June 17, 2004

Why don't fragmented railways work? - A conjecture

Andy Wood | Fragmentation | Rail Economics

I wrote this post several weeks ago, in response to Patrick's musings on the subject. I've been sitting on it since then because I'm not entirely satisfied with it. In particular, I'm not sure that the example I've chosen - namely Railtrack's poor maintenance record - necessarily illustrates the point I'm trying to make. However, the post isn't going to improve itself by staying on my hard drive, so at Patrick's urging I'm posting it up anyway. Suggested improvements, especially from professional economists who know something about railways, will be very welcome.

Patrick has been thinking about the fragmentation of the railways. I hadn't thought very much about the subject myself until he raised the following question: We all know that vertically integrated railways run better than fragmented ones (actually, I don't know this - I'm just taking Patrick's word for it), but why? Why does the fragmentation model fail for railways, but not for roads, electricity, gas, airlines, or internet service providers? Or in Patrick's words, what is it about replacing tarmac with steel rails and rubber tyres with steel tyres that means that whoever operates the vehicles must also control the infrastructure?

Patrick speculates that it might be because a train's long stopping distance means that they need signals to tell them if they must stop or if it's safe to proceed. My thought was that all that this implied was that drivers need to obey instructions from the signalmen, and there is no reason why that cannot be handled by terms in the contract between the track owner and the train operator. After all, pilots need to obey instructions from air traffic control and the airlines seem to cope with fragmentation without much trouble.

Mark Elliot then pointed out that railways require maintenance, while the sky doesn't, and it is the need to accommodate this into railway timetables that renders fragmentation so ineffective. Again, I'm not convinced that this is what makes the difference. I find it hard to see why this cannot be handled by the contracts between the track owner and train operator. Excluding a train from a stretch of track for routine maintenance doesn't seem to me to be any harder than excluding the train because someone else's train is already timetabled to use it. This observation suggests that if fragmentation fails for real railways, then it should also fail for some hypothetical railway that requires no maintenance at all. I don't think emergency maintenance explains it either. Emergencies imply that train operators will have to tolerate disruption of their timetables. But the same thing applies to airlines. On 9/11, air traffic control succeeded in grounding thousands of planes and fragmentation didn't seem to prevent that from going reasonably smoothly. And airlines seem to cope with more mundane disruptions of their timetables, for instance, due to bad weather.

I'm similarly sceptical of claims that it is because there are no clear lines of responsibility - if something goes wrong nobody will be blamed for it, so nobody has an incentive to put things right. But if this is so, it threatens the profits of both the track owner and the train operator. They have a clear incentive to renegotiate their contract to fix it. That nobody could properly be held accountable may have described the situation that existed between Railtrack and the train operators, but we still need to explain why they didn't change that.

After thinking this through I have come up with a possible explanation and I think that so far we have been barking up the wrong tree. I don't think I'd be satisfied by any explanation that simply emphasised the costs and complexity of the situation. If something is costly and complex for two companies to do, it is also costly and complex for one. If a problem requires close cooperation between different people, there is no a priori reason why those people should all work for the same company. Costs and complexity don't seem to be sufficient to explain why track owners and train operators, but not a sole owner, should fail to work effectively together.

You have probably noticed that I seem to have an odd faith in the ability of companies to negotiate mutually beneficial contracts. If you also read economics textbooks - whether for fun or profit - you may have guessed that my thinking has been influenced by the Coase Theorem. Roughly speaking, the Coase Theorem states that the rules don't matter. No matter how property is initially distributed, no matter what rights people have or don't have, they will negotiate their way to an economically efficient outcome. Stated like that, the Coase Theorem is obviously absurd. We already seem to agree that Railtrack and the train operators failed to make some mutually beneficial agreements. If the Coase Theorem applied to the Soviet Union, then Stalin and his victims would have reached some agreement bringing the tyranny to an end. The reason the Coase Theorem fails in those cases is because it only applies when transaction costs are small. If there is something which makes it costly or difficult for people to reach an agreement, then it shouldn't be too surprising if sometimes they don't. The holdout problem in building roads is an example of a transaction cost that sometimes exercises us at Transport Blog.

