Monthly Archive: March 2018

The Dawlish Question – Part 2

The main Network Rail route to the South West of England, ending at Penzance in Cornwall, is the only contiguous route through that part of the country.
At one time, other routes, both main and branch, existed, but most of those routes were closed and dismantled in the period 1964-1972 as a result of the rationalization of the UK rail network that implemented the Beeching Report.
The route runs through the countryside of Somerset and Devon down through Exeter. It then runs along the estuary of the River Exe before reaching the English Channel coast near Dawlish. At that point the line runs along the base of the cliffs, carried on a concrete bed behind a sea wall built in the 19th Century. The coastal strata and cliffs behind the sea fortifications and the railway line are also vulnerable to erosion.
The vulnerability of this part of the rail route has been known and understood for many decades. The coastal wall and other fortifications are over 100 years old, not built using modern materials and techniques, and like all infrastructure, they have a finite life. There has always been a fear that The Big One – a destructive storm, would damage or destroy the coastal part of this important rail route as it runs along the sea at Dawlish.
The fear was converted to reality on 5th February 2014, when a massive storm hit the UK, and enormous seas and winds hammered the sea wall East of Dawlish. A significant section of the sea wall was breached by the sea, carried out to sea, and the waves eroded out the strata and the road behind the rail line. When the storm subsided, a 100 yard long stretch of rail line was hanging in the air…literally, with all of the base gone. Elsewhere either side of the breach, ballast was washed away from the track, and massive amounts of wood, damage debris from the sea wall and other flotsam were thrown onto the rail tracks and surrounds.
The damage took nearly 2 months to repair, with Network Rail crews working close to 24×7. In the meantime most of Devon and the whole of Cornwall had no rail connection to the rest of the UK.
Services on the route were finally restored on 4th April 2014.
At this time we need to examine some history. In the 1800s, railway companies competed to reach many major cities in the UK, to bring the iron horse, with its promise of fast and easy travel. In the West Country, the Great Wester Railway and the London and South Western competed to reach the city of Plymouth. The GWR and the South Devon Railway company went South and along the coast, building the current route via Dawlish. The LSWR decided to build a route around the North side of Dartmoor, from Exeter through Crediton, Okehampton and Tavistock down the Tamar Valley to Plymouth, reaching Plymouth in 1876, some time after their rivals.
That northern route, steeply graded and curved, was a main route through until the 1960s. At that point, the Beeching Report was published. One of the principles of Beeching was to eliminate route duplication. The LSWR route via Okehampton to Plymouth was squarely in the crosshairs of the Beeching report. It was well-maintained but expensive to operate, had been transferred to the Western Region from the Southern Region, and the Western Region regarded it as superfluous to requirements, and there were question marks about the health of Meldon Viaduct, which carried the line over the West Oakment valley West of Okehampton. The route ran through rural villages with limited passenger traffic, so it was losing money.
So, the Beeching axe swung on this route. The section between Okehampton and Bere Alston was closed in 1968, and dismantled in late 1969. In 1972, the remaining section between Okeampton and Crediton was closed to passengers and the line singled, although the line was retained for transporting railway ballast from a quarry at Meldon. At the same time, the line from Bere Alston to Plymouth down the Tamar Valley was singled also.
So, via the Beeching Report, one alternative backup route for the route via Dawlish had been eliminated. At more or less the same time, another alternative route via the Teign Valley had been closed as part of the Beeching cuts. This line, originally built by the GWR, was never a main line. It was a branch line , ran through countryside that was vulnerable to flooding, and had sharp curves and a low speed limit.
So, when the Dawlish route was severed in 2014, it took…ooh, all of 24 hours before people began asking the obvious questions (1) why was there no alternative route into Devon and Cornwall, since everybody knew that sooner or later a storm would close the Dawlish section of the line, (2) was it not time to consider adding an alternative route?
The resulting furore from people in Devon and Cornwall, and their elected representatives, led to a Route Resiliency Study, which discussed (among other options that included spending more money on sea fortifications, and building a new alternative route inland) re-instating the 19 miles of missing line between Meldon Quarry and Bere Alston, in order to create an alternative route.
Although everybody was in agreement that this would be a Jolly Good Idea, the Route Resiliency Study was never a proposal. It was simply a collection of possible alternatives thrown together with not much detail work or estimation. Part of the reason being that nobody could agree on the likely costs for most of the options, including the reinstatement of the route via Okehampton.
