February 2003


February 24, 2003

Driver 'on mobile' missed platform

Patrick Crozier | London Underground

From the BBC. Seems it's not just the passengers who are making calls.

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February 20, 2003

It works

Brian Micklethwait | Road Pricing

Patrick isn't well, last I heard, so this is Brian Micklethwait filling in, and the obvious big story for me to tell you things about is the London Congestion Charge, which came into force on Monday.

I live just inside the edge of the Congestion Charge Area, and I ought to have special eyewitness type insights to offer. And I guess I do have one, which is that Vauxhall Bridge Road ought to be a classic newly created Perimeter Jam. Because if you're driving from one side of The Area to the other side, and you don't want to pay and decide to go round, Vauxhall Bridge Road is on a lot of those routes.

Plus this where people ought to be driving around trying to park, so that they can walk into The Area without paying anything.

Well, nothing. No jams. No cars meandering about looking for parking. Everything seems to be running very smoothly. There are people saying "Well no wonder because it's half term and nobody is doing the school run", as if introducing the scheme at a sensible moment is somehow cheating. But to hell with them.

What seems to be happening is that motorists are all cowering at home and telecommuting or off on holiday with their children or something, until they understand the mysteries of the new dispensation and have done their various different sums about whether £5 is worth it or not, at which point they may venture back towards central London. Meanwhile, it's as if there is an invisible force field, radiating out far beyond the Area, in which, for the time being, All Bets Are Off.

The sky remains obstinately unfallen, so the Mayor is boasting about how well it is all going. And if by "well" you mean no catastrophes that anyone can photograph, well then yes, it is going well. It reminds me of another big event that turned out not to be, which was when angry motorists decided to have a day of not buying petrol That didn't photograph well either. (Here is a garage with slightly fewer people buying petrol than usual. Hold the front page!!)

Grumpy newspaper articles are starting to appear – sorry can't remember who by or give any links, but they are – saying that London will never recover and its economy, formerly the size of Italy, is eff you see kay-ed, the size of Hartlepool in a bad winter, etc. etc. etc. blah blah blah, and we are all doomed.

Not so. London is London, and will soon assert itself again. The Congestion Charge is a sudden discontinuity introduced into London life, which will turn out to be ruinous for all kinds of businesses, and destruction is usually quicker than creativity. There'll indeed be plenty of business failures, including some weird ones that nobody saw coming. But creativity will follow. New businesses more suited to the new Congestion Charged world (equally impossible to predict) will move into the spaces occupied by businesses that worked better in the world of Free at the Point of Use Road Use, and London life will resume, just as bustling and chaotic and crowded as ever.

Saying that it won't is like saying, as people do, that some change that someone wants but the speaker doesn't, will "upset the balance of nature". But nature always balances. It'll just be a new balance, and there'll be new species moving in to take the places of the previous ones that can't make it any more. But London permanently quiet? Forget it.

Personally I was all for it, and I am now even more so. There will be some quite serious problems with the scheme. Thousands are not paying their bills properly, and hundreds may contrive to escape them for months or years. All kinds of worries are being rightly raised about surveillance, Big Brother, and so on. But these are incidentals. Road pricing doesn't have to be like this, as I explained in a recent Samizdata piece. The important point is that it is now going to be a universally accepted fact of British public debate that It Works.

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February 14, 2003

Tube delay – and chatting about it

Brian Micklethwait | Rail Delays

With this posting I achieve a first for me, namely something on all four blogs that I write for – this one, and this one which is about road pricing and could equally well have gone here now I think about it, and this one, and this one) in a single day. But this achievement was only made possible by the transport misery that I am about to relate. If all had gone well this evening I'd have been away at a meeting in Putney.

