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 cohesion, 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.

Continue reading “Reanimating Regional”

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Understanding Obligación

FEVE Crossroads

This essay 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”. “Understanding Obligación” is the fourth 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. “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”.

Modelling Connectivity

Transport models have acquired a reputation for becoming impenetrably complicated, their results rendered as factual knowledge however internally flawed their logics actually are. Spanish policymaking has its own form of complexity, that in the relationships between people, and thus complex modelling risks being distilled down into simple statements in support of a pre-determined policy position. Instead this analysis tries to place greater emphasis on understanding, using only commonly agreed tokens (people, trains, distance), and making only practical assumptions that hopefully reflect “common sense”. To that end, a model of connectivity across Spain’s passenger railway network has been built in simple stages:

  1. Basic Connectivity – who is connected by train to who: A matrix of routes between municipalities with stations on which at least one train per day links the pair directly. Each pairing is multiplied by the municipal population of the destination, the result for all pairs from the origin then summed and attributed to the origin. The population of the origin municipality is added to the result, which is assumed to have perfect connectivity to itself – an assumption that only tangibly affects the overall connectivity score of the largest, and avoids cities attaining worse connectivity scores than the suburbs that connect to them (because those suburbs would gain the connectivity of the city’s population, while the city would not).
  2. Service Connectivity – who is connected to who by what frequency of train service: As basic connectivity above, except each route pairing is additionally multiplied by a factor representing service frequency, ( 1 – ( 1 / daily trains ) ), where daily trains is the total of both directions. This formula gives no value to the first train (which logically supposes no possibility of return), but thereafter values of each additional pair marginally, as half the value of the previous pair. Such weighting places emphasis on attaining the most basic level of service, as befits the non-urban regional networks that are the focus of this sequence of essays, while weighting high frequency metro services very marginally indeed.
  3. Hinterland Connectivity – who is connected to who by what frequency of train service, but where people use the station with the best ratio of connectivity to proximity, not necessarily the nearest station: For every municipality (both with and without stations), calculate the straight line distance from the centroid of the origin municipality to all municipalities with stations within 150 kilometres, and then find the municipality with the highest ( Service Connectivity of municipality * ( 1 / distance to municipality in kilometres ) ), assigning that calculated value to the initial origin municipality. This gravity model reflects the tendency of municipalities with many more trains to attract passengers from more distant markets. The assumed distance tapper is approximate, but generally succeeds in both re-assigning relatively poorly served municipalities that are close to a much better served neighbour (for example, a municipality 10 kilometres away would need to offer at least 10 times better Service Connectivity than a local station), and assigning people in municipalities without a station to the most attractive station in their proximity (the best served relative to distance). Every place in Peninsula Spain is within 100 kilometres of at least one station, and the 150 km buffer ensures a range of stations are considered, including provincial capitals.
  4. Connectivity Index – how does this connectivity compare to that of the average Spaniard: Hinterland Connectivity is expressed as a percentage of the average for all the municipalities scored (in the base case, those within 150 kilometres of at least one station, almost the entire population of Spain), with that average weighted by population: For example, if Madrid represented 7% of the total population of scored municipalities, Madrid’s score would count towards 7% of the overall average. This population weighting serves only to distribute the resulting indices around a meaningful average, where a connectivity index of 100 is what the average Spaniard (with a station within 150 kilometres) would obtain. The indices are thus entirely relative to other members of the population, reflecting policy themes of balance and equality.

The underlying dataset used is that described in the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes” – essentially a frequency-based matrix of all non-tourist rail passenger services within Spain on Friday 20 July 2018, alongside the municipal Padrón from the start of 2017. In the interest of transparency and the benefit of any other interested researchers, the raw network analysed is available in Geojson format – as is, neither supported nor maintained, and obviously without the associated computation described above. The analysed network can also be explored visually using Aquius. Frequency-based connectivity models are far faster to compute than those that process detailed schedules, and also far easier to edit – allowing the impact of a change in service pattern to be tested conceptually, without providing the kind of detailed schedule operational planners only produce after deciding to implement a network change. That flexibility to use connectivity models for network design was unfortunately lost during the development of these techniques in Britain in the early 2000s, ultimately because central government’s desire to understand connectivity surpassed their desire to assist those who might improve it, a rationale subsequently perpetuated in academia. Yet basic connectivity models remain powerful tools for both grand strategy and network tinkering, and in an environment with little or no interchangeable electronic schedule data (such as Spain) their deployment can add insight where otherwise there is none: Spanish railway interests produce plenty of good technical information, but remarkably little relates services to people, and much of what does is pre-occupied with appeasing the god of high speed.

