August 2003

August 29, 2003

Transport as sport

Brian Micklethwait | Transport Miscellany

Tonight, chez moi, Patrick Crozier (no less) is to give a talk about Formula One motor racing, which suggests a further piece of writing along the lines of: "Please, please add some comments however inane just to suggest to each individual passer-by that he is not the only reader of this." See my previous posting here about Transport in Art (which also invited a sub-string of comments about Animals in Transport).

Next suggested comment stream, Transport in Sport. Horses, cars, boats. Airplanes. Remember those legendary Schneider Trophy races which gave birth to the Spitfire. Okay fighter airplanes aren't transport. But there are surely some semi-sporting contests along the lines of crossing the Atlantic the fastest that have made meaningful contributions to transport development. And come to think of it, the early days of motor racing were not some kind of refuge from everyday driving; they too were a contribution towards its improvement (i.e. its speeding up).

My favourite transport sports, at least as ideas, are definitely those twin blooms of Americana, Stock Car Racing (ancient saloon cars) and whatever they call that amazing sport where they charge around in the front bits (only the front bits) of huge articulated lorries. Trucks, I guess that would be in the USA. And I seem to recall the word "Derby" making an appearance in among such things.

Beneath and beyond all such geekery, there lies a theory, which is that, just as some sportiness may be involved in developing it in the first place, as soon as a means of transport has had its day, it survives, but as a sport. Think about it. Horses. Really fast cars (increasingly banned from everyday life). The Duke of Edinburgh does some weird kind of chariot racing, does he not?

The theory probably only applies to individually controllable means of transport. It's hard to see how you could have a train race. Although come to think of it they did have train races, in the early days, when trains were still speeding up on a regular basis. But train races after all the real railways have been shut down couldn't really work, could it?

Ballooning never really took off (sorry couldn't resist it) as a serious thing, but it survives hugely as a sport, I believe. And think of all the sport that goes into sailing, which has definitely had its day as serious way to do any business besides selling sailing stuff to sailing sporties. Something rather similar seems to be happening with skate-boarding. Presumably ice-skating survives as a serious way to get around in a few odd places, but that too is now mostly sport.

There should probably be lots more entertaining and useful links besides the one ego-link scattered in among all this. Apologies for omitting them. I must now rush to try to have my place a bit cleaner for Patrick's talk this evening. Have nice weekend, doing whatever you do, racing whatever item of ex-transport you race, watching the racing of whatever item of ex-transport …

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The London blackout

Patrick Crozier | Fragmentation

If you live outside the UK you may be unaware that London suffered a power cut last night paralysing most of the Tube and all rail lines in South London. Some commentators have been quick to blame privatisation:

Since we privatised our electricity companies itís become extremely difficult to get investment in the infrastructure.

These tend to be the same people who blame privatisation for the railway's problems, when, of course, we all know that it is in fact government regulation that is doing the damage.

Which makes me wonder if, in fact, it is regulation that it is doing the damage here.

The news that the regulator is going to be conducting the investigation into last night's disaster does not fill me with glee.

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August 28, 2003

Transport in art

Brian Micklethwait | Transport Miscellany

One of my favourite activities is boasting about my relatives. And you can tell you are getting old when the relatives you boast about are younger than you are, like my boastee nephew, the British Airways airline pilot (737s).

I typed "Micklethwait" into google, and got all manner of stuff, a lot of it about my Nth cousin John Micklethwait (who writes about globalisation) and about me, who writes about what I write about. But I also got a lot of hits for Lucy Micklethwait, who married into us, and who writes books about art for children.

Including this one, which is called I Spy a Freight Train: Transportation in Art, part of the I Spy series.

Who has not played, as children and with children, the game of "I spy?'' Micklethwait (I Spy a Lion, 1994, etc.) once again turns that game into an enthralling search into the heart of paintings. Her method is simple: On one page appears text, e.g., "I spy/with my little eye/a car,'' while on the facing page is a reproduction of a painting in which onlookers must find that vehicle. The striking and unusual paintings she chooses are not usually about moving from "here'' to "there,'' except in the most metaphysical sense. Sometimes, as in Mel Ramos's Batmobile, the mode of transportation is obvious; in other pictures, like the rowboat in Kandinsky's Birds or the bicycle in Thiebaud's Down Eighteenth Street, it takes time to find them. A mirage-like rendering of a camel in Dali's La Table Solaire and a lapidary elephant in an Indian miniature remind readers that transportation, like art, comes in many forms. Ö

This link to the same book also mentions other transport dominated children's books, e.g. Thomas the Tank Engine.

