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Archive for the ‘Transport’ Category

Goodbye To Cheap Air travel

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Popeye Express

Shares in British Airways rose sharply this morning after preliminary results for the 12 months to March revealed annual pre-tax profits up by 44.5% to £883 million. These excellent figures are bucking the trend in airlines around the world, and particularly in the US, where the airline sector as a whole posted an $11 billion loss in the first quarter of this year. BA warns that the next year will be “challenging”, in the light of continuing economic slowdown and oil prices showing no sign of a significant retreat below the $125 a barrel mark. The airline expects its fuel costs for the past year to have been more than £2 billion, around a quarter of its cost base, rising to £2.5 billion in the coming year.

In the last 90 days, jet fuel prices have jumped 38%. As oil has hit record high after record high, fuel costs have exceeded labour costs for many airlines, accounting for as much as 40% of operating expenses. Airlines can’t set their ticket prices high enough to keep their businesses in the air. According to Delta CEO Richard Anderson, ticket prices would have to rise 15-20% just to cover increased fuel costs. Of 769 million passengers on US flights last year, many are thought to be on non-essential trips which will be cut back as times get harder.

The budget carriers’ business models have always relied on the thinnest of margins, and fuel price rises have so far caused eight airlines to go under, with more tipped to follow. One of them, ATA Airlines, left US soldiers stranded in Iraq, unable to get home to Vermont as the company went bankrupt.

The larger carriers have responded to mounting fuel costs by eating into their cash reserves to keep prices artificially low. At its current spend of $3.3 million a day, American Airlines could have spent its $5 billion cash reserves, the largest in the industry, in four years. There’s only limited scope for cutting costs by tricks such as economising on maintenance, taking safety risks like flying with inadequate fuel reserves, and skimping on customer service. Carriers are hoping that mergers will ensure their survival, at least for a while. Northwest Airlines and Delta have a proposed merger under review, with United Airlines thought to be in talks with both Continental Airlines and US Airways.

Cheap air travel is almost certainly doomed. Depending on how you feel about flying, that may or may not be the downside. The upside is that rail travel is bound to gain market share in the years ahead. Rail is the cheapest and most fuel-efficient form of transport, using a third less fuel than air for personal travel, and as little as 3% of the energy for freight. Rail companies have recently been attracting substantial investments from some of the wealthiest US investors:

These are all freight companies, the North American passenger business having withered in the face of cheap, aggressively-marketed air travel, but there is good reason to expect that passenger services will follow growth in freight traffic. In their book ‘Transport Revolutions: Moving People & Freight Without Oil’, Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl predict that in 2025, no more than 25 airports will be operating. Electric powered transportation and rail will be the standard transport options. In a post-peak oil world, rail is probably the longest safe bet one could possibly make.


Written by Pete Smith

May 16, 2008 at 12:31 pm

The Patter Of Tiny Feet

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May 18-23 2008 is Walk to School Week. The Walk to School campaign asks parents, pupils and teachers to think about their journey to and from school and the many benefits of making it on foot. Walk to School is promoted jointly by ACTTravelwise and Living Streets, and is now in its 13th year, with each year’s campaign having its own theme. Previous years have focused on the benefits of walking on health and independence. This year’s theme will link with Noise Action Week, by exploring the links between noise and walking to school.

In addition, take a look at the Every Journey Matters website which contains games, quizzes, competitions and a host of facts about how children around the world get to school, as well as KS2 lesson plans on the theme of sustainable transport.

Written by Pete Smith

May 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm

F1. FU.

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I promised myself I’d ignore it, but I failed. The grotesque circus that is Formula 1 motor racing is on the move again. The 2008 season has kicked off in Australia, with Britain’s golden boy Lewis Hamilton winning the Melbourne Grand Prix. Now everyone’s off to Malaysia for Round 2, the juggernauts and executive jets spewing out even more CO2 on top of what’s generated by the actual racing.

I hate motor racing. I hate the waste, of time, money, energy, resources. I hate the way it glamourises speed. I hate the way it turns a practical activity, getting from A to B for a purpose, into a mindless sideshow involving driving round in a circle for hours on end. I hate the way the drivers are idolised as super-heroes, when they’re really just overpaid, obsessive, prima donna control freaks. I hate their chav baseball caps and overalls covered with decals and logos for their sponsors and whoever else can afford to buy space on them and their cars for whatever products it’s legal to advertise wherever we are this week. I hate the way they waste perfectly good champagne.

