Republicans Newt-er-ed?

As I mentioned in a previous post, while Mitt Romney is probably the Republicans best hope of defeating Obama, but there seems to be a reluctance of the GOP voters to endorse him. There are various reasons for this. He’s considered a “light-weight” conservative (or “vaguely sane” as we’d describe it in these Islands ;D). He’s a rich guy and they aren’t exactly popular within the GOP after the financial crisis…this last one is confusing as prior to the current campaign any liberal who complained about billionaires buying votes was denounced by republicans as a “socialist” and making “class warfare”…yet many in the GOP are doing the same thing to Mitt Romney right now! Do Republicans understand the concept of irony or hypocrisy! 😀

Newt Gingrich has quickly risen to the top as the obvious alternative to Mitt Romney. Newt’s major selling point for republicans is…that he’s not Mitt Romney. Unfortunately, his principle disadvantage is that he’s Newt fuckin Gingrich! ;D It is ironic in extreme that many in the tea party, who are anti-establishment and against big government have gravitated over to him. You cannot get more establishment, career politician and pro-big government than Newt Gingrich (few nice links on that here).

Casing point, recently Newt Gingrich made a speech calling for an American Moonbase by 2020. It is estimated that such a base, a crude one mind, would cost about $35 Billion to build and $7.5 Billion a year to maintain. I find these figures decidedly on the low side, likely you’d be talking a figure substantially higher than this. Consider that an Apollo like rocket, which would take a good $100 Billion+ to develop and deploy, can deliver about 12-20 tons to the Lunar surface (depending on launch profile and where you intend to land). A 1,000 ton base (roughly the size of the ISS) would take a good 50 launches to assemble at a cost of about $2 Billion a pop (so $100 billion just to launch our base nevermind development costs or construction costs). It takes 30 kg’s of resources to keep an astronaut alive in space, so assuming a crew of 12 on our base (the minimum you’d need to do anything useful) => 12x30x365 = 131,400 kg’s/yr => 6-11 launches/yr…and a rotation schedule of 6 months per year per crewman (4 per capsule)(12/4)*2 per year = 6 => 12-17 launches a year just to maintain and keep alive a crew up there, that’s about $24-34 Billion per year! These figures are roughly on par with many pervious studies done by NASA such as here and here. Consider that the Total NASA budget right now is only £18 billion and it pays for lots of other stuff too! Bottom line anyone talking about building moon bases with existing rocket technology is wasting his time.

So given that Newt has previously promised to bring down the deficit, how does such a grandiose space policy fit in with a deficit reduction plan, I mean even Obama’s been cutting back on the space budget. Well its probably because Newt Gingrich made the speech in question down in Florida on the space coast. In short one cannot escape the conclusion that he’ll say literally anything to get himself elected.

And if you’re a social conservative, then it would seem strange that so many of them are backing Newt Gingrich, who tired to arrange a open relationship with his former wife. He got rather upset about that when it was brought up in a debate. And I agree, it shouldn’t matter what a guy does in his private life….then why did Newt lead the charge against Bill Clinton for his infidelity, distracting the president at a crucial time of his presidency when Clinton could have been hunting down Bin laden or sorting out the deficit or something. Then again many republicans (for whom relationships with sisters, cousins or farm animals being seen as okay :no:) don’t strike me as the best people to be lecturing the rest of us on morality issues.

In short, if you want a cynical politician who’ll say anything to get elected and pull any dirty trick to wrong foot his foes regardless of the consequences to the country and ultimately treat the office of president as a money making opportunity for him and his cronies, vote for Newt Gingrich.

And of course, if Newt Gingrich gets the Republican nomination his primary, sorry…ONLY credential for office will be the fact that he’s not Obama. Unfortunately for the GOP the democrats have a ready made rebuttal, ya but you’re still Newt feckin Gingrich! A politician whose flip flopped more than John Kerry on a beach holiday and has had more affairs than Clinton in the playboy mansion and more corrupt that Bush in a brown envelope factory :)).

Of course, I’m not suggesting Mitt Romney s much better. The last thing that America needs with so many people struggling in the country to make ends meet and a looming deficit crisis is some rich guy who will inevitably pursue a rich man’s agenda. He will not impose a patriot tax, nor take any concrete measures to solve the deficit, but instead whip the poor essentially for being poor.

I would honestly prefer to see Santorium or Gingrich or maybe even Ron Paul get the nomination than Mitt Romney because that would increase Obama’s chances of re-election. I just find it amusing to point out the hypocrisies of the right and the mental gymnastics that the republican party members are forced to play in being against a “big government spender” like Obama (who has cut the space budget) or Clinton (the only US president to return a balanced budget in the last three decades) but in favour of politicians who it is almost certain will raise the deficit yet further. Or they can be “pro life” but in favour of the death penalty, against wealthy politicians, but unwilling to enact policies to curp the excesses of wealth. I would have to question whether anyone whom the republicans select is ultimately electable in the current climate.

Mention Ron Paul
I will finish by mentioning Ron Paul. His “cult” of supporters are constantly complaining that the mainstream media never mention him, supposedly because well if only everyone had heard of him they’d look into those big puppy dog eyes and fall in love with his ravings (I’m quite sure the Brownshirts said something similar back in the 1930’s).

