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:
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.