The low-end estimates for this option (probably way too optimistic) were of the order of £150m. The top end “Rolls Royce” estimate for a high-speed route with double track were up near the £875m mark. As a general rule, a medium-speed railway line costs around £10m a mile to create, even without factoring in special projects like large bridges and new earthworks. The likely cost for a long single line with high-speed passing loops would be around £600m+. In other words, not cheap.
One reason is that the cost of re-instating the route to Plymouth via Okehampton is a lot more than simply re-instating the 19 miles of track. The entire route from end to end will require upgrading, since the disconnected ends have been treated as branch and freight lines for 40+ years, and the track infrastructure is worn out. This is therefore not a simple “lay some track in the middle again and start the service” project. Issues are as follows:
1. Meldon Viaduct, used by the original route, is now a listed monument and cycle trail, and is almost certainly not safe for use by modern trains. (The viaduct was nearing the end of its life when the route was closed in 1968, and was under single-line use with a speed restriction). So, a new bridge will be needed across the West Oakment valley.
2. The line is blocked in Tavistock by the city council offices.
3. 2 stations (Bridestowe and Brentor) are now in private ownership, which may require the sensitive use of eminent domain.
4. The route from Meldon down to Coleford Junction near Crediton is currently owned by a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific. This section will probably need to be bought back from that company
5. The track from Meldon through Okehampton to Crediton will require renewal, since it has not been properly maintained for some years, since Meldon Quarry was closed in 2011. (it currently has a speed limit of between 30 and 55 mph)
6. Okehampton needs a new station, since the current station is at the wrong end of the expanding town and has no car parking.
7. The route down from Bere Alston to Plymouth will also require upgrading since it is used only by stopping local trains.
This is not the work of a moment. However, if the government had started work on this project after the initial big storm in 2014, they would probably already be close to having an alternative operational route.
And, in true “bright shiny object” fashion, the government’s top spending priorities are the HS2 link, which is going to consume up to $50bn of money in the next 19 years. That is the Big Glamour Project.
An additional complicating factor is that the rail network has been staggering from crisis to crisis for 15 years, with RailTrack (the original infrastructure corporation) essentially going bankrupt and having to be bailed out by the government. The current two-part operating model for railways in the UK; an infrastructure company to run track, signaling etc. and stations, and Train Operating Companies (TOCs) to run the trains on a franchise basis, has a number of issues. Some franchisees want out of their current contracts, and the current move by the UK to leave the EU may cause more TOC franchisees to not renew their contracts. In a worst case scenario, the government may have to effectively re-nationalize the network. In the meantime, there is no obvious pile of money available for projects to re-instate alternative routes.
So, fast forward to March 9th 2018. Once again, a powerful storm showed up in the West Country, pounding the Devon coast. And once again, the line near Dawlish was closed. This time, it was not due to obvious storm destruction. Ballast was washed away, and line communications damaged. This required the line to be closed for several days of inspections and checks before it could safely be re-opened.
However, the lack of an alternative route is starting to remind me of the old definition of madness:
i..e. doing the same thing over and over again but still expecting the same result.
We are heading into an era of atmospheric instability as the Earth warms. We can expect more serious storms, not less. Sooner or later another storm will damage or destroy another section of sea wall and the railway line, and the line will be out of action for months. 100 yards of route were destroyed in 2014, and that took 2 months of flat-out work to repair. If half a mile of track is destroyed next time, the line could be shut for a year or more. This will lead to even more light heat and sound as millions of people West of Dawlish once again have no rail link to the rest of the UK The political consequences will be significant. As in, litigation, as the TOCs using the infrastructure sue the infrastructure companies, and the government has to fend off the question “why did you not do anything about an alternative route?”
Oh, and by the way, just to make matters worse, the UK is planning to leave the EU, so any route improvements or duplications will not be getting any EU grants.
Right now, if another big storm shows up next Winter, there will be no alternative and Devon and Cornwall will be cut off once again.
This is an avoidable cluster.