Of course the reality is that the mainstream media don’t talk about Ron Paul because they know he’s a nut job :crazy: who hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting elected. Furthermore his policies, as I pointed out here, simply don’t add up. Inevitably any journalist doing anything you could remotely describe as a balanced piece would have to point out the glaringly obvious (that his policies are insane and don’t stand up to rational scrutiny). And the consequences of daring to state the obvious or saying the slightest bad thing about the Dear Leader are not pretty – as CNN journalist Dana Bash recently found out after she made the mistake of criticising Ron Paul. An army of Ron Paul’s angry trolls promptly began bombarding her and CNN with a barrage of “scary e-mails” or coming up to her and berating her for it in public(see video of that here). A Dr Campion who also made the mistake of criticising Ron was also attacked and harassed by an angry mob of “Paulestinians“…only for it to turn out they were harassing the wrong Dr Campion!

Such incidents merely serve too send a clear message to journalists to just let Ron and his kool-aid drinking followers putter in they’re sand box. But all in all, its probably just as well for the cult of Ron Paul that their candidate doesn’t get much airtime, it would do more harm than good!

Update – Inevitably it seems Mitt Romney has won in Florida, with Newt 2nd and Ron Paul dead last…with but 7% of the vote! His loyal “underpants gnomes“, unable to conceive of any logical reason why they’re “Dear Leader” would only take in 7% of the vote (here’s a theory…because even 93% of Republicans could figure out he’s batshit crazy!). They are now peddling the conspiracy theory on their blogs that the voting was rigged :crazy:….Kool Aid anyone?

Britain’s so skint we can only afford one High Speed line and one new London airport!

In one of my previous posts I discussed the new High Speed Two railway line and why I’m broadly in favour of it. While there are other things I’d rather spend £17 Billion on (even just thinking in terms of transport infrastructure) my attitude is, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Warts and all its better than the alternative – sweet FA!!

But one of the reasons for my lack of wholehearted support for HS2, is the fact that we are repeatedly told by the government that Britain is broke and needs to get the deficit down ASAP. As we all know this has led to a deep and wide ranging series of austerity measures, which has seen significant job cuts in the military, higher student fees, cuts to the NHS and services for disabled people, cuts to council budgets (one council even cancelled Christmas and others are ending town twining arrangements) and most recently talk of welfare reforms with a cap on payments. The way things are going, I’m half expecting to see an Orphan standing outside of Osborne’s house next week with a sign saying “boy for sale”.

So I was somewhat surprised when the government announced that it was in fact supporting HS2 to the tune of £17 Billion. Now, like I said, its part of a long term investment in national infrastructure to make up for decades of chronic under investment in the UK’s railways. We have to look on it in that context. Hence why I’m critical of it, but will support it all the same…

…Sufficient to say I then almost choked on my cereal last week when during my breakfast our tight, penny pinching and supposedly pauperised government announced that they were seriously considering a proposal from Boris Johnson to build an entire new airport in the London estuary on an artificial island to the tune of £50 Billion pounds!

If we can afford to think about shelling out £50 Billion on a new airport, in a city that already has 5 of them (Heathrow, Luton, Gatwick, City and Stansted), then maybe we ain’t that broke after all!

Now you may well argue that, like HS2, this is a long term infrastructure project and should be looked at in that context. But do the government’s arguments in favour of this new airport stack up?

The Tories say we need a new airport in London because with new emerging markets opening up in South America, Asia and Africa we need to run more international flight to these destinations so business travellers will come to London and do business. London is already loosing out to other rival capitals, notably Paris and Frankfurt, which are now the main hubs for travellers from the emerging economies into Europe.

Well firstly, one of the reasons why Paris has been able to expand its number of international flights isn’t because they built a new airport (though they’ve certainly expanded Charles De Gaulle a few times) but because the French high speed railway network has largely eliminated the need for many domestic internal flights, leaving landing slots free for other flights to international destinations. Similarly HS2 by cutting journey times to Birmingham and beyond will reduce the need for internal flights, freeing up space in London’s existing airports. This could be further enhanced by putting a new high speed railway hub out at Heathrow, allowing international travellers to step off a flight and get straight on a train and be in Birmingham in under an hour and even Glasgow in about 4 hours (or less with later expansion of the HS2 line). This would free up the need for a number of domestic flights, allowing more room for international ones.

Better yet, the trains would pass right by Birmingham International, we could envisage an expansion of this airport as an alternative, bringing further jobs and investment to the economically deprived midlands. The midlands and its manufacturing and design industries being often the ultimate destination of many of these business travellers. Of course, I would argue that with climate change and peak oil as long term concerns, wasting money on expanding airports is pouring good money after bad.

But if you insist on expanding the number of flights (as the government does) into the UK, well it would make far more sense and cost a good deal less to expand an existing airport, than build a new one from scratch on an artificial island (and quicker too!). Our international business traveller isn’t going to really care whether he lands in Gatwick, Birmingham, Luton, Heathrow or Stansted, so long as the means are provided for him to get into Central London, or other cities in the UK, within a reasonable time frame. Hence the benefits of high speed rail.

Indeed while we’re talking about it, one thing that never added up about the proposed Terminal 6 and the 3rd runway at Heathrow was the fact that so much of Heathrow is given over to freight and cargo (3rd busiest in Europe by cargo and freight, 1.5 million tons p/a). Do the parcels really care where they enter and leave Britain from? Won’t it be easier to just move these parcel depots and cargo planes somewhere else? To another airport in the south east (or do up an existing airfield, or small regional airport…Oxford or Southampton spring to mind!) with a dedicated new cargo terminal and then retrofit the freight section of Heathrow (and the freed up landing slots) to passenger traffic?

