Tag Archives: philip hammond

Rail electrification and HS2? You need some better hot takes

Readers with no interest in the nerdy details of UK railways can look away now. This post is one very long, tedious “actually I think you’ll find” reply that I didn’t have time to make fit into a tweet.

So the railway electrification programme has been cut back, with the entire Midland Main Line electrification scrapped, plus relatively small chunks of the Great Western (at Swansea) and Northern (at Windermere) projects.

And predictably enough, the worst takes roll in trying to blame this on HS2, from people who will believe absolutely anything you say against the high speed project. These are terrible takes. And they’re a problem, because these are the kind of terrible, childishly simplistic takes on complex policy issues that stop you doing anything useful about them.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the situation with electrification — take everything I scribble here with plenty of salt, and factcheck it before you go citing any of it — but I know it’s a bit more complicated than almost any of the takes on twitter.  So, since you asked, here are some alternative takes for you, which I hope might help to shed the tiniest bit of light on just the surface of that deep complexity.

Electrification hasn’t been cut

The first thing you need to understand is what has actually happened, and what Grayling’s announcement is tiptoeing around. The budget for electrification hasn’t been cut to pay for HS2 because the budget for electrification hasn’t been cut. It has been massively overspent.

Railway investment is planned in 5 year chunks (the announcements are happening now because now is the deadline for DfT to send their draft investment plan for the next 5 year period to the relevant organisations for comment).

In the current 5 year period, 2014-19, Network Rail were asked to electrify a lot of things:

  • Great Western (GWML) from Paddington to Oxford, Bristol and Swansea, including Thames Valley commuter lines;
  • Midland (MML) to Nottingham, Sheffield and Corby
  • The main TransPennine line between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, plus associated Northern lines around Liverpool and Manchester
  • A couple of comparatively short commuter lines elsewhere — London Overground’s GOBLIN and Birmingham’s Chase Line
  • (Plus a lot of Scotland’s Central Belt. That’s separate, devolved to Scotland, but it’s relevant later.)

Network Rail gave an estimate for these jobs, the government liked it and made the funds available.

So Network Rail got to work on the GWML and immediately began massively overspending and falling behind schedule. So the budget hasn’t been cut. It’s just that Network Rail has spent all of the money before it has delivered even half of what it was supposed to deliver.

This wasn’t even really about electrification

The next thing you need to understand is that electrification is just one part of a much bigger, more complicated modernisation plan which is primarily driven by the need for new trains. It’s no coincidence which lines were chosen for electrification: they’re the ones that need the most new trains, or which maximise the opportunity to bring in new trains so the current ones can be sent elsewhere.

The country already has a chronic undersupply of diesel trains, because we haven’t bought any new ones in years despite passenger demand growing. But the situation is about to become dire, because deadlines are looming for the mass withdrawal of a substantial fraction of the fleet.

On the GWML, and a few other parts of the network, the Intercity 125s are reaching 40 years, a heroic service for an intensively used intercity train. They’re brilliant but they can’t keep going forever. Meanwhile, in 2020, new accessibility regulations come into force. Lots of trains won’t be compliant with the new law, so they either need expensive modifications, or withdrawal. Since nobody is going to waste money modifying the hated 1980s Pacers, those are off for their long-overdue trip to the scrapyard.

So, 10 years ago, people started realising we were going to have a rolling stock problem and something needed to be done about it. They could have just bought a load of new diesel trains. But somebody looked at the problem strategically, and the case was made for killing many birds with one stone. Electrify some lines and then you can solve the rolling stock problem with cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, faster, cleaner and greener trains.

This was an excellent plan.

The plan all depended on the electrification happening in time for the 2020 deadline, so that a complex cascade and shuffle around of fleets could happen. New electric commuter trains in the Thames valley, for example, will displace Paddington’s diesel commuter trains to Bristol, so Bristol’s can in turn replace the condemned Pacers elsewhere.

