Is Alta Velocidad Fast?

Awaiting Fast AVE

This essay analyses and explores the regional passenger fare structure of Renfe, Spain’s national railway operator. The question, “Is Alta Velocidad Fast?”, derives from Renfe’s tradition of pricing slower trains cheaper. The question asks whether, in the era of yield management (balancing current patronage to current capacity by modifying price), the traditional fare structure should be applied to high speed, AV, operations? The journey provides an insight into the structure of modern transport geography, the haphazard strategic development and exploitation of Alta Velocidad, the management of national inequalities through fares, the conflation of public and commercial roles within single shared operations, and, from a perspective other than infrastructure, the contemporary challenges to Spain’s railways.

The introductory section describes the current trend toward Temporal Ticketing, with a reflection on how this alters transport geography and state: While the growing reliance on algorithms challenges established operator dominance, it is not necessarily incompatible with societal behaviour, especially for less familiar journeys. A brief history of Avant follows, the Regional Alta Velocidad funded as a public service obligation (OSP), with extensive analysis of fares on Avant corridors, including an assessment of the selective use of yield management on parallel commercial AV services. Avant is placed in context by a similarly detailed analysis of fares on slower regional services, those on which passengers are Paying to Go Faster. The strong relationship between fare and speed is confirmed, but with a balanced structure of revenue-to-cost that equalises quite different styles of operation.

Fare’s Fair exposes the differences in fares and speeds between Spain’s regional Autonomous Communities, demonstrating how fares have apparently been used to manage the inequalities between regions. Unfortunately the same structure has not been adequately deployed to counter AV‘s inequalities, ultimately because AV pricing has been defined by commercial aviation markets: By matching, not taxing, aviation, the cascade effects (of inflated expectation) to lesser classes of transport can only be addressed through subsidy – the flawed policy that is exposed by AV Cercanías, a theoretical high speed suburban railway – Avant being the closest non-theoretical product to AV Cercanías. Inter-City probes how Renfe has evolved the management of marginal longer-distance trains, especially over non-AV routes, where the same train may share regional public service and inter-regional commercial roles. The conflation of pricing models is highlighted, and evidence is presented that suggests the state is subsidising the train, and not specifically the seats upon it – a pattern that might concern the European courts, were it to continue after 2020.

The concluding section takes a contemporary journey From Extremadura to Catalunya Nord – the origin exemplifying the political impact of AV‘s inequalities, the destination actively challenging the idea of region as strictly administrative. Along the way, how transport geography relates to the source of its finance, how the preoccupation of the Spanish political state with infrastructure inhibits behavioural policy interventions, and ultimately, how Renfe transpires to be a better manager of state than state. The Postscript provides an intense reflection on an otherwise somewhat long and technical analysis of what may seem quite a trivial topic, but actually explains much about the state of contemporary Spain.

Temporal Ticketing

The curious case of railway ticketing is one that invariably embeds and perpetuates cultural biases to the perennial question, what is value? For example, the pre-privatisation British Rail ingrained its primitive yield management strategy, that return fares were “cheaper after 09:30”, so deeply into the state psyche that decades later concessionary fares policy was still formulated to protect “the morning peak”, even though the late afternoon had long since become the busier period for many regional public transport networks in Britain. Britain’s railways are still stuggling with the issue, although Britain seems unlikely to shift away from a model that emphasises the temporal capacity of the transport system to handle the intending passenger, and prices journeys accordingly. In parts of Europe, not least Spain, the temporal capacity of the transport system is traditionally not a consideration in pricing. Indeed, every “salida”, the busy days for longer-distance travel at the start and end of holiday periods, the mere possibility that the capacity of Spain’s transport system might have been temporally exceeded, can be rendered a national preoccupation – the media routinely broadcasting reassuring images of half-empty roads and passengers boarding trains like normal. The underlying presumption is that the system accommodates the passenger, even if that means some time periods are far busier than others, and some operational assets lay idle during quieter periods. For example, Barcelona’s metro currently has no fare variation by time of day, even though its patronage is far from constant across the day. The idea of introducing such a variation has been considered only recently, as a means of managing peak overcrowding, and that was only triggered by the post-Independència financial realisation that increasing demand could no longer be met with extra capacity. For state-provided systems, the implicit presumption is that the state will provide. The reasoning is indubitable: State, in its broadest sense, is perpetual, as stable a constant as can be reasoned – not a facet that alters at 8 o’clock just because other people also want to travel then.

