Friday, August 09, 2013

The train crash; Gib again; The economy; and the Property market.

The Train Crash: I feel rather vindicated; articles are now appearing in the Spanish press making the point that the real question is not "Why didn't a ('speed-freak') driver slow down" but "Why didn't the train automatically brake when the driver didn't?". At the end of this post there's a slightly tarted-up Google translation of an excellent article in yesterday's El Pais which goes right to the heart of the matter and is headlined: Spain, for purely political reasons and without any analysis of benefits worthy of the name, has embarked on a megalomaniac and ruinous rail project which is unparalleled, even approximately, in the rest of the world. It goes on from there, implicating both RENFE and Adif and answering, in the affirmative, one of my own questions - Was this really an accident waiting to happen?

Incidentally . . . The Spanish high-speed trains are called AVEs. This is also the word for birds. Which is why Google translated AVEs as BIRDS several times. But the funniest rendition was of punto negro, or 'black spot'. For this, Google gave us 'blackhead'.

Gibraltar: It seems that, following an apparently unproductive 10 minute chat with David Cameron, Sr Rajoy has proposed a 4-party meeting to discuss his bones of contention. In other words, re-institution of the mechanism which was scrapped immediately his PP party came to power 6 years ago. Progress? Meanwhile, a Daily Telegraph on-line poll on who should rule the place was hijacked by voters from here and, unsurprisingly, resulted in a massive majority in favour of Spain. It'll be interesting to see how the local press deals with this today. Incidentally, it's emerged that Britain's Foreign Secretary proposed an all-party meeting last April, only to see this rejected by Spain. You can't help wondering whether Sr Rajoy doesn't realise his distraction ploy has rather back-fired, so disturbing his August holiday in rural Galicia.

By the way . . . One wonders how much substantive discussion actually took place in a '10 minute chat' when neither Cameron nor Rajoy speaks the other's language and has to talk through interpreters. Say 4 minutes? Enough time for each translator to read out the prepared statements. Being old hands at media manipulation, the British got their version of the meeting's outcome into the media before Rajoy had even left the room. The Spanish - rather different - version followed some considerable time later. Presumably after somebody had been summoned back from holiday to take charge of it.

The Spanish Economy: You'll know that this isn't doing too well, though exports are a very bright spot. And unemployment has come down a little, thanks to (temporary) summer jobs. The IMF has suggested that, somehow or other, everyone's salary should be reduced by 10%, so as to make Spanish goods and services instantaneously more competitive. In this, the IMF has been endorsed by the relevant EU Commissioner, who's been dismissed by our trade unions as a fat rich bastard who's got no business poking his nose into Spain's affairs. So, the proposal's got off to a good start, then.

The Spanish Property Market: 18 months ago, the Galician Xunta had on its books 32,000 properties and since then has initiated sale of 46 of these. None of these went through. Which suggests something's going wrong somewhere. Perhaps as regards the asking prices.

No sooner do I cite an article lambasting the Brits for obsessing over the inclusion of chorizo in all their 'Spanish' dishes than I open a local paper to see there's going to be a competition for Tortilla de Chorizo.

Talking of Spanish . . . My daughter discovered yesterday that the Spanish for 'hamster' is hámster. Pronounced khámster.

Finally . . . My lovely neighbour Ester has several friends in town, whom I meet from time to time. I know all their names but can never recall which name goes with which person. I'm reminded of the line from the classic Morecombe and Wise sketch with André Previn - All the same notes but not necessarily in the same order. I try to cover up by calling them all Maria.


The causes of the latest rail accident

It has been said that the fault was human error and fate, but make no mistake: the rampant construction of high-speed infrastructure has led to the neglect of safety.

It is expected that the Minister of Development and the chairmen of RENFE and Railway Infrastructure Manager (ADIF) will report to Congress today on the crash that occurred on a sharp bend near Santiago de Compostela, many think should not have existed (although ADIF president has declared there are no dangerous curves if taken at the proper speed, which is to deny the existence of black spots or suppress risk and give up), but, make no mistake, they will not say anything other than what they have been saying informally: the fault was human failure and fate, and explanations about safety systems and, especially, on the control of speed, will, predictably, be minimal, since each it seems increasingly clear that it is not that such speed control systems malfunctioned, but that they simply did not exist.

