Thursday, 16 May 2013

Britain's HS 2,- Another log across the line, and what to do about it.

Britain's National Audit Office has probably raised cheers amongst the "Say No To.." lobbies, the tribes of the Chilterns and the media (many of them seem to live in the Chilterns). It is becoming unfashionable in some circles to admit being in favour of spending the required billions on this project rather than the usual schools an' hospitals, welfare, the arts or almost anything else. "This is a vanity project" they say." The UK, the worlds's 6th or 7th largest economy, is a poor country and can't afford such things,-or any other real progress.  This is not for the likes of us. We can patch, mend, tweak what we have and it will do."

So what's it all about? The Conservative/coalition Transport Minister has come out fighting and repeating that the case is good and strong. Labour have wrung their hands a bit and expressed concern but no more than that. It started as their (Lord Adonis') project. He just said "It must be done". The contorted "business case" now being argued about came later,- in 2011.

It is true that this one is a dossier of  theoretical nonsense . Not to mention considerable irrelevance and pure speculation.  It relied on complicated and ridiculous formulae for calculating amongst other things the value of working time saved by business travellers,its creation of jobs and measurable benefits to the north/south split. There were other point-missing nonsenses too, all of them offering themselves as hostages to fortune and interminable debate rather than clarity. As result the paper is hugely vulnerable to being challenged and rubbished because the simple answer about the medium and long term economics and benefits/disbenefits is that nobody knows and much depends on what else happens. The forecasts are only a guess and even the brightest (especially the brightest some say) economists often get it wrong. We can speculate for ever, a favourite occupation of economists and politicians, especially those of a "do nothing" mind, but still it's only a guess based on our own fuzzy logic or gut feel.  If the Victorians had done the same rather than just going for it the UK would have hardly a yard or railway track.  We probably wouldn't have much in the way of roads either,- or anything conentious.  Even for the Victorians, forcing the lines through the territory of powerful landowners  and other vested interests was at least as difficult as any of the engineering problems faced in actually getting the tracks into place. Fortunately for suceeding generations they did push their way through. Some schemes worked, some didn't. Many closures occured before, as result of, and after the Beeching reports of 1963 and 1965. Much pruning was has gone on to safeguard the survival of the network but even then some closures, or at least failure to subsequently secure the trackbeds, were disastrous. (HS 2 might not be needed now if the Great Central line from London to the Midlands has been preserved).

The fact is that whether or not a project was worthwhile is often only measurable years later. As Stephanie Flanders of the BBC points out today, if economists advice had been followed, such things as the Channel Tunnel and the M25 would never have been built. HS 2 is just such a thing and the unavoidable fact is that sooner or later it has to be done if rail transport from London to the north is not to grind to a halt.

As the refreshingly plain speaking Minister of Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, has quickly said ,the fact is that Britain is running out of track capacity on the route and in one form or another new tracks will have to be built. Putting these alongside existing ones, something many down the pub and in smarter dinner parties believe is the solution, isn't an option. The West and East Coast main lines already feature long stretches of 4 tracks (basically 2 each way despite some bi-directional signalling) . Adding two more alongside would mean nightmarish six tracked junctions with each getting in some or all of the others' way, resulting in very little, if any real capacity gain.  It wouldn't  do anything for journey times either. As Lord Adonis clearly saw it ,the only answer is an entirely separate new line, built with modern high speed gradients and sweeping curves, thereby taking the fastest trains away from the current mixed-speed lines. This is also the best and most cost effective solution. With all trains running at the same speed, line capacity is maximised by being able to put up to one every 3 minutes past any given point.

The Labour government made a rod for its own, and now the coalitions' , back by not just simply declaring "We need a new line because we are running out of capacity, so we are going to build it." That would not have avoided the harrumphing and gnashing of teeth especially in the nicer parts of the Chilterns to much of which there is limited public access anyway, but it would have been starkly simple, difficult to challenge and avoided the inevitability of the published business case being branded as questionable and therefore making the strategically essential project needlessly vulnerable.

