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 not 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.

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Public Competition in Post-Independència Catalunya

Camp del Ferro

This essay examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent. The suspension of policy-making within the Generalitat de Catalunya, following the region’s failed bid for independence, provided an almost unique opportunity to observe the strategic processes and limitations of the art of public competition. The optimistic finances of metro line 9/10 set the context, followed by analysis of the reactions of the city and metropolitan area of Barcelona to the Generalitat’s hiatus. That analysis exposes vast differences in the funding models of higher and lower tiers of Spanish government, which can be traced to the availability of externally-financed debt.

“Public Competition in Post-Independència Catalunya” is the third in a sequence of four essays 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 final essay ponders the strategic interplay of risk, debt and optimism, using the example of Spain’s high speed railway network.

Beyond Line 9/10

Like many of Spain’s regional Autonomous Community governments, the Generalitat de Catalunya’s initial reaction to the 2008 financial crisis was to maintain many prior expenditure commitments by borrowing, with debts rapidly rising from a baseline of around 8% GDP to around 35% of GDP by 2014. Roughly half this borrowing now occurs through the nation of Spain, using a mechanism called the “Fons de Liquiditat Autonòmic” (Autonomous Liquidity Fund, FLA) which allows regional government to borrow on broadly similar terms as the parent country, and thus benefit from Eurozone rates, which in this period were close to 0%. FLA funds come at the cost of fiscal autonomy, since the autonomous community’s plans for debt reduction must be approved by the Spanish government. The other half of the debt is sourced directly, commonly from commercial banks, which in Spain have traditionally had a strong civic investment function. The biggest single debt within the Generalitat’s total is that of Ifercat, the Catalan agency tasked with new public transport infrastructure: 4 billion euros of debt, roughly 5% of the Generalitat total. Half Ifercat’s debt is owned by the European Investment Bank, a non-commercial EU institution.

Aside from a 45 million euro project to rejuvenate the Lleida-Pobla de Segur railway, a line historically notable as the epitome of politicised infrastructure, Ifercat’s only practical project was Barcelona’s Line 9/10 metro route. Over-ambitious from the outset, both technically and financially, the “longest metro line in Europe” followed an all too familiar pattern of costs spiralling out of control in an environment of inadequate risk management. Ifercat pursued increasingly desperate funding mechanisms to keep their project alive in the face of the worst global financial crisis in a generation. Instead of using the private sector to mitigate construction risk, or using the private sector to deliver the desired transport system as a single build-and-operate concession, Ifercat sought short term liquidity simply to keep construction underway. And ultimately the money still ran out, leaving an incompete tunnel right in the middle of the route – a tunnel which is still inhabited by a pair of Tuneladores (TBMs) that haven’t moved since 2011. Such an incremental approach to funding inevitably led to poorly structured debt, notably creating many “hidden” liabilities, above and beyond the headline of 4 billion euros.

In 2014 Independents de Qui attributed Ifercat with another 1.8 billion euros of future guarantees to public companies, but that value transpires to be a fraction of the total additional liabilities: Between 2008 and 2010 batches of Line 9/10 metro stations were sold as 30-year concessions, typically to consortia of those companies building the stations, with the money raised by the sale ostensibly used to keep paying the builders to build those stations. The concessionaires levy an annual charge for providing and maintaining their stations – totalling around 250 million euros annually, an anticipated 7.6 billion euros in total. That figure seems infeasibly high, equivalent to the fare revenue of the entire Barcelona metro system. For context, in 2016 (including the first 10 months of passenger service to the airport) Line 9/10 conveyed just 4% of all metro passengers. The exceptional cost of these concessions is partly explained by concessionaires funding their initial purchases through commercial banking – the rates of such loans were inevitably less favourable than the Generalitat might have achieved itself, had it been able to raise the money through the FLA. This difference was accentuated by the political vacuum in the wake of the Catalan independence process: FLA finance reflected the overall stability of Spain, while the commercial loans of the concessionaires reflected the future ability of the Generalitat to pay the concession fees: Not only was the Generalitat less politically stable (and thus more risky) than Spain overall, but its Line 9/10 concessionary payments were somewhat less integral to the institution of the Generalitat, hence more risky, than Spanish bonds to the nation of Spain. Concessionaires consequently found themselves unable to refinance their debts, adding to the overall precariousness of the Line 9/10 finances.

