We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

How the pursuit of safety is causing British trains to remain rather unsafe

Today a friend from way back who is a structural engineer by profession dropped by. He is semi-retired now, but was not so long ago a pretty big cheese in the bridge designing trade. He still has quite a bit of influence on bridge designing, albeit rather less now than he used to have.

He told me of an engineering bee, concerning train safety, now buzzing about inside his head.

Trains are, on the whole, he said, very safe. But apparently level crossings are the big train exception. A trickle of deaths? A rather big trickle, he replied. “Scores every year” was the phrase I recall him using. I don’t know if that’s quite right, but level crossing deaths are certainly a big deal in Britain.

Perhaps partly because he is a bridge designer, my friend believes that where possible and where not too disruptive and expensive, level crossings should be replaced by … bridges.

Trouble is, there is an acronymic organisation (I think he was talking about this one) concerned with British train safety, which demands very large clearances, both upwards and sideways, for all new road bridges over railways. And it takes only a small increase in a demanded clearance size to require a greatly more elaborate and expensive bridge. Which means that a lot of bridges, that might be built, aren’t.

Partly this demand for big clearances is because at some future date the railway line in question might be electrified, and in the meantime, space must be left under all bridges for that.

My friend says: Fine. In the meantime build smaller but temporary bridges. If electrification ever happens, replace these small bridges with bigger bridges. (Or, I suppose, go back to having level crossings, although that possibility wasn’t mentioned.) Meanwhile, save many lives now lost at level crossings.

But partly, the reason is a safety consideration of another kind. Says the acronymic organisation: all imaginable train wobblings, including the most unlikely, must be allowed to occur under all future bridges without any train afflicted by such wobbling hitting the bridge, even though many existing bridges allow for no such wobblings, with no detectable effect on train fatalities.

Result? The rather big trickle of deaths at level crossings goes on, and on, and on. In the pursuit of even more perfect safety where perfect safety has pretty much already been achieved, a closely related and very unsafe circumstance is caused to persist.

The pursuit of safety, badly done, is resulting in the persistence of unsafety.

When people now speak, as they so often now do, of “health and safety gone mad”, this is one of the things they surely mean. It isn’t just that safety is pursued and damn everything else. Safety is also pursued in accordance with mindless rules, that have the effect of reducing safety itself.

Something tells me that this is not the only example of such perverse safety thinking.

Irony

This blog has reported repeatedly on the Paul Chambers case. Quickly, Mr Chambers was convicted of a criminal offence for stating on Twitter that he would “blow (Robin Hood airport) sky high” if it did not reopen soon after bad weather, because he wished to catch a flight in order to see his girlfriend. This was an obvious joke, and was understood as such by absolutely everyone, but he was convicted anyway, lost two jobs as a consequence etc etc, before being finally cleared on appeal to the High Court.

News out today. Slightly before this incident, members of the same security staff at that same Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire came close to actually blowing the airport sky high. They did this through utter incompetence, by insisting on opening and inspecting a shipment of anti-tank ammunition that had been flown into the airport, despite having no expertise or understanding of how to properly do so.

Guess what? The security staff in question were not convicted of anything. In fact, by law they cannot be prosecuted in such circumstances. Funny, that.

Road pricing at the IEA

Yesterday, as earlier reported, I attended an event about road pricing. It was typical IEA. Men in suits and ties with irreconcilable beliefs took it in turns to be irreconcilably polite about everything, while other men in suits and ties listened with equal politeness:

IEAroadpricingeventS.jpg

There are some of the men in suits and ties waiting their turn to be polite. And look, one man in a suit and a tie is even straightening his tie, James Bond style, although there the resemblance ends. That’s Oliver Knipping, co-author, together with Richard Wellings (the man in a suit and a tie on the right whose face is blocked out by the video camera) of a recent IEA publication entitled Which Road Ahead – Government or Market? Do you see what they did there? Which road, as in policy, metaphorically speaking, for dealing with roads, as in roads, literally.