Some might say that racing drivers are highly skilled athletes, and I wouldn’t argue. I’m sure they’re tough as nuts, what with the heat and the G-forces, and being able to drive at such speeds with such small error margins is admirable in its way, I suppose. What I find so depressing is the sheer banal pointlessness of the whole thing. Take that fitness and stamina and do something useful with it; join the army or a conservation group. Use those skills for the good of all; drive an ambulance or a police pursuit vehicle. Or a bus.

You might argue that motor racing benefits us all because technical innovations developed for the F1 circuit eventually show up in production vehicles. I’d be more impressed by that point of view if Grand Prix were contested by family hatchbacks, powered by hybrid engines, using regenerative braking, backed up by roof-mounted solar panels. I’m aware there are species of motor sport where the vehicles look a bit like the car on next door’s drive, apart from the fins, spoilers, internal roll cages and what’s under the bonnet. They are, however, as different from your bank manager’s Nissan as Lewis Hamilton’s McClaren.

2006 Spa 2CV 24 Hour raceThe idea of racing ordinary cars does have a certain vicarious appeal, as it obviously does for the Hamilton-worshipping oiks who stage suburban street races on Friday nights. Citroen 2CVs are still raced in France, although as this photo of the 2006 2CV 24 Hour race at Spa shows, they’ve been modified a little! The excitement generated by Top Gear’s regular slot Star In A Reasonably Priced Car shows there has to be mileage in this. Funnily enough, this season’s rule changes banning exotic gizmos like traction control and electronic driver aids made Melbourne one of the most entertaining races in years (so I’m told), with tonks galore and less than a third of entrants finishing.

Perhaps, if motor racing did reflect the real world, with identical Toyota Prius‘s chasing each other round a simulated urban circuit, I’d start watching. Better still, have half the entrants driving the other way. Even Lewis Hamilton might find that challenging.

Written by Pete Smith

March 17, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Polluter Pays

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A court in Paris has found oil giant Total responsible for the sinking of the tanker Erika. The world’s fourth-largest oil company must pay a fine of €375,000 for negligence, plus €200 million in damages.

The incident, in December 1999, caused a 20,000 tonne slick of heavy oil which polluted 250 miles of the French Atlantic coast, killed or injured 300,000 seabirds and left a toxic legacy in the food chain. In all, 270,000 tonnes of waste comprising seawater, oil, sand and stones, had to be cleaned up. Prior to the court ruling, Total had already spent €200m on the cleanup operation. This may sound like a lot, but it’s a fleabite compared with Total’s latest record profits of €12 billion.

This is tremendous news. A major reason for global oil companies like Total being able to report such huge profits is that they can use a maze of paperwork and off-shore registration to evade or conceal responsibility for cost-cutting policies such as chartering unseaworthy rust-buckets like the Erika. Ségolène Royal, head of the Poitou-Charentes region, said in the Guardian:

“It is a very severe warning to careless transport groups, to the floating garbage cans that cross the seas, often in total impunity”

I hope this puts the fear of God into all companies. Quite frankly, anyone responsible for envionmental destruction on this scale should be tried on the same basis as war criminals.

Written by Pete Smith

January 17, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Green GM

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A year ago, General Motors launched the Chevy Volt, a battery-powered concept car that has generated a huge amount of interest with the car-buying public. Amidst growing speculation that GM are having problems with the Volt’s battery technology, to the extent that they are steering potential customers towards their hybrid models, the car giant unveiled two more ‘alternative’ fuel vehicles at this year’s North American International Auto Show. No batteries here: the Hummer HX (pictured above) and the Saab 9-4X both run on ethanol.

Alongside the new concept cars, GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner announced a partnership with Coskata Inc, an Illinois startup company with breakthrough technology which affordably and efficiently makes ethanol from practically any renewable source, including garbage, old tires and plant waste. Using patented microorganisms and bioreactor designs, the Coskata process can produce ethanol for less than $1 a gallon, about half of today’s cost of producing gasoline. For every unit of energy used, 7.7 units of ethanol energy are produced, compared to conventional corn-derived ethanol which provides 1.3 times the energy input. Less than one gallon of water is used for each gallon of ethanol, a third that of other processes.

