Wednesday, 28 August 2013

HS2 Built on Sand

The debate about HS2 (the proposed high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham) is taking place on shifting sands. This is no way to build a railway which should last for centuries; it needs solid foundations that will survive the test of time. The amount to be spent is colossal; it should be spent wisely and spent well.

The economic arguments shifts between arguing the case for HS2 based on spreading the economic benefits of the capital to regions further north and the case against based on whether this amount of money could be better spent. The environmental case shifts between the argument that HS2 will be a credible alternative to short-haul flights (thus saving CO2 emissions) and concern at the damage to the countryside over which it will be built. Each party in the debate has a drum to beat but instead of leading to a harmonious (logical) resolution to the debate everyone involved is making an almighty din. The vision in my mind is of a rabble of drummers standing on shifting sands slowly seeking deeper until the racket stops as they sink beneath the weight of the their own arguments.

The debate has to turn down the volume and shift onto solid ground. The rock on which HS2 should be considered is the UK’s transport infrastructure for the 21st century. There is an amount of money to spend and an infrastructure badly in need of improvement. The two need marrying together under the umbrella of coherent policy.

We do not have to look far for the corner stone of transport policy. The size and shape of the UK’s transport infrastructure for this century (and next) is dictated by the imperative that it be low-carbon. Whatever other political whims might grab the political parties, the solid point of reference for major transport infrastructure is how it fits the low-carbon future. Where this takes the debate is not entirely clear cut. We certainly need improved rail capacity and would want it to be fast, high capacity and reliable; but how fast is justified? Focussing on rail is not enough; the whole transport system has to be considered including of course the future for travel by air:

Putting the debate on solid ground does not immediately lead to the final solution but it does at least allow reasoned debate and the possibility of cutting through the political posturing to agree the way forward.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Legend of Drax

Long, long ago in a land called Fossil Heaven, the greatest beasts of the forest were the coal-eating dinosaurs. They had grown big and strong on eating coal which the people of Fossil Heaven mined from deep underground to feed them and keep them happy. In return the potentially fearsome dinosaurs provided electricity to power their homes. Drax was a particularly well-liked coal-eating dinosaur who would sit quietly in Yorkshire without causing anyone any trouble whilst generating a large part of the electricity the people needed.
One day, the climate changed. It was not an asteroid that landed on the earth as the soothsayers had predicted but the people were horrified to learn that it was the foul breath of the coal-eating dinosaur which was the cause. They met and talked, and met and talked, and met and talked again, but could not decide what to do. They liked poor old Drax (or his electricity) too much to put him out of his misery as they continued to feed him coal. Then the FCED (Federation of Coal-Eating Dinosaurs) had a bright idea; they would feed Drax on wood. People leapt at this suggestion, so they could keep good old Drax after all and everyone was happy.

Over the months that followed, they scoured first the local area, cutting down the forest and when all that was gone they brought wood from the other side of the kingdom; and when all that was exhausted they starting bringing in wood across the ocean from distant countries. Drax had such a big appetite that he was always hungry and feeding him was taking more and more effort, but he generated so much electricity that the people felt they could not get by without him.

Much later, a new animal came along called the combined heat and power mammals (the CHPs). These were small, clever and very efficient nibbling away at small quantities of wood generating electricity and using the heat that would be wasted to heat people’s homes. More and more people stated to feed the wood to the CHPs because they got much more back for their efforts. Drax started to get angry and threatened to stop making electricity unless he could have more wood to eat or he was allowed to keep eating his favourite food, coal.
Finally, a group of wise elders met and discussed what was to be done about Drax. He had been a loyal servant to the people for so long but his time was up, his foul breath was more than the climate of the kingdom could bear. They sent in a team late at night whilst he was slumbering and put Drax to sleep. There followed a funeral with great pomp as Drax was buried with honour. Above his grave the good people of Fossil Heaven erected a plaque:

“Here lies Drax the last of the coal-eating dinosaurs 1974-2014. 

May he rest in peace.”