Month: February 2013
This year there were more large increases in the cost of rail tickets.
I was largely uninterested, though by no means disinterested, in the subject. Passenger rail travel is just inherently enormously expensive. The government taxes road travel heavily through road fund duty and fuel taxes, and at the same time subsidises rail travel heavily, and the net result is that for most journeys, rail is not an option, and for most of those that rail travel is available, it is about three times the cost of road travel. If you take the true cost, without the effect of the taxes and subsidies, rail transport is probably about ten times as expensive as road transport.
Privatisation was an obvious response to this long-standing situation, but the improvements were small, and the cost differential has only increased over time.
I’ve never clearly understood where the huge costs of rail come from. There are several sources I can think of, but whether some of them are insignificant, or if one of them dominates all the others, I’m not sure.
One obvious contributor is the safety standard that rail is held to. Rail travel is about a hundred times safer than road travel, and that is achieved through massive expenditure on signalling, inspections, pre-emptive maintenance and staff to supervise.
A second factor is evolution. Cars are sold in their millions, and the industry is subject to constant, intensive competition and improvements. Trains, by comparison, are rarely-produced items. The result is that trains evolve relatively slowly: a ten-year-old train and a thirty-year-old train are barely distinguishable, while cars of similar vintages are very obviously distinct. The manufacturing process is affected as well as the finished product.
The third is the lack of flexibility which defines rail travel. A road vehicle can go anywhere provided the ground is hard and flat. A train can only go where the network has been built for it. We do talk about a “road network” in the same sense as a rail network, but the concepts are not equivalent for that reason. A motorway might be planned and engineered to just the same degree as a railway line1, but the defining feature of road travel is not the motorway, but the driveway — the thing that allows anyone to join the road network at almost any point. That makes the road system an open network, while the rail system is a closed network, and the differences between road and rail are mostly the differences between open and closed systems. (That also covers the evolution factor above: vehicles for the rail network are selected by the network operator; vehicles for the road network are selected by the network users).
If road travel is so far superior to rail travel, why am I paying £4000 a year to sit on the train and write this? One reason is of course the subsidies — but the commuter routes into London aren’t directly subsidised; they run at a profit (though they gain from the subsidised local routes that feed into them). The fact remains that for the one case of bringing a very large number of people to the same place at the same time, rail still has benefits. It has the advantages of a closed system as well as the disadvantages.
I am on a packed 12-coach train currently at St Pancras station. About a thousand people will get off within the next mile. Eight minutes ahead is another train, and eight minutes behind, yet another.
The other reason for taking a train rather than a car is that I would have to actually drive a car, whereas I can sit in a train and blog.
The crucial fact for the future is that the two decisive advantages that rail has, in a limited set of cases, over road — better peak space-efficiency and better labour-efficiency in the form of driving — are both on the decline because of the technology being applied to road. Self-driving cars are twenty years off at most, and I would expect nearer ten. That allows vehicles to travel faster and closer together, since human reaction times are taken out of the process of maintaining separation. I will be able to read, blog or watch television in a car as I do on the train. Parking costs will reduce because the vehicles will be able to disperse themselves until needed, instead of all having to compete for scarce parking space at the highest-density destinations.
That’s another way in which the rail/road comparison resembles the closed/open network comparison. Rail’s advantage is that it takes away the need for intelligence in the vehicles; road is best placed to take advantage of putting more intelligence in the vehicles. As intelligence becomes cheap, road could even exceed rail’s peak efficiency, by being more adaptive and responsive to conditions — using alternative routes or schedules. Rail’s throughput is limited by the flow of people through the chokepoints at stations more than by the capacity of the rails themselves.
Those changes take away any reason for passenger rail to continue to exist. (It’s possible that rail vehicles are more suited to very heavy loads, and so will remain useful for rail freight. I doubt it, but I don’t know enough to be sure).
Any forward-looking, integrated transport policy today will be oriented towards phasing out rail and preparing for self-driving cars.
Whether the Luton Guided Busway meets those criteria is anyone’s guess. It’s not out of the question.
1. It probably isn’t, but let’s pretend it is.
The Enlightenment position is that knowledge should be objective. I think that originated in an analogy with the scientific method: the only conclusions that should be accepted are those which can be independently verified. If I say that a bird cannot live in air in which a candle has burned out, you should be able to put a bird in a jar with a candle and kill it the same way. If you can’t, then my claims are not objective, and are scientifically worthless.
The Enlightenment extended this principle to government. The decision of a government should not be made on the basis of one person’s private judgement; it should be made by a scientific process, and the reasons for making it should be objective facts that others can share.
Democracy requires that principle. Like science, democracy requires that one person’s conclusions can be replicated by another. In some cases the replication may not be contemporaneous with the actual decision, but the principle must still be that “If you knew what I know”, you would reach the same conclusion, and the politican can be judged retrospectively by that standard.
Hayek identified the problem with this approach. The main problem is “Tacit Knowledge”. Tacit knowledge is what you know, but you don’t know that you know. It is knowledge that cannot be shared just by publishing a paper, but only, if at all, by teaching a craft.
A decision that has to be justified objectively cannot rely on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is, by definition, subjective. A person, who, in whatever environment, is making a decision that is going to be evaluated by others, must deliberately ignore subjective considerations — tacit knowledge — and make what seems to be the best decision without that knowledge.
This process has a catastrophic impact on personal responsibility. If I make a decision not because, based on all my knowledge objective and tacit, I think it is the right one, but rather, because it is the one I can best justify to someone else, then I am no longer responsible for the result of my decision, only for the process (sound familiar?).
If someone is responsible for the results of their decision, rather than for the process of making the decision, then they will naturally make the decision most likely to have the desired result, and they will do so based on all the knowledge they have, objective and tacit.
The practical difference is most obvious in the case of choosing people. Judging other people is an innate skill: it is something our minds have evolved to do particularly well. Indeed, it is plausible that human intelligence is primarily evolved to assess other people, and, conversely, to deceive other people. Our knowledge of each other is therefore almost entirely tacit. Trying to estimate another person’s qualities using only objective criteria is like walking around a house blindfolded.
(This doesn’t mean I’m arguing for primacy of the subjective — I’m not saying we should “trust our feelings” and close our eyes to objective facts. We should also be prepared to suppress our subjective impressions where there is evidence they are unreliable. But that is not the case, particularly where we are doing what we have evolved to do, which is to evaluate the people we know well).
It seems like a small thing, but if you want people to be able to make decisions based on tacit knowledge, you actually have to change everything about the way our society is organised. For two hundred years almost every change has been to remove human judgement and replace it with objective process.
Obviously reversing it starts with abolishing democracy and restoring monarchy, but I don’t think you can really manage without restoring some kind of aristocracy as well — subjective judgements of trust and, to a lesser degree, ability, are going to rely heavily on actual personal contact, and people who are regular contact with each other, on a family basis, are going to develop their own standards of trustworthy behaviour, with a distinct disparity in trust between insiders and outsiders.