Monday, 10 September 2007

Green or not too Green?

We all want to do our bit to help cut carbon emissions, right? many of us take heed of the advice meted out to us to swtich off appliances, turn the thermostat down and so on. Some even go as far as to install solar panels in our homes - not this blogger mind, it's hard enough getting the management company to approve the essentials like a satellite dish on our block of flats, let alone something like a photovoltaic cell!!

still, what about travel? according to the esteemed Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), who are in the know about this sort of thing, road transport was responsible for some 21.6 % of the UK's carbon emissions in 2005 - 69.9 million tons of CO2 (for the stats, see this spreadsheet - makes for some interesting reading!). Out of that more than half comes from passenger cars. Not to put too fine a point on it, driving is a major contributor to this country's carbon footprint. I wonder how this could be reduced...?

well, trains might be a start. according to the same data set, rail travel produced 2.0 million tons, or 0.4 %. that's right folks, according to our government, trains are 54 times "greener" than cars. At the risk of being accused of data mining, let's look at some more trends from the DEFRA stats.

to be fair to car drivers, the passenger car contribution has steadily declined from a peak of 72.6 million tons in 1999 to its present level, due in part to increasing fuel efficiency across the industry (in the same period railway emissions went from 1.6 to 2 million tons). But, look down the columns of numbers (stare at them for a while and you'll feel like Neo from the Matrix...) and look at the stats for HGVs. A pretty large increase, from 26 million tons to 28.6 million between 1999 and 2005 (i've chosen 1999 arbitrarily, the trends apply across larger periods too). anybody unfortunate to have drive up or down the M1 or A14 or any other major north-south artery can vouch for the fact that increasingly, most lanes are taken up by lorries struggling to overtake each other at 62 mph uphill causing traffic jams grrr... ([/rant]). now we have the numbers to back up that hunch (ahhh, the satisfying feeling of data to confirm a gut feeling...).

so, it's simple - shift freight onto the railways, get car passengers to use the train, and the UK can call itself the Green Giant... err, maybe. the issue is how to acheive these twin aims. the Lib Dems seem to have their hearts in the right place (NB teekblog does not endorse any political party - as yet...), while the Tories are playing catch-up politics this week. but here's why neither party's unliekly to acheive a significant shift of burden away from the roads onto the tracks. Neither show any sign of lessening the enormous investment channelled into road-building (more than £6 billion in 2004/5), nor of increasing direct funding for the railways - the Lib Dems would try, by "encouraging private investment in railways," but that's as far as it goes.

and here's why that'll never, ever do what it's meant to - encourage people to leave the car at home and take the train instead. (ANECDOTE ALERT) I tried to book tickets to travel from London to Manchester using a well-known, Branson-managed "service provider" (aka money-printing machine). I went by the book - date of travel six weeks or so away, seemingly off-peak arrival and departure times etc - and still, still, the cost for a return trip for two was... £174. it goes without saying that i'll reluctantly be driving, as the £45 worth of fuel (diesel car, cheap as anything to run) is just so much easier on the wallet and that's unfortunately what it comes down to more often than not.

Get the message people. While rail transport is run by private corporations (most of which make staggering profits) and while the government reduces investment in the form of its subsidy to said companies, fares will always remain high and people will always drive.

Please, if anyone's listening, Make Traffic Jams History...!!


coracle said...

Totally agree, as an infrequent user (when I can't avoid it!) of the A14, I totally fail to understand why the choice has been made to widen it, rather than shift haulage to a parallel rail track.


teekblog said...

coracle - the A14 is a great example, as there's ample space to run a train line alongside for freight or passenger trains.

alas, the road lobby wins again...!

Tom said...

First some pedantry, when comparing emissions surely we need to look at CO2 per passenger mile (or per tonne mile for freight). I'm sure trains still win out but it's important to be using the right numbers.

Second, a practical hint for getting cheap advance rail fares: it is possible to be too late to get the cheap fares but it is also possible to be too early, as they aren't released until a few weeks before the date of travel - so keep trying. If you can stand the queuing it can also be worth going to the actual station and dealing with an actual person, as some of them still know what they're doing.

The rail ticketing system is a complete nightmare though, and really needs sorting out if many people are ever to be convinced to switch from car to trains...

teekblog said...

tom, agree wholeheartedly about co2/passenger. good point.

i have a dutch collegue @ work, he's always amazed at the lenghts we have to go to in order to book cheap rail fares. in Holland, it's cheaper just to turn up, which kinda makes sense - that way there are hardly ever empty seats.

it takes so much effort and supernatural powers of perception to time your fare booking, that's enough to put people off.

so yes, the ticketing system does need to be changed.