Quotulatiousness

April 22, 2014

QotD: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:13

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

All this had been rounded up the night before, in a frenzy of high-speed driving all over Los Angeles County – from Topanga to Watts, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon. Probably at the next gas station. We had sampled almost everything else, and now – yes, it was time for a long snort of ether. And then do the next 100 miles in a horrible, slobbering sort of spastic stupor. The only way to keep alert on ether is to do up a lot of amyls – not all at once, but steadily, just enough to maintain the focus at 90 miles an hour through Barstow.

Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas”, Rolling Stone, 1971-11-11

April 2, 2014

Comparing scandals – Toyota’s phantom acceleration and GM’s ignition switches

Filed under: Business, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:10

David Harsanyi offers this comparison and says it’s another reason governments shouldn’t own businesses:

In February 2010, the Obama Administration’s Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told America, without a shred of evidence, that Toyota automobiles were dangerous to drive. LaHood offered the remarks in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee that was investigating reports of unintended-acceleration crashes. “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said, sending the company’s stock into a nosedive.

Even at the time, LaHood’s comments were reckless at best. Assailing the competition reeks of political opportunism and cronyism. It also illustrates one of the unavoidable predicaments of the state owning a corporation in a competitive marketplace. And when we put LaHood’s comment into perspective today, it’s actually a lot worse. Not only did the Obama administration have the power and ideological motive to damage the largely non-unionized competition, it was busy propping up a company that was causing preventable deaths.

[...]

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s acting chief David Friedman testified that GM never told them that faulty switches were at the root of the airbag problem. Fine. Before plowing billions of tax dollars into saving the United Automobile Workers, did the Car Czar or any other Obama officials take extra care to review DOT records to insure that taxpayers would not be funding the preventable deaths of American citizens? Would DOT or Holder exhibit the same zealousness for safety when it came to GM as they did when it came to Toyota? In the midst of the bailout debate and subsequent “turnaround,” news of a coverup and major recall would have been a political disaster.

So it’s difficult to understand why this isn’t a huge scandal. If every obtuse utterance by an obscure Republican congressman gets the media juices flowing, surely the possibility of this kind of negligence is worth a look. Can anyone with access to the administration ask some of these questions? Because if you take credit for “saving” a company (actually, an “industry,” as no one would ever driven again if Obama hadn’t saved the day) you also get credit for “saving” the real-life unscrupulous version of the company. “I placed my bet on American workers,” Obama told union workers in 2012. “And I’d make that same bet again any day of the week. And now, three years later that bet is paying off.” Betting $80 billion of someone else’s money to prop up sympathetic labor unions isn’t exactly fraught with political risk. Unless it turns out that your administration was less concerned about the safety defects of the company you owned than the company you disliked. That would be corruption.

March 12, 2014

The unheard-of withdrawal of a corporate welfare request

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:28

A strange thing happened in Ontario last week:

A major corporation, Chrysler, withdrew its request for federal and provincial subsidies for a multibillion-dollar revamp of its assembly plants in Windsor and Brampton. Decrying the fact that its request had become a “political football,” Chrysler said it would fund “out of its own resources whatever capital requirements the Canadian operations require.” How about that! A capitalist firm acting like a capitalist firm.

The reason this is so strange is, of course, that capitalist firms haven’t behaved this way in a long time. Instead, they impress upon governments the importance of what they’re doing in terms of jobs, innovation, economic growth, research and development and then not so subtly threaten to take their investments elsewhere if the governments don’t come across with generous financial assistance. It’s a genteel and widely accepted form of extortion, but extortion is what it is and it seems Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak’s having called it that is what Chrysler is referring to in saying the issue has now become a political football. If that’s true, then good for Hudak. He’s already saved the province a couple of hundred million dollars even before becoming premier.

Chrysler’s decision is also strange in light of the tough-guy lecture its Canadian-raised CEO, Sergio Marchionne, gave our governments just a few weeks ago at the opening of an auto show in Toronto. Canada is “like a guppy playing in shark-infested waters,” he said. The car business “is not a game for the faint-hearted. It takes resolve, and it takes cash.”