I am being much too rude. It was actually pretty interesting if you like that sort of thing, which I only somewhat do, hence my rudeness. I went because I knew that although I would be rather bored during the event, I would afterwards be glad that I had attended, and so it has proved. I got a copy of Which Road Ahead for only a fiver, and better yet, I met a man with a blog, called Road Pricing.

I like road pricing, for the same reasons I think that governments shouldn’t give away train tickets to everyone just because the train system is government owned and/or government controlled and people have already paid for it that way. What if some people don’t like trains and never use them? It’s not fair. Without journey pricing, the trains will get even more impossibly crowded. Privacy? That argument was won and lost when they introduced number plates, I reckon. A man called Gabriel Roth was quoted as saying that the road systems of the world are the last bastions of Soviet style central planning. Which isn’t true. What about central banking? But I like the sentiment. This is a product for which people queue for the product on top of the product thereby destroying the product. That can’t be the right road ahead, now can it?

Scott Wilson, the Road Pricing blogger, agrees. But you won’t read many arguments at his blog about why road pricing is good. What you will read is reports about how road pricing is being done in various parts of the world, well or badly, and criticisms of places where it is being done badly, like, surprise surprise, the UK. In that posting there is a picture of people being charged to get across the Thames which makes you think, not road pricing, but: crossing a national frontier, of the sort that is taken seriously.

I ought to have known about this blog two years ago, when it started. But no matter, now I do. This is the kind of thing that you learn if you go to rather boring meetings instead of just staying home glued to a computer, the way I am now. Besides which, a blog is merely a blog. If you actually meet the man who runs it, see his suit and his tie, and hear him talking, quite intelligently, that makes you actually want to pay attention to his blog.

Samizdata quote of the day

“I fly out of Monterey airport, a small airport, a lot and so I’ve gotten to know a number of the TSA employees. This morning, on my way to Miami [I'm writing this from LAX], the “gatekeeper” who asks for ID told the man in front of me, after looking at his ID, that he didn’t have to take off his shoes. When it came my turn, I asked her if I had heard correctly. She said, “Yes, as long as you were born in 1937 or earlier.” “I’m not there yet,” I said. Then I ended up behind him in the next line where you put your items on the conveyor belt. “Well,” I said to him, “I know something about your age.” He grinned and said, “Yes, it seems as if there’s a little common sense sneaking back in.” The TSA guy, whom I also recognized and who also probably recognized me, grinned and said, “Shhh, don’t mention the c-word.” We all laughed. A nice little moment.”

David Henderson, at Econlog.

When I recently flew into San Francisco airport, the queues were long but – and this might just be my being lucky – the guy who checked my passport and details was friendly, helpful and efficient. (He was ex-Air Force and did his military service near where I was brought up, a fact that he told me with great delight). Perhaps someone has told the TSA to improve.

Samizdata quote of the day

The traffic in the blackout areas of Manhattan is lawless in the most literal sense: the traffic lights aren’t working, so the law cannot be applied as usual. But “lawless” doesn’t seem to be a fitting description; the driving seems better-behaved than usual. We’re so used to seeing people act under a system of government rules that it’s easy to assume that without the rules, everything would descend into chaos. But perhaps free people are generally capable of acting decently on their own. Of course, that’s never going to be universal; but then, people break the law too. In fact, a dense set of rules tempts people to see how close to (or how far across) the borderline of legality they can go without being penalized. In the absence of governmental laws, people might focus more on other kinds of laws: social norms and ethics.

- This quote was, at the time I reposted it here, prominently featured near the top of Instapundit. But Instapundit moves fast, especially now, when there are about half a dozen of them and they’ve a presidential election to be blogging about. So the above wisdom will soon have been and gone. It deserves to linger longer, I think, and here, it will. A little longer anyway.

Instapundit found it here, and also links, again, to a piece saying that too many traffic rules can make us less safe.

For traffic rules read rules of every sort.