Where transport systems are liberalised, most obviously in European aviation, yield management has become the accepted norm. The price of a flight might double or halve from day to day, as airline operators try to fill every seat in every plane – managing their supply, which is largely fixed in the short run, by altering price. Likewise, few will be surprised to discover a flight from Madrid to Berlin (2300km) that today just happens to be cheaper than a flight from Madrid to Barcelona (600km) – in stark contrast to the state-centric model, where fares typically retain a strong correlation to distance. Just two examples of how liberalised transport systems are shifting geography from the spatial to the temporal, and, perhaps more alarmingly, de-humanising geography: Not only by emphasising the economy of the carriage over that of the passenger, but also by encouraging travel specifically when others are not, in opposition to many natural group dynamics. It is in the midst of this tumult that we find the contemporary “Alta Velocidad”, Spain’s high speed passenger railway – a state-implemented network operating in an increasingly liberalised market.

The question posed by this essay, “Is Alta Velocidad Fast?”, is not just the question it may first seem, that which begets the retort, compared to what? Traditional Iberian railway fare structures differentiate between trains based on their speed, where those that complete their journey faster cost more to travel upon. Thus, to quote Franklin, time is money – but here the value of time is constant over time, not varying within time (from hour-to-hour or day-to-day) as is more common in Anglo-Americanised markets. AVE, and similar long distance inter-regional public transport services, are forced by their increasingly competitive liberalised environments to adopt fare structures which undermine the base understanding of state: The national in Spain thereby becomes the liberalised global. Yet within Spain’s regions the traditional fare structure still predominates, and thus perhaps regions better retain their state. Spanish railway liberalisation implicitly acknowledges this by opening up most inter-regional services to competition in 2020, while likely retaining state control (via Public Service Obligation) of services within regions. An analysis that might confer the dominance of regional politics over national, but more specifically, that regions are more knowable among their own populations than the nation of “Spain”, and thus regions evoke greater protection of their state. The strategic counter-balance, that the national will, by dint of improved asset utilisation and reduced reliance on new assets to deal with insufficient capacity, become relatively more efficient economically. However as this essay explores, while local juxtaposes to national, regional is not necessarily aligned to local.

Such protection of the more local state is not arbitrary. The more locally and the more frequently a transport service is used, the more that use is considered normal by the user, the more the consistency of its state is appreciated. The hassle, what economists call shoe leather cost, of navigating a complex ever-changing fare structure may be acceptable for exceptional journeys, but surely not for a daily commute or a trip to the shops. The differing acceptance, based on geographic familiarity, of transaction costs – the cost of making a trade – evokes modern behavioural concepts such as bounded rationality: That decision-making is a pragmatic reflection on users’ perceived reality, that the terms of this “geography” are not as universal as the word might imply. The physical, spatial geography that makes the whole that science calls nature, may be reasoned universal. However societies in both Britain and Spain have strong “virtual” components – the British predictive analytic routinely juggles time across a wide spectrum of past-future, while the Catalans (and, dare I suggest, other Spaniards) emphasise social knowledge through “knowable groups”. In both societies the physical geography continues to play an important role, but analysis of only that role omits these virtual themes, which can be important when trying to understand modern societal behaviour. So instead of presuming a flawed universal notion of geography, derive geography from the perspective of those within their respective societies: An alternative model where transport geography is expressed in terms of users’ familiarity, rather than a specific absolute notion such as time or distance. For example, a regular or local journey is typically more familiar to the person making that journey, than an occasional or long-distance journey. The familiarity of each person is first and foremost a function of “knowing” – of, in the broadest sense, state. This relationship between knowing and geography is especially obvious in video game world design, a theme developed from my Adventures in the Invisible Tent: The scale of such a world, a hybrid of time and distance, is optimised for knowing that world. Game worlds are far more compact than planet earth because even complex games contain far less to know.

