February 2007

28 February 2007
Turnpike Trusts
Andy Wood

Last week, the Adam Smith Institute blogged about the national road pricing proposals. In the midst of his post, Eamonn Butler makes this interesting aside:

All that of course strongly suggests that the roads should be taken out of the politicians’ hands and put into local trusts who could ensure that the money raised was ring-fenced and spent on transport and roads, instead of leaching away into other pet political projects.

In essence, this looks like a suggestion to return to the system that existed in Britain for over two centuries, from the seventeenth century until Victorian times, in which up to a fifth of Britain’s roads were managed by Turnpike Trusts. In his article, “The Rise and Fall of Non-Government Roads in the United Kingdom”, Bruce Benson describes how the Turnpike Trusts worked:

A long series of Acts were passed beginning in 1663 that enabled the establishment of local ad hoc bodies known as “Turnpike Trusts.”  It must be emphasized that these turnpike trusts were not government innovations, however.  The initiative was at the local level. Members of local parishes who were burdened by the high costs of road maintenance under the parish system began to petition parliament for the right to charge a tax on heavy loads.  Indeed, the earliest Trusts were run by local JPs, although later Trusts had independent bodies of trustees.

After about 1700 the process became increasingly standardized.  A group of local landowners and/or merchants would accumulate the money necessary to fund a Turnpike Act in parliament and to carry the cost of the trust through its start-up period.  Most Turnpike Acts gave legal standing to a Turnpike Trust made up of a number of local landowners, and/or other important parishioners.  The Trustees were, by law, unpaid and forbidden to make personal profit from the trust.  They were responsible for erecting gates to collect tolls, and for appointing collectors, a surveyor to supervise repairs, and a Clerk and Treasurer to administer the affairs of the trust.  The funds collected could only be applied to the road named in the Act.  These roads were usually existing highways, although new roads were also built, particularly after 1740, and the extent of roads that were “usable” for heavy traffic expanded significantly once the trusts began to innovate and improve the roads they controlled, as noted below.  The Trusts were granted a monopoly power over the road (generally for a period of 21 years), so that the customary right of passage was fundamentally altered: the roads were no longer common pool resources.  Most trusts used the money collected to repair and improve roads, but if the tolls were insufficient to cover the up-front costs, the trusts were allowed to borrow money at a rate of interest fixed by the Act.

The system did not last, however. From 1864 onwards, the trusts were shut down, with the last road passing into public hands in 1895. At Transport Blog, we like to think that goods and services, including transport, are produced in better quality and lower cost when in private hands motivated by profit and free from political interference. If a private road system is superior to a public one, then why did the Victorians nationalise it? What went wrong? In a lengthy discussion, Benson proposes a number of reasons:

[T]he structure and characteristics of the trusts created significant principal-agent problems.  The Trustees were not allowed to earn a profit.  Therefore, even though the trustees had sufficient incentives to invest in the formation of a trust, they generally were not interested in the day to day operation of the road.  The toll gates were farmed out, and while trustees were suppose to monitor the gate-keepers and surveyors, their incentives to do so were very weak. After all, their primary income generating activities were elsewhere (their farms or businesses) and these enterprises commanded most of their attention…

[T]he political limitations on trusts also led to significant complaints by shippers and travelers.  ... A serious complaint about the turnpike system as it evolved was that there were too many toll booths, requiring too many stops, thereby slowing transportation services unnecessarily.  Gregory (1932: 193) suggests, in fact, that this was the most important complaint against the turnpikes: “Road users declared that they would rather pay twice the amount if they could be saved the annoyance of the delay.“This problem resulted from the fact that most of the turnpike trusts controlled only short sections of roadway within a parish, so travelers had to pay new tolls each time they left one trust’s road and entered another.  While consolidation of small trusts was desirable in order to avoid the problems with excessive stopping and delays (as well as in order to capture various scale economies in management and maintenance), the trusts operated at the prerogative of parliament, and any formal consolidation required parliamentary approval.  Political resistance to consolidation (e.g., by local trustees who did not want to lose control of their roads, and probably by competitive modes that did not want competition from more efficient turnpikes, as explained below) was strong, so even though efforts were made to obtain parliamentary approval to combine small trusts into larger organizations ..., parliament did not respond with necessary enabling legislation that might have led to widespread consolidation…

[T]here was significant political opposition to the trusts themselves.  Opposition came from those involved in competitive transportation modes such as the river and canal barges and railroads ..., from the trade centers that already had effective transportation connections and feared competition from other centers if their road connections were improved, from some landowners and farmers who feared that better roads would make it easier for their low-wage laborers to be attracted away, from farmers who supplied local markets and feared that improved roads would bring in competition from distant suppliers, from heavy road users who did not want to pay tolls for access even though they wanted the roads to be maintained, and so on.  Therefore, in order to gain sufficient support for passage, Turnpike Acts always had to reflect significant political compromise, including long lists of toll-exemptions for some of the powerful individuals and groups who opposed each Act.

