26 Jun 2010

The trouble with cars

The trouble with cars is,
  1. They take up too much space and are therefore literally toxic to civilised urban life.
  2. One is moving the best part of 1000kg of which less than 20% consists of actual payload.
  3. Rubber-on-tarmac is inefficient compared to steel-on-steel.
  4. Car-based transport requires the individual to invest in and operate a very expensive and fast-depreciating item of complex and sophisticated capital equipment.
  5. Cars are a huge waste of time as it is impossible to spend time travelling in them in a productive way.
Off course we all use cars because when patterns of travel are very diverse, there is no other option. But we should not be using cars for journeys in densely built-up areas, and we should also be thinking whether land-use planning is forcing people into the unnecessary use of cars.

No technological breakthrough is going to resolve all of the drawbacks of cars as we know them today. We need a better mix of modes, including walking, cycling, buses, trams, heavy rail as well as cars. Which needs the right mix of infrastructure to make it possible to travel by different modes as appropriate.

Somehow, though, I don't think we are going to get it in Britain.

New surface line stock for London underground

S Stock On 52N, originally uploaded by oiyou.

London's entire fleet of surface line stock is being renewed with a single fleet. Some of it dates from 1960, most of it from around 1970 or 1978/79. All has been refurbished in the past ten years and looks perfectly presentable.

Of course there are advantages in having new trains and a single uniform fleet, or ought to be. They can use less less electricity through regenerative braking, and they should also cause less wear and tear on the track and need less maintenance.

But will they? And how long will it take to realise the savings and recover the cost of the investment? It's just a question.

Professor says "invest in roads not rail"

"Cutting the roads budget marginalises the masses and ignores the fact taxpayers already subsidise niche rail and bus sectors." So says Stephen Glaister, professor of Transport and Infrastructure at Imperial College, London, in an article in today's Guardian. Glaister is also a spokesmen for the Royal Automobile Foundation and so not a neutral party to the debate.

Not very professorial

Glaister begins by stating that "For most people, most of the time, the car is public transport. Ninety-two per cent of passenger travel takes place on the roads." That is not a very professorial statement. Is that 92% of trips, or mileage, or what?

Anyhow it is not sustainable, not because of carbon dioxide emissions but because of resource depletion, sheer lack of space and the fact that such widespread use of cars is not possible in a small urbanised country with a concentrated population. Nor does further investment to encourage the use of cars deal with the problem of their impact on cities, which have became a nightmare of noise, air pollution and congestion.

And why is the figure high anyway? Bad land-use planning which has resulted in car-dependency for so many. Failure to invest in public transport, which within Europe is a peculiarly British phenomenon.

The idea that railways do not pay their way arises from the use of different criteria for road and rail. A road does "not pay its way" and nobody expects it to because, unless it is a toll road, there are no direct receipts from those who use it. A road creates land value all the way along the route. But so does all infrastructure, so long as it is needed and used. To claim that railways do not pay their way is to ignore this external value. Property values in places like Oxford and Brighton are largely supported on the strength of their train services.

This is not to say that the railways are being run efficiently, or that that investment is necessarily needed in new high speed railways. There has been huge waste, for example in withdrawing fleets of rolling stock prematurely when they had a couple of decades of useful life left. But that is not support for Glaister's argument. To follow his line of thinking will lead us to more of what can be seen in the picture at the top of the page.

That said, there are serious questions that need to be asked. Public transport in Britain is poor compared to similar countries in Western Europe. Partly this is due to lack of investment, partly due to poor investment. There are some absurdly extravagant projects at the planning stage, like Crossrail in its present form. The inter-city express programme, now on the verge of cancellation. And resources are being used extravagantly. One has to ask, for example, why all the surface line stock in London is being changed just because some of it dates back to the 1960s. What is the real gain? What is the payback time?

I fear that these questions will not be asked and that Britain is being softened up by the Roads Party for another round of road building. Ultimately, it is a decision about what kind of a country we want to live in.

20 Jun 2010

East of England agency calls for faster trains

Presumably as a parting shot before being shut down, the East of England Development Agency put out a wish-list for improvements to the Great Eastern main line to Ipswich and Norwich, including new trains.

The worrying thing about this was the number of things that were stirred into the pot. Necessary infrastructure improvements are one thing. New trains are another, especially since it is now accepted that the mark 3 fleet presently in use has an economic service life of at least sixty years and new trains offer the passenger little if anything more.

This is a good example of the wasteful and profligate attitudes that characterised the Labour administration and the bureaucrats and consultants who were living off the system. We are now all about to pay the price.

Locomotive stored out of use

I noticed in Rail magazine that 14 class 66 locomotives are stored out of use. This is not many out of a class of several hundred but it illustrates a more general point. Rolling stock has such a long life, several decades, and in that period changes in economic circumstances mean that it may spend extended periods under-used or out of use altogether.

There is a good case for procuring units of lower initial cost even if the running costs may be higher. This is also why it may be desirable to retain old stock in storage rather than rushing to send it for scrap.

