Saturday, May 18, 2002
RAC backs road pricing
Over on Libertarian Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait welcomes the RAC Foundation's support for road pricing and looks forward to the dawn of a new age.
Air Traffic Control
Third failure in two months confirms privatisation fears. I am far from sure they do, especially after reading this article from the BBC website. There are two things going on here. One is part-privatisation where the Government still has the controlling share. The other is the decision made some 10 years ago to write bespoke software for the new system based at Swanwick in Hampshire. The project has hardly ever been out of the industry press. It has been dogged by delays and failures. In this respect it is no different from countless other Government IT projects. The problem is that the Government cannot do IT. The reason is far from clear. It may be because IT is difficult and the State has always had difficulty in recruiting and retaining people. It may be because projects like Swanwick are deemed "necessities". This puts the Government in an extremely difficult position - especially when to all intents and purposes it is only dealing with one supplier. Another factor may be the general paucity of talent in ministerial ranks. It is significant that the French and the Germans opted for off-the-shelf software and have not had anything like the same problems.
In the news
Sabotage 'may have caused' rail crash - the mystery deepens. Report contains the suggestion that the points were photographed - that could help clear things up.
Crash was sabotage, says rail contractor - good graphic
Rail sabotage blamed for fatal accident - same thing in the Times - just better. The Times really has been very good on this. The article also (to some extent) clears up something that had been bugging me. How did the set of points come to move? It always struck me that the train would be forcing the points to stay in place. This may explain why they didn't.
Jarvis in the spotlight
What price talk when silence isn't golden? - Jarvis's decision to go with the sabotage story is a brave one. Not the sort of thing that lawyers would normally countenance.
Flights misery as new air traffic system fails again
Pressure on Byers over flights chaos
Third failure in two months confirms privatisation fears
Friday, May 17, 2002
The IoD gets it right - and wrong
This week the Institute of Directors (IoD) published a report ("Evolution not Revolution") on the UK's railways by its chief economist Graeme Leach. There is much that is good about it. It is, above all, a good overview of Britain's railways. It is packed with facts and statistics and it has clearly been well researched. It makes the case for a smaller railway, it points out that the government is going to have extreme difficulty in attracting private sector money into the industry and it argues that much more could be done to capture land value gains from new and improved railways. This is a point that Don Riley (a supporter of the Libertarian Alliance) made much of in his book "Taken for a ride".
There are some factual errors. Leach bases his argument for a smaller railway on comparative figures for track length in Britain, France and Germany. These figures look surprisingly similar to similar figures published in the Economist earlier this year. (Unfortunately, the Economist is pay per view so no link). At the time I thought these figures sounded odd and did some research of my own. I can't find the source I used on that occasion but these figures from Eurostat are similar. This was the basis for a letter I wrote to the Economist which they published. Essentially, the Economist got it wrong. Britain's railways are a lot smaller than those in France and Germany and used just as intensively.
Having said that his conclusions are correct: we do need to close down (or at least stop subsidising) many lines. We still have far too many railways in rural areas which simply cannot compete with the motor car and are sparsely used. Closing them down would reveal an otherwise viable industry which could be freed from the dead hand of government regulation.
There is also a claim, again originating in the Economist, that Government regulations in the 19th Century encouraged the construction of many of the rural branch lines which we have today. I am not saying it is wrong but I have just never heard of it and don't know anyone who has.
Leach seems to be generally in favour of vertical fragmentation. Which is odd because he seems to be well aware of the difficulties: increased costs and management sclerosis. This is something I have mentioned before. Indeed, I came across a whole new bunch of these problems at an RSA meeting a couple of days ago on timetabling. There are plenty of people in the industry who know how to produce better timetables. The problem is that they can't get them past the SRA, the Regulator, the TOCs and the user groups.
Leach's worry is that vertical integration will stifle competition. I think this worry is misplaced. On the practical level it doesn't seem to have done the Japanese any harm. Nor, indeed, did it do us much harm in the days before nationalisation. On the theoretical level it rather depends on what you mean by monopoly. Sure, a railway may have the monopoly on a particular point to point journey by rail but its passengers still have choices. Often the biggest threat to a railway's bottom line is passengers either moving or changing job to something more local.
