June 2003

June 30, 2003

Brian's plan for the railways of Britain

Brian Micklethwait | Rail General

Oh goodee:

It could take until the end of the decade to bring train punctuality back to pre-Hatfield crash levels, according to the company which runs the UK's railways.

Network Rail's new 10 year business plan, published on Monday, also says it may have to cut up to 2,000 jobs to help it make savings of £12.9bn over the period.

Unions have reacted angrily to the strategy, describing the proposed job cuts as "obscene" and threatening possible industrial action.

In the plan the company says it wants to reduce the number of late-running trains to one in 10 by 2009, rather than the current 20%.

It is looking at cost saving measures to meet government targets on improved punctuality, including cutting its 14,000-strong workforce over the next three years.

The chairman of Network Rail, Ian McAllister, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "That will come out of admin staff, contracting staff and so on."

If I understand Patrick's attitude to our railways, the secret is getting everything to work properly. (I went looking for an archive piece that says this, but failed. Maybe Patrick can supply a link to such a piece.)

(ADDENDUM July 1st: Yes, in a comment on this Patrick supplies this link.)

If that's right, I wonder how I'd feel if I was one of the "… and so on" people. What do you do? I work for the railways. Oh, doing what? I'm in the And So On Department. Oh. Bad luck mate.

Not that I have much of an idea of what to do about all this.

But for what it may be worth here is my plan:

1. Put the whole British railway system into one big single organisation, trains, tracks and all.

2. Probably better to re-introduce privatisation, but by selling shares in the whole thing, BT style.

3. Run the "whole thing" along military/service lines, rather than "commercial" lines. Have uniforms that everyone wears, up to and including the very top management, and that everyone eventually gets to be proud of. Award medals. Don't pay especially well. Encourage self-sacrificial attitudes for the greater good of the system and of the "passengers" (NOT "customers"). Have a commander of it all who is a famous person (Ian McAllister – who he?) and who travels relentlessly and workaholically (and eats, and sleeps) on his trains, in uniform, shaking hands with everyone (railway people and passengers - and especially with all the And So Ons) and eyeballing them (I'm thinking Monty taking over the Eighth Army in 1942, just before Alamein), and who keeps mostly only electrical contact with his permanent headquarters staff. (This is the "W" formation approach, although if you don't get what W has to do with anything, don't worry, it's not that vital.)

And did I mention that it would help if "Monty" knew what he was doing and wasn't an ignorant prat? That's the snag. What if instead of Monty you got one of his baffled predecessors?

So, no, I don't really know what the hell to do.

But the good news is, Patrick has a category called "Rail General". How apposite.

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Line closures

Patrick Crozier | Rail Miscellany | SRA

Tim Hall is worried that some rail lines will have to be closed while, of course, I am worried that they won't. On balance I think most of them are a complete waste of time and effort.

Having said that I was rather intrigued by something he said:

While I don't believe every last branch line deserves to exist in perpetuity, and some, like Par-Newquay or the Central Wales line really do need to justify their existence, it should not be for some London-based bureaucrat to decide their fate. That should be up to the people of Cornwall or Wales.
Much as I am not much in favour of this either, when idealistic push comes to practical politics shove, this does tend to become my fallback position. At least it will begin a debate amongst those most directly affected over whether these lines genuinely justify the cost.

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June 29, 2003

In the news

Patrick Crozier | Connex | Railtrack and Network Rail | SRA

Rail supremo rules out return to state control
Network Rail faces £60bn repair bill
Sacking Connex is not enough
Connex was 'non-compliant' says PwC
Renationalisation threat to failing train firms as regulator gets tough
Rail chief boosts his empire with a brutal coup
Connex pays the price for its incompetence
Finances at centre of Connex dismissal
Connex sacked to stop 'gravy train'
Passengers have little hope of a better railway
Good riddance to Connex
Network Rail close to £4bn financing
FirstGroup drops SRA challenge

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Goodbye Connex

Patrick Crozier | Connex | SRA

I ought to be able to say something about the removal of Connex's South Eastern franchise but I find it difficult; in much the same way I find it difficult to comment on who should be the next Drugs Tsar. There shouldn't be franchises and there shouldn't be train operating companies.

