Rail 568: Green challenge for railways is complex and could be costly

The rail industry is finally waking up to the environmental impact of train travel. For so long the industry had simply assumed that trains were better than cars that little work was done to improve the environmental viability of the railways.

Indeed, quite the opposite. Extra facilities such as air conditioning together with the requirements of health and safety rules and disability legislation have meant heavier trains, such as Pendolinos which carry a tonne per passenger compared with half that in modern Japanese rolling stock. Until recently many trains fitted with the potential for regenerative braking – which uses the energy from braking to put electricity back into the grid – were not even using it and little consideration was given to making rail more environmentally sustainable.

Now that is changing. Barely a week goes by without an ‘environmental’ announcement plopping into my inbox from a rail company. Since the end of May, there has been FirstGroup publishing its climate change strategy, C2C announcing that its Class 357 fleet has been fitted with regenerative braking and Virgin launching ‘Europe’s first’ biodiesel train.

FirstGroup is attempting to implement an all-encompassing strategy across both its bus and rail divisions to reduce carbon emissions by ‘up to 25 per cent’ by 2020. For the railways, this means that in addition to fitting new, more efficient, engines to its High Speed Train fleet, the company will implement a series of measures including the reduction of idling, the provision of training for drivers on fuel efficiency and greater use of ‘shore supply’ (i.e. mains electricity) rather than the train’s electricity own generation to light stock in depots. The figure of 25 per cent refers to a ‘like for like’ situation. In other words, if the company experiences growth and puts on 10 per cent more trains, then the amount of energy would rise commensurately. However, to be fair the company also stresses that it will not take into account gains made by increasing load factors on its trains –all of which goes to show that such commitments are fraught with complexities and note, too, the let out clause of ‘up to’.

Similarly, Virgin’s press release makes rather optimistic claims. So far it is just using 20 per cent biodiesel in one train. There are a host of complexities: first, at the moment biofuel is taxed at 54.68p per litre compared with 7.69p on the normal red diesel used by the railways and a special concession has had to be made by the Chancellor; second, the engines have had to be modified and it may be that the extra damage caused to the engines make the use of biofuel unsustainable; and third, biofuel is not carbon neutral: although the fuel is derived from plants, the processing requires use of some energy and therefore the saving is around 65 per cent compared with conventional diesel.

But there is a much bigger concern. While small amounts of biofuel are clearly sustainable, scaling up its use to make up a substantial amount of the fuel consumed in Britain would not be. Environmentalists are increasingly concerned that should the market for biofuel grow, there will be pressure to clear rain forests to grow biofuel crops such as soya and palm. Biofuel may, therefore, be a very small part of the solution but not really meriting the kind of fanfare given to the Virgin train whose inaugural journey was watched by none other than Gordon Brown. Even the press officer to whom I spoke stressed that this was a modest initiative. But it made a lot of noise, and that will have pleased the Bearded One.

The rail companies’ new focus on green technology is not coming from the goodness of their hearts but, rather, in response to both consumer and government concerns. There is no doubt that a significant proportion of people – perhaps, at a guess, 25 -30 per cent – are so worried about climate change that they will begin to alter their behaviour and support green initiatives. Perhaps another similar number are mildly concerned, though there remains at least a third who take the Jeremy Clarkson head in the sand view and still drive their ridiculous 4x4s without a thought about the environment.

Ministers are well aware of the threat of climate change but are wary of moving too fast in advance of the public mood, though my view is that they are often trailing behind it. Climate change will feature prominently in the White Paper – the horribly named High Level Output Specification – likely to be published on July 17 (and certainly before the summer recess) as will be the accompanying 30 year strategy.

Yet, oddly, the Department for Transport civil servants drawing up the strategy have taken agin electrification. Ultimately, diesel is unsustainable since there is a finite quantity available and at some stage, possibly quite soon we will reach peak oil, the point at which oil production will start to decrease. Moreover, even before that is reached, oil will be extracted from more and more environmentally damaging sites, such as the Canadian oil sands which considerable amounts of energy to obtain the oil.