As well as formulating the Coase Theorem, Ronald Coase also investigated the nature of the firm. He set out to answer the very question we've been thinking about here: why are some industries fragmented but others vertically integrated? His answer was closely related to his later work on the Coase Theorem. It all boils down to transaction costs. If an industry is fragmented, it will require that different companies make contracts with each other to get things done. If transaction costs are high, sometimes those contracts won't be made and the efficiency of the industry will be impaired. Vertical integration can sometimes eliminate those transaction costs and solve the problem.

This is the reason why I am sceptical of the above explanations for the failure of the fragmented railways. None of them seem to be transaction costs. Long stopping distances mean that a driver has to obey signals whether he works for a unified railway or a separate train operator. Maintenance has to be paid for regardless of how many companies use a track. The complexity of a timetable will depend on the number of train routes and the layout of the network; that won't be changed by merging two companies into one. Many of the same points about costs and complexity could apply equally well to fragmented industries which don't fail. If we want to explain why fragmentation doesn't work for the railways, we should find some transaction cost which exists in the railways by not in industries where fragmentation does work.

I conjecture that the transaction cost we are looking for is the problem of bilateral monopoly. Economic theory predicts that a competitve market will operate efficiently, provided some assumptions hold. If there is a monopoly seller, however, he can increase his profits by restricting his output and so raising the price he receives for the goods he sells. If there is a monoploy buyer (a monospony), he can lower the price he pays by restricting the number of goods he buys. Both of these situations are inefficient, because some goods are not being produced even though consumers value the goods more than the cost of producing them.

A bilateral monopoly has only one buyer and only one seller. In this situation, both parties have the opportunity to extract a more favourable deal by threatening to pull out if they don't get their way. The result is that bilateral monopolies will tend to be characterised by haggling, posturing, bluffs and threats in a way that transactions in a competitive market are not. Unfortunately we cannot predict what the outcome will be. It is possible that an efficient deal will be cut, but it is also possible that the gains from the deal will be dissipated in the efforts wasted on haggling, or that the deal will fall through altogether. This problem does not exist if there are many buyers or many sellers. If there are many sellers, the opportunity for an individual seller to raise his price is limited by the presence of other sellers who can undercut him. Similar logic applies if there are many buyers.

At first sight, Britain's railways do not appear to be a bilateral monopoly. There is certainly a monopoly seller of track time - Network Rail, formerly Railtrack. But there are many buyers - the train operating companies. However, if we look at the railways region by region, they do appear to a collection of local bilateral monopolies. Even in those cases where there is more than one operator using a track, the number is still very small. So, although the market power of an individual operator will be diluted somewhat by the presence of the others, it could still be considerably greater than in a competitive market.

What difference does this make in practice? Consider, for example, the issue of track maintenance. It is often claimed that Railtrack's poor record at maintaining the tracks was due to the fact that no-one had clear responsibility for maintenance. Without such responsibility, and therefore without appropriate incentives, the condition of the tracks deteriorated, causing delays when repairs had to be made and ultimately the Potters Bar crash, when a train was derailed by a broken rail.

In principle, this lack of responsibility could have been solved by a suitable contract. Responsibility could have been assigned by penalty clauses in such a contract. For example, delays encourage passengers to seek alternative transport and so cause the train operators to lose money. If a penalty clause specified that Railtrack must pay compensation to the train operator whenever a train was delayed, then Railtrack would have had an incentive to keep the tracks in a decent state of repair to minimise the number of delays caused by emergency repairs. Such contracts can even solve the problem when the law assigns responsibility to the wrong people, for instance if the courts forced GNER, rather than Railtrack, to pay compensation to the victims of the Potters Bar crash. Of course, such penalty clauses would have imposed costs on Railtrack and would therefore have required some compensation in other parts of the contract, such as higher fees, so that Railtrack would have agreed to them.

In a competitve market, if the buyer and seller cannot agree on a contract, they can always look for someone else with whom to strike a deal. If both sides can gain from a potential trade, there is very little incentive to threaten to pull out, since such a threat is very likely to make a deal fall through. In a bilateral monopoly, neither party can take their business elsewhere, so it is more likely that such a threat will be successful.