The aim of this analysis is to understand the broad patterns by focusing on the key relationships, not to attempt to model every conceivable detail: Journey distance is ignored, but in practice the pattern of direct routes will tend to constrain destinations, while the tendency to lower frequencies on longer distance journeys renders remote destinations with poorer Service Connectivity. The availability of realistic return journeys is also ignored, but the probability of such return journeys is inherent in the overall service frequency. Interchange between trains is ignored, since as discussed in the essay “Disassembling Trenes“, interchange is not a dominant behaviour in most of Spain’s non-urban regional networks. Local interchange, especially between suburbs and better-served city centres, is factored into Hinterland Connectivity – the reduced connectivity with distance may be assumed a crude proxy for the reduced attractiveness of interchange. Hinterland Connectivity similarly manages the few branchlines (such as FEVE‘s Collanzo line in the Asturias) whose services require interchange to reach any major destination. Hinterland Connectivity takes no specific account of the availability of alternative modes of transport to reach the railway network, although its tendency is to link groups of people in relatively close proximity, groups who tend to establish transport links between one another. The factors used in Service and Hinterland Connectivity calculations may seem rather arbitrary – and would be for detailed microsimulation – but their use here is in the production of strategic aggregated comparators, where broad consistency of approach is more important than precise local calibration.

The connectivity of the islands and north-African autonomous cities – Balears, Canarias, Ceuta and Melilla – cannot be adequately reflected in a railway model of Spain, since even islands with railways can provide no direct connections beyond their own island. Overall Connectivity Indices include island and autonomous city municipalities within 150 kilometres of a municipality with a station, so can affect the overall average score and thus the index, but in practical terms the results for these municipalities are spurious and cannot be compared to Peninsula Spain. Analysis of the connectivity of (only) non-Renfe operators has a similar weakness because the networks of these operators do not generally connect to one another – for example, however well FGV serves Valenciana, it cannot be fairly compared to a national network that links Valenciana to other parts of Spain. Non-Renfe operators can be important to specific local municipalities, and are thus important within the most local analysis, but add only marginally to the overall connectivity of regions: Even in the provinces best served by non-Renfe operators, Madrid and Barcelona, such operators only add about 10% to the overall Connectivity Index. Lleida’s extremely high connectivity poses a particular challenge to the Pobla de Segur route, which offers a relatively infrequent service whose only major destination is Lleida, and thus provides far less direct connectivity than Lleida herself. While the route is modelled, the connectivity it offers is usurped by Hinterland Connectivity at many place close to Lleida, and even at Pobla de Segur the railway offers only a marginal connectivity advantage, hence is almost invisible in the Connectivity Indices for local municipalities. Analysis of Renfe’s “commercial” non-OSP products ignores local OSP journeys delivered as shared seats on commercial services, leaving those commercial services only to stop for the benefit of longer-distance passengers. This is an accurate reflection on current operations, but produces local quirks such as removing one of the links between Badajoz and Cáceres while retaining that between Badajoz and Madrid – with the net result of reducing slightly the overall (commercial) Connectivity Index of Badajoz. Such reduced connectivity is, however, a reasonable reflection on the marginal nature of the commercial service provided.

Continue reading “Understanding Obligación”

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?”

