Friday, 16 August 2013

Ancient and Modern

I was never a train spotter, and I don't pine for the age of steam (more accurately the age of soot), but I have always been interested in railways, first as engineering problems and second because of their unusual capacity to be simultaneous metaphors for modernity and tradition. This dual role was in evidence on either side of the pond this week with the announcement of UK fare increases prompting calls for the renationalisation of the railways, while Elon Musk (the man behind PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX) proposed a futuristic high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Not since John Major sold the modernity of British Rail privatisation as the return of the golden age of the railways have the two been so amusingly juxtaposed.

Musk's proposed Hyperloop is utterly barking, but that's what makes it so interesting. He claims it is a wholly new mode of transport, "a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats", though it fundamentally boils down to a collection of already established technologies. It is "new" in the sense that no one has hitherto been able to make the combination work. The Hyperloop is essentially a low pressure tube on pylons, with the train propelled by electromagnetic pulses and resistance reduced by sucking in and expelling the forward air to provide a cushion on which the train glides. In theory, such a system could travel at just below the speed of sound, around 760 mph, which hasn't stopped some media outlets rounding it up to 800 mph. In practice, speeds would be lower due to excessive heat and stress, so it would probably match a standard jet aeroplane, say 500 mph. It also couldn't maintain this speed for long, due to the need for lengthy acceleration and deceleration at either end. This is partly a product of greater G-force, but mainly due to the likelihood that the rail corridor would not be arrow-straight in urban and suburban areas. As we saw recently in Galicia, high-speed and curves don't go together.

The normal advantages that a train has over a plane, the ability to terminate in the city centre and quick embarkation, would not apply. Such a system, even one built on pylons and partly reusing existing track routes, would necessitate creating new urban corridors, which would be hideously expensive. The proposal is vague on the actual termini. Musk has also admitted that the risks posed by a small bomb in a pressurised system would require security equivalent to that at airports. Safety is an obvious concern, not least because the LA-SF route parallels the San Andreas fault. The point here is less the system's resilience in the event of a major earthquake - it would be no more vulnerable that a road or bridge (i.e. highly vulnerable) - but its ability to accommodate minor tremors, subsidence and high winds. It might not suffer from leaves on the tracks, but any kink or loose matter in the tube would bring trains to a halt.

The system design favours a small carriage: a reduced circumference to minimise forward resistance and a short length to maximise thrust. The proposal talks of "pods" of 28 passengers departing every two minutes and thus giving a capacity of 840 passengers per hour. In practice, the need for safe intervening distances (you could not brake too quickly without killing passengers) and the cumbersome logistics of embarkation mean that 10 to 15 minute gaps would be more likely, so capacity would be nearer 150 passengers per hour. This is actually the giveaway in terms of Musk's thinking. Just as with his SpaceX Dragon rocket, this is not a rapid transit system designed for the mass of the people, but a Pullman service designed for the wealthy who want to whizz between downtown LA and Nob Hill (or possibly Bel Air and Palo Alto). It is aspirational, hence Musk has already said he's just floating an idea and expects others to pick it up. In reality, California is already committed to a new high-speed (220 mph) rail network, the more conventional HSR, so the Hyperloop looks unlikely to leave the realm of the speculative any time soon.

Such fanciful imagination is lacking in the UK, where our attitude towards railways has long tended towards tradition rather than modernity. Thus the Metropolitan line extension (aka HS2), which for all the nimby opposition is reassuringly Betjemanesque, is preferred to a genuine high-speed link between London and t'North. Where once "modern" meant breaking the speed record between London and Edinburgh, now it is merely a synonym for "European" and "clean". In recent years, the dichotomy of ancient and modern has centred on the merits of renationalisation, with the pro-social role of railways allowing us to indulge in social democratic nostalgia. While I share the irritation of those who criticise the unthinking calls to "bring back British Rail", as if there were ever a time when British railways were well run or adequately funded, the contrary attempts to hail the achievements of privatisation strike me as ridiculous. This tends to be a combination of an ideological refusal to accept that there are such things as natural monopolies ("the ambition to introduce competition and private capital was sound") and a simple abuse of the facts ("we have the safest railways on the continent" ... yes, as a result of the partial unwinding of privatisation following the disasters at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar).

The historian Tony Judt noted that the coming of the railways in the nineteenth century was revolutionary because of the wider impact it had through timetables and the standardisation of time, the formalisation of classes according to bourgeois norms, and the building of large stations (the terminus "anchoring" the city). I think this materialist lens is useful when considering modern railway plans. Musk's Hyperloop proposal isn't serious (there's a clue in the name), not least because it cannot envisage its real world impact beyond "faster" and "cooler". LA and the Bay Area are not about to be reconfigured, any more than the State of California is about to invest in a rail system that directly competes with Lear jets and is irrelevant for suburban commuters. The technical audacity of the concept and the improbable cheapness of the project are intended to grab eyeballs as part of the continuing campaign of our new tech overlords to convince us that private enterprise gets things done while government delivers mediocrity.

Meanwhile in the UK we whine about fare increases without stopping to note how successive governments have privileged middle class commuters through house price bubbles, tax cuts and selective investment (of which HS2 is just the latest example). I favour nationalisation simply because I think the rail network is one area where central planning works, but I am under no illusions about the cost. Railways cannot break-even, let alone make a profit, without a large public subsidy, which means higher taxes. The only debate is who bears the burden. The gradual shift from direct to indirect taxation over recent decades, plus the privileged treatment of capital gains and dividends relative to income, means that the less well-off have had to pick up a proportionately larger share of the tab. In this regard, HS2 actually has a lot in common with the Hyperloop. In answer to the question "qui bono?", the answer for most people is "not me".


  1. "Railways cannot break-even, let alone make a profit, without a large public subsidy, which means higher taxes."

    Would it mean higher taxes, though? Hasn't the subsidy to the railways increased by a factor of 4 of 5 since privatisation? Nationalisation itself would cost money, but long-term there'd be no increase in the subsidy required, as it'd all go to the railways, rather than subsidising shareholders.

  2. What I meant was "higher taxes than would be the case if there were no railways, all other things being equal".

    Whether that subsidy is larger or smaller, depending on the model of ownership, is irrelevant to my point. If you have a railway system treated as a public good, which means some degree of subsidy, then the public must pick up part of the bill via taxation. My point is that changes to the tax system have actually advantaged well-heeled commuters at the expense of others, so special pleading over fare increases should be taken with a pinch of salt.

    I agree that a nationalised system would (eventually) result in a lower subsidy than the current half-cock setup. The efficiencies claimed for private ownership are illusory in the case of such a complex system, and attempts to break it up across multiple operators are self-defeating (this is what brought us to Network Rail), so the idea that aggregate savings can be achieved that more than pay for the profit margin are nonsense.

  3. Isn't it true that almost no passenger railways ever made a profit by selling tickets, and that the privately-owned railways of the 19th century made their money by selling houses in the new suburbs they built, from which people could commute to their city-centre jobs by train?