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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Saturday, May 25, 2002

Our nuthead safety fascists...

...are better than their nuthead safety fascists. In reply to yesterday's rant Emily Jones (aka Hawkgirl) writes:
We get ads like the one you wrote about here in the U.S. as well. What I want to know is, where are the ads that go like this: “Parents, please teach your children the importance of not playing in the middle of the street and kindly explain to them that these things we call ‘cars’ will squash them like grapes should they ever be hit by one.”

Even worse, here in California, they passed a law that says that pedestrians have the right of way. Which isn’t bad in theory, but the problem that we have now is that pedestrians just dart out into the street whenever it suits them without even looking. If there is an accident of any sort, the liability is placed squarely on the driver. It’s not like I ever start my engine thinking “Gee, I really feel like running this baby over another person today”, but sometimes I feel like shouting “Hey asshole! Just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean I saw you!” Even the most careful drivers can be in danger of running someone over when they just plow themselves forward in traffic.
And I thought we had it bad.

In the news

Gridlock: Head to Head - statists clash on the state of the roads
Rail line 'not safe', says commuter - well, actually, he's not sure.
Anyone have a good word for Stephen Byers? - some, but by and large those who have reason to fear him.
Cramped airline seats are 'safer' - bizzarely they are easier to get out of in an emergency.
High cost of access on common land - follow up to the story from earlier this week
Byers faces new charge on Railtrack - actually it's an old one

Friday, May 24, 2002

Pile-up on the ranting super-highway

I have just heard one of those irritating ads on the radio. "I bet you're driving too fast. If a child stepped out in front of you right now..." Grrr.

I hate this sort of thing. I hate all this nanny statist safety fascist drivel. I hate being told: "Wear a seat belt. Don't drink. Pass your test. Buy insurance. Get an MoT. Don't drive more than 30mph. Don't drive more than 70mph. Don't use a mobile. Don't install bull bars. Don't, don't, don't." ©David Carr I hate speed humps, traffic calming, bus lanes and speed cameras. Bastards. They're even threatening to G-rate the PPG movie. (OK, not really related to tranport - it just had to come out somewhere.)

And at just this point - when my rant supercar is hitting max revs - then, hoving into view is my ideological juggernaut nemesis: road privatisation. Libertarianism does not mean there are no rules. Far from it. The whole idea of property rights means that if I wander onto your territory I obey your rules (subject, of course, to contract/convention). So what would be the rules of the privatised road? Could it be that we abolish all these irritations at the state level only to see them replaced at the private level? Why is it that I would feel far happier with private rules even if they were exactly the same as the current state ones?

And what would those rules be? The starting point might be: what sort of road do I want to drive on? Fast, smooth, empty. If they were empty I suppose a lot of rules would be largely unnecessary. But they're not going to be that empty especially in cities. Well, in that case, I want everyone to drive sensibly. No tailgating, no cutting in and out and definitely no boom-boom boys. But would I be happy to share the road with drunks? Or people who for whatever other reason were not driving with due care and attention. Libertarian lawyers might take the view that it is not the State's role to prevent people from doing damage - only punish them later. But that is State law and I am talking about private rules and their enforcement. A private institution can take all the precautions it likes.

At this point I am afraid I am going to have to hang up my keyboard and admit defeat. In libertarian transport nirvana I simply do not know what the rules of the road would be. And we still might have to put up with "If a child stepped out..."

Suggestions are welcomed.

Is it the EU's fault?

The claim occasionally comes up that the fragmented structure of the post-privatised rail network is a) what is causing our current difficulties and b) the result of a European Directive ie. 91/440. I was recently asked about this in an e-mail. This is what I wrote:
To my mind it is certainly correct that the government-imposed fragmentations are the cause of our current problems. See "Why British Rail Privatisation Failed". The question is whether it is a result of 91/440.

If 91/440 were a thoroughly bad directive then we would have seen similar results post-restructuring in every other European country. The truth is that with the exception of Holland no other country has experienced a similar crisis.

All that 91/440 calls for is an accounting split between infrastructure and operations. We achieved that by creating Railtrack and 23 or so short-term Train Operating Franchises. The French achieved it by splitting SNCF into SNCF which operates the trains and RFF which owns the infrastructure (and the debt) but which pays SNCF to maintain and enhance it. The French network has not been plunged into crisis but neither has it gone from strength to strength.

To conclude I would dearly love to blame the EU for the current fiasco but in all fairness this is a crisis all of our own making.
So there.

More (potential) double standards

From the Telegraph:
Mr Byers told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "In September we were looking at a range of options. We were either going to provide Railtrack with more money, but tied to improved reliability, better safety record, or deny them more money, in which case we would have gone for railway administration, to be replaced by a not-for-profit company.
Now, I wonder if he'll be holding Network Rail (his pet CLG) to the same standard.