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African-American blindness to discrimination and animus in their own house

Sheesh, here we go again…
One of the more distressing aspects of race relations in the modern USA is the tendency of the African-American community to sign onto anti-Jewish ideas and conspiracy theories, and, when challenged on their public statements, to behave like rhetorical shitweasels.
There is a rich vein of such rhetoric, including the Rev.Jesse Jackson’s infamous “Hymietown” outburst about New York, and Louis Farrakhan’s numerous anti-Jewish references and comments, which he often tries to weasel out of when challenged.
Now we have another eye-opening instance from D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who apparently thinks that “the Rothschilds” control the climate. When challenged on the statement, he engaged in rhetorical shit-weaselling of the first order.
This is distressing. It is distressing because, at a time when animus by white nativists is manifesting itself against anybody who does not look white, and is being accompanied by a clear rise in anti-Jewish rhetoric, plus the return of active campaigning to roll back gay equality, communities impacted by this animus should be forming a united front to push back on it, not being divided.
The African-American community in the USA has multiple challenges on this front, since it is dismissing discrimination against other minorities, or itself engaging in the very racially, ethnically and religiously based discrimination that it rightly decries in others. Some commentators seem to realize this, but other leaders in the African-American community engage in rhetorical tap-dancing when asked about (say) the latest pronouncements of Louis Farrakhan.
Some contemplation in front of a mirror is required.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-lawmaker-says-recent-snowfall-caused-byrothschilds-controlling-the-climate/2018/03/18/daeb0eae-2ae0-11e8-911f-ca7f68bff0fc_story.html?utm_term=.9f7cbab4bb61

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How to be useful on the Internet

Just a quick note about profiles and postings in this morass that we call the Internet.
Onlne, there are two extremes for how you present yourself. You can be a person, a three-dimensional individual, defined by your underlying personality and values, with useful and illuminating things to say.
Or you can be a slogan-based cipher, a source of nothing better than word salad and contentious nonsense, useful only as unserious troll-bait for fellow in-group members and the easily impressed.
Don’t be a slogan-based cipher.
In order to not be a slogan-based cipher, there are some things you should NOT do.
1. Don’t define yourself in your profile by your political positions or religious affiliations
Phrases like “constitutional conservative”, “commited socialist” or “devout Christian” are borrowed slogans that tell me you would rather be part of a herd than an individual in your own right. Talk about who you are, not which club you belong to.
2. Don’t brag about your skills or qualifications
A self-aggrandising phrase like “High IQ” immediately activates my bullshit detector. Really smart people don’t feel the need to assert their smartness. They expect that it will noticed over time. Only bullshitters and/or deeply insecure people try this.
3. Don’t include statements that make you look like a mean-spirited dick
Statements like “hates liberals” may get you an attaboy from Bill down at the bar, but they activate my Avoid Like The Plague switch. If you want to live in an echo chamber with other dicks, however, go right ahead.
(By the way, anybody who “hates Liberals” is telling me that they have somebody else living in their head and destroying them as a person).
4. Don’t plaster visual symbols all over your postings or profile to show how patriotic or American you are
Symbols, by definition, are not tangible things. Those pissed-off-looking eagles and the Stars and Stripes are being used in lieu of explanations. When you put a row of eagles on your avatar instead of an image of yourself, you tell me that you would rather signal virtue to an in-group than provide any useful information about YOU.
5. Don’t use memes to communicate on serious subjects
You should know my opinion on this by now. If you post a meme, you are using somebody else’s voice, not your own. I can find a meme for anything in 1 minute or less on Google. I want to read YOUR voice, not somebody else’s.
6. Extend the principle of charity
When somebody says something that you think is wrong or stupid, don’t assume that they are stupid. Assume that they merely see things differently from you, and inquire rather than attack.
7. Don’t use logical fallacies
If you don’t know what a logical fallacy is…well, there is still time to find out. Here. Here. Here.
People who are not interested in good-faith discussions almost always use logical fallacies, often without realizing it.
8. Don’t be a juvenile.
If you are discussing on a serious subject, talking like a school playground yahoo completely undermines the seriousness and credibility of anything you might say or write. Serious subjects generally require that you behave like an adult and devote some attention.
9. Don’t be a dick.
It’s not difficult to be kind.
10. Don’t be a dick.
Try to be nice. It’s not hard.

