Transport For London, the ‘statutory corporation’ that runs the London Underground is in smug-mode at the moment and it’s ever so slightly starting to get on my nerves. It is imploring us Londoners to celebrate, revere and be thankful for the glorious transport service it bestows upon us proles. Which of course only the magical and benevolent State could ever provide.
You see, it’s the 150th ‘anniversary’ of the London Underground and everyone’s invited to the party! Currently there are boastful posters at many tube stations conveying this message. Only a government-run operation would consider it sane to boast about how old and decrepid much of its infrastructure is.
“Most of our track line and the tunnels they run through are over a century old, meaning taking advantage of even modestly new technology such as driverless trains and providing basic amenities such as air-conditioning takes us, like, forever – if it even happens at all! And rest assured, we are fully committed to making sure that whenever our prices rise, which, like Christmas, happens ever year, the quality of our service doesn’t budge an inch – but our staff do get paid more!”
There’s even anniversary gifts and souvenirs on sale. Well, isn’t that delightful. Presumably there’s only one item to choose from, which is of poor quality and only ever gets more expensive because every time the unionised shop staff don’t have their demands for a ‘fair wage increase’ met they’re outside the shop with their picket signs quicker than you can say ‘vote labour’.
The worst part about all this is that the achievements of the entrepreneurs and capitalists of the early 20th century, whose foresight and economic prowess led to the creation of the first electrified underground train lines in London, have been usurped by the glib and mistaken notion that The Underground transport system is the product of government. This simply isn’t so.
The first eight electrically operated underground train lines in London were up and running in London by 1908, at a time when the only government involvement had been to give permission to construction projects (those were the days!). The services were created and operated by six independent operators, and wholly backed by private financiers. Those selfish capitalists at it again! Oh how they hate society.
What most people don’t realise, and what TfL does not venture to tell people, is that the core components of the London Underground’s ‘iconic’ identity were established as a result of the innovative marketing ideas of these independent operators. The term itself, ‘The Underground’, came about in 1908 as the result of the railway operators voluntarily entering into a joint venture to promote their services as ‘The Underground’. Even referring to the underground train system as ‘the tube’ originated as a result of The Central London Railway Company’s line acquiring the nickname the ‘twopenny tube’ after its opening in 1900 (twopenny was the flat rate fare and the tunnel was cylindrical).
The now globally famous London Underground map, which gets many a design-lover going weak at the knees, was the result of an experiment with a new diagrammatic map by the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), and was designed by Harry Beck. Even the well-recognised horizontal bar and circle symbol, known as ‘the roundel’ and used as a signpost at station entrances, emerged as part of that same 1908 joint marketing venture. The TfL website makes no mention of the simple fact that the London Underground owes its very existence and current identity (which, by the way, TfL gleefully exploits by selling all kinds of tat featuring the London Underground symbol and map) to the foresight and economic bravery of a small group of early 20th century entrepreneurs.
Business men motivated certainly at least by profit, but probably additionally and more so by achieving their respective personal visions, bestowed benefits almost beyond measure upon London society by creating new opportunities for everyone to raise their standard of living – which the vast majority did. Which, when you really think about, is pretty darn amazing. And all achieved through entirely voluntary economic interactions, no coercion or force required. Sure, there were bumps along the way, some line construction projects ran out of funding, but the overall result was a network of electrified underground train lines for Londoners to whizz about on – all achieved in the space of about ten years. Astounding.
It’s truly tragic that those brave and visionary individuals who were responsible for conceiving and creating the very core of the London Underground and it’s now globally recognised identity have had their astounding social achievements all but erased by the white-wash of government propaganda. Are there statues of these great individuals anywhere in London? No, but there’s plenty of statues of war lords, judges and other flabby-faced angry white men. Go figure.
Forty years after the first electrified underground train lines were created in London the Underground was ‘nationalised’, in other words hijacked by government under the mistaken belief that ‘for profit’ management does not produce the greatest good; and the rest is a history of the death of competition, the stagnation of quality of service, the impossibility of lowering the wages of staff as a result of unionisation, and progressively higher costs to choiceless customers.
We can only guess what London’s underground transport system might have looked like today had government not seized control of it in the forties. It might have been less expansive, or even twice the size, who knows. But what we can be almost certain about is that fares would be lower and that’s because there would still be competition and freedom for anyone to enter the public transport market in the absence of government control. These conditions invariably have the effect of driving prices down as each provider is required to attempt to out-compete others if they wish to be profitable. Regional monopolies may have emerged across London, but as long as a monopoly is contestable, there is nothing undesirable about them per se. If one provider found a way to meet all demand in a certain geographic area at the lowest cost, then, hey, everyone’s a winner. If that provider at some point tried to exercise its monopoly powers by gouging its customers in some way it would have the effect of creating opportunities for its competition, which would be bad for the monopoly-holder but good for everyone else; and the monopoly wouldn’t hold much longer. This is the unseen, the world that was never allowed to be, and the world the government hopes we never believe to be possible. It wants us to stay afraid, fearful of ‘selfish’ entrepreneurs and ‘greedy’ capitalists who ‘exploit’ us by finding ways to supply us with products and services we like and find useful, and by providing us with jobs. Truly, they are the spawn of the devil.
Back to what is, then. Transport For London, the (unchallengeable) sole provider, is almost certainly gouging its customers, regardless of its repeated (and frankly tiresome) claims to the contrary. This isn’t because TfL is evil, but simply because it cannot know whether it’s producing the highest quality service at the lowest cost because it has no competing providers to compare its efforts to, and therefore lacks the data to make such a calculation; which makes its claims nonsensical. It’s probably true that TfL is charging the cheapest fares it can, but that’s not the same thing as customers receiving the best quality underground transport service at the lowest cost. That outcome is only possible in a market where competing providers are free to act as they please, and of course aren’t held to ransom by employees practicing legalised blackmail, otherwise known as strike action.
Yes, why not, let’s celebrate ‘the tube’, but not because it’s been completely fucked up by decades of chin-less government wonders with egos bigger than their paychecks, but instead for what it symbolises: that when human beings have the economic freedom to interact with each other as they please, incredible technological advances are made; and everyone benefits.