April 2007

26 April 2007
Ryanair: ‘better things to do’ than talk to MPs
Patrick Crozier

You’ve got to admire RyanAir and particularly boss, Michael O’Leary’s attitude to all things political.  He is a true hero-capitalist.

Unfortunately, in the long run I reckon the hyper-sensitive Lilliputians who run this world will eventually get him.  Maybe they’ll lean on the shareholders.  Maybe they’ll legislate his business into bankruptcy.  Maybe they’ll find him guilty on one of their nebulous statutes so written that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  We shall see.

But it’ll be fun in the meantime.

Highway Engineer Pranks
Andy Wood

Just thought I’d bring everyone’s attention to the comic genius that is Randy Munroe.

Funnily enough, we had one of these pranks for real, up here in Scotland last week. At least I’m betting it was a prank.

I shall refrain from the temptation to treat you all to a lengthy sermon about why such pranks are more likely under our present, state-controlled highway system than one run be profit-seeking entrepreneurs.

24 April 2007
How Will Shakespeare got his start minding the horses
Brian Micklethwait

Did you know that today is Shakespeare’s birthday?  Well, it is.

Recently I’ve been reading William Shakespeare: His Life and Work by Anthony Holden.  Very good.  In this, Holden quotes (pp. 87-88) Ben Johnson’s description of Shakespeare’s first theatrical job when he first arrived in London.  He held the horses.  And very well, apparently, although Johnson’s account is anything but first hand.

When Shakespeare fled to London . . . his first expedient was to wait at the door of the playhouse, and hold the horses of those that had no servants, that they might be ready again after the performance.  In this office he became so conspicuous for his care and readiness, that in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will. Shakespeare, and scarcely any other waiter was trusted with a horse while Will. Shakespeare could be had.  This was the first dawn of better fortune.  Shakespeare finding more horses put into his hand than he could hold, hired boys to wait under his inspection, who, when Will. Shakespeare was summoned, were immediately to present themselves, I am Shakespeare’s boy, Sir.  In time Shakespeare found higher employment, but as long as the practice of riding to the playhouse continued, the waiters that held the horses retained the appellation of Shakespeare’s Boys.

If he ever appeared on the Michael Parkinson show, that’s what Shakespeare would probably be made to talk about.

23 April 2007
Gibraltar bridge?
Brian Micklethwait

Michael Jennings often emails me with links to things he doesn’t have time to blog about himself, or maybe isn’t sure anyone else cares about other than me.  I don’t always respond so these suggestions, but they are always welcome.  Others who do the same thing, but somewhat less often, are likewise much welcomed.

Anyway, rather longer ago than is strictly dignified for me now to blog about but never mind, knowing that I do love bridges, Michael sent me this link, to an article about a possible tunnel, linking Spain (i.e. Western Europe) to Africa, and had this to say about the idea:

There is no economic case for it so it would be a huge white elephant, so I can’t actually imagine it being built soon. (The observations about its usefulness for freight are grasping at straws of justification - ships are fine for freight).

However, the more interesting thought comes from this statement:

“The Strait of Gibraltar, formed millions of years ago when land masses split to form what are now Europe and Africa, is only 14 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. But the water is so deep there a rail tunnel would be like a roller coaster slope, so steep as to be out of the question.

“So engineers have chosen a longer but shallower path spanning about 40 kilometres. Even there, however, the water is about 300 metres deep, five to six times deeper than the water in the English Channel where the channel runs.

“Then there is the messy terrain at the bottom of the Strait. ‘It is chaotic. The word is chaotic,’ said Sebastian Sanchez, an engineer overseeing the tunnel test site in Tarifa.”

There is an obvious word that comes from this (both the fact that the narrowest point is too deep for a tunnel and that the terrain on the bottom of the Mediterranean is complex) and that word is “bridge”.  Imagine huge towers each a kilometre or two from the shore and a single suspension span of more than 10km. We don’t quite have the materials for this yet, but in twenty years we probably shall. Then this is potentially the most mindboggling structure on Earth.

And there’s also this:

The other reason why the Spanish at the moment aren’t talking about bridges is because the obvious place to land the bridge on the European side is actually British territory.

Indeed.  The thing about these emails from Michael is that he has no time to do a proper blog posting, so he just emails me instead, but ends up doing a proper blog posting.

BA self-inflicts more Branson humiliation
Brian Micklethwait

This is amazing:

British Airways has removed a shot of Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson from the in-flight version of the James Bond movie Casino Royale.

Sir Richard was seen briefly in the original film, passing through an airport security scanner, but can only be seen from behind in the new edit.

