The people who can't use Crossrail

London's major new transport project is inaccessible to thousands for a saving of just 0.2 per cent of its budget.

Crossrail – the new, £14.5bn rail line due to open in 2019 – has come under fire today for not being fully open to women. Seven of the stations, including four in London, have been designed with a sensor that means it will be physically impossible for anyone without a Y chromosome to cross the platform. Mechanisms to address the censors are available but bosses have no plans to implement them, leaving women without full access. 

Women’s groups are understandably outraged. 

“It’s simple discrimination,” said a spokesperson for Transport for All, the group set up to address the continual exclusion of women from the use of public transport. “It’s offensive that in this day and age a woman can’t gain full access to public transport. And all because of a characteristic a person can’t help that their body has. It just doesn’t make sense. How did the many people behind Crossrail think it was okay to plan a new, major public transport link that excluded a section of the public?”

There are rumours that several other stations will only be accessible to people with light skin due to further sensor problems on the platforms, but, other than platitudes during interviews, the Mayor’s office has failed to provide any concrete commitment to make the necessary changes.

Only joking! None of that’s happening at all, of course. Or rather, it’s only happening to disabled people. Seven of the stations for Crossrail will not have step-free access to platforms, meaning wheelchair users and other disabled people won’t be able to use them. So that’s fine, then. 

It’s not like anyone involved in Crossrail could predict that disabled people might need to get around or that, you know, they even existed. They’re often shut in their house and it’s easy to forget them. 

It’s not like there was a global sporting event that specifically highlighted the inclusion of disabled people, held exactly a year ago in the same city. Or that the accessibility of public transport was actually featured in the bid for that event.

Plus, it’s not as if Crossrail is a long-term or expensive project where these sort of issues had a chance to come up. Massive infrastructure improvements that cost almost £15bn worth of public money are typically designed and approved in one afternoon on the back of a Tube map. And no matter what the PC brigade say, you can definitely put a price on equality and a human being’s right to be part of society. Sure, when it comes to making Crossrail fully accessible that price is only 0.2 per cent of the total cost, but when it comes to public money, you have to be careful not to waste it. Other than building a vast, expensive new piece of public transport that isn’t suitable for some of the public, obviously. 

As Tanni Grey-Thompson told me for the New Statesman last week, no disabled person expects existing public transport to be perfect. But what’s Crossrail’s excuse? At this point, it’s just those in power actively excluding certain people from the transport everyone else uses, and as a consequence, mainstream society. But it’s only disabled people, right? They really should be used to it by now. 

Coinciding with a week of action by Disabled People Against Cuts, on Thursday 29th August Transport for All are leading a protest against the inaccessibility of Crossrail. You can lend your support here.

The Crossrail tunnel. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.