Optimisation for knowing differs from optimisation for analytic efficiency – and herein lay much of the tension between contemporary society and computational optimisation: Since (and arguably before) Euler tried to cross the 7 bridges of Königsberg, transport has been posing computationally challenging problems, from network route planning to supply chain logistics. But it is perhaps only in the last two decades that the average traveller has become directly exposed to such computational optimisations. In the mid-1990s the apocryphal tale was told of an Operational Researcher who commuted each day to his workplace in London Transport’s headquarters near St James’s Park, central London. Upon arrival in the capital at Paddington railway station he was faced with two potentially viable Underground (metro) routes – direct on the Circle line, or via Bakerloo and Victoria lines. For the casual user, the direct Circle line would be the obvious choice, both requiring no change of trains and, based on the stylised London Underground network map, of similar distance. However those distances are actually a lot less similar than the stylised map betrays, and the Circle line had a far lower effective frequency than the alternative route via Bakerloo and Victoria lines. The calculation of optimal route, at the precise moment our expert commuter arrived at Paddington, originally would have relied on train service predictions, but could now be improved with live-time data delivered to a mobile phone application. The optimisation rarely saved more than a few minutes. In the 1990s these were games played by mathematically-minded transportation planners. Now they are becoming the norm among regular travellers, those whose behaviour is optimised by their “smart” mobile phones. The domination of this technology over its human users is clearest among those that happily walk or drive round in a circle, simply because the underlying dataset is missing a network node or link – and thus cannot calculate the direct path that should be obvious to the user, had they not placed absolute trust in their (sadly fallible) device. In the final analysis, these users have become so optimised that they have ceased to know.

This trend is not new: In the spirit of Kuhn, the Enlightenment West has progressively expanded the complexity of its worldview by simplifying every-thing within that world. And given such apparent acceptance of technology over human, yield management of the most familiar of journeys should now seem entirely reasonable: Blind user trust in journey-planning algorithms readily extends to ticketing. In practice the algorithms taking users’ fare decisions would compete with the operator algorithms setting prices, a computer-vs-computer model already successful (except when dealing with the unexpected) in financial market trading. The economic efficiency implied would liberate humans to obsess about something else – and ultimately the minutiae currently associated with transport ticketing would be replaced by trust that the system tends to offer “best value”, with any user interaction reduced to broad concepts such as brand. Transport operators traditionally consider themselves to be the sales channel of their product, and even in the most entrepreneurial arenas (Ryanair vs Skyscanner in 2007) operators are naturally hostile to any optimisation they don’t control. Aside from exerting ownership over data (a battle largely lost), the operators’ only logical defense is to simplify their ticketing structure – logically opposing the yield management that is inextricably driven by market competition. Thus operators in open transport markets will ultimately be reduced to supplying a service sold by technology platform providers (such as Google) or travel metasearchers (such as KAYAK) – a keenly fought technology market that has not yet peaked or consolidated. And once again, in the midst of this tumult that we find the contemporary AVE, its state-owned operator, Renfe, accustomed to a national prominence that it will not yield easily – even if, as discussed in Arriva Celta, Renfe’s role as the provider of national “presence”, beyond mere journey utility, is easily taken by state track owner ADIF, leaving Renfe vulnerable.

Continue reading “Is Alta Velocidad Fast?”


