Reanimating Regional

Delicious Deception

This essay outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos“. “Reanimating Regional” is the fifth essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. The first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre and post-democratic eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. The fourth, “Understanding Obligación“, builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”.

Regionalism

The previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, modelled connectivity nationally, as expected by the national deception explained in the second essay, “Disassembling Trenes“. Yet throughout this sequence of essays evidence has emerged that points to an actuality that is altogether more local, especially on the periphery. The connectivity model is limited by its use of municipal geography, which logically precludes analysis within municipalities, but can give some indication of the importance of locality by additionally restricting connections to those wholly within specific geographic regions – Autonomous Communities or Provinces. The regional indices reflect how well people within a particular geographic area are connected to each other, not how well they are connected to major populations elsewhere in Spain, and consequently can produce very different results to the national model. The construction of the regional index’s population weighting differs slightly, with each region weighted by its proportion of the total analysed (Spanish) population. The result is interpreted the same as before, with 100 representing an average Spaniard in an “average” region (Autonomous Community or Province). That there physically is no such average place can make the regional index values slightly misleading if read in isolation. In particular, Autonomous Communities which contain only one province attain different indices for the same internal network because the overall average changes – the comparison is to communities and provinces respectively. However, since all indices notionally average to 100, direct comparison is possible. The table below shows the passenger rail connectivity of each province to the whole nation, their own community, and their own province. Initial analysis is for all operators, since non-Renfe services can become important within regions. The strength of each area’s “localism” or “nationalism” is expressed as “regionalism”: The bias toward either province (positive percentages) or nation (negative percentages), calculated as, (community + province) – (national + community), divided by the average of all three indices. The variance is that of all three indices, low variance indicative of consistency between each index.

Regionalism in Peninsula Railway Connectivity
Province and Community Connectivity Index (100 is “average”) Regionalism
National Community Province Bias Variance
Almería 50 124 45 -8% 19
Cádiz 109 308 183 +37% 101
Córdoba 191 421 84 -46% 297
Granada 26 163 116 +88% 48
Huelva 64 118 90 +29% 7
Jaén 81 176 134 +41% 23
Málaga 137 296 121 -9% 94
Sevilla 182 551 166 -5% 475
All Andalucía 120 319 129 +5% 127
Huesca 56 48 99 +63% 8
Teruel 39 35 83 +83% 7
Zaragoza 375 98 78 -162% 276
All Aragón 287 83 82 -136% 139
Asturias 158 238 298 +60% 49
Cantabria 85 199 250 +93% 71
Ávila 107 274 91 -10% 103
Burgos 226 377 87 -61% 211
León 182 289 173 -4% 42
Palencia 235 376 102 -56% 188
Salamanca 91 223 79 -9% 64
Segovia 124 220 81 -31% 51
Soria 74 17 77 +6% 11
Valladolid 239 461 76 -63% 373
Zamora 68 78 71 +4% 0
All Castilla y León 171 305 99 -37% 109
Albacete 200 390 126 -31% 185
Ciudad Real 160 250 219 +28% 21
Cuenca 100 140 90 -8% 7
Guadalajara 131 91 121 -9% 4
Toledo 66 52 66 +1% 1
All Castilla-La Mancha 126 179 125 -1% 10
Barcelona 284 413 346 +18% 41
Girona 75 134 189 +86% 32
Lleida 176 173 150 -16% 2
Tarragona 159 216 384 +89% 138
All Catalunya 244 350 323 +26% 31
Araba 265 210 67 -110% 105
Bizkaia 111 325 305 +78% 140
Gipuzkoa 149 269 314 +68% 73
All Euskadi 147 290 272 +53% 61
Badajoz 67 262 214 +81% 103
Cáceres 73 194 133 +45% 37
All Extremadura 69 237 184 +70% 73
Coruña, A 98 322 205 +51% 125
Lugo 97 182 118 +16% 20
Ourense 139 301 111 -15% 105
Pontevedra 134 341 154 +9% 131
All Galicia 115 309 165 +26% 101
Madrid 476 135 169 -118% 353
Murcia 190 152 190 +0% 5
Navarra 141 95 119 -19% 5
La Rioja 142 80 100 -39% 10
Alacant 131 248 244 +55% 45
Castelló 173 299 219 +20% 41
València 216 434 285 +22% 124
All Valenciana 179 349 262 +31% 72