February 9, 2014

“A car is a mini network … and right now there’s no security implemented”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:48

Driving your car anywhere soon? Got anti-hacking gear installed?

Spanish hackers have been showing off their latest car-hacking creation; a circuit board using untraceable, off-the-shelf parts worth $20 that can give wireless access to the car’s controls while it’s on the road.

The device, which will be shown off at next month’s Black Hat Asia hacking conference, uses the Controller Area Network (CAN) ports car manufacturers build into their engines for computer-system checks. Once assembled, the smartphone-sized device can be plugged in under some vehicles, or inside the bonnet of other models, and give the hackers remote access to control systems.

“A car is a mini network,” security researcher Alberto Garcia Illera told Forbes. “And right now there’s no security implemented.”

Illera and fellow security researcher Javier Vazquez-Vidal said that they had tested the CAN Hacking Tool (CHT) successfully on four popular makes of cars and had been able to apply the emergency brakes while the car was in motion, affect the steering, turn off the headlights, or set off the car alarm.

The device currently only works via Bluetooth, but the team says that they will have a GSM version ready by the time the conference starts. This would allow remote control of a target car from much greater distances, and more technical details of the CHT will be given out at the conference.

January 15, 2014

Top Gear – Car hit by train – Safety Message

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

January 8, 2014

Tactical “lessons learned” from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan

Filed under: Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:04

A couple of weeks back, Strategy Page posted some of the things that US and allied troops have had to learn from their experiences in combat since deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. These tactical tips and tricks include:

The list is long and often embarrassing. For example, in peacetime troops are taught to drive carefully, in order to avoid accidents. But in combat the safest form of driving is fast and, to peacetime sensibilities, reckless. Even if commanders seek to practice “combat driving” in peacetime they do so in the knowledge that after a few bad accidents orders will come down to not drive like that because it causes bad publicity.

It’s a somewhat similar situation with battlefield first aid. It’s difficult to provide many troops with realistic training, especially since it’s harder to train on pigs or goats with the animal welfare zealots constantly trying to sue you into training methods that will get more troops killed in combat.

Another bad habit armies tend to drift into during peacetime is using weapons for training less and less. These things are, after all dangerous and with all the safety precautions and restrictions it is understandable why firing practice is cut and cut until it’s a rare event. But once war breaks out you quickly appreciate why sending troops to the weapons range several times a week is one of those lifesaving things you need to do.

[...]

Along with learning how to drive like a madman, you have to practice hard so you can change tires like one as well. In combat you will often have to do this under fire, so you must learn to do it quickly. This does two things. First, you learn how long it takes, even when you are in a hurry. This can be a useful bit of information if you are under fire while changing the flat. Second, practicing it forces you to make sure the spare tire is in good shape, and can quickly be reached (along with any tools needed.)

Then you must learn how Mister Grenade can be your friend, even on the crowded streets of a city like Baghdad or Kandahar. If your vehicle has a glove compartment, re-label it as the “grenade compartment.” Carry one smoke, one fragmentation and one tear gas grenade. If you’re stuck in traffic and the situation outside it starting to look dicey, then drop a smoke grenade out the window and try to get moving. You MUST be moving if you drop the tear gas grenade, because you cannot drive through the tears. Most other drivers will give you a wide berth when they see the smoke or tear gas grenade go off. For those who keep coming, with evil intent, the fragmentation grenade may come in handy (it is good for getting at bad people hiding behind something.) Remember, when using grenades, do not touch the pin until the grenade is outside the window. Accidents happen, and having a smoke grenade go off in your vehicle will ruin your day, at the very least.

November 29, 2013

“This bill isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a steep hill greased up with lard”

Filed under: Cancon, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:38

Brian Lilley is against a new bill that would provide the police with the power to demand that drivers submit to breath testing even when there’s no evidence that they’ve been drinking:

It’s the latest attempt to crack down hard on the ever-shrinking problem of drunk driving. The news release touting Bill C-556 states that, if passed, it would, “amend the Criminal Code to allow police officers to perform systematic random breathalyzer testing regardless of whether or not the driver shows signs of impairment.”