It (looks like) it's one rule for them and a different rule for us.

In the news

Crash survivor accuses Byers - now tell me if I am wrong but the accusation that Byers was planning to wind up Railtrack well before October strikes me as a real scandal. Yet, I have not a heard a word of this on BBC TV and it is not as if there is a great deal of other news about at the moment.
Car charge could backfire - but Ken says he doesn't care. A muted cheer I think. Graphic
Afghan gangs taking over stowaway routes, rail firm says - tales from the frontline in Northern France
Rail union calls fresh strikes - at Arriva NOT at Virgin who operate the train in the accompanying picture.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

More safety nonsense

The news that commuter TOCs in the South East want to prolong the life of their slam-door stock is being greeted with the usual safety hysteria.

After the Clapham Junction crash, way back in 1988, the Government ordered that all slam-door stock be replaced by the end of this year. Slam door stock is not very crash resistant.

The problems started to materialise when replacement trains began to be ordered after pseudo-privatisation. There were delays, there were teething problems with sliding doors and air-conditioning, Railtrack delayed acceptance and now there is a problem with power supplies. The magical end of 2002 date started to look very magical indeed.

The HSE proposed a compromise. Modify your trains with a "cup and cone" and you can run them until 2004. But this also creates problems. Cupping and coning costs money - money that TOCs would rather not spend on stock that will only last two years. Furthermore, TOCs are still unclear as to how many slam-door trains they will need to keep. No wonder Roger Ford or Modern Railways refers to "cup and cone roulette".

At the root of this problem is State action and at the root of State action is a confusion over how to do safety. There are two ways: either you make trains crash resistant or you prevent them crashing in the first place. We are in the process of introducing TPWS which should eliminate almost all collisions but that hasn't stopped the safety juggernaut from continuing to demand the end of slam-door stock. In Japan, where the private sector dominates they are clear on this: prevent the crashes and don't worry too much what happens when trains do collide. As an Executive of Japan's Ministry of Transport puts it "Crashworthiness? Our trains do not collide, we have systems to prevent that." Trains in Japan are 100 times safer than they are in Britain.

The amusing part of this tale is what is going to happen when the Government realises that its decree isn't going to happen. Then it will either be forced to stop half of all south London's commuter trains or admit that safety is not the number one priority. What we are witnessing in slow motion is someone's bluff being called.

In the news

Charges possible over Paddington - one of these days I really must get round to deciding what I think about corporate manslaughter.
Transport plans under fire
The first year: how the 2010 plan is missing its targets - priceless
No 10 backs Byers on 'Railtrack lie' - shameless
Disbelief on the line - the Times points out that the latest "lie" may have implications in the courts.
Hi-tech bolt may have stopped crash
Screens blamed for 'air blunders'
Driving a company car 'one of the most hazardous of occupations' - Research shows that construction workers have a one in 10,000 risk of being killed or seriously injured at work, while high-mileage company car drivers have a one in 8,000 risk and coal miners a one in 7,100 risk. Well, I never.
Scot Rail adopts no-frills approach - well, actually, they are simply offering bargain fares which is what everyone else does. In fact, bargain fare offers are one of the few real plusses from rail privatisation.
Firms want to keep slam-door trains
Safety fears close 50 escalators - "The JLE, which cost double the original budget and opened 18 months late..."
Tube strike looms over PPP safety - I don't think this has anything to do with safety. Maybe, we'll find out one day.
Dossier of train danger

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

The Royal Train - a follow up

A couple of weeks ago I wondered aloud whether the Emperor of Japan had his own royal train. It appears that he does. Sadly, it's not capable of running on Shinkansen lines, so, it would appear, he has to slum it. Shame.

A Dublin metro will only work if the suburbs it serves are replaced by apartments

James Haney alerted me to this article in the Irish Times some time ago. Unfortunately, I have been a bit preoccupied recently but I have finally got round to having a proper look at it. It starts off:
Cabra, Dundrum, Finglas, Kimmage and even parts of Tallaght will inevitably end up on the chopping board if the next government proceeds with the plan for a metro in Dublin. This is because such a high-volume public transport system would only work in a high-density urban environment.
Which is interesting. Even more interesting is:
After the DART [Dublin Area Rapid Transport?] service began in 1984, property values rose all along the line from Howth to Bray and under-used sites were developed for apartments or offices. The difference now is that, under section 49 of the 2000 Planning Act, the public authorities would be able to recover a proportion of the increase in values.
This echoes much of what Don Riley has said about how new infrastructure increases property values.

