Why lefty types should support privatised roads

Here’s a thought that has always tickled the Head of State in the car-free People’s Republic. I was reminded of it this morning by an exchange of Twitter fire between James Graham and Guido Fawkes.

guidofawkes: 15 minute journey takes hour. Not like this in Wexford.

jamesgraham: A truly free market road system would charge a fortune at peak. Presume would agree and want to scrap Stalinist ‘planning’?

guidofawkes: Privatising the roads it isn’t that high on agenda. Like Mandlsons said this morning “it is an aspiration”.

This is standard stuff, if I may characterise: lefty on the side of state-run roads, libertarian on the side of privatised roads as a matter of low priority. I’d tend to the latter position for the predictable classical liberal reasons. But I think roads are actually a little different from the things lefties and libertarians usually argue about. Follow up the implications of privatisation and you may get some surprising results.

Roads started out in the modern period as a set of self-funding enterprises. I refer you to the website of some bloke who seems to know a lot about it:

This road system was not planning [sic] centrally but resulted from local enterprise, regulated through Acts of Parliament. Bodies of local trustees were given powers to levy tolls on the users of a specified stretch of road, generally around 20 miles in length. Using money secured against this toll income, a trust arranged to improve and maintain a particular stretch of turnpike road. Although the powers under an Act were limited to a period of 21 years, in practise, Acts for continuation of the trusts meant that they remained responsible for most English trunk roads until the 1870s.

I know one should question the internet and all that, but I think we’re on safe ground trusting in the knowledge of someone who owns the domain name “turnpikes.org.uk”.

Interestingly (to a given definition), I find that a smaller scale system along the same lines operated in the medieval era, when communities could be granted the right to collect a tax specially aimed at maintaining a road. And when medieval people said community (“commonalty”), they meant community, i.e. people who were important in the town and lived there, as opposed to the Community Regeneration and Urban Envisioning Agency.

But that’s another rant. The point is that roads started out as self-supporting private initiatives. It was not considered feasible or useful for government to maintain road networks. I presume that the reasons it became considered feasible and useful post-1870s are (a) that the combustion engine has been invented, so roads are actually useful, (b) the population has exploded and (c) it has become enriched, thereby generating enough tax revenue to fling at things like a road network. So far this is market evolution; the state took over a private area because it could afford to and it looked like a goer. The trouble is that that’s where the market stops because the state won’t naturally let go of anything, even if it is no longer economically viable.

So what would happen if we did wrest the road network from the state’s grasp and return to the Turnpike model? I suggest three consequences:

(a) many little-used rural road networks would quickly become unviably expensive.
(b) big arteries like motorways would be fine, and would be able to charge a premium for their speed and efficiency.
(c) most roads would fall between those two extremes – and we would see a tendency towards higher charges for the convenience of driving cars for the simple reason that roads have no natural competitors in their class.

The outcome of all this would be that more people would use the railways wherever possible. Fareboxes would get heavier, more money would be available for investment, and critically, new lines would be created (I’m assuming here that all other manner of liberal goods would be effected by this point, including reform to the planning laws).

Now, I could be making all kinds of errors of both assumption and fact here, but surely railways are going to turn out to be more efficient than road travel, aren’t they? Rail travel is efficient because everyone suffers a minor inconvenience (having to get to a station, having their travel times set in stone) which adds up to a substantial efficiency advantage, substantial enough to offset the cost of both rail network and rolling stock. The enormous, unwieldy road network stands no chance. Once the whole lot is privatised and railways start feeling the benefit of the customers who can’t afford the roads, it’s very, very hard to see how that balance can be tipped back the other way without some truly drastic price-cutting on the roads.

The innate efficiency of railways was brought home to me in conversation with my mother (like so many things) when we were inventing a new on-demand super-transport system to replace cars, which was based on the idea of roads being turned into conveyor belts you hopped on and off (I don’t know how many sherries we’d had at this point). We acknowledged that the belt system would have to be limited to certain routes and couldn’t be universal, and you’d have to walk to your nearest belt… then we realised old people and people with buggies wouldn’t be able to step on to a moving belt easily, so the belts would have to stop… but only that particular section of the belt… and there’d have to be pre-arranged stopping times… and then of course, we realised we’d invented railways. It really is one of those systems that, if you designed it from scratch, would look pretty much like it does now.

