Quote of the Week: Railways vs Democracy

From Vilas Bajaj’s New York Times profile of India’s over-capacity and low-speed railway network.  (The system moves 7 billion passenger trips per year, or roughly 7 times the population of the country.)

Critics say the growth and modernization of Indian Railways has been hampered by government leaders more interested in winning elections and appeasing select constituents, rather than investing in the country’s long-term needs. It is one of the many ways that the political realities of India’s clamorous democracy stand in contrast to the forced march that China’s authoritarian system can dictate for economic development.

Has any democracy found an effective way around this?  Journalists here in Australia love to reduce all transport infrastructure questions to political calculations around marginal seats in Parliament — and sometimes they’re right.  The best solution we encountered in the Sydney Morning Herald Inquiry was to create a professionalized agency with a bit of autonomy from the Minister of Transport — responsive to government for large-scale goals but not detailed decisions of implementation, phasing, and operations.  If you don’t like these things, you call them bureaucracies.  But so far, they seem to be the least-bad solution I’ve seen.

13 Responses to Quote of the Week: Railways vs Democracy

  1. Danny June 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm #

    Privatize it?

  2. Corey Burger June 17, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

    Danny, privatization doesn’t help. Private doesn’t have the funds at the good interest rates that are required for meaningful capital improvements.
    That being said, I see lots of bitching and moaning about democracies slow things down but I don’t see people talking about the authoritarian government in China is doing wrong (social, environment, etc.).

  3. Alon Levy June 17, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    Indian Railways is really two separate systems. One is the Mumbai Suburban Railway, which is one of the highest-ridership urban/suburban rail systems in the world. The other is the national network. Lumping the two together is like lumping the Northeast Corridor with Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

  4. Fischer June 18, 2010 at 2:59 am #

    Switzerland: Their Bahn 2000 plan contains a coherent functional strategy, which was supported by public referendum. Local opposition was easier to ameliorate since everyone could see the benefit for the whole of Switzerland, and functional replacement projects could be found.

  5. Aaron M. Renn June 18, 2010 at 5:36 am #

    There has been a lot of writing of late in the genre of progress vs. democracy. Writers like Tom Friedman are openly enamored of authoritarian systems like China’s because they can “get things done.” I noticed this article also made a comparison to China.
    However, democracies had no trouble getting things done up until around 1970. In the US, canals, ports, dams and waterworks, rail lines, airports, the interstate highway system and yes, transit systems got built with comparative ease. I suspect other countries had similar experiences. Even today in places like Spain, until the economic collapse, there was significant progress on many infrastructure projects from urban transit systems, to highways, to high speed rail, to airports. There are other contemporary examples.
    Democracy is not incompatible with government, but getting things done is incompatible with poor leadership. An independent commission isn’t the answer to weak leadership. Even if it works in the short term, it will ultimately create as many problems as it solves.

  6. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org June 18, 2010 at 5:51 am #

    Yes, I agree, and what went wrong in 1970?
    When I think about this history of cities I know well, the mid-20c seems like a period where a lot of stuff got built quickly, but of course, a lot of it turned out to be stuff we regret.
    The highway industry created exactly the kind of bureaucracy that gets things done, and does them by the book, but that can’t deal well with changing expectations, shifting demands, generational shifts, etc.
    So I think any supposed golden age of municipal accomplishment was also an era of rather uniform development that was based on denial of a lot of things that urbanists value now: mixture, complexity, serendipity, etc, not to mention the ever expanding dimensions of environmental impact.
    Quite simply, the mid-20c got things done faster because there was less discussion, and that was for three reasons.
    (1) There was less information, especially about environmental impact
    (2) There was less diversity of culture and lifestyle, so it was easier to pretend that everyone wanted the same thing
    (3) Fewer points of view mattered. Many American polities didn’t have to listen to black people, for example.
    So it does seem to me that the efficiency of “getting stuff done” in those years is connected to the attenuated and exclusionary nature of the conversation, and by that standard the stagnant, time-consuming, noisy, indecisive mess we have now is a healthier democracy.
    I agree that great leadership can sometimes break through, but only because now and then a leader inspires is to trust him with the details. Leadership is about shortening the conversation and moving toward decision through the sheer force of will.

  7. Alexander June 18, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    In Australia, democracy doesn’t seem to get in the way of building roads; but, then again, neither does the market. New tollways seem to be justified on the grounds that they’re shiny and new, and the fact that voters don’t want them (nor once built use them) seems to hardly matter.
    Consider the Citylink-Eastern Fwy tunnel the Victorian government wants to build, which is unjustified on the basis of current traffic patterns, and therefore seems to be proposed purely on a basis of creating demand. Why does this work, when corridors full of existing residents (and growing!) have to wait and wait?
    I suspect this is because there is some separation between roads and government that isn’t there between rail and government, but I don’t really know enough about how it works to say. But I also suspect some amount of it is that there’s not enough democracy, and too much money. Politics in Australia (at least at the state level) doesn’t seem to be about how you can please the voters, but how much of a “fiscal conservative” you can be.

  8. Agustin June 18, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    I think I’ve heard this one before… wasn’t there some Italian a while ago that supposedly made the trains run on time?

  9. Aaron M. Renn June 18, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Things get done when there is consensus or a time of national emergency. The problem today is that countries are increasingly diverse (not racially per se, but in terms of economics fortunes, geographies, political preferences, etc). which renders consensus difficult to achieve.

  10. Alon Levy June 18, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    I think Aaron is right here. Consensus matters a lot more than unity. In diverse areas that nonetheless have consensus politics, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Spain, things happen quickly and efficiently. Those countries are nearly all white using the US racial classification, but they have multiple ethnic, linguistic, or religious groups that have had to live with one another for many decades.
    The eras when the US built the most quickly are the ones when its elite had the most internal consensus – namely, the Gilded Age and the postwar era. In areas where consensus politics lasted longer (Japan, Germany, Western Canada), or where infrastructure is not politicized (France, Italy, South Korea), the dysfunctions that characterize Anglo-American infrastructure building happen at a vastly smaller scale.

  11. CroMagnon June 18, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    My city would happy to have a new rapid transit–if it’s underground like a metro (which it needs to be with a different alignemt). But now the communities are so aggravated with the non-sense from the transit agency they’ve basically said screw it. We don’t want it at all now–you blew it by jerking us around.

  12. Kathy June 18, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    I was just visiting with friends from India today and they were commenting how our (United States) public transportation, particularly trains but also buses is very backwards compared to India. Further they said our problem is that we do not have enough people. If US had more people we would have better trains and public transportation like India. I think they made some very good points.

  13. Matt Miller June 23, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Public-Private Partnerships seem to be the preferred way to ‘get things done’ in America. While they typically cost more then advertised, they are good at getting infrastructure built. Big infrastructure projects have ‘lead times’ in excess of the terms of the politicians that sponsored them, and tend to be controversial. As elected officials change, support withers and constituencies change, and projects fail. A coordinating entity with a longer duration seems to be needed to get the job done. State DOT’s have long since mastered the trick.