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Kaepernick vs. the NFL – Part 3

The collusion complaint by Colin Kaepernick against the NFL is slowly shifting into a higher gear, as persons of interest are deposed by Kaepernick’s lawyers.
Yesterday, Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, gave a deposition in the case in Houston. An interesting aspect of the process was that Colin Kaepernick himself chose to attend the deposition (which he has a right to do). But even more interestingly, Kaepernick chose to work out in a local football facility. He was videoed throwing footballs and participating in a gym workout.
All of this is clearly a carefully calibrated series of actions designed to drive home the message that Colin Kaepernick is not retired, still wants to play in the NFL, and is working to stay fit and sharp for when an opportunity arises. The case, from the viewpoint of Kaepernick and his advisers, is now as much a PR exercise as a legal exercise.
The odds are still stacked against a ruling of collusion; Kaepernick has to prove that multiple owners acted in collaboration to deny him employment, which is a high bar to clear. Unless attorney Mark Geragos and his team can find a “smoking gun” – an item of compelling evidence that teams were collaborating to not sign Kaepernick, the case may fail in the court of arbitration.
However, if the case drags on into the Summer, it risks still being in progress at the start of next season. If, in the meantime, more damaging titbits emerge in the depositions about the racist nature of owner comments, and their seeming willingness to kow-tow to President Trump, from a PR perspective, this will not be good for the NFL. It will cement the image of the NFL as being dominated by owners who are racially tone-deaf and willing sycophants for an unpopular President.
The level of the PR damage may also depend on whether Trump finds himself in progressively deeper troubles himself. The deeper the troubles of the President, the more gullible the Trump-supporting owners will look.
I expect that the collusion case will be a detail topic of conversation at the next NFL owners meeting. I suspect that Roger Goodell will probably be advising the owners in private that they need to seriously think about settling the case before the formal hearing. It will cost the NFL upwards of $75m to do this, but the PR damage may start to exceed that if the case drags on, and more damaging revelations emerge.
As to who pays for the settlement, that is an interesting topic in itself. Teams who clearly were not in the market for a quarterback may resent having to push money across the table as part of a collective settlement effort. They may argue that they should not have to pony up for part of the settlement to assist other teams and owners that should have been a lot more subtle in their private actions and public comments.
The NFL is a strange organization…well, it is, a lot of the time, not an organization at all. It is more like 32 destroyers sailing in close formation, with a commissioner who works for the owners, which makes him only a titular leader.

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Kaepernick vs. the NFL and The First Law Of Holes

In November, Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL alleging collusion.
Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, grievances are processed within the NFL according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This means that a discovery period occurs, where both sides get to review the evidence, and where depositions can be requested and taken under oath from witnesses and interested parties.
We are now entering the deposition period of this grievance. One of the underlying weaknesses of the NFL is beginning to undermine the NFL’s whole defense to the collusion allegations.
What is known in the public eye as “The NFL” is really 32 independent businesses, all of which (with one exception, the Green Bay Packers) are privately owned, usually by a family that controls the majority of the equity in the team. The NFL organization, with Roger Goodell as its commissioner, has very limited authority over the 32 teams, because it really functions as a head office, PR front, and mechanism by which the NFL, under its limited anti-trust exemption (codified in the Sports Broadcasting Act) can negotiate broadcasting and other league-wide contracts.
Roger Goodell is employed by and is subordinate to the NFL owners. As one might expect from a collection of businesspeople who own private businesses and have (mostly) total control, the team owners are a feisty bunch of sometimes-cranky folks who mostly intensely dislike being told what to do by ANYBODY. They are also, with one exception, elderly white guys.
Because Goodell has no ability to tell owners what they can and cannot say in public on any subject, the NFL is now slowly, but inexorably, digging itself into a hole over the Colin Kaepernick collusion complaint. Any lawyer with a functioning brain would gather all defendants and persons of interest in a case like this into a room and the first piece of advice would be “stop talking in public about this case or any subject related to this case NOW”. Roger Goodell may have already told the owners this, but his words do not seem to be getting through. Via their own public comments, and a slow but growing number of leaks of information (possibly from Kaepernick’s team), the NFL is being backed into a cross between a corner and a hole over the collusion complaint. In the last 2 weeks the following information has become public:
– Steven Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, apparently announced that he would require all Dolphins players to stand for the National Anthem (despite the reality that he cannot legally do that), only to walk that statement back publicly a few days later
– At least 2 NFL player agents reported that the Houston Texans are “not interested” in signing any player who has protested during the playing of the National Anthem
– John Harbaugh, the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, was apparently advised by a military officer that signing Colin Kaepernick was not in like with the core values of the NFL

