26 February 2013

The End of Rail

This year there were more large increases in the cost of rail tickets.

I was largely uninterested, though by no means disinterested, in the subject. Passenger rail travel is just inherently enormously expensive. The government taxes road travel heavily through road fund duty and fuel taxes, and at the same time subsidises rail travel heavily, and the net result is that for most journeys, rail is not an option, and for most of those that rail travel is available, it is about three times the cost of road travel. If you take the true cost, without the effect of the taxes and subsidies, rail transport is probably about ten times as expensive as road transport.

Privatisation was an obvious response to this long-standing situation, but the improvements were small, and the cost differential has only increased over time.

I've never clearly understood where the huge costs of rail come from. There are several sources I can think of, but whether some of them are insignificant, or if one of them dominates all the others, I'm not sure.

One obvious contributor is the safety standard that rail is held to. Rail travel is about a hundred times safer than road travel, and that is achieved through massive expenditure on signalling, inspections, pre-emptive maintenance and staff to supervise.

A second factor is evolution. Cars are sold in their millions, and the industry is subject to constant, intensive competition and improvements. Trains, by comparison, are rarely-produced items. The result is that trains evolve relatively slowly: a ten-year-old train and a thirty-year-old train are barely distinguishable, while cars of similar vintages are very obviously distinct. The manufacturing process is affected as well as the finished product.

The third is the lack of flexibility which defines rail travel. A road vehicle can go anywhere provided the ground is hard and flat. A train can only go where the network has been built for it. We do talk about a “road network” in the same sense as a rail network, but the concepts are not equivalent for that reason. A motorway might be planned and engineered to just the same degree as a railway line1, but the defining feature of road travel is not the motorway, but the driveway — the thing that allows anyone to join the road network at almost any point. That makes the road system an open network, while the rail system is a closed network, and the differences between road and rail are mostly the differences between open and closed systems. (That also covers the evolution factor above: vehicles for the rail network are selected by the network operator; vehicles for the road network are selected by the network users).

If road travel is so far superior to rail travel, why am I paying £4000 a year to sit on the train and write this?  One reason is of course the subsidies — but the commuter routes into London aren't directly subsidised; they run at a profit (though they gain from the subsidised local routes that feed into them). The fact remains that  for the one case of bringing a very large number of people to the same place at the same time, rail still has benefits. It has the advantages of a closed system as well as the disadvantages.

I am on a packed 12-coach train currently at St Pancras station. About a thousand people will get off within the next mile. Eight minutes ahead is another train, and eight minutes behind, yet another.

The chaotic open system of road cannot achieve the same peak efficiency in terms of use of space and labour, just as TCP/IP cannot achieve the same peak efficiency as a circuit-switched connection. That peak efficiency gap is very visible, whereas the very large cost gap the other way at lower levels of utilisation is not so visible. These packed carriages will spend most of the rest of the day empty or near empty, trundling around the network with almost the same cost in fuel and supervision. An unused car has significant storage costs, but because the costs are concentrated on the vehicle rather than the network, the overall cost is much more sensitive to levels of usage.

The other reason for taking a train rather than a car is that I would have to actually drive a car, whereas I can sit in a train and blog.

The crucial fact for the future is that the two decisive advantages that rail has, in a limited set of cases, over road — better peak space-efficiency and better labour-efficiency in the form of driving — are both on the decline because of the technology being applied to road. Self-driving cars are twenty years off at most, and I would expect nearer ten. That allows vehicles to travel faster and closer together, since human reaction times are taken out of the process of maintaining separation. I will be able to read, blog or watch television in a car as I do on the train. Parking costs will reduce because the vehicles will be able to disperse themselves until needed, instead of all having to compete for scarce parking space at the highest-density destinations.

