While I was away….

Just back from Holiday, thought I’d catch up on a few stories that came up while I was on my travels….

When in Rome do as the Romans do….stay away from burning buses

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The 5 Star movement remain committed to good public transport….with heating!

One of my stops on holiday, was Rome, where they’ve a bit of a wee problem with buses that keep catching fire. The locals blame the new Five Star mayor and cutbacks on maintenance, which is merely one of a host of scandals she’s gotten caught up in. Which given that 5S are now part of the government in Italy, is hardly a good sign.

While there was a few things in the joint NL/5S manifesto I agreed with, e.g. ending austerity, a national citizens income, better public transport (you might want to focus on stopping buses catching fire first!). But they also promised to lower taxes at the same time as greatly increasing public spending. This in a country whose in debt to the tune of 130% of its GDP.

Now while its true there’s nothing wrong with a country borrowing money, particularly in a time of crisis, Keynes never said that gives governments a blank cheque to spend like a sailor on shore leave and ignore any form of financial responsibility. Clearly, at the very least they’d have to demonstrate some plan for paying off this debt (otherwise nobody would lend them money to spend in the first place). This could include putting up taxes for the wealthy, or increasing the tax on things like alcohol and cigarettes (which are both very cheap, I mean I was buying Belgian ales for less than they cost in Belgium!), or starting to introduce carbon taxes (which would eventually replace things like VAT altogether). Cuts could also be made in areas that are cutable, e.g. in terms of defence spending.

But there in lie the problem with a populist government, they can’t do anything unpopular, even if its in the long term best interest of the country. Indeed, the NL part of the government wants to hire more police and build prisons for the hundreds of thousands of migrants they are going to deport. Of course, it would be unwise to undertake such deportations (and unlikely they are going to succeed). Many of the countries in question may not take them back and others would not be a safe place to send them. There is a legal precedence going back to the holocaust, whereby those responsible for deportations to Germany (in the full knowledge that they were potentially sending people to their death) which would come into play, meaning members of this populist government could find themselves facing a war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

And their solution to their debt problems is to demand that the EU simply writes off a large chunk of Italian debt. The EU’s unlikely to do that because A) that would set a precedence, which could lead to both Italy and the entire eurozone’s debt being downgraded. And B) as Italy would now be considered to be in a state of default, banks would be a lot less likely to lend to Italy. So rather than freeing Italy from under the thumb of the ECB, they’ve be more dependant than ever on ECB money to keep the country solvent. Yes, the EU must take some share of the blame for Italy’s predicament, but Italy is mostly in mess of its own creation (something which no populist party could ever admit, hence why they have to blame the EU and migrants for 100% of Italy’s problems).

Print money? That’s really only a temporary solution and the window of opportunity during which that could help has arguably passed. Also such measures would drive up inflation, diluting the value of people’s savings and push up prices. Indeed inflation (or more accurately stagflation) is a big problem in Italy right now. One could argue a number of the policies announced are in fact more anti-stagflation measures than anti-austerity measures. But introducing policies to counteract inflation, which will just cause more of it is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or in Italy’s case (given that the ECB would never allow this either), its robbing Peter in the full knowledge that he’ll catch you at it and then beat you and Paul up later with a baseball bat.

Oh and 5S and NL also want to drop sanctions on Russia. And this in the same week the Dutch reveal how they have direct evidence linking the Russians to the downing of MH17. You have to love Italian corruption. In America Trump has to at least pretend he’s not Putin’s ally. But in Italy, they don’t even bother hiding that. He helped us get elected, so we’ll be sharing the cake with him, what’s wrong with that?

At least they’ve backed down from their more extreme policies of withdrawing from the Euro and the EU. The NL in fact actually wants a referendum for Northern Italy to separate from Southern Italy. But as is so often the case, when confronted with reality, such headline grabbing (but utterly ludicrous) plans have had to be dropped (like the £350 million a week for the NHS we were promised in the UK).

That said, it is alleged that the reason why the Italian president rejected their pick for finance minister was that he heard that they were planning for a secret withdrawal from the EU over a weekend (think about that for a minute, the UK’s going to take several years to get out of the EU and this lot thought they can do something similar over a weekend!). In the wake of this the populists called for him to be impeached and replaced by the Prime Minster (which would be unconstitutional, this is kind of the whole reason why they are separate jobs). In short, it seems like they haven’t much of a clue what they are doing or how government is supposed to work.

The populists have also asked the EU with coming up with the means for a country to withdraw from the euro at some future date, if they were to have such a referendum. Well the bad news is, I suspect some eurocrat IS probably working on just such a plan as we speak. But its not how Italy can voluntarily leave the euro, its how the EU can kick Italy out of the euro if they break its rules, while minimising the damage the rest of the eurozone takes from the inevitable Italian bankruptcy that follows.

