Quotulatiousness

October 9, 2014

“Japan’s high-speed rail system may end up being the victim of its own success”

Filed under: Economics, Japan, Railways, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

An interesting look at how the Japanese Shinkansen system has literally shaped Japan’s urban development pattern:

Photo by Wikipedia contributor Swollib (Source: Wikipedia)

Photo by Wikipedia contributor Swollib (Source: Wikipedia)

At 10am on 1 October 1964, with less than a week and a half to go before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the two inaugural Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or “bullet trains,” arrived at their destinations, Tokyo and Osaka. They were precisely on time. Hundreds of people had waited overnight in each terminal to witness this historic event, which, like the Olympics, heralded not just Japan’s recovery from the destruction of the second world war, but the beginning of what would be Japan’s stratospheric rise as an economic superpower. The journey between Japan’s two biggest cities by train had previously taken close to seven hours. The Shinkansen had made the trip in four.

The world’s first high-speed commercial train line, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, was built along the Tokaido, one of the five routes that connected the Japanese hinterland to Edo, the city that in the mid-1800s became Tokyo. Though train lines crisscrossed the country, they were inadequate to postwar Japan’s newborn ambitions. The term “shinkansen” literally means “new trunk line”: symbolically, it lay at the very centre of the huge reconstruction effort. All previous railways were designed to serve regions. The purpose of the Tokaido Shinkansen, true to its name, was to bring people to the capital.

[...]

In an interview in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, Takashi Hara, a political scholar and expert on Japanese railroads, said the policy of extending the Shinkansen was promulgated by Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s prime minister from 1972 to 1974. “The purpose was to connect regional areas to Tokyo,” Hara said. “And that led to the current situation of a national Shinkansen network, which completely changed the face of Japan. Travel times were shortened and vibration was alleviated, making it possible for more convenient business and pleasure trips, but I have to say that the project just made all the [connecting] cities part of Tokyo.”

And where the Shinkansen’s long tentacles go, other services shrivel. Local governments in Japan rely heavily on the central government for funds and public works — it’s how the central government keeps them in line. Politicians actively court high-speed railways since they believe they attract money, jobs and tourists. In the early 1990s, a new Shinkansen was built to connect Tokyo to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The train ran along a similar route as the Shinetsu Honsen, one of the most romanticised railroads in Japan, beloved of train buffs the world over for its amazing scenery – but also considered redundant by operators JR East because, as with almost all rural train lines in Japan, it lost money. There were only two profitable stations on the line — Nagano and the resort community of Karuizawa — and both would be served by the new Shinkansen. A large portion of the Shinetsu Honsen closed down; local residents who relied on it had to use cars or buses.

Shinkansen series 0 and series N700 (via Wikipedia)

Shinkansen series 0 and series N700 (via Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month — so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical — not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

July 22, 2014

The Erie Canal and the canal boom it created

Filed under: Economics, History, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:13

Last week, Chris Edwards posted a short article at the Cato@Liberty blog, discussing the long history of government malinvestment in infrastructure projects:

Most politicians are optimistic about the government’s ability to intervene and solve problems. That’s one reason why they run for office. Neocons, for example, have excessive faith that foreign intervention can fix the world, while liberals embrace the misguided idea that subsidies and regulations can boost the economy.

The Erie Canal was a misleading outlier: it was a major infrastructure project that actually succeeded in turning a profit, and it set off a string of copycat government initiatives … most of which quickly turned into expensive mistakes for state governments:

Chapter 3 of the book [Uncle Sam Can’t Count by Burton and Anita Folsom]looks at the orgy of state government canal building from the 1820s to the 1840s. Here is the basic story:

  • New York State funds construction of the Erie Canal, which opens in 1825.
  • The Erie Canal is a big success, which spurs canal fever across the nation and encourages other state governments to hand out subsidies. Government canal schemes are launched in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois. There is particular excitement about subsidized “internal improvements” among Whig politicians, including Abraham Lincoln.
  • However, politicians overestimate the demand for canals in their states and underestimate the costs and difficulty of construction. They do not recognize that the Erie Canal is uniquely practical and economic as it traverses relatively flat land and connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic.
  • Some of the state-sponsored canals are huge boondoggles and are abandoned. And other than the Erie Canal, all of the state canals sustain heavy losses, including other subsidized canals in New York.
  • After the failures, numerous states privatize their infrastructure and change their constitutions to prevent politicians from wasting further money on such schemes.

