June 2004

June 27, 2004

Scooters and angst on the streets of Italy

Jackie D | Transport Miscellany

One of the better things about using public transport is that sometimes you happen upon free reading material. Usually, the only stuff that people leave behind are publications you'd never want to read anyway, but other times you pick up something interesting. So it was on Saturday when I found a copy of the weekend's issue of the International Herald Tribune on the Tube.

Apart from the best opinion piece on Bill Clinton ever written, there was a gem of an article on a new law in Italy that will see hundreds of thousands of scooter drivers there taken off the roads.

It used to be that anyone in Italy could legally drive a scooter, but a law that goes into effect next Thursday will see to it that only those who have passed a test to obtain a special mini-licence will be allowed to do so. It sounds as if the set-up for pre-test lessons is similar to how driver's ed is run in most US states -- either the course is offered for free at state schools, or for a fee at private driving schools.

The problem is, the demand for lessons isn't being met. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers are still waiting to take the course and the test. Many of them will risk driving without a licence come next Thursday, and there is a lot of anger amongst teens about the new law. Roberto Grassi, a researcher at the IARD Institue, which specialises in youth issues, says that for Italian kids, getting their scooter is a rite of passage into adulthood, symbolising independence and acceptance by one's peers.

"It must be looked at from a symbolic point of view rather than a means of transportation," he said.

He also argued that Italian teenagers remained unconvinced that the current law was necessary and that this could spawn a cultural clash with institutions and with the adult world.

"Try getting a 16-year-old to accept the fact that he can't ride his scooter because the schools are full," Grassi said.

Well, the whole cultural clash bit sounds good to me. Kids who refuse to passively accept the state line on new laws are the kind of kids we need. But what disturbs me about the piece is this line:
No one argues that the mini-licence is a bad idea.
Really? I find that, if true, very odd. There are all sorts of arguments as to why it could be a bad idea, and if none of the adults in Italy are making them and it really is left to the kids, then they're in more trouble than they think.

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June 21, 2004

Another giant leap for SpaceShipOne

Brian Micklethwait | Air Miscellany

SS1Landing.jpgDale Amon has been making quite a day of it over at Samizdata, writing about the SpaceShipOne flight. And what is more, the BBC have noticed the event also:

Steve Bennett, chief of the British civilian space project, Starchaser Industries, said it was a "marvellous achievement", but that he was slightly envious.

"This just proves that you don't have to be Nasa or a government organisation," he said.

His team plans to launch its own rocket in about 18 months.

Well said, and good for you mate. Link to Starchaser Industries.

About 3,000 people, including over 500 media crews, descended on the desert to watch the historic flight.

The pilot, 62-year-old Scaled Composites vice-president Mr Melvill, stamped his name in the record books as the first non-government-funded pilot to fly a spaceship out of Earth's atmosphere.

After Monday's flight he told the crowd: "I think I'll back off a little bit now and ride my bike."

There are going to be a lot of Old Geezers queueing up to have their fifteen minutes of space fame, and then two hours, and then two days, and then two weeks … There won't be any shortage of money to do this stuff now, surely.

Dale says the media coverage out there is way more than he expected. This is huge and can only get huger. It's a great story. Great pictures. Lots of competitors. Lots of garrulous civilians in the passenger seats to interview. And a big fat nationalised industry to tease about it all. Fun for all the family. Hurrah! Go capitalism!

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The story of how discount airlines have finally arrived in Australia, although imperfectly and late.

Michael Jennings | Air - Low Cost Airlines

The following is a long essay mostly devoted to giving the history of the insane way in which Australia's airline industry has been regulated for most of the last 50 years, and the story of how Australia finally now has at least one no frills airline offering cheap fares. This story is fairly typical of how the Australian economy works and has worked in many industries, not just airlines

In terms of air transportation, Australia has quite recently reached something close to the stage in air travel that was reached in Europe five to ten years ago. Discount travel on budget airlines is real and finally cheap, although there is a potentially troubling lack of genuine competition. A decade ago air travel was very expensive, much more so than in Europe. The reasons for this were exactly what you would expect: regulation and a resultant lack of competition. But to understand exactly how and why this occurred, it is necessary to look at Australia's political history.

Continue reading "The story of how discount airlines have finally arrived in Australia, although imperfectly and late."

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June 17, 2004

Why don't fragmented railways work? - A conjecture

Andy Wood | Fragmentation | Rail Economics

I wrote this post several weeks ago, in response to Patrick's musings on the subject. I've been sitting on it since then because I'm not entirely satisfied with it. In particular, I'm not sure that the example I've chosen - namely Railtrack's poor maintenance record - necessarily illustrates the point I'm trying to make. However, the post isn't going to improve itself by staying on my hard drive, so at Patrick's urging I'm posting it up anyway. Suggested improvements, especially from professional economists who know something about railways, will be very welcome.