“Many films are edited in some way on board,” said a BA spokesman.

Daniel Craig’s debut last year as 007 became the most successful Bond movie at the worldwide box office.

Sir Richard was given a cameo after supplying a plane for use in the film.

The British Airways edit also obscures the tail fin of a Virgin plane that was seen in the original.

As I like to remind the universe every year or two, because it is one of the most interesting things about me, I was at the same Prep School as Richard Branson, and the guy was a force of nature.  He used to run straight through bigger boys on the rugger pitch, on account of being willing to die rather than yield.  And that was just silly rugger games.

So imagine what it has been like for British Airways, whom Branson took against some years ago, when he started quarreling with them about something or other that I can’t remember.  Landing slots at Heathrow, was it?  I don’t known.  Anyway, they thought they were big and Branson was too small to hurt them, and I remember at the time thinking that these people had no fucking idea what was about to hit them.  Sure enough, ever since then Branson has made the lives of the upper management of British Airways a living hell, and they hate him with an intensity that makes perfect sense to me, given that he has been trampling all over them and totally humiliating them for the last decade or more, but which most other people don’t understand.  That’s because most other people didn’t go to school with Branson, and they just don’t know what it’s like to have him on the opposite team against you.  Every time British Airways tries to take a swipe at Branson, they end up stabbing themselves, and each time this happens they get that bit more insane in their hatred of the man.

The above goes some way to explaining the truly cretinoid insanity of this latest self-administered BA stab wound, about which Branson must be grinning even more widely than usual.

19 April 2007
Climate change is happening.
Patrick Crozier

The world is warming up.  The ice sheets will melt, sea levels rise and the deserts expand.  Time is running out if we want to forestall disaster.

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

When Tata made its vow to build a $2,500 car, many Western auto executives ridiculed the project, dubbing it a four-wheel bicycle. They aren’t laughing anymore. Tata’s model is a real car with four doors, a 33-horsepower engine, and a top speed of around 80 mph.


There’s no lack of potential customers: Hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Russians, and others will likely join the middle class in the coming decade, and cars are sure to be at the top of their shopping lists.

The poor will not be kept down.

(Hat-tip: Marginal Revolution who point out that safety regs mean that the car will probably not be available in the US.)

14 April 2007
Transport for cats
Brian Micklethwait

Apparently feral cats often get themselves into severe problems by creeping inside recently active and therefore warm motor vehicle engines.  So, when the vehicle start up again, trouble.  Often they die.  Pierrepoint, however, was rescued.

Macavity is far more on top of things.

The feline, which has a purple collar, gets onto the busy Walsall to Wolverhampton bus at the same stop most mornings - he then jumps off at the next stop 400m down the road, near a fish and chip shop.

He is no trouble:

Passenger, Paul Brennan, 19, who catches the 331 to work, said: “I first noticed the cat a few weeks ago. At first I thought it had been accompanied by its owner but after the first stop it became quite clear he was on his own.

“He sat at the front of the bus, waited patiently for the next stop and then got off. It was quite strange at first but now it just seems normal. I suppose he is the perfect passenger really - he sits quietly, minds his own business and then gets off.”

Perfect passenger then, apart from the fact that he presumably doesn’t pay.

13 April 2007
Privatisation does not cause fragmentation
Patrick Crozier

There was a story in the Times about Network Rail in Scotland.  Apparently they are cooking up a plan to re-integrate the railway.  Which is good as far as it goes because fragmentation is a bad thing.

It got picked up by the Evening Standard who in turn asked little ‘ol me to respond.  This is what I wrote:

I see in your report (Rail chiefs in talks over renationalising train services, Jason Beattie, News, 12 April) one interviewee talked of:  “...the damaging fragmentation caused by privatisation.”

Well, he’s right about the fragmentation.  Splitting wheel from rail has been shown time and again to lead to delays, spiralling costs and organisation chaos.

But privatisation?  Are the great private railways of Japan fragmented? No.  Are the great private freight railways of America fragmented? Again, no.  Did our great private operators who invented, built and developed our railways over the course of 100 years, open up their permanent ways for all-comers?  Like hell did they.

Sorry, I’m wrong.  Actually there was a case.  The Stockton and Darlington, the world’s first passenger railway experimented with it for about three months in 1825.  They learnt their lesson very quickly.

So, if private enterprise doesn’t cause fragmentation, what does?  Government, of course.  By law.  European law, as it happens.  So, how Network Rail and their Scottish politician chums think they can re-integrate the railway is anyone’s guess.

Are they planning to leave the EU?