May 18, 2014

The Past at Work Railway Mania (1980)

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:33

Uploaded on 25 Oct 2011

Part 8 of the 8-part series “The Past at Work”
Written & Presented by Anthony Burton
First broadcast 13th May 1980 (BBC 2)
See also: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/steamtrains/7309.shtml and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1718607/episodes

H/T to Eric Kirkland for the link.

March 21, 2014

The Dambusters Raid – Full Documentary

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Published on 20 Apr 2013

On May 17th, 1943 the Royal Air Force carried out one of the most remarkable raids ever undertaken by any aircrew. On that night a squadron of Lancaster heavy bombers flew at low level across a blacked out Europe, towards the four great dams that delivered water and power to the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr. The aircrews had been trained for months to carry out this most daring and courageous of raids. Against a storm of anti-aircraft fire, they calmly flew their bombers in across the reservoirs, holding a specific height and speed, to deliver their strange cylindrical bouncing bombs, to explode against the face of the dams, and blow great holes in them. The factories of the Ruhr were crippled. 1300 German civilians died, and 53 aircrew were lost. For the very first time this programme explores both sides of a raid that has become an epic in the history of World War 2.

H/T to Think Defence for the link.

March 13, 2014

It’s not just your imagination – this is a truly terrible winter

Filed under: Cancon, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:46

In Maclean’s, Michael Friscolanti and Kate Lunau round-up the tales of cold weather misery from across the country:

From coast to coast, Canadians have done everything they can to survive this winter of discontent. The Old Man arrived early and never let go, unleashing a harsh brew of bone-chilling mornings, wicked gusts of wind and collective pleas for mercy. We learned a new scientific term — “polar vortex” — and felt it, firsthand, on our fingertips. It’s been so bleak that, as of early March, 92.2 per cent of the Great Lakes were covered in ice, the most since 1979. On March 1, Regina broke a 130-year-old record for that day’s temperature: -36° C, with a wind chill of -53° C. In Kenora, Ont., where all-time winter lows have wreaked havoc on its maze of underground pipes, the city is in the midst of a two-week boil-water advisory.

In Toronto, where the mercury also nosedived to the lowest point in two decades, the city surpassed its record for consecutive days with at least one centimetre of snow on the ground: 89, as of March 7, and counting. No town, though, amassed more white stuff than Stephenville, N.L. (population 7,800). The winter isn’t even over, and the seaside community has already been hammered with more than two metres (the same height, for the record, as Michael Jordan.) “In December, it snowed 26 days,” says Mayor Tom O’Brien. “The snow kept coming and coming. It wasn’t one big wallop.”

[...]

GDP fell by 0.5 per cent in December, a dip triggered almost entirely by the pre-Christmas ice storms that rocked Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Canadian retail stores reported their biggest one-month drop in a year. And in a spat that garnered significant headlines, the country’s two main railways — CP and CN — blamed “the harshest winter in 60 years” for their inability to ship millions of tonnes of grain sitting in bins across the Prairies.

Economists are fairly confident the gloomy numbers will eventually pass, like winter itself. By the second quarter, they say, the season’s losses will be almost entirely recouped, with the North American economy picking up significant steam on its road to recovery. But that rosy economic outlook glosses over a much frostier reality: This winter for the ages will cost Canadian cities untold millions in extra snow-clearing, pothole maintenance and other infrastructure repair bills that have yet to arrive. In this era of climate change — when scientists expect severe bouts of weather to become the rule rather than the exception — the past few months have provided a disturbing glimpse of the overwhelming costs to come.

[...]

In Toronto alone, the ice storm cost the public purse more than $100 million; throw in Hamilton and the rest of the GTA, and the liability climbs to $275 million. Point to any Canadian city these days, and it’s hard to find one that won’t be digging deeper into its pockets to pay for this brutal winter.

