June 22, 2004


Public transport is disgusting. Itís also inefficient:

Encouraging travellers to switch from cars and airlines to inter-city trains brings no benefits for the environment, new research has concluded.

Challenging assumptions about railways' green superiority, the study finds that the weight and fuel requirements of trains have increased to the point where rail could become the least energy-efficient form of transport.

The UK Daily Telegraph editorialises: "Save the planet. Jump into your car." To that end, Toyota is supplying me with a freaky petrol/electric hybrid Prius for a couple of days. Due to religious reasons (Iím an orthodox fossil fuelite) Iíve never before driven such a thing. I hope Pope Mario never finds out. Review next week.

UPDATE. I should point out that PR for National Tree Day, which Toyota supports, contacted me to organise this test. Kudos to them for blog-awareness.

Posted by Tim Blair at June 22, 2004 05:22 AM

No doubt you know a whole lot more about cars than me, so I really don't need to point this out...

But gas/electric hybrids run on good old-fashioned gasoline, and actually CAPTURE (SOME) OF THE ENERGY LOST when you are forced to hit the brakes and slow down (because some hippy in a Yugo is driving too slow in front of you), so you have more energy to SPEED UP AGAIN afterwards.

What's not to like? Well, you tell us. I've never driven one, either...

Posted by: Ash at June 22, 2004 at 05:35 AM

I ust to take the bus and Metro to get to work (I live in DC). The trip took 45 minutes to an hour and cost about $4. I didn't mind that much, as driving would take longer and cost more. Plus, I could read. Driving, however, would have been more consistent - numerous times I had to wait upwards of two hours to catch a bus on the way home.

Posted by: Zach at June 22, 2004 at 05:36 AM

I used to commute to work by train in Chicago, with an occasional foray into The Loop by car. The ability to sleep, read, relax, etc, on the train was worth the effort. Add in downtown parking costs and personal aggravation, and the train was cost effective for me -- I can't document the environmental benefits, the trains were diesel powered, and always full of people. But I loved them, even when it was standing room only.

As for the hybrid car....a friend of mine rented a hybrid for a weekend drive to Seattle, which includes crossing the Cascade mountain range. She and her husband are experienced off road drivers, and are used to rigs with "lotsa go". She found the hybrid to be a good ride, and really liked the regenerative braking system (then again, she's a technogeek like me, so take that with a grain of salt).

So I am looking forward to your review, Tim, and see how hybrids stack up.

Posted by: The Real JeffS at June 22, 2004 at 06:14 AM

We have one of the new Priuses (Prii?) and as a city car it is nearly ideal. The logic of a car that works like a golf cart during the considerable amount of time that you inch along, and only becomes a real car when it needs to, makes perfect sense in Chicago.

Actually, the only complaint I have about it is that the user interface for the onboard navigation system was clearly designed by the trial lawyers association. You MUST click "I agree" to a bunch of legal crap about not taking your eyes off the road every time you start the car before it even shows you a map. (Can't tell you how many kids I've run over while reading that boilerplate.) You CANNOT enter a destination while driving-- only when the car is stopped, because you might get distracted if you were allowed to USE the system while driving. The idea that I, as a responsible adult, might be capable of judging whether or not to use it, or even that I might have a passenger capable of operating the system is not recognized. (Well, how could it know if I have a passenger or not? Here's the thing-- if my wife's briefcase full of legal papers sits in the seat, the nanny car beeps parentally at her to tell her to buckle her "passenger" in. So it can sense a passenger when it suits the nanny car, but not when it might actually suit me.)

In short, I love the hybrid part, but if I could do without the onboard nav system and a lot of those fussily overthought, legal-ass-covering features, I'd get that couple of thousand dollars back.

Posted by: Mike G at June 22, 2004 at 07:53 AM

Tim, it was my understanding that the updated Acura NSX included some hybrid concepts. Well, at least until Honda decided that the NSX was too interesting a car for the current Acura product line and dropped the update altogether.

