March 2002

March 28, 2002

Congestion Charging Index

Patrick Crozier |

The following articles have been blogged:

My Views
Andrew Oswald in the Times
Ken's Cunning Car Plan
Tim Evans on Road Pricing in the UK
Brian Micklethwait on Road Pricing in the UK

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Railway Index

Patrick Crozier |

The following articles have been blogged:

More Guardian Lunacy (on Amtrak)
It's not all Doom and Gloom
Train Driver Shortage
A Short Note On The Structure Of The UK Railway
The Japanese System
On Corporate Manslaughter
Corporate Manslaughter - An Addendum
Fare Hike Threatened
The Crisis at Connex
How much Money is Railtrack Getting from the Government?
Rail Delays
Just How Bad is a Monopoly?
Book Review: Don Riley Taken for a Ride
Book Review: Christian Wolmar Broken Rails
A Question of Safety
Japanese Railway Conference
On Being Stunned By The Central Japan Railway Company Data Book 2001
Oh, to be proved wrong
A Question of Safety
But Passenger Numbers Have Gone Up!
Safety Costs Soar
The Sale of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link
Apologies Connex
High-Speed Rail in Spain
The Media: Accentuate the Negative, Disregard the Positive
Graffiti and Vandalism
Safety is Dangerous
The Central Railway
Some More On Vertical Integration
Some Meanderings on the Royal Train
Can You Build A Railway (Or Road) Without Compulsory Purchase?
Anglia Railways in Financial Trouble
Fight! - personal experience of violence on public transport
The Plane to Spain is faster than the Train - catch the last train to Mudville
What the Victorians did for us - a profile of Edward Watkin
Bullshit Alert - a review of the sort of nonsense people come out with when there's a train crash
Dutch Railways and the Nature of Private Enterprise - a letter to Christian Wolmar
Wolmar Replies
Compulsory Purchase - an update
High Fares are Good for you - ultimately
L'Affaire Byers - or why I am not going to spend my time fretting about it
The IoD gets it right - and wrong
Rail smash has buried bad news - Railtrack needs a lot more money. The Government has been operating a double standard.
Nationalisation is NOT the Answer - letter to the Evening Standard.
Rail Crash Update - and why it is unwise to jump to conclusions
More thoughts on vertical integration
Bad railways? Blame it on the 1950s - the Modernisation Plan
UK railways reclassified as "weapons of mass destruction" - harsh and totally unfair humour.
The Octupus Card - Hong Kong's newish non-ticket ticket system.
Dublin metro - actually more about infrastructure and land values.
The Royal Train - a follow up - how the Japanese royals get around.
More safety nonsense - or how the Government would like to destroy hundreds of perfectly good trains but can't.
More (potential) double standards - how the State treats the state and private sectors differently.
Is it the EU's fault? - that our railways are in a mess? Er, no. Not this time.
It's all the EU's fault (again) - the debate continues
A Libertarian Transport Manifesto
A brief history of UK railways
The Taff Vale Judgement

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A Question of Safety

Patrick Crozier | Rail Safety

I have had the great privilege over the last week or so to be able to pose three railwaymen the same question. The railwaymen were from Japan, London Underground and an infrastructure maintenance contractor. The question (in its simplest form) was: Does safety make sense from a commercial point of view?

UK readers will be familiar with the accusation that private railways put "profits before safety". It is a brilliant line for the Left. In three words it gets across the idea that capitalists don't care, that if they do it doesn't matter because the shareholders don't, that your life is therefore at risk from these monsters and that the only solution if full nationalisation because the State, of course, is entirely free from these conflicts of interest.

But is it true? That was what I set out to find out. The answers were not particularly enlightening. The (state-owned) London Underground man was appalled I should even ask. His whole job was safety. It was essential. There was nothing else to say. The Japanese explained that passengers wanted to be safe and if their railways weren't safe then the passengers would stay away. The man from the infrastructure company explained that to get work done people had to follow procedures and procedures had to take account of safety. I think what he meant that if a track worker gets himself killed bang goes the job and bang goes the cash.

I wasn't really happy about the answers I received. The Japanese was the best but would passengers really desert a network if they thought it was unsafe? Safety is not something that particularly affects people's travel decisions in the UK so is it really likely that they would affect people's decisions in Japan where the railways are 200 times safer than they are in the UK?

How much is a passenger worth? Tops £5000 a year if he has a season ticket. Average age: 35. Average years left spent commuting: 15. Rather fewer than 10 passengers get killed on railways every year. So maximum loss is 5000 x 15 x 10 = £750,000. (I am ignoring people who give up using railways because they think its dangerous - it just doesn't happen.) In railway safety terms £750,000 is peanuts.

