tag: Public Transport

Jan 2012

Against High Speed Rail

Over in the UK the government has just thrown their weight behind a High Speed Rail (HSR) project to connect London and Birmingham. The project is backed not only by the Tory government (including their sycophantic whipping-boys the Liberal Democrats) but also by the opposition Labour Party. Indeed, with the exception of a few rebellious members of the main parties (mostly from constituencies through which the new rail line will run, but who don’t get any obvious benefits because trains won’t actually stop there) along with parties on the fringe, this HSR project has universal political support.

High Speed Rail (HS2)This contrasts with the striking lack of support from people living in those aforementioned constituencies which will be negatively impacted (some in reality, some perhaps just in perception) by the scheme. Homes will be torn down, the countryside will be cut through (despite parts of the route going underground, there will still be plenty of trees felled and habitats destroyed – 160 important wildlife sites according to unnamed “wildlife groups” in the BBC report) and idyllic rural villages will find their peace and quiet periodically shattered by the thunderous whoosh of a high speed train passing through.

The government, as has become de rigeur with these kinds of project, held a “public consultation” on the matter. These public consultations are one of the most annoying developments in modern political theatre. Basically the government of the day makes a decision, asks the people affected by the decision to agree with it – in the hope of sharing the responsibility if something goes wrong – and then completely ignores the results of the consultation if it turns out that people don’t agree with the decision. It’s the sort of craven and cowardly strategy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how craven and cowardly our political classes have become, but still manages to frustrate and annoy because of the magnanimous manner in which these consultations are generally announced. “Why yes, we will let you little people have your say on this matter… just don’t expect us to actually listen.”

In the case of the London to Birmingham HSR project (known as ‘HS2’; ‘HS1’ being the Channel Tunnel link) almost 90% of the 55,000 responses to the public consultation objected to it. Whether you agree with the project or not, this surely demonstrates that the actual consultation was a waste of time and money carried out in the vain hope it would provide positive PR. It makes no sense whatsoever for there to be a legal requirement to hold a public consultation unless there is also a legal requirement to actually listen to the results.

Of course, just because a majority of people along the route of a rail line object to it, does not itself make the project A Bad Thing. The concerns of those directly affected by any infrastructure project must be factored into the decision making process. But they should not – necessarily – over-ride all other factors. Major projects like HS2 have an impact far beyond the route itself. They provide economic benefits that radiate out from the project for quite a distance. And they may offer environmental benefits should the trains reduce the use of more damaging transportation. So it may often be the case – as with wind farms, for instance – that the objections of local residents must unfortunately be over-ruled in the knowledge that the wider benefits to society outweigh those objections. The impact on local residents should be minimised as far as is practical, and compensation should be offered where necessary.

The Question

So the question becomes: Does HS2 provide sufficient benefits to outweigh the negative impact on those directly affected and upon the countryside through which the line will run? Over on twitter, John Band made his position pretty clear when he wrote: “I think HS2 has now officially joined bendy buses on my List Of Transport Things Where It’s Fair To Assume An Opponent Is A Dick.” Now, I like John. Even if he is calling me a dick.

Because, frankly, I think the HS2 project is a ridiculous and damaging waste of resources.

Don’t get me wrong, investing UK£33 billion (almost €40 billion) in rail infrastructure is a bloody marvellous idea [UPDATE: As John points out in the comments, the 33bn covers the entire HSR network rather than just the London-Birmingham line, though this doesn’t affect my basic position]. It’s exactly the kind of thing that governments should be doing right now (and it’s a crying shame that our government here in Ireland is pouring money into zombie banks; money that could be upgrading our public transport network… or building hospitals… or employing teachers… hell, spend the billions on beer and pies if you must, it would still be a better use of the cash than pouring it into Anglo-Irish Bank). But investing money in the rail network is not necessarily synonymous with spending a massive lump-sum on a vanity project.

And that’s what it is. A vanity project. Railways are a great idea. High Speed Rail is a terrible one. A recent US study (High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S.*) of the carbon emissions of various modes of transport suggests that travelling on HSR produces 20% more emissions than going by conventional rail, and almost double that of coaches. And that’s without factoring in the environmental costs of the actual infrastructure (which are high thanks to the large amounts of concrete and steel used).

And it’s not as if it’s providing a massive time saving either. HS2 won’t be teleportation. It’ll be more expensive than conventional rail and will reduce journey times by a shade over 40%. So the average saving between London and Birmingham will be roughly half an hour. Are the Tories really spending a fortune to cut up the countryside, screw up the lives of local residents and increase the cost of train travel, all to save a half hour? With WiFi available on UK intercity trains these days, it’s not like it even needs to be a half-hour “away from the office” for a lot of people.

Yes, from an emissions standpoint HSR beats cars and planes – by a considerable margin it should be said – but it’s really not in competition with them. Most people who make the journey by car are unlikely to switch to train without a major incentive. That incentive is on the way, of course, in the form of peak oil. But because HSR carries far less passengers than conventional rail, it makes much more sense to absorb any large switch from car to train using conventional rail [UPDATE: In the comments John points out that this is not the case… which invalidates one of my objections to HSR, though I still think that conventional rail – albeit on an upgraded system with a few billion invested in it – is far better than HSR in the face of Climate Change and resource depletion. So I still say that British rail investment should be going into upgrading the current rail network… increase platform lengths, buy some extra carriages and develop a new signalling system].

In fact, it makes even more sense to absorb the migration from private car into a new, integrated coach network. You want to travel from London to Birmingham? Simple. Build a large new coach station in Brent Cross, North London (i.e. within sight of the M1 on-ramp). Link it directly to the tube either via the Northern Line or the Jubilee Line (it would require a new branch of no more than a few hundred metres in either case). Then dedicate an entire lane of the M1 to express-coach traffic only. This will reduce journey times for coaches while providing an additional incentive for drivers to ditch their cars.