Simply, the District Line got stuck. Something to do with a signal failure, I think. A journey that should have got me to Putney Bridge tube station by 7.45 pm only got me to Earls Court at 8pm. I was going to be very late for the talk I hoped to attend, even if all had gone well from then on, and who could say that the delays I had already suffered would be the last? Trains to Wimbledon have a nasty habit of stopping at Parsons Green and going back into central London again, despite having "Wimbledon" on the front of them, and I thought I saw an arrow pointing to Parsons Green on the Earls Court sign machine, before it changed to Ealing, so the next train on my line would probably have been for Parsons Green for real. Forget it. I returned home. £2 to go from home to home, in an hour and a quarter. For a brief enraging moment I thought I was going to have to purchase another ticket, just to get home, but of course if you don't leave the system you can go anywhere you like on it, so long as you end up within range of your original ticket.

But an extra dimension of horror was added to the journey that I did make, as far as Earls Court, by the tube train driver from hell. He was obviously a failed disk jockey who still harboured showbiz ambitions, because instead of just telling us what was delaying us, and why, and what kind of progress we could still hope to be making, he insisted on "chatting" about the situation, and about his own personal feelings about it, in a way that I found very, very annoying. Ignoring him wasn't an option, because we had to be sure that we didn't miss any actual information of significance. Some fellow passengers seemed to find him funny, but I heard plenty of growling also, expressing feelings like mine.

However, there has been another chat related development which until now had escaped my notice. At one point in our start-stop journey we stopped just before reaching Earls Court, in what I swear was a tunnel. After we had been stuck for several minutes, with no clue from Chit-Chat Man as to when we would ever move again, passengers started ringing up the people they were due to meet with to say that they were stuck, and would be late. "I didn't know those things worked down here", said the man opposite me to his lady companion. Me neither.

So, although the trains are a mess, we can at least now chat about it. The driver can indulge in Tony Blackburn fantasies, and the passengers can chat to their dates, instead of just being late without warning. But, if you aren't the driver, or you don't have a portable phone (that works in a tunnel), you just have to sit there and suffer. Thank goodness I had a very good book with me.

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The rules of the road

Patrick Crozier | Road Safety

I've been reading yet another of those dreary letters about how restrictive/free the road traffic laws should be. I can usually shrug these off by reminding myself that in the libertarian world of the future these things will be up to road owners and by a process of trial and error we will discover what the law should be.

But I am still curious to know what that law is likely to be. Will it be highly liberal? Or highly restrictive? Will it follow the example of CrozierRoad I sketched out some weeks ago?

What would be nice would be some precedents. Toll roads might be able to help but I suspect that they are subject to the same rules as everywhere else so probably can't. But it occured to me are there any examples from any other industries with similar safety issues ie where customers are allowed to control objects that could be dangerous both to themselves and others? The obvious example would be gun clubs. So, what sorts of rules do gun clubs have? Are there any other dangerous activities which are subject to non-state regulation?

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Congestion Charge Q&A

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

Informative Question and Answer in the Times today. Did you know, for instance, that you will be charged for leaving the zone as well as entering it? Why, for heaven's sake?

But the really worrying factoid was the one about where the money goes. Any profits must be spent on transport. Uh oh. Make that a full-scale alert. This is going to screw everything up. The great libertarian hope was that the profits from schemes like this would be so high that local authorities would get hooked and therefore start to build more roads in the search for ever more revenue. But instead they're going to have to spend it on crappy buses or squander it on trams. And there's only so much money you can waste like that - so the addictive effect won't kick in. Oh dear.

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February 12, 2003

A world in a grain of sand

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | General Points (not just transport) | Transport General

Brian Micklethwait is fond of describing my transport researches as finding “the world in a grain of sand”;. By this he means that if you look at anything in sufficient detail for long enough you will eventually be able to derive rules that are applicable anywhere.

So have I found the world in a grain of transportational sand? Well, I’ve been doing this for over two years now (in various forms) so I should be able to come up with some answers. And I think the answer is a qualified yes. Certainly, on the hard political issues the same old rules apply: free enterprise is better than state enterprise; private ownership is better than state ownership; regulation has unintended consequences, the state is poor at standardisation; subsidy is bad; price control is bad; free enterprise fosters pride and culture, state enterprise crushes it; free enterprise looks long term, state enterprise does not.

