Train to Insanityville

BBC News – On board a real-life ‘ghost train’: “[Ghost trains] …exist in order to keep certain lines open, because without them the train operators would often have to close the route – something which costs time and money.” They are strange services which often run just once a week and in one direction.”

Imagine that you had to explain ‘ghost trains’ to an alien. The conversation would go something like this.

Alien: Why are they running trains once a week in one direction with no customers on?
You: Well, it’s cheaper to do that than to close the station.
Alien: Huh? Closing a station would surely be one a one-off cost, and a small one relative to paying staff to run a train once a week. How could that possibly be cheaper?
You: Well, train operators have to comply with the rules and procedures for closing a station as set out by government.
Alien: What if they refuse?
You: They get fined.
Alien: Fined?
You: Money gets taken from them.
Alien: Taken?
You: Yes
Alien: You mean, stolen?
You: Erm, well, yes.
Alien: What if they refuse to pay the fine?
You: They get taken out of business I guess. Not sure. No one ever refuses, there’s no point.
Alien: Of course there’s a point!
You: Well, not really, they know they are powerless against the government. The government is all powerful. Everyone has to do what they say.
Alien: I see. So in this environment it is actually cheaper and less time-consuming for train operators to run emtpy trains than to close unviable stations.
You: Yes.
Alien: But that doesn’t change the fact that running empty trains is nonsensical, self-destructive and bad for business from the train operators point of view.
You: Yes.

‘Ghost trains’ are an example of what happens when people with delusions of grandeur and a complete lack of humility (i.e. politicians/civil servants) put guns to the heads of other people offering products/services in order to make them comply with their ideas. In doing so, they almost always leave the provider with no choice but to pursue uneconomic courses of action; with the end result being inefficiency, mis-allocation of resources and, ultimately, higher cost to customers.

The reason why public transport never gets any cheaper (and often just gets more expensive), but things like computers, cars and clothing do, is because the markets for the latter have far less (government-created) barriers to entry and are subject to far fewer regulations than public rail transport providers. If we want the lowest priced service, we must advocate truly free market environments, for only they can achieve it; and oppose government control of economic activity.

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