After I wrote the previous paragraphs, I was reminded by Google that the regulator had the power to fine Railtrack for causing delays. The penalty clauses, or at least some equivalent, already existed. I was left wondering why they didn't seem to have worked and whether that contradicted what I've just argued. I haven't come to any conclusion on this, as I think that there are several possibilities. One is that the fines were too low: it was cheaper for Railtrack to pay the fines than to improve the state of the tracks. If, in addition, the compensation received by the train operators covered the money lost from ticket sales, then the question should be not "Why wasn't the system working?", but "What was the problem?" In this scenario, the costs of preventing delays outweigh the benefits. (On the other hand, if fatal accidents on the railways shared the same causes as the delays, that conclusion would be rather dubious.) Price controls could explain this situation: if a train operator is forbidden from increasing its fares to ration access to its services, it can reduce quality instead.

A more interesting possibility is that the failure of the fines to encourage Railtrack to maintain the tracks is in fact evidence of what I've been arguing, that although it would have been cheaper, in the short run, to maintain the tracks than to pay the fines, Railtrack had their eyes on a bigger prize: they were gambling on the possibility that the other parties involved would conclude that maintaining the tracks was much more expensive than they had realised and increase Railtrack's fees to compensate. Is it possible that Railtrack's poor maintenance record was a deliberate strategy to get the contracts rewritten in its favour so that it could claim a bigger slice of the profits generated by the railways? That's just speculation, but I think it's an interesting question in the light of what I've argued above.

Another point worth mentioning is that as well as assuming negligible transaction costs, the Coase Theorem appears to require freedom of contract. In Britain, the contracts between the track owner and the train operators are dictated by the regulator. I don't think this should affect the argument in a fundamental way. The Coase Theorem also applies to the relationship between businesses and the government as it does to the relationship between businesses. If the firms didn't arrive at the correct contract because the regulator forbade them from doing so, that simply begs the question of why they didn't manage to persuade the regulator to change the rules. It might mean that the particular transaction cost that I have conjectured is not the correct one, but, nevertheless, some other transaction cost will be to blame. More important, however, is that we need to explain why vertical integration is preferable in general, not just the circumstances of present day Britain. An explanation that depends on specific features of particular railways is unsatisfactory in this respect.

I'm not claiming that bilateral monopoly is necessarily the only transaction cost that is important, but I hope I have given some indication of the sort of explanation that we should be looking for.

David Friedman's books Law's Order, Price Theory and Hidden Order contain some extensive discussions of the Coase Theorem, transaction costs, bilateral monopoly and the theory of the firm.

UPDATE 19/09/04: I link to some more articles about Coase's work here.

Trackbacks

More on Coase and railways
A few weeks ago, I argued that fragmented railways don't work very well because of transaction costs, as described by Ronald Coase in his paper The Nature of the Firm. At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux makes the same point, although, being a more sensible m...
Transport Blog on September 19, 2004

Comments

A few observations in no particular order:

Excellent posting. It's about time that someone injected some economic expertise into the debate.

What it all seems to boil down to is: are there transaction costs that exist in railways but not in the air or on the road? Because, if we can find some significant ones then it would explain a lot.

I think when you refer to the Potters Bar crash you mean the Hatfield crash of November 2000. Potters Bar was caused by a faulty set of points. Hatfield was caused by a broken rail.

I seem to remember that the Regulator did change the penalty regime. And people complained that they didn't understand it to which the Regulator replied something along the lines of: "It will work even if they don't understand it."

And, anyway, isn't the Regulator outside the realm of Coase, in much the same way Stalin was?

I am asking myself the question: is the problem that vertical fragmentation cannot work or that it could work if only it were done better?

I suppose there is also the related question: if transaction costs are as low as you think they are why (when railway companies had a choice over how they organised themselves) did so few choose the vertically fragmented option?

Oh and it's Ellot, not Elliot.

It's always possible that roads and air would be better if vertically integrated.

I like the idea about bi-lateral monopolies. That does seem to one of the main differences between road and rail. Begs the question why you end up with a monopoly operator on railways.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on June 17, 2004

Very interesting. Some thoughts to inject:

In all the examples, the infrastructure provider is, by and large, one entity (air traffic control; Highways agency; transco etc).

