Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Dirty old trains (updated)

Out of all the nonsense spoken on the $1.5 billion renationalisation of FailRail, perhaps the most hyperbolic has been the nonsense spoken about "climate change" and "carbon emissions."

Says Helen Clark, no stranger to nonsense, "With growing worldwide awareness of climate change ... many nations are looking at rail as a central component of their economic infrastructure – and so must New Zealand. A modern and well resourced rail system will lessen the carbon footprint of our transport network, and therefore of our whole economy."

Says Sue Kedgeley, a complete stranger to sanity, "We must encourage people to use the bus and train services... Getting people off the roads has to be a priority for any society that understands the basic reality of peak oil and climate change."

Really? Both Labour and the Greens have peddled the line "we need rail to reduce carbon emissions," and it's a line that the media has bought ("With petrol prices high and climate change haunting public policy, rail's renationalisation is timely" said the Herald yesterday, for example), and commentators have peddled ("rail infrastructure" is needed "to reduce transport-related greenhouse gas emissions" says Idiot/Savant) but it's a story that has fewer legs than Heather Mills McCartney.

Just to deal with a couple of untruths at once, I wonder if you could, for a moment, view these three modes of transport below and tell me which produces the least carbon emissions per passenger kilometre. On the left is the eco-weenie, 'planet-saving' girly car, the Toyota Prius ('Save the Whales' stickers not included); on the right is a modern diesel 'Virgin Voyager' (the very latest in diesel trains, and a few generations newer from the government's Soviet-era diesel units); and in the middle is a big mother-hugging earth-destroying Jeep Patriot.

Which of the three do you think is the biggest carbon belcher per passenger kilometre, and which the smallest?

Any idea which of them produces the least carbon emissions per passenger kilometre?

No, you're wrong. First of all, it's not the train. A British rail industry study reveals that "Modern diesel-powered trains are so polluting that a family of three or more would be responsible for at least double the carbon dioxide emissions on many routes when travelling by rail compared with driving in a typical medium-sized car." In other words, as the Times' Transport correspondent summarises:
"It can be greener to drive than catch the train."
Can you hear that, Helen? Do you understand English, Sue? "It can be greener to drive than catch the train." If this is true for modern diesels on the well-patronised British rail system, then how much truer is it for FailRail's antediluvian and poorly patronised infrastructure. The fact is, your ancient and poory managed rail system would not "lessen the carbon footprint of our transport network", even if it were modern, well-used and well-resourced -- which it's never likely to be.

So that's one contestant out of the way, and one myth destroyed with it. Rail is not 'green.' Time to 'fess up and sell the system off for scrap.

Now listen to another inconvenient truth, as you would have on Morning Report last week -- the Prius is not green either:
The hybrid Toyota Prius car has been exposed as being less economical than a diesel SUV.
In fact, Environmental website Clean Green Cars has released figures showing "current hybrid cars offer no significant CO2 advantage over an equivalent diesel of similar performance."

So that's another myth destroyed -- hybrid cars might offer posing value at Green Party meetings, but they offer "no significant CO2 advantage over an equivalent diesel of similar performance."

Inconvenient truth for a modern age.

UPDATE 1: Note that the above discussion only looks at passenger travel. Another inconvenient truth for FailRail enthusiasts to get their heads around is that much the same news emerges for long-distance freight. The most recent comprehensive New Zealand study directly comparing rail and road freight environment costs is quoted by Liberty Scott:
What did it say? Well it compared the environmental impacts of freight between Wellington and Auckland, Napier and Gisborne and Kinleith and Tauranga. The comparison is as follows:
Environmental costs per net tonne km in NZ$
Wellington-Auckland rail NZ$0.008, road NZ$0.006
Napier-Gisborne rail NZ$0.002, road NZ$0.002
Kinleith-Tauranga rail NZ$0.001, road NZ$0.004
So in other words, on average it is more environmentally friendly to send freight by road between Wellington and Auckland than by rail, but the opposite between Kinleith and Tauranga
As Scott concludes yesterday, "So if it's not economically efficient, if the environmental advantages are dubious and sometimes illusory, then why buy the railway at all?" Why indeed? Are even socialists that blind?