Governments are stupid Part 3792: Railway franchising

A couple of weeks ago the government announced (with pens hovering over contracts) that it was prematurely ending the process for awarding the West Coast Main Line (WCML) franchise. This came after Virgin – the loser – initiated legal action to force the government to disclose why it had provisionally awarded the contract to First. During the process of preparing for the case the Government discovered that it had got its sums wrong.

We can argue that it shows that the government is incompetent. We can argue that it shows that Beardie is not a man you want to mess with. We can possibly argue that over-optimistic assumptions about the economy have a lot to do with this. And we can certainly argue that this creates a lot of uncertainty and this is a bad thing because train operators will not be able to make any plans.

But really this is wood for the trees stuff. The fact is that the government (or, to put it another way, the violent part of society) should have nothing to do with the railway. Decisions about the railway should be made by the market (i.e. the peaceful part of society).

Hence, we shouldn’t have franchising, or subsidy, or the split between the wheel and the rail. Yes, unbelievable as it may sound to the uninitiated, in Britain train operators are not allowed to own the track and track owners (or owner – there’s only one) are not allowed to run trains. Railways should be liberated from the state and allowed to stand or fall on their own merits.

My guess is that they will stand (or at least the WCML will). I’ve just returned from Japan where the railways were (mostly) liberated from the state 25 years ago. Trains are frequent, clean and modern. The main railways are profitable.

At this point people someone’s bound to complain that Japanese trains are overcrowded. What about all those people pushers? Every time I’ve been in Tokyo (this was my fourth trip) I’ve tried to find them and haven’t succeeded yet. True, most people have to stand in the rush hour, and from time to time things get very uncomfortable but much the same is true of London too. And for the same reason: fare control which depresses the price and increases demand.

Yamanote Line train somewhere between Shinagawa and Shibuya 0730, Thursday 11 October 2012:

JapanTrain.jpg

Bicymple

I have loved David Thompson’s Friday ephemera postings ever since they started, and the latest list contains something I especially enjoyed finding out about.

You wouldn’t think it would be possible to make the bicycle an order of magnitude more simple, but it would appear that the bicymple is just that. Instead of that big triangular bicycle frame in the middle, they just have a single strut across the top. The wheels are as near to each other as they can be without bumping into each other. The pedals of the bicymple are attached to the middle of the back wheel, which gets rid of the chain.

Unridable? Well, here is a video of a guy riding it. And here is an interview with the inventor.

The world is full of bizarre transport gadgets that “work”, in the merely mechanical sense, but which nobody seems to want to use for anything other than pratting about in pointlessly. So, whether the bicymple will ever catch on in a significant way is anybody’s guess. My guess is a definite maybe. I will sit decisively on the fence, and wait to see what happens with this strange little contraption.

All I can say with certainty is that I am looking forward to reading any guesses about the possible future of this bizarre gizmo that our often very tech-savvy commentariat feels inclined to offer.

How Amazon is causing me to read more books and read them better

And not just in the obvious way, by selling me interesting books, cheaply, that I might not otherwise be able to get hold of.

It happened like this. The block of flats I inhabit has a door at the bottom which each of us can unlock from our flats with a remote control button, without seeing who we are letting in. This makes us vulnerable to robberies. What happened was that the buzzer went, and one of us would pick up his phone. A voice would say: “I am the postman”, or “I have a delivery for number 22″, or “I have come to read the electricity meters”, or “I live in number 29 and I don’t have my key on me”. It only needed one such person to be a plunderer and a liar, and one trusting householder to trust the liar, and the liar was inside the building able to steal any enticing parcels from the post boxes just inside the front door.

We don’t have a concierge, and we don’t have postal boxes that are locked. (Which may be why blocks of flats are now, more and more, big. They are big enough for all the dwellers in them to be able, between them, to afford a concierge.)

So anyway, this all makes it impossible for me now, in full confidence, to receive purchases from Amazon. They get delivered fine. But they are then liable to be stolen.