All of the options I’ve discussed would be quicker, easier and cheaper to implement and allow the sort of expansion of international flights the government wants, without increasing noise pollution in London. So why is the government, for whom bringing down the deficit is top priority, instead proposing to blow £50 Billion on an unneeded airport? Well possibly because of one little detail I left out. All of the options I discussed above would be great for international business travellers coming to Britain as their final destination (they’ll be coming to stay and do business in the UK). However, if you’re BA and you want to do transfer flights to say New York, then you do need a single large transport hub. Of course I’d counter that this is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Tories position. An international businessman who lands in London and then jets off to JFK 3 hours later is hardly going to be bringing much business to the UK, save whatever he picks up in duty free! Much like how Terminal 5 turned out to be nothing more than a thinly disguised (and illegal) subsidy of BA, I’m suspicious that this is what the proposed new airport is really about and all these argument about “business travellers” is just a load of BS to fob of taxpayers.

But more fundamentally and returning to my original question, if why I say is true, why are the Tories proposing these projects? And what about the proposed new nuclear reactor projects that they haven’t yet announced but are widely believed to be in the pipeline, plus the repository for nuclear waste under the lake district? How much will all of this cost? Aren’t the Tories worried about the deficit?

I propose two answers to the above question. Firstly, it’s becoming obvious that the tight austerity measures imposed by the government are at the very least slowing down the economic recovery and at worst pushing the country back into recession. This would depress tax receipts, making the deficit worse, and not only put in jeopardy the next election for the Tories, but blow away a crucial Tory mantra – that cutting public spending boosts the economy. Consequently one could envisage a panicked scramble with Cameron and Osborne leaping on the band wagon and backing any project with sufficient zeroes behind it in a desperate effort to defibrillate a haemorrhaging economy.

But the second possibility is that actually, the Tories don’t really care about the deficit at all. It would let’s face it be the first time they ever cared about it. No, its possible the real reason for obsessing over the deficit, is purely to engineer an excuse for more of the usual Tory policies, i.e. cutting back on public spending to anything that benefits the working classes and basically flog the peasants for daring to be poor…while giving them an excuse further down the line for a nice tax cut to the gentry…and some juicy big government sponsored construction contracts to chew on in the meantime as an entrée! They’ll be bringing back the poor laws next!

Pardon my French

Much as I predicted before christmas, it seems Mitt Romney is almost certain to be selected as the Republican candidate for the 2012 elections, which is bad news for Obama, as he’s actually got some change of being elected…unlike the Tea Party candidates!

There seems to be a grim acceptance of this among Republicans, many of whom see Romney as a lightweight Republican. There are as they see it three certainties: Death, Taxes and Romney…and they’re working on getting rid of the first two!

Of course this reality is not to the liking of the Tea party…but then again reality isn’t really they’re thing! But they need to realise that none of their candidates, Ron Paul, Palin, Perry nor Bachmann were ever credible. It was the political equivalent of fantasy football. It would be like me proposing Ray Mears as PM of Britain and someone on the right countering by putting forward Jeremy Clarkson. Had any of the Tea Party candidates actually been selected, they would have seen the moderates unite behind Obama to stop this lunatic being elected. Even quite a few Republicans would have held their noses, gone into the polling booth and voted for Obama in order to keep them from power. As Bob Cesca recently pointed here and this republican blogger here many of the Tea party supporters, most notably Ron Pauls, are little more than a lunatic fringe and an embarassment to anyone with vaguely conservative views.

Even if a nutter like Ron Paul or Bachmann had made it to the White house, they’d have likely found a load of doctors in white coats brandishing a copy of the 25th amendment (that’s the bit of the US constitution that say’s Wacko’s can be removed from office and hauled of to the funny farm) and a Straitjacket. Our Tea Party president would have got to go to a big white house (where the nasty evil federal reserve can’t trouble him), just not the one he was aiming for!

But still the “tea party vote” is an important demographic in these primary’s. And there is no greater example of the extremes of stupidity the Tea Party candidates will go to than the recent attack on Romney over his involvement in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Have they unearthed proof that he was involved in the big bribery scandal there? No! Did he help cover up drug taking by athletes? No! His crime, in the eyes of the tea party, was to speak some schoolboy French (badly!) to some of his francophone guests 88| Gasp!

Now in any other country or any other party, demonstrating multi-lingual skills would be seen as a bonus. After all if you’re going to have to meet world leaders, it would be useful to know what they are saying, rather than relying on the translation “oh, my god, he looks even dumber than Bush, still is wife’s a babe, look at that ass” “Mr Le Presidente says you’re wife’s dress is very pretty”. John Huntsman was also attacked by the Cult of Ron Paul recently for apparently being able to speak Chinese.

Of course, Tea party members don’t want no folk who talk like funny foreign languages or nutin! Nor types with they’re fancy “degrees” and an “ed..u,,c” “e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n”. Why those types, like marry people other than their cousins, don’t spit indoors, nor drive pickup trucks, live in houses (rather than trailers), have “p-o-l-i-c-i-e-s” and use big words that make brain hurt! ;D In short, the tea party supporters want people as dump and bigoted as themselves. In essences they want to put the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

As moderates, all we can do is hope that Romney doesn’t get the nomination – Obama’s changes of re-election soar if he ends up facing a tea party candidate. Equally it’s possible the tea party, if the current craziness continues, might split the Republican vote. Ron Paul, whose economic polices I tore apart in this long post here, usually stands for nomination with the Republicans, looses, then stands for the Libertarian party. If he can drag a sizable number of the crazier Republicans over to the Libertarian camp it could easily give Obama a decent shot at re-election.

