Vir Cantium

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Category Archives: Transport

You Couldn’t Make It Up, No. 94: Winter Railways Edition

Sometimes little nuggets come your way that you just have to share.

In a general report from South Eastern trains regarding service issues in Kent and South east London (I have it on paper, but it may be online somewhere) mention is made of the disruption during the severe weather last winter. Iced-up third rail issues aside, it is also revealed that the special winter maintenance vehicles that are used for clearing the rails were out of action, being – wait for it – in for maintenance.

Yes, really.

After all, when else would you take them in for maintenance?


Privatisation? What Privatisation?

The East Coast rail service is to return to public ownership. Is it a sign that rail privatisation hasn’t worked?

So asks the BBC’s “Have Your Say”, following the news that National Express have handed back / been stripped of (delete according to political bias) the franchise to run one of their rail routes.

I wonder if anyone asked if the losses being sustained by Royal Mail are a sign that nationalisation hadn’t worked? (Of course, in a way, they have, but then the timid plans to correct this situation have effectively now been shelved.)

Yet that rather misses the main point. The question assumes that the railways have been privatised. No they haven’t. The railways haven’t been truly private since the First World War, when the government, following a temporary wartime nationalisation, forced grouping on the private railway companies shortly afterwards in 1923. What happened in the 1990’s was the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering – yet on arguably far more restricted terms than the CCT that has (for example) delivered more efficient refuse collections.

What the National Express episode shows is that a franchise was let by the government on restrictive terms set by the government, to a private company who found after a while that the government was unwilling to remove some of those restrictions, and so have given it back.

Even so, many might welcome the return of some railways to state ownership (‘cos British Rail worked so well, didn’t it?)

How short memories are. Since the mid-19th century the history of railways in the UK – the birthplace of the train – are punctuated by government interventions which usually only made things worse. We start in 1844, when the Railway Act forced railways to offer cheap tickets to passengers (a measure which today would not doubt be spun as “tackling transport poverty”) which would have been either subsidised by the more viable freight and higher class passenger business, or reduced the funds available for investment – either way surely harming the viability of many lines, which then provided the excuse for grouping and ultimately full nationalisation.

Then there was Beeching – who was, to be fair, on the right track (sorry) – whose attempt to mimic the outcomes of a free market was inevitably very hit-and-miss. Then we had “privatisation” which, again, tried to stimulate free market behaviour, but in such a heavily controlled environment that we may have been better off not doing it at all. It is a case of either privatise fully and properly, or don’t bother.

Had National Express had ownership of the track and had the government not been presiding over a system that allows a franchisee to walk away from the contact (thus diluting the profit maximisation/loss elimination incentive on which the success of privatisation relies), then perhaps NE would have had not only to get on with the job, but would have been in an much stronger position to do so.

Electric Cars Subsidies – Not A Gimmick

So, the government wants to give us up to £5,000 to buy electric cars.

Whoop. Ee. Doo.

Where to start?

The intentions are good, let us assume. That is, let us assume that this isn’t just a stitch-on to the environmental cloak that the state bailout of certain car manufacturers is covered in, to get round EU state-aid rules. Let’s assume that the reason the government doesn’t just zero-rate the VAT on electric cars isn’t because the EU won’t let them.

Just how environmentally friendly is the idea? I’m not talking about the fact that the cars will still be charged from the existing power generation network – much of which runs on fossil fuels (until we see sense and start building nuclear again), but that fact that the intention is clearly to have – at the end of the chain – old cars being scrapped. Motor vehicles have the maximum impact on the environment at two points in their life: when they’re made, and when they’re scrapped. The best thing you can do with many vehicles – especially the older ones, which were made from less recyclable material (apart from the obvious metal), is to keep them on the road.

Then there is the small detail that might make one think this is just an ill-thought-through headline-grabbing gimmick: why electric cars? What about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles? If the government is going to subsidise installation of the electric charging infrastructure, what happens if hydrogen proves more sustainable – environmentally and/or financially? If the energy companies find (as is quite possible) that it makes more sense for them to use their existing infrastructure to ship and sell hydrogen, what happens to all those taxpayer-subsidised plug sockets? It seems rather early to be putting all the eggs in one basket.