Although the Administration has not made any official statement so far, we have learned, among other things because the media have published details, that in the last kilometres of the Orense-Santiago railway section there did not exist any system of speed control and in the rest of the section itself was the ERTMS, but it was not operating in Alvia trains. In addition, we have known that, of the 3,100 kilometres of high speed officially is in Spain, apparently, only about 1,800 have working ERTMS.

In short, it seems that not only the Orense-Santiago in which the accident occurred had no functioning safety system that would prevent human error and would control the speed on a train, to meet the schedule, was largely run at over 200 kilometres per hour, but apparently there is not a large part of those for which the trains run at 300 kilometres per hour and are formally considered "high speed."

As human failures are structural and when, by the speed of the trains, a brief distraction (in this case, apparently caused by a two-minute phone call on the train itself) may be sufficient to produce the accident, with predictably tragic consequences, it seems clear it should be a top priority on the trains whether "high speed" or "speed high" that they are protected by speed control systems and appropriate safety.

This leads us to make some reflections on the structural circumstances of our rail system that could have led to the accident and that, in our opinion, are of two types: economic and lack of coordination.

Spain, for purely political reasons and without any analysis of benefits worthy of the name, has embarked on a megalomaniac and ruinous rail project which is unparalleled, even approximately, in the rest of the world.

We invested in infrastructure alone AVE, about 50bn euros. Without this serving to improve rail's very low market share in the overall transport market(around 6% of private and 3% goods). Studies by prestigious professors of transport reveal not only their utter economic irrelevance but also their social irrelevance (AVE sharpens the desertification of rural and less populated areas and helps to concentrate population where it is already saturated).

But neither this nor the fact that the world's most developed countries, with a wealth and population density much higher than ours, have decided they could not afford anything like this, prevents the Spanish being proud of our AVEs, which have a high political value. And while the costs have been steadily shooting up (in constant euros, the cost per kilometre of the Madrid-Barcelona was more than double that of Madrid-Seville and Madrid-Galicia's is four times!) Everyone is delighted with the AVE and demands they build one to his village.

In this context of rampant construction and expenditure, and of the AVE's progressively higher cost, it doesn't seem far-fetched to suppose we bit off more than we could chew and that led to attempts to make savings and that they may have been trying (in practice if not from the outset) to save on what was - critical - safety.

The rail system, in Spain and elsewhere, has traditionally been defined as "a railway that runs on a fixed track supplemented by a support and guidance service, constituting the whole rail-vehicle operating unit." Well, unlike what happens in most countries of the world, Spain decided to split said operating unit, stating that the management of the railway infrastructure and of the provision of services should be sharply separated, and has claimed that the ADIF and Renfe should be private companies that theoretically compete with each other.

Everyone who has worked in railway companies knows that the main problem of its most senior managers is to coordinate the different interests and points of view that departments and operating infrastructure inevitably have, so that, as expected, the results of the separation are disastrous, both as regards economics and efficiency and as regards attracting traffic.

When the high speed Madrid-Seville line was put into operation, both the infrastructure and train service were operated by Renfe, there was no malfunction and the economic cost was much lower. Since the separation,the problems and costs have soared. The opening of the Madrid-Barcelona line suffered multiple problems and delays, for which ADIF and Renfe blamed each other. And such problems, thereby increasing costs, have been greater on other lines.

But if the need for coordination between infrastructure management and operation of train services affects all aspects of the system, perhaps none is as important as safety, for which those responsible for both areas tend to have different interests and different points of view. With the current strong separation between Renfe and ADIF there is no common superior body or person who can analyse things from a global perspective and impose solutions to the problems. Recent statements by the President of ADIF, on whom theoretically depends the installation of safety systems, blaming Renfe for the fact these were not operating in th train, regardless of whether or not he is right and who is to blame, are objectively shocking.

It seems difficult not to think this could be related to the conditions that led to the Santiago crash and in any case there is an undeniable fact: the exponential increase in recent years, according to data from the Commission on Railway Accidents Investigation (CIAF ) of derailments, coincides with massive spending new AVEs and the separation between infrastructure management and train service management.

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