Our politicial leaders are under pressure to take action on climate change – and the public transport sector could also do much more

Greta Thunberg’s recent travels around Europe have been by train


They say that fact is stranger than fiction. Who would have dared write a story in which leading politicians of all parties fall over themselves to be seen hanging on the every word of a 16 year-old Swedish girl? It all
sounds like a really creaky screenplay, in the
Love Actually mould, when we were asked to believe that Hugh Grant was somehow behaving as a prime minister might.

Yet young Greta Thunberg has succeeded almost single-handedly in breathing new life into the issue of climate change. Her Friday school protests, which she started solo but last month attracted the support of 1.4 million schoolchildren across the world, have given impetus to the Extinction Rebellion movement that brought much of central London to a standstill.

Climate change is without doubt the greatest existential threat the human race faces. Already we are seeing wild swings in the weather, more forest fires and floods, temperature records being broken on a continual basis – the latest was this Easter Monday – and underlying all that, even more ominous developments. Let me mention just three: the rapid melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic that has lain unaltered for thousands of years, the melting of the permafrost in places like Siberia, releasing huge quantities of potent greenhouse gases like methane that will in turn help fuel a vicious cycle, and, most heart-rending, the increasingly rapid extinction of species at a rate way in excess of normal background levels.

Some of us have been ringing the alarm for decades. It gives me no comfort to observe that the recommendations I set out in a 1990 publication called What Price Our Planet? have by and large not been implemented. Even worse over the last 10 years, climate change almost disappeared off the political agenda. Theresa May even abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change when she became prime minister (and she was the only party leader not to meet Greta Thunberg on her London stop).

The young Swede has decided to practise what she preaches and gave up flying in 2015 (unlike, say, Prince Charles who has used a private jet to take his message on climate change round the world). She refused an award in her home country as it would have meant catching a plane to Stockholm, and her recent travels around Europe, including to London, have been by train.

Has anyone in the sluggish Rail Delivery Group noticed there might be a generic opportunity here to promote rail travel? Or are they content to leave it to a 16 year-old Swede to make the arguments for them?

By train… hello, is there anybody awake in the rail industry? Has anyone in the sluggish Rail Delivery Group noticed there might be a generic opportunity here to promote rail travel? Or are they content to leave it to a 16 year-old Swede to make the arguments for them? If a train organisation can be said to be pedestrian, this is it.

Britain has made good strides in reducing carbon emissions from energy. The amount of renewable energy from offshore wind in particular has increased exponentially this century, and before long the last coal-fired power station will have closed.

But carbon emissions from transport remain stubbornly high. The government has in fact exacerbated matters by continually caving in to the belligerent motoring lobby who argue non-stop for freezes or cuts in fuel duty, by withholding powers from councils to deal with motoring offences, powers that exist in London, by encouraging councils to take a light touch on parking infringements, and by the road tax changes introduced by George Osborne in his last days that effectively gave a boost to those who want to drive Chelsea tractors through our town centres.

The main objection to these approaches has been a climate change one, but when do we ever hear very much from the Rail Delivery Group, or indeed from the bus and coach umbrella body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, to advance this argument? The latter has rightly honed in on the increased congestion that the government’s flawed policies will generate, but climate change, if mentioned at all, is almost an afterthought.

The public transport industry should be using the window that has opened up to position itself as part of the answer to the challenge of climate change. By doing so, they can both be seen to adopt an ethically correct position and promote modal switch to their business.

The greatest carbon threat we all face comes from aviation. This is because of the enormous carbon footprint of each flight, because the number of planes in the air is increasing year on year, and because there is no obvious technological alternative to kerosene. This is all compounded by the need to secure international agreement for any changes, an agreement which countries like the United States are sure to want to block.

Yet what we can do here is to bring home to people the environmental cost of flying, and to make passengers think twice about choosing the plane by offering an alternative.

Some years ago I was asked to go to Tasmania to help the campaign against the vandalistic tree felling that was then underway there. Conscious of my own carbon footprint, I asked my office to work out how many trees I needed to plant to offset this. The answer, just for me, was 19. And times that by the number of passengers on the plane, and you have an enormous number, just for that one journey, one of thousands just that one day.

The rail industry in particular needs to be far more aggressive in its marketing. Increased reliability, better services, and quicker journeys have all helped divert traffic from air to rail, particularly on the London-Manchester route, but with rare exceptions, climate change has not been an argument deployed.

Virgin did dip their toe in the water some time ago, but to be honest they are somewhat conflicted as a major air carrier, though as a long haul operator, there is not a public transport alternative to their routes.

And ScotRail, at least on their Edinburgh-Glasgow route, in their onboard announcements mention that passengers have chosen the “environmentally friendly” travel option.

But this is playing at the edges. Quite recently, the last air services between Paris and Brussels were withdrawn. They simply could not compete sensibly with the train. The rail industry here should aim to achieve the same – the forced economic withdrawal of all air routes within Britain where the journey time by rail is four hours or less.

As the government has singularly failed to do so, let the RDG organise a comprehensive campaign to make every potential passenger they can reach aware of the carbon comparison between air and rail for the journey they want to make, by information on the National Rail Enquiries website, on trains, at stations, through media releases, the works.

Let us see the rail industry publish city centre to city centre timings. For too long the airlines have got away with spurious timings, suggesting for example that it is one hour from London to Manchester. No it is not. The flight time may be an hour, to which you have to add the journeys from central London to Heathrow, and from Manchester airport to the city centre, and the interminable delays through security and the need to arrive at the airport way before your flight is due to take off.

It is in fact already, even before HS2, much quicker to go from central London to central Manchester by train than by plane. It is probably quicker even from central London to central Glasgow by train.

If they can factor in price deals on parallel routes, if only for a taster period, so much the better.

In our towns and cities, why are our bus companies not making people feel good about taking the bus as the right environmental choice? Having run The Big Lemon in Brighton for a year with just that message, I can assure you it works in business terms, in terms of securing modal shift and also in positive reputational terms.

A bus carrying 70 passengers will emit far less carbon per person than 70 cars with a solitary driver. Why not make that carbon comparison known, at bus stations, on websites, at bus stops, in and on the vehicles themselves, all locations within the control of operators. Why not work with sympathetic local councils to place some key billboard advertisements highlighting the carbon advantage of the bus, as well as the congestion downside of the private car?

There has been a dangerous complacency in our public transport sector

There has been a dangerous complacency in our public transport sector that recognises the environmental advantage of bus and train over car and plane, dangerous because this has led to an assumption that that knowledge is both shared by the public, and it leads to altered behaviour, and that it therefore does not need to be promoted.

This complacency has also led to a certain amount of resting on laurels. It is taken as read that the train is a cleaner option. But does that apply to the diesel train that sits for ages at a station, engine on, belching out fumes? Will it still apply when electric cars are the norm and diesel trains are seen as the dirty vehicles? Of course battery technology may have evolved to enable trains and coaches to run electric too, but for heavy duty journeys, this is still some way off.

It is not just the politicians who need to wake up to climate change. It is the public transport industry in this country as well.

About the author:
Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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