The biggest problem with electric cars, though, is not the cost – they already qualify for beneficial rates of road tax, company car tax treatment and, of course, don’t incur fuel duties. No: the problem is that they’re rubbish. And if you go for a less nerdy model like the Toyota Pious Prius, then you’re buying something which is more environmentally damaging in its production (some parts have to be shipped halfway around the world … twice) and heavier than an equivalent petrol/diesel vehicle.

Alternatively powered cars are coming, but like all new technology, it takes time to mature. It may be that this is another example of where the best thing government can do is nothing … because it doesn’t have to do anything.

Christmas Black Box


Speed-limiting devices should be fitted to cars on a voluntary basis to help save lives and cut carbon emissions, according to a new report.

The government’s transport advisers claim the technology would cut road accidents with injuries by 29%.

The device automatically slows a car down to within the limit for the road on which it is being driven.

Let’s get this straight: this is not about limiting speed. Why? Because there are already automatic speed control devices that drivers can use voluntarily – they’re called “cruise control” and do much the same job, albeit by allowing you to keep your foot off the throttle and covering the brake instead (so is probably safer than something which allows you to leave your foot on the accelerator). Let us not forget, either, that speed limiters are hardly much use on those mopeds whose west-side-gangsta-wannabe owners riders decide they are too cool to be limited to 30mph.

No, the key element in all this is the bit about the satellites. OK, stop laughing – I know I’m potentially into true tin-foil hat territory here, but the parallels between this story and the issue of ID cards is uncanny.

The real story with ID cards is not the plastic, but the infrastructure and the database that will be required to underpin it. So it is with speed limiters: it’s not the speed limiting capabilities, but the fact that it will enable a state-owned/regulated black box to be fitted in every vehicle, which can then be tracked.

ID cards are being paraded as the panacea to tackle the evils of terrorism, illegal immigration and, quite possibly (once the spin really gets going), third-world hunger. Speed limiters will tackle the evils of road deaths, climate change and, quite possibly, third-world hunger.

ID cards, like the speed limiters, are being introduced initially on a voluntary basis, which we all know is just an pre-cursor to their eventual compulsory introduction because they’ve been so successful/not quite successful enough/part of everyday life (helped no doubt by some thoroughly reliable and trustworthy government statistics).

I know, I know, speed kills. Well, technically at least, yes it can. However, the bottom line is that it’s not speed that kills, it’s the idiot behind the wheel, or the handlebars, or the careless pedestrian. What next? Personal black boxes?

OK, I’ll get my shiny hat….

Don't Crow Too Soon

Guido is making much of the timing of Tim Parker’s departure from City Hall earlier this week, given the fact that the following day, Boris apparently accepted the tube unions’ demands for a rather generous pay rise. Boris has “caved in” to Bob Crow and his comrades, they say. The Lefties are crowing (sorry) reckoning that their predictions/wishes for Boris to screw up are coming true, though how accepting a deal made by an arch lefty like Crow counts as screwing up, from another Lefty’s viewpoint, is not clear.

Yet the same was no doubt said about Mrs Thatcher (are we still supposed to talk about her?) in 1981, when she “gave in” to the miners unions, knowing that the time was not right and a good general, whenever possible, chooses his battles.

And we all know how Arthur Scargill ended up four years’ later.

There is a significant proportion of Londoners, including many who voted Conservative for the first time in voting for Boris, who would not appreciate those who forced them into the midst of a Tube strike, whichever side those protagonists were on. Boris knows this and I suspect feels that there are more pressing priorities in the first couple of years of the administration (and before a General Election).

As for Mr Parker? A shame that he has stood down, but in four years time I doubt anyone will remember this minor episode. Already, you would be hard pushed to find someone, outside the SE1 bubble, who remembers the names of James McGrath or Ray Lewis. In 2012, as the Olympics loom people will be judging Boris by what he has achieved, not how frequently the plastic name plates outside some offices in City Hall might have changed around this summer.

Free Travel for All in London

Or, as The Register reports,

Researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen revealed two weeks ago they had cracked and cloned London’s Oyster travelcard and the Dutch public transportation travelcard, which is based on the same RFID chip. Attackers can scan a card reading unit, collect the cryptographic key that protects security and upload it to a laptop. Details are then transferred to a blank card, which can be used for free travel.