The government will just have to press on, safe in the knowledge that any successor Labour one will do exactly the same. If it did call a halt, we could be sure that none of the suggested alternatives would happen either,- not without years of "further consultations" and dithering anyway. The " Just do it" approach is sometimes needed. This is one of those occasions if the UK is not going to suffer the economic and social damage of increasing transport paralysis.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Misconceptions about transport infrastructure in the colonial and post colonial developing world.

The Times of 30th April, in an article  arising from the newspaper's conference on Africa and seemingly based on the notion that nothing much happened to develop Africa until Bob Geldorf discovered it 29 years ago, reported the one time pop star as saying that after the Second World War, Africa had just a handful of small cities. He reportedly went on to say "There was no infrastructure,no rail, no roads,no air infrastructure. The colonial powers had done nothing about it. But then you suddenly had mobile phones and a virtual infrastructure was created".

His audience, brought up on a constant drip feed of "the colonials were awful" disinformation ever since the 1950s seem to have sat silent and raised no challenge.

Anyone is free to say anything in an open society and that is good. What Mr Geldorf did however in furtherance of his own arguments was a great diservice to many people who devoted their whole lives to developing the continent and actually doing exactly the things he said they didn't. They gave a lot more than money,of which they had little. Many, as well as their wives and families, did not survive very long.

Of course African cities were much smaller in 1945 than they are now. That wasn't some kind of colonial sin and act of dereliction. All cities everywhere were. It wasn't a question of development. There were far fewer people. Since then populations have grown fast on the back of medical advances in just keeping people, especially the very young and the very old , alive. There has also been more migration from poorer country areas and subsistence farming to urban areas as that is where the money and opportunities have been perceived to be. That's pretty much the same anywhere in the world.

As for rail, roads, harbours and air services almost every single railway line, and road in Africa was built during the colonial period. Since then many roads have been rebuilt, improved, widened , straightened, and some totally new alignments have been created but that is in the normal course of progress .It is in no way indicative of colonial negligence on the one hand or new impetus from Mr Geldorf on the other.

On the railways apart from the hopelessly uneconomic and originally politically (to avoid the South African ports) justified Tan-Zam line from Dar es Salaam to north of Lusaka not a single new railway line has been built on the continent since the colonial era. A number have substantially deteriorated or been closed. Most lines were in place before the 1930s and the colonials, particularly the British with Cecil Rhodes' vision of a Cape to Cairo line always in mind were almost obsessed with laying tracks everywhere, just as they had been at home in the late 19th century. Only now has the proposal to build new standard gauge lines in Kenya from Mombasa to Nairobi and on through Uganda and from the new port at Lamu to southern Sudan burst through to become one of the world's most exciting railway projects.

On the matter of air services, Mr Geldorf can be forgiven for forgetting that the world in 1945 was a very different place .Outside the USA and Europe there were very few air services anywhere and numbers of air travellers correspondingly low. The era of cheap mass travel and the aircraft which could deliver it didn't begin to arrive before the Boeing 707 and DC 8 got into their stride in the 1960s and the 747 in the 1970s.  From then on the world did change way beyond most people's imagination in 1945 when such things seemed a generation away, if even imaginable. Again though the British colonials in particular were no slouches and through the federal multi-colony airlines East African, Central African and West African created networks of regional and domestic inter-city links between many cities towns which do not have air services today. East Africa had a host of puddlehopping services within the individual territories . There were also flights running through Kenya, Uganda and what was then Tanganyika which spent all day covering multi points and delivering people, cargo and mail to them all, journeys which would have taken days any other way or even been near impossible in the rainy seasons. The airline also ran all the way down the coast to Mozambique's capital,now Maputo. Central African's network knitted together what is now Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi and then continued on to Mbeya in southern Tanganyika, Dar es Salaam and eventually to Nairobi . In West Africa, West African Airways dimunitive Doves and later DC3s flew all the way through from Tiko in the east (near Douala in the Cameroon), around Nigeria and on through Accra and along the coast to Sierra Leone, no mean feat for relatively light unpressurised twin engined aircraft in the wet season flying through the towering cumulus clouds, the lashing rain and at times startling turbulence, all done with no radar, just a pilot with a map,radio and pencil. There wasn't much chance of a tea break and the sounds coming from the cabin behind can't have been too healthy. Another link took the airline right across the middle of Africa from Kano to Khartoum to connect with the eastern side of the continent. In the (Belgian) Congo, Sabena ran a masive domestic operation calling at places which have long dropped off the aviation map.They stretched beyond into east and central Africa, meeting the Indian Ocean once a week at Dar es Salaam.

