Sunday, 6 May 2012

Will the Night Mail Return?

Back when I was a nipper, British Rail used to run a fair few trains during the wee hours of the night.  The night mails and the newspaper trains.  Back in the days of yore some of these had passenger accommodation tacked on so that you could, if you wished, get an inter-city service well after the pubs had shut (not that that was a major factor for a nipper, especially as I'm tea-total).

These train services have long since disappeared.  The newspaper trains were the first to go as production of newspapers was decentralised and so large volumes of paper didn't need to be shifted from London to the provinces.  The mail trains became dedicated services with no passenger stock added, and then the mail trains themselves passed into history, replaced by yet more lorries trundling along the motorways and trunk roads of Britain.  We've still got a rump of the old sleeper services, which I used a couple of years ago to get up to Scotland for a holiday with my girlfriend, but they're more the exception than the rule now, and may soon be no more when ScotRail's franchise is renewed in 2014.

So you're probably asking now why Jim'll is wittering on about the overnight trains of yesteryear?  Well, bear with me!

I've been considering transport energy use (for which there's another one of my long, dull, full-of-numbers blog posts brewing!) and I've just been watching Robert Llewelyn's Fully Charged episode on the National Grid control centre.  With oil prices constantly on the rise, looking at alternative transport options such as electric vehicles is a sensible thing to be doing now.

During Robert's show, the National Grid control chap said that power generation would be more efficient if the overnight "bath tub" lull in electricity demand could be "filled up".  In other words it would be more efficient to generate a bit less energy during the day, if we could use more at night to offset the daytime reduction.  In the Fully Charged show they were talking about the charging of electric vehicles over night, which the National Grid controller said might eventually consume about a gigawatt overnight, which would help fill the bath tub up slightly, but when the national peak energy use is between 40-60GW, there's quite a bit more capacity to use up.

So we obviously need to think of more things that could be run overnight using the cheaper off peak electricity.  There's plenty of options of course - dish washers, washing machines, etc in the home, lots of industrial processes could be run 24/7, and we could use cheap overnight power for hydrogen cracking or even synthesising liquid hydro-carbon fuels from air and water.

Now what about those overnight trains?  A single electric express train uses several megawatts to get up to speed and there are plans afoot to get more the UK rail network electrified (for example Loughborough's MP recently debated the electrification of the Midland Mainline in Parliament).  The rail network is also increasingly popular and thus increasingly over crowded.  Even during the day and weekend intercity services are often standing room only - its not just the peak hours services. There are more expensive infrastructure projects intended to help with that by laying extra tracks or building new lines - High Speed 2 being an example - but we need to make better use of the infrastructure we've already got as well.

So what if we tried to move some people around the country using cheap overnight power using electric rail traction?  If the tickets prices were suitably attractive there's probably quite a few people who would want to take advantage of such trains.  The current sleeper services definitely aren't cheap (though often cheaper than the train plus a hotel at the far end, plus quite convenient), but there's always folk on the bargain basement cross country road coaches, so there's probably a market there.  The ticket prices would need to cover the electricity costs (which are cheaper overnight remember), the staff to run the service and the service's share of track and station maintenance costs.  The Train Operating Companies can already sell some tickets on less popular services at knock down prices, so we might well be looking at similar prices for a "Witching Hour" overnight ticket.

If we want a modal shift in transportation in a world where oil is getting increasingly expensive maybe the rail companies should get together with the National Grid and see if there's a way they can help move people around more efficiently.  Efficient use of rail infrastructure coupled with efficient use of power generation and distribution infrastructure seems to be a good idea to me, especially if it means being able to get back from a gig in London in the wee hours!