September 2004

September 30, 2004

Why I don't like the Pendolino

Patrick Crozier | New Trains | Virgin

I hinted at this in my fisking of Ross Clark. So, here's a list of things I don't like about the Pendolino:

But it is not without its merits:

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September 27, 2004

Richard Branson and the world of tomorrow

Brian Micklethwait | Air Miscellany

This has got to be the transport story of the day.


Sir Richard Branson today announced that he had signed a licensing deal to create a fleet of spacecraft offering commercial flights to space by 2007-8.

Speaking at the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways, Sir Richard said he planned to invest £60m in space tourism, making it accessible to the general public.

The Virgin boss this weekend signed a deal with the California-based Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV) for craft based on SpaceShipOne, a rocket-propelled reusable space vehicle created by the aerospace designer Burt Rutan.

Sir Richard said he hoped to offer space flights on which five passengers would each pay £115,000.

I don't know why, but when I first saw this story, I thought: this has got to be a hoax. I looked at the date to see if it had suddenly become April 1st. "Virgin Galactic Airways" sounds like something made up by Private Eye.

And I think there we have what makes Branson such a good businessman. He goes ahead and just does the things that seem ridiculous, until he does them. Here is something that all the other business suits have filed in their brains under "won't work yet", despite the fact that it pretty much works already. Yet, as soon as I became convinced that this was for real, I thought: of course. And it is true. I've just seen in on the TV news.

The way I see it, Branson can't lose on this. The publicity alone will be worth whatever he throws at Rutan. For instance, I bet (and I bet Branson is betting) that lots of people will fly Virgin un-Galactic Airways, just as a way to "vote" for this stuff. It's the kind of thing we'll all want to know about, and which we will all admire, even if it fails. It's far better than bloody balloons.

More from Dale Amon about this over at Samizdata.

Amon makes the Branson/Rutan connection sound very secret and mysterious, until today. But when I googled for pictures with "Branson Rutan", I got to this story involving both gentlemen dated February 11th 2004. So the story has been out there for some time, it would appear.

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September 26, 2004

Tilting trains - bad but not that bad

Patrick Crozier | Rail Economics | Ross Clark

I am not keen on bashing Ross Clark, who, writes about the West Coast Route Modernisation in today's Telegraph. He has written at least two articles (see here and here) with which I heartily agree but today's is way off beam. Starts OK, though:

I haven't yet had a ride on one of Sir Richard Branson's tilting trains…

Lucky you.

Continue reading "Tilting trains - bad but not that bad"

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September 21, 2004

Putting profits before safety

Patrick Crozier | Rail Safety

In my posting on Gerald Corbett I mentioned how I cringed when he said that he had never put profits before safety. Why? Well, to answer that let's go back (or rather forward) to that Radio 4 Today programme interview a few years from now:

Humphreys: Some people say you put profits before safety. How do you react to that?

Henchoz: Well, of course we do. If you raised safety to an absolute you wouldn't run any trains at all for fear of someone getting killed. Come to think of it at the same time you'd probably have to ban mining, construction, do-it-yourself and just about all other human activities on exactly the same grounds.

Having said that, I should point out that while there are dangers in moving people and goods about the country there are dangers in not moving people and goods around the country. Restricting transport could easily end up making the world a more dangerous place.

Humphreys: Thank you. And now for the business news.

Reporter: It's been a bumper year for British American Opium with profits up 13% on a turnover of...

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September 20, 2004

Great North Eastern Railway (GNER)

Patrick Crozier | Glossary | UK Train Operators

This was mentioned in the posting on the Hatfield Crash.

GNER is a TOC running express trains along the east coast from London to Edinburgh. It is owned by Sea Containers, a firm run by James Sherwood. It is run by Chris Garnett.

GNER has one of the best reputations of any TOC. Whether this is due to its own merits or the fact that the line and rolling stock were upgraded only five years before it took over is a matter for debate. That it has the best livery of any TOC is not.

