Speed comes at a cost

Transport is one of the most significant users of energy. The recent climate change summit conference in Paris was rather more successful than its predecessor in Copenhagen six years previously, identifying courses of action which we must take if the human race is to survive.

Saturday, 30th January 2016, 3:20 pm

People talk about saving the planet, but the planet will keep on rolling more or less whatever we do to it. It is life, and particularly human life, which will cease to exist if we carry on as we are.

We have to make major changes.

For the first time in history, we are capable of destroying ourselves, and we shall do that if we do not address the issues.

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It is now generally agreed that man’s own actions have brought about the recent changes in our climate which are resulting in storms and the resulting floods, for example.

These changes are only marginal, of course.

Climate change has been taking place for as long as there has been climate.

For example, the last ice age, when almost all of Britain was covered with ice, receded 10,000 years ago, and the climate may be still be getting warmer in its natural 100,000-year cycle, in which case our actions have simply accelerated the process, whereas it would be better if we tried to retard it.

One of the largest users of energy is conflict, and one of the most effective ways of saving humanity would be to stop it, but as it has been a feature of our existence forever, there seems little likelihood of that being achievable.

Less than 200 years ago, the Industrial Revolution resulted in the burning of huge amounts of coal, much of it by steam engines on railways and in ships.

A little over 100 years ago the discovery of oil and the invention of the internal combustion engine led to the massive expansion of road and air transport.

One of the outcomes of the Paris talks was the greater realisation that our survival will depend on our urgent reduction in use of non-renewable sources of energy.

In Britain, this realisation unfortunately coincided with the Government’s decision to massively reduce support for carbon capture and renewable sources of energy, such as solar power, and to encourage and even promote the development of marginal sources of non-renewables by means of fracking.

The development of electric cars does seem to be making some progress now, and even electric buses, but the size and weight of the batteries which would be needed to power a large lorry means that there is apparently no progress in this sector yet, although there has been some experimentation in aviation in the form of a solar-powered light aircraft, which has made some long flights, and experiments in using wind power to assist the progress of large ships have taken several forms.

All forms of experimentation are beneficial, because they will be developed until they become fully functional, so we can look forward to major changes in most forms of transport during the coming century.

Our railways are still much too heavily dependent on diesel power, the progress of electrification having been woefully slow for more than half a century.

Even now, when its importance is beginning to be recognised, progress is still lacking in urgency. Lead times in the railway industry are such that to achieve something within a decade is really quick.

Much of the current activity on the railways stems from the non-political appointment by Labour in 2009 of Lord Adonis as transport secretary. His initiatives were fortunately carried on by the coalition government the following year.

The railways have always sought to improve their efficiency, as all good businesses should, significantly by increasing speed.

The justification for HS2 is that it will accelerate movement between London and the major conurbations in the north, including Scotland, by providing a high-speed line bypassing the congested, current routes between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

However, there is a paradox here as increased speed means increased energy consumption, which is now a separate consideration, and speed has to be balanced with the use of energy.

Half a century ago, the only consideration in respect of energy consumption was its cost. As part of the strategy for high-speed trains, there was a development called the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), which included a tilting mechanism to enable it to go round sharp curves faster without upsetting the passengers.

There were several versions, using different forms of propulsion.

This train included so much new technology that it took time to develop, so some of the railway engineers devised a simpler, quicker solution to speed things up and called it the High Speed Train (HST).

The first of these entered service in 1976 and were a huge success. Most are due to be withdrawn by 2020, to be replaced by the InterCity Express, which is being built at Shildon in County Durham.

By coincidence, one of the Advanced Passenger Train prototypes is housed in the National Rail Museum’s annex at Shildon, as shown in the accompanying image.

Clearly, the styling experts did not get to work on it before it was withdrawn.

The reason it did not come to fruition was that it was launched at a bad time, in midwinter, when the weather really took a turn for the worse, and things went badly wrong on the demonstration run for the press.

Resultant bad publicity led to the withdrawal of government funding and the sale of the technology to Fiat, which was already making trains designed on the same principle called Pendolinos.

The Italian firm incorporated the British technology into a new design and sold it to various railways, including Virgin Trains for use on the west coast main line in Britain.