Think of hybrid technology as a tech-nerd way to get more power from fewer inputs. At this point these advances are being financed by hippies and municipalities, who would otherwise spend the cost premium on hacky sacks and radar guns, respectively. Sounds win-win to me.

Posted by: Matt in Denver at June 22, 2004 at 08:28 AM

...Toyota is supplying me with a freaky petrol/electric hybrid Prius for a couple of days...


See you Saturday arvo, at the workshop. We'll drop a 350 Chev in it and trailer it over to Eastern Creek for a few runs.

Posted by: Byron_the_Aussie at June 22, 2004 at 08:51 AM

The researchers were obviously playing with themselves
"They calculate that expresses between London and Edinburgh consume slightly more fuel per seat (the equivalent of 11.5 litres) than a modern diesel-powered car making the same journey.

The car's superiority rises dramatically when compared with trains travelling at up to 215mph.

215mph is about 345kph - I'd like to see someone drive in a diesel powered car from London to Edinburgh averaging 345kph!

Which diesel cars in the UK are capable for 345kph?

So researchers have found that a vehicle travelling really fast uses more fuel than a vehicle traveling slowly.

And, as the greenie pointed out, there's no comparison between intercity expresses and urban commuter trains.

Posted by: peggy sue at June 22, 2004 at 09:58 AM

A more accurate headline would be "Ban inter-city trains". I've only taken one inter-city train in the past couple of years (from Auckland to National Park train station), but I take the train every day I go to work.

As well as only comparing the modes of transport for inter-city travel, the article, as far as I can tell, only looks at the energy efficiency of the mode of transport, and doesn't look at the efficiency of the energy generation (I assume a large-scale electricity generator is more efficient at generating energy than an internal combustion engine).

In addition, Australia is oil-importing (with some major oil exporters being from countries with less-than-democratic regimes), whereas we have enough coal to last about 400 years (not terribly relevant for Britain, but relevant for us).

Posted by: Andjam at June 22, 2004 at 11:09 AM

There was a talk show host out of New York some years ago named Jay Diamond (not sure if he's still there), who had an amusing tirade one evening. He made the point that if you took any service, and then placed the word "public" in front of it, one's opinion of it would immediately drop several rungs on the ladder. Education -- "public" education. Transportation -- "public" transportation. "Bathrooms -- "public" bathrooms.

He noted that the only example of this which did not hold true was for libraries. He reasoned that (in his words) "the animals and savages" who ruined all other public services would not go near the libraries, as they had no need of books, "except to possibly throw at each other."

Posted by: Jerry at June 22, 2004 at 12:06 PM

I can't see that cars in Manhattan would be much better than the subways. Space is at a premium there -- no real good places to park. So your choices are: bus, taxi, train/subway. And there it depends how much time and money you've got to waste.

Oh, inter-city. Never mind. Though I have enjoyed my ability to go from downtown NYC to downtown Boston or DC via train. I don't care about the time or expense, but it's much more comfortable traveling and much more convenient, especially if you don't own a car. Airports tend not to be centrally located, and what with the time it takes to get a car or taxi, get to LGA or JFK, then fly to Dulles, then get into DC... you might as well be taking Amtrak.

Posted by: meep at June 22, 2004 at 12:54 PM

The study makes no attempt to determine what is most convenient and/or least costly in your particular circumstance. It is looking purely at fuel efficiency.

Obviously communter trains/subways in congested, expensive big cities are often more convenient and cost effective. And, this is really aimed at proposals for expensive, long-distance rail projects.

I don't think that anyone would dispute the value of subways and commuter rail in big cities.

Posted by: peter at June 23, 2004 at 12:44 AM

If you read the study carefully they are comparing a diesel car carrying 4 passengers with a train chock full.

Now consider the average load factor of a car going between two cities and the average load factor of a train.


Posted by: Ben Keen at June 23, 2004 at 09:21 AM