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”. Read More

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. Read More

Financing Hyper-Virality in the Clouds

This article probes the implications of cloud computing for financing very rapidly distributed internet-based services and products. It contains rough, inadequately researched thoughts, sparked from discussions at the recent CloudCamp Scotland. Read More

Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing

One of the first economists to seriously examine virtual worlds (Edward Castronova) makes the observation that scarcity is fundamental to the environments that thrive. Utopia is boring. That’s a common theme of a lot of subsequent academic studies: The underlying patterns of human behaviour and motivation don’t fundamentally change from the physical to the virtual.

We have to “exist” in the real world (“eat, drink, breath”). We are highly likely to continue to “live” in it too (that is, perform social/economic/spiritual functions, in addition to biological existence). But it is not necessary to rely on it quite as much as we do now. Critically, living in virtual environments opens up some avenues for society’s development that may otherwise close.

Start at the “peak oil“-type resource analysis. The idea that up to this point, western culture (in particular) has assumed increasingly easy extraction of resources, but from this point forward will have to start dealing with the implications of increasingly hard extraction of resources. It follows that any “standard of living” (social status, economic income, etc) that is based on rampant consumerism and resource use, is likely to become highly unstable.

The fact that telecommunications and computerised technology is generally much more resource efficient than physical networks and products is almost a secondary consideration. The most interesting thing for me, is the creation of a sustainable socio-economic environment largely based on nothing.

That statement sounds like nonsense. But it has already mostly happened in highly developed western economies. Some examples:

  • The majority of a city like Edinburgh’s economy is tertiary (service sector). A significant proportion of that economy is knowledge-orientated (finance, research), where people never need deal with a physical product. Ever. Their work is often defined by their minds and their interaction with other minds.
  • The British “High Street” retail trade doesn’t really sell products, it sells “the experience of shopping”. In a broad economic sense, the actual sale of the products isn’t what makes most shops profit. Rationally, if they were only selling products, those products would be far cheaper.
  • Of a typical physical product made in somewhere like China, the minority of the cost is resource and manufacture. Much of the cost is in areas like the intellectual property rights of product designers, who typically live in the west.

So the most advanced types of work (which are also the ones generating a disproportionate amount of wealth), and the crude capitalist motivations of most western societies (the accumulation of stuff we don’t need) are already mostly based on “nothing”. It isn’t such a quantum leap to move those processes into a virtual environment.

We will never leave behind the physical world. But consider that once almost everyone in western society worked in agriculture, and now a tiny proportion do. There has always been a logical progression of society’s development which have led to progressively fewer people working in older sectors of the economy. This may simply be the next iteration. We are unlikely to understand it any better than an 18th century agricultural worker being shown a steam engine. As Charlie Stross’s Unpacking the Zeitgeist demonstrates, the present would be hard for us to have understood 30 year ago. Indeed, his description of the present is still a mystery to most of those living now.

But “our” children seem to embrace it. Many of the kid’s virtual worlds (such as Gaia Online) allow their young customers to buy virtual collectables using real money – these items don’t physical exist, but still represent something “of value”. These are not geeky male niches. Barbie Girls gained 3 million online users in its first two months – which from a discrete market of US teenage girls, probably numbering less than 20 million in total, is impressive.

There is still a big gap between making trivially small payments for virtual goods on glorified online social gaming/networking platforms, and the integration of these concepts into mainstream society and economy. However, these children are now developing some of their life skills in these virtual environments. Perhaps they will naturally accept what we will struggle to comprehend?

This topic evidently requires a lot more research and consideration. I’ve posted it here as a record of my current thinking only.