And if were Obama, I’d pander to these guys paranoia. Much as he and Kerry were swiftboated by Republicans he and the democrats could now get their own back by circulating copies of Romney’s birth certificate on the Internet (claiming he was born in Montreal) or how about faking a membership of the international petanque in his name? Doctor photos that showed him sitting next to Gérard Depardieu? Maybe sneak some snails onto the side of his campaign bus? :))

And least we forget, the Tea Party are largely a creation of Fox News. In its efforts to undermine Obama and the democrats, Murdoch may well have created a Frankenstein monster that will destroy both him and the GOP.

Friday the 13th

The Eurozone crisis is forever playing out like some form of long slow horror film. Indeed for the politicans I suspect its starting to feel sort of like one of those nightmares that goes on and on and never seems to want to end. On Friday…the 13th no less, events happened which confirmed some of my worst fears as regards the future stability of the eurozone.

Firstly we saw downgrading of the sovereign debts of France and 8 other eurozone countries. For once, I’m in agreement with the rating agencies. There has been a distinct lack of solidarity among EU countries over this crisis and a failure to realise that we’re all in the same boat. If Greece or Ireland go down, the economic repercussions on all the other EU countries will be serious. And note that being outside the eurozone doesn’t necessarily help. Britain (and Germany’s) banks are horribly exposed to the eurozone and the loss of trade if the eurozone imploded would be hugely damaging. If anything, I can’t understand how Germany or Britain’s AAA credit rating is still worth the paper its printed on!

There are in essence three critical mistakes that European governments, most notably the Germans are failing to appreciate:

#1 Expect the unexpected:
The risk of the current policy of using sticky tape to fix a leaky dam, is that it cannot cope with a sudden unexpected crisis. There are a host of things that could trigger this. The rumour currently swirling around that talks between Greece and its creditors are about to collapse is one example. The possible referendum on the eurozone bailout in Ireland failing (or opinion polls showing it was going to fail) is another. There could be a military coup in Greece or Italy (if that sounds far fetched, remember that Spain and Greece were under the control of Junta’s as recently as the mid-1970’s and that there is no better breeding ground for a coup than the unique combination of disgruntled underpaid soldiers, an angry populace and a government that appears to have lost its democratic mandate from the people). A major natural disaster in Europe or abroad, the looming election in America (Obama or Romney may promise to do certain things in order to placate their electorates).

I could go on, but the list is endless. The danger is that some unexpected crisis will come along and destabilise the already top heavy euro ship into a capsize.

A good example is the last financial crisis, which was sparked by the bankruptcy of Lehman brothers. With hindsight, this looks silly. Lehmans were neither the largest Institution to get into difficulty, nor even the worst offender. But its collapse made the Masters of the Universe suddenly realise that they were in fact mortal, and suddenly everyone was looking at everyone else wondering who would be next. That proved to be the trigger…what will be the trigger for the next crisis?

#2 Speed and scale
There is also a failure of politicians to grasp the speed and scale at which a crisis could unfold. There will in essence be no time to organise a conference to hammer out a deal over several weeks negotiation. Germany particularly seems to of the view that come what may they can just stitch something together at the last minutes. But by the time politicians start making travel plans, it will already be too late. Again, the panic that preceded Lehman’s collapse took everyone, not least Hank Paulson by surprise. Within three weeks of its bankruptcy the entire western financial system tittered on the brink of collapse.

Another example was Britain’s forced devaluation of sterling and exit from the ERM in 1992. The Major and Thatcher governments had both ignored warnings from both right and left as regards their policy. Arrogantly they assumed that the bank of England would always be able to cope with any crisis and why the speculators, many of them based in London, would never turn on a Tory government. Oh yes they would! By the time Lemont and Major took action, despite spending the best part of £27 Billion to protect sterling and pushing interest rates up to 15%, it was too late. They faced a wall of money on the markets moving against them. There was nothing they could do…other than cower under their desks (which actually according to one rumour is exactly what John Major did on Black Wednesday)…I’m wondering if at some point this year we hear reports that Sarkozy or Merkel were caught doing the same.

#3 Irrational thinking and errors of Judgement
Now one might well say that we’ve nothing to fear, why European governments would have to be incredibly foolish to allow the eurozone to implode. Then why aren’t they doing anything to fix the present crisis?

It is inevitable that politicians with elections to win will do things that turn out to be foolish or downright insane. Take for example the idea often expressed on the streets of Dublin or Athens that they should just default on their debts, bring back the punt/Drachma and moon the Germans on our way out of the room. Well because neither the Punt or the Drachma would be stable currencies, nobody would lend to them nor hold savings in them, so the governments would have to devalue them pretty quickly, pretty much on a daily basis after their introduction. Of course anyone with savings or investments would immediately withdraw their money (in the form of dollars, or Yuan most likely!) causing a mass capital flight and the collapse of every bank in the country. In short if Ireland or any other country were to do this, we would wipe out the savings and pensions of practically everyone in the country for a generation.