Yes, yes, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the motoring lobby will hate the idea… but frankly they will become increasingly irrelevant as oil price rises start to make private car use a luxury – long before HS2 is due to start running in 2026. Motorways will be half-empty by that stage anyway. No, an integrated coach network may not as sexy as HSR, but it makes a damn sight more sense environmentally, is a fraction of the cost to set up, makes use of existing infrastructure that will soon be significantly under-employed and will cost far less for the end user.

So… by objecting to HS2 I’m objecting to a massive infrastructure project that will damage the environment, will cost a lot more than it needs to, will be a dreadfully inefficient use of resources, will inconvenience more people than is necessary and will be more expensive to the end-user than the alternatives. If that makes me “a dick”, then so be it. Better that than flush money down the toilet and screw up the planet because I like shiny things that go fast. Which I do, but I’m not so idiotic as to want to base public policy on that fact.

* Although the study is titled High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., they actually looked at a variety of projects around the world and based their calculations on the emissions produced by the Danish IC-3 system, which they felt were representative of HSR as a whole.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2008


Justin at Chicken Yoghurt has made some suggestions as to how the British Labour Party might reconnect with the electorate in the wake of the sound kicking they received in the local elections this week. His ideas are good ones in my opinion, but they wouldn’t save Labour even if the party was far-sighted enough to implement them. Which it’s not.

In reality, nothing’s going to prevent a Tory victory at the next general election. Well, nothing beyond the wildly implausible. Britain is fed up with Labour. And what’s more, Britain doesn’t like Gordon Brown. The poor bloke is on a hiding to nothing; he’s got no charisma and he’s leading a government that people don’t feel they can trust. In our ultra-mediated world, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Plus the economy won’t be kind to him between now and the next general election. Every Labour soundbite that followed the meltdown this week insisted that the poor result was due to a downturn in the economy. I have news for them… no it wasn’t. The electorate gave you a thrashing because they don’t like you any more. Get your heads around that and you may not spend quite so many years in the wilderness after the next election. That said, the economy will be a major factor at the general election. And not in a good way.

Smart Labour strategists (I assume there are a couple) are already thinking about how best to exploit the predictable mess of 2010 from the opposition benches.

The tragedy of all this is the fact that the electorate don’t have the imagination to look beyond the tories when it comes to choosing a replacement. And they certainly don’t have the imagination for what’s really needed… to look beyond party politics entirely.

I’ve just realised that, despite the title of this post, none of this is very constructive really. But the trouble is — as Burroughs says in Interzone

We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures, and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decisions […] The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident; inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.

… and I really don’t see much room for constructive improvement until we’ve shrugged off this foolish way of running our affairs.

All the same, in the spirit of constructivism in its broadest sense, and having already ruled out any real likelihood of saving the British Labour party, here’s some ideas that I believe should be implemented by the people of all industrialised nations (and if they insist on going through the party-political system to do so, then so be it). Oh, and I don’t vouch for the popularity of these policies, merely their urgent necessity…

  1. The fundamental philosophy that public transport needs to be given priority over private car ownership should inform all relevant policies. Car ownership should be made more expensive and less convenient, while public transport should be expanded.
  2. All new buildings must be built to passivHaus standard, or equivalent. Profits from fossil fuels should be heavily taxed* and the revenue used to upgrade the energy efficiency of current building stock.
  3. The building of new fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants should be halted. The question must cease to be “how do we supply our demands with renewables?” And it must become “how do we modify our demands to meet the supply from renewables?”
  4. Airport expansion projects should be halted. Aviation fuel, like all fossil fuels, should be heavily taxed. Plane tickets should be taxed and the money used to subsidise train tickets.
  5. An examination of the food production and distribution system should be carried out. This should be done with an eye to optimising it based on two priorities; (a) the physical health of the population, and (b) the environmental impact of that system. Financial profit is not to be considered a priority, and questions of raw production efficiency (units per hectare, for instance) should not over-ride health and environmental concerns.

Oh, and there’s plenty more where that came from. Stuff about limiting property ownership and about fundamentally restructuring the way political decisions are made. It’s real nightmarish fringe stuff, I guess, when viewed from the modern political mainstream.

But that can change too, you know. And sometimes faster than you’d think.

* By “heavily taxed” I do — of course — mean “nationalised”. I do not view non-renewable natural resources as appropriate commodities to be traded for profit.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2008

Did I dream it? Or was it on telly?

It’s roughly two years since I moved away from London, and it appears — to paraphrase Ripley from Aliens — that IQs have dropped sharply since I’ve been gone. Seriously London… Boris Johnson?! What the hell is that all about? Did they open the polling booths at 2am and you all voted in the midst of a late-night ketamine binge? Or is this some kind of subversive plot to discredit the tories in the long-run; y’know, let them wreck your town and hopefully it’ll stop them wrecking the country…? If so, then let me be the first to say that I admire the nobility of your sacrifice.

But the thing is; that’s not what happened, is it? What happened is that Londoners turned out in relatively large numbers to support Boris Johnson because they think he’s the best person for the job of running their city. I’m sorry, I need to say that again because it’s still not sinking in… Boris Johnson is now running London.

That’s just mad.

The only reason everyone knows Boris Johnson far better than they know Patrick Cormack (Tory MP for South Staffordshire, in case you’re wondering) is because Boris Johnson is the blithering idiot MP who can be relied upon to act like a fool on telly. It’s not his rapier wit that gets him on Have I Got News For You? It’s the inherent absurdity that this upperclass twit actually holds a position of power. He’s there to laugh at. And it’s funny because he’s only one MP out of hundreds, and the only people voting for him are the wealthy residents of Henley.

Until now. It’s really not funny any more, London. You’ve voted for a man who has pledged to “scale back the congestion charge”. Let’s not mince words here, he wants to make it easier and cheaper to drive a car into the city. In a world of record oil prices, of a potential peak in production, a world in which Climate Change threatens catastrophic consequences; you’ve given the job of running Europe’s largest city to a man who actively seeks to encourage private car use? You fucking idiots!