However, it is noteworthy that the SRA claims it is removing Connex's franchise in order to save taxpayers' money. That's the exactly the same argument used to close down Railtrack and yet since then the state has found ever more imaginative ways to waste ever greater sums. Given that the new state managers are (much like Network Rail) unlikely to have any great incentive to control costs we can doubtless look forward to some truly eyewatering bills.

All this is yet one more block section on the branch line to railway Gotterdamerung. At some point, someone is going to say "enough is enough". And then what? Railway closures, higher fares, an end to upgrades or maybe a quiet acceptance of a worse service at a greater cost? Or will the real culprit ie fragmentation ie the wheel/rail split be identified? And if it is will anyone have the gumption to stand up to the EU and demand its removal?

We can only hope.

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June 28, 2003

In the news

Patrick Crozier | Airport Expansion | Channel Tunnel | Fares and Ticketing | Railtrack and Network Rail | Road Safety

Railtrack boss given £700,000 ‘golden handcuffs’ after failure
Cunning plan from Network Rail is shunted into siding
How airport protesters hit turbulence
Passengers angry as rail fare rises outstrip inflation
Drivers facing ban on hand-held mobiles
Network Rail accounts to be investigated
Rail fare rise
Network misses moving target
Eurostar aims to ease air congestion
Virgin bitter as Concorde dream fades
Network Rail chiefs collect huge bonuses
Rail bosses lower bonus targets

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June 26, 2003

Branson the patriot

Brian Micklethwait | Air Miscellany | General Points (not just transport) | Virgin

There is a very strange article in the latest Spectator under the name of Richard Branson. Partly it's about his plan to keep Concorde flying, and partly it's about an English bloke who really invented flying, fifty years sooner than those Americans. Branson is a man of great cunning, under that smile and all that pratting about in balloons. So it is safe to assume that he has his reasons for having someone write this piece and having his name attached to it. But what are they? What could this mean? What can we learn from this article about the state of the world?

First, never forget that Branson is an implacable enemy of British Airways, and that he takes his feuds seriously. This "plan" to keep Concorde flying is really, I suspect, merely a plan to annoy British Airways. He gets all the advantages of being seen to try to save the big birds, but none of the bother of actually having to fly the things. He has, I'd be prepared to bet, made an offer to British Airways which (a) for some reason or another they can't accept, but which (b) they will have to go to immense bother to explain why they can't accept. That would be my suspicion. Branson gets a nice little flutter of patriotic publicity at zero expense. BA gets a medium-sized dose of unwelcome turmoil.

But what of all this "we really invented flying" stuff? Well, I don't know what this piece of down-market patriotism is really about either, but again, here's a guess. Branson is re-positioning himself as a Tory. He smells the doom of Blair, followed by a lame duck Labour phase, and he wants to attach himself to the Next Political Tendency, which he calculates will be British Nationalism of a sort that stops just short of actually expressing any plausible version of British national interests and instead indulges in superficial patriotic gestures, like keeping Concorde in business, and like claiming that a Brit invented flying really. This article is, in other words, the aviation equivalent of promising to reinstall somebody as the "Lord Chancellor" (which could well happen), while acquiescing to the continuing absorption of Britain into the European Union or whatever it's now called.

That's my guess. Any others?

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June 23, 2003

New Underground line opens in Singapore.

Michael Jennings | Railways - Other

The Guardian reports that the new North East Line (NEL) of the Singapore Mass Rail Transit (MRT) system openened over the weekend. Like most all new underground lines being built (for instance line 14 in Paris), this system is fully automated and trains do not have drivers).