None of these actions (and two of them are rumors, not fact) prove that collusion occurred. However, they are slowly placing the NFL in a situation where, even if they win the collusion grievance against Colin Kaepernick, they will emerge having lost in the court of public opinion. The picture that is emerging from the unguarded public comments of owners, and rumors and leaks, is not a flattering one. It shows a league whose ownership is determined to squash dissent from the players, and which is more scared of offending hyper-patriots than it is in supporting social justice.
We can be sure that Steven Ross, John Harbaugh, and the two player agents are now on the list of people who will be requested to give depositions. Their names are going to be added to a lengthy existing list which includes Roger Goodell, his wife Jane Goodell (who ran a fake Twitter account on his behalf), Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Bob McNair, and Steve Bisciotti.
Kaepernick’s lawyers also want to depose ex-Pappa John’s CEO John Schattner, but that is unlikely to occur since the NFL no longer has a relationship with Pappa John’s (notice how quickly they have been replaced as the NFL Official Pizza supplier?) and Schattner had no direct contractual affiliation with the NFL.
The NFL has emerging challenges that are unavoidable, with viewership steadily declining as more people bail on network and cable television, and its core viewing demographic is ageing.
At the point where the NFL needs a positive relationship with the players, it does not have one. Goodell is widely distrusted by the players over the bruising negotiations at the time of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, and his approach to player discipline which is seen as capricious and arbitrary.
These are challenges that will be difficult to overcome, and the drip-drip of negative news about the Colin Kaepernick case is making matters worse. If the NFL does not have a plan to settle the grievance in advance of a hearing, it needs one, and fast. Winning the hearing will be a loss if the public perception is that Kaepernick was railroaded out of the NFL.

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Delta Airlines vs. Georgia – the next phase in the game

Delta Airlines responded defiantly to the news that the State of Georgia removed a clause from a tax incentive bill that would have given it a break on jet fuel purchases within Georgia. (NOTE – This was not specific to Delta – other airlines would also have benefited from the tax concession; however, Delta had more to gain because its main hub is in Georgia).
Delta also leaked some interesting titbits, the most important one being that a grand total of 13 NRA members had taken advantage of the now-discontinued discount program. If that is the correct number, the program was a waste of money for Delta, even before the public backlash when the existence of the program was discovered. You don’t have to be a math genius to work out that there was no upside to continuing the program.
The decision to strip the fuel concession from the bill was a state-wide political decision. Atlanta is a Democratic city, and rural Georgia is solidly Republican. The decision would therefore have appealed to rural GOP voters as sticking it to the corrupt Dems in Atlanta. All good retail politics in an election season.
The main question is: what next?
Delta is unlikely to leave Atlanta. They just extended for another 20 years with the City to use Hartsfield-Jackson as their man hub. They could leave, but long-term contracts like this one are difficult to get out of. When I visited Nashville in 2002 en route home from ORD to DFW (in the days when I had flight benefits on American Airlines), I found out that American had abandoned Nashville as a hub after 9/11, reducing it to a destination from several other hubs (ORD, DFW and RDU). However, they still had long term leases on close to 20 gates at the airport that they could not get out of. So some of the gates were shuttered, and some of them had been leased to SouthWest Airlines. The AA flights into and out of Nashville were full, but AA was losing money (“loadings are great, but yields are terrible” was the succinct summary of one of the AA gate agent supervisors) because of the combination of high fixed costs they could not get out of, plus competition from SouthWest, who were being subsidized via the cheap sub-leased gates.
So…Delta could leave ATL, but it is unlikely to do so, unless another city comes up with a dizbustingly-enticing tax and/or subsidy package.
What I think is most likely to happen is that the tax concession will be quietly resurrected in another bill, and passed later this year after the fuss has died down. Delta has been a GOP money donor, and the GOP will not be keen to lose donations in the future.
The entire incident is an example of what happens when virtue signalling becomes the main public currency of retail politics. Delta cancelled discounts for NRA members because there was no upside any more, given the backlash after the Parkland school shooting (Virtue Signal #1). The Georgia GOP removed the fuel tax concession from the bill to show that they could punish Delta and energize their base in an election season (Virtue Signal #2). Delta’s CEO informed the public that “their values are not for sale (Virtue Signal #3). If they are smart, the GOP will now repair the damage by quietly re-instating the fuel tax concession.

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