So you might well say, then this isn’t going to happen, as only a crazy politician would allow it to happen? Actually I’d give a 50/50 chance of it happening to one eurozone country in the next 6 months. And the suggestion by German politicians that any eurozone country that defaults should leave the euro, shows such craziness is contagious. If Ireland left the eurozone then it won’t be just Ireland’s public debts that Foreign banks would need to worry about, but our private debts too…about a trillion euros all told, €104 Billion of them owed to British banks and €82 Billion owed to German banks. If Ireland either left the euro or was forced out of it, these Billions of euros would essential vanish from the balance sheet of Ireland and appear on the balance sheet of the German and British banks with a minus in front of them. As I’ve pointed out in prior posts this is more than enough to bring down a few major banks and but a fraction of the losses that would be incurred if Spain or Italy followed Greece or Ireland into the abyss. Very quickly (days or weeks) we could well find German and British savers loosing their life savings and pensions also. No, it would insane for any politician, German or Irish to advocate Ireland or Greece leaving the euro, regardless of what happens. But like I said, its quite possible that this will happen sometime in the next few months.

Of course, once the politicians realise their error, made in haste, it will be too late. As I mentioned in a prior post, if G. W. Bush ever found a time machine, he’d be making a few stops…and 9/11 won’t be one of them! Was his and Hank Paulson’s decision to let Lehman brothers go down wise? Clearly also the bailouts offered to troubled banks both sides of the Atlantic were way too generous, notably Fred Goodwin’s golden parachute. Much of the current crisis is the eurozone is a combination of this failing and ill-conceived bailout and the dithering of politicians (again the Morgan Kelly article gives an excellent synopsis of Ireland’s errors).

But hindsight is a wonderful thing! Rightly or wrongly, Lehman brothers was allowed to fail (and even if the Treasury had rescued it it could well be the crisis would have been sparked by AIG or Merrill Lynch going down the following week) and there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Similarly there is a risk that during the looming crisis some politicians, frightened, angry and under pressure from equally angry and scared voters, will behave irrationally and make some crucial mistakes. Talk about an amicable divorce as an end game
for this euro is both foolish and politically naive. It would take extreme political patience and professionalism to complete such a measure and the present dithering should indicate over a crisis that could and should have been solved a year ago, should demonstrate that this is impossible. What’s more likely is that once one country goes down all the others will likely adopt an every man for himself approach (much as the banks did after Lehman Brothers) and all will go down with the ship.

So what are the solutions? I get tired of asking this rhetorical question, but as time passes the number of plausible options is forever narrowing. Since the beginning of this crisis, I’ve been advocating either the Eurobond or direct ECB lending as a solution. We can scratch both those off now, thank to the downgrade. They would only work so long as the bulk of the eurozone retained a AAA credit rating, so this is now off the table.

The eurozone bailout fund? Forget it! Inadequate funding! Like I said, a quick few sums with a calculator should tell you the funds set aside are wholly inadequate. Also France happened to be one of the guarantor’s of the bailout fund, so I’d argue that’s kudos for this idea.

There is still the option of Quantative Easing or an across the board devaluation of the euro, but of course these are the very policies German savers fear the most and I for one would argue that such measures count as a defacto default on ones debts anyway. The political will to implement them is also simply not there.

I think its pretty clear therefore, that unless there is some significant change in the economic winds or a major shift in politics within the EU occurs soon, the situation is hopeless and its just a case of when and how. And there’s not a lot the rest of us can do about…other than stocking up on dried food and bottled water :>>!

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean Armageddon. Countries, even European ones, have gone bankrupt before. Times were tough, but we got over it. Economies have recovered from far worse (2 world wars for example) in the past. But it’s the bit in the middle, where many millions loose their jobs and life savings that’s the tricky bit. But life will go on after the crash.

State of Britain’s Railways, Part 3 – High Speed 2

Speaking of building a better network (see parts one and part two), this brings us to the topic of High Speed 2, which was greenlighted this week by the government . Now I’m not a huge fan of HS2 myself. I’d rather spend the money upgrading the existing network across larger parts of the country to allow fast, but somewhat slower “high speed” trains. For example, by straightening out the existing track network and upgrading signalling, the Pendolino trains could reach their true top speeds of 250 kmph. Not as fast as HS2, but it could be implemented over much more of the country which would benefit a higher proportion of the population. I’d also look at adapting track to take double-decker trains (to ease congestion), electrification of larger parts of the network and re-opening lines closed down by the Beechings Axe which are now arguably viable again, as is currently been applied to the Waverley line in Scotland.

However, I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bath water while looking a gift horse in the mouth. At this rate, any major investment in the UK railway network is better than the default policy over the last few years of no investment. So all I’ll say is “about bloody time!”