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2007


Have you ever been on a five hour coach journey that became a twelve hour perdition due to bad weather? It’s pretty damn ugly let me tell you. Just arriving at a coach station is enough to shake a person’s confidence. The deep alien throb of two dozen large bus engines idling. It’s not the scream of jets, but you can still hear the planet burn. And while I’m far from being a religious man, and I don’t know about heaven or hell, I know for damn certain there’s a purgatory. The Catholics are right on the money about that one. It turns out you see, that the corporeal manifestation of the realm of lost souls forever denied grace… is the Irish public transport system.

And in one fell swoop, the Catholicism thing is explained. How else could that weird little gentleman’s club have held sway over a country for so long? For the answer; just show up at an Irish bus-stop and wait. I’m not saying it’s definitely enough to drive an entire nation to its knees, but it’s worth thinking about.

In truth though, torrential rains and galeforce winds making roads temporarily impassable is hardly a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. And half a day cooped up in a narrow coach seat isn’t noticeably improved by the nationality of the tarmac being slowly traversed. On that, sadly, I speak from bitter experience. A deep grimness cuts right to the soul. There’s a moment… about seven and a half hours into your five hour journey… as you pass what looks suspiciously like the halfway point, when you gradually become aware that you’ve exhausted every one of the limited number of possible positions your body can occupy in the restrictive confines of your seat. You enter a permanent stage of significant discomfort, and god help you if there’s a child within three seats. One with a toothache.

But as I say, coaches get delayed by bad weather all over the world. So it’s not really fair for me to lay this one squarely on the Irish public transport system. Unlike, say, when I want to catch the 75 bus to Stillorgan and find myself — an hour and a half into my wait — seething under my breath about how “I’ve been in third world countries with better public transport”. Which of course then gets me even more pissed off, because I don’t like the unconsciously patronising undertones of the phrase “third world” and I wonder whether my frustration at the bus is actually revealing cultural prejudice on some level. And nothing’s guaranteed to mess up your day more than a brutal dose of “dear god! maybe I’m even more riddled with unconscious prejudices than I thought”. Seriously, by the time I eventually get to Stillorgan I’m ready to emigrate again.

Please. Just take me to a place where the buses work… Is that really so much to ask?

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2006

Privatising Aer Lingus (redux)

Y’know, way back in April I argued that privatising Aer Lingus was an absurd idea. It would essentially be trading an important public asset for a small increase in wealth for the already wealthy. Aer Lingus was a successful public service, doing roughly what the people of Ireland needed of it. It was under our control and had a legal obligation to serve our needs. How could we possibly expect to improve on that by putting it under someone else’s control and giving it a legal obligation to serve their needs?

It makes no sense to me. I guess most people believe that the needs of wealthy investors will tend to coincide with the needs of the average member of the Irish population. That’s not an article of faith I share.

Of course, there was one way the Irish government and their policy of selling off the family silver could screw over the Irish people even more than floating Aer Lingus… they could flog it to Ryanair for a bargain-basement price. You gotta love Bertie; he’s found a way to do both.

Yes folks; it seems that Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, has authorised the purchase of 16% of Aer Lingus and put in a bid for controlling interest. He’s paying 27% above the floatation price. So the people with the money to invest in Aer Lingus have made 27% on their money in a little over one week. And unless Aer Lingus has done something remarkable during that week to make their value soar, it poses the question of why the Irish people had their goods sold off at a price substantially lower than someone is obviously willing to pay.

Did the investors need that 27% more than the Irish people needed Aer Lingus? Let’s hope so. Because it’s gone for good. And people fond of flying Ryanair will be happy to hear that it comes in two colours now.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2006

Frances Fitzgerald: candidate for The Man

A leaflet fluttered through my letterbox yesterday. It was from a local politician… a prospective Fine Gael (Fee-neh Gale) candidate in next years General Election. Her name is Frances Fitzgerald and her leaflet is a bit of early canvassing for next year, outlining some of her policies on mostly local – but also some wider – issues.

It took all of five seconds to establish that she has a whelk’s chance in a supernova of ever getting my vote. But that was never likely let’s face it. Fine Gael are a conservative centre-right party with a capitalist ideology. If there’s a mad independent candidate with staring eyes who is running on a ticket of whatever the aliens tell him… then he will better represent my views than Frances Fitzgerald. Because if Frances is standing for a party which seeks to perpetuate our rampant over-consumption and unsustainable economic growth, then she’s standing on the opposite side of the barricades to me.

The policy part of her leaflet opens with a section on crime. It’s beyond predictable; real mass-psychology 101 stuff, y’know? Open with fear. Scared people are more compliant… more receptive to any future statements you make once you’ve adopted the guise of “protector”. And what better way to do this than talk about…

  • “more Gardaí­ on the beat”;
  • “more [Garda] cars and CCTV”;
  • “implement a policy of zero-tolerance”; and
  • “ensure that criminals serve their time… not back on the streets posing a threat”.

That’s a distillation of the first four items in her 5-point plan to “restore law and order to all our communities”. The fifth and final point talks about investment in “recreational facilities for young people”. In the name of all that’s sacred! Does a politician who thinks in such an unimaginative and insultingly simplistic way honestly believe she can represent my views?

Solving crime

Look, if there is indeed a crime problem then let’s make a serious attempt to solve it. No, no, I’m not suggesting that we’re ever going to stop murder and mayhem. That’s never going away. We’re apes, and there’ll always be plenty of folks willing to act as a reminder. But despite this, clearly we could choose to address the crime problem more rationally than we’re doing at present.

I mean, tell me; has “more CCTV” ever resulted in “restoring law and order”? I lived in the UK for a while… land of the everpresent cycloptian eye. Everywhere you turn in London there’s a half dozen CCTV cameras peering at you accusingly. Yet they appear not to have eliminated crime in London as yet. Presumably, therefore, to have the desired effect we’ll need more than they’ve got in London. How many more Frances? Do you want us living in a world where our every moment is scrutinised by the lens?

I know a book about that.

