The joys and lessons of commuting with a bike

2016-09-14-17-16-48I’ve spent two weeks on holiday and two weeks on a course hence the lack of posts on FB and the blog.  The course required commuting.  It was near enough to my mum to allow me to stay with her and far enough to be a hassle.  I originally thought I would use her car and drive.  Then I looked into the trains and thought about commuting with a bike.  My mother’s car is a diesel bought when they were thought to be more eco friendly.  She doesn’t use it much and is about to stop driving.  In the end I decided to drive would probably take as long and would be just as stressful.  (Notionally according to google and bing maps this is untrue).  I also think you have to practice what you preach.  So for two weeks I took two trains and cycled 3 miles in each direction.  What have I learnt?

Information is contradictory.  The rail companies gave different information about whether I was allowed to travel with my bike in the rush hour.  In fact I was.  Ditto whether I could use my ticket on the inter city trains.  Ditto I was.  Although apparently not the 08:10 Virgin train from New St.

Cost.  £9 return; probably could have got this cheaper.  Taking £0.45/mile as the true cost of running the car (depreciation/fuel etc) then the train would be cheaper.  A surprise.  I would paid my mum for the fuel.  In actual fact I had to spend a load of money on my bike (tyres/wheel straightening) although this has needed doing for years (second bike) so now its good for some time.

Bikes on trains.  With Virgin you have to book in advance, which for practical reasons was not possible if you are commuting with a bike.  Others you turn up, albeit for limited spaces.  After a few days of struggling on and off trains in the rush hour I risked leaving my bike at the destination station.  This worked very well.  There were at least 100 other bikes there and I spoke to some police you were keeping an eye on them.  My fellow commuters did not appreciate the bike, although the bond between cyclists is amazing.

Commuters.  The trains were rammed pretty much all the day.  Those who oppose HS2 on capacity grounds are wrong (although I think there are better alternatives).  Part of the problem is that people chose to live a long way from where they work.  I experienced this where I used to work.  The lab moved location.  The old one was fairly near the station the new location wasn’t.  Many people commuted 30 miles and suddenly they had a huge problem.  Last week I met people who commuted very long distances.  Another problem is the companies run too shorter trains.  Its all about money of course.  I learnt which trains were quietest.

Its not just commuters.  There are a lot of homeless people who ride the trains now.  One man tried to beg off us.  Its obvious why especially in winter, but desperately sad.

Its not just the train stupid.   Commuting with a bike is also about cycling!  I gradually improved my cycle route to make it safer.  Most of it was on an off road cycle route (tarmacked).  This was a national cycle route.  I used the rest of it when I worked it out.  There are no reliable on line maps of the cycle routes as I write this.


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Electrified railways a short history

In the last post I had a quick look at the controversy over electrified railways in the north of England but the history of electrification is both interesting and meshes quite well with the ethos of this site.  The first electric railway in the world was demonstrated at a Berlin fair in 1879.  The first electric railway in the UK was pleasure railway in Brighton, England (1883).  Its still working.  Illustrating one of the many advantages of electrification, longevity. The same year a line in Austria was opened using overhead wires.  From that point forward progress was slow.  The first obvious targets for electrification were underground lines.  In 1890 parts of the London Underground were electrified and parts of the Mersey rail system (which has long tunnels under the Mersey).

By the 1930’s very large numbers of countries had some electrified lines.  There were several major problems to overcome and these are still present today.  An existing technology (in those days steam was dominant and this was hard to replace.  The Swedes did the maths and decided coal was very expensive in 1920.  By the time they had electrified the ore line to Narvik in Norway the price had plunged.  Nevertheless the advantages of electric traction (speed and reliability) outweighed this and they increased their electrification in the 1930’s.  However, steam was still dominant until the 60’s, then in some countries like the UK diesel took over.

Another issue at least in the UK and France until after the war was that the rail companies were private.  This is now potentially an issue again (in the UK).  This made it more difficult to come up with a common standard which as the Swedes found reduced costs.  However most European countries had state owned railways in the 1930’s which does not explain the slow uptake.

Looking at the maps of electrification in the 1930’s one thing stands out.  There is a clear correlation between where the lines were electrified first and hydropower.   This is particularly clear in the map shown below.