How much does a crash cost? One car costs £1m. Usually, you lose at least two of them, so that's £2m. Smashed up track costs a lot. It cost £10m to replace the track at Hatfield. Trainsets have to be withdrawn from service. Say 2 months (a whopping underestimate). Say the loading is 100 people at all times paying 10p a mile and that the trainset travels 1000 miles a day. That is 100 x 0.1 x 1000 x 60 = £600,000. Often, you have to train a new driver. That'll be a £100,000 or so. And then there is the disruption. Usually, a crash will put an entire section of track out of use for a week. Revenue collapses. That's probably £0.5m a day on busy lines. So, that's £3.5m. That's to say nothing of enquiries and prosecutions. Total sum from this back of an envelope exercise: £15.7m. £16.5m if you include the dead.

There are also all sorts of intangibles such as the knock on effect to the "rhythm" of the enterprise. As we discovered after the Hatfield crash, you lose punctuality once and it's a Devil to get back.

Rail is the safest form of transport. That it is has nothing to do with sentimentality towards passengers and everything to do with hard economics. But if that is the case why did no-one say so? Maybe, no one has done the sums. Maybe, safety culture is so engrained in the industry that it is almost second nature. Or maybe, I was talking to people who just get on with the job. The truth is I don't know but I await to be proved wrong.

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Japanese Railway Conference

Patrick Crozier | Railways - Japan

On Monday (25 March) I attended the Japanese Railway Conference organised by the Cardiff Business School. It was an absolute knockout. The organisers had managed to get together a superb line up of Japanophiles and Japanese railwaymen. In four sessions (plus breaks) we managed to cover the history and present of Japan's railway, railway finances: Japanese and British, safety and the future of the Shinkansen.

As an audience, we perhaps didn't quite match up. Most of us were either committed trainspotters or relatively junior railwaymen but maybe that was a good thing. The questioning was of a consistently high quality and I managed to meet up with some great people. Somehow, I don't think you'd get that with an audience of big cheeses.

We were left in no doubt that the Japanese railway is the best in the world. Punctuality is superb. They measure delays in seconds and that is despite all that a hostile Japanese climate and geography can throw at it. Trains are clean, modern and fast. Safety is second to none. It is something like 200 times better than in the UK (which itself is pretty safe). All trains already have Automatic Train Protection something that we are about to abandon yet again and plans are afoot to introduce a system which will not only stop trains but control their speed. Stations are clean and modern. Tickets are easy to buy and fare evasion next to impossible. The system is able to carry enormous numbers of passengers. The passenger density figures on some lines in comparison with the UK are staggering. Japan's railway companies have something like a 27% market share. In the UK it is nearer 6% . Japanese railways have many plans for the future and the main private companies are all trading profitably.

So how do they do it? Readers familiar with this blog will know that I will argue that it is all due to free enterprise: private companies and low or no state regulation. This is not quite the full story. First of all, Japan's geography helps. The main cities have a high population density, they are all in a line and the roads aren't very good. That helps. Secondly, I cannot deny that the Bullet Trains (Shinkansen) were originally built and paid for by the State. The State is still involved in extensions to the existing network but it would appear that this owes more to the last throw of Keynsian demand management than solid business reasoning. I have serious doubts whether the Shinkansen could have been built without the State but it seems likely that some sort of high-speed network would have emerged. But more interesting (from my point of view) is how the Japanese manage their network on a day-to-day basis.

Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College was impressed that Japanese drivers receive a watch when they start work and pointed out that in the UK they only get one when they retire. The watch is essential. The dashboard on every Japanese train has a holder for the watch. Time matters. On the left of the cab is schedule holder. It tells the driver when he is supposed to stop. In the UK, drivers simply drive like billyo and hope for the best. Driver training is intensive and professional. Smith was shown a driver simulator centre. There were something like 500 simulators in the room. He was told that they would soon be thrown away to make way for some even better ones. At the time there was not a single simulator in the whole of the UK. When the train comes out of service an all female team of mini-skirted twenty-somethings cleans the entire train in a five minute blitz. Japan has a Rail Technology Research Centre. We don't. Bolts attaching rails to sleepers (US=ties) are marked with a vertical stripe of paint. That way they know if one has worked lose. All Shinkansen are closed for 6 hours every night. In that time a train called Dr Yellow whizzes round the network at high speed recording data. That way the need for maintenance is picked up more or less immediately, reducing the likelihood of infrastructure failures and lowering costs. Staff take enormous pride in their work and one look at their smartly pressed uniforms and immaculate white gloves bears this out. In the UK drivers' uniforms typically look as if they have slept in them. In the UK, the principal cause of timetable delays is what is known as conflicting movements. This is when one train crosses the path of another on its way to a different track. In Japan all railways have pursued a ruthless policy of eliminating conflicting movements at every opportunity. Another major cause of delay is defective rolling stock. From what I can work out the Japanese have spent decades working on reliability and then massive redundancy in the event of anything going wrong. Redundancy is something like a train still being able to get to its destination even if it is missing half its power.

I could go on but I think I have made my point. The Japanese work at everything in a systematic manner. They leave nothing to chance. Why do they do this?

I refuse to accept the usual canard that the Japanese are different. Twenty years ago people were aghast that Nissan could even dream of hiring Brits to build their cars in Sunderland. How would they get that legendary efficiency? Well, they did it. Don't ask me how but the idea that the Japanese worker is somehow superior to the British worker was quickly shown to be nonsense. On railways as in car manufacture.