The market then allows (with greater or lesser degrees of regulation) service providers to use this infrastructure.

Where this seems to go out of alignment for railways is that
1) The service providers are not free to provide only those services they think the market will sustain at prices needed to justify the activity
2) Unlike the utilities it is not possible to even approximately equate a commercially viable provision of services with what is socially required
3) Therefore the centre of gravity in the customer/supplier relationship in the rail industry is fundamentally between the regulatory authorities (who are paying for the activity) and the service providers. The market is very good at achieving returns for the provider, it's just that in this case the end user isn't the 'customer' in the relationship, and is ultimately rather marginalised in the process.

Posted by andy wakeford on June 18, 2004

To be pedantic - it's Ellott (two "t"s).

An interesting analysis. The contracts between Railtrack, the TOCs and the infrastructure companies were awful. Had they been truly based upon mutually beneficial and freely negotiated principles, things might have turned out differently. The penalty regime favoured the TOC to the point where running trains late - or better, cancelling them made economic sense. Indeed, had the penalty regime been evenly distributed between Railtrack and its contractors, those contractors would have been bankrupt within weeks. Also, the penalty regime that let one TOC delay another one with Railtrack picking up the bill was hardly mutually beneficial. Seek hard enough and you will find no doubt the mucky hand of political shenannigins....

I still prefer the vertical model - everyone is working for the same company with clear lines of control and responsibility. It can operate as a privately run (and profitable) business with overlaps where operators run across boundaries. Just call me an old fashioned railwayman ;-)

Posted by Mark Ellott on June 19, 2004

This one has been fermenting in my mind for a couple of days. So, some more thoughts...

If the railways were to adopt a similar arrangement to, say, the air and you had a RyanAir or EasyJet model, how would you do it?

They can't do as they do in aviation and negotiate deals with regional stations because there is only the one network infrastructure owner/controller and limited timetable slots.

The nearest model is something like Bristol to London where you can take the FGW direct route to Paddington or the Wessex route to Waterloo via the more circuitous route through the Southern region. However, this falls down if you want an intermediate stop at Swindon, Didcot or Reading.

So, the only alternative would be for our cheap option operator to build a parallel railway with their own track, signalling and maintenance/renewals contractors. Sounds a lot like a vertical system to me. But I just can't see how "competition" in the current set-up could ever work.

Posted by Mark Ellott on June 20, 2004

The biggest reason why EasyRail would be a problem is that the congestion patterns in the sky and the rail network are very different.

In airspace terms, major airports are very congested; southeast England is quite congested, and most other places aren't - so you could increase the number of transatlantic flights tenfold, as long as they all had airports to take off from and land at in Europe and North America.

In rail terms, intercity mainlines are very congested *all the way along*. So even if you have a service that avoids the congestion of Euston by starting from Watford, it still has to share track with the existing Euston trains between Watford and its final destination.

There's some scope to run additional trains along lines nobody uses very much - although BR single-tracked many of these, meaning that not even they have much spare capacity. However, these lines will tend to go a relatively short distance from somewhere unpopular to somewhere else unpopular... which wouldn't even be a viable model for Ryanair.

Probably the best outcome is to accept that competition on a single mainline isn't viable, but to run as many services as possible where different mainlines compete between major cities(running rival companies' trains from Paddington, Marylebone and Euston to Birmingham; from Euston and St Pancras to Manchester; from St Pancras and King's Cross to Leeds; from Euston and King's Cross to Glasgow - etc). This competition should also improve the quality of service to intermediate stations on these routes (it's the same trains, after all...).

Hmm, perhaps the companies doing this could be called the LNER, the GWR, the LMS...

Posted by john b on June 21, 2004

In any organisation, if you have complete control of all operations you will be successful. If you are reliant on others, delays and procastination occurs. Vertigal conrol must be preferable.

Posted by Brian Hayes on June 26, 2004

That's not true, in general. With vertical integration you give up opportunities to purchase some of your inputs on a competitive market. If you can shop around for the best supplier or sub-contracter, you will achieve better results than if you have to do everything in-house. It's only when, for one reason or another, it's not possible, or too costly, to shop around that vertical integration might be preferable.

Posted by Andy Wood on June 27, 2004

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