Sir: This past Wednesday marked the opening of the high-speed rail link between Madrid and Barcelona.
This brand-new railway line – it is not an upgrade to an existing line – has been designed to take modern high-speed electric trains on a route which is currently the busiest air link in the world. With the train now taking just over two and a half hours, this should get the majority of passengers off the plane and on to the train, as has happened with the recent rail link connecting Madrid and Malaga. One airline has actually stopped flying between the two cities since the arrival of the high-speed train.
This is one part of a much larger plan to have a comprehensive high-speed rail network all over Spain. More than 6,000 miles of new line are planned to be up and running by 2020, making rail travel the most efficient and appealing way of getting around the country. Links to France and Portugal are also being built, enabling international travel.
This all amounts to hard evidence of a comprehensive forward-thinking transport and environment policy that will actively take people off planes and put them on to trains instead, reducing carbon emissions substantially. The railways have the capacity to take as many people as currently travel by air, and will get them from place to place more quickly, particularly when arrival times at airports are factored in.
So why can't our government do the same? It is willing to build motorways and runways, but why not a high-speed rail link between London and Manchester or Edinburgh? It talks about being environmentally friendly, but the only railway that has been built in this country since the closures in the days of Beeching is the Channel Tunnel link, and look how long that took.
We should now be looking to the example of our European neighbours. Once, Britain had the finest railway system in the world. Now, it has little to be proud of. If this government wants to display environmental credentials, it should be investing heavily in a new 21st-century railway system, and making rail travel the option that people want to take.
Women will benefit from citizenship test
Sir: It may at first seem illiberal to oblige immigrants to learn sufficient English to pass a simple test before they relocate to the UK and to continue learning English over the next five years as a requirement of residency or citizenship (report, 21 February). But this may have valuable consequences for one category – women from the non-anglophone developing world where, by and large, most women are treated as chattels or (as the Greeks used to call slaves) "tools that talk".
Some years ago, with the gender specialist Lesley Abdela, I co-authored a report for the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Trust in which we discovered that there were very significant pockets of deep distress in Antwerp – and by extension no doubt in the UK, Germany and France – where wives imported from villages in South and Southeast Asia complained of extreme isolation from the community through a pervasive inability to get the chance to learn their new country's language. Speaking with them through an interpreter, I have no doubt this was maintained deliberately by their male partners as a way of maintaining absolute control over the women's lives.
Burwash, East Sussex
Sir: It is spectacularly culturally insensitive of our Anglocentric Westminster Government to introduce English tests for foreigners who plan to marry British citizens and settle in the UK. What about the UK's other native languages: Gaelic in Scotland, Welsh in Wales and Irish and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland? These languages are formally recognised in legislation pertaining to their countries (as equal with English in the case of Welsh) and their use is rightly promoted at considerable expense by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. It beggars belief that they should not be as acceptable as English for those who wish to settle in our sceptred isles.
John Eoin Douglas
Sir: I wonder if other countries will impose citizenship tests and contracts on British people living or working abroad? It would be interesting to see how many British people emigrating to the Costa Del Sol could answer questions on the history of Spanish democracy, or how many British workers can demonstrate their knowledge of local Dubai customs?
Castro wasn't a hero to all Africans
Sir: Dr Richard Lanigan (letters, 22 February) pays tribute to Fidel Castro's foreign policy, particularly with regards to Africa and the struggle against apartheid, and describes him as "a man who has devoted his life to a fight against global injustice" (letters, 22 February).
Castro's support for the ANC and Swapo deserves applause, but his African policies were not as benign as his supporters claim. Cuba was, alongside the USSR, the principal source of military aid to Ethiopia between 1977 and 1989, and was a close ally of the murderous Derg regime led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. A statesman truly committed to "the fight against global injustice" might have thought twice about supporting a near-genocidal dictatorship that killed up to 1.5 million of its own people.
Castro's apologists never refer to his alliance with Mengistu, either because of their ignorance or because it is inexpedient to do so. His contribution to Ethiopia's agony during the latter phases of the Cold War deserves more attention than it has hitherto received, even if it does shatter the myth of his unimpeachable benevolence and idealism.
Dr Geraint Hughes,
King's College, London
Sir: I read your correspondents' letters with mounting incredulity. Cuba is a place with no democracy, where dissent is punished by prison or death. It is also a place of refuge for drug smugglers who pay the government for docking their ships. To praise this tyrant because of literacy standards, well, we might as well praise Mussolini for the railways.
Sir: The high standards of education and healthcare in Cuba are all well and good. The problem is that there is nothing that educated, healthy Cubans can do with their education and health. They have no freedom of speech, no freedom of association, no freedom of access to information, no freedom to travel etc. None of us would put up with this. Why do the blinkered liberals of this country expect Cubans to do so?
Sir: Now that Fidel has withdrawn from power, will the CIA stop trying to kill him?
Gas-guzzling cars belong to the past
Sir: The legal challenge by Porsche to the London Mayor's £25 congestion charge for gas guzzlers is a classic example of expensive lawyers being used in the defence of greed and self-interest to thwart the democratic desire of the majority to improve their environment (leading article, 20 February). The real fear of Porsche and other such vehicle manufacturers is that the shine will come off their image as the car to have. Never mind that a 4x4 is fairly pointless within the M25, and a car which cruises at 125mph is ridiculous in a city where the average speed is less than 20mph.