I believe the single most important factor in this Japanese success story has been the long-term existence of a large number of entirely private railways. In the 1970s the JNR, the Japanese nationalised railway, was haemorrhaging cash and was plagued by strikes. Not knowing what to do about this politicians enviously looked across at JNR's private rivals and saw railways that were profitable, reliable and had good industrial relations. They liked what they saw and in 1987 broke up and privatised JNR. That is one influence the private railways have had but I believe there is another. The existence of institutions where things are done properly is founded on people knowing how to do things properly. I imagine that well before privatisation, every time an employee of a private railway wanted to move he would have been eagerly snapped up by JNR. In turn he would have passed on his expertise and culture to others thus keeping JNR going and generally spreading the knowledge of how a railway should be run.

If there was one fault (and its not a big one) I could find in Monday's conference it would be that we didn't hear from one of the original private companies. It is my belief that the all-round superbness of the Shinkansen and other Japanese railways is based on the culture that the private railways created over many decades and with an enormous amount of hard work.

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On Being Stunned By The Central Japan Railway Company Data Book 2001

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Railways - Japan

OK, so it sounds as if I ought to get out a bit more but I was taken aback. For those who don't know JR Central is one of Japan's largest railways, the result of the 1987 break up and privatisation of the Japan National Railway (JNR). I picked up the Data Book (click for web version) at the recent Japanese Railway Conference in Cardiff, something I hope to blog about anon.

The first thing that stunned me was that the Data Book exists at all. I have never seen anything similar in the UK and wouldn't expect to. But that was just the first of the shocks.

I was stunned that it was in English (presumably there is a Japanese language version). But maybe I shouldn't have been. JR Central is a very big company with many international shareholders. For them English is a must.

I was stunned at the average delay to trains in 2001. 36 seconds. Actually, that wasn't the really stunning thing - although it would put us to shame. No, the really stunning thing is the way they measure it. In the UK we don't even register a delay until it is 5 mins or more (10 mins for long distance). In Japan the clock starts at anything more than a minute - after all that is what timetables are in (minutes). They include delays caused by storms, typhoons and snowfall. We strip out everything, including suicides, strikes and our excuse for bad weather.

I was stunned by their commitment to new technology. They seem to be bringing out a new Bullet Train (Shinkansen) every couple of years or so and are excitedly talking about their latest train (443km/h or 275mph) and (in the longer term) proposals for Maglev (552km/h or 343 mph). The top speed for any train in the UK is a measly 125mph.

I was stunned by their profitability: £300m in 2001. I doubt if the whole UK industry made that last year.

There were half a dozen other things that took my breath away. The whole impression was of a company totally focused and totally in command of its business. A company where engineering, marketing and management disciplines work in harmony. A company where managers can concentrate on the horizon rather than firefight the latest crisis as they do over here.

I am not going to claim that a libertarian approach would ever deliver these sorts of results. There are big differences between Japan and the UK especially when it comes to geography and population density. But at least it can show us what can be done when the State stops crawling over an industry's back.

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March 27, 2002

Oh, to be proved wrong

Patrick Crozier | Railtrack Administration

It seems only a week ago (because it was) that I was writing that there was going to be the Mother and Father of all court cases over the decision to put Railtrack into administration. But it seems that that is not going to happen. The Government has caved in. Yet again I have been proved wrong. On the very day that Railtrack was put into administration I was thinking to myself "Now, the Government will never bankrupt Railtrack - they're not that stupid." But they were. Only last week, I was opining that "the Government won't give in to Railtrack shareholders without a fight because that would mean they had been lying." Doh.

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March 23, 2002

Syonara For Now

Patrick Crozier |

I am off to a conference on Japanese railways so for those of you who are desparately awaiting my next rant I am afraid you'll have to sit tight until Tuesday 26 March at the earliest.

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British Rail Privatisation: What Went Wrong?

Patrick Crozier | British Rail Privatisation

Would readers holding first class tickets please move right along the platform where they will find Patrick Crozier's Magnum Opus on why privatising British Rail was such a fiasco.

For those cheapskates who do not wish to pay top whack at present may we suggest the following alternative service/summary:

State control is a bad thing. In privatising BR the State achieved the dubious distinction of actually increasing its control over the railway.

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Abolish the Ministry of Transport

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Transport General

OK, I know it's called something different now but the point stands. Before 1914 Britain had the best transport system in the world. We had the fastest trains, the most comfortable carriages, some of the cheapest fares and the fast-freight system was the envy of the world. We had the world's first deep tube network and the older (sub-surface) underground had recently been electified. On the surface a vast fleet of brand new motor buses and taxis competed for trade with the brand new electrified trams which competed with electrified trains south of the Thames.

In 1919 Eric Geddes was appointed the first ever Minister of Transport. It's been downhill ever since.

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In Support of Congestion Charging

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

Although this article by Andrew Oswald appeared in the Times some time ago it sums up most of the arguments why congestion charging is a good idea. If I were to have one gripe about it it is the assumption that the charge in London will be set to keep the traffic moving. The more I hear about this scheme the greater my doubts that this will prove to be the reality

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Just How Bad is a Monopoly?