Now those timelines are all fucked, so a load of new diesel trains have had to be ordered anyway.

Dropping the Midland Mainline is a good thing

When you see that this is a rolling stock project, dropping the MML — and Swansea and Windermere — at this point makes perfect sense. The MML has a relatively small fleet of intercity trains — most of them relatively new — and no diesel commuter trains to displace for use elsewhere. Rushing to try to electrify it will do relatively little to solve a rolling stock problem. Effort needs to be focused on finishing the Thames Valley and Northern areas, where there are the greatest number of diesel trains to release and cascade per mile of electrification, before 2020.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t electrify MML, only that it doesn’t make sense to do it right now, when there are obvious higher priorities.

Slowing down electrification is a good thing

This mess all happened because we bit off more than we could chew — or rather, Network Rail was asked to do, and agreed to do, more than it could possibly do at once. The last time Britain did any substantial amount of electrification was a quarter of a century ago, and suddenly we decided to try to do 6 or 7 projects simultaneously.

That led Network Rail to make a lot of mistakes, spread themselves too thinly, and made it a seller’s market for their suppliers and contractors.

One of the big problems that has been encountered is that electrification is interdependent on other projects, like re-signalling in the Bristol area and rebuilding Oxford station, which have encountered their own problems. Slowing down could enable projects with dependencies to be delivered in a more rational and coordinated way. That would be particularly important on TransPennine, where there are still projects in development to improve line speed and capacity.

The significance of Grayling’s announcement is that he didn’t cancel the rest of GWML, TransPennine and Northern or GOBLIN. That implies that finishing these projects will be what Network Rail gets asked to do in the next 5 year period — 2019-24 — if they don’t get finished in the current one.

That doesn’t mean that Swansea and MML will never happen, but they won’t happen before 2024.

We’ve recognised that everything can’t happen all at once in 5 years, and asking for it all to happen at once in 5 years is a recipe for disaster. Dropping some projects should make the others more secure.

But you’ll still need to fight for them

That said, it’s still a very bad sign that the projects have been explicitly cancelled. There’s nothing to force Grayling to say cancelled. He could have said: there’s only so much we can do at once, so MML, Swansea and Windermere are shelved for this period and we can look at them again the next time we do this funding specification exercise in 5 years time. Instead he chose to call them cancelled.

That’s because Grayling, and perhaps equally importantly the chancellor, don’t get railways.

Take a look at their policies and track records and it won’t take you long to find Hammond’s notorious question about why trains don’t give way to cars at level crossings, or Grayling’s clueless playing politics with London’s suburban rail.

Blaming HS2 would let them off the hook, and they both probably want an excuse to cancel that project too.

But the real problem, and potential solutions to all this, is with the system

We concentrate power centrally in a few hands, and then change the leadership frequently through reshuffles and changes of government. The recent fashion for electrification rose and survived due to support from Transport Secretaries and Chancellors like Andrew Adonis, George Osborne and Patrick McLoughlin (who’s constituency just happened to be on a branch of the MML).

It’s a real bugger that in the game of musical chairs, Grayling and Hammond happened to be in the seats when the music stopped for this crucial phase in the funding cycle. We can at least take comfort that neither will be in the same seats in 5 years time when this exercise next happens.

But we will still be planning investments in a stupid and wasteful way.

With the last major electrification projects having been quarter of a century ago, to make the current projects happen we’ve had to rebuild our expertise, retrain our workforce, and rebuild our supply chains. That’s yet another of the reasons why so much has gone wrong and gone overbudget. We had huge start-up costs. We didn’t have the expertise or information to make accurate estimates. Rookie mistakes were made. And the politicians set Network Rail up for failure by ordering them to do 20 years worth of work in 5 years, because that’s the maximum horizon politicians work to.

Now we’ve flipped political leadership and policy, and we risk losing the expertise and supply chain that has just been built up from scratch, so next time electrification comes back into fashion, as it surely will, we’ll do it all over again.

