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A journey by bus and train

A few years ago, I had a bit of a weird experience. 

It started in the deep midwinter pre-dawn. Trudging to the bus stop along a dark, bleak country lane. In the gleam of my torch, I could see that the landscape wore a cloak of crisp white hoar frost – frost that crunched satisfyingly under my highly polished boots. 

Standing at the bus stop, I was suddenly struck by a great feeling of déjà vu.  I was approaching my sixties, and yet I was instantly transported back about four decades.

Back then, I was a teenager, embarking on my career as a trainee technician apprentice for Post Office Telecommunications, now known simply as BT

The winter dawns when I started my commute to work were as cold and dark as this particular morning.  I used to make the ten-minute walk to the sleepy East Grinstead railway station, my breath smoking around me as I strode along.

The 291 London Country Bus would normally be sitting at the bus stop, pumping huge clouds of greasy grey diesel smoke into the pre-dawn air.  The bus was always numbingly cold.  I often thought it was warmer outside than in, but I would be wrapped up in my thick coat, wearing a hat, and woolen gloves that my Mother had knitted me.

Your Carriage awaits…

At around about 0630, the scheduled departure time, the driver would, if he felt so inclined, pull off rapidly, causing the tired suspension to creak and rattle loudly over the rutted and potholed rural roads. 

Lurching alarmingly through quiet country lanes, the bus would stop in hamlets and villages, picking up weary sleep-drugged passengers, reluctantly pacing like automatons into their working days.

The 291 Route – Still the same now as it was in 1975

Stopping in the village of Ashurst Wood, my friend Katrina would board the bus.  Wearing her ubiquitous duffle coat, she would wriggle her ampleness next to me on the seat, her figure disguised under the acres of blanket-like material. I would press against her, feeling her form against my arm, the tantalising press of her prominent bosom sending hormones scurrying around my brain like sex starved mice.

She would openly flirt with me, as the bus wheezed its asthmatic way up Wall Hill, and then we would grip the seat handles as the driver, whom I assumed to be having a psychotic episode, would plummet crazily down the steep hill towards the country town of Forest Row.

Next, we would pick up Darlene, the frizzy haired Aussie who brightened my mornings with her sunny disposition and shortly after, Stuart and Will.

Stuart and Will were as unalike as could be possible. Stuart was tall, and impossibly thin, with long, lank hair, and a quiet disposition.

Will was his alter ego – shorter, mop headed and rumbustious – he was the life and soul of any party. 

Pulling into Colemans Hatch we would pick up Gary, who was urbane, dapper and a total eccentric by the age of seventeen, who would converse loudly in a wonderful upper-class drawl.

It doesn’t look much on the map, but at 0630 on a dreary winter morning it lasts forever.

The bus would then wend its way through Hartfield, where we would collect Lisa and Penny, both of whom were taking a course in Nannying and Nursing at West Kent College.

Into Withyham, and on into Groombridge, for yet another snails crawl grind up Groombridge Hill, the driver disguising our position with the clever use of diesel exhaust smoke.

Langton Green next and then the slow crawl through the western outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.

By this time the bus was happily filled with a cacophony of voices, all competing for priority with the barely subdued roar of the ancient diesel rattling away at the back of the elderly dilapidated contraption.

As soon as the bus came to a stop at Tunbridge Wells Central, it would be an utter, mad, maniacal dash to cross the road, and get down the steps and onto the railway station platform in order to catch the 0840 train to Tonbridge.

Tunbridge Wells Central Railway Station

The train was always packed, and I don’t think I ever got a seat on it.  Back then, the entire carriage was full of commuters, the majority smoking and reading their newspapers in silence. 

This was a complete contrast to my recent journeys on the train, where the carriage was still full of commuters, but hardly a paper in sight. Everyone was either texting on their phones, listening to music players or tapping away on a lap top or iPad. And not a cigarette or e-cigarette in sight.

Once at Tonbridge, I would join the meandering human crocodile of students heading for the Brook Street Campus.

By that time, I would be on my 5th or 6th cigarette.  Players No 6, or Guards – or if I was feeling delicate, Consulate Menthol King Size. 

Players Number Six – or Shit Sticks as we used to call them

I can’t believe how much I used to smoke in those days.  I must have reduced my life expectancy by a huge amount.  I have been clean now for thirty odd years, and I’m probably saving not only my life, but about £4,650 per year!