We have all learned about this, and I for one do not let people in without coming down and personally seeing them in and out. I get the impression that robberies have now abated, and the robbers have moved on. But, why take the chance? Why not, instead of getting Amazon stuff delivered to a home like mine, get it delivered to the home of a friend with no such problems, just his own single front door? Why not drop by every now and again to collect whatever Amazon stuff you order?

So it is that, instead of getting Amazon stuff for me delivered to my own home, it now all goes to Chateau Samizdata, the home of Perry de Havilland. And so it also is that I have yet another excuse for dropping by to visit Chateau Samizdata every so often, every time stuff needs collecting.

This is good in itself. There is nothing like face to face contact with good friends. Samizdata is all very virtual and twenty first century and all, but it started when people met each other face to face, and it works better if we keep on meeting in this old fashioned way from time to time.

But travelling to Chateau Samizdata has another benefit, for me. → Continue reading: How Amazon is causing me to read more books and read them better

The difficulty of establishing a free market in taxi rides

Occasionally a taxi driver will complain to me about the costs of licensing or the expensive safety test he is about to send his car in for. I always suggest that there is no need for taxi licensing at all. The taxi driver does not like this one bit. Of course not: the main purpose of licensing is to restrict supply and keep prices high.

This is rarely admitted. Instead we are warned of the dangers of unlicensed taxis. And dangers there are, but it is nothing that can not be solved with private certification schemes or branding.

The makers of a smartphone app called Uber are currently having various battles with taxi licensing authorities. They want to make it easier for people to order and pay for taxis and presumably in return take a cut of the fares. Price controls, metering and rules about how drivers are paid are getting in their way.

Meanwhile in Chennai, auto-rickshaws (known elsewhere as tuk tuks) are not metered. There is a campaign to have meters installed in them to fix the prices along with “proper” regulation and licensing. One problem people are complaining about is high prices; another is the behaviour of drivers, such as choosing customers and forcing people to share rides. These problems suggest to me that there is a shortage of auto-rickshaws, but my friend from Chennai disagrees. She explains that there are plenty of drivers, but they agree amongst themselves who will take which passenger so that passengers can not choose between drivers to get a better deal. This sounds like union behaviour, and an obvious question with perhaps an obvious answer is: what stops drivers operating outside of the union?

Here is a typical comment from the Missing Meter Facebook page:

the auto stand in my area itself (near perungudi bus stop – OMR)…… they will ask triple the charge if they see me in urge of going (dressed like professional)…. they will not let the autos to stop which are passing by… so we will end up in negotiating with those guys & pay atleast double the amount of real charge… apprx – 20 rs / km… this happens almost all the time….

Establishing free markets is never easy.

Oo sez caplizm can’t do culcha?

Photoed by me in Vauxhall Bridge Road, earlier this week:

VanGoUKs.jpg

I liked this enough when I first set eyes on it to snap it up, and that was two days before I even noticed the “we’ve got one ‘ere” bit. Like I always say, my camera regularly sees more than I do.

Website here.

A truly small and truly new small car

Last night I watched a television documentary about the career and achievements of Gordon Murray, a very different Murray from the tennis Murray whom I mentioned here on Saturday. Gordon Murray designs cars.

He started out doing racing cars. Time was when Gordon Murray was applying his extraordinary ingenuity to designing such things as “improvements” to McLaren racing cars, improvements whose only rationale was that they drove through some silly loophole in the rules of Formula 1 racing, a loophole that would soon close and render the new design feature utterly pointless. Okay, F1 is fun, and okay, most of what Murray did was make F1 cars go ever faster and get ever cleverer. But that rule-dodging bit in particular seemed like a serious waste of a talent, and I am sure the television people intended it to.

But Gordon Murray then took a big step towards applying his stellar engineering skills to a task more worthy of them when he designed the McLaren F1, which is the fastest car that multi-millionaires can buy to drive on regular roads. Better.