12 April 2007
Foolish Virgin
Brian Micklethwait

Jackie D goes for Virgin Atlantic:

I just booked a flight on Virgin Atlantic, and every step of the booking process was full of overtures to book an upgrade to Premium Economy, because now you get your own dedicated cabin, better seat, etc. Except you don’t, not necessarily: They’re only just rolling out the new, improved Premium Economy service, and it is only available on a few flights. “Read the fine print,” you grumble. Actually, there is no fine print involved. Virgin Atlantic is flat-out lying to people . . .

It would all be a total scam were it not for the fact that Virgin’s basic non-Preimium service is pretty good.  Maybe they are losing money on that, which is why they want people to pay quite a lot more for very little more.

All of which makes no sense whatever to me.  RyanAir to France is my limit these days.  Sit in a flying armpit for three hours, pay RyanAir about ten quid, and various governments another thirty, for RyanAir Cattletruck Class.  That’s air travel for me.  Actually, I quite like RyanAir, provided I can sit by a window and take stupid photos of the engines, and slightly more sensible ones of Channel Islands, the Millau Viaduct etc.

Anyway, on this Virgin thing, Adriana is apparently the source on this, and she must blog about it Very Soon, according to Jackie.

11 April 2007
Dale does transport
Brian Micklethwait

Iain Dale doesn’t specialise in transport issues, but there have been a couple of postings there recently on transport themes.  On Monday there was a big chunk of Simon Hoggart, writing about the interruptions that train passengers (sorry: “customers” (I hate that)) are subjected to.

I settle in the quiet coach. Except it isn’t.

And, today, there is this coach, of the road sort, which says this on its side:


I don’t know why it says this.  Judging by the EUro stars to the right of that, it’s either a very pro EU message or very anti.  I imagine it’s the usual thing of Germans sounding scarier than they really are.  Usually.

10 April 2007
There are times when it is easy to forget that in addition to the approximately £5bn that the UK rail industry receives in subsidy each year there is also the £20bn guarantee that Network Rail is rapidly snaffling up. So, it's a good thing - if not a pleasant thing - to be reminded now and then.

In the 1980s, the subsidy was about £1bn.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Rail
05 April 2007
Cheaper parking = more jams
Patrick Crozier

Donald Shoup in the New York Times:

In a recent survey conducted by Bruce Schaller in the SoHo district in Manhattan, 28 percent of drivers interviewed while they were stopped at traffic lights said they were searching for curb parking.

They’re searching for curb parking because it is much cheaper than garage parking.  It is not set at the market rate and so the roads end up clogged.  Another reason to be against price control

(Hat-tip: Peter Gordon)

04 April 2007
BA least favourite for baggage mishandling
Brian Micklethwait

I remember a great bit of graffiti on a poster for British Airways.  The poster said something like: “Breakfast in New York - Lunch in London”.  And someone else had spray-written at the bottom: “Baggage in Bermuda”.  I’m guessing that this was in the days of Concorde, but only guessing.

Anyway, it seems the graffitist was right:

British Airways lost more than one million pieces of luggage in 2006, making the national carrier the worst baggage handler in Europe.

A report by the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) revealed that BA mishandled 23 bags for every 1,000 passengers, losing about 3,000 bags every day. Overall, that meant the “world’s favourite airline” lost 1,047,750 bags last year.

Hundreds of thousands of BA’s 45 million passengers began their trips without clothes, toiletries, presents, valuables or climbing or skiing equipment. Many have never been reunited with their belongings.

BA, whose problems led to 28,000 suitcases piling up at Heathrow in January, described its performance as “unacceptable”. “We fully apologise to customers who have been affected by delayed baggage in the past year,” a spokesman said.

“Fully apologise” sounds like they do other less fulsome apologies.  Like: “We apologise a bit, but not really.”  “We partially apologise.”  “We apologise but only if the government apologises as well.” Etc.

TGV breaks rail speed record
Patrick Crozier


Which is a lot less than the fastest car (763mph).

But a lot more than the fastest production car (253mph).

Which in turn much faster than the fastest production train (186mph).

But is almost the same speed as the fastest Maglev (360mph).  Whoops.

And, in the final analysis, doesn’t really amount to a row of beans. To have trains running at that sort of speed in service would almost certainly require a lot of new track, although given that TGV’s already have in-cab signalling, they might be OK in that department.

And I haven’t even mentioned the cost.  High-speed rail schemes are without exception a financial disaster.

We are better off without them.

01 April 2007
"In the light of step twenty-three, I think now would be a good time to give up smoking."

Andy Wood contemplates the Google Maps instructions for the New York-Dublin journey.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Miscellaneous