So, although we think that applying free-market principles would result in a better road network, the experience of the Turnpike Trusts (not to mention Railtrack) makes me wonder whether it really is possible to remove political interference, at least while governments continue to exist.

Benson’s article also includes some discussion of the economics of roads as well as a history of the provision of roads in Britain from medieval times onwards. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

(By the way, this was written and posted from the 16:16 GNER service from Leuchars to Kings Cross, which has Wi-Fi onboard. The delights of modern travel, eh?)

27 February 2007
Buy this London Underground Mirror, a snip at £60. Thank you Wired.

Trouble is, every line is gold coloured. I think I'll wait until it's in full colour and then decide not to buy it.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (0)London Underground
"After the news that the points at Grayrigg were left in a dreadful state we ask: can a nationalised railway ever be truly safe?"

That was not the intro on Newsnight last night. Strangely enough.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Incidents
26 February 2007
Bad in Barna
Patrick Crozier

Seems Barcelona’s commuter trains are not as good as they could be:

The other thing everyone’s talking about is the awful Barcelona commuter train system; there was another massive delay yesterday on two of the suburban train lines. That makes about twelve major screwups on the Renfe commuter trains this year so far. This time a bunch of passengers got pissed off and blocked the train tracks at Martorell, thereby holding things up even more, of course. That’s what happens when the government runs the trains or any other industry that should be in private hands.

The FGC at Plaça de Catalunya

I know I am libertarian ideologue but I am actually quite shocked.  In my experience the rail system in Barcelona is fantastic - although my experience is mainly with the Metro (owned by the Barcelona city government) and the FGC (owned by the government of Catalunya).  This, of course, is RENFE, run by those hicks in Madrid.

Commuter action is not unknown.  In the 1970s, unhappy commuters smashed up a station in Tokyo.  A few years later the company was privatised.

Richard Branson's carriages are not the only passenger carriers recently to have performed well in crash conditions.

Hat tip Samizdata.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (0)Rail SafetyRoad Safety
The EU fines a lift cartel
Brian Micklethwait

Do lifts inside buildings count as transport?  I don’t see why they wouldn’t.

Anyway, I have a problem.  The EU has just fined a cartel of lift makers nearly a billion euros (a new EU record for fines) for being a cartel, selling both lifts and maintenance for lifts for higher prices than they’d have had to charge if they had competed, instead of colluding which is what they actually did.  (I’m assuming that the facts of the case are as reported.)

Between at least 1995 and 2004, these companies rigged bids for procurement contracts, fixed prices and allocated projects to each other, shared markets and exchanged commercially important and confidential information. The effects of this cartel may continue for twenty to fifty years as maintenance is often done by the companies that installed the equipment in the first place; by cartelising the installation, the companies distorted the markets for years to come.

I write a weekly bit for CNE Competition, and I’d love to be able to write something very pro-free-market (as opposed to very pro-imposed-free-market) about all this.  Maybe to the effect that the EU should just stay out of this and let other competitors move in on this market.  Or maybe that the distortions are caused by other market distortions, for instance in the tall building market.  But I am too ignorant of such things.

Any suggestions?  The reason I ask this here is not just because lifts-equals-transport is an excuse, but because maybe other transport debates and dilemmas actually might shed some light on this case.

25 February 2007
Nothing twin Evinrudes wouldn’t solve
Mark Holland

Well this chap could buy his own boat. Or move. But ideas like that are probably too way out there when one of your first responses to a problem, if indeed there is one, is to note that there is “no government regulation of ferry ticket prices”.

I’m sorry to be quite so flippant but, and even though he does do a healthy amount of self deprecating, I always find it hard to believe people performing quasi-Fred Kite impressions are being entirely serious.

