Category Archives: Transport

Old Crow from the archives

I think pretty much everything in my RMT piece from last summer still applies today.

Note in particular: 1) Low turnout and non-spectacular majority indicating this is a Crow effort not grassroots; 2) Tories using the RMT’s intransigence to lobby for (even) more draconian public sector anti-strike rules; 3) DLR, Thameslink, Overground are all working (as would be ELL, extended Thameslink and Crossrail, if they were built yet); 4) absolutely no support from Aslef and TSSA, leaving many Tube lines running too; 5) reports of RMT drivers blacklegging.

Generic response to generic ‘oh no, the trains are so expensive’ wittering

Inspired specifically by this piece, but more generally by the dozens of such pieces, left and right, which perpetuate ludicrous myths about the cost of travelling on the trains.

The fact is, in Great Britain, train fares rise at a couple of percentage points above inflation every year. This isn’t surprising – most of the cost of running a railway is that of paying people, and (at least when the economy’s growing, as it was for the last 10 years) people like to be given pay rises above inflation every year too.

So every year, trains get slightly more affordable to the average person (because the average person’s income rises by 2-3% above inflation), but slightly more expensive in cash terms, than they were the year before. Like sandwiches, or pies, or haircuts, or pretty much any other consumer service that can’t be imported from China.

(since such stories are rarely complete without a questionably chosen anecdote about outrageous prices – I went from London to Birmingham and back at the weekend, heading out in the Friday rush hour, with a £30 return ticket bought on the day. That works for me…)

Evidence-based policymaking

Quoth our illustrious mayor (via):

I am informed that, thankfully, there have been no fatal accidents arising from collisions between cyclists and articulated buses in London since the introduction of articulated vehicles.

Serious incidents are defined by TfL as those where a cyclist may have required treatment, including in hospital. There was one serious incident involving a cyclist in each of the years 2005/06 and 2006/07, and two in 2007/08.

In other words, the data collated by TfL and accepted by the mayor clearly shows that bendy buses are not dangerous for cyclists.

As Tom from Blairwatch says,

At this point you checkmate him by pointing to the reams of documentation on gyratory systems and perceived cycling safety, particularly referring to Parliament Square, Elephant and Castle, Aldgate etc.

Indeed. The mayor isn’t pro-cycling; if he were, then he wouldn’t be adjusting the traffic flow to make cars faster and more dangerous, or pretending that something completely harmless to cyclists is a threat to them. He’s a traditional Tory ideologue, who hates public transport, urbanites and the poor, and loves cars, suburbanites and the wealthy, wearing an extremely skimpy green veil.

The implications for the next Westminster elections are pretty obvious. I can understand wanting to get the current lot out, and I can understand the argument that a Tory government might be less bad than the plausible alternatives. But if you’re voting Tory, don’t delude yourself they’re some kind of NuLabLite and that all you’re opting for is a change of leader – they’re still the party of Michael Howard and Mrs Thatcher, and a vote for them is an endorsement of the whole Thatcherite project.

(I might be being unfair – it’s just about possible that the mayor has no understanding of evidence-based policymaking, and genuinely doesn’t realise that the statistics are a bloody good reason to cancel his hare-brained scheme. I’m not sure that hoping the future PM is merely an idiot rather than a dishonest ideologue is a wonderfully optimistic position to be in, though…)

Tube strike conspiracy theory

[phone rings]
BJ: Wot ho, Bozza here.
BC: Hello. I’m Bob Crow, and I’m evil. I’m going to lead the Tube maintenance workers out on strike (a 5% pay rise just isn’t enough, you see) and paralyse the city.
BC: [evil laugh]
BJ: Oh. That’s dashed inconvenient. Is there, erm, anything we can do to appease you?
BC: Hmmm.
BC: [evil laugh]
BC: Well, there is one thing…
BJ: Jolly good, I always say that reasonable chaps can work things out reasonably.
BC: The guy you hired to run TfL – you know, the one with the record in taking over badly run, overmanned companies, cutting costs, improving services, breaking union strangleholds, that kind of thing?
BJ: Oh yes, Timmy. A bit of an oik – his daddy was a squaddie, what, but the only chap on my team who isn’t a completely useless buffoon.
BC: Hmmm.
BC: He goes.
BC: [evil laugh]
BJ: And that way your chaps will take the 5%?
BC: Oh yes…
BJ: Spiffing fun. Timmy goes, strike’s off, let’s all have tea and cakes.
BC: …until next time.
BC: [evil laugh]

The last word on why the deficit doesn’t matter

Chris Dillow makes sense:

“If people are prepared to lend to government at less than 1% real interest, let’s bleed them dry, because cheap money won’t last forever; infrastructure spending should be undertaken now, whilst it’s cheap.”

The construction collapse will have the same effect on labour costs, which we can offset by removing the impact of crowding-out from multiple public-sector projects. So let’s go for 200,000 new council houses (£20bn); a TGV line from London to Leeds via Birmingham and Manchester (£20bn); and nuclear power stations covering 30% of UK energy requirements (£40bn); while also going ahead with Crossrail (£10bn).

These would raise the national debt by 7% of GDP to levels that are still historically fairly low, while adding £900m per year of real interest to be met by taxpayers (approximately a 0.1% increase in government spending).

If I was in a political party that looked almost certain to lose the next election, then borrowing an enormous amount of money to spend on infrastructure projects that won’t be completed for about 10 years (by which point the next government will be so tired and jaded that nobody will credit them with the achievement), would be top of my list of priorities at the best of times. The fact that it currently makes economic sense to do it is a happy coincidence, and hopefully one that’ll work in all our favour…

Don’t axe Crossrail – double it!

