08 July 2011
Transport infrastructure costs
Rob Fisher

Virginia Postrel reports on Bent Flyvbjerg’s studies into the costs of public infrastructure projects:

On average, urban and intercity rail projects run over budget by 45 percent, roads by 20 percent, and bridges and tunnels by 34 percent.

And the averages tell only part of the story. Rail projects are especially prone to cost underestimation. Seventy-five percent run at least 24 percent over projections, while 25 percent go over budget by at least 60 percent, Flyvbjerg finds.

By comparison, 75 percent of roads exceed cost estimates by at least 5 percent, and 25 percent do so by at least 32 percent.

Promoters of rail and toll-road projects also tend to substantially overstate future use, making those projects look more appealing to whoever is footing the bill. Rail projects attract only about half the expected passengers, on average, while in new research still in progress, Flyvbjerg finds that toll roads (including road bridges and tunnels) fall 20 percent short.

H/T Instapundit.

This doesn’t bode well for Crossrail. I’m also wondering how the M6 toll road is working out. It seems like a fantastic road to me, but is it making enough money?

16 June 2011
Brian Micklethwait

Last week, in the London Evening Standard, the now free London evening paper, hard pressed commuters (commuters are always hard pressed – it’s the law) were able to read this, about some not so lucky fellow commuters:

Rail commuters were trapped on a train for up to six hours and then threatened with arrest when they tried to escape overheated carriages.

Tens of thousands of people - including a woman who is eight months pregnant - were caught up in the chaos that left 60 trains stranded last night in the middle of Transport Secretary Philip Hammond’s Runnymede and Weybridge constituency.

The crisis, caused by thieves who stole power cable, brought the line to a standstill at 6.30pm and left passengers trapped until after 11pm. Today commuters attacked rail company South West Trains as a “shambles”, as they described how they tried to escape from carriages only to be told they were breaking the law.

The heavily pregnant woman, Emma Firth, 35, told how she and a group of passengers decided to “make a bid for freedom” at 10.30pm after being trapped on a train from Clapham Junction since 6.30pm. But as they tried to climb down on to the track, guards made an announcement saying they would be arrested for trespass if they did.

A severe delay.  Harassment of travellers, no doubt for what seemed like very good reasons (safety, basically) when the rules being followed so charmlessly that night were put in place.  So far so routine.

But later in the same report, this:

A train spokesman said a review of how it responded to train disruption has been ordered.

“We are very sorry for the significant impact last night’s signal problems had on a large number of our passengers.

“We would like to thank them for their patience during some extremely difficult circumstances.

“We appreciate that many passengers spent several hours on trains while Network Railengineers worked hard to rectify the major signalling faults. Network Rail has confirmed today that the signalling problems were caused by an attempted cable theft.

“We are extremely angry and frustrated that mindless and irresponsible vandalism meant that many of our passengers had a terrible journey last night.

“Our station, train and customer service teams did their very best to keep passengers updated at the main locations across our network and to help get customers home through the night.

“We will be working with Network Rail to review how we responded to this incident. We are committed to learning any lessons, including taking any steps required to improve the flow of information to passengers.”

My blog posting title has already given my game away, but honestly, had I not done this, would you have spotted what I spotted?  “Passengers”.

For years railway people in Britain have been calling us “customers”, a usage that I do not like for reasons I find tricky to explain even to myself.

It’s something to do with the fact that the word “passenger” describes the true relationship.  We are at their mercy.  When they called us “passengers” they were acknowledging this fact.  Calling us “customers” attributes to us a spurious degree of autonomy, like we could get out at any moment if we didn’t like the journey.  Which (see above) everyone knows we actually can’t do.  And if we got off at an earlier station because we didn’t like the journey we were being subjected to, we’d not be given our money back.  Besides which, once you’ve committed to a train journey, the only logical course is to stick with it.  If you don’t like it, you don’t do it again.  But while it lasts, you must simply endure.

I see what they’ve been trying to do with all this “customer” talk.  They want all concerned to realise that market disciplines are in play, especially their own staff.  The last thing they want is for their staff to act, in a bad way, on the idea that we are totally at their mercy.  Trouble is: we are.  This is a fact which all concerned ought to be facing, not dodging, even verbally.

