Saturday, November 02, 2002
Corrupt Statistics (cont.)
The information that the Office of National Statistics does not regard Network Rail's debt as government debt, even though it is backed by government, is not news. I commented on it some time ago.
But it does give us the chance to consider how much £20bn is. Japan's railway debt (if I recall correctly) is in the region of £30bn but then again their population is double ours. France's railway debt is about £15bn. At least in the case of Japan and France they got something for their money but as far as I am aware there are no plans to build Shinkansens in Britain.
I liked Len Cook's view that he didn't expect the government's guarantees to be called upon. Yeah right.
Friday, November 01, 2002
The latest from Japan
JR East has just introduced a system which means that conductors no longer have to disturb passengers when checking tickets. Ingenious.
Thursday, October 31, 2002
Alice Bachini is hauled back from the brink by Virgin (?!) and a few others.
More on Metra
Stephen Karlson of Cold Spring Shops (you'll need to scroll down) tackles my question from yesterday and adds a little more local knowledge.
I am going to be doing a couple of talks this month. The details are as follows:
Wednesday, October 30, 2002
And I thought transport was a good thing
Theodore Dalrymple comments on France's crime-ridden suburbs:
In these housing projects lives an immigrant population numbering several million, from North and West Africa mostly, along with their French-born descendants and a smattering of the least successful members of the French working class. From these projects, the excellence of the French public transport system ensures that the most fashionable arrondissements are within easy reach of the most inveterate thief and vandal.Thanks to the Edge of England's Sword for the link.
Yesterday, I mentioned METRA, the Chicago-centred commuter network. According to Adrian Shooter or Chiltern Railways it's really very good indeed. But being the sort of person who doesn't like to take these things as read I decided to ask regular correspondent, Stephen Karlson, an Illinois resident for his views. This is what he said:
Funny you should ask. I just got back from Chicago, took the 9.30 off Elgin Big Timber to Union Station, returned on the 4.25 this evening. The down train that forms the 9.30 was 9 minutes late into Big Timber account freight train interference, but left for Chicago on time. (Not bad, turning the train in six minutes, bear in mind it's an off peak train).Praise indeed.
The unusual thing about METRA is that it is highly fragmented. The label encompasses four train operators and nine infrastructure operators - and yet it works. We, in the UK also have fragmentation and many (including myself) believe that it is that fragmentation that has done so much damage to the industry.
So why can fragmentation be made to work in the States but not here? I think the reason lies with those infrastructure controllers. Now I am guessing here but my guess is that most of that infrastructure is owned by private companies who specialise in operating freight trains. I would also guess that the majority (in cash terms) of the trains using those tracks are freight trains...
Err, I am afraid I have rather lost the thread here. Don't get me wrong, I do think that integration on the freight side is a contributory factor to METRA's success - it's just that when I try to explain it step by step I find that I can't quite put my finger on the reason.
I will return to this when things are a bit clearer.
The Structure of the UK railway
Some time ago Momma Bear asked me to draw a diagram of the UK rail industry. So here goes:
For the sake of clarity I have left out the Passenger Transport Executives and the Northern Ireland situation which is outside this structure anyway and a few other things.
ROSCO - stands for rolling stock company. These are the people who actually own the trains
HSE/HMRI - stands for Health and Safety Executive/Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate. They regulate safety.
And don't forget to click to enlarge.
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
Adrian Shooter at the RAC
Last night I went along to the Royal Automobile Club to hear Adrian Shooter, Chairman, Chiltern Railways, give his Presidential Address to the Railway Study Association.
The venue was apparently intentional. Personally, it doesn't particularly bother me. Road and rail don't really compete all that much. It sounds an odd thing to say but in markets like the London commuter market the train is the obvious choice whereas in the countryside the automobile is bound to dominate. I thought it was a rather good way of pointing out that railwaymen are not bound to hate the car.
