Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Fossil-fuel abuse, Rail funding and others

The era of fossil-fuel abuse is over - now turn to the sun

The era of fossil-fuel abuse is over - now turn to the sun

Sir: Thanks for your excellent Review of 2003 (27 December), but missing surely, was the climate change story and our state of denial about its cause: the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, every year, from our fossil fuel gorged lifestyle.

Your pages, last year, carried a great many well-informed stories about the changing climate. Were there not more floods, fires, and freak weather events than any year before? Virtual scientific certainty now exists - there is man-made climate change from our fossil-fuel abuse. Will we be the first generation to knowingly stay on our gas-guzzling course, ignoring the warnings of disaster? Will the Independent review of 2100 précis news of a century of weather-related devastation? Or will it tell how the species woke up - and adapted - just in time?

Reading that 2100 review, will our grown-up grandchildren feel sad for the children: nostalgia for polar bears (then extinct) and for snow? Will they wonder why their grandparents failed to report the big news story of all time?

The solution we need is neither scary nor complex, just urgent. But it's common sense, and it will be fun. Just as our unthinking use of carbon derived fuel, as we work rest and play, is the problem, so will changes to these habits be the solution. Our herd instinct can yet save us! It will soon be cool to be "carbon-lite", de rigueur to switch to a green tariff, and passé to drive a gas-guzzling SUV. Utterly dated to be carboniferous!

The sun still shines for us. Solar energy can meet our species' energy needs many times over. The carbon fuel era is over. The writing is on the wall, if not yet in the papers.

DAVE HAMPTON, ABS consulting


Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Rail network needs more public funds

Sir: You report (5 January) that ministers are seeking to centralise further their control over the rail network by downgrading the status of the Strategic Rail Authority to equal that of the Highways Agency. However, whilst Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, appears to have concocted a foolproof method of winning his battle with Richard Bowker, the SRA chairman, the advantages for the travelling public of a "renationalisation by stealth" remain unclear.

The central issue is one of cost. Nobody disputes that cost control in the rail industry went out of the window at the wake of the ill-judged Conservative privatisation; the private sector contractors working to upgrade the railway were effectively able to name their price for any given project.

The Government created Network Rail out of the ashes of Railtrack in an attempt to stem the spiralling debts without having to accept such massive figures on to its own balance sheet. It may also have been hoping that by raising fares on profitable commuter and intercity lines and slashing investment elsewhere, growing demand for rail travel might level off, enabling the SRA and Network Rail to cancel many of their capital investment projects.

However, the SRA has stood up to its Whitehall masters by vigorously dispelling talk of line closures in the provinces and opposing further downsizing of the West Coast upgrade. As congestion both on the roads and in the air becomes increasingly acute, perhaps Mr Darling and his colleagues would be wise to look again at the question of rail investment funding rather than condemning the network (and thus passengers) to years of continued neglect as the Treasury chokes off funding just as it did for decades under British Rail.

If the Government baulks at the cost, I suggest it considers the oft-overlooked £8bn subsidy it gives to the airline industry in fuel tax breaks or the wider application of congestion charging as alternative sources of cash to rebuild our antiquated transport network.

Bury, Lancashire

Sir: In 1992, after nearly a decade of reorganisation, and taking into account the balance between quality of service and the cost to the customer and the taxpayer, I believe Britain had the best railway it has ever had.

The fully integrated British Rail and its three passenger businesses (InterCity, Regional Railways and Network SouthEast) had created a safe, high-quality and customer-focused railway. Not only were people proud to work for this railway, for a number of years in succession it had reduced its call on the taxpayer - in stark contrast to the present situation.

If the Labour government had honoured its 1997 pre-election pledge to recreate a "publicly owned and publicly accountable railway" they would not be in the mess in which they find themselves today.

Lille, France

Sir: Christian Wolmar describes present train punctuality levels of 81 per cent as "an all time low" ("On the wrong track", 6 January). In 2000/1 punctuality collapsed to just 63.1 per cent of trains arriving on time following the Hatfield rail crash. Since then, performance has improved, although not as quickly as we would like. Delays this autumn were down 27 per cent.

