Thursday, December 22, 2016

Main trunk electrification was always a dud

The usual howls and wails of emotive knee-jerk reaction have come from Kiwirail's announcement to stop operating electric locomotives on the Main Trunk line.

It would cost NZ$1b to extend electrification to the Auckland network, and to Wellington.  However, Wellington's network is electrified to a different voltage and on DC not AC, so dual-voltage locomotives would need to be bought.  Even then, many of the trains on the line, going to and from branch lines (such as to the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Hawke's Bay) would still be operated by diesel.

However, the North Island Main Trunk electrification has always been a dud project since Rob Muldoon made the NZ Railways Department (NZR) embark on it as part of his Think Big central planning programme.

Main Trunk electrification was considered in the 1950s, after the line north of Wellington was electrified when it was deviated from what is now the Johnsonville line and placed in two double-track tunnels, so that trains were already operating electric from Wellington to Paekakariki (as steam locomotives couldn't run through the over 4km long Tawa Flat Number Two tunnel).  A set of electric locomotives were bought that could have served on the main trunk (and were the most powerful locomotives in NZ until 1972), but spent their lives almost entirely dedicated to operating the Wellington to Paekakariki trains (until tunnels on the line north of Pukerua Bay were lowered to enable diesel to run all the way through).

However it was rejected and the decision was made to go diesel, not least because the government owned railways was conservative technically, and was not keen to adopt what it thought then was the "risky" AC electrification system (being widely rolled out in Europe, but not yet used in New Zealand).  The DC system used in Wellington, Christchurch and Arthurs Pass was going to be too expensive, so diesel locomotives were bought to phase out steam.

The Think Big project came from an age when NZR had a general statutory monopoly on moving freight further than 150km.   NZR was facing delays on the main trunk line because of growing export traffic.  The problem, as it saw it, was a lack of capacity.  Its solution was to upgrade the line, bypassing several bottlenecks with shorter deviations, new viaducts able to take heavier trains and some steep winding sections avoided, but also to electrify the line between Palmerston North and Hamilton.  Why not to Auckland and Wellington?  Because the bottleneck was in the middle, and the way NZR operated meant that many trains were broken up and shunted along the route at Hamilton and Palmerston North.  

This was also an age with guards vans, with lots of small stations and sidings, as NZR's monopoly on long haul freight meant it handled small consignments of single wagons or even box loads.  Towns like Paraparaumu, Otaki, Hunterville, Otorohanga and Huntly had shunting locomotives to handle freight, like they always had.

In short, NZR ran an old fashioned, inefficient railway, handling consignments better suited to trucks, and its solution to its congestion was not to propose competition (naturally), but an expensive grandiose engineering based solution.   

Yet the Muldoon Government wasn't completely economically illiterate.  Main trunk electrification was committed, and would end up costing $350m in 1990 prices, but in 1982 NZR was converted into a corporation, effectively becoming the first SOE.  It would be required to make a profit, was no longer subject to political direction (except a Ministerial veto on closing lines) and would be subsidised directly for services that were unprofitable that the government required it to operate.

In 1983, Minister of Transport George Gair opened up domestic freight transport to competition, abolishing the 150km limit on road freight competition.  In 1984, a major consultancy report by Booz Allen Hamilton for the Railways Corporation made major recommendations for it to be competitive and profitable with competition from road freight.  This included closing two workshops, removing guards vans, closing small stations, moving from handling small lots of freight to trying to handle multiple wagon and train loads of freight.  

The Railways Corporation reformed, but it still lost freight to road competitors over many years.  In 1987, it commissioned Coopers & Lybrand to assess whether the main trunk electrification (that it was required to complete) could be an asset.  The report concluded that even if electricity were free it would still be a net loss to the Railways Corporation annually.  The only part of the project that made sense were all of the deviations.

As a result, when the Railways Corporation was restructured into a full SOE, it received $350m from taxpayers to bail it out of its Think Big project (after all the others were).  Officially, the Main Trunk Electrification had no net value that could ever be recovered from users of the line.