Patrick Crozier | Monopolies | Rail Economics

I recently had a row with someone about fares to Brighton. His argument was that before nationalisation railway companies abused their monopoly position to charge extortionate fares. Plate 51 in Nicholas Faith's The World the Railways Made (Pimlico, London, 1990) is of a painting by Charles Rossiter from about 1870 entitled "To Brighton and Back for 3s and 6d". I presume he meant travelling from London. If one assumes a GDP deflator of about 50 over the interim that would be about £11.25. The current cheapest return fare is £15. Some extortion.

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March 22, 2002

Bad News is Good News

Patrick Crozier | Channel Tunnel Rail Link | LU PPP | Road General | Road Safety

At least it is for me. The more that statist floundering fails to deliver a worthwhile transport system the more people will turn to radical ideas like mine. At least that's the theory. Anyway, plenty more bad to neutral stories today including:

The last one's absolutely priceless. Here is a minister slagging off scientists for telling the truth.

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March 21, 2002

The State Always Gets Screwed...

Patrick Crozier | Industrial Relations | LU PPP | Public Private Partnerships

by the private sector. That is a general theory of mine that seems to be borne out by two stories that have appeared in the press today.

The first concerns the plans for a Public-Private Partnership on the London Underground. It seems that the returns on investment are going to be absolutely enormous.

The second concerns annual results from National Express, (you'll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page) which operates nine train operating franchises in the UK. There is a little paragraph about the renegotiation of the ScotRail and Central Trains franchises. The whole point of the original franchise agreements (negotiated in the mid-1990s) was that they were for good. If you got your sums wrong then you either bore the loss or handed in the keys and the bidding process was re-opened. What now happens is that the State says "Oh dear, what a shame, have another go" and gives you another dollop of cash to help you on your way.

Of course, it is not just private companies that are adept at fleecing the state - private individuals are just as good at it. Any UK resident over a certain age will be only too familiar with the many strikes and other forms of industrial disruption which plagued the nationalised railway up until privatisation.

There are really only two solutions to this. Either, you do as Hitler did: nationalise the people. Or you get rid of the State.

Update 08/05/04

I've found a reference for the Hitler quote. He said: "Why should I
nationalize the industries? I'm nationalizing the people."

The ASI seem to think that contracting out can work.

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March 20, 2002

Book Review - Don Riley "Taken for a Ride"

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Book Review | Crossrail | London Underground | Positive Externalities | Rail Economics

Don Riley is a commercial landlord operating in London. Shortly after the Jubilee Line Extension (JLE) was completed he noticed something: property prices in his stomping ground of Southwark were going up. "Very nice" he thought - especially as he hadn't had to pay a penny for the privilege.

It is no great surprise that railways, or other pieces of transport infrastructure, increase the value of nearby property - imagine (assuming you live in London) how much your house would be worth if the local station suddenly disappeared. Private railways in Japan have for many years built shopping centres, resorts and whole towns near their lines. What Don Riley decided to do was to see if he could quantify it.

So, he set off on his bike, property newspaper in hand and reached a remarkable conclusion: the £3.5bn invested in the JLE by taxpayers had benefited well-heeled Rackmanites like himself to the tune of £13.5bn.

The consensus view is that although we might all want nice, fast, cheap rail services there is simply no way they will ever pay. London Underground will certainly never see more than a fraction of its £3.5bn. Riley's research turns that consensus on its head. Railways pay all right - just for different people.

There was one factor that Riley did not take into account - property price inflation (not insignificant in London in the late 1990s.) I have done a back of an envelope calculation on this and my conclusion was that even had inflation been as high as 100% over the period the gain would still have been about £7bn - still highly profitable.

The question is how to make this effect work for infrastructure. When offered a return of £3 for every £1 put in there can be few landlords who wouldn't respond positively But they won't respond if they know they can put in absolutely nothing and still get the £3. Such a free-rider effect encourages some to propose some sort of hypothecated infrastructure tax. Ideas like this make my heart sink. We know that the State is not very good at running things. What is less well known is that it isn't very good at procuring them.

[Actually, with the cost overruns on the West Coast Mainline, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the Public Private Partnership on the Tube we are rapidly getting all too familiar with this idea.]

So, is there a way of cutting both the State and the free-rider effect out of the equation? I think so. This is how I think CrossRail could be funded:

  1. CrossRail sells shares to property developers
  2. CrossRail builds CrossRail
  3. CrossRail issues vouchers to shareholders
  4. These vouchers entitle the bearer to CrossRail tickets (at a marginal rate)
  5. Shareholders issue these vouchers to tenants who in turn issue them to employees.
At a stroke we have eliminated both the State and the free-rider effect.

Don Riley "Taken for a Ride", Centre for Land Policy Studies, London, 2001.

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March 19, 2002

How much Money is Railtrack Getting from the Government?

