A dash for diesel

Strikes on the Underground, if nothing else, focuses the mind. It occurred to me as I travelled down the Euston/Marylebone Road recently that London is drowning in a sea of fumes. The normally vehicle free bus lane was a sea of black cabs, interspaced with the occasional flash of a red bus. All this long line of cabs stretching out west towards the hazy setting sun were spewing out diesel fumes which once were thought to be the least dangerous alternative fuel source.

[F]or years diesel engines might have been more expensive – the fuel certainly was; the cab handled with all the grace of a drunken elephant; smelt like a kebab shop; and had the sound of a pneumatic drill. But at least the vehicles, fitted with particulate filters were greener than their petrol cousins – or so we thought.

Now Professor Frank Kelly, chairman of the Department of Health’s committee on air pollution, has said diesel engines, which once had been preferable as they produce less carbon dioxide, could be responsible for more than 7,000 deaths a year because of the pollutants they emit.

The complex mixture of thousands of gases and fine particles in diesel contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde, as well as other seriously harmful pollutants. The microscopic particles called PM2.5s are less than one-fifth the thickness of a human hair, small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation, asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes.

The European Union use nitrogen dioxide as its measure of air purity, and not carbon dioxide emissions which politicians have used as their yardstick to chastise cabbies. In a recent European Union survey London came off badly; Europe’s legal limit is 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air. The first 50 worst places in Britain were here in London, with Grosvenor Place nearly four times over this legal limit, Marylebone Road trailed at number 8 still three times over this level.

Not only that Public Health England attributes 1 in 12 deaths of over 25 year-olds in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster are caused in part to long-term air pollution.

But hope is at hand, a new cab; the MetroCab will next year hit the streets. Running on batteries with a petrol engine as backup, with fuel consumption is claimed to be significantly lower and emissions down to a maximum of 50g/km CO₂ – it could prove a winner for everyone at risk from pollution.

The only drawback is charging points. A present London has only 1,500 and while Ministers have pledged £32 million to create more rapid charging points on motorways and A-roads the availability falls well short of the number that could be needed by our 24,000 taxi fleet.

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