On the Wings of Hope

AVE at Sants Station

This essay ponders the interplay of risk, debt and optimism, with specific reference to the expansion of Spain’s high speed railway network. It summarises the renaissance of AVE expansion, reconciling different approaches to risk in the construction of transport infrastructure. The interaction of external finance within the Spanish societal structure is hypothesised as reliance on external debt with no internal counter-balances – a virtual economy characterised as Gross Domestic Optimism. The postscript asks what it means to invest in state, with reference to two evolving models – people and perception.

“On the Wings of Hope” is the final essay in a sequence of four titled, “The Art of Public Competition“, which together explore the competitive model underlying Spanish public transport. An anthropological analysis of the tension between this internal model and that of globalised economics, reveals the distortion of external finance on the internal workings of the art of public competition. The first essay in the sequence establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain. The second explores the workings of the art of public competition using the example of interurban buses around Barcelona. The third examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent, using the case of post-Independència Catalunya.

AVE or Bust

Given all that has so far been described in this sequence of essays, it should be self-evident that grand public infrastructure, of the type Catalans and Spaniards came to expect in the early 2000s, can no longer be funded publicly. That the Generalitat de Catalunya’s post-Independència hiatus merely emphasised a reality first exposed by the 2008 Crisis. There is some evidence that the Generalitat, the regional government of Catalunya, had already shifted policy prior to the Referèndum, for example its 2017 proposal to replace the tolls levied on users of recently built strategic roads (those still under concession), with an annual “vignette” (tariff) paid by motorists for access to all such roads – which would generate a constant revenue stream with which to fund subsequent network development. With half these roads still administered centrally by Spain, Catalan policy would have to be shared with the Spanish government, which is itself deciding whether to maintain tolls when concession periods end. The 131st President of the Generalitat‘s personal commitment to the non-payment of tolls during 2012’s #NoVullPagar campaign, highlights how road tolls are a thorny issue in Spanish politics, not least in the wake of the recent financial failure, and consequent government rescue, of several high-profile highway concessions around Madrid. Funding the construction of new roads via private toll-raising concessionaires is broadly accepted (even if only by historic precedent), while perpetuating tolls on roads that are ostensibly already paid for resembles state taxation (even if the proceeds are hypothecated into transport projects). The resulting shift between private and public sectors has complex, long-term socio-political connotations. In the meantime, the evidence suggests that, unlike the Generalitat de Catalunya, the government of Spain has not accepted the “reality” that grand public infrastructure can no longer be funded publicly, and that it only need better risk management to achieve its pre-Crisis policies, as best illustrated by its current approach to high speed railways:

For several post-Crisis years Spain pursued ugly engineering compromises to maintain the illusion (in its Anglo-Castellano meaning of both ambition and deception) of a high speed railway building programme it could no longer afford. For example, by re-using historic railway alignments, even where those alignments mock “high speed”, as is the case for the ongoing integration of the 30 km/h Loja curves (on the line to Granada) into a network intended to reach 300 km/h. The “AVE” from Valencia to Castellón epitomised the problem: Implemented by dual-gauging (Iberian and International) one of the existing two tracks, (International gauge) AVE trains operated no faster than other trains on the same track, thus offered no additional utility beyond what could have been achieved by simply passing the AVE rolling stock through a gauge-changer. The claim that Castellón had been added to Spain’s high speed railway network was met with a good degree of Valencian cynicism, and did nothing to assuage the view that the government in Madrid ascribed a low priority to the Mediterranean Corridor (along the east coast).

2018 heralded a return to pre-Crisis high speed railway building, particularly in the north of Spain where none of the intended network had been completed beyond Valladolid – the Crisis having left an eclectic mix of disconnected infrastructure in its wake, from stations served by no trains, to depots maintaining no rolling stock. Works agreed in 2018 include Bilbao station, the most expensive railway station project in the history of Spain, a 720 million euro investment that makes the 240 million euros lavished on the temple to AVE that is Zaragoza Delicias, look cheap.

