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Saturday 19 April 2008
Letters: Train travel
Council finds ways to take the strain out of train travel
Sir: On the same day as your front-page report "The new age of the train" (11 April), Nottinghamshire County Council announced a Sunday service on the Robin Hood Line (Nottingham to Worksop), starting on 14 December. This will be the final stage in the council-instigated re-opening of the line, closed by Beeching in 1964 but now carrying more than a million passengers a year. Also starting on 14 December is another council-initiated service of 28 trains a day between Nottingham and Leeds.
One problem not mentioned in your report is the escalation of unit costs in the rail industry after privatisation. Between 1996 and 2001, the cost of nearly everything in the rail industry increased more than threefold. This made it far more difficult to finance enhancement in services. Unit costs have started to come down again since the Government replaced Railtrack with Network Rail, but they need to reduce further to pay for further improvement in services.
In January 2006, we made the case for a relatively low-cost series of incremental improvements to the Midland Main Line (MML) route to London. This MML upgrade will produce about a quarter of the benefits the West Coast Main Line (WCML) upgrade has produced (half the time saving, and for half the number of passengers). But the MML scheme will cost just £100m, as against £7.8bn for the WCML, making it 20 times more cost-efficient.
The MML scheme will cut the Nottingham-to-London journey time from 104 minutes to 90 minutes by 2012. This reduction also allows the same number of trains to make more trips in a day, effectively allowing an increase in service at no extra cost.
The council believes this points the way forward for Britain's rail system, and can produce similar benefits on other regional services. We are making more assessments of the county's rail infrastructure, now that the Government has shown it will back cost-effective expansion of rail services. And I would like to place on record the council's appreciation of the strong support we have had from the Rail minister, Tom Harris.
Councillor Stella Smedley
Cabinet Member for Environment, Nottinghamshire county Council
Does algae solve the biofuel puzzle?
Sir: I endorse Richard Pike's comments (letters, 16 April) about the need to find new sources of biofuels rather than those based on growing crops. The amount of land required to produce biofuels from crops on a scale commensurate with present human activities is vast, since the useful energy-capture from sunlight represents less than 1 per cent of the sunlight absorbed by the Earth's surface.
Hence there is necessarily a conflict between growing crops for fuel and crops for food because the area of arable land available to us is limited. But growing algae to make biofuel presents potentially a different proposition, and a Texas-based company, PetroSun, has just begun production.
With their figures showing that 4.4 million gallons (US) of diesel can be produced from 1,100 acres, we may deduce that 32.6 tonnes of diesel plus 116 tonnes of (other) biomass will be produced per hectare per year. Assuming the figure of 174 W/square metre (4.18 kWh/day), this amounts to a photosynthetic efficiency of 4.7 per cent, and is better than crop-based biofuel production by a factor of 10 to 20.
It is not necessary to use arable land nor divert valuable supplies of fresh water for biofuel, since the algae grow well in saline ponds, and could be placed on any land, or on water.
Professor Chris Rhodes
Sir: There is a solution to the problems highlighted in your report on biofuels (15 April). It's called "a transparent market"'. Rather than enabling such a market to operate, the Government has imposed a one-size-fits-all approach which is both inadequate and environmentally destructive.
The Government should admit that legally binding blending of biofuels is unhelpful. It should urgently withdraw this requirement and enable a market where genuine carbon and sustainability criteria are visible to all fuel purchasers.
These steps would ensure climate change and development concerns could be expressed in purchasing decisions by companies, government departments and citizens. Damaging biofuels would not sell but truly beneficial biofuels could help to solve the problem.
Sir: Dr Richard Pike puts forward the proposition that the future of the chemicals industry lies in biomass as feedstock . May one suggest that it would be preferable to revisit coal as an alternative to oil?
Coal-based plastics were developed between the two world wars but were eclipsed by the products of the petrochemical industry post-1945; petroleum-based polymers were a lot easier to make. There is, of course, the saying that oil is far too precious as a feedstock to be wasted as a fuel.
Shift by Shire maybe just the start
Sir: The shifting by Shire Pharmaceuticals of its tax base abroad is obviously deeply disturbing and could trigger a further exodus by other blue-chip companies (Business, 16 April). Shire, one of Britain's biggest pharmaceutical groups, will keep its headquarters in the UK, but its holding company will be incorporated in Jersey and will pay reduced tax on global earnings in Ireland, where the headline rate of corporation tax is only 12.5 per cent; the UK rate is 28 per cent.
The increasingly uncompetitive corporate tax system is spoiling the UK's attractiveness as a place to do business. For example, Ebay moved its tax base from the UK to Luxembourg, and Google has set up its European headquarters operations in Dublin. Other internationally mobile firms will undoubtedly follow Shire.
The move is a warning shot across the bows, and Scotland, at present bound by a UK tax system that will serve only to drag the nation down, requires the freedom to control fully its tax system and ensure we not only retain global headquarters here, but attract new ones to our nation.
Taking the fun out of relativity science
Sir: In your obituary of John Wheeler (16 April), you asked where would science be without "black holes", a name he coined and a concept identified with him. I'd answer that, without black holes, relativistic physics could be set on a sound basis.
Of Einstein's two major contributions, the special theory means that nothing can travel faster than light, and the general theory means nothing can get into a black hole. The latter is because the extreme distortion of space time at the event horizon of an imagined black hole forces an object to take infinite time to reach it, as seen by a distant observer. Wheeler and the mainstream physics community might have concluded that black holes cannot form, as Einstein half-proved on a cold star model. So relativity science would have been consistent but a bit less exciting.