Despite all that, "Evolution not Revolution" remains an excellently researched paper and is definitely worth a read for anyone who wants to know the state of play on the railways.
In the news
Euro gaffe Byers under axe - or should that be "Byers tells truth - shock!"
Easyjet buys Go for £374m
Q&A: Budget airline takeover
Fares may rise after airline takeover
'Near miss' as runaway train is derailed
Rail travel safer than car travel - pop-up in Letters section. From Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College - good.
80mph train narrowly misses children
Thursday, May 16, 2002
The dynamics of the relationship between the state and free enterprise
OK, maybe not the most eye-catching of titles but there's a basic observation here. It seems to me that when the State is small it is not utterly incompetent. As the State increases in size the more incompetent it becomes.
Take transport. The State's first venture into this field was the construction of inner London's electrified tramways. Sure, it was a lot later than those built by the private sector but it worked reasonably well for the next 50 years. Similarly with railways. After nationalisation the industry ran reasonably well for many years. Its best period in fact came in the Thatcher period when she was energetically rolling back the frontiers of the state.
I think there's a vital cultural element here. If lots of people are or have been exposed to the disciplines of the free market then they tend to take these disciplines with them when they enter the service of the State. It is this culture which keeps the State alive. Unfortunately as the State expands, the pool of "cultured" people declines and the State becomes progressively incompetent.
In the news
Inquiry after Tube death
UK rail safety 'is improving' - now isn't that strange. Safety has been improving for decades but no minister sought to point that out before Ladbroke Grove or Hatfield. So, what has brought about this sudden change? Couldn't be because the Goverment is now paying the bills, could it?
Will we ever see train seatbelts? - some sense on this issue
'I spotted track fault'
Tube doors open on wrong side
Wednesday, May 15, 2002
Rail smash has buried bad news
What follows is the text of a proposed Libertarian Alliance Press Release (yes, I've got my Transport Spokesman hat on again).
The tragic accident at Potters Bar has diverted attention away from a serious development in the Railtrack saga. So says Patrick Crozier, Transport Spokesman of civil liberties think tank, the Libertarian Alliance.
"On Friday morning came the clearest evidence yet that the Government has tilted the playing field against the private sector and in favour of its pet project, Network Rail. Railtrack never had chance." he said.
"In interviews published in the Times and RAIL magazine, the new Railtrack Chief Executive, John Armitt, made it clear that Railtrack or any potential successor is going to need billions of pounds extra to bring the network up to modern standards. This was something that the Government refused point blank to do for Railtrack in the days running up to its being placed in administration. So far the Government has denied that there is any need for extra cash."
Mr Crozier continued: "John Armitt is an extremely good witness. He has had a successful career in engineering. He is widely admired and he is new to Railtrack. He has no axe to grind. Network Rail, the government's pet project, is keen to hire him as its Chief Executive. You might expect that faced with the prospect of a lucrative position with the new CLG (company limited by guarantee) Mr Armitt would take their line that there is no need for extra money. The fact that he has broken ranks and that he has seen the numbers while NR have not, speaks volumes for the network's financial position.
"The Government now has a choice: either it has to massively increase funding for Network Rail or allow it to close lines. This was never a choice it gave Railtrack. The Government has been applying a double standard. It's one rule for the private sector and another rule for Network Rail"
The dispute over funding is borne out of the convoluted way in which the industry was fragmented. To all intents and purposes Railtrack was dependent on the government for something like 2/3s of its funding. This money was set by the Regulator. He had a duty to make sure that the business was viable. After Hatfield it became clear that if the then rate of funding continued, Railtrack would go bust. The Government claimed that Railtrack was the victim of its own inadequacies. When Railtrack mooted asking the Regulator for an interim review (a way of increasing its funding) the Government threatened with emergency legislation. What is now clear is that Railtrack was right and the Government wrong: it did need the money.
Mr Crozier continued: "It is inevitable that this weekend's coverage would concentrate on the tragic events at Potters Bar. While, there is no suggestion that the Government has in any way attempted to bury the Railtrack story under the wreckage of the Cambridge Cruiser the fact remains that it has been buried. It is up to the press and media in general to expose this scandal. If the Government had a shred of decency it would admit that placing Railtrack into Administration was a mistake and immediately return the company to its rightful owners."