And now, Murray has designed a small car. This small car looks like a superior version of one of those covered over motorbikes, but actually it is a lot cleverer and more capacious than that. It is cleverer because it embodies half a lifetime of Murray’s experience in Formula 1, making everything in cars lighter, smaller and just plain better.

There are many ways to innovate. A good way is to innovate in just one aspect of a design, while relying on tried and tested technology for everything else. That way there is only one thing to go wrong and to get right. Very wise.

But Gordon Murray’s way is different. More “courageous”, you might say. He looks at everything. He looked at small cars the way huge teams of aircraft designers are perpetually looking at aircraft design, chiselling little ounces of bulk from here, there and everywhere, and where possible trying more serious rethinkings and rearrangements, adding up to a seriously improved product.

Innovation done this way can unleash a ton of mistakes, with all the good ideas getting overwhelmed by a few bad ones. Everything has to work. You have to get, near enough, a hundred out of a hundred, or you fail. You need lots of skill and experience to get a score like that. Gordon Murray, it would seem, has an abundance of both.

In particular, just as a for instance, this small car is interesting (courageous?) in using the same seating arrangement as the McLaren F1. In the McLaren F1, instead of the driver sitting on one side at the front, and then another bunch of people sitting behind on another big seat, or not, the F1 has the driver in the front in the middle, and two other seats on either side, but set back, in an arrow formation. The passengers can presumably stretch out their legs beside the driver’s bum. And the new small car has just the same seating set-up. Which makes it feel bigger inside than a regular small car, but much less bulky from outside.

Also, the doors to the new small car are an all-in-one door, which opens up and forward, like the top of an airplane. Combined with that seating arrangement, this makes it easier to get in and out of than the competition.

This small car comes in two versions. There is the black T25, which is petrol driven, and which looks like this:

T25.jpg

And there is the blue version, the T27, which runs on electricity. They showed the T27 towards the end of the television show, in the company of some veteran cars in a place that looked a lot like central London, and I thought: hang on, this rings a bell. Sure enough, after a little digging in my photo-archives, I found this snap:

T27s.jpg

I took that picture of the T27 on the same day, early last November, that I took all these photos of veteran cars in Regent Street. (There is a slice of veteran car there on the right.) I far prefer the look of the black T25. Its strangely retro styling reminds me of a delivery van of the sort I recall from my youth. The blue T27 looks to me, still, like a boring little car only pretending not to be boring, which is why I had no idea how interesting it was when I first set my eyes and my camera on it. Oh me of little faith. Kudos to me, though, for taking “too many” pictures whenever I go out a-snapping. Time and again, as in this case, I only realise later, and sometimes a lot later, what I photoed.

Being so unbulky, this new T25/27 is much more fuel efficient than regular small cars, but its energy efficiency does not stop there. One of the most interesting moments in the programme came when they talked about how this new car will be made. There is more to cars being efficient than cars being efficient to drive. They also have to be as efficient and as cheap and as easy as possible to make, and this new car requires far less in the way of capital investment before you can start cranking them out. The huge manufacturing costs of regular automobiles, said my television, explained why most car makers prefer making expensive cars to cheap cars. Cheap cars don’t make any money. But this cheap car will make money for those who make it, or that’s the idea. That’s another huge potential step forward.

The claim was repeatedly made in this programme that this T25/27 is the biggest innovation in car making since the Model T, what with the revolutionary way that the Model T was manufactured. But the cars that this new gizmo makes me think of are the Citroen 2CV and the Volkswagen, which were likewise designed to be more easy to make than regular cars, were they not? The Citroen 2CV, I seem to recall reading, was banged out by peasants in a big barn, or some such thing, just after WW2, when manufacturing skills were scarce. This seems a lot like the T25/27 plan, which is a twenty first century version (i.e. with shipped in magic bits) of the same thing.