In Edmonton, potholes are already such an epidemic that the city is teaming up with the University of Alberta engineering department to figure out ways to make roads more robust in chilly conditions. (Last year, the City of Champions paid out a record $464,000 to motorists whose cars were damaged by craters.) In Chatham, Ont., one winter pothole went so deep, it revealed the city’s original yellow brick road. Down the highway in Windsor, councillors were forced to commit an extra $1 million to their snow-removal budget — by early January. And in Niagara Falls, the unbearable cold triggered 42 water-main breaks by the end of February, more than half the total of the entire year before.

January 24, 2014

Government subsidies that make flooding worse

Filed under: Britain, Environment — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:51

Chris Edwards on the oddity of an EU subsidy that inadvertently makes it more likely that floods will be worse:

… Britain has been suffering from river flooding, and a Daily Mail article explains how subsidies are a key culprit: “Thought ‘extreme weather’ was to blame for the floods? Wrong. The real culprit is the European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm.”

The author is a liberal environmentalist, but his piece illustrates how liberals and libertarians can share common ground on the issue of government subsidies.

The article describes how forests in the upstream areas of watersheds can mitigate floods. However, there “is an unbreakable rule laid down by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment … that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation.’ Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”

In the United States, we’ve got our own environment-damaging farm subsidies. We’ve also got the Army Corps of Engineers, which the Daily Mail could be describing when it refers to British policy: “Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour.

Another foolhardy thing, in the long term, is government subsidizing people to rebuild after devastating floods … in the same location that is just as likely to be damaged in the next flood. If you can’t get property insurance without getting the government to force insurers to offer it, you’ve probably built in an area that you shouldn’t have. A lot of the perception that major storms are more dangerous now than fifty years ago is that a lot of buildings are being erected in areas where storm damage is more likely to occur.

October 28, 2013

Nothing fails as big as Big Government

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:05

In USA Today, Glenn Reynolds points out that even Obama detractors can’t say he didn’t do a good job in his last election campaign, but that the size and structure of government prevent him from being as successful with Obamacare:

Unlike Norris Dam, [opened within three years of the TVA Act passing congress] the Olmsted Dam and Locks on the Ohio River were authorized by Congress in 1988, but a quarter-century later the project is only half-done. It has also overrun its budget by a factor of four.

Meanwhile, most of the interesting stuff being done in outer space are being done by private companies. (In fact, President Obama’s space policy approach, which emphasizes private enterprise, is one of his greatest policy successes.)

As it’s gotten bigger the federal government appears to have gotten less competent. Apollo was a success on its own terms, but the big government policies that followed — the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Cancer — have all been pretty much failures, sometimes disastrous ones.

Even Obama himself is evidence of this problem. His 2012 presidential campaign was famous for its mastery of technology, building up an electronic campaign infrastructure in just a few months that helped him win the election. But, of course, it wasn’t a government operation. Obama without the government — a technological success. Obama within the government — a technological embarrassment. The difference between success and failure here, as even Obama-haters will have to admit, wasn’t Obama. It’s more likely that a political campaign has clear goals, and lots of freedom to improvise, while a federal program is much more encumbered by law and bureaucracy.

Whatever the cause, it remains indisputable that the federal government isn’t very good at delivering on big projects. The obvious response is to not entrust the federal government with big projects on which it can’t deliver. Instead, they should be left to those who can.

October 9, 2013

Reasons not to be fearful of “China’s economic threat”

Filed under: China, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:50

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll probably have picked up some of my disdain for the “OMG! China’s going to eat our (economic) lunch!” meme that is pretty much a copy-paste of the same worry over Japan in the 1980s. In Maclean’s, Colby Cosh explains why you shouldn’t put too much effort into worrying about the Chinese economic Colossus crushing us any time real soon:

What I always wonder when I encounter a China bull or a Chinaphobe — for they are two sides of the same coin — is this: Even if they think “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is economically superior to ordinary capitalism, where in China are the parallel cultural institutions to support prolonged capitalist-style growth? Maybe China doesn’t need reciprocal free trade to blow our doors off in the race to utopia. Maybe it doesn’t need untidy democratic quarrelling. One presumes it won’t need a high level of achievement in basic science, either, judging by the Nobels: It is well-documented that the Chinese civilian research establishment is awash in fraud and plagiarism, to say nothing of the destructive favouritism inherent to a one-party state.

