Let’s Choose Life…

Valero Pembroke oil refinery
Dirty past. Valero Pembroke oil refinery, seen from Milford Haven
Somebody should buy the prime minister a bicycle. That was an idea suggested to me earlier this evening, or more accurately somebody should blog asking for donations to buy him one, to cycle from number 10 to the houses of parliament. It probably wasn’t a serious suggestion, but it actually might have been a good idea had it been suggested earlier for one simple reason; it would almost certainly be newsworthy. Timed to coincide with this weekend’s Global Climate March, it would have catapulted one the most important good causes into the front pages of all the newspapers and the first item on the TV news. I’m certainly not saying that the media’s celebrity interest is a good thing, but it is a fact and one we could perhaps have taken advantage of.

Some progress has been made towards addressing climate change, for example the UK has slowly been moving to cleaner sources of electricity. But there is more to be done and an ambitious agreement to accelerate at the forthcoming Pairs summit would help spur us on. While decarbonisation of the electricity supply has begun, the government has put a dampener on progress, whether to a slight degree or a large one I am not quite sure, and other sectors (like transport) are lagging behind.

There is so much more we can do, some of it difficult but there are some easy big wins as well. For example, reducing air travel would be a win-win, less flights meaning less high-altitude greenhouse gas emissions AND less disturbance to people living under the flight paths. One way to do this could be introducing taxation for aviation fuel, which would require international agreement but would raise funds for the exchequer to avoid the need to cut subsidies for public transport, for example. Alternatively, the tax could be targeted at frequent flyers, so that the small proportion of the population who are responsible for most flights and poorer people are not prevented from making a single ‘holiday of a lifetime’.

Prototype tidal stream turbine
Clean future? Prototype tidal stream turbine in Pembroke Dock
Climate change is a big problem but an insurmountable one? We’ll only know if we try, and we do have some things in our favour. Most of us humans are good citizens and are happy to work together to help each other out, and to help the myriad of other species that call this planet home so that we and future generations can continue to enjoy their company. Collectively, we also have a lot of brain power; we may have got ourselves into this mess by using our intelligence, but by using it in a slightly different way we can, and have, think of ways to tackle the problem. a need for to accelerate across the board.

Its happening, there are some great initiatives out there which look very promising. Even organisations who you might expect would disagree with science have started to back climate issues, for example the pope emphasising that we have a moral duty to cut greenhouse gas emissions. There are still opponents, who back schemes like Heathrow’s extra runway that could in one fell swoop undo a lot of the good work, but theirs are starting to look like outdated policies. It is high time the government realised that it needs to lead by example in the fight to cut emissions, and we need to follow that example.

Right now, we are not in a good place, but I have a found a quote for that. “If you don’t like where you are, change it! You’re not a tree.” (from Jim Rohn).

Good luck this weekend at the Global Climate March.

Originally published Nov 27th 2015 at 23:55.

UPDATE: Dec 1st 2015:
A deeply regrettable, but fairly common, item on the news is war. These stories come from across the globe, and often the conflict is apparently religiously motivated, at least partially. Yet on climate change religion stands united; Archbishop Desmond Tutu has published a list of statements, from Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, and I’m sure there are plenty of non-religious people, such as myself, who also share the position that we need to urgently address climate change. The Archbishop’s petition to prime minister David Cameron and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for 100% renewable energy by 2050 is available to sign online.

Wires To Wales – Delayed…

Intercity 125s at Swansea station
Waiting For The Wires: Two IC125 sets at Swansea
…but, thankfully, not cancelled. It appears that we can breathe a sigh of relief. The troubled programme of electrification from London to Swansea (with branches to Oxford, Bristol and Newbury) will apparently go ahead in full, despite being vastly over-budget during major government spending cuts.

This news comes from the ‘Hendy Report’, the result of a review by Network Rail’s Sir Peter Hendy into re-planning Network Rail’s Investment Programme for the next few years. The majority of the Great Western electrification is now due to be completed by Dec 2018, a year later than the penultimate section (Bristol Parkway to Cardiff) was initially scheduled to complete. Swansea-Cardiff, the final section, was originally due by Dec 2018 but now will not be ready until 2019 at the earliest. The report is vague on this, and some observers have apparently interpreted this as meaning we could have to wait until 2024. They even fear that this could mean the scheme gets cancelled at a later date. Personally, although based on just one page of the Hendy report (I’ve not read the rest thoroughly), I’ve formed a more optimistic interpretation, that Swansea will be electrified in the first half of Control Period 6 (ie. by Dec 2021 at the latest).