All this is exactly what a lefty should want. A communitarian effort to get people from A to B which by dint of its communal status is demonstrably more efficient than scattergun individualistic methods. Roads and the cars that run on them are entirely individualistic and allow total freedom of choice. That’s probably why many libertarians love them. Why the left wants to keep subsidising libertarians’ personal choices is anybody’s guess. I, on the other hand, don’t have a car, I hate cars, I pay to go on trains, that’s a choice. Unfortunately I don’t get a choice about the portion of my tax bill that goes towards supporting the road network.  Seems to me that a privatised road network used by people who are prepared to pay for the privilege and a massively well-subscribed public transport system is win all round.

44 Comments

  1. The problem with the railways – and, incidentally, why I’ve never been happy with rail privatisation, despite being a libertarian and inclined to privatise things – is that they are currently a fragmented monopoly. This is because owing to the laws of physics you can’t have two trains on the same bit of track at the same time. So if I want to travel from my house in twickenham to my office in town then I don’t have many choices open to me. I certainly can’t say – as I should so dearly love to – “you know what? South West Trains are a useless bunch of bastards who couldn’t run a whelk stall without delaying the whelks until they went off. Bugger them, I’m going with South East trains instead.” because no-one else operates that route.

    Now, as it happens, I’m partial to the odd vat of red of a friday evening, so it suits me rather well to have someone else as designated driver, and I’ve never really got to grips with the point of being awake much before nine so I like the fact that I get to have a snooze on the way in in the morning. But the point is that privatising the roads would lead to the same problem. Although you can have two roads leading from A to B (like the M6 and the M6 toll, for instance) there’s a limit to how much you can do this without having to knock down inconvenient houses along the way (the M6 toll was built through large swathes of the West Midlands, where no-one lives by choice and no-one would miss it). So you still end up with a monopoly situation whereby some people have to use some roads, however expensive or bad.

    There must be a way to privatise and ‘marketise’* land travel properly but I’m buggered if I can think of one.

    *I know, and I’m very sorry. Can’t think of another term though and can’t be arsed with a neologism.

  2. Aha! I recall saying *exactly* the same thing (probably even including the whelks and red wine) about rail privatisation on a thread full of the slightly frothier sort of libertarian over at Ms Gore’s some time ago, and feeling as welcome as a sudden turd under a cushion.

    As you say, neither road nor rail will ever be entirely satisfactory as competitive sectors, unless some really entertaining changes are made to planning law (and I would be vastly entertained by great belts of rail/roads growing up – better for the various natural environments if it’s all in one place too, I’d have thought).

    However, it occurred to me while writing that private competition with each other is probably as “next best thing” as we’re going to get. They’re not exact competitors, but they do at least offer contrasting advantages and disadvantages.

    Sadly, I think satisfactory commoditization (? or does that mean something slightly different to what you meant?) of travel will have to wait until teleportation is invented. Even then there may be all sorts of problems with competing molecular structures to which, we can only hope, the solution provider will not be South West Trains.

  3. “The point is that roads started out as self-supporting private initiatives.”

    Actually talk of trustees and community taxes makes the pre-modern approach sound rather like what we would now call ‘outsourcing’.

    Bear in mind that anything remotely like local government (or locally-acting national government) as we would now understand it did not exist in medieval times. Indeed even the county councils only came into existence in the 1880s in order to provide the administrative support necessary for universal basic education.

    So, if roads were to be provided at all, it could only be done by commissioning locals to do it. I don’t imagine that it was ever the intention to create private monopolies as we have done with railways.

    Sometimes there are network benefits that outweigh any advantage of competition; sometimes competition costs more than the savings it engenders. Both are typically true of railways and roads.

    1. “Bear in mind that anything remotely like local government (or locally-acting national government) as we would now understand it did not exist in medieval times.”

      There is little I haven’t forgotten about the operation of medieval localities, unfortunately. My point in mentioning the pavage was precisely that it was one of the substitutes for what are now the functions of local government. But – and it’s a big but – local government was effectively privatised in medieval times and into the early modern period. Our separation of the two is anachronistic.

      At first sight pavage may not appear an exact analogy to the turnpike system, which relied on voluntary private investment. However, in the medieval period most taxes, local and national, were levied on quite substantial landholders only (the hearth taxes are a late-running example of this), or at the very least left to individual communities (usally parishes) to levy amongst their own. That’s why the poll tax caused such a stir in the 1370s.