Operator “Ferrocarril Metropolità de Barcelona”, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona’s (TMB) metro, also carries a significant burden – in so far as it clearly identifies in its accounts, 75 million euros annually for leasing trains and a further 53 million in Line 9/10 “fees”. The lease presumably includes all the 9000 Series trains built for Line 9/10, in spite of only 28 out of 55 trains currently operating there, so presumably only half of the lease cost should be apportioned to Line 9/10, giving a total of 90 million euros annually. As documented in Interurban Buses in Public Competition, TMB‘s budget is managed through ATM, which is funded from roughly equal parts fares revenue and government support, with about half of that government support coming from the Generalitat. Such accountancy primary serves to shift the Generalitat’s past capital budgetary excesses into the current revenue stream, and in the process makes TMB’s metro look far more dependant on government support than it would be if it hadn’t been saddled with Line 9/10. That arrangement surely serves wider political agendas, but as we shall highlight later, TMB metro’s dependency on the Generalitat is broader than just Line 9/10.

Belatedly Ifercat (as the Generalitat de Catalunya) has been reduced to barter, trading land with the Ajuntament de Barcelona (the city government) to raise the money to complete a handful of stations on the Zona Franca branch. Line 9/10 was the final grand project of Jordi Pujol, who dominated Catalan politics through the “Olympic” Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. However, post-Crisis, the Pujol agenda of grandiose (“pharaonic”) Catalan ambition evolved into a quite different hope of Catalan Independence, and for Pujol’s successors Line 9/10 became a slightly unnerving ghost from the past – albeit one still pending the traditional Spanish political exorcism called the corruption trial. The post-Referendum political hiatus in the Parlament de Catalunya stalled even the fig leaf of a new bid to the European Investment Bank for another 750 million euros to complete the central section of the line. However judging by his subsequent media appearances the holder of that fig leaf, Ricard Font, who is a common thread between many government transport interests within Catalunya, was not idle following the Generalitat’s fall from grace in November 2017. And he was not alone.

Herein lay the shifting sands of post-Independència Catalunya, an administrative void hitherto controlled regionally by the Generalitat, suddenly contestable, perhaps for the first time since the 1970s. While it is convenient to categorise the exercise of power through discrete organs of state, it is common for leading individuals to serve in many organisations. Indeed it is common for such individuals to shift between political, administrative and academic functions throughout their careers, in a way that, for example, the British civil service would not tolerate. It is therefore more instructive to understand the role of these individuals as an extension of Catalan society. Catalunya’s administrative institutions strongly reflect Catalan society, not least because they require their staff to be able to communicate in Catalá – which is not widely spoken outside Catalunya, so (for better or worse) affords substantial protection. At its higher echelons, Catalan society is virtual – where being seen to, to be in control of, these are the rewards – a monetary salary is almost incidental. The longer the Generalitat remained paralysed, the less important its civil service positions became within Catalan society, regardless of whether wages continued to be paid. And thus perhaps without even analysing their motivation, senior individuals within the Generalitat logically sought somewhat similar roles through other institutions. Given the pre-existing tendencies to switch and accumulate roles, their search was perfectly intuitive. That starts to explain why this sequences of essays is subtitled the art of public competition: For what at first looks like a power battle between institutions is far more subtle, far more human – and that in turn makes it harder to analyse and understand from an external perspective, especially an objective one.

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The Expectations of Competition

Estació de França

This essay establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain, with specific reference to the recent history of Barcelona’s railways. The text introduces three difficult policy areas for Spanish public transport competition – local system integration, the balance between nation and communities, and the understated role of presence. It questions both the applicability of super-regulatory structures to a state where power is not absolute, and the use of economic analysis to rationalise transport infrastructure that primarily serves a strategic function, instead suggesting a role for the state’s own form of internal competition, here called the art of public competition.

“The Expectations of Competition” is the first in a sequence of four essays 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 second essay in the sequence 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. The final essay ponders the strategic interplay of risk, debt and optimism, using the example of Spain’s high speed railway network.