I think we can get some feel for how things will pan out based on one of the earlier sticking points the NL stuck with, they wanted Silvio Berlusconi to be part of the new government. Why in blue blazes would they want that? Well because they know full well they’ve made promises neither they, nor 5S can keep.

What Italy will get is just a less competent (as well as corrupt and more authoritarian) version of the previous government. Just one that picks random fights with the EU, which they will generally lose. There fear is, that Mr Bunga Bunga (whose probably more to blame than anyone else for Italy’s current woes) will exploit that and next thing you know, a year from now, he and Trump will be trading anecdotes about their criminal exploits at Mar-a-largo.

Barcelona tourism protests

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Across the sea in Barcelona, there’s been anti-tourist protests recently. Now yes tourists can be annoying (in London during the summer you’re tripping over them, Edinburgh during the Fringe you can barely walk down the street and I reckon the use of rocket launchers against campervans on highland roads should be legal, when they trundle along at 30 mph with fifty cars behind them). But statistically, Barcelona isn’t even in the top ten of tourist destinations in the world (and having been there, the numbers aren’t anything near as bad as you’d find in say Florence or Rome).

However, a Spanish tour operator did mention to me that there’s been a big upsurge in tourism in Spain over the last few years, due to issues across the Mediterranean making such destinations seem unsafe. And as noted, Italy is starting to get very expensive (and politically unstable), so that’s driving more tourists towards the Iberian peninsula.

So to the locals the sudden surge in numbers is probably something they’d notice. And there’s a few particular features of tourism in Barcelona that I can see would likely wind up the locals. Firstly, there’s been a proliferation of Airbnb’s, with long term tenants being thrown out of their flats so it can be rented out to tourists (for the record, I stayed in one of the older pension hostals).

Also there’s lots of large tour groups running around, who seem to follow a set formula of places to visit. So if you’re in say, the Boqueria at the wrong time, you’re barely able to move for the numbers. And this has also had the effect of pushing up prices (the days of cheap eats in the Boqueria are long gone). And part of what’s driving these massive hordes are cruise ships, which have been docking in Barcelona in ever increasing numbers.

Indeed, my bit of tourist advice for Barcelona (or other cities like Rome with similar or even worse overcrowding) is remember that said tour groups tend to mostly consist of old retired couples. So with that in mind go to the places they won’t go (anything with lots of steps, loud noises, young people or this thing called “rock and roll”). And similarly if going to the places that are likely to be busy, such as the aforementioned Boqueria, go either early in the morning (when the oldies are still putting in their false teeth) or later in the evening (or around lunchtime when they’re having their nap) and you’ll avoid the crowds. But suffice to say though, you can see how all of this would piss locals off a bit. But equally, its a little more complicated than the simple populist “too many tourists”.

Now the thing is all of these problems are within the capacity of the local Catalan government to solve (keep in mind Barcelona voted in favour of independence by a margin of 92%). As I discussed in a prior article, most likely most of these airbnb hosts are breaking the law (notably local fire codes), so even without any new legislation a crack down on them is possible. Tourist guides can be regulated. And those regulations could stipulate terms that mean they stay away from certain parts of the city at certain times or on certain days giving the locals a bit of breathing space. Limiting the number of cruise ships or imposing a 72 hour rule on them (once in the harbour they can’t leave again for 72 hrs) would also relieve pressure somewhat.

Should you be wondering why the Catalan government isn’t doing any of this…..you’ve not be watching the news have you? They’ve got their eyes on the bigger prize of independence. And for that independence to succeed tourism will be a vital industry, as it will serve as a key source of foreign currency (meaning they can raise the cash to buy things like oil or other stuff the rest of Spain will be refusing to sell them). So at present the Catalan government doesn’t want to reduce tourist numbers, if anything they want numbers to keep going up. Not that they’re going to point that out to the angry populists in their own party of course!

But at least it shows that left wing populists can be as prone to blaming foreigners for their problems, as much as the right wing ones.

The downfall of Rojay

And speaking of Catalonia, we’ve just seen the downfall of Spanish PM Rajoy. If Catalonia ever gets independence, it will largely be thanks to his reign of error. When he took office, support for full independence was hovering around about 25-30%, although there was widespread support for greater regional autonomy. Now support for independence is closer to 40-50%. A combination of his austerity measures and his stubborn refusal to even consider alternatives has effectively convinced a large portion of Catalan’s that they can’t get anywhere with the likes of him in charge in Madrid.

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Already, in complete contrast to Rajoy, his successor is talking about reconciliation and negotiating with the Catalan’s. However, I suspect the damage has already been done. The brutal crack down against the vote earlier this year has hardened opinions and nothing short of a legally sanctioned in/out referendum will suffice.