      In other words, we’re talking largely about prosperous people who could afford to invest in their own community, and who saw it as being in their personal, mercantile and civic interests to arrange doing so. They may have used a royal instrument to collect the money rather than raising investment, because usury was a sin that had to be kept notionally invisible. But essentially they are no different to the turnpike trustees. The point therefore stands that the pavage is one of those elements of early transport history that strongly suggests top-down directed state provision is not the only option.

      “I don’t imagine that it was ever the intention to create private monopolies as we have done with railways.”

      I don’t know enough about the eighteenth century to comment on various group’s intentions, but private monopolies was also how the railways started. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re suggesting that 18th/19th C monopolies were different to 21st C monopolies, and that therefore the analogy is invalid.

      I think the answer to that comes in two parts. A) Of course they’re different inasmuch as they emerge from the circumstances of different eras. We can’t possibly work out exactly how much of the difference should be put down to ideology – your “I don’t imagine” seems very subjective to me. (B) Even if we were to agree that the two types of monopoly are somehow “too different”, there’s still no stopping us creating a new model.

      Fundamentally, I don’t buy the network benefits point because a road network doesn’t directly and clearly benefit me, in the same way that universal (or “networked”, if you like) healthcare and (just about) education clearly do. The indirect benefit would, I guess, be food transportation. But transport costs are built into the food I buy anyway – if they go up because tolls are introduced, then my food is more expensive, but I have more take-home money in the first place to pay for it.

      I’m not sure what you’re basing the “competition costs more” statement on, but to my mind the problem is just the opposite. See exchange with Sockpuppet above – the real problem with privatisation of roads and railways in particular seems to be that it can’t ever be truly competitive.

      1. private monopolies was also how the railways started.

        Absolutely! And operated until WWII, apart from during the first War, when it was briefly under government control. And it worked very well as long as you were the rail companies. Partly, though, it worked because they carried around half the number of passengers – people didn’t move around as much, there wasn’t the same commuter culture, and railways were comparitively expensive. But they were definitely a business. In the edwardian period, the tube was run by six different operators* and it was a nightmare.

        The privatisation of the railways was partly down to ideology – it happened under Attlee – but also because the network was fucked. The massive demands of the war had effectively destroyed the railway companies’ ability to function as commerical enterprises.

        So yes, liberaleye, the intention – certainly that of Brunel, Stevenson, etc was to create private commercial enterprises. The fact that they were monopolies was – as referenced by both Alix and me above – down to the laws of physics rather than those of the marketplace.

        *the colours of the lines on the tube map are reputed to come from the liveries of the companies, in anyone’s interested.

      2. Let me try to explain my point again.

        I was querying whether it was appropriate to characterise early road provision as ‘private’. In one sense it was because, as you say, it was done by private individuals and groups. However, from your account these appear to have been acting as proto-councils.

        I would certainly like to get back to a situation where bottom up community initiatives were the norm but would that mean ‘private’ now that local government exists? I don’t think so.

        Since Reagan and Thatcher there has been a prominent strand of thinking that ‘government is the problem’ which has too often become cover for fleecing the state for private benefit. I believe we should instead say that ‘bad government is a problem’ – a very different formulation that calls for a very different response.

        Hence my remark about the railways which was only about the way they were incautiously privatised a few years ago as an example of how things can screw up when policy is driven by faulty ideology rather than pragmatism.

  4. Even then there may be all sorts of problems with competing molecular structures to which, we can only hope, the solution provider will not be South West Trains.

    “Due to planned engineering works, your pancreas is delayed by approximately, five, minutes…I am very sorry for the delay to this service.”

  5. Aye.

    I have cooked, but not yet eaten, my tea. I couldn’t decide whether to comment when too riddled with hunger to say anything worthwhile, or when too full to say anything worthwhile, so I went for the latter*🙂

    Now, I regard myself as left-wing. Yes, yes, I’m sure some outraged types would say I’m not a true leftist because I don’t support X, Y or Z, but it’s a term I use for myself. But it is worth noting that in a lot of cases the left are anti-state.

    I wasn’t exactly thrilled, for example, with so much of my money going to City bankers. We have already seen people going to the mutuals because they are seen, rightly, as safer than state-supported capitalist enterprises. Well, I’d rather this trend were continued, & the people create their own solution to casino banking, rather than Brown’s desperate attempts to restore the status quo ante, which will not succeed because they are incompatible with reality.

    You’ve got the farm subsidies system, which gets the real fuck-off sandblasting in “The Killing Of The Countryside”, a book that made a huge impact on me.