And now, here I was, standing at a bus stop in the same weather, and at the same time of day. The point of origin is different, as is the destination. The bus is now a modern single decker, with a fuel-efficient engine, and is relatively quiet.  My fellow commuters look the same though, tired, cold, and longing for their warm beds, from which they were rudely prised by an insistent alarm clock scant minutes earlier.

It does appear, however, that across recent contemporary history, all bus drivers have been selected because of their underlying psychiatric tendencies.  It must be a recruitment requirement.  This driver was either colour blind, or had problems with authority, as we jumped at least two red traffic lights en-route to Reading Station.

Not a valid reason to stop if you drive a bus in Reading, Berkshire

This time, I was in no mad rush – I had left myself plenty of time to get to Central London.  The concourse of the station was already thronged with travellers, muffled up against the chill.

I attempted to issue my ticket at the self-ticketing machine, but to no avail.  I then realised that I was trying to obtain a South West Railways ticket from a First Great Western machine.  Oh, the joys of technology and rail franchising.

Having queued for a ticket, I made my way to platform 8, and awaited the arrival of the First Great Western 0758 “service” to Paddington.  

The train was bang on time, and I boarded, to find that my reserved seat already had a corpulent, sallow woman sitting in it.  As there were a number of other vacant seats, I dropped into the nearest available and re-read my presentation notes.

Ah yes…. My presentation. I had been wrestling with the finer points of my presentation, and had worked late into the previous night getting the order right, and fine tuning the PowerPoint slides.

“You are required to give a fifteen-minute presentation on what you perceive as being the biggest challenges faced by the faculty of Engineering and Mathematics in relation to delivering course content that combines high quality technical content whilst acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity and inclusion”

I was applying for the Senior Lecturer vacancy at one of the large London universities but my obviously simplistic interpretation on reading the advert, was that I would be passing on my extensive knowledge and understanding to students within my specialisation of Heavy Commercial Aircraft Operations and Performance – but it seems that I would also need to be much more…sensitive.

Sighing, I closed the lid on my lap top, and reviewed my fellow passengers. Most were hard at work on open lap tops, and a few were mumbling intensely into mobile phones. Only a very tiny minority were conducting leisure activities such as reading a book, or a newspaper.

STOP Working…. Look out of the window and enjoy the Journey

This would appear to be the modern work ethos. Travel to work whilst working. Then put in a ten or twelve hour day, and then work some more on the commute home. Fourteen hours a day, and get paid for eight.

I think my Father’s generation were the last to enjoy their commute; my dear old Dad became a very well-read man after commuting for two hours a day by train for sixteen years, and he would read just about anything from autobiographies to science fiction. I used to benefit from his addiction as he would frequently wander in to my room and toss a book to me, saying “Read that, I think you’ll like it”.

I always did like his recommendations…

As a young lad attending college, and travelling by train, I used to spend the journey gazing out of the window, watching the English country landscape whizz by in a blur. Or engaging in fantasies involving some of the elegant ladies on board.   I used to often enjoy reading the discarded newspapers left by fellow commuters, and would avidly soak up the latest news.

It seems that now, the young are disconnected from reality whilst connected to their phones, and commuting is now part of the working day, rather than a brief respite for those that work for a living.

How commuting has changed.

Welcome to the brave new world.

And yes, you are welcome to it….

.

Categories
Climate change Ecological English Culture Environment internet Science Society Technology Uncategorized Work

Mobile Communications – the Big Question

If like me, you have embraced new technology, you will, in all probability have a smartphone. It is likely that you will also own either a tablet computer or a laptop. Some of you may also have a smartwatch as well.

The smartphone has invaded all our lives, and research suggests that there are more than 79 million active mobile phone subscriptions. A recent report shows that Smartphones have penetrated 71% of the UK market – about 57 million units, all of which are sophisticated handsets capable of streaming video, internet surfing, emailing, and even making telephone calls and humble texting.

Business has been quick to see the potential in such technology, with banks and financial institutions offering account access via self-contained mobile applications – “Apps” in common parlance.

With a smartphone and the correct apps, it is possible to buy railway tickets, check bus times, take photos or video film, and plan a route to walk, cycle or ride.

Smartphones are also able to monitor health, run a diary, shop online and remotely control domestic systems such as heating, lighting and manage solar power generation systems.

Not bad for a device that’s smaller than a reporter’s notebook![1]

Mobile communications are not just limited to cellular telephones, but also incorporates laptops and tablets, and as any customer of a high street coffee shop will attest to, enables work to be conducted just about anywhere where there is an internet connection.