Regulating Integration

To integrate transport is surely to promote a human antithesis. Integration implies one optimised model of transport provision akin to a perfectly engineered machine, where all the mechanisms mesh seamlessly. Integration is the thesis of a transport economics for which demand is derived, meaning transport is solely a means to an end. Its rational ideal is to eliminate transport completely, since all such transport activity is economically wasteful. Hence for economists, transport becomes a component of the economy which can be dehumanised without impact on the humans, flattened into one perfect mathematical form that supposedly liberates the wider economy to operate without the inefficiencies of its transport system.

Unfortunately for transport economists, their presumption of the dominance of rationality is too often irrational: Modern behavioural economics is awash with examples of irrational transport decision-making, from the status value of automotive brands, to the role of the daily commute in pacing life. Ergo transport actually encompasses the fluidity of humanity. That fluidity is contemporarily expressed in duality, as a perpetual rebalancing somewhere between one collective perfectly integrated transport system, and the total flexibility of unfettered individual choice. Since neither extreme position can (by our definition of fluidity) be sustained, transport is not to be definitively solved, but to be constantly evolved. And if a perfectly integrated transport system can, logically, only evolve through a process of de-integration, perhaps an ultimate objective of transport integration is misguided?

The underlying pattern goes broader: As transport demands becomes more flexible, the environment is perceived as more complex. To counteract this sense of unknowable complexity, the transport solutions demanded are more stable, where stable is inevitably less flexible. From Personal Rapid Transit to App’-centric goods distribution, technology appears to be skewing transport towards individual choice, and thereby fostering a far more intense competition for physical space than when the issue was just individuals’ cars. Cynically, integrated transport is primarily being promoted not because it can be achieved, but because its promotion simply opposes the prevailing technological tide of individual choice: Such a crude counter-balance reflects a lack of strategy for proactively managing everything from hoverboards to automated flying delivery crates. Proactive management is often at odds with a profession inclined (ironically) to attempt to fix transport systems (in infrastructure and schedules), not to perpetually juggle them. Simply “swimming against the tide” is a pragmatic policy response that may deliver a mathematical balance, but it gradually polarises policy positions toward their extremes. That ultimately makes it very difficult for the polis to find compromises acceptable to all, engendering sudden, dramatic policy changes that half the citizens completely disagree with. Good, living, politics is the ability to accommodate the wills of all the people, not the arbitrary imposition of the will of a majority. Catalunya’s Procés provides ample evidence of how poorly “democratic” structures deal with excessively binary policy positions.

European Union transport policy exemplifies this conflicted balance between the collective and the individual, in promoting transport integration through market competition: For the EU, competition is the agent that will minimise the unwanted economic inefficiencies of the transport system. Yet because active competition requires an element of choice, the transport system cannot be completely integrated. Monopolies, even mere collusion on fares or schedules between commercial enterprises, are typically interpreted as anti-competitive – a pattern exacerbated by the natural tendency of the transport industry toward economies of scale, especially geographical and temporal. Integration requires a degree of regulation, even where transport provision is otherwise highly liberalised.

For example, integrated ticketing between British bus operators (except in London, which was never deregulated) rests on a specific opt-out from European-derived competition legislation, currently regulated by the Competition and Markets Authority (a government agency operating without direct political control). Integrated ticketing is typically delivered through joint companies (often owned by local government and bus operators), that offer multi-operator ticket products at higher fares than those sold by individual operators, so as not to impede commercial competition. In practice the development of integrated ticketing schemes must balance policy aims with commercial aims – and often the administrative complexities of integrated ticketing outweigh the tangible customer demand for it. Of course that formal argument is often underpinned by the long running battles for control of the public transport system – especially in conurbations, where local government typically regards the 1980s privatisation of its local bus operations as an unwelcome imposition by United Kingdom (central) government. UK integrated public transport ticketing may be better understood as a policy battleground in the ongoing conflict for the administrative control of Britain, broadly between centralism and localism – a recurrent theme of the governance of Britain throughout the 20th century.