In the News
Market Report: Potters Bar disaster takes toll on maintenance companies
Byers is 'hung out to dry' by Blair - there is a consensus that Byers is finished. There is, however, a counter argument. It is just possible that the rail network could look a whole lot better in time for the next general election. The new Pendolinos will be in service this year with their top speed gradually increasing from 110 to 125mph. The first phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will open in October 2003. That will certainly lead to a "feel good" factor. The Train Protection and Warning System is beginning to roll out across the country. This will dramatically reduce Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs). The power supply problem on Southern Region looks like it is going to be sorted out so we'll be able to say goodbye to slam door stock and hello to air-conditioned luxury. In that time the Government might even get round to approving the Central Railway and a new North-South rail link. It could just happen.
Points 'badly repaired' 9 days before crash
Track team spotted flaw but failed to report it
Solicitor's widow tells of her loss - this is just an observation but isn't it odd that three of the victims of the Potters Bar crash were in the public eye? One was a former head of the World Service, one a well-known Hong Kong journalist and another a potential Nigerian king.
Vandals try to derail train
Heathrow car charge shock - Ken's congestion charging scheme goes West.
David Farrer reports on Scottish Airports
£60m for a Jumbo Jet! - I did not know that. David Farrer is in fact making an entirely different point but I am interested to know how much aircraft cost. You see I have this theory that the safety of a particular mode of transportation is in proportion to the cost per seat. Planes (£100,000/seat) are safer than trains (£10,000/seat) are safer than push bikes (£250/seat). It all starts to break down with cars and motorbikes - and depends on how many seats a motorbike is deemed to have. It has two "seats" but how often is the second one used? Mind you, you could say much the same for the family car. The general point is that the more something costs the more people take care of it.
Tuesday, May 14, 2002
Nationalisation is NOT the Answer
In yesterday's Evening Standard, Anthony Hilton, wrote in support of the nationalisation of the railways. Wearing my LA Transport Spokesman hat I wrote to the Evening Standard:
Fresh bid to remove crash train
Q&A: Points at Potters Bar
Crossed lines in the rail industry - a look at the role of sub-contractors
Inquiry demand over rail crash
Liability fear undermines Jarvis shares - Just in case anyone has forgotten: incompetence costs. Also, it seems that insurance does not cover Jarvis for gross negligence.
The Transport Secretary who's living in a buckpassers' paradise - City Comment. Makes the point that bosses can go to jail for corporate manslaughter but politicians can't.
Blame for Potters Bar - The Telegraph points out that no one knows who is in charge.
Railtrack and contractors had one safety warning a week - how the HSE operates
Rail crash worries send Jarvis shares tumbling - despite the fact that it is well-respected by the industry. There is also a suggestion that anti-Jarvis allegations may have been fuelled by disgruntled ex-employees
Our railways should be poetry in motion - Libby Purves says some reasonably sensible things about railways until she starts talking about "common good[s], requiring public money to be spent in the public interest." And she was doing so well up to then.
Crash may end young dancer's promising career - also includes some quotes from lefty film maker, Ken Loach on maintenance practices. The annoying thing is that he may be right
Railtrack stays in limbo - well, actually it doesn't. It seems that the deal for Network Rail (the Government's pet not-for-profit company) to buy Railtrack has already been stitched up. When administration ends that is when the real trouble will start. Network Rail appears to have a convoluted structure and an unclear mandate. Not only that but the Government has done nothing to unpick the real problem with rail privatisation - fragmentation.
Seatbelts in trains - oh no. And how much do they cost? And where the money come from? And how many people would they force onto more dangerous roads? And how would you enforce it?
New court move over Tube privatisation - Ken and Kiley are launching another effort. It won't succeed of course but it's all grist to the mill
Railtrack patched up crash points - what is interesting here is that Railtrack initially claimed that the points had only recently been installed - they hadn't.