    There is also distinct scepticism about environmental policy, NOT the green aims but questioning, in fact, whether big government is environmentally friendly at all- firstly, obvious things like hawking the third runway but also many of the schemes promoted, most notably the subsidies of biofuels, leave us in a worse place than before.

    There’s your usual civil liberties etc. But I name two instances above in which the left opposes statism & there may be one hell of a lot more. Now, on roads, I lean towards scepticism because I agree on these piddling out of the way roads being unviable in a market but I think they should be supported as a way of connecting backwaters. I am urban myself, & can’t drive, & if I could I still wouldn’t afford or want a car.

    But I recall that as a child I was often taken to obscure places- the last thing I’d want would be for the countryside to be depopulated & de facto closed off, while urbanites go to maybe 3 or 4 touristy country places that become unbearable because every last visitor goes there.

    So, as with post offices, I’d really want some kind of guarantee that it’s viable to keep yokels going rather than let their infrastructure disappear. (Some might say this is incompatible with my opposition to farm subsidies, but I think not- it isn’t basically ideology that moves me but practice).

    You could potentially win me over to whatever as I am not as wedded to statist models as I know some people are. But I’d want to be sure (in the way that rural bus routes are often subsidised). Thinking about the intricate details of this shite in relation to my priorities is one of the reasons why I am not a hardcore libertarian.

    I do think you’re right that under your system, that obscure railway lines would appear, or them as were closed under the Beeching Axe would make a comeback. Well, they probably still wouldn’t penetrate anything like as far as roads but worth thinking about.

    *Beats being drunk, eh? I hope that’s been quietly forgotten!

  6. Round my way the road network around the A4 was developed through turnpike funding, but it was nationalised because stopping at every parish boundary made the stagecoach postal system inefficient compared to the canals – which were in use for a whole couple of decades before the train lines reached these parts and superceded the both of them.

    When the trains did come the roads fell into decline as the heavy taxes which were levied to keep them in repair were one of the reasons behind rural depopulation, which in turn lead to some rich empire builders buying the land and enclosing them on their new estates.

    Oh, did I mention canals? that sound more like the conveyor belt idea than trains.

    Ideologically-speaking I’d argue that lideral democrats should be for a diverse range of competitive transport modes with fully developed infrastructure.

    Air transport is considered a bad thing because it is associated with huge scale development and planes which carry hundreds of people at a time. But the inefficiencies of scale quickly becomes apparent when we consider per passenger pollution levels.

    So what about a commercially developed light aircraft transportation system?

    Where geography gives light aircraft an advantage (eg island-hopping in the Hebrides and Northern isles – shortest scheduled flight £20return for 96 seconds each way!!!) it can be viable.

    At a mile and a half door-to-door my local airfield is within walking distance, but it remains out of my reach due to its’ inability to compete on destinations. Comparatively little land is required and the speeds are double or treble most trains – without connection requirements.

    However, I’m also for helium cargo zeppelins and vegetable-fuelled jet-packs (that way the Christmas spouts may actually have some productive use), so maybe you can safely write me off as overly imaginative…

    1. I *love* this idea. £20 return sounds surprisingly reasonable to me given the (I assume) fair distance covered in that 96 seconds. I guess the light air network in the isles is heavily subsidised though.

      Okay, so let me deal with the rural thing, as I skated over it in the post and you & Asquith have rightly highlighted it. I think two things,

      1) this is the reason why I, I guess like you two, am more of a classical liberal than a libertarian, i.e. recognising that the libertarian’s “ideal world” doesn’t exist and that the limitations that prevent its existence can be addressed by collective action. So I’m not opposed to rural transport subsidies. However:

      2) I’m also a great optimist about human nature along Terry Pratchett lines, in that I believe if something can be commoditized, some bugger will find a way of doing it (which, interestingly, is always a Good Thing in his books. I do love Ankh-Morpork)

      So, say in the remote village of Dunny-on-the-Wold and surrounding areas, there are perhaps 100 customers for some form of centralised transport link, varying throughout the time of day/week from 100 down to 1. That’s a market waiting to be tapped. It’s not much, but someone, somewhere, will find a way to serve that community and take those fares, if they’re given free reign to do so and if they investigate options and technologies.

      It won’t be Richard Branson, and it’s not the North West mainline, but then not everybody wants or is equipped to run the North-West mainline. Some people might want to run a small local business first before launching their plan for national domination of the train operator market. Some people genuinely want to be in business to make a nice living and do something they enjoy, which we possibly tend to forget when talking about those big scary “market” things.

