Tag Archives: freight

On van dependency

I found this post in my drafts, from way back in october 2010, when this blog and my thoughts on transport policy were young. I thought it was really time to chuck it out and get it out of the way. I think it was probably waiting for another illustration I’d had planned but never shot, or something…

Private cars (including taxis and minicabs) for transporting people make up perhaps only a half of the inappropriately used vehicles clogging our city centres on weekdays. Nor are they the most polluting of these vehicles. Fighting car and taxi dependency and fighting for support for alternative modes of transportation for people will not alone make our cities liveable again.

This week, because somebody drove into me last weekend, I have mostly been catching up with the pedestrian and bus passenger’s experience of central London. On Monday morning, already late (I always forget that a half-hour bike commute takes an hour on public transport) and not up to hobbling even the short distance from Cannon Street to Grays Inn Road, I waited outside the station for a number 17. I could see the number 17. It was just down the end of the road at Monument Station. But it took a while for it to arrive on account of the long line of vehicles parked along Cannon Street’s double yellows, beside the “no loading” markings. Vehicles like Thoroughshred‘s DU02OVK.  (This van’s hazard lights of course indicated that the vehicle had temporarily broken down, and the driver was visiting a nearby friendly office building who helpfully supplied the box of old documents that fixed the van’s immobility.) Note that Thoroughshred care for the environment by using “low-emission vehicles”. As my bus was finally approaching, Office & General Cleaning had an unfortunate incident on the opposite side of the road: the driver quickly braked and pulled in on the double yellows, firing up his hazards. What were the chances, two vans broken down on either side of the road, blocking the busy bus routes of Cannon Street? All counted, there were seven unfortunate van drivers who had broken down on the yellow lines of Cannon Street that morning, and twenty three on the two miles to Grays Inn Road.

(Office & General Cleaning, it should be noted, use low-sulphur vehicles, and make the bold and scientifically illiterate claim to have eliminated all chemicals from their cleaning “regime”. This makes their business “environmentally sustainable”.)

Here on the recently remodelled Long Acre, with its fabulous dedicated bicycle contraflow, private mail van EU57OKC makes vital deliveries of toner to Rymans.

One particularly worrying breakdown had occurred on Ludgate Hill, where Eden Springs were stopped, hazards flashing, on the double yellows in the eastbound bike lane just below St Paul’s. In an attempt to get the vehicle working again, the driver was bravely unloading large bottles of water onto a trolley, and an adjacent office must have selflessly agreed to store them for the company. Eden Springs are clearly doing important work in London: as they point out, water is vital to the health of office workers, and it’s not like you can just turn a tap and expect it to come pouring out like magic. Eden Springs have a philosophy: to be an environmentally responsible partner. (After livetweeting my bus journey, I discovered a new follower: Eden Springs. Somewhere somebody is living their PR career dream.)

Elsewhere, on New Change, a van sat at the lights full of towels and tablecloths that it had collected from restaurants to be cleaned on an industrial estate on the north circular. On Exhibition Road they delivered paper cups and single-use wooden spatulas to the museum cafés. On Great Queen Street a lorry swapped around the furniture between conferences at a hotel. All over Soho, bars took deliveries of ice cubes.

Everywhere people were delivering blank paper and printer cartridges, stepping over the bags of paper recycling strewn across the pavements. Everywhere people were delivering disposable cutlery while the council swept up the disposed of cutlery. And everywhere people were delivering water. Water. A substance that is available on tap in every London building for a negligible cost.

Whenever one suggests that the price of the congestion charge should be vastly greater than it is, that there should be stricter limits on the vehicles that are allowed into city centres, or that a significant proportion of zone 1 roads should be closed to vehicles entirely, one is asked what one would do about all the people who simply have no choice but to drive into Central London: the businesses who need things delivering. Vans are essential and the costs they’re already asked to bear are hurting, we’re told.

Well if businesses in the centre of the city are choosing to have ice cubes and water driven to them in vans instead of turning on a tap and buying a £200 ice machine, having contract cleaners cart mops around instead of investing in a broom cupboard, and sending their laundry to a barn on the orbital instead of putting it in the washing machine, I say the costs aren’t hurting enough. Or rather, businesses are not paying their bills. Because, as is amply evident on any journey through central London, the main reason such ludicrous operations manage to survive is by breaking the rules and dumping the consequences on the rest of us.

