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February 25, 2011 / clayliesstill

Heavy snow + no brakes = train crash…

…that’s the unstartling conclusion of a RAIB report into the derailment of a Stobart Rail freight train at Carrbridge in the Highlands last January.

The train had made a long descent from Slochd summit and was travelling at around 65 mph on the approach to the points outside Carrbridge when the driver attempted and failed to brake.

The train left the line on a runout, its forward momentum eventually overcome by trees. The runout had been built after a fatal crash 60 years before, when set of runaway freight wagons were lost at Slochd Summit and ran 5 miles down the line into the front of another freight train, killing two of the crew.

Thorough as ever, the report outlines the factors behind the crash:

  • Large build up of lineside snow (around 40 cms of snow had fallen in previous weeks) due to use of ‘miniature snow ploughs’ which allowed snow to be disturbed and blown into the train undercarriage
  • Brake failure caused by ice build up and potentially water ingress into brake pads
  • Inadequate brake testing procedures for drivers
  • The driver’s failure to test the brakes adequately

The build up of ice around brake shoes and rigging occurred because of very heavy snow fall over previous weeks which had left in large piles on either side of the line. When the driver was ascending Slochd he tested the brakes for a few seconds while on full throttle and incorrectly perceived them to be working.

Recommendations are obvious: plough the snow further away, lower speeds in snowy conditions and make sure drivers know to do serious brake tests.

In other countries, of course, the build up of ice and snow on the brakes is dealt with in a more prosaic matter, a bloke gets out of the train and smashes it off with an iron pole:

But the real recommendation for me is the same as it ever is with the RAIB and rail safety in general: why isn’t the same degree of scrutiny conducted regarding road crashes?

The thousands dead on the roads get a bit of investigation, but most of the injuries don’t.

Road freight vehicle leave the road all the time, yet 69 reports on these incidents never appear.

(Actually there is one lorry crash that might receive a bit more investigation than normal, but only because it happened to crash off a bridge and hit a train)

February 24, 2011 / clayliesstill

Why reading the Daily Mail is one of the biggest causes of heart attacks

Stress caused by reading one of Britain’s mostly widely absorbed hate circulars newspapers is apparently a leading cause of heart attacks, scientists today confirm.

Ok, perhaps not wholly accurate.

The Mail has today come up trumps with a story about how cycling to work is one of the biggest causes of heart attacks, based on a study in The Lancet, but I think I’ll probably go in an apopleptic fit resulting from an ill-advised expedition into the Mail’s twisted world of hypocritical scaremongering.

Actually, the Lancet paper’s conclusion is that traffic exposure is the leading attributable cause of heart attack. The problem is with motor traffic, not with cycling. As with road safety, the literature on air pollution is the same: focus on the victims, rather than contributors to the problem.

Of course one of the best ways of preventing heart disease in the first place is regular physical activity, perhaps by… cycling to work.

The Copenhagen Heart Study found that, even after controlling for other physical activity, people who cycled to work had an all cause mortality 40% lower than sedentary commuters.

Incidentally the Lancet article also reveals that the highest risk activity (but not a huge contributor overall to population heart attacks) is using cocaine.

As an individual activity traffic exposure is very low and comes after half a dozen other ‘risk factors’, including both positive and negative emotions, marijuana use, big meals and sex. The problem is that heavy traffic, cars and associated air pollution is now ubiquitous, and all of us have to suffer the consequences.

February 14, 2011 / clayliesstill

Who owns the most cars in Europe?

One of the aspects of the current (and semi-civilized) debate around the ways to improve conditions for cycling is the unfavourable comparison of Britain with it’s European neighbours, specifically the Netherlands.

I’ve already looked at how data on cycling levels can and is manipulated.

Car ownership is another statistic deployed to show how terrible things are in Britain compared with elsewhere.

For instance, one cycle blogger writes:

“DfT Vehicle Licensing Statistics show that there has been a continued growth in the number of licensed cars in Great Britain (an increase of 25% between 1997 and 2009).”

Clearly travel by private automobile is still seen as something inherently more desirable than travel by bike.

So what about car ownership elsewhere in Europe? Well, I don’t have access to international figures on car ownership to 2009, but here is a graph of the increase in the car fleets in the EU-15 from 1997 to 2007.

