March 2011

31 March 2011
Brian Micklethwait

Today Instapundit linked to a report about how the HondaJet recently flew for the first time at its maximum speed of close to 500 mph.  Later (or maybe I just missed it the first time around) he added to his posting a link back to a piece he himself wrote a year ago about this airplane.  Good, I thought, because I had been wondering why he considered the HondaJet so worthy of his linkage.


Here is why:

The HondaJet is the brainchild of Honda Aircraft president and CEO Michimasa Fujino. Fujino told me that his first job in the United States was in Mississippi, back in the 1980s, and that he found that wherever he traveled by air - even elsewhere in Mississippi - he usually wound up having to change planes in Atlanta. This seemed wasteful of time and fuel, and made travel iffier, since it created the risk of a missed connection. To Fujino, the hub-and-spoke system makes sense for a country like Japan, where Tokyo is at the center of everything, but much less sense for a country as big as the United States, where important places are widely distributed. For this, point-to-point travel is much better.

This is no secret, of course, to the people who travel by private jet now. But private jet travel is very expensive, which is why it is the domain of CEOs, celebrities and the like. The HondaJet represents an effort at changing all of that, by using technology and design to bring costs down and allow private-jet travel at costs that approach commercial ticket prices. (Fully loaded, Fujino says, the cost per seat on the HondaJet should be roughly comparable to a first-class commercial ticket). To keep costs down, the Honda folks have put a lot of thought into ways to make the plane as small and inexpensive as possible, without sacrificing comfort or speed.

I’m intrigued by the way the jet engines are above rather than below the wings.  This enables the landing gear to be directly under the engines, which means the wings need to do less structural work.  Hanging the airplane from its jets, so to speak, enables everything else to be nearer to the ground, which is convenient in all sorts of ways.  Including, I guess, that it makes the landing gear less bulky, because it has to reach down less.

Clearly, billionaires are a big part of the target market.  Billionaires may buy more - and more expensive - stuff than the rest of us, but at their own spending level they are presumably just as price sensitive as the rest of us.  That they have so much money suggests to me that they have a history of being careful with it.  So, I’m guessing lots of them will like this cheaper private jet, and lots of others will reckon this to be the first private jet worth buying.

But Honda are not expecting everyone who flies the HondaJet to be an owner of a HondaJet, or an employee or friend or relative of such an owner.  They also anticipate something more like a taxi model of USA air travel to develop.

It all sounds very promising.

It’s sort of the opposite extreme to the A380, the ultimate hub airliner.  That is trying to make air travel cheaper by making the biggest planes even bigger.  The HondaJet makes air travel cheaper by making the smallest and most convenient planes, that can still go fast and over long distances, cheaper.  The HondaJet is, you might say, the Dreamliner, only more so.  Or to put it another way, the HondaJet, it is hoped, will do to travel within the USA what others hope the Dreamliner will do for travel worldwide.

29 March 2011
EU to ban cars from cities by 2050
Brian Micklethwait

So says Bruno Waterfield:

The European Commission on Monday unveiled a “single European transport area” aimed at enforcing “a profound shift in transport patterns for passengers” by 2050.

The plan also envisages an end to cheap holiday flights from Britain to southern Europe with a target that over 50 per cent of all journeys above 186 miles should be by rail.

Top of the EU’s list to cut climate change emissions is a target of “zero” for the number of petrol and diesel-driven cars and lorries in the EU’s future cities.

Siim Kallas, the EU transport commission, insisted that Brussels directives and new taxation of fuel would be used to force people out of their cars and onto “alternative” means of transport.

“That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres,” he said. “Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour.”

A bunch of people who think that’s mad respond by saying that that’s mad.  Maybe it is, but how will the anti-maddists stop it?  That argument hasn’t worked all the times it’s been tried before.

The trouble with the “that’s mad” argument is that it doesn’t lay a finger on the “yes but wouldn’t it be nice?” argument.  Opponents of the EU look like grumpy believers in surrendering to “reality”.  The EU, meanwhile, comes across as boldly changing mere “reality” to something nicer.  So, the real argument is: would this actually be nicer?

My argument against might go something like this: it sounds nice, but it would drain all the life out of cities and turn them into museums, rather as the centre of Paris already has been turned into a museum, in that case by not allowing any new buildings other than Presidential follies like the glass pyramid thingy or the Pompidou Centre.  London, in contrast, is a living, growing place, all over.