So....sorry Mr Geldorf, it's a shame that the desire to make personal or political points meant some serious misrepresentation of history and the belittling or simply denial of the efforts of a lot of very dedicated people in your speech. They, and historical accuracy, - deserved better. Helping Africa isn't a solo one man business and never was. Just look at some of the colonial era cemetries there and think about the ages of many on the headstones.

That said we still don't quite understand the final bit about mobile phones creating a virtual infrastructure. That's a different thing altogether.  The new technology has brought about a revolution in inter-person and business communication as it has everywhere. It has been particularly helpful in Africa where somehow the providers find they can do it profitably with subscribers paying a fraction of the charges they do in Europe. Kenya now leads the world in mobile phone banking and has a system more advanced than the one scheduled to be slowly rolled out in Britain.

That's phone and internet technology though .It in no way though replaces the need for more and better roads, railways and air services .

Perhaps that ,with the politics stripped out, is the point he was trying to make? If so he will be pleased about the steady and more recently explosive growth of air services on the eastern side of the continent thanks in particular to the efforts and investment of Ethiopian and Kenya Airways and the slow but steady liberalisation of traffic rights between African states. Roads and railways are another thing, of which more on Airnthere soon, but to ignore the good things that have been happening risks accusations of arrogance. A lot of people are, and have been for a lot longer than 29 years ,doing a lot of things on African transport, especially on the eastern side of the continent. Things are rather different over on the western side but it's not for lack of money. It's another story for another time.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The UK Local Elections (2nd May) and Transport.

This week's local elections in the UK have been interesting.

The United Kingdom Independence Party-UKIP,-has walked off with 23% of the votes and set teeth rattling in their fellow right of centre party, the Conservatives.

What does this mean for transport policy,- or rather the government's lack of a coherent one?

If you read UKIP's 2010 General Election manifesto there are grounds for hope. Then the party, in 1960s Wilsonian white heat of technology vein it advocated not just one new domestic high speed railway line but three. Good news for the current ex Labour and now more or less all party HS2 project then?

Not really.As part of its all out bid for votes this year , UKIP decided that local Conservative opposition from the relatively wealthy, lawyer and celebrity studded path of the line through rural Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in particular was a vehicle worth riding. UKIP therefore put aside its enthusiasm for dynamic modernisation and infrastructure development in favour of vote grabbing in the "It/they/anyone shall not pass" Chiltern valleys and beyond. There is therefore a risk that this project, Britain's only one of its kind in any area of transport policy, could fall victim to knee wobbling in the London and home counties centric Conservative Party in their groping for the answer to "What do we do about UKIP ?"

Just as in 2010 the Conservatives in panic mode over West London parliamentary seats (most of which they were going to win anyway)  ditched Labour's well advanced plan for the much needed third runway at Heathrow, it could be that they now drive transport development into another deep hole by cancelling HS2. Certainly the near hysterical anti campaigns, backed in part by public money from local Conservative led councils along the route will be encouraged to shout their protests even louder. The party leadership should ignore them as come 2015 a vote for UKIP is most likely not to secure a UKIP seat but to lose a Conservative one to Labour, who would probably gleefully pick up and run with HS 2 from where they left it in 2010. They might though cut its costs a bit by not doing so much tunnelling  much of which is done to assuage better off Conservative voters with whom Labour has historically had less sympathy. After all, every inch of tunnel adds to building and operating costs for evermore into the future. Labour  could simply say that in reality there are already 2 main railway lines through the area plus an assortment of roads, all of which seem to blend pretty well with the landscape and one more is hardly going to cause the claimed massive devastation and end to life as currently known.

Watch this space.