One of my happiest discoveries was that of the jitney and other forms of non-regulated motorised transport. I was genuinely surprised to discover how well they used to work and how well they still work in those parts of the world that still allow them.

I was surprised at how public-private partnerships have so manifestly failed to live up to their promise. Although I have always been a sceptic - believing that it doesn't matter how the state does it the results will be bad - I was surprised that the state found it impossible to draw up simple contracts in a reasonably short space of time that might not do too much harm. It's health and education next. You have been warned.

But having said that, there are some funnies out there. The economics of transport are not the same as the economics of Mars Bars. It is one of the weirdest things that you make money from urban railways not from the fare-paying passenger but from gains in nearby property values. That is very odd.

Transport systems also seem very specific to the areas they serve. For instance, urban railways in North American cities are pointless – the cities are too spread out. But great continent-crossing freight railways make enormous sense whereas in Japan and most other places they don’t. Equally, there are specific (and good) reasons why France and Japan were the first countries to have high-speed rail networks. Reasons, incidentally, that don’t really apply to the UK.

There also seem to be areas where the libertarian paradigm seems to break down. How, for instance, do you build a railway or a road without compulsory purchase? How do you build an airport without in some way infringing someone else’s property rights (ie the right to a quiet or non-polluted life)? Is it possible to treat these two cases in the same way – after all they both involve someone being deprived of his property?

Roads give me a huge headache. This is something I intend to work up in another post but I have severe doubts as to whether they are privatisable. OK, the motorways are easy enough but local streets? They seem to be a very different kettle of fish. I do not doubt that they ought to be privatised it is just how you go about it without creating huge injustices.

I have never quite resolved in my own mind whether roads need lots of rules or not. And is it really true that pollution has fallen over the years? And if so, why?

On a slightly more general point, it never ceases to amaze me how un-ideological businessmen are. I had always thought that they understood clearly the implications of the state in all its forms but were just keeping quiet about it. But the more I have probed the more I have come to the conclusion that in fact there is nothing there. Generally speaking they do not wish that the state would simply disappear just that it would do its job better. I rather fear that this is true of all sorts of other areas.

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February 11, 2003

Tram project threatens to be PFI casualty

Patrick Crozier | Public Private Partnerships | Trams

Headline in the Times concerning the trams in Croydon (South London). But what am I to make of it? The report is scattered with words and phrases that don’t make a whole load of sense.

The documents say: “At the time of preparation of these accounts the company did not have sufficient funds to continue trading beyond March 25, 2003.”
OK, that one makes sense. It sounds like bad news.
Tramtrack Croydon suffered a 34 per cent increase in pre-tax losses, to £9.47 million, in the year to March 31, 2002, and its operating losses more than doubled to £1.58 million.
Now what’s the difference between a pre-tax loss and an operating loss? Anybody? Anything to do with debt servicing, perhaps?
“It’s difficult to see how Tramtrack Croydon will ever make money. It doesn’t break even at the operating level, so how can it pay down debt of more than £100 million?”
OK, that one’s plain enough too, and it also sounds like bad news.
If Tramtrack Croydon were a public company, its accounts would have been out last June.
Ditto. Hang about. You mean it isn’t a public ie private company? But this is to with the Private Finance Initiative, right? So, it’s private and therefore public, yes?
Tramtrack Croydon is a so-called special purpose vehicle (SPV)
A what?

I decided to do a Google search and see what I could find. First up (indeed only up) was Croydon Tramlink – the unofficial site. As far as it goes this seems pretty good. It tells us that work on the project began in January 1997 that the first tram ran on June 16th 1999 and that the network was completed in 29th May 2000. It also tells us that the complete project cost £200m of which the state supplied £125m.

