Low tech trams could be solution to urban chaos

The transport sector faces a greater threat from action to tackle climate change than any other industry. The whole notion of growth has to come into question in any realistic sustainable transport policy and therefore it is understandable that the industry clutches at technological straws rather than addressing the fundamental question of reducing demand.

However, finding the right technology and committing serious amounts of resources to it requires proper assessment of the alternatives. So far, much attention has been focussed on initiatives like biofuels which are being used on some of Virgin’s trains and planes, and experiments with hydrogen fuelled buses in London.

There are, however, pitfalls with both these initiatives and it is not at all clear whether they represent the future. The negative impact of biofuels is already becoming a hot political issue. Food prices are being pushed up as land is turned over to growing crops for fuel and there is mounting evidence that rainforests are being razed in order to plant palms, one of the prime sources of biofuel. Sure, there are promises to only obtain fuel from sustainable sources but that is more complicated than might seem at first glance because it is very difficult to assess the knock on effects of an area of land being used for biofuels. There may be some way of turning seaweed or old brussel sprout scrapings into megajoules of energy, but for the foreseeable future at best, biofuels seem to be a tiny part of the solution to the crisis of climate change, and probably, in reality, none at all.

The use of hydrogen is another development which various organisations involved in transport hope will play a major role in reducing the impact of climate change but, again, on closer examination the issue is far from clear cut. Ken Livingstone has recently given the go-ahead for Transport for London to increase its fleet of hydrogen buses to ten by 2010. This is a worthwhile experiment but In the press release, from Transport for London, Livingstone was quoted as saying: ‘ Hydrogen is a fuel of the future as it improves air quality and does not produce the harmful emissions which are causing catastrophic climate change’. But that is patent nonsense. Hydrogen is not so much a fuel, but a means of transmitting energy. Producing the hydrogen requires electricity which currently requires far more energy than is used in conventionally powered vehicles. Therefore, there is more pollution but it is simply displaced.

It is odd, therefore, that given the problems with these new technologies, a more simple one is being shunned by Transport for London. For many years, James Skinner and his team at a company called Sustraco have been pushing the idea of Ultra Light Rail. There are several variants but the essential idea is that these are self-propelled trams, which therefore do not need the paraphernalia of a catenary or other type of external power source.

Trams, which use metal wheels on metal rails, are in the order of three times more fuel efficient than diesel buses and Sustraco have experimented with various forms of hybrid engine which makes them even more fuel efficient. As Skinner puts it, ‘ULR trams use less energy, last 30 years rather than eight for buses and attract more people out of their cars.’

It has taken years but at last the potential value of this technology is being recognised. The Department has decreed that Britain’s shortest branchline, the shuttle between Stourbridge station and the town centre, should be operated by Parry People Movers, which use flywheel storage energy for traction and is incredibly efficient. Two are being purchased and will undoubtedly attract attention from around the world.

Skinner would like to see TfL use a proposed eight kilometre guided bus route – the East London transit route – which is being developed for the Olympics as the first ULR in London but so far he has not got past the front door of TfL’s offices. The same thing happened for many years with the Department over the Stourbridge shuttle until, at last, thanks to much lobbying from John Parry who developed the idea, ministers were convinced that it was an obvious solution.

Skinner is frustrated that TfL has rejected his idea without any assessment of the concept, principally because ‘TfL does not do innovation’. Yet, it is proceeding with expensive hydrogen buses which are innovatory. Presumably it is because they are high profile new technology which attracts attention, but, in truth, they will probably never be commercially viable.

Ultimately, the key determinant of the choice of technology will be its impact on climate change. With oil prices recently hitting $100 per barrel and likely to rise further in the near future, the market will move in that direction anyway, but it is surprising just how laggardly government bodies are in providing the necessary support. The obsession with really radical solutions, such as biofuels and hydrogen, are a smokescreen that gets in the way of more immediate action on simpler technologies like ultra light rail. They may not be as glamorous, but may well offer quick wins.

Now there may be a flaw in this suggestion. Maybe Ultra Light Rail does not work for some reason, even though on paper it appears cheap and energy efficient. But surely if Ken is really interested in environmentally friendly transport, he could at least consider ULR?

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