But then again, although the Kallas plan would drain much of the life out of London that is now there, life of other sorts would move in.  It might indeed be quite nice.  For some, like tourists and tourist crap shop owners, street marketeers, electric motor makers, paving stone makers, road demolishers, etc. etc.

I look forward to comments from fellow TBloggers explaining why this really is a mad plan.

28 March 2011
Signs on a train
Brian Micklethwait

I have a piece up at my personal blog, about the sheer number of signs there are in the average railway carriage (i.e. the one I was recently in).  It went chez moi rather than here because it contains lots of photos, and I know what I will put up with at my place photographically but am less sure of the limits for here.  Patrick has already left a quite long comment there.

26 March 2011
From transport to sport
Brian Micklethwait

Yeah, just take the “tran” off the front.

I’m watching the Boat Race on the telly, and Gryff Rhys Jones has just said something rather interesting about what began it all.  The railways, he said.  The reason the railways made the Boat Race possible is not that they transported people to it, or anything like that.  No, what the railways did was empty the River Thames of commercial traffic, passenger and freight.  That left the river free for sport.

Is that true?  That wikipedia piece has the first Boat Race happening in 1829, at Henley.  It moved down river to west London for the second race in 1836.  Then there was apparently some disagreement about whether to hold it at Henley or in west London.  That seems a few years early to have been kicked off by the railways.  I can certainly see how the railways might have accelerated such a trend.

The horse definitely went from being mostly transport to being mostly sport.  The automobile now looks to be deep into the same transition.  Certainly as regular cars become ever more slow and boring, the attraction of sporty cars gets ever greater.  Sporty cars have long taken on a life of their own, in terms of how they look, how fast they go, and so forth.  It’s the difference between a carthorse and, well a race horse.

Another speculation: Will the rise of remotely controlled airplanes cause personally driven airplanes also to become merely sporty?  Certainly planes are already a bit sporty, but, like cars, they always have been, a bit.

23 March 2011
Taxpayers Alliance
Rob Fisher

The Taxpayers Alliance are complaining that Phil Hammond, the minister behind a high speed train project called HS2, is ignoring the real arguments against it in favour of calling its opponents NIMBYs.

The real arguments being that it is too expensive and won’t make any money.

TV Review: Richard Wilson on Britain’s railways
Patrick Crozier

I haven’t yet watched Richard Wilson’s programme on British railways that was on Channel 4 the other day but I’ll stick my neck out and guess that it makes the following claims:

Fares are really expensive
Trains are frequently delayed
Subsidy is high
Trains are frequently overcrowded
This is all the fault of privatisation

I’m going to stick my neck out again and guess that it won’t be saying any of the following:

Railways are highly regulated
Rail fares are highly regulated
The wheel-rail split is the source of many of the industry’s problems and is mandated by the EU
That trains are much cleaner, brighter less vandalised and more reliable than they used to be
That many fares (restrictive as they may be) are extremely cheap
Overcrowding is a classic example of price controls causing shortages
That railways are expensive
That most of the subsidy goes to little-used rural lines
That railways are capital intensive, that it takes a long time for investments to become profitable and that franchises are typically short-term thus removing any incentive for rail operators to invest for the long-run.

Or, to put it another way, a lot of the things that get blamed on freedom are, in fact, the result of state violence.

22 March 2011
Immigration officer puts wife on no-fly list
Rob Fisher

Somewhat old news, but news to me via the Risks Digest:

A UK immigration officer decided to get rid of his wife by putting her on the no-fly list, ensuring that she could not return to the UK from abroad. This worked for three years, until he put in for a promotion and—during the routine background check—someone investigated why his wife was on the no-fly list.

This story comes from the Daily Mail:

The Home Office confirmed today that the officer has been sacked for gross misconduct.

This bit is Kafkaesque:

His wife visited family in Pakistan but when she tried to return to Britain she was not allowed onto the aircraft. Airline and immigration officials refused to explain to her why.

But it’s very interesting that one man was able to meddle with the list. We are so often told about these things that there will be “safeguards”.

In 100 years, will people wonder who Boris was?
Michael Jennings

Animated map of London created from Boris bike movements during a tube strike.

21 March 2011
Transport Blog newspaper headline of the year so far
Brian Micklethwait

The Indy gets its priorities straight:

Libya action hits Ryanair flights

Via EUReferendum.