That means police don’t need a reason to give you a test.

They don’t need to see dilated pupils, smell booze on your breath or even have you admit you had a beer while watching the game.

The bill would give police a big increase in power and that’s not a step I want to take.

No one supports drunk driving, no one that I know anyway. And attempts to deal with the issue have largely been successful.

Statistics Canada is clear — drunk driving has been on the decrease for years now.

“The impaired driving rate generally declined from the mid-1980s to 2006, when it reached its lowest point in over 25 years, at 234 incidents per 100,000 population,” reads a report from the agency.

Back in the mid-80s there were roughly 600 incidents of impaired driving per 100,000 of population; in 2011 the Canadian average across all provinces and territories was 262 incidents per 100,000.

[...]

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all Canadians are protected from unreasonable search and seizure.

This bill would shred that protection.

This bill isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a steep hill greased up with lard and those in favour of ever expanded police powers are just waiting for Parliament to step on it.

Canadians need to say no to drunk driving and they need to say no to this bill.

November 14, 2013

If you like DRM in your computer, you’ll love it in your car

Filed under: Law, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

The Electronic Frontier Foundation thinks that extending the DRM regime to cars (as in the latest vehicle from Renault) will drive consumers crazy:

Forget extra cupholders or power windows: the new Renault Zoe comes with a “feature” that absolutely nobody wants. Instead of selling consumers a complete car that they can use, repair, and upgrade as they see fit, Renault has opted to lock purchasers into a rental contract with a battery manufacturer and enforce that contract with digital rights management (DRM) restrictions that can remotely prevent the battery from charging at all.

We’ve long joined makers and tinkerers in warning that, as software becomes a part of more and more everyday devices, DRM and the legal restrictions on circumventing it will create hurdles to standard repairs and even operation. In the U.S., a car manufacturer who had wrapped its onboard software in technical restrictions could argue that attempts to get around those are in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — specifically section 1201, the notorious “anti-circumvention” provisions. These provisions make it illegal for users to circumvent DRM or help others do so, even if the purpose is perfectly legal otherwise. Similar laws exist around the world, and are even written into some international trade agreements — including, according to a recently leaked draft, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Since the DMCA became law in 1998, Section 1201 has resulted in countless unintended consequences. It has chilled innovation, stifled the speech of legitimate security researchers, and interfered with consumer rights. Section 1201 came under particular fire this year because it may prevent consumers from unlocking their own phones to use with different carriers. After a broadly popular petition raised the issue, the White House acknowledged that the restriction is out of line with common sense.

November 7, 2013

Some guidelines on not getting arrested

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:51

In The Atlantic, Mike Riggs pulls some potentially useful advice from a book by a former FBI and police officer:

Dale Carson is a defense attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as an alumnus of the Miami-Dade Police Department and the FBI. So he knows a thing or two about how cops determine who to hassle, and what all of us can do to not be one of those people. Carson has distilled his tips into a book titled Arrest-Proof Yourself, now in its second edition. It is a legitimately scary book — 369 pages of insight on the many ways police officers profile and harass the people on their beat in an effort to rack up as many arrests as possible.

“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”

Which would make the question for you and me, how can we stay out of jail? Carson’s book does a pretty good job of explaining — in frank language — how to beat a system that’s increasingly predatory.

[...]

If police want to hassle you, they’re going to, even if you’re following the above tips as closely as possible. What then? Every interaction with a police officer entails to contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”

Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”

September 16, 2013

Speed Kills … Your Pocketbook

Filed under: Cancon, Law — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:06

Does speed really kill? Sometimes, yes, but when the speed limits are set artificially low, and enforcement is targeted to those areas where the limit is far below traffic speed, then all the speed kills campaign does is keep drivers complacent about paying fines that don’t improve safety.

In this video, I investigate the culture and science surrounding speed enforcement in BC, coupled with my trademark Simpsons, Supertroopers, and Family Guy references.

