A fond farewell

Richard Wellings, who leaves us on 15 November with our very best wishes, has been with the IEA for 15 years. He was initially Deputy Editorial Director and later Deputy Research Director, and twice Acting Research Director. He was also, for many years, editor of this blog.

By the time of my arrival he was renowned – very justly, as I soon saw – for the precision of his copy-editing and production work; and the sharpest eye for an author’s misexpression. In addition, his own contributions to our research output, most of them from an earlier period, focused on transport matters, with a string of astute analyses of poorly-aimed interventions, counterproductive policy, and the command-and-controller’s ways of wasting other people’s time and money.

Amongst them was a crushing paper from 2013 on the politics of HS2 – one of three on that project. The route changes were argued to suit political interests, costly extensions follow unabashed lobbying, and additional expense arising from tunnelling shown to be planned to placate local opponents of overground rail. Richard was precisely on the point that whatever the merits or more likely, otherwise, of the project, once planning is far enough advanced, the political process introduces extra costs as every part of the plan is potentially susceptible to forceful lobbying; and every time, there is a chance, or a good chance, that the easier route is to buy off the opposition to the plan – predictably, inevitably, therefore, increasing costs.

There was a revelation in Paving over the tracks – a paper arguing that there is a serious case for the conversion of railways into ‘busways’. A key point was that it would be a great advance to make it a realistic possibility for separate infrastructure owners to make commercial decisions to change the mode of transport on their routes – that would be much better than making it a matter of government policy. Then the case was made for busways by detailed attention to a host of issues. Trains tend to have higher top-speeds than buses, but on shorter routes – which, Richard’s data showed, account for most passengers – that is a small matter. And anyway, buses offer more flexibility in timing and routing onto the existing road network, so door-to-door times might well be reduced. On cost, the buses could be run more cheaply. To take one point, trains appear to have fewer staff to run them, but Richard’s data showed that counting all-employees, that was much less clear, even without making allowance for the greater costs of maintenance of rail over roads. Fuel costs would be reduced by the flexibility offered in matching bus services to consumer demand. The costs and technical issues in conversion of the track were nowhere near enough to make the plan unimplementable on suitable routes, and since terminals could be smaller, valuable city-centre land would be available for other uses.

Then – taking just a sample of Richard’s work – there was an outstanding paper (written with Martin Cassini) on traffic control could be a case-study of the failings of the regulatory state. The authors documented an increase in traffic regulation, through the introduction of traffic lights, for example, out of all proportion to any increase in traffic. They questioned the value of a host of commonplace interventions and noted the failure to conduct proper cost-benefit analyses. There are cases where the benefits of bus and cycle lanes offer too little compensation for the loss of space, and consequent congestion, they cause. What about the consequences for small and local business of parking restrictions? And how many people die because emergency services are impeded by road humps? All these, and plenty more are argued out, and then there is the emphatic point that a large enough number of ‘negligible’ costs can lead to some pretty big numbers. The authors argued that a two-minute delay to every car trip carried a cost of about £16bn per year (2016 pounds, and no allowance for vehicles other than cars!)

There are three papers of imaginative insight, powerful logic, and detailed presentation, which make their own specific cases. But as a group they also illustrate a whole range of ways in which governments can fail us – through being greedy to intervene too much; too susceptible to the influence of determined groups; or just stuck in a mode of thought that needs to be changed. As I write, one more paper on transport after Covid is approaching the end of the publication ‘pipeline’ and will see the light of day shortly. Richard has made a great contribution all round, and we must wish him well – but not only wish him well, since we must wish him to continue to contribute to our output too.

2 thoughts on “A fond farewell”

  1. Posted 13/11/2021 at 20:29 | Permalink

    I am sorry to see Richard leave the iea, but I am sure that he will continue to make an incisive contribution to debate on matters of political economy. As many people know, Richard and I were brought up in the same street (about nine doors apart). I did not discover that until he was already involved with the iea. He was a natural choice (and an excellent choice) as John Meadowcroft’s replacement when I needed a new Deputy Editorial Director. Perhaps HS2 will not happen. If it is cancelled, it will be, in no small part, due to Richard’s analysis. Much of the opposition is inspired by nimbyism and much of the support is inspired by financial and other vested interests. Richard’s is one of the few dispassionate analyses of the subject. Good luck and thank you.

  2. Posted 14/11/2021 at 14:35 | Permalink

    Richard wrote other transport and particularly rail-related papers in the IEA Discussion/Controversies Series. One that I would particularly like to mention because it has a great deal of relevance to the current debate on HS2 generally and particularly Phase 2b, is ‘Failure to Transform: High-sped rail and the regeneration myth’. This analysed the experience of the economy of east Kent following the introduction of HS1 services and indicated since their introduction the region performed worse than the rest of the South East. High-speed services failed to transform the regional economy and their impact was too small to counteract other economic factors. A positive re-generational impact from HS2 is by no means certain, indeed “… such an outcome is highly unlikely” was Richard’s message.

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