I bring this up because some in the UK have suggested that Westminster should copy Rajoy’s tactics when it comes to seeing off future moves for independence from the SNP. I would argue that would be an excellent idea….if the Tories WANT to guarantee Scottish independence.

As things stand, support for independence is hovering around the 45-50% mark. Given the fallout from brexit and the blow back the Tories will catch for that in a few years time, such tactics will all but guarantee the SNP will win any vote (official or unofficial) by a landslide. And while Rajoy could just ignore the Catalan’s, Scotland can’t be so easily dismissed (given that Scotland controls the majority of the UK’s energy supplies!).

In short, the Tories had best get used to conceding ground to Brussels, because the only way their going to hang onto Scotland and Wales is by conceding more power to Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Magic money trees

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You may recall how Corbyn talked about nationalising the UK’s railways and the Tories laughed and said, oh we can’t do that, its too expensive, there’s no magic money trees……Only low and behold, the Tories have just nationalised the east coast mainline and bailed out their chum Richard Branson (who you will recall tried to rub Corbyn’s face in it last year, over that skit where he sat on the floor).

And this is hardly the first time. Hinkley C, Heathrow, BHS and Carillon, to name a few, have all had a bailout. And let’s not even begin to mention the costs associated with brexit. Recall, the tens of billions paid to the EU is just the start. The UK will also now need to set up whole new government departments to basically do the stuff the EU previously did for us. And there’s all the promises they made, farm subsides to be paid and the tax revenue hole left by leaving EU citizens.

So it would appear that whenever the Tories need it, not only is there a magic money tree, but there’s a whole forest of them.

Border woes

On my travels I also passed through the wee seaside town of Ventimiglia. One unusual feature of this town is that it has three railway stations, of which only part of one is still in service (the rest are either demolished or slowly being taken over by weeds). And the disused sections are absolutely massive, consisting of marshalling yards with dozens of lines of parallel track.

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You may wonder why a town with a population of just 50,000 ever needed such massive railway infrastructure. A little geography will probably help. The town sits right on the Italian/French border and is the last stop before entering France. So obviously, back in the days before the single market, every train that crossed the border needed to stop here for a customs inspection. It kind of hammers home the issues the UK will face post brexit.

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The Tories are still stuck with their delusions that they can magically solve the issue of the Irish border with technology (and presumably more magic money trees). Well the experts don’t just say no, they say “are you mad or what!”. Every month 385,000 goods vehicles and 1.85 million cars cross the border. That’s an average of 75,000 vehicles a day that would need to be checked (and potentially double that number or more at peak times). And there are potentially hundreds of border crossings where you’d need to have inspectors or infrastructure in place.

I think the problem is that many brexiters still have this vision of Ireland as a nation of farmers who ride around with a donkey and cart. They don’t seem to realise that as a factor of GDP manufacturing represents a greater share of the Irish economy (about 40%) than it does the UK (about a quarter). And we’re talking several high tech industries here, everything from aircraft parts, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, to microchips and software. And yes, this does involve parts being sent north of the border, then onto the rest of the UK or Europe.

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In Ireland these days, we make more than just shamrock and stout!

And speaking of farmers, agricultural produce does represent a significant portion of our exports to the UK. And it is agricultural products that will likely see the largest shift in tariff’s and prices post-brexit (by as much as 50% accounting for currency exchange and differences in tariff’s) and the largest drift in regulation if the UK caves in to some of the demands its likely to face from trading partners such as the US (meaning certain UK food products would be banned from sale in the EU or visa versa). So there’s going to be a very strong financial incentive for smugglers to start shifting such goods.

Already there are smuggler gangs, moving narcotics (Ireland’s rugged coastline makes it a transshipment point for drugs), alcohol, tobacco and fuel. Many of these gangs have links to either loyalist or republican paramilitaries. So even if this “electronic” border did work, they’d take steps to thwart it. Such as taking pot shots at drones, blowing up cameras, or sending guys in balaclavas around to threaten the families of the technicians who program the surveillance software. And these groups also have politician connections to the DUP or SF (much as how the RHI scheme in NI ended up mired in corruption, so too is likely to be any electronic border).

But this is the problem with brexit. Its an idea dreamt up by posh public school boys who live in some ivory tower and are ignorant of what happens in the real world.

Changing tastes

Interesting article here about the likely impact of brexit on the full English breakfast. Let’s put it this way, about the only two ingredients that will be unaffected are the bread and the eggs. Well at least we’ll be able to make French toast then!

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The full English Irish Breakfast

The height of hypocrisy

And speaking of brexit, Nigel Lawson, a leading brexiter, is now apparently trying to get residency in France. And he’s in good company, Nigel Farage’s kids both have gotten German citzenship (and its been claimed he’s applying as well) and several unionist have applied for Irish citizenship.