Off course inevitably this project has picked up a few critics. Some are clearly just astroturf’s working on behalf of the airline industry and car lobby. Others are the usual NIMBY brigade…or BANANA’s as they’re more often known these days. Noting my own reservations about HS2, but the arguments against it put forward by this crowd are frankly bonkers and need debunking:

HS2 will cut a swathe right through the Chilterns!
Yes indeed it will…but not nearly as badly as the existing railway line and the two 6 lane motorways (M40 and the M1) a few miles either side of the new line! How many of these naysayers drive cars? I’m guessing most, if not all. A railway line, from an environmental, noise and area usage point of view does a heck of a lot less damage than a motorway, So it is extremely hypocritical of anyone who drives to complain about this new line. Any opponents of HS2 who are true to their convictions, you can send me the keys to your car in SSAE :>>

Furthermore, while to Londoners the Chilterns might be an nice lovely spot, its hardly the prettiest place in the British isles. Compared to Wales, or the Lake District or the highlands in fact the Chilterns are pretty dog ugly. If building a railway line across this landscape is unacceptable, then we may as well go back to the caves, as how then can you justify building a nuclear waste dump under the Lake district, new renewable infrastructure (wind turbines, etc.) in the highlands, and go shale gas drilling in and around Morecambe bay? Such a policy is in fact BANANA’s (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). Of course most of the opponents of HS2 are the usual Chipping Norton set, who just don’t want a railway line in their backyard (so more Not near my Mansion’s swimming pool!)…after all they commute by Helicopter!

HS2 will cost billions of Taxpayers money!
And how much do we spend per year subsidising the car lobby? A lot more than HS2 will cost me suspects. One also has to consider the economic benefits a railway line will bring. i.e. that it may occur to foreigners that Britain actually isn’t falling behind the rest of the modern world and they’ll invest more money in the countries ailing manufacturing and construction industries. More trade between London and the Midlands means more jobs. And ultimately more trade, jobs and inward investment means higher tax revenue for the government. While again, there’s other things I’d rather spend £17 Billion on, but I’d rather it get spent on something useful. Many of the opponents of HS2 would rather spent it on Caviar and smoked salmon.

HS2 will produce higher carbon emissions!
While this is true, comparing an existing train to a high speed one (if electrified mind!), that is not the case when one compares a HS journey to a flight or journey by car. I refer to this chart from Dr Mc Kay. Although this compares on an energy rather than carbon footprint basis. Also, he only considers “high speed” trains up to a speed limit of 200 kmph. The HS2 trains will go a lot faster, and ultimately use a lot more energy (possibly up to double his estimates). But even so, a casual glance at this graph will show you that the energy costs of a High Speed Train are nowhere near those of a car or plane, i.e. he gives a upper limit for High Speed trains of 9kWh per 100 km’s (probably more like 15-18 kWh for HS2), 68 kWh for a car and 51 kWh for a plane.

Of course this analysis ignores capacity factors (i.e. are we comparing full trains to full cars and full planes, or partially full trains to singly occupied cars?). Incidentally, this is why you will often see such a diverse line of figures on the topic of HS2. I have come across attempts by the HS2 naysayers to portray a HS2 train as worse for emissions than a car….which is true if you compare a fully loaded Prius driven sensibly and slowly to a fraction full train. Of course the reality, a packed train and a singly occupied Mondeo driven above the speed limit, produces a result where a high speed train has about a quarter to a sixth the emissions of a car. Also one needs to consider all the other nasties that come out of the tailpipe of a car, or an aircraft compared to an electric train.

It will run through several sites of special scientific Interest
There are SSSI’s and then there are SSSI’s! You have to understand that essentially anywhere that a guy with a tweet jacket, a grant from a university and a tape measure is doing a study of wildlife can be classified as an SSSI. If I wanted too, Monday morning I could have my back garden declared a SSSI – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build on it or I can’t hang up my washing up! Now there are some SSSI that are important and critical, but you need to take each on a case by case basis. And again, we need to balance any environmental negatives for HS2 with the environmental positives (reduced pollution related to transport).

Ticket prices on HS2 will be hugely expensive and it will be the preserve of an elite wealthy few!
Admittedly this is one of the reasons I’d favour spending £17 Billion on something else. But in the interest of fairness, lets put this one to the test. What is the price difference on the current High speed One line London to Folkestone compared to the standard rail rate and how does that compare to prices across the rest of the network?

I just had a play around on a few ticket sales websites and it works out that the ticket price for HS One is around 41-28p per mile about 1.5 times the price on that same line if you opt for a slower “standard” service. Yes, that is a bit pricy, but it’s actually cheaper than the 80p anytime and 40p off-peak prices one would currently pay if going London to Birmingham. So it would seem to me, assuming those prices get transferred over to HS2, then it will not necessarily represent a massive increase in ticket prices. Also, the primary purpose of HS2 is to get trains up north quickly, thus anyone taking a train to say Glasgow, will benefit from the higher speed sprint the train makes through the Midlands. While I’d be the first to argue that rail ticket prices need to come down in Britain (see my past posting for more on that), I don’t see how this “rich elite” argument against HS2 stands up.

We need more local lines for commuters and freight not high speed trains!
Again, this is one of my own arguments against HS2. But I’m sure the supporters of HS2 will counter it by pointing out that by moving the high speed trains to a separate network it will free up space on the track for more commuter trains and freight services. Indeed one of the arguments in favour of HS2, as opposed to my own policy of upgrading existing lines, is that the UK’s current network is under severe strain as it is. Building new lines is the only way to ease congestion on lines, and the West Coast Mine Line is one of the most congested rail routes in the country. Given how much trouble and expense it is in this country to build new railway lines, we may as well build one to the highest standard possible. While I’d still argue my corner on an economics ground (spreading the money evenly around the country), even I have to concede that the HS2 supporters may have a point here.

