Floods stretch on – what are people doing to cope?

Friday afternoon. I’m lucky in that my kids are being looked after by friends in the village – all arranged during the various handovers that happened yesterday. I am in debt again so had better plan not to be working on the next school inset day!

Some reflections from people I’ve seen. Long diversions in place for cyclists and cars but its a nightmare getting into York with the A19 shuty and parts of the inner ring road. A neighbour suggested it would be faster to walk to York (we are 5 miles out). I reckon they are right. My daughter said last night and today. Can we keep it like this, its good fun, I’ve kind of got used to it. Perhaps its the fun of making it round the village in a dinghy or maybe not being at school. However, there is a sense in which this has all become quite normal – we are only using one car and need to share it. It takes a bit longer to get places and we’re probably doing a bit less than we were. Well that wouldn’t be so bad given how much we are overdoing it anyway.

I should add life would be a whole lot less complex if my wife wasn’t away for the weekend and I wasn’t trying to organise surveys to find out more about how everyone else is coping.

Been Affected by the Flood Like Me? – Take Part in Research

Many residents of York and North Yorkshire will have had and still be having travel plans upset by the current high water levels. I am leading a research project which tries to understand what happens to people when they are faced with Disruptive events of a whole range of different types (more details at www.disruptionproject.net). We would like to have short interviews with anyone who has been affected by the flood in any way – cancelled activities,missed work, school closure, long journeys and just more generally to understand how you coped.

To take part please contact Jeremy Shires


W: 0113 3435347

M: 07957 333 817

We hope to be surveying over the weekend and are happy to provide more details. In the meantime, hope you enjoy the photo below – and if anyone knows who is looking after my kids tomorrow that’d be good to know too!!!

The only way to travel!!!

Flood update

Got up at 6:50 today to come in to work for my meeting this morning. Had to wade very slowly up the road – not quite the 8:00am peak when it is high tide. Looks like most of the houses will be OK but the roads are impassable within the village.

Met the School Head on her way to check out the school at 7:30. First contacts are to the radio and local news channels then back home to post on the VLE – no way you can get kids to the school. Looks like it has a moat.

Cancelled the cleaner (very middle class) – will wait to see what unfolds at home with school shut. I am off tomorrow afternoon anyway as my wife is away so will probably fall to her today – may be some reciprocity amongst parents.



Reflections on the York Flood

I live in Naburn on the outskirts of York. Naburn is on the banks of the Ouse and floods to varying degrees during periods of intense rainfall. The village was cut off for 10 days during the floods of 2000 and Prince Charles famously came and had a half pint in the Blacksmiths Arms. There’s a job!

I set off for work after the school drop off this morning but quickly turned back and had to leave the village by the route which now “doesn’t flood” since some additional works were done post 2000. My wife was heading to town so I phoned through and she went the ling-way round to the Park and Ride. All pretty much as normal. She was delayed in town and ending up taking an hour to get back as the bus was diverted (flood closed A19 in Fulford in between Naburn and York centre). She made it back in time to fill in for some mums at the school gate who hadn’t got back in time and we ended up with an extra guest from our daughters class for the night as their parents were stuck. I left my car up the road so I can get out tomorrow AM (I’m not alone). My wife cancelled her swim class – set off but had gone out in her wellies and no driving shoes!

We haven’t made many other plans for what happens next – flood waters due to peak at 8am as this part of the river is also tidal. There is a good chance school will be shut but that hasn’t been declared yet. I’ve got a fixed meeting I’d really rather not cancel tomorrow morning so this could fall to my wife. We’ve both had time off (or rather displaced work into evenings or later in the month/year) when our youngest was poorly. That’ll be a real pain – although the kids were speculating and “well happy” with the prospect.

Fingers crossed it doesn’t make it over the sandbags and into the properties closest to the river. There are other places further up such as Cawood where the bridge is shut so small scale disruption at least isquite widespread. There are lots of transport closures and route diversions. http://www.york.gov.uk/advice/emergencies/weather/01update/

Flooding in York

Value for Money in the Rail Industry – where next?

The benefits of the radical reforms to the rail market in the UK are much debated. Whilst the period since privatisation has seen growth in passenger and freight markets, continued improvements to safety, an overall increase in customer satisfaction and improved operations this has been delivered at a significant cost to the public purse.

Both rail infrastructure costs and train operating company costs have risen sharply; the former from roughly £15bn to £30bn when comparing the second 5 year period after privatisation to the first 5 year period. Train operating company unit costs are now nearly 20% higher than at privatisation. This experience contrasts sharply with the experience of other industries which have seen privatisation and the introduction of competition.

In May 2011 Sir Roy McNulty published a report for the Department for Transport on Value for Money in the rail industry. Here I review the contribution of Dr Andrew Smith, Professor Chris Nash and Phillip Wheat to identifying and quantifying the level of inefficiency in the rail industry before looking at the key barriers to efficiency that McNulty identified. Andrew and Chris offer their reflections, one year on, of some of the bigger challenges that remain to be addressed.