Compared to Castilla, the geology of northern Spain increases construction costs, as the Norte discovered in the 1860s – its route from Madrid to Irun cost around 550 thousand Pesetas per kilometre, compared to 208 thousand Francs per kilometre from Madrid to Zaragoza (the two currencies directly comparable because the Peseta and Franc maintained parity via the Gold Standard – although it should be noted that the Norte was actually dealing in “Reales de Vellón”, in a decade when the Spanish currency changed twice). Modern engineering techniques, such as the New Austrian tunneling method, may make many AVE route alignments possible, but such construction carries increased geological risk, as epitomised by the Pajares tunnels on the route to León and Asturias: Construction costs have more than tripled, to over 3 billion euros, as has construction time, from the five years anticipated in 2003 to perhaps twenty – while water leaks from punctured aquifers, and relentless landslides, raise doubts as to whether the line will ever open to its intended specification.

Risk is not necessarily so visual: For example, in the case of the failed highway concessions around Madrid, land purchases were budgeted on the assumption the land was categorised as rural, however that land was ultimately judged urban, greatly inflating the cost of acquiring it. Similarly, project management, even of relatively unambitious projects such as Girona’s concrete box of an AVE station, can get bogged down in local political disputes – not to mention the equivalent project in Barcelona, which was stalled for several years by anti-corruption audits. That ADIF-AV budgeted half a billion euros in 2017 to deal with litigation by its own construction contractors paints a dismal picture.

In 2017 the Spanish government legislated to moderate risk in public contracting: To spread risk across more contractors by encouraging the participation of smaller contractors through the contesting of more minor contracts, splitting large contracts, and measures such as ensuring prompt payment and improving transparency. And in parallel, to transfer risk to contractors, notably by limiting the modification of contracts with the private sector to no more than 50% of the original bid price. On genuinely risky projects, this dual policy of spread and transfer naturally tends to contradiction, since only larger companies can carry larger risks. Mid-sized construction companies remain unconvinced that the Spanish government’s approach to procuring transport infrastructure has actually changed. That the new legislation is simply patching up the cracks in the original (internal societally structured) model, is borne out by the counsel of the larger Spanish construction companies, who consider risk as a far more fluid, flexible component of project financing than the government: Shifting risk to reflect the capacity of each sector to manage it, adding value through the private sector management of projects over a longer period than the political electoral cycle, and conversely reacting faster than the public sector to offer short term flexibility. Not least because of their temporality, these are unmistakably lessons from the external, globalised environment in which these companies now operate.

Since the Crisis of 2008 Spanish construction companies have learnt to thrive in markets outside of Spain, their global dominance now second only to China: Their technical competence is not in doubt, nor is their ability to work effectively in different societal and administrative environments. Which makes their domestic environment all the more intriguing. Spanish national transport infrastructure is theoretically ripe for the application of externalised risk models:

  • The Spanish construction industry are both willing and able to adjust to more external organisational models. That adjustment does not necessarily suppose a radical change in epistemology. Rather that the internal societal model of knowable groups has the potential to be arranged differently, should it be exposed to a different environment.
  • The existing internal societal model has never worked well at the scale of national transport infrastructure, as described in The Expectations of Competition. Indeed the purpose of such transport infrastructure’s “presence” is precisely to bind groups that cannot know one another through the base societal “family” model.
  • The theological root of infrastructure presence – the boundary at which the state manifests the external (God) in nature – is surely just as capable of delivering alternative external concepts.

The inhibiting factor is elementary: The nation of Spain, by Westphalian definition, cannot be global. Spain, like other sovereign nations, is predicated on its ability to differentiate itself from the global whole. Since every element of the external that Spain accepts weakens itself as an entity, it is crucial that it uses external elements to strengthen itself as an entity. Since losing the European intellectual hegemony to the Dutch Republic, the question of what strengthens itself as an entity has plagued Spain, because its internal strength manifests in a different manner to the way the external (at least northern European) world measures strength. AVE is a contemporary example – its presence strengthens the internal idea of Spain, while its utility strengthens the external notion of economy. In practice a compromise between these internal and external assessments which perhaps satisfies neither adequately. A relentless tension – here between presence and utility – rather than a happy equilibrium be found, with respite ominously implying isolation. Given the stakes, exposure to externalised risk is moderated by the state: Unfettered external finance could weaken Spain more than it strengthens her, or might negatively alter the balance between presence and utility.

