February 2011

21 February 2011
Low-speed rail freight and the threat to it from high-speed passenger trains
Brian Micklethwait

Later today, assuming all goes well, I will be doing an interview with Sam Bowman, who blogs and is the blogmeister for the Adam Smith Institute, among other things.  During my homework for this interview I came across this blog posting by Sam, which featured this graphic:


As Sam says:

This is why we like deregulation.

This piece of graphics began life as one of the illustrations in an Economist report entitled “High-speed railroading”, and, more to my present point, subtitled America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.

Indeed.  High speed rail achieves little, in terms of speeding up rail travel by regular humans, and even less in terms of making money for any humans.  But if unleashed anywhere, a point I am reading here, there and everywhere is that its most significant impact is upon the one thing that long distance rail does really well, which is transport stuff over long distances at low cost, but rather (sometime very) slowly, for customers who value the cheapness and don’t mind the slowness.

The word “trundle” always comes to my mind whenever I observe some exotic cargo train … well, trundling through a passenger station I happen to be waiting at when this odd circumstance occurs.  But the real pay-off comes when goods trains trundle, not on the urban and suburban lines I travel on, but for hundreds upon hundreds of miles.  They become the sort of land equivalent of supertankers, another notably efficient form of transport that has been doing very well recently.

Superimpose on those same long, long railway lines trains which are very fast, and with the political demand attached that they run on time, bugger the cost and the havoc caused, and there goes your profitable and efficient freight network.  And it all then has to go by road.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with roads, of course, but the kind of people who are most manically in favour of high-speed trains tend also to be manically against roads.  What the hell are they thinking?

Seriously, what is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?  Is it just that the child in all of us loves fast trains that look and behave like rockets, and lefties are the people who are most inclined not to care about the cost of things?  Is it really that simple?

Transport excuse for intrusive census questions
Rob Fisher

The 2011 census is looking…interesting…from a civil liberties and privacy perspective. The Office of National Statistics is keen for everyone to know the postcodes of their places of work for transport reasons. Spyblog has the story. Quoting an ONS press release:

Knowing their workplace postcode is a key piece of information that feeds into the overall picture of life in England and Wales. Details of where people live, where they work and how they travel to their place of employment provide important statistics for transport planning and other strategic decisions.

Spyblog adds:

Note that the ONS makes no provision for simply filling in, say only the first 4 digits of the Post Code, which would be more than adequate for such planning purposes.


Previous Census data has not succeed in producing “the right transport infrastructure”, in the past, due to all of the other political and financial factors, so why should it be any different with the Census 2011 ?

The claim seems dubious at best. A one-off snapshot of this information does not seem very useful. It’s based on the delusion that such things can be centrally planned if only perfect information was centrally available. But this is impossible. Any changes in transport infrastructure will affect people’s behaviour. There are all kinds of non-linear feedback effects at play. The problem is distributed. The only way to get the correct transport infrastructure to meet people’s needs is to distribute the organisation of transport. And the best information to be had is price signals.

Wasn’t all this figured out in 1776? Someone should tell the ONS.

18 February 2011
The return of Concorde - as a spaceship?
Brian Micklethwait

On Wednesday of this week, both Michael Jennings and I attended a talk given by James C Bennett at the IEA, organised by the Economic Policy Centre, about private sector space development.  I was curious about where the money is either now being made in space, or is about to be made, and asked about that.  Military espionage, communications satellites, tourism, and (eventually - but how soon?) mining the solar system for physical stuff, right?

Nearly.  It will be some time before off-earth mining gets seriously going.  But the big immediate omission from that list turned out to be: transport!


Basically, low earth orbit is an economically rational way to do what Concorde did but failed to do rationally.  Getting money-no-object business execs, and high value cargo like urgent legal documents, from A to B in two hours rather than six or ten, basically.  I had assumed that the only people who would soon be “going into space” would be doing this purely for the fun of it.  Not so.  No need to land where you took off from.  Why not go somewhere?

Very fast.

12 February 2011
Allister Heath on why banks should go bankrupt in the same way that airports do
Brian Micklethwait

Buried in the middle of this excellent piece by Allister Heath about the top ten causes of the banking crisis is a fascinating point (number 3) about transport (and also energy) infrastructure:

3) There was no bankruptcy code for failed multinational banking groups. Regulatory stupidity meant that they were treated like ordinary firms: the choice was either a disorganised collapse, or a bail-out. Other network industries – airports, nuclear plants – have long operated under special bankruptcy codes, ensuring an orderly wind-down and handover of assets. Unlike every other private businesses, big banks knew they would never be allowed to go bust. So they took too many risks and leveraged themselves to the hilt, to maximise returns on capital (and hence profit and pay); while lending criteria were slowly loosened.

I thought that was interesting when I read it.  Antoine Clarke picked up on this point also.  “I never knew that” says Antoine.  Me neither.

So, what are those “special bankruptcy codes” that are in place for big airports (I’m guessing not for all airports), but not for big banks?  Anybody know about that?

It’s an important issue, because the fact that airports, railway networks (and energy supplies) must be “protected” by the government - must, basically, be kept going no matter what - is one of the big arguments against the private ownership of such enterprises, with all the competitive benefits that this brings to customers.  Maybe it isn’t true that such things “have to be kept going”. But almost everybody thinks it is true.  So that opinion has somehow to be separated by libertarians like ourselves from the argument about private ownership.  That hasn’t happened with banks, but has with airports.  How?

07 February 2011
Naked scanner UK
Rob Fisher

In the USA you can walk through the naked scanner or you can choose instead to get your junk touched. In the UK, if you decline to walk through the naked scanner, you get to talk to the police for half an hour and told you can’t get on your flight.

Passengers, who are selected at random for the virtual strip search, were at first allowed to opt for a traditional ‘pat down’ check.

But a government rule change now means anyone who refuses to be scanned is barred from flying.

There does still seem to be a workaround:

Mr Bradshaw [...] now says he will fly from an alternative airport which does not use the technology.

06 February 2011
The TaxPayers’ Alliance denounces Britain’s high speed rail plans
Brian Micklethwait

Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, is not a fan of Britain’s high speed rail plans:

It is incredible that while the Government are imposing higher taxes on ordinary families, and making necessary cuts in spending on services like education, they are planning on throwing billions at a new train line that will only benefit a well-off few. Passengers on the new high speed line are never expected to pay enough to cover the project’s costs in fares, and it will depend on massive subsidy at the expense of millions who never use the line. This just can’t be a priority with the massive scale of the fiscal crisis and huge pressure on family budgets. Politicians should focus on making commuter journeys more convenient and affordable, not a flashy new train set that will be a huge white elephant.

The scheme will cut journey times at a cost of £500 million per minute saved, says the TPA’s report.  It will never produce a financial return.  It will not cut greenhouse gases.  It embodies highly unrealistic assumptions about usage.  It will favour the rich at the expense of the less rich.

Report, by Chris Stokes (a man which plenty of railway industry experience - scroll down to “About the author”), here.  Press release (issued last Friday) here.

04 February 2011
Brian has a nice picture of a railway bridge -  …link
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