Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Transportation Strike

Note: I welcome corrections on this from any Dutch people. Naturally my knowledge of the local politics and economy is hampered by my inability to read Dutch.

Back when I lived in London, I was frustrated because the Tube drivers went on strike so often I started referring to them as Le Tube (a reference to the famous French tendency to strike at the drop of a hat). The leader of the Transport for London Union, Bob Crow, is a thoroughly despised man to many people in London, calling multiple strikes to protect pay and working conditions for transport drivers that many feel are unacceptable (new Tube drivers, who can be hired with no qualifications and start after a few weeks of training, make more money than my brother Greg, who's been a nurse with the NHS for 13 years).

Even more seldom.
Dutch Tram
Photo by Generaal Gibson
In moving to the Netherlands, I wasn't sad to leave Bob Crow's transportion system behind me. We had strikes yesterday, but unlike the Bob Crow strikes, these seem reasonable. The Dutch transport minister, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, has decided that we're spending too much money on transportation. Currently Amsterdam spends €122 million on transportation, but she wants this by by a whopping €75 million (article in Dutch and I may have misunderstood bits after translation). However, I note that her political party, the VVD, is apparently very concerned that the private market rule supreme. Even if cutting Amsterdam transportation spending by 60% were feasible, doing it practically overnight is a disaster. I thought anyone with even basic economic knowledge would be smart enough to know that you transition from one system to another, not just gut the current workings and move on.

Of course, the current government is also trying to get rid of marijuana and is doing that by not allowing tourists in Dutch coffee shops. I can only presume this is a cunning plan to halt the shutting of prisons for lack of criminals.


  1. marte from the officeJune 8, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    she indeeds wants to 'by' it by €75 million..the numbers that speak to me a bit more though, is that 25 of our current 44 bus routes will be cancelled, and 3 of our current 16 tram routes. especially the bus thing is ridiculous, especially when you consider the demographic of the average bus-user (the elderly, people who cannot afford a car because they mainly work low-income jobs not too close to home, and kids going to and from school [actually, screw those kids, take a bike, noisy idiots])

  2. marte from the officeJune 8, 2011 at 7:48 AM

    eesh, sorry for the poor grammar and over use of the word especially. feel especially bleh today.

  3. I don't want to defend the minister, but she is implementing European rules. The gist of those rules say that governments in general shouldn't run businesses (which is what the GVB (Amsterdam), RET (Rotterdam) and HTM (The Hague) are - government run transportation systems), nor should they make special deals with preferred companies (which is what they like to do with the Dutch railways). In that case it means that every European transport company should have the option to make a bid. Note that this hasn't so much to do with "free markets" as with "illegal state support" - which is important in Europe as every country has the urge to support its local industry.

    Now, the minister also has far less money to spend. Budgets need to be cut as well. She thinks privatizing the public transport systems will mean they can be run more efficiently. With less money to spend, services will reduce, regardless who is going to run it. Whether another organisation than GVB/HTM/RET can provide more service for the same amount of money remains to be seen.

    It's important to realize that there are two things going to happen: privatizing public transport, and less money going to public transport. They are related, but if either of them wouldn't happen, the other still will.

    Now, what Marte says about the number of bus/tram routes to be cancelled, that's just a figure someone draw on the back of an envelope, based on the GVB remaining to run the services and suddenly having their funding cut. What the impact is going to be remains to be seen.

    I'm not sure what the message of these strikes is going to be. It feels a bit "we're afraid to lose our jobs, so we're striking, but we pretend it's because we worry about future customer service". That doesn't feel right to me.

  4. Abigail: I'm fairly sure that's the response of most unions to the prospect of jobs being lost. Look at the Post Office, or indeed the BBC, in the UK.

  5. DorinetheneighbourJune 8, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    I always wonder why 'following European rules' is posed as an argument to point out that says: 'well, there you have it, nothing more can be said or done about it, it's European regulation.' I would like to add: I also do not agree then, with European regulation on so called 'illegal government support' where public transport or any other social facility is concerned. I am still in principle a believer in paying collectively for facilities of common interest, such as health care, schooling, care for the 'incapable' and elderly and public transport. It seems that it's just a very 'of the era'-way of looking at these facilities only by economical standards, seeing them as business instead of facilities funded by the people for the people, hence these European regulations apply to these facilities as well. And by the way: in Holland I know of NOT ONE privatized sector that has thrived after privatization. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, it maybe would help me feel less gloomy about these plans for the public transport).