That's an interesting point about the contribution of animals to transport, a matter we haven't talked about much here, but could have, and could do.

And of course there's the matter of transport in other paintings. We've done transport in the movies, but not paintings. A much loved example of that would be J. M. W. Turner's famous painting of a Great Western locomotive called Rain, Steam, and Speed.

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August 26, 2003

Congestion Charge being discussed in Sydney

Michael Jennings | London Congestion Charging | Road Pricing

This article from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that a London style congestion charge is under consideration in Sydney, Australia.

In a submission to the State Government's Parry inquiry into public transport funding, Garry Glazebrook, a transport and urban planner, has outlined a model for a CBD "cordon toll" that he said would raise more than $60 million annually.

Just as a quick observation, although Lucy Turnbull, who is Lord Mayor of Sydney, is quoted extensively in the article, she has very little influence over whether such a charge would be brought in. The real power to introduce it is in the hands of the state government, in particular Premier Bob Carr. Although this has been supposedly suggested by an "independent consultant" in all likelihood what is happening is that the government is behind this and is throwing the idea in the air to see what kind of response it gets.

Also, it clearly hasn't been very well thought through yet. The proposal being suggested is pretty much a carbon copy of the London scheme, complete with enforcement throught photography of car number plates. There is no way whatsoever that such a charging mechanism would be used in Sydney. Large numbers of motorists already have electronic tags in their cars for use in paying to use Sydney's considerable number of toll roads. I would be amazed if a congestion charge system was introduced and it did not use an extension of this existing electronic charging system.

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August 22, 2003

Wi not Wi-Fi on Trains?

Brian Micklethwait | Rail General

David Sucher links to and quotes from this guy, who links to this piece about Wi-Fi on trains. Wi-Fi is Tec-No-Babl for being able to access the internet when on the move.

Wireless access to networks has already made its way onto planes, and if Canadian start-up PointShot has its way, trains are the next stop.

PointShot Wireless on Monday will announce a test with Altamont Commuter Express Rail to make Wi-Fi access available on the California rail operator's trains. The test will begin in mid-September and last three months. Train travelers will have free access to the Internet through PointShot's servers, which will be stored on the train. The route runs from Stockton, Calif., to San Jose, Calif. Passengers will only need a notebook computer or a handheld with the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks.

The bit of the PointShot Wireless site dealing with this stuff is here.

Personally I prefer books for doing something meaningful on the train. Remember books? Plus, if I used a computer, and if the guy next to me was using a computer, I'd find his computer more interesting than my computer. But although I've computed regularly I've never commuted regularly, so what do I know?

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Compulsory Purchase VII

Patrick Crozier | Compulsory Purchase

As if we all weren't already fed up with the compulsory purchase debate, TBer, Brian Micklethwait, has decided to open up yet another front over on Samizdata.

Don't say you haven't been warned.

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Virus stuffs CSX

Patrick Crozier | Railways - USA

Photon Courier covers the story of CSX (a US freight operator) being brought to a halt by the Sobig virus:

And on Wednesay, an infection disrupted CSX Railroad's entire 23,000 mile network. According to the AP article, ten Amtrak trains were affected in the morning. Trains between Pittsburgh and Florence, S.C. were halted because of dark signals and one regional Amtrak train from Richmond, Va., to Washington and New York was delayed for more than two hours. But this passenger traffic is a very small proportion of CSX's total business, which is mainly conerned with freight--and freight trains, of course, were also affected.

OK, being brought low by a virus = bad. But a (private) railroad being so technologically advanced that it can be brought low by a virus = good. So much for 19th Century technology.

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August 21, 2003

Jitneys to return

Patrick Crozier | Buses and Jitneys

David Farrer picks up on a proposal to introduce a jitney service in Scotland. But I am rather left wondering who is going to use it:

The taxibus service will charge between £4.75 and £8 for a return journey. This compares to a return fare by train of £6 (£4 for a cheap day return), or a Stagecoach bus return fare of £3.50. A single taxi fare would cost about £25.