Arriva Celta

Talgo Shunt

Arriva Spain Rail’s announcement of a new cross-border railway service from A Coruña (La Coruña) in Galicia to Porto (Oporto) in northern Portugal took some in the railway industry by surprise. The first proper phase of the liberalisation of Spain’s national passenger railways was widely expected to be focused on the high speed AVE network, a somewhat commercial near-aviation market, theoretically serviceable with trains acquired outside Spain. Even interest in cross-border services had hitherto focused on the high speed route from Madrid via Barcelona to the south of France, which judging by its latest search for 15 new cross-border drivers, state operator Renfe intends to respond to competitively. After all, the Spanish government had declared every regional railway service to be “Obligación de Servicio Público” (Public Service Obligation, OSP), to be financially supported as a Renfe monopoly, likely well into the 2030s. Add the difficulty of acquiring and operating uniquely Iberian gauged and signalled rolling stock in an environment where almost all the relevant assets are held by state operators, and one might dismiss the whole A Coruña-Porto scheme as an ill-conceived dream of a multinational that had not yet understood the local railway environment. Except the Arriva Group have been operating buses in Galicia since 1999 and Portugal since 2000, and so should know the territory as well as anyone. Perhaps more importantly, while Arriva’s British rivals sought liberalised markets for their initial forays “overseas” in the 1990s, Arriva learnt to work with whatever competitive environment it found on mainland Europe. That combination of local experience and competitive adaptability makes Arriva’s approach to Spanish railways unique. That Arriva’s first instinct is A Coruña-Porto, and not head-to-head competition on flagship intercity routes such as Madrid-Barcelona, reveals much about Spanish railway liberalisation. As explored in the following paragraphs, Arriva’s competitive strategy is contextualised by the need to:

  1. Address an underlying commercial market, not the “railway” market Renfe is structured around.
  2. Expose Renfe as no longer a “national” entity, thereafter making its role contestable.
  3. Exploit the structural weakness between national Renfe and regional government.

Arriva’s current parent group, Deutsche Bahn (DB), has already been burnt by the (non) liberalisation of Spanish railfreight: DB was fined 10.5 million euros by the Spanish competition authority, CNMC, for anti-competitive agreements to control the supply of traction – at rail-freight liberalisation in 2005, only Renfe Mercancías (its freight division) and DB subsidiary Transfesa (which had, exceptionally, operated privately since 1943 on RENFE‘s network) had freight locomotives that could operate across Spain. The case was emblematic of Renfe Mercancías’ anti-liberalisation strategy of asset control – from a non-auction of life-expired rolling stock that was all but useless for new operators, to a driver training paralysis that resulted in Renfe hiring competitors’ drivers (Renfe’s employment offer more favourable because of its public status). Renfe Mercancías’ approach was exceedingly traditional – defending the body of workers using the assets of the company – with scant regard for what those workers and assets were functionally there to do – move goods: Between its regular state-subsidised operating loses and its minimal impact on the national economy, Renfe Mercancías arguably lost track of its own importance and risks irrelevance. Yet even now the railway has few commercial logistics-orientated operators, and practical asset liberalisation is still dependent on the regulator forcing Renfe’s hand – hardly the panacea of free market liberalism envisaged by European Union policy. Even if this were the beginning of the end for Renfe Mercancías, it might also be the beginning of the end for freight on Spain’s railways: The underlying model (from the Spanish, not European Union, perspective) assumes the mercantile elite test the resolve of the national railway – the railway as a strategic entity of the nation – and only once that resolve has been broken does the national railway structure begin to yield actual liberalisation. However as simple transport utility, Spain’s internal freight was already somewhat liberalised on the roads, which convey the vast majority of Spain’s domestic goods traffic. Consequently it may have been easier to test the resolve of the national railway by capturing its freight market from the road, than compete on the railway itself: Renfe is easily blind-sided by functional competition that focuses on the market for moving goods, since Renfe’s organisational focus is “trains”, especially the staffing of trains.

