Archive for September 2016
Politics journalist Michael Crick never ceases to be amazed by Liverpool’s poor rail connectivity.
Regional connectivity is poor, because politicians prefer vanity megaprojects, like HS2 and ‘HS3’, to everyday transport.
In the 1970s, there was a plan for a big upgrade of Merseyside passenger rail, but most of it was never implemented.
It is more than just a Liverpool problem. In Manchester, the city council wants to lock in the shortcomings of the local rail system, by disposing of the Mayfield station site.
Consideration of the Do-minimum case in transport investment appraisal has tended to get sidelined, wrote David Metz.
[‘Do Minimum’ can be the best policy, David Metz, June 2016]
* There is a ‘bias to action’ that motivates contractors and consultants to favour construction, since that is how they earn revenues. Likewise, many politicians favour investment that gains them credit. The bias to action is compounded by the well-known phenomenon of ‘optimism bias’, which involves underestimating construction costs and overestimating usage.
* Spending other people’s money allows these biases to flourish. Spending your own, or your shareholders’, enforces a more rigorous analysis. A mistaken investment in the private sector can be damaging to the business and to the reputations of those responsible, but in the public sector, the ship of state sails onwards, with blame for disappointing investments being diffuse.
* We neglect the ‘opportunity costs’ of investments: the benefits forgone from better use of the resources.
There are of course uncertainties associated with the Do-minimum case, but these are not different in kind or scale with those associated with the Do-something case. It may take more imagination to consider how users of transport systems – individuals and businesses – respond to capacity constraints.
The National Infrastructure Commission, and HS2, can be seen as instances of the bias-to-action and golden hammer phenomena.
[Adage from Wikipedia]
‘If you take your poorly running car to the mechanic who specializes in transmissions, you are more likely to have a new transmission put in than to have the actual problem fixed.’
Whilst public finance transparency is better in Britain than many other countries, poor quality, inaccessible and redacted data is preventing effective scrutiny of government spending, Transparency International UK reported.
[‘Counting the pennies’ [extract], Transparency International UK, September 2016]
Successive governments have made open data a priority and more recently this has included an emphasis on public finance disclosures. Since 2010, public bodies in both central and local government have been encouraged to publish the details of certain financial information on a regular basis. From 2015, this has been a mandatory requirement. As a result of this initiative, there are now millions of records of tenders, contracts and transactions spanning the last five years that had hitherto been undisclosed to the outside world. Across central and local government, this covers over £2.312 trillion worth of transactions, and for local government in England alone, there are almost 63 million individual lines of data on items of spending.
According to the latest Open Data Index, this initiative helps put the UK in the top tier for publishing tender and transaction level data about public finances. These efforts to increase transparency about public finances can only be welcomed. Public procurement is internationally recognised as a corruption risk and is included under Article 9 of the UN Convention Against Corruption. Providing greater scrutiny over this process can help detect and deter attempts to abuse entrusted power for private gain in the UK. There are also several other benefits of public finance transparency beyond fighting corruption. These include helping the public sector as a whole understand who it does business with and increasing value for money in procurement, providing the private sector with more insights into potential business opportunities, and giving greater information to citizens about how public bodies spend taxpayers’ money. This may lead many to conclude that the UK’s job is done and that it should hold itself up as a model for other countries to follow.
However, our research has found there are still a number of issues with how the government’s framework for public finance transparency is implemented in practice. If unchecked, these could fundamentally undermine the utility of this initiative. For both the layperson and expert the data are relatively inaccessible, with there being no single location where it can be accessed. The data often contains inaccuracies, anomalies and omissions. A lack of standardisation in how the data are published also means that in-depth analysis is inhibited, and the level of detail and contextual information provided undermines the meaningfulness of this resource. And not every citizen has the time or skills necessary to analyse and interpret the data as it is being published in its current form.
The UK Government has announced a number of important commitments that could help the UK make progress on improving the quality of public finance data. This includes rolling-out open contracting – the new gold standard for procurement transparency – across central government and engaging data users in how to improve the management, use and availability of public data. These pledges are timely, but also show an implicit acknowledgement that there is still work to be done before the UK can truly say its finances are the most transparent in the world.
In 2010, the coalition government proclaimed a ‘New era of transparency’ would bring about ‘a revolution in town hall openness and accountability’.
[‘New era of transparency will bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability’, gov.uk, 4 June 2010]
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Local Government Association Chair Baroness Eaton joined forces today to urge all councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online as part of wider action to bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability.
As a result, local authorities began to publish lists of spending of £500 or more, with payees. However, in themselves, these are of extremely limited value. For example, if Local Authority A lists a payment to Contractor X of £100,000, one might well wonder, what was the £100,000 for? And how did Contractor X get the business? Was there a bidding process?