September 3, 2013

The market for civilian armoured vehicles

Filed under: Americas — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:33

Strategy Page on the growing demand in some areas of the world for protected civilian vehicles:

Since September 11, 2001 there has been a sharp increase in the use of such bullet proof automobiles. The wealthy are buying most of them, but government has become a major customer as well, accounting for about a third of sales. The biggest markets are those suffering from lots of kidnapping and seemingly random violence. Mexico, Colombia and many Middle Eastern countries are the main markets for these expensive vehicles.

[...]

Because of the cartel wars in Mexico, over 2,500 armored sedans, SUVs and light trucks are now produced each year in Mexico alone. The violence down there has been horrendous. The government believes about a thousand people a month are dying from drug cartel related violence. This puts Mexico ahead of the recently increased terrorist violence in Iraq and where Syria was earlier this year. Some 70,000 have died in the Mexican cartel war since 2007, compared to over 100,000 in two years of Syrian violence and 120,000 Iraqi dead in a decade of religious violence. Since the 1970s there have been similar internal conflicts in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. Mexico is a bit of Middle East style civil violence in North America. This is not the first time the Americas have suffered this. Leftist and drug gang violence in Colombia have left over 220,000 dead in the last 60 years. That’s for a country with only about 40 percent as many people as Mexico. This war in Colombia in finally winding down, but is shows you how long and bloody such conflicts can be. Some 20,800 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006, including 1,200 children under the age of 11. Another estimate holds that that 24,000 people were missing since 2000, and that around 16,000 bodies have been discovered but not identified.

The armored vehicles must, at a minimum, be protected against pistol bullets. But most now are resistant to sniper and assault rifles. Some manufacturers will also build vehicles that provide some protection from roadside bombs. Turning a civilian sedan or SUV into an armored vehicle is a labor-intensive job. First, you have to strip the vehicle down to the bare frame. Then you install Kevlar and steel plate armor and bullet-proof glass. The standard tires are replaced with run-flat models. The additional weight (up to a ton or more) requires the installation of enhanced shocks and a more powerful engine. It takes a few hundred pounds of armor to provide protection from pistol bullets. Protection from rifle bullets requires half a ton. For protection against heavy machine-gun (12.7mm) and bombs, you need a ton or more. The first armor kits for military vehicles, like the hummer, weighed a ton. Soon that was up to two tons. The additional load on high-end vehicles 1.5 tons, which is enough armor to stop heavy machine-gun bullets.

August 7, 2013

Infrastructure does not lead development – it lags

Filed under: Economics, Government, History, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:28

In the Wall Street Journal, Larry Schweikart and Burton Folsom correct the misunderstanding that development and growth will follow infrastructure:

History says it doesn’t work like that. Henry Ford and dozens of other auto makers put a car in almost every garage decades before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956. The success of the car created a demand for roads. The government didn’t build highways, and then Ford decided to create the Model T. Instead, the highways came as a byproduct of the entrepreneurial genius of Ford and others.

Moreover, the makers of autos, tires and headlights began building roads privately long before any state or the federal government got involved. The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway for cars, pieced together from new and existing roads in 1913, was conceived and partly built by entrepreneurs — Henry Joy of Packard Motor Car Co., Frank Seiberling of Goodyear and Carl Fisher, a maker of headlights and founder of the Indy 500.

Railroads are another example of the infrastructure-follows-entrepreneurship rule. Before the 1860s, almost all railroads were privately financed and built. One exception was in Michigan, where the state tried to build two railroads but lost money doing so, and thus happily sold both to private owners in 1846. When the federal government decided to do infrastructure in the 1860s, and build the transcontinental railroads (or “intercontinental railroad,” as Mr. Obama called it in 2011), the laying of track followed the huge and successful private investments in railroads.

In fact, when the government built the transcontinentals, they were politically corrupt and often — especially in the case of the Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific — went broke. One cause of the failure: Track was laid ahead of settlements. Mr. Obama wants to do something similar with high-speed rail. The Great Northern Railroad, privately built by Canadian immigrant James J. Hill, was the only transcontinental to be consistently profitable. It was also the only transcontinental to receive no federal aid. In railroads, then, infrastructure not only followed the major capital investment, it was done better privately than by government.