In short, the main trunk electrification has ALWAYS been a dud.  

After 30 years, the locomotives have become unreliable, many of the trains that now operate on the line have little operational need to be stopped at Hamilton and Palmerston North to change locomotives, wasting time, labour and fuel.  

A project that was inspired by technocrats running a monopoly, decided by politicians engaging in Soviet style central planning, has come to its natural conclusion.

It's not worth spending NZ$1b to incrementally reduce CO2 emissions, which will make no more difference to climate change than stopping a child urinating in a lake will stop it being toxic.  

Yet that wont stop the hyper-emotive railevangelist central planners making every hyperbole about this being some giant leap backward.   The Otira-Arthurs Pass electrification was closed in 1997 once technology enabled diesel locomotives to run all the way through from the West Coast to Canterbury, the Christchurch-Lyttelton electrification was closed in 1970, as equipment was due for replacement and with the age of steam coming to an end, it could be dieselised.  

Is it a shame that such a large project has proven to be not worthwhile? Absolutely, but it wasn't Kiwirail's fault, but the fault of the central planners of the Muldoon era - those the Labour Party and the Greens now ache to emulate, who chose to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayers money solving a problem that existed because of their regulation and archaic business practices it protected.

Kiwirail is a marginal operation at best, it doesn't need to have around its neck the vanity proposals of politicians who think they know best, and who think that saving every tonne of CO2 is worth unlimited amounts of taxpayers money.   

Note though how odd it is, that the Greens, who all claim to care about CO2 emissions, continue to oppose foreign ships on international trips carrying domestic cargo as they travel between NZ ports. This has next to no impact on CO2 emissions, as the ships are sailing anyway, by using spare capacity on the ships to carry freight within New Zealand.

Why?  Because the Seafarers Union doesn't like the competition.  The bottomline is that the Greens prefer even socialism to reducing CO2 emissions. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Syria is what most in the West wanted

What did you expect with Aleppo?

Syria's hereditary socialist/nationalist (Ba'athist) dictatorship has flagrantly used chemical weapons against its own people and dropped barrel bombs on them, for daring to oppose 46 years of repressive family rule.  Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama, said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line", then did nothing besides let Assad (and his father) 's ally Russia "supervise the destruction" of the weapons.   

Obama, leader of the world's only superpower, then did nothing.  His excuse was that the UK House of Commons had voted against military action against the Assad regime (which it did, as now former leader Ed Miliband wanted to prove how much the "anti-Blair" he was and burnish his leftwing credentials).  Non-intervention, the preferred policy of rightwing isolationists and leftwing "pacifists" is the new norm, except for Russia.

Of course it isn't pure non-intervention.  The West has been funding and arming some of the rebel groups in Syria, including those with Islamist leanings.  They aren't ISIS (despite some claims), but there are no angels in Syria.   No one is fighting for Syria to be a secular liberal democracy that respects individual rights and political plurality.  

The surrender of Aleppo to the Assad dictatorship was the inevitable outcome of Russian intervention in favour of its long standing ally and the flagrant ongoing violation of international law by the Assad regime in using chemical weapons and barrel bombing civilian areas.

Chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing by the Assad regime has worked.  China, Russia, Iran, all of which execute political opponents, don't care.  The part of the international community that should care (the "West") has shrugged, said lots, but Obama handed over responsibility to Russia.  This was like handing over responsibility for addressing North Korea's human rights atrocities to China.

The experience of Iraq - successfully overthrowing tyranny, followed by utter failure in replacing it and achieving control of the country, rightfully gave cause for caution.   

However, the result of that vacuum has been to give Russia an opportunity, to be the new power in the Middle East.  There were opportunities to contain Assad's use of chemical weapons and air power over civilians, with no fly zones, but doing anymore would have been much more difficult.   

