Connecting Rails to Reality

Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 8:00 UTC 13 comments

Having written a long winded rant about air transport a few days ago, I thought I’d actually make use of a bunch of reports I have saved on the current situation for the development railways from Africa and Asia to Britain. As with anything that involves railways, its not so much the engineering that has the effects, its the wider political and social impacts that railways have by their presence or absence.

With railways, so often its a question of cost. Bangladesh needs a new railway, but can it afford it? The immediate answer is clearly a no; the Bangladeshi government desperately lacks the money that would be required for new lines in the country.

In comes the messy world of regional development banks. Loans from these can help governments do amazing things they wouldn’t otherwise manage. The questions: can they afford the debt repayment and can they afford the strings which come attached. The BBC’s writers clearly identify one set of constraints that often cause a problem: bribery and transparency. This isn’t the only one; often the assumption is that the markets will open up far wider than they need to, and rather than the money reaching the people who deserve it, a multinational swoops in.

The thing is, when the alternative is to copy western models of contracting straight over to a poor country who’s local workforce is most likely desperate for work, what do we expect the outcome to be? Local job protections? Or foreign contractors bringing in their own staff? This is complicated somewhat by the question of competency, and just how desirable the skill transfer needed for an entirely in-country project might actually be.

It all seems a bit too much like an attempt to blame the Global South for its own poverty, though I think there’s an element of truth. Working with someone requires trust be they activists, bankers or construction firms, it make little difference. Fairness is needed, but those loaning the money should not assume to have anymore right to rewrite a countries laws than a local business man about to pass a few hundred dollars under the table.

Ethiopia also has fresh rail-based ambitions too, it turns out (this time, the EU is paying). They’re currently rebuilding a large amount of the 1 meter gauge line from Addis Ababa down to Djibouti, something I find a little suspicious as one normally builds to a port if one wants to put stuff on ships and send it away; perhaps a little too much trade focus, but then they plan a wider, 1435mm (aka Standard Gauge) railway around the country using electrification from renewable energy.

Mr Getachew talks with enthusiasm about rail transport as the engine of development, and of his conviction that railways are inherently more “pro-poor” than any other transport system – of much more use to Ethiopia’s rural dwellers than an expensive network of tarmac road, driven on mostly by tourists and aid workers.

I’m just so thankful someone gets why building railways is so important for development. If we had simply gone from carriage to motorcar, we might never have seen a rise in mobility for the poor like the one which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and which has played a huge role in our democracy, education and more besides over the last few decades.

So it comes as something of a pity that the UK is unable to see its way to augmenting its railway system any time soon. This seems to only get worse as governments are forced to listen to the voice of the status quo, the car lobby. The RAC apparently wants a government inquiry into why the Department for Transport is even considering funding new rail lines rather than new roads.

Sadly, what’s in people’s interests and what’s in the interest of committed car users don’t add up, and an organisation like RAC is as likely to admit car drivers could become rail users as turkey’s are to admit they make a good contribution to Christmas. Its a pity that, as much as the RAC is well intentioned in standing up for its membership, it is assuming that a person’s identity as a car user is as fixed and as central to their life as. say. their ethnic background.* To quote a T-Shirt, “inside every car is a perfect cyclist”, and whilst that might not be literally true, it illustrates the point quite nicely.

Its exciting to see that more than 10 rail line reinstatements/developments are now being considered (as the report actually misses some decent proposals), particularly local commuter lines that will make the network more comprehensive for a wider number of people. These are the kind of projects that could really make a difference to Britain’s economic development, especially at a time when the government really needs to find new ways of pricing people out of their cars, even though currently for many this would be a disaster.

And in another piece of news with possible rail travel connections, Belarus wants to warm relations with the EU. If you wonder what this has to do with rail travel, get a map and plot a course from London to Moscow by rail. Easily the most direct route will take you straight through Brest and Minsk. If this renewed interest comes to fruition, we could see the visa cost for rail travel to Russia dropping enormously, by some £50 or more. In the struggle against car and plane travel, this would be excellent news, as the East would get significantly closer.

You might think railways are a thing of quaintness and geekery, or perhaps an answer to the ecological imperative, but the political, economic and social effects can be very far reaching, and in a far more positive way than most other forms of transport. I just hope we can find as much enthusiasm for conventional rail lines as the Bangladeshis and Ethiopians.


* It took me a while to figure what I’d put here, as I ran through all the different identities people generally consider fixed, only to realise at least one blog reader would argue back against every suggestion I could come up with. You lot don’t make an easy audience to please!


Entry filed under: Africa, Asia, Development, Environment, Politics, Trains, Travel.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Neil T.  |  Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 11:20 UTC

    The British government is expected to be delivering its report on electrification this week. It was due today but will probably not now come out until after recess on Thursday.

    It’s likely the plans will include electrification of the remaining sections of the Great Western Main Line (Maidenhead – Bristol; Airport Junction – Maidenhead is included in Crossrail) and the Midland Main Line (Bedford – Sheffield). If they’re being really ambitious, it’ll also include the North Transpennine route (York/Hull to Manchester) and enough infill to enable CrossCountry trains from Edinburgh to Bristol to be electric.

    Of course, they may pull more tightly on the purse strings and just electrify Maidenhead to Reading.

  • 2. Greg  |  Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 16:33 UTC

    I’ve been reading Mayer Hillman recently, and he says that at current (2008) occupancy rates, CO2 emissions per journey are only 20% lower per passenger on the train than in a car. Do you know any more about this figure?