August 2, 2013

The self-inflicted wounds of Britain’s post-war auto industry

Filed under: Britain, Business, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:09

Dominic Sandbrook contrasts the rise of the German auto industry from the literal rubble of the post-war world with the slow decline of Britain’s once-mighty car makers:

If you want to know why Angela Merkel calls the shots in Europe, Germany’s car factories are a pretty good place to start.

By contrast, Britain’s car industry is a shadow of its former self. We do still make almost one and a half million cars a year, which is good news for thousands of British engineers. But these days, we make them for other people.

The iconic Mini plant at Cowley, for example, is celebrating its centenary this year. It was founded in 1913 by the entrepreneur William Morris as the home for his legendary Morris Oxford.

Today it still makes thousands of cars — but it makes them for BMW.

It’s a similar story at Crewe, the home of another great British icon, Bentley – which actually belongs to Volkswagen.

Half a century ago, let alone when Morris was at his peak, this would have seemed unimaginable. But the sad truth is that Britain’s car firms only have themselves to blame.

Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, Germany was on its knees. After the fall of Hitler’s empire, its car industry lay in ruins.

In August 1945 the British Army sent a major called Ivan Hirst to take control of the giant Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, which had been built under the Nazis to produce ‘people’s cars’ for the German masses.

Ignoring his sceptical superiors, Hirst could see the potential amid the shattered debris of the Wolfsburg factory.

Rebuilding Volkswagen, he thought, would be a step towards rehabilitating Germany as a prosperous, peaceful European ally. And of course he was right.

In the next few years, Hirst restarted production of a car we know today as the Beetle. And from then on, VW was flying.

July 8, 2013

New diesel engine technology to erase the memory of Oldsmobile diesels

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:30

The Economist has a glowing overview of new diesel engines for cars:

NOT to belittle the success Tesla Motors has had with its Model S luxury electric car — outselling its petrol-powered equivalents since being launched last year — the prospects for battery-powered vehicles generally may never shine quite as bright again. Babbage believes their day in the sun is about to be eclipsed by, wait for it, the diesel engine.

Surely not that dirty, noisy, smelly, lumbering lump of a motor that was difficult to start in the winter? Certainly not. A whole new generation of sprightly diesels — developed over the past few years — bear no resemblance to your father’s clattering, oil-burner of an Oldsmobile. It is no exaggeration to say that, with its reputation for unreliability and anaemic performance, the Olds 4.3-litre diesel from the late 1970s single-handedly destroyed the reputation of diesel engines in America for decades to come. Quite possibly, it also contributed to Oldsmobile’s own demise.

Later this year, Americans will get their first chance to experience what a really advanced diesel is like — and why Europeans opt for diesels over hybrids, plug-in electrics and even petrol-powered cars. The leader of the new pack is the Mazda 6, completely redesigned for 2014, with the choice of either a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine or a 2.2-litre turbo-charged diesel. The diesel has 30% better fuel economy and provides oodles more pulling power. Good as the petrol version is, motorists who choose it over the diesel will miss out on a lot.

[. . .]

With its old 1.4-litre diesel engine, the Volkswagen Polo still holds the record for being the most frugal non-electric car in Britain and the rest of Europe — with a fuel economy on the combined cycle of just 3.8 litres/100km (equivalent to 61.9 miles per US gallon). The Toyota Prius hybrid? A lowly twentieth on the league table of the most economical fuel-sippers, with 4.2 litres/100km, along with higher emissions of carbon dioxide. The 19 cars having better fuel economy than the Prius hybrid are all clean diesels.

Babbage fully expects the new generation of clean, low-compression diesels to raise the fuel-economy bar by a further 20% or more. That will put diesels on much the same footing — on an equivalent miles-per-gallon basis — as many of the electric vehicles available today. Their big advantage will be that they will come with none of the range anxiety and recharging difficulties to worry about. Roll on the day.

