Peak Oil isn’t the residue left between the sleepers where a class 45 has been idling, but the point where the amount of recoverable oil still in the ground matches that which has already been burned up in our industrial civilisation. That point is about to be reached any time now, in fact may have already been passed. The very best estimate for the oil reserves that still exist is thirty seven years. After that the wells will be dry and we won’t have the choice any more - we’ll have to find ways of living without oil. Without oil for heating, plastics, fertilizers and, most importantly for the S&D, cars and lorries.
We’re told that a mix of exotic replacements will be available to power our cars - biofuel, hydrogen fuel cells, electric power - but all of these systems require huge amounts of fossil fuel to develop, service and produce, and in most cases the amount of energy needed for this exceeeds the amount of energy we’ll get out, so they are not viable economically, even if politically they may be talked about in the coming years as ‘the solution’. Biofuel needs huge amounts of land, refining space plus a transport and retailing infrastructure, as well as oil-based fertilizers to grow the crops. Competing with land for housing, railways, factory space, leisure and food means that often biofuel would be an extremely expensive option in any case. Fuel cells have existed since the 19th century, and still nobody has managed to get them to work properly! And we’ve all been stuck behind electric milk floats - electric vehicles have the problem of battery storage, range and the need to have electricity generated in the first place to charge batteries. In any case the road network will start to fall apart as only a few will be able to afford to drive any sort of car, the bulk of the population will not be happy to pay taxes for a dinosaur infrastructure used by a tiny minority.
So what will Peak Oil mean for the S&D? On the plus side there wiill be an inevitable return to rail as the primary mode of transport, and any town or village not connected by rail (or light rail) will wither and die as oil runs out. This means that at some time in the near future (15-25 years) the Somerset and Dorset will be reopened for passenger and freight traffic. Who will build and run the new S&D is of course another matter! If we have reinstated enough of the line (at least Radstock-Shepton) we may well be offered the franchise to operate the whole rebuilt line. Otherwise we may be compulsorily purchased and kicked off the site!
As oil gets scarcer and scarcer petrol prices will go through the roof. As most of our visitors (and workers!) arrive by car or bus this underlines the urgency of linking back to the network (initially at either Radstock or Shepton) as quickly as we can. It does mean that the new S&D will evolve from a heritage site to a working railway, but that’s happening in a way already. It may well be that by that stage we are given the powers plus a large government grant to rebuild back to Bath from Radstock.
Take a trip on a plane now, because within 15 years only the very rich will use a massively contracting air travel infrastructure - in fact probably the only planes flying in the not too distant future will be private jets belonging to the super rich. Everything will become much more locally based, and holidays will once again be taken at home - suggesting a huge increase in the potential visitors to seaside resorts in Britain, hopefully basking in Mediterranean temperatures as Global Heating kicks in. Bournemouth by train anyone?
The downside is that we are currently running a diesel loco, and that at some point it will no longer be economic to run it. It seems odd, but the future is steam (and electric elsewhere). The S&D at Midsomer Norton stands on a supply of home grown fuel - coal. Despite its dirty image and the dangers in mining it, coal will certainly become a fuel of last resort as the oil runs out. Of course it will still pollute, and perhaps the real future for the S&D is in using wood-burning steam locomotives. If we own large carbon-neutral forests alongside the line we could harvest a never-ending supply of cheap fuel. This is already being seriously considered as the option for the embryonic Bealieu Light Railway down in the New Forest.
Of course there will be a lot of disruption and hardship as we move from an oil-based economy to a post-oil based one, but the upside is that we’ll live in a world that’s quieter, slower and friendlier - qualities that are very Somerset and Dorset! I say bring it on!