Transport: December 2008 Archives

Getting about in the future.

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airship.jpgSome people ask me if they're allowed to go on flights, because I work for the Greens. I think it's weird, but it does happen. 

Other people ask what will happen when oil runs out: will we all be stuck in northwestern Europe, eating only potatoes and drinking only whisky? What happens when cars become simply too expensive to run?

Whether you're more worried by climate change or by peak oil, these are all good questions, apart from the first one. You can heat your home 100% sustainably if you put the effort in. The power can stay on, if we make a proper commitment to renewables. But transport is harder.

So here's the good news. Flying will not only still be possible, if we get back into airship technologies, but it could also be more fun and less like being exported in a veal crate. Admittedly, this same prediction has been made for decades and hasn't proved to be true yet. My father once rang me up (I inherited my airship obsession) to tell me that regular airship flights between Cape Town and New York - did I want to go? Of course I did, but that was just another Branson project that never happened.

The downside with the technology for today's short attention span, limited-holiday-allowance lifestyle is that it'll take longer to get from A to B. In the 1930s it took 75 hours to get from Rio to Frankfurt - at even that speed Marseilles is just 11 hours from Edinburgh, and Melbourne just five days away. Personally, I'm fine with that. The world is still accessible, it's just takes a bit more commitment to get to. The views will be better, you won't need to be buckled in, and there'll be space for a cocktail bar, a games room and the like. 

The reputation of the airship is low, for two reasons. First, the Nazis used them, and that's never good PR. They also invented the Volkswagen Beetle, though, and the hippies still bought those. Secondly, the Hindenburg blew up. While a lot more than 35 people tend to die when aeroplanes come down, leaving aside the almost 3,000 people who die on Britain's roads each year, that hasn't stopped the negative associations.

The secret and the problem are both in the buoyancy. The Germans were denied helium by the Americans during the 1930s, which was understandable. Modern semi-rigids use helium, just as the Germans did before the ban, and helium is both perfectly inert and only 8% less lifty (technical term) than hydrogen, a price well worth paying to avoid dying in a massive fireball. One thing's for sure, even if it still used hydrogen in the envelope and had a cigar smoking room on board it'd feel more safe than the "flying bomb" proposed earlier this year.

The buoyancy is also what makes airships energy-efficient - you're not generating lift by endlessly forcing air over a plane, and the engines are just used for altitude alterations and propulsion. I've seen figures which suggest that an airship can deliver the same payload over the same distance as a 747 for one seventh the energy, assuming we stick with fossil fuels. Another way of looking at that is that they can cruise for a week on the fuel a 747 uses to taxi to the end of the runway, enough to get you to Tokyo and back.

Other plans include augmenting traditional sources of fuel with solar power during the day - there's obviously a large surface area for that - or even going 100% electric. Either way, it's a lot closer to sustainability than a plane.

Another substantial advantage is the ability to put people and goods down almost anywhere, reducing the need for those awkward runways and enabling even the most remote parts of the world to trade, or to receive aid or even tourists. They're just as stable as aeroplanes in extreme weather, and are less likely to be hampered by ice formation.

Predictions of the rebirth of the airship have been endless, and so far it's all come to nothing. However, the next time we get an oil price spike (I foolishly predict November next year) it'll start to look more attractive. I'll be at the bar, looking at the view.

Facing in both directions.

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The SNP have a tendency, like the Liberals, to try and be all things to all people. The First Minister and the Liberal leader accused each other of this exact sin on Thursday at FMQs, like two men stuck down a sewer, each accusing the other of having a bad smell.

The last ten days have shown the SNP's inconsistencies on the environment up in the most graphic manner.

First, they published the Climate Change Bill, which, for the avoidance of doubt is intended to reduce climate change. It's weak in some key places, and even the Tories have pledged to fix some of the loopholes, but I've seen worse Government proposals as a starting point.

However, this week they launched the Strategic Transport Projects Review, which has no hint of a strategy in it, covers public transport ideas so vague they can hardly be called projects, and which failed to demonstrate any actual review of the various roads schemes supposedly under consideration. New bypasses, dualling the A9 all the way to the moon (copyright Alex Johnstone MSP), you name it.

Next they published the National Planning Framework 2, which is full to bursting with warm words about sustainability, but which is designed to remove local planning oversight from demented schemes like the Second Additional Replacement Whatever Forth Road Cars Only Bridge. Public transport and renewables largely take a back seat, although there's some worthwhile grid stuff in it.

Overall, these latter documents could have been designed as an experiment to see how much CO2 can Scotland can feasibly emit. The inconsistencies are glaring and painful.