That’s another way in which the rail/road comparison resembles the closed/open network comparison. Rail’s advantage is that it takes away the need for intelligence in the vehicles; road is best placed to take advantage of putting more intelligence in the vehicles. As intelligence becomes cheap, road could even exceed rail’s peak efficiency, by being more adaptive and responsive to conditions — using alternative routes or schedules. Rail’s throughput is limited by the flow of people through the chokepoints at stations more than by the capacity of the rails themselves.

Those changes take away any reason for passenger rail to continue to exist. (It’s possible that rail vehicles are more suited to very heavy loads, and so will remain useful for rail freight. I doubt it, but I don’t know enough to be sure).

Any forward-looking, integrated transport policy today will be oriented towards phasing out rail and preparing for self-driving cars.

Whether the Luton Guided Busway meets those criteria is anyone’s guess. It’s not out of the question.


 1. It probably isn’t, but let’s pretend it is.

19 February 2013

Transnationalism

When I wrote the essay “Kingdom 2037” last year, describing a hypothetical future restored English Monarchy, I paid relatively little attention to international relations. My line was that the realm would follow a cautious foreign policy, maintain armed forces for defence, and resist foreign-backed rebel groups if they appeared within the country.

My unspoken assumption was that the existing “international community” was no longer in force, or at the very least was enormously weakened in comparison to the situation today.

That is an essential assumption. In simple terms, any kind of successful reaction in a significant Western country is currently completely impossible, no matter what happens inside it.

It is not simply that the offending reactionary country will be bombed, although that itself is quite probable. Even without that (in other words, even if the reactionary country has nuclear weapons), it will be subjected to constant pressure through every conduit of international activity.

Every international company that does business there, every NGO, every embassy, every media organisation, will be taking whatever opportunities exist to support rebels and to undermine the sovereign.

It is possible to resist this pressure — all you have to do is limit foreign influence wherever it arises. Foreign business must be done only through local trusted partners. Foreign NGOs are excluded or subject to extremely close surveillance and inspection. 

This can work. It is what Russia does, and China. The problem is that the effort of resisting the international community ends up dominating the state. In Russia, particularly, the decision to exclude foreign commercial competition gives such lopsided power to a handful of domestic industrialists that they become the dominant figures in the state. Rather than being the sovereign who stands above internal disputes and arbitrates them, Putin is inextricable tied to the oil and gas companies. True, he runs them instead of them running him, but, ultimately, what’s the difference?  It doesn’t have to be that way: Russia could grow economically in plenty of other areas, but the power of the resource extraction industry in the absence of meaningful foreign competition means that they cannot let that happen. The alternative paths to prosperity all pass through exposing the country to being taken over by the international community.

In fact, the measures necessary to fend off the international community are very familiar: they have gone by the name of Nazism. All foreigners and foreign influences are subject to intense suspicion — any groups of people who have strong foreign ties, such as immigrants and Jews, are necessarily treated as enemies of the state. Autarky is aimed for as a defence, and in the absence of international trade, collectivisation of industry or corporatism becomes the essential approach to managing the monopoly power of domestic industry. These are the deliberate steps the original German Nazis took — their movement was explicitly, first and foremost, about becoming independent of the international community so that Germany could escape subservience.

When I floated this idea with some actual self-described Nazis, they disagreed: “National Socialism was literally born out of the will to attempt to revert modernization and to revive Germany from its death ... as time grew and National Socialism fostered an actual ideology, it began to exist solely for the purpose of the creation of a new man.”  I don’t think it’s a large disagreement, but I wouldn’t want to unfairly misrepresent any Nazis.

Thus, by the way, the endless question of “is Nazism left or right?”. Nazism in my theory intends to be right, but if you take all the steps necessary to fend off the international community, you are not going your own way; you can go only one way — to totalitarianism, which means that the results are barely distinguishable from the progressive totalitarianism of communism. Though I have to say, that “new man” idea does sound more than a little progressive to me.

What this all means is that if the World Order survives, if the Cathedral retains control of the United States and its commercial and military power, then true reaction anywhere in the world is impossible. A disappointing conclusion, but, after all, that is what hegemony means.