Patrick Crozier | Public Private Partnerships | Railtrack and Network Rail

This ought to be a simple enough question but wading through Railtrack's Financial Reports I am left none the wiser? Is it £162m, or maybe £334 or perhaps even £700m? Who can say?

If you can shed some light on this I would be delighted to hear from you.

Note Initially, under privatisation/fragmentation, Railtrack did not receive a penny from the Government directly. This changed sometime in the last two years for reasons I have never entirely been able to fathom.

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Ken's Cunning Car Plan

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

According to today's Evening Standard Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, is working on a secret scheme to use traffic lights and other traffic management techniques to discourage drivers from entering Central London.

This all sounds very odd. Central London will be getting a congestion charging scheme in February 2003. In other words there is already an existing plan to discourage drivers. So, why do we need another one?

The only reason I can think of is that the congestion charge (£5 a day) is simply not enough and the powers that be know it. If this were a true market then the response would be to put up the prices but for some reason, either legislative or political, it is not an option open to Livingstone.

There also seem to be plans to make buses partially exempt from this scheme (by building some special bus lanes).

Up to now I have been generally supportive of Ken's plans for Congestion Charging because, while they are streets (excuse the pun) away from the free-market ideal they are the nearest thing on offer. But I am beginning to get nervous. This is how railway privatisation started. That too, was supposed to introduce some market disciplines but ended up introducing ever more state disciplines - with results we are all too familiar with. When the whole thing goes tits up it will, as usual, be the market that gets the blame.

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March 18, 2002

Rail Delays

Patrick Crozier | Rail Delays

The news today is all about the latest rail punctuality figures. On the surface they do not make good reading with an overall drop from about 80% of trains running on time to nearer 70%. A number of reasons are cited such as the administration of Railtrack, the leaf-fall season and the introduction of the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS).

What, to my knowledge, they do not reveal is the delay attribution, in other words how much delay is due to Railtrack and how much is due to the Train Operating Companies (TOCs). I am curious to know this because I have seen reports that after Railtrack was put into administration although its delays rose they then declined to a level below that before administration. It would not entirely surprise me if we see a situation in three months' time where Railtrack delays are dramatically down, TOC delays dramatically up and excited statists jumping up and down saying "I told you so".

It gets worse. According to one insider (who I am inclined to believe) Railtrack's improved performance is all because for the first time in its history it no longer has shareholders climbing all over its back and can now concentrate on the real job of running the rail infrastructure.

So, time to abandon my libertarianism and join the Socialist Alliance? Well, no. Although it is entirely true that shareholders under the private Railtrack were indeed pulling it in the direction of cost-cutting that was because Railtrack's income was more or less fixed. So, the only way of increasing profits was to cut costs. So, why was Railtrack's income fixed? Because the State, via Track Access Charges, decreed that it be so. Cherchez l'état - it works for me.

The other side of the equation is what has been happening to the TOCs. My guess is that they are going through much the same experience as they did after Hatfield. On that occasion, when Railtrack started re-railing half the network and placing speed restrictions on the other half, the TOCs "took their eye off the ball". I can see why. Punctuality is hard work. It takes a lot of things going right all at the same time. At a time of crisis, drivers, guards and managers are working so hard just to keep the service going that they entirely forget about punctuality. And once it's gone it takes ages to regain.

Of course, such subtleties are and will be lost on politicians and the media. Shame really.

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March 17, 2002

Book Review - Christian Wolmar "Broken Rails: How Privatisation Wrecked Britain's Railways"

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Book Review | British Rail Privatisation | Christian Wolmar | Fragmentation

This is a truly brilliant book written by the second-best railway journalist in the country. It is Wolmar's account of the whole sorry saga of the privatisation/fragmentation of Britain's railway.

In it Wolmar covers the history of Britain's rail network. He describes the last days of BR. He details the manner in which the network was broken up. He chronicles the disasters at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield. Indeed, his description of the Hatfield crash and its aftermath is the first even half way full account of what actually happened. He examines the less headline-grabbing ways in which the network has declined and writes about the Labour government's amateurish attempts to impose their latest wheezes on a flawed structure.

There is, however, one problem with this book: the subtitle. On countless occasions Wolmar illustrates how State-imposed fragmentation and regulation have injured the industry. But not once can he point to an occasion when privatisation has been exclusively to blame, if at all.

He can, perhaps, be forgiven the belief that fragmentation is an inherent part of private enterprise. But he would be wrong. Although railways were divided along regional lines prior to nationalisation there was no other fragmentation. It certainly isn't how things are done in Japan. And take the example of the Netherlands. There they fragmented but did not privatise. Chaos (or what passes for it in the Netherlands) quickly ensued.

How often can it be that a book is so badly let down by a subtitle?

Christian Wolmar, "Broken Rails: How Privatisation Wrecked Britain's Railways", Aurum Press, London, 2001.

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March 15, 2002

More Guardian Lunacy

Patrick Crozier | Nationalisation | Railways - USA | Subsidy

OK, so I haven't actually trashed anything in the Guardian so far but it was only ever a matter of time. In a long rambling article on Amtrak Matthew Engel looks at the state of America's railways and argues...well, to be honest, I really don't know what he was arguing. But knowing Guardianistas he was probably trying to get the taxpayer to spend ever more money on products that no one wants to buy.

