Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Cars And Welfare Cuts

I was recently at a family reunion. I have two lovely aunts who were present, whom I and my cousins always chided for stubbornly insisting on their car as their sole mode of transport.

The only exception is holiday trips far away, and this summer they were in Morocco together. As they showed pictures and told stories, they spoke of deep poverty, of a country that doesn't know pensions - and the shock of seeing old women who spend all day sitting on the street, with one hand opened for bypassers' money.

Unto which I replied: would they travel by mass transit, they'd see similar old women (and men) at stations and in underpassages.

The thought this anecdote leads me to is that part of middle-class Europe doesn't support welfare cuts just out of cold-hearted class interest (or the for most illusoric expectations of future upper-class interest) or hypocrisy, but because with their 'modern' lifestyle they just don't see the results.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Transalpine Madness

The above graphs show the development of freight transports in and across the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps, with rail traffic in black and road traffic in grey. It is quite striking that Switzerland does something right the two EU members don't at all. All three countries are in the process of building giant railway base tunnels, but present trends indicate they'll only suffice to maintain rail's already low share in the EU-member two...

Actually, what's not too apparent on the Swiss graph is that while road's share grew after the opening of the Gotthard Road Tunnel in 1980, this slowed in the nineties, and turned around after 2000. This was achieved by restrictions for heavy trucks, quotas and passage charges on one side, and fairly high-quality railfreight and trucks-on-railcars transport on the other side.

This is not for the wisdom of Swiss leaders - the group think of the political class is active there, too. Instead, it's direct democracy: Swiss voters have repeatedly, and consistently voted for expensive transalpine and local rail network projects, financed by taxes and road charges, and against more road construction in a number of referendums. Just a year ago, when another right-populist/industry proposal of re-starting major road construction was tabled, and the government's constitutionally-demanded 'opposite' proposal was for even more construction, both were voted down.

And what happened in the other two? For Austria, you can see a blip around 1990: that's when they too tried to restrict road traffic, with road charges and later quotas. But, border-crossing rail transport wasn't well developed - and, even at the time Austria was only applying for membership, the EU exerted persistent pressure to reduce and abolish the charges/quotas, citing internal market rules of 'fair competition'. No matter that the road charges only added (part of) the external costs (pollution, noise etc.) to trucker's prices.

(A more general rant on current EU rail policy in the previous post.)

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.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

More German Bits

Roland Koch (see previous post) really tries hard to prevent a Grand Coalition and trigger new elections: after the idea of shared (2 years one party leader, 2 years the other) chancellorship was floated, he declared that the CDU/CSU should insist on the SPD dropping Schröder as a precondition.

One thing I forgot to insert into the previous post was that Koch, not Merkel, enjoys the US neocon's support. This they made painfully clear after Iraq's invasion. Merkel licked neocon arse with her foreign policy statements ever since summer 2002, and she long sought public contact with US counterparts, yet in May 2003, Merkel was only granted a meeting with Powell when the latter visited Berlin - while Koch was received for an unscheduled 15-minute meeting at the White House...

I also forgot to express Schadenfreude at how that utter idiot leading the FDP, Guido Westerwelle, fared: the guy who shares much of the blame for turning the FDP an unserious no-holds-barred-neoliberal 'fun' party is a direct candidate in Bonn, and this time got only 8.7% - that's 5.5% less than in 2002, and 5% less than list votes for his party in Bonn!...