Sure, it's better than a taxi. But is it really better than a car or the train? David suggests that one selling point will be that people will be able to read the paper on board. Fine, if you're one of those people who can, but not if you're like me and it gives you travel sickness.

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August 20, 2003

Adrian Vaughan replies

Guest Writer | British Rail Privatisation

I promised Adrian Vaughan a right to reply to yesterday's post. Here it is:

I am not a 'free-marketeer - well, certainly not where railways are concerned and only a half-hearted free-marketeer in any case.

However, to the problem of railways. You were beginning , I thought, to get the idea that railways and free markets do not co-habit and then you slipped back into your free-marketeering mode of thought. I can see that this is a problem of some subtlety of distinction. I was unaware of these matters when I set out to write "R,P&M". I wrote that starting in 1992 out of a sense of outrage at what was being proposed. I was a peasant signalman- cum- amauter footplateman and all I knew was that the railway ran because it was a well organised team run by horny-handed sons of toil (well it was in my day) and thus it could keep itself running when the shit hit the fan. I spent 5 years in the Army and I found that the railway and army had much in common - the army is run by its sergeants with the officers simply for decoration.

Continue reading "Adrian Vaughan replies"

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August 19, 2003

A real person writes

Patrick Crozier | British Rail Privatisation | Fragmentation | Monopolies | Rail History

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from Adrian Vaughan who is the author of several well-researched books on railways including, Railwaymen, Politics and Money which I have read and can heartily recommend.

He made a few comments. I e-mailed him back to ask whether we could use them and he replied saying "yes". But what was interesting was what else he said which I hope he doesn't mind me publishing instead:

I am old and tired - but VERY ANGRY at the way railways have been treated since 1994. The treatment by Gov. of rlys since 1825 was peculiar and was a result of the Gov. perceiving them as an inevitable and unavoidable 'monopoly'. You will notice that this 1839 realisation that railway MUST be a monopoly was in the interests of EFIICIENCY.

So what happened in 1839? But also, didn't we end up with the disastrous competition between the London, Chatham and Dover Railways and the South Eastern Railway? Wasn't that later? And what sort of monopoly are we talking about? One track, one controller? Or one track, no competition?

Continue reading "A real person writes"

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Transport goals dropped

Patrick Crozier | Transport General

Surely, my eyes deceive me when I read reports on the Government's 10-year Transport Plan:

The January document said that congestion would be cut to “below 2000 levels by 2010”. These words are missing from the August version, which merely says congestion will be reduced.
The January document said that rail travel would be increased by 50 per cent by 2010. This had been replaced with a vague commitment to “meet rising demand”.
While serious injuries are falling thanks to improved car safety features, deaths have remained at about 3,400 a year since 1998.
You don't say! I just don't understand it. The state failing to deliver. How can this be? I am sure it must all be traitors and saboteurs.

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August 17, 2003


Patrick Crozier | Fares and Ticketing

Which? (the magazine of the Communists Consumers' Association) is having its annual bitch over the National Rail Inquiry Service:

Rail customers are being quoted nearly double the true fare for many journeys because train companies are providing the wrong information, a survey has revealed.

Only four out of every 10 queries made by rail passengers received correct answers from the National Rail Inquiry Service, the official organisation jointly owned by Britain's train companies. Some were quoted fares as much as 300 per cent higher than the correct figure.

Well, just a minute. Let's at least begin by reminding ourselves where we started from. Before privatisation (incorporating new, improved state regulation, remember) you'd be lucky enough to find a number and to get an answer (even a wrong one) would be regarded as very heaven. We've come a long way.

But there's a bigger point: fares and ticketing are difficult.

To illustrate the point let's start with the simplest possible structure: no fares at all. But that way you go bust. So, you have to have some form of fares. OK, next simplest form: a flat fare. Excellent if you want to travel long distance - but not so good if you just want to travel a couple of stops.

