How green are trains?

We know that running train services is a very expensive way of travel for taxpayers to support, and we know that fourteen times as many journeys are made by car as by train. Rail has a small market share despite all the subsidy and encouragement.

The case for trains has increasingly relied on the assertion that they are good for the environment. It is time to examine this proposition again.

The first thing people should understand is that all forms of motorised trransport entail burning fuel. Much of that process is still done by burning fuel which produces exhaust gases and carbon dioxide. The aim should be to minimise the polluting exhausts, and to maximise fuel efficiency for cost and conservation reasons.

The second thing to understand is that we neeed to look at the total carbon impact of any mode of travel. That means looking at the carbon expended to complete the whole journey, as users of the train often use cars and taxis at both ends of their train journey. It also means looking at the carbon costs the mode of travel imposes on other modes of travel. So often people have to expend a lot of energy and exhaust emissions to get into very congested town centres by car, as most stations are in town centres which are increasingly difficult to reach thanks to anti car policies.

Train travel can be very fuel efficient at peak times when a modern train carries a full load of passengers into a busy town or city, or takes a full load of people long distances with few stops . It may even be fuel efficient for each person on that train, depending on how far from the station they live, how far from the destination station they wish to go and how they travel the first and last leg of the journey.

At other times of day heavy and often old fashioned and fuel inefficient trains lumber around the country with few passengers. This is the opposite of efficient and environmentally friendly. It is greener to go by car than by a old train which is half empty. Some say that if all trains were electrified this would change. Not given the way we generate our power in this country. There is all the extra carbon from the coal and gas power stations that you have to attribute to the electric train using that fuel.

More importantly, train tracks are one of the primary causes of congestion for the large majority of people travelling by car or bus. Many towns and cities are bisected by railway lines. There are too few bridging points, so there is much increased congestion on the few routes that go to a railway bridge. In some cases delays and congestion are compounded by the use of a level crossing rather than a railway bridge.

One of the greenest policies we could pursue would be a big programme of increasing the number of bridges over railways to allow the easier passage of cars and buses around our towns and cities. It would also be safer if we replaced more of the level crossings with bridges or underpasses. It could also lead to more use of the train for the commuter and longer distance journies if more of us could get to the station and park easily. That would be a greener way to spend any money we have on railways, rather than on electrification.

We do need to look at how efficiency on the trains can be improved and fuel use reduced, as losses and subsidies are very large.


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  2. John Moss
    August 1, 2009

    I used to work for the property arm of British Rail. I remember questioning why trains went in to town centres, often on tortuous, twisting lines, slowing down to a crawl as they do.

    The answer is that we have a 19th century rail infrastructure, built by the entrepreneurs of that time who, understandably, wanted to take their service to the people who, by and large, were congregated in already established towns and cities. So the rail lines had to twist and turn to get to the centre of those towns. Those rural halts serving the farms and smaller communities, tend to be sited where the train line crossed existing routes and did not have to divert.

    Our European friends benefit from the fact that between 1944 and ’45, their rail infrasrtucture was largely destroyed, by us, then re-built, by us, with many routes being straightened and located for cross-coutry speed.

    What we ought to ask ourselves is whether we should do the same and stop focussing on existin glines and services in to town centres in our efforts to improve services?

    Why not build “railway by-passes” in the same way we have built road by-passes? The long-distance traveller on business will probably drive to their local station to catch a train to a main-line terminus, then travel to another station from where they will take a taxi to their place of work for the day. Would it not be better for them to drive to a “parkway” station on a fast loop running round their home town? Park and catch their fast train from there.

    This could also all be achieved at much lower cost than building new railways. Existing straight tracks – like the stretch from York to Darlington where Mallard set its record speed – can happily handle a modern train at 200mph. Building by-passes sets up the possibility of many more stretches of track suitable for speeds in excess of 140mph, the current maximum speed of any stretch of track in England.

    The train will whizz around the towns it previously twisted and turned to get in and out of, freeing up capacity for some additional services in and out of those centres for those who do work there. With sensible planning, average speeds could increase substantially, off-setting the need for a slightly longer journey at either end, but the further you travel, the greater the gains.

  3. Simon D
    August 1, 2009

    In theory I like travelling by train and have always believed that it was environmentally friendly. However, my problems are (1) the excessive cost and (2) the anti-social activities of other passengers.

    It is impossible to sit quietly and contemplate the landscape or read a book. You are constantly assailed by fatuous mobile telephone conversations and people eating smelly food. Train companies need to look at their pricing policies and the way they enforce rules against anti-social activity.

    1. Adrian Peirson
      August 1, 2009

      Yes I’m sorry about that, I didn’t realise it was you.

  4. Lola
    August 1, 2009

    Sometime ago I came across the results of a research report prepared by a professor from somewhere in the NE, Durham, I think. Anyway he’d set to and worked out that a family of three going from London to Newcastle (?) by a modern diesel car produced far less ‘pollution’ than the same family going by rail. Needless to say he was howled down by all the ecomentalists and pro-trainists.

    But by simple observation anyone could come to the same conclusion. Trains are wildly inefficient for may journeys. They work very well for bulk transport from point to point – and running with high load factors. So London commuter lines are ‘green’ at peak times, and probably busy enough then to compensate for all the empty running to get them in them right place again for the next peak. Going from my provincial town to London for daytime business meetings is much more ‘efficient’ for me than going by car, because I can work. But is that train running ‘efficiently’ as far as energy is concerned? Probably not as I chose services that I know will be fairly empty.