And when you proudly proclaim your intolerance Frances, like a badge of honour, then I shudder at the thought of being represented by someone with so little compassion. Zero tolerance, eh? Whenever I hear a politician utter that phrase I hear a distant response… “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. And I want to demand that politician imagine their life today if their every past transgression had been treated with zero-tolerance. Demand they tell me whether the compassion and forgiveness of others had any part at all in forming the person they are today. And why they seek to deny that to others.

Zero-tolerance is not a policy. It’s a way of looking at the world. And one that I will never vote for.

Of course I’m well aware of how difficult it is to accurately trace lines of cause and effect when it comes to something as complex as a social system. There’s just too many damn variables. Nonetheless, there’s a phrase from systems engineering… “predictable consequence”. It’s important to read that phrase as a technical term; one which is ever-so-slightly different to the literal. Think of it as a defined as “on the balance of probabilities and based upon what we know of the most influential factors of the system, this is a likely outcome”.

The point of the phrase is that it’s how the analyst identifies something that requires action. If I say that a predictable consequence of running a system at the required pressure would be blown valves; I’m not saying that the valves will blow. I’m saying they need to be replaced. It may sound like splitting hairs, I guess, but the distinction is a real one.

Now, to describe our drug policy as counter-productive is like describing the sun as warm. We have decided, voluntarily, to place one of the world’s largest and most lucrative industries entirely into the hands of violent criminals. We have voluntarily surrendered all control over the manufacture and distribution of some of the world’s most addictive substances. We have passed laws to ensure that the consumption of these substances is made vastly more dangerous than is necessary. And we have entire government agencies working tirelessly to drive up the price of these addictive substances.

The predictable consequence of that set of policies is a crime wave. It would not be stretching it too much to suggest that we’ve somehow managed to implement a set of drug policies which maximise the social damage of drugs. Rational drug law reform will not “solve crime”. However it will radically reduce the amount of violent and acquisitive crime in our society. So as a first step, I’d argue that’s the sensible place to start.

It’ll certainly do more to reduce crime than extra policemen and a couple of youth centres.

Improving public transport

Fine Gael is committed to introducing competition in the Dublin Bus market. By allowing private operators to tender competitively for licences…

Ohhhhhkaaaayyyy… I guess she’s really not after my vote. Well, it’s nice that she’s upfront about it.

Here’s my thing… this is what I actually want my bus to be. First and foremost, I want it to be a public service. Now that may sound selfish. “What about all those millions of people who want it to be a profitable business, eh?” you ask. But the thing is… are there really that many of them? Because I’ve yet to actually meet one, despite their prevelance in the political media circus.

I want a bus that leaves Rathcoole every half hour and takes me straight into the city centre bypassing the bottleneck that is Clondalkin. I don’t want the bus to make any profit, merely cover costs* and I want it to run 24 hours day (though the frequency can drop to one an hour between midnight and 5am).

That would be a public service. The fact that Frances Fitzgerald believes it would be a bad idea (or, mindbogglingly, that such a service is actually beyond the ability of Fine Gael to organise) suggests that her first desire isn’t to be a public servant. Rather she seeks to serve the interests of that portion of the population who would genuinely prefer the bus to be run primarily as a profitable business.

That can only mean the shareholders of the corporations tendering for the rights to make money out of our public transport. Good to know. All I need to do is become a wealthy shareholder in a predatory corporation seeking to run my bus service at the lowest possible cost to themselves and the highest possible cost to me. Then Frances Fitzgerald might want to represent my interests. Yay Fine Gael!

Almost time to take to the streets

Oh there’s plenty more, but really, who cares? If this is the best that mainstream politics can offer us… well, it’s clearly time to look outside mainstream politics for the solutions we need to the problems we’ve created. It’s time we swept aside the empty nonsense of the Frances Fitzgeralds of this world.

Woe betide the next politician to leaflet my street…

* In fact, I would like it subsidised by the taxpayer. But I’ll leave that last demand until a future election (one step at a time).

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2006

Plane Vs. Coach

In the comments to my last post, my old friend Philippe challenges the notion that carbon emissions / pollution from air travel is substantially worse than that generated by road travel (in this case, coach). Philippe used a website called Carbon Debt Calculator and came up with the following numbers…

Dublin – London 300miles
Driving emissions: 160kg CO2
Flying: 130kg
Train: 90kg

This flabbergasted me. It flew in the face of everything I’d been reading about the carbon emissions of air travel. Could it be true that flying 300 miles emits less CO2 than driving the same distance? This didn’t just fly in the face of everything I’d been reading, it flew in the face of common sense! How could it be, that the fuel consumed by picking up a 737 and hurling it into the air at 600kph to a height of 30,000 feet would be less than that consumed by rolling a far lighter vehicle the same distance along flat surfaces?

So I decided to do a little research. I couldn’t verify that Phil’s numbers are indeed the ones produced by the Carbon Debt Calculator (I can’t seem to get it to work… if I type 300 miles into the air travel box and hit ‘calculate’, it responds with “0 tons of CO2”). But based upon barely two hours of internet research and some excel spreadsheetery, I can confidently state that the Carbon Debt Calculator is a total bunch of arse should Philippe’s numbers be representative.

It’s just wrong.

First up: The Coach

The Dublin-London trip is complicated a little by a 70 mile stretch of water between the two. But in the interests of making this a more general (and therefore useful) comparison, let’s assume that both vehicles travel the same distance. In reality I suspect that the 70 mile “piggyback” that the coach receives from the predominantly freight-carrying ferry would reduce the total emissions generated by the journey.

OK… let’s work out the CO2 emitted by the coach on the 300 mile trip between Dublin and London. The vehicle was run by Bus Éireann who use Scania Irizar PB buses. According to the manufacturer, they get 8.15km per litre (let’s call it 7km to take account of potentially inflated claims by the manufacturer). Using a 1:0.62 conversion rate, that’s 4.3 miles / litre.

