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Quick, quick, slow: How high-speed travel is fast becoming one luxury we can no longer afford

FIRST there was a rocket-shaped plane which flew passengers at twice the speed of sound, but is now going nowhere in a hangar in East Lothian.

• Concorde arrives in Edinburgh in October 2003 on its last flight to Scotland before being mothballed. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Then there was the train that reached a record 162mph between Glasgow and London more than 30 years ago before being shunted into another museum. Now a futuristic high-speed ferry which whisked passengers between Scotland and Northern Ireland at nearly 50mph is also to be scrapped.

Concorde, the Advanced Passenger Train and the HSS ferry all epitomised the cutting-edge technology of their day, realising our need for speed when fuel was cheap.

But with Stena Line poised to axe its Stranraer-Belfast flagship, along with evidence that motorists are also cutting their speed on roads, it appears we cannot afford to go fast any more.

While speed was once king as transport design surged forward, the recession, soaring oil prices and challenging climate-change targets have jammed on the brakes like never before.

The immediate future looks slower, more serene, certainly greener - and according to environmental campaigners, that isn't a bad thing.

The grounding of Concorde seven years ago halved passenger air speeds, cross-Border trains are unlikely to match past records for decades, and the message to ferry travellers appears to be - there'll be plenty more time to enjoy the view.

Other ferries are already slowing down too. Norfolkline's Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry takes some two hours longer than the original gas-guzzling vessels operated by its predecessor Superfast.

NorthLink is also considering extending crossing times between Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland to save fuel.

Cargo ships are stepping off the gas because of the recession and increasing concern about climate change, with some vessels now "super-slow steaming" at just 14mph to save fuel.

Shipping line Maersk said cutting speeds by 20 per cent produced double the fuel saving. Spokesman Bo Cerup-Simonsen said: "Slow steaming is here to stay. Its introduction has been the most important factor in reducing our carbon dioxide emissions in recent years, and we have not yet realised the full potential."

Road speeds are down as well as pump prices for fuel surge. The Department for Transport reported just last month that fewer than half of motorists exceeded 30mph limits last year compared with two-thirds only a decade ago.

However, environmental campaigners said transport had to rein in excessive fuel consumption - at the price of speed - like the rest of the economy.

WWF Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon, p said: "When you are trying to push air or water out of the way, high speed always comes at a high energy cost. From Concorde to the Stranraer ferry, we are realising that wasting all that fuel just isn't worth it.

"In a low-carbon world a focus on a good-quality journey is more important than pure speed."

Concorde

CONCORDE was the super-fast plane destined to revolutionise flight, ushering in a new era of air travel so quick that the setting sun appeared to be rising as passengers flew west and clocks showed them arriving before they had left. The curvature of the earth was visible from Concorde's 60,000ft – 11 miles high – cruising altitude.

Conceived amid the fervour of the 1960s "white heat" of technology, the Anglo-French project was ultimately a failure.

It was to become a vastly expensive undertaking that went way over budget, and despite dozens of orders, only 20 aircraft were built – six prototypes and 14 bought by British Airways and Air France. To make matters worse, manufacturers Airbus were forced to effectively give away their supersonic babies to the two airlines, such was the industry's 1970s rush to buy larger but slower aircraft instead, including the new Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Boeing in the United States started developing a supersonic passenger plane at the same time as Airbus, but it was abandoned because of cost.

A Concorde-style Tupolev Tu-144 was also devised by the Russians but never entered passenger service. Part of Concorde's problem was it could accommodate just 100 passengers – just one quarter of other long-haul aircraft and fewer even than the far smaller planes since used by the likes of budget airlines easyJet and Ryanair.

This exclusivity was beloved by celebrities following Concorde's passenger debut in 1976. Later Victoria Beckham flew to New York on Concorde three times for fittings for her wedding dress in 1999. Designer Sir Terence Conran was reduced to tears while reminiscing about the aircraft on a recent documentary.

However, the astronomical running costs of flying at 1,350mph included fuel consumption of nearly 26,000 litres an hour, and half the take-off weight of the aircraft was its kerosene fuel.

The Air France Concorde crash near Paris in 2000, which killed all 109 people on board and four on the ground, was the beginning of the end. Both the French airline and BA grounded their fleets three years later because of the cost of keeping them flying.

