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British architect Lord Norman Foster has just posited plans for a huge new airport and transport development on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary. The development, to be named the Thames Hub, will include the aforementioned airport, high-speed and standard-speed rail links to London, the Channel Tunnel and the North, a container port, an industrial zone and a new Thames flood barrier and tidal energy generator.
Foster (who, among other commissions, worked on Hong Kong's decade-old airport, which is also built on an artificial island), chided Britain for having lost its taste for ambitious projects:
"We need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears, " said Foster on Wednesday, "if we are to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond."The plan has won a number of high-profile backers: industrial designer Sir James Dyson, of vacuum-cleaner fame, has backed it, and Boris Johnson (who proposed an island airport in the Thames to replace Heathrow) is in favour. However, not everyone is convinced; there are concerns that the Isle of Grain, which is to be subsumed beneath the artificial island, is both a fragile bird habitat (which would be annihilated by the airport), and a huge natural gas depot (which would pose a hazard), with additional threats posed by a sunken US warship, laden with high explosives. Also, while plans for a new airport are partly motivated by London's airports being close to capacity, some are saying that this can be better mitigated by replacing short-haul flights with high-speed rail; if there aren't all those flights departing from Heathrow for Manchester or Amsterdam, there'll be plenty of capacity for places like New York and Hong Kong. (Of course, high-speed rail suffers from all the Anglo-Saxon aversion to big projects even more than an airport would, given that one would have to placate or defeat the NIMBYs at every step of the way.)
A few London transport map links: here there is a detailed, zoomable map of the London Underground and surface railways, showing the locations of stations (both operational and closed) and tracks.
Meanwhile, the Green Party's candidate for Mayor of London has an interactive map showing how far London's bicycle hire system would reach if it were the size of Paris's; which is to say, quite a bit further, particularly to the north and south. Perhaps it'd even be possible to live near a Boris Bike station without being made of money.
Here come flying cars; only a decade or so late:
The two-seater Transition can use its front-wheel drive on roads at ordinary highway speeds, with wings folded, at a respectable 30 miles per gallon. Once it has arrived at a suitable take-off spot - an airport, or adequately sized piece of flat private land - it can fold down the wings, engage its rear-facing propellor, and take off. The folding wings are electrically powered.Robot housemaids and three-course meals in pill form are still nowhere to be seen.
In other news, airships could soon be used for transporting freight, being faster than oceanic ships and cheaper than powered aircraft. While they're only talking about freight so far, I imagine that if you outfitted them with comfortable cabins, observation decks and satellite internet access, they'd be good for recreational travel as well.
A week ago, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull started erupting, spewing a vast cloud of glassy ash into the stratosphere, and imposing a total no-fly zone on most of Europe. Now, flights are beginning to reopen (though by no means across the board; the flight your humble correspondent was scheduled to be on this afternoon, from Gothenburg to Heathrow, remains cancelled); scientists, however, say that the volcano is likely to keep erupting for some time, and some say that we can expect decades of increased volcanic activity in Iceland, meaning that there may be more flight disruptions to come.
This has had somewhat more of a personal impact on me than most things in this blog; on the day I was due to fly out to Copenhagen (for the Copenhagen Popfest), I woke to find that all flights were cancelled. After a few hours of incredulous reload-clicking, I booked expensive trains to Cologne (this was in the early hours of the disruption, before Eurostar was booked out for days to come); the following day, I caught a Eurostar to Brussels and a Thalys train to Cologne (there were no seats available on it; I spent the journey propped up in the dining car, somewhat closer to a hyperactive, tantrum-throwing toddler than I would have liked). I had been unable to book onward trains from London, but was advised to try the ticket office in Cologne; there, I was advised that the sleeper train was booked out, and that my best chance was to board it and bet on buying a ticket onboard. I did so, and somehow managed to end up in Copenhagen the following morning.
Right now, I'm in Paris, staying at a friend's place before making the journey back to Blighty; I made the decision to not go to Gothenburg (even further from London, since competition from Ryanair killed the ferry to Newcastle; let's hope that it gets reinstated soon), and caught a ride with a friend to Brussels. (Note to self: next time you're likely to be in a car on the Autobahn, bring some CDs of Kraftwerk and Neu! to put on.)
(It's somewhat ironic that a year ago, I holidayed in Iceland, and now, Iceland disrupted my holiday.)
For those stuck on the wrong side of the English Channel, there are ways across; it's true that the Eurostar's booked solid for days (and expensive to boot), as are coach services and the Calais ferry, but last time I checked, the Caen-Portsmouth ferry still had seats available.
Let's hope that this leads to some more redundancy in modes of transport in Europe; the continent has sacrificed a lot of (slower) modes of surface transport for the speed of air travel. (The lost ferry routes are one casualty; meanwhile, Britain has run its railways down, accepting the free-market wisdom that it makes more sense to fly from, say, London to Edinburgh than to spend four and a half hours on a train), which has left its transport systems dependent on one modality and, as we have seen, fragile. The results can be seen in the desperate queues of people at railway stations and the escalating credit-card bills of those involuntarily extending their hotel stays.
Finally, here is a Christopher Hitchens piece on the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and Iceland in general.
Blog discovery of the day: The Infrastructurist, which focuses on issues such as transport and urban planning, from a largely, though not entirely, US-centric point of view, and has some interesting stories. Such as a LA Times piece on the Dubai model of urbanism, an Economist piece on the Obama administration's US$500bn transport bill (which includes 50 billion for high-speed rail), a Google Maps gallery of six intriguingly shaped communities, a piece on what to do when neo-Nazis decide to sponsor a US highway (the answer: rename it after a civil rights leader), and a gallery of grand railway stations in America, all now long-since demolished.