Intriguingly as you will see from the map there is almost no electrification in the alpine sections.  This is because the route ownership was different.  What is also surprising was that what we think of as pioneers of electric traction such as Norway (now 64% electrified) had low levels, probably due to the dominance of steam mentioned above.  The same link between hydropower and electric railways was seen in Germany and Austria.  Indeed the Austrians built power stations specially.  Swiss federal railways were largely electrified. What is surprising that countries without hydropower had the same levels of electrification (Belgium, Denmark, Holland) as Norway.  These four electrified suburban commuter lines first.  Although the % of total lines was low the % of total traffic was much higher.

There was one last advantage that countries that electrified lines found, that it increased traffic.  This is especially true in the UK where Southern railways electrified lines that were quiet and built coal fired power stations to provide the electricity.   In Belgium they started with the boat train lines to increase speed.

The battle in the UK continues with about a third electrified (below European average) despite the many clear advantage outlined above.  There is little doubt that we will need to increase this total greatly over the near future.


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One thing we have learnt this week – railway electrification

early electric Swiss trainThere was an article this week in the Guardian on the re-purposing of “Pacer” Trains.  A government minister has suggested converting them into village community halls amongst  other uses.  For any readers who are not familiar with these trains I’ll briefly describe them.  In the last gasp of British Rail some bright spark (or sparks) came up with a way of building trains on the cheap.  Money was short and the design basically involved attaching a bus body topsides to a train chassis undersides.  The result might have been alright in the 80’s or early 90’s but is now as the above article makes plain very out of date.  I’ve only been on one in recent times last year when I was visiting a friend near Leeds.  It was OK for a short journey once (the same return journey was not a Pacer train) but I wouldn’t like to use it everyday.

The whole point of the article is a legitimate grump about train services in the North of England which are very poor.  This is all tied up in railway electrification.  Some railway electrification has been carried out in the region but its been fairly piecemeal and as the article states getting from one side of the North of England can take a considerable amount of time.  Failing Graying the Secretary of state for transport is said to have scrapped some of the East- West electrification meaning you won’t be able to use electric trains on the entire East-West route.  This is denied by network rail.

Whether High Speed three is really required or whether a concerted electrification of the route East West plus other improvements is enough is a moot point.  But something needs to be done and these old trains which don’t meet a lot of rules and laws such as disability access need to be scrapped.  By all means turn them into a village hall but do so fast.


PS Next time I’ll have a look at the history of railway electrification.  Its early history is quite revealing.

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One thing we have learnt this week – The ecological limits of work

2016-09-14-17-16-48The ecological limits of work is not something I’ve ever considered much.  I imagine my surprise yesterday when I read an article with a headline saying we are going to have to reduce our hours of work to 9 per week to “save the planet”.  The Ecological Limits of Work is the title of a report just out from a think tank called Autonomy whose mission is to think about the future of work.

The first question which I have considered a little bit on this blog in the past is would cutting the hours of work or even work from home cut emissions?  As we covered a bit in a our book there is an economic theory called the rebound effect.  This states that energy efficiency savings in one area are more than wiped out by the change in another area.  So in this case if working hours are drastically reduced the person might travel more and in winter uses loads of heating.  There isn’t much research in this area but such that there is suggests the savings are small.  For a 1% reduction in work time the green house gas (GHG) cuts are in the range of 0·8% – 0·42%.  Hence the drastic hours figures.  This does suggest the Jevons paradox as the above idea is more formally known, might be in play here.  Its also true that 1% isn’t much and you still have to (in most cases get still physically get there).

The authors of the report come up with a different way.  Its elegant and relatively simple.  To keep global temperature rises to below 2°C (and its arguable it should be below 1.5°C) then every person on the planet can emit 1.6 tonnes of carbon.  This method assumes a proportional relationship between labour time and GHG emissions.  Knowing the total GHG emissions per unit of GDP and using this the figure of GDP per capita that would be sustainable you can do some calculations.  Dividing this figure by the productivity in an economy gives you the number of hours that would be sustainable.  This for some leading OECD countries is 100-200 hours a year.  The authors then slightly loose me.  They do another calculation on how the labour is used.  For example how many students work part time and how many holidays are there in a year.  This is where for the UK they come up with the number of hours we could work is 9.  It has to be said, its not many more hours for other economies either.