Continue reading “On the Wings of Hope”

Absolute Devolution

Barcelona a Prim, Ciutadella Park

“Absolute Devolution” is the fourth essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. The second, on hope, 1714 and All That. The third, Patria and Patrimonio, on state. This essay characterises power.

The Battle of Ciutadella continues in perpetuity. Sure, they stormed the gates. But only to raise both flags upon Prim, the Catalan-born architect of Spain’s 1868 Glorious Revolution, the subsequently assassinated herald of a particularly turbulent period of political experimentation, from monarchy to aristocracy, via canton to federation, and then back to monarchy. The Iwo Jima moment captured by no one, because no one hopes for six years of tumult to restore the initial state. Sure, they were there. The core Madrid media all but glued to the stage behind, where the “Spanish” (many, but by no means all, Castilian) crowd politely listened to speeches of unity. The more separatist (Catalan and Basque) media camped outside the parliament ahead, where a dozen vans of “Mossos d’Esquadra” (Catalan police) waited apprehensively behind barricades for a riot that never materialised. Even the new-left-biased “Sexta’s” interest waned at the dearth of televisual anger. All with a story to tell, just not this one.

Bias is truth, because – in state – knowing is social. The disunity of a people, a state, reflected in the distribution of biases, the breadth of truths. To bridge disunity is to become an observer with no tribe. Hard enough within a state, ’tis the bane of a foreign correspondent, already lost between the language (as culture) of their audience and the language of that on which they report. Now transpose philosophies, and add a final twist: The external projection of an internal certainty, for an internal which is inherently not-so-certain. Welcome to Spain. Or in the ambiguity of Catalunyian, “Hola República Suspensus”, which roughly translates into English as “please see terms and conditions” – and into the Corsican separatist French of Charlie Hebdo as, “nous exigeons un debat”. These essays are thusly biased, not least by a language that has come to betray its assumptions – a hope of communication that is necessarily never quite realised.

British policy-making is causal and predictive, as befits its dominant philosophy. Policy is analysed or discussed, the method nuanced by the government of the day, then fixed in law. The aim of the process is to implement a robust piece of legislation, not “bad law” full of ambiguities that subsequently require judicial review or referral back to the legislature. This practice presumes a degree of stability or predictability in the target of the policy, and thus inherently struggles to manage rapidly-changing policy areas. Traditionally most obvious in technology, now the bane of a Brexit process that embodies both instability and unpredictability on a huge scale. The pragmatic short-term strategy of British government has been to centralise powers, so that it is best able to exert control over that which it cannot reasonably hope to legislate robustly upon. Brexit’s expected “return of powers from Europe” has thus stalled the devolution of powers promised in the wake of the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence. Not just for Scotland, but for the less obviously separatist regions of England, especially in the North – those that had progressively seceded power to the Place of Westminster during the 20th century, power that, in the 21st, Scotland had shown was possible to take back.

At its root, Spanish policy-making is far more fluid than in Britain. Spanish legislation is more solid than raw policy debate, yet often retains fluidity, as if a live trial upon society: Laws that fit society gradually take on a popular certainty, while those that cannot be accommodated by the social order are gradually reworked. The Spanish legislature is considerably less dependent on absolute power than the British, because it rarely has to enforce anything upon its society. A sense of absolute power is only important in the Spanish state’s dealing with the external. International law and relations presume sovereignty, absolute dominion, even if the reality within is more complex. The European Union routinely strains this structure by its reliance on the supposed absolute power of sovereign member states to implement policy directives, with no particular regard for the quirky transactional structures of policy-making within states. European policy directives that Spanish society can’t easily accommodate are implemented in a state of flux. The implementation of the European Union Services Directive to Spain’s taxi sector provides an example:

