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Cyber attack risk, greener sandwiches, rail developments: our picks of the week’s news

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E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Josh Loeb, associate editor:

Category One cyber attack ‘a matter of when, not if’, warns UK security chief

It’s become unfashionable to say it, but the UK Government’s first duty is defence. Never mind the NHS or education, we risk kissing goodbye to everything overnight if the nation ceases to be capable of defending itself from external threats to its existence. This is, I think, incontrovertible. In contrast, the question of what exactly these threats are and whether they are really so serious is contentious. Some people believe there are no threats. Some think that even if there are, it would somehow be wrong to try and defend against them and we should instead settle for a life of pacifism. Both positions are legitimate but, I think, wrong.

Look at what the head of the UK’s armed forces said this week about Russia representing a “clear and present danger”. Vladimir Putin could initiate “hybrid” hostilities – which, as I understand it, includes military hostilities – against us “sooner than we think,” General Sir Nick Carter warned.

A defence spending review is set to take place soon, so this could all boil down to money. On the other hand, look at Sweden. There, no defence spending review is imminent - yet the Swedish government has seen fit to issue its residents with advice on air raids and bomb shelters.

Now, you may think the suggestion of a blitzkrieg is all a bit 1939. A tad paranoid, perhaps. Well, as the saying goes “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” and it so happens that in 1939 war did creep up on Britain unexpectedly (see the recently released film ‘Darkest Hour’ to learn more) and we were woefully unprepared to fight for our lives. But certainly, war would be different now. Ciaran Martin, the head of the National Cyber Security Centre, suggests a scenario under which an attack would knock out the UK’s power grids and cripple key computer networks in a concerted Category One strike that would leave the country unable to function and would result in some, possibly many, deaths. He even suggests such an attack (not necessarily by Russia, I stress) is now inevitable. I repeat, inevitable.

If that is true, it’s horrifying. Why hasn’t our government issued any advice about what to do in the event of such an attack, about how to save lives or even fight back? Either these warnings are completely over the top and should be stopped, or our leaders are negligent. Where is their national defence plan?

It has been pointed out by historians that Putin’s decision to prioritise his country’s military power is deeply rooted in its unimaginably barbaric experiences during the last world war. Indeed, it is ironic that many parts of Europe that probably still owe their liberty to Russian sacrifices now quake in fear of that giant country. Britain owes a debt to Russia too, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about it. In general, it’s much better to be paranoid and prepare for the worst.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor:

‘How bad is your sandwich?’ ask scientists probing its carbon footprint

It’s doubtful that John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was the first person to think of sticking slices of cold meat between slices of bread when he wanted something to eat that wouldn’t interrupt his marathon 24-hour gambling session. The story’s a good one though, and as the eponymous result has apparently been described as Britain’s “biggest contribution to gastronomy” let’s stick with it. What wouldn’t have occurred to the earl would have been the impact his snack had on the environment. Thanks to researchers at the University of Manchester though, we can now congratulate him on minimising its carbon footprint by having it knocked up in his own kitchen.

Following last week’s advice from the first assessment of the amount of greenhouse gases microwave ovens are responsible for emitting over their lifetime comes a similar exercise in working out how bad the most popular convenience food is for the planet. Considering everything from production of ingredients to preparation, packaging and waste, bottom place is taken by the ‘English breakfast’ (aka ‘All-day breakfast’ in less nationalistic outlets), which in addition to the effect it has on the health of the person eating it generates a similar amount of carbon dioxide as driving a car for 12 miles. Most virtuous of the 40 studied was ham and cheese, but ingredients predictably have less impact than whether you put together your sandwich at home or buy it from a shop where it’s been sitting in a chiller all day and will require packaging to keep it fresh.