So while I’m not giving my unwavering support to HS2, I’m sceptical of its benefits, but as I said at the beginning, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

The State of Britain’s Railways

Two big stories as regards the UK’s railway’s caught my attention this week. Firstly, HS2 which has finally been given the go ahead (more on that later), and secondly, an article by the Beeb in which they attempted to identify the UK’s most expensive railway journey. The result of this brief (and admittedly not entirely scientific study) are staggering, Britain has some of the world’s most expensive railways!

While it should come as no surprise to learn that the Heathrow express tops the billing at a whopping £1.17 per mile, the price of 80p per mile on the London to Manchester line, is incredibly high. Even the 40p off peak and 14p season tickets on this route are pretty expensive. London to Kettering or Swindon/London lines are also in the +70p anytime range, with an average of 20-30p per mile across the entire country. This is about 3 to 10 times more than what our cousins in the rest of the EU pay for rail travel. Indeed, I just hopped onto the Amtrak website in America and its about 62p per mile (UK) for the gourmet expensive Acela Express NY to DC (anytime) to about 4.5p (yes really!) for a cheap advanced ticket on the Chicago to California Zephyr. The Americans often joke that they have a railway service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The UK has a railway system that the Americans would be ashamed of!

Consider for sake of comparison that the typical cost of motoring is about 7-10p per mile. While this motoring cost only accounts for fuel, with insurance, tax and depreciation costs of the car adding yet further. But its doubtful that the cost of motoring would be any more than, say 20p in the most cases, or about half the off-peak fare price on the Manchester-London route, a quarter the anytime price (which would be a fairer comparison since a car represents “anytime” travel) and 1/18th the cost of the Heathrow Express! And if you’re starting to think rail travel is a tad pricy spare a thought for Londoners. The standard fare on the underground now works out at the equivalent of £5-10 per mile! That’s about 25-50 times pricier than driving! It is thus no surprise to learn that the average commuter in England can spend the best part of several thousand pounds, for a spot to stand for an hour pressed up against someone’s sweaty armpits twice a day. The comments page on the above beeb article clearly indicates much anger among British commuters about this sorry state of affairs.

Now the rail industry would counter the above by pointing to their “advance” fares. My reply is, yes if you’re incredibility lucky enough to get an advance fare they are pretty cheap, but they are rare as hens teeth. I’ll do the odd long journeys across the UK and will often specifically look out for such tickets. I have regularly searched the booking system trying to get advance tickets (searching as far in advance as the website allows) and 9 times out of 10 have failed to get anything better than the standard off peak fare.

And at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the rail companies seem to go out of their way to make booking cheap fares as hard as possible. For example, probably the best bargain you’ll get on the railways, is the Sail/Rail ticket. For an incredibly cheap £30 single, you can get a train and a ferry ticket from the Midlands all the way to Dublin (Ferry and rail combined). I think its about £38 from central London, with similar deals to France to be had for similar bargain basement prices.

However, you try booking one of these tickets through the railway company websites! It will usually refuse to allow you to book a seat on the most convenient trains. This can be bypassed by ringing up the Ferry company, who are usually more than happy enough to book you on the specific trains you want (i.e. the boat train that waits for the boat and coincides with its departure). However, this is not always an option, if for example, as I was over Christmas, coming from Ireland to Britain, but booking the ticket in Britain, you have to go through the rail company. Ring up, and you get put through to an Indian call centre, where they will struggle to understand you’re accent, and to be perfectly blunt, the staff at Indian call centres I find simply do not understand how the British rail system works – which is hardly a surprise nor the staff’s fault, as the Indian train booking system is completely different to the UK one (see here for more info on the Indian train booking system). Try booking a bike on a British train through a Indian call centre and see what happens (when I moved from Scotland to England my bike ended up chained to a lamppost outside Patrick station for a week as “the Trainline” call centre screwed up my booking, I had to eventually transport it south by car!).

David Cameron, champion of Scottish independence?

In a previous post, I pointed out that the best thing the Tories can do as far as any independence debate in Scotland is concerned is shut up, keep yer cool and let Alex Salmond feck it all up on his own steam. Unfortunately, they seem determined to do what I’d feared they would – meddle. And as I pointed out before, the biggest threat to the union is not our SNP chums but the Tories themselves.

Let us consider their proposals, they want a straight In or Out referendum rather than the one that allows the Devo Max option (no, that’s not a new soft drink! ;D) that many people in Scotland seem to favour instead of independence. The Tory’s want to hold the referendum sooner rather than later, as they recognise that nothing gets the blood of Scots boiling any more than a penny pinching Tory party in charge down in Westminster. It also screws up their cuts regime as it means they dare not cut any of the Scottish budget with an independence referendum looming on the horizon.

Unfortunately such a strategy ignores the fact that referendums are seldom decided by rational decision making, as I commented on in the run up to the AV referendum. I’m neutral on the issue of Scottish independence, I think long term it’s a good idea but the timing has to be right and the conditions and background to prepare for it must be properly sorted first. Clearly in the middle of one of the worse recessions in recent global history is about the worst time imaginable to launch an independence bid. It would be silly for anyone to start talking about picking a date now as nobody knows what state we’ll be in come 2014 (when the SNP plan to have the vote). There would also be a lot of ground work to be done first, and there’s just not the time to do it. Consequently I would probably vote NO on that basis…but if I was forced into voting on this earlier than even the SNP think is wise by a meddling Westminster government, who appear to be trying to point a gun to the Scottish peoples head (with a In or Out) I’d probably vote for independence, if given the chance (just moved to England unfortunately), just to wipe that smug grin off of Cameron’s face!