Worse than Hatfield - includes the line "Under British Rail there had grown up an army of engineers and inspectors for whom the railways were a lifetime career." What utter tosh. The army of engineers and inspectors grew up under the private sector before nationalisation. All that BR ever did was not completely wreck the culture of its free market ancestors. The real problem with this article is that if fails to acknowledge the the real problem with the railway is structure, that that structure was imposed on the industry by the Government and that the Government has no intention of changing it.
Now join our campaign - the Evening Standard sets up an emergency hotline to report track defects.
What the law says - review of the law on corporate manslaughter. Fortunately, it is not very effective but the Home Office is looking into it. "Join the railways and get banged up for 10 years." just doesn't sound to me like a good way to attract talented people into the industry.
Railtrack: we don't check contractors' work - how work is checked and defects reported. Or, at least, what ought to happen.
Monday, May 13, 2002
Rail Crash Update
I am painfully aware that readers are expecting me to make some profound observations in the wake of the Potters Bar crash. I am afraid that this is something that I have found difficult to do.
The problem is that this blog is largely concerned with systems (mainly economic ones) and not with the effects of the random nature of human error.
Although we know what caused the crash: missing bolts on a set of points (US = switch) we do not know why those bolts were missing. The speculation is that it could have been sabotage or inadequate maintenance coupled with inadequate inspection. I have a sneaking suspicion that we will never know.
Even if we did, it would be extremely difficult to draw wider conclusions: especially political ones. Let's take the worst case scenario, the leftists' dream: that the maintenance was carried out by casual, untrained staff and the inspection was carried out by similarly casual and similarly untrained staff.
What does this actually prove? Very little, in fact. Sure, our leftist friends will try to claim that this shows that privatisation doesn't work. It is certainly a possibility but by no means the only one. It could show that enforced fragmentation doesn't work. Or that Jarvis are incompetent. Or that someone in Jarvis is incompetent. Or that a usually highly effective member of staff for once made a mistake.
The truth is that dramatic as they may be, rail crashes rarely shed light on the true nature of the industry, far less on debate between free enterprise and state control.
In the News
Statement due on rail crash
Rail crash 'unique incident'
Why were the points faulty?
Points were checked the day before rail disaster - an unusually good piece of reporting. Not only does it raise questions but it tells us what they are.
Killed by rail neglect - if the allegations in this story are true then either someone is lying or someone is grossly incompetent.
Police to quiz engineer
Commuter warned of crash line problems - this has come up before - commuters complaining of jolts on the line near Potters Bar. But were the jolts caused by the points? If they were, then that suggests that there was a problem with the points going back several months. If they weren't then I would like to hear some assessment as to whether such jolts pose a threat to safety as opposed to merely a threat to passenger comfort.
Look no further than Byers for the railway saboteur
Rail firms still failing to scrutinise contractors
Rail chief had safety fear over casual labour
3000 miles of line 'should be closed ' - Institute of Directors calls for a Beeching Mk2. Quite right too. Unfortunately, they are quite wrong about the relative sizes of the British and French networks. The French is almost twice the size of our own.
Chain of command
Graphic of the points - very useful.
Byers: wrong, foolish and running out of time
Death on the railways - safety statistics in recent decades.
The state must step in to save our railways - Anthony Hilton calls for re-nationalisation. Utter drivel of course. I only hope I get the time to do a proper takedown one of these days.
EasyJet keeps Go deal alive
Budget airlines are not always the cheapest
Sunday, May 12, 2002
In Today's Papers
Forensic tests in crash inquiry
Points failure was sabotage or negligence, says Railtrack - this really is grim
Graphic of Potters Bar Crash
Politicians send crash condolences 'In a statement, Mr Byers said: "All of our thoughts must be with the families and friends of those who have been killed or injured today in this tragic accident."' I sometimes wonder if politicians actually think about the words they use.
Leading Article: Wrong on the railways
Here is the proof that Britain is in good shape - A.N.Wilson believes that we should be grateful that it's only our transport system that's in a mess. The annoying thing is that he is right.
Still on the beaten track - the Telegraph puts the case for privatisation
Insight: Loose bolts blamed for rail tragedy
Focus: Fatal points that derailed the 12.45
Britain's safety rail record - lots of stats
Easyjet admits Go bosses' veto
Safety fears could curb company car trips