I have similar feelings about the word “patient” as used by health services.  If a hospital started describing its charges as “customers”, I think I’d feel that the same kind of verbal dishonesty, the same kind of falsehood about the real relationship involved, was being perpetrated.

My guess is that this reversion to the old word was a mistake, made in stressful conditions, rather than any kind of major policy shift.  But even so, interesting, I think.

10 June 2011
Richard Wellings on rail privatisation and rail regulation
Brian Micklethwait

Today I received an IEA email newsletter, which drew my attention to a (fairly) recent (May 24th) blog posting by Richard Wellings at the IEA blog, calculated to confirm all our prejudices here about privatisation (good) and government regulation (bad).

First paragraph:

The recent history of Britain’s railways has undoubtedly brought the whole concept of privatisation into disrepute. But this is unfair. Rail privatisation was a pastiche of genuine privatisation - in many ways it actually increased the level of state control.

Final paragraph:

A truly private railway would be efficient, innovative, responsive to consumer preferences and would not require taxpayer support. It is time the critics (such as Will Hutton) stopped blaming privatisation for problems caused by government intervention.

The guts of Wellings’ argument is that in a truly free market, railway companies would have been free to integrate vertically, and being free to integrate vertically, they would have.  The irrational separation of ownership between track and trains would have ended.  The government did not allow this.

Maybe the new government will?

05 May 2011
Electronic signs at railway stations – good but not perfect
Brian Micklethwait

As a Grumpy Old Man, I believe it is my duty to note some good things as and when they happen, if only to establish my bona fides when grumping about bad things.  And one of the trends in human affairs of recent years that I have liked is the way that really quite informative electronic signs have multiplied in railway stations concerning the next bunch of trains, and if you are even luckier, at bus stops concerning the next bunch of buses.

They could be better, mind you.  The railway signs typically tell you all the stations that the next train will be stopping at, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what stations the one after that will be stopping at, or the one after that. They only tell you the final destination.  Not knowing whether the 13.36 will stop where you want it to might seriously affect how you feel about the 13.25.  Yet, as it is, you have to wait until the 13.25 has come and gone before you learn for sure where the 13.36 will be stopping, at which point you could already have placed a bad bet, by not getting on board the 13.25.

So, these signs are not perfect.  But anything is better than ploughing through an idiotic Dead Sea Scroll timetable, which tells you the entire contents of some gink’s head last October, concerning all the railway trains that he believes will be in motion in the south of England, this entire May.  Talk about a needle of information in a haystack of too much information.

Another imperfection of these signs, from my point of view, is that they can often be impossible to photograph.

Take this sign, for instance, which I snapped yesterday:


That was actually quite informative, yesterday, when I looked at it for real.  It told me, while I was waiting at Vauxhall on the way to visit my brother, that there had been a fatality on the line at Clapham Junction, and that I and all my fellow travellers should expect delays and rearrangements.  And no, since you ask, it was not moving.  Or, it didn’t look to the human eye as if it was.  Only when I looked at my camera screen did it start jumping about manically.

An unusual fatality sign is just the kind of titbit that you want on a blog, is it not?  But, all my photo can do is illustrate a rumination about the weirdness of how digital photography sometimes interacts with reality.

Sometimes, such weirdness can be entertaining, but here only a frustration.

Although, interestingly, you can tell from the above photoat exactly what time it was taken.

This sign, on the other hand, proved to be entirely photoable:


Under what circumstances might the photographability of an electronic sign be of significance to someone other than a mere blogger?

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.

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.

04 March 2011
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 thetrainline.com 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.

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.

23 December 2010
Rob Fisher

Northern Rail must be very concerned about all the jokes about the wrong kind of leaves, so they are making sure everyone understands the problem. This poster is displayed on one of their trains:

Leaves poster

I’ve heard anecdotes of trains overshooting the platform because of slipping on the leaves. Instead of opening the rear doors to let passengers on and off, or simply reversing, it seems trains are likely to simply continue to the next station.

24 November 2010
SpaceX gets permission to re-enter
Brian Micklethwait

This sounds good:

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s California-based space launch firm has become the first commercial company to receive a Federal Aviation Administration license to allow an orbiting spacecraft to return to Earth.