And unfortunately for the Tories, given that they are about as popular in some parts of Scotland as pig manure, quite a number of Scots who would otherwise vote NO, will likewise vote YES just to stick it to the Conservatives, as inevitably some will see a Tory enacted referendum as a referendum on the tory cuts, and as we all know sitting governments tend to loose such elections. Exactly how many this Tory meddling swing into the YES camp is the question, but it could easily be enough to tip a close election into the SNP’s favour.

In short if Cameron plans to derail the independence movement with this action he should realise that this will likely back fire…badly! Even if Alex Salmond looses by a slim majority, the pressure Cameron will come under to yield more powers to Holyrood, or hold another referendum in the not too distant future will be immense.

Referendums you see are fickle affairs. I should know, as I’m Irish and as many of ye should know we regularly vote NO on a topic (typically EU treaties) then turn around a few months later and vote YES on them! The first Lisbon treaty referendum was lost in part due to screw up’s by the then Fianna Fail government, one of whose ministers admitted to never actually having read the Lisbon treaty and then said anyone would be mad to do so. Then there was the scare tactics of the anti-treaty lot, with the usual threats to farm subsides going, a minimum wage of 2 euros (well that one seems to have happened anyway!), us being forced to join NATO, compulsory gay marriage for all Catholics, a crack in the earth opening, etc. All tosh :lalala:, but it did scare a few people away from voting in favour. Similarly the second vote in favour was in part influenced by a certain Mr Farage from the UK. The UKIP boss came to Ireland to try and convince people to vote NO. But most took one look at him and decided that if this upper class twit was against the Lisbon treaty, they were in favour of it! :))

Recent polling suggests that an overwhelming majority of Irish are still favourable towards the euro…however if forced into an In or Out referendum and the latest EU treaty changes (the French and Germans are trying to insist on this to prevent further delays due to Irish dithering) the polls also suggest that the Irish will call Merkel’s bluff and vote NO…likely triggering a messy Irish exit from the Euro and a rapid collapse of the currency once Ireland’s 1 trillion euro’s in public and private debts ends up on the balance sheet of European banks. ..and 100 billion of that is owed to British banks btw!

But I digress, the point is trying to bully an electorate into voting the way you want them to is a dangerous game, it can, and usually will backfire – badly! And its not unhead of for electorates to hold diametrically opposed and self contradicting opinions. After all many tea partiers in the US want “big government off of our backs”..yet they live in states whose economy would collapse without big government subsidies (I discuss that further here)…or they can be pro-life but also want the death penalty – go figure!

Furthermore, there’s nothing that obliges the SNP to do anything the Tories say. Salmond could wait until the day after the Tory’s deadline has expired (just to rub it in their faces!) and then hold the referendum. What the Scotland act says, or whatever opinion can be bribed out of lawyer in London matters little on this issue – the sovereignty of a nation has and is always decided upon by its people (when not decided at the tips of shiny spears!). Any pesky rule than inconveniences this reality can be undone with a simple act of Parliament (in Holyrood mind!) or simply ignored.

And there’s precedence here, of the many of the former colonies that broke away from the UK or other European powers, you can count on one hand the number that did so by ticking all the correct legal boxes. Many simply bypassed or ignored any pesky rules imposed by the former colonial masters. For example both Ireland and India were saddled with various strings post-independence, that we had to remain in the Commonwealth, have the Queen as head of state, swear allegiance, etc. Within a few short years or decades all these British imposed conditions were quietly written out of the Constitution and any protests from London were simply ignored or indeed openly laughed at! Famously for example De Valera gave the job of Lieutenant governor of Ireland (the queen’s official representative) to a Dublin Publican buddy of his, as sort of a joke!

I mean seriously lets suppose for sake of argument that the Scot’s did vote in favour of independence in Autumn 2014, what is Cameron going to do about? Say “well paragraph 4 of the Scotland act says we can now ignore the will of the Scottish people and tell ye all to eat humble haggis” Mugabe and al-Assad will have field day with that one! Maybe Cameron will send in the Army…oh wait, half of that’s Scottish…damn! :>> How about the Trident missiles…nope! They’re made in America and based in Scotland too! double damn! Maybe he’ll turn off the oil and gas…nope! That’s all in Scotland too! And as I pointed out before as regards Scotland’s oil and gas the other important rule of geopolitics is that possession is 9/10’s of ownership.

In short, in the (highly unlikely) event that Alex Salmond gets his way there’s little the Tory’s can do other than go whistle dixie!

Of course I empathise with Cameron’s position. A good deal of the right wing of his party >:-[ are hopping foot to foot over Scotland, whom they see as a bunch of soap shy, labour voting benefit scroungers. On which point, btw Stephanie Flanders at the Beeb has an interesting article out about “the Scottish deficit” which shows that the situation is a bit more murky than either the Tory’s or SNP would have you believe. The pressure on Cameron to do something from his backbenchers and toff buddies has been immense in recent months. But the Tories need to realise that the greatest threat to the union right now is not Alex Salmond, but themselves!

Therefore I must recommend that any Tory who is struck by the sudden urge to lecture the Scots about how and why they should reject independence, follow this prescription:
– Find a large kitchen Spatula
– bash yourself over the head with it
– repeat as required!