Now I am no expert on how Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), of which this is one, are supposed to work but this would appear to be an almost model example. The government wants a project. It can’t be done commercially. The government offers to help out with the construction. All of a sudden it is a goer. The government gets its project. The costs are lower than they would otherwise be and it doesn’t have to worry about operating the thing. For politicians who have come to realise that the state is not much cop at either capital funding or operations, this should be a godsend.

But here is the model project (I have heard all sorts of politicos telling me what a great success it has been) about to go tits up.

The interesting thing is what happens next – especially seeing as the operators can’t even cover their operating expenses. You see, if it were just a matter of the operators being sunk by the debt then that would be just too bad but the liquidators could sell the assets and someone else could have a go. But if there is no way of making a profit out of this project – even if there is no debt to worry about – then no one is going to buy it.

So, what does the government do then? Now, if it were being true to the spirit of PFI (Private Finance Initiative ie PPP) it would simply walk away. “We took a risk – it didn’t come off, too bad.” But governments aren’t like that. Governments find it very difficult to walk away from things. This is because… well, actually, I don’t know. What I do know is that they do promise that there will be a school in every town and a national health service, free at the point of use, and a police force. These are unconditional statements. They don't say those services will be any good, mind. The private sector says "We'll supply you with the service so long as we can cover our costs (or thereabouts)". This is a conditional statement.

Anyway, the bottom line is: expect a rescue deal.

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February 10, 2003

Clapham Junction – more queueing angst

Brian Micklethwait | Best of Transport Blog | Brians Odyssey

So, in the course of my December 20th journey, I was at Clapham Junction, and had decided to take the next train to Victoria.

But from which platform would the next train to Victoria depart? This is a classic Clapham Junction dilemma. Many trains converge on Clapham Junction destined for Victoria, and there are two different platforms at which a Victoria-bound train might arrive and from which a Victoria-bound train might depart. These are, if I remember the numbers correctly, platform 12 and platform 14. Usually I just go down into the tunnel and pick one or the other of these platforms at random. Sometimes I ask around, but generally I just pick one, if I see a sign on the platform I have picked which says that there will eventually be a Victoria train I just sit myself down and read whatever I have with me, and try to ignore any trains that may arrive and depart from the other of the two platforms which I might have chosen instead. (This is a variant of the queueing angst problem I described in my first Brian's Odyssey posting, then in connection with ticket buying.)

If I am for some reason in a rush to get home – perhaps because of the TV show I want to catch, or perhaps merely because, being the impatient person that I often am I like to get things, such as railway journeys, done quickly and without fuss, cutting out all extraneous causes of delay or diversion and concentrating entirely and only on the essential and immediate matter in hand – there is another way to go about things.

Continue reading "Clapham Junction – more queueing angst"


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February 09, 2003

ICE v TGV

Patrick Crozier | European Union | Railways - Other

The European Union should be about co-operation and standardisation. And the Franco-German (old European) Alliance definitely should. But it isn't, as Michael Jennings explains.

Incidentally, the references to the Australian system are to the way its (state-run) railways ended up with three separate track gauges. Strangely enough, although they flirted with different gauges, both Britain and America's (privately-run) railways eventually managed to produce a universal gauge.

In Japan the private railways all have a standard gauge but the state-run Toei subway has somehow managed to end up with three.

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On the niceness of some London walks and the boringness of other London walks

Brian Micklethwait | Best of Transport Blog | Brians Odyssey

As my train approached Clapham Junction on December 20th 2002, I faced what was perhaps the most complex and multidimensional decision of my entire journey.

When departing from London to Egham, choosing to leave from Victoria is a relatively easy decision. Victoria is quite near to my home (although not very near) while Waterloo is quite a walk. The trains go direct from Waterloo to Egham, while departing from Victoria means changing at Clapham Junction. But trains are very frequent from Victoria to Clapham, and someone can usually tell you which is the next to leave, so I end up catching a train at Clapham that I might have missed had I walked all the way to Waterloo. So, easy decision. Walk to Victoria, get the next train to Clapham, proceed to Egham.

