A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The cinder in Celia Johnson's eye

Today I am going to trust the railways to travel to present a Regional Guest Lecture on climate change for the Royal Meteorological Society. I hope it does not prove pointless and a signal failure - at least I can avoid being 'Bushwhacked' by a motley collection of demonstrators in central London. But are railways the great answer to our transport problems, an assertion I so often hear from those of a more romantic disposition? Here are just a few thoughts to track while I hope I am being whisked along to the wonderful city of Durham..... (Conquest and the Mediaeval Warm Period! Historian wife grimaces...)

DESPITE frozen points and cattle truck conditions, the idea that railways are God's gift to transport continues to bedevil our thinking. From Rev. W. V. Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine to Agatha Christie's Oriental Express, we British see trains through a romantic haze of steam and smoke. Even Tony Benn (and he'll certainly be out ranting today!) is reported to weep as Roberta in Edith Nesbitt's masterpiece, The Railway Children, appears through the vapours to scream "Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!" What we have all forgotten is the cinder and smut in Celia Johnson's eye as Laura Jesson plays out her Brief Encounter to the heart-rending strains of Rachmaninoff's 'Second Piano Concerto'. And as with Laura, it will end in C-minor.

Railways are not the ultimate answer. We are a tiny, dense island, with a complex network of modern communications, quite unsuited to the linear tracks and limited railheads of a 19th century network. Just take London Bridge (fingers crossed for me this morning!). Every day, trains come to a grinding halt as they approach this notorious bottleneck, each on a competing line from another epoch, the Railway Age, when private steam and coal were 'King'. Today, huddled commuters grapple in ancient, decrepit, chilly carriages, grimly marred by graffiti, grime and gashed glazing. And the cost per egregious mile of this dubious privilege is often 5 times that of flying to New York from London. A First Class Return ticket for me to Durham would be around £245 and a 'walk on' Second Class ticket circa £170 - and this does not include the extra journeys from my home town and across London.

Yet, to break this commuter stranglehold, we would have to destroy part of one of the oldest markets in London. Borough Market, established in 1756, and built in its present form by H. Rose in 1851, is a gem, where all the stalls offer genuine, farmers' fare and where Bridget Jones smoked and flirted her way through insecurity to love. As William Wordsworth declared of the Kendal and Windermere Railway: "Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?" (I'd love to hear him on wind farms!)

Railways are not, and never were, an environmental utopia. I should know. As a young lad, I was a keen ferroequinologist, 'student of the iron horse', and I roamed freely the spider's web of lines radiating out from Manchester. I too fell in love with the sight of an A4, like 60014, 'Silver Link', rounding the majestic curve of York Station, granted one of the wonders of the world. But my long-suffering mother was far less impressed by the filthy shirt and grimy neck of her son. Monday wash was a grey day of scrubbing and the mangle.

And now, even in a world obsessed by the myth and witchcraft of carbon dioxide emissions, modern railways must run nearly to capacity to gain any benefits from their high capacity/pollution ratios. And when the trains do reach their destinations, cars and lorries emerge from every corner to pick up weary souls, two hours late, and the freight from the broken-down monster that caused the delay.

Admittedly, passenger numbers have increased recently. Yet, this is true for all forms of transport and railways have simply been forced to take their part of the strain. And, of course, certain developments, such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (most certainly a good thing) and the Central Railway for freight may prove effective and exciting, especially as long distance, although the initial investments are likely to be enormous, no less than £11 million per track mile in the case of the Central Railway. But we are never going to return to the tank engine and the floral displays of Little Piddington-on-the Marsh.

One way forward is to reduce the overall need to travel. This will demand two things that we have singularly failed to achieve so far in the UK, namely a cost effective IT network and a much more entrepreneurially-encouraging system of taxation. Recent tax changes have even penalised those who wish to work from home on contract. Moreover, unlike in the US, we still do not have free local telephone calls, while broadband remains too slow in its uptake. We also need to push for far more flexible working patterns, especially for parents with young families and working mothers.

Sadly, railways just shunt us into a long-lost siding, albeit one with a quaint signal box.


Still, today, I shall thrill, yet again, to the marvellous curve of York Station and to the glorious view of the Cathedral as one arrives at Durham station - if I get there in good heart and time. Hope the lecture goes well too! Wish me luck!


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