    As far as the eye watering amounts of taxpayers money spent on rail goes, it may well be better to spend that on developing better engines for road vehicles if you want to cut ‘pollution’. Of course the only way to do this is to scrap all the subsidies and allow the price mechanism to work. (Quid pro quo. This would include road pricing on arterial motorway and dual carriageway routes – tolls – to replace the car tax, plus fuel pricing should be equalised between all forms of transport – e.g. VAT on aerofuel, or if that is unenforceable, scrapping VAT on road fuel).

    Then we would be able find out which is the most ‘efficient’ form of transport for all the varied journeys we make.

    (Just to provoke thought – which are the most efficient, least polluting relative to their purpose, cars on the planet? Answer – F1 cars. Discuss!)

  5. no one
    August 1, 2009

    At rush hour trains are overcrowded and dangerous for the passengers.

    We should be encouraging businesses to stagger working days so that overcrowding on trains and congestion on the road network is smoothed out, in general we have the capacity we just try to get too many people to start work at 9.00 am for no apparent reason

    You make some valid points, other things that are not taken into account are whole life pollution

    – For instance with hybrid cars production and disposal of the large batteries at the start and end of their life produces pollution which should be taken into account

    – For instance tax incentives to have low CO2 exhaust emissions encourages more unreliable technology (MMT gearboxes, diesel dump valves, turbos) etc which causes the car to break down more often over the course of its lifespan – those breakdowns are in themselves a source of pollution (everything from emissions of breakdown truck, all the way to heating the repair garage, etc). We should be balancing incentives away from emissions to a more rounded view of the lifetime environmental impact.

    Congestion for car drivers is also made worse in the UK by the stupid anti car measures, So many roads have been thinned in the naive view that the roads are being made safer. So many speed bumps. So many one-way systems where they are not needed. Compared with our European neighbours we have way too much road design by political anti car fahsionistas. When I drive round places like Brussels I can drive and park in the centre in a way which is impossible in UK cities now, and I don’t see that the UK is getting any benefits from our way of doing it.

    The road design fashions self selected by the councils, their employees, and usual same old civil engineering contractors, are not in the best interests of the country. This could be improved in many ways, put some high mileage advanced drivers on the teams that design new road schemes etc. The current fashions will be shown within a generation to be as mad as the residential tower blocks of the 60s were.

    Sure the railway network needs updating, bridges designed hundred plus years ago could be changed to allow wider roads underneath etc. But we also put new infrastructure in poorly often, for instance putting the pylons in holding up overhead power cables up too far apart can cause all sorts of unreliability problems for the train operator. The train operator owning the track provision for their corresponding main line routes could improve some of this.

    Things like the sleeper trains to Scotland I genuinely think bring social benefits to the UK which surpass their cost to the tax payer, there is great social cohesion and tourism benefits and so much more from being able to work a full day in London and wake up in Inverness, Fort William, Edinburgh etc, and the reverse. However there are other heavily subsidised train services which really could be swapped out with bus saving the taxpayer lots of money. But then some new/improved train lines seem to make sense too, some of the lines removed by Beeching should be brought back.

    Re “if we replaced more of the level crossings with bridges or underpasses” absolutely.

    Lots of scope for improvements in transport, many good ideas over at

  6. Stuart Fairney
    August 1, 2009

    Yes, indeed. You rightly demonstrate the technology which hasn’t changed much in 150 years can sometimes not be the panacea it is cast as, especially late at night. On just a few occasions I have come out of Waterloo after 9pm on a sparsely occupied and seemingly unstaffed train with a handful of drunks*

    This simply cannot be sane, yet try suggesting that only train journies that are full (and also coincidentally) make money should run, and you would be howled from office.

    Better than electrification ~ tear up the tracks and build private roads then allow three or four coach companies to compete with no subsidy at all on the sole proviso that they use emerging technology engines for zero CO2 output (if that bothers you at all). Thus, no CO2 output at all, regular and efficient private coaches which are much cheaper and unsubsidised.

    (* in the interests of honesty I should probably have said fellow drunks)

  7. Paul
    August 1, 2009


    I actually read a report somewhere that stated that even when long distance trains are full and working to capacity that 25 coaches could carry the equivalent number of passengers at a very reduced cost in terms of fuel consumption than each train.

    I will try to find it again and link it .

  8. Paul
    August 1, 2009

    Oh and another thing.

    We used to have lead in petrol that helped lubricate and clean burn fuel.

    Politicians panicked at the word lead, ie this must mean lead poisoning, so they outlawed leaded petrol.( no evidence produced in any scientific study)

    By removing lead it enable the development of the catalytic converter which is now fitted to all cars.

    What does a cat do? It converts all the waste to Co2 therby increasing emmissions.

    I love politicians

    So just to recap

    If AGW was a scientific fact then here are some of the things that Green Eco fascists should be championing

    Return lead to petrol
    Ban catalytic converters
    Tarmac over rail tracks and have coach ways
    Build lots of nuclear power stations.

  9. Acorn
    August 1, 2009

    A good read on the subject of transport vehicle efficiency:-

    Then click “contents” and read the complete book. David Mackay uses simple units of comparison and you don’t need to have majored in thermodynamics to understand it.