Business is one of those fields that I’m really not competent to begin to comment on — and christ can I think of nothing I’d like less than to be so. But I’m happy to speculate wildly anyway — content that on this topic I don’t really care if I’m spouting embarrassingly simplistic crap — about how Britain, and London especially, built itself into its unhappy van dependency. This situation appears to be the outcome of the pursuit of an extreme outsourcing. The vans of companies specialised in simple everyday tasks, like freezing water and washing tablecloths, serve asset light and asset stripped “enterprises” — owners of nothing, investors in little, employers of nobody, constructing products and services entirely out of the leased and the subcontracted.

Whether that’s clever responsible responsive flexible capitalism or dangerous short termist profiteering that contributes nothing of any real value to the lives of our cities is too far outside of my field even for my wild speculation. All I know is that it only works by dumping its costs on society in the form of the traffic in our towns: the vans that we are reminded are so essential.

Repost: Held to ransom

I’m on the road. Therefore, rather than write anything new, I’m fobbing you off with something I wrote a year ago, before anyone much read this blog…

Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty.  The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out.  Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped.  Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year.  But nothing except the mines themselves shut down.  Thatcher had pre-empted the strike.  The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles.  The country had the means to import coal.  And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear.  The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.

Ten years ago today, the streets were empty.  The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four.  The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services.  Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it.  Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered.  Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.

The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.

But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck.  And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds.  Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.

After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:

I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.

The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again.  She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.

On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:

No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.

The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely.  You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.

Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now?  Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight?  How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations?  You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage.  You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure.  You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation.  You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.

Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008
Million tonnes
Road
Rail
Water Pipeline
2000 1,693 96 R 137 151
2001 1,682 94 R 131 151
2002 1,734 87 R 139 146
2003 1,753 89 R 133 141
2004 1,863 100 127 158
2005 1,868 105 133 168
2006 1,940 108 126 159
2007 2,001 102 126 146
2008 1,868 103 123 147
Coverage: Great Britain
Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)

The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call.  Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.

Friday photo: modern mail

This is the view from my office kitchen back when I had that real job (before I gave it all up to do this instead).  The sun is rising over the city, with the Docklands towers just visible, pale in the distance between the Barbican towers.

The street in the foreground is Mount Pleasant. You can just see the Rosebury Avenue viaduct between the houses left of centre.  Just poking into shot on the left is Mount Pleasant sorting office, the central hub of the London sorting offices.

And all this derelict land in the foreground has been cleared for overflow car-parking for the staff.  I’m sure that the employees, even the 9-5 managers, would call to their defence the fact that this place operates 24 hours a day, which the tubular railways do not (shush, don’t mention the fact that buses and bicycles do).

But the presence of, and even more so the presentation of, the overflow car parking is significant.

Several floors beneath this building is the Mail Rail, an underground narrow gauge electric freight railway built by the Post Office in the mid 1920s to link Whitechapel sorting office in the east to Paddington station in the west via Liverpool Street station and several other central London sorting offices.  There were once plans to link even more terminus stations and sorting offices this way.

Over the years those plans slipped away, ever more unlikely to be realised, as the Post Office, a nationalised industry unable to persuade politicians the treasury of the merits of such capital expenditure, discovered that it could do things cheaply and easily enough using our heavily subsidised road freight infrastructure.  Indeed, trucking stuff around on our streets has been made so absurdly cheap that by 2003 the Post Office was telling us that Mail Rail cost five times what it would cost to truck the mail across town.  It can’t have helped that there are a million health and safety rules on that sort of underground machinery, while society seems happy to let drivers kill and be killed in their workplace.

And it can’t have helped that the Post Office were, according to the unions, deliberately running down the railway, pushing up its running costs, and taking much of the mail by road anyway so that it could hide many of the costs of the truck depots and fleet from the estimates on the grounds that those would be needed, Mail Rail or not.

And so in 2003 it mothballed the Mail Rail and started driving dozens of 60 foot articulated trucks around town.  Especially to the main sorting office, Mount Pleasant.  Situated at the top of the Farringdon Road, most of them either come via Elephant & Castle and Blackfriars Bridge, or down the Euston and King’s Cross Roads.