Community connectivity indices tend to be higher than national connectivity indices: As introduced in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, passenger rail is simply a better match to geography on the scale of most Autonomous Communities. In comparison national journeys tend to be too distant to generate sufficient passenger volumes for rail, while journeys within provinces tend to be too local in their character for rail to serve effectively. It is no accident that Renfe’s operations tend to be more regional than national. The exceptions to this pattern are of particular interest. Madrid, the most obvious exception, is discussed in the next section. The Ebro Valley (Huesca, Teruel, Navarra, La Rioja and Zaragoza) again emerges as an exception, its patterns owing much to the awkward set of Modern political boundaries, discussed both in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, and again in the conclusion of this essay. Zaragoza emerges as the most nationally biased province in Spain – little Madrid, as Zaragoza was previously attributed, even outdoing the national bias of its namesake.

The term “regionalism” has been used nebulously, to apply to both Autonomous Communities and provinces, because some regions are specifically skewed to community connectivity, and some to provincial connectivity. Andalucía, both overall and by province, clearly emphasises the connectivity within its Autonomous Community, which is consistently much higher than both national and provincial connectivities. The province of Sevilla is not just the best connected of any province to its respective community, but the individual municipalities of Sevilla and neighbouring Dos Hermanas compute the highest Community Connectivity Indices of any municipality in Spain – indices which are more than three times higher than their respective connectivities to their own provinces. For Andalucía, “cohesión territorial” evidently applies to the territory of the Autonomous Community, yet this pattern runs counter to recent policy – both national attempts to link Andalucían cities to Madrid at high speed, and local metro-building, which is primarily municipal. Such policy might be explained as a contemporary attempt to readjustment the role of railways, away from that within the community, but it seems more likely that current policy merely reflects the current gap in funding discussed in the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes“: Adequate funding is only available for national LAV or local tram schemes – the Junta de Andalucía’s attempt to fund its own Sevilla-Antequera (for Granada and Málaga) LAV route having comprehensively failed. That the community even tried to build its own internal high speed railway, a feat no other Autonomous Community has seriously attempted on its own, can be attributed to Andalucía’s particular emphasis on community connectivity. Although, by attempting to build the line to the already best-connected capital city and province, Sevilla, the Junta might reasonably be accused of regional centralism – which, given the provincial tensions of Andalucían politics, is also a logical cause of failure.

Galicia follows a broadly similar, but less pronounced, pattern to Andalucía, with rail primarily serving community cohension, not the nation or the more local, with recent Galician politics also emphasising internal AV connectivity. The other “historic communities”, Catalunya and Euskadi (the Basque Country), show stronger biases towards provincial connectivity, as perhaps befits their contemporary political separatisms, especially once their outliers (Lleida and Araba) are isolated from the analysis. Tarragona has the highest connectivity with its own province of any province in Spain, with Barcelona close behind. Tarragona’s rail-served coastal strip is relatively urban in character, and the strength of the current campaign to retain stations at Salou and Cambrils (scheduled for closure when the parallel LAV line opens) provides some evidence of the importance of rail connectivity within the province – and specifically the tension between the regional promoters of the Mediterranean Corridor and more local public transport interests. As noted in prior analysis, the city of Lleida obtains high national connectivity, primarily through AVE, but the province itself is relatively rural and difficult to serve by rail: That the Generalitat de Catalunya none-the-less persist in trying, most notably in their recent redevelopment of the Pobla de Segur line, can perhaps be attributed to Lleida’s current lack of skew toward provincial connectivity, as found elsewhere in Catalunya. Although Catalunya has a substantial non-Renfe network, especially in and around Barcelona, the additional connectivity it offers is very marginal: The Renfe-only connectivity index for the province of Barcelona is 334, against 346 for all operators. Analysis of only non-Renfe operators scores 332. As argued in The Art of Public Competition, Barcelona gains indirectly, by promoting a form of competition between operators which ultimately raises the connectivity delivered by all.

