Thursday, November 07, 2002
Huffing and puffing at the SRA
Britain's Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) (see diagram and outline for further info) made a big splash yesterday (apologies to overseas readers - you'll have to pay). It said in no uncertain terms and as if it meant it that this time it was going to get serious with all those dreadful rail companies.
The Times would moved to state that this was a good thing. In an article entitled Strategic vision: it is time to correct the faults of rail privatisation it said:
Yesterday’s sweeping reorganisation of train franchises is intended to correct some of the longstanding weaknesses in the privatisation of the railways. Among these are the fragmentation of the system, the conflicts between different train companies using the same London terminus, the persistent failure of some operators to run clean, punctual and reliable trains and the institutionalised confrontation between different sectors of the industry.Well, up to a point Lord Copper. Yes, it will reduce some fragmentation of the horizontal sort. However, it will do nothing to reduce the real killer, fragmentation of the vertical sort. Nor, will it do anything to get rid of franchising. Indeed, it entrenches the system.
There is also this idea that in the original franchises no one had thought to penalise operators for failing to run trains on time. Not true. The original agreements were shot through with penalties. Indeed, if memory serves me well, one of these clauses led to the largest fine in British corporate history (against South West Trains).
There is also the question of how the SRA intends to measure cleanliness, security and passenger information (not mentioned here but further examples of Key Performance Indicators (KPI)).
Actually, issues like this go to the heart of why railways cannot be run by contract. At the end of the day factors such as cleanliness and security are down to "feel" as much as anything else. I doubt if your average Japanese station manager has any real idea of how he would measure station cleanliness but I bet he knows a clean station when he sees one.
...Thirdly, Mr Bowker has insisted that he is not trying to micromanage the companies or trespass on their commercial freedom to run their franchises as profitable businesses.Which is the whole point. Rail privatisation didn't work because rail companies had no freedom. And the latest SRA initiative hasn't granted them anymore. Actually what is going to happen now is that many of the managers who could have made a difference are going to throw the towel in now that they know it is going to be very difficult to do anything entrepreneurial.
The companies are franchisees, not government agencies. They are, of course, subject to public control - but so were the four prewar railway companies.Well, just a minute. Now, I am not an expert on the chapter and verse of the pre-war rail industry but as far as I am aware there was no control on passenger fares (freight fares were a different story), no enforced fragmentation (precisely the opposite in fact), no franchising, no subsidy, no fines for lateness, or litter, or criminality and very little in the way of regulation. The pre-war railway companies may not have had complete freedom but that I had a good deal more than their present-day successors. They also a ran a very good railway.
On getting yourself killed in Barcelona
Iberian Notes has the lowdown. Actually, I think their (non) stats are true for just about everywhere.
The Glasgow Underground
Freedom and Whisky's David Farrer e-mails me to tell me that there's been a strike on Glasgow's underground and the strikers have been fired.
I bet you didn't even know there was an underground in Glasgow, did you? If memory serves me correctly it is one of the oldest underground railways in the world. I also understand the trains are very small indeed.
Anyway, the socialists are going to sack their brother drivers are they? Why do I scoff?
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
DVT - an update
I have just come across this factfile produced by the Telegraph. Interesting that American Airlines have increased legroom but not fares. How do they do it?
Diane E. from Letter from Gotham gets very upset about the demolition of Penn Station in the 1960s. I still get upset about the demolition of Euston and that was before I was even born.
At the same time my rational side tells me that we do sometimes have to knock down old buildings even if they look nice. Otherwise we fail to progress. Worse still we end up with an appalling housing shortage like we currently do in London. On my trip to Japan the station master at Nagoya told us how Nagoya Station was once the tallest building in Asia. They still knocked it down. Part of me cheered.
When I was about 10 I saw St Pancras Station for the first time. I thought it was the most beautiful building I'd ever seen. I probably still do. In an instant I could see a dilemma which I have never really resolved. On the one hand I could see that the owner had every right to demolish it. On the other I wanted to keep it - without, of course, having to go to the trouble of shelling out any of my own money.
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
Deep Vein Thrombosis
There's a court case on this just started. I object to this sort of thing instinctively. But instincts aren't enough. Sometimes, nay most times, it is the politician's job to rationalise instincts. That way the voters can feel good about themselves. By the way, I didn't think that up all on my own, Enoch Powell said or something very similar a long time ago.
So how do I rationalise my instincts on this one then? Why do I think these suits should fail?
