Global economic collapse


Partly collapsed Bridge 80, Oxford Canal,
photo Ralph Freeman, Crumbling Canals blog

(click picture to go to Crumbling Canals)


It was quite a week. Leman Brothers, the USA’s 4th largest investment bank, collapsed on Monday creating the largest bankruptcy in American history. Lloyds TSB acquired HBOS, leapfrogging over competition rules, and acquiring the blue riband for fastest financial institution takeover in recent British history. Bank of America swallowed up its smaller rival Merrill Lynch, and AIG, an insurance company that insured the value of certain derivative stocks, received a USA government bailout of $85bn. Now we realise that you can read this sort of stuff every day in the mainstream media and that some of our readers may only read BTWT for relaxation and enjoyment. If you are one of these and wish to escape from screaming headlines proclaiming global economic collapse, help is at hand, simply follow the instructions immediately below.

Go to ‘A watery palimpsest’.

Behind the headlines

If you are still here, I’ll take it that it will be OK with you to explore briefly some of the underlying issues of the current crisis before this article returns to matters directly related to transport. If you are heavily involved in one political party or another – fear not – BTWT is totally non-party political. As a schoolboy, I concluded that party politics is like baseball or football, while the crowds go mad screaming their support for one team or the other the really important action is going on off the field. And the guys with the cash are happy to sponsor first one team and then another. I’m even willing to accept that most politicians are well meaning. I knew two members of the current Polish cabinet when they were young men and they were both chaps that you would have been happy for your sister to out with.

Individual politicians are caught up in huge currents that are entirely outside their own control. You can’t reach the highest levels of power in a modern parliamentary democracy without one or two wealthy patrons or sponsorship by one interest group or another. Such support comes at a price. So you would not expect mainstream politicians of whatever party, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Labour, to differ much from each other on fundamentals. Britain’s failure since WW II to move away from a road dominated transport policy and Ruth Kelly’s blind instance to proceed with the third runway at Heathrow is a symptom of the power wielded the road and oil lobbies and other vested interests over UK politicians.

The current crisis in the financial services markets is part of a game being played by ‘powers of which we have no knowledge’ for much higher stakes. More directly it is result of the laissez faire approach to financial regulation introduced (but not designed by!) Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher, and then supported by all subsequent American presidents and British prime ministers! These policies allowed a select few to make huge fortunes, but everybody else, whose savings and pensions are now evaporating, is paying the price. The best analysis of the current crisis that I have been able to find is this interview by Charlie Rose with George Soros, the man who bet against the Bank of England and won! An alternative analysis, which is well worth reading, appears in the Financial Times here. Finally, for a transatlantic view, have a look at this article in the New York Times.

As I am also affected by the current situation, I’ve been doing a lot of background reading to research alternative options. On my reading list is The Economist. On Saturday, I was amazed to discover, at a time when I thought that the periodical would be full of articles about other matters, this charming article about Britain’s canals.

Start reading again here.

A watery palimpsest

Sep 18th 2008

Admiring what remains of an antique network

GONGOOZLER: not an obscure variety of coelacanth, nor a visitor to one too many pubs, but a person who enjoys observing British canals—a trainspotter of still waters. Mostly this involves sitting outside waterside pubs watching narrowboats go by, occasionally helping (whether invited to or not) with lock-opening activities and the like…

Today, thanks mainly to gongoozlers’ passion, 2,000 miles or so survive; the rest have been paved over or filled in. With industrial traffic gone, they have been transformed to avenues of leisure and houseboats. Thousands of narrowboats ply the waterways (at around four miles-per-hour), traversing a lock system unchanged since the Victorian age. Pausing alongside a busy lock on a Sunday stroll and watching the boats line up, enter the hatch, open the sluices and ascend or descend, evokes a dynamic sense of past, sustained into the present.

The Economist piece (click here to read the full article on the Economist website) paints a delightful picture of the recreational value of the navigable British rivers and canals. But it’s strange and disturbing that the transport value of the waterway system is so rapidly dismissed.

The charm of canals lies in their survival in the face of irrelevance. Once, Britain’s inland waterway system ran for around 4,000 miles, facilitating the early industrial revolution. Railways began their decline, lorries and declining coal use completed it…

Visionary pointy-heads occasionally tout the canal as the answer to freight congestion on British roads. Such possibilities exist (in the shifting of waste, for example) but these are typically over-egged. A 2,000-mile network that relies on narrowboats travelling at four miles per hour, will never seriously challenge the motorways.

I remember the last commercial carrying by narrow boats on the Grand Union in the 1960s. What killed the trade was not economics, but the failure of British Waterways to dredge the canal system to sufficient depth and the prolonged closure of Blisworth tunnel for major rebuilding in the 1980s. With fuel prices an order of magnitude higher since those days it would seem a no brainer to promote the carrying of bulk, non-perishable goods, on Britain’s canals. A pilot scheme is already in operation carrying gravel from a pit near Denham to Hanson’s gravel terminal in West Drayton.

Sadly British Waterways still seems more interested in turning over its wharves to property developers than promoting its waterways network as an alternative transport network.

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One Response to “Global economic collapse”

  1. Robert Hall Says:

    Mention of surprise at the Economist’s article – at a time of great economic angst – about Britain’s canals and their delights. I have the impression that serious journals do this, as a matter of policy – if only because they want to add in a bit of escapism at times of crisis, so as not to lose too many of their purchasing readers, by reason of said folk committing suicide in utter despair about the future.

    I remember (same principle) that during the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the ‘Guardian’ published an article – setting off an animated correspondence – about Eddie Stobart’s haulage firm, and the fascination which it exerts on “lorry gricers”, and the possible reasons for same…

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