UPDATE 2: Another point most of the morons regularly miss when spouting their warmist nonsense about rail reducing greenhouse emissions is that if taxpayers need to subsidise FailRail to the tune of $80 to $100 million per year, then taxpaying industries will need to produce billions of dollars more to pay for this unsustainable white elephant -- with all the emissions that extra production implies.


  1. Excellent post, Peter...another example of pure, good old fashioned Communism.

    What a disgrace

  2. In fact, the real truth underlying the British study is if you strip out the subsidised low patronage routes then rail looks quite good. The London-Edinburgh service is very well patronised, makes an enormous profit and seems to be regularly upgraded (only service in the UK with free wifi on board).

  3. Here's another question:

    Even if trains were environmentally friendly, which they are not, that does not explain why you need government running it.

    Pollution externalities are about to be internalised by the ETS. Users of road, rail and air are about to pay their way.

    That means the government has already done its bit get national transport to charge prices that reflect the full set of costs they impose. There is nothing additional that public ownership of an environmentally neutral or unfriendly mode of transport does to help the environment. It is simply picking winners.

    Lew Evans presented a paper in Wellington on Monday night which showed rail in NZ has earned an economic return of -$4.5 billion over its lifetime. Since the 1940s, from memory, it has never in any one year, earned its cost of capital. Prof. Evans pointed out that, since the market for transport is competitive, that $4.5 billion loss is pure deadweight loss. If the government had simply let rail disappear and goods be transported by some other means, that $4.5 billion could have purchased three Transmission Gullys, any number of hospitals, etc with nothing sacrificed.

    The government bought rail because Toll came to the table with the highly credible threat to stop servicing parts of the network. A government seeking re-election knew the political cost of lost services and threw all its remaining surplus and then some at Toll to avoid the greater embarrassments of either subsidising an Australian company, or having services close in election year.

  4. matt b, ETS wont internalise environmental externalities - it is only CO2 - the REAL pollution is poisonous and does affect people's health but without property rights on roads there is no accountability for this.

    You're right about rail, but don't forget roads have often not returned the cost of capital either. They arguably do in an indirect way now, but frankly the state highways at least should run at a profit, delivering dividends to shareholders.

  5. Libertyscott, even if you are correct that there are health externalities (I am doubtful, not that burning fuel has health effects, but that they are technically an externality, and even if they are that the externality component of those costs is large enough to overcome the very significant problems of government intervening to internalise them) it isn't clear how government ownership helps things.

    Public ownership just makes implicit the subsidy on those activities - which is hardly helpful.

    Indeed, public ownership carries with it the danger of exacerbating the problem because this public ownership is for the purpose of replacing price signals with political whim. The best you can hope for is a random relationship between choice of transport modes and health.

    Private ownership with taxes levied that, at least in principle, dispassionately reflect the various costs each transport imposes at least gives a chance of producing the mix of technologies that maximises social surplus. Public ownership of one mode and subsidies set to whatever level is required to make the operation solvent is surely the very last way to achieve any health or social or economic policy, bar one: to move stuff by rail at any cost.

  6. and Matt you wont find me disagreeing at all

  7. Private ownership with taxes levied that

    Why levy taxes on transport?

    The only tax that is far is a per capital absolutely flat tax - it would need to be about 10,000 per head per year. Everybody pays. That's it.

  8. anon:

    1) Ideologicaly, no tax is fair. Transitional taxes may be tolerated,, but a government which does not make provisions to abolish tax in a specified time is impure.

    2) A flat tax is a proportional tax. That is to say that it is levied a certain percentage of one's income. Not at a fixed amount.

  9. Conventional rail is an expensive way to move freight of most types. It is not a reasonable choice for most payloads. Where it is a suitable choice is for bulk payloads (for example, bulk ores, coal, certain chemicals- dry or wet etc.). In NZ there are limited amounts of that requiring movement. Certainly there is not enough to make it worthwhile maintinaing the vast majority of the network. Toll was correct with their analysis. They are not fools and they do not have the ability to steal funds from private citizens.