March 27, 2013

The Beeching Report, 50 years on

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:36

In 1963, the British government published The Reshaping of British Railways, which became more commonly known as the Beeching Report. It was the trigger for the most substantive cuts in rail service and the focal point for a huge public outcry (and probably tipped the following national election to the Labour Party, too). The British railway system (which had been “rationalized” in 1923 and then fully nationalized in 1948) was bleeding money with little or no chance to pay back the debts it was running up. The operating deficit for British Railways ratcheted up from £16.5 million in 1956 to £104 million in 1962, with no likely end in sight. The Beeching Report was the government’s attempt to address the issue once and for all. History Today linked to this summary of the report and the public’s reaction by Charles Loft from 2003:

The lasting popular view of Beeching is of a cold-blooded accountant, concerned only with finance, whose report examined the railways in a vacuum when what was needed was a study of transport as a whole. One historian has called Beeching’s appointment ‘a tragedy for the nation’ and accuses him of ‘callously’ ignoring the social consequences of closures. Another, in a work entitled The Great Railway Conspiracy, suggests that the closure programme was at least partly motivated by a deliberate anti-rail bias on the part of the Conservative government of the day.

Such suspicions have been fuelled by a number of factors. Prior to 1962 closure proposals had (in effect, although not in law) to be approved by the relevant local Transport Users’ Consultative Committee. These committees rarely exercised a veto, but their hearings provided such an effective forum for critics of railway management, and took up so much time and effort, that they deterred railway managers from a vigorous pruning of the system. In 1956 the Ministry suggested that it might be better to publish a closure programme as part of a plan à la Beeching and have ‘one big row’ about it, than to fight a series of individual battles, but the British Transport Commission decided to experiment with diesel railbuses and other economies instead. Yet by 1959 it was clear that such measures were insufficient and therefore attempts were made to accelerate the rate of closures. [. . .]

Beeching’s apparent disregard for the social consequences of closure was merely a reflection of the fact that his report was a statement of what the railways should do as a business. What they should do as a social service was for ministers to decide, as only they could weigh the resulting costs against competing demands on the Exchequer. Because Beeching had little to say about social need and there was no legislative provision for subsidising loss-making services, the idea took root that the issue had simply been ignored. However, it was always accepted that many loss-making lines would have to be retained, particularly in urban areas where it was recognised that rail performed a vital role in reducing road congestion. Of course, the point at which hardship justified a loss was bound to be open to dispute; and in cases where losses were high and hardship affected relatively few, those few were unlikely to be consoled by the logic behind the process.

The Treasury’s concern over public spending levels also led it to initiate a series of studies of long-term demand in various sectors, in order to prioritise public investment. No such study of transport had been undertaken in Whitehall since the war and an initial attempt in 1957 revealed little more than officials’ lack of information or expertise on the subject. This problem proved difficult to solve. Such expertise could not be acquired overnight, and Whitehall was unable to establish a common measure for judging investment in road and rail. Instead, transport planning quickly crystallised around a choice between investing in rail and restricting road transport, or investing in roads and leaving the railways to perform only those tasks which they could accomplish profitably. As one Treasury under-secretary put it, the growth of road traffic in the 1950s meant that ‘Whitehall is … collectively fumbling after a new policy to meet new conditions which threaten to overwhelm us – indeed they may already have done so’.

[. . .]

In comparison to the lack of transport planning that typified the mid-1950s, the Beeching era represented a high point in transport policy-making. This is not to say that the resulting policy was unequivocally correct. Better roads were needed, but motorway-building did not offer a straightforward solution to congestion, and it is easy to point to regrettable rail closures. Some lines, such as Nottingham-Mansfield, have reopened, others, such as Oxford-Cambridge, may do so in the future; and the isolation of towns such as Hawick and Louth from the rail network was an act of dubious wisdom.

If these were errors, they were not Beeching’s, but politicians’. However, ministers of transport can never hope to satisfy our demand for unlimited road space and excellent public transport, as the availability of the former increases the latter’s cost. The lasting opprobrium heaped upon the memory of Dr Beeching is testimony to this fact — and to the gulf between the images conjured up by politicians’ talk of modernisation and the pains which, in reality, it all too often involves.

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