Why would it close a perfectly good Mail Rail to invest in trucks and depots and drivers, making dubious claims about savings?  Because it has a long term business plan that it can’t openly acknowledge.  If the Post Office were to remain doing what it has always done, it would make good business sense to maintain the Mail Rail, a fantastic device that allows them to get the mail in to and between its central London sorting offices without having to drive trucks into the central zone.  But the Post Office doesn’t expect to be doing what it has always done.  It has already lost its state monopoly — albeit in the most bizarre fashion which allows private companies (and subsidiaries of other countries’ state postal services!) to compete for the easy and profitable job of collecting the mail while obliging the Post Office to then do the more labour intensive job of taking it the “final mile” (Mount Pleasant is a much more colourful place since the DHL and UPS and UKMail and, my favourite, Norbert Dentressangle trucks started turning up to dump their letters on the poor posties).  And the process of privatisation has slowly eased along over the years, reaching, last month, the passage of the act that allows the government to sell the company, if and when it is ever ready to do so.  Once complete, ever more of the Post Office’s business, including delivering to that final mile in places where, as in London, it can be profitable, will go to the cheaper competitors, unencumbered by such expensive frills as unions and customer service.

And I’m willing to put money on what happens next, either while the government is rushing to get the business into a state that looks attractive to potential buyers, or immediately after it has been sold off.

Mount Pleasant will be closed, sold off, and demolished. The building shows the signs of a bare minimum maintenance regime.  Enough to keep it hobbling through.  When they needed a bit more space to take the incoming mail, they built a corrugated iron extension in less than a week.  Clearly not a structure they expect to last.  And that car park.  That wasteground overflow car park.  Derelict land being kept derelict in central London.  That’s an organisation that says: we won’t be long; we’re not putting down roots.

There will be an order to preserve the Mail Rail, behind a concrete slab in the basement of whatever “mixed-use development” replaces Mount Pleasant, just in-case circumstances change and a use is found for it in the future.  But an accident or act of untraceable night time vandalism during construction will result in the tunnels being flooded and written off.

Indeed all central London sorting offices will close, for they all sit on extremely valuable land whose sale will help keep the company’s books looking healthy for a while.  The sorting offices will consolidate into just a few.  Big metal barns on the ring roads.  It’s already happening in Yorkshire.  Perhaps there will be one at Staples Corner for the mail from the north.  One in North Greenwich for the mail from the continent, coming through on trucks loaded on the Shuttle.  Sites convenient for the motorways and the North Circular.  Not like Mount Pleasant and the other central sorting offices, hidden away on little city streets.

No more will you see the posties on their iconic Pashley cargo bikes.  They tried to get rid of them already, but they discovered that there wasn’t enough room at Mount Pleasant and Oxford Street to store that many new vans.  The new sorting offices will have room.  They’ll have to, if they’re going to do central London rounds that start from the North Circular or beyond.  No one at the Post Office will mention the loss of the Pashleys, but they’ll press release the fact that the new sorting offices’ motorway-side locations mean that they will no longer have to drive 60ft articulated trucks through central London streets, and the mayor and the cycle campaigners and the bloggers will celebrate.

This is why “smoothing the flow” doesn’t work.  Making the roads easier to use and more reliable reduces the cost of road transport and allows businesses ever more opportunities to change their practices and cut their costs by using more road transport.  Create capacity and somebody will create a way to fill it.  It’s great for business, they say.  Why should a shop pay expensive central London rent for a store room when it can drive its stock in from a cheap barn on the north circular?  Why should a hotel invest in a washing machine and a maid when it could have its laundry driven to a cheap barn on the north circular?  Why should a bar pay up-front for an ice machine when it can have ice driven in from a cheap barn on the north circular?

Why should the Post Office maintain central London sorting offices, bicycle deliveries, and an underground freight railway, when its competitors are all operating out of barns on the north circular?

Because we pay for it.  Road freight isn’t cheap, it simply avoids paying its bills.  We pay for the rehabilitation and lost income of the people hit by the vans.  We pay for the care of the people dying from air pollution related diseases and sedentary-lifestyle related diseases.  We pay for the trains and taxis and buses because cycling and walking is difficult and unpleasant in a city choked with vans and trucks.  We pay for the noise pollution and the water pollution.  We — or Camden taxpayers, anyway — pay for the bollards that they’re constantly knocking over outside the Packenham Arms, ’round the back of Mount Pleasant.  And we pay because making this kind of business cheap makes other kinds of business difficult.  Liveable cities attract businesses and talented employees, retail spend, and tourism.  London, we are regularly reminded, is competing with the other great world cities and European capitals to attract the headquarters of big companies and major employers.