Do right wingers have no shame, no sense of irony and do they understand the meaning of the word hypocrisy? Or are they just a bunch of idiotic self centred jerks? They see nothing wrong with campaigning for something that will drag tens of millions of brit’s out of the EU, then think nothing of applying for EU citizenship themselves. After all how am I supposed to get to my yacht on the Cote d’Azur! Hell, who wants to live in England anyway, why they eat French toast for breakfast since brexit.

What happens in Donegal, stays in Donegal

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Ireland recently had a referendum on abortion, which resulted in a resounding vote in favour of overturning the ban…..Well everywhere except in Donegal. That said, Donegal is kind of the land that time forgot. Its the sort of rural backwater where you’d be almost tempted to greet the locals by saying “how”. Its the sort place you fear that using a mobile phone might result in the locals burning you at the stake for witchcraft. So no real surprise really that they bucked the trend.

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This creates some awkward problems for Theresa May. Her DUP allies have, like their cohorts in the south, relied on the hypocrisy that they can pretend to be anti-abortion, even thought it just means anyone looking to get an abortion merely has to get a Ryanair flight to the UK. In a year’s time however, they’ll merely have to drive across the border, which will make something of a mockery of this policy.

The result was also was a major blow to the religious right in Ireland and their north American allies. One (catholic) priest even suggested that anyone who voted yes, should be bared from confession and basically excommunicated (which means 66% of the country!) until they do penance. Here’s an idea, how about as penance yes voters have to join the DUP or the orange order (given that they’re the only two groups in the country still in favour of an abortion ban).

Montecassino

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The abbey dominates the local landscape

Another spot on my travels was the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino. A bit off the beaten track, but well worth the visit. It is steeped in history (back to Roman times, as well as the founding of the Benedictine order and monastic orders in general). But its also famous for being the site of the battle of Monte Cassino in World War II.

To say this was controversial was to put it mildly. The Americans bombed the Abbey (effectively committing a war crime) to the point where it became the most bombed building in Europe. What was more tragic was that it was entirely unnecessary. While there were Germans in the hills surrounding the abbey, there were none within the abbey itself….well not until after the Americans bombed the place. After this the Germans argued, perhaps not unreasonably, that the allies had just made it part of the battlefield and they promptly occupied the ruins. The large Polish cemetery just below the abbey testifies to the consequences of this error.

And the Polish cemetery also hints at how the British have a warped view of history. Read a British textbook on the battle and they’ll go on and on at great length about how this commonwealth unit or that took part in the battle. They scarcely mention that it was Polish who had to come in and dig the British and the Yanks out of a mess of their own making and ultimately take the abbey. And then they’ve got the nerve to come over to the UK and get jobs, pay taxes and help to fund the NHS!

Trump’s Korean flip flop

A major story that broke while I was away was that of Trump pulling out of the Singapore summit, apparently because the North Korean media said mean things about his vice president (somebody call the wambulance). Of course the real reason he pulled out can be summarised in two words – John Bolton. He no doubt convinced Trump that he should have his little war with the North Koreans as a way of saving himself from impeachment.

Unfortunately, what Trump, or Bolton, didn’t seem to get is that there are other players involved here. The South Koreans, while they want to keep up the pressure on the north, they also don’t want to see a war start (as they’ll be on the receiving end of any retaliation). So they will keep the talks going if they can. Which, probably explains why Trump’s just flip flopped now. An egomaniac like him couldn’t bear the situation, where they carried out without him, even thought he’ll really just be meat in the room.

The other factor is China. They are often described as a North Korean ally. As I’ve discussed before, that’s not entirely true. But certainly they ain’t going to sit ideally by and let North Korea, get attacked by Trump because of some mean tweets (and anyone who knows anything about North Korea would realise those comments were merely for the purposes of domestic consumption). The danger is that they will use economic pressure against the US, or potentially interfere in any war.

So all in all, its a very worrying development. At the very least it means the US will increasingly see itself sidelined, much as Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal just means the US will have no say in how that deal progresses in future.

Eurovision boycott?

Also while I was away, Israel won the Eurovision song contest. This raises a worrying problem, as it was announced they will host the contest next year in Jerusalem.

What’s wrong with that? Well, it would be seen as legitimising their claim of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. There is no way the Palestinians, nor the rest of the Arab world will ever accept that. They might be willing to accept a divided Jerusalem with one half the capital of Israel and the other half the capital of Palestine (or an international city which is capital of both), but a Jerusalem that is exclusively the Israeli capital is just not an option they’ll ever accept. Which basically means that the current conflict will go on forever…..or at least until someone gets there hands on a nuke or something. That effectively is what Trump endorsed when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Trump did this to placate the religious right in his country. They are some of the biggest supporters of Israeli expansion of its settlements on the west bank. Not because they necessarily like Jews, actually its because they’re hoping that this war forever between Israel and the Arab world will bring about the end times….during which most of the Jews will be killed or converted.

