21 February 2011
Low-speed rail freight and the threat to it from high-speed passenger trains
Brian Micklethwait

Later today, assuming all goes well, I will be doing an interview with Sam Bowman, who blogs and is the blogmeister for the Adam Smith Institute, among other things.  During my homework for this interview I came across this blog posting by Sam, which featured this graphic:


As Sam says:

This is why we like deregulation.

This piece of graphics began life as one of the illustrations in an Economist report entitled “High-speed railroading”, and, more to my present point, subtitled America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.

Indeed.  High speed rail achieves little, in terms of speeding up rail travel by regular humans, and even less in terms of making money for any humans.  But if unleashed anywhere, a point I am reading here, there and everywhere is that its most significant impact is upon the one thing that long distance rail does really well, which is transport stuff over long distances at low cost, but rather (sometime very) slowly, for customers who value the cheapness and don’t mind the slowness.

The word “trundle” always comes to my mind whenever I observe some exotic cargo train … well, trundling through a passenger station I happen to be waiting at when this odd circumstance occurs.  But the real pay-off comes when goods trains trundle, not on the urban and suburban lines I travel on, but for hundreds upon hundreds of miles.  They become the sort of land equivalent of supertankers, another notably efficient form of transport that has been doing very well recently.

Superimpose on those same long, long railway lines trains which are very fast, and with the political demand attached that they run on time, bugger the cost and the havoc caused, and there goes your profitable and efficient freight network.  And it all then has to go by road.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with roads, of course, but the kind of people who are most manically in favour of high-speed trains tend also to be manically against roads.  What the hell are they thinking?

Seriously, what is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?  Is it just that the child in all of us loves fast trains that look and behave like rockets, and lefties are the people who are most inclined not to care about the cost of things?  Is it really that simple?

21 January 2011
Açu Superport
Rob Fisher

The Açu Superport is a big port in Brazil. And it’s private. We’re not used to such things being private in the UK.

Located in São João da Barra, in the north of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the Açu Superport is a private mixed-use port terminal that will have 10 docking berths; four for iron ore, two for oil-handling, one for coal and three for steel products, slag, granite and pig iron. With a depth of 18.5 metres, reaching 21 meters in a second stage, the Superport will have a bridge 2.9 kilometers long and will allow the mooring of Capesize vessels with capacities up to 220,000 tonnes. The port has great potential for the Oil and Gas industry due to its proximity to the Campos Basin.

The project is currently under construction and is scheduled to begin operations in 2012.

It’s being built by Brazil’s richest man.

Eike Batista, a mining mogul and Brazil’s richest man, dreamed up the idea for the Acu Superport because he was fed up with the delays in getting iron ore from his mines onto ships bound for China.


“Brazil is a gigantic opportunity to arbitrage inefficiencies,” he said.

That mindset gives me a sense of how he got to be so rich. And he gets things done:

A logistics corridor of 45 km, consisting of transmission lines, water, gas and telecom pipelines, railroad and highway, will connect the Açu Superport to the city of Campos. his logistics corridor will be able to handle up to 100 thousand vehicles per day, equivalent to 36 hours of traffic leaving Rio across the Rio-Niterói Bridge.

The port is for trading with China. The BBC has an unsurprisingly negative attitude.

A recent study found that more than 80% of Brazil’s manufactured exports are being adversely affected by competition from China.

That is a real danger to the Brazilian economy because mining and commodities are not very labour intensive. The bulk of the Brazilian workforce is employed in manufacturing industries.

The problem is that, natural resources aside, Brazil has a similar competitive advantage to China - cheap unskilled labour.

It could be that Brazil is on its way up, and will leave its manufacturing behind like other rich countries.

22 April 2007
Gibraltar bridge?
Brian Micklethwait

Michael Jennings often emails me with links to things he doesn’t have time to blog about himself, or maybe isn’t sure anyone else cares about other than me.  I don’t always respond so these suggestions, but they are always welcome.  Others who do the same thing, but somewhat less often, are likewise much welcomed.

Anyway, rather longer ago than is strictly dignified for me now to blog about but never mind, knowing that I do love bridges, Michael sent me this link, to an article about a possible tunnel, linking Spain (i.e. Western Europe) to Africa, and had this to say about the idea:

There is no economic case for it so it would be a huge white elephant, so I can’t actually imagine it being built soon. (The observations about its usefulness for freight are grasping at straws of justification - ships are fine for freight).

However, the more interesting thought comes from this statement:

“The Strait of Gibraltar, formed millions of years ago when land masses split to form what are now Europe and Africa, is only 14 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. But the water is so deep there a rail tunnel would be like a roller coaster slope, so steep as to be out of the question.

“So engineers have chosen a longer but shallower path spanning about 40 kilometres. Even there, however, the water is about 300 metres deep, five to six times deeper than the water in the English Channel where the channel runs.

“Then there is the messy terrain at the bottom of the Strait. ‘It is chaotic. The word is chaotic,’ said Sebastian Sanchez, an engineer overseeing the tunnel test site in Tarifa.”

There is an obvious word that comes from this (both the fact that the narrowest point is too deep for a tunnel and that the terrain on the bottom of the Mediterranean is complex) and that word is “bridge”.  Imagine huge towers each a kilometre or two from the shore and a single suspension span of more than 10km. We don’t quite have the materials for this yet, but in twenty years we probably shall. Then this is potentially the most mindboggling structure on Earth.

And there’s also this:

The other reason why the Spanish at the moment aren’t talking about bridges is because the obvious place to land the bridge on the European side is actually British territory.

Indeed.  The thing about these emails from Michael is that he has no time to do a proper blog posting, so he just emails me instead, but ends up doing a proper blog posting.

21 March 2007
Lobbyists lobby politician shock
Brian Micklethwait

It’s fun to watch the rotting hulk of a bad government you never liked much finally sink beneath the waves, even if the next hulk that will heave into view will be just as unlikable.  So, I now regularly visit Guido and Iain Dale.  And Iain Dale is just now making much of a lobbying scandal that is now bubbling up from the stinking brine around Britain’s junior Transport Minister, a man called Ladyman.  I didn’t even know that Ladyman was any kind of transport minister, until this story erupted.  I knew of him, because he has a funny name, like some TV political sitcom writer invented but then discarded for being too obviously silly, but I didn’t know what he did.

Anyway, the story is that some lobbyists have been lobbying (three separate links there).  Something to do with planning permission for container ports.  Original Sunday Paper story last weekend here.

Meanwhile, it probably counts for rather more that Guido, who is now a political force in his own right, has placed his bet on Durkin being right about what causes Global Warming, with, as is his way, a piece of graphic trickery.