Posts Tagged: Crime

Short haul

Wednesday 15th October 2008

I’m guessing not many people (who read this) saw Ian Hislop’s programme about Beeching last week, or know about him from other sources (unless I’m not the only one to spend much too long reading about this sort of thing on Wikipedia…). So I’ll summarise.

In the first part of the 20th Century (up to about the 1920s), the railways in Britain were pretty damn good. The network was well used and had a pretty good coverage. However, as they started to face competition from other forms of transport such as cars, lorries, buses and planes, the rail companies found it increasingly hard to make a profit (except for in WW2, where the network was suddenly utilised again for the war effort).

In addition to the competition, the railway system in Britain grew up in the Victorian era in a pretty unmanaged way. As now, everything was privately owned, but unlike now there was much more competition, to the point of certain routes being duplicated and run by two different companies. There were a lot of railways in the country  – at the peak just before WW1, about 22,000 miles. Obviously, this is hellishly inefficient, and really needless after the railways were nationalised in 1947.

Anyway, eventually, things came to a head and the Government decided to bring in someone from a corporate environment, to try to help turn the system around. They chose Dr Richard Beeching, at the time head of ICI, to be head of the new British Railways Board. In 1963, he released a report entitled “The Reshaping of British Railways”. The report was basically an analysis of which lines were used the least (using data from a survey which took place over just one week), followed by his recommendation that if these lines were closed, the rail network would begin to show a profit again.

In the following years, 9000 miles of track (and 4000 stations) were removed. Unsurprisingly, this was fairly unpopular.

Beeching thought that the network should run as a business; i.e. should pay for itself. He neglected the idea that – especially at that time, when it was nationalised – it was a service. If you trim it down until you have a core business that returns a profit, then yes it might make sense financially, but it negates the point of a railway! Also, the report didn’t consider any alternatives to closure. There were plenty of ways that costs could have been cut without severely impacting upon the service offered, yet they were simply not looked at. Additionally, when tracks and stations were closed there was no consideration given to the future expansion of the network. In America when a line is closed, theres a practise called “Railbanking”, where the railroad right-of-way is preserved should the route become viable again in the future. This prevents the land being built on, and if that had taken place it would’ve made life hell of a lot simpler for Network Rail (or whoever) now, when they look at expanding the network.

Another brilliant thing about The Beeching Report is that it assumed that people would get the bus or drive to a station to use the train. But people are inherently lazy, so the assumption was only half right. They used their cars, but just drove where they wanted to go instead of to the station. The same sort of thing happened with freight I think, which again is hardly unpredictable.  The effect of all this is that now the main lines had fewer passengers/freight moving on them, which from a financial standpoint it probably made things worse in some areas! Certainly,  most loss-making routes made such a marginal loss that the overall net effect of the reforms was two-tenths of not a lot; the railways continued to lose money.

The point I’m trying to make – apart from lamenting the railways – is that when increased profit is the only goal, it seems incredibly easy to be incredibly short-sighted. The rail companies were in the early part of the 20th Century when they failed to adequately invest in the network and rolling stock to stay competitive, the Government and Beeching were in the 60s when they decided to close things willy-nilly, and plenty of people are still making the same mistakes. I’m pleased that one of the conditions of the RBS bailout by the Government is that in future any bonuses given to directors will be made in the form of shares (and I assume they have to hold onto them for a while). Hopefully that’ll tie their fortunes to that of the Bank, forcing them to take a longer-term approach. It’s beautifully simple; let’s just hope it’s effective.

Posted In: Rant Tagged: | 5 Comments

Trial and Retribution

Saturday 9th June 2007

There was a story on the BBC a while ago about a 74-year-old man. He’d been in prison a few times, had an alcohol problem, and was basically in a bad state. So he decided to do something about it to sort himself out: he walked into a bank, demanded they hand over some money, and walked back out. He did this with the sole intention of being sent back to prison.

As a society, we seem to demand that criminals be punished, above all else. We feel that if someone wrongs us, we should get our own back or avenge the victims somehow. Whilst I can understand that perspective, I’m not sure that it’s always the most worthwhile way of going about dealing with people who commit a crime.

I don’t think that we should be looking to punish the vast number of criminals. For people who commit “serious” crimes (like rape, murder, voting for the Liberal Democrats), then we should definitely be looking to punish them, and to be honest prison is probably the best way of doing that. But what about other, less serious crimes, like theft? Is prison always the answer?

Well, what are prisons? Essentially, they’re societies full of criminals; places where crime is accepted as “normal”. So if we send someone there, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if they reoffend once they leave. If a first time offender spends, say, six months locked away with other people who may have been in and out of prison all through their lives, then are they likely to start afresh when they leave, or are they just going to pick up tips and tricks off the more experienced criminals, so that they think there’s less chance of them being caught again?

I think that instead of just seeking to “punish” people who commit crimes, we should try to do more. If we, for instance, look at why they commit them and try to remove the circumstances that cause people to commit a crime, then perhaps people will feel less inclined to reoffend (or possibly offend in the first place, in some cases). Like with the man in the story I linked to – if someone was around to help him sort his life out (either in prison or after he left), he possibly wouldn’t have robbed the bank.

Of course, there is a certain question of limits as well. For instance how far do we go in “correcting” a criminal (I’m guessing something like the Ludovico technique would be off-limits), and for what level of severity of crime do we stop trying to help someone, and focus purely on punitive measures?

Given the level of overcrowding in British prisons at the moment, it would probably be worth there being a massive shakeup in the way we deal with criminals. But I suppose “helping” people is a harder option than just bunging them in prison, and possibly pretty unacceptable to the tabloid-reading portion of society…

Posted In: Politics Tagged: | 1 Comment