Isn't that odd? Isn't it odd that the main financial beneficiaries of an underground line are not the people who build them but the people who own property nearby? I cannot think of any other service that works in that way. When I go out and buy some fish and chips it isn't the little old lady who lives next door who thinks "Golly my house is worth so much more!" But if the chippy were replaced with a tube station she would be.

Why is infrastructure different? Maybe, we are looking at things the wrong way. We think of passengers as the customers and therefore the railway as the would be beneficiary. But maybe this situation is far more analogous with a telephone connection (broadband nowadays) or gas, or electricity, or a water supply. A water supply is a pretty important factor in the value of a piece of property. Because you can get water to it. Likewise a tube connection. Because you can get people to it.

The Henry George Foundation is already on this case. They believe that the State should tax land values and use the proceeds to build infrastructure. I suppose it is one up from the current situation. But it brings with it all the usual problems of the State collecting the tax and then spending it badly. The State is neither very good at running things nor very good at procuring them.

As a libertarian I would like to think that a non-State solution could come about and it was something I have mused about. There are a few semi-examples out there. For instance, Canary Wharf paid £800m towards the cost of the JLE. I have heard of examples of residential property developers making payments to British railways in the 1920s in return for rail links. There is also an excellent paper on how Japanese railways have exploited these opportunities by Takahiko Saito published by Japan Railway and Transport Review.

In the news

For whom the road tolls? - £750bn for Birt's super-highways - come off it.
Britain facing gridlock over transport failures - now get this. The Government's own commission is publishing a report saying how the 10-year transport plan is getting nowhere.
'Railtrack has cash for safety' - according to the Regulator
Funding levels 'not to blame for Potters Bar crash'
Byers 'lied over Railtrack axe' - so he didn't make up his mind 2 days before forcing Railtrack into administration: he'd done it a least a month beforehand.
Dossier of train danger
Six days of despair - interesting insight into daily disruption and its causes.
Byers blamed for Labour poll plunge
Congestion battle gets in gear - for once Ken is the defendant

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

In the news

Super motorway plans are 'barmy', say Green groups
- it's wonderful to see them fighting each other
Charging by satellite - or how the Government is slowing moving towards road tolls.
BA touches down with £200m loss
Pilot Eddington ejects the dividend as British Airways goes into a spin
Byers says Railtrack's successor will be safer
Travellers return in sadness to disaster scene
Student's rail death 'unlawful'
The 'world's favourite airline' hits turbulence in tough times for national carriers - bring back the "ethnic" tailfins.
Waterloo commuters' daily worry - the Evening Standard reports that the tracks used by South West Trains are the worst around London. It is certainly true that they look bad. I can't find the exact quote but I seem to remember that although SWT hands over £260m to Railtrack in access charges Railtrack spends a mere £60m on the infrastructure.

Monday, May 20, 2002

The Octupus Card

I remember seeing this on a BBC travel documentary but didn't quite believe it. Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) has introduced (actually it was way back in 1997) a smart card. It is now possible to travel around Hong Kong without a normal ticket. This is what I found on the Hong Kong Railway Information Centre:
Octopus cards were first introduced in 9/1997, these smart cards (which happens to replace the former Common Stored Value tickets) were designed to allow ease of travel around Hong Kong by eliminating the need of preparing coins. Pass ticket gates simply by placing your card on an octopus fare deduct processor, your card will also work if it is inside your handbag or wallet.

These cards, which come with a protective pouch to avoid damage, may be obtained at any MTR or KCR [Kowloon Canton Railway] customer service counters. Adult cards cost $150 [about £13 or $18] including a $50 refundable deposit. These may be used for any MTR, KCR, selected buses, HKYF, and most public payphones. Your card will have a maximum limit of -$35, however make sure you have at least a positive value before you travel. They can be reloaded anytime at a maximum of $1000 using add value machines at any MTR and KCR stations or 7-Eleven stores, any negative value on card will be deducted at next reload. To check card status, read remaining amount on octopus processor at exit gates or use the octopus enquiry processor located near the single TVMs. Last transaction details including date, type of transport, fare deducted for that journey and remaining balance are displayed.

Octopus cards also have a personalised version which will include your name, photograph, and some personal data. These cards are not transferrable, should the card be lost remaining credits will be forwarded to owner. To purchase, fill out an application form available at most MTR, KCR Eastrail and Lightrail customer service centres.
MTR is privately owned. London Underground's answer, Prestige, is due to be launched in August.


UK railways reclassified as "weapons of mass destruction"

For full details see the Brains Trust. Thanks to Adriana over on Samizdata for the link.

Bad railways? Blame it on the 1950s

This is the web briefing of a BBC Radio 4 programme that was transmitted on Thursday 16 May. It tells the story of the Modernisation Plan and subsequenct Beeching Cuts, something I alluded to in an article for Samizdata about a month ago.