Slowing down electrification, could be a great opportunity to do it better, more rationally. While the 2020 big bang deadline for rolling stock retirement has now been solved by ordering new diesels and bimodes, there will be a continuous trickle of other diesel train fleets reaching the ends of their operational lives over the subsequent years — alongside continued growth in passenger demand, if current trends continue. It would make perfect sense to continue, at a slower but more consistent pace, a rolling programme of electrification to pave way for electric trains to replace fleets as they reach retirement age.

With the security of a rational, long-term plan, we could retain a committed workforce which builds up the experience and expertise to do an efficient and competent job, and to innovate in delivery. We could support a supply chain that invests in a long-term steady return, instead of handing out a brief bonanza and leaving them bust. And we could plan delivery alongside dependent projects.

(Scotland looks to be slightly closer than England and Wales to having such a plan, with an ambition to electrify their remaining commuter and intercity lines in a 2 decade rolling programme, though even that will be at the mercy of future Scottish ministers who may not share the ambition. Alas, we don’t even have the ambition, and will remain stuck swinging between ideological extremes until somebody fixes the system.)

Blaming HS2 isn’t going to fix any of these underlying issues that stand in the way of electrification continuing.

Electrification’s failures are exactly why HS2 is happening

Your final hot take: everybody complaining that HS2 is to blame for this is clueless not just about electrification but also about what HS2 does.

Electrification is being cut back because it’s massively overbudget. All those people like Richard Wellings at the IEA pulling cost estimates for HS2 out of their ass? The overruns they invent are nothing compared to the 300%-500% overrun on the GWML.

And that just cements the case for HS2. Whatever you think of HS2 (and I say this as somebody who certainly wouldn’t have put it as #1 transport capital priority, or chosen many of the design specifications it has been given), the fact we’ve seen time and time again is that trying to upgrade and add capacity to existing transport routes — by modifying their old infrastructure while trying to work around a live, intensive service — is massively more expensive compared to building something brand new for the equivalent capacity added, and is substantially more likely to run massively more overbudget than the newbuild.

Just as electrification was really a rolling stock replacement programme, HS2 is similarly not what it seems. HS2 is not a high speed intercity programme. It’s a getting intercity trains out of the way programme. The West Coast Mainline out of Euston, MML out of St Pancras, and East Coast out of King’s Cross all need more capacity. There is unmet demand for more local rail commuting in the cities served by these lines, for more regional trains to and between towns on them, and for more freight on the railways. There isn’t capacity to meet that demand because mixing frequent-stopping commuter and regional trains, lumbering freight trains, and high speed intercity trains makes for an inefficient use of a railway line. HS2 creates a disproportionately large amount of capacity for local and regional services by getting the intercity trains out of the way.

People who argue that what the railways need is better local, regional and commuter services instead of faster intercity trains need to explain how those services will be possible without HS2. The only alternative is by making extensive modifications to 3 different Victorian mainlines, on a scale no smaller than HS2 itself, while trying to work around a live, intensive service. The fuck up of electrification has only made HS2 look even more like the preferred option over the terrifying prospect of that alternative.

Advertisements

Rich man’s toys

Our dear Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond said something to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee yesterday, and the BBC decided that it was The News. I don’t think Hammond had intended for it to be The News. He said:

It’s an uncomfortable fact that the railway is already, relatively, a rich man’s toy*. The whole railway. People who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole. Simple fact. The assumptions underlying the pattern of use of HS2 assume similar pricing to the West Coast Main Line, which ranges from eye-wateringly expensive to really quite reasonable if you dig around and buy in advance. And therefore the assumption that the socio-economic mix of passengers will be broadly similar to those currently using the West Coast Main Line.

Nobody is really commenting on the fact that Hammond was not merely saying that people are priced off the railways, but that it doesn’t matter if people are priced off HS2 because they’re already priced off the railways. I would have thought that The News would have wanted to play up the HS2 connection.