More worrying is that the ValleyLines electrification isn’t included on that page of the Hendy report. Apparently, this is because it is subject to a separate review by the Welsh Government. If this is scrapped it will be a real shame, and will mean fewer trains can make use of the Swansea electrification (the Maesteg-Cardiff service shares the Swansea line between Bridgend and Cardiff), which may lead to the Swansea scheme being scrapped if work hasn’t started by the time a decision on the ValleyLines is made.

Hitachi IEP depot, Swansea
Wires On The Way: Hitachi depot for new trains seen from the end of the platform at Swansea
Meanwhile, the first of the Great Western’s 5-car Hitachi class 800 ‘Sardine Midget’ bi-mode intercity trains, which will replace the current 8-carriage INTERCITY 125 trains on non-electrified routes, has arrived at North Pole depot in London. Hitachi is building additional depots for these new trains, and hopefully the 9-car class 801 for electrified routes, near Swansea and Bristol. Within the Swansea depot there are electrification masts, probably the first in Wales. Both the class 800 and 801 trains have been procured under the Department For Transport’s ‘Intercity Express Programme’ (IEP), but it is rumoured that consideration is being given to adding more diesel engines to the class 801s, converting them to 800s, because of the delays to electrification which may mean the 801s cannot be put to use immediately on delivery.

Innocence Or Idiocy?

Another somewhat tangential post I’m afraid, which doesn’t directly mention Wales and only briefly notes transport, but I’m trying to get lots of posts out this week. I’m doing this to make up for months of nothing and hopefully promote the events this coming weekend which will call on our governments to take serious action to curb climate change.

For years I’ve considered the Conservative party guilty. Of what I’m not quite sure, of ‘being evil’ isn’t quite correct, but my opinion of them leans towards that. Together with the Labour party, I have wondered if they have a secret policy of environmental suicide, intent on causing a mass extinction of most, if not all, life on earth. Ok, that’s a bit extreme, but the way both parties refuse to rule out airport expansion (the frontrunner being Heathrow) suggest that, at best, they don’t care.

But now I wonder if I have been mistaken, the Tories might be guilty but they might instead be innocent, or idiots. This revelation came when I read that prime minister David Cameron has complained to Oxfordshire county council regarding their plans to cut frontline services. I don’t recall whether that story mentioned transport, but the county is reported to be planning to scrap all their subsidised bus services. It turns out then, that Mr Cameron perhaps isn’t the heartless soul I believed him to be, and George Monbiot reports that people care more than we tend to think so maybe Mr Cameron is a nice guy after all. If he is though, he is either an idiot for believing councils can find all the necessary savings through efficiency measures, has been horrendously poorly advised/educated by others or he doesn’t really care and thinks that by complaining to the council he can fool the public into thinking he cares. Councils might have been able to do so initially, but after five years of cuts there can’t be many efficiency savings left to be had, and frontline services now face the axe.

A quote from George Monbiot’s article (linked above): “Billions of decent people tut and shake their heads as the world burns, immobilised by the conviction that no one else cares.” People do care, so let’s get out there at the weekend and demand action to curb climate change. The UK’s Prime Minister is either guilty, innocent (but poorly informed) or an idiot, let’s hope he’s innocent and that we can inform him.

HS2 Stations

I few days ago, I tried to submit the following post as a comment here. The comment failed to submit, but at least it gives me some content for this blog.

The article I was trying to comment on is headed “HS2 station location – it’s worth getting this right” and argues that “more thinking is needed now on the location of HS2’s stations, especially in Yorkshire.”

I’m more concerned about the phase 1 stations in London (Euston) and Birmingham (which I believe is known as Curzon Street).

The Birmingham one is perhaps the most worrying, because it is a dead-end. The environmental case for high speed rail is that it can compete with aviation, which causes huge greenhouse effect. However, a London-Birmingham shuttle does not compete with aviation, it is too short a distance. Therefore the additionally electricity needed to make a train travel at 200mph is not justified. Instead of buffers, the north end of Curzon Street station should have a tunnel mouth, with the station becoming a through station on the route from London to Manchester, rather than a terminus.

The other motivation for building HS2 is that West Coast Main Line (WCML) is, or will soon be, full. However, growth in rail use is expected to increase across the board, meaning that other lines will, sooner or later, also be full. And that’s when HS2’s plans for Euston become a problem. Euston will presumably be at or near capacity with HS2 and WCML traffic, so if additional HS lines are built in future to relieve the East Coast and Great Western lines there would have to be another hugely expensive problem to get them into central London. I would argue that we need to plan the HS network we will want 50-100 years in the future and make sure that what we actually build now has passive provision for that built-in. As I see it, there are two possible approaches:

1. A modification of the ‘Euston Cross’ proposal once featured in the magazine ‘Modern Railways’. This would involve an underground East-West through station in the vicinity of Euston and Kings Cross, with the tracks leading to HS2 at the west end and HS1 at the east end. The modification is that this be built with passive-provision to be a four-track link from Old Oak Common to somewhere near Stratford International. Thus, future high speed lines from Old Oak Common to Bristol (perhaps via Heathrow, and possibly with a branch to Southampton) and from Stratford to Leeds/York (relieving the East Coast and Great Western main lines) could feed into the same central core as services on HS1 and HS2.