A couple of interesting issues. Firstly the new line has been built and operated by SBS transit. SBS stands for "Singapore Bus Service", rather than the SMRT (Singapore Mass Transit Rail) corporation that has built the previous metro lines. What this means is that the Singapore government has deliberately given the contract to build and run the new line to a different organisation than the one that built and runs the older lines. It seems that even in a situation with very tight government regulation (although some private ownership) it is desirable to have two organisations competing for tenders and to compare operating statistics for one another. (A similar situation exists in Hong Kong, where both the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) and the Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) have been asked to offer competitive tenders on new lines, although neither are private sector organisations).

Finally, we have the following statement

Singapore, an island of 4 million people, boasts one of the world's most modern subway systems. Singapore's MRT first opened in 1987

This is both good and bad. One thing it means is that Singapore's metro system is extremely modern and efficient wherever it goes. The bad thing is that with the first line having been only built in 1987, the range of places where it goes is rather limited. I visited Singapore in early 2001 and again in early 2002, and in both instances there were lots of places I wished to visit for which train transport was not an option. I had to catch buses, and I hate catching buses. On both trips I visited the Chinatown area, and on both occasions I looked at the new line under construction (the first time I had ever seen a cut and cover railway being built), thought it was interesting looking, and silently cursed the fact that I could not use it to get back to my hotel. (This sort of feeling is particularly strong in heat of 35 degrees or more). This new line makes a lot more of Singapore accessible, but there are still areas that lack good coverage. This page says Singapore has one more line under construction and another three planned after that, but that it will take another ten years or more for all these lines to be completed. When they finally are, Singapore will have an excellent public transport system. For now, though, it is one of those cities where you have to describel the transport system as "in development".

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June 22, 2003

Will this train be stopping at Egham – or not?

Brian Micklethwait | Rail Incidents

Not long ago, I made another journey to visit my aging mother in Englefield Green, using the train from Victoria to Clapham Junction, and then from Clapham Junction to Egham. I'll spare you all the details and concentrate on just one detail, a very bad detail.

All the platform signs I consulted at Clapham Junction agreed that the train I later boarded would be stopping at Egham, and in Richmond the platform announcer (or announcing machine) confirmed this. This train will be stopping at blah-de-blah, Feltham, Staines, Egham, Virginia Water, blah-de-blah. However, the automatic announcing machine inside the train believed that the train was not stopping at Egham, a belief that it repeated conscientiously every time we departed from each station on our journey. Very troubling.

I asked the fat man who checked our tickets what this was about. Were we stopping at Egham, as promised at Clapham Junction, and re-promised at Richmond, or not? Yes, he'd been wondering about that. He'd ask the Driver. At Staines I finally had it confirmed, from listening to the Driver himself in conversation with the Fat Ticket Man. Yes, we were stopping at Egham. But I was not entirely convinced until we did duly stop at Egham. Up until then I had been angrily imagining having to travel onwards to Virginia Water, and how it would be absurd to go to all the trouble of complaining to Blah Blah Trains for the extra expense, so I wouldn't bother, and I'd be delayed, and out of pocket. Grrrrrrh!!!!!

Two comments. First, this vignette illustrates, by illustrating the opposite, the enormous extra value to train passengers that comes not just from getting to where you're trying to get, but from in the meantime knowing that this is where you'll get. What should have been an entirely stress-free and trouble-free journey was turned into stressed and troubled ordeal. Not a very great ordeal, as ordeals in this world go. I wouldn't compared my sufferings with those of, say, the people of Zimbabwe right now (and God alone knows what the trains are like there these days). But an ordeal nevertheless.

Second, and this is truly troubling. I have been using this line virtually all my life, and I have never been subjected to this particular mistake before.

But I expect to again. Like many others, I have given up hoping that the railways of Brtain will ever get any better.