OK, have a flat per mile charge. £1 per mile (say). But that makes no allowance for time preferences (err, I'm not sure that is the correct term but the idea is that travel at peak hours is more popular than off peak). This is a big issue for train companies. One answer might to be to buy more rolling stock and hire more staff and build longer platforms etc just for the peak times. But this is a frighteningly expensive business. Far better to use price to deter some from travelling at peak times. So, we need peak rates.

Add in season tickets and this is just fine for a commuter system. But what about long distance? There the peaks and lows are less regular. They occur on a weekly and seasonable basis rather than on a daily basis...

Uh oh. You know what I've done. I've boxed myself into an intellectual corner. When I started writing this piece it was my earnest belief that rail fares were so complicated that people like NRES were bound to make mistakes. I was also going to add that the National Conditions of Carriage and protected fares (that's the state's contribution, boys and girls) just added extra layers of complexity.

By the way, I still believe it to be true ie that rail fares are difficult. I just need to do some more work on my argument.

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Welcome to Commuterland

Patrick Crozier | Links

Commuterland is a new blog dedicated to (London, I think) commuting. It's owner Peter McClymont wishes to keep it resolutely non-political though I do wonder how he's going to succeed. He's also keen to hear from anyone who would like to contribute.

Anyway, there's some useful advice on how to cope with the heat:

The head of our unit said he adopted the strategy of Enoch Powell, maverick right wing politician. Powell, eccentric at best, always wore a heavy three piece suit and hat. He coped with the heat by putting extraneous things out of his mind and raising himself to a higher plane.
Something with which Transport Blog readers will, of course, already be entirely familiar.

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August 16, 2003

Train misses stops

Patrick Crozier | Fragmentation | UK Train Operators

In order to make up time a train missed out some stops:

The decision by South West Trains led to travellers finding themselves unexpectedly at Waterloo last night, after the train missed nine stops. Passengers pulled the emergency cord when the train failed to stop after Ascot, only to be told by the driver that he would report them.
But why would you do that ie miss out stops? I think if I were running a railway and we had some delays I would grin and bear it - far better that passengers get to where they are going late than never. Remember all that stuff about repeat business? At least I think that's what I would do.

So, why didn't they do that here? I wonder if it could be anything to do with South West Trains's franchise agreement or perhaps the Track Access Agreement. I wonder if there is a clause in there which says that you'll be fined for lateness but not for missing stops. I wonder if there's another clause fining you if your train delays other people's trains.

Of course, this is speculation - I don't know for sure - but there's got to be something going on. And I bet there's a legal bod out there thinking: "Ah, they should change the contract." To which I think I am entitled to say: "They already have once - but no one understood it." and: "This is the state, matey, it always screws up."

Which brings me to a vague thought that I've been mulling over recently: contracts only work when the deliverables are easy to define. That's why fragmentation (and rule by contract) in the rail industry can't work. There's too much judgement, rule of thumb and experience needed - especially when it comes to decisions involving both train and infrastructure. Sure, there are all sorts of things that can be measured but all sorts of other things eg. cleanliness, customer service, ambience, customer loyalty, that can't. And because they can't they get ignored by the contracts and consequently the system goes to hell.

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August 14, 2003

Cured of Eurostar

Patrick Crozier | Eurostar | Inter-modal Competition

All is not well with Stephen Pollard:

Benjamin Franklin defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time. Clearly, dear reader, I am insane.
But you knew that. But Pollard thinks he has identified the cause: frequent use of Eurostar:
For two years I have taken the Eurostar to Brussels and for two years I have had exactly the same experience: a service that does not even begin to do what it should, in almost every respect. And yet for those same two years I have carried on in exactly the same way, taking the same train out and the same train back, as if somehow things will improve.
There are the delays...:
The delays, however, are almost the least of it. (And, despite the myth, they rarely take place on the British side.) If the rest of the service was not reminiscent of the now defunct Belgian airline Sabena (which used to be thought an acronym for Such A Bloody Experience Never Again), it might be bearable. But the old British Rail on a bad day almost always did better than the Eurostar.
But Pollard has discovered an alternative. It's called a plane:
Joy! Quick check in, clean departure lounge, 50-minute flight, no hassle (cost: £60). I was in my Brussels flat less than three hours after shutting my London door. I have discovered the journey of the future. And it doesn't involve the Eurostar.
Which neatly encapsulates the reasons why Eurostar is in big trouble: the conqueror of the plane is about to become its victim.