In practice, “publishing details of all spending over £500 in full” has meant publishing next to no details.
Other transparency problems have arisen from the transfer of public funds to ‘Local Enterprise Partnerships’ to spend, supposedly on behalf of the public. LEPs tend to function as private fiefdoms, controlled by big business, and untroubled by the Freedom of Information Act.
According to an Albion Economics (Leo Eyles) report for the ‘High Speed Rail Industry Leaders Group’, HS2 would require “up to” 27,000 staff in the period up to 2020, in general construction and specialist rail trades.
However, it has been widely reported that there are severe labour shortages, in both UK general construction and rail civil engineering.
In December 2014, the BBC reported fears that “the UK’s chronic skills shortage” was hampering productivity and holding back the economic recovery”.
The shortage was particularly acute in (general) construction.
[Skills shortages holding back the UK’s economic recovery,, BBC, 1 Dec 2014]
[…] The shortage is particularly acute in construction, encompassing as it does a wide range of disciplines from structural engineering to architecture, bricklaying to surveying.
[…] House building targets are unlikely to be met as a result.
“About 400,000 people left the industry since 2008,” says Richard Steer, chairman of Gleeds, a leading construction management company responsible for a wide range of projects, from nuclear power stations to luxury apartments.
Skills shortages in key areas pose “serious risks to Network Rail delivering its plans”, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts noted in November 2015.
[Network Rail’s 2014–2019 investment programme, PAC]
[…] The scale and volume of [Network Rail] work planned requires a strong supply chain with enough capacity and skills, particularly in electrification where there is a shortage of skilled workers.
If Mr Eyles’ figures are accurate, pulling back on HS2 could increase the supply of labour for housing and Network Rail upgrades, by up to 27,000 in the period to 2020.
At St Pancras, Arup’s botched redevelopment of the Barlow trainshed created a ‘lasting legacy’ of Midland Main Line incapacity. At Snow Hill, Birmingham city council’s approval of the Ballymore office blocks, on the eastern side of the station footprint, created a lasting legacy of disconnectivity. Now, Manchester city council intends to follow suit with its own incapacity legacy, by putting the ‘key’ Mayfield station site beyond transport use.
[The £850m redevelopment of Mayfield Depot ‘will create thousands’ of new jobs, Andrew Bardsley, Manchester Evening News, 21 Sep 2016]
A huge £850m project to redevelop the Mayfield Depot will ‘breathe new life’ into the area and create 7,500 jobs, according to developers.
London based U+I were speaking out after being confirmed as the developers behind the scheme following a tendering process.
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester council, said: “We are pleased to have appointed U+I as our development partner for Mayfield.
“It was a challenging decision given the exceptionally high calibre of candidates; however, we were particularly impressed by U+I’s innovative approach.
“The regeneration of this key gateway site, along with the proposed Network Rail Northern Hub scheme and HS2 station will ensure a lasting legacy for Manchester and over time contribute towards fulfilling the Northern Powerhouse growth agenda.
According to Network Rail, the 3-trains-per-hour Virgin timetable to Manchester and Birmingham reduces capacity on the West Coast Main Line.
Why have Virgin not requested the Office and Rail and Road to look at recasting the timetable, to allow 4 trains each hour to Manchester and Birmingham?
According to Network Rail, the 3 trains per hour timetable ‘maximises revenue’. In other words, it is not in the interests of Virgin Trains to run 4 trains, because net income would fall.
A driver running a train at more than 300 km/h “needs more than a bit of protection”, according to National Geographic’s “Megafactories: High Speed Rail” episode about Alstom’s AGV (16m 35s onwards).
[Narrator:] …So designers developed a safety technology in one of the most crucial areas [-] the nose. The megamodule is basically a supercharged crumple zone.
What would be the protection afforded by the ‘nose crumple zone’ in the event of an ‘impact at 300 km/h’? It would depend on what was being struck, but it is highly probable that in a collision with a heavy object – such as a concrete beam, or another train – the benefit would be small to negligible.
At 300 km/h current high speed train designs, such as the AGV, offer limited protection to crew and passengers. Intermediate carriages tend not to have much, or any, ‘sacrificial’ crumple zone, which ought to be a matter for concern. The even-higher-speeds proposed for HS2 mean that the kinetic energy involved in an accident would be enormous.
The delusional design specification of HS2 would mean higher risks of an accident, and higher risk of fatalities and serious injuries. Yet HS2 Ltd visualisations of train interiors have shown passenger lounge space located right behind the driver’s cab.