So the coach will consume approximately 70 litres of fuel during the trip. From here (PDF) we discover that the specific gravity of diesel is 0.88. That equates to a weight of 0.88 kg/litre. So the trip burns 61.6 kg of diesel oil. Remember…

When fuel oil is burned, it is converted to carbon dioxide and water vapour. Combustion of one kilogram of fuel oil yields 3.15 kilograms of carbon dioxide gas. Carbon dioxide emissions are therefore 3.15 times the mass of fuel burned.

Calculating the Environmental Impact of Aviation Emissions | An Oxford University Study (download PDF)

So the total CO2 generated by my 300 mile coach journey is roughly 194kg. Based on 85 passengers per coach, that’s 2.3 kg per traveller.

And now: The Plane

For this I’ll mostly be sourcing my data from the above-cited “Calculating the Environmental Impact of Aviation Emissions”. This is a fairly short report, but I recommend you download and read it. It’s interesting stuff.

With respect to our 300 mile journey, Table 1 of the report allows us to calculate the fuel consumed by a 737 between Dublin and London. Ryanair (they of the 99cent flights) have a fleet of Boeing 737s, so we’ll use them as our plane of choice. And according to that table, the 737 will consume approximately 2,200kg (2.2 tonnes) of fuel covering that distance.

Using the same factor of 1kg fuel = 3.15kg CO2, it appears that the 737 will emit 6,930kg of CO2 (almost 7 tonnes). Based on a capacity of 189 passengers, that results in 36 kg per traveller.

This is not a trivial difference… 2.3kg Vs. 36kg. It demonstrates that emissions generated by flying are a whole order of magnitude greater than covering the same distance by coach. What it doesn’t factor in, however, is the difference between emissions made at altitude and those made at ground level. The Oxford University report spends most of it’s time grappling with this issue and proposing a variety of metrics (multipliers) to take into account the altitude. For instance, it suggests that “the full climate impact of aviation is deemed to be between 2 and 4 times greater than CO2 alone”.

So best case scenario, you’re actually looking at 2.3kg Vs. 72kg per passenger.

Carbon offsetting: A bunch of arse

In the comments, it was also suggested that I could take the convenient and comfortable flight and then offset the carbon emitted either through a payment to a carbon-neutralising fund, or through “good works” of some kind.

Merrick‘s article Carbon offsets are a fraud is a good place to start on this subject. The simple reality is this: Carbon offsetting is a fraud. See? Just like the title to Merrick’s article. The planet has two carbon cycles. One takes place over geological periods of time and includes the carbon locked in fossil fuels. The other takes place over far shorter periods – the life-cycles of plants and animals.

You cannot compensate for the burning of fossil fuels by planting trees. It’s as simple as that.

But even more fundamentally. And this is the kicker. I have a very serious moral problem with the attitude that carbon-offsetting engenders. The suggestion that flying to London is OK so long as I pay someone to plant the trees to capture 72kg of carbon per flight. It’s the whole notion of paying to pollute. Of placing a cash value on environmental damage. Quite aside from it being profoundly undemocratic, it’s just plain wrong.

We don’t own the environment, and we have an obligation – to those that follow us – to minimise the damage we do. One option is to do just that… take the obligation seriously… actively minimise the damage you do (2.3kg Vs. 72kg). The other option is to ignore how much damage you’re doing and hope that by giving someone some cash (based on absurd estimates generated by rose-tinted websites) that they’ll be able to fix the problem at a later date sometime maybe.

Sorry, but that option’s just not good enough.

13 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2006

Travelling Dublin-London

I recently popped over to the UK for a few days. I spent a day in London, then a couple of days in West Sussex and then returned to Dublin. It’s possible that I may make that trip — to see gigs or visit friends — several times a year, so I wanted to find a cheap way of doing it that didn’t involve the airline industry.

We’ve all got an obligation to avail of less energy-extravagant, and less polluting, forms of transport where possible. Having taken far more than my fair share of flights, that’s an obligation I’ve begun to feel quite keenly. Which is not to say that I’ll never fly again… I still plan on visiting the United States at least once more, and who knows where else life will take me… but where there’s a practical alternative – even if it’s more expensive – then I’ll avoid planes.

And having visited the Ryanair website and seen the advertisements for the 99 cent Dublin-London flights, it’s inevitable that the alternatives will indeed be more expensive.

Or so you’d think. But in reality those 99 cent flights are only available to a select few individuals… people, who by virtue of their peculiar diplomatic status, don’t have to pay the fuel surcharge and airport taxes. Because, you see, those 99 cent flights (or €1.98 return) cannot actually be purchased without also spending over 50 euro on surcharges and taxes. It’s the same for every other low cost airline. The same for Aerlingus.

In fact, it’s not possible to get a return flight from Dublin to London for less than the €51.40 charged by the taxmen at both airports. This is still a scandalously low price, don’t get me wrong, but do bear it in mind when you see a poster advertising flights for 99 cent.

Especially as you can get a coach for €35. And no hidden extras. In fact, it’s possible you may be able to do it even cheaper than that, but I’m a sucker for publicly owned public transport, so even if they don’t offer the best deal I’m going to go with Bus Éireann. I doubt – after all – that you’ll do much better than 35 euro.

12 Hours

Anyways, that’s the problem. It’s a 12 hour journey. And I’m 6’1″… which is too tall to spend 7 hours sitting in the narrow seat directly in front of the hyperactive six year old who throws up near Birmingham.

You see, it’s bearable to have a 7 hour coach trip followed by a 4 hour ferry crossing. The return journey is — relatively speaking — a breeze. Because although the ferry is too bright, too loud, and you can never get properly comfortable; it’s nonetheless a glorious relief after 7 hours cooped up in a coach between London and Holyhead.

But having disembarked from the vaguely hostile environment of the ferry, 7 hours in a coach is a terrifying prospect. Especially when idiotic parents feed their already-wired child with cola and chocolate.

Which is why, next time I make the journey, I’ve decided to get the train from Holyhead to London. It adds an extra €15 to the total cost of the trip (still cheaper than the airport taxes though), and it doesn’t save a huge amount of time (thanks to the faff of changing at Crewe), but trains are far more comfortable than coaches.