The railways are a shambles. Decades of under-investment have come home to roost. The main company involved is effectively bankrupt. There is talk of breaking it up. The politicians have no idea what to do. Welcome to America.
Yes, very clever, but you were really trying to get us to think about the UK. And no it's not decades of under-investment that's at the root of our problem - it's decades of State interference. Oh, and you are wrong about the US. The private freight operators who actually own the 200,000 odd miles of track in the US are doing OK. The problem is the state-owned passenger operator Amtrak which in fact is a rather minor part of America's rail equation.
Only one major politician has ever shown much interest in the trains: Michael Dukakis, the beaten candidate for the presidency in 1988. The suspicion that Dukakis was the kind of person who liked trains helps explain why Americans refused to vote for him. He is currently Amtrak's chairman.
If it wasn't shafted before it certainly is now.
Since September 11 fewer people have flown, and Amtrak has got extra passengers, especially on its north-eastern routes. It runs fast, regular trains with heaps of legroom and an electric socket by every seat: the ordinary seats are more comfortable than British first class. Unfortunately, the track is so clapped out that, though the trains can do 150mph, it still takes three hours plus from Washington to New York. Different set-up, same imbecilic lack of planning.
Right. So it runs trains that are both fast and slow? Wow, now that really does take some doing.
The rightwing is arguing that Amtrak should be privatised and broken up...
Well they're right. The distances involved in inter-city travel in the US are just too vast for rail to compete. Yes, of course, there is a certain romance about train travel but that is no argument for subsidy. If there were you might as well subsidise the horse and cart.

Note also the use of the term "rightwing" (meaning libertarian), often confused (surely not deliberately) with the term "far right" (meaning fascist).

People use British trains because the roads are so clogged they are the least worst alternative. And for me, having left the country partly to avoid the possibility of one day strangling an employee of either Railtrack or Great Western, it is pretty galling to realise Britain is not the only country that is totally ludicrous on this subject.
Well, isn't that interesting. Normally, I find it galling when Britain is alone in being completely crap at something - like winter sports for instance. In fact when it comes to railway crises we are in rather good company. Holland's railway is in a mess. France's (although it works rather well I have to admit) is burdened by a mountain of debt and annual subsidies are running at about twice the rate they are here. It is no coincidence that the Japanese system, the one passenger railway in the world that works both for the passenger and the taxpayer, is the one with the least State interference.

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It's not all Doom and Gloom

Patrick Crozier | Privatisation Benefits

I have just seen a letter on the Telegraph's Letters Page. (Apologies for the lack of a direct link. It's a javascript pop-up. Just click on where is says Chiltern First).

Obviously this is a very satisfied customer. Whether this has anything to do with privatisation, however, is something of a moot point. Chiltern, the railway referred to, was given an enormous makeover by BR just before privatisation/fragmentation. It definitely got new trains and a new safety system. I am pretty sure it also got new track, signals and spruced up stations. This was all part of a concept known as Total Route Modernisation. No one has tried anything like it since - not entirely surprising given the fragmented nature of the railway and the short-term nature of the TOCs.

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A Dubious Claim

Patrick Crozier | Transport General

According to research commissioned by Barclaycard transport delays are costing British businesses a "phenomenal" £1.9bn a year.

Now I hate to be one to downplay the current transport crisis but Britain is a trillion pound economy. A paltry sum such as £1.9bn is, in economic terms, the equivalent of change lost down the back of the sofa.

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Train Driver Shortage

Patrick Crozier | Privatisation Benefits

In the UK we have a train driver shortage. What the article does not mention is that the origin of the shortage is the decision of the TOCs to massively increase the number of services they run. For instance, Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), which runs trains from London to Edinburgh has increased the number of services it runs from about 86 a day to about 120. Benefits from privatisation/fragmentation have been few and far between but this is one of them.

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A Short Note On The Structure Of The UK Railway

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | British Rail Privatisation

Before 1993 British Rail (BR), a nationalised corporation, ran the railway. Under the 1993 Railways Act it was split up into the following:

Railtrack, the ROSCOs and the Maintenance Companies were privatised. The TOCs were contracted out.

In addition a number of statutory regulatory bodies were set up:

Funding was achieved as follows:
The privatisation/fragmentation process was completed just weeks before the 1997 election which brought Labour to power.

Since then Labour have made the following changes:

Since privatisation subsidy has declined to about £1bn a year - roughly the same as it was in BR's days. However, fare revenue has increased to £3.3bn

One day, I will draw out a diagram which will make some of these relationships a bit clearer.

Update The diagram has been added here

Update 19/09/04

Hmm… not sure I'd make that claim about the subsidy being only £1bn these days.

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The Japanese System

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Railways - Japan

The Japanese railway is entirely in the private sector. Its punctuality (about 99%) and cleanliness are legendary. Bullet trains (known in Japan as Shinkansen) are amongst the fastest in the world. In the last ten years only two passengers have died as the result of collisions (RAIL #396 15 November 2000 p87). A third of all the world's rail passenger journeys take place in Japan.