      Actually, of course, this magic service already exists in rural areas, and it’s called “taxis”, which tend in my experience to be very reasonable precisely because they are de facto public transport. If roads were privatised, I suspect existing taxi firms in rural areas would be pretty instrumental in coming up with solutions.

  7. Yes, perhaps taxi firms & civic-minded locals could sponsor some kind of road-maintaining operation.

    Worthy speculation. But if full privatisation is not politically or otherwise possible, how would any kind of half-way house be found? A bit like these schemes for the government funding pupils at school but having less to do with management than it does as of now this minute.

  8. If I remember there were something like 600 airfields built just for the Battle of Britain, and I don’t believe all of them were turned into Silverstones.

    Lembit would probably be up for commercialising light air… he’s got his pilot’s license, right?

    I dunno about taxis, they’re very heavily politicised in this neck of the woods (and they cost almost as much as those planes).

    Going by the number of horses between Ascot and Lambourn there might be a more fun alternative in riding.

    You’d probably need another method of compelling the contributions, so maybe it’d be possible to outsource tax collection to service stations – which would mean you could hypothecate by usage but you couldn’t devolve control locally.

    We’re currently discussing road/congestion charging around Reading as a means of funding a third bridge over the Thames (a £300m bid is to be lodged), but the routes under consideration are the main arteries into the town centre.

    While I think about it there are several residential roads nearby which have never been covered by council ordinance because they are on aforementioned estate lands which have been turned over to housing. I believe they pay additional maintenance charges in the same way apartment blocks do.

    So, it seems there’s already a confusing array of methods in place… problem is ensuring the burden is fairly distributed. Hmm…

    Because people don’t live on them I think I’m heading towards putting tolls on motorways. That way it wouldn’t be seen as a doorstep tax and you could choose to avoid them. It’d also make national roads comparable with national rail and air transport.

    Free trams now!

    1. Definitely! What wretch has imprisoned them? Let me at ’em!

      *hic*

      Sorry. Third glass.

      I imagine taxis round Reading would be pretty pricey, much as they are round suburban Manchester. But I’ve made very reasonable journeys in rural Devon and Kent in taxis and paid about the same as a bus fare would be across the same distance (£2-5). That was before oil got all precious, mind.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the post actually was the effect of the internet. My normal criteria for going to the shops and buying something these days is “will it cost me the same to buy it online?” and since Manchester public transport is both shit *and* expensive, I often end up buying online, because I’d rather pay £4 to have someone bring something to me than £4 to go and get it myself.

      Even with the costs involved scale up by a quid, I think the same basic calculation would apply in rural areas in the event of privatised roads. It might not be viable for everyone in Dunny-on-the-Wold to pay the toll to drive to Sainsburys. But it would be viable for everyone to do a weekly online shop, because Sainsburys can cope with that economy of scale.

      Likewise commuting, in any sensible world, would be a vanishing activity for most of the managerial classes, and rural living would thus be viable for lots of people. I’ve never liked, being a Greater Londoner by origin, this assumption that we should all have to travel ghastly distances and times to work, and that this should be built into our economics. It seems to me to be an unintended consequence of “opening up” Britain, so perhaps I don’t have quite the same rosy view of it that Asquith invokes with references to visiting the countryside.

      I’ve just noticed that this wine I’m drinking (ordered online) is called, no joke, “Baldrick Shiraz”.

  9. I presume that the reasons it became considered feasible and useful post-1870s are

    I’m inclined to add (d) the cost and inconvenience of collecting all those tolls.

    And I am not so sure about (a) many little-used rural road networks would quickly become unviably expensive.

    The maintenance costs of a little used road should be low, so it should not need to collect much revenue.

    1. Good point, I’d not considered this. And of course many rural roads at present don’t have the ongoing cost of lighting, for the precise reason that it would be too expensive per head. And the current provision for salting in winter, which tends to be more necessary on rural roads, certainly doesn’t stretch to sending a salting machine to every front gate. The council salting machines go along much-used arterials and (if you’re lucky) the routes of bus services only. They do exactly what a private business would do.

      All in all, then, perhaps it wouldn’t be so different to how it is now.

  10. Er, OK if you privatise the road I live on that means basically I can be charged all my disposable income to go anywhere, whether I walk, drive or whatever. Right? Supermarket vans would also be subject to swingeing tolls, which they would pass on to me personally. Am I missing something here?