2. Try and use the HSR network to rebalance the UK to make London less important. In this case, Euston could remain as planned and no further HSR would be built in London. Instead, an X-Shaped network with Birmingham at its centre could be designed, with HS1/HS2 running Ashford – London – Birmingham – Manchester and HS3 running York – Leeds – Sheffield – Derby – Birmingham – Cheltenham – Bristol with later extension to Plymouth and possibly a branch from Cheltenham to Swansea. I would suggest doing this incrementally, a possible first step being upgrading the direct route between Bromsgrove and Ashchurch for Tewkesbury to high speed (re-routing local services via Worcester) and electrifying the classic lines from York through to Bristol. But the Birmingham HS2 station would need to be built with at least passive provision for these two through routes.

96 Hours…

4×24 hours, four days. That’s how long we have before the Aberystwyth ‘Global Climate March’ is due to start*.

On Saturday and Sunday, similar events will be taking place across the globe. Climate change is almost certainly the biggest threat facing life on earth, and governments (certainly those in Westminster and Cardiff Bay) do not appear to be taking the matter sufficiently seriously.

The situation is not hopeless, there are things we can do to prevent climate change, some which would appear to save money (eg. scrapping the plans for a second M4 motorway around Newport and banning future governments from even commissioning feasibility studies into such a thing), yet governments refuse to do this. This is plain reckless and must be stopped, and hopefully a good show of support for the global climate marches at the weekend will win the day.

The Aberystwyth march was originally planned for the Sunday, however I’m happy to report that it currently appears that it will now take place on the Saturday instead. I’m please because it will allow attendees to arrive by bus, the Sunday service being rather poor where it exists and, on most routes, completely non-existent.

*This post went live at 13:00 on 24th November 2015

Wales is off the rails

5-car Virgin Super Voyager at Wolverhampton
A 5-car Virgin Super Voyager at Wolverhampton with a service to Glasgow. The same type of train can now be seen at Wolverhampton running London-Shrewsbury services.
In December last year, a limited number of through trains were introduced between Shrewsbury and London. Prior to this, it was claimed that Shrewsbury was “the only county town in England not to have a direct rail link to London”. I thought that couldn’t be true, and I was right, but I was surprised how many English counties I had to investigate on Wikipedia before I found some without through trains from their county town to the capital.

The English counties I found without through trains to London were:

  • Isle Of Wight (Newport, hasn’t even got a railway)
  • Northumberland* (Alnwick, nearest station ‘Alnmouth for Alnwick’about 3 miles away as the crow flies)
  • Nottinghamshire (West Bridgford**, hasn’t got a station (but is on Nottingham’s tram network)

I couldn’t work out what the county towns of South Yorkshire and Sussex are. Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire and West Midlands are possibly similar cases. The fact I was using Wikipedia might be responsible for my confusion.

* Northumberland Morpeth also has claim to be the county town though (the council sits there) and has direct trains, but they are talking about moving the council/county town to Ashington which has a freight-only railway but no current passenger services

** Nottinghamshire council apparently sits here but Nottingham possibly still has claim to be the county town, in which case this one does have through trains to London

Pembrokeshire to London train
So long (and thanks for all the fish)… The last Pembrokeshire to London service of 2015 heads off to London. Come 2018, they’ll probably be gone for good.
Anyway, its time I got to the point. I found surprisingly few English county towns without through services to London, but Wales has many counties whose county towns are without London services. Several counties have no trains to London (eg. Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taff) anywhere in the county, others (such as Conwy and Pembrokeshire) have London trains, but not from their county towns. Llangefni, the county town of Anglesey is among several Welsh county towns which are not on the national rail network at all, Caernarfon, Mold and Ruthin are further examples. While I’m not convinced a London service is important (the south-Wales ValleyLines certainly have no need of one), I think this shows how poorly served parts of Wales are. Filling all the gaps in Wales’ rail network would take decades and cost billions so, while some gaps might be plugged someday, a more-deliverable alternative to rail is needed in other areas. What a shame TrawsCymru has turned out to be little more than a joke.