A selection of GNER trains at Kings Cross

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September 19, 2004

More on Coase and railways

Andy Wood | Fragmentation | General Points (not just transport) | Rail Economics

A few months ago, I argued that fragmented railways don't work very well because of transaction costs, as described by Ronald Coase in his paper The Nature of the Firm. At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux makes the same point, although, being a more sensible man than I, he doesn't stick his neck out and speculate about what those transaction costs might be. After a little bit of googling, I managed to find an online copy of Coase's paper here.

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has written an interesting paper on reasons why the Coase Theorem doesn't seem to apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has nothing to do with transport, but it does highlight how important Coase's work is for understanding what's wrong with the world.

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September 18, 2004

Hatfield Crash - the crash that stopped Britain

Patrick Crozier | Glossary | HSE | Rail Safety | Railtrack and Network Rail

This was mentioned in "Former Railtrack boss points the finger"

In October 2000, a rail broke underneath a GNER express as it rounded a corner near Hatfield, Hertfordshire. The train derailed and four people were killed.

Immediately afterwards, Railtrack started checking rails around the country for similar faults. It didn't find any. For some reason (I am not quite sure why) it also introduced a huge number of speed restrictions. This led to severe delays on the network. Punctuality still hasn't recovered.

As I understand it, Railtrack wanted to remove many of these speed restrictions but the Health and Safety Executive wouldn't let it.

For the best account of the crash and its aftermath see Christian Wolmar's "Broken Rails".

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September 17, 2004

Former Railtrack boss points the finger

Patrick Crozier | Rail General | Railtrack and Network Rail

We haven't heard much from Gerald Corbett, former Chief Executive (not Chairman) of Railtrack these last four years. But last week the corporate manslaughter case against him was dismissed and he now feels free to speak his mind. And, boy, does he. But not before a rather weak start:

He [the judge] found no evidence of putting profits before safety.

How I cringe when I hear things like that. Never mind, it gets better:

A lot of good things then happened [after Railtrack was privatised]. Because it was a creation of the last gasps of the unpopular Major government, nobody wants to believe anything good came from Railtrack. But between 1996 and 2000 the trains ran better than ever before. The costs were tightly controlled, the annual subsidy fell to below £1 billion. Track quality was restored to the level that existed before the maintenance holiday imposed just ahead of privatisation; investment rose; the safety record steadily improved. The number of trains and passengers grew. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link was saved and the share price was healthy. There were measurable improvements as new disciplines, methods and managers were introduced.

No problem with the claim about passengers (though I would if he was claiming it had much to do with Railtrack). But "...the trains ran better than ever before... subsidy fell to below £1 billion... investment rose..."? Well, I just don't know.

This was in spite of the structure of the railways introduced on privatisation. The fragmentation into more than 100 parts made it a managerial nightmare.

Something with which I heartily agree.

The second problem was the commitment to the West Coast Mainline upgrade. The original conception, the chosen technology and the cost estimate, all done while Railtrack was still in the public sector, were all seriously flawed.

Not sure this is the whole story. I thought there was a further enhancement that Railtrack voluntarily entered into after privatisation.

Prescott’s tirades against the industry weakened rather than strengthened it. His new regulator’s well-meaning public assaults, fines and enforcement orders, when the railways were actually doing quite well, were further nails in the coffin.

Sorry, Gerald, but I am with the Regulator here.

Corbett then talks about the aftermath of the Ladbroke Grove crash and the government's attempts to pin the blame:

At a stroke we had been pronounced guilty. The vilification began. The tabloids flew at us. Our staff were spat at. The Cullen inquiry was like a mediaeval witch trial. Our signallers were hissed. Holding the company together in this environment became mission impossible. Recruiting just stalled.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. There's more to it than Prescott. He had accomplices.

And then Hatfield:

I immediately resigned, but was asked to stay. The engineers changed the standards. We checked every rail on the network — something that was right to do, even at the expense of slowing the network. Track quality was improved back to BR levels and we found no other rail in such bad condition as the Hatfield one. Three weeks later I was asked to leave.

But why, I wonder? Incompetence (on the part of the Board) or political pressure? Was Corbett making the Railtrack just a bit too well for the politicians?