    Even if the road is sold to us folks who live on it, I dread the meetings of the road committee, some wanting to price other cars off so they can park themselves, some wanting to ban supermarket vans or other delivery vehicles because they block up the cul de sac and they can’t get out, some not wanting kids playing or dogs walking, etc, etc.

    1. “I can be charged all my disposable income to go anywhere”

      Where d’you get that from?! For a start, this “all your disposable income” idea is clearly introduced for effect since we’ve no way of guessing how toll costs would shake down at micro level. Secondly, cul de sacs are clearly not arterial so what corporately suicidal body would try to levy tolls on them? Someone could corporately take ownership of the air I breathe and try and charge me a toll for it, but it wouldn’t mean they’d get anywhere.

      Thirdly, as it happens my parents until recently lived in a privately owned cul de sac for some 22 years. It was not a public highway, and was communally owned by the residents as an association with legal status, like most of the other cul de sacs in that area. Everyone divied up to mend the potholes and coppice the trees and even put up new street lamps once, and any problems re dogs or kids got resolved with talking as problems will, everyone got along well for the entire time my parents lived there and it all seemed to work just fine. Surely trusting people to act in their own best interests and the associated interests of their immediate neighbours isn’t beyond a liberal?

      Re: tolls for walking, this seems a strange tangent. Apologies if I’ve been unclear but surely the whole conversation has been framed about car usage and roads, not the pavement component? I’m quite happy to separate them out of the “public highway” equation, as privatisation of pavements really would be akin to privatising air.

      “Supermarket vans would also be subject to swingeing tolls, which they would pass on to me personally.”

      No, they would pass them on to you and everyone else in an even split, just like they do now with the swingeing fuel bill required to deliver your shopping. It doesn’t really cost exactly the £5 delivery charge (or whatever) to have your shopping delivered, does it? For some people it costs more, and others less, but when we order we accept that the supermarket conducts a levelling process and some of us are subsidising others. We accept it because the net saving in time and hassle to us is still greater.

      So with road tolls added into the mix, the cost of having your shopping delivered would be higher. Since your annual tax bill would be minus the cost of maintaining the road network, you’d be happy to pay the cost Tescos passed on to you – i.e. pay just for maintaining the bit of the road that you cared about, the bit along which you had chosen to have your shopping delivered.

      1. Sure, if the toll were £1, the supermarket would swallow it. If it were £50, they would pass it on to me personally, or just refuse to serve me.

        And what is to stop a private company charging a £50 toll on the road where I live? Nothing. Sure, if they don’t own the pavement too they’ll want to pitch it a bit lower. Even so there is no reason to limit tolls to represent costs and reasonable profits, if more revenue is to be gained by setting them higher. Every residential road is a monopoly, and privatising them would be barking.

        Communal ownership of the road by residents is not so bad. We could elect a committee to look after it and pay a levy of some sort. Call them ‘the council’ and ‘council tax’ perhaps.

        Privatisation of trunk roads is also a recipe for huge unearned profits at the expense of everyone else. Where tolls per mile are nearly equal you might take the shortest route. So everyone’s preferred route is one they will still take if the tolls on it are a little higher than those on rival routes. So every route can afford to put its tolls up a little bit without losing trade to competitors. This would lead to an upward spiral – it is a kind of a self-organising cartel.

        1. Ok, I think you have a certain type of residential road in your head, i.e. one that isn’t used by people to get to other places, and you are right about those (though see next para). But I suggest a more useful division would be between arterial roads and non-arteries, or, since they’ve already been named so neatly for us, the M/A/B roads and everything else. (I still think non-cul de sac unnamed roads would have to fit into the overall scheme somewhere in order to prevent rat runs, however.)

          Many B and even A roads are residential in the sense that they run through residential areas and have houses on them, but they’re still not a monopoly from a private owner’s point of view because there are generally alternative routes. They’re a monopoly for the people who live on them, sure, but a sane corporation (and by sane I mean one that wants to extract maximum profit) will want to attract customers, not put them off, and torturing its reputation slowly to death by holding its residents hostage is clearly not the way to go. Train companies have effective monopolies over dozens of stations in the south-east region, whose customers have literally no choice about commuting to London by train, and they don’t do this.

          On the communal ownership thing, I’m just not sure why you don’t see the value in it. Of course, if you *wanted* to (either literally or figuratively) sell it to the council then that’d be up to you, but allowing people the choice to communally own their road and make their own decisions is surely the liberal thing to do.