All of this is pretty horrifying. Both Eurotunnel (the tunnel's owners) and Eurostar are in trouble. Could it be that the tunnel is going to go bust? I doubt it - there's too much prestige bound up in it. But it sure as hell tells us what happens when governments attempt to pick winners.

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August 13, 2003

Drug related parking

Brian Micklethwait | Road General

Here, courtesy of the ever alert Dave Barry, is news of the singleminded concentration on their duties of Australian parking ticket persons:

A MAN lay dead in his car while a parking inspector slapped a fine on his windscreen.

A Stonnington Council officer fined a dead man $50 for parking in a clearway on Toorak Rd.

A man in his 20s, identified only as "Robbie", was slumped in the front seat of his green Holden Gemini after dying of a suspected drug overdose on Wednesday morning.

Witnesses yesterday branded the incident callous and low.

But Stonnington Council said the officer had made an unfortunate mistake and offered its condolences to the man's family.

Callous and low, eh? What about the callousness and lowness of driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs in sufficient quantity soon to prove fatal? Because even if he hadn't done any drug affected driving (unlikely), "Robbie" was sure planning on doing some. And wouldn't that have been rather dangerous? To others besides himself? Good job the drugs killed Robbie before he killed anybody else. Or am I wrong that "drugs" are as dangerous to combine with driving as a comparable dose of alcoholic drink would be?

I'm a libertarian, which means I think you should be allowed to take all the drugs you like, so long as you don't thereby endanger others, and so long as you are willing to live, or die, with the consequences. I am not a libertarian because I think you should be able to take all the drugs you like and bugger the consequences to yourself or to anyone else.

Well done the parking ticket man, I say. Bloody corpses. Think they can just park wherever the hell they like.

And while we're at, check out this story:

PEOPLE in the past have been charged with reckless riding of a bicycle and being drunk in charge of a horse but now a new charge has entered the legal lexicon - dangerous driving of a skateboard.

Police alleged in Brisbane Magistrate's Court yesterday that Paddington skateboarder Gene Stewart veered dangerously across a busy road, almost causing a serious collision, within sight of a police breath test team.

They said he then tried a getaway as outraged officers ran after his skateboard.

We could use a bit of law enforcement like that in London.

Next thing you know, it'll be dead people on skateboards. That would make a good B movie. The return of the living dead skateboarders/surfers. But I digress.

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August 11, 2003


David Farrer | Fares and Ticketing | Rail Economics

There is a fascinating posting over on the Scotrail discussion group on Yahoo.

A member writes:

"I really have to wonder how much of the reported "loss" Scotrail makes is real, and how much is uncollected fares. I commute daily from Jordanhill to Kilpatrick (both unmanned) and have plotted how many times I have paid a fare over the last month. Answer:† 7 times. Out of 56 journeys! There is nowhere to buy tickets so if the conductor doesn't turn up, what can I do?

I make that 49 missed fares, at† £2.50 per day, a loss of £122.50"

I have noticed this myself several times on Scotrail - even the ticket office at my local station of Haymarket (Edinburgh) is sometimes unmanned and it is one of the system's busiest with about 30 trains an hour. I wonder why the operator doesn't make more of an effort.

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Congestion charge doomed?

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

George Trefgarne writing in the Telegraph seems to think so:

But the real problem for Mr Livingstone is financial. The congestion charge is an economic disaster. Originally, he wanted to raise £200 million from it, to spend on public transport. That was cut to £120 million and then to £65 million. As it turns out, the scheme is loss-making (as the bail-out for Capita shows).

But Mr Livingstone is spending £1 billion subsidising hundreds of buses driving around half-empty and the result is a £500 million black hole in his sums by 2008. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if the hole is to be filled, Mr Livingstone will need to put another £200 on the average Londoner's council tax, on top of the £20-a-year bill if we host the Olympics.

I must confess it had never occurred to me that the Congestion Charge might not be able to cover its own costs. But I suppose if the Mayor insists on running buses (which he doesn't have to do) then there is every chance.