So to me its quite clear that there should be a boycott of the next eurovision, if its held in Jerusalem.

Trump syndrome in action

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And speaking of crazy Trump supporters, while I was away we saw the melt down of Roseanne Barr. And Kanye West, suggested that slavery was a choice. Well, at least we won’t be hearing much from either of them for a while. Indeed, this seems to be something of a trend for Trump supporters. Apparently many of those who quit the Trump white house are having trouble finding jobs afterwards. Supporting Trump is literally hazardous to ones career. On the other hand, both have done us all a service, by demonstrating the cult like behaviour of Trump supporters.

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There is a distinct difference between a cult and say a religion or a political party. For example, a catholic bishop doesn’t have to agree verbatim with everything the Pope says (many won’t be happy about his recent comments about gays). Similarly in most political parties its okay to criticise the leadership (up to a point of course). And they can praise the opposition when they do something positive.

With a cult however there are only two things you can say, praise for the leader and the vilification of his opponents (which will be anyone who has criticised him in the past). The leader is considered infallible and his enemies are evil and anything they say (such as the Russia investigation) is clearly lies and fake news. Unlike other political leaders at no point will you hear any of Trump’s supporters criticise him, even when he’s clearly done something wrong. Even things that sound like criticism are often phrased such as “the leader should do XYZ”.

And the trouble with getting involved with cults, is the difficulty in leaving. You want to leave the labour party, all you’ve got to do is cut your membership card in two. But once people are in the Trump cult, its not easy to leave, given that they’ve burnt all their bridges behind them (I can’t see Roseanne going back to the green party). Hence the hostility and lack of rational reasoning you’ll see from them.

Of course what this means is that anyone waiting for the penny to drop for Trump supporters, think again. If he makes it to the next election, regardless of how badly he screws up, he’ll still take in at least 40% of the vote at a minimum.

Gun hire schemes

A bunch of practical jokers thought to set up a mock “gun hire” scheme at subway entrances recently, as a way of mocking the NRA. A dangerous thing to do, because this lot have no sense of humour and don’t understand the concept of irony. The danger is they’ll decide this is a good idea and actually do it for real.

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Consider how a few weeks ago I joked how the Outing club should start carrying guns around campus, to get around some SAPS in administration who wanted to shut them down on Elf’n’Safety grounds. Well in another incident a Trump supporter recently showed up to her graduation with an assault rifle and “come and take it” written across her mortar board. Ya and if she’d been black she’d have probably been shot by the police before she got two blocks.

But like I said, your trying to reason with people who are not reasonable people.

Setting the range for hybrid cars

The current transport secretary Chris Grayling is known as a bit for being pro-car and not a huge fan of green energy, so you have to view everything coming out of his department with a level of suspicion. For example, they’ve recently announced that the UK reg’s will specify a minimum all electric range that hybrid vehicles must be able to achieve.

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On the one hand this sounds like a good idea. As things stand a car with a larger than normal car battery and starter motor can be classified as a hybrid, when in truth its really just a conventional petrol powered car. However, that said, the range that his department is talking about is in the order of 50 miles, which even well established hybrids such as the Prius can’t achieve.

Its important to realise that the range of vehicles do vary for good reasons. The all-electric range of a hybrid involves a level of compromise. Putting a heavier battery into a hybrid will deplete its fuel economy, which may well negate the benefits of hybridisation. And its worth noting that the bulk of car journey’s in the UK are less than 20 miles.

Of course with the UK pulling out of the EU, it hardly matters what the UK says on this matter. Inevitably the EU will decide what it thinks a suitable hybrid range should be and car manufacturers will build according to that specification. They’ll then simply sell either all electric or petrol only models in the UK, if they aren’t compatible with this new law. So all Chris Grayling is doing is restricting the car choices of future UK drivers. And the fear is that might be exactly what he’s aiming for, so he and his Tory pals can keep driving around London in their range rovers.

Noise machines

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And speaking of the EU, they have also announced legislation requiring future electric vehicles to have noise generators fitted to them. I would question the need for this. While yes, its eerie having electric cars creeping quietly up on you, but its something you get used to when you are in a city with lots of electric vehicles (such as Oslo or some Chinese cities). Maybe its just because I had the green cross code drilled into me as a kid that I instinctively look both ways when crossing the road, so its not really an issue for me.

One of the main benefits of electric cars is that they cut down on traffic noise, leading to quieter cities. This policy could negate this benefit. Now if people were being regularly cut down by electric vehicles, I’d agree we have to do something, but I see no evidence that this is a problem. And some experts have also questioned whether such noise generators actually work in the real world. So I worry that this policy is simply being imposed as a sop to those who are suspicious of electric cars, in the same way the first petrol powered cars had to have a guy walk in front of them with a red flag.