While the problems of freight liberalisation have ensured intending commercial passenger railway operators are better prepared, for example establishing their own driver training schools and acquiring their own rolling stock, the underlying structure of Spain’s passenger railway liberalisation remains rather similar to that of freight. The baseline assumption, if only by historical pattern, is the emergence of a dominant commercial duopoly, plus Renfe: Perhaps a market similar to Spanish terrestrial television, where two dominant but counter-balancing commercial broadcasters co-exist with a state broadcaster. However, the dominant state actor is surely ADIF, the state owned provider of railway infrastructure: Commercial liberalised operators will rationally focus only on passenger “utility” (delivering a functional transport service), so, as discussed in The Expectations of Competition, the only unfilled role is that of “presence” (the physical manifestation of authority). While the original unified RENFE provided both utility and presence, on the modern railway presence can effectively be achieved by ADIF alone building and maintaining railway infrastructure: Exactly who operates the trains would not matter strategically, only that they were operated by someone. That cripples Renfe (specifically Renfe Operadora, its passenger division) as the strategic national entity it was, and explains Renfe’s desire to merge back with ADIF and thus remain part of a true national entity. Assuming Spain does not follow Poland and merge its national operator and infrastructure company back together, it will be incumbent on commercial operators to break Renfe’s monopoly position on track, so that Renfe can no longer be considered a national entity, thereafter allowing other operators to take Renfe’s role in subsequent non-commercial (typically regional and local) liberalisations. Mere dilution of Renfe’s patronage by indirect competition, such as by alternative modes, will not break Renfe as a national entity. Even competition only on high speed routes risks fostering a liberalised environment that cannot subsequently transfer to older (primarily) Iberian gauge networks, thus cannot compete effectively in whatever contractual regime eventually emerges for state-supported regional and local services, and hence maintains Renfe as a monopoly operator of much of the Spanish railway network.

If Renfe’s status as a national entity has been admonished by the time its OSPs are due for review (a maximum of 10 years after they are awarded), it will surely be politically impossible for Spain’s national government to continue to determine regional railway services: If there is a genuine choice of operator, the relevant Autonomous Community governments can scarcely be denied that choice for their own internal services. This is presumably the main aim of Arriva in Spain: To open up the large, but historically often uncontested, contractual market for public transport. A rather different aim to those market entrants focused on a handful of commercial near-aviation markets, such as Madrid-Barcelona. The hostility of regional government in Spain to Renfe is well documented in Catalunya, but from Aragon to Madrid to Extremadura, none has much love for Spain’s national railway operator. Regional government theoretically counters centralist Spain, representing a powerful ally against Renfe, even if the Catalan example suggests that such power is no guarantee of success. In some regions, Renfe could become vulnerable at much the same time as the local bus concessions that were last extended without contest in the 2000s: In Galicia, law 5/2009 extended most until the end of 2019. The metropolitan concession in A Coruña is already under intense pressure from the CNMC to be modified for compliance with European state aid rules. While all this raises the possibility of multi-modal contracts, especially attractive to an operator with the breadth of Arriva, the more immediate outcome should be greater clarity on the costs of delivering different services: As demonstrated in Catalunya, even apparently “fair” funding mechanisms can disguise substantial cost differences. In a similar vein, the Spanish government’s blanket OSP allocation is eminently challengeable as a policy: Aside from mocking its intended methodology by waving efficiency and utilisation targets for every service that didn’t meet them, INECO’s “rubber stamp” analysis ignores other transport modes, offering no reasoned assessment of Renfe’s contribution to policy objectives such as local mobility: Why support a train between Ferrol and A Coruña with an average of just 16 passengers a trip, when the route is more-or-less mirrored by a faster and more frequent bus?