Could it be that state spending will serve to discredit the idea of road pricing in much the same way that state regulation served to discredit the (perfectly good) idea of rail privatisation?

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August 10, 2003

Climate change threatens Britain's crumbling transport system

Patrick Crozier | Pollution

According to the Telegraph. But maybe it'll do it a whole load of good, according to Bjorn Lomberg, also in the Telegraph.

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August 09, 2003

Segway disappoints

Brian Micklethwait | Transport Miscellany

The New York Times reports that the Segway, a sort of travelling Zimmer Frame, is not selling well:

With 5 gyroscopes, 2 tilt sensors, dual redundant motors and 10 microprocessors, the transporter, which can travel at up to 12.5 miles an hour, is a diminutive object of envy in an age of Hummers and Lincoln Navigators. Ride one, and neighbors gather to try it and drivers pull over to watch.

But despite the device's appeal, industry observers and Dean Kamen, Segway's inventor, agree that Segway L.L.C., which is privately held and does not release sales figures, is not anywhere near selling the 40,000 units that the company's factory in Bedford, N.H., is capable of turning out each month.

The New York Police have thirty of the gadgets in service, but America has not followed their example.

I saw it tried out by David Letterman on his TV show a few weeks ago, and he wasn't that impressed.

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Chuffed to bits

Patrick Crozier | Road Pricing

Hauliers are deeply unhappy about the new, privately owned Birmingham North Relief Road:

The Freight Transport Association said that the company appeared to be deliberately pricing lorries off the new motorway.

An association survey found that 65 per cent of lorry operators would not use the M6 Toll even during the rush hour, when the new road will save drivers up to 45 minutes compared with the existing route.

Well, I'm not. I'm chuffed to bits. Because what this means is that the real costs (or at least a close approximation) of road freight are being revealed. And what that means is that in future people will have a far better idea of how freight ought to be moved around the country. Or, even, if it should be at all.

What all this suggests is that for years, hauliers have been receiving an indirect subsidy from other road users. The fact that it is in one small corner of our island be being removed is all to the good. Who knows, maybe it will even prove a shot in the arm for these guys.

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August 07, 2003

Nakedness and drugs as solutions to air travel problems

Brian Micklethwait | Air Safety

There's an entertaining post by Dale Amon at Samizdata about preventing airborne terrorism.

Dale deals with the idea of forcing all passengers to be naked as a way to prevent them carrying weapons, and ruminates on the various pros and cons of that. But even if everyone is naked, he points out, there's still a problem:

… In the hands of a trained warrior virtually anything is a deadly weapon quite capable of intimidation of the cowardly. One can do terrible things with bare hands.

So let's get real guys. You are wasting your time and ours at the gate. You will fail to spot the terrorists or their weapons. …

At first I misread the bit where it says "So let's get real guys" as "let's get" – as in prevent from flying – "real guys" – as in potential warriors. The obvious way to prevent terrorism is to prevent anyone, any "real guys" who are capable of doing it with their bare hands, from flying in the first place. But of course what Dale means is "let's get real" – as in let's be sensible, "guys" – as in us. We readers are the guys. Ah, the English language.

In the comments section there's an interesting discussion of the idea of people on long flights being put in bed racks rather than in rows of seats, and anaesthetised, rather than sat in space consuming seats and smiled at and fed alcohol by trolley dollies, and subjected to uplifting pep-talks by the captain. One imagines something like those filing cabinet arrangements they have in US cop shows involving visits to the morgue.

If there's any land to be seen I want to be seated next to a window (preferably with my clothes on), not drugged in a dead body rack, but I'm only an occasional flyer. I've never been over a serious ocean in an airplane in my entire life.

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Will trains ever get any better - a response Part I

Patrick Crozier | Rail General

Below, Brian asks the question whether trains will ever get significantly better by which, I think he means whether there are technological advances that could significantly improve on the train services we have to today.

Perhaps the best way of doing this would be to consider the inconveniences of train travel:

You have to get to the station

Why can't you board the train at your front door? By which I mean sit down in the only seat you are going to need. Tricky. You would need rails everywhere. They would presumably have to run along roads. Those roads would have to be kept clear. The power supply problem would be interesting to say the least. Trains have always had problems with gradients - so not all addresses could be covered.