          Your entire last para describes exactly what *should* happen now with south-eastern rail operators and with the supermarkets. But it isn’t. Each of them can afford to put their prices up a little without losing out. But periodically they are advised by their marketing people that there is more to be gained from very publicly lowering their prices, so that’s what they do. The upwards cartel was exactly what people feared would happen when supermarkets boiled down to the big four. Actually, something quite different is happening. What makes you think the roads would be different?

        2. Each of them can afford to put their prices up a little without losing out. But periodically they are advised by their marketing people that there is more to be gained from very publicly lowering their prices, so that’s what they do

          umm…actually their prices on regulated tickets are pegged to inflation +1%, and they put the unregulated ones as high as they can commercially.

          And having lobbied their arses off to get the regulated ones capped in line with inflation, they had a collective hissy fit this year because inflation was -1.4% which meant they had to drop prices. FGW tried to shove prices up 20% on some routes.

          Train companies really are a special shower.

  11. I think this is spot on. I’d also say that roads hide the marginal negative externalities like pollution and noise, to the detriment of other better modes of transport (walk, dammit!)

    So yeah, fully agree. Privatise them!

    1. Pavements are the same – particularly due to a) dogs and b) students walking home at night.

      I’m not clear what the in principle difference between roads and pavements is supposed to be here.


  12. All this is exactly what a lefty should want. A communitarian effort to get people from A to B which by dint of its communal status is demonstrably more efficient than scattergun individualistic methods.

    No. A “lefty” in the true sense of the word is someone who opposes concentration of power and wealth and influence in a small number of hands. As opposed to a “righty” who supports such things on the grounds that it’s efficient and we all do better in the long run from that concentration.

    Your attempt to redefine “left” as meaning wishing to have communal enterprises is all part of this Orwellian desire to change language so that true leftist thinking can’t be done because the language to do it has been taken away.

  13. Your attempt to redefine “left” as meaning wishing to have communal enterprises is all part of this Orwellian desire to change language so that true leftist thinking can’t be done because the language to do it has been taken away.

    Bloody hellfire. And there I was thinking, because Mad Mel Phillips and Peter “I did go to an Oxford College just like Christopher!” Hitchens told me, that it was the left who were imposing politically correct language on us so that we couldn’t discuss issues like immigration and proper morality.

  14. Oh I’ve run out of reply whatsits.

    Anyway, replying undaunted.

    The idea that monopolies would not exploit people out of a concern for their reputation, is the usual feeble excuse given by libertarians wanting to abolish anti-trust laws. Quaint. But a reputation is an asset like any other. It will be cashed in whenever the profits are big enough. And if your monopoly supplier has a bad reputation who else can you turn to? Nobody! It’s a monopoly!!

    The road market is not like the supermarkets in that supermarkets can’t put their prices up a little without losing out in the same way. For a supermarket the best price is slightly below equivalent competitors. For roads it is slightly above – because one route is intrinsically best anyway, whereas one supermarket is not.

    1. But road vs rail isn’t a straight monopoly, it’s a fragmented one. As we were hinting earlier, if SW Trains put their prices up 200% as well as slowing the trains to walking pace, stripping out the seats, giving free tickets to violent nutters and piping the smell of fresh dog vomit through all the carriages I could drive myself to work.* It’s not comparing like for like, I agree (and that is the problem). That is where the market keeps the trains operators sort of honest. That and the cost of pedigree chum.

      one route is intrinsically best anyway, whereas one supermarket is not.

      Waitrose😉

      *or get a bus, which offers all these attractions at a much more affordable price.

  15. then we realised old people and people with buggies wouldn’t be able to step on to a moving belt easily, so the belts would have to stop… but only that particular section of the belt

    In H.G. Wells’ novel The Sleeper Awakes this problem was solved by having the edges of the belt move at slower speeds than the centre of the belt. So people could step on at the edges with minimal difficulty and make their way to the high-speed centre of the belt for long-distance journeys.

    But yes, given the continuing impracticality of such a system if you design for function you end up with something essentially identical to railways.

  16. In medio vino, media veritas.

    As the comments imply, most roads have strong local monopolies. To stop private owners gouging, their charges have to be regulated (see the Turnpike Acts and Bridge Acts). That makes privatisation unattractive (unless it offers you private attractions: a friend of mine once bought a toll bridge because the Act made the penny per pedestrian, sixpence per car, or whatever, totally tax-free).