So where are we?  The authors do give a nod to the Jevons paradox.  They do admit the cut in hours in of itself would not be sufficient.  What they don’t do is look at the acceptability of this and how people’s lifestyle would be funded.  I’m a big support of a citizens income (search this site) but the money for this has to come from somewhere.  If everyone works just a few hours a week without automation then you’ve pretty much shut the conventional economy down (something I don’t in principle have an issue with).  Automation is not really mentioned.  There is also the problem of making this socially acceptable.  As someone who still struggles with underemployment, getting people to work a few hours a week could be difficult.  Very few in society want to sit around doing nothing.  One solution might be to work full time for a few months of the year and have the rest of the time off (this would be more productive anyway).  Also under this theory the more sustainable we can make our economies the more we can work.  A final thought.  The whole area of work needs looking at urgently with not just the ecological threat but also the rise of automation.  We need to have a big debate about work and come up with a fair plan that treats everyone equally.


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One thing we have learnt this week – VAT on solar

solar powered houseI’m extremely pro Europe and want to remain but I would be the first to concede the EU does not get everything right.  One thing its got very very wrong is VAT on solar and other energy saving materials.  This saga goes all the way back to when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.  He wanted to cut VAT on solar and other things like insulation.  There was a value added tax (VAT) of 17.5%.  (In those days as now there were three rates, 0% on items like children’s clothes, 5% and 17.5%.)  When I installed my first PV system I managed to get the rate down with an HRMC ruling to 5% since I imported the modules myself.   Brown as I remember it wanted the rate cut to either zero or 5%.  This is illegal under the EU single market rules without the EU commission agreeing.  This they would not do.  Brown argued for a zero rate throughout the EU.  This they would also not do.  At some point the UK government cut VAT to 5%.  The EU commission took the UK government to the European Court of Justice, where we lost.  The government ignored the ruling.  Then came the EU referendum.  Astoundingly despite the fact we are supposedly leaving the UK government has given up and is raising the rate.  There will be some exemptions as there are now.  At the moment the 5% rate only applies to the residential market and you had to use an installer.  Under the proposed changes there will be some exemptions for those over 60 and people living in sheltered housing.  Here’s what I found online ( “If the customer or building does not qualify under the above heading, the goods and services can still be subject to 5% VAT provided that the goods make up no more than 60% of the total charge. If they do, then 5% VAT can only apply to the services element.”

I don’t know how achievable the 60% figure is.  This is all just wrong.  The EU should be making all renewable and energy saving equipment zero rated.  After all we are facing a climate emergency.  Its also very annoying since oil and gas are charged 5% VAT.  If we do ever leave the EU it will be interesting to see what happens…


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Basel Convention

Grocery_bag_of_junk_foodsOn Friday the Basel Convention was signed.  A year or so ago China unilaterally announced it was going to stop taking our plastic waste.  By ‘our’ I mean the West’s plastic waste.  I’m not criticising the Chinese at all.  Why should they take our low grade plastic waste?  However this led to a problem.  What to do with it all?  The recycling facilities in most Western countries were not up to taking it.  This is hardly a surprise.  If they were why would we ship it there?  (As an aside I’ve read that most containers going to China are empty apart from waste since there is so little they want to buy from us.  This Trump might want to consider with his trade war.)  The obvious solution is ship the waste to other developing countries.  Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have taken it and there have been reports that its ended up ruining pristine sites.

The Basel Convention does not stop the export of such waste.  It does stop states simply shipping and forgetting about it.  This is a very important treaty.  It will gradually stop the export of waste and mean that we have to take responsibility for it ourselves which is the morally right thing to.  It should be added that in doing so there are jobs to be created in the circular economy.  187 countries have signed the Basel Convention.  The US did not, surprise surprise sign, but is bound by its rules.


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One thing we have learnt this week – climate fix research

beech treesA new institute for climate fix research has just been announced today based at Cambridge University.  Its mission – to investigate the unthinkable.  That is geoengineering solutions to climate change.  Before moving on to briefly look at some of the suggested solutions its important to say this is an act of desperation.  The best climate fix is to stop producing CO2.  The scientists led by the former chief scientific advisor Sir David King are obviously pessimistic about our chances of doing so.  A variety of climate fix(s) have been suggested.  These include;

Coating the Arctic in light coloured plastic.  As you should know dark materials absorb for infra red than light ones.  With all the problems with plastic this is a non-starter.  It would shred in winter storms.  Its probably not practical to do anyway. The area of plastic required would be huge.

Spraying salt water into the atmosphere above the poles.  This is a variation on spraying water into the atmosphere, world wide.  A solution I’ve heard of before.  The idea is that the salt water increases the cloud cover.  This reflects light back and causes the Arctic to freeze.  The advantage of this method is that the increased snow and ice cover could cause a virtuous circle, reflecting more light and therefore heat back into space.  This is the opposite to what is happening at the moment, where any rock liberated of ice absorbs more heat.  The idea is to used unmanned drone ships powered by the wind.  Still very difficult to envisage on the scale required.