Regulation is justified in the public interest – for the people the government represent. This role of deus ex machina supposes government an impartial observer, somehow above the fray of the very society that government is constituted by. In practice such a regulator also needs effective regulation, else risks inflating into a form of totalitarianism, especially where that regulator operates outside of the political system. The practical solutions to this dilemma reflect the societies they evolve from. For example, Britain’s mechanised social structure affords clear lines of transactional responsibility – although as the structure becomes more complex power rises inextricably towards the centre, which struggles to process such complexity, even with the numeric quantification of everything. Europe, as exemplified in its competition policies, can operate within pre-defined toolboxes built on economic theory – which theoretically perpetuate without political influence, but are constrained by their inevitably inadequate theory of living society. In contrast, Spain’s traditional “family” (for want of a better term) social model doesn’t scale into a mechanised state, nor is her policymaking inherently predictive. As explored in this sequence of essays, modern Spain’s solution to the need to regulate the regulator is, in effect, to foster a competitive environment between public bodies. This is particularly apparent in the arena of transport. As one of the most important physical manifestation of “the state” in Spain, transport expresses power of greater importance than its utilitarian function might suggest.

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Patria and Patrimonio

Sant Llorenç de Montgai

“Patria and Patrimonio” is the third 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. This essay characterises state.

In September 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera, the Captain General of Barcelona, lead a successful military coup d’etat for control of the Spanish government. Spanish society had never recovered from the humiliation of the “Disaster of 1898“, not least the Catalans, whose textile industry had previously benefited from favourable trade with what had remained of the Spanish Empire – a policy that had done nothing to assuage the Cuban separatism at the heart of the Disaster. Primo de Rivera’s paternal dictatorship manifest a pragmatic economic nationalism, in which government gave to the “working” population only in so far as it did not take from the “landed” interests of the elite. An improvement on Cánovas’ policy of absolutist suppression, that had contributed to 1898, but ultimately insufficient to avert the rise of the Second Republic, subsequent civil war, and altogether harsher dictatorship of Franco.

The railways of Spain mimic her geopolitics. That’s as true today as it was when the centralist government of Isabel II first offered state support in 1855, explicitly for new railways emanating from Madrid. An imbalance between the centre and periphery redressed in the 1870s and 1880s by the gradual formation of a near-perfect duopoly of the two dominant railway companies: Centrally-focused MZA and more peripheral Norte. The exception of Andalucía from this duopoly is notable for suggesting the geopolitics of Spain are not quite as simple as centre vs periphery: Not just that the regionally dominant “Compañía de Ferrocarriles Andaluces” remained outwith the duopoly, but that its ownership so closely mirrored wider political history – from primarily French investors in the 19th century, to Catalans in the 1920s, before collapsing into the state in the 1930s. While Spain’s railways were built as commercial concessions (the profit from their operation expected to fund most of the cost of their initial construction), the materials shortages caused by World War One had pushed operating costs beyond revenue. The creeping nationalisation of Spanish railways, which had started at the turn of the century as state protections for the railway industry, was looking increasingly inevitable by the 1920s. Sufficiently inevitable that the Spanish state could engage in railway building without incurring the wrath of the elite, just not yet in the more commercial territorial cores of the centre and periphery. Enter the era of the Explotación de Ferrocarriles por el Estado (exploitation of railways by the state), and the Málagan engineer Rafael Benjumea y Burín, the Count of Guadalhorce.