But when returning to London the decision, as I approach Clapham Junction, about whether to get off there, and if so whether to proceed then to Vauxhall (by a later Waterloo train which also stops as Vauxhall) or to Victoria, is more complicated. When I approach Clapham, I am already on a train that is going to Waterloo. I won't have to wait for it. Therefore, the total time to get home might be less if I proceed to Waterloo than if I change and go to Vauxhall and then walk across Vauxhall Bridge to my home, or go to Victoria and walk the somewhat longer walk back from Victoria to home.

In the end what decided me was not guesses about time, but feelings about which walks are pleasing and which ones aren't. Does walking, and the subtleties of which walks are nice and which not so nice count as "transport", and accordingly as a proper subject for this blog? Maybe not directly, but walking competes with "transport", if the distance involved is short. And walking gets you to transport, so it's clearly a part of the story.

Anyway, the truth is that, of these three walks, although Waterloo to home is the longest and Vauxhall to home is probably the shortest, Victoria to home is by far my favourite.

Continue reading "On the niceness of some London walks and the boringness of other London walks"


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February 08, 2003

Speed Camera blown up

Patrick Crozier | Road Miscellany

See the Telegraph. The first thing that strikes me is that people are getting really pissed off. They know that the government is trying to drive them from the roads. They know that speed cameras are useless as safety measure - but actually rather useful as a fund raiser. And they know that if things don't change fast many of them will be put out of work. This could be big.

If it is that could put paid to my fancy schemes for road privatisation. If we are up against an attitude that says "I have a right to drive on any darn road for free and time I like - and I am going to raise merry Hell if you try to stop me." then private toll roads will never be able to garner the basic acceptance they need.

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February 07, 2003

The next station was not Virginia Water

Brian Micklethwait | Best of Transport Blog | Brians Odyssey

I am at Staines station, on December 20th 2002, heading back to London. My journey must be concluded with dispatch. I've no time to waste. Press on. Time is of the essence. Hurry, Brian Micklethwait, hurry. (For it is I.)

Since I'm in such a rush, I'll concentrate on the unusual bit, which was the robot on the train telling us what the next station was going to be.

I first encountered these speaking robots on the train when visiting West Berlin in (I think it was) 1986. In London in those days, you could only dream of such things, but on the Berlin underground, they had a female voice on all the trains telling you what station would be next. The famed red light district of West Berlin was a disappointment, but the robot woman on the underground trains could make "Nixtebahnhof" sound like: "I'm not wearing any clothes."

So I'm sitting in the train from Staines to Clapham Junction and beyond, and what does the English robot on the train say? It says: "The next station is Virginia Water."

Hell's bells, I must be going the wrong way!!! Virginia Water is the station beyond Egham! A moment's thought tells me that this cannot be, and that the English robot has got it wrong. I make amused eye contact with a fellow passenger, and we both grin. How civilised. Men grinning at each other in a railway carriage, without either of them being homosexuals. The robot has indeed got it wrong. For the rest of the journey, it stays three stations behind.

This leads me to another Micklethwait's Law, to set beside this much better one. This latest law goes: The British will always find a way to cock up railway technology of the sort that works fine in foreign parts.

Machines to sell tickets? What can go wrong? "No change available", that's what. Or just plain not working. Fast trains? They'll have to slow down in England. New trains? They'll have to bring the old ones back.

I proceeded happily towards London. My next problem was: should I get out at Clapham Junction, or should I continue on towards Waterloo? Proceeding to Waterloo is easy, but the walk from there to home is less good than from Victoria. But, how about changing to another Waterloo train at Clapham Junction and getting off at Vauxhall? Decisions decisions.

