Azara Blog: Rail is allegedly the transport of the future

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Date published: 2008/03/04

The BBC says:

The UK needs a "modal shift" from road to rail if greenhouse gas emissions from transport are to be curbed, a report concludes.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) says changes are needed to government policies on transport pricing, energy and town planning.

A train journey can produce about one tenth of the carbon emissions generated if the same trip is made by air.

The report's authors say substantial investment in the railways is needed.

"We have ambitious government targets for transport emissions, but transport emissions are static," said Cliff Perry, vice president of IMechE's Railway Division and a former head of Thameslink under British Rail.

"Eighty-five percent of transport emissions come from roads, so if we are serious about doing something, we must hit road transport."

Comparing emissions between various forms of transport is not a straightforward matter, as factors such as the efficiency of engines, the number of people on board and, for electric trains, how the electricity was generated all affect the final equation.

IMechE calculates that on average London to Paris trips, people travelling by car generate two and a half times more CO2 than those relaxing in a train, while an air passenger produces 10 times more.

But achieving a substantial shift from road to rail would need a coherent policy covering issues such as how secure passengers feel, the convenience of connections, the cost of tickets, and reliability.

Emissions from electric trains are of course much lower if the electricity comes mainly from low-carbon sources.
The report's authors acknowledge that the price of rail tickets can be prohibitive, sometimes costing many times more than the air equivalent.

One remedy they suggest is proper pricing of all transport options to include environmental impacts.

Unfortunately this report does not yet seem to be available on the IMechE website (perhaps the BBC has been given a privileged copy), so one has to rely on the BBC report, which (not surprisingly) leaves more questions than it gives answers.

For example, if "eighty-five percent of transport emissions come from roads", the BBC also ought to tell us how much of GDP is associated with road versus non-road transport. Presumably it is around the same split. As usual, people focus on totals instead of bang per buck. It's like complaining about the total amount of emissions coming from cement manufacture without noticing how much use cement is put to. It's like saying that Formula 1 is environmentally friendly because their total emissions are so tiny in the general scheme of things. It's just plain silly.

The admission that calculating emissions is not a "straightforward matter" is fine, but then the BBC fails to mention the large indirect emissions of rail transport, namely that due to labour. So every pound that an employee is paid in turn is spent on other goods and services, and those goods and services are responsible for their own share of carbon emissions. This is also not a "straightfoward matter" to calculate, but all (so-called) public transport zealots always ignore this. (For some arbitrary reason, buses and trains are "public" transport, but planes are not.)

And the report allegedly suggests that we should have "proper pricing of all transport options to include environmental impacts". But "proper pricing" of transport means we should have no direct and no indirect subsidies. Rail transport receives massive direct subsidies. But equally it is of course true that not including "environmental impacts" represents (potentially massive) indirect subsidies for other transport options (e.g. road and air).

Funnily enough, the Stern report suggests a carbon tax on petrol of about a US dollar per US gallon, or about 13 p per lite. But the current UK fuel duty is around 4.5 times that figure. So car drivers already do pay for their "environmental impact". Needless to say, the ruling elite (including the BBC) conveniently ignore that fact. It is rail, with its massive government subsidy, that is the main form of transport that is not subject to "proper pricing".

Any subsidy, direct or indirect, represents an effective negative carbon tax. So anyone who does not pay the full cost of a good or service has more money to spend on other goods and services, and again, those are responsible for their own emissions. In short, road users pay a massive carbon tax, rail passengers pay a negative carbon tax.

The fact that this report seems to have been written by a former rail boss would of course suggest that the report is inherently biased, so even the basic sums are probably not trustworthy (that is, even ignoring the fact that they have ignored indirect emissions).

Will there ever be a day when rail users are expected to pay the full cost of their journeys? Unlikely.

If and when car engines are mainly electric rather than petrol, will the BBC and IMechE then be willing to admit that cars are just as "green" as they like to pretend that rail is? Unlikely.

Indeed, why is the BBC/IMechE pushing for rail instead of electric cars if they are willing to give the party line that "emissions from electric trains are of course much lower if the electricity comes mainly from low-carbon sources"?

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