Saturday, September 17, 2011

Owen McShane: The Passion for Rail

Local government issues seldom stir the passions of the public, or the media, or anyone else –except maybe the politicians and officials directly involved. Rubbish collections and footpath maintenance rarely generate widespread passions beyond their immediate locality. Sports stadia are an exception to the general rule, as we have seen in Dunedin, and the choice of the Auckland venue for the Rugby World Cup.

However, the world-wide exception to the general rule is the construction and operation of rail systems – including light rail, heavy suburban rail, freight rail, inter-city rail, high-speed rail and tourist or heritage rail. All of these generate large numbers of passionate advocates – and a few skeptics.

Subsequent analysis of decision-making demonstrates that the passions generated by rail displace rational analysis. Those of us who follow these proposals around the world all wonder about the distance between professional and expert opinion and the advocacy by government agencies, construction firms and the news media.

Many of us began to wonder if we had somehow lost touch with the real world in our inability to enthuse over these projects. So it was a great relief when, in 1996, Dr. Jonathan Richmond of the University of Sydney, announced his journal paper “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles”. This seminal paper examines the myth-building symbolic processes at work in transit planning in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, the powerful mythologies employed are universal. One commentator has observed “Do not be surprised if power-seeking male politicians become obsessed with the imagery of long shining tubes plunging into deep dark tunnels.”

His paper is worth reading every six months or so to keep one’s critical faculties alert to the “logic” behind the ongoing debates about rail.

One characteristic of rail mythology is that rail is the only “proper” public transport (and indeed rail frequently becomes a synonym for public transport) while buses, shuttles, taxis and aircraft are unworthy of serious consideration.

Also, the mythical hyper-importance of rail means that all other systems and decisions become subservient to the needs of the rail system. If the city employment density is not high enough to support rail then the city must be concentrated and densified, rather than allowed to disperse and decentralise. If the consequent increase in vehicle congestion makes the city unworkable, so much the better, because the urban road users will be freed from their “addiction” to the motor car.

These mythological concepts have played a major part in the processes and decision making that lead to the debacle on the opening night of the Rugby World Cup – which is difficult to understand without an appreciation of the way this mythological framework displaces rational analysis from the decision making process.

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