As explored in The Art of Public Competition sequence of essays, Ferrol-A Coruña does not pose the rational economic question it may seem. The implicit long-run expectation is that the railway service will be improved to compete effectively as a balanced duopoly – although with up to a billion euros of investment required, those improvements may be a long time coming to Ferrol. Liberalisation implies the transformation of the societal model of competition, such as where discrete local duopolies maintain balance, to a more economic model of competition, where factors like cost and demand determine balance across a whole. A Spanish legislature devoid of absolute power can only expose the new model to an environment defined by the old – Spanish policymaking is necessarily structured in a way that lets its society test new legislation, successful EU “directives” included. The challenge for liberalised market entrants is thus to transform the old environment into a new model. Being more operationally efficient or market orientated than the status quo should be straightforward for veterans of open public transport markets. But if the terms of that competition don’t gain state (in the widest sense, of knowing) acceptance, then the theoretically liberalised market might be overwhelmed by attempts, however irrational, to the maintain prior “competitive” balances. As the operator of the Ferrol-A Coruña bus, Arriva presumably have some understanding of the challenge posed by Spanish railway liberalisation, and some strategy for addressing it. The three contexts outlined above – market redefinition, operator contestability, culminating in a regional endgame – give some clues as to why Arriva’s first foray into Spanish passenger railways is on familiar territory for Arriva as a bus operator (both in Galicia and northern Portugal). But is Arriva’s A Coruña-Porto passenger railway service a feasible commercial proposition, or is its purpose more… strategic?

Continue reading “Arriva Celta”

Scottish Tram Financing

Transforming Travel... or not. Edinburgh Tram's optimistic route plan.
Transforming Travel… or not. Edinburgh Tram’s optimistic route plan.

Some Edinburgh City councillors already privately refer to the city’s tram project as the problem that “cannot be named”. Much as actors refer to Shakespeare’s tragedy as “the Scottish play”, superstitions of bad luck now bedevil the production. A dramatic shift from the optimism that initially characterised the development of the Edinburgh tram, towards pessimism.

That which cannot be named is no longer just the failure of a flagship local transport policy. The issue has engulfed the City of Edinburgh Council, and now risks destroying local politics completely: Not only the existing administration, but public trust in local government decision-making.

Political heavy-weights, who normally shy away from the minutiae of local governance, are now offering parental guidance in public: Alistair Darling (local Member of Parliament, and former United Kingdom Chancellor and Secretary of State for Transport) described the option to borrow £231 million ($370 million) to complete the city centre section of the tram line as “absolute madness” – the local population would be saddled with vast debts. Days later, Graham Birse (chief executive of the influential Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce) called the decision to not complete the city centre section, “bonkers” – far fewer passengers would use a tram that did not serve the city centre adequately. Even Alex Salmond (Scotland’s First Minister) has become directly embroiled, struggling to contain calls for an immediate public inquiry to identify who is responsible.

Burn the witches! This Scottish tragedy is rapidly descending into farce. That would be unfortunate, because this particular local difficulty goes to the heart of the Scottish nationalist agenda: A desire for greater devolution of public funds to local level. More localised independent entities have fewer financial resources, so are less able to manage expensive, risky projects. Consequently policy ambitions also need to be scaled back. Such scale isn’t necessarily a problem – small can be beautiful. The problem lies in pretending to be big, when not.

This article introduces the concept of risk in tram (and similarly large public transportation and infrastructure) projects, chronicles the decisions that lead a relatively small local authority to need to find hundreds of millions of pounds to support a single project, and explores the implications for future policy-making, especially in the context of a more devolved Scotland. Continue reading “Scottish Tram Financing”

Systems of Curse and ZAM

The World of Warcraft ecosystem saw the final “big fansite” acquisition this week, with MMO-Champion bought by Curse Inc. Big meaning something that attracts millions of users each month. Curse have been using some of their $11 million of venture capital to buy up a variety of gaming fansites, including many popular WoW sites. But MMO-Champion is significant for 3 other reasons:

  • Corporate deal, not the “founder buy-out” traditionally commonplace among gaming fansites. MMO-Champion was previously owned by Major League Gaming, already a multi-million dollar enterprise (by comparison, $46 million funding).
  • Completes a duopoly (2 dominant businesses) in the core World of Warcraft “fansite” market – Curse and ZAM. While there are other large businesses and specialist niches on the fringe, none of those appear to be growing into the core WoW market.
  • Exposes an intriguing driver of this market structure: Systems costs – the underlying technology and support costs. Intriguing because these were crucial in determining the market structure of far more traditional sectors of the economy, like groceries.