Rowan Callick’s new book The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Party makes a simple, compact judgment on the general state of Chinese higher education: Just look where the Party leadership sends its own children to university: the U.S. Another important leading indicator of cultural progress is press freedom, which, if history has anything to say on the matter at all, appears to be utterly integral to sustained prosperity. But Mainland China has no newspapers as we understand them; it is not even clear that the regimented, spoon-fed “reporters” there could assemble one, even if the Party would allow it.

The Diane Francises of the world would have us reject the relevance of the Soviet experience to China’s future, to the point of ignoring familiar Soviet themes that are increasingly apparent in China: the vast infrastructure projects standing unused in the middle of nowhere, the blind environmental despoliation, the dodgy economic statistics. Beyond mastery of trading, interior China has simply never possessed much of the cultural technique upon which the advanced stages of economic development would seem to depend. Hong Kong is the exception, but having taken it over, China shows little appetite so far for imitating its social openness and individuality — or for those of Taiwan or Japan or South Korea. It still requires a strange leap of faith to believe it possible for China to economically surpass these neighbours, and ourselves, without becoming a great deal more like us.

Regular visitors to the blog know that I’ve been rather skeptical about the official statistics reported by Chinese government and media sources.

September 4, 2013

“Despite a rash of deadly train crashes…”

Filed under: Media, Railways — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:15

Coyote Blog indulges in a good old-time fisking of an article built on the claim that there has been a “trend” of increasingly deadly railway accidents:

The best way to explain the phenomenon is with an example, and the Arizona Republic presented me with a great one today, in the form of an article by Joan Lowy of the Associated Press. This in an article that reads more like an editorial than a news story. It is about the Federal requirement for railroads to put safety electronics called Positive Train Control (PTC) on trains by a certain date. The author has a pretty clear narrative that this is an absolutely critical piece of equipment for the public good, and that railroads are using scheming and lobbying to unfairly delay and dilute this critical mandate (seriously, I am not exaggerating the tone, you can read it for yourself.)

My point, however, is not to challenge the basic premise of the article, but to address this statement in her opening paragraph (emphasis added).

    Despite a rash of deadly train crashes, the railroad industry’s allies in Congress are trying to push back the deadline for installing technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions until at least 2020, half a century after accident investigators first called for such safety measures.

The reporter is claiming a “rash of deadly train crashes” — in other words, she is saying, or at least implying, that there is an upward trend in deadly train crashes. So let’s ask ourselves if this claimed trend actually exists. She says it so baldly, right there in the first seven words, that surely it must be true, right?

[...]

So let’s go to the data. It is actually very easy to find, and I would be surprised if Ms. Lowy did not actually have this data in her hands. It is at the Federal Railway Administration Office of Safety Analysis. 2013 data is only current through June and seems to be set up on an October -September fiscal year. So I ran the data only for October-June of every year to make sure the results were comparable to 2013. Each year in the data below is actually 9 months of data.

By the way, when one is looking at railroad fatalities, one needs to understand that railroads do kill a lot of people every year, but the vast, vast majority of these — 99% or more — are killed at grade crossings. People still do not understand that a freight train takes miles to stop. (see postscript below, but as an aside, I would be willing to make a bet: Since deaths at grade crossings outnumber deaths from collisions by about 100:1, I would be willing to bet any amount of money that I could take the capital the author wants railroads to invest in PTC and save far more lives by investing it in grade crossing protection. People like Ms. Lowy who advocate for these regulations never, ever seem to consider prioritization and tradeoffs.)

Anyway, looking at the data, here is the data for people killed each year in US railroad accidents (as usual click to enlarge any of the charts):

Train accident deaths Oct-Jun

So, rather than a “rash”, we have just the opposite — the lowest number of deaths in a decade. One. I will admit that technically she said rash of “fatal accidents” and this is data on fatalities, but I’m going to make a reasonable assumption that one death means one fatal accident — which certainly cannot be higher than the number of fatal accidents in previous years and is likely lower.

Most of you will agree that this makes the author’s opening statement a joke. Believe it or not — and this happens a surprising number of times — this journalist is claiming a trend that not only does not exist, but is of the opposite sign.