The 2009 Services Directive’s principle of “freedom of establishment” inverts the Spanish social principle of “visto bueno”, to ask permission beforehand. Unfortunately that inversion was not first applied to government, which continues to operate on the implicit assumption of “visto bueno” – that government will be given the opportunity to fix problems in law before they actually become problems, exactly the opportunity that the principle of freedom of establishment denies them. Now add a taxi business operated on the traditional principle of “autogestión”, somewhat akin to an extended family – its operations protected from other (competitive) agents by locally-administered regulation, built on three tiers of Spanish legislation (Law, Regulation, and Order) and often further augmented by local Autonomous Community legislation. What was thus unlikely to be a simple or socially acceptable policy change was none-the-less implemented with almost naive simplicity: A historically niche class of taxi licence officially named “arrendamiento con conductor”, but colloquially called VTC (“Voiture de Transport avec Chauffeur”), was reclassified as discretionary transport, much like a coach hire. That should have created a pre-booked “private hire” taxi market alongside the existing on-street “hackney carriage” market. In the (then) coming age of Uber and Cabify, services which would make pre-booking (via mobile phone application) as easy as hailing a cab in the street, both markets would merge. VTC licensing had previously been intended for limousine-style operations, far less prescriptive in its regulatory requirements than for regular taxi operations, but limited to a ratio of 1 VTC licence for every 30 regular taxi licences – a limit the reclassification theoretically removed.

Many autonomous communities, notably Madrid, issued new VTC licences, yielding different degrees of liberalisation in their respective local taxi markets. In Catalunya, nothing much changed. The region’s government, the Generalitat de Catalunya, continued to ignore new taxi licence applications, much as it had done for the previous three decades. Prior VTC licences became more flexible, but insufficient in volume to support the envisaged competitive market. The Generalitat’s head of transport merely acknowledges their “restrictive interpretation of the law“, referring to the contentious test of “underlying consumer demand” which a 1998 Order had arbitrarily defined as the 1:30 ratio (of VTC licences to regular taxi licences). Unfortunately such a fixed definition of “consumer demand” cannot reasonably be interpreted within the terms of the original parent Law – a law which must justify regulation within the Constitutional state, and thus ultimately takes precedence over an incompatible Order. So taxi legislation had already been in flux for 11 years prior to 2009. Arguably the entire policy approach had been misguided since at least 1987, when the Law was made compatible for European Economic Community membership: The Law emphasised econometric passenger demand, built on a systems theory conception of transport that de-humanises supply, when the prime policy requirement was to regulate taxi drivers’ working conditions – specifically drivers’ sense of ownership and security, to counter the excessive variability of their work patterns – in short, to maintain drivers’ sanity. European Union technocratic economic policy has consistently failed to understand this prototypical “gig economy“, both Commission and Parliament still struggling with taxi regulation. In the meantime “gig” workers in Barcelona’s internet-era food delivery businesses have already started edging toward the locally familiar model of cooperativism, in search of “economic sovereignty”.

In 2013 the Spanish government acknowledged the principle of “autogestión” – in effect, acknowledged the Spanish social order – and applied the historic 1:30 ratio to the Law (LOTT). Except the ratio had not previously been written into the Law, and it took another two years to modify the more detailed Regulations (ROTT) and establish a consistent body of legislation. Albeit for a now inconsistent reality: Since taxi licences are permanent, even transferrable, the 1:30 ratio could not be retrospectively applied in regions where it had been exceeded after 2009. Indeed, where previously exceeded, the actual ratio would likely forever exceed 1:30 and thus no new VTC licences would ever be issued again. Speculation ran rife, especially around contentious (unsuccessful) applications made between 2009 and 2013 – and perhaps also between 2013 and 2015, a particular messy period on which different regional high courts have reached different judgements. In Catalunya alone, thousands of applications are stalled pending the final judgement of the Spanish Supreme Court – awaited since July 2016.