The Post Office isn’t cutting its costs, it’s externalising them, dumping them on the rest of us, like the competitors who in turn dump the expensive bit of the business of delivering mail on the Post Office.

This business plan, of course, depends on road transport remaining cheap and easy for all time.  Like the railway closures of fifty years ago, we will look back at this era and marvel at the short-sightedness of it all.

Business models

I’m just off the Deerstalker, having spent a few days trying out the new second-hand-but-unused Dawes Galaxy on the hills.  Thanks to the generosity of the Scottish taxpayers the long-distance train ride back, with bed in comfortable single-occupancy cabin and breakfast tea in a spacious lounge and lots of bicycle space, cost £19 when booked several weeks in advance.  One side of the political spectrum would argue that we should allow the sleeper trains to “fail”: that subsidy is an indication that the business model has failed and the business should go with it.  That there is no place for services that don’t make money.

I just rode over from Euston to Look Mum No Hands for extra breakfast and laptop charge.  On Gordon Street a couple of private hire cars were stopped half on the pavement, engines idling, drivers looking bored.  A BMW driver sped up to the junction at Woburn Place, abruptly stopped in the junction, looking at the bicycle paths and contemplating the “no left turn” signs for a few seconds, before screeching into a left turn across the cycle paths.  At Exmouth Market, a white van was parked blocking the street, just beyond the “no motor vehicles” sign.  At Skinner street, where there are proper with-flow kerb-separated bicycle paths (perhaps the only example of such in London?) I stopped for a picture to add to the CEGB flickr pool, and a cab, #68625, promptly pulled in at a gap in the kerb and parked in the bike path across a driveway (or, more likely in central London, a fire access route).  I pointed out what he had done, and that several cyclists had already had to either swerve out into the road, or squeeze past: “it’s OK, I’ll only be a minute, I’ve got to pick someone up.”

Outside Look Mum No Hands, two vans are parked in the bus stop: V185 OUG and a “tree management” van FY59 VDT (using his hazards exempts).  Opposite, another van, S619 BTC is parked on the pavement and pedestrian-crossing table and straddling double-yellows at the Domingo Street junction, delivering a package to Sandwich Box.  No, that van has now been replaced by Cafe Deli Wholesale YF59 YTY, parked in the same place and using his hazards exempts.  He’s delivering bottled drinks to… Look Mum No Hands.  Printflow van EX60 KKE has driven up and along the pavement in order to get past on the narrow street.

Four plain white vans, including DK05 WOD, are driven past on Old Street by people using handheld mobile phones. A City Sprint driver is on his phone, a Kier van driver looks like he’s texting.  I’ve lost count of the number of private cars driven by people using their phones.  Interestingly, a Mitsubishi Barbarian(!) driver is texting, a Mitsubishi Warrior driver is on the phone, and a Mitsubishi Shogun driver is drinking from a thermos.  Mitsubishi pickup truck drivers almost overtake Range Rover drivers in the chart of law breakers, but the woman driving the black Range Rover W6 PSW with tinted windows scores an equaliser by using her hand-held mobile phone.  A G-Wiz driver demonstrates that it’s just as easy driving electric cars while using your mobile phone.  The driver of an empty minibus with a schoolbus sign on the back, KX56 BVW, is driving one handed while drinking; the Casa Flenghi van driver is reading his directions or itinerary while rolling through the heavy traffic; behind him, the driver of Clockwork logistics T6 CWK is more interested in watching LMNH and in his cigarette than on the road space he is driving into.  The driver of a large JSM dump truck is taking big bites of his sandwich while closely overtaking a pack of cyclists at speed.  A motorbike races down the queue for the lights by using the advisory bike lane, forcing cyclists to an emergency stop as he cuts in.  A taxi follows, half on the pavement.  Another taxi stops the traffic for a U-turn, neatly avoiding the bike stands as she mounts the pavement.  Keltbray, GBN, Kilnbridge, McGrath, and countless other large skip lorries appear to have only the bare legal minimum of mirrors.

