UK Transport

As its title suggests UK Transport covers all aspects of transport in the UK. It is written from a libertarian perspective, in other words, that the less the State involves itself in the running, regulation or funding of roads, railways or anything else - the better.
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Thursday, March 28, 2002

Railway Index

The following articles have been blogged:

More Guardian Lunacy (on Amtrak)
It's not all Doom and Gloom
Train Driver Shortage
A Short Note On The Structure Of The UK Railway
The Japanese System
On Corporate Manslaughter
Corporate Manslaughter - An Addendum
Fare Hike Threatened
The Crisis at Connex
How much Money is Railtrack Getting from the Government?
Rail Delays
Just How Bad is a Monopoly?
Book Review: Don Riley Taken for a Ride
Book Review: Christian Wolmar Broken Rails
A Question of Safety
Japanese Railway Conference
On Being Stunned By The Central Japan Railway Company Data Book 2001
Oh, to be proved wrong
A Question of Safety
But Passenger Numbers Have Gone Up!
Safety Costs Soar
The Sale of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link
Apologies Connex
High-Speed Rail in Spain
The Media: Accentuate the Negative, Disregard the Positive
Graffiti and Vandalism
Safety is Dangerous
The Central Railway
Some More On Vertical Integration
Some Meanderings on the Royal Train
Can You Build A Railway (Or Road) Without Compulsory Purchase?
Anglia Railways in Financial Trouble
Fight! - personal experience of violence on public transport
The Plane to Spain is faster than the Train - catch the last train to Mudville
What the Victorians did for us - a profile of Edward Watkin
Bullshit Alert - a review of the sort of nonsense people come out with when there's a train crash
Dutch Railways and the Nature of Private Enterprise - a letter to Christian Wolmar
Wolmar Replies
Compulsory Purchase - an update
High Fares are Good for you - ultimately
L'Affaire Byers - or why I am not going to spend my time fretting about it
The IoD gets it right - and wrong
Rail smash has buried bad news - Railtrack needs a lot more money. The Government has been operating a double standard.
Nationalisation is NOT the Answer - letter to the Evening Standard.
Rail Crash Update - and why it is unwise to jump to conclusions
More thoughts on vertical integration
Bad railways? Blame it on the 1950s - the Modernisation Plan
UK railways reclassified as "weapons of mass destruction" - harsh and totally unfair humour.
The Octupus Card - Hong Kong's newish non-ticket ticket system.
Dublin metro - actually more about infrastructure and land values.
The Royal Train - a follow up - how the Japanese royals get around.
More safety nonsense - or how the Government would like to destroy hundreds of perfectly good trains but can't.
More (potential) double standards - how the State treats the state and private sectors differently.
Is it the EU's fault? - that our railways are in a mess? Er, no. Not this time.
It's all the EU's fault (again) - the debate continues
A Libertarian Transport Manifesto
A brief history of UK railways
The Taff Vale Judgement

A Question of Safety

I have had the great privilege over the last week or so to be able to pose three railwaymen the same question. The railwaymen were from Japan, London Underground and an infrastructure maintenance contractor. The question (in its simplest form) was: Does safety make sense from a commercial point of view?

UK readers will be familiar with the accusation that private railways put "profits before safety". It is a brilliant line for the Left. In three words it gets across the idea that capitalists don't care, that if they do it doesn't matter because the shareholders don't, that your life is therefore at risk from these monsters and that the only solution if full nationalisation because the State, of course, is entirely free from these conflicts of interest.

But is it true? That was what I set out to find out. The answers were not particularly enlightening. The (state-owned) London Underground man was appalled I should even ask. His whole job was safety. It was essential. There was nothing else to say. The Japanese explained that passengers wanted to be safe and if their railways weren't safe then the passengers would stay away. The man from the infrastructure company explained that to get work done people had to follow procedures and procedures had to take account of safety. I think what he meant that if a track worker gets himself killed bang goes the job and bang goes the cash.

I wasn't really happy about the answers I received. The Japanese was the best but would passengers really desert a network if they thought it was unsafe? Safety is not something that particularly affects people's travel decisions in the UK so is it really likely that they would affect people's decisions in Japan where the railways are 200 times safer than they are in the UK?

How much is a passenger worth? Tops £5000 a year if he has a season ticket. Average age: 35. Average years left spent commuting: 15. Rather fewer than 10 passengers get killed on railways every year. So maximum loss is 5000 x 15 x 10 = £750,000. (I am ignoring people who give up using railways because they think its dangerous - it just doesn't happen.) In railway safety terms £750,000 is peanuts.