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February 06, 2003

Where will Ken's Congestion Charging scheme take us

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | London Congestion Charging

What follows is the text of a talk I gave at the beginning of November 2002 to a group of fellow London libertarians on the subject of congestion charging. Having re-read it I can't say there is much I would change but I seem to have seriously underestimated both the amount of bureaucratic incompetence and the amount of charge dodging we are likely to see.

Before I forge ahead I should perhaps begin with a caveat. I am not really an expert on roads. It all started about the beginning of the year when I wanted to get in contact with a few people in the rail industry and felt that I might be taken a little more seriously if I had a title. I asked Brian [Micklethwait] if I could become the LA's Rail Spokesman but he thought it better if I call myself Transport Spokesman. "But I don't know a thing about roads" I said. "Don't worry about it" he replied "Make a joke out of it by saying you were forced in to it." So, here I am.

Continue reading "Where will Ken's Congestion Charging scheme take us"


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February 05, 2003

EU refund threatens air fares

Patrick Crozier | Airlines UK | European Union | Fares and Ticketing

From the Times some time ago. The idea is that passengers will get a refund of £160 whenever a flight is cancelled regardless of the fare. So fares will have to go up. Which means that some people won't be able to afford to travel.

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February 04, 2003

SRA and road journey times

Patrick Crozier | Road Miscellany

I was reading an entirely innocuous article in the Times on how the Government's railway expansion plans when I came across this little gem:

Extra road congestion meant that car journeys on key routes took 16.5 per cent longer than four years ago.
Brilliant.

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Ryanair buys Buzz

Patrick Crozier | Airlines UK | Monopolies

I haven't seen them yet but I am sure the news that Ryanair is to buy Buzz will raise the usual "fears" about fares and, as night follows day, the usual calls for regulation.

Last year a far larger merger took place in the same sector between EasyJet and Go. At the time I said that this was a good thing and that there was no need for regulation and if it was introduced it would be harmful. I pretty much stand by what I said.

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February 02, 2003

Let it snow

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Transport Miscellany

For our foreign readers unfamiliar with the story, on Thursday in England we had a light dusting of snow. Within hours our transport system had fallen apart with blocked roads and severe delays to trains and planes. Some drivers had to spend a night in their cars.

This has prompted the usual shutting-the-gate-after-the-horse-has-bolted hysteria: "How did it happen?", "Who is to blame?", "How can we stop it happening again?", "How come other countries can cope so much better than we can?"

Now, I am in no real position to judge, not having the figures at my fingers, but I think this hysteria is crazy. We Brits are very fortunate in that we live in a country with a mild climate. Occasionally it snows. Many years we don't get any snow at all. It is therefore hardly surprising that people are not geared up to it. Moreover, the costs of being prepared must be horrendous. Think of the extra costs eg. new coats, boots, thermal underwear, block heaters that we each individually would have to bear. How many people are prepared to do that? Now think of the costs that the state and others would have to bear - they are going to be the same order of magnitude. It is pretty easy to conclude that it simply isn't worth it - for us or the state or for other enterprises.

The best that most of us can do is to live with it, enjoy it and be thankful it is such a rare event.

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Confused? You will be

Patrick Crozier | Crossrail | Planning

I was reading an article on planning in the South East in today's Sunday Times (registration required I'm afraid) when I came across this:

It is intended that Crossrail [a monumental underground scheme] should raise its costs privately but other rail projects will depend on taxpayers’ money. Annual spending on building and upgrading railways will rise from £900m a year to £3 billion by 2005, with 70-80% being spent in the southeast.
Which is all fine and dandy except that this announcement comes not from the Department of Transport (which has commissioned its own hugely expensive study into a taxpayer-funded scheme) but from John Prescott's Department (whatever that's called these days).

In other words, there's a turf war going on.

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The property barons of the English Riviera

Patrick Crozier | Air Miscellany | Positive Externalities

I know I have waxed lyrical about the effects of rail links on property values but I had no idea the same was true for flights. According to this article in the Telegraph it is.

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IN BRIEF

This is a list of date-based archives from the In Brief section:

November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004