flags of convenience’. A large tonnage of ships, particularly of tankers, has been scrapped or sold. Nevertheless, the British fleet is still relatively modern and technically advanced.

Virtually all of the British merchant fleet is privately owned. About 94 per cent of Britain’s overseas trade by weight is carried by sea, while the proportion of passengers travelling to or from Britain by sea is about one-third, compared with about one-half in the early 1960s.

The most striking development in the field of transport in recent years has undoubtedly been the growth of air traffic. The extent of this growth can be seen from the following figures.

Growth of Air Traffic

  1986 1989
Passengers (million)

Freight (’000 tonnes)





Impressive as these figures may seem, they do in fact represent a very slight change in the overall pattern of transport in Britain, and in the 1980s less than 0.1 per cent of freight traffic and 0.6 per cent of passenger traffic in the country was by air. Passenger air traffic is unrivalled on distant international routes. This failure to challenge sea and land transport on all but the long distance passenger routes stems from the nature of air transport itself.

Airline services are operated by British Airways and by a number of independent airlines. Their fleets contain modern types of equipment including wide-bodied aircraft and the Concorde supersonic aircraft with which British Airways inaugurated in 1976, jointly with Air France, scheduled supersonic passenger services. International scheduled services are operated to the rest of Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, Australasia, East and South Africa and North America. Within Britain British Airways runs 1,400 services a week to 16 towns and cities. Scheduled Concorde services are operated from London (Heathrow) to New York and to Washington, covering these routes in about half the time taken by subsonic aircraft. In the 1980s a total of some 57 million passengers travelled by air (international terminal passengers) to or from Britain.

London is served by two major airports — Heathrow and Gatwick. Of these, Heathrow is far more important and dominant among other British airports. This one airport handles seventy-three per cent of all passenger traffic and sixty-five per cent of all freight passing through British airports.

Heathrow covers an area of more than twenty square kilometres, handles more than thirty million passengers and nearly half a million tonnes of freight per year, and has aircraft landing or taking off at two or three minute intervals at peak periods. It is already one of the busiest international airports in the world and, if traffic continues to grow, it will not be able to cope. Extensions to Heathrow would be difficult and the only solution would appear to be the diversion of aircraft to other airports. Gatwick, as London’s second airport, is an obvious choice but it is already busy and would be equally difficult to extend. It is not surprising, therefore, that for the last twenty years, sites have been examined for development as a third airport for London and the South East. In every case opposition has been enormous, usually from people living in the areas concerned, and the project has now been abandoned in view of the possibility that air traffic may not grow as quickly as was anticipated and that in the future aircraft will be even larger and fewer will be required.

« ||| »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.