Thursday, August 06, 2009

planes, trains and tory numpties

Just because the Euro elections are over doesn't mean you don't get political leaflets through the door. The Conservatives' parliamentary candidate for Leeds North East, Matthew Lobley, has been dishing out some.

Leaflet for Conservative candidate Matthew Lobley

Down there at the bottom we see that

the next Conservative government would invest in a High-Speed Rail link connecting Leeds to London, Birmingham and Manchester...

Matthew commented,' This will be great news for Leeds, reducing travel times and so supporting our Leeds economy and jobs. For too any years we have seen Leeds, the finance capital of the North, miss out to Manchester"

Missing out to Manchester? Would that be the Leeds that's had two-hour train journeys to London for a decade or two while equidistant Manchester only got that upgrade a couple of years ago?

Meanwhile, with no sense of irony or conflict, on the back of the leaflet we get this lament:

the news that BMI has scrapped its flights between Leeds and Heathrow is hugely disappointing to Leeds people.

Firstly, I wonder what proportion of people in Leeds ever used a flight to London. Of this tiny number, what subgroup could describe themselves as 'hugely disappointed' that the service was axed? Would anyone guess it was more than a sliver of a fraction of one percent of the amount needed to qualify as being representative opinions of 'Leeds people'?

The government has just announced a swathe of high-speed rail links with the explicit intention of killing off domestic flights, saying

For reasons of carbon reduction and wider environmental benefits, it is manifestly in the public interest that we systematically replace short-haul aviation with high-speed rail.

But this is seemingly not an issue to Lobley, a man who manages to talk about future energy policy without reference to carbon, and on his website only manages to mention it once, as "global warming", complete with quote marks.

For him, it's just that we need journey times cut. That'll make the train compete with the plane. Except the normal train already does.

Matthew and those hugely disappointed Leeds citizens will be relieved to know that Flybe have picked up the service and fly from Leeds to Gatwick.

Choosing a date and time at random, the 14.05 flight on 9th September from Leeds to London takes an hour and ten minutes. Add the minimum 30 minutes check-in time and it's 1.40. And that's before we recognise that the train terminates right in the city, whereas the flight leaves from outside Leeds and lands a good half an hour's journey away from actual London.

The 14.05 train takes 2 hours 17 minutes. So, there's nothing in it timewise and the train's almost certainly the better option on that front.

Not so with the price, however. The flight costs £24.99 including taxes. The train costs £84.00. What can we do about this incentive to take the high-carbon option?

In January 2007 David Cameron suggested

I think what we need to have is we've got to make sure that air travel more accurately reflects all of the costs. And, if you like, what the Economist would call the externalities, the pollution cost. I think that is important. And I think that would lead to a fairer competition between, between rail and air travel, particularly within the UK.

On 13 September 2007 the Conservatives published their Quality of Life report. The same day, in light of the report's recommendations, it was reported that

David Cameron will finally bite the bullet on green taxes today by backing the imposition of VAT on aviation fuel on domestic flights

Less than two weeks after the 547 page report was published, Cameron had read it and removed his teethmarks from the bullet.

We’ve put forward some different options, we’ve now looked at that and decided the right option, which is to not do VAT on domestic flights, that VAT on domestic flights was not an option.

So, if nothing else, at least Lobley's in line with his party leader, sticking his fingers in his ears and going lalala about aviation emissions.


John B said...

Actually the 14:05 train on Wednesday September 9 costs £18.70, according to

So my suggestion about incentives would be pointing out to more people that, actually, in real life, train fares cost about the same as air fares.

(presumably your £84 figure comes from a fully-flexible ticket valid on any train at any time. Not sure if FlyBe even sell those for their planes, but if they do then they'll certainly cost a lot more than £24.99).

merrick said...


I got my figure off the same site last night and it only had the button for £84 standard off-peak, and a few other more expensive tickets, I swear.

Looking now there's a discount thingy and you're absolutely right about the £18.70 fare. Though presumably the cheap seats'll go swiftly, but then again that may well be true of the plane too.

It makes such an arse of what I've written above that I'm sorely tempted to rewrite it. and there is, as you say, a positive message, if trains are quicker than the plane and either cheaper, or if they're more expensive then they're more flexible.

Lobley and Cameron are still nobbers, mind.

Martin Porter said...

I suspect you have found out a rather alarming fact about our trains that anybody who uses them could tell you - it's almost impossible to find out how much a ticket actually costs.

The next stage of this process is when the train you want is cancelled and you try to use a different one and find you ticket is only valid for part of the route!

Isenbard Kingdon Brunel must be spinning in his grave to see what we're done to his dream.

Dunc said...

Do we really need high-speed rail in this country? If we could just upgrade the existing network so that it could all handle normal inter-city speeds (rather than much of it seemingly being limited to about 25mph) I think that would probably be a greater improvement. All the figures I've seen suggest that once you go to full-blown, TGV-style "high speed", at typical capacity factors, then it's not actually much better than flying. Although I can't remember if that accounts for the increased forcing from high-altitude emissions... (Or, indeed, whether short-haul flights get high enough for that to make much difference.)

Martin Porter said...

Our campaign group here in Glossop is having exactly this debate.

It's true that if you compare a half empty high speed train with a full and modern airliner the difference isn't that great, but then there's the radiative forcing and the possibility of running electric trains off renewable energy - planes are going to have to carry on running on kerosene.

BUT if we are to make really drastic cuts in CO2 I think the trains will have to run at normal speeds. The arguemnt appears to be a rather cynical one - it's the only thing that will get people to voluntarily give up their plane tickets.

merrick said...


you're right about high-speed rail, there's little to choose between a 350kmh train and a plane. It's something I cover in a little detail in this article.

Incidentally, watch out for the radiative forcing thing, too. People still commonly quote an uplift factor of 2 or 2.3, whereas if we are to use one that measures impacts over a century - the standard for every other sector - it should be 1.3. Details of that - extensive and with great imaginative comedy analogies - written by a professional carbon footprinter here.

Martin is right that at least electric trains are 'renewables ready', but if we not only shift a major chunk of our energy demand to electricity but do so in a way that is especially thirsty, we prolong our use of fossils.

The short answer has to be, in the large part, slow down. There is no way to travel fast without consuming a huge amount of energy.

Martin Porter said...

Very useful link - I will learn to multiply by 1.3.

I suppose this means Drax goes back to being our biggest CO2 emitter?

merrick said...

Martin, even with the 1.3 figure Heathrow outstrips Drax (23.9m tonnes CO2e, compared to Drax's 20.8). Or put another way, compared to the 212 carbon emitting countries of the world Drax would come 79th on the list, Heathrow 75th).

I've put an update on my post about Heathrow that explains.