Patrick has been thinking about the fragmentation of the railways. I hadn't thought very much about the subject myself until he raised the following question: We all know that vertically integrated railways run better than fragmented ones (actually, I don't know this - I'm just taking Patrick's word for it), but why? Why does the fragmentation model fail for railways, but not for roads, electricity, gas, airlines, or internet service providers? Or in Patrick's words, what is it about replacing tarmac with steel rails and rubber tyres with steel tyres that means that whoever operates the vehicles must also control the infrastructure?

Continue reading "Why don't fragmented railways work? - A conjecture"

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June 15, 2004

The cost of rolling stock

Patrick Crozier | New Trains

Although I am slightly out of date on this, I seem to remember that when the ROSCOs were buying trains like crazy about five years ago the spread was between £800,000 - £1.2m a vehicle (aka carriage or car) with a nice round average of about £1m. This seemed to be a remarkably constant figure, it making little difference whether the rolling stock in question was for high or low-speed operation or whether it was made use of diesel or electric traction.

The only exception I can think of is locomotives (there are still some about) which (if I remember correctly) cost about £2m each.

I have no idea what the relative costs are abroad.

Just for comparative purposes, a bus costs about £100,000.

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June 14, 2004

Railways came out of the mines

Patrick Crozier | Rail History

Brian talks about this. George Stephenson was one of the pioneers of railways. He had the great advantage of working in (or was it near?) a mine. That meant he had knowledge of railways - used to transport whatever it was they were digging, coal or slate, out of the mine - and steam engines - used to pump water (I think). What he did was put the two together.

Or did he? The real pioneer (according to many) was Richard Trevethick. Trevethick? That's a Cornish name, I think. What did they have in Cornwall? Tin mines.

Recently, I spent a couple of days with regular Transport Blog commenter Brian Hayes in Shropshire. We had the opportunity to do a tour of the railways of North Wales. The thing I found most striking about them was that most of them (if not all) are narrow gauge. Why, I asked? Because that was the gauge in the mine. Why standard gauge is not a narrow gauge is another question but there you go.

Update 14/06/04

And there was I thinking I was being original about Trevethick. Nope. Brian did mention him too.

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June 09, 2004

Please don't let this be true - Government fudges rail review

Patrick Crozier | Rail Review

According to the Times:

Tracks and trains are to remain divided under the Government’s shake-up of the railways after ministers rejected proposals to restore the link broken by privatisation.

A new Railways Agency will be created to oversee both Network Rail and the train operators but they will continue as separate companies working under separate agreements.

A White Paper on reforming the railways, due to be published early next month, will leave operational control in private hands but strengthen the Government’s grip on the industry.

And just when I thought that the Government had finally realised that vertical fragmentation doesn't work.

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The mystery of Selhurst

Michael Jennings | Rail Miscellany

I live in south London, just north of Croydon. The closest railway station is Selhurst, but in a pinch I can walk to or from East Croydon. This is useful, as East Croydon is an important stop on the main line south, and thus has better services than just about any other station in south London. As well as all stations services, there are express services to both London Bridge and London Victoria, and one can thus get to central London more quickly than from many places that are physically closer to it. Some of the London Bridge services proceed along Thameslink, so one can also get to King's Cross and north London without changing trains. And if one wants to leave the country, there are also very frequent services to Gatwick airport.

So, along my local rail line from Victoria through Clapham Junction, Balham, Norbury, Thornton Heath, Selhurst, East Croydon and beyond, there are two types of service: local services that stop at all stations (including Selhurst), and express services that typically do not stop between Clapham Junction and East Croydon. If I am coming home it is best to get a train that stops at Selhurst, but if I can't manage it and I instead get a train that only stops at East Croydon, I can live with this.

And this is particularly an issue lat at night. For some obscure reason, the line from London Victoria via Selhurst to East Croydon and beyond is one of the very few rail lines in Britain on which a 24 hour service operates. Trains leave Victoria at 2am, 3am, and 4am, meaning that I can get home at any time of night. These are express trains, stopping only at Clapham Junction and East Croydon, and then a few places beyond.

When I first started living here, I often went to some trouble to make the last train home from central London that is scheduled to stop at Selhurst. This leaves Victoria at 12.40am. However, inevitably there were times when I missed this train, or when I missed the previous Selhurst train (which leaves Victoria at around 11.50) and I hopped on an East Croydon train instead.

Which is when I discovered something curious. Although the timetables, departure boards at stations, and PA announcements would declare that the trains stop only at Clapham Junction and East Croydon, these trains would travel rapidly from Clapham Junction to Thornton Heath and would then slow down and stop at Selhurst. People would get off the train at Selhurst, and the trains would proceed on their way.