The GM-Coskata partnership coincides with last month’s Energy Independence and Security Act, which calls for a huge increase in the use of biofuels, from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. Amid growing concerns over the effect on food prices caused by diverting food crops to bio-fuels, the search is on for viable alternative bioenergy crops. A joint study involving the US Department of Agriculture and Midwest farmers has identified the potential of switchgrass, a native North American perennial grass (Panicum virgatum) which can deliver more than five times more energy than it takes to grow it. Sounds good; a native plant, must be good for biodiversity and the environment generally as well as for energy. Sadly not; the impressive efficiency figures demand that the switchgrass is planted in dense monocultures, fed with artificial fertilisers and optimised with genetic ‘tweaking’. It will also require a lot of land. Even though switchgrass and its cousins grow happily on marginal land, an estimated 3.1 million to 21.3 million hectares of existing US agricultural land is projected to be converted to perennial grasses for bioenergy, the majority coming from the reallocation of existing cropland, with land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and pastures coming second and third.

It’s clear that American technologists are working hard to justify President Bush’s long-term mantra that technology can solve all our problems. The major worry is that there are so many new technologies and initiatives competing for investment, not all of which will succeed and with no guarantee that they won’t cause more problems than they solve. Against a background of imminent recession in the US economy, will all this effort actually pay off in time?

GM-Coskata announcement

Coskata “Next Generation Ethanol”

“Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass”

Running On Empty

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The Australian reports that China is running out of fuel.
(‘Chinese tiger has nothing in tank‘).

  • Police are guarding petrol stations in several inland provinces to prevent fights, as shortages of petrol and diesel are causing huge queues of trucks, buses and cars.
  • In Kunming, capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, 1000 trucks are stranded.
  • A truck driver named Li told the Chuncheng Evening News he had been stranded at the Stone Tiger Gate petrol station for three days after searching for fuel in other places, but failing. He said his delivery date was way overdue.
  • Another driver, at Geiju city, said a job that would have taken one day in the past, now took three: one on the road, two queuing for fuel.
  • Nine days ago, a truck driver was reported to have been stabbed to death in central Anhui province after a row about queuing.
  • A few days earlier, at Ezhou in Hubei province, 100,000 people were stranded, unable to get to work, because city buses had run out of fuel.

With economic growth running at 11.5%, China is the second-biggest consumer of oil after the US. Diesel imports in the first nine months of the year were up 46.5%, compared with the same period last year. Inflation is at a 10-year high of 6.5% and the Government is reluctant to let the price of oil ‘float’ in line with international markets. As inflation took off this year, the Government announced it was capping the prices of key commodities it still controlled, including oil, until the end of the year. However, under strong pressure from refiners and distributors, it conceded a 10% rise from this month. This still leaves the price well beyond international levels, and China has to import about half its oil, for which it must pay world prices.

Could good old-fashioned supply and demand act as a brake on China’s runaway growth? Now where did I put that old economics textbook?

Written by Pete Smith

December 1, 2007 at 9:41 am

Runway 61 Revisited

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Last week the government launched its consultation into plans for a third runway and sixth terminal at London Heathrow. Greenpeace has been in touch with The Coffee House, asking us to support their ‘Stop Heathrow Expansion’ campaign. As in most issues nowadays, the prime arguments against the expansion are climate change and economics. To quote Greenpeace:

Already the busiest airport in Europe, the plan would mean a 70 per cent increase in flight numbers and a corresponding rise in climate change pollution. It’s crazy to be paving the way for such big increases in greenhouse gases when we should be doing all we can to reduce emissions.
What’s particularly short sighted about this proposal is that a third runway at Heathrow really isn’t needed. Well over a fifth of flights from Heathrow are to short-haul destinations, already well served by trains which cause ten times less damage to the climate than flying.

Hidden away in the small print are a few references to the effects on the local residents of additional noise and pollution. Nothing about wider environmental impacts on habitats and biodiversity. You get the impression that if this development was a Tesco rather than an airport no-one would bat an eyelid.

Contrast this with the campaign being fought in Florida against the dual expansion of Fort Lauderdale International Airport and Port Everglades. Citizens Against Runway Expansion give a whole list of reasons why the project is a bad idea. Here are a few:

  • Eradication of protected mangroves, some of which are Essential Fish Habitat
  • Loss of hatching and nursery habitat for numerous aquatic, terrestrial and avian species
  • Destruction of Manatee habitat
  • Decimation of 15 or more acres of our coral reef system
  • Detrimental effects from noise pollution on wildlife
  • Probable damage to the potable water supply from leaching of toxins from dredged fill during dewatering and compaction processes

OK, I know we’re not comparing apples and apples. I doubt if Heathrow has many manatees or coral reefs, but there might well be some great crested newts. It’s still interesting how the Heathrow campaign has taken a completely different spin from the one in Florida, which even accepts that increased capabilities for trade and leisure travel are benefits, rather than Public Enemy Number 1 as they are seen in the UK.