  10. alan jutson
    August 1, 2009

    Ah Yes the good old trick of only including some of the costs, some of the pollution, and some of the efficientcy figures used by others to promote a one sided argument for Public Transport.

    Good to see you thinking a little outside the box and including all of the costs, which many of us already calculate when choosing our method of transport.

    Yes of course we need an efficient national transport system, but that is not what we have at the moment.

    We have a complicated transport system, run by a number of unrelated Companies, all of whom appear to pay different amounts in fees, to run different types of rolling stock, on a track run by a seperate organisation, under different rules and regulations.

    The fare structure is so complicated for the user, that many irregular users cannot be bothered to use the system at all.

    Want a cheap fare, then travel after 9.30am. What use is that if I want to go somewhere for the day which is some distance away, time I get there I need to return.

    If a family are going to travel, then car is usually the cheaper option, as you will often need a second mortgage to purchase four tickets and then add some for the shorter part of the journey (Taxi, Bus, Car Park) at either end.

    We appear to run one of the most expensive train systems in the World, and whilst we are told it is getting better, in many cases it is because the timetable is fitting the poorer travel times. Up to 10 mins late is regarded as running to time I am informed.

    Contrast this to the Bullet train in Japan where passengers get a full refund if the train is one min late.

    Aware that many other countries subsidise their transport system directly, but so do we in a much, much more complicated way.

  11. Alan
    August 1, 2009

    I would like to encourage you in trying to get a clearer view of the relative financial and environmental costs of different forms of transport. It is very noticeable that air travel is surprising cheap (financially) when compared to rail. When things like the environmental impact of the building and maintenance of the tracks and trains are taken into account I have sometimes wondered it air is environmentally more economic as well. Air transport only requires an airport at the arrival and destination point, not a track connecting the two.

    Similarly it is noticeable that rail transport normally has to be subsidised whereas road transport is paid for by the people using it, the implication being that people find road transport more convenient. It is not difficult to speculate why; the most obvious reason being that, unless you start or end your journey in the centre of a major city, rail is unlikely to take you from where you want to start your journey to where you want to end it. Not to mention the other obvious advantages of road such as leaving at the time you are ready and making it easy to take luggage. For all these reasons people will put up with the extra expense and the trouble of having to drive the car themselves.

    I have wondered if we would have a better national transport system if we concentrated on making roads better and road vehicles more environmentally efficient, as well as safer, than if we put a lot of effort into public transport. I hope you will try to see that this option is given consideration and not just dismissed without thought. Public transport will clearly have a role to play where there are a lot of people wanting to travel along a common route or for very long distances, but these will not be the majority of journeys.

  12. Mike Stallard
    August 1, 2009

    At last – a subject on which I am a real expert!!!!
    I LOVE trains. Whenever I go on holiday, I head for the nearest railway station just to look at the romantic names on the train departures board. I love the different colours of the trains too and the often historic engines standing proud in their ancient livery outside.
    I make Polish locomotives out of cardboard too!
    So I am a real anorak.
    I play Railroad Tycoon every now and then and I am an expert on that as well.

    Now then.
    I could not give a damn about greenery myself because I am a wierdo who does not believe in any form of global warming. I was brought up in the steam age when my knees were coated with a thick layer of black grease as were my bitten finger nails.
    I would love a free pass on the railways to match my free pass on the buses! And to hell with the credit crunch.

    As an expert on railway building, my advice is this: sell off all the government railways for 10p a mile, including electrification.
    Then stand back and do not interfere, no Ofrail, no tax, no advice, nothing.
    What you will find as quick as quick is that the uneconomic lines will close and that the economic lines will be electrified. There will also be a high speed network to match any on the continent.
    And it will cost absolutely nothing to us the taxpayer.

    AND the government can pretend (as ever) that this is Green Outreach to roadblock Global Warming!

    Clever eh?

    1. John Moss
      August 2, 2009

      Well said Mike!

      I annoy environmentalists and socialists alike by pointing out that for the best part of 100 years, the private sector built our railways, ran them, expanded them, carried more passengers and freight every year, reduced fares and made a profit – all without public subsidy. Then they were nationalised.

      Along came Beeching, fare increases, reducing passenger and freight numbers, higher and higher subsidies and a worsening safety record.

      Major’s privatisation was nothing of the sort. It was tendering for a service provider.

  13. FatBigot
    August 1, 2009

    If (and it is a very big if) carbon dioxide emissions are relevant to anything, they must always be measured like-for-like.

    For a motor car the relevant figure is not just units of CO2 emitted per mile of use but also the amount of CO2 generated in the manufacture of a new car, in maintenance during its working life and in its disposal at the end of its working life. To this must be added each car’s share of the CO2 generated in the construction and maintenance of roads (this share to take into account that buses, coaches, motorcycles, pedal cycles, horses and lorries also use the roads).

    For a train the same principle applies. The full picture comes from examining CO2 of manufacture, operation and disposal of the train itself, plus creation and maintenance of tracks, stations and the office buildings occupied by companies that operate the whole system.

    Looking just at CO2 emissions per passenger mile of travel is to examine only a small part of the picture and makes train travel appear much “greener” than it really is.

    The sooner we get away from measuring things in simplistic and misleading “carbon dioxides” the sooner transport policy can address what it really needs to address – how to convey people around the country as quickly and cheaply as possible.