In the province of València the Autonomous operator FGV delivers more connectivity than Renfe – the Renfe-only index is 205, compared to FGV’s 294 and an all-operator index of 285. While FGV operates a few routes that somewhat parallel Renfe’s, it offers little direct competition of the type seen in the province of Barcelona. Euskadi (the Basque Country) contains even greater difference between Renfe and non, with non-Renfe operators (Euskotren, plus metro in Bilbao) providing up to half the connectivity in the coastal provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa – both connectivity within province and within community. Even where route competition exists (Donostia-Irun and Bilbao-Santurtzi) non-Renfe services tend to be more frequent, and overall any counter-balance appears more strategic than local. Yet the most curious facet of Euskadi is the province of Araba – in railway terms Gasteiz (Vitoria) – whose national connectivity is the strongest (quite unlike Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa), whose non-Renfe service is a municipal tram (with no impact on connectivity beyond), and whose current railway service pattern is almost incidental (to the provision of longer distance services). How many intending passengers have been confused to learn that Renfe cannot offer a journey, let alone a direct train, between Bilbao and Gasteiz? Gasteiz is a geographic oasis built on a plateau surrounded by mountains, which plays the role of isolated federal capital for the two rival Basque coastal provinces – and if that wasn’t enough, the southern half of Araba wholly contains the enclave of Treviño, which is administratively still part of Castilla y León: There is no shortage of explanation for the vast differences between Araba’s regional connectivity and that of the remainder of Euskadi.

Beyond those Autonomous Communities and provinces discussed above, there is a broad correlation between peripherality and localism: The Asturias, Cantabria and Extremadura are strongly biased toward internal connectivity, Valenciana less so, Murcia balanced, and the Castillas and Ebro tending toward national connectivity – although each contains provincial exceptions. As documented in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, Extremadura’s national connectivity is undeniably poor, with relatively consistent income biases indicating no particular importance attached to any one conectivity scope (of national, community or province). However Extremadura’s internal regional connectivity is much more respectable than its national connectivity, with regional indices in the order of 200. A third of Extremadura’s population is concentrated into its four largest towns (Badajoz, Cáceres, Mérida, Plasencia), which can all be linked together by a single railway service – so what looks like a rudimentary service pattern actually achieves a reasonable level of connectivity for a reasonable proportion of the population. This focus on internal connectivity might help explain why many of Extremadura’s complaints focus on the quality of service delivery, complaints which the political system can only manage through physical assets, especially infrastructure. It follows from Extremadura’s strong internal connectivity that the region’s poor national connectivity is primarily rooted in a limited range of national destinations, something that could perhaps have been improved with some more imaginative service planning. Based on current service patterns, which are entirely OSP state supported, Extremadura’s LAV can expect to be served by a few daily AVE services, primarily carrying (and thus funded through) OSP Avant seats, offering a minimal service pattern which is unlikely to link beyond Madrid, and thus providing much the same national connectivity as now (just faster and more reliable). The Autonomous Community demands LAV as a link to Madrid because those are the terms on which LAV is funded nationally, but if LAV’s prime function is actually regional connectivity – something a Badajoz-Mérida-Cáceres-Plasencia LAV axis would improve still further – then almost any such improvement in Extremadura will create greater inequalities elsewhere, since Extremadura already has as good a regional connectivity as it can fairly expect. Regardless, the question of what policy objective Extremadura’s railways are serving – regional or national, actual or perceived – should raise policy concerns, because the region’s demographics are likely to dictate sustained state support of any future AV operation, support which might prove hard to justify in the midst of any future public funding crisis.

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Saving Ferroviarias

ADIF at Luarca station

This essay reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre-democratic and Modern eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Saving Ferroviarias” is the first essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. The fourth, “Understanding Obligación“, builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”. “Reanimating Regional” outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos”.

The Human Semaphore

Five roads, two sidings. Three passenger platforms, one freight warehouse. Station building, two floors. Toilets, two sexes, immaculate. Ticket office, staffed and open. Next passenger train, five or maybe six hours hence. For now the daily freight approaches, light but double-headed. The station master dons cap and stands to attention upon platform one. Arm outstretched, flag clenched vertical. The human semaphore signal, the only sign of life. But all is not well in toytown. For taped to the unnecessarily large timetable case is a demand: “Por un tren digno para todas, más inversión pública y menos concesiones” – for a train worthy of all, more public investment and fewer private concessions.