In the fifteenth century assorted Sultans upped the tax on the spice caravans wending their way through their lands from the Far East to Europe to a such point where it became worthwhile for merchants to look for a way of bypassing the Middle East altogether. And thus the age of discovery was born. Not out of a great search for knowledge or anything “spiritual”, just cold hard economics. So, if there’s a budding Christopher Columbus twiddling his thumbs in Ventor, now’s the time to discover France.

Don’t forget there’s more hot Isle of Wight ferry blogging action here.

24 February 2007
Pendolino crashes in the Lake District. 48 taken to hospital. No reports of any fatalities.

Update. One dead.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (2)High Speed RailIncidents
22 February 2007
Croziervision is down
Patrick Crozier

Croziervision is down.  It has been down for a couple of days now and I haven’t a clue why.  It is hosted from exactly the same place as Transport Blog, and shares a database and a control panel.  But Transport Blog is just fine.  To the best of my knowledge there are no bills outstanding and I haven’t changed anything.  I can think of nothing to have caused it to go down other than sabotage or perhaps someone installing a new version of PHP on the server.

Anyway, in the meantime, here is an emergency version.  Not all links are working.

Update Croziervision is back up.  In the end it came down to de-assigning and re-assigning the add-on domain.  Weird.

19 February 2007
Some thoughts on the government’s road pricing scheme
Patrick Crozier

Apparently someone set up an e-petition on the Downing Street website against the government’s proposed road pricing scheme and, so far, a million people have signed it.

As this is a fairly big transport issue I suppose I ought to say something about it.  However, as it’s a big issue one blog posting isn’t going to be enough.  So, what I think I’ll do is start off with a post outlining my conclusions and then fill in the details with subsequent postings.  Eventually, I hope to be able to put all this up on InstaPatrick and become the definitive answer to anything road-pricey should it come up in the future (safe bet, I suspect, judging by today’s paper).  So, in the full expectation that some if not all of my views will change as we go along: here goes.

  1. I like freedom and free markets.

  2. Private ownership is an integral part of free markets so I am in favour of private ownership

  3. So, I am favourable to the idea of privately-owned roads.

  4. So, a government-implemented road-pricing scheme is very much a second-best option.

  5. Pricing mechanisms are a frequent, though not universal, feature of free markets.  So I am in favour of pricing.  I am certainly against price controls.

  6. The fact that roads can be priced does not necessarily mean that they should be priced.

  7. The market is the best mechanism for determining when roads should and shouldn’t be priced.

  8. Therefore, the best we can hope for is that the government scheme mimics whatever the market would otherwise come up with.

  9. My guess, and I wouldn’t put it any more highly than that, is that major highways should be priced, that congested urban roads should probably be priced and everywhere else definitely shouldn’t be priced.

  10. The market would also have every incentive to invest in new, better and more efficient roads.

  11. So, on that basis I am already not particularly well-disposed to the government’s scheme.

  12. There are other problems.

    1. The scheme is not scheduled to start for many years.  This is an unnecessary delay.
    2. The scheme will either be delayed, over-budget or buggy.  Probably all three.
    3. While it may lead to new and better roads, there’s is every chance that it won’t.
  13. One of the objections to the scheme is that it will increase the over all cost of motoring.  This is almost certainly true.

  14. Another objection to the scheme is that it will help pave the way to the Big Brother state.  I think this is a red herring.

  15. There’s a chance that it might cut congestion.  But it might not.

  16. So, I am probably against it.

  17. The best reason to be in favour of it, is that the grassroots rebellion it inspires could see us leaving the EU.

Update 15/10/07.  See also “Against state roads

17 February 2007
Moscow of the future - as seen in 1914
Patrick Crozier

Fascinating set of Russian postcards from 1914 predicting what travel would look like in the future.  The period just before the First World War was amazing for transport.  It had seen the birth of the car, air travel, deep-level railways, electrified railways, electrified trams and Zeppelins.  It must have seemed that anything was possible.  In a good sense, that is.  Sadly it didn’t turn out like that, especially for Muscovites.

Hmm… thinks aloud… could the revolution in transport and the outbreak of the First World War possibly be related?