  14. Brigham
    August 1, 2009

    To produce the power we want, depends whether we look at costs, “greenness”, or safety. Electricity can be produced from coal, gas, or the burning of fossil fuels. Hybrid cars are a power station in themselves. They do make use of a little (is it potential or kinetic) energy. Even this has to be obtained from somewhere. There is no such thing as a free lunch! So even they are not really green. Wind and tide are very green, and fairly cheap but they are not enough. Now scientists have started on producing “broadcast power” a lot of electricity will be needed, so the only answer is nuclear. This requires a big initial outlay, expensive maintenance to make it safe, and then we have the problem of nuclear waste. The biggest problem of all is that we have a government that says it wants to build some nuclear power stations, but as usual, has done nothing. Soon it will be too late. A lot of our electricity comes from France. What would we do if they decided to turn it off?

  15. John
    August 1, 2009

    You need to look at the pollution and cost, including subsidies, of providing the rail network, which includes those travelling to and fro to staff and maintain it, as well as all the energy consumption for stations, signals, maintenance, etc as well as for locomotion.

    Then the actual cost and pollution from running the entire network of trains required to provide the whole service. Then define a time period, say twelve months, and divide the number of passengers carried into the cost and emissions and then you will have somewhere near the true monetary cost and “carbon” and other pollution costs per person.

    If making comparisons for air travel, say from London to Rome, do include the entire cost – as above – for the various rail networks over which you will need to travel to get to your destination.

    Golden rule to remember : there is no such thing as a free lunch.

  16. guy de Moubray
    August 1, 2009

    Dear oh dear! Worrying about carbon emissions is so old hat. There has been no increase in global temperatures since 1998 and CO2 is not a pollutant. Do stop listening to my old friend John Gummer and young Zac Goldsmith

    1. Mike Stallard
      August 1, 2009

      Yes! another wierdo who does not believe in Global Warming!
      Kindly join the Christopher Booker Fan Club (Watts up with that) of which I am already a member.
      And keep the faith!

  17. Oberon Houston
    August 1, 2009

    Hi John, I’ve responded to this post on my blog, and taken you to task on some of your points.

  18. Neil Craig
    August 1, 2009

    The whole claim of “greenness” depends on claiming that increased CO2 is causing catastrophic global warming. If not it is merely helping plants grow faster & thus CO2 itself is “green” if the political use of the word has any meaningng.

    In terms of energy usage trains tend to be much heavier per passenger than cars, mainly because of a lack of technical innovation since Queen Victoria & have less surface area & hence friction per passenger than cars because of the square cube law. Whether that makes them more or less fuel efficient than cars is debatable. That they are less efficient overall is not debatable because they need subsidy. So much of the “Green” argument is hand waving & distraction to hide the fact that the price system works better at maximising efficiency than political fiat.

    If we want highly efficient, low running cost trains we should have a fully automated driverless system of small carriages weighing about what small busses do & mag-lev trains in vacuum tunnels for intercity/intercontinent travel. In terms of resources that would be Green but I can guarantee that Greens, who are actually Luddites in false colours, would oppose it.

    I know you know most of this John because I got some of it from you in previous posts.

  19. James Strachan
    August 1, 2009


    I think that there a number of points to address here.

    Railways bisect towns and cities because that is where the passengers and freight want to arrive.

    We could do with more bridges across railways.

    We could certainly do with bridges that replace level crossings. Level crossings – and the undisciplined behavour of road drivers – are now the greatest safety hazard on the railways.

    The greatest cost of the railway system is now the maintenance of the underlying infrastructure. This is directly attributable to Network Rail (the ultimate quango) who do the same job as their predecessors at far greater expense.

    The DFT is milking passengers to subsidise Network Rail.

    Electrification has operational benefits – less weight, more power when you need it, less maintenance – and can also have environmental benefits if the power is generated by zero carbon power plants. Think nuclear or wave energy.

  20. APL
    August 1, 2009

    Regarding trains and the greenery obsession.

    Brunel you should be alive now!

    Here is my suggestion to placate the greenoids, the London to Paddington electrification should be accomplished by putting a very large windmill on the top of each carrage. As the train moves the wind will turn the turbine and generate electricity and thus power the train, zimples!

    The next phase, would be to invite all the greenoids to move to Wales, where they could board the green line trains and happily wait for the wind to blow, or generate sufficient wind by talking amongst themselves to drive the turbines to get to their DEFRA and Carbon trading jobs in London.

  21. WitteringsfromWitney
    August 1, 2009

    Nice article John, as usual, mind you all that work discussing something that I consider to be one of the biggest ‘cons’ yet imposed on the electorate, along with climate change and global warming.

    On a separate subject, never let it be said that MPs are lazy! For an MP to be up and posting at 6.19am on a Saturday morning, when he/she is supposed to be on holiday………..

  22. Richard
    August 1, 2009

    Another significant factor: roads and cars don’t go on strike and attempt to hold the public to ransom.

    Environmentalism is the new socialism – it is being used to justify all sorts of taxes, compulsory behavioural changes, intrusion into privacy and political objectives, often based on spurious evidence and psuedo-science.

    Prof Ian Plimer’s new book ‘Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science’ provides a comprehensive de-bunking of the global warming theory for those who are interested. The Conservatives should call for more open debate on this issue (eg on the BBC) so as not to be too closely identified with this nonsense when the intellectual tide turns.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      August 2, 2009

      It maybe some time before the tide turns for two main reasons.

