Sandy 4 St Albans

Sandy Walkington campaigns with the Liberal Democrats across St Albans

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High time for a carbon-free railway?

March 10th, 2012 · 3 Comments · Sandy's blog

Excellent motion at today’s LibDem conference on “The Greenest Government Ever”, promoting the absolute necessity of moving to a low carbon society.  Low carbon transport has to be part of the policy mix and the original motion addressed electric vehicles, sustainable biofuels, and marine and aviation emissions, but oddly said nothing about railways.

Accordingly I moved an amendment to insert the following words into the motion:Conference rail

Continuing to extend electrification of the rail network as far and as fast as possible to accelerate the achievement of a carbon-free railway and to manage the operation and detailed specification of HS2 with energy efficiency as well as sheer speed in mind.

I’m glad it was accepted by the movers of the motion and unanimously by the conference delegates.

In my speech, I pointed out that electric trains have all sorts of benefits in higher acceleration, less noise and vibration, no noxious fumes in stations, and regenerative braking where trains are stopped by turning on on-board generators to put electricity back into the network.

And if you can “decarbonise” electricity generation (a big “if” but one we have to achieve), then in any discussion of how to achieve low carbon travel, rail becomes the low-hanging fruit.

I attended a recent presentation by Deutsche Bahn (DB) who are major players in the UK rail industry, owning Arriva, Chiltern Railways, Grand Central and DB Schenker, to name but a few.  DB has already achieved the aim of being carbon-neutral in Germany by dint of using hydro and nuclear sources for their largely electrified railway and then offsetting all other carbon emissions.  Why should we not aspire to do the same?

(As an aside DB told us they have interfered remarkably little in their new UK operations, having the highest respect for their British railway colleagues.  There is only one senior German manager in the whole of Arriva Rail.  But one contribution they felt they had made was teaching British train drivers how to drive their trains in a more energy-saving way – for example coasting gently up to known red lights rather than charging up and then slamming on the brakes.)

The mention of HS2 in my amendment was simply to make the point that very high speed trains are energy hungry with a geometric progression of energy consumption for every extra inch of speed.  Of course the plus side is attracting people out of cars and planes into what is still in relative terms a more energy efficient and less environmentally damaging transport mode.

But constant changes of speed add to the energy load.  The energy optimum is to get up to a constant speed and stay there, even if it is slightly slower than the theoretical maximum.  As I said to today’s conference, there are plenty of Mr Toads in UK politics going Poop Poop, they don’t have  to be in our party.  Sheer speed just for the sake of shaving a couple of minutes off the London-Birmingham journey through just a brief interlude of flat-out running is not worth the huge extra increase in energy consumption.

And it was good to be able to say this in a debate where one of  my fellow speakers was the current Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, one Edward Davey.  These debates are not just an academic exercise when we are in government.

PS I’m writing this in my hotel room in Newcastle with a magnificent view of the East Coast Mainline tracks curving round to Robert Stephenson’s High Level Bridge over the Tyne.  Great stuff.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Lizzy Williams

    A good example of the Government either not knowing what they are talking about or deliberately misleading people. HS2 is CO2 neutral at best and encourages travelling further and faster! It is completely and utter environmentally unsustainable! Modal shift is peanuts and CO2 calcs do not included additional tunnelling just announced.

  • Stan Mason

    Oh Sandy- what planet are you on?
    Hs2 will not even be carbon neutral as the forecast load factors and frequency are not realistic, according to indendent research. Hs2 requires twice the power of a current ‘classic’ train. and as for getting people out of their cars, that is very unlikely unless they want to start their journey in the centre of London and finish it in Birmingham!
    Your well meaning amendment also totally disregards the carbon generating affect of the construction of HS2 over the next 23 years, plus the manufacture of the support structure of tunnels embankments,viaducts bridge, rails, signalling, electric gentries to carry the cables, and the manufacture of the trains themselves. Add to that the building of the huge new terminals, and you have an environmental disaster costing £32 billion. Throw in the destruction and rebuilding of 230 social housing uints at Euston (for starters) and the new nuclear power station to power HS2 and the whole thing looks like the folly that it clearly is to those who have analysed the business and environmental cases dawn up by HS2
    Ltd, in their consultation documentation. The results of this consultation showed over 90% against HS2, which Justine Greening chose to ignore.
    Stan Mason.

  • sandy

    Hi Stan
    Well I know that there is considerable debate about HS2, and you are clearly at one end of that argument. I have had my own reservations about HS2 which is why I specifically included it in my amendment – but I am persuaded of the need for new infrastructure capacity between London and the north which inevitably means tunnels, embankments etc whether for high speed or “classic” trains. Trains to Edinburgh, Glasgow and points north will be able to run over HS2 tracks and speed their overall journey, so I can see the benefits of increase in speeds since it’s not just about London to Birmingham. I am indebted to the FutureRail Research Centre at Imperial College for their dispassionate analysis – and my personal conclusion is that HS2 doesn’t have to be as fast as the 400 kph envisaged and de-carbonising of the power source is hugely important.
    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

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