Local press exclusives on specialist topics are seldom the most reliable or accurate commentaries you’ll ever find on anything ever. Nonetheless, I’m concerned by the East London Advertiser’s current alleged scoop on Crossrail.

The ELA claims that:

Crossrail chiefs fear the deteriorating economic climate, spiralling Olympic costs and the election of Tory Boris Johnson as Mayor of London will persuade Mr Brown to delay construction.

The source said: “It’s only my opinion and not the corporate line, but my strong feeling is that in the current circumstances, the Government will more than likely delay the project by a few years.”

If the ELA is right, then the government are making a very daft short-termist decision swayed purely by bean-counters and spurious “OMG, debts are evil” worries.

Simply put, Crossrail is a 10-year project with benefits over 30 years. Dropping it because of short-term budget constraints would not only be utterly ridiculous, it would be the worst possible choice the government could make. Economic bad times are a positive reason to build Crossrail, not a reason to shelve it.

The ideal time to build a massive infrastructure project paid for largely with public money is during a construction recession, when the workers, managers and contractors responsible are unable to find sufficient private sector work. This would not only make Crossrail cheaper for the taxpayer, but will also prop up the wider economy, stemming unemployment and reducing the impact of falling private sector demand on GDP growth.

What about actually finding the money? Well, governments are able to get credit on good terms right now, since they’re among the lucky few for whom the markets believe they’ll be able to pay it back. And UK national debt is in reasonably good shape as a proportion of GDP – 37% now against 43% in 1997, so there’s no obstacle to ramping up government borrowing to buoy demand and cushion the tough times.

Yes to sceptics, the 37% figure is too low, since it does not include finance leases under PFI that would be accounted for as debt under IFRS. These amount to an extra £30bn on top of existing debt of £530bn, taking real public sector debt as measured under IFRS to 39% of GDP. Some people account for PFI by counting all future PFI liabilities including payment for services which haven’t yet been delivered but if you do this then you do not understand how accounting works [*].

Sorry for that digression. The point is that the government has plenty of room to borrow money to stimulate the economy over the next couple of years, and building Crossrail would be one very good way of doing this. Financing it entirely through public sector borrowing would raise the national debt by 1% of GDP, which is entirely affordable. Axeing it would be somewhere between a short-termist capitulation to Treasury interests, and a deliberate attempt to screw things up for the incoming Tories…

[*] If I sign a billion pound contract with the government to provide them with and maintain their widgets for the next 40 years, and I book sales of £1bn for year one, then I go to jail. This is precisely what people who count PFI liabilities at £100bn are doing, except for the “going to jail” bit.

How big is Boris’s tent?

A non-Londoner asked me on Saturday what I thought Boris Johnson would be like as London mayor.

I said that I really didn’t know, which was the main reason I hadn’t voted for him (I also can’t stand his Wooster-ish public persona, but I’m quite happy to vote for someone I don’t personally like if they’ve got the right policies and record) – but that there would be a few indicators very soon that would almost certainly give us the answer, and that the most important will be whether he sacks transport commissioner Peter Hendy and London Underground MD Tim O’Toole.

Aside from Ken Livingstone, Hendy and O’Toole were the most important people driving the massive improvement in London’s public transport that has happened over the last eight years.

Ken managed to wrangle the money out of Whitehall; Peter Hendy made the new schemes happen (he was running London Buses throughout the period while they turned from Utterly Bloody Useless to Really Really Good); while Tim O’Toole stopped the Underground from falling over despite everything. They have built a team at TfL that works, and that would continue to massively benefit Londoners if it were to remain in place.

If Johnson were to sack Hendy and O’Toole because of their assocations with Ken, bendy buses, congestion charges and other sensible but unpopulist things, then that would have an immediate, significant, real and negative impact on London.

If he were to keep them in their posts, not only would the effects on transport be good – it would highlight a more general willingness to accept the good things that the old regime brought, and to put London’s needs above petty point-scoring.

So, which is it going to be?

Conservative Assembly Member for Ealing Richard Barnes quoted here appear to think that sacking them would be a Good Idea (how dare anyone “make life unpleasant for motorists”, would seem to be his main point), and is tipped to be Johnson’s deputy.

However, the latest couple of reports seem to suggest that Johnson is likely to keep them in place. For London’s sake, I hope the reports are right…

Trebles all round

Congratulations to BAA and BA for the successful opening of Terminal 5 – it’s taken less than a week of live passenger testing to get the whole thing working pretty much as it’s supposed to.

If you think that achieving that kind of switchover in that kind of timeframe with the kind of really-rather-minor chaos that’s taken place is anything other than reasonably creditable, then you’re a churlish muppetteer with no knowledge of how things work in the real world. Which means you should probably seek a career in journalism…

I’ve no sympathy for anyone who was delayed, either. If you book to fly out of a new airport terminal the day after it opens, what on earth do you expect will happen…? I flew into T5 on Sunday, and was entirely unsurprised by the 35 minute wait at the gate to sort out some steps because the airbridge wasn’t working. Had I been particularly worried about 100% on-time arrival rather than interested to see the new terminal, I’d’ve flown a different airline.

(side note: anyway, who the hell takes hold luggage onto aeroplanes? You can easily get a fortnight’s clothes, a computer and plenty of stuff to read into a pair of hand-luggage-able bags, thereby shortening your arrivals time by at least 45 minutes and diminishing your chances of lost luggage to near-zero…)