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Cattle class, moving targets and electric cars - Letter to the Economist (unpublished) September 2006

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The article titled Cattle class of 8th July starts with the notion that the rail system is popular but expensive.  It may be popular in the minds of the public but half of us use a train less that once a year.  It is certainly expensive – costing every household in the land £2,000 in taxes over the decade.  You then cite subsidy of £1.4 billion per year at the end of the century.  That is correct but, for the period 1954 to 2000 the operating subsidy averaged £2.35 bn at 2004 prices.  Capital may have added at least one billion to that providing an annual average of over £3 billion.

You point out that rail absorbs 40% of Government expenditure on transport.  However, rather than the 8% of journeys going by rail that you cite the true number is 2%.  Indeed only 1.7% go by national rail which accounts for a negligible 6 % of passenger-miles.

You conclude by citing Mr Grant as saying that closing rural railways may bring more benefits than costs -  wishing upon us cycle routes.  We fear closure remembering that under Beeching 9,000 miles were lost due to lack of imagination.  Instead of being abandoned to rabbits and hedgehogs these invaluable and superbly engineered rights of way should be converted to motor roads.  That would enable express coach services to replace trains at a fraction the cost while removing unsuitable traffic from the collection of access roads, which makes up most of the rural road network. (See The New Rural Economy, IEA).

In your article “Moving Target” of 19th August you berate road transport for causing 95% of Transport’s carbon emissions overlooking the fact that road transport carries nearly 95% of passenger-miles.  Indeed since the average car journey is 5 miles long compared with 25 by national rail the carbon emitted per journey by rail turns out to be double that by car.  As for the carbon crack down, some of the facts that should inform policy are as follows:

Carbon from UK transport amounts to one quarter of the UK’s total, which in turn amounts 2% of the global (manmade) total. 
Public transport is often only slightly more carbon efficient than the car.  Sometimes the car is very much the more efficient, e.g. when compared with a nearly empty bus of train.
Hence, if our economy were ruined, by halving our emissions, the effect on global carbon would be trivial. Similarly, if we brought our entire transport system to a complete standstill global emissions would be reduced by half of one percent at a time when China is said to be bringing a new coal fired power station online once a week. 
Consequently fiddling on the fringe, by e.g. pretending one can get people out of cars into trains or buses (see 2. above) or by throwing eggs at people with 4-wheel drive vehicles, is about as useful as putting ones head in a paper bag when faced with a machine gun.
In short the UK actions are quite pointless unless the rest of the world does likewise and on a massive scale. If it did then billions would starve who might otherwise have reasonable hope.  Meanwhile others claim that dealing with global warming would be many times as expensive as living with it.
Lastly, (a) manmade emissions account for only 3-4 of the total carbon cycle (b) despite the noise, there are lots of experts who are confident that warming is not manmade.  Indeed some say that in a few years it will be global cooling.

That said it is perhaps clear that if everyone had a First World standard of living the place would soon run out of resources of all sorts.  The only long term answer to that is to have the population fall by a factor of at least 10.  However, it is difficult to find volunteers.  So probably all we can do is watch and wait while protecting what we have.

As for electric cars – the key point to remember is that the electricity they burn is generated in power stations that waste 37% of the primary energy.  There are then transmission losses of (4-8)% followed by losses on the vehicle.  Hence these toys may have a carbon footprint not much different from that of a modern diesel powered car.  Whatever the difference it will be trivial in comparison to the need – according to the Greens - of cutting the First World’s carbon by 90% and the rest by 50%.

Paul F Withrington (Director)

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