A different track

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Sharing the driving with my husband as we headed back to Hampshire from a fortnight in the Scottish Borders this summer, I whiled away the hours when not at the wheel identifying the various nationalities of the many lorries thundering down the M1 to the docks.

As always, there were plenty of Dutch and German trucks, several Belgian and Spanish, surprisingly few French – but it was August and les vacances – loads of Poles and a fair smattering of Hungarians, Rumanians, Slovakians, Slovenians, and Croatians plus one Turk.

I pondered, too on what they could all be carrying. Full truckloads arriving from these far-flung corners of the European Empire I can imagine, but what were we sending back? Judging by the speed of the lorries and their deeply concave canvas covers it would seem that in many cases the answer was not a lot.

No doubt, some of these vehicles were travelling under flags of convenience as it is probably far cheaper to register and maintain a fleet in some of the rather lower cost countries of Eastern Europe than here. Even so, it must take several tanks full of diesel and quite a few days for trucks to ply their way from Lvov or Ljubljana to Leeds and back again. Why I wondered is all this stuff not travelling by rail? Not of course in the UK (please stop laughing) since our rail infrastructure has never recovered from the axe of Dr Beeching. But what about the rest of Europe where trains are widespread, state-supported and, so we are told, highly efficient? Also rail, or so we are also told, is more environmentally friendly than road transport.

At a time when our political masters and would-be masters wax lyrical about the need for householders to move to carbon-neutral houses and embrace the strange concept of carbon offsetting, wouldn’t it make sense for them to focus a little more attention and investment on enhancing the rail network and taking some of those long-distance trucks off our roads?

Apart from the financial savings – and according to some calculations shifting road transport to rail in Europe could save at a very conservative estimate €28bn a year – there would be significant reductions in the use of fossil fuel and related carbon emissions.

A few years ago, before global warming became so fashionable, environmentalists were far more concerned about pollution and the Earth’s fossil fuel resources running out than they were about the impact of carbon dioxide on the climate. Since ‘global warming’ is making Arctic oil and gas fields accessible the running out issue may no longer be quite so critical although pollution is as much a problem as ever.

Today, depending on which lobbyist’s analysis you read, transport, deforestation, methane-belching cows or profligate householders are the main villains causing global warming. The small matters of solar activity, variable cloud cover and the influence of cosmic dust which just might play a part in the increasing temperature of our galaxy does not enter into the lobbyist’s argument. (And by the way, anyone interested in the cosmic dust theory should read The Chilling Stars by Henrik Svensmark and Nigel Calder.)

Whatever the causes of global warming, continuing to produce as much pollution and Shifting road transport to rail in Europe could save, at a very conservative estimate, €28m a year salving your conscience by planting a few trees or contributing towards flood defences in Bangladesh doesn’t solve the problem. Buying someone else’s spare carbon credits to balance the books is surely just smoke and mirrors. If my neighbour has a heap of rubble in his garden and I have none, spreading half the heap to my garden makes both our plots look scruffy but doesn’t make the rubble go away. How is carbon offsetting any different?

Surely there has to be a more radical approach. Switching to sea and rail freight instead of air and road should cut use of fossil fuels. Perhaps we should return to river traffic and canal barges? They might make just in time deliveries slightly tricky but they could cut carbon.

Perhaps the answer is – pump massive state investment into the rail network to bring it up to 21st century standard, subsidise fares and introduce low-cost freight services.

Dr. Penelope Ody is a regular columnist with SCS and is a retail market specialist

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