Four days in Heathrow

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Got stuck over Christmas for four days in Heathrow all thanks to a screw up by BA. And this was before the strikes hit! Fog caused them to cancel a whole load of flights into the airport and delayed outgoing flights. Apparently the UK has yet to discover the benefits of this thing called “radar”, which is odd given that they claim to have invented it. I ended up spending several days getting fobbed off by BA staff. They’d tell you to go to one queue, then another, then ring a number, then check a website, then call your travel agent who would tell you to call BA 😦

And the Heathrow staff weren’t much better. The shops ran out of food and they were doing demolition work at 1am with a hammer drill while hundreds slept rough the other side of checkin. No consideration what so ever, no help to anybody.

All in all I’m forced to ask what exactly is the difference between Ruinair Ryanair or  Awkwardjet Easyjet and BA? Because the only difference as I see it is that Ryanair are usually on time and half the price. Yes Michael O’Leary is a bastard, but he pretty much tells you that up front. I’m surprised its not Ruinair’s motto “yes we’re bastards, but we’re usually on time and dirt cheap”. BA by contrast charge considerably more for essentially the same service. They are no more likely to look after you in an emergency, so frankly you may as well book with the low cost airlines (or take the train….unfortunately they don’t do trains to South America).

Of course these delays are largely because Heathrow is over capacity. This is why the government wants to build a third runway. However even if that was the solution, that’s not going to do solve anything for a decade. The fact is that successive governments have been kicking the can down the road on Heathrow for decades, both Tory and labour are equally to blame. After the first night I went to stay with relatives in London, which meant I got to see the other side of the argument, i.e. constant plane noise in the background. And this was with Heathrow at 50% capacity. So an extra runway will make things that bit worse.

As I mentioned in a prior post a report back in the 70’s recommended shutting down many of London’s airports and building a new one on a green field site to the north west of the city in rural Buckinghamshire. This would reduce noise over London and provide plenty of room for future expansion. And as it would be near (or on) the West Coast mainline, it would be easier for high speed rail to connect to the airport from the rest of the country (eliminating the need for commuter flights into this new airport). However inevitably as it would mean ploughing up the estates of the landed gentry it was ignored and we’ve been going around in circles ever since. This is what happens when governments dodge long term questions like this. You end up with a mess that can’t be quickly or easily fixed or put right.

Keep in mind Germany is in the process of consolidating all of Berlin’s airports to one site to the South of the city allowing it to close down all of those within the city limits. So there’s no reason why the UK can’t do the same. Its just governments here are, like the BA staff at Heathrow, taking the lazy way out of any difficult problem.

And case in point, the main obstacle to the other proposal, so-called “Boris Island” airport, is the wreck of the Richard Montgomery in the Thames estuary. This is the semi-submerged wreck of a World War II liberty ship with several thousand tons of explosives on board. Yes, seventy years after the end of the war the wreck of a ship with thousands of tonnes of explosives is sitting in the Thames just waiting to go off. Nobody has bothered to do anything about it because that would be too much like hard work.

So my advice to anyone is is A) Don’t fly with BA, Iberia or any of their code sharing allies. And B) avoid any flights through Heathrow. The slightest thing goes wrong, your screwed. If you have to do a long distance flight, use Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt as your hub. The flight into them won’t take much longer than one to Heathrow anyway and you’ll avoid having to deal with lazy BA & Heathrow staff.

Heathrow, Nissan, cats & Corbyn

Theresa “crazy cat lady” May, aka Baldrick, has given the go ahead for expansion of Heathrow for a variety of reasons. For starters she’s shown herself to be a zen master of the dead cat manoeuvre. And with brexit, she’s got good reason to start tossing around dead moggies.

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Theresa May prepares to announce another government policy

Take the recent announcement regarding Nissan. Sounds like good news, until you read between the lines and realise that the government has guaranteed Nissan business rates the same as if they were part of the single market. That could be 10-25% of the price per car, which is a significant potential subsidy for the government to be doling out to a car company say £5k per car, about a 100,000 of them per year, you do that maths!). And this on the back of the Hinkley C contract, which will give a 68% subsidy per MWh it generates. In short Theresa May has taken the UK economy back to the 70’s with the state propping up industries. Except these aren’t publicly owned or even British firms, but privately owned foreign multinationals. The tabloids who seem to think this is a good idea, would they be singing her praises if it was a bank or a hedge fund? Noting they will likely be the next lot looking for some compo.