Work isn’t just limited to processing documents. I have been unlucky enough to be seated next to a very loud woman who was conducting a Skype meeting with her team from the normal genteel environment of Costa Coffee in Haslemere. Not only is this rude and inconsiderate, but she was also revealing an awful lot about her company and its confidential details.

I digress…

For the price of a coffee, it is possible to hook into a reasonably stable Wi-Fi connection and work for an hour or two, writing and responding to emails, conducting research, and creating reports and presentations.

No commuting either – so its got to be ecologically sound to either work from home, or from the local coffee shop.

So, you would think.

It’s not quite as simple as that though, but to be fair, it never is.

Have you ever thought about the invisible carbon footprint generated by mobile communications?

Let’s forget, for a moment, the environmental costs of producing a smartphone in the first place. Concentrate purely on the actual business of communicating.

In order for your simple SMS text message to be sent, the message must be digitised and transmitted over the cellular telephone network. Your phone sends these messages using microwave frequencies to the nearest cellular base station. These are easily recognisable as they normally have several antennae mounted upon a mast.

At the base of the mast, is a small building that contains all of the necessary electronics systems to enable the mobile elements of the network to interface with the Public Switched Telephone Network.

The message then has to be processed by one or more data centres and forwarded back out into the network for onward transmission over the cellular network to its intended recipient.

All of this infrastructure consumes power and has to be resilient enough to provide secure, continuous and reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

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Photo Credit E S Wales – Cellular Base Station

The same system supports mobile voice calls.

So – you want to read your emails in the coffee shop?  Surf the web?

Emails require multiple data servers, and more computer communications centres, all of which consume massive amounts of power.

Maybe as you glug back your vente white americano you want to order that item on Amazon, or eBay?

More data servers, more computer communications centres, but now with the addition of financial data processing centres, with yet more power-hungry servers.

Here are some sobering facts.

Data Centres and Communications networks together with other parts of the infrastructure were responsible for in the region of 215 megatonnes of CO2e/yr back in 2007. By the end of 2020, this will have risen to about 764 megatonnes of CO2e/yr, with data centres accounting for about 33% of the total contribution.

The entire carbon footprint of Canada in 2016 was about 730 MtCO2e/yr! 

According to research conducted by McMaster University,[2] the relative contribution to climate change from information and computer technologies (ICT) is predicted to grow from 3.5% (2007) to about 14% by 2040.

Quite shocking when compared with global transport’s contribution of 23%! (World Health Organisation figures)

Relative emissions generated as a result of smartphone use has risen from 4% in 2010 to an expected 11% by this year.

Absolute emissions (which include the production footprint; manufacturing energy, mining energy for extracting rare metals and gold and end-user activities) from these much loved ‘phones will, therefore, jump from 17 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) to 125 Mt-CO2e/yr in the same period! That’s a massive 730% growth.

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I am Guilty too – My Smartphone and Coffee Mug. Image Mark Charlwood © 2020

Take out the production emissions, and we are looking at 12.5 megatonnes of CO2 per year just to use our smartphones.

Our Mobile operators (In the UK, EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) have an unintended impact on emissions. Many of their mobile ‘phone plans encourage their customers to upgrade to a new phone every couple of years.

I resisted this in the past and kept my old iPhone 6 for almost five years before I decided to change phones. I would have kept it longer, but the 16GB memory was full, and the software was in danger of becoming unsupported by Apple.

Encouraging and incentivising customers to change phones when their previous handset was more than adequate, is a good model for enhancing a corporation’s profit, but the negative impact on our environment is unsupportable.

There is only a limited number of ways that we, as a society can stop this.

At a societal level, state intervention and corporate governance must ensure that all data centres are upgraded so they may be powered solely by renewable sources of energy.

As individuals, we must all take a bit more responsibility.

It’s all very well for climate change protestors to exhort us all to ditch our cars, and to stop using plastics.

Equally important is not buying a new product unless the old one is either worn out, damaged beyond economic repair or no longer supported by the manufacturer or network requirements.

Upgrading to a new phone every time one comes out is nothing but technological vanity.

Remember too, if you must upgrade, then recycle your old phone.

Shockingly, less than 1% of all smartphones are being recycled.

Despite this, for the time being, Life’s Good.

[1] iPhone XR dimensions 150.9mm x 75.7mm x 8.3mm 174gm

[2] Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations, L. Belkhir & Elmiligi