This article analyses the latest acquisitions and discusses the unseen importance of systems costs. Continue reading “Systems of Curse and ZAM”


As I write, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a national election campaign. A month during which politicians vie to confuse the electorate with big numbers. Politics is suddenly ravaged by intangibility, because the national economy is unable to sustain the usual tangible proxies for a better life – “more schools and hospitals” – and because the tangible results of fixing that economy tend to be unattractive – “less schools and hospitals”. So the best political strategy is not explaining the consequence of choices in a language ordinary people can understand.

Do you like the sound of £100 million ($150 million)? Can I tempt you with £160 billion? Expressing these figures per person in the population can be useful. The first figure is one bar of luxury chocolate for everyone. Doesn’t sound so big now, does it? The second figure is like everyone having a £2,500 bank overdraft (loan). Strange that, because indirectly, we do.

Unfortunately, applying the economics of household groceries to major items of government expenditure introduces certainty. The idea that one can visit a store where luxury chocolate bars are sold for precisely £1.70. Yet many large elements of government expenditure are akin to ordering a chocolate bar years before it can be eaten, for a price that transpires to be somewhere between £1 and £5.

Larger businesses will be familiar with this concept. It’s called risk. Such businesses are often far more interested in what “it might cost” (£5) than what “it will cost” (£1.70), because what it might cost might lead the business to bankruptcy.

The national economy is chaotic in its complexity, but overall, things should average out. So long as all the assumptions are broadly reasonable: Ultimately some will earn/cost more, some less. Short-term in-balance can be solved by (basically) printing more money, and then down-grading future assumptions until everything is back in balance.

However, this breeds a form of arrogance. A sense that government doesn’t need to consider the possibilities. That we can deliver a radical new policy – that has never been done before – and, in spite of it never having been done before, we know precisely how much it is going to cost. Just like a bar of chocolate.

Unfortunately, assumptions tend towards optimism. On average, projected costs are less than actual costs. This isn’t just a problem for accountants. It means that decisions are taken which do not reflect reality. Potentially leading to a Disneyland scenario, where everything is affordable until after the decision is taken, when suddenly everything has become too expensive. It ultimately challenges the validity of decisions, and in doing so, the moral authority of those that take them.

This article uses the Edinburgh Tram project to demonstrate the inherent uncertainty of large government infrastructure projects. It discusses the role of optimism in planning, and the methods used to reconcile planned optimism with subsequent reality. The article describes how the involvement of the private sector in public projects has evolved over the last 20 years, and the highlights the different time-scales applied to private investment and public choices. It concludes that optimism is not only unavoidable, but necessary. Rather, the true problem lies in tendency of people to demand certainty from the public sector, while accepting uncertainty in the private sector. Continue reading “Optimism”

Railways for Prosperity

Recreating the Island of Sodor in Kidderminster. In the dying years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the United Kingdom government launched a policy document called “Roads for Prosperity”. £23 billion ($35 billion) would fund a network of highway improvements. Schemes that eased capacity constraints on the strategic (primary routes) road network. It was a response to rising car use, and the belief that not providing sufficient highway capacity would damage the UK economy – national prosperity.

It didn’t happen. Neither the threat to prosperity, nor the policy:

  • Environmentalists rallied against the few early projects (famously turning the Newbury Bypass and Twyford Down into civil battlegrounds) – road-building became politically negative, rather than positive.
  • There was never really enough money in national budget to fund the policy – increasingly obvious as the UK economy dipped into the recession of the early 1990s.
  • Even with the policy, roads would still be built slower that road traffic was growing – it was not possible to “build your way out” of the problem. It’s worse than it first seems, because new roads generate additional traffic growth, requiring more road capacity, generating more traffic…

The legacy was apparent in Tony Blair’s first Labour administration (or more accurately, John Prescott’s, the minister who led the transport and environmental agendas in the late 1990s): Much greater emphasis on sustainability, local projects, and use of forgotten modes, like buses and shoes.

Now, step forward 20 years to 2010.