You have to buy a ticket

Actually, in some parts of the world this is becoming a thing of the past. In Hong Kong they have the Octopus Card. In Tokyo they have the Suica and Passcard cards. You charge the card, the system automatically deducts money from it as you move around the network. Having said that these sorts of system only seem to work (so far) for commuter networks. With long distance travel you still have to book ahead and I can't see this changing any time soon.

You have to wait

If there were a train carriage outside your door or at the station waiting for you (rather than you waiting for it) that would be kind of cool but bearing in mind the costs (£1m a carriage) and the volumes involved I guess the carriages themselves would have to be far smaller - nearer the size of a family car in fact. The car would then have to proceed along to some sort of marshalling point where many cars would be joined together to form a train. I am guessing this would have to be the way unless someone finds a way of reducing train stopping distances. This by the way is the main difference between cars and trains. The best cars can stop from 100mph within 5 seconds. Trains take a mile to stop from 100mph which I would guess is nearer a minute. That is why we have trains of carriages and why signalling is such a big deal.

Well that'll do for now. In Part II, if I ever get round to it I'll talk about speed and getting to your destination at the other end.

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August 06, 2003

Will trains ever get very much better?

Brian Micklethwait | Rail General

Last night I dined with Alex Singleton, now based in London and a Samizdata contributor, and still an occasional poster here until the next generation up there takes over, and we talked, among other things, transport.

He explained to me something I'd never quite got before, which is that automatic doors are a means of speeding up train journeys. Individually controlled doors take longer to shut, and can be opened again, in a way that delays matters yet more. It's obvious when you think about it, and will obviously have been known to the average reader here.

We then widened the conversation in the direction of a more general question, which I ran past Patrick on the phone today, and he said: stick it up here. So here it is.

And it is: Are the various improvements that are happening to them now, and which are imaginable in the future, ever going to add up to making trains into something fundamentally different and better to what they were when first got fully working, around 1900? Or are trains inherently ancient, and will all the changes merely be incremental, trivial and cosmetic? Will they, that is to say, be no more startling than the changes that have happened to cars over the last few decades?

Cars now have automatic windows, in-car stereos, more fuel-efficient engines, and there are more motorways. But they still go at much the same speed as ever, and still get stuck in the same old traffic jams.

And, pretty much the same sort of thing applies to trains. Nationalisation, privatisation, etc., haven't helped, but the underlying problem is surely that these are the same beasts they always were. They use convenient liquids or electricity, rather than lumps of coal. Some of them go a tad quicker. And there are those automatic doors, that I and Alex talked about last night.

There are better electric signs everywhere, telling everyone what is happening. But what is happening has hardly changed in a hundred years. And nor will it in the next hundred.

Or maybe it will change? Will computers make trains so massively more controllable as to amount almost to a new form of transport? Will new materials make trains so light that they almost float on the rails, or maybe lose the need for rails at all? I don't know. Maybe others can enlighten me, and anyone else who is similarly curious.

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The HSE's at it again

Patrick Crozier | HSE | Rail Incidents | Rail Safety

According to the Times:

Rail managers have overreacted to the hot weather by imposing draconian speed restrictions because they are too frightened of being prosecuted for negligence, a train company chief said yesterday.

Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin Trains, said that last month’s decision to charge six rail managers with manslaughter for the Hatfield crash had shaken Network Rail’s confidence. This week the infrastructure company imposed the first blanket speed restrictions since the Second World War, with trains limited to 60mph south of the Thames and from London to Crewe, Chelmsford and Norwich.

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British railways are hell

Patrick Crozier | Rail Miscellany | Railways - Japan

A blogger describes a nightmare journey undertaken by his wife:

When the rain hit, the trains all ground to a halt because, as they claimed, there was "localized flooding" which prevented some trains from entering the station... [And so] all the trains up and down the line must stop no matter where they are....even if they are only 300 meters from the station!!!!!

Afterwards, when they were finally permitted to move forward the last 300 meters and exit the train, there were no staff at the station to aplogize or handle any offers of sincere apologies for holding thousands of people hostage for 2.5 hours on an insanely over-packed train.....nothing!

