Tag Archives: robotics

Robotics Might Save the Railways

The rail system in the UK is a mess. Start from basics: rail travel, when it started (in England, in the world) in the 19th century, was a fast expanding private enterprise system of competing lines. These lines (companies) solidified into an efficient cartel by the time of the First World War. During the war itself, the railways were under State control (and until 1921). The Railways Act 1923 put the de facto private cartel on a statutory basis, with four large railway companies running virtually all passenger and freight services. Profitability waned with the coming of cars and road freight so that, by the time of nationalization in 1948, losses threatened. This became reality in 1955, when British Rail recorded its first operating loss.

The “modernization” plans adopted from 1955 culminated in the Beeching Report of 1963 and the subsequent and consequent closures of lines, services and stations. More than a third of passenger services were closed down. The closures of railway stations were even more dramatic: out of 7,000 stations, more than 4,000 were shut.

The 1990s privatization was carried out in a manner so poorly-conceived that only free-market ideologues who knew little of the realities of how to run a railroad could ever have decided upon it. I do not propose to delve into the detail here (and I myself am no expert anyway), except to say that there seems to be a good case for re-nationalization, possibly on a low-compensation or even an expropriation basis.

What of the future? We see that, all over the world, even in the UK, that driverless train transport, indeed driverless transport generally, is becoming common. Many British people will have travelled on limited forms of automated transport such as the Docklands Light Railway or the monorail at Gatwick Airport which connects the main terminal with another. It would be possible to run many more light rail and ultralight rail services on new branch lines, connecting with existing mainline stations and lines. Indeed, computerized and robotized ultralight narrow-gauge trains could run from towns, villages and suburbs not presently connected to rail, such lines terminating at an existing railway station. A whole huge new web of public transport could come into operation in this manner, eventually becoming more dense even than the railway system that existed before the 1960s. At the extremities, such lines could be narrow-gauge and the trains very small, perhaps single carriage. The expense, though considerable, would be worthwhile, knitting together a country which has become dislocated.

Road transport will be the dominant mode for the foreseeable future, but if an enhanced branch line network can take even 10% of passenger journeys off the roads, the cost of the new system will perhaps have been justified on that basis alone.

THE CASE FOR BASIC INCOME

Jesus Christ said that the poor are always with us (part of society). Whether that be accepted or not in absolute terms, the fact remains that, in practice, there is always the necessity to deal with “the submerged tenth”. In Soviet Russia, the solution was make-work jobs and, if that failed, part of the GULAG system. In finance-capitalist “Western” societies, there is the illusion of “aspiration” and “opportunity”: people need not be without (sufficient) income if they work. This theory or ideology leaves aside those who cannot work, whether because sick, disabled, or unable to find remunerative or sufficiently remunerative employment.

Robotics and computerization are advancing. Some studies say that a third of present jobs in countries such as the UK will disappear by about 2030 (some say “only” 25%). It may well be that other jobs will not appear to take up the slack. Millions may be left unemployed. At present, lack of income means that unemployed people (as well as the sick and disabled) have to jump through hoops in a degrading and largely pointless bureaucratic exercise in order to receive often very modest State-provided benefit payments. The system is not only expensive because of those payments, but because of the huge bureaucratic machinery that is built in to the process. There is a better way. Basic Income.

The Basic Income idea is that all citizens receive a regular payment, regardless of circumstances. In short, the payment is unconditional, meaning not withheld if the recipient does not have a job, look for a job, can do a job. Basic Income replaces all (or, in some versions, some) existing social welfare payments.

Basic Income is being trialled in some areas of Europe: in parts of Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands. In Alaska, all permanent residents receive a small Basic Income payment annually (at present, about $2,500), monies routed from oil revenues.

Basic Income could be tweaked, so that persons on incomes above a certain level have an equivalent amount taken via the tax system; another idea would be to give a higher-tier Basic Income to the disabled (though that would mean some form of assessment and judgment). Alternatively, Basic Income could be paid only to those without income or capital, topping up income to a certain or decided level. That is, in fact, more or less what happens now in the UK, but without the present system’s bureaucracy, unpleasantness, snooping, harassing etc (made far worse since the Iain Duncan Smith regime of 2010-present).

It is objected that Basic Income would mean that people would just be unwilling to work. Is that so? First of all it might depend on the level of Basic Income. Economic realities would probably limit Basic Income to no more than about £15,000 p.a. It might be as little as £10,000 (either per person or per household). Many will, at that level, find plenty of incentive to work if they can. Also, it is rarely heard that people should not receive inheritances or trust incomes because they might be made lazy thereby. Lottery winners in the UK usually start businesses, carry on working for pay or do charity work.

In fact, in the UK, there are already payments somewhat analogous to Basic Income. State Pensions are already paid to all persons over a decided age, with extra “State Pension Guarantee Credit” money paid to those whose income and capital is below a certain level. Child Benefit was formerly paid to all persons who have children (regardless of income) and still is paid, though now there is an income cutoff point (at a fairly high level).

The cost of Basic Income is lessened by the removal of large numbers of pointless jobs in the (UK) Department of Work and Pensions etc and by the elimination of the need for large numbers of “Jobcentres” and other buildings and their upkeep. Housing Benefit will not exist, so greedy buy-to-let parasites will not be subsidized by taxpayers via taxation revenues). That alone will save billions of pounds.

A person receiving Basic Income who wishes to work will be able to look for work honestly (rather than in order to tick a Jobcentre box) and with confidence, and in the meantime will have money for transport, clothing, food. The disabled will not have to undergo degrading tests in order to receive at least the “basic level” of Basic Income (medical report from GP should be sufficient anyway). The more fortunate, who have income or capital, will (if receiving Basic Income), will be able to spend more (thus stimulating the economy) and/or start their own businesses.

In short, it will become clear in time that Basic Income is the way forward in the UK.