So yeah, 50 euro round trip from Dublin to London… coach-ferry-train / coach-ferry-coach. Cheaper than flying, better for the planet, and you get to do some reading. Yay!

NOTE: The environmental benefits of taking the coach are established, and discussed, in this entry.

Some links (update February 2012)

This post is the second most popular one on my blog. So I’ve added a couple of recent links for people looking for information on travelling from Dublin to London without using a plane. I don’t want to give the impression that these links constitute a commercial endorsement of these companies, but they do provide a very useful service for those of us seeking to avoid air travel for environmental (or other) reasons.

  • Stena Line Sail and Rail: Offering an integrated ferry and train ticket between most mainline destinations in Ireland and the UK. Approximately €50 for a ticket on the day of travel between Dublin and London (with a slight discount for advance booking).
  • Bus Éireann Eurolines: Offering a combined ferry and coach service between destinations in Ireland and the UK.
  • Bus Éireann: Bus Éireann website. For coach travel within Ireland.
  • Irish Rail: Irishrail.ie. For train travel within Ireland.
  • Dublin Bus: For bus routes and timetables in Dublin.
  • Luas.ie: For the Dublin Luas (light rail) system.

Hope this helps!

42 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2006

Privatising Aer Lingus

I watched the weekly political debate show, Questions & Answers, last night. It confirmed all my worst fears about the corporatisation of politics. You’ve no idea how much it annoys me that the field of debate has been so narrowed; that mainstream politics has been reduced to a few ever-so-slightly differentiated shades of capitalist grey. The politicos on the panel were a Labour TD (TD = MP) representing the left, a government minister representing the centre, and an independent Senator representing the right.

The first question asked whether or not the privatisation of Aer Lingus “represents a good deal”. Now, it’s only since I’ve returned to Dublin that I realised Aer Lingus (Ireland’s national airline) was still state-owned. Not only that, but it is currently – relative to its size – an extremely profitable airline. In the past, during downturns in air travel or during periods of mismanagement, the company has required government / taxpayer support. Now that it is doing well, the current government (plus the main opposition party) think it’s a good idea to sell it off.

Presumably the idea is to make some quick cash on the deal before peak oil wipes out the airline industry. And regular readers might think I’d be in favour of that… offload an asset soon to become damn near worthless into the hands of a bunch of market speculators. Use the money to build a few hospitals. What could be wrong with that? Well. Quite a lot actually.

Am I never happy?

Well, yes. But not when a bunch of centre-right oafs are blundering around the country, selling off any public asset that isn’t nailed down. I once wrote that I believed Britain could still be defined, loosely, as a socialist nation up until Thatcher sold off the energy and communications infrastructure. By doing that she made a bunch of money for the already wealthy and ended the ability of the British public to control their own economy.

Recently this Irish government has flogged the telecommunications system, converting its legal status from “service provider” to “profit engine”. It’s interesting to note that investors are very happy with the deal, but the Irish citizen is less so. Leastways that’s the portrait painted by the media. Thankfully it looks as though energy production will remain public at least until capitalism begins to visibly decay (and hence, indefinitely). So Ireland is – in a specific, but very real sense – still socialist to a degree. As of right now, the public still owns significant assets, significant elements of the economic infrastructure and can exercise control over those assets through their democratic representation.

Few things piss me off more than watching politicians; the peoples representatives; shake their heads and meekly (or even worse, condescendingly) state that they can’t do anything about a social problem because it’s in the hands of private enterprise. For years successive British transport ministers agreed that the rail system was deteriorating, but told the public that they had no control over the way private companies are run. It makes me want to wring some necks.

Which brings me back to Questions & Answers and the subject of privatising Aer Lingus. The very first thing that should be pointed out is that this is a godawful deal. Even if I dust off that capitalist hat I tried on for size back in the 90s, the fact is – if you were going to privatise an airline, you really wouldn’t do it this way. The government intends to retain a significant, but minority shareholding in the company. This means there’s a siginificant reduction in the amount of shares being sold, and a consequent loss of income. On top of that, by retaining an influence on the company board of directors, it makes the whole airline less attractive to private investors who will worry about “government meddling” and fear that they won’t be able to make the business as profitable as they would like if it was required to go against the policy of the government of the day in order to do so (a government that could be Green or Leftist or anything in 10 years).

So essentially; from the point of view of the taxpayer, the government is nigh guaranteeing the lowest possible price while at the same time ceding control over the asset. And from the point of view of the capitalist, the government is retaining the right to interfere with how a private company is run, and thus making the whole venture far less likely to succeed commercially. On top of all that, the newly privatised company intends to borrow at least as much as it earned from the floatation as soon as privatisation is completed. Possibly significantly more. All of which reduces the price that investors are willing to pay for those shares that are made available.

Given the likely direction to be taken by the airline industry in the face of peak oil, this will result in the collapse of the privatised Aer Lingus within about 10 years. Probably less given how deeply in debt they will be. And there’ll be very little the government will be able to do about it, except wait until the company runs itself into a massive mountain of debt and bail them out at an absurd cost to the exchequer. Far, far more than was gained in the sell-off.

But hey, I’ve no doubt a bunch of already-wealthy speculators will make a small fortune in the immediate aftermath of the privatisation. So that’s alright then. Once the government looks after them, the average citizen can rest easy knowing he or she only has to become a millionaire and they too will be represented by the people they vote for.

Market disengagement instead of privatisation

What should be done is obvious. Market disengagement. And what annoyed me about Questions & Answers was the fact that not a single member of the panel even hinted at having thought in these terms, let alone giving them the headspace to examine seriously. The Labour TD was opposed to privatisation, as are her party. Credit where it’s due. However her objections were all about practical issues. It’s as though the notion that there may be an ideological debate to be had was somehow quaint. Faintly embarrassing. You got the feeling that perhaps she had convictions, but wouldn’t dream of admitting that in public… so if you could demonstrate that “the deal was good” for the taxpayer that all would be well.