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June 18, 2003

News stories

Patrick Crozier | Buses and Jitneys | London Congestion Charging | London Underground | Railtrack and Network Rail | Road Miscellany | Road Pricing | SRA

You wait ages for a transport story to turn up and the three (or more) turn up all at once. Here is a selection from Monday:

National road tolls would cut costs for country motorists
Road tolls 'only way' to control traffic growth
Plans to widen M25
'Little improvement' to rail system
Rail records another dismal year
Hundreds more trains axed
Traffic charge an 'economic failure'
Ken pledges bus battle
Truth behind Ken's bus boom
Canary in Jubilee Line pact
Tube's shocking dust levels

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June 16, 2003

The Bilbao metro system

Michael Jennings | Railways - Other

I recently spent a week in the Basque country in northern Spain, about half of which was in the city of Bilbao. Bilbao is an example of something quite common in the modern world, which is an industrial city in which a lot of the industry has now gone away, which has gone through a period of post-industrial depression, and which is now rebuilding itself as a modern, services based city on top of the industrial ruins, if you like.

Bilbao appears to be doing a particularly good job of this. The new Bilbao Guggenheim art museum is a particularly beautiful piece of architecture (although it contains little interesting art). However, also central to the renaissance of the city is dramatically improved transport, and in particular a new metro system.

The design of this metro system has been influenced quite heavily by the unusual physical geography of the city of Bilbao. Bilbao is in the north of the Pyrenees, and extremely rugged country fronts onto the Atlantic ocean. Bilbao sits in the river valley of the Nervion river. The centre of the city is in a location a few miles up the river where the river loops back upon itself and there is therefore a sizeable flat area inside the loop of the river. However, the city's suburbs lie on the sides of the river and up the sides of a long river valley. The greater city is therefore a long, narrow, straight line.

What does this have to do with the metro? Well, it means that building a metro system to cover the whole city has one less dimension than is normally the case. It is only necessary to build a single line. The valley is sufficiently narrow that wherever people get off, they can walk in the direction perpendicular to the river to their destination.

Except there are two caveats.

Firstly, in the very centre of the city where the river loops back on itself, the valley is too wide for short walks to all destinations. This problem has been solved by simultaneously building a new tram line that follows the loop of the river, particularly to take people from the centre of town and metro stops to the Guggenheim museum.

Secondly, like with most port cities on rivers, there is a point below which there are no more downstream bridges. (As is also common with port cities, this is a fair way upstream, so that the river can be navigable a fair way upstream). At this point, the metro line forks, and has two branches parallel to each other on either side of the river. (One of these is not yet complete).

This works well, and does a fine job of connecting the downstream suburbs to the city upstream. Of course, what it does not do is bring people living on opposite sides of the river closer together. For that, some bridges do need to be built.

The metro system has a couple of other items of note. For one thing, rather than being at or below river level, in some cases the metro line has instead been dug inside the steep banks of the river. An interesting consequence of this is that whenever there is a side valley going off the main river valley, the metro line comes out of the side of a hill, goes through an elevated section over the tributary river, and then enters a hill on the other side of the tributary valley. It is quite spectacular.

Finally, the architecture of the metro system is nice. The stations were designed by Sir Norman Foster, and are spacious. It is a very non-claustrophobic metro system. (A lot of them are quite like the Canary Wharf tube station on the Jubilee Line in London, also designed by Norman Foster). The tunnels are wide, and its a very pleasant system to ride on.

Of course, none of this answers any questions about whether the system is economic. EU money has probably paid for a fair portion of it. However, as a piece of design it is very nice, and it demonstrates how much better the design of such things is today, even to those built only 20 years ago.

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June 15, 2003

Fares to rise after congestion charge success

Patrick Crozier | Fares and Ticketing | London Congestion Charging

The congestion charge, according to the Times last week, has been too successful. It has deterred too many people and put Comrade Ken's budget out of whack. So, he's going to put up bus and tube fares.

Which I am all in favour of. After all, if the answer to overcrowding on the roads is to increase the price, surely the same applies to overcrowding on the Tube?

But hang about. The motivation behind this is to increase the Mayor's budget. Which I am all against, aren't I? Surely, this can't be right?

