Friday, 13 March 2009

A Brief Geography of Time

Whilst the attention of many fellow Greens was drawn to proposals for a major new business development at Manchester Airport this week, there were also headlines around a new high-speed link between Manchester and Leeds, which promised a reduction in travel time between the two cities of 25 minutes. This was much to the enthusiasm of local politicians and businesses, long frustrated by the relative neglect of surface public transport in the North compared to pampered London.

I most definitely do not share their enthusiasm. As long ago as 1993 Green transport guru Professor John Whitelegg referred to the concept of time pollution whereby fast travel doesn't actually save time, as people compensate by travelling greater distances and travelling them more frequently. I do not believe anyone really needs to travel between Manchester and Leeds in 25 minutes, as opposed to the hour that a reliable conventional train would take. Apart from the carbon cost of constructing a new special line from scratch, there is a general rule that the faster the journey, the greater the energy consumption. Also such a line would do nothing for commuters in either Greater Manchester or Yorkshire, as a train travelling at such a speed would not be stopping at places like Stalybridge and Dewsbury for their more modest requirements.

To the extent that we need better intercity transport links in the North, the money would be better spent on extending electrification of the lines between Manchester and Leeds and Liverpool, and reopening the Woodhead line (see Woodhead Tunnel campaign here) to provide a decent Manchester - South Yorkshire service. Any surplus should go into improved cycling and local public transport as part of an essential move away from the long-distance commuting model.

Regarding the proposed high-speed rail link from London northwards (whether or not it gets as far as Manchester), the pragmatist in me sees a desire to provide an alternative to air travel for the same journey. However the same arguments apply. Government, business and indeed all of us need to consider the likely growing impact of climate change and fossil fuel depletion, and challenge this growing time pollution.
I will refer those who say 'people will always need to travel faster and you can't stop progress' back to Manchester Airport - not to the terminals and runways but a nearby hangar. There you will see the supersonic museum piece that is concorde.

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