How much does a crash cost? One car costs £1m. Usually, you lose at least two of them, so that's £2m. Smashed up track costs a lot. It cost £10m to replace the track at Hatfield. Trainsets have to be withdrawn from service. Say 2 months (a whopping underestimate). Say the loading is 100 people at all times paying 10p a mile and that the trainset travels 1000 miles a day. That is 100 x 0.1 x 1000 x 60 = £600,000. Often, you have to train a new driver. That'll be a £100,000 or so. And then there is the disruption. Usually, a crash will put an entire section of track out of use for a week. Revenue collapses. That's probably £0.5m a day on busy lines. So, that's £3.5m. That's to say nothing of enquiries and prosecutions. Total sum from this back of an envelope exercise: £15.7m. £16.5m if you include the dead.

There are also all sorts of intangibles such as the knock on effect to the "rhythm" of the enterprise. As we discovered after the Hatfield crash, you lose punctuality once and it's a Devil to get back.

Rail is the safest form of transport. That it is has nothing to do with sentimentality towards passengers and everything to do with hard economics. But if that is the case why did no-one say so? Maybe, no one has done the sums. Maybe, safety culture is so engrained in the industry that it is almost second nature. Or maybe, I was talking to people who just get on with the job. The truth is I don't know but I await to be proved wrong.

Japanese Railway Conference

On Monday (25 March) I attended the Japanese Railway Conference organised by the Cardiff Business School. It was an absolute knockout. The organisers had managed to get together a superb line up of Japanophiles and Japanese railwaymen. In four sessions (plus breaks) we managed to cover the history and present of Japan's railway, railway finances: Japanese and British, safety and the future of the Shinkansen.

As an audience, we perhaps didn't quite match up. Most of us were either committed trainspotters or relatively junior railwaymen but maybe that was a good thing. The questioning was of a consistently high quality and I managed to meet up with some great people. Somehow, I don't think you'd get that with an audience of big cheeses.

We were left in no doubt that the Japanese railway is the best in the world. Punctuality is superb. They measure delays in seconds and that is despite all that a hostile Japanese climate and geography can throw at it. Trains are clean, modern and fast. Safety is second to none. It is something like 200 times better than in the UK (which itself is pretty safe). All trains already have Automatic Train Protection something that we are about to abandon yet again and plans are afoot to introduce a system which will not only stop trains but control their speed. Stations are clean and modern. Tickets are easy to buy and fare evasion next to impossible. The system is able to carry enormous numbers of passengers. The passenger density figures on some lines in comparison with the UK are staggering. Japan's railway companies have something like a 27% market share. In the UK it is nearer 6% . Japanese railways have many plans for the future and the main private companies are all trading profitably.

So how do they do it? Readers familiar with this blog will know that I will argue that it is all due to free enterprise: private companies and low or no state regulation. This is not quite the full story. First of all, Japan's geography helps. The main cities have a high population density, they are all in a line and the roads aren't very good. That helps. Secondly, I cannot deny that the Bullet Trains (Shinkansen) were originally built and paid for by the State. The State is still involved in extensions to the existing network but it would appear that this owes more to the last throw of Keynsian demand management than solid business reasoning. I have serious doubts whether the Shinkansen could have been built without the State but it seems likely that some sort of high-speed network would have emerged. But more interesting (from my point of view) is how the Japanese manage their network on a day-to-day basis.

Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College was impressed that Japanese drivers receive a watch when they start work and pointed out that in the UK they only get one when they retire. The watch is essential. The dashboard on every Japanese train has a holder for the watch. Time matters. On the left of the cab is schedule holder. It tells the driver when he is supposed to stop. In the UK, drivers simply drive like billyo and hope for the best. Driver training is intensive and professional. Smith was shown a driver simulator centre. There were something like 500 simulators in the room. He was told that they would soon be thrown away to make way for some even better ones. At the time there was not a single simulator in the whole of the UK. When the train comes out of service an all female team of mini-skirted twenty-somethings cleans the entire train in a five minute blitz. Japan has a Rail Technology Research Centre. We don't. Bolts attaching rails to sleepers (US=ties) are marked with a vertical stripe of paint. That way they know if one has worked lose. All Shinkansen are closed for 6 hours every night. In that time a train called Dr Yellow whizzes round the network at high speed recording data. That way the need for maintenance is picked up more or less immediately, reducing the likelihood of infrastructure failures and lowering costs. Staff take enormous pride in their work and one look at their smartly pressed uniforms and immaculate white gloves bears this out. In the UK drivers' uniforms typically look as if they have slept in them. In the UK, the principal cause of timetable delays is what is known as conflicting movements. This is when one train crosses the path of another on its way to a different track. In Japan all railways have pursued a ruthless policy of eliminating conflicting movements at every opportunity. Another major cause of delay is defective rolling stock. From what I can work out the Japanese have spent decades working on reliability and then massive redundancy in the event of anything going wrong. Redundancy is something like a train still being able to get to its destination even if it is missing half its power.