11 March 2011
Japan earthquake news
Patrick Crozier

Rail up the spout. Roads unaffected.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

10 March 2011
Geographically accurate London tube map
Brian Micklethwait

Here.  Via here.

07 March 2011
Road sign photos
Brian Micklethwait

Yes, I am starting seriously to notice signs.  Especially the Health and Safety obsessed signs concerning the obligations of building workers.  It’s as if it is now obligatory to erect a complete building trade version of the Highway Code on the fencing of every building site in the land.  Buts signs of any kind can be extremely evocative, as well as informative of course.

Road signs, however, mostly don’t feel as annoying as those H&S signs.  This is because only a small percentage of them are nagging you to drive more safely.  Most are telling you how to get where you want to go, and motorists would feel seriously let down if signs like these were to start disappearing, or to be twiddled around like they were, according to the legends I have heard, during the War.

Here is a particularly excellent road sign photo, which I found here:


And here are some photos that I myself took, of a strange place, on the south side of the river, just upstream from the Thames Barrier, next to the riverside foot and cycle path.  Whether this is where temporary road signs go to rest and recuperate, or simply to die, I do not know.  The fierce yellow sign threatening round-the-clock CCTV stardom to all malefactors suggests that these signs have futures as well as pasts.

image image image

These are road signs associated with, like the little square above says, diverted traffic, caused by roadworks.  But the signs are not the annoyance.  The roadworks are the annoyance.  The roadworks without the signs would be even worse.

Bollards are a different matter.  Often, there are bollards, and signs, but no roadworks.

Click to get the bigger pictures.

04 March 2011
Space Shuttle launch seen from a passing airplane – science in space
Brian Micklethwait


“We don’t want anybody to complain that we were late …”

I don’t know quite what “late” means.  Was that the pilot speaking, and did the pilot himself offer everyone free drinks?  Feels more like a private jet with a dozen business execs on board than an “airliner”.

Anyway the upshot of this lateness was that all on board got to see another upshot, in the form of the latest Space Shuttle launch.  The very last one, I think, yes?  Anyway, one of the passengers did a vid.

The latest NASA effort, however, was not so good.

Further to that talk by James Bennett that Michael and I attended, I was reminded that Bennett also focussed on the contribution of private sector near earth orbit flights to scientific research.  It turns out that experiments work a lot better if there’s a guy up there with the experiment.  Private sector space travel doesn’t stay up there as long as clunky old government space rockets, but it is much cheaper.  Think about it.  Little and often and cheap probably makes a lot more sense than one big expensive Hail Mary, have-to-get-everything-right-first-time mega-project.

Germans to solve train ticket problems?
Rob Fisher

I keep complaining that trains have a terrible user interface for payment: tickets. For example: if you get to the station and there is a very long queue, you might miss your train.

The Register is reporting that two German rail networks are interlinking their payment and ticketing systems:

Frankfurt’s regional travel authority is to merge its NFC infrastructure with the national rail operator, creating an interoperable network for travelling across Germany with a tap of the phone.

The cool part is NFC. Near field communication uses magnetic induction to send data over short distances. This is how Oyster works, but it is also appearing in phones, especially Android phones. This means you could buy a ticket using an app on your phone, then use your phone to touch-in at the gate. No queuing or ticket printing required.

The Reg article also mentions that are doing something similar in the UK with barcodes. It’s early days: one recent press release suggests that this will work “when rail operators start supporting this feature in the coming months”.

I think NFC is a better long term bet. NFC readers should be cheaper than barcode readers, and easier to use. Around London we already have Oyster readers everywhere, and people are familiar with them. It should only require an electronics upgrade at the gate to the existing Oyster reader, rather than larger physical changes that barcode readers would need. It might take a while for NFC to be ubiquitous in phones, but phone technology moves very fast.

01 March 2011
Automobiles (unlike high speed trains) are the masters of their fate
Brian Micklethwait

George F. Will has evidently been reading Transport Blog.  No, not really, but he does give an answer to the question at the bottom of my previous posting.  What, I asked, is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons - to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they - unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted - are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

For me the problem of railways has always been that they need things to be arranged in lines.  Cars (as I prefer to call them) enable a whole area to come alive.  Trains only really work when, for some fortuitous reasons like a dominant river or river valley, or a coastline with a hostile interior, things are naturally linear.

Or, see below, when you are trundling goods from A to B, also a linear thing, and are not in any hurry about it.

Or if, as was the case for a few decades after trains were invented, there is no other way to travel even slightly fast.