I suspect that the makers of gas guzzlers fear that they will be seen increasingly as yesterday's car. These vehicles are relics of an age when the oil was never going to run out and global warming was a fear rather than a reality. Time to grow up, boys.
City Hall, London SE1
Sir: Your editorial "Back to the future" (20 February) suggests that the challenge by Porsche to the Mayor's £25 "congestion" charge harks back to the greedy Eighties. This issue is not quite so clear-cut.
A report for Transport for London on the scheme has already warned that: "The accessibility and social inclusion of children and Asian people in large families could be negatively affected by the proposed scheme should their family car incur the higher charge until their vehicles were replaced by lower emission alternatives."
Many ordinary families in London will be hit by these extortionate charges as they will be unable to replace their vehicles by October. These families in London tend to do lower mileage, use public transport more and keep their vehicles longer.
The Government should take a lead on how to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles rather than having different local authorities cashing in on their own schemes.
President of the Automobile Association, Basingstoke, hampshire
Higher alcohol tax would penalise us all
Sir: During the past 20 to 30 years, successive governments have relaxed laws as to who may sell alcohol, increased the hours during which alcohol may be sold and lengthened, quite considerably, the time during which public houses may serve alcohol.
Now, shock and horror, there is rising concern at the increase of anti-social behaviour caused by excessive consumption of alcohol – particularly among the younger element of society.
So, what is the response? Reduce the number of outlets (particularly supermarkets) that are allowed to sell alcohol? Raise the age at which alcohol may be purchased? Cut the hours during which it may be sold?
No, the answer is to penalise everyone by raising the price through extra tax.
Sir: Terence Blacker (20 February) is correct in pointing out that we are in danger of losing our traditional pubs. Research by Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) has shown that about 56 pubs a month are closing, and more than 1,000 pubs which are currently closed face an uncertain future. The phrase "if you don't use it, you lose it" is most apt here.
Now that smoking has been banned from enclosed public places, the pub is a more pleasant, smoke-free place to visit. While some of our streets and public parks may be plagued by binge drinkers consuming the cheap booze they have from the local supermarket, in the pub the sale of alcohol and its consumption are controlled.
Iain R Loe
Campaign for Real Ale, St Albans, hertfordshire
Biofuels will not solve climate crisis
Sir: There is no guarantee that UK-produced biofuel will be either sustainable or cut greenhouse gas emissions (letters, February 15).
The government has delayed the implementation of the necessary checks until 2010 and 2011, meaning motorists won't know if the biofuel they buy has cut emissions or whether wildlife habitats have been damaged in its production.
Biofuel crops are occupying increasingly large areas of land both in the UK and abroad, threatening wildlife and food production globally. This land could be used to grow food. Alternative uses will accelerate wetland drainage, the ploughing of grasslands and the felling of forests to provide new land for food.
If the government is serious about cutting transport emissions, it must bite the bullet and curb fuel use altogether. Ministers are fiddling while much of the planet burns.
Dr Mark Avery
RSPB, Sandy, Bedfordshire
More light than heat
Sir: Roger Smith's 100W light bulb (letters, 20 February) may well give you 80W of heat that you don't have to supply from your central heating. However, the efficiency of electricity generation and supply is so low (around 35 per cent) that around 230W of carbon dioxide-generating energy has to be consumed in the process. Contrast that with the around 90-per-cent efficiency of gas central heating. Further, if the 80W were to come from a wood-burning stove, the net carbon-dioxide contribution would be zero. It's a no-brainer!
Best Booker losers
Sir: The decision to choose the "best" out of all 40 Booker prize winners is doomed to failure in any meaningful artistic context (report, 21 February). Far more interesting would be an examination of the runners-up. I'm thinking in particular of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, pipped at the post by Rites of Passage by William Golding in 1980. One commentator described Earthly Powers as not only the best novel not to have won the Booker, but arguably the best ever submitted. Having read it twice, with undiminished delight at its energy and ingenuity, I can only agree.
St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex
Sir: "The Inventors Hall of Fame" (22 February) included not a single Briton although this island produced, among many others, Richard Arkwright, John Logie Baird, Sir Henry Bessemer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (with a little help from France), Samuel Crompton, Sir Humphrey Davy, James Hargreaves, Edward Jenner, Sir Charles Parsons, George and Robert Stephenson and James Watt.
Do nothing to save Earth
Sir: Johann Hari (Opinion, 21 February) thinks the best way to save the planet is to join an action group like Greenpeace who will campaign on our behalf, fly off to conferences on climate change and persuade us all to travel to London to march and protest. I disagree. Surely climate change has been caused by too much doing and not enough doing nothing. Be radical: work less, travel less, shop locally, tend your garden and go for a walk.
Welton le Marsh, Lincolnshire
Sir: Jeremy Warner concluded his neat analysis of the property bubble (21 February) by saying that we are about to learn which way markets will turn. An article on the same page included the words "get on the housing ladder". This phrase, appearing to summarise an Absolute Truth, might disappear for a generation if Jeremy Warner's implied downside prediction comes about. Perhaps the tipping point will be marked by a new phrase, summarising a new reality: "get off the housing slide"?