I did a piece a while back for Samizdata, speculating about why Obama’s space policies are so bafflingly sensible, which would have been linked to from here, I dare say, had here been in business at the time.

LATER: More transport related bloggery from me here, including (at the end) a question which I would love to have answered, and in particular see (in a picture) answered.

01 October 2008
Rail map
Patrick Crozier

I love this sort of thing: maps where area is proportionate to something other than territory.  Hey, I even designed one of my own way back.  This is the one for rail travel.


I think this is for passenger rail travel or else the US would be a lot bigger.  Look at China and India.  What does this say I wonder?

24 July 2007
New train: “...almost half as fast as an airplane.”
Patrick Crozier
New N700 Series

I admire the Japanese Bullet Trains (aka Shinkansens) very much - not least because I am not paying for them - but I had to laugh when I read this particular quote, marking the launch of the N700.  Is there a better way of saying: “Gather round everybody, look at us, we’re not very good.”?

If even the Japanese are struggling to say good things about trains, it all rather confirms my belief that as a form of transport they’re doomed.

In that vein I’ve been toying with the idea of compiling a list of insuperable train-travel bugs.  I mean problems that either cannot or probably never will be solved.  If I did I think I’d have to include this one, along with:

The ugliness of the view
The ugliness of the structures
The complexity of the fares
The inflexibility eg you can’t use trains for your trips to the DIY store
The actions of other people

Incidentally, I have yet to find out what the “N” stands for in N700.  Not-half-as-ugly-as-a 700, perhaps?

700 Series Shinkansen


27 June 2007
Why railways are doomed
Patrick Crozier
The future of rail

As promised...

The British rail network peaked in 1912.  After that, vehicles based on the internal combustion engine, such as cars and lorries, started to eat into rail’s market. They did so because for all sorts of tasks they were better.  They were more convenient, more flexible and, in many cases, both cheaper and faster. they also gave the traveller with private space when travelling - the freedom to listen to his own taste in music and pick his nose.

From 1950 or thereabouts the British railway started to lose money.  In the 1960s the network was cut back dramatically.  Since then it has stabilised.  It needs about £1bn a year in subsidy but due to the crazy way it is structured receives far more.

Frankly, if railways were forced to stand on their own two feet - freed of both subsidy and regulation, there would be little left other than the main lines and the London commuter network - something that the Serpell Report concluded way back in 1982.

But it gets worse than that.  If Britain’s ridiculous planning laws were abolished, there would be a vast expansion of the city into what is currently the countryside.  This would be very bad news for the railway.  Railways need density.  They thrive on moving large numbers of people or large quantities of goods from point A to point B. Take the density away as urban expansion (not, not, not sprawl) would do and railways would find it ever harder, if not impossible, to exist.

Against this background, the one hope for the railways is climate change.  Or rather the hope that it is happening, that it is caused by CO2, that it is a bad thing and that the proper response is to cut down on CO2.  Because, in most cases, though by no means all, for the same length of journey, railways produce less pollution.

But rail is not the only alternative.  Staying at home is another - something that the internet has made massively easier.  I have even heard it said that when cities are allowed to develop naturally ie without the dubious benefit of state intervention, less, not more CO2 pollution is the result.  Possibly because drivers spend less time in jams.  Possibly because people live nearer their places of work.  Who knows.

Worse still, worries about climate change are cyclical.  People can forget about it pretty quickly when they are wondering how to pay the mortgage.  When lots of people are worried about paying the mortgage…

The more I think about it the more I think the “hope” of climate change is a forlorn one.

Railways appeal to people in all sorts of ways.  To some it’s nostalgia.  To some it’s the system.  To some it’s the promise of planetary salvation.  To some it’s the promise of not having to drive.  Unfortunately for the railways, none of these desires are strong enough when competing against the “hard needs” of flexibility and convenience that only the internal combusion engine can satisfy.  Railways, have changed the world in all sorts of wonderful ways, but their days are numbered.

20 May 2007
The Ideal of Train Travel
Patrick Crozier

I like the current crop of animated Lloyds Bank ads.  The first stars a train that is sleek and comfortable.  The second, one that splits, with each carriage stopping at the front door of the occupants.