Each time I look up, at least one in ten of the passing drivers is doing something at least dubious — careless, discourteous, dangerous — if not flagrantly illegal.  They know they can get away with it.  The police don’t have time to deal with traffic offenses, and they know that if they hit a pedestrian or cyclist, the CPS and judge will be sympathetic and understand the unfortunate fact that pedestrians and cyclists do tend to just come from nowhere.

Many hundreds of cyclists have gone past.  Just one rides (slowly, carefully) along the pavement opposite.  I wonder why he doesn’t want to use his right to the road?

Countless business models in our cities are based on moving goods around, and are borderline-profitable, relying on a mix of illegal and legal-but-immoral practices — speeding; parking in bus stops, bike lanes, buildouts, clearways and footways; red light running and no-entry ignoring; eating and phoning and fiddling with satnavs while on the move — to stay in the black.  Others are very healthy businesses, using lawbreaking to boost their already ample profits just because they can.  Businesses have built themselves into a dependency on bad driving and law breaking.  Our cities could easily survive without the deliveries of bottled water and bagged ice cubes; with fewer disposable spoons and paper cups; with hotels doing their laundry in-house; with a few more parking places converted to loading bays; and with employers sacrificing a tiny little bit of profit to allow their delivery drivers the extra time they need to keep to the speed limit, park up to take calls, and walk the few extra yards from legal loading bays.  We could even manage with fewer taxis — if they made fewer dangerous and illegal moves, they might not look so competitive compared to public transport or hire bikes.  If the road rules were properly enforced, businesses would soon innovate; discover new and legal means of moving things around — or that things don’t really need to be moved around at all.

And a few would fail — because they have invested too heavily in a business model that depends on breaking the law.  And they would be replaced by something else — something unburdened by that investment.  And that would be fine.  We should stop propping up business models based on breaking the law.  We should let those businesses fail, if necessary.

My laptop has finished charging.

How will High Speed 2 help?

I’m writing this on the Far North Line, a place that is 12 hours from London, and has no need to be any closer to it.

It’s hard to define what you mean when you ask whether something helps — whether it is helpful to do something.  What I mean is, whose lives will be better when HS2 is running?  That question isn’t really any less ambiguous, is it?  What positive effect might HS2 have on our health, wealth, productivity, happiness, or any other measure that you think is worth maximising in life.

At AWWTM, we have noticed that having a calm, quiet, clean and beautiful built environment, designed for people and unspoilt by the noise, fumes, and general intimidatory and isolating presence of cars and trucks, seems to make a worthwhile contribution to all of the above measures.  We have observed that wasting years of your life in unpleasant transport conditions — whether a traffic jam or an overstuffed commuter train — tends to make a harmful contribution.  And we think that catastrophic climate change would also probably not be a good thing for our health, wealth, and happiness, and so avoiding causing that would be helpful.

So how will High Speed 2 help with these kinds of things?  I find it increasingly difficult to answer this question, which worries me, because my prejudice is that high speed rail must surely be helpful, and I instinctively like the idea of our having it.  And I just don’t want to be on the same side as a bunch of Tory nimbys.  It’s a railway, and railways are good things.

The government has been selling HS2 as a means to improve and save the environment while helping sustain economic growth.  Currently, many long-distance north-south travelers believe that the car or domestic flights are more suitable forms of transport for them than the train.  If only the train were a bit faster, for many more travelers, the balance would tip in favour of the train.  This would take cars off the road and planes out of the sky, cutting noise and air pollution, visual and physical destruction of our neighbourhoods, and greenhouse gas emissions.  It would help to achieve helpful things.

(As an aside, rail fares throughout the country have just gone up and the government are trying to justify this by pointing to the improvement programs that the fares will fund, including HS2.  But if HS2 is supposed to be to bring the benefits of rail travel to current car and plane users, shouldn’t they be funding it?  Say, with a tax on aviation fuel appropriate to the level of harm that burning it at altitude does?  This government does, after all, support the principle of people like students paying now for hypothetical future economic prosperity.)