August 7, 2013

Infrastructure does not lead development – it lags

Filed under: Economics, Government, History, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 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.

June 12, 2013

Federal government to go ahead with Pickering airport

Filed under: Cancon, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:05

As my house is directly under the most likely approach to the new airport, I suspect my property value is about to take a big dive:

After four decades, the long-standing controversial plan to build an airport on the Pickering Lands is scheduled for takeoff.

But that doesn’t mean residents are on board.

At a press conference held on the lands Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the 7,500 hectares of land in Pickering, Markham and Uxbridge will be transformed into a new airport and a 2,000-hectare Rouge National Urban Park.

“These lands were acquired by the government more than 40 years ago with the intention of developing an airport, but it never got off the ground,” Flaherty said. “The uncertainty ends today.”

The plan is to begin work immediately, he said. It will take at least 10 years to build the airport in the lower quadrant of the lands with Hwy. 7 and Brock Rd. as a southeastern boundary. No cost has yet been assigned to the construction of the airport.

Of course, our local politicians love it:

Durham Council chairman Roger Anderson said the airport will reduce congestion on Hwy. 401.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to drive to Mississauga to go to Ottawa?” Anderson said. “For us, it’s a big win. It will show the province Durham should get one job for every three, which we fought about for years and the other thing — It’s not only good for Durham, but for Scarborough and York and Markham.”

The Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade is also backing the airport proposal, but said it wants to study it in more detail and consult with members. The board has been advocating for congestion relief in Durham Region and said the airport would be “a game changer.”

I wonder how long it’ll take after it opens to become the new Mirabel?

It was intended to replace the existing Dorval Airport as the eastern air gateway to Canada; from 1975 to 1997, all international flights to/from Montreal were required to use Mirabel. However, Mirabel’s distant location and lack of transport links made it unpopular with airlines and travellers. Moreover, Montréal’s economic decline relative to Toronto kept passenger volumes from rising to the levels originally anticipated. And so Dorval Airport not only remained viable but resumed handling overseas flights. Eventually, Mirabel was relegated to the role of a cargo airport. Initially a source of pride, the airport became an embarrassment, widely regarded in Canada as being a boondoggle and a white elephant. Ironically, the Dorval Airport was renamed Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport after the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, whose government spearheaded the Mirabel project to replace Dorval.

For “ironically” in the Wikipedia description, read “deservedly”.

June 6, 2013

Rail technology changes on a slower timescale than other transportation systems

Filed under: Business, Railways, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:50

The Economist looks at innovation in the railway business:

Compared with other modes of transport, train technology might seem to be progressing as slowly as a suburban commuter service rattling its way from one station to another. Automotive technology, by contrast, changes constantly: in the past decade satellite-navigation systems, hybrid power trains, proximity sensors and other innovations have proliferated. Each time you buy a new car, you will notice a host of new features. Progress is apparent in aircraft, too, with advances in in-flight entertainment and communication, fancy seats that turn into beds, and quieter and more efficient engines. Trains, meanwhile, appear to have changed a lot less.

Actually, the perception of change is much greater for cars and airplanes, but there are few changes in those areas that are not merely evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Incremental changes are the rule of the day, as neither cars nor planes travel significantly faster than they did thirty years ago … but they do it safer and more comfortably now.

This comparison is not entirely fair. For one thing, people buy their own cars, so they pay more attention to automotive innovation. Carmakers are engaged in a constant arms race, trumpeting new features as a way to differentiate their products. Nobody buys their own trains. Similarly, air passengers have a choice of competing airlines and are far more likely to be aware of the merits of rival fleets than they are of different types of train. In addition, notes Paul Priestman of Priestmangoode, a design consultancy that specialises in transport, trains have longer lives, so technology takes longer to become widespread. The planning horizon for one rail project he is working on extends to 2050. “You have to think about longevity, whereas the car industry wants you to buy a new car in two years,” he says.

