Trains as a symptom


Photo: Stefan Nilsson

One can debate the philosophies of Ayn Rand and the unconditional praise of absolute liberalism and laissez-faire economy, but she did get one thing right; Trains really are a good indicator of the systemic health of a society.

When the trains are reliable and run on time, free trade flows and people can feel confident getting where they need to be. A sense of certainty and predictability braces society against whatever other turmoil there might be.

When the trains become unreliable and the focus shifts from proper maintenance and fixing the underlying problems to instead covering up the unflattering statistics, society is in trouble.

The latter is exactly what is happening in Sweden, and it’s getting worse by the year.

Back in the stone age, the trains, tracks and all infrastructure was owned by the government. This set the stage for the kind of flexibility, pricing and customer service you’d expect from a government monopoly staffed by entitled lifetime employees. But at least there was regular maintenance.

Nowadays, there are many different operators running all sorts of trains back and forth. In theory, they all chip in for maintenance, which is handled by the government agency Trafikverket. They in turn contract out the service to companies that in turn usually subcontract it out to whoever bids the lowest. This shouldn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work as planned, but of course that is exactly how it is.

Train researcher Rebecca Forsberg says Trafikverket basically lost all control. Necessary maintenance is neglected in favor of “fire fighting”, with several recent derailings as a result. She has interviewed numerous train drivers who says they report in urgent repair needs and hazards as they are spotted, yet the problems go unaddressed until there is an incident.

Ulf Adelsohn, former head of the government train behemoth SJ, puts the blame squarely on dumb politicians.

“The railway system has been a playhouse for ignorant politicians for 25 years […] when maintenance is neglected, the passengers are the ones paying for it both in the form of tax hikes and delays.”

Ain’t that the truth. I have personally experienced the extremely unreliable trains of Sweden, and there seems to be a 50/50 chance of you actually ending up at your destination on time. Therefore, now I drive even though it would technically be cheaper, quicker and more environmentally sound to take the train. But if I miss a doctor’s appointment or business meeting due to delayed or cancelled trains, the extra cost and inconvienience wipe out the benefit of ten successful train rides.

The matter of cancellations also bring about another side effect: The trains that DO run get dangerously overpacked when the passengers of the cancelled train has to squeeze into the next one. Just the other day there was another case of a woman succumbing to the heat and pressure inside the sardine cans masquerading as train cars and had to be brought to the hospital by ambulance.

“This is chaos, and it was just the same yesterday,” said one of the passengers. “It’s almost scary!”

The most heavily trafficked routes appears to be hardest hit. In 2010, almost exactly half – 48% – of the passenger trains between Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden’s two largest cities, were delayed.

Besides aggravation for passengers, businesses relying on goods being transported by rail are losing billions every year when deadlines are missed and factories shut down due to missing components.

And yet, Trafikverket is thumping its chest over having the most reliable trains in Europe and sky-high customer satisfaction. The annual on-time percentage is claimed to be in the high 90s.

These are obviously cooked numbers. Indeed, once you open the lid you quickly see that, for example, all cancellations just disappear rather than get make it into the statistics. So when the 7:20 train is cancelled at 7:18, the passengers can take comfort in that they’re not delayed as they wait for the 7:45 train instead.

They also recently changed the measurement for “delay” from 5 minutes to 15 minutes. So a commuter that arrives 14 minutes late to the office or a connecting train isn’t late at all, according to the statistics.

And the future isn’t looking any brighter. Budgeting is in shambles with huge shortfalls in the years ahead. And this is despite “creative” assumptions, such as the rail switches having an expected life span of 550 years.

Amazingly, none of this is anyone’s fault. Just like the bickering bureaucrats in Atlas Shrugged, butt-covering is elevated to an art form. It’s always the predecessor’s fault, or the subcontractor, or the politician, or the local ordinances, or… But whatever the cause is, the railways continue to crumble unattended. Time will tell when we’ll see the first major disaster with heavy loss of life or a serious environmental impact.

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6 thoughts on “Trains as a symptom

  1. As an American, I was always impressed that Swedish trains were coordinated to the local buses, and would wait for them if they were late. On no rail system I’ve ridden in the States is there any coordination between commuter trains and local buses. The train leaves when it leave, and if your bus is late, too bad for you.

    The trick of “disappearing” delayed trains has been a favorite of the San Francisco Bay Area BART system for decades, and is used in other countries too.

    I refuse to go to Sweden again for any reason, because I know I would be shocked and horrified by what I find there now.

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  2. I concur your points. But have you been to Norway? Norway sucks even more than Sweden, in my opinion, when you compare infrastructure.

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  3. Building new trains is a bonanza of land purchases (from insider politicians) and crony contracts, the skim. Maintenance is not nearly as fruitful for graft, and one can’t put a congratulatory plaque on maintenance.

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  4. Same thing happened in Britain when the state-owned British Rail was privatised piecemeal. The structural assets were handed over to a company called Railtrack (or Failtrack as we called it), and shares were offered to the general public. Failtrack saw itself as a financial institution rather than one that ran the tracks, signalling, stations, and maintained and renewed the same. The trouble was, they didn’t maintain. Then the Hatfield crash happened https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield_rail_crash

    Failtrack also had contracted out all repairs and renewals that BR carried out in-house to the lowest bidder. For a dramatisation of the impact this had, see the Ken Loach film “Navigators.” This meant that nobody at Failtrack had any control over what work was carried out, when, and to what standard. It was a complex mess, and all interfaces between Failtrack and their contractors were policed by lawyers on both sides.

    The Hatfield crash exposed a colossal backlog of work that Failtrack were loathe to do, as it would impact on their profitability, and as such, their share price (“Failtrack saw itself as a financial institution”). The track problems identified at Hatfield (gauge corner cracking of the railhead) that caused the crash saw nation-wide emergency speed restrictions imposed until such a time that all their route mileage in the GB had been inspected. We’re talking about 9800 miles of track. It also turned out that Failtrack didn’t have an accurate or up-to-date asset list, so didn’t know what it had, where it was, what condition it was in, nor when it should be replaced.

    The aftermath of Hatfield saw Failtrack deluged by compensation claims for delay penalty payments by the now-privatised train operating companies (both freight and passenger). This, coupled with the monumental maintenance and renewal bill that it now faced – becaue it had put off both for as long as possible – meant that Failtrack went bankrupt. The investors lost everything, and they included a large chunk of railway staff, and other members of the public. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_Rail

    Network Rail (Notwork Fail) was created in its aftermath to run, maintain, renew, and expand the infrastructure. It’s a “not for dividend” company, limited by guarantee, with no shareholders. It was said to have been in the private sector (to keep its debts off the Government’s financial books), but the ONS later reclassified it as a public sector company, which meant that the Public Sector Net Debt increased by about 2% of GDP and Public Sector Net Borrowing by an average of 0.2% of GDP. Network Rail’s debts are colossal. After the death of Failtrack, the pendulum swung the other direction from accountants running the operation, maintenance, and renewal of the track. Engineers now did, and the tendency was to “gold-plate” everything, every bit of maintenance and renewal. Money is no object when it comes to renewals or modest upgrades, such that when a council proposes to Network Rail the even the most modest of track redoubling or electrification in their area, Network Rail come back with an eye-watering figure. Thus, it gets increasingly difficult to afford such schemes. They do happen, but at far greater cost to the public than would otherwise be the case.

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