Also it this is almost certainly illegal under EU competition rules. Okay, we’re leaving so what? Well because you need to understand why those rules exist. Its to stop EU states engaging in beggar thy neighbour protectionism. They also want to avoid any rows, via the WTO, with other trading block who will challenge such policies and might impose punitive tariff’s on EU or UK goods. So Theresa May has just guaranteed she’ll get into a trade war with the US and Germans at some future date. In short, May appears to have succeeded in combining all the worse elements of labour governments of the 1970’s, with the worst elements of Thatcherism.

But I digress, what about Heathrow? Well its the biggest, smelliest dead moggie of them all. Given that expansion of Heathrow will impact on so many marginal constituencies, both through the physical demolition of towns, but also aircraft noise, most previous governments have avoided the issue like the plague. This is the sort of decision that could easily cost any government the next election. Even May herself could be vulnerable. However, she has something of a trump card – Corbyn. His policies are sufficiently unpopular in those very Greater London marginals that she can take the hit from Heathrow and still expect to win the next election. So I hope those who voted for him a few weeks ago, realise what they were signing up for….when in a few years time you’re being kept awake by late night flights!

And Corbyn’s pro-brexit stance doesn’t exactly help his situation. London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Some of the constituencies affected by Heathrow expansion voted by as much as 70% in favour of remain. Among left leaning voters (the sort he needs the support of to win the next election) the figure rises to 90%. Now while I suspect the lib dems are wrong to be running in Zack Goldsmith’s by-election on an anti-brexit platform alone, because no election is ever decided by a single issue (of course the same applies to Zack Goldsmith). But it is certainly (along side Heathrow) a major election issue. And labour now has little to no chance of winning this by-election, nor any other elections in the Greater London area. Its not beyond reason that Corbyn himself could lose his seat at the next election.

However, Theresa May might well have just executed a double dead cat manoeuvre, what I suspect we’ll later come to call, the Heathrow double flip. She knows that announcing this will be like waving a red flag in front of a bull with Corbyn (or should that be a flat bread in front of a Vegan). He always has been more of a protest leader than a party leader. Him and his sandal wearing friends will now dash off to go protest against Heathrow expansion. And while he’s off organising sit-ins and teach-ins or petitions, the Tories can get on with the important business of dismantling workers rights and setting the NHS up for eventual privatisation.

The Kremlin doth protest too much me thinks…..

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Of course one of the stories over the last few weeks was the report of Dutch air accident investigators into the loss of MH17. It confirmed much of what we know, that the aircraft was shot down by a missile, almost certainly a Buk missile, which struck the front of the aircraft (implying it was fired in front of the plane, i.e. rebel territory), showering the cockpit with shrapnel.

Analysis of this shrapnel, some of it recovered from the bodies of the aircrew, point to it being specifically a 9M38-series missile with a 9N314M warhead. This type of the Buk is only available to Russian supplied forces (i.e. not the Ukrainians) and it ties in with sightings of just such a launcher in the area prior to the shoot down.

Furthermore, the Dutch point to signs of attempts to conceal the truth from them. A failure of the Russians to hand over radar data (strange if we are to believe their claim it was the Ukranians!) and signs of a botched autopsy on the airplane’s pilot in an effort to remove shrapnel from the missile (unfortunately, there was just too much of the stuff and the Dutch recovered enough from the plane and occupants to prove their case).

All this of course points to the fact that the Russians have blood on their hands. They tried to deflect attention by staging a “test of a missile in an effort to give their media something else to talk about, even though all there test proved is that you can blow the nose of a plane with a AA missile (anyone who actually looked at the Dutch report would realise it was clearly an attempt to invoke the wookie defence).

In short the lady doth protest too much, me thinks…..

Indeed I would argue that Russia’s behaviour suggests it goes deeper than simply an attempt by them to prop up their allies in Eastern Ukraine. If that was truly the case, they’ve have thrown the relevant rebel leader responsible under the bus along time ago by now, packed him off to the Hague and focused on saving face with the international community.

No, Russia’s behaviour strongly hints that it wasn’t rebels at the controls of that Buk missile but the Russian military. Its long been suspected that many of the “rebels” are actually Russian soldiers, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were also providing air cover. And probably they were there under orders coming right down from the top, maybe even Putin himself. This would immediately explain Russian’s sensitivity on this issue.

Of course, the people who really needed to listen to the Dutch, the Russian people and a number of neo-fascist conspiracy theorists, will of course not be convinced. They will no doubt find some excuse to cast doubt on the evidence, they will ignore anything and everything that contradicts their little fantasy, even the blindingly obvious.

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.