But people are questioning whether it’s really true that train users are rich. It sounds like a convenient setup for bashing railways and promoting roads: the poor can’t afford to use railways, therefore anybody who wants decent, affordable railways is an enemy of the poor. Spend all the money on more road subsidies investment and fuel tax cuts instead.

I’m afraid it’s true. The National Travel Survey gives us information on modal usage and split by income quintile for a sample of the population:


(image nicked from Fairness in a car dependent society [PDF])

The railways really are being used by the rich a lot more than by the poor** — about four times as much.


(image nicked from the centre for cities)

5% of those in the highest income group use rail as their main transport mode, compared to 2% for those in the lowest income group.*** But, wait, there’s another difference between those two groups, isn’t there? It turns out that the motor car is a rich person’s toy too. Poop- poop!

But the NTS reveals something else:

(image nicked from Harry Rutter’s Street Talk)

Travel is a rich person’s toy, and that makes better employment opportunities and services a rich person’s toy.

One of the best ways to overcome that is to invest in local transport, and in local transport that anybody can afford and always will be able to afford; the sort of local transport that will stimulate town centre renewal rather than further drive decline. The bicycle, for example.

Of course, Hammond thinks that investment in transport for the rich is good for all of us: the company director who jumps on HS2 for the Channel Tunnel or Heathrow will be employing lots of people at all levels in Manchester or Leeds. Allegedly. I suspect he’s maybe more likely to be visiting his contractors in the far east, or his accountant in Switzerland.

* This was a quote from the question he had been asked by Julie Hilling, in turn a slogan used by the anti-HS2 campaigners.

** Yes, “the railways really are being used by the rich a lot more than by the poor” is subtly different to Hammond’s claim that “people who use the railway, on average, have significantly higher incomes than the population as a whole” — the former is about distance, the latter about users. One rich person doing the length of the UK would, by my metric, have used the railway considerably more than a dozen poor people popping into their town centres. If you can find better data, do share.

*** Thanks to Tom for pointing out the mistake in original wording here.

Government wakes from electric dream

So Philip Hammond’s policy — his one lonely policy* — of encouraging people to drive electric vehicles has been cut.  The government are still wasting money giving £5,000 subsidies to people who are already able to afford expensive new electric cars (though it will be interesting to see how much longer that lasts), but they will no longer be building a network of charging points, instead leaving owners to charge their vehicles at home.  The greenest ever government can’t even be bothered to keep up its greenwash.

The electric vehicles policy was never ambitious, and at best stretching the definition of “green”.  It envisioned replacing internal-combustion (ICE) vehicles with electric vehicles by 2050.  That’s forty years.  The twenty year old book that arrived on friday arguing for cycling as a political priority was already noting the overwhelming evidence for climate change and the need to do something about it.  For twenty years we’ve faffed around doing not much, and the government proposes that we leisurely carry on for another forty.  Never mind the fact that we have less than half that time to completely decarbonise if we are to avoid catastrophe.

And the extent to which electric vehicles are green also depends, of course, on how green their manufacture and the generation of their power is.  Our electricity, still mostly produced by burning a lot of imported coal and gas, is considerably greener than burning a lot of imported refined oil, but it’s not green enough to avert catastrophe if we don’t decarbonise it in the next couple of decades — a project that is already way behind schedule.  Even when we do decarbonise, the more we rely on electricity, the more dams, barrages, wind turbines, nuclear plants, and, least welcome of all, pylons we need to accommodate.

Of course, carbon is the only thing that matters about transport, right?  When I worked in a London office I would enjoy many a fun argument about people who chose to drive in London: “ah, but somebody who drives a little hatchback back and forth in zone 1 & 2 might have a smaller carbon footprint than somebody who commutes from Brighton or Bath by train every day.”**

Even if electric vehicles did solve the carbon problem, they would solve none of the others associated with car use — the nascent sedentary-lifestyle-related public health crises, the ongoing road danger scandal, the waste of urban land and spoiling of urban environment, the deleterious development patterns that exist in symbiosis with car dependency.  EVs do admittedly have one less method of directly producing air pollution.  Problems that can all be solved by shifting shifting journeys to active transport.