Carbon capture and storage.  In general I don’t approve of the idea of filling old oil or gas wells with CO2.  It smacks to much of hiding dirt under the carpet, whilst producing a lot more dirt.  However there is a variation on this theme.  To turn the CO2 into fuel by combining it with hydrogen.  This has the advantage that you would by tying a lot of CO2 up in stored fuel (think how much petrol or diesel you have in the tank of your car alone).  One major problem we looked in our book was where the hydrogen comes from.  Another disadvantage is that for other reasons we want to stop using carbon fuels and there is a big push on electric cars.  It could allow people to fly, but there are other good reasons for stopping airport expansion.  One area where it does interest me is in making methane for the gas grid.  This would allow us to use our existing boilers when renewable heat is such a problem.

Ocean greening.  The next two solutions in my view are more benign although this solution still has its critics. If you add iron to the seas then it encourages the growth of phytoplankton.  That is plankton that are photosynthetic.  They enter the food chain and end up the bottom of the ocean where the sediment is a huge carbon sink.  Its been tried on a small scale with mixed results.  Again critics think it could harm the eco systems, it also needs to be done on a vast scale.  Interestingly enough NASA research shows that a decline in phytoplankton that was happening has now reversed (at least in shallow coastal waters).  There is also a question as to whether the sequestration is permanent.

Planting trees.  Agriculture is a relatively easy win as far as cutting emissions is concerned.  The Committee on Climate Change suggested planting 1.5 billion trees in the UK.  National forests in Scotland and Wales are underway but progress on both is far too slow.  This is the most benign solution of the lot.  Very few people will object to tree planting.  If the wood is used in building then the CO2 can be sequestrated  The problems are can it mop enough in time?  And the trees must be protected.  There are plenty of upland areas in the UK that could be used and indeed used to be forested.

All of this is one huge danger.  That governments will assume that new CO2 emissions don’t need to be cut.  The above is for emergency use only.  Not a get out jail card.


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One thing we have learnt this week – are politicians being straight over climate change?

CCCAre politicians being straight over climate change?  I’ve heard nothing but news on climate change this week and much of it good.  Extinction rebellion can take credit for shifting the balance in politics.  The UK parliament passed a motion declaring climate change an emergency and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) brought out a report on the how the UK should and can get to net zero carbon by 2050.  There’s just one problem.  They make it all sound too easy at least on a personal level.  I’ve not heard a single politician use the word sacrifice this week.  Now there’s a surprise.   Are we going to have to stop flying, no.  What about another runway at Heathrow?  We can still do that.  Every time someone has been asked a question they have dodged it.

Even the CCC in my view in the report gloss over the problems or rely on chimeras like carbon capture or hydrogen (search for past blog posts particularly on hydrogen).  They say we should cut our meat consumption by 20% again this seems too low and too easy.  They call for a huge roll out of electric vehicles and heat pumps.  To be fair they do say there will be challenges on this in terms of grid reinforcement and electricity supply.  Those are the easy problems to solve for both (search the blog for the major problems).  That’s not to say there are not good things in the CCC report.  I happen to think (and there is scientific evidence for this) that tying carbon up in 1⋅5 billion trees is a good idea.  So is using the trees for building materials.  So is not buying carbon credits from abroad.

Are politicians being straight over climate change?  Well you decide for yourselves.  In my opinion we could have done this relatively easily if we’d started in 1986.  Delay after delay means we have run out of easy options.  For what its worth I’m optimistic but think the changes required far more drastic than in charge people are letting on.  After all if it was easy the shovels would have been a blur decades ago.


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shipping CO2 emissions

image010I heard an interesting article on shipping CO2 emissions this week on the radio.  Climate change has been in the news a lot recently with David Attenborough and Extinction rebellion.  The PM programme on radio 4 has been looking at three different areas we have to cut emissions from.  The first of these was housing where I felt the presenter Evan Davies skirted around the difficulties.  The second was on shipping CO2 emissions.  This is not an area that comes up very much when considering climate change.  This article did not avoid the issues but met them head on.  They spoke to someone from Maersk which claims to be the largest shipping company.  The interview was very revealing.  As I have written about before current container ships are huge.  Evan Davies went on board one.  It carries 18,000 containers and has a tank with a capacity of 10,000 tonnes for the diesel fuel used to power its enormous diesel engines.  The man from Maersk was very forthright and honest.  They have cut emissions by 40 odd % over the last number of years but his aim was to get to zero emissions.  What was so revealing was he had no idea how they were going to do it.  The programme then explored various ways of achieving this.  These have been covered in a previous blog post on shipping but are worth reiterating.