It doesn’t bother me that much, because I don’t think the World Order will survive. The strategy I advocate is to prepare for its self-inflicted demise and to cause the next World Order be a reactionary one. The demise might be catastrophic, or it may be a shifting to new powers: though I’m not really keen on Nazism in itself, one thing to be said in its favour is that it is less ideological and less aggressive than liberalism is. If power shifts from the US to a non-Western centre — China, say — they are quite likely to refrain from imposing the same ideological hegemony that the US does currently, at least for a few decades.

Is that shift of power likely?  I do not take the view that China, or any other non-Western power, is presently on a course to simply grow stronger than the West. The power shift would only happen if the West were to seriously cripple itself, gradually or suddenly. There are a number of plausible paths by which that could happen. Even a balance of power would permit much more freedom to other countries than exists under the current Pax Americana

17 February 2013

The Subjective


The Enlightenment position is that knowledge should be objective. I think that originated in an analogy with the scientific method: the only conclusions that should be accepted are those which can be independently verified. If I say that a bird cannot live in air in which a candle has burned out, you should be able to put a bird in a jar with a candle and kill it the same way. If you can’t, then my claims are not objective, and are scientifically worthless.

The Enlightenment extended this principle to government. The decision of a government should not be made on the basis of one person’s private judgement; it should be made by a scientific process, and the reasons for making it should be objective facts that others can share.

Democracy requires that principle. Like science, democracy requires that one person’s conclusions can be replicated by another. In some cases the replication may not be contemporaneous with the actual decision, but the principle must still be that “If you knew what I know”, you would reach the same conclusion, and the politican can be judged retrospectively by that standard.

Hayek identified the problem with this approach. The main problem is “Tacit Knowledge”. Tacit knowledge is what you know, but you don't know that you know. It is knowledge that cannot be shared just by publishing a paper, but only, if at all, by teaching a craft.

A decision that has to be justified objectively cannot rely on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is, by definition, subjective. A person, who, in whatever environment, is making a decision that is going to be evaluated by others, must deliberately ignore subjective considerations — tacit knowledge — and make what seems to be the best decision without that knowledge.

This process has a catastrophic impact on personal responsibility. If I make a decision not because, based on all my knowledge objective and tacit, I think it is the right one, but rather, because it is the one I can best justify to someone else, then I am no longer responsible for the result of my decision, only for the process (sound familiar?).

If someone is responsible for the results of their decision, rather than for the process of making the decision, then they will naturally make the decision most likely to have the desired result, and they will do so based on all the knowledge they have, objective and tacit.

The practical difference is most obvious in the case of choosing people. Judging other people is an innate skill: it is something our minds have evolved to do particularly well. Indeed, it is plausible that human intelligence is primarily evolved to assess other people, and, conversely, to deceive other people. Our knowledge of each other is therefore almost entirely tacit. Trying to estimate another person's qualities using only objective criteria is like walking around a house blindfolded.

(This doesn't mean I’m arguing for primacy of the subjective — I’m not saying we should “trust our feelings” and close our eyes to objective facts. We should also be prepared to suppress our subjective impressions where there is evidence they are unreliable. But that is not the case, particularly where we are doing what we have evolved to do, which is to evaluate the people we know well).


It seems like a small thing, but if you want people to be able to make decisions based on tacit knowledge, you actually have to change everything about the way our society is organised. For two hundred years almost every change has been to remove human judgement and replace it with objective process.


Obviously reversing it starts with abolishing democracy and restoring monarchy, but I don’t think you can really manage without restoring some kind of aristocracy as well — subjective judgements of trust and, to a lesser degree, ability, are going to rely heavily on actual personal contact, and people who are regular contact with each other, on a family basis, are going to develop their own standards of trustworthy behaviour, with a distinct disparity in trust between insiders and outsiders.