This diorama, reminiscent of European railways of the early 20th century, is not primarily remarkable because it persists on the north coast of Spain a century later. Rather that the railway line on which it persists, that from Ferrol to Gijón, was not even opened until 1972 – its construction having spanned an entire era of “cohesión territorial” from Primo de Rivera in 1923 until the death of Franco in 1975. For Rafael Benjumea y Burín, the Count of Guadalhorce who served under both, “cohesión territorial” tended to emphasise land, a residual feudalism that characterised much policy of the period: Many of the routes Guadalhorce proposed connected Spanish provinces that had not been directly connected by the private railway concessionaires of the later 19th century, typically because those routes connected few people, hence would have generated little traffic and thus insufficient commercial return on investment. In retrospect, Guadalhorce’s railway-building plans were, almost by definition, economically irrational. But judged within Guadalhorce’s era, the policy failed not because of an entirely predictable dearth of traffic, but because of the inability of the fragile and isolationist Spanish state to fund such an expensive mode of transport in the absence of private capital: That the purely public state was not strong enough to deliver the “cohesión territorial” the state needed in order to maintain state is a basic and still largely unacknowledged arithmetic flaw in Spanish rail-based state-building, which in the current era has led the nation state to depend (financially) on a global world that by definition undermines it, a vicious circle expanded by the essay On the Wings of Hope.

Few of Guadalhorce’s proposed railways were completed, and even fewer were retained in the subsequent era of “democracy”. Modern Spain shifted the emphasis of “cohesión territorial” toward people. However that demos was structured too hierarchically, as if the external projection of Spain as a singular sovereign nation meant that Spain could be managed internally as an absolute power: A model which simply cannot reflect the interactions of the people of Spain, which are between people, especially between small but intensively known groups of people. This tension, first explored in the essay Absolute Devolution, routinely renders gaps in transactional responsibility, leaving the state held responsible for providing that which the populous cannot themselves fully comprehend. National in conception but often rather local in delivery, it is consequently widely understood that state-owned Spanish railway operator Renfe only offers services in certain places, yet there is scant understanding of why. While “democracy” may have shifted public expectations toward serving people – railways that offer passenger utility – the formal structure of that democracy still tends toward the projection of authority from what used to be called God – an idea of physical “presence” introduced in The Expectations of Competition. The combination is a state railway that should, by Modern Spanish democratic expectation, relate people together, but is too often moribund by a political structure that can only affect relations through physical infrastructure, and especially struggles to relate past infrastructure to contemporary use. A struggle that has now festered for a century, almost oblivious to fundamental demographic and economic change in the meantime, mocking any sense of societal equality appended to the modern rhetoric of “cohesión territorial”.

As explored in the next section, the long-run financial unsustainability of modern Spain’s high speed railway network now poses a threat to the whole national railway, a threat that logically perpetuates the evolution of Alta Velocidad (AV) into a more regional service, in search of more revenue-earning traffic – a gradual slide that started the moment Ciudad Real was accidentally added to the first Línea de Alta Velocidad (LAV), as described in Is Alta Velocidad Fast? But at least LAV was conceived to link large centres of population in an era when people mattered – even if the residual manifestation of authority, and more specifically the structural needs of Castilla (explored in the next essay, “Disassembling Trenes“), still appear to focus those links upon Spain’s largest city and capital, Madrid. In contrast Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE), the traditional state operator of the metre-gauge railway network introduced at the start of this essay, remains resolutely stuck in the previous era: If the only aim is to link Galicia to the Asturias, it matters not that the population of Luarca are offered no same-day return railway journey to Oviedo, their regional capital. Or that the people of A Mariña (Lugo’s coastal belt) cannot use the train to travel to work or to hospital. Indigno indeed.

FEVE‘s suburban core is scarcely better, its combination of speed and frequency woefully inadequate to compete with modern autopistas (motorways) – or, in Asturias, even to compete with the traditional rival, Renfe. Oh, Renfe (Viajeros SME SA) may have taken ownership of FEVE’s passenger operations at the start of 2013, but the two organisations continue to maintain not only separate trains, but separate labour agreements, separate passenger information systems, and even separate ticket offices in certain shared stations. Such integration surely serves only to dilute FEVE’s abysmal financial performance: For example, across the whole of the Asturias, FEVE only carries about five thousand people each day across roughly 270 daily train journeys, averaging under 20 passengers per train. Just 14% of FEVE’s Asturian operating costs are covered from passenger revenue. That performance is on a par with Iberian-gauge Renfe routes slated for closure – such as the original line to Segovia which has been largely surpassed by an AV alternative – but is a travesty of market development given FEVE’s core Asturian operating territory around Oviedo: A fragmented, but still relatively high density of population, where the focus of much local travel is a city whose transport policies are intent on dissuading car use. Yet even Íñigo de la Serna – a native of the north coast, who must have been well aware of FEVE’s malaise – could only propose an 8-year survival package of track and trains: A strategy of maintaining a status quo that was defined in a very different era.