Another big difference is that the way railways operate — with a small number of powered units (locomotives) and a very large number of unpowered units (freight cars and passenger cars) that have to be reliably connected to one another and operate successfully. A car can go on any kind of road (or even none, in many places) and a plane can fly in any part of the sky, but a train needs an engineered right-of-way that falls within established standards of curvature, elevation change, and overhead and side clearance. Because of this, any piece of railway equipment that does not run on its own isolated track (like monorails or the various flavours of high speed railways) must always meet the existing standards … which have been slowly evolving since the mid-nineteenth century. With so much capital invested in existing right-of-way and rolling stock, the costs for introducing significant changes can be astronomical.

There’s also the fact that unlike other forms of transportation, passenger and freight trains operate in different and sometimes conflicting ways. Passenger trains need to operate on a known schedule between high population centres at relatively high speed. With higher speed goes a need for better braking systems and more capable signalling methods. Unlike a train full of new cars or iron ore, you can’t just park a train full of living human beings on a siding for a few hours to allow slower trains to clear the way (unless you’re Amtrak or VIA). Passenger trains have to have top priority, which often means the railways have to delay freight traffic to ensure that the passengers are not unduly delayed.

One solution to the problem is to provide separate tracks for the passenger trains, but this can be very expensive, as the places where the extra tracks would be most effective is also where the land is at peak cost: in and around major cities. Most passenger trains are now run by government agencies or corporations acting as agents for local, regional, or state governments, so they sometimes use the power of eminent domain to gain access to the land. This is a politically fraught area, as the more land they need to take, the tougher the process will get.

Brakes are also getting an upgrade. Stopping a train can take so long that locomotive-operators, also known as engineers, often have time to contemplate their fate before an impact. “Your life races before you,” says a former operator who, years ago in Alabama, helplessly watched as his freight train, its emergency brakes screeching, headed towards a stalled truck that ultimately managed to pull off the tracks in time. Stopping a train pulling a hundred cars at 80kph can require 2km of track. Road accidents take far more lives, but 1,239 people were killed in more than 2,300 railway accidents in 2011 in the European Union alone.

Much of the problem is that the faster a train’s wheels are spinning, the hotter its brake shoes get when engaged. This reduces friction and hence braking power, a predicament known as “heat fade”. Moreover, nearly all trains power their brakes with compressed air. When switched on, air brakes activate car by car, from the locomotive to the back of the train. It can take more than two minutes for the signal to travel via air tubes to the last car.

Again, it’s not physically or financially possible to switch over all existing cars to newer technology in one fell swoop, so any updated brake technology must be 100% compatible with what is already in use, or you risk creating more dangerous situations because some brakes may operate out of sequence which will increase the chances of accidents.

Norfolk Southern, an American rail operator, now pulls roughly one-sixth of its freight using locomotives equipped with “route optimisation” software. By crunching numbers on a train’s weight distribution and a route’s curves, grades and speed limits, the software, called Leader, can instruct operators on optimum accelerating and braking to minimise fuel costs. Installing the software and linking it wirelessly to back-office computers is expensive, says Coleman Lawrence, head of the company’s 4,000-strong locomotive fleet. But the software cuts costs dramatically, reducing fuel consumption by about 5%. That is a big deal for a firm that spent $1.6 billion on diesel in 2012. Mr Lawrence reckons that by 2016 Norfolk Southern may be pulling half its freight with Leader-upgraded locomotives. A competing system sold by GE, Trip Optimizer, goes further and operates the throttle and brakes automatically.

This is a good use of computer technology: you add the software on top of the existing infrastructure and use it to detect operational gains without needing to make system-wide changes to all freight cars.

March 31, 2013

Ralph Klein, RIP

Filed under: Cancon, History, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:47

In Maclean’s, Colby Cosh talks about the late former premier of Alberta:

Ralph Klein, the former premier of Alberta, has died at 70. He shall not now ever be able to collect on the vast debt of apologies he is owed by calumniators, false chroniclers, lazy pundits, and political enemies. The misunderstandings of Ralph have been copious and mostly deliberate. He is still routinely characterized as an anti-gay social conservative in league with sinister theocratic forces, even though he was personally about as churchy as an alley cat. More importantly, he took a diamond-hard line against the use of the “notwithstanding” clause after the Supreme Court wrote sexual orientation into Alberta’s discrimination law in the Vriend decision; and he insisted the public accept the court’s verdict.