I could go on but I think I have made my point. The Japanese work at everything in a systematic manner. They leave nothing to chance. Why do they do this?

I refuse to accept the usual canard that the Japanese are different. Twenty years ago people were aghast that Nissan could even dream of hiring Brits to build their cars in Sunderland. How would they get that legendary efficiency? Well, they did it. Don't ask me how but the idea that the Japanese worker is somehow superior to the British worker was quickly shown to be nonsense. On railways as in car manufacture.

I believe the single most important factor in this Japanese success story has been the long-term existence of a large number of entirely private railways. In the 1970s the JNR, the Japanese nationalised railway, was haemorrhaging cash and was plagued by strikes. Not knowing what to do about this politicians enviously looked across at JNR's private rivals and saw railways that were profitable, reliable and had good industrial relations. They liked what they saw and in 1987 broke up and privatised JNR. That is one influence the private railways have had but I believe there is another. The existence of institutions where things are done properly is founded on people knowing how to do things properly. I imagine that well before privatisation, every time an employee of a private railway wanted to move he would have been eagerly snapped up by JNR. In turn he would have passed on his expertise and culture to others thus keeping JNR going and generally spreading the knowledge of how a railway should be run.

If there was one fault (and its not a big one) I could find in Monday's conference it would be that we didn't hear from one of the original private companies. It is my belief that the all-round superbness of the Shinkansen and other Japanese railways is based on the culture that the private railways created over many decades and with an enormous amount of hard work.

On Being Stunned By The Central Japan Railway Company Data Book 2001

OK, so it sounds as if I ought to get out a bit more but I was taken aback. For those who don't know JR Central is one of Japan's largest railways, the result of the 1987 break up and privatisation of the Japan National Railway (JNR). I picked up the Data Book (click for web version) at the recent Japanese Railway Conference in Cardiff, something I hope to blog about anon.

The first thing that stunned me was that the Data Book exists at all. I have never seen anything similar in the UK and wouldn't expect to. But that was just the first of the shocks.

I was stunned that it was in English (presumably there is a Japanese language version). But maybe I shouldn't have been. JR Central is a very big company with many international shareholders. For them English is a must.

I was stunned at the average delay to trains in 2001. 36 seconds. Actually, that wasn't the really stunning thing - although it would put us to shame. No, the really stunning thing is the way they measure it. In the UK we don't even register a delay until it is 5 mins or more (10 mins for long distance). In Japan the clock starts at anything more than a minute - after all that is what timetables are in (minutes). They include delays caused by storms, typhoons and snowfall. We strip out everything, including suicides, strikes and our excuse for bad weather.

I was stunned by their commitment to new technology. They seem to be bringing out a new Bullet Train (Shinkansen) every couple of years or so and are excitedly talking about their latest train (443km/h or 275mph) and (in the longer term) proposals for Maglev (552km/h or 343 mph). The top speed for any train in the UK is a measly 125mph.

I was stunned by their profitability: £300m in 2001. I doubt if the whole UK industry made that last year.

There were half a dozen other things that took my breath away. The whole impression was of a company totally focused and totally in command of its business. A company where engineering, marketing and management disciplines work in harmony. A company where managers can concentrate on the horizon rather than firefight the latest crisis as they do over here.

I am not going to claim that a libertarian approach would ever deliver these sorts of results. There are big differences between Japan and the UK especially when it comes to geography and population density. But at least it can show us what can be done when the State stops crawling over an industry's back.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Oh, to be proved wrong

It seems only a week ago (because it was) that I was writing that there was going to be the Mother and Father of all court cases over the decision to put Railtrack into administration. But it seems that that is not going to happen. The Government has caved in. Yet again I have been proved wrong. On the very day that Railtrack was put into administration I was thinking to myself "Now, the Government will never bankrupt Railtrack - they're not that stupid." But they were. Only last week, I was opining that "the Government won't give in to Railtrack shareholders without a fight because that would mean they had been lying." Doh.