Well, my one-o is that it is all about personal responsibility - you have to take responsibility for your own health. But that's not much of a winner in this day and age.
My two-o is that airlines cannot possibly know which of their passengers is going to get DVT and which aren't.
My three-o (I'll stop there) is that it's going to put up the prices, especially the prices, I, Patrick Crozier, pay. Do I not like that.
The final point I suppose is about choice. If this suit succeeds then it will apply to all carriers. At present there is still the possibility of choice. One carrier might say "can't be bothered" but another might say "Well, look, if you do happen to fly with us and suffer DVT then this is the compensation we will give you.
Monday, November 04, 2002
According to this the government is promising to compensate those affected by airport expansion. Maybe, maybe. But will the compensation be adequate? Will it mean a new Act of Parliament or is it just the same, old system? I'm not holding my breath.
On calling Talk Sport
This morning, on nationwide talk radio station, Talk Sport's Mike Dickin show, the special guest was Christian Wolmar, the transport journalist. Wolmar is a man I have a great deal of respect for (see here, here and here) and he was on promoting his last book (on railways) and his soon-to-be-released book (on the Tube).
The problem I have with Christian Wolmar is that he attributes the railway's problems to privatisation. As I never (yet) tire of saying, the railway's problems have nothing to do with privatisation and everything to do with franchising and fragmentation. Oh, and various other bits of government interference. This a theme that was recently tackled by Paul Marks on Samizdata.
Despite my efforts to change his views Wolmar seems to remain unmoved and this morning was uttering phrases like "...since privatisation" and "private railway companies".
I felt moved to call.
I have never called a talk show let alone appeared on one but for once decided to give it a go. I dialled 08704 202020. I was answered by a guy who seemed to be on jerk patrol. He asked me what my point was, I replied, he came back with another question and I replied again. I passed and got put into a queue at about 12.35pm. I switched off my radio (otherwise you get feedback) and waited. By the way, as you hold you do get to listen to the show - which is nice. After about 15 minutes I was beginning to despair. I told myself if I didn't get on next I would hang up. I didn't. The next caller was Roger Ford, doyen of railway journalists, so I listened to him. There was a break. "You're next". And sure enough, at about 12.55pm Mike Dickin came on and announced "Patrick from Twickenham". Yes it would have been nicer if it had been "Patrick Crozier from the Libertarian Alliance" or "Patrick from the UK Transport web log" but I wasn't quite sure I would get past jerk patrol with that lot and anyway it would have been a nightmare to explain.
Anyway this is (approximately) what I said:
"Christian Wolmar would like us to believe..."
[I do wish I hadn't said that. I wish I had just said "Christian Wolmar seems to believe...". I certainly didn't and don't want to cast aspersions on Wolmar's motives which I believe to be true enough. Anyway, I said it.]
"...that the railway's problems are due to privatisation. While I accept that problems exist and they happened after privatisation they have nothing to do with privatisation. The problem lies in what happened at the same time: fragmentation and franchising. Japan also has a private railway. It doesn't have fragmentation or franchising and it works very well."
Oh, I think I stuttered over one word but quite frankly, I am a bit of a stutterer at the best of times and given the stressful nature of putting across your views live to millions of people I regard that as acceptable.
Wolmar replied something to the effect that he entirely agreed that fragmentation and franchising were indeed the real culprits, that he had written extensively on Japanese railways, that they had received massive subsidy [I tried to interject that they had not] and that anyway it was always a stupid idea to have a private enterprise like Railtrack at the heart of the railway. I think he also said that fragmentation etc was part of the privatisation process (grrr).
And with that, Mike Dickin, running out of time as he was, moved onto the next caller.
Had there been time I might have replied pointing out that the placement of Railtrack (which I am beginning to conclude was a pretty incompetent organisation) at the heart of the railway was a consequence of fragmentation and privatisation and not privatisation in itself. I would probably have gone on to point out that for 120 years (up until 1948) private organisations were at the heart of the railway and things went rather well. But there wasn't, so I couldn't and millions remain to be convinced. Oh well.
Nevertheless, I had done it and that was a personal Rubicon crossed. So, I am glad. Whether it did any good or not is another question. It's very difficult to tell. Maybe there was one person out there who really got what I said and will make a difference. Maybe there were lots of people who from now on, deep in their subconciousnesses will bear the idea that at least some people think that private railways are a good thing.
We will never know.