I am writing these words on a train. It left Bridgend in South Wales at seven o’clock on Monday morning and will arrive in London Paddington at about nine thirty. The fare cost me £114.50, which was the cheapest fare available to me and my circumstances.
I am squeezed into a seat which enables me to perch my small laptop computer and write these words, with a luxury of an electrical socket, to feed my elderly computer otherwise it will not last. The train is operated by First Great Western, who are not first by some hundred and odd years, who are certainly not great but do send trains in a westerly direction from London on tracks owned by a company which is owned by the government. Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be slightly miffed, I imagine to learn that the GWR he engineered was not first in the field, but no matter, at least the GWR was owner and operator of its complete railway. I am unsure who owns the signalling equipment and which company maintains the infrastructure and I suspect that the rather tasteless catering is owned by yet another company. This amalgam of very large companies each doing different small things is needed, it seems, to get me from Bridgend to Paddington.
People love trains; they give them names.
Train travel is supposed to be environmentally friendly transportation, but the travel on this line (even as it is, as I write these words, very full of people) is far less friendly to the environment than it should be. The train engine is powered by diesel. In order to power a train by diesel the engine must be very powerful, because among the things that the engine must drive is the engine itself and the large amount of diesel that it needs to draw for power. This means that the train is far heavier than an electric train, which draws power from an overhead gantry source.
The power that an electric train draws is mostly provided by a gas fuelled power station, which even with all the transmission losses, needs less energy than diesel, because the electric engine is might lighter than a diesel engine and does not need to carry any fuel. The diesel train that I am in like all diesel trains emits carbon dioxide and diesel particulates, which are just the right size to stick in the lungs of those that breathe in the particulates, causing breathing diseases and cancers.
The government of these islands is planning to spend huge amounts of money on building a train service from London to Birmingham and Manchester which will cut the journey times by about twenty minutes in the case of Birmingham and about an hour in the case of Manchester. The very fast train will not be brought into service for at least fifteen years and the new lines will cause environmental damage to tens of thousands of people.
The project will bring employment, particularly to people and companies that are not from these islands, and those that support the project tell us how important investment in infrastructure is and how we need to catch up with nations that have high speed trains, in order to progress. I think that we heard the same concept when the Millennium Dome was being planned and when the Olympics were “won”. Both projects were rather cheap and nasty and ended up costing the country a great deal in lost economic activity, although both projects did a wonderful job of massaging the egos of the politicians involved in them.
Progress is not necessarily good and not always an improvement. It would be nice, in the case of my existing journey, if I could get to Paddington half an hour sooner than I will get to Paddington, but it would be so much more important if I could get there without causing so much environmental damage.
Instead of a massive investment in high speed trains the government could invest in electrification of lines that are not electrified, enabling fewer diesel particulates to be injected into the atmosphere. It could improve the rolling stock, so it is lighter and stronger and capable of carrying more people. It could improve the understanding that a saving of a few minutes on a train journey will all be undone when we get to the destination by the traffic jams and poor public transport services that we will encounter when we get there.
Every train journey is only part of the overall journey. You have to get from where you start to the train station because almost no one lives in a train station, and having taken the train you have to get from the train station at which you arrive to your final destination. It will not benefit anyone to save twenty minutes on a train journey if, when you get to the end of the train journey, you are delayed by more than twenty minutes on the rest of the journey.
I suppose that ultimately the decision makers are entranced by speed and beguiled by vanity. A large project, like building a high speed train service out of taxpayers’ money, is not new. Previously, taxpayers’ money was used to design a train that could go at very high speeds on existing tracks. The inaugural service, stuffed with journalists to give it plenty of publicity was a failure. The train broke down and the investment was ultimately quietly abandoned.
I do not think that the high speed service planned will fail, because the technology exists, as we can see from high speed trains in Japan and France. I do think that the investment in HS2 provides a poor return for the taxpayer and that the same money spent of the railways to make them work more efficiently, and friendlier to the environment with the improvements that will occur in public health; that would be an investment that would produce a better result and returns for everyone.
Filed under: carbon emissions, climate change, energy Tagged: | Brunel, diesel trains, electric trains, environmental impact on trains, First Great Western, GWR, high speed rail link, HS2, trains, transportation, travel