  • 3. Neil T.  |  Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 16:37 UTC

    Greg: Would like to see his source material – ‘some studies have shown…’ is rather vague. And it doesn’t mention whether the trains in question are diesel or electric – as far as I am aware (although I too have no source for this), electric trains use less carbon per mile, even if they are powered by electricity generated entirely through fossil fuels.

    Electric trains are also lighter (no fuel tank) and can therefore accelerate more quickly than their diesel counterparts, as well as not emitting any exhaust fumes.

  • 4. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 19:18 UTC

    I’ve not had long to look at this person’s writings, but they strike me as a little familiar from the “fundamentalist re-localisation” perspective that counts as its most extreme variation the view that because people expend more energy on long distance cycle rides, they should stay at home.

    I suspect various things are being ignored here, and some of them make very good points in their own bizarre way, not least of which is the age and power mode of a train. In other words, yes, currently trains might be that inefficient, but trains can be modernised (they’re often far older than cars), electrified and whats more, electrified trains can run on windpower.

    It would be interesting to note whether initial carbon outlay (the emissions from building the vehicle) have been included, as most trains are pushed vastly harder than most cars during their lifetime (an NXEC set does almost one thousand miles every day, where most cars do 20 or less most days).

    I think what the guys getting at is that people who can travel cheaply will live further from work, but this is a rather long winded way of making such a claim. And I really doubt a packed electric commuter train is that inefficient.

  • 5. Greg  |  Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 20:22 UTC

    Graham, well done on the dig at me. You almost managed to make it subtle!

  • 6. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 21st July 2009 at 22:55 UTC

    Erm, when did I dig at you Greg? I was thinking of some weirdos who hang around the fringes of Climate Camp. In what way do you resemble them?

  • 7. Greg  |  Wednesday, 22nd July 2009 at 21:56 UTC

    I thought you were talking about me with the reference to long distance cycling. My bad.

    • 8. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 23rd July 2009 at 14:40 UTC

      No, unless you have decided the increase on your food bill is significant enough to cause the planet to burn! Apparently growing extra pasta for people to cycle long distances is a threat to the planet. Grrr.

  • 9. Neil T.  |  Thursday, 23rd July 2009 at 7:45 UTC

    Electrification plans announced:

    They will be electrifying the Great Western Main Line to Bristol and Swansea, and also the line through Newton-le-Willows near Manchester. Shame they aren’t doing the Midland Main Line too but it’s a start.

    • 10. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 23rd July 2009 at 14:41 UTC

      One throw away attempt to appease the North. Pah! I demand electrification from York to Manchester! Especially as it could knock 20 minutes off London to Leeds.

  • 11. John Cooper  |  Tuesday, 28th July 2009 at 13:41 UTC

    All good Graham. However in your discussion you let yourself down. One of the big promises that was broken by both tories and labour, would have revolutionised the way we travel.

    Part of the deal for the channel tunnel was to deliver high speed trains from Edinburgh through to France – I do belive that is still yet to happen…

    York indeed…pah

    • 12. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 29th July 2009 at 13:43 UTC

      The case for such a direct train service was, and remains, very weak indeed. Surveys regularly conclude that the service, which would have to be run by full length Eurostars, would never be more than half full, something Eurostar can’t afford. The legal issues are now even bigger, what with tightening border controls, so its very very unlikely that this would be able to happen, even with all the financial incentives in the world.

      And there’d be little to no point, as the change-over time in London would be virtually identical to the time taken to check in at Edinburgh, pull into St Pancras, and reverse back out. Also, Eurostars accelerate slower, and wouldn’t be able to attain full speed, so they run a bit slower on the East Coast than NXEC.

      Bare in mind the Nightstar trains were scrapped before they even entered service. Its a poisoned chalice, and there are bigger issues, like getting the Scotland-Scandinavia ferry service fixed, and ensuring better connections one one reaches the continent, something all channel tunnel users potentially face.

  • 13. temmoc  |  Saturday, 8th August 2009 at 20:48 UTC

    The biggest obstacle to introducing the so-called ‘Regional Eurostar’ is the failure of the UK to sign the Schengen agreement. Currently it would require everyone travelling on a train that continues on to the continent to go through passport control and whatnot. This means that the half-full Eurostar taking people from Birmingham to Paris would not realistic be able to be supplemented by travellers from Birmingham to London and then London to Paris.

    Your argument of the trains pulling into St. Pancras taking just as long as changing at St. Pancras is to valid for several reasons.
    Firstly most people will always sooner take a direct trains than change part of the way, even when the journey time is the same.
    Secondly, becuase the Eurostar require to arrive 30minutes early to check-in, you will want to get a train that gets in 45 minutes early to give you an ample buffer in case of delays. So even if you can get a train that gets in exactly 45 minutes before your Eurostar leaves, you will still loose 15minutes of the journey time.
    Finally, the trains wouldn’t even need to pull into St. Pancras, they could stop at the new Stratford international station instead, allowing even more time savings over changing at St. Pancras.

    Your final point, that Eurostars would not be able to travel as fast the Intercity 125s on non-high speed lines is true. The current Eurostar trains would travel at 110mph, instead of 125mph. But this becuase the Eurostars are made to be used only with High-Tension overhead cable. Considering that if a Regional Eurostar services was started new trains would probably have to be ordered anyway and I’m sure that this a problem that can be overcome.


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