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Nightmare journey! Courtesy of Virgin Trains

Got the to train from Glasgow to Coventry the other day. I got to the train station at 7:30 am, got on an early train…only for it to go nowhere for 2hrs! Finally, they came on the intercom on told the entire train (which now due to the delays consisted of the passengers from 2-3 trains) to decant and hurry over to Motherwell where the train would now be leaving from. We all had to rush off and squeeze on to a commuter train (at the back end of the rush hour!). After a bit of a wait on an overcrowded Motherwell platform, we were off again, on a train that looked suspiciously like the one we’d left behind in Glasgow Central….suggesting that the reason why it hadn’t left for two hours was due to some box ticking H & S malarkey…or because they couldn’t be bothered to fork out the extra cash to get maintenance done on a weekend!

Anyway, I then received conflicting instructions, one lot told me to stay on the train and get off at Wolverhampton, the other said, get off at Carlisle, which I got just as the train was pulling into the station. Ran off the train, and only realised as it was pulling away that I’d left behind my laptop bag on board!

Anyway, the train for next leg of my journey shows up, I was told to change trains at Warrington (another guy on the train in a similar predicament and been told the train would stop at Stafford, but it sailed on thro). Then I was supposed to get train from there which was supposed to stop at Coventry, but it didn’t go there and instead went straight into London Euston. As this was the likely spot to find my laptop, I decided to go visit Lost and Found, but “we’re lost ourselves” is the best way I can describe the staff there, they were no help!

But there were more useful than Virgin train staff, who won’t let me board the train, and then had the nerve to charge me an extra £26.50 to get to Coventry (even tho I was only there due to their incompetence!). They seem to have a fairly mercenary attitude the Virgin train staff in London, which boils down to “here comes a customer, lets see how much we can stiff him for”. Terrible people! While Deutsche Bahn‘s corporate motto is “travel better by train” I assume Virgin’s is “stand and deliver! You’re money or you’re life”

That night I was sick, likely due to a dodgy sandwich I bought on the train!

Anyway, last time I ever go by Virgin trains again, plan to avoid railways as much as I can now and next time I’m driving to Scotland. The UK train system is now so expensive, so badly run, that its little short of a waste of time. Environmentalist I might be, but I’m also not a mug, and if you use the trains regularly, then you’re a mug! Keen as I am on train travel, the UK’s train system is simply so decrepit and eyewateringly expensive that its become pointless to use it.

I avoid using my name sake airline (Ryanair, no I’m not related in any way to this guys, so don’t bother e-mailing me about the time they lost you’re bags) unless I absolutely have too, because while you can get a good deal from them, when things go wrong, you’re fucked! (I assume that the motto of Ryanair is “what the fuck do you want now”). The train companies, notably Virgin, are essentially offering Ryanair service for British Airways prices. If anything goes wrong with you’re journey, as with Ryanair, you’re well and truly stuffed and the Virgin staff are practically rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of what they can shaft you for. Hence, I see little to be gained from traveling with them. As I’ve previously pointed out, its actually cheaper in many cases in the UK to drive for less than the off peak (nevermind any time) ticket price.

Conditions of Carriage

To those down trodden commuters who feel they have no choice but to take a train (or a bus) I’ve one bit of advice – stand up for you’re rights as specified in the conditions of carriage. In essence when you buy a ticket on public transport you’re essentially entering into an agreement with the rail company to convey you to you’re destination within a reasonable time period. If they fail to complete this in a timely manner you’re entitled to compensation. And of course, if they fail to complete the journey at all (the bus/train breaks down or is somehow cancelled or delayed to the point of making the journey impossible) its basically their responsibility to get you to you’re destination, regardless of what that ultimately ends up costing them (if they have to get you and everyone else on the train to travel 40 miles by taxi, so be it!).

Of course for obvious reasons, staff at many train companies have a habit of developing “selective amnesia” as regards these rights, hence why its important that you apply them. If everyone whose journey was delayed by that cock up in Glasgow the other day claimed compo like I did, then after that happens a couple of times, trains would be delayed a lot less frequently, as the company simply could no longer afford to keep paying out compensation! Of course, the rail companies will try every trick they can to make things difficult. The claims process is bureaucratic (they’ll practically want you to show up with both parents to prove you’ve been born sort of stuff), they’ll loose the odd form (course Royal Mail being a similar bunch of incompetent wasters will often do this job for them), they’ll take months to process it, they’ll misspell you’re name on the compo cheque, every trick they can in the hope you’ll give up and go away. But like I said, stick with it. Enough people do, then things will start to change.