He is accused of failing to maximize the public benefits of Alberta’s resource wealth and “save” oil and gas funds for the future, although government resource revenues grew more than fourfold in his 14 years as premier and the net financial position of the province improved by $43 billion. Both promptly collapsed under his bamboozled successor Ed Stelmach, and have not yet recovered to Ralphian levels. Klein is also charged with failing to pay enough conscious attention to economic diversification, a concept that served as the pretext for a hundred costly boondoggles under earlier Conservative regimes; yet somehow he succeeded in presiding over an Alberta economy whose GDP moved sharply away from energy-dependence, and which saw the emergence of previously unimaginable non-energy businesses like software maker Matrikon and game manufacturer BioWare. Whether or not you care to give an iota of credit to Klein, his rule coincided with Alberta becoming a place young technicians and entrepreneurs don’t have to be stupid not to leave.

[. . .]

There is a basic failure among diehard enemies of the Klein government to accept the evidence that his energy, privatization, and flat-tax policies increased the Alberta government’s capacity to spend and provide services — that the more we got of Klein, the safer and more lavish their cherished government entitlements appeared to be. They are not at all safe now; the profoundest irony of Klein’s demise is that it has arrived at a moment in which present premier Alison Redford faces choices like those Klein confronted when he captured the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1992.

Indeed, when Redford’s heavily obfuscated budget plans are translated into English, one sees that the next few years in Alberta must inevitably resemble the early days of Kleinism. Premier Redford is trying to protect spending on infrastructure to prevent a “deficit” in upkeep on buildings and transport, of the sort that materialized after Klein’s initial austerities. But operational spending, particularly on personnel expenses, is bound to be slashed, Klein-fashion. And the slashes will have to be all the deeper if the bridges are going to get painted. A fierce fight with the public sector (whose unfunded pension liabilities grew 80% between Klein’s last budget and Stelmach’s second) is already taking shape, with teachers, doctors, and pharmacists on the verge of all-out war over their pay envelopes. Haven’t the Klein-haters who fell over themselves to vote for internationalist, socially concerned Alison seen this movie before?

March 27, 2013

The Beeching Report, 50 years on

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 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.

February 6, 2013

Why does every infrastructure project cost more?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In his nominally NFL-related column, Gregg Easterbrook usually manages to insert interesting topics that are not in the least related to football:

Where Is the Bridge to Nowhere When You Really Need It? Another reason unprecedented increase in the national debt is not resulting in newly built infrastructure to help the economy grow is that government projects keep taking longer and costing more. Two years ago on Reuters, your columnist opined, “A combination of top-heavy bureaucracy, union rules, cost-plus profits and graft have made recent federally funded construction projects insanely expensive and slow. When the funding comes from borrowing by Washington, then businesses, unions and local petty officials have a self-interest in running up the cost while dragging their feet.

That column ended by noting the slow pace and cost overruns in plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River north of New York City.

Now two years have passed, and guess what’s happened to the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project? It’s no closer to beginning. New York Magazine reports that $88 million has been spent just to study a bridge replacement — not for architecture drawings, just study. The original Tappan Zee Bridge, completed in 1955, cost $675 million in today’s dollars and required three years to complete. New York State officials are saying the replacement will cost at least $3 billion and take five years to build. New York Magazine warns the price is lowballing for an expected cost much higher.

New York is demanding that the federal government fund most of the new bridge. Borrowed funny-money would be used; contractors and unions would have every incentive to drag their feet, running up the bill, while corrupt politicians would want the project to last as long as possible, so there was more funny-money to steal.

Meanwhile the existing Tappan Zee Bridge continues to crumble and nothing’s being done. At the current snail’s pace, a new bridge is many years away. What if the existing bridge collapses? Politicians will claim they were never warned, just as they claimed they were never warned before storm surge from Hurricane Sandy smashed up lower Manhattan, Long Island and Hoboken, N.J. Running up the national debt is bad enough; not building what the country needs is even worse. But politicians observe that behaving recklessly, then blaming others, is what advances their careers. Barack Obama acted recklessly with the nation’s finances, and was re-elected. Chris Christie did nothing to prepare New Jersey’s low-lying city from storm surge, then blamed others, and made the cover of Time magazine. Where is the political leader who will place acting responsibly ahead of self-promotion?

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