Monday, September 26, 2005

A Sound Transport Policy (Not in The EU)

(This is a general rant, see post above for what triggered it.)

Being a hard-left blogger, I'm expected to rail against any privatisation, yeah right. However, unlike many of my Western counterparts, I didn't arrive here due to some general ideological argument on exploitation, or a broad distaste for capitalism, it was just the opposite: thinking privatisation/deregulation was a silly idea in specific fields led me there. Such as healthcare, the electricity network - and railways.

The philosophy of the current EU rail policy is to create competing private railways with free access to railway lines across Europe - and it is dead wrong.

The problem of European railways is not lack of competition: competition is already there, with road (and riverboats and air). The problem is a four-decades shortage of network investment, while at the same time, the rival modes were (and are) made more competitive with massive investment.

"But it'll bring in private capital", the market optimists would say. However, not in this system, where private capital primarily floods to buying rolling stock, price wars reduce reinvestable profit margins, and ultimately the State is called in to prop up the infrastructure (see British example, and also to some extent Sweden). Worse - I wrote network in the previous paragraph for a reason.

A result of privatisation is a further sucking-away of profits on mainlines, and thus a starving of side lines. But the "unprofitable line: close it!" mindset blindly ignores customer's needs: if less destinations can be reached by rail, even if only a smaller part of your transports are affected, won't it be simpler to transport with one mode of transport - and that's not rail? (This is even more true for passengers - indeed a forgotten reason why railways were public service.)

This is my main problem, there are some more. One is unstable service, as companies go bankrupt (examples in Germany) or the effect of safety neglect kicks in (examples in Britain). Also, the heirs of the old national railways try to maintain their positions with all kinds of tricks - which usually only hurt the position of the rail sector as a whole (say, selling old locomotives to scrap metal handlers rather than rival upstart railways). While in the EU documents I sometimes have to translate as part of my work, I see that the 'reformers' are well aware of the many tricks already applied, I doubt they'll find a working remedy even for these - not to mention foreseeing further tricks to be applied.

So what do I think should have been done instead (but won1t due to the neoliberal indoctrination of the whole European political class)? Strangely enough, to a good part stuff the EU also promotes, as part of this general rail liberalisation programme. Rail freight is most competitive over longer distances, but in the EU, borders hamper that: for rail, borders are system changes. Changeovers in electrification systems, technological standards, operating philosophies and organisation.

Unifying standards, operating international trains with multi-system locomotives, and a common safety system should work with more interwinded and cooperating national railways too, especially if the EU and the states (and regions etc.) care about maintaining the whole network.

Addition: I could add a lot of details, but let's look at Switzerland (see next post), an apparent counterpoint: it has a lot of private railways. However:
  • these do not compete: they cooperate;
  • most of them are majority-public-owned (by cities, cantons and the federal state);
  • in the last few years, there was a consolidation process: the state railway ate up some 'privates', and most of the rest coalesced into three larger regional networks.


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