Real yanks don’t like trains

August 30, 2013

Residents of the United States really don’t like travelling by train, reports The Economist. Stats abound to prove how different US train travel is from elsewhere:

When you adjust for population, the disparity is even more shocking: per capita, the Japanese, the Swiss, the French, the Danes, the Russians, the Austrians, the Ukrainians, the Belarussians and the Belgians all accounted for more than 1,000 passenger-kilometres by rail in 2011; Americans accounted for 80. Amtrak carries 31m passengers per year. Mozambique’s railways carried 108m passengers in 2011.

Aside from the obvious explanation (America is just so darn big) there are a number more interesting, including most of the track being owned by freight companies, meaning passenger trains get second class status, often delayed by their freighty competitors for trackspace. And, inevitably, train travel has become political, with President Obama backing investment in high speed, thus making opposition to rail the natural Republican stance.

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Rabbit hutch homes set to continue

August 21, 2013

So yesterday’s post was a case of ‘too enthusiastic too soon’: the government’s consultation on living space did not, as it happens, go so far as to back standards on room sizes in new build houses in order to reverse the trend towards increasingly hutch-like homes. In covering the news, the Guardian quotes a housebuilder:

Jeff Fairburn, chief executive of Persimmon, which accounts for about 10% of the new homes market, claimed the reduction in house sizes reflected modern preferences and lifestyles. “We have house types to maximise efficiency. [Today] you have living and cooking spaces at the back of houses and less formal dining space. I don’t recognise claims that houses are too small. That is not the feedback we are getting.”

By ‘feedback we’re getting’, you suspect Mr Fairburn means ‘the feedback we choose to listen to’.


We live in the smallest homes in western Europe

August 20, 2013

The FT today covers the news that communities minister Don Foster is launching a ‘space consultation’, which is not quite as exciting as if the policy being consulted on were about whether we should live on Mars, but likely to be more important. As anyone who’s owned, lived in or visited a home on a newly-built estate will recognise all too vividly, modern dwellings have shrunk compared to their forebears. But I was surprised to read by just how much:

Typical new homes in Britain have nearly halved in size over the last 80 years, making them the smallest in western Europe, as builders try to eke greater profits from their plots of land. The average one-bedroom new-build home now offers space equivalent to a Tube carriage. Developers have been forced to deny the use of cut-size furniture and wall mirrors in their show homes to create the illusion of roominess.


Don’t fly Chinese

August 19, 2013

Were you frustrated by airline delays or airport inefficiency this summer? I know I was. But any problems surely pale in comparison to those facing the Chinese flier, if this report by Time magazine is anything to go by. The stats speak for themselves:

According to data provider FlightStats, all of the  world’s 10 worst airlines for timekeeping in June were Chinese. FlightStats also  notes that China’s airports — also operated by the state and bereft  of customer-friendly facilities like decent restaurants or shopping — are  prime offenders for tardiness. A paltry 18% of flights from Beijing’s Capital  International Airport took off on time this June — the worst record of any major  airport anywhere in the world. And Beijing is far from China’s only  laggard. No. 2 on the FlightStats’ global offenders list? Shanghai.

The reasons for this woeful state of affairs apparently include military dominance of airspace (restricting the freedom of passenger planes), the inertia of a small number of government-owned dinosaur airlines (three firms alone account for 80 per cent of the market), and overly-stringent air traffic control restrictions. But passengers are fighting back – impressive in this most restrictive of regimes – and in July an entire planeload of frustrated travellers simply refused to disembark upon landing because of being delayed for so long.

The chance of positive change currently seems to be slim, however: according to Chinese media reports, airports are attempting to avoid angering travellers by… simply not announcing delays at all.


How the US liquor industry is kept in check

January 28, 2013

Why is Britain in the midst of an alcoholism crisis whilst in the States teenage drinking is at an historic low? That’s the question Tim Heffernan begins this lengthy but fascinating exposition of the changing US and UK booze industries.

The reasons are many, but one stands out above all: the market in Great Britain is rigged to foster excessive alcohol consumption in ways it is not in the United States—at least not yet.

Monopolistic enterprises control the flow of drink in England at every step—starting with the breweries and distilleries where it’s produced and down the channels through which it reaches consumers in pubs and supermarkets. These vertically integrated monopolies are very “efficient” in the economist’s sense, in that they do a very good job of minimizing the price and thereby maximizing the consumption of alcohol.

The US market is much more inefficient, and has been (purposively so) since the end of Prohibition, with a combination of constitutionally-enshrined state regulation of liquor sales (limiting the potential for countrywide economies of scale) and a federally-enforced three tier system:

The idea is that brewers and distillers, the first tier, have to distribute their product through independent wholesalers, the second tier. And wholesalers, in turn, have to sell only to retailers, the third tier, and not directly to the public. By deliberately hindering economies of scale and protecting middlemen in the booze business, America’s system of regulation was designed to be willfully inefficient, thereby making the cost of producing, distributing, and retailing alcohol higher than it would otherwise be and checking the political power of the industry.

Things are changing in the US as two companies – Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors – work with big retailers to undermine intentional inefficiencies, but this great article nevertheless illustrates how far policy makers in the UK have to go.


They who dare to commute

January 24, 2013

It’s delicious when a Big Company inadvertently reveals its true attitude towards its customers, thus confirming what everyone suspected all along. I spotted this corker today, on the ‘First’ ‘Great’ Western website explaining the delays bank holiday train travellers will encounter thanks to the ‘most intensive phase’ of work to overhaul Reading station, beginning this Easter:

Services from Bristol Temple Meads and South Wales into and out of London will be diverted via Banbury, adding around 1h 30mins to journeys.

However Passenger Focus research shows they prefer this to buses.

Customers travelling from the West of England may find it quicker to travel into London Waterloo.


RoboBoss

November 29, 2012

I enjoyed this piece in The Atlantic about the ‘battle for the best employee perks’, charting the lengths that Silicon Valley companies – Google, Evernote, Skype and so on – are willing to go to keep their staff happy and working hard (and by extension keep their staff). And I totally want one of these to aid my own ‘management practice’:

The roving, Webcam-enabled robot that Phil Libin, Evernote’s CEO, uses to check in with employees is a practical (if beady-eyed) way to facilitate worker-boss communication when Libin is out of town.


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