Together they perfectly encapsulate what I call the Ideal of Train Travel.  The first being the current ideal - the idea of clean, comfortable, punctual, stress-free travel - using existing technology and layouts and the second being the future ideal when all practical obstacles are removed.

But it’s a chimera.  Probably.  Especially, the future ideal.  I don’t know about the economics but I’d guess the chances that you could run track to everyone’s front door are probably rather low.  There’s the expense, the inconvenience, the difficulty in getting carriages to marry up with one another.  My guess is that if someone hasn’t already come up with it there are probably good reasons why they haven’t. 


The nearest I have heard of was the “slip” carriages that Great Western introduced in the 1930s.  These were carriages that would be detached from the train while it was still in motion and be slowed down to a stop by the brakeman.  Lord knows what happened if he stopped long or short of the station.  Maybe in those days things like that didn’t happen.

I am not even particularly optimistic about the current ideal.  To create that much on-board space would require either much higher fares or much higher taxes.  And all the business to do with punctuality and cleanliness requires culture - something that you (especially if that “you” happens to be the government) can’t create over night.  And that’s not to mention crime, vandalism and graffiti which are to a large extent outside the railway’s control.

Frankly, when all things are considered, the family car is a damn sight closer to the ideal than trains are or are ever likely to be.

Next post: Why railways are doomed.

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
10 March 2007
Save the planet: close down loss-making railway lines
Patrick Crozier

Notwithstanding the hornets’ nest that this week’s global warming documentary has stirred up, it occurs to me that if you follow the party line on all things global warmy then don’t you also have to look forward to the closure of loss-making railway lines?

Let me explain.  The basis on which we get warm, fuzzy feelings about railways is that they’re supposed to produce much less CO2 for each passenger moved.

True.  But only if there are lots of passengers on the train.  If you have a train with only a few passengers - and therefore the sort of service that is going to be making a loss - then efficiency goes right down.  Probably - I am far from sure of the numbers here - to way below the level you’d get from just a normal, family car.

09 March 2007
Nice league table (complete with stats and pretty pictures) of the world's underground systems from, of all people, Virgin Vacations (hat-tip: Live from the Third Rail). Though what possessed them to put London at the top and Tokyo - which in my humble opinion is far superior - fifth, heaven only knows.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (1)Rail
15 February 2007

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 November 2006
The North London Line, Mancur Olson and why we’re all doomed
Patrick Crozier

Tim Hall (see comment) is all depressed about how long it takes to get anything done in this country.  He is talking about the gap between the closure of part of the North London Line and the opening of its replacement.  I’d like to say it’s all to do with the state.  And, of course, it is.  It’s just not quite as simple as all that.  As Michael Jennings is fond of pointing out, they have none of this difficulty in Hong Kong or Singapore.  This is a peculiarly British phenomenon.

I once spoke to a bloke who was involved in some London project, it may even have been this one.  His point was that there were so many agencies involved: national government, local government, Network Rail, the TOCs etc that it was almost impossible to get them all to agree.  And so you got nowhere.

Now, part of the reason is the vertical fragmentation of the railway, another reason to oppose it, but it is only part of the reason.  The other part - the plethora of agencies - puts me in mind of the work of American economist, Mancur Olson.  His theory - although you’d be pushed to deduce this from his Wikipedia entry - is that over time all states acquire ever more rules and regulations (and presumably agencies to enforce them) until it become more or less impossible to do anything and they collapse.

We’re doomed.

01 November 2006
London's transport is broken, says One Man and His Blog.


My goodness, what an eye-opener it was. After nine years of train commuting, I'd got used to it. After a short break, I saw it with new eyes. I saw the utter filth of London Bridge station. I saw the people crushed into cattle trucks. I smelt the fast food and the perfume and the body odor all mingling in an unpleasant aroma cocktail. I saw people struggling to get though a tiny platform exit on Lewisham station.

London has been described as the heart of the country's economy, pumping its fiscal blood around the nation. If that's the case, then the country has heart disease. Its arteries are clogged, unable to cope with the demands placed on them.
Methinks this man, and his blog, are tired of London.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (3)Rail