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On this day in 2005: Amagasaki rail crash proves greater efficiency leads to less resilience



On Monday April 25 2005, a West Japan Railway commuter train derailed and killed 107 people, injuring 562. The relentless pursuit of greater efficiency, a lack of internal challenge and a blame culture all contributed to the crash. In reality, all redundancy had been taken out of the system, making the accident tragically inevitable. Efficiency had broken resilience.

A recent Storyville documentary on BBC Four movingly retold the story of the Amagasaki rail crash. It was both a disturbing lesson of the reckless pursuit of profit and efficiency trumping health and safety, and the risk of removing all redundancy in a system.

The driver of an already late rapid commuter service had overshot a station and was 90 seconds behind schedule. At the time, drivers faced fines and were often humiliated if they weren’t near-perfect on timetable. Ten months earlier, the driver had been warned that future lateness might lead to his dismissal.

Having made up some but not all of the delay, he accelerated along the straight line and took a 70kmh (43mph) corner at 116kmh (72mph). He was killed in the accident when his train hit a residential building beside the line. Subsequent simulations showed that at 106kmh (66mph) trains would derail on the bend. We graphically saw two derailments of corners taken at speed in 2013, first at Santiago de Compostela in Spain and then again at Spuyten Duyvil in New York.

While the 23-year-old driver caused the derailment with excessive speed, he was one of the system’s victims.

Nature is abundant as natural systems have ‘redundancy’ – the superfluous amount and repetition of certain elements that allows for alternatives if the principle element fails. The excess creates systemic resilience.

In a linear economy, the modern pursuit of efficiency sees abundance as inefficiency. Everything must be done as quickly as possible with the least amount of cost. Whatever is cheapest wins. In the linear economy we have adopted a high waste, monoculture, fuelled by fossil fuels working in silos – often described as “take, make, dispose”.

A circular economy sees natural abundance as resilient. One person’s waste is another person’s food; diversity is strength; renewable clean energy is key; and systems thinking is essential as everything is connected.

West Japan Railway had taken all redundancy out of their system, demanding impossible observance of timetables, with the strictest sanctions for any deviation. The resilience that would come with a more realistic timetable and more positive employee engagement had been eroded to breaking point. The decision not to invest in automatic train stopping (ATS) systems for corners also contributed to the disaster.

The crash became inevitable.

We saw the same with Railtrack in the UK, with a spike in injuries post-privatisation in 1995. The worst of which was the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster on the Great Western mainline which killed 31 and injured 523, followed by the Hatfield rail crash on the East Coast mainline, which essentially made the business unsustainable.

Railtrack’s decision to lose in-house engineering skills and spend money on dividends rather than track maintenance had taken resilience out of the rail system. Under its dismal seven-year tenure, 62 people were killed and 1,056 injured, which compares to the 20 killed and 283 injured in the seven years following the company being taken back into government hands. While the same number had died in the seven years prior to privatisation (62 – half at Clapham Junction in 1988), 646 were injured.

We see it every day in the 148 people killed and 78,000 injured just doing their jobs.

To date, no one in the senior ranks of West Japan Railway has been found guilty of anything and many of those who resigned to take responsibility for the accident have found roles in associated companies.

Photo: Christophe Libert via freeimages

Further reading:

Network Rail faces fine after failing to meet punctuality targets

Sustainable transport: Scottish campaigners call for ‘rail revolution’

Rail investment will speed up journeys and lower emissions

Regulator tells Network Rail to cut costs by £1.7bn

The Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014

Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow. He has held senior roles at Northcliffe, The Daily Telegraph, Santander, Barclaycard, AXA, Prudential and Fidelity. In 2004, he founded a marketing agency that worked amongst others with The Guardian, Vodafone, E.On and Liverpool Victoria. He sold this agency in 2006 and as Chief Marketing Officer for two VC-backed start-ups launched the online platform Cleantech Intelligence (which underpinned the The Guardian’s Cleantech 100) and StrategyEye Cleantech. Most recently, he was Marketing Director of Emap, the UK’s largest B2B publisher, and the founder of Blue & Green Communications Limited.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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