London should clean up its air pollution – but it must ensure the right people pay

Rush hour in London. Image: Getty.

As London prepares to launch its ultra low emission zone (Ulez) on Monday, the latest reports are that nitrogen dioxide levels in the city are falling – but that 2 million people in London are still living with illegal levels of air pollution.

Ever since a few industrialists worked out how to make money from burning things, air pollution has always mapped on to power (or lack of it). Miners suffer from black lung. Mill workers suffer from brown lung. Factory workers develop lung cancer, construction workers develop asbestosis, children in London die from asthma. Air pollution in London is now so bad it is halting lung development in infants and killing others. Barely a single Londoner believes their air quality does not need improving.

And yet aspects of the mayor’s Ulez are proving hugely controversial, particularly with people who rely on a vehicle for a living. Accompanying the new low emission zone is the expansion of the existing congestion charge to include private hire drivers. These drivers are objecting, not to the emissions zone itself, but to the fact that they – rather than companies like Uber – are shouldering the burden of the charges.

The United Private Hire Drivers are a branch of the IWGB union, which New Economics Foundation (NEF) organisers like me have worked closely with in trying to tackle precarious work. They say the new charges will amount to a 25 per cent cut in incomes for some of their members. While private hire drivers – 94 per cent of whom are BAME – will pay the extra charge, majority-white black cab drivers are exempt. Because of this, United Private Hire Drivers is taking legal action against the mayor on the grounds of discrimination.

It is hard to avoid the irony that while black communities in London are disproportionately exposed to the effects of dirty air, it is BAME workers that are expected to pay for its cleanup. London’s air pollution problem desperately needs fixing, but Ulez will hit the wrong people the hardest. It is a perfect example of what happens when environmental policy is imposed from above, without actively listening those who are the most impacted. The gilets jaunes movement in France has become a demonstration of the opposition that can form when people view environmental policy as unfair.

And this problem is not specific to London. Fifty miles down the road, Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council are making the same mistakes.


I’ve been working with Basingstoke Clean Air Campaign, a group of people living and working in one of the worst offending towns for air pollution in the country. The last rapid expansion of Basingstoke led to a hastily thrown up concrete jungle designed entirely around the car, resulting in dizzying numbers of roundabouts, a ring road, and lots of pollution. And now 15,300 new homes are planned to be built there by 2029, with little planning for anti-pollution measures. In fact, soon after being named in the Client Earth High Court Judgement as an authority required to reduce air pollution, it decided to stop recycling some plastics in favour of burning them.

After months of campaigning from the Clean Air Campaign, the council announced some lacklustre plans, including giving residents thousands of plastic bumper stickers for cars, to spread the important message – presumably to cars already idling in traffic – that cars cause air pollution.

Residents were predictably unimpressed, and 70 of them came to a public meeting organised by the campaign group and NEF. In a testament to resident involvement, they talked in detail about how public transport and cycle routes could be improved, how energy efficient homes could be built, and how people could be supported to work, commute and consume less. They ended by each writing to the councillor in charge of environment to meet with them – and a month later, not one of them has heard back.

Without local authorities seriously listening to the people who are most affected by environmental problems, they risk either playing down the scale of the problem, developing policy that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged, or both.

Becki Winson is an organiser with the New Economics Foundation.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.