Ostensibly aimed at integrating Spain’s railways, the Guadalhorce Plan of 1926 primarily fulfilled Primo de Rivera’s policy of building “economic” infrastructure, albeit only in so far as it did not impinge on the interests of the elite – a caveat that essentially excluded economically beneficial railway investment. The fatal flaw in Primo de Rivera’s economic nationalism was his inability to apply it to the most commercial areas of the Spanish economy, commerce indicative of economic (especially industrial) benefit, because such areas remained wedded to the untouchable landed elite. Primo de Rivera’s policy none-the-less established a precedent for the state to provide infrastructure for the people, even if that infrastructure serve almost none of its implicit economic function. Most evident in railway policy, but presumably true of wider communications including power, this precedent combined with the 19th century expression of (especially central) authority through railways, an absolutism vested in God: As explained in 1714 and All That, the idea of Spain maintains the external as a god in nature, so to this way of thinking, railways serve as the physical manifestation of the external. The contemporary AVE high-speed Spanish railway network is built thus: The external, a (Bourbon legacy) mirage of France’s TGV, physically manifest for the people of Spain with scant regard for economic performance. The radial AVE network was delivered geopolitically over three decades due to the immense cost of railway construction to an internal economy which is not as strong as its external ilusión portrays. For now, radial only, the traditional peripheral counter-balance temporarily lost in a quagmire of regional autonomies that struggle to stand together against the centre, evident from the Mediterranean Corridor. Prediction, of operating costs and revenues, little more than a charade for soon-to-be bankrupt international investors, the bane of operations in a culture that can only comprehend mega-project solutions to its operational problems, but not a philosophical tenant of the idea of Spain, and thus to misunderstand ilusión – a hope to be lived.

The Guadalhorce Plan’s most infamous project was a transversal railway from south to north – Baeza in Andalucía to Saint-Girons in France – avoiding all the major cities of Spain – Seville, València, Madrid, Barcelona. Economically and operationally, such transversal railways are difficult projects to justify, even in densely populated, highly industrialised countries – a rational nonsense for relatively agrarian Spain. Yet perfectly suited to the geopolitics of the moment. In the nature of ambitious construction proposals, the Baeza-Saint Girons project outlived its moment: The project persisted (with a break in the 1930s, when Guadalhorce was in exile) until Franco’s post-isolationist stabilisation plan of 1959, which briefly injected American economic “sense” into Spanish railway development, directing investment into the productive core of the railway network. The only section to have opened, Lleida to Pobla de Segur, a glorious white elephant – that with the greatest of respect to Pobla de Segur (population three thousand), goes nowhere that warrants the cost and capacity of a railway. Spanish enthusiasm for underutilised geopolitical transport infrastructure evidently predates the “ghost airports” of the early 2000s.

Left to the tyranny of post-Francoist Spain, RENFE (Spain’s nationalised railway company) would have closed the Lleida-Pobla de Segur railway as part of their 1984 route rationalisation, a Beeching-esk response to financial deficits. Apparently under pressure from local people to save the line from closure, the autonomous community stepped in. By operating subsidy since 1984, ownership since 2005, and complete control since 2015 – the latest notable for de-implementing European policy, a shift in policy focus from national to regional, an unintended acknowledgement that the line’s original cross-border ambition was over. In addition to paying an operating subsidy of almost 2 million Euros a year, between 2006 and 2016 the Generalitat de Catalunya (the government of Catalunya, via its railway subsidiary FGC) invested 45 million Euros in the route, including a pair of new trains – which subsequently improved frequencies and patronage, albeit from a pitifully low base: Average daily passenger journeys (factoring in occasional tourist trains) had fallen as low as 200, strongly skewed to the short southern section between Lleida and Balaguer.

The epitome of politicised infrastructure, the very manifestation of the geopolitics of Spain, the Pobla de Segur railway was surely destined to illustrate the Generalitat de Catalunya’s publicity for the Act of Referèndum. The sidings at Sant Llorenç de Montgai station repurposed under the banner, “you were born with the capacity to decide – will you give that up?” With little visual pretence of neutrality, indicative of the politicisation of Catalunya’s principle civil institution, the citizen of the upcoming state of Catalunya is presented with a choice between the straight track ahead and the siding to the right. Humorous deceptions all: The straight track continues to Pobla de Segur, as close to nowhere as Catalunya’s railway network goes. The sidings have been airbrushed to show just one, avoiding any suggestion of the plural reality beyond. And not one of the two trains is in sight, the impending “choque de trenes” (socio-political train crash) left in the eye of the beholder. With specific historical context, the poster represents the perpetual geopolitical struggle that is Spain. Without, the enticing vision of a future on an empty set of railway tracks, reveals much about the relationship of people and state.

Continue reading “Patria and Patrimonio”

Scottish Tram Financing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Railways for Prosperity

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

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

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

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

Now, step forward 20 years to 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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