To transport nerds like me and Tom, something stood out in Simon Birkett’s Street Talk about air pollution in London:
When you map air pollution levels in central London you get an only very-slightly fuzzy road map, of course. But that other thing — you see the other thing, more polluting than anything else on the map?
You can see it when you look at the whole city — three things that aren’t roads clearly stand out:
Well one of them is obviously Heathrow Airport, way out west, but those other two…
It’s those old Intercity 125s, high speed diesel trains on London’s remaining major non-electrified railways** — the Great Western into Paddington, and the Midland into St Pancras. You might also spot a lesser line, the Chiltern to Marylebone (Waterloo, Euston, and King’s Cross also still get a very small number of diesels, but not enough to leave any obvious trace on the map).
Makes one wonder how bad the air is in Bristol and Cardiff, where all the trains are diesel.
For most of the day, Paddington hosts half a dozen or more old Intercity 125s each hour from the Westcountry and South Wales. That’ll change when lines to Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford go electric over the next few years. The long distance trains will either be electric, or bizarre hybrids that will burn fuel only where the power lines run out on a few routes.
The £1 bn electrification of the Great Western lines is being sold by Philip Hammond and the DfT almost entirely as an investment to improve speed (always the obsession with speed!) and capacity — the electric trains will accelerate faster, cutting perhaps as much as a fifth from the journey time when combined with other line upgrades. (Trains to Swansea will have to be bizarre hybrids, carrying the dead weight of fuel and engines all the way from London, because the final few miles beyond Cardiff won’t be electrified on the grounds that there are other physical constraints on journey times between Swansea and Cardiff — always the obsession with speed!)
But crucial to the electrification project are EU carbon emissions and air pollution regulations, both of which are tightened again next year: they make it more expensive to build and buy compliant diesel engines, and they mean that money is thrown away on mitigation and fines, costs which seal the case for electrification. Without such regulations pushing up the cost of diesel, the current occupants of the Treasury would never have agreed to spending the money on wires.
And yet the fact that electrification will reduce the incidence of childhood asthma and horrible deaths from respiratory diseases in Cardiff and Bristol and West London doesn’t seem to be something that the government wants to boast about. To boast about solving air pollution would require first that the government publicly acknowledge the frightening scale of the air pollution problem — and then that they acknowledge that, without the EU, they never would have bothered solving it.
* After six Labour transport secretaries did nothing, the final one, Adonis, succeeded in getting electrification announced, only for an unfortunate general election to fall between the announcement and his being able to implement it.
** Yes, I know they are both electrified within London for some commuter services.