The transport decarbonisation plan: by rail but not only

By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
26/09/2021 –
(Version en français)
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The railways will never make a modal shift on their own, simply by virtue of their existence. Other assets are needed, which are the responsibility of the state.

Patrick works 37km from his home, and his office is not really in the city but slightly on the outskirts, in an area dedicated to service activities. Patrick lives 7km from railway station. However, he has to take Lucie and Arthur to primary school every morning, which is 3km away. Patrick should therefore, if we follow the main principles of decarbonisation, be doing :

  • a first bus to accompany his young children to school;
  • a second bus (20 minute wait) to go from the school to the station;
  • a train;
  • a last bus to take him from the station in the city centre to the outskirts, 400m from his office.

Is such a journey every morning by public transport, which would take hours, decently bearable? Of course, you will tell me that Patrick can delegate the task of school to his partner or wife. Bad luck, she is a night nurse and sleeps in several mornings a week. You might say that the couple should have just moved closer to the city – or even lived in the city – to have closer living quarters. Unfortunately, the nurse’s hospital is the opposite of Patrick’s workplace. Finally, it can be said that Patrick can use his bike to avoid the bus schedule. Oh, and the children? Cycling at 7am in the morning in the winter rain? Patrick has finally, like his partner, opted for the car, despite the traffic jams and the bad consequences for the planet.

Office Park away from cities encourage car use

This is an example of dozens millions of Europeans. It is clear that each citizen who chooses his or her lifestyle must assume the consequences, positive or negative. Living in a green environment means having a car, and that is exactly what millions of more or less rural non-urban people do. Working on the outskirts of a city or outside the city also means getting a car, or a motorbike if you don’t have children. How many large factories were once located far from the city centre?

The train has become a form of transport adapted to a limited public, except in very large cities such as Paris or London, surrounded by overcrowded and polluted areas, where the RER train is still dominant. Elsewhere, the train has not been able to keep up with people’s habits. This is why it has dropped to 10% market share. « In the past, my grandparents would take a full half-day to run two errands 10km from their house. Those days are over, who wants to live like that anymore?

The railways have deserted the quiet life of our grandparents. The fault lies in the past, when dozens of lines were closed in the 1950s and 1960s (remember the Beeching cuts in UK). Probably, but can we believe that with today’s subsidies, a railway company alone would be able to maintain a decent rail service on a network that was once twice as long? Just think of some local lines where there are 4 trains a day and speed restrictions of 60 or even 40 km/h as soon as you run on a ruined bridge. Who wants to be dependent on such a service just to save the planet?

Is the train really to blame?  History shows that it is not. The states of Europe, which had all nationalised their railways, have in fact allowed these companies to do so by providing them with a financial survival kit. These same States, regions and municipalities are also guilty of having made sure that people live as far away as possible from a station, « because trains are noisy and dirty » and, « trains are for others, not for people in suits ». This was a speech from yesterday, which we still hear today, although fortunately with some nuances…

The railway is present, but the houses are often far from the station. Switzerland (photo pasja1000 via pixabay)

However, we have been thinking for a long time about « giving the city back to its inhabitants ». The idea is to stop bringing cars into the city centre and let the small streets breathe. The solution: build jobs and offices on the outskirts, as well as hospitals, new university annexes and, finally, shops. In reality, it was not the inhabitants that were in mind, but the impossible expansion of universities, shops and hospitals in the city centre, in the middle of a constrained urban area. So everything moved to the outskirts, along the fast roads, and this is what led Patrick and his partner to opt for the car to reach their respective workplace and to have all these « facilities » at their disposal in a decent transport time. A bad example of this policy is the Belgian city of Mons. How many Mons are there in Europe? Hundreds…

What can we learn from all this? That if we want Patrick and his partner to opt less for the car, we should at least have built their home, their school and their workplace not far from a station, rather than opting for a disorganised land policy that « invigorates construction », which is the main source of CO2 emissions. That rather than putting all the burden of rail transport on a single company, it would be preferable to extend the offer to local companies with other financial means, like the secondary Swiss companies.

Beyond the railway perimeter, in order to let the city breathe, we must stop the idea of the city centre served by a single station. Is it ecological to cram so many people around such a small area? Living in the city is not a universal solution and does not apply to the whole population. Do all cities have to be like Sao Paulo or Calcutta?

It is time to remove from the studies those stupid OECD comparisons that say « everyone lives in the city ». This assertion includes the Third World, where millions of poor people cluster around monstrous cities like Lagos or Cairo. This is not the case in a large part of Europe, where small towns of between 10 and 30,000 inhabitants are much more livable, not to mention the many ‘airy’ communities of 5 to 10,000 inhabitants. A landscape that dominates from Manchester to Bologna. Everything obviously depends on the definition of « city ». The same OECD graph shows Europe with around 30 to 40% urban citizens. It will therefore be necessary to take into account the 60% of « Patrick » in the studies of modal transfer.

If there is to be a proper modal shift, as many living spaces as possible must be available within a reasonable radius of each village or neighbourhood. The task of the state is to formalise which areas are to be built on, for example close to a railway station, and which will never be. This raises the question of access to new housing and the renovation of existing buildings. It is an inclusive policy that will help the railway to become a reference transport. However, we are aware that we will never go to our evening tennis match or to the restaurant by train, or even by bus. Mobility is about multiple transports for multiple activities…

France and local lines (wikipedia)

By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
Suscribe my blog

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