The whole tone of the programme was a typical "If only the Government could be consistent then everything would be all right" line. When are these people going to realise it isn't going to happen? States and certainly the British State are NEVER consistent. They are forever chopping and changing to suit altered political and economic conditions.

What amazes me is how journalists can still take lines like this when contradictory evidence is staring them in the face. The very last line of this programme - the very last line was spoken by long time Department of Transport civil servant David Serpell. He says: "Most of my life we have been saying there must be a transport policy. There never is."

b>In the news
Potters Bar reopens after crash
Forget the jetpack - the future of motoring according to the RAC Foundation
EasyJet set to spread its wings - now that it's bought Go
Byers engulfed in row over M-way tolls leak - what amazes me is how members of this Government can get so worked up over such trifles. I can never work out if ministers being distracted from their jobs in this way is something we should fear or welcome.
Road tolls in ten years as Byers is overruled by Blair - it seems that the Government is sold. Good.
Owners must pay for common land access - I had always thought that Common Land was owned by the State or in common. It isn't.
Falling to pieces - the Mirror reports on Britain's crumbling rail network

Sunday, May 19, 2002

More thoughts on vertical integration

I return to this subject (see Some More On Vertical Integration) because I still haven't been able to definitively pin down my thoughts on the matter. In essence I believe that railways ought to be vertically integrated - in other words that he who owns the trains should own the track. Or more accurately that the State should not interfere to prevent vertical integration (as it currently does in the UK).

There is strong empirical evidence to support the case for vertical integration. I understand that when the Stockton to Darlington line opened in 1825, initially anyone was allowed to run a service. Very soon, the owners realised that this was impractical and decided that in future only they would run trains. Ever since then whenever the market has been free to decide it has chosen vertical integration.

At least more or less. Before 1922 one company would give another running powers over its lines. But in that case the company owning the line would also be the majority operator of trains over it. There were also cases of joint ownership of lines but I think the same would apply. There is also the example of the London and Greenwich railway which for 80 years from the 1840s to when it was finally merged into the Southern Railway in 1923 did not run a single train. Instead it charged companies like the London, Dover and Chatham and the South Eastern Railway for the privilege of running over its rails. But this example is unique.

Since the fragmentation of the railway in Britain railwaymen have constantly complained about the situation and the results have not been good. A similar thing happened in the Netherlands. In Japan the railway are vertically integrated and have gone from strength to strength. The backers of the proposed Central Railway in the UK are desperate to avoid separation. The thing that seems to be lacking is a comprehensive theoretical explanation.

A theoretical explanation is needed because the counter argument is that the opposite of vertical integration, vertical fragmentation, does not seem to do any harm in the aircraft industry. There, different people own the planes, own the airports and are responsible for air traffic control.

So why the difference? In my piece for the Libertarian Alliance I had a stab at this. I said that if you wanted to increase capacity in the air all you had to do was buy a bigger plane. But if you want to increase capacity on the railway then you have to either go about changing the signalling, or lengthening the platforms or rebuilding bridges. But there's a counter argument to this. I understand that Jumbo Jets required longer runways when they were introduced and it is fairly obvious that increasing capacity requires larger airports and indeed fancy new traffic control software.

There is, perhaps, a better case when it comes to faster trains. Faster trains require better track and different signalling. If they tilt they require lineside controllers to tell them when to tilt. They may also require more powerful power supplies. Another factor is timetabling. A train can be as fast as you like but if it gets stuck behind a slower service then it has to go at the same speed as the slower service. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that the Japanese and the French built dedicated high-speed lines. In the case of Japan they even built them to a different gauge to make sure that slower services couldn't use them.

But the reply to this might be "OK there's a point here but that only applies to high-speed lines". Most lines in the UK are not high speed.

That leaves me with this: trains are in constant contact with the track and constantly under the control of the signalling system. Therefore, it is inevitable that the two should come under the control of the same body.

But that leaves me unhappy. There is something missing.

In the news

Toll road network 'planned for UK' - don't get excited; it sounds better than it actually is. This is the product of ex-BBC Managing Director, John Birt's "Blue Skies" unit and is all a bit dreamy. It won't happen.
Congestion charges explained
More councils back road tolls
'My flight delay hell' - A BBC reporter gets delayed - this is serious
Crash firm defends sabotage theory - this is a high-risk strategy playing for high stakes
Potters Bar crash not sabotage, say inspectors
Virgin's 'captive audience' gets Branson sales pitch - 'A Virgin employee at Euston station found it hard to believe. She said: "You must be joking. These are our passengers they're going to be harassing."'
Criminal linked to £1m Railtrack share probe
Railway warning - insight into what it is like to run trains over Railtrack's infrastructure