Active transport remains suppressed by political policy.  The lack of support for the types of interventions that are proven to work at enabling journeys to be switched to being made by bicycle; and the continuing policies that prioritise the motor vehicle and prevent pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, as epitomised by Blackfriars Bridge, amount to government suppression of cycling and walking.

If we are to meet our carbon deadlines — not “targets”, deadlines — we need a plan that would, by 2030, tear down the barriers that all over the country are preventing people cycling.  That is, primarily, the environment.  Most people will never cycle on the streets as they are now.  We must change the streets, and we haven’t got time to faff around about it.

It’s not like Philip Hammond has any other policies to pursue.

(Consider that our cycling mayor, from the party that gave us the greenest ever government, is father of a cycling revolution which he hopes to give London an embarrassing 5% modal share for cycling by 2030 — an achievement that he intends to make at the same time as maintaining motor traffic flow at current level and without any meaningful changes to London’s streets.)

* I’m giving High Speed Rail to Osborne and Danny Alexander, since it’s they who will pull the plug when the time comes.

** Indeed, it is because of these arguments that I spend so much time discussing all of the other problems with motorised road transport and all of the other reasons to support the alternatives, and rarely mention the carbon and climate issue.

Ratrunners rout railway

London Reconnections reports that Heathrow Airtrack — the old proposal to link ready-built platforms under Heathrow T5 to Waterloo via the Windsor lines through Staines and Putney — has been quietly shelved.  It was never a very interesting railway and, since I don’t anticipate using any airport in the foreseeable future, I have difficulty caring about its demise.  But it’s a vaguely interesting story, I think, for the reason that it was dropped.  Interesting to hardcore transport nerds, at least.

Because these railway lines out of Waterloo are already heavily used commuter lines, introducing a new Airtrack service to the system would require some difficult timetable shuffling and fiddling with routes to make everything fit in.  Train times on the Chiswick/Brentford branch and on the Egham branch — lines that Airtrack itself needn’t even use — would have to change in order to open slots on the shared tracks around Waterloo and Staines.  Those routes each have three level-crossings, which introduces a road/rail conflict.

The three level crossings on the Chiswick/Brentford branch are not important.  They are all on unclassified residential streets with nearby main roads that have bridges.  Probably they should just be closed and replaced with footbridges — I’m sure the budgetary and safety cases must be strong.  Increased train frequency could lead to long block closures of these crossings during rush hour, and it wouldn’t matter.  No bus routes use these roads.  A few west London Chelsea Tractor drivers might get upset at the loss of a ratrun.  Boo hoo.

What matters are the Egham crossings, all on relatively important roads into the town and its residential areas, without realistic alternative routes.  The residents of Egham are adamant that, while Chiswick and Brentford residents shouldn’t need to run a car, out there in the wild rural isolation of Egham it’s simply not possible to survive without a Range Rover to take the kids to school (have you seen the state of the school bus and the sort of children who use it?).  Lets not argue that one right now.  There is much demand on the roads in Egham, and the changes to train times and frequencies caused by Airtrack could increase the length and frequency of crossing closures to the point where supply is insufficient to meet demand, and the queues become too long for the road phases of the crossing.

It’s a nice demonstration of why our transport system is in the condition it’s in: those clever solutions that you like to make up when you’re bored on a delayed train won’t work, because in such a complex and close-to-capacity system as the British railway network, any tinkering has massive knock-on effects elsewhere.  Run another train here?  Add a few carriages to that service?  Build a new branch to Heathrow?  It’s a bit more complicated than that.  Sometimes building a whole new railway, like Crossrail or HS2, is cheaper and easier than trying to untangle the age old lines we already have.