Of course, as I see, the quickest way to bring about change on Britain’s railways is to avoid them altogether and deprived of passengers, just let the whole sorry mess keel over. Then on the wreckage a “proper” railways service can be built in its place. I mean would people in any other part of Europe put up with this combination of overpriced, crowded and unreliable trains? No way! they’d skin ya alive! It would be a resigning issue in many other countries if trains were run this badly.

My laptop loss is playing havoc with me. Its like loosing a limb! Again, I reckon there’s little hope of recovering the laptop as Virgin seem pretty lousy at recovering lost property….although my suspicion is it was likely nicked by one of their staff! While I’ve backed up most of the stuff and now have a new machine up and running, I’ve been too busy the last few weeks to back up stuff, so I’ve lost the best part of two months worth of files. Either way, I suspect next time I go between Glasgow and the Midlands, I’ll be going by bus or driving.

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!).

Trains, delays and the Black knight of capitalism

An interesting article here from the Imeche journal as regards the end effect of privatisation of the UK railways. In the 1990’s before privatisation was introduced, it cost the UK government £1 Billion to subsidise the railways. 18 years of private ownership later and it now costs the UK government £5 Billion to subsides the railways, i.e fives times more than before privatisation 88|!

Privatisation has therefore failed as regards it principle goal, reducing the costs of the railways to the exchequer. Furthermore, not only is it costing the government more to subsidise the railway system, but ticket fares have soared since then and (going by the grumblings of passengers) the service has gotten worse on many commuter lines.

The Black knight effect
I blame the failure of Thatcher’s privatisation on what I call “The Black knight effect” (after the infamous black knight of Monty Python) as it represents a belief held by many neo-liberal cheerleaders that capitalism and free market theory “always” triumphs, even in circumstances where it is at a distinct disadvantage…much like our armless, legless black knight! Yet like him, the neo-liberals will refuse to give up, or concede that they’re economic ideology is a tiny bit flawed, even when its glaringly obvious that its failing (“tis but a flesh wound!”).

The truth is free market theory will only work in certain circumstances, notably situations where there is truly a “free” market (not a cosy cartel), where there is actual “competition” (not the illusion of it) and the economic model being promoted is actually sustainable and water tight (our numbers add up). None of these conditions applied to the UK railways at privatisation. Firstly companies had to bid to get the contracts. As a result from day one all the individual rail companies had a huge deficit on their balance sheet and lots of share holders looking for a profit to be turned in quickly to give “confidence” to the markets (else the companies would find it impossible to raise money later without going to the government).

Hence, the rail companies started off by cutting back on services, selling off land (such as maintenance yards to property developers), laying off experienced staff and otherwise cutting corners while at the same time hiking up fares. This netted big profits for investors, but in the end it was an unsustainable bubble, and a very brief one at that. It also burst any bubble in the Tory’s heads about how privatisation would see free enterprise whisk away the UK’s old dodgy railways and replace it with a cheap sleek and new, gleaming high speed alternative. Investment in new railway projects were in many cases shelved rather than new ones being put forward. Of course just to make matters worse, the various bits of BR that had actually been profitable had been sold off in the early stages of privatisation in the 1980’s.

Certain long term issues were put on the back burner, most crucially track maintenance, eventually leading to a deterioration in track condition that would several years later come back to haunt the industry in the form of a series of 4 rail crashes (Southall (1997), Ladbroke Grove (1999), Hatfield (2000) and Potters Bar (2002)). These crashes effectively ruined the industry, as Railtrack was all but forced back into public ownership and the rail companies, dependant on Railtrack and its monopoly of track maintenance, were forced to pay an increasing amount of money to use its track as it hastily began a program of track renovation to correct previous problems.

Another problem with privatisation is that, as noted, in order for capitalism to work there has to be an element of competition, and the privatised railway network has very little room for that, as most of the rail companies have a de-facto monopoly in each geographical area. Privately owner or publicly managed, any company that’s left in a position of a de-facto monopoly will evitably become bloated and in-efficient over time. The UK railway companies are a textbook example of this. They can set prices for ticket based not on what is a competitive price (i.e a price that will attract the customer away from their competitors) but on whatever they reckon they can get away with (i.e how much can we fleece the punter for without getting physically attacked!). Managers award themselves generous and unjustified bonuses, the unions (peeved at their lazy managers getting paid so well) regularly demand this and that and management just rolls over, suppliers and contractor golfing buddies of the bosses get overly generous service contracts, staff at all levels aren’t suitably motivated to perform better, etc.

Also, in fairness to the railway companies, competition will only occur when there’s a level playing field. The things the railway’s should be competing against, cars and short haul flights, are both massively subsided by the government (a lot more than the measly 5 Billion the railways get).

