Tag Archives: rail freight

Repost: Held to ransom

I’m on the road. Therefore, rather than write anything new, I’m fobbing you off with something I wrote a year ago, before anyone much read this blog…

Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty.  The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out.  Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped.  Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year.  But nothing except the mines themselves shut down.  Thatcher had pre-empted the strike.  The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles.  The country had the means to import coal.  And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear.  The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.

Ten years ago today, the streets were empty.  The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four.  The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services.  Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it.  Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered.  Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.

The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.

But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck.  And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds.  Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.

After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:

I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.

The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again.  She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.

On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:

No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.

The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely.  You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.

Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now?  Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight?  How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations?  You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage.  You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure.  You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation.  You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.

Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008
Million tonnes
Road
Rail
Water Pipeline
2000 1,693 96 R 137 151
2001 1,682 94 R 131 151
2002 1,734 87 R 139 146
2003 1,753 89 R 133 141
2004 1,863 100 127 158
2005 1,868 105 133 168
2006 1,940 108 126 159
2007 2,001 102 126 146
2008 1,868 103 123 147
Coverage: Great Britain
Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)

The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call.  Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.

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How will High Speed 2 help?

I’m writing this on the Far North Line, a place that is 12 hours from London, and has no need to be any closer to it.

It’s hard to define what you mean when you ask whether something helps — whether it is helpful to do something.  What I mean is, whose lives will be better when HS2 is running?  That question isn’t really any less ambiguous, is it?  What positive effect might HS2 have on our health, wealth, productivity, happiness, or any other measure that you think is worth maximising in life.

At AWWTM, we have noticed that having a calm, quiet, clean and beautiful built environment, designed for people and unspoilt by the noise, fumes, and general intimidatory and isolating presence of cars and trucks, seems to make a worthwhile contribution to all of the above measures.  We have observed that wasting years of your life in unpleasant transport conditions — whether a traffic jam or an overstuffed commuter train — tends to make a harmful contribution.  And we think that catastrophic climate change would also probably not be a good thing for our health, wealth, and happiness, and so avoiding causing that would be helpful.

So how will High Speed 2 help with these kinds of things?  I find it increasingly difficult to answer this question, which worries me, because my prejudice is that high speed rail must surely be helpful, and I instinctively like the idea of our having it.  And I just don’t want to be on the same side as a bunch of Tory nimbys.  It’s a railway, and railways are good things.

The government has been selling HS2 as a means to improve and save the environment while helping sustain economic growth.  Currently, many long-distance north-south travelers believe that the car or domestic flights are more suitable forms of transport for them than the train.  If only the train were a bit faster, for many more travelers, the balance would tip in favour of the train.  This would take cars off the road and planes out of the sky, cutting noise and air pollution, visual and physical destruction of our neighbourhoods, and greenhouse gas emissions.  It would help to achieve helpful things.

(As an aside, rail fares throughout the country have just gone up and the government are trying to justify this by pointing to the improvement programs that the fares will fund, including HS2.  But if HS2 is supposed to be to bring the benefits of rail travel to current car and plane users, shouldn’t they be funding it?  Say, with a tax on aviation fuel appropriate to the level of harm that burning it at altitude does?  This government does, after all, support the principle of people like students paying now for hypothetical future economic prosperity.)

Unfortunately, the government’s own current projections are actually that most HS2 users will be existing rail users merely going faster than before on brand new trains and track, which if true and if sustained, rather spoils the greenhouse gas and road congestion arguments anyway.  (I’m not actually convinced this would remain true though: the first users will indeed come from conventional rail, but if HS2 demonstrates sufficient benefits for car and plane users, over time many people who are currently invested in car and plane based lifestyles will adapt to it.  Just as when the first motorways opened they were used only by existing car owners for car journeys that would otherwise would have been made on convention roads — but over time, they filled up as people adapted their lifestyles and built environment to the motorway world, buying more cars and making more journeys.)

A better case for HS2 seems to be in relieving conventional rail congestion.  We are told that the West Coast Main Line is full.  (Virgin Trains have just this week been allowed to run one extra friday evening train per day to Manchester, but perhaps this is at the expense of a freight or stock slot?)  This means we have overcrowding on the existing WCML intercity and regional trains (though many of these can at least be lengthened as a short-term solution), which will only get worse as passenger numbers continue to grow.  And at a time when we need to be investing in the infrastructure for switching freight from road to rail, road freight is growing and rail freight stagnating, because there is insufficient capacity even for loads that are perfectly suited to the existing rail freight infrastructure.  (Several of you are now thinking to yourselves, “isn’t this WCML argument rather reminiscent of predict-and-provide, and hasn’t predict-and-provide had miserable consequences when applied to road building?”  I’m going to ignore you for this post, but we can discuss it later.)

So I guess HS2 will help: without it, the lack of available WCML capacity is driving people into their cars and freight onto the roads, and is holding back development of better rail freight infrastructure.  But is it the most helpful thing we could be doing with the money?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that most journeys in the UK are not inter-city journeys.  Most journeys are short — within a city, or, between nearby towns and villages for shopping, services, socialising and employment.  Most people easily go for months without leaving a 50 mile radius of their house; long-distance journeys are an occasional luxury, for holidays.  But it is these local journeys, though short, which tend to cause more problems per mile — because they are in our town centres and residential neighbourhoods rather than on the motorway.  And these are the journeys that are ignored by the government as something uninteresting that the district council can deal with as they see fit.

Local councils never do deal with transport issues as they see fit.  They deal with them as best as they can afford, and (biggest, densest cities aside) local councils can only afford roads, and even then, only roads that they can build bit-by-bit over the course of a decade.  Somerset and Dorset yearn for their railway to return.  Portishead desperately needs just three miles of track laid on an existing clear trackbed.  Scotland and Wales, where the railways were really hacked to pieces, and London, are leading the way in actually rebuilding these railway lines that people want for their simple short and medium-distance everyday journeys.  But Scotland, Wales, and London all have their own big-budget regional governments to help do this.  Everywhere else has little uncooperative local councils who don’t have the resources to do things like rebuild branch lines.

Spending tens of billions of pounds on getting these sorts of projects going — reconnecting those towns of over 10,000 population which were kicked off the railways; and bringing back the little lines that each connected dozens of villages to the market and county towns where the jobs and services are — would ultimately affect a great many more people than HS2, and I suspect it would have many more positive knock-on effects on development patterns and a far more profound effect on people’s health, wealth, productivity and happiness, than would increasing the top speed of a few intercity trains from 125 to 200 mph.

Of course, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do both.  They would still cost less than a bank bailout.  We could privatise the motorways to pay for it.

Held to ransom

Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty.  The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out.  Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped.  Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year.  But nothing except the mines themselves shut down.  Thatcher had pre-empted the strike.  The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles.  The country had the means to import coal.  And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear.  The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.

Ten years ago today, the streets were empty.  The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four.  The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services.  Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it.  Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered.  Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.

The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.

But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck.  And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds.  Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.

After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:

I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.

The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again.  She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.

On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:

No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.

The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely.  You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.

Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now?  Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight?  How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations?  You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage.  You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure.  You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation.  You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.

Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008
Million tonnes
Road
Rail
Water Pipeline
2000 1,693 96 R 137 151
2001 1,682 94 R 131 151
2002 1,734 87 R 139 146
2003 1,753 89 R 133 141
2004 1,863 100 127 158
2005 1,868 105 133 168
2006 1,940 108 126 159
2007 2,001 102 126 146
2008 1,868 103 123 147
Coverage: Great Britain
Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)

The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call.  Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.