One of the key research challenges to be overcome when considering how to establish whether the management of the UK rail infrastructure is efficient is to establish what to benchmark it against. There was only one privatised Railtrack and subsequently one Network Rail. The research work first therefore developed innovative econometric techniques which sought to unpick the different drivers of rail infrastructure costs over time to allow the performance of different global infrastructure managers to be benchmarked. A lack of international benchmarking was an important gap in previous regulatory reviews. This work is particularly complex as infrastructure operators are structured differently and often divided into several business sub-units.

Two separate, new econometric studies were therefore developed. The first used national data over a long-time period to generate estimates of Network Rail’s efficiency performance relative to best practice and also track progress over time. Flexible panel data stochastic frontier techniques were applied; to our knowledge for the first time in a regulatory context. The second quantitative study was applied to a dataset for several countries whilst also extending the dataset by incorporating disaggregate data for different regions within each country. New methods were developed which allowed the persistent element that applies across the company (external inefficiency) and the part that varies at sub-company level (internal inefficiency) to be separated.

The outputs of the first econometric study was used by the Office of the Rail Regulator as the central piece of evidence on Network Rail’s relative efficiency performance in the 2008 Periodic Review of the company’s finances. The second study was used as corroborating evidence. An efficiency gap, estimated at 37%, resulting from the econometric model was directly used to derive a funding settlement for Network Rail covering the fourth control period (2009/10 to 2013/14). In line with regulatory best practice, whilst using the ITS study as the core evidence, ORR also commissioned a wide range of engineering, bottom-up studies, that also indicated a substantial efficiency gap.

In addition to the work on rail infrastructure costs, ITS has also done new work to compute and then explain changes in train operating company costs since privatisation and the introduction of competitive tendering in 1997. Our research showed that unit costs are roughly 20% higher than at privatisation, which is a disappointing result compared to the experience of rail tendering elsewhere in the world and indeed the results of tendering in other sectors. This work was quoted in the McNulty review and formed part of the recommendations, namely that operators should at least get costs back to pre-privatisation levels, before then also targeting further cost savings.

Our research showed some of the key drivers of unit cost growth, including a very substantial increase in real wages of rail staff, far above average earnings growth in the wider economy during this period. The work also showed that the franchising authority’s decision to place a large number of distressed TOCs on management contracts for an extended period led to a substantial deterioration in efficiency relative to other TOCs. Specifically, following the shift to management contracts, the affected TOCs were found to be 23% per cent more expensive than industry best practice. Whilst the use of management contracts may have been a useful expedient – the franchising authority faced a situation where half the sector ran into trouble – it was nevertheless a costly decision, particularly given that the contracts persisted for several years (the latter, to allow the franchise boundaries to be re-drawn prior to the next round of re-franchising).

The McNulty report draws on the evidence from the research described above and presents an analysis of the main barriers to efficiency. These are many, complex and interrelated:

fragmentation of structures and interfaces, the ways in which the roles of Government and industry have evolved, ineffective and misaligned incentives, a franchising system that does not encourage cost reduction sufficiently, management approaches that fall short of best-practice in a number of areas that are key cost drivers, and a railway culture which is not conducive to the partnership and continuous improvement approaches required for effective cost reduction.” (p5, McNulty Review)

I asked Andrew Smith and Chris Nash for their take on some key issues that remain to be addressed one-year on from McNulty. Andrew identified two key points which suggest that there is still a need to understand the causes and not just the differences, although work remains to be done here too:

Firstly, whilst there is or was a substantial gap between Network Rail’s efficiency and European operators, continuing to collect and share good quality, comparable data remains a challenge, as does modelling heterogeneity between railway systems. It does also need to be remembered, however, that we are comparing Network Rail against state owned infrastructure managers, so the efficiency potential as compared to private firms could be even greater, given the general evidence on the impact of privatisation in other industries across the world. The splitting up of Network Rail into ten routes now offers the prospect of domestic, comparative competition, as used in other regulated sectors, which will at least help target internal inefficiency.

On the train operations side, in contrast to rail infrastructure, McNulty relied entirely on top-down trends-based evidence to set the efficiency challenge. There was therefore no absolute efficiency comparison between British TOCs and their global comparators (more precisely, some was carried out, but it was inconclusive). So, the argument was as follows: British Rail was inefficient, so unit costs should have come down but did not, and should therefore fall, at least to pre-privatisation levels. Costs should then reduce further, in line with the experience of competitive tendering in rail elsewhere in Europe and the wider evidence on the impact of competitive tendering in other sectors. There was also little or no bottom-up evidence that might explain the gap in terms of the working practices that need to be adopted to get costs down. McNulty rather relied on faith in harnessing the incentives of the private sector, combined with competition for the market, through the use of longer franchises, combined with less tightly defined franchises. This may be the right answer, but it is far from proven.