So, what's the answer?:

The railway must be reintegrated. A regionally reintegrated railway is the right vision — a railway locally managed, locally run for the people. That is how it was before 1948. That is what John Major wanted before the civil servant theorists rewrote it. The economics will drive it that way, as will the technology. Slowly but surely the costs will then come down and performance will improve. And maybe one day it can go back to the private sector, to benefit from the discipline of shareholders, to reduce the risk and costs to the taxpayer, and to improve efficiency and performance.

Personally, I would do it the other way around but basically he's right: the railway needs to be re-integrated and it needs to be privately owned, along with a few other things.

Update 22/09/04

I've found some figures on subsidy (see very last page). Well, if you go by the OPRAF figures and assume that nothing changed up to 2001 Corbett could just be right - sort of. Having said that we shouldn't forget that subsequent to 2001 a lot of the regional TOCs realised that their figures didn't add up and had to be bailed out.

There's another bunch of statistics here (see page 10)

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September 12, 2004

How much should petrol cost?

Patrick Crozier | Pollution

Last week I flagged up an article by Graham Seargeant which suggested that the UK's petrol taxes were too high. I decided to see if I could track down the academic article he was referring to. I could.

"Does Britain or the United States have the right gasoline tax?" by Ian W.H. Parry and Kenneth A. Small attempts to calculate the right rate of petrol tax factoring in pollution, congestion, accidents and (it appears) the need of governments to raise revenue. Now, I have to take it on trust that these gents have got their sums right (they have some real peaches in there). And from their sums (see Table 2 p43)I have to subtract the proportion of their suggested optimum attributable to congestion (roads will be private and tolled), accidents (all on insurance) and government revenue (there won't be any). And if I've got my sums right the petrol tax (or, rather, fine) in a libertarian world will be 22 cents per US gallon.

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September 11, 2004

Why I am not that bothered about surveillance technology

Patrick Crozier | Road Miscellany

Yesterday, I linked to a story about how insurance companies are trialling car-borne data recorders as a way of finding out how their customers drove and rewarding the safe drivers with a reduced premium. Now, I it's not entirely clear to me what a black box recorder is going to tell the insurance company that is genuinely useful - I presume it cannot tell if the driver is cutting up or tailgating - but nevertheless, one can imagine in a few years time this being very good news for safe drivers and a powerful incentive for the rest. Indeed, one can almost imagine this technology removing the need for traffic police entirely.

However, many, including many of my ideological chums, view this technology and others (such as tags, CCTV and ID cards) with suspicion. They feel (if I've got this right) that it will lead to a big brother state. I have to say I doubt it. My guess is that tyrannies are shaped by ideas and not by technology.

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September 08, 2004

Fan Wing

Brian Micklethwait | Air Miscellany

Yes, welcome back Brian. I had a break in August, and have been a bit late getting back to blogging here, but better late than never, I trust. Anyway, today I found something to stir my transportational juices, so here goes, again.

I love eccentric new forms of transport, so I was delighted, at Boing Boing, to come across this extraordinary contraption, which looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a motor mowing machine but which is actually a new kind of aircraft.


It reminds me of how, when younger, I used to make a ruler hover quite slowly across a room by imparting a strong backwards rotation to it as I threw it, as if doing a heavy slice shot at ping pong. So did this thing use the same principle? No, it's quite different.

Basically, instead of just having separate propeller engines driving the plane along quite fast, and thereby pushing air over the top of the wing at speed (which is where the lift comes from), this gadget puts the air spouting out of the engine right there on top of the wing, which means that the wing is lifted even though the airplane itself may be moving quite slowly.

It has applications wherever hovering rather than speed is what is required. Surveillance of all kinds, basically, although crop-spraying, fire-fighting and general transport duties are claimed as possible uses for it also. It is said to be able to lift much heavier loads than helicopters, so the transport thing may be real.

Being as how it's so slow, maybe it will have uses as a carriage for mere civilians to ride about in without necessarily doing themselves too much damage. It doesn't seem to need much in the way of a runway, and can go upwards at a very steep angle.

Here is a picture of the flight of the prototype, which seems to be a bit different in its incidentals to the picture above, but presumably much the same in the bit that matters.