So yes, car ownership has increased in Britain, but we sit in about middle table, slightly below the Dutch, whose car fleet increased by 25% to Britain’s 24%.

Amazingly, the German car fleet has remained static, whereas the Greek one has doubled.

Obviously this is not the whole story. We can also looks at the number of cars per person.

Once again, Britain sits mid table. Only Luxembourg and Italy are real outliers, each having well over half a car per person. Germany is also high and perhaps demonstrates that the car market there – at around 0.5 cars per person – was saturated ten years ago.

What do we learn? Britain is, when compared to other EU countries, pretty mediocre. But the situation is bad in many countries, perhaps worst in Spain, where the car fleet increased 42% in 10 years and has now exceeds Britain in cars per head.

February 9, 2011 / clayliesstill

How much would cycle paths cost?

If we were to build high quality cycle facilities on all the main roads in Britain, what would be the cost?

First, we need to establish what the price might be per kilometre. One recent example of a high profile cycling project is the Cycle Superhighways in London. These aren’t even cycle paths, just widish cycle lanes with a few junction improvements.

The capital cost of the first two amounted to an astonishing £200,000 per km of road. The costs of ‘proper’ cycle paths up to adequate standards are likely to be much higher, Sustrans and TfL estimate cycle track costs at anywhere between £100,000 and £900,000 depending on levels of complexity, number of junctions etc.

In the UK there are presently:

  • 3,560 kms of motorway
  • 14,041 kms of urban single and dual carriageway ‘A’ roads
  • 40,676 kms of rural single and dual carriageway ‘A’ roads
  • 30,141 kms of ‘B’ roads
  • 84,813 kms of ‘C’ roads
  • 229,145 kms of unclassified roads
  • Of those categories we can ignore motorways, from which cycles are banned. The unclassified and ‘C’ roads probably don’t need any facilities. Happily they represent 80% of the road network.

    The remaining 20% carries the two thirds of the miles travelled by vehicles in the UK. Cycles are currently permitted on 99% of this network. This is where cycle paths are needed if we are to follow the Dutch model.

    So, leaving aside minor roads and motorways that still leaves 84,858 kms ostensibly needing treatment.

    At Cycle Superhighway prices that would work out to be…. £16.9 billion. Ahem.

    The current funding programme for England provides around £1.4 billion to be spent on all small local transport schemes in the current financial year, falling gradually over the next 4 years.

    February 7, 2011 / clayliesstill

    Ebbsfleet International – cycle friendly paradise

    As discussed, Ebbsfleet International station, with its 6,000 (mostly empty) car parking spaces, isn’t exactly a model for a localised solution to transport. Quite the opposite: it encourages people to drive great distances to take trains even farther.

    But perhaps it does have a role depositing commuters living in cheap housing around the station into central London? After all, currently 54% of passengers at UK rail stations walk (p 19) to the station and a further 2% cycle (only 20% go by car, 24% other public transport).

    Does Ebbsfleet have a similar access mode patterns?

    Somehow, I doubt it. When I visited there were 11 bikes parked in the cycle parking, which has a capacity of around 40. It’s at least 20 minutes walk to the nearest house along busy roads.

    Cycle access to the station is by crappy pavement cycle paths, complete with the ever excellent ‘Cyclists Dismount’ sign, whereupon the path cedes all priority to, er, a half empty car park.

    Classic British cycle planning.

    Still, there are plans to construct housing for 40,000 people in a vast series of chalk pits between the station, the A2 and this:

    Bluewater: 13,000 car parking spaces with a couple of Accessorize stores attached.

    The masterplan for the ‘Ebbsfleet Valley’ development has the usual claims of sustainability and mixed use planning, scattered with commercial, shopping and businesses, with the li(n)e that residents will be “able to get to these places, and further afield, quickly and without needing a car.”

    The first phase of this huge project has already started: a grim cluster of beige dwellings called ‘Springhead Park’ squatting on the edge of an unlovely outskirt of Gravesend.

    With the M25 slicing past one side and the “recently improved 4-lane A2” charging through the south will the Panglossian promise that

    “we want people to be able to step out of their front door and have the choice of getting where they want without effort, without delay, and without a car”

    …be fulfilled? At least 19,000 car parking spaces within 2 miles and the planners persist with the myth (which Dartford Borough Council have gone along with) that they aren’t designing for the car.