      First, a great many careers depend on this nonsense, and credibility wise who amongst them could say “You know all the guff I spouted for 20 years in a patronising holy-than-thou way, all the taxes and behaviour modification, er sorry about that” Their credibility would be shattered for ever, and greenies like the sound of their own whine.

      Second, as you say, it is the new socialism, the old one being discredited, so they need a new reason to say “You can’t drive round in a Jag” (unless you are inner party of course). Also lots of kids are indoctrinated with this in schools nowadays, and the young would find it hard to accept that everything they have been told (and received young climate hero awards!) was false.

      You are right, but they will hang on to this dross just as the commies hung onto the economic benefits of socialism long after it was an obvious failure as it is their meal ticket.

      1. Mike Stallard
        August 2, 2009

        I mentioned this book to an Australian friend who is a convinced warmist. His immediate reply was to use Google to prove that Prof Plimer is being paid by people who run the farming and irrigation systems of Australia, therefore he is biased and his research and theories are suspect.

        1. Stuart Fairney
          August 3, 2009

          Interesting that if you disagree with the gospel, you are bias and “bought and paid for” but if your career depends on stipends from the CO2 establishment your integrity cannot be questioned

        2. Stuart Fairney
          August 3, 2009

          Sorry for the double reply but I also Googled Plimmer, I love this quote

          “Carbon dioxide has an effect on the atmosphere and it has an effect for the first 50 parts per million and once it’s done its job then it’s finished and you can double it and quadruple it and it has no effect because we’ve seen that in the geological past, and we’ve seen it in times gone by when the carbon dioxide content was 100 times the current content. We didn’t have runaway global warming, we actually had glaciation, so there’s immediately a disconnect. So carbon dioxide is absolutely vital for living on earth; it’s plant food, all of life lives off carbon dioxide. To demonise it shows that you don’t understand school child science”
          —Ian Plimer, interviewed on ABNNewswire, June

          (From wiki)

  23. Jim
    August 1, 2009

    Do you have any numbers to back up your assertions?

    They might be plausible or might not be. As you have presented things, they are just conjecture.

  24. Bazman
    August 1, 2009

    The fares are extortionate, so I would say they are quite green. If the fares where doubled then ‘greenness’ would increase considerably as people would use cars more. If this strategy was followed to its ultimate conclusion then only prince Charles on the royal train would be left. It could then be converted to run on recycled whisky and cognac. Thus the result of green trains would be archived. The same logic could then be applied to all forms of travel. Prince Charles ancestors long ago argued when trains were invented that mobility of the masses was a bad thing.
    Would work with the housing shortage too.

  25. Jonathan
    August 1, 2009

    It is not always the case that newer trains are more fuel efficient than older ones.

    CrossCountry trains could reduce carbon emissions by putting all their passengers in Land Rovers rather than their Voyager trains. The old Mark 2 loco hauled trains that used to work that route were much more efficient.

    The main reason it took so long for South West Trains to replace the old slam door trains that used to visit Wokingham and elsewhere on the network is that they had to wait for Railtrack to upgrade the power supplies on the lines so they could deliver the additional electricity requirements of their new trains.

    The main reasons for this are that the new trains are heavier because of all the new safety requirements, and heavier trains require more fuel to move them around. They are also faster, which is nice for passengers because they get to their destination quicker, and nice for train operators because each train and train crew can complete more journeys per day.

    The comparison is of course between a Land Rover doing 70mph and a CrossCountry Voyager doing 125mph. If the Land Rover did 125mph, it would probably use a lot more fuel than the Voyager, and it wouldn’t be very safe.

    It is interesting to note that the most fuel efficient car on the road today is the 1940s Citroen C2V, simply because it is so much lighter than any of the modern small cars.

    1. Lola
      August 1, 2009

      Yup, weight is the enemy of fuel efficiency, big time. See my comment about F1 cars being the most efficient cars on the planet. This also applies to trains. Extra weight = extra fuel. Make light cars and trains and you’ll save fuel.

  26. Jon
    August 1, 2009

    After all the billions that has been spent why haven’t we got Nuclear power stations instead of 2 new coal fired ones that import the stuff across Pan European countries.

    The cost of parking at rail stations is also an issue.

  27. Brian E.
    August 1, 2009

    Railways are, as you say, only effective when moving large numbers of people too and from city centres; I would never have thought of driving into London when I worked there, and that was before the congestion charge.
    However, my wife and I are thinking of a short holiday in Scotland. Apart from the direct costs, which are considerably less by car for the two of us, I have yet to see any figures relating to the carbon footprint of two people travelling by train compared with two travelling in a car. Being a cynic, I suspect such figures are hard to find because the overall figure of travelling by train does not stand up well in comparison to the car.
    And as I’m not greatly attached to the concept of man-made global warming, I have no hesitation in using my car rather than outdated 19th century technology.

    1. Mike Stallard
      August 1, 2009

      I wonder if you have considered going by canal?

      1. Brian E.
        August 2, 2009

        I have had holidays on a narrow boat and enjoyed them very much. However, even as a pensioner, I haven’t the time to use them a a means of getting anywhere (and they don’t go as far as Scotland!) Unfortunately, they are now useless as a means of bulk transport, particularly as they are labour intensive both in navigating the boat and loading/off loading. So they too are an outdated technology. However they have remained useful is in supplying a recreational environment which is well worth preserving. I still prefer my car for actually getting anywhere!