I experimented further, catching more and more trains that were not supposed to stop at Selhurst. As it happened, I discovered that pretty much every train travelling from Victoria to East Croydon after 10pm stops at Selhurst, regardless of whether the timetable says it does or not. (On one evening a train genuinely did not stop at Selhurst, and the announcer made a point of announcing that "This train does not stop at Selhurst" three or four times prior to the train leaving Victoria, and once again just before it stopped at Clapham Junction). People who live near Selhurst are quite aware of this: sometimes in the early hours of Sunday morning, as many as 30 people will get off the train at its unscheduled Selhurst stop.

What is the reason for this? Well, it's quite simple. South Central (sorry, I mean Southern) has a major depot at Selhurst, and a lot of their staff start and finish their shifts there. The trains stop to allow railway staff who have finished work for the evening to return to their cars / homes / whatever.

Now this is entirely reasonable. However, given that virtually all late trains do in fact stop at Selhurst, can anyone think of a good reason why they don't just advertise this in the timetable? That way new people coming to the area would know at once that they could get home late at night, and would not have to discover the little timetabling secret for themselves.

Or is there some weird regulatory issue at play here. Perhaps if the Selhurst stops became official, permission from seventy six bureaucrats would have to be obtained if the extra stops were ever to be abolished, and if they never exist in the first place then this clearly cannot happen. Or something.

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June 04, 2004

Shrewsbury station

Patrick Crozier | Rail Miscellany

I'm afraid the PhotoStitching here is a bit ropey but even so I think it gets the idea across pretty well.


I took this to illustrate a not-fully-thought-out theory that I was playing with at the time, namely that you can tell the health of an industry from its aesthetics. The aesthetics here are good so you can tell that the railway industry in the 1860s (or whenever it was) was in a good state whereas today...

Update 06/05/04

I thought I'd just add in this photo of Vauxhall station just to illustrate what I mean about modern-day railway aesthetics.


Update 04/08/04

It occurs to me that the aesthetics of the average petrol station are hardly any better. And as for car parks...

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June 03, 2004

A short note on comments

Patrick Crozier | Blogging

I'm sure by now most readers are familiar with the procedure for posting comments but I thought I'd mention a couple of things that readers might not be aware of.

Firstly, we have e-mail notification. That means that if you comment on a posting, no matter how old, that comment will be e-mailed to the author. So, it won't be wasted - oh no.

I am looking into putting up a Recent Comments section on one of the sidebars but I am not quite sure how to do that yet.

Secondly, and on a slightly grimmer note, I must remind commenters that I own Transport Blog and you are guests on my cyberspace. I will tolerate all sorts of things including bad spelling, bad grammar, unsplit infinitives and even opposition (which actually I am all in favour of). What I will not tolerate is rudeness. You can think I or other authors or other commenters are the biggest morons in the universe but you still have to be polite to me/them. If you want to be rude to people go find a newsgroup.

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June 01, 2004

What is overcrowding?

Patrick Crozier | Rail Miscellany

We talk about it all the time especially in relation to trains but what is it exactly? How do we know when we are overcrowded?

Is it a number? Actually, rule that one out. I am highly dubious about any argument that requires the use of a number or requires the "drawing of a line". Anyway, the numbers are absurd. Here, in the UK we use the wonderfully oxymoronic term, Passengers in Excess of Capacity (PIXC), while in Japan they happily talk in similarly ludicrous numbers like 150% and 200%. 200% of what, exactly?

So, if it's not a number what is it? Is it standing up? Or rubbing shoulders with someone? What about sitting down and bashing your knees against the seat (or knees) in front?

If you take standing up, for instance, try this thought experiment. Imagine you have a choice of carriages for your daily commute. In the first you are guaranteed a seat. In the second there are no seats but the fare is significantly lower. Which would you choose? Actually, let's make that choice even more severe. The crush carriage is really very crushed indeed. Now, which one do you choose? Of course there a lot of other factors such as distance of journey, smoothness of train, average minginess of your fellow passenger and cost but are you quite sure that you want to rule out the crush carriage? I'm not.

And what is the difference between "overcrowding" and just, plain, ordinary "crowding"?

The more I think about it the more I think it is almost impossible to define. That is not to say it is not an issue. Many people endure conditions I am sure they would rather not endure every day.

Let's try this. There is such a thing as space and we'd all like more of it. And as we get ever less of it each of reaches a point where (depending on other factors) we decide we've had enough and we'll try an alternative. That is what overcrowding really is. It is a very individual thing.

When all is said and done I think the term is useless. Far better to talk about passenger comfort or passenger space and leave it at that.

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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