Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No proper systems thinking in transport

This story 'Bristol rail link could be scrapped in favour of bendy buses' (Post, 13 Jan) and the ensuing online debate shows that we dont yet seem capable of building a properly integrated transport system which makes the best use of the most appropriate technologies. Rational assessment of transport needs? Comparing and contrasting rail vs bendy-bus [and other]technologies? I think not. Some faceless person, somewhere decided long ago to favour bendy buses in Bristol and the surrounding areas and proper assessment has gone out of the window.

There is fair bit of argy bargy (though not in the same sense as in a rugby union match!) between cycling and rail enthusiasts on the Post's website. There has also been argy bargy between the various councils in the West of England who have not been able to work together effectively to develop a proper integrated transport system run by an area transport authority as a proper public service. Where is the cooperation and joined up thinking ie systems thinking?? Where is the full and proper technology assessment?

I'm not a big fan of bendy buses/bus rapid transit (BRT) and its a shame that for the moment its the only game in town with serious money available. For me it is of very limited ambition. The sums involved are too small. The coordination is rubbish - and as for genuinely participative planning using social, economic and environmental information made available in a early, timely and effective way just forget it!!

I've been to many public meetings about BRT, especially about proposals in/near Knowle. I've put questions about the cost-benefit analysis they say they go through: what techniques are used for assessing non-market costs and benefits eg health, social changes? Why/how is a money value assigned? Is the net present value of each course/option assessed? What discount rate is used - and if the discount rate is fairly high does this mean a low value is assigned to the longer term? Does the 'currency' used in cost-benefit have to be money eg why not energy?? Often I'm fobbed off or only get a partial answer and I'm always given the impression that there are very large scale accuracy [more like inaccuracy!] issues which mean that you can choose to get the outcome politically chosen as opposed to objectively decided.


  1. Glenn, as you know I am one of the antagonists in the comments on that story, but the fact that I am also a 'cycling enthusiast' is entirely irrelevant. The position I take on the Portishead proposals is entirely personal and does not represent in any way the position of cycling interests.

  2. I agree. Some of us cycling activists think trains make sense here, not just because trains can go from phead to templemeads in a predictable time, but because most of the railway is there. We just need 3 miles of track to portishead and some stations there and by cumberland basin.

    I did a severn beach to templemeads to oxford train last month, it worked really well. Station to station to station via didcot.

  3. Steve, trains are great when the level of demand is sufficient to justify the cost of providing the service but there's no way that can be realised on the Portishead route or, for that matter, on the Severn Beach line.

    The effect of creating or maintaining non-viable railway is that a lot of public funds get sucked into a black hole and it's almost impossible to do anything sensible with the infrastructure once you've got rail tracks laid.

    It's impossible to have a rational debate about these things because railways have become some sort of sacred cow that cannot be touched, even when the railway in question is a basket case (e.g. Severn Beach).

  4. @Chris, even with your antipathy to anything that runs on rails, you can't seriously suggest there's insufficient demand for the Portishead link: people bought houses on the promise of its realisation, and the queues on the Portbury Hundreds morning and evening are a pretty strong indication of potential usage.

    Given your neo-liberal economic viewpoint, I'll allow you Severn Beach, though any wider perspective of social good or even economic advantage (as a feeder service to the wider rail network) would, from my PoV, justify its continuance.

  5. PeteJ, I have no "antipathy to anything that runs on rails" and I challenge you to find a shred of evidence to support your claim. Yet another example of the irrationality of the rail lobby I think.

    Of course there is demand for a Portishead rail line but there is also a supply issue - namely the cost of creating and then running such a railway. Basic economics tells us that the benefits should be greater than the costs to justify such a scheme. The capital costs we are told will be in the order of £40 million. The benefits are reflected by the fare revenues that can be expected but these do not even cover the operating costs! I recall that the consultants estimated that a £1 million p.a. operating loss would arise! There would be no return on the £40 million capital cost which would have to be written off entirely.

    What that means in simple economic terms is that the costs are vastly greater than the benefits and that the scheme is not viable. But of course the rail lobby cannot accept such simple logic and will try to obscure the facts with vague rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims like yours.

    By the way such economic considerations cannot be dismissed as "neo-liberal". It is just basic economics, that's all. Perhaps you wish to reject economics altogether and build the railway as an act of religious fealty like the building of cathedrals. Fair enough, but let the faithful raise the funds themselves.

  6. Hang on Chris, assessing costs and benefits is not as straightforward as you say. My original post talks about this issue. The cost-benefit approach, certainly as practised currently, is often more the illusion of quantitative and rational analysis than actual. There is great controversy about how to value (eg in money) the invaluable. Cost-benefit values the future less than the present.

  7. Glenn, the basic economics is not complicated. When the benefit-cost ratio is so massively negative (costs far exceeding benefits) there is little point in looking at the finer details.

    I know there is a fair amount of voodoo economics practiced by consultants to try and twist outcomes to please their paymasters but in this case we don't need to go there because the rough and ready result is so clearly against the rail link.

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