Now those on the left are complaining that "we" sat by and did nothing, yet that is exactly what they campaigned for.  Dictators will murder opponents, will slaughter civilians and unless you are willing to put our own taxpayers' money and military force to intercede, it will continue.   Obama in 2011 said Assad either had to lead a transition to democracy or get out the way, but he did neither - he fought on, gained support of his strong ally - Russia - which already knew the West was going to do nothing.

The isolationist right of course also believed in leaving Syria alone, a few because they accepted Assad's propaganda that all his opponents are "terrorists" and all his opponents are "Al Qaeda and ISIS" whereas he is moderate and reasonable.   A few because they see Putin as a "friend".  However, mostly because they have no interest in what happens to people in foreign lands, as they are far away places of which they know little.  Syrians wanting freedom from tyranny should do it themselves, and not expect foreign government support (even if it means foreign governments actively support the tyranny).  At least that position has a consistency - governments should only defend the rights of those within their boundaries, even if other governments engage in mass slaughter that sends hundreds of thousands fleeing to other governments.

So Aleppo is awful.  Yet, it is the end result of the policies of both leftwing so-called "peace" supporters and rightwing isolationists.  The biggest threat to the lives of individuals are tyrannies, and the only way to redress that is to arm opponents or to take them on yourselves.   The Western appetite for this is slim indeed.


Sunday, December 04, 2016

So why is China upset about Taiwan?

Because Taiwan is, de facto, a separate country, but the mainland wants to keep up the pretence that it is entitled to do violence to it at any time if it so wishes.

It is the only a part of China that is not governed by the Communist Party of China (the People's Republic of China (PRC) because the Communists didn't manage to take over Taiwan and a handful of islands off of the mainland coast at the end of the Chinese Civil War.  The effect was that the previous government of China, the Republic of China (ROC), "temporarily relocated" its capital from Nanking to Taipei, with the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) putting Taiwan and other islands (Kinmen, Penghu and Matsu Islands and some others) under its control in a state of emergency for over forty years.

The effect was not dissimilar to that of the two Koreas, except the two Koreas are of roughly equal geographical size and at one time similar GDPs (indeed the Republic of Korea "south" was poorer than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea "north" until the late 1960s). 

So as mainland China suffered under the jackboot of Chairman Mao for nearly thirty years, and lost tens of millions to executions and starvation, and stagnated, Taiwan was under the less brutal jackboot of Chiang Kai Shek for a similar period and became a rapidly developing industrial country. Of course since Mao died, China embraced corporatist capitalism and its economy has grown much like Taiwan did since the 1950s, but Taiwan also reformed although spent many years under tough authoritarian rule. In 1969 the first legislative elections were held to have representatives of Taiwan elected (all others were legislators who were elected before the end of the civil war representing Chinese provinces under "occupation" by the communists).  As those legislators passed away they were not replaced so by the 1990s, the entire legislative assembly was subject to competitive elections.  Martial law was ended in 1987 by Chiang Kai Shek's successor and son Chiang Ching-kuo, as Taiwan moved to being a fully fledged liberal democracy.  By 1992, remaining mainland representatives were removed so the entire legislative assembly was subject to competitive elections.  
Taiwan, as such, is a role model for China as an open, relatively free, liberal democracy, with rule of law, capitalism and political power tempered by the separation of powers.  This, of course, is a complete anathema to the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Republic of China.

Of course, Taiwan (or rather the Republic of China in Taiwan - remember Made in R.O.C. labels on goods made a few decades ago?) has had an interesting history of international relations.   With the exception of the UK (primarily out of concern of Hong Kong), most Western countries did not recognise the Communist takeover of China immediately.  Australia and New Zealand did not until 1972, and even the United Nations seat for China was held by the Republic of China until 1971, as the United States vetoed the Chinese Communist regime (as it was called) from taking its seat despite strong efforts by friendly communist countries and developing countries lobbying on behalf of the PRC.  Albania became Beijing's biggest champion.  Both Beijing and Taipei regimes rejected each other being represented on the UN, but the US pushed for the PRC to be represented, not least because it seemed absurd that the world's most populous country (and a nuclear power) were not represented.  So the PRC was admitted, and the ROC expelled.   In 1979, the US switched recognition from the ROC to the PRC, but gave Taiwan a military security guarantee, as the PRC had always (and still does) reserve the right to reunify Taiwan by force.  