Scotland won its bid for one of the iconic planes, which was transported north in a fiendishly-complicated operation by land, river and sea to the Museum of Flight in East Lothian.

Fans can now but wonder what might have been by taking tours of G-BOAA in its hangar at the East Fortune airfield. However, experts do not expect a successor any time soon. Peter Morris, chief economist of aviation consultants Ascend Worldwide, said plane-makers were still opting for economy rather than speed. He said: "The industry wants lower costs per seat rather than faster seats. It went for the less risky thing."

HSS ferries

STENA Line was almost breathless with enthusiasm with its HSS ferries before their introduction 14 years ago on the busiest Irish Sea crossing.

The jet-engined giant catamarans are capable of 46mph (40 knots) and cut nearly one third from journey times on the Stranraer-Belfast route.

With space for 1,500 passengers, they were the world's largest high-speed ferries, but also burn three times as much fuel as Stena's other vessels.

A Stena spokesman said in 1994: "It is virtually impossible to describe the sheer scale and speed of this ferry. It is like nothing that has gone before."

However, spiralling fuel costs have been their downfall, with the frequency of HSS sailings being halved last year and the ferry will be withdrawn from the Stranraer route next year.

Route director Paul Grant said: "The HSS was introduced when oil was cheap – $25 a barrel – but it's now three times as much.

"The vessel is fantastic and we have looked at every possible alternative fuel, but there is a problem justifying the fuel cost and higher fares we would need to charge. Passengers are not prepared to pay for the extra speed."

High-speed trains

The Advanced Passenger Train (APT) has yet to relinquish its crown after taking the west coast main line speed record by reaching 162mph near Lockerbie 31 years ago.

The tilting train operated between Glasgow and London in the 1980s at 140mph, cutting journey time to less than four hours, another feat which has still to be matched today.

However, it suffered a series of technical faults, including frozen brakes. Some passengers also claimed nausea because the carriages did not appear to the eye to be taking bends.

The trains were scrapped in 1987 because the project was deemed too expensive, but the technology was perfected in Europe and tilting trains have been introduced in several countries.

One of these, the Pendolino, which was introduced by Virgin Trains on the west coast main line in 2002, should also be linking Glasgow and London at 140mph. However, it is limited to 125mph because a promised new high-tech signalling system was never introduced.

On the east coast, Edinburgh-London electric trains, built by British Rail nearly 20 years ago to run at 140mph, are similarly restricted to 125mph. The UK coalition government has said it remains committed to Labour's plans for a high-speed rail network, but Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has warned that despite the scheme being "at the very heart of our transport policy", it will take more than 30 years to complete.

In the meantime, Virgin remains cautious about the future of speed.

Spokesman Allan McLean said: "We believe it is possible for Virgin Pendolino trains to operate at 135mph on suitable sections of the west coast main line.

"What counts isn't the maximum speed achieved, but the actual time taken for the journey, the frequency of the service and the price of the ticket.

"Higher speed can deliver more attractive journey times and can allow operators to get more mileage out of trains.

"But speed should not be an end in itself. Speed should only be a means of delivering what the customer wants in the way of journey time, frequency and value for money."

Cars

WHETHER or not they are actively embracing government encouragement for "eco-driving", motorists are certainly cutting their speeds and travelling less.

Government figures show speeds are coming down across Britain, while the latest available statistics have revealed traffic on Scotland's roads dipped slightly in 2008, by 0.4 per cent, following a steady rise since the fuel protests ten years ago.

Indeed, the Environmental Transport Association has said that its research shows nearly half of Scots are prepared to drive slower to save money on fuel.

Spokesman Yannick Read said: "It might seem like a contradiction to some motorists, but slower speeds can make driving less stressful and more rewarding. Lower speeds are unlikely to add significantly to your journey times, but will allow you more time to react, leaving you more relaxed, and a better driver into the bargain.

"There are benefits in reducing speed, whatever the type of driving. It can cost up to 25 per cent more in fuel to drive at 70mph compared with 50mph on the motorway, and at an average speed of around 55mph your car's engine is at its most efficient in terms of carbon emissions too.

"When driving in town, harsh acceleration and braking can use up to 30 per cent more fuel and can cause increased wear and tear on the vehicle."

 
 
 

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