June 2011

26 June 2011
A trip to Brittany – and more ruminations on Dreamliner World versus A380 World
Brian Micklethwait

I recently spent a week in Brittany (see various postings here, staying with friends who live in the city of Quimper, which at the south west end of the Brittany peninsula, just before you get to the final southern tip.

I’ve stayed with these friends before, and on every trip before this latest one, I’ve flown Ryanair from Stansted to Brest, Brest being about an hour by car north of Quimper.  But the bad news is that Brest airport has recently constructed a swanky new Norman Foster type building, with lots of sloping glass and metal struts everywhere and a general absence of rectangles.  Somewhere in among all these new arrangements, there was a fight with Ryanair, the upshot of which was that Ryanair no long does flights from Stansted to Brest.  Strangely, though, Ryanair still does flights from Brest to Marseilles.

I’m guessing that this either has to do with money or with time, or perhaps a bit of both.  Maybe Brest airport wants to be paid more, or Brest itself wants to pay less, for Ryanair flights to and from London.  Or, the new airport arrangements mean that Ryanair can’t turn its planes around as quickly as it used to be able to.

Also, you can’t help suspecting that perhaps Brest built itself a posh new airport terminal because it wants a better class of persons to come to Brest from London, and from many other classy spots, and the dribble of Ryanair riff-raff to stay away.  Maybe some day soon there will again be flights Brest/London flights, but more expensive ones, containing richer and better dressed persons.  But those are just guesses.

Anyway, whatever may have caused the Brest/London Ryanair flights to end, for this latest visit I had to go from Stansted to Dinard, which is the airport of the port city of Saint Malo, which is at the other end of the Brittany peninsula, to its north west, about four hours drive from Quimper.  Very tiresome.  My hosts kindly collected me from there on the way.  And on the way back, I and Mrs Host were both going to London, so we went by train from Quimper to Saint Malo (changing at Rennes), and then took a bus to Dinard and a taxi from Dinard to the airport itself.  All very cumbersome.

It did give us a chance to wander about in Saint Malo, which was good, and I got to go by train in France, which I’ve not done for decades, unless you count Eurotunnel trips to Belgium, Germany, etc.

While we relaxed in the small bar at Dinard airport, Mrs Host and I agreed about how agreeable these small airports are, compared to huge designer cattle shed airports like Stansted, and such as Brest seems now to want to be.  Mrs Host reminisced about a cheep and delightfully informal flight she once took from a tiny airfield in Kent, to a similar airport not very near to Paris, for about £45 in about 1990, in a propeller driven plane.  Our preference was confirmed hideously when we got to Stansted, at about eleven o’clock at night, to find ourselves at the back of a vast hoard of incomers to London, waiting while too few people indolently looked at everyone’s passport.  Were they seeking a terroristic pin?  If so, we were the haystack.  It was bank queue hell multiplied by a hundred.  Actually, it was over rather sooner than it at first looked like it would be, but first impressions were deeply unpleasant, and are hard to forget.

This experience makes me think that the long-term future of air travel is lots of small airports rather than a few big ones.  The big ones can’t get any bigger, or nastier.  And the bigger the big airport planes (I’m thinking A380) get, the naster it will get to use these airports.

Dinard airport, meanwhile, was a delight.  It’s not quite just the one shed.  An architect was involved at some point in making the ugly boxy building where you congregate, but this feels more like a railway station than an airport, and what is more a railway station that is quite a bit smaller and more relaxed than, say, Rennes railway station.  Dinard airport is small, and shows no sign of wanting to get any bigger.

Indeed, if that bar we relaxed in is anything to go by, they positively glory in their smallness.  There are pictures there of old airplanes, with propellers, and of people in goggles posing in black and white or sepia in front of byplanes.  There were things like this ...:

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… and this:

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Boeing having bet their farm on the Dreamliner, a two engined go-anywhere improvement on the now ubiquitous Boeing 737 (which is what Ryanair now uses for most of its flights, including all my Brittany trips).  Airbus have bet their farm on the A380, a four engine enlargement of the Boeing 747.

In the short run, maybe Airbus have a point.  If the current question is: How can we get more cattle through the big cattle shed airports?, then the A380 may well be the answer.  And if the question is: How can we give more legroom to more money-no-object globetrotters, trotting globally from one huge financial centre to another?, ditto.

But what if, in the longer run, the question turns into: What’s the best way to get little clumps of people, inexpensively, from a small airport somewhere in the world but nowhere in particular (like Dinard or for that matter Quimper, which also has a small railway station type airport) to another small airport somewhere else in the world, for the tiny number of people who want that particular journey, yet who don’t want to be treated too much like a herd of cattle?

Maybe if you run the air passenger business, and run airports, the first two questions are what you now obsess about.  But speaking as a passenger, I can tell you that I greatly prefer the latter question.

I want a Dreamliner world, rather than an A380 world.

I see that I have blogged here before about this great commercial Confrontation Of Our Time.  In that earlier posting I quoted someone saying this:

How would you like to line up at customs having just gotten off the back of the second or third A-380 to arrive? Would passport control take longer than the flight?

Exactly.  What I feared was going to happen at Stansted on the night I passed through this week, would happen, at a truly mega-airport like Heathrow, for real.

I could ramble ever onwards, but instead I will say: over to Michael Jennings for more detailed answers to all of my questions, and for many more facts to back up or contradict my speculations.

24 June 2011
In case you thought being run over by a tram was not that bad
Michael Jennings

Prepare yourself for the full horror.

