Wednesday 29 November 2017

Puffing Silly

It is now a common cry in the media etc. for more houses to be built almost anywhere and in any numbers. There is little or no mention that along with them might be factories, offices, shops or other facilities, such as hospitals, schools and other community structures.

What does turn up, and as you may imagine, from the relevant construction companies, financial organisations and interest groups stoking the property boom, is a demand for both new railways and rebuilding of lines lost in the 1960's.

It appears that factories are a no go since the UK is on the skids as a manufacturing centre. Some will be retained, but perhaps not much. Offices and retailing are other matters, but those worlds are changing rapidly as well with the extent and nature of new technology.

Once I visited many an office and in the ordinary business of life needed the facilities of shops for my needs. It is now months since I went to any shop and I forget the last time I visited an office or bank. My main issue now is when will the phone go ping to tell me when the delivery person arrives.

So it is very peculiar to read in the claims for the vital need for new railways that the calculation of the amount of time needed by business men to be functioning is critical to government decision making. The business person who regularly visits me is always in contact on a world wide basis for either individual or group response.

But railways are supposed to be for mass movement and not just the bosses and the rich. There is more of a logic when mass movement is needed in heavily urbanised areas. That is ones that have jobs for people to go to and has the ability to tax to pay for provision if profit is unlikely or unprofitable for various reasons.

The visions we are presented with by the lobbyists and policy makers are uncannily like the futuristic plans and films of the 1930's that impacted so much on government urban planning of the later 20th Century. However, it did not work out like that. In the UK we finished up with dreary, inadequately serviced council estates, elsewhere in the world it was shanty towns. Neither of which enabled any profit or surplus from railway building.

The rationalisation of rail in the UK in the mid 20th Century is referred to as the Beeching report from the name of the chairman of the committee that recommended the major changes in the railway system to meet the then present and immediate future. He is alleged to be a big bad man, but he was just one in a long line of people for whom the railways were a problem needing difficult decisions.

Wikipedia has a page on "Railway Mania" about the 1840's crisis. We did not learn much from that nor all the other problems as the system extended rarely on rational grounds, more on hope and forecasts that proved hopelessly wrong. By 1914 the system was having problems, by 1918, the end of the war it was in crisis.

So we had the "Rationalisation" of 1923, a political botch job that cobbled together many into few. As the new HQ's went up they provided for public relations etc. Hence all those films about the wonders of progress on the railways. Actually, not much did change, but a few fast trains on key lines with waiters convinced a gullible public and the politicians were served a decent lunch, along with the busy businessmen.

Then came 1939 to 1945 and a war that left the railways in a dire state. With a Labour Government that meant nationalisation. The end of the war also meant a lot of cheap trucks and vans on the market as well as factories producing them and this meant a new world of delivery and transport.

The 1970's saw a changed system, but still with too many inherited problems. Then in the 1980's we had a Conservative government who rather than see money effectively going to the unions, preferred it to go to the companies etc. supporting them and we had a privatisation which was not really but only partial and it was almost back to a pre 1914 type of organisation and government support.

What is quite clear to me is that the proposals for new lines mean structures with liabilities that will never, ever, yield a surplus but will have to be funded, perhaps substantially either by subsidy derived from tax or year on year additions to government debt.

Also, while one or two may have their advantages, the reinstatement of lines closed will bear the same kind of costs and maintenance and running deficits. Quite what the lines will be like if the urbanisation planning goes wrong can only be imagined.

But perhaps not, the picture above gives a good example. Say West Hampstead in 2050?


  1. I feel a "what if" coming on. The trouble is there are so many.

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