Bizarrely, the prevailing view is that there is a danger that massive electrification schemes would be completed just as hydrogen technology came on stream. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. Hydrogen is not a fuel in itself because it uses far more energy to produce and keep cold than equivalent fuels. It is, in the jargon, a vector, a way of delivering energy that so far is decades away from being viable. Yet, somehow the possibility of the arrival of this technology is reducing support for electrification when, in fact, sustainable ways of generating electricity – wind, wave, even arguably, nuclear – are available today. It seems that the DfT’s blue skies thinking is more pie in the sky.

The key issue for those of us who care passionately about the dangers of climate change is to distinguish between what environmentalists call ‘greenwash’, mere attempts to look good in response to the crisis, and genuine thought through policy responses.

The dividing line between these two is possibly an uncomfortable one – the only sensible response to climate change may be for all of us to travel less, even in relatively sustainable forms of transport such as rail (since, very often, that also involves a taxi or car ride to the station, or even a plane journey). That view, however, runs counter to one of the fundamental tenets of our economic system, that continued growth is essential, and since this is a belief held by all conventional politicians, the Department for Transport officials have to work within that framework. So, of course, do the rail companies whose shareholders would not be satisfied by a zero growth strategy. These contradictions and tensions will become ever more difficult for politicians to resolve as the effects of climate change become undeniable, which makes it all the stranger that there is so much opposition within the Department to an electrification programme. The green issue is, therefore, far more complex than the politicians and rail companies would have us believe but it is clear that environmental concerns will increasingly dominate rail policy.


Victory over trainline.com

To continue my complaints about rail’s internet failings, highlighted in the last column, nearly three years ago (Rail 499) I mentioned the battle being waged by a friend of mine, John Carr with Trainline.com. He had made a mistake while booking an online ticket between London and Sutton Coldfield by putting single instead of return. Since the return only cost an extra £1 on top of the £35 since, he was anxious to save the money and he rang up straightaway to correct the error. He was told there was nothing he could do except cancel the whole operation and start again and be charged £10. In addition, Trainline said he had to go to Euston to pick up the tickets, which were then worth only £25. He never did, reckoning that he would be able to get reimbursed more easily if he never picked up the tickets. In fact, unbeknown to him and not explained in ‘the terms and conditions’, there is a time limit on refunds.

He was understandably aggrieved that he should have to pay £10 when clearly there was no cost to the booking agency, since no tickets had been printed out, and since it was an open saver, no one else was precluded from travelling on the train. It was, he reckoned, something akin to the banks charging extortionate amounts, that bear no relation to costs incurred, when their customers go overdrawn.

Trainline would not reimburse him, so Carr took up the complaint with the LTUC, the local rail watchdog (which is now called London Travelwatch) and found that it was unable to help him. To cut a (very) long story short, Carr found out that a booking agency like Trainline is effectively outside the regulatory regime which governs the behaviour of train companies and operates its own rules which, incidentally, he found were not properly set out in the huge contract published on the web.

After three years, Carr was eventually offered a refund of the £10 by Trainline who then became extremely friendly when they discovered he is married to Lady Thornton, a Labour member of the House of Lords, a fact he had deliberately kept hidden, offering to reimburse the cost of the whole ticket. That was, of course, the last straw as the thought that the company was only prepared to act when they discovered his connection with Parliament. angered him even more.

Carr’s victory, however, does not disguise the fact that there is clearly a loophole, here, which needs to be investigated as more and more tickets are sold online and by organisations other than the train operators. How many other people have been charged a tenner quite unfairly for making a mistake that has not cost Trainline any money?

Incidentally, my rant in the last column about my trials and tribulations with Virgin’s website and the fact that it has, so far, charged me three times for one train journey attracted a record number of emails from people with similar experiences. Actually some were even worse, though like me one correspondent had found the personal service at the ticket office particularly praiseworthy.

At the time of writing, over a month since sending back my tickets, I have not received my Virgin refund, nor any apology. An email follow-up seeking the return of my near £200 has received two automated acknowledgements but no response. This suggests an organisation for whom customer care is a concept to which only lip service is paid.

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