Shooter runs one of the best Train Operating Companies (TOCs) around. Admittedly it's a pretty dim universe but Chiltern does have lots of nice new trains, generally clean interiors and have a good record on punctuality. So, he is someone worth listening to.
His talk was on the subject of "Partnership" - not an auspicious start. Partnership and its derivatives are all about us: Public-private partnerships, European partners, partners in the "Peace Process". It's all nonsense of course - a way of putting off decisions and spreading the blame. It is the very enemy of drive, ambition and invention. I don't like it.
Anyway, I listened. The talk was rather better than that. Shooter looked at two examples from overseas. I always like that. I am not sure if he is unusual among railwaymen for this but it does seem this way.
The two examples he looked at were Japan and a system in Chicago and the surrounding area, METRA, which I must admit I had never heard of. He spoke of both in glowing terms.
So, why were they so successful? Shooter attributed this to a variety of reasons but the most important factor - and one common to both - was consistency and stability.
I am sure he is right. Railways, with their phenomenal capital expenditures, are long term businesses so it seems reasonable that stability/predicability is useful.
So, how do you get stability? Shooter didn't seem to have any answers there. Fortunately, for the rail industry - I do. The greatest period of stability the British rail industry has ever enjoyed was probably the period before the First World War. It was also a time when it received no subsidy and suffered from almost no political interference whatsoever.
These two facts are not unrelated.
Why British rail privatisation failed
Alice Bachini has posed the question. For the long answer please have a look at my LA paper on this here (or here for an html version).
The short answer is that although the industry was privatised it was not given its freedom. Indeed, it was subject to a whole new raft of restrictions. So, it was split up and prevented from re-uniting, contracts were imposed and fare freedom denied.
Sunday, October 27, 2002
"The railway is a public service delivered by the private sector. The experience of the last five years shows that public transport doesn't just happen as a consequence of the interaction of markets."Richard Bowker, Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), quoted in RAIL #447, October 30 2002. This remark was apparently (RAIL do not say exactly where or when) made on October 15 at a rail finance conference.
This remark is significant for two reasons. Firstly, because Richard Bowker is the guy who is now in charge of our railways. And secondly, because it demonstrates mind-boggling ignorance.
Richard Bowker's rise to power may come as a shock to many but over recent months a minor revolution has been taking place in the rail industry. With the effective nationalisation of the infrastructure, the downgrading of the Regulator, the cash crisis in the franchises and the Government's signing of a blank cheque to the industry, Bowker has found himself in an extremely powerful position. He has not been slow to use his powers to the full, transforming franchises into Service Delivery Units (©Modern Railways) and ensuring that it is the SRA which takes the lead on infrastrucure upgrades. Make no mistake - this is the guy who is in charge.
The depressing thing is that he seems to be ignorant of both basic economics and railway history.
The word "market" means something. It principally means the free exchange of goods and services. Yes, that's the word "free" as in not compulsory. As in not forced. So for a market to be "free" it means there there is no compulsion to buy and no compulsion to sell and that price is a matter of negotiation between buyer and seller.
The so-called "market" that was brought about by fragmentation in the early 1990s was anything but free. The infrastructure owner could not decide to whom he sold paths or at what price. He even had very little control over what paths he sold. Furthermore, at least initially, he had no control over who maintained the infrastructure or, indeed, at what price.
Meanwhile, operators had little choice over what tickets they sold and at what price they sold them. In other words, the experience of the last five years has nothing to do with markets.
But what of those places and times which have left things to the market - or at least largely to the market? Well, we don't have to travel very far to see the results. Almost the entire UK network was built by railways operating in a free market - as was the case in the US. And guess what - those two networks were (at the time) the best in the world.
Or, you can have a look at the present-day Japanese system. Although, there again, there are some restrictions (particularly on fares), the market has decided what sorts of services are needed, at what intervals, using what trains. It has also decided that fragmentation doesn't work - so the operator owns the trains, the track, the signals and the stations.
And the result? Just scroll down.