So now, if you’re in that tricky 16-65 age range, you won’t have to dress like a “young person” or “twirly” to get your free bus travel.

(Anyone know what RFID technology UK national ID cards are/were going to use?)

Another By-election, another u-turn

… and no doubt they’ll be telling us in future how much better off we are because of the postponment of the planned 2p rise in fuel duty. No doubt, also, we are expected to be grateful that in a few months, petrol will be only 130p/litre and not 132p.

So, when the Conservatives propose cuts in fuel duty at times when fuel prices are high, it’s

“a dishonest gimmick which would mean the Tories would have to hike up taxes somewhere else or would mean a massive hole in the public finances.

“Either George Osborne doesn’t understand the way tax revenues work, or he’s prepared to play fast and loose with the public finances for the sake of a good headline.”

But when Labour postpone increases in fuel duty at time when fuel prices are high, it’s

“the right thing to do to help motorists and to help businesses.”

The ever-consistent Lib Dems, however are pouring scorn on both moves. You remember the Lib Dems: they were suggesting tax cuts a few months ago, and are the same party that wants/doesn’t want (delete deopending on day of week) a referendum on the EU.

Older, More Polluting Cars

“Older more polluting cars” has become a stock phrase of late, particularly with the storm brewing over the backdating of the road tax increases. Our dear national broadcaster used the phrase at the top of the news this morning, saying something like “Labour rebels and Conservatives are criticising the increase in tax on older more polluting cars”. This is a rather pejorative turn of phrase – why couldn’t they just say “road tax increase” or similar? It’s OK, though, I’m not going to launch into another rant about BBC bias and climate change, tempting though it is.

The arguments centre on the effects of the increase on poorer drivers and families, and rightly so, but in addition the blanket assumption that older cars are more polluting is wrong. My first car was 1961 Triumph Herald convertible. I doubt it had particularly clean emissions. “Aha!” says the tree-hugger, “it’s an older, more polluting car!” Er, no, because it used to go out fairly occasionally, and so contributed less CO2 in a typical year than my everyday (then) new Golf. Yet even if it wasn’t a second car, the most significant way in which my old Triumph was less polluting was that it was an older car – i.e. it was still on the road. Cars have the greatest impact on the environment when they are made, and when they are scrapped. Even when the old girl does come to the end of her life, as an older car with less plastics, no catalytic converter, no coolant filled air con system, and not much of anything else, most of the car will be easily recyclable steel.

Now, I concede that the Herald would be exempt from road tax anyway (though for how long?), and in any case is an extreme example (the road tax increase are only being backdated to 2001 cars) but the blind assumption that older cars are the chariot of the devil is one that should be challenged, if only on the main point that looking after an older car and keeping it on the road is the best thing an owner can do for the environment.

Of course, in truth the road tax changes have nothing to do with the environment – after all, what would they be trying to achieve? Clearly we can’t turn back time to not purchase the vehicles, so it must be trying to force us to take older cars off the road, which means in most cases scrapping them, and generating demand for new ones to be built – a double whammy for the environment. Yet surely Alistair Darling couldn’t be using the “climate change agenda” as an excuse just to raise environmentally irrelevant taxes?

Livingstone – Don’t Believe The Hype (no. 42)

Livingstone is at it again. From one month after the election 1st June, 11-18 year olds will have to “touch in” with their Oyster cards when they get on a bus – though they will still be travelling for free. This is apparently to solve the problem of rowdy behaviour by some youths on buses since free travel for under-18s was introduced by El Mayore.

So, yet another token measure to tackle a problem of his own making – in fact, a worse than useless token. The new rules are to prevent youths who are banned from the buses from boarding. Fine, except who’s going to stop them? Without physical tube-style barriers how is a driver supposed to enforce the new rules? The same drivers who cannot deal with the little darlings at the moment without risking either injury or prosecution? Bus drivers, who have enough to deal with as it is, already have access to photos and descriptions of known troublemakers, but their hands are largely tied.

It also emerged, at a recent meeting at Bromley Council, that if a child appears and has lost/forgotten their Oyster, TfL do owe a duty of care and drivers will still be expected to allow them to board rather than leave them stranded. I predict a spate of selective amnesia among the more troublesome element of our teenagers.