The roots of the problem are two systematic SNP failures of understanding. First, they think that reducing transport emissions can be done by simply building railway lines, even while boosting road capacity. 

Second, the word "sustainable" confuses them. It appears in the phrase "sustainable economic growth", which is their official Purpose. Purpose, in this usage, is a term so pompous it must always be capitalised, like Historic, as in the Historic Concordat. However often they say sustainable, though, they've misunderstood the meaning completely. They love economic growth, and wish to sustain it. This, for the SNP administration, is the entirety of what "sustainable growth" means. 

For the avoidance of doubt, here's the proper definition of sustainable development, from the Brundtland Commission. It's development which:

"meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

Relying on the private car and coal-fired power stations, whether "CCS-ready" or not, lets those future generations down. It's time to choose, and I fear it's the climate and the future which will lose out.

Lone auditor of the apocalypse.

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forthsmalls.jpgThe additional Forth Road Bridge is, I believe, the clearest way yet visible that the SNP government may be brought down. 

To start with, it's totally unnecessary. They swear blind it's a replacement bridge, despite the evidence that the existing bridge will last another 80 years with either dehumidification (cost: £7.8m - £10.3m) or recabling (cost: £91m - £122m).

Ministers are taking a serious audit risk by pretending that these solutions don't work and pressing on with the myth of bridge replacement, rather telling the truth. The truth is that this is an additional bridge, a pointless boondoggle to allow the SNP to claim they're investing in Fife's vital marginal seats economic interests. 

Furthermore, there's no funding arrangement in place for it. John Swinney is due to make a further announcement about this on Wednesday - apparently it'll cost a billion less, down to a mere £3220m, because contractors will work for peanuts in an economic downturn. That sounds worth relying on.

This absurd project is meant to be a flagship for the Scottish Futures Trust, one of the SNP's least well-considered policies. Like us, they disapprove of the PFI/PPP money drain, so their manifesto proposed the SFT as a bond-issuing mechanism - "With better value bonds we can release more money to invest in the frontline."

Then it turns out that bond issues aren't permitted in the Scotland Act, so it was back to the drawing board. The new version is a so-called non-profit distribution mechanism. Sounds reassuring, except that it means only that there's no ongoing profit-taking, and to "compensate" them, the private sector partners take a much larger fee. That leaves them with the exact same profit at our expense, but it's OK, because it's not "distributing" profits. All happy with that?

What it really is was made clear by the Cabinet Secretary to the Finance Committee in May

"The NPD models are part of the family of public-private partnerships, but PPP is a generic family term for all such approaches."

Same swill, different bottle, in other words.

This project will threaten the SNP in a number of ways. The cost will do anything but come down - there's a small prize for anyone who can find an example of postwar infrastructure which has come in under budget. This will mean the local authority cost cutting which is already getting Labour excited will have to become so savage that SNP councils start to fall out with their Ministers.

The unnecessary nature of the project, the economy with the truth about its purpose, and the shamelessly gargantuan amounts of misspent money are likely to attract the attention of the Auditor General for Scotland (pictured). His role includes "investigating whether public spending bodies achieve the best possible value for money and adhere to the highest standards of financial management." There'll be plenty for him to go on with this project, no doubt about it.

The disruption to road transport, ironically, is likely to cause a decade's worth of congestion north and south of the Firth on a scale never yet seen in Scotland. The tailbacks will spread like a bruise across the east coast, leaving the public begging for proper public transport, many of which could have been built for the same money but which never came up the SNP's priority list. A single party administration which freezes up about a third of the country is unlikely to win re-election in my book.

When it's over, if it does indeed get built, $500 a barrel for oil will make the bridge one massive monument to politicians' vanity and to the SNP's dependence on an outdated fossil fuel economy. I doubt it will ever be finished, though. Edinburgh's folly on Calton Hill will seem like pure prudence in comparison, when four vast and trunkless legs of steel stand in the river..

As a trivial footnote, when Liberal MSP Jeremy Purvis was faced with all this waste, he seemed concerned primarily about the small change:

"The trust is an extremely expensive empty vessel. Its cost of £23m is a scandalous waste of money when all that it now appears to be is a lobby arm."

I'm more worried about the 140 to 180 times more money that's being wasted on the bridge project as a whole. Talk about missing the big picture. But then the other opposition parties haven't worked out that there's a political opportunity here. They'd rather hitch themselves to the SNP and be complicit in their failure, it seems, than oppose this nonsense on stilts and be ready to pick up the pieces.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Transport category from December 2008.

Transport: November 2008 is the previous archive.

Transport: January 2009 is the next archive.