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June 14, 2003

How to ruin a good idea

Patrick Crozier | Road Pricing

For reasons known only to themselves, the folks at Setting the World to Rights don't have bylines but nevertheless this post by someone on the UK government's plans for satellite road tolling hits the nail on the head:

The fact that the system will be government-run is also a bad omen. Giving the government the means to track every car in the country has a horrible potential for abuse. Even the assurance that the government will try to avoid making money out of road charging is a sign of the wrong attitude. When a business makes a profit it is because people want its services. For the government to avoid making money means they will avoid making roads easy and pleasant to use and that won't benefit anybody.

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June 12, 2003

Congestion pricing a monopolist's dream?

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

Some interesting observations by David over at City Comforts:

A lot of conservatives/libertarians are going to be sorely disappointed when it turns out that congestion-pricing is not a market-based solution. Not even close. It is government imposition of a fee to further social goals. That does not mean it is a bad idea, just means that current schemes do not include any direct bidding mechanism by which buyers and sellers communicate, so we are not really creating a market. Nor is it likely that they will have such a mechanism because of the inherent contradiction in trying to manage a public resource though pricing when the real goal is not income maximization but a much more nebulous social goal of decreasing congestion. The seller (government) is both market-maker and a monopolist. Not even remotely a free-market. But the left and right may come together on this one as congestion-pricing turns out to be one of those social Rorschach tests in which everyone can see what they want.
Quite. Especially the last sentence.

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Mellor on the Congestion Charge

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

Demonstrating an intelligence and concern for his fellow man he never displayed in office David Mellor, writing in the Standard starts with a mea culpa:

I thought the whole system might collapse in the first few days beneath the weight of public opprobrium and chaos at the call centre. It didn't, and the traffic flow into central London is undeniably lighter.

Before retracting it:
I'm talking about hard economic evidence that won't go away, all of it faithfully reported in the Standard, from reputable non-political organisations, that the charge is seriously damaging business in central London...

...Also last month, retail monitor Footfall published the results of a three-month CCTV survey of 13 major stores within the zone, which found the number of shoppers had fallen by up to eight per cent this spring, compared with the year before.

Meanwhile, outside the zone all the neighbouring boroughs from Wandsworth to Camden are reporting an increase in fly parking as commuters out to avoid the charge create their own personal park-and-ride scheme.

Mind you I think this is less likely to a problem in well-run Wandsworth than Lagos-of-the-North Camden.

Nevertheless, the decline in retail receipts is something very few (I'm not one of them) spotted. I can only guess that many shoppers are the sort of people who are flexible about when they shop but don't have that much spare cash.

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June 10, 2003

Network Rail is not a joint stock company, but something called a not for profit company. You can say that again.

Michael Jennings | Railtrack and Network Rail

This piece from the Telegraph on the disaster that is Network Rail is well worth a read. (Link via NZPundit).

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The overnight descent from goodness to badness

Brian Micklethwait | Fragmentation

Last weekend I had lunch in the suburbs, with a teacher and her husband, looking for material for this, and I got some, which I will write up and post there Real Soon Now.

I also got from the Husband, who at the time he was talking about was a commuter from the Reading area into London, a report concerning the exact moment when the train services out of London/Paddington went from adequate to awful. It was before privatisation, on the day – yes the DAY – when it changed from being one big organisation to several, his bit becoming, as I recall it, "Network" something or other. In other words it was when the system was being divided up prior to being sold off that the trouble started. I don't know the date and nor did he, but that was when he was talking about. Maybe a commenter can put a day/month/year to it.

Two points. One: my informant was adamant that this was not a gradual descent into badness. It happened literally overnight. I pressed him on this. At once? Suddenly? No slow descent from goodness to badness? No, it happened like the collapse of a building, he said. One moment there was an okay system that you could pretty much rely on. Hours later, it all descended at once into total shit and it has remained total shit ever since.

Second: This strongly confirms Patrick's oft' repeated point here that it is fragmentation (scroll down to below this bit) that is the villain of the piece. Not privatisation, and not even nationalisation.

