Wednesday, 11 December 2013

HS2 and Napoleonic Road Planning

"Napoleonic" is used a little loosely here, as what's about to be described really started in Royalist France. Just as many policy trends and objectives from Czarist Russia which continued through the communist and kleptocracy eras and are still being pursued today under Mr Putin's autocracy, so it was in France.

For all the revolution's determination to completely overturn the basis of society and of all intellectual thought, certain thought patterns were so deeply entrenched that the revolutionaries couldn't even perceive that they were thinking the same way as the king whose head they had just chopped off. 

Power was held in Paris or very nearby, and power radiated out from there like the spokes on a cartwheel. As decades of futile war against England produced a desire for military roads to enable armies to march around France, swiftly and efficiently, roads were duly built, and as far as was geographically possible, these were built radiating outwards from Paris, like the spokes on a cartwheel... On the map, this arrangement looked clean, logical and efficient, and those in power in France believed it made them more powerful. It lost them the war.

In England, there were a few military roads (most of these actually in Scotland), and even some military canals, but by and large the road network had been allowed to develop of its own accord, and good roads existed which connected two points which needed each other sufficiently for one or both points to stump up the cost of building and maintaining a road. Medawar has, somewhere, a (German-authored, in 1940) invading army's guide to England and Wales which dwells on this issue at length, as if fascinated by a glimpse into an entirely alien world.

On the map, the English road map of the time, (which is the map of today minus the motorway network) looked almost completely random: even a cobweb has more apparent order, because the network consisted of a huge number of very short roads connecting one local resource to the next, across the land. An administrative map would look very similar, as legal boundaries within England were almost entirely defined by the routes which Saxon officials had ridden every couple of weeks to see what was happening and who was complaining about who. To anyone who looked at a map of England with the same kind of understanding as those who'd created a clean and logical strategic road layout from Paris, it seemed at best haphazard and perhaps deranged, like the paths of ants around a nest, perhaps? It won England the war. Not because armies marched majestically down those roads to do battle or suppress dissent, but because the people working the economy behind those armies and the Royal Navy, could get themselves and their goods to just where they were needed. Because no matter how higgledy-piggledy it looked, every forty or fifty yard stretch of road or track on the network went where it did because someone had a regular need to take a cart that way and not another. Every need was connected, by routes of varying and sometimes very great intricacy, with every resource.

The French spoke-roads could get a large number of soldiers very swiftly from the national centre of power to any regional centre of power. Citizens and their goods were strictly secondary, but because they could travel along the strategic roads at a good pace, the roads were seen, by those in power at anyrate, as being good for the citizens, too. But if the citizen was an artisan, making something useful, rather than a servant of the state, he and his goods needed to start their journey at a point which was not a centre of political power, and end it somewhere else, which likewise was not a centre of political power. The spoke-road sped the citizen's progress between two places, neither of which he really wanted or needed to visit.

That of itself did not cripple the French economy quite to the point of never really being able to win a war against England, but it did hobble the minds of the French elite, both Royalist and Revolutionary, into thinking, based on their experience of living with the results, that there must be a finite amount of wealth in the world, and that policy was simply a matter of grabbing as much of that finite wealth by force as one could, and using force to control how that wealth was doled out, preferably solely to the loyal servants of the elite.

Their English counterparts tended not to associate transport efficiency with superficially logical routing so much as with the practical mechanics of movement along whatever the route was. 

The leaders of Georgian England knew that they needed better transport than the roads that they had, so they started to build canals on very much the need-to-want basis the roads had been built on, and this continued into the Victorian and Edwardian era with canal and then railway building. The Edwardian railway map bore a familial resemblance to the Georgian road map. Only between the end of WW1 and the present day was there an attempt to build a cartwheel of trunk roads and then motorways, followed by the current attempt to impose a new high speed railway system based on the same model.

In the twenty-first century, researchers into artificial intelligence started to research ways of determining the most efficient network between needs and resources possible, not just for physical transport solutions, but for the efficient design of computer hardware, telecommunications networks and any AI software solutions that might be running on those electronic networks. It didn't take them too many years to start studying ant colonies and the patterns of movement the ants made around them.

What they found was, although the way the ants formed their network of routes around a colony was so simple it seemed intellect-free, it always did produce the most efficient network possible in the end, and would always beat any human intellectual attempt to devise a rational and logical system. The ant's route networks do not look rational or logical to the eyes of humans, or at least not members of any political elite: indeed, they tend to look rather like a map of all the roads and lanes in Georgian England.

The ant's way of doing things is efficient because it is the product of Boolean logic: instead of AND, OR and NOT you have the imperatives of NEED, RESOURCE and NEITHER. As long as you persist in connecting NEED to RESOURCE and not to NEITHER, ending up with an efficient network eventually is guaranteed by fundamental mathematics

The HS2 project, and the even grander eventual Trans European Network it and future UK high speed railways are meant to be part of, is a spoke in a cartwheel on a map drawn by men who believe that their powers of reason place them far above the ant. Their purpose is to connect Brussels, the continental centre of power, to London, the national centre of power, and then to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds; the regional centres of power. It connects physical NEED to physical RESOURCE only by blind accident and there is indeed no technical provision for the carriage of raw materials or finished goods, other than nic-nacs being carried by members of the elite traveling from one centre of political power to another.

And it is in the nature of the very high speed "TGV" style of train to be used solely in this way, because its economics and physical dynamics mitigate its usefulness in any other scenario. At the TGV level (or any train that goes at much more than 125MPH) costs and technical issues proliferate and conquer ambition as soon as the track does anything other than run in a straight line with the irreducible number of stops. To the European elite, that is not a disadvantage because that is precisely what they tend to want anyway. In most European countries with a TGV or equivalent network, the high speed lines have sucked resources away from slower lines and trains which serve more destinations and stop more often. Because those are the trains which connect actual physical NEED to physical RESOURCE the French economy is beginning to suffer, but nobody in power can see why, and in fact the elite does not care, because their mental model of the economy is of a finite or even dwindling amount of wealth, with the elite's function being solely to grab as large a share of that dwindling wealth as possible and keep society under control by sharing it out. They expect constant decline, and the fact that even as the EU's population and territory has doubled, its share of global markets has halved, does not trouble them. Decline is what their philosophy leads them to expect.

The ants, if left undisturbed with their funds unplundered, will continue to connect NEED to RESOURCE and disconnect proven instances of NEITHER until efficiency is achieved. That is the mindset we need, if Europe, or an independent United Kingdom, is to enjoy expanding wealth like practically the entire world outside of Europe and Japan (lots of Bullet trains and an economy dead in the water for twenty years.) HS2 is seen by the political elite as sufficiently important as to justify invoking war powers to make it happen, because all the things which make it a bad idea, happen to be fundamental to their view of the world. And their view of the world will condemn us all to eternally declining prosperity and rising poverty unless we break free of it.

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