Unfortunately, the government’s own current projections are actually that most HS2 users will be existing rail users merely going faster than before on brand new trains and track, which if true and if sustained, rather spoils the greenhouse gas and road congestion arguments anyway.  (I’m not actually convinced this would remain true though: the first users will indeed come from conventional rail, but if HS2 demonstrates sufficient benefits for car and plane users, over time many people who are currently invested in car and plane based lifestyles will adapt to it.  Just as when the first motorways opened they were used only by existing car owners for car journeys that would otherwise would have been made on convention roads — but over time, they filled up as people adapted their lifestyles and built environment to the motorway world, buying more cars and making more journeys.)

A better case for HS2 seems to be in relieving conventional rail congestion.  We are told that the West Coast Main Line is full.  (Virgin Trains have just this week been allowed to run one extra friday evening train per day to Manchester, but perhaps this is at the expense of a freight or stock slot?)  This means we have overcrowding on the existing WCML intercity and regional trains (though many of these can at least be lengthened as a short-term solution), which will only get worse as passenger numbers continue to grow.  And at a time when we need to be investing in the infrastructure for switching freight from road to rail, road freight is growing and rail freight stagnating, because there is insufficient capacity even for loads that are perfectly suited to the existing rail freight infrastructure.  (Several of you are now thinking to yourselves, “isn’t this WCML argument rather reminiscent of predict-and-provide, and hasn’t predict-and-provide had miserable consequences when applied to road building?”  I’m going to ignore you for this post, but we can discuss it later.)

So I guess HS2 will help: without it, the lack of available WCML capacity is driving people into their cars and freight onto the roads, and is holding back development of better rail freight infrastructure.  But is it the most helpful thing we could be doing with the money?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that most journeys in the UK are not inter-city journeys.  Most journeys are short — within a city, or, between nearby towns and villages for shopping, services, socialising and employment.  Most people easily go for months without leaving a 50 mile radius of their house; long-distance journeys are an occasional luxury, for holidays.  But it is these local journeys, though short, which tend to cause more problems per mile — because they are in our town centres and residential neighbourhoods rather than on the motorway.  And these are the journeys that are ignored by the government as something uninteresting that the district council can deal with as they see fit.

Local councils never do deal with transport issues as they see fit.  They deal with them as best as they can afford, and (biggest, densest cities aside) local councils can only afford roads, and even then, only roads that they can build bit-by-bit over the course of a decade.  Somerset and Dorset yearn for their railway to return.  Portishead desperately needs just three miles of track laid on an existing clear trackbed.  Scotland and Wales, where the railways were really hacked to pieces, and London, are leading the way in actually rebuilding these railway lines that people want for their simple short and medium-distance everyday journeys.  But Scotland, Wales, and London all have their own big-budget regional governments to help do this.  Everywhere else has little uncooperative local councils who don’t have the resources to do things like rebuild branch lines.

Spending tens of billions of pounds on getting these sorts of projects going — reconnecting those towns of over 10,000 population which were kicked off the railways; and bringing back the little lines that each connected dozens of villages to the market and county towns where the jobs and services are — would ultimately affect a great many more people than HS2, and I suspect it would have many more positive knock-on effects on development patterns and a far more profound effect on people’s health, wealth, productivity and happiness, than would increasing the top speed of a few intercity trains from 125 to 200 mph.

Of course, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do both.  They would still cost less than a bank bailout.  We could privatise the motorways to pay for it.

Held to ransom

Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty.  The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out.  Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped.  Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year.  But nothing except the mines themselves shut down.  Thatcher had pre-empted the strike.  The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles.  The country had the means to import coal.  And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear.  The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.

Ten years ago today, the streets were empty.  The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four.  The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services.  Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it.  Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered.  Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.

The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.

But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck.  And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds.  Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.

After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:

I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.

The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again.  She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.

On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:

No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.

The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely.  You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.

Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now?  Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight?  How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations?  You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage.  You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure.  You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation.  You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.

Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008
Million tonnes
Road
Rail
Water Pipeline
2000 1,693 96 R 137 151
2001 1,682 94 R 131 151
2002 1,734 87 R 139 146
2003 1,753 89 R 133 141
2004 1,863 100 127 158
2005 1,868 105 133 168
2006 1,940 108 126 159
2007 2,001 102 126 146
2008 1,868 103 123 147
Coverage: Great Britain
Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)

The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call.  Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.