    As far as passenger transportation is concerned, there is alomst nowhere on the planet where rail makes much sense at all. Are there any passenger rail lines that can are sustainable without receiving funding via compulsory expropriations from non-users, protection from competition by other transport modes or special subsidies of one sort or another? I know of two... The rest would appear to be bilching at the welfare trough.

    The major issue to consider when it comes to transport is that every mode has been regulated and restricted by govt interference. For example, car design is frozen by government regulation. Even the height and type of headlamps is prescribed. Another example, is the nature of railways themselves. The technology has been frozen to a particular form; conical wheelsets running on parallel convex head rails. This is in essence a two hundred year old form which is incredibly material intensive, heavy and very expensive to install, to operate and to maintain.

    The trouble with govt interference in transport is similar to its influence on other sectors where it does not belong. It reduces what should be thriving business activity down to the level of welfare dependancy. In this case interference acts to ossify technology and paralyse development of real improvements. Other forms of guided vehicle (such as GRT, FRT or even PRT, and there are many other modes besides) are excluded from installation or even consideration, even though those technologies exist and would out-perform the conventional solution in many (most) cases.

    Von Mises got it correct in his work "Socialist Economy". Central planning is a failure. people need to underatand that.

    The correct approach would be to privatise all transport modes and leave private citizens to determine what they want to do.


  10. "but it's a story that has fewer legs than Heather Mills McCartney"

    Bit late .. catching up on some reading .. great line .. still chuckling. :)

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  12. A British rail industry study reveals that "Modern diesel-powered trains are so polluting that a family of three or more would be responsible for at least double the carbon dioxide emissions on many routes when travelling by rail

    How much of NZ's transport needs comprise of family outings like this, and how many are single occupant trips?

    There's also the fact that trains can be powered from renewable electricity, which can't happen with our current fleet of vehicles. Sure, that might not happen for the long haul routes, but for urban transport it makes a big difference to the carbon emissions.

  13. Another point, on the hybrid - it's a very unsurprising remark to say that a diesel engine is more efficient on long runs than a small petrol motor. We all know that the full compression you get from the bulky diesel design gives you more miles per gallon.

    However hybrid owners still report much lower overall petrol costs than drivers of other cars. I had a cab driver from Wellington Combined absolutely raving about it just the other night.

    This is because most people don't drive their cars long haul everywhere. For urban driving, you're stopping and starting a lot, and it's this driving behaviour that the hybrid engine shines; it collects power when you brake or drive downhill, for use at times when not very much engine power is required. For the long distances over which the MPG ratings are measured you are just running on the motor.

  14. btw, I realise that the test claims to have taken in a "mix of urban, dual carriageway and motorway driving." - but if you notice it's a trip from London to Brighton, hardly an average daily journey!

  15. Yet another mistake the hybrid comparison study makes is that they ignore the fact a litre of diesel has ~20% more Carbon in it to burn than a litre of Petrol. So yet another comparison of apples and oranges.

    But even with that in mind, it still seems deeply wrong for the fuel efficiency of a huge SUV to be comparable to a small petrol engine, and you know what - it is. For instance the trip computer read 57mpg for the prius - the authors of the report simply assumed the trip computer was wrong. It turns out that whereas the Patriot has a normal tank, the Prius uses a fuel bladder system to minimize loss through fumes. The capacity of the bladder is between 9 and 11 gallons, accounting for the difference between the trip computer's rating and the final result.

  16. The link posted shows that they concluded the mpg computer was wrong, but it doesn't show that conclusion was wrong -- which is what you say it does, Sam.

    From that same article,

    " get the real figure, we calculated consumption based on how much fuel each car had used over the 160 miles. The result was astonishing: both cars had used nearly identical amounts of fuel..."

    So there you go.

  17. Yes, that's what the link shows. I wrote in the text why it was wrong - the Prius has a variable capacity fuel bladder (apparently, varying as much as 2 gallons). I can't find a ready reference to this from Toyota's site, but you can find it mentioned in places. Perhaps the most amusing reference I could find to this fact was on Clean Green Car's Prius Specs page - yes, the same site that ran the original test.