The first is batteries.  This was dismissed straight away.  The size of the vessels and their engines lead you to see this would never work.

They then looked at biofuels.  This is a theoretically feasible solution but of course you straight away come up against the food versus fuel.  Second generation fuels using the parts of crops you cannot eat (stalks/leaves) are a potential way round this.  We covered this in our book and I would direct the reader towards the problems covered there.

The next solution was something I don’t know much about but will research, that is making liquid fuels from CO2 using electrolysis.  This has an advantage that I thought the programme was going to pick up on, that it would tie a lot of carbon up and potentially act as a carbon sink.  Like the last solution it would take a lot of energy though.

The next solution is to slow the ships down.  They spoke to someone from a green group who said slowing the ships down by 30% would buy the company 6 years grace.  Their representative was not at all interested in this, funnily enough.

The last solution was put by Evan Davies.  Maybe the era of globalisation has to end.  Strangely enough the man from Maersk didn’t see it that way.

What was very surprising to me was his comment that the company had to come up with a solution by 2030 if they wanted new ships for 2050.


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Oxo degradable plastics

plastic bottle greenhouse at CATThere was a letter in today’s Guardian about oxo degradable plastics.  I’d never heard of the term before and decided to do a bit of research.  Conventional wisdom is that plastics do not degrade.  Or at least only on a geological timescale.  Conventional wisdom is largely right.  Polyvinylchloride (PVC) is degraded by heat and light and releases hydrochloric acid, which isn’t great.  Polypropylene is pretty much regarded as non biodegradable.  Most plastics do break down into small nano-particles.  Then progress stops.  Research this week has found these are present almost everywhere in supposedly pristine environments.  Other research has found that they are in the food chain and therefore in us.  The longterm biological effects of this are unknown.  They are unlikely to be too serious for the plastic itself, which is as alluded to above is biologically inert.  The problem is the effects of the plasticisers.  These are chemicals that give the same plastic different physical properties.   These plasticisers mimic hormones in the body.  Large pieces of plastic of course have detrimental effects on wildlife.

A number of solutions have been proposed to this problem.  The first has been so called bioplastics.  These are polymers largely made from natural polymers (e.g cellulose) using renewable feedstocks.  These are mostly, but not totally biodegradable.  Broadly speaking compounds are biodegradable when bacteria or fungi have seen them in evolution before and therefore possess enzymes capable of degrading them.  This is not the case for oil based plastics.  We outlined the problems with bioplastics in our book.  Basically in replacing our massive plastic use we need a lot of plant based feedstock.  This is not possible to do totally.  But these materials will have a place in a post oil world.  Another issue is that bioplastics do not have either the durability or entire range of properties of oil based plastics.

The next solution to the problem is the circular economy.  Recycle and reuse what we have in new products.  Some progress is being made on this.  One problem is that plastics do degrade when reused.  Not enough to destroy them but enough to make them unusable.  This is a particular problem in mixed recycling.  So this is not a total solution either.  Chemical methods of destruction using heat are being developed.  These would allow the resulting material to be reused perhaps de novo.

The next solution is to find bacteria or fungi that can breakdown conventional plastics.  Again some progress is is being made.  This is probably of more interest in bioreactors as a means of disposing what we produce at some point in the future.  But for what’s out there now it won’t work.  Bacteria and Fungi will degrade compounds that are simpler, easier nad more abundant first.

Of course we mustn’t forget the solution of using less in the first place.  Under public pressure companies are starting to alter the way that packaging is used.  Walkers Crisps and Guinness (this week) are too examples.  But the reader will know progress on this front is slow.

Finally this brings us to oxo degradable plastics.  These are plastics that contain small amounts of salt or metals.  These act as a catalyst and allow oxygen to break the plastic down to short chain molecules such as ketones or organic acids.  These bacteria will readily use.  It sounds to good to be true.  And to some people it is.  The EU don’t believe it works.  Other countries such as some in the middle east think it does and require its use.  Even if it does work its not a total solution.  Potentially it solves the litter in the environment bit. But not the use of non-renewable resources problem.

There is not one solution to the plastics issue.  All of the above are required.  We have become addicted to these highly convenient materials.  We need to reduce our use of plastics and look for alternatives, fast.


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