Chris Nash reflected on the on-going misalignment of incentives:

McNulty quotes the work of one of our PhD students, Rico Merkert, as showing that the additional transactions costs of vertical separation of infrastructure from operations are not great as a proportion of total systems costs, but the bigger issue he raises is misalignment of incentives. Despite having sophisticated track access charges, to reflect the damage done by different types of rolling stock, and penalties for poor performance, train operators and infrastructure managers still lack sufficiently strong incentives to work together to reduce costs. A number of new forms of alliance are being tried, but achieving appropriate incentives whilst not disadvantaging other operators remains a challenge.”  

For me, this research is an excellent example of the best type of impact that can be delivered when academics work closely with industry, government and regulators to bring independent analysis to a problem. It is interesting to note that the Department for Transport has yet to issue its response to the McNulty Review. This serves as a reminder of the challenge of keeping important agendas under the spotlight and the rather more difficult task of changing policies and practices in a highly complex governance environment. These findings also cast a shadow on the presumption that greater private sector involvement in managing our strategic road network will necessarily be a good thing, as the Prime Minister suggests. Rail is a different sector for sure, but the scale of the complexities and unintended consequences of privatisation suggest that any propositions which emerge from the current Treasury review need full and honest scrutiny.

This blog was put together with the assistance of Dr Andrew Smith and Professor Chris Nash (www.its.leeds.ac.uk/people)

This is part of a monthly blog on research projects at the Institute for Transport Studies by the Director, Dr Greg Marsden (G.R.Marsden@its.leeds.ac.uk)

Disruption Project Tackles Key Government Research Needs

The Disruption project (www.disruptionproject.net) is a 3 year project funded under the Research Council UK’s Energy Programme seeking to identify new ways to develop and implement lower carbon and more energy efficient travel. The project suggests that businesses and individuals are more adaptable to new situations than is typically assumed and that this could open new opportunities to change patterns of living such that they are less dependent on carbon intensive travel. The project will explore, through a series of practical studies, the extent to which travel practices that are assumed to be routine are frequently disrupted as part of unplanned (life) events.

A review of research commissioned by DEFRA has examined a similar proposition – considering whether “moments of change” can be used to stimulate pro-environmental behaviour change, particularly drawing on psychological theories of behaviour change. The report (Thompson et al., 2011) concludes:

 “From a theoretical perspective, there are good reasons to believe that significant life events provide a promising opportunity for breaking existing habits…There is some promising empirical evidence in the academic literature, but this is relatively scarce and also very largely confined to transport behaviour. Anecdotally, almost all of the limited number of people we spoke to – academics, practitioners and campaigners alike – found the moments of change hypothesis plausible prima facie. However, on the whole they were not aware of, or had not themselves collected, data that could demonstrate changes in habitual behaviour actually occurring at moments of change” (p157).

Our research suggests that one of the reasons why evidence on change is limited is because we have not specifically looked for it. Much of our data is cross sectional in nature and therefore of limited use in answering such questions. The report makes a series of recommendations for future research which the Disruption project is already beginning to address in two key areas:

New research methods:

DEFRA Research Recommendations

  • “Conducting qualitative research with people who have already changed their behaviours in order to understand the motivating factors, especially in relation to the timing of behaviour changes.
  • Developing action-research projects based on real-world situations and interventions.
  • “Mapping” the life course in terms of people’s contact with service and organisations that could potentially deliver a behaviour change intervention.” (p14)

The Disruption project is conducting a series of longitudinal ethnographic studies with families in Brighton and Lancaster which will provide in-depth understanding of the before, during and after implications of moments of change that typically occur. We are also conducting a longitudinal study of the impacts of the Olympics disruption on journeys to work. The research project examines the issues from a range of theoretical perspectives (including the psychological approaches on which the DEFRA study draws and mobilities). By taking a broader socio-technical systems approach we also bring research into the broader system, organisational and governance context, which informs and shapes our mobility patterns, to the fore. One of our contentions is that moments of change or disruptions are interesting because of what they reveal about our travel practices – not because they are of themselves necessarily the right tools for change.

Deliberative Policy Design:

DEFRA Research Recommendations

  • “Exploring the relationship between people’s receptivity to interventions at different “moments” and the message content and framing.
  • Exploring whether the source of the intervention impacts on its acceptability and efficacy.
  • Exploring whether upstream or downstream interventions are most effective at moments of change.”

Our research design includes a series of policy design workshops with expert groups and the general public. Each of these groups will be invited to consider, in the light of the evidence, what types of changes to the broader system, the specifics of particular policies or the framing of policy will be effective in promoting a transition to lower energy consumption for mobility. The project will conclude by bringing the solutions and the groups together to genuinely co-design a set of acceptable and effective measures which may be implemented by governments, business, regulated industries or individuals.

Further information on the project is available at www.disruptionproject.net or through contacting the Project Director, Dr Greg Marsden (G.R.Marsden@its.leeds.ac.uk)

DEFRA report Thompson, S., Michaelson, J., Abdallah, S., Johnson, V., Morris, D., Riley, K., & Simms, A. (2011). „Moments of change‟ as opportunities for influencing behaviour: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. nef (the new economics foundation). Defra, London. http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=16193&FromSearch=Y&Publisher=1&SearchText=EV0506&SortString=ProjectCode&SortOrder=Asc&Paging=10#Description