She even resorted to the bland buzzwords of doomed capitalism. About how “everyone wants to see” Aer Lingus compete well in the marketplace. About how “of course” we want to see the company grow and expand into new routes and markets. Sheesh… doesn’t anyone actually believe anything anymore? I mean aside from The Race For Profit Is A Race That Must Be Won.

I was reminded of Douglas Adams’ wonderful observation about the BBC…

Television companies are not in the business of delivering television programs to their audience, they’re in the business of delivering audiences to their advertisers. (This is why the BBC has such a schizophrenic time – it’s actually in a different business from all its competitors)

You see, it is my belief that a state airline should not be trying to “compete” at all. In the marketplace or anywhere else. It should be run, like any other state asset, in a manner that can best serve the Irish public. Everyone on the panel, and – it seems – everyone in the Irish media, believes that Aer Lingus needs significant new investment to buy more planes so that it can expand. But that’s complete nonsense. It is not the best way to serve the Irish public. The last thing Aer Lingus should be planning is expansion.

Small is beautiful

Look, the airline business is at its peak right now. Maybe another two years… maybe three tops. After that, it’s permanently downhill for jet-engined passenger flight. But I accept that whatever commercial flight does still exist during the next 10 or 15 years will look something like its present form. There’ll just be a lot less of it, and it’ll be much more expensive. Eventually it’ll die completely and all international flight will be done in slow solar-powered dirigibles, and the enterprise will become rather sedate and civilised, with dining rooms and cool observation decks and everything (that’s the optimist talking… I usually keep him locked in the cellar).

But until then, and while modern air travel is gasping its last, there will remain a need for scheduled flights to and from this country. It is the job of a state airline to provide that service as effectively as possible. It is not its job to compete with other airlines in the lucrative low-cost short-haul market. Nor its job to expand into another five US destinations and provide the Irish consumer with more choice. Its job is to ensure that Irish people can get to and from wherever they need to go, whenever they need to go there. That this island does not become isolated before anywhere else. Climate change activists may not like this job, but all the same, that’s what it is.

And to this end, the best strategy is to begin reducing the size of the company and securing its ability to do two things very very well. Getting people to and from Heathrow efficiently. And getting people to and from New York efficiently. From Heathrow there are connecting flights to every major city in the world. From New York, to everywhere in America.

Over a period of a couple of years, Aer Lingus should sell off its entire fleet with the exception of those aircraft required to service New York and London. This would almost certainly (bizarrely) net the government more than the sale of the company as a whole. Of course, the workforce and the unions won’t like that very much. And that’s where the traditional left is really coming from with its desire for expansion.

But look, these are well-trained professionals by-and-large and they’ll be beating the rush. The entire industry is going to be shedding jobs before too long; let the Aer Lingus staff get that particular skillset into the job market before the others. And by losing their jobs because of a deliberate scale-down and asset sale, they can get very generous redundancy cheques; unlike those who lose their jobs through bankruptcy. The rest of the money from the asset sale (planes cost a lot of money, I’m sure there’ll be some left over) can make up the current pensions deficit in the company.

Those two routes alone may not make a profitable company. I honestly don’t know. But even if it didn’t, I’m certain it could be done efficiently enough so that the shortfall in the running costs won’t cost the taxpayer too much. And in return for that small tax burden, Irish people know that they are securely connected to the rest of the world via a service they themselves own and control. At least until either Heathrow or New York cease fulfilling their function due to peak oil… but I guarantee you that a privatised Aer Lingus will go under before that happens.

Capitalists will complain of course. Blah blah blah government subsidies blah blah blah restrictive practices unfair competition blah. And yes. It’s all those things. Even the blahs. What part of “anti-capitalist” don’t you understand? But hey, just think of all the fun the other airlines will have fighting for scraps… expanding into the routes abandoned by Aer Lingus… after all, if Aer Lingus is selling the planes, someone is buying (and it’s a little known fact that there’s a shortage of commercial jet aircraft in the market at the moment… airlines are placing big orders and having to wait years for delivery… right now, it’s a sellers market).

Many on my side of the barbed wire may be looking at me a little askew also. Am I trying to put forward some kind of sustainable jet airline industry idea here? Preaching business as usual? Isn’t that precisely what I criticise the mainstream environmental movement for doing? Well yes, that is what I criticise the Greens for, but no that’s not what I’m doing.

If tomorrow I were ordained God Emperor, then it’d be solar-powered dirigibles or nothing. So get those thinking caps on over at JPL, you folks are very very smart, I’ve no doubt you can adapt to a new specification and come up with some wild new ideas. The reality is, whatever way you cut it, the airline industry – in its current form – will not survive.

However, what would I do in the unlikely event that I’m not made God Emperor, but instead merely put in charge of Aer Lingus and given a specific brief… “Turn this profitable company into a public service and ensure that Ireland is connected to the international transport network so long as that network exists”.

And well, that’s what I’d do.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2006

A month in Dublin

It’s actually more than a month since I arrived here. But “A month and a half in Dublin” doesn’t scan right to my ears for some reason. I feel that, health-wise, things are improving for me (albeit slowly). But the combination of not feeling too great and not knowing anyone has meant that I’ve yet to really get out and explore the city. That said, it does provide an opportunity to record a first impression of the place as viewed through a long-exposure lens.


It’s a small village just outside Dublin City. In Irish the name Rath Cúil means “The Ring Fort of The Secluded Place” which is exactly the sort of location I’d expect to find The Quiet Road. In truth it’s a wonderful place to live, and I hope soon to be taking far more advantage of that fact than I currently am.

Dublin’s public transport is pretty dire (more on which later), but Rathcoole is as well-connected as a small, relatively rural, community could expect to be. It’s at the end of a bus-route from the centre of the city, and is 15 minutes by bus from a stop on the LUAS (the tram system). As well as that, it’s 20 minutes by bus from Tallaght; a major shopping centre with supermarkets, record-shops, cinemas, restaurants… basic Big Mall stuff. In other words, Rathcoole is exactly far enough away from all these things to feel quiet and isolated, without actually being far enough to cause genuine inconvenience.