In effect, the judiciary has been left to determine the balance of policy, a policy even the Spanish competition authority (CNMC) is reportedly split on. With a blurring of policy and law comes a blurring of political and judicial power, especially apparent at the higher echelons of state, where the risk to Spanish society of power becoming tyrannical is greatest. A similar pattern can be found within the structure of political power: As the Catalan crisis deepened, the executive government sought greater consensus within parliament than was strictly required for its governing majority – yielding to the policy concerns of the new-right Ciudadanos and old-left PSOE. The closer to the heart of the state issues become, the more blurred the three core institutions of power (judiciary, parliament, and government) become – an in-built protection against the rise of absolute tyrannical power. The same cannot be seen within Catalunya’s Independentist process because the structure is inherently unable to process a separation from itself – Constitutional Spain has no capacity to leave itself.

Modern Spain’s method of policy-making is no accident: The Spanish Constitution enshrines the “development of fundamental rights and public liberties” in Organic Law. Organic law is essentially a philosophical construction that allows the thing to be based on itself, a principle common to the founding charters of much of the United States, famously guaranteeing the rights of the people, in the people. The fiat currency of law, Organic law is ultimately based on trust. Spanish Organic law thusly emphasises competency, not hierarchy. Humanity, not divine right. Where the unity of Americans can lean on history (inverse prediction) to define “the people” as a continuation over time, Spanish unity has no such luxury: As concluded by 1714 and All That, ilusión is to be lived, not lived in the past. This societal need for a living constitution was moderated by the addition the monarch and military as living defenders of the unity embodied in an otherwise increasingly historic text. Unity is state, because knowing is social. A theme explored further in the next essay, The Moral of Sovereignty. The hierarchical (God-given or feudal) nature of traditional monarchy never intuitively matched the (structural or philosophical) autonomy of modern Spain. While in 1978 the monarch served to transition Spain out of dictatorship by preserving noble entitlement (the social order inevitably frames governance), the monarch’s constitutional role was always likely to grow awkward. Both monarch and military have transpired to be unpopular in Catalunya – the monarchy popularly considered frivolous, the military oppressive. Neither evokes the intended sense of unity. Their involvement may thus make the Spanish Constitution more vulnerable, not less.

Trust applies both internally and externally, which is where the concept of Organic law in the 1978 Constitution melds with the traditional idea of Spain (described in 1714 and All That). That idea maintains different internal and external perceptions, thus what appears absolute to the external, can remain fluid to the internal – the paradox held in the idea of Spain. Independently, each of these philosophical constructions has historically been robust – Organic law in the United States, the idea of Spain for Spain. The combination of these two constructions in modern Spain, each with its logical vulnerabilities, has a complex interplay:

Spanish citizens trust in Constitutional Spain as they trust in themselves, reflecting the broad pattern of Organic law. Yet as explored in Patria and Patrimonio, the transactional model of responsibility within state is functionally broken, and in complex policy areas citizens are trusting to little more than a void called “state”. The common physicality of state should enable transaction from the small-scale family model to the large-scale nation, but this physicality too often fails. “Simulacres et Simulation” are more indicative of Catalan societal reality, whose intensity the formal structured political state cannot match in physicality. The emphasis on the physical within the political state stems from the idea of Spain, which holds the external in ilusión, and rewards participation in the political state with the manifestation of such ilusión. The contention is that this manifestation is physical to avoid confusion with society itself – more specifically to retain the idea of Spain’s fundamental demarcation between internal (as social simulacres) and external (as physical ilusión). A political state operating solely at the functional level of its society could not maintain such a demarcation. The idea of Spain thus inhibits the transactional state which would be ideal for trust in Constitutional Spain. However the idea of Spain cannot be relinquished without removing its philosophical protections. Based on contemporary events, those philosophical protections are critical to the normal function of Catalan society.

Such analysis is flawed by its narrow logic and presumptive interpretations, but gives a general indication of the interplay between the two philosophical constructs that seem to guide modern Spain. The Act of Referèndum both admonished Catalan trust in Constitutional Spain and fatally exceeded the idea of Spain. The expected model of policy-making unavailable, the state dropped into ambiguity. In the absence of an alternative philosophical project, Catalunya lists precariously in unfamiliar waters. Her Independentist manifest still expecting sight of the promised land. And all the while, storm clouds gather across the Iberian sea.

Continue reading “Absolute Devolution”