Both Chinese regimes refused to have diplomatic relations with any country that recognised the other, but the ROC on Taiwan dropped this in the 1990s, as it had lost recognition and embassies with almost all countries as few could refuse the commercial, diplomatic and strategic benefits of having good relations with mainland China.  Once Saudi Arabia (which had resisted the PRC because of its atheism) and South Africa (which shifted recognition not long after the end of apartheid) had dropped Taiwan, the ROC would only retain diplomatic relations with small Pacific Island, African or Latin American states, mostly through aid programmes (although this ended in 2000 as the PRC was able to outbid the ROC).

So Taiwan remains an oddity.  In every de facto sense, it is an independent country, with a military, government and informal diplomatic relations with many countries.  However, the PRC stops it from having formal diplomatic relations because it doesn't like the only part of China it didn't win in the civil war having a parallel status to it in international organisations or bilateral relations.  It claims that to do so would imply there are "two Chinas", which of course there are as there are two Koreas, and were two Germanys and two Yemens (and even two Cypruses) regardless of claims of legitimacy.

So Donald Trump accepting a phone call from the democratically elected President of the ROC should not be a big deal, except for Beijing, it ruffles their sensitivities over reality.  The US has a defence treaty with Taiwan, and should make it clear than any attack on Taiwan will be rebuffed by the US.  The ROC on Taiwan shares the values of the United States and other Western democracies, the values of freedom, individual rights and government that is determined by the consent of the governed.  The fact that this concerns the Chinese Communist Party is good, for it could do much worse than look at Taiwan and see an example of transition from one-party authoritarian rule to vibrant vigorous liberal democracy.   Peace between Taiwan and the mainland is critical for both, so I think there is little real risk of any aggression from the PRC, but it should be clearer than that.  A renewed US commitment to Taiwan because of its values.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel está muerto

So there is a reason to cheer, the death of Fidel Castro, should be a cause of celebration and reflection for everyone who believes in individual freedom, world peace, human rights and has both liberal and conservative values.  For the regime he founded continues to be one marked by violence, intimidation, intolerance and denial.

Castro interrogating a farmer as private property rights get abolished

Castro was a thug, a murderer and a warmongerer.  He urged Khrushchev to attack the US with nuclear weapons, which would have triggered World War Three.  

He incarcerated political opponents, labelling anyone who opposed the regime as "mentally ill" so they could be locked up indefinitely for not realising how lucky they are to be under socialism.  

He imprisoned Cubans who had HIV, he ran a prison state that saw Cubans flee at their own risk by boat to the United States.  Americans didn't flee to Cuba to embrace socialism.

Cuba under Castro was propped up by the USSR, in effect, poor Russians helped keep Castro's revolution alive.  A policy that ended with the collapse of the USSR, but from then on Cuba's rhetoric was that it was poor because the US embargo hindered it.  How a socialist state can claim that its prosperity is dependent on trading with a capitalist liberal democracy remains a mystery.

Cuba's joke is the large numbers of vintage American cars roaming the streets, only recently supplemented by Chinese vehicles.  This is seen as quaint, but is reflects poverty. 

One of the great claims about Cuba's "successes" is statistics around education and healthcare, because it claims low levels of child poverty and life expectancy that is high compared to other Latin American countries.  Yet the source of these statistics is entirely the Cuban one-party state, which imprisons its critics, so has to be at least treated with a high degree of scepticism.   Whenever foreigners inspect the Cuban healthcare system, they get to see what the regime wants them to see.   The UN may take the reported statistics from all member states on face value, but that's naive and absurd.  Only once Cuba is free will the veracity of these claims be clear, for now it is at best opaque. 