The Secretary of State for railways and other transport, Lord Adonis, announces plans for a new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham. At least £15 billion ($23 billion) for the first phase, rising to £30 billion with extensions further north. (Read those figures with caution – the costs of the previous West Coast Mainline upgrade project increased so much that nobody could remember how low the initial estimate was.) Inflation means that the cost of this latest rail project is only about half the (real terms) cost of Roads for Prosperity. But Roads for Prosperity proposed thousands of miles of highway, across many different locations, compared to a few hundred miles of railway track between a few large cities. And “Railways for Prosperity”, as I’ve corrupted the latest proposal, doesn’t have the pretence of strategy.

Politically it’s work of genius – the benefits flow to the political class (who tend to use trains), especially those living in increasingly marginal electoral territories in the West Midlands and North-West of England. Meanwhile, the Peoples’ Republic of Great Missenden (and soon likely every other other community near the route) is up in arms because the totalitarian regime they likely never voted for, has decided to build a railway – without the local station necessary for them to commute to London. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

Forget the “high-speed” aspect of the title. Operationally, the need is to increase capacity (see the box below). Make space for more trains on one of the busiest railway lines in Britain. More capacity creates more redundancy in the system, which makes it easier to recover from operational problems, and so makes trains more reliable. From bitter personal experience as a passenger, I suspect reliability is worth more than speed here. Of course, “better reliability” sounds a lot vaguer than “30 minutes faster”.

Read beyond the concrete, and the talk is all about “economic growth”, and “jobs”, and.

It’s at times like this that I want to pick up a shotgun and blow my brains out. 20 years later we’re back where we started. And nobody seems to have noticed.

This article uses historic examples to question the strength of the relationship between transport and the economy. It highlights the political biases towards railways, and their funding. The article explains why grand transport projects remain popular, when their overall impact on problems is often minimal. Rough analysis is presented that demonstrates the futility of building new railways – the 21st century reality, that we simply cannot afford to continue enlarging our transport networks in response to increased passenger demand. Finally, a stark comparison is made between communications and “transport” policy, which questions the validity of spending 15 times more on a new railway, than on a core element of “digital” inclusion. Along the way, the article clarifies a few popular misconceptions, from the influence of Unionism, to the impact of “integration”. Continue reading “Railways for Prosperity”

Nation of Adoration

World of Warcraft’s seasonal holiday events temporarily reduce player interest in fishing. It’s always been the case, but the decline in fishing seems to be becoming more extreme over time:

Decline in Fishing Activity due to Holiday Events

The graph’s y-axis is the percentage decline in page views at El’s Extreme Anglin’ from the 7 days before each event, to the first 7 days of the event. Pageviews are a good proxy for overall angler interest. El generates hundreds of thousands of page views each week, so even small changes are significant. The x-axis orders events by date, from January 2008. The axis isn’t scaled correctly to show time, but holidays are fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. Events are shown by green dots, with a shortened date (month and year) and the name of the event.

The data is expressed as a percentage of the previous week, because while interest in fishing “waxes and wains” from year-to-year, changes week-to-week are normally minor.

All the events included last at least 7 days. Where one holiday runs concurrently with another event (for example, the “Lunar Festival” and “Love is in the Air” often clash), only the first event in the sequence is included. Interest in fishing also changes dramatically in the month new content is added, so events that clash with major fishing patches have been excluded (Noblegarden 2008 with patch 2.4, Hallow’s End 2008 with patch 3.0.2, and Noblegarden/Children’s Week 2009 with patch 3.1). Winter Veil is also excluded: The period leading to Christmas is particularly unusual – first students stop studying and have a lot of time to play, and then many players stop playing to spend time with family. This causes large changes in activity from week-to-week, which makes it hard to isolate Winter Veil in the data.

Only 12 separate sets of data can be compared. There is one out-lier – Midsummer 2008 – perhaps the early stages of Wrath of the Lich King testing may have caused a small traffic spike in the week before? The pattern shown on the graph is not certain. But I’m growing confident that events are increasingly impacting on fishing activity.

But why? Continue reading “Nation of Adoration”