At privatisation in 1996, 500 miles of track needed to be replaced every year to maintain a steady state. In the six years before privatisation, British Rail was replacing just 300 miles a year. Under Railtrack, this fell still further to as low as just 150 miles a year. This means that a backlog of up some 4,000 miles has built up, which Network Rail is now addressing, with some 600 miles due to be replaced this year.

The Business "Outlook" column on the same day talked about Network Rail taking to the end of the decade to return to pre-privatisation levels of punctuality. Perish the thought! We're aiming for a 90 per cent punctuality target for 2008/9 - a long way of ahead of BR's final performance levels.

Head of External Communications
Network Rail
London NW1

Sir: Simon Blackmore (letter, 30 December), having described his bad travel experiences, says: "The UK is a small and very wealthy country. We should be able to have a magnificent system. Why don't we?"

I suggest that this is because we continue to regard the railways as a commercial operation. Whether under the current private ownership or the past public ownership, the railways have always depended upon subsidy from the public purse. Even in the old, old days of the LMS, LNER, GWR and SR, all (expect, maybe, SR) were subsidised.

Clearly an efficient, reliable railway transport system is vital to both business and to the travelling public, and, equally clearly, it can never stand on its own financial feet. Surely, then, we need to regard the railways not as a commercial enterprise, but as a social service.

To echo Mr Blackmore - why don't we?


Sir: I get rather fed up with people carping about one-off railway delays (letter;"Why is our train service so shambolic and overcrowded?", 30 December). Do they never get delayed on motorways? In a serious tailback they have no toilet or refreshment facilities, they can't use their mobile phones legally and there is no chance of claiming any compensation. I know which I prefer.

Stoke St Gregory,

RMT's affiliation

Sir: Your report and leading article of 27 December accuse me of engineering a fight between the RMT and the Labour Party over the union's political affiliation. This is simply untrue.

As your newspaper reported at the time, RMT's annual meeting last summer agreed both to enshrine its affiliation to the Labour Party in its rules and to allow branches and regions to support other political organisations, subject to the executive's ratification. That democratic decision followed a full and open debate, and five of our Scottish branches and the Scottish Regional Council have subsequently sought leave to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party - as reported elsewhere some weeks ago.

It may be the practice of the small clique that runs "new" Labour to gerrymander difficult decisions off its conference agenda, or simply to ignore decisions altogether, but it is certainly not mine.

Andrew Grice's report said that RMT "now hands money to the constituency parties of 14 left-wing MPs". Again, that is simply untrue. RMT works with an excellent group of Labour MPs who are prepared to roll up their sleeves on issues that affect our members - but none of them does it in exchange for money for his or her constituency Labour Party.

If RMT's continued affiliation to the Labour Party has become controversial, it is the result of the hijacking of the party by a small group of people bent on destroying its working-class roots and pursuing policies opposed by the majority of our members.

General Secretary
London NW1

Diana conspiracy  

Sir: I can't believe this Diana conspiracy theory nonsense. Do people seriously think that the British Royal Family and our intelligence services have the ability to plan and successfully implement something? The truth probably is that they were tasked with keeping her alive and well - which is probably why she's dead.

Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Terrified of flying

Sir: Two separate news stories: the airline pilots' union objects to random alcohol testing of pilots; pilots object to armed guards aboard aircraft. I am forced to the conclusion that airline pilots consider armed policemen more of a danger than drunken pilots. And that they apparently consider policemen more of a danger than terrorists. I take one or two trans-Atlantic trips a year; it's nice to know my life is in the hands of such rational people.

Vancouver, Washington, USA

Route of the problem

Sir: I read Will Self's column (20 December) on the US pronunciation of "route" while on a plane flying to San Francisco. I checked out his observation, and discover that US has two pronunciations of the word: "root" for the road with a number (hence "root" 66) and "rout" for itinerary or direction.


Mystery planet

Sir: Thank you for printing the stunning "postcard from Mars" (7 January). What a pity the photographer didn't give us a sense of scale by including a couple of Martians, posing in local costume.

London N19