Of course, the usual suspects have come out singing paeans over Cuba.  Red Ken Livingstone couldn't help himself on BBC Radio 4 today saying that Cuba was "open and relaxed", even though it is a criminal offence for anyone other than the state to publish or broadcast, and when confronted with the regime's intolerance he said that in the UK anyone supporting Hitler was imprisoned. Odious little worm.

Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn said he was a "champion of social justice" and dismissed imprisonment of dissenters and continued authoritarianism as saying "there are problems of excesses by all regimes",  confirming the man is a moral relativistic sympathiser with dictatorship.

Vladimir Putin said he made his country free, well maybe by his standards..

President of the EU, Jean Claude Juncker said Castro was a "hero to many", which indicates the quisling relativist tolerance of a man and an organisation that ought to be celebrating the end of a man, whose regime provided support and succour for brutal regimes that impoverished and denied the human rights of citizens of 12 current EU Member States.  

Canadian Prime Minister, the illiberal Justin Trudeau lionised him as having "deep and lasting affection" for the Cuban people, including those he killed for opposing him.

Sinn Fein, which until recently lionised terrorism as a legitimate technique to change minds and power, is commemorating him as a hero.

The position people take on Castro should be your litmus test for their morality.

Castro used violence against those who opposed him.  He criminalise anyone who published or broadcast any criticism of his regime, so he was intolerant and authoritarian.   Dismissing any politicians whose core strategy is to do violence to his opponents is appeasement of dictatorship, rejection of any liberal values whatsoever, and places his supporters in the same mould as fascist apologists.  

To claim that "well he gave them education and healthcare" justifies a system of terror for anyone criticising the government or any of its policies or any of those with the privileges and trappings of power, is the justification of a fascist.   For "he" gave them nothing.  He ran a prison slave state which forced teachers and doctors to do the bidding of the party, he used his comrades of another slave state - the USSR- to supply the equipment, technology and training - to deliver a system that could have been delivered under liberal democracy.   Indeed, Chile's post-Pinochet success demonstrates that a liberal free-market democratic government can deliver the prosperity, including high standards of education and healthcare, without pointing guns at its citizens for criticising the regime.  

The best that can be said of Castro is he replaced another vile dictatorship - the Batista regime - and that he could have been worse.  However, pardon me if I don't think reaching the abominable barbarities of Kim Il Sung, Enver Hoxha or Nicolae Ceaucescu is an "achievement".

So to hell with Castro.  Some of the people who claimed with Donald Trump being elected, he is the "new Hitler" are mourning the loss of a man who was much closer to Hitler than Trump is ever likely to be.  

If someone is an apologist for Castro, or says he "made mistakes" or " his human rights were dreadful but", then they are excusing the blood spilt, the poverty, the propaganda, the utter denial of human liberty, and the politics of fear, terror and the jackboot, over the politics of debate, diversity and tolerance.

Treat the apologists of Castro accordingly.  The people in Miami celebrating his death lived under him, or have relatives who do.  The people elsewhere mourning are exercising the freedoms that Castro never tolerated and Cuba doesn't tolerate today.

Let's hope Mugabe doesn't see out the year as well.

Let's hope Cubans in the New Year gain the freedom to speak openly and honestly about the past 55 years of their country, even though thousands of so-called "liberals" in the West couldn't really care less.

UPDATE:  In 2008 I wrote the Top Ten Reasons Castro should be hated.

In 2010 I wrote on how the Green Party of NZ appeased the Cuban dictatorship

Read Katherine Hirschfeld's critical review of Cuba's healthcare system, including how much of it is "informal" and how it is illegal to refuse any healthcare including abortions. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Trump or Clinton or damn them all?

I've thought a good deal about the US election today.   It is difficult to think of two people who were both about the worst candidates either major party has put forward in recent history.  Oh yes there have been some lousy ones, but both lousy and so incredibly awful in their own ways? No.

So in some ways I'll treat the election as a reason to gloat about whoever is defeated, whilst ignoring the gloating of the victor.  