The Independent gave this thing a very admiring write-up, so it must work.

The Fan Wing is claimed to be the fourth great breakthrough in aviation. The three earlier ones would presumably be the propeller plane, the jet plane, and the helicopter. Right?

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September 07, 2004

Recent comments and updates

Patrick Crozier | Blogging

A couple of months ago Brian Hayes wrote an e-mail to me wondering if there was much point in commenting on that posting that had slipped to almost the bottom of the page. I had to confess that there wasn't. We comment in order to be read and in order to provoke a response and as posts slide down the front page and eventually off it altogether so do the chances of either of those things happening.

This is a shame. There are plenty of posts back there that could do with comments. Ditto updates. So, I thought it might be an idea to start highlighting some of the recent comments and updates, if only to make the point that in cyberspace people can hear you scream. Who knows, this might even become a regular feature.

Recent Comments

Steve suggests that "liberation" should be the new word for privatisation now that we libertarians have lost control of the term.

Boris argues that: "lower demand for transport -> less economic activity -> less wealth -> less freedom"

Mike waxes lyrical about the Mark III: "They - we - loved them, still do and always will." as he says.

Tim Hall puts us all straight on some of the finer points of the Mark II

R from "Better Britain" sends in a trackback outlining his ideas for a better transport system. I think he may be being a bit ambitious.

Recent updates

Added a photo to my piece on Mark I carriages

Added some thoughts and research to my original piece on compulsory purchase. I'm beginning to soften up.

I discover that Beeching did not close down half the network, although half the network has been closed down.

Gabriel Roth adds in a bit on how the Chunnel was built

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September 04, 2004

Bob the Railway

Guest Writer | Railways - Germany

Alan Little writes about his experiences of Bavaria's railways.

If you're going to live in a over-regulated, overtaxed country, you might as well live in one where you actually get something for your tax money in the form of things like policing, healthcare and public transport that actually work. I live in Germany. A few weeks ago I mentioned to Patrick Crozier that I had seen a headline about Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, being privatised. Patrick said he'd be interested to hear about my experiences as a German rail user, so ...

I had a car for my first couple of years here, but then it sold because I just wasn't driving enough for it to be worth the cost and hassle. I was only using it for the occasional weekend trip, and if that's all you use a car for it's cheaper to hire one now and again than to own one. So for the last three years I've been a cyclist and public transport user.

Munich, where I live, has two local rail networks: the U-Bahn, underground, owned and operated by the city (as are the buses and trams); and the S-Bahn, owned and operated by a Deutsche Bahn (German national railway) operating company. From the passenger's point of view they are effectively single network, with a single price structure and ticketing system. The U-Bahn, being built and operated by the city, only extends out as far as the city limits (with one exception in the direction of the under- construction new Bayern Munich football stadium); the S-Bahn goes out about twenty miles. Maps of the greater Munich area show strikingly obvious ribbon development along the S-Bahn lines: basically anywhere close to an S-Bahn station is in easy commuting range of Munich.

Berlin has a similar (but, according to my girlfriend who used to live there, better) system. I believe most other major German cities do too.

Both Munich networks were started in the 1970s for the Munich Olympics - I assume some of the suburban railway lines must have existed earlier, but it was in the 70s that a tunnel was dug under the city centre to link the Hauptbahnhof on the west of town, with the Ostbahnhof on the east that used to be the terminus for the line to Austria, thus making an integrated network possible. (The thirty year old signalling in this tunnel is now a big constraint on the quality of S-Bahn services and is being renovated, meaning several months of severely disrupted weekend services).

Further out than the S-Bahn, most of the services from Munich south to the Alps are run not by Deutsche Bahn but by theBayerische Oberland Bahn, Bavarian Highland Railway, or "BOB".

BOB's website says BOB came into being as part of an earlier privatisation initiative in 1998 when parts of the regional network were hived off. It was originally owned by a consortium including the Zugspitze Railway Company, which runs a mountain railway built in the 1920s from Garmisch Partenkirchen to just below the summit of Germany's highest mountain. The Zugspitze Railway Company is still independent but BOB is now owned by Connex, Germany's largest private rail operator. The website doesn't say since when.