More grist to my mill about the inadequacies of Britain's railway structure? Not quite, because this incident took place in Japan. Yes, that place where, according to me, the railways are perfect.

This example neatly illustrates the limitation of the Japanese approach to things. If you try to reduce everything to a bunch of simple rules which everyone is expected to obey in all circumstances then so long as everything is going fine everything works but when things go wrong it all starts to go very wrong.

Incidentally, it does tend to suggest that even if we adopted exactly the same legal structure as Japan, the likelihood is that we would get a very different result: not as good on a normal day but not as bad on an exceptional one.


Seems this is by no means unusual.

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August 04, 2003

Heatwave slows down trains

Patrick Crozier | Rail Incidents

According to the Telegraph. But sure, it happens every year. I wonder what they do in Spain or Florida.

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August 02, 2003

Better than bringing back Beeching

Brian Micklethwait | Rail General

Bring Back Beeching says Simon Nixon in the latest Spectator. Opening paragraph:

Perhaps the most important discovery I have made over the last few years is that the way to stay sane in Britain is never to use public transport. The Department of Health tells us to eat five portions of fruit a day and to give up booze and fags. But what it dare not tell us is that the best way to reduce the risk of a heart attack and a host of other stress-related ailments is never to use the bus, Tube or train when you can drive a car or ride a bicycle instead.

But this is the bit I like best:

The best option would be to free the rail industry from the government interference that has plagued it for more than 100 years. The failure of privatisation was that there was too much intervention, not too little. The government intervened continually — to insist on the separation of track and services, to set limits as to how far fares could rise, to rule out line closures. The latest reorganisation has merely made the situation worse, with SRA chairman Richard Bowker acting as a kind of hyperactive fat controller personally intervening to set every single train-time in the country.

Indeed. But that's better than bringing back Beeching, isn't it? He just shut lines down, with no option for anyone else to have a go with them. Isn't that right?

Oh yes, and he wants the government to spend all the money it "saves" by not subsidising the railways on more roads. He's probably one of these people.

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August 01, 2003

No Alice Thomas - the problem is they don't know what to do

Brian Micklethwait | Transport General

Transport griping in the Telegraph from Alice Thomas. This is the bit that matters.

What is it about transport? As technology progresses in every other area, trains, planes and automobiles seem to be going backwards.

Blah blah blah, misery misery misery, summed up thus:

Our supposedly integrated transport system has disintegrated.

Nicely put. She notes that most of us aren't satisfied by Transport Blog's occasionally discussed "staying put" option:

But we've stubbornly refused to give up travelling, however hellish. Workers want to go to offices; businessmen need to look each other in the eye. Shoppers prefer Bluewater. And once you discover that the 30-year-old wildlife producer you chat to on an internet date is actually a depressed pensioner, you return to real dates.

I don't know about you, but personally I never made that particular mistake in the first place.

Sadly, Alice Thomas doesn't know the answer to her original question about what it is about transport. Instead she ends with this old thing:

Most of us feel as wrung out getting to work as Mr Blair feels after a week jetting round the world. He has a chauffeur and he won't get bumped off his plane to Barbados; just bumped up. If only he and his colleagues took economy-class transport this summer, we might see some improvement.

No, they'd just get even more frazzled and confused and sleep deprived than they are now. Blair's problem is not lack of motivation. It is lack of the faintest damn idea of what he ought to be doing about it all.

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Jitneys in Siberia

Michael Jennings | Buses and Jitneys

There is a little discussion on jitneys in Siberia, there called marshrutka, in the middle of this travel article in Slate. Judging from the article, they seem to be semi-regulated, with some special traffic rights, and (theretically) with defined routes. The article doesn't say this, but the one thing they are unlikely to have is any kind of fixed timetable. You wait until the minibus fills up with people, too. My experience of riding similar vehicles in other countries (eg in Indonesia, where routes are also theoretically fixed) is that routes can be negotiable at times.

One other thing about jitney services is that although they exist in lots of places, they tend to have sprung up fairly organically (and any regulation that exists has come later). Therefore they tend to have come into being without any reference to what exists anywhere else, and the name used for them is always different. On the other hand, as human nature is the same everywhere, the de facto rules by which they operate always seem to be fairly similar.

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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