On the passenger side, it is a good argument for using locomotive-hauled vehicles rather than multiple-unit trains, which gives the operator the flexibility of using a variety of different power units depending on what is available. This is why locomotive-hauled passenger trains persist despite all attempts to get rid of them. However, it is of course desirable to run in push-pull mode where possible to avoid the need for locomotives to run round trains at terminals, although it would be no bad thing if facilities were more widely available to allow for this. It is unfortunate that these run-round loops were taken out where they were already present - it shows a lack of forward thinking.

19 Jun 2010

What happened to the 1300 new carriages?

For several years the Labour government promised that 1300 new carriages were going to be delivered. They probably will never be because of the cuts. So the trains are getting more and more overcrowded and uncomfortable, which makes passengers opt to go by car or bus instead.

Uncosted safety costs lives
Now 1300 vehicles is, by coincidence, roughly the number of mark 1 vehicles that were scrapped in 2005, despite the fact that they were good for another 15 years in service. These spacious and comfortable trains (above) were hurriedly withdrawn due to their supposed lack of crashworthiness. Following the serious accident at Clapham Junction in 1989, it was realised that they were well below current safety standards. From that time on, there was an ill-considered and uninformed campaign to get them replaced. But they were still at least an order of magnitude safer than the alternative of travelling by bus or car. And they could have been confined to routes such as branch lines where speeds were slow and there was next to no possibility of a collision, let alone a high-speed accident.

This is a good example of the hazards of applying safety measures without regard to the cost. Uncosted safety costs lives.

18 Jun 2010

Complaints piled on complaints

A few months ago I complained about a whole string of problems I had in the course of a weekend's journeys. Eventually I received £20 in vouchers(4 x £5). Yesterday, my last day in Britain, I used them to pay for my trip from Brighton to Harwich. It took nearly ten minutes to buy my ticket as the man in the booking office had to fill in the details of the journey on each of the four vouchers. I nearly missed my train, which for some reason was parked at the far end of a platform. It was not funny to be asked by a man with a whistle to hurry up, whilst dragging a heavy case behind me.

Surely there is a better way of dealing with compensation for complaints? What a waste of time. The train companies all have big call centres to deal with all the complaints, which of course is just the tip of an iceberg of dissatisfaction. What does it cost to deal with them? How much would they save by getting the service right in the first place?

15 Jun 2010

Sunday evening travel

Last Sunday - train left Salisbury 19.28, arrived Brighton 22.48. It was perfectly pleasant, but who would do it if they had the option of a car?

7 Jun 2010

Class 66 for passenger trains?

Rated at 3,300 hp, these diesel locomotives intended for freight services are about as powerful as a Deltic or a four-car Voyager set. Although top speed is only 75mph, they would still give excellent performance on stopping trains with up to ten cars, running on services with stations about 15 miles apart, where there is little opportunity for high speed running anyway.

As the locomotives are not normally used for passenger trains they can not provide electric train heating. They would either have to be adapted or the train heating/air conditioning power would have to come from a generator van.

Class 66 on passenger train

Steam but not as we know it

The cab of a steam locomotive strike me as an unsuitable environment for a laptop computer but obviously this technology has finally cleaned up its act.

4 Jun 2010

Hotel power

8911 at Connolly, originally uploaded by rowanC82.

"Hotel power" is the name given to the electrical power used to run things like heating and air-conditioning systems on trains. Each type of vehicle has what is known as an electric train heating (ETH) index. Typically, the power consumption of a modern air-conditioned vehicle is about 20kW per vehicle. The power consumption of each type of stock is expressed as a figure known as the ETH index. Mark 3 stock has an ETH index of 6, stock without air conditioning has an ETH index of about 3.

The power to run the heating and ventilation system is normally drawn from the locomotive and with electric traction, the power comes from the overhead line. With diesel traction, it is taken from the traction current generator on the locomotive.

In the case of mark 3 hauled stock, the power supply is run down the train via a 1000V DC line. In the case of HST trailer cars the power supply is 415V 3-phase. The locomotive must, of course, be able to deliver sufficient power to run the services in all the vehicles in the train. Freight locomotive types such as class 66 do not normally have the ability to provide ETH power.

An alternative is to use a generator van, which is the practice in Ireland (above). There were, at one time, an number of generator vans in mainland Britain, which could be used to enable HST sets to be hauled by locomotives. If generator vans are used, modern air-conditioned stock can be hauled by any type of locomotive, including all types of freight locomotive and even steam locomotives.

Electric train heating is not particularly efficient due to thermodynamic losses. With steam traction, the heating was direct from the boiler and in some cases by waste steam, which avoided these losses.

One way of avoiding thermodyamic losses would be to provide the hotel services on each vehicle with a mini-CHP (combined heat and power system). If my calculations are correct, it is about three times the power of a large portable generator and a de-rated motorcycle engine of about 200 cc would deliver what is needed. An engine and generator of the necessary power would weigh about 200kg. Whether the efficiency savings would be worth the trouble of having to carry the units around, maintain them, and keep the fuel tanks filled is another question. Vehicles fitted with such equipment would certainly have the advantage of flexibility. It is an idea that could be worth looking into.