The T25/27 secret, apparently, is that the structural frame of the car is made of metal tubing, and that is far easier for cheapo, Third World type fabricators to work with than however small cars are made now, by the likes of Toyota and Ford and the rest of them.

The upshot of all this is that here is a small car, a truly small car, that will make regular non-multi-millionaire motoring massively less of an energy gobbler.

Which in fact means, if it all goes to plan, that many more people will drive around in such cars than drive around in any cars now, and the total amount of energy consumed by these cars as they wizz hither and thither will then go up. But, a lot more people will be having fun and getting themselves and their stuff from A to B. So: very good.

Or, it could be that too many of Gordon Murray’s innovations will turn out to be mistakes, in which case car historians may point back to the T25/27, to say where Toyota and Ford got their next bunch of ideas, while the rest of us may soon forget this most interesting and admirable man. What if, for example, we regular punters just can’t be doing with that strange new seating arrangement? What if drivers just have to have company sitting right next to them when driving? And what if that radically rethought manufacturing method turns out to have too many mistakes built into it? So maybe the T25/27 will go down in car history as an heroic failure, rather than getting flagged up as a triumph, Volkswagen or Deux Chevaux style. It may be remembered, that is to say, as a very gutsy shot at a real car that was actually only a concept car. We shall see.

Earlier yesterday, in the afternoon, I caught Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton moaning on the telly about their (McLaren) racing cars had been way off the pace in the British Grand Prix. Are they missing Gordon Murray, I wonder?

A little more transport blogging

If the ten day London weather forecast is anything to go by, and I think it is, yesterday was the last day of nice weather that London will see for quite a while, again. So yesterday, thus forewarned, I made a point of going out and about in London, photoing. (Longer range weather forecasts are an entirely different matter.) Sure enough, the weather was excellent, except at the end when it started clouding over.

And one of the more diverting things I observed and photoed was this, on London Bridge:

PedibusS.jpg

Yes, it’s a Pedibus. Even though Transport Blog is now in a state of permanent repose, I acquired the habit of photoing any strange form of transport I observed, so that I could feature it there, in among all the droning on about rail privatisation, and the habit of taking weird transport photos whenever the chance arose stuck. Also, the above photo is yet another in my now vast collection of people taking photos.

Although, I really should have videoed it to do it justice.

The people actually powering that particular Pedibus look suspiciously young, attractive, healthy and gender-balanced to me. I suspect they are promoting the thing, rather than actually paying to use it. (Peddling it as well as pedalling it, you might say. (See first two comments.))

But I reckon that if that is mere promotion, it ought to work. The Pedibus, it seems to me, unites a number of modern obsessions all into one activity, obsessions such as:

- Sitting at a table with friends, shouting nonsense.

- Showing off by doing something very weird in public.

- Drinking alcohol.

- Pedophilia, i.e. taking exercise by sitting on some sort of pedalling device, perhaps a bicycle of some sort but often just a thing with only pedals.

- Greenery. You can imagine yourself not having not such a big carbon footprint as you might have, while doing this.

I also think that it may appeal to all those who favour pedalling but who are reluctant simply to be pedalled around by someone else, because that seems just too Third Worldish, and who are reluctant to pedal around London alone because it seems too scary.

Best of all, because (although you can’t see him in my picture) there is a person at the front steering, you get to do, sort of, drunk driving. Perhaps Londoners will rename this contraption the Pub Crawler, because it would be ideal for that.

Even bester, it would seem that you don’t have to wear a helmet, which will surely rile all the cyclists, either because the cyclists wish they didn’t have to wear helmets, or because they think everyone else doing anything at all similar to them (walking along the pavement for example) should also be compelled by law to wear helmets.

Bestest of all, the Pedibus annoys the hell out of pompous git licensed taxi drivers.

Next, Pedibus racing. I googled those two words to see if that was already happening. Apparently not, but I did learn that “pedibus” is the Latin for something or other to do with ancient Roman chariot racing. Although I couldn’t be bothered to work out what.

I love London.