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”

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Virtual Property, Rights, Riots and Governance

“Virtual property” popularly refers to virtual goods – items purchased for use or display within virtual worlds, online games, and social networking platforms (like Facebook). The term could equally apply to other cyberspace assets, like land in Second Life or Entropia. Even items acquired through the investment of time or expertise (rather than a specific currency exchange), like my Sea Turtle. If you use such simple definitions, property does not influence rights or governance: The virtual environment doesn’t substantively change anything in law. Contracts can still control the relationship between the people and organisations involved. Copyright still protects the underlying electronic and creative concepts. What’s all the fuss about?

The utopian ideals of some of the early internet pioneers are long since forgotten. More recent debates about the rights of avatars have been steam-rollered under “the tyranny of the End User Licence Agreement” (quoting Andres Guadamuz – although perhaps such an agreement is still more democratic than a unsigned contract with society). So who cares? Continue reading “Virtual Property, Rights, Riots and Governance”

Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing

I ponder nothing. Endlessly. Nothing in the intangible sense – the increasing dominance of things without physical form in society and economy. Nothing in the sceptical nihilistic sense – the “meaninglessness of existence”. Even the nothing inherent in the stupidity required for cleverness.

Nothing isn’t new. The problem baffled thinkers for much of the 20th century. In the 21st we may finally be being overwhelmed by it. Possibly without realising. How society resolves a potentially uncomfortable relationship with nothing is important. And intriguing. It’s possibly the most difficult problem to resolve, yet underpins many contemporary issues.

This article introduces 3 approaches to resolving nothing. They are an attempt to summarise various different articles I’ve written over the past year. Broadly:

  • Tangible Renaissance: Physical representations of nothing. Idols to communicate abstract values. Belief in certainty.
  • Virtual Illusion: Virtual consumerism. An economy base on nothing, happily sustained in the denial of the meaninglessness. Belief in who cares?
  • Post-Existential Skepticism: Understanding built from nothing. Presumption of illusion. Belief in uncertainty.

This text is poorly researched, incomplete, and, well, uncertain. But it might be an interesting summary of the extent of my current confusion. This is written from a Western, especially British-American perspective. Keep these quotes in mind: Continue reading “Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing”

Poor Gina

Comments on my original WeeWorld article continues to provide a fascinating insight into tweeny online society. Not just that so many people think I can help them, when I cannot. But that users are now as likely to be concerned about “stolen” user accounts, as they are about the social injustices of paying for points:

“Hi my name is Gina… I’m nine years old… I brought a prepaid card then some one hacked me for no reason… The username is *****… I used a fake e-mail and I don’t know how to get it back =[ Can you help me? PLEASE!”

I removed the 200 redundant characters Gina had added to the final word, that conveyed the true extent of her desperation. Literate, for such an apparently young US citizen, she also reveals some child-like confusion in causality and logic. Not that most adults could solve her problem: A “recovered” password can only be sent to the email address associated with the account – yet to receive the message, the email address cannot be fake. Further help is locked away on forums which can only be read by users who are already signed in. Signed in, using the password they can’t recover…

For a 21st century child, this is much closer to a science-fiction nightmare than adults might think: Inadvertently being locked out of a part of society by the flaws of an infallible machine. A part of society, because this stuff genuinely matters – often as much as traditional “playground” relationships. Substantial time (and often Dollar money) is invested in a user’s account. Huge networks of friends are built. The ability to start again, or start again somewhere else, is poor consolation indeed.

We can argue that having one’s virtual avatar hacked into is a “rite of passage” into the digital economy. A necessarily painful lesson that, long-term, will make adult activities such as online banking much safer. After all, this is only a childhood game, isn’t it?

Yet Gina’s short plea contains a lot of unpleasant truths, that adult society seems reluctant to address.

This article explores how the law, as experienced by the generation practically born online, differs from law as previous generations have learned it. Worlds where everyone is at least 13 years old, even if they aren’t. Where wrongs are not righted, because they’re not in the contract. And copyright legitimises a new, almost feudal social structure. A selective, but slightly unnerving, insight into a generation that may grow up to believe that law is for something else, because it so obviously isn’t for them. Continue reading “Poor Gina”

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”

Valuing Nothing

In 2007 I wrote some introductory Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing. This article continues to explore the value of things in a highly intangible, knowledge-based economy. It wanders through internet-based payment systems, economic structure, role of government, organisation of information, community, and society, before disappearing into the realms of philosophy. It contains no answers, but may prove thought-provoking. Continue reading “Valuing Nothing”

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy

Blizzard Entertainment’s new add-on policy has been discussed by everyone from Lum to Slashdot. The number of developers directly affected by the change is small, since only a few add-ons are popular enough to be considered commercial ventures. The policy is more significant because it changes a lot of established conventions, and goes to the heart of how Blizzard embraces (or increasingly, shuns) the talent within its player community. This article is an attempt to analyse the real motivations behind the policy, and highlight the apparent contradiction in policy between in-game add-ons and web-based services. Continue reading “De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy”