Trains, not planes, are the future

 

OPINION:How can we adapt as environmental charges discourage the most polluting transport modes? asks JAMES NIX

ACCORDING TO an interview in yesterday’s Irish Times, Michael O’Leary would like to expand his airline by another 40 per cent, increasing passenger numbers from 73 million in 2010 to more than 100 million.

In pursuing more and more growth, O’Leary doesn’t acknowledge climate change. Earlier this month, in characteristic fashion, he sought to compare climate science to the detritus of bulls and horses. The billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels don’t affect climate, he claims, arguing that scientists “have nearly always been wrong”.

But even O’Leary would have to acknowledge that his views on science are somewhat selective: he’s quite happy to believe that a newly purchased aircraft sent down a runway at high speed will take off even when fully loaded with passengers and baggage. The parts of science O’Leary dislikes are those that sit uneasily with his business model.

O’Leary’s remarks come at the same time as new research shows that aviation is much more damaging than previously thought.

A recent paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technologyexamines the impact of different transport modes on the atmosphere over time. When viewed over a relatively short timeframe – five years – flying can be almost 50 times more damaging than overland travel. Lengthen the time horizon and the impact of aviation reduces relative to other transport modes.

Yet as the key imperative is to get emissions down quickly, and to try to stall further large-scale melting at the poles and other “tipping points”, the need to reduce aviation quickly has become clearer.

As an island nation the research raises important questions for us. How can tourism adapt as environmental charging discourages the most polluting transport modes?

What improvements can be made to overland links to better serve Ireland?

From 2012, aviation will no longer be exempt from the emissions trading scheme that operates across the EU. Raising the price of flights will press the travel market to find alternatives.

The Dublin to London air route is among the busiest in Europe. From city centre to city centre the travel time by air is about four hours, depending on choice of route, check-in arrangements and onward travel decisions. Ferry and train won’t compete directly on travel time but there are feasible options that can be made more attractive.

Currently a ferry leaves Dublin Port at 8.50pm and arrives in Holyhead at about midnight. Travelling Dublin to London, my practice is to take this ferry, pre-book accommodation for the night in Holyhead, and travel onward using the early morning train, reaching central London (Euston station) at 9.30am.

Overnight is a generous term to apply to five hours of sleep in Holyhead, but it compares to getting up for a red-eye flight. Moreover, there’s a chance to catch up on sleep on the train.

The return journey by rail/sail I tend to treat as a working day: a 9.10am departure from London Euston, reaching Dublin Port at about 5.30pm.

There are no laptop restrictions on either the train or ferry, and overall I think the time spent transferring between modes is about the same as taking the plane and passing through airports.

In the short term, a simple improvement to the existing rail/sail service would see the evening ferry from Dublin arrive at Holyhead for 11pm rather than midnight, giving a little more shuteye to the traveller staying the night there. In the longer term, new ferries on the crossing could be built so a sleeper train could be accommodated on board and driven on and off at Holyhead.

Trains, as well as cars and trucks, are already catered for by a ferry that operates between Rodby in eastern Denmark and Puttgarden in northern Germany, carrying trains between Copenhagen and Hamburg across the Baltic. Working together, train and ferry operators could deliver a Dublin-London service leaving each city daily at 9pm, to reach the opposite destination by 8am the following day.

Considerable investment will be required by the ferry companies and at Holyhead, but if the growing patronage of the Channel Tunnel and the resurgence of sleeper buses and trains across the continent is a marker, the investment will be returned.

O’Leary has a point when he criticises governments for promising to use environmental taxes to reduce pollution but then failing to do so. In Ireland’s case there is a clear solution for our busiest air route but investment is needed. Governments also need to communicate more clearly the key reason for environmental taxation: this is the first time in history a generation will knowingly leave behind a climate in flux – and one that has been left in this shaky state by human action and inaction. Tax measures that reduce pollution will lessen impacts on future generations.

While corporate culture grows unabated, we still expect governments to guide their actions with the full weight of science.

Profiting on some dividends of scientific endeavour, only to poo-poo other elements that might affect such profits, will no doubt be something O’Leary continues to do in his humorous way, happily ignoring the losses to future generations.


James Nix is co-ordinator of Plan Better, a joint policy initiative of An Taisce, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Irish Environment and Feasta

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