    Let’s have private trustees for those main roads which have real competition on their route; but otherwise go with public ownership(local where possible). Then tax road usage by the mile (and ton mile). That even pays for the network benefits of little used roads (being able to travel on those roads if you want to, if other routes are temporarily obstructed, etc., adds value to the whole network).

    Rail travel will pick up nicely, as noted. Road congestion will fall. Canal traffic (if they can take containers) might pick up too. Canal travel is slow, but low cost and reliable; capable of being scheduled to be ‘just in time’.

    By the by since H.G.Wells wrote, beltways have been designed which would be safe for getting on and off. But even in the People’s Republic there are not many routes for very wide travel facilities which are slow (wind), need to be fully enclosed (weather) and need massive traffic volumes to pay . (The Washington Beltway is a fish from another sea: it seems to be one of the great geographical barriers to comprehension, like the frontier between Israel and the Palestiian Authority. If you are on one side of it, it becomes very difficult to understand what is happening on the other side.)

    I am a lefty in Britain or Japan, a rightist in France or Spain. These categories are dangerous to ignore; as rules of the road. As politics, are they more than a historical metaphor?

  17. Another local example is the Whitchurch toll bridge, which the Labour MP is currently campaigning to do away with (the tolls, not the bridge).

    It is the only crossing between Goring and Caversham (a 12 mile stretch). The people I know on the Oxfordshire side of the river don’t think it’s a problem as they like having a barrier to keep out ruffians from spoiling their bucolic idyll, but to most intents and purposes Whitchurch is just an offshoot of Pangbourne (itself a satellite of Reading). However there is a noticable shift in the pace of life between the two (from snoozy to comatose) which is the attraction for many residents.

    So the toll bridge may be an anachronism, but is symbolic of the political identity which is being fought over.

    I’m sceptical of the one-size-fits-all solution and I think there is a certain charm in occasional peculiar exceptions – a picnic under a willow tree by the river wouldn’t be the same if it was overlooked by a six-lane superhighway with 10,000 vehicles an hour travelling at the maximum speed limit.

    So there has to be balance to the economic argument in that they afford a purpose – money is not the end in itself.

    BTW the secretary of the Bank of England wrote Wind in the Willows in the lee of the Whitchurch toll bridge, so you might say it is a reflection on the two sides.

    I quite like the idea of usig the different designations M, A, B & unlisted as a strarting point for considering a national road toll scheme. However, as I live virtually on the A4 I can see the obvious drawback to drawing the thin red line there.

    What’s wrong with the French network of toll roads as a guide? Why would private companies necessarily be better operators?

  18. Stepping back, didn’t network rail fall into trouble at least partly because govt plans to separate ownership, operation and maintenance companies caused endless confusion (leading to major accidents) and undermined the confidence of investors that they’s get adequate compensation as a return to make it viable?

    This makes me think it’s necessary to overlay local, regional and national networks together in a coordinated fashion, where each functions primarily under different regulations at their own levels.

    So as per France you might have M & N routes on a national toll scale, with regional/sub-national A & B routes and local unlisted roads priced differentially (preferably local roads at zero).

  19. Of course, for rail and road to compete fairly you would have to change the regulatory structure :-

    Fencing along a railway – paid for by railway
    Fencing along a road – adjacent landowner

    When a road crosses a railway – lights, gates, cameras etc etc – all paid by rail
    When a road meets another road – a few white lines, maybe some lights

  20. Just coming back on Sockpuppet’s comments on rail privatisation: the competition is in the franchise market rather than the use of the railways. The providers compete to offer the best deal to win the franchise from the Govt. (This incidentally is why I think railway privatisation doesn’t work – the competition is very imperfect . . . ).

  21. the competition is in the franchise market rather than the use of the railways.

    fair point. And I appreciate that you’re not necessarily saying that it’s a good way to go about things.

    The problems are (but not limited to):

    1 – it’s not like a commercial tender. The operators pay premiums to the govt to have the franchise. Now, in business, there are some pretty unsavoury names for the practice of paying someone a premium in order to win a contract.

    2 – in order to be able to pay the premiums, the operators have to raise fares. If anyone can tell me how that’s not basically a stealth tax I’d be very interested.

    3 – I have yet to be convinced about the process of removing the franchises for unsatisfactory performance. I’m not saying that it’s like manifesto promises – which we all know are pure, distilled, cordon bleu horseshit 90% of the time – but I do know that some train companies responded to new targets for, say, trains arriving on time by simply padding the timetables, following the ancient axiom of If at first you don’t succeed, redefine ‘success’.

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