A British scientist has come up with a bold solution to the environmental consequences of aviation: nuclear-powered airliners. Not only will they be able to fly around the world without a break, emitting no carbon whatsoever, but they could also be made safe. The nuclear engines would be on the wings in armoured casings, and could be jettisoned on parachutes in the event of the plane falling (and, presumably, the pilot giving up any hope of saving it). Should the casings rupture, the worst that could happen would be radioactive contamination over a mere few square miles. (Of course, there is also that, should terrorists blow up, shoot down or hijack one of these airliners, they'd have a most serviceable dirty bomb, though surely somebody would have thought of an answer to that. After all, they wouldn't suggest such an idea otherwise, would they?)
Despite these reassurances, Professor Ian Poll concedes that it would take about 30 years to convince the public of the benefits of nuclear aviation.
London mayor Boris Johnson is the latest voice calling for a new airport to be built in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow:
The Mayor envisages building the airport on reclaimed sand banks two miles off Sheerness, Kent, in waters 10 to 13ft deep. It would have four runways and could be expanded to six, dwarfing the capacity of Heathrow's two fully operational runways. Planes would take off and land over the sea, solving the blight of noisy engines at Heathrow and allowing the airport to operate around the clock.
Throughout its 62-year life, London's main airport has been derided as a monument to Britain's make-do-and-mend approach to planning. Its origin was inauspicious – it opened in 1946 from an army surplus tent and had to wait until 1955 for its first permanent building. The site was only chosen as an airfield in 1943 because it was a good spot from which to scramble fighter planes to protect the capital during the war. Since then, it has grown piecemeal while the capital has sprawled around it. The east-west runways ensure that the largest built-up area possible is affected by noise pollution.The new airport would cost about £40bn to build (including the costs of running high-speed rail lines and road tunnels to it), though the default alternative mooted, expanding Heathrow, would cost £13bn and come up against noise complaints.
How much one needs to expand airport capacity, of course, is another question; there is increasing demand for flights (or has been before the recession), though that's inflated by Britain's lack of high-speed rail links, meaning that Britons, by default, fly over any distance greater than London to Birmingham. This is because flying is both faster and cheaper than catching a train. (In contrast, very few people choose flying over the train when travelling between London and Paris or Brussels.) A solution to this could be to levy a tax on domestic flights within Britain, using the revenue to fast-track modern TGV-style high-speed rail links going north and west.
Having said that, London (a hub of global trade, business and tourism) does need an airport suitable for international travel, and Heathrow does have its problems. An airport on an artificial island seems more fit for purpose.
With the continuing rise in oil prices, some are saying that the age of cheap flights is over, as airlines raise their prices and/or collapse. Think about the implications of that for a moment: historic Eastern European town centres empty of drunken Britons, speculators unable to flog second homes on the Bulgarian Riviera to Ryanair junkies from Gillingham, people actually packing onto trains to go from, say, London to Manchester (and Britain's chronically underfunded railway infrastructure creaking under the weight of the extra patronage). As for bargain shopping in New York, forget it: if you want to see New York, your best bet may be to buy an Xbox 360 and Grand Theft Auto IV. Perhaps the end of the age of cheap travel will finally usher in the Stay-At-Home Century, when tomorrow's people will range as far from their homes as their mediæval peasant ancestors, instead communicating through broadband links.
Meanwhile, General Motors is shutting down four plants that make its Hummer SUV, which for a long time embodied the ugly side of the American Dream. This is after gasoline (that's petrol to the Europeans/Australians reading this) reached $4 a gallon (incidentally, breaking the mechanical pumps at some older gas stations, whose designers never envisioned a gallon of gasoline costing more than $3.99), and dealerships are having trouble moving the hulking behemoths. Perhaps soon we will hear an old joke about Eastern Bloc cars being repurposed?
And still in America, CNN is now running articles about whether the age of the railroads has returned. (Mostly in reference to Europe and Asia as the paragons of modernity.)
The BBC News Magazine has posted a very informative article on ways of legitimately gaming Britain's byzantine train fare system to get the best fare. Most of these ways involve finding the right combinations of tickets covering various parts of the journey which, when put together, are cheaper than a complete ticket would be:
These are not "fiddles" but perfectly legitimate savings, because it is the customer's right to ask for any combination of tickets. However, it is also the clerk's duty not to advertise them, should he or she know they exist.
The only rule connected with the use of such a combination (other than the fact the tickets must be valid, of course) is that the train must stop at the place where the tickets join, although you do not have to alight.A few examples:
You have to leave London for Newcastle on the 0800 train and the open return costs £224. The train calls at Peterborough - and savers to the north from Peterborough are available any train, any day. So book an open return to Peterborough (£68) then a saver from Peterborough to Newcastle (£76.90) - that's £144.90, saving £79.10. Just make sure the train on which you return calls at Peterborough (most do).And another one, exploiting the fact that return tickets to London from Wales can be cheaper than single tickets from Chester (near the Welsh border) to London:
So buy a saver return FROM London TO Shotton and throw away the outward half. You are then "returning", resuming your return journey at Chester. That is all legal. The saver return is £59.70, £29.30 less than the full single.The reasons for this labyrinth of anomalies is a legacy of John Major's privatisation of British Rail, which left the pricing of different journeys along the network in the hands of different companies, thus ensuring that the exact start and endpoints of individual tickets have an arcane, almost alchemical significance.
I wonder how hard it would be to create a search engine for automatically finding optimal combinations of tickets.
The Welsh city of Cardiff is experimenting with what could be the future of public transport. The ULTra system is somewhere between tranways and taxis, and consists of autonomous cars (large enough to carry several passengers and a bicycle) travelling on a dedicated track and taking their passengers to a destination of their choice. Meanwhile, Melbourne's airport rail link has been scrapped, because a study revealed insufficient patronage to justify the expense.
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