  28. pipesmoker
    August 1, 2009

    The bottom line is trains and to some extent buses do not take me where I want to go. If they do, not when I want to travel.

    Trains are best suited to carry freight over long distances as they did prior to the 1956 rail strike.

    In Burton upon Trent beer used to go out by rail, big marshalling yards with men working through the night and the strike stopped all that with the breweries moving to road transport overnight.

    It would take a brave government to get long distance freight back on rail and give the public more freedom to use their cars on the roads.

  29. Mark
    August 1, 2009

    Take the analysis a little further: meeting peak rush hour capacity involves having rolling stock that is grossly underemployed otherwise, and also requires additional staffing. Moreover, out of rush hour timetables are typically sparse on anything but longer haul inter city routes (saving some energy and staff cost, but incurring dead capital cost), offering a less convenient service.

    For those without access to subsidised or free bus service, fares are often uncompetitive with cars even with a single occupant: in consequence, timetables are set to meet minimums required for subsidy which now largely funds many bus services outside central London. More of us could get to the train if bus services were priced competitively with car journeys – maybe even included in a rail ticket for “free”, and relieving pressure on car parks for those who do not have a convenient bus alternative. Incidentally, motorways now also act as barriers and pinch points in the same way as railways or rivers.

    The greenest measures would be those that spread the rush hour peak. They would reduce rush hour congestion on the roads, speeding up traffic flows to more fuel efficient speeds. They would reduce the inefficiency of capacity utilisation of public transport, which might allow a more frequent service outside rush hour, in turn encouraging further public transport use and lower fares and/or subsidies. Of course, Labour seem to believe that charging ever more for car parking and all day “congestion” charging and higher fares paid by COMMUTERS is the way to try to achieve this. Not so: it is employers who set working hours, and thus dictate when employees must travel. Therefore employers should pay for the added cost of peak commuting which they will do if it brings them an adequate business benefit, or change hours to spread the peak and avoid the charge. Essentially, this should be regardless of the mode of transport. Since commuters would only pay the equivalent of an off peak fare, more might find fares competitive with their cars. Employers could also decide to encourage more home working, or to use four day, 10 hour working weeks instead of five day, 8 hour ones (perhaps with rolling coverage) to reduce the number of commuter journeys.

    Note that the outcome is not a tax on jobs: instead, it promotes greater efficiency all round by charging an externality (peak capacity requirement, congestion) to the agent whose actions are the root cause of the cost and who is able to do something about it. If the charges remain on employees then not only does it fail to promote more efficient transport, but also fares and parking charges may become so high that it is more economic to be unemployed on benefits than to commute for the job – truly a tax on jobs.

  30. Alan Wheatley
    August 1, 2009

    I find it helpful to remember that rail transport came about as a result of private initiative and investment. Decline started about 100 years ago, coincidental with the availability of cheap and practical private transport, first the motor cycle and then the car.

    Nationalisation did nothing to stop rail decline. Re-privatisation did bring about a small renaissance.

    Private transport is best. Some public transport is need for a niche market.

    If you are worried about the environment don’t travel.

    The UK land mass is a finite resource, and the more of it that is used for transport the less there is for other things.

  31. Bazman
    August 1, 2009

    Here’s the next scam.Interesting to see how it would apply to motorbikes.

  32. Adrian Peirson
    August 1, 2009

    With a sensible population we could Grow our own fuel and it would produce ZERO pollution.

    Oil from Biofuels like Rapeseed oil produce CO2 when burnt in a car engine of course, but that CO2 is only what was fixed from the atmosphere by the crop during the Previous years Growing season.
    IE when there was no NET CO2 gain to the environment.

    I know the Petrochem lobby don’t like this, and the Govt Don’t like it, they want us corralled and taxed at the Pump.

    This is proven technology.

    But no the Govt seems to think you solve problems like CO2 emmisions ( if they are a problem, which I doubt ) road congestion, landfill problems, welfare overstretch, crime, housing shortages etc with Mass immigration.

    Well no you don’t, but you create the excuse for more taxation and state control.

    The populatiojn of this country needs to be much less, our farmers can then grow enough fuel and food to keep us self sufficient, if the rest of the world wants to kill themselves over oil let them.

    Nuclear ? as an engineer I have an interest in the technology but you can’t afford any mistakes with Nuclear, then there is the reprocessing and disposal.
    Great for making depleted uranium munitions of course.
    find out who owns 80% of world Uranium stocks, who would benefit ultimately if we went Nuclear, who benefits from DU Munitions.
    I don’t want Nuclear, we can’t afford a mistake with Nuclear, we are an Island, we can Grow our own food and Grow our own Fuel.

    there are already small companies setting up providing Veg oil for Diesel cars, but the Petrochem Lobby will bring them down or Muscle in, can’t have British people driving up to their local farmer and filling up at 35p per litre can we.

    Therin lies the Problem, the Govt and their Military industrial Backers and Lobbyists.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      August 4, 2009

      I suggest the problem lies with those who talk in terms of “a sensible population”

      1. Adrian Peirson
        August 4, 2009

        How is it my fault we have too many people and too little fuel, I only have two children.

        1. Stuart Fairney
          August 5, 2009

          Who are you to decide we have “too many” people? As for the too little fuel nonsense, people have been sayng this since Malthus and Paul Erlich

          The population number is not your fault, the fact you think there are “too many people” is.