The system could have privatised just as easily by keeping it in one system, and selling shares in it, or giving it to some big capitalists, or something. That would still have been privatisation, but it would not have been fragmentation and it would probably have worked very well. I like to think it might have worked a lot better.

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June 08, 2003

Swiss Railways

Patrick Crozier | Railways - Other

Tim Hall has been touring Switzerland by rail. He likes it.

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Is congestion charging killing London?

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

Ferdinand Mount writing in the Times seems to think so:

Parts of central London have become like that Dutch town in the beer ad where nothing much happens. I walked the length of Jermyn Street and in 20 shops counted three customers.

The Federation of Small Businesses claims that its members have been severely damaged by the charge.

The argument is that people have been deterred from entering Central London and so there are fewer customers. This is probably true but it does occur to me that there is a bit missing. Shopping is not the only reason people travel to Central London. Many hundreds of thousands do so to work. If some of these have been deterred you would be expecting news of a recruitment crisis but I haven't heard of one yet.

Nevertheless, I am quite happy to believe that the Congestion Charge has reduced shopowners' takings. The thing is it shouldn't have. It has long been my belief that, properly managed, Congestion Charging would actually increase the number of people entering Cental London by making the use of road space more efficient. In other words, by encouraging denser forms of commuting such as buses and jitneys. But the problem there is that buses are in the incapable hands of Comrade Ken and jitneys are illegal.

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June 03, 2003

If rail lines must close, so be it

Patrick Crozier | SRA

Interview with Richard Bowker, Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority.

From the Times.

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Not so naked

David Farrer | Air Miscellany

Brian Micklethwait wrote yesterday about Naked-Air. For the more demure traveller, there's always Hooters Air

Click here for photographs.

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Chancery Lane enquiry

Patrick Crozier | London Underground

The Evening Standard reports that an enquiry into the Charncery Lane crash published by the ridiculously-named Transport for London has concluded that:

London Underground cannot guarantee the continuing safety of passengers using the Central line
So, yet another rip-roaring success for the State then. As far as I am aware, in the time that the Tube was in private hands there was not a single passenger fatality caused by an accident.

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June 02, 2003


Brian Micklethwait | Air Miscellany

Here's a different way to travel. BuzzMachine says it looks better than it sounds. Link via Instapundit.

For public (and there's a time you really don't want to be dropping that L) transport, this would not be on, any more than your clothes would be. But what are the rules about driving in the nude?

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Congestion Charging: A Survey

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

How is the Congestion Charge for you? That's the question. It's been up and running for over 3 months now so it should have settled down. So, we should be able to start drawing some conclusions.

I do mean you. I am not looking for opinions on whether the Charge is a good thing generally but what your personal experience (and those of friends and acquaintances) has been. I am coming round to the view that anecdotal evidence is often the best you can get - not least because it comes from people you can trust.

I also mean it in the broadest sense. This survey is not just for people who drive in Central London. It also for people who used to, people who never have but take the train/bus and people who don't live or work anywhere near Central London.

Just to kick things off here are my impressions:

I live in Teddington which is about 10 miles from the zone. I haven't owned a car for nearly two years and it was ages since the last time I drove into what has become the Central Zone. I occasionally take the train into Central London but that is almost always outside peak hours.

I cannot say I have noticed the slightest difference: either on my journeys by train or in terms of traffic in Teddington - not that I would be likely to notice. An acquaintance who drives into the Central Zone tells me that traffic levels are a lot lower and it is a lot easier to get around. Unfortunately, suppliers have started to add £5 to the cost of every delivery no matter how many deliveries they make in a day.

So, that's my two cents - what about you?

By the way, at least part of the impetus for this survey was a comment made by the David at City Comforts. He was wondering why Transport Blog had had nothing to say on the issue for over a month. Mainly, it has to be said, because the media have had nothing to say - but that is no reason not to generate some news of our own.

So, over to you.

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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