Oh, but, why don’t they just build bridges over the railway in place of the level crossings, you say?  Another of your excellent ideas, and that’s where we get to the really nerdily interesting bit.  Currently, the presence of level crossings in the town make the ‘B’ roads that run south through it marginally less inviting to the motorist than the busy A30 and A320 bypasses.  Replace the crossings with bridges and Egham becomes a ratrun.  The minor inconvenience of waiting at the gates is the price the townsfolk pay for relatively quiet and livable streets.  The extra road capacity would change the congestion profile of the main roads, and over time, change the business profile of the high street and the social profile of the town.  In the chaotic complexity of the road network, a tiny tweak can set in motion slow but significant changes.  So we can’t run trains from Waterloo to Heathrow because it would necessitate the creation of a ratrun for motorists through a town that the Heathrow railway wouldn’t even run through.

Resolving these road/rail and resident/ratrunner conflicts is, of course, just a political decision.  Any decision will inconvenience a lot of people and have long term, surprisingly far-reaching, and not entirely predictable consequences. The politician’s job is to decide who to inconvenience more; which option is expected have less problematic consequences.  There is no one objectively right answer.

It just happens, though, that Egham is in Runnymede & Weybridge, the constituency that elected our dear transport secretary.  I didn’t say there weren’t any objectively wrong answers.

Get help.

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying:

If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.

VAT and fuel duty have just risen, while petrol prices continue to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous to source at the same time that global demand rises.  The press seem to think that it’s time to make another fuss about the pains that come with the death of the oil age — to pretend that they could somehow be avoided.  What must be done to relieve our pain?  Fuel prices should be lower: customers want it, hauliers need it, The Daily Express Says So.  Labour think that the government could be “doing more”.  If only the government were to be fair and reasonable with the poor motorist, everything would be alright and the motorist would live happily ever after.

Henry Ford’s advice is not to ignore these cries and let things carry on as they are.  Nor he is telling us to arbitrarily impose things on people against their will.  But he is advising us to be cleverer than to simply provide the stupid and short-sighted solution that the consumer thinks he wants.  His maxim is accepted basic business practice: you don’t ask the client or customer exactly what they want, you ask what the customer is trying to achieve — what they need to do, what problem they are trying to solve, what ultimate outcome they are hoping for.  The obvious solution to a problem is often not the best.  Sometimes it’s not even a solution at all.

So what are the people crying over their fuel bill ultimately trying to do?  What people actually need to do is get to their place of employment.  They need to be able to get their food, and pick up their pension or get their kids educated.  They’d like to be able to see their friends, have days and nights out, and buy the occasional unnecessary luxury.  And they’d like their businesses to be able to source materials and ship products.  They would like to be able to afford to do all of these things.  Increasingly people are unable to do these things because so many have been lured into an expensive and destructive car habit, often entirely against their own will.  A tax cut, if it helps at all, is never going to help for long.  Fiddling with the cost of fuel is not the clever solution for getting people to work and to school; it at best puts off the crisis.

Unfortunately, like smokers and gamblers, car addicts get very defensive about their habit.  One very common theme is to cite their circumstances: there simply is no alternative for them but to drive.  It’s too far to walk, the railway was ripped up decades ago (just before the village shop and school closed), the buses go to the wrong place at the wrong time of day, and the roads are too dangerous to cycle on.  The excuses are all true, and mostly they’re used legitimately. The problem is that, like all addicts with their feelings of powerlessness, car addicts use these as excuses to do nothing except fantasise about a scenario in which their addiction is not a problem — a perfect world with lower fuel prices and a magical future in which the car can survive all of the problems that it has created for itself.  The car addict is never going to benefit from a financial break that further encourages their habit.  Fuel is not going to become more abundant or easier to source or less in demand.  Anybody who can’t kick the habit is ultimately going to get destroyed by it.