Speculations about a black hole's interior, or two connected by a "wormhole" constituting parallel universes, or a gigantic cosmic energy source from merging black holes would all be ruled out of court. Yes, science would lose some colour but also shed the mystical speculation that has deviated from Einstein's realist heritage.
Dr Max Wallis
The truth about Asperger's
Sir: In your article "Three first-time writers on shortlist for Orange Prize" (16 April) you describe the narrator of Mark Haddon's book as 'suffering from' Asperger's syndrome.
This is not the first time I have read articles in your paper referring to people who "suffer from" Asperger's. The syndrome is a complex, lifelong neurological disorder which comprises a triad of impairments, social and emotional difficulties, language and communication difficulties and lack of imagination. It is not a disease.
People "have" Asperger's syndrome, they do not "suffer from" it. Those with Asperger's and autism often find it very difficult to make sense of the world around them and can be subject to ridicule and bullying.
More and more people are now being diagnosed with autism or Asperger's and it behoves us all to try to understand this disorder. Positive articles about them can surely help to do this. This will not happen while Asperger's syndrome continues to be described as something from which a person "suffers".
Pensioners paying to reward the rich
Sir: My wife and I are both retired but under 65 ("Labour MPs' rebellion against abolition of 10p tax rate grows", 17 April). While working, we managed to fund pensions now paying about £8,000 a year each, and also have some savings so we don't need to rely on the State for support.
With the scrapping of the 10 per cent tax band our tax has increased by £227 each, so the Chancellor will be collecting a further £454 from our household this year.
Our neighbours, who are in work and earning £30,000, are enjoying a benefit of £213 each, owing to the reduction in the basic tax rate from 22 per cent to 20 per cent, making their household £426 better off this year.
I suspect I know where the Chancellor found the money to fund this.
Sir: It is wrong for the Government to increase taxes on the lowest-paid, while those on far higher salaries benefit from the cut in the basic rate.
This is a Robin Hood policy in reverse, robbing the poor to reward the rich. There is a moral obligation on Government to protect families already struggling to make ends meet, not to make life harder for them. It is time for the Chancellor and Prime Minister to look again at this decision.
Church Action on Poverty, Manchester
School fed thirst of child to read
Sir: I must take issue with Masha Bell (letters, 17 April) when she states that "English literary progress depends very heavily on being read to at a very young age and being listened to for many hours while learning to read".
My grandson is the product of two deaf parents yet by 11 had read The Lord of the Rings and had started on the Philip Pullman series. Now 13, he is an enthusiastic reader, way above his age, and he writes fluently and vividly.
His only help in reading came from his ordinary primary school because his parents, alas, were unable to help him.
Last year, after strong protests, Lancashire County Council closed the library at nearby Caton to cut expenses. This service and the bank (open only two days a week) are gone. Children certainly used the Caton library, helped by enthusiastic staff with reading projects. A useful amenity destroyed at one fell swoop.
Parents introduced children to the library habit and it stayed with them for life. When there was a library, of course.
All cook and bull
Sir: My wife and I went into a pub in a London suburb to see if we could get coffee. We were told they didn't do coffees because they didn't have a chef. Isn't that taking the division of labour too far?
Sir: So Mark Le Fanu thinks (letters, 17 April) that "J K Rowling is to be commended for taking a stand against a derivative book which appears to have been built entirely on her creativity". If she wins, critics, academic or otherwise, who build careers on other people's creativity could find themselves with serious legal problems. Those lucky people who rely on harvesting the creativity of safely-out-of-copyright people such as Shakespeare are fine, but those useful citizens who want to write guides to Tolkien or Pratchett or Battlestar Galactica had better watch out.
Professor Edward James
Science Fiction Foundation, London N17
Long way from No10
Sir: I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, but Tam Dalyell's claim in his obituary of Dr J Dickson Mabon (14 April) that he had "a realistic chance" of leading the Labour Party is ridiculous. I have never before heard his name mentioned as a contender. Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, even Denis Healey might have led the party, but never Dickson Mabon. He reached the dizzy heights of under-secretary at the Scottish Office and later became deputy in the Department of Energy, hardly springboards for the leadership.
Sir: I spent last weekend as a visitor to Brighton and had an evening on the pier. I ate fish and chips and gorged on the tacky attractions. I saw people from around the world giggling in this wonderfully English playground. We were all chidren together. The following evening, I overheard a conversation in the gents of a pub in Worthing between two of England's finest shaven-headed born-and-breds, "I know what you mean, mate. It's them effing Poles. If it carries on like this, I'm going to Spain". I despair.
That's the spirit
Sir: In your leading article on the Spiritualist Union Congress (18 April), you appear to have mixed the term "medium" (contacting the dead) with "clairvoyant" (predicting the future). The two do have one thing in common: both are nonsense.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Swallows are early
Sir: I've been recording my earliest dates for swallows and cuckoos for 37 years (letters, 17 April), and my earliest cuckoo is 12 April, although I regularly have to wait until much later in the month. As for swallows, I recorded my first 20-plus on 2 April this year and have seen them in good numbers. My earliest is 18 March, in 2001.
Brighton, East Sussex
Welfare cuts so large, even IDS is worried at the 'sheer scale' of them
Nicky Morgan branded a hypocrite after backing Irish gay marriage referendum having voted against it in England and Wales
Labour drops its opposition to Tory EU referendum plans
Harman Singh gets a big surprise as he is thanked for cradling an injured 6-year-old's head with his turban
Nicola Sturgeon vows to block Tories on austerity and repeal of Human Rights Act
Putin signs new law to ban 'undesirable' organisations from Russia
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