16 June 2011
Passengers?
Brian Micklethwait

Last week, in the London Evening Standard, the now free London evening paper, hard pressed commuters (commuters are always hard pressed – it’s the law) were able to read this, about some not so lucky fellow commuters:

Rail commuters were trapped on a train for up to six hours and then threatened with arrest when they tried to escape overheated carriages.

Tens of thousands of people - including a woman who is eight months pregnant - were caught up in the chaos that left 60 trains stranded last night in the middle of Transport Secretary Philip Hammond’s Runnymede and Weybridge constituency.

The crisis, caused by thieves who stole power cable, brought the line to a standstill at 6.30pm and left passengers trapped until after 11pm. Today commuters attacked rail company South West Trains as a “shambles”, as they described how they tried to escape from carriages only to be told they were breaking the law.

The heavily pregnant woman, Emma Firth, 35, told how she and a group of passengers decided to “make a bid for freedom” at 10.30pm after being trapped on a train from Clapham Junction since 6.30pm. But as they tried to climb down on to the track, guards made an announcement saying they would be arrested for trespass if they did.

A severe delay.  Harassment of travellers, no doubt for what seemed like very good reasons (safety, basically) when the rules being followed so charmlessly that night were put in place.  So far so routine.

But later in the same report, this:

A train spokesman said a review of how it responded to train disruption has been ordered.

“We are very sorry for the significant impact last night’s signal problems had on a large number of our passengers.

“We would like to thank them for their patience during some extremely difficult circumstances.

“We appreciate that many passengers spent several hours on trains while Network Railengineers worked hard to rectify the major signalling faults. Network Rail has confirmed today that the signalling problems were caused by an attempted cable theft.

“We are extremely angry and frustrated that mindless and irresponsible vandalism meant that many of our passengers had a terrible journey last night.

“Our station, train and customer service teams did their very best to keep passengers updated at the main locations across our network and to help get customers home through the night.

“We will be working with Network Rail to review how we responded to this incident. We are committed to learning any lessons, including taking any steps required to improve the flow of information to passengers.”

My blog posting title has already given my game away, but honestly, had I not done this, would you have spotted what I spotted?  “Passengers”.

For years railway people in Britain have been calling us “customers”, a usage that I do not like for reasons I find tricky to explain even to myself.

It’s something to do with the fact that the word “passenger” describes the true relationship.  We are at their mercy.  When they called us “passengers” they were acknowledging this fact.  Calling us “customers” attributes to us a spurious degree of autonomy, like we could get out at any moment if we didn’t like the journey.  Which (see above) everyone knows we actually can’t do.  And if we got off at an earlier station because we didn’t like the journey we were being subjected to, we’d not be given our money back.  Besides which, once you’ve committed to a train journey, the only logical course is to stick with it.  If you don’t like it, you don’t do it again.  But while it lasts, you must simply endure.

I see what they’ve been trying to do with all this “customer” talk.  They want all concerned to realise that market disciplines are in play, especially their own staff.  The last thing they want is for their staff to act, in a bad way, on the idea that we are totally at their mercy.  Trouble is: we are.  This is a fact which all concerned ought to be facing, not dodging, even verbally.

I have similar feelings about the word “patient” as used by health services.  If a hospital started describing its charges as “customers”, I think I’d feel that the same kind of verbal dishonesty, the same kind of falsehood about the real relationship involved, was being perpetrated.

My guess is that this reversion to the old word was a mistake, made in stressful conditions, rather than any kind of major policy shift.  But even so, interesting, I think.

Monty python train timetable murder
Rob Fisher

Once upon a time the trains were so punctual you could solve murders just by looking at the timetables.

H/T Brian who related this sketch to fellow transport bloggers this evening over a beer.

10 June 2011
Richard Wellings on rail privatisation and rail regulation
Brian Micklethwait

Today I received an IEA email newsletter, which drew my attention to a (fairly) recent (May 24th) blog posting by Richard Wellings at the IEA blog, calculated to confirm all our prejudices here about privatisation (good) and government regulation (bad).

First paragraph:

The recent history of Britain’s railways has undoubtedly brought the whole concept of privatisation into disrepute. But this is unfair. Rail privatisation was a pastiche of genuine privatisation - in many ways it actually increased the level of state control.

Final paragraph:

A truly private railway would be efficient, innovative, responsive to consumer preferences and would not require taxpayer support. It is time the critics (such as Will Hutton) stopped blaming privatisation for problems caused by government intervention.

The guts of Wellings’ argument is that in a truly free market, railway companies would have been free to integrate vertically, and being free to integrate vertically, they would have.  The irrational separation of ownership between track and trains would have ended.  The government did not allow this.

Maybe the new government will?

08 June 2011
Legible London?
Brian Micklethwait

I photoed this yesterday afternoon, embedded in the pavement in the top bit of Horseferry Road, just past the Channel 4 building as I walked towards St James Park tube.

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I was baffled, and despite visiting the website alluded to, I still am baffled.  It says: What is Legible London?  Those were my exact sentiments, and they remain my sentiments.

It is something to do with the fact that walking is often quicker, for short journeys, than using the underground.  But why this plaque in the pavement?  Is there some kind of electronic gizmo underneath, with feeds into iPhones or something?

I am sure there is a semi-rational explanation, but can anyone oblige?

(The fact that two of the screws are missing doesn’t bode well, does it?)

05 June 2011
Transport Blog quote of the day
Patrick Crozier

Comparing socialism and capitalism:

It is necessary to compare the total costs and the total yields of both systems.  The fact that the electromobile needs no gasoline is no proof that it is cheaper to run than the gasoline-powered car.

Socialism, Ludwig von Mises p161 (in my edition).  First published in 1922.