If you have no bus to a town with shops, if your schools are closing, if there is no safe route to cycle, if you are forced into expensive car dependency, why aren’t you outraged about that?  Those are outrageous things.

If it’s true that fuel prices are becoming a major problem for a significant portion of our population then it is an outrage that the government isn’t doing more to correct the failings that have forced so many powerless people into this expensive dependency.  If it’s true that fuel prices are such a problem for you then it sounds like it’s time for you to stand up, admit that you have a problem, and scream at the government not for another short-lived high, but for the help that you need to kick the habit.  If it’s true that this is such a big and urgent problem for so many people, then it’s time for Philip Hammond to put down the high-speed train set, stop pretending that this is a little unimportant job that our broke borough councils or the Big Society can handle, and come up with the big and urgent solution it needs.  It’s time to seek help, and it’s time for the government to provide it.

If it’s true.

Punch and Judy town planning policy

“Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government put these words in a press release and today 221 national and local newspaper journalists* copypasted them into their newspapers, noticing nothing nonsensical in their conjunction.  Great job, The Media.

The press release was announcing the abolition of two ten year old Labour policies: Planning Policy Guidance 13: Transport (PPG13), and Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing (PPS3).  The department spin this as the abolition of an “encouragement” to local councils to charge for town-centre car parking, and of a rule that limited car parking in new developments in the hope that fewer residents would own cars as a result.

Given that the war “on” motorists is a war between motorists as ever more of them compete for increasingly scarce land and resources, these policies will of course merely serve to make people’s lives even more miserable as they sit in a whole new level of congestion.  Not that I expect there to be any noticeable difference to most people’s lives as a result of this policy — it’s a drop in the ocean given the mess that we’re in.  And anyway, the policy merely devolves these decisions to local councils, who are unlikely to make any changes given their own dire situations.

Philip Hammond said, “this Government recognises that cars are a lifeline for many people.”  Which is interesting, because a lifeline is “a line to which a drowning or falling victim may cling to.”  The person on the end of a lifeline did not intend to be there, and he does not intend to stay there.  To get there, something has gone wrong, and the lifeline user intends to leave the lifeline behind as soon his feet are safely back on solid ground.  Lots of people will tell you that they have no choice but to drive a car, but most of them would rather they didn’t have to.  The car is a lifeline that have grasped after the doctor’s surgery closed, and then the butcher and baker closed, and then the library closed, and then the post-office closed — all because of the rise of car-dependent development around them.  These people don’t want to have to drive twenty miles to town.  They want their services back.  Philip Hammond’s policy is to encourage new developments that force people to use a car against their will; he’s pushing you overboard and expecting you to be grateful as you’re dragged along on a “lifeline”.

On the announcement, “Decentralisation Minister” Greg Clark said something that is actually mostly true:

“Limiting the number of drives and garages in new homes doesn’t make cars disappear – it just clogs residential roads with parked cars and makes drivers cruise the streets hunting for a precious parking space.”

But this is no excuse for giving up.  It is a fact that there is far more wrong with recent development patterns than just car parking; car parking alone does not create car dependent communities.  But we have to tackle all of the problems — we need more action, not less — and car parking was a start, at least.

And of course, Hammond again plugs his hoverboard development programme.  I know I should have no reason to be surprised by the depths to which British politicians and newspapers can sink, but the scale of the current farce is just amazing.  It looks like Hammond’s entire tenure as transport minister will be based on the recurring pantomime of riding his magic car to rescue the beautiful Motorist from the nasty Labour men and their War.  Apparently this is the “new kind of politics“.

* or, rather, 221 websites indexed by Google News, which is an overlapping, but not identical set.  And some of nationals at least didn’t swallow the line whole.

Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists

Queuing

I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about the M4 bus lane, but haven’t had the time, so here’s a rather crude brain dump while I sit in the dark on a bus somewhere on the A9 in the snowy Cairngorms.