Hillary Clinton oozes entitlement, is a shape shifter on issues time and time again (remember when she was against gay marriage until it became popular?).  Her ambition for power should be a sure sign of someone who should be kept as far away from power as possible.  The vast fortune the Clintons have amassed from speeches and running their Foundation, travelling first class, staying at five star hotels "for the people who need our help", indicates the usual concern of powerful socialists for those in need.   If she is elected, she'll demonstrate not that she has broken the "glass ceiling", but that First Ladies have a chance at becoming President.  She is not an example to other women, except those women whose ambitions at the jobs their husbands have had.   It's clear her tolerance for Bill's extra-curriculur activities (which are frankly neither here nor there to me) resemble more the wife of Francis Underwood/Urquhart in House of Cards, for the trappings of power and money matter more than anything else.   Hillary has been pro more-trade (never "free trade", she's never want to let go of influence by removing controls) and anti-trade, she is a traditional populist.  However, little goes past what is obvious, that when she says she has been "fighting for families" all her life, the family she fights the most for is her own, and it has benefited royally from it.

The only bright side to Hillary is that she may partially reverse Obama's isolationism, which has seen Russia fill the gap left by Obama's (empty) moral posturing.  Few would have thought after the end of the Cold War that a government could use chemical weapons against its own population again, with impunity.  Yet it has and Obama's words that it would cross a "red line" were proven as vacuous as his "hope" and "change" electioneering slogans.

Trump has had so much said about him that I needn't say much.  He and Hillary both lie as frequently as they use cutlery.  His stance on trade is economic lunacy,  his spending promises are loose and careless.  His utterances about Mexico (and almost all foreign policy) are ludicrous and about the only thing good thing is his interest in cutting taxes.   He's a rank populist who is a classic cardboard cutout celebrity politician.  Some may say he would take advice if he were President, and much of what he says is attention seeking. 

Both Trump and Clinton are the epitome of the airhead age of politics, where identity politics is fanned as much as it ever was.  Hillary Clinton, who has expressed her utter contempt for the 30% core support for Trump, and Donald Trump, who has talked generally about Mexican migrants being rapists.  Hillary knows her place in history is assured if she becomes the first female President of the United States.  About the only reason to celebrate a Trump victory is knowing how angry she would be if she lost,  but then what?  A Trump-Putin pact to divide the world into spheres of influence?  The utter destruction of the international trading environment?

Of course most media coverage is fairly one-sided.  Trump is irredeemable and all major media outlets share and express the same contempt for him, with much less contempt for Clinton.   The left-wing liberal bias is palpable, yet Clinton is such a heavily flawed candidate they both deserve contempt.

Yet the likelihood is that, unless the Democrats sweep through both Houses of Congress, Hillary will find her big empty expensive promises difficult to fulfill,  but even if the Republicans hung onto the Senate, it is much less clear that Trump could rely on a Republican Congress to facilitate his agenda unimpeded.  However, on foreign policy, the President has much more autonomy and power.  On that front, Trump seems a little unsettling, given his penchance for threatening US allies to pay up or lose support from the US. 

Sadly, the hope that Gary Johnson could break through and be a more significant third party candidate seems forlorn. 

I expect, given the polling, Hillary will win and there will be a nauseating display of faux humility and sloganeering, as she sinks her claws into the prize she long sought.   Yet the United States was not founded on nepotism or some sort of familial succession (and yes the Bush family started that, but this was rejected the third time round).  If Trump wins, watch the panic and doom and gloom emerging, but this too will be hysterical posturing, although he is obviously the less certain quantity.

The USA is going to get an utter arsehole as President, but I'll be cheering for the other arsehole losing.  What's utterly astonishing is that millions are willing to give moral endorsement to one of these vile entities.

Yes, it's been a while.  For the want of a better term, 2016 is "annus horribilis" for my family, with an uncle diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in February and dead in May, then my mother passing away unexpectedly in September, weeks before her birthday after months of a nuisance, but not anything like a life-threatening condition.  Let's just say some things matter more than a rant about politics.