Japan's network can be divided into three sectors: private railways, the JRs and the regional railways.

The term "private railway" is usually used to describe those railways which have never at any point been part of the state system. They tend to be concentrated in the main urban areas and their main business tends to be commuting. Private railways tend to own extensive property interests, such as shopping centres, housing developments and tourist resorts. Private railways do not receive subsidy. Their fares are controlled.

The JRs are the result of the 1987 privatisation of the Japanese National Railway (JNR). There are six of them: 3 on the main island (Honshu) and 3 on each of the smaller islands. In the 1960s, shortly after the launch of the first Shinkansen, JNR started to make losses. In the 1970s and early 1980s these losses became truly gargantuan. At one point JNR was losing about £10bn a year. Politicians started to look around for a solution. Fortunately, they only had to look as far as the profit-making private railways for the model. JNR was duly privatised. Although, Japan has since been in more or less permanent recession the Honshu JRs "seem" to have done well.

The island JRs, in common with regional railways not only in Japan but all over the world, have not done so well. Regional railways simply cannot compete with cheap, efficient and flexible motor transport. But in Japan, as elsewhere, the public continue to demand their preservation. As a consequence central and local governments continue to subsidise these services. As it happens the only serious rail accident to have taken place in Japan in recent years took place on a subsidised regional railway.

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Corporate Manslaughter - An Addendum

Patrick Crozier | Corporate Manslaughter | HSE | Rail Safety

I thought I had read this somewhere and today I came up with, if not the exact quotation, then something very similar. This appeared in RAIL No.396 15/11/2000 p62.

"At Ladbroke Grove the fatally flawed track layout, designed and approved by the safety authorities [ie the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)] in the belief that Advanced Train Protection [a high tech safety system] would prevent signals passed at danger, clearly paved the way for an accident."

In other words, the very authority that is going to prosecute others is itself partly responsible for the accident.

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March 13, 2002

On Corporate Manslaughter

Patrick Crozier | Corporate Manslaughter | Rail Safety

The news that rail companies involved in the crash at Ladbroke Grove are to face charges offers the opportunity to ask whether we need safety regulation at all.

To start on a flippant note it is interesting that the Health and Safety Executive (part of the State) will be prosecuting Railtrack (recently acquired by the State) and Thames Trains (so constrained by Franchise Agreements and the State-imposed structure of the industry that it might as well be part of the State) in the hope that the accused will be forced to pay fines to the State.

But there is a more important point here. Safety regulation is simply not needed. Train crashes cost huge amounts of money. The bill for the Hatfield crash was estimated at £30m and that was before Railtrack started tearing up the track all over the country and plunging the network into chaos. Train companies have every incentive to avoid accidents.

"Ah, but what about insurance?" I hear you say. Ultimately, insurance pay outs come from insurance premiums. A reckless rail company will, in the long run, pay for its actions. There are all sorts of good reasons why rail is the safest form of transport.

But what about negligence? If we don't have regulation what redress can there be for passengers? Redress is a matter for passengers and the railway company via their contract. It is not a matter for the state. Indeed by introducing regulation the State in effect invalidates voluntary contracts by an act of compulsion.

In a genuine free market the likelihood would be that we would have a choice. As a passenger you would be able to pay for a standard ticket which offered no compensation in case of accident or, for a slightly higher sum, be able to purchase a ticket that offered all manner of compensation in the case of accident or delay. State regulation just queers the pitch.

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Nothing new or original...

Patrick Crozier | Railtrack Administration

But NAPF's warning to the Government over Railtrack adds further evidence that the decision to put Railtrack into administration was not only bad for the railway but also to the whole Third Way project.

We seem to be inevitably heading towards an almighty court case which will not only cost a fortune but last and age and paralyse the railway. Oh dear.

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March 12, 2002

For Heaven's Sake

Patrick Crozier | London Underground

Are senior Conservative politicians trying to throw the next election? Now they've decided to turn their attention to buskers.

I like buskers. Some are good, some are bad but all are free unless you feel inclined to release some of your loose change. Perhaps some of them are intimidating but I am yet to meet one. Generally speaking they cheer the place up. Is it really so difficult to remove the bad ones and keep the good? Frankly, buskers have every incentive to play music that people want to hear to a standard that make the experience enjoyable. All this does is to reinforce the image of the Conservative Party as the party of miserable gits.

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Fare Hike Threatened

Patrick Crozier | Fares and Ticketing

I have just seen this article in the Evening Standard. It appears that commuter rail companies around London are considering massive fare increases. Apparently they will shortly be allowed to do so. It seems that when the system was fragmented in the mid-1990s, rail companies were restricted to an RPI-1% formula for 7 years. This restriction is about to be lifted. Good.

Yes, I actually said that. Why? For a variety of reasons that for reasons of time I cannot go into right now. However, I do intend to return to the subjects of fares, monopolies, capital investment and the real nature of railways at a future date. For the time being I will say just this: state intervention on the railways does not work. Monopolies are not nearly as bad as people tend to think.