  6. In my opinion privatization of a consumer-facing service where there is no room for the creation of a competitive market is doomed to hurt all involved.

    Commercially driven consumer-facing companies need competition to force them to become focussed on what the consumer actually wants, at that is their only way to ultimately grow market share.

    This is why privatization of telco providers, power-companies and gas-companies *can* work, but something like public transport isn't suitable. Especially if the people in charge of making the public transport remain politicians (at heart) instead of business(wo)men. The combino-debacle, north-south-line-nightmare and digital-payment-system are prime examples of what that particular mismatch can cause.

    I've dealt with Amsterdam public transport for 25 out of my 35 years and the diminishing level of quality has made me switch away from public transport. Took me a while, but I finally managed to find a transportation form that is cheaper (in the long run), offers more freedom, does not (significantly) increase my carbon footprint and actually reduces the level of physical activity I have to perform.

  7. In New Zealand, the government of the day sold our national railway service back in the 90s for a song, because it was believed private industry would run it more efficiently.

    The new (foreign) owners bought it with the intention of running it into the ground -- they continue services but fire experienced drivers, etc. and skip maintenance, thus making enormous profits. Then, when the railway is in such bad shape that no one wants to take the train, they can just walk away.

    So, a few years ago, the government decided that New Zealand needed a rail infrastructure, and we were in danger of losing it. So they bought it back. I think it was the right thing to do, but we (NZ taxpayers) didn't exactly make a profit on the deal...

  8. DorinetheneighbourJune 8, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    Gosh... what does that remind me of? Maybe... banks! Running things into the ground, while staff is personally collecting huge amounts of bonuses and if it becomes a real problem that business has turned a bit crappy, government has to fund...

  9. Repton and Dorinetheneighbour make very valid points, and I second them. When it comes down to it, private companies are motivated by profit, first-and-foremost, and have zero conscience or social cause.

    Mobility of the labour force in private hands can make the difference between whether a competitor in another industry lives or dies. Where I live, in Portland, many of our tech companies are located 20 miles from the city centre. If public transport didn't serve those areas (due to privitisation and cost-cutting) or increased rates significantly, some businesses could relocate to downtown (the hub of public transport) and get more (and better) workers due to a privitised transportation decision.

    Government entities take costs, social benefit, environmental well being, and a lot of other factors in when they're making decisions. Private companies will skimp on costs, internalise profits (if energy costs go down, your fares won't), and externalise costs (make the public pay for the roads and rails, we'll make a profit from using them!).

    If I were a business owner, I wouldn't want private companies telling my customers where they can and can't go to. A private transportation system could systematically (if they had a bug up their butt to do so) cut off access to the Red Light District if they didn't like the fact that prostitution happens. And the people have no control over that.

    Private companies, such as insurance companies, make life very difficult in the US. Be it the music industry (Marilyn Manson couldn't tour due to insurance premiums being too high for venues to pay) or health care, I do not trust private companies making uninformed or opinionated decisions that have a material impact on my life.

    At least with a public system, we have votes (which is of dubious value when private organisations control the media and message!).

    Curtis: I think the minister wants to cut the budget to 75M EU, but my Dutch is worse than yours, and the google translation of this page is littered with massive inaccuracies and grammatical issues.

  10. How can there truly be competition with public transport? So I use Arriva trains... because they have better service?? Uh, no, because they are the ones who run this train in my town. Then in Dordt I step over to the NS... I have no happy feelings about the NS, but they run those trains. If I take a bus from here, it's Arriva. Not like there's some *other* bus I could take. I have to be somewhere, period.

    Basically though the poor public transport has driven people to using cars more. No matter how much politicians whine and complain about how we need to reduce our carbon footprints or reduce spending on foreign oil or reduce congestion on our highways... that means nothing when you may well lose your job for coming into work 3 hours late at least once a week because of something going wrong with public transport. Yeah, you have the possibility of getting stuck in a file in your car, but there you have the comfort of sitting in a seat someone else hasn't barfed in, listen to your music, and even with astronomical gas prices it still costs way less than travel by public transport. The only thing stopping me from doing this (even though I'm politically pro-less-oil-use blah blah) is lack of a car and license.

    I kinda liked that I could get everything done I need to without maintaining a car. But then I need to be able to trust public transport.