Although the town’s bus station is now in denial – their timetables not even afforded a proper display, in sharp contrast to local municipal bus services – Luarca is the L in ALSA, “Automóviles Luarca Sociedad Anónima”: A commercial business that has grown to become Spain’s largest bus operator, and is now part of a global public transport group. Much of ALSA‘s pre-1960s success can be attributed to the Galicia-Asturias corridor, an axis which then had no railway, and thus no incumbent rail operator with the legal right to deny ALSA their long-distance bus concessions. ALSA’s dominance was undiminished by the eventual arrival of the railway – ALSA’s current service through Luarca is faster, vastly better scheduled, and generally stops closer to the people it serves. And one look at Oviedo’s massive ALSA-dominated bus station suggests this pattern is not unique to Luarca: ALSA’s territorial victory marked by the building of a bus station on a site originally occupied by FEVE, a veritable stake driven through the heart of the vanquished. Yet there is scant evidence that FEVE ever tried to offer a competitive local transport counter-balance. The implication, that the railway was never intended to convey local people: Its plethora of local stations offering localities the mere “presence” of the state. A presence that, for Luarca, completely dominates the skyline with a behemoth of a concrete viaduct that looms over the town – an attempt to dominate nature in a town where nature dominates.

In the north-west of Spain nature is unstable: A pattern most obvious in its changeable Atlantic-driven climate, which is quite unlike the meteorological stability experienced by the rest of Spain. The far west of Britain understands a similar environment through the predictive analytic, but that is not a philosophical model integral to Spain. Instead the people of north-west Spain would seem to de-emphasise time as a continuum, since logically such time offers no stable basis for comparison and therefore no reliable platform for understanding. Perhaps taken to its extreme conclusion, the only time is now, which can only be understood in its moment. The pattern perplexes Castilians, but helps explain why the north-west produces such good managers of chaos. However the north-west is still strongly influenced by the Spanish “family” model of knowing – the intensely known group, not a knowledge that deconstructs the wider whole. But shorn of the implicit stability of environment assumed elsewhere in Spain, the people of the north-west are perhaps more inclined to focus on their immediate environment, narrowing the geographic scope of locality: The Asturias must feel like the biggest small place in the world. Consequently the instability of nature does not just make the theological Spanish state work extra hard to impose itself: It changes how locality is perceived – the geographic proximity at which the familiar becomes unfamiliar – which contributes to the substantial differences between the regions of Spain. Differences which national transport entities are somehow expected to manage fairly. For the national infrastructure provider, the “presence” offered by railway networks can surely never be enough to match the intensity with which locality may be felt. For the national public transport operator, the reduced distance from “home” at which the collective group dynamic fades and the individual survival instinct takes over, makes competition with the private car challenging. Yet here, as often, persistence in the face of the unachievable propagates the counter-balancing tension that sustains Spain.

Continue reading “Saving Ferroviarias”

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?”

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”

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 Marketplace

Rob Pardo Earlier in 2009, Blizzard announced a non-commercial World of Warcraft add-on policy, which caused much discussion. Today at BlizzCon, Rob Pardo (illustrated) introduced the Starcraft 2 Marketplace: A future (after the game’s launch) system that would allow independent development teams to create custom “premium maps” for the game, and make money from them. That’s precisely what World of Warcraft add-on developers cannot do. So what’s changed?

Why Create a Starcraft 2 Marketplace?

Pardo stated:

“If you create a really cool map, with all original content, that’s awesome, you can put it up onto the service [Battle.net], and actually make money on your map.”

Blizzard is prepared to share a “portion” of the revenue if you create your own Intellectual Property, and don’t simply re-use their property. Seems reasonable.