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The Crisis at Connex

Patrick Crozier | Connex

Last night on ITV's current affairs programme "Tonight with Trevor MacDonald" there was a major piece on Connex which runs rail services from London to Kent. The piece spent most of its time following the progress of Connex's French Chief Executive, Olivier Brousse as he went about his job listening to passengers and inspecting depots.

Now, I have to say that I had to admire Brousse for daring to speak to passengers. Connex is almost universally regarded as the worst franchise of them all and we heard almost nothing but complaints. It must be truly awful having to listen to that tirade every day (if indeed he does).

But courage aside what did we actually learn about Connex's plans? There was a short piece about new trains. There are going to be a lot of new trains on Connex and they certainly look very swanky. But there was no mention of the difficulties in getting them into service. Firstly, they are unreliable (as most new trains are). This has been brought about largely as a consequence of introducing fickle technological advances such as electric doors and air conditioning. The more there is to go wrong the more goes wrong. Secondly, and far worse, is a burgeoning problem with power supplies. Put simply, there isn't enough electricity to power all the new trains. Sorting this out is a Railtrack problem, will take at least three years to implement and Railtrack haven't even begun to think about it.

To my mind running a decent railway has little to do with fancy technology and everything to do with system. It is about getting a lot of small things right all at the same time. It is about making sure that it is easy to buy a ticket, that tickets are checked, making the most efficient use of staff, making sure that trains are as reliable as can reasonably expected. There was nothing at all to indicate that Connex was getting to grips with these sorts of issues. Pity the passengers.

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March 11, 2002

Mr Blair's Black Day

Patrick Crozier | Industrial Relations | New Trains | Transport General

I cannot remember a day like it. The media is awash with bad news stories about the railway. This is just a small selection of stories I have spotted today:

New threat to ScotRail services
Docklands rail staff vote to strike
Rail chaos: the voters blame Blair
Rail rage
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Woman hit by two trains
James attacks 'disaster' of Labour's rail rescue

There's more to come tonight with a report on the crisis at Connex (one of London's largest commuter networks) on prime time ITV.

Oh, there was one good news story - but only one mind you:

Rail firm to buy 700 new trains

This is Labour's nightmare. This is the story that simply will not go away. Maybe they thought that with the sacking of so many at the Transport Department they had bought themselves time. Wrong. The media have refocused on what is actually going on on the railways - and it isn't a pretty sight. And it isn't going to change any time soon. It will take at least another 6 months to get Railtrack out of administration; another year to restructure the industry and a further 3 years to sort out replacements for slam door stock. And every couple of months in that time the media will be back with yet more horror stories of delays, cramped conditions, financial scandals and heaven only knows what.

The Third Way is truly turning out to be a dead end.

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Congestion Charging

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

There's a big hoohaa in the UK at the moment over congestion charging. One of Mr Blair's trendy think tanks has made the apparently sensible suggestion that drivers might like to pay for the congestion they cause.

Far too early one morning I managed to catch a TV interview with David Begg, the author of the report. Clearly switched to mantra-matic mode he droned that "you can't introduce congestion charging until people have a decent public transport alternative."

Drivel. And double drivel. Drivel because you don't have to waste billions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Double drivel because it assumes that the State has a role to play in transport.

I'll start with the second point. In the 1920s London had the best public transport system in the world. It had the best trains (often electrified), it had a brand spanking new tube network and it had fast, frequent and reliable bus and tram networks. With the exception of inner-London trams all of this was built and paid for and run by private enterprise.

In the 1930s they nationalised the tube and the buses. If memory serves me correctly they also came after the remaining trams. In the 1940s they nationalised the trains. Since then steady decline has been the order of the day.

Nowadays, the chief problem we face is road congestion. But who owns this road if not the State? It is the State's failure to manage its own property that has led us to the gridlock we currently face. To congestion we can also add the horrors of poor surfaces, potholes, traffic calming measures and traffic engineering.

In a free market there would be tolls and there would be an initial battle to determine the best technology. After that roads would start to compete with each other. They would compete on things like speed, ride quality, price and safety. Who knows we might even see Brian Micklethwait's 3ft-high Ferrari-only tunnels.

But where will people go if they are priced out of their cars? Surely, they need an alternative? The answer is that people who are priced out of their cars will go nowhere. They will continue to use the very same roads but switch to other means of transport whether it be buses, coaches, bikes or motor bikes.

Charging simply leads to a more efficient allocation of resources. Roads will be free flowing and predictable. It will then be possible for bus companies to introduce reliable timetables and hence services that are competitive against both car and rail. It is one of the great ironies that as more people drove into London so fewer people came into London by road. Buses suffered the same jams as everyone else and lost competitive advantage.

It is possible that, initially at least, there won't be enough buses and there may be an initial period of high prices. This will quickly send out the signal that there is a gap in the market and the response will be to build more buses. It maybe a rough time but far less rough than the ten more years of gridlock we face while the State works out what it is going to do.

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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