  33. Alex
    August 1, 2009

    Shame you didn’t attempt to support your assertions with data because you wouldn’t have bothered to write the article if you did and we wouldn’t have to read it or respond.

    As mentioned above, a very good study on this (not written from a perspective of “greenness” but of meeting our future energy needs):

    One notable comment:
    “In long-distance travel at steady speed, by train or automobile, most of the energy goes into making air swirl around, because you only have to accelerate the vehicle once. The key strategies for consuming less in this sort of transportation are therefore to move slower, and to move less, and to use long, thin vehicles.”

    In general full trains are more efficient than cars. In off-peak periods sensible operators run less frequent and shorter trains.

    Electric trains are more efficient than diesel trains because their motors are smaller and they don’t have to carry their own fuel. Future electric trains will be able to save energy by using regenerative braking. It is very hard to turn kinetic energy back into diesel. Electrification is capital intensive but leads to future cost and energy savings. The recently announced electrification to Bristol and Wales makes sense because Crossrail will be electric (bad idea to have diesel trains in tunnels) which means that their will be electric services from London to Maidenhead, so to makes sense to run those trains further.

    Apart from using less fuel per passenger km, trains take large numbers of people travelling in the same direction off the roads. get rid of the trains and roads into our bigger cities would be jammed every morning. In many cases they are already.

    Reply: I have studied the figures, and they are on my side, not yours. You are forgetting the double inefficiency of electric trains – the inefficiency of the original power generation as well as the inefficiency of the electric motor in the train.

  34. Lola
    August 2, 2009

    There is still something very wrong with the economics and ‘efficiency’ of rail. Tax on road users is many billions, at about £50Bn p.a. I understand, of which about £9Bn is spent on roads. Yet the railway needs massive subsidies. In effect a transfer payment from road to rail.

    Personally I am supremely suspicious of any subsidy to anything at all, mostly they go to favoured groups at the expense of everyone else and achieve nothing but wealth destruction.

    Furthermore as I am sure that MMGW/greeniness is nothing but a new cult, I am entirely unconcerned about ’emissions’. Similarly the ‘using up’ of the worlds oil, in respect to which I am entirely confident that man’s ingenuity will solve that problem as the price of energy rises with scarcity.

    So maybe it is because rail is, on an holistic view, very inefficient, except at moving bulk freight or bulk people between two points at high load factors. Or in dense conurbations where light rail and metro systems can dsitribute populations between recreation and work centre stations within very easy walking distance of the final destination, say 5 to 10 minutes. A good example would be the Tube.

    As regards the speed/fuel consumption thing. Trains are being made faster to compete with air transport. Why bother? I am entirely unconvinced that the Eurostar is at all fuel efficient (again on an holistic view) as compared with an aircraft operating at high load factors. This is because of the huge infrastructure construction and maintenance requirement, let alone the relative aerodynamic performance.

    Overall, the rough sums I have looked at indicate that to move a ton of stuff from pt A to pt B takes roughly the same energy. One check was to work out that to fly my family to and from Austalia would take about the same fuel as driving them there in my Landrover. The difference is that the aircraft is more efficient because the trip is feasible, in time terms, for me.

    We need to learn more from markets. Markets and competition drive efficiency. They cannot help doing so. Forget fuel efficiency or ecomentalism, just try to do stuff efficiently and the fuel savings will, and must, accrue.

    (One statoid that I treasure runs something like this. The invention of the triple expansion steam engine massively increased the efficiency of sea transport as it enable Victorian merchants to move one ton of goods, one nautical mile at one knot from the enegry obtained from burning one sheet of paper. Y’see laissez faire triumphs again)

  35. Martin
    August 2, 2009

    John why do politicians and I suspect Civil Servants have such a different costing model for Roads as opposed to Railways ?

    Take a road from Wokingham to Arborfield. Apart from commuter time this road is mostly quiet. It does not need a bi directional road. We could have passing loops controlled by lights. The land released could be sold to the private sector.

    OK everybody is now incredulous at my logic. Yet this is what happened to much of our railway network. (Much of the Waterloo to Exeter Central line is like this!)

    If the road system was priced like Railways the M4 would be safe but the country lanes and B roads would soon be closed as they do not raise the revenue to renew and pay for the capital infrastructure. To those who doubt my logic – abolish Road and Petrol Taxes. Let’s have toll roads everywhere.

    P.S. I’d be interested to hear Wokingham Council’s reactions if a whacking great flyover was planned to replace the level crossing at the town station !
    The Nimbys will be out in force and the badger folk would point out that many wild flowers will be exterminated as well as urban foxes upset.

    Reply: What would be better at Wokingham Station is to move the station further down the track (possible current plan). I agree a bridge at Wokingham station junction is difficult – any feasibility study should start with the idea of a road underpass.

    Your numbers are not right – we pay many times over for the roadspace we use, but train track is heavily subsidised.

  36. Bazman
    August 2, 2009

    There are 3,480 miles of railway in operation in Europe where trains can travel at 150 miles an hour or more. Another 2,160 miles are under construction. Yet another 5,280 miles are planned. More than 10,000 miles in all. Britain has just 68 miles and the planning for more began a mere six months ago. It’s humiliating. In this key 21st-century capability, Britain is a banana republic.

    Read the rest here.

