Squander energy: Take the train

I have been working out just how much energy I use on my way to work each day. Yes, I know, trains are so much more environmentally friendly than cars, and I am certainly glad that I can commute to work now rather than driving in. But this note isn’t about whether what is, on the whole, a lower energy option. It is about the many areas on the train where energy is grossly squandered.

In fact the type of train we get on our local line is a model of how to squander energy and reduce the lifetime of the system. I suspect that the designers were frustrated aircraft designers, given how much of the train is designed as a sealed environment – not a very sensible assumption for a domestic UK train. Here are the main points:

  • All train’s external doors are electric. So as soon as they fail, the whole carriage will be out of bounds to users. At some point in the not too distant future, whole trains will probably be out of commissions for door repairs.
  • All internal doors are electric. The point of this is hard to imagine. Like in shops, there seems to be an obsessive assumption that opening doors is a problem. This isn’t even true with a trolleyful of groceries, let alone a briefcase.
  • Inside the carriage, there are 24 small lights, one over each seat. You can turn them on or off a you choose, but a) they provide no meaningful illumination during the day time; b) they are always on by default – an absurd starting point in summer, and given that the carriage has overhead lights too, probably pure waste even in winter; and c) I seem to be the only person who ever turns them off.
  • The main lights are always on too. Having spent many years travelling in the earlier model, I don’t recall any problem in expecting the train staff to turn the main lights on and off as and when needed. If we must have an electrical system, wouldn’t light-sensitive switches be a better solution?
  • There are overhead electric signboards throughout the train. Most of the time they tell you nothing but the name of the train company and what time it is. I do not need to be told this by a train. All its other messages repeat what the tannoy system says anyway. Assuming that electric signs are solving a significant problem that the tannoy announcements do not (which I find hard to believe), they could at least be switched off when they are saying nothing meaningful.
  • There are no openable windows – the whole place uses electrical air conditioning and heating. One or other is on at all times. The system is constantly far noisier than one would have thought possible, and has been from Day 1. But this is England – when have we ever needed air conditioning? I have never been in a train, even at the height of summer, when opening the windows did not provide a perfectly adequate solution. There are no temperature controls, so the automated system rules absolutely. Some days it is too cold, even at the height of summer. And as with the doors, as soon as the air conditioning fails, the train will be out of commission. This will almost certainly mean that its energy and carbon impact will be even higher as it goes into repair sooner and more often and is finally junked a decade or two earlier than its predecessors.
  • I go to the loo. The door is electric. It has an electric sign saying whether or not it is occupied. When I get in, the switch to close the door is electric. So is the (separate) switch to lock it. As there are no window, the light has to be on permanently, and so is the air conditioning. The loo flush is electric. The switches to unlock and open the door are electric. Not one of these things needs to be electric.
  • As we pass through Woking station at 7.53 am – one of the major hubs southwest of London – every single light I can see is on – even out on the platforms in the sunshine. Fortunately this is not the rule – other stations, especially the smaller ones, have their lights turned off. But especially in the larger stations electricity is being wasted just as badly as a Woking. Again fortunately, there does not seem to be a single superfluous light on at Clapham Junction, which is still, I believe, Europe’s busiest station. But Waterloo is not short of uselessly illuminated lamps.

As we wait to leave Woking, the guard announces that the train next to us is having ‘door difficulties’ that are causing it to be delayed. No fooling?

As I understand it, the rolling stock on this line was 35-40 year old before it was replaced by this all-electric, all environmentally-hostile model. I will be surprised if this stock makes it to its twentieth anniversary without major mishap, or to its thirtieth birthday at all. The old trains were not good, but that was mainly because they were extremely old, unkempt and unmaintained. These, it seems to me, are designed to have a short and absurdly expensive life.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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