The extreme solution to minimising environmental impact suggested by the researchers to E&T was cucumber with no butter (you can use white or wholemeal bread – it doesn’t make much difference). Between that and the full English in a bun there are a few ways you can do your bit to make your sandwich greener. Check the full story by Josh Loeb for details.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor:

Self-driving freight train to be tested in Netherlands

It’s easy to think that self-driving trains are already well established, and indeed that’s true on self-contained urban metro and light rail networks like London’s DLR, but it’s far from the case on mainline networks built and signalled for trains with human drivers. This trial will take place on a dedicated freight line, the Betuweroute, which runs through The Netherlands from the port of Rotterdam to Germany. It’s a relatively new line with modern European-standard (ERTMS) signalling provided by French rail giant Alstom, one of the partners in the project, so a good place to conduct a study - the equipment is already in place and there are no passenger services to be disrupted. And because trains do more than run on straight lines, the test will also include automatic shunting movements in a railway yard. It ought to provide valuable information, but - as with driverless cars - there’s a long way to go between testing concepts and widespread operation.

Bi-mode trains and electric car batteries criticised in clean air report

This is a UK-focused study produced by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in response to concerns about how transport is contributing to the worsening air quality in many of our urban areas. The authors make a number of recommendations, but for the railway they are particularly critical about the Department for Transport’s apparent reliance on bi-mode trains for intercity operation. These are trains that run in electric mode on electrified lines but use diesel engines elsewhere. Rolling stock engineers know that this is an unsatisfactory compromise, but to be fair it’s a recognition of today’s reality. Electrification was off the DfT’s agenda for many years, and when the penny dropped that it might be a good idea after all we heard some grand plans that took no account of Britain's intervening loss of expertise, plant and a supply chain for electrification. The subsequent problems on Great Western have been widely reported (especially if you read the railway press), and with costs soaring and timescales slipping it’s no surprise that various other lines aren’t going to see wires going up in the foreseeable future. All the same, the IMechE isn’t alone in regretting this. Various parliamentary committees, including Public Accounts and Transport, have been giving the Transport Secretary and the head of Network Rail an uncomfortable time recently. If you want some amusement, read the transcripts of their proceedings.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor:

After All: Snow guns versus rocket launchers

In all my 38-year-long journalistic career, I cannot recall a major international stand-off easing up as fast. In the course of the last three or four weeks, the tension between North and South Korea, which by early December last year seemed to have reached its apogee (with multiple ballistic missile launches, defections and threats from both sides), has eased and is at its lowest point in many, many years. That is why I decided that my most recent After All column, written over a month ago, needed updating. The latest positive developments have included (in reverse order): yesterday’s unexpected announcement by North Korea calling on all Koreans to work towards a ‘breakthrough’ in the process of the country’s reunification and to promote travel and cooperation. On the same day (Thursday 25 January), the first members of the North Korean Olympic team crossed the border with the South and headed for Gangwon province where the Winter Games, at which North and South will compete in a joint team, are due to start on 9 February. The latter development was the result of the first bilateral meeting in two years, held in mid-December at the border village of Panmunjom inside the Demilitarized Zone (you can read my report from the DMZ in the next issue of E&T) – quite an achievement for the countries that are still technically at war with each other.

All of the above happened out of the blue and came as a surprise (if not to say a shock, even if a positive one) to all those countless pundits, who – for years - had been predicting further worsening of the situation and even the danger of imminent nuclear conflict. Optimism and goodwill seem to have triumphed against all odds. But let’s hold our horses just for a wee bit longer and look at the olive branch offered by the North Korean regime with a touch of caution. Let’s remember that the numerous ‘thaws’ in North-South relations since 1953 have so far ended in failure and further escalation of tensions. I sincerely doubt the good intentions of the North Korean dictator, for whom the ongoing confrontation with the South (and the West in general) is the only recipe for survival in his degrading and starving country. But before dismissing it all as yet another ruse, let’s allow for a ray of hope. Even if it is the proverbial ‘hope against hope’ in this case.

‘How bad is your sandwich?’ ask scientists probing its carbon footprint

As a highly environmentally conscious person, I’ll make sure that my next sandwich order will sound approximately like this: “Can I please have a nice cheese and cucumber sandwich, with no mayonnaise or butter, and no cheese... Oh, and no bread either. Do keep the cucumber though. Keep it for yourself, I mean.”

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