    At the very best they are setting up a new community of hypermobile London commuters. Even they will be having to drive to the station if the best access that can be offered are cycle paths like the one above.

    February 6, 2011 / clayliesstill

    High Speed Rail – not a sustainable transport solution

    Recently I had the pleasure (?) of visiting Ebbsfleet International. ‘International’ presumably on the basis that a few immigrants are employed in the shops in the vast, empty terminal building.

    I have seen this giant structure many times when passing to and from France on Eurostar but this was my first visit.

    I used to be ambivalent about HS2: I appreciate that extra capacity on the West Coast Mainline route will be desperately required in 15 years time and I can see the case for shifting domestic aviation to rail (already much of the Manchester-London traffic has shifted because of increased frequency and speed since 2008).

    However the combination of the French experience, together with what I saw in Ebbsfleet has completely turned me against this project.

    French lignes à grand vitesse have attracted a considerable increase in rail patronage, however, part of that growth has come at the cost of run down regional services and freight traffic. Instead of branch lines feeding passengers to town centre stations to catch faster, longer distance services, the French system now relies on stunningly built but out of town TGV-only stations, like this one at Avignon.

    Avignon TGV is 4 kms from the town centre station. A bus runs between the two, but it’s hardly convenient. Spacious car parks surround the TGV station, but even they are nowhere near as spacious, nor as empty as those at Ebbsfleet.

    There are around 6,000 car parking spaces at Ebbsfleet, scattered around the station like rocket launching pads. For many years they stood completely empty as the station was built but not opened.

    Then the occasional Paris or Brussels train stopped there and, like Adlestrop, no-one came and no-one left.

    Just over a year ago domestic high speed services started running on HS1 (at a not particularly fast 225 km/h) with many stopping at Ebbsfleet enroute to more interesting destinations. The ability to zoom to St Pancras in 20 minutes no doubt hauled quite a few people off the slower line that runs near Ebbsfleet and probably encouraged hundreds more to drive long distances to park in the rocket launching pads and walk for 15 minutes to the station.

    Unsurprisingly, however, those 6,000 spaces are only fractionally filled. Here is how Car Park B looked in the middle of a working day in January:

    Beautiful, isn’t it?

    There are plans for similar car parks for the HS2 station in north Warwickshire.

    A railway system that increases local car travel and simply enables people to travel faster does not suggest to me to be part of the solution to a lower impact, community-scale approach to transport that I believe we should be looking towards.

    As John Whitelegg and others repeatedly say: travelling farther and faster is never going to be sustainable, whatever mode it is.

    November 28, 2010 / clayliesstill

    Helmets on Boris Bikes

    London's Boris Bikes include a cleverly designed device to store your helmet

    On Friday the rider of a Boris Bike was hit by a bus at the Euston Road/Tottenham Court Road junction. It isn’t clear yet just how serious his injuries are, but no doubt this will be another cue for the liddites to push for helmets to be mandatory, or even, perhaps more ridiculously, handed out for free.

    The guy in this photo has got the right idea: he’s got a scooter helmet but it is safely stored in the special Boris Bike helmet stand luggage rack. The idea that casual, short trips round a city like London must be made while wearing a helmet is crazy. By all means, wear a helmet when mountain biking or racing, but not for pootling between Soho and the British Library.

    So far the cycle hire scheme appears to have had a safer record than ordinary cycling. Despite the fearmongering of the Evening Standard in reality the risks of Boris Biking appears to be substantially lower than ordinary cycling. This paper for Transport for London’s Surface Transport Panel notes that there were 12 injuries to Boris Bikers by the end of October, after 1.4 million trips. That’s around 9 injuries per million trips, half that of the figure for all cycling in 2009.

    Raw figures like this don’t cover the true realities of danger and risk. Cycling may be a pretty safe activity, but the main point is that most of the dangers are out of your control. That makes it far more scary.

    Flying is the same: we all hear about how safe flying is, but when you sit in an aeroplane you have no control over that safety. You are in the hands of pilots, technology and maintenance staff.

    Taking control over one’s safety is critical to making cycling feel safer – this is one of the principles of cycle training: that you assert yourself and control others’ behaviour by your road positioning and communication. Alternatively, if you cushion yourself from the potential actions of others (by taking cyclists away from the shared road way) you may achieve the same result.