Its hard to believe that the train companies have to pay tax on fuel, but the UK airline industry doesn’t. Add in the costs of maintaining the UK’s airports, air traffic control, fire and emergency cover, the cost of building all those airports and support infrastructure to begin with, not to mention the costs of climate change, air travel being a 5-10 times worse (depending on who you ask, see here and here) per km travelled than trains. Taking all this into account and you can see that there are a whole set of hidden costs that you’re Ryanair £12.99 Glasgow to Stansted ticket doesn’t cover.

Similarly, all the talk you hear from the Top Gear crowd about a “war on motorists” is baloney. The UK’s car owners are the biggest receivers of state welfare in the country. Yes motor tax and petrol tax maybe high, but its not high enough to cover the true costs of motoring, i.e maintenance of roads and motorways, the huge costs of originally building these in the first place, emergency cover, policing of roads and the costs to the country of dealing with climate change (petrol heads will often try skewing the numbers to show cars are better than trains by comparing a Prius driven slowly with 4 people and no luggage v’s a half fuel diesel commuter train, while the reality of course, a large car driven fast with 1 or 2 people against an overcrowded commuter train it’s the train that winds out, car travel being about parallel to air travel for vehicle emissions ). Then there’s the other environmental costs of cars (CO2 isn’t the only think coming out of tailpipes) and the health effects of vehicle emissions. Then of course there are the costs of maintaining cheap and readily available fossil fuels (so we should really include a “war tax” surcharge on all car travel then!). Motorists don’t know what a good deal they are getting. Unfortunately, post-peak oil they’ll be getting a rude awakening.

So obviously, it’s all but impossible for the railways to compete against cars, buses and planes if the latter are being massively subsidised while the railways being heavily constrained. So its probably no surprise that by and large the railway companies haven’t even bothered to try and “compete” and have ended up degrading into the same listless inefficient behaviour seen under the latter days of BR…only now with a 25% premium on top for “profit” :no:!

Solutions? Re-nationalisation or Re-privatisation
Clearly the solution is to do one of two things. Option one is to accept the whole thing was a bad idea and re-nationalise the entire railway network. Many of the train companies now have large debts so I suspect some would actually be happy to have the whole sorry mess taken off their books. The others could be either bought out easily or nudged out as most have committed enough violations of they’re conditions of franchise to warrant it being revoked if the government decided to do so. Nationalised railways are not the first stop on the road to communism (as the Daily Mail would have to believe). Many countries have a nationalised railway network, notably the USA, Yes! you heard me correctly, the land of free enterprise has a Federally supported railway network in the form of Amtrak.

Option two is, re-privatisation, but doing it properly this time. That means the government paying companies to take the railways off its hands, and I don’t mean token sums (i.e lowest bidder like last time), I mean what it will actually cost said companies to take on the burden. We would need to allow these companies to compete against each other on routes, and more importantly pulling the welfare rug out from under motorists and budget airlines. Of course, such a project would be hugely expensive and extremely unpopular with many motorists or the Nouveau Jet Set. Unfortunately with a Tory government in power I can’t see either being done, so it will be a case of just paying £5 Billion a year, taking a regular shafting from ticket agents over fares and just putting up with it until (hopefully) the whole sorry mess collapses under it own ineffective weight.

A note to the Austrian school
And Libertarians need to accept the fact that, as the UK railway privatisation shows us (or indeed the economic train wrecks that are the UK water, gas and utility companies), capitalism isn’t Invincible (and some of them, like the Black knight, are raving lunny’s!). It not some sort of magic formula bestowed upon us by the gods (and on the 2nd day God did tell Jesus to set up a private equity firm giving-ith an annual rate of return of 15% & he dith decree that the lepers should not be healed, as that would be socialised health care…). It’s merely an economic system that allows us to maximise resource use, while minimising costs. Nothing more nothing less. It works and works well sometimes yes, but that isn’t universally true in all situations. And it certainly doesn’t work in situations where we actively prevent a free market from forming.

And then there’s the law of unintended consequences and externalities to consider. For example, the purpose of public transport isn to provide a cheap, clean and efficient way for us to move large amounts of people from their homes to their place of business (or recreation) as quickly as possible. If we don’t do this with trains, then we have to do it with road traffic, and how much more would it cost the UK taxpayer if everyone who takes the train to work suddenly got into a car Monday and drove into work instead? (hint, the UK road network would collapse if that happened) Whose going to pay the cost of those upgrades to road and car parking facilities? And how many working class people afford to drive their own car? I’m not even working class, and I can’t afford a car! and if someone doesn’t pay up then that’s a huge chuck of the UK’s work force who can’t do their jobs anymore because they can’t get to work! Who is going to pay the costs of climate change? What about the huge amount of the UK tourist industry dependant on public transport (to move punters around the country)? How are little old lady’s who can’t drive anymore (and we don’t want driving any more!) supposed to get to the shops without public transport?
There are times when capitalism works and works well, but there also things we don’t want to leave to the whims of the market.