The SC2 Marketplace is intended to allow parts of the mod‘ community to evolve from amateurs to professionals. “Fan made” maps were acknowledged as an important way to keep Starcraft alive – over time, players shifted from Blizzard-made maps to fan-made maps. But maps (Pardo used Warcraft 3 as an example) still tend to use Blizzard’s game assets (such as art textures), because creating original content takes a lot of effort. And passion alone does not pay the bills. By allowing map authors to earn money from popular maps, those people would be able to fund the creation of their own, original game assets.

There’s a real sense that Blizzard lost the chance to nurture and (commercially) gain from innovations within “their game engine”. Rob Pardo again:

“The Tower Defense maps came out of the Warcraft 3 community. And now you see Tower Defense in the PlayStation store…”

Earlier in the day Stompalina tweeted about the similarity between Battle.net (Blizzard’s community platform) and Steam (Valve‘s community platform). And she’s not wrong.

Both companies are unusual. They have both escaped from the traditional publisher-funded business model that underpins most major (non-casual/Flash) game development and distribution. Valve’s Steam originally gained popularity from games like Half Life, but has now become a method of distributing games written by others – everyone from small college/”garage” projects, to mainstream titles, like Total War.

Valve is already ahead of Blizzard in constructing a social-gaming platform, even though Blizzard was there first, and should understand the media better (from developing World of Warcraft). So perhaps opening up Starcraft as a semi-commercial platform for third parties is a new strategy in that race?

Why Not Create a Marketplace in Other Games?

SC2 Marketplace Illustration Competition with the wider gaming industry does not explain why Blizzard are so unwilling to adopt a similar approach within their other games. Some of us (and I include myself) would like to do this within World of Warcraft. I have previously demonstrated that WoW has a huge pool of talent among its players, and that pool of talent is increasingly reluctant to work within WoW because it has become afraid to make money. Something which we now all seem agree is required to support major (time-consuming) projects.

It is possible to create original IP within WoW. Technically this would be more difficult within a MMOG, because players that don’t buy your content, still need to interact with those that do. But there are creative methods of working round those limitations.

One possibility is that Starcraft 2 is a new product, which is politically (within Blizzard’s decision-making process) and technically (programmed to be supported from the outset) far easier to impose a new strategy on. And we might eventually see a more relaxed approach in Azeroth.

My fear is that World of Warcraft is being treated differently because its brand is to valuable at this stage in its life-cycle.

Shrewd observers will note that Blizzard have started “doing the Star Wars thing” with the WoW brand: The revenue directly from the game gradually becomes less important than all the merchandise and franchise opportunities. Soft drinks and Trading Card Games were just the beginning…

The problem for “fan-based” projects is:

  1. Franchise and license opportunities are not available to “the little guy”. They’re not the large businesses Blizzard look for.
  2. If you sell a license it has to be worth something. So a “fan project” cannot co-exist with a franchised project that it (often inadvertently) conflicts with.

There have been several examples over the last year where conflict has arisen. Unfortunately, I’m not able to publicly discuss all of them. Suffice to say the legal threats are very real: Suddenly one finds one’s self liable for lost earnings of the franchisee and Blizzard. That’s almost certainly more money than you have – few people are prepared to risk bankruptcy.

On the Road to Damascus

If Blizzard have had a change of heart, will anyone trust them? Sadly the answer is yes. Not least because individuals tend to confuse the company with its products. And the corpses of all those fallen add-on developers decay fast.

A marketplace doesn’t fit Blizzard’s culture – somewhat secretive, protective, and controlling of its work. But Blizzard seem very similar to Apple. And Apple have managed to sustain a very successful iPhone store, full of applications created by independant developers. If both parties benefit, these uncomfortable partnerships can thrive.

Perhaps there is hope after all?

Postscript

The following day, in an interview with DirectTV, Rob Pardo was asked this question directly: Why Blizzard are endorsing commercial SC2 mods, while they have just outlawed commercial WoW mods? His reply was:

“We’re not making money from the people that are doing third party things for WoW. It’s not really allowed to go out and make stuff around WoW without licensing it from us. It’s really us just protecting our Intellectual Property.”

Financing Hyper-Virality in the Clouds

This article probes the implications of cloud computing for financing very rapidly distributed internet-based services and products. It contains rough, inadequately researched thoughts, sparked from discussions at the recent CloudCamp Scotland. Continue reading “Financing Hyper-Virality in the Clouds”