    What would a 500mph train from London to Newcastle with smaller slower trains to other towns do for the wealth and housing shortages in this country? Failing that a sixteen lane motorway from South Wales to London.

  37. Peter Dixon
    August 2, 2009

    John. A great shame that you use your blogs and railways as a cheap “win” for the viewers of your blog.

    Whilst the railways do absorb an amazing amount of money, a lot of this is due to having to maintain the railway infrastructure at a high standard, with little ability to vary the maintenance requirements due to the strict requirements expected for even the mere branch line. Even the smallest branch line struggles to shave costs as the lines are expected to meet certain standards for operation.

    Many people don’t use city centre railway stations for starting their jounrye if they are using a car. The high cost and congestion makes it easier to use other stations and public transport to do this.

    It is great to say that cars can be fuel efficient to get people around if whole journey costs are taken into account. But how do you expect to shift those people. A car can be 20 foot long, guzzling fuel. Yet we can stick them into a small space on a train to get them into the city centre at a reasonable pace.

    You also fail to take into account those people who cannot use a car. The under 18’s, OAP’s, the disabled and those who have yet to learn to drive.

    We shouldn’t just take the optimal system as a given. Yes, full trains are desirable but if we cut the service provided to people outside of the peak hours, we will reduce the efficiency of the rail service and knock the whole average emissions up despite the good intentions in the first place.

    We don’t want to encourage free movement to much. By doing this, we make car travel more efficient and our aims to cut road emissions are destroyed.

  38. Keith
    August 3, 2009


    In future, when considering energy efficiency or other scientific topics, I would politely suggest you include:

    1. Data
    2. Possibly calculations
    3. References
    4. Quotes from experts who study the area

    Otherwise, informed readers will not take your arguments seriously. Also, you will be less tempted to post without careful fact checking, and thus less likely to mislead uninformed readers with mistaken arguments.

    Reply: I often do as you suggest. The points I was making re rail are obvious. I may add some of the data on carbon outputs in a subsequent post. I think you meant to write “uninformed readers” may not take me seriously, as they will be under the power of the idiot soundbite that trains are green.

  39. Chris Packham
    August 3, 2009

    John starts his generally sensible and thoughtful piece with a common fallacy about rail’s market share of the travel market. Yes, rail has a very small share (perhaps 6%) of the travel market, but this includes every type of journey including nipping down to the supermarket and taking the kids to school. Rail has a much larger share of the market in the type of travel it’s good at-commuting into big cities and intercity travel. 20% of commuters into my city, Birmingham, go by train. A minority, true, but much bigger than 20 years ago and you wouldn’t want them adding to the congested roads. 75% of commuters from the Aire and Wharfe valleys (Ilkley, Shipley, Keighley etc) into Leeds use the train, but the roads there are still congested at rush hour. The simple fact is that in city regions there is not and never will be enough road space for mass car commuting, and the subsidies needed to provide rail services is good value and essential.
    John also contradicts himself by saying we shouldn’t electrify the railways but we should have energy-efficient trains. Exactly-electric trains. It’s absurd that very busy commuter and intercity lines like Great Western are still diesel, electrification is welcome and long overdue and it’s disappointing (putting it mildly) that as a local MP John doesn’t welcome it warmly. Perhaps he should remember that Conservative governments have a much better record on rail electrification than Labour , though there’s a lot of historical accident about that.

  40. Mark
    August 3, 2009

    What we need to do is privatise the rail network (and I mean sell the whole thing off to the highest bidder, not just tinker around with frachises and disguised nationalised dinosaurs like Network Rail) – and do the same thing with the trunk road network as well, which could then be funded by tolls.

    There should be no more subsidies for road or rail.

    Then with a bit of luck we will finally see how rail competes with road travel.

    As for the idea of doing away with level crossings, well done Mr Redwood! This is a splendid idea which is long overdue!

    These crossings were fine in the 1850s when there were just a few horses and carts on the roads and a few trains pottered along at 40 odd miles per hour, but they are a complete menace these days, accounting for 42% of the risk to rail operations and causing mortorists annoying delays.

  41. rob
    August 4, 2009

    One of the big problems is people only take the cost of petrol as an indication of price of a car journey, typical 32% of the cost. But per mile, road travel is generally more pricey than rail when overall costs are taken into account.

    Indeed, the tax raised from road use is needed to cover the external costs of accidents, police, noise, social exclusion and congestion. So really the argument doesn’t stand road makes money and rail loses cash, the subsidy for rail is needed for off-peak services to attract people out of their cars and provide any sort of service.

    While rail may have [only] a 6% share, the roads have 22 times the network. But this disguises, often the flows between cities rail has a very large market share and 80% into central London.

    Reply: the externalities of train travel are also substantial – when I lived near a railway line it was a lot noisier than a road. Most rail journeys require roadspace for the traveller to complete them.

  42. mad tony
    August 6, 2009

    John’s comments are valid.
    The scrapping of the Motorail service was a mistake form a carbon viewpoint.
    Public transport is the enabler for those who cannot drive (outside of London and have a fear of flying) to be mobile at a reasonable cost (if you are in work).
    In a democracy freedom to travel would be restricted without a reasonably cheap public transport.

    Finally menas testing the elderly for their bus passes is wrong. Either all benfeits shild be emans tesrted or none at all. I prefer no means testing as the cost and complexity of the test makes it simpler just to issue a universal benefit.

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