(The line from Munich to Garmisch-Partenkirchen isn't included in the BOB franchise, presumably because it continues from Garmisch over the mountains to Innsbruck and is therefore an international rather than a regional service.)

BOB is great if you live in Munich, don't have a car and want to go to the Alps to go mountain biking, skiing or whatever at weekends. It operates an hourly service to three different areas of the Bavarian Alps, it's cheap, and it has comfortable modern trains with plenty of storage space for bikes, snowboards and similar toys. I suppose theoretically it could get boring always going to parts of the mountains that are close to BOB railway stations, but I have a decade or two to go before that even begins to be a problem for me personally. And coming back in the evening when you're exhausted from a hard day in the mountains is a lot safer and more pleasant if you fall asleep on a train, than if you fall asleep driving on the autobahn.

BOB is presumably also great if you want to live in a nice little town in the mountains and commute to a job in Munich.

BOB has weekend "family" tickets for 20 euros that are actually valid for any group of five people, making it phenomenally cheap for groups to go out to the mountains. Yearly season tickets for weekdays vary depending on the distance from Munich; the most expensive are 1700 euros. (how does this compare to the price of commuter season tickets in England? I suspect significantly cheaper, but I don't know)

I know nothing about the economics of all this. There are many possibilities. Maybe Connex's ultra-modern trains are so efficient that they can make money operating with phenomenally low fares. Maybe they're indulging in clever yield management by filling the seats up cheaply at weekends - this would make economic sense but somehow just doesn't feel like how German domestic businesses operate. More likely they are subsidised by some level of government: the Oberbayern region, the state of Bavaria or the Federal Government. If it's the region, I suspect they're probably more than getting their money's worth in terms of higher property values, more affluent residents, more tourism etc. And if it's Bavaria or the Bundesrepublik, well, then I pay for it so I might as well use it.

The picture shows a BOB train in the station at Lenggries. The mountain in the background is a ski resort in winter, and a mecca for paragliders and hard core mountain bikers (average gradient one in three) in summer. Buses also connect with the trains at this station and run across the border into the heart of Austria's Karwendel National Park - some very spectacular scenery indeed.
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September 02, 2004

Subsidy for the UK rail industry

Patrick Crozier | Subsidy

Having stated that subsidy was £1bn before privatisation and is £4bn now I thought I ought to go and find some numbers.

The government admits to £3.8bn now and £1.8bn in 1997/8 (though that sounds on the high side). And 1997/8 is after privatisation. There is also the question of whether they've remembered to subtract tax receipts from the (then) profitable railway companies.

Transport 2000 have a figure of £1.3bn (at 2003/4 prices) in the last year before privatisation. But that is the last year - what about the ones just before?

Ah, found one. Hampshire County Council of all places (Section 5.2.4)

5.2.4 The Secretary of State for Transport places strict financial targets on British Rail and its business sectors as indicated below (1988/89 prices):-
(a) Network South East have seen a reduction in their Public Service Obligation from £281 m in 1985/86 to £175 m in 1988/89, with a further reduction to £85 m planned by 1992/93.
(b) Intercity have received no Public Service Obligation grant since 1st April 1988, requiring that sector to make a profit. It is expectedthat a £24 m profit will be made in 1988/89.
(c) Provincial received a grant of £434 m in 1988/89. This is expected to reduce to £345 m in 1992/93.

That really is low though I am pretty sure the 92/3 figures got blown away by the early 1990s recession.

Interesting official table here but not quite sure what it means. Some figures are extraordinarily low. Perhaps due to privatisation receipts.

And then there's the question of adjusting for inflation which I am not altogether sure how to go about.

I also stated that the government has given Network Rail a £21bn loan guarantee. Now, while I can find plenty of mention of this in the press I am yet to find any official confirmation. Network Rail itself denies all knowledge of a guarantee.

Update 22/09/04

I've found some more statistics here (see page 10) although they only cover the period after the 1993 Railways Act

Update 30/09/04

Roger Ford add his penn'arth making the point that is very difficult indeed to generate accurate and comparable figures

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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