UK’s transport policy’s right off the rails

GLIMMER OF HOPE: First Minister Alex Salmond at the announcement in Aberdeen of the introduction of Europe’s largest hydrogen bus fleet
GLIMMER OF HOPE: First Minister Alex Salmond at the announcement in Aberdeen of the introduction of Europe’s largest hydrogen bus fleet
Opinion by Energy Voice

If for some peculiar reason I had actually wanted to go to London to watch any of the Olympics my choices of how to get there would have been to fly, drive, catch a train or take one of those long distance buses.

None appeal to me very much nowadays but frankly my interest in the Olympics was limited anyway.

However, the fact is that pretty much everything anyone might have wanted to watch was being shown in glorious high definition on the television. So why bother to travel anyway? If you have a decent television then you could save a bucket of money and a tiny bit of the planet by not burning a few more hydrocarbons.

The point here is of course that television technology made it possible for the Olympics to be watched all over the world. Anyone with a satellite dish and receiver would have been able to see what was happening and support their own teams.

So if the technology exists to bring the Olympics to the world why is it that people still insist they have to jump on a plane or train or whatever in Aberdeen to go to a meeting in London, Glasgow, Stavanger or even Houston when video conferencing technologies are now so readily available.

Personally, most of my meetings outside the local area take place now using Skype video conferencing. It’s cheap, easy and rarely subject to delays, and with larger bandwidth broadband the quality of the video is actually pretty good.

You see burning fuel for no good reason doesn’t strike me as very intelligent. Notwithstanding all the greenhouse gas issues it’s becoming increasingly expensive.

Biofuels – particularly ethanol – were once thought to be at least part of the answer but that now seems to be in real doubt.

In the US in particular the production of biofuel crops has been very badly hit by drought. It may seem ironic that one of the means of countering global warming has been brought into doubt by one of the consequences of global warming, but it has.

In fact, the situation is so bad that the United Nations (UN) Food Agency has called on the Americans to suspend their corn-based ethanol production.

In the US, 40% of the corn harvest is required by law to be used to make biofuel but the UN says this could now lead to a food crisis because of the poor American harvest which of course has also driven up prices.

Of course we shouldn’t be overly concerned by this because so called third generation fuels do not depend on food crops and as the development of synthetic chemistry and biology progresses we may well get to a situation soon where food crops simply aren’t needed.

In fact, in Scotland we are already seeing developments such as Napier University’s biobutanol that use waste material from the whisky distilling process.

In previous columns I’ve discussed the latter as well as other potential fuels; ethanol, butanol, hydrogen, ammonia and methanol. These all have huge potential but their use is almost non-existent particularly in this country. That has to change.

Last month’s announcement regarding hydrogen fuel cell bus trials in Aberdeen is a start. It provides an opportunity to assess that technology and if successful and if we’re smart, to come up with a plan for developing and manufacturing similar technology here.

There is of course no reason why we can’t do that. We just need the will.

That said, how we actually use our transport system is also important. I know we can and should avoid the use of aircraft by using new technologies but what else could we do? What about trains?

Well, the cost of travelling by train is just ridiculous and they are also just about to go up by well above inflation, even in Scotland.

Trains are also slower than they should be and less convenient than the car. Frankly, I think the present railway system is archaic, a hangover from a past age and it’s about time we comprehensively remodelled it.

We now need to be much more visionary and look at other solutions. This might include ideas such as a new high-speed but compact electric monorail running up as far North as Wick and connecting all the main population centres.

What about the use of local networks using technology similar to the Dockland Railway in London? Being narrow gauge, electric, cheaper and less imposing seems like a good idea.

Private vehicle numbers are of course what we’re trying to reduce both to ease congestion and to cut down on energy use.

But we’ll never do away with them completely and if we achieve a reduction of even a few per cent I’ll be surprised. But before we even attempt to do that we need to provide useful alternatives.

If I can’t get to where I want to go using a bus or some form of train and it’s more expensive then I’ll go by car.

Governments will of course try to counter that by artificially increasing the cost of using your car by raising road tax and fuel costs. It doesn’t matter. Apart from annoying their constituents it achieves very little other than raising more tax.

Governments like ours are actually their own worst enemy. If they don’t invest in the development of genuinely new technologies such as high-speed small monorails and the use of advanced alternative fuels then they have to rely on the increasingly irritating policy of taxing more and trying to force people to do things they don’t want to do.

Of course the fact we’ve lost control of the industries critical to achieving a step change in transport doesn’t help. But that means we have the possibility to do something new if of course we can inject some vision into UK government in the first place.