The Dutch infrastructure minister recently announced that speed limits on some stretches of motorway would be raised.  This would not help Motorists get to their destinations any quicker, she noted, but it was a change worth making because it would make the motorists feel better.  Aside from being a delightfully refreshing piece of honesty from a politician, it highlights again that behaviour and psychology should not be ignored when designing transport policy.  Philip Hammond should have been this honest when abolishing the M4 bus lane — instead of the weak nonsense about improving journey times, just tell the truth that it’s a cheap way of making Motorists feel better.

The M4 bus lane was designed to cut the journey times of Motorists entering London — to make their journeys faster and more reliable, and thus to cut the <insert absurd made up number here> billions of pounds that the Institute of Directors like to claim is lost because of their Jags being caught in congestion their supply chain being delayed by congestion.  The Motorist probably thinks that he too would like his journeys to be faster and more reliable.  But this is not quite true.  The Motorist would like his journeys to seem faster and more reliable.

The M4 bus lane was hated not because it increased car journey times or made journeys less reliable.  It didn’t.  As previously explained, the bus lane was a clever hack to the layout of a road with a bottleneck.  It made a tiny and irrelevant cut to journey times, while cutting lane changing and accident rates and thus greatly improving consistency in journey times.  The bus lane was hated because motorists thought it increased their journey times.

Part of it was the problem of common sense.  The likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Terry Wogan despise those scientists and academics with all their fancy facts and data — the problem with these researchers is that they don’t have any common sense, and common sense tells Clarkson and Wogan that taking away one lane of the M4 must have caused traffic jams.  No amount of your facts can change that.

Another part of it was recall bias: all of those massive pre-bus lane jams begin to blur into the distance, whereas this jam that I’m sat in right now is real — and hey look, there’s a bus lane.  Coincidence?

But it was more than this.  It was about people’s perception, and particularly people’s perception of queues.  Since I’m on a bus with no reference material and limited battery life, I’ll put it in bullet points:

When sat on a Motorway in a traffic jam, Motorists usually believe that their own lane is going the slowest.  It’s simple: when their own lane is moving freely, they’re concentrating on driving, and don’t notice that the other lanes are stationary; when their lane is stationary, they have nothing better to do than stare at all the vehicles which are moving freely in the other lanes.  So even if over time all lanes even out, the Motorist perceives that the other lanes are moving better — especially if the jam is severe enough that they spend more time stationary (observing others moving) than moving themselves.   (Hence all the futile changing of lanes in jams, which just makes the jams worse.)  This is the same reason why in the Post Office — wait, do blog readers even still use those?  OK, this is the same reason why in the ticket office at a major station, you have a single queue serving several windows, rather than independent queues.  Independent queues make people nervous about their decisions.

This perception leads to Motorists overestimating their time sat in traffic, and it’s made worse when they can see moving traffic — if the opposite carriageway is moving freely, or there’s a parallel un-jammed road, then the sight of moving cars merely serves to remind the poor stationary Motorist of their own lack of motion.  Drivers asked to estimate how long they were stuck in traffic consistently over-estimate the jam if they see other traffic moving freely.

So the M4 bus lane was about the worst thing you could do if you wanted Motorists to perceive that they were spending less time in queues.  Now when they were sat in a queue they weren’t just sat there with nothing better to do than get paranoid over the relative speed of the two lanes of traffic: they could also sit there watching the buses and taxis and prime-ministers go past at speed, constantly highlighting the fact that the Motorist was going nowhere.

The research shows this — have drivers estimate their queuing time with and without visible moving traffic nearby; or compare the driver and passenger experience of a stop-start motorway jam. It’s just another of the many fascinating little quirks of psychology — one of the bizarre things our brains do when confronted with absurd man-made situations like traffic jams.  You can make Motorists happily spend more time sat in traffic jams, simply by making them sincerely believe that it is less time.

(Somewhen I’ll try to find some interesting references, but 3G has just dropped out…)