Sorry if I sound a bit like a brochure for the village, which may well have drawbacks yet to become apparent, but it’s the best part of my move thus far and worthy of remark. A good place to live.

Unless you don’t like the rain

I want to assure you that this is not an exaggeration. I say it to people… people who live here, mind… and they tell me that I’m imagining things, or “that can’t be right” or “don’t be so silly”. But the fact is; it has rained in Rathcoole every day since I have arrived except for the two days on which it snowed. No, I’m deadly serious… every day for the past 50.

This is not to suggest that it has been raining non-stop since I arrived… now that would be rather unsettling. Indeed there have been days when the sun blazed brightly and you could feel the approach of summer on the air. There have been days that were almost cloudless and the evening sky a glorious azure blue. Basically, there’s been plenty of good weather.

But it has rained, even if just a tiny shower mid-afternoon, every single day. I’ve gone whole years in some countries without ever seeing a rainbow. Springtime in Rathcoole and you’re guaranteed at least two a week. It’s a cliché, but there’s no question about why this place is known as ‘The Emerald Isle’. Even when it snows, it doesn’t stick for long because the air warms up almost immediately afterwards. It’s never hot, it’s never really cold, it’s wet and mild pretty much every day from the start of spring until the middle of winter. The prototypical temperate climate… and one guaranteed to make plants thrive.

It’s obviously nothing like the rampant, out of control growth that you see in the rainforest. Nonetheless, you get the distinct impression that were humanity to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn’t be too long before the cities and roads were reclaimed. A narrow strip of grey – the Naas Road – runs past my window a few hundred metres away (thank the stars for effective insulation and sound-proofing). Aside from that, the view is green and blue (or green and grey). Fields, trees and sky. Replace the road with a river and you have perfection… for now I’m happy to do it metaphorically. And thankfully, I don’t mind the rain.

… and then three come at once

Before I start turning into a Bord Fáilte advertisement, let me get the unpleasant stuff out of the way. If I have one serious complaint to make (so far) about Dublin, it’s the diabolical public transport system. I accept that having lived for a long time in London, there could be an element of unreasonable expectation involved (however much Londoners may complain about the transport, it is unquestionably one of the best systems in the world… I’ve lived all over the place and London has the best transport of any city I’ve lived in). Nonetheless, Ireland has been through a decade of unprecedented economic success. The place is – even now – awash with money. That Dublin has succeeded, during all this time, of building nothing better than two tram lines that don’t intersect is something of an embarrassment. Don’t get me wrong; the tram (LUAS) is great. But it’s so limited, and so completely ad hoc.

A journey I have to make with a degree of regularity is from home, in Rathcoole (southwest Dublin), to Stillorgan (to the east of the city). Stillorgan has a tram stop. But to avail of it, I’d have to make my way to my nearest tram stop, get the tram into the city centre and change onto the other line to get the tram out to Stillorgan. Just like the tube in London you’d think? Except here, changing onto the other line involves a quarter hour walk through the centre of the city! In the name of all that’s sacred, who approved that idea?!

It’s not too difficult to see where much of the economic boom has been spent though… there’s new roads all over the place. A government that builds more roads whilst simultaneously underfunding public transport is close to being criminally negligent in my view. It’s a nonsense policy decision that in the longterm benefits construction firms and the auto industry far more than it benefits citizens of the nation. A government that deliberately places the interests of big business before the interests of the people it is elected to serve, is a government that needs removing from office.

The thin grey strip outside my window has traffic jams in one direction for three hours in the morning, and the same in the other direction for three hours each evening. Yet there’s not a single bus amongst that traffic… no routes serve this stretch of road. Hell, why isn’t there a tram line running all the way from here to Naas, winding it’s way through the various villages? And a series of local and frequent bus routes stopping at those stations and serving towns and villages wider afield? You’re right, it probably wouldn’t make a profit. But would it benefit the people?

Yes it bloody well would; so why aren’t the government doing it? If the cash is there to build the roads, then it’s there to build the tram lines and buy the buses. And yeah, we put up petrol tax and levy a congestion charge to pay the operating costs. That way we don’t have to spend nearly as much on the roads. It’s surely an obvious strategy, unless you don’t have the interests of the people as top priority.

Corporate politicians

But I guess, like every other neoliberated democracy, the Irish government is more concerned about being business-friendly than citizen-friendly. Economic issues trump social issues. Economics trumps culture. All hail the almighty economy. I only wish a history book from the far future would slip back to us through a wormhole (Carlyle’s Drift, perhaps, though I guess Chronology Protection Conjecture would kick-in and prevent such an event). I’d love to read the incredulity with which our devotion to economic expansion at the expense of all else will be viewed. Entire new lexicons will have to be coined to adequately express our short-termism.

Anyways, Irish politics is mired in the same fight for the centre ground as everywhere else. A battle between fools and knaves about who best can protect a doomed status quo. The Greens have slightly more influence here than in most places thanks to a fairly representative electoral system, but even they promise a watered-down version of the present as being the happily ever after into which we all may travel. They use the word “sustainability” a lot, but keep very quiet about just how major the perceived drop in living standards would have to be to achieve that. Maybe they don’t wish to “frighten” voters. But in that case they’re just as dishonest as all the politicians who promise the electorate the earth and then deliver it to their friends. Or maybe they really believe that sustainable consumption is something close to what we’ve already got, and that people will merely have to recycle a bit more and use their cars a bit less.

In that case they’re idiots. But they’re more well-meaning than the idiots in other parties, so maybe still worth a vote? I can’t say for sure, but it’s probably safe to say I’ll come back to the subject between now and 2007’s general election.

In my next installment in this occasional series, expect some musing about how Ireland is dealing with the recent influx of immigrants (I’m a returned-émigré, so “I’m all right” apparently), thoughts on the strangely influential role that talk-radio plays in Irish society, more about the public transport system and how peak oil activism is growing in Ireland (even if it’s nowhere near policy-level), and some investigations of the local confectionary… mmmm… caramello… mmmmm

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