The break up of the railways into separate companies could damage a bedrock of public support that grew because of their glamour as a huge interacting system, a historian of science has told a Royal Society conference.
If railways are to survive and grow, their legacy of glamour should be exploited to win public support, and their environmental superiority over other transport systems should be "sung from the rooftops", railway academics told the London meeting, "The Railways, Challenges to Science and Technology".
There are two million railway enthusiasts in the United Kingdom, said Colin Russell, research professor in the history of science and technology at the Open University. The railways are the only transport system where the nuts and bolts of its technology excite widespread interest, he said.
"With a car, no one is particularly interested in, for example, the mechanism of a catalytic converter," he said. "But in the railways, people are interested in things like the number of rivets in a tender."
But Professor Russell said that most fascination lies with the railways as a complicated, interacting system: "It's a system with many intellectual attractions to it. It's a system that many people would die for. This raises all sorts of political problems since the thing is being broken down."
Nevertheless, their glamorous history and continuing fascination should be exploited with more exhibitions and well-written books on how the system works, he said. Meanwhile, data is accumulating that shows the environmental advantages of railways over other types of transport, the meeting was told.
Sir Hugh Ford, professor emeritus at Imperial College, London, and Rod Smith, chairman of the Advanced Railway Research Centre at Sheffield University, said that an electric train uses less than a tenth of the energy of a car in local traffic.
Life cycle analysis, which takes into account the energy used from the time the vehicle is made to when it is scrapped, has now shown that cars consume nearly three times more energy per passenger kilometre than trains do.
The conference heard that construction of rail tracks is 20 times more energy efficient than construction of roads; railways are superior in terms of land-scarring, visual impact, noise, accident rates and internal environment.
They called for more research into design, recycling and reducing the costs of electrification of minor lines.