16 February 2007
Talking of bombs:
The next time you find yourself on a plane, sitting next to someone who cannot resist chattering to you endlessly, quietly pull your laptop out of your bag, carefully open the screen (ensuring the irritating person next to you can see it), and hit this link.
Stephen Pollard.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Air Miscellaneous
15 February 2007
Why letter bombs won’t work
Patrick Crozier

I have been putting off commenting on the spate of letter bombs apparently aimed at parts of the road-related revenue system.  I have done so, because, to be frank, I really don’t know what I think.

I condemn violence.  Of course.  I am a libertarian.  But who started it?  It is the state that has demanded money with menaces for owning a car, driving it on certain roads at certain times and driving it at a speed it regards as too fast.

So, on that basis it seems this guy has got a point.

But, if roads were privately owned, as I very much hope they were, wouldn’t we have much the same system?  Road owners would want to know who was using their roads, to be able to charge where and when road space was scarce, and to deter dangerous driving.

And more to the point, wouldn’t road owners, especially in residential and commercial districts end up looking very much like the state?  Sure, they might be better organised and there would be more of them, but still…

Where this guy is definitely wrong is on the tactical level.  Terrorism can work but only in certain very specific circumstances.  It needs to be an area where the state is weak, one which can evoke feelings of guilt.  Ulster provides a classic example of this and it is the principal reason why the IRA has been so successful.  But this does not apply to motoring.  Here the state is absolutely convinced of its virtue.

So, this guy is going to lose and, in doing so, queer the pitch for everybody else.  To paraphrase Talleyrand: it is worse than a crime - it is a mistake.

This seems rather sarcastic, doesn’t it?


Apparently it’s part of a genuine campaign.  But, in Melbourne, Australia.  So that’s okay then.  Quite what the idea is I didn’t discover.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (0)RailRail: Miscellaneous
06 February 2007
A big lorry load of little lorries, in China. Big Lorry Blog, which is run by a bloke called Brian, reports, with pictures.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (1)RoadRoad Miscellany
A pilot would get in the way
Brian Micklethwait

Unmanned Everest rescue helicopter  from a New Zealand company working with this organisation, both enterprises having been started by Trevor and Glenda Rogers.

Why an unmanned rescue vehicle? For high altitude rescues a pilot actually gets in the way. The pilot is not acclimated for the altitude or prepared for the extreme cold so they must stay inside the aircraft and cannot help in the rescue efforts. Also, the elimination of the pilot-support equipment leaves room for more rescue gear.

Thank you engadget.

05 February 2007
Chuck tantruming brats off planes - says Amy Alkon, praising AirTran's decision to do just that. Couldn't agree more (via Pajamas Media)  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Air Miscellaneous
03 February 2007
Another flying car!
Brian Micklethwait

Inevitably the YouTube promo for this gizmo concentrates on its public service abilities.  It can rescue people (but only one at a time) from burning skyscrapers.  It can be an aerial ambulance, even if there are traffic jams.  It can catch criminals.  There’s no mention of air jams.  But that last bit got me thinking.  What this really is is the perfect getaway car.

Thank you Gizmodo.

Basically, this is a couple of small person pods attached to about seven fan heaters without heating of various sizes, and pointing in various directions.  A helicopter for dummies, you might say.  It reminds me a bit of a lawnmower, of the sort that has a big fan for chucking the grass cuttings into a big bin, or just elsewhere.

01 February 2007
Cars – parking them by robot and towing them with a motorbike
Brian Micklethwait

Some are trainspotters.  I am a carparkspotter.  Well, virtually speaking, and provided they are interesting, which they mostly aren’t of course.

See this, today, which links to this, and also back to this, also by me, from 2003.  I agree with myself completely.

In other car news, here is a YouTube snippet about a motor bike which will tow broken down cars.  My first thought was, yes, it can get to the car quickly, by wizzing through traffic jams like a motor bike, but once it has hooked itself to the car it becomes as wide as a car and is stuck in the same jam with everyone else.

But then I thought, what if the immobility of the car it is seeing to is what caused the traffic jam, and as soon as it gets to the car and hooks it up and starts to move, the traffic jam as a whole starts moving again, and the motorbike with it?  So it does actually make quite a lot of sense.

I’d love to tell you how I got to “Motorpasion”, which is the Spanish or Portuguese or whatever for “Motorpassion”, but I can’t remember.

A bit late in the day - but last week it snowed. Rather put me in mind of what I said last time this happened. I think it stands up pretty well  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Rail: Miscellaneous