Lessons from the Breakdown: Making Transport More Reliable

By Jack Short, Secretary General, International Transport Forum at the OECD, Paris

The Christmas chaos in airports, roads and rail lines was the second major international transport breakdown in 2010. In April 2010, a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland grounded European air traffic; the cost was put a 5 billion Euros. This time, snow and ice halted traffic, again with devastating effect. Air France-KLM put its lost revenues in December at 70 million Euros; British Airways' estimate is 50 million Euros. The total is vastly higher, when the individual time losses and disruption are included. Experts put the annual costs of transport disruptions at around 1.5 billion Euro, with this year's being perhaps 50 per cent higher.

Nature's vagaries are natural enemy of transport. But there are other large-scale risks, like terrorism. The September 2001 attack as well as others in London, Moscow and Madrid showed how truly catastrophic the results can be and how vulnerable we are.

So the lesson from the recent transport failures is not so much about the number of snow ploughs or the stock of glycol. The bigger message is to think much more systematically about a wider issue: How to deal better with the unexpected.

The pressures and reasons to do so come from both the demand and supply side. On the demand side, we have highly mobile societies increasingly dependent on transport and ever more intolerant of delays or poor service. Since 1970, the number of air passenger miles travelled has grown ninefold. World container traffic in 1970 was virtually zero, today it is around 500 million tons per year.

Just in time logistics has turned the transport system into a moving warehouse, putting additional pressures on it. Personal travel has changed: trips are more frequent, shorter and further than before. Users today demand more value and better services. Truckers in Germany, for instance, complain that they get no information on traffic conditions, despite huge sums they pay for the Maut.

On the supply side, transport systems are so close to capacity that the slightest incident can have serious knock-on effects. London's Heathrow airport has 1300 landing and takeoffs on two runways, roughly the same as Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris with four. Public transport operates with headways of two minutes.

Politically and economically we can no longer afford stop-gap problem solving. Thus, reliability has become the defining challenge for transport in the 21st Century. Our quest for ever-increased travel speed goes on - but it is the variability in travel times that really bothers people. Policy-makers and operators should heed the fact that users are less concerned about average travel time than about the unknowns that can make their train, bus, plane or car run late and render their own planning useless. A recent study by the International Transport Forum suggests that the economic cost of factoring potential delays into travel times may actually exceed the cost of travel time itself.

So the issue is less how to clear snow or de-ice more planes, but how to systematically minimize unreliability and mitigates its effects. Policies to improve reliability can be summed up in four action items: Inform, build, manage and price.

First, creating a better flow of useful information - among operators, between modes, from provider to user - is the most cost effective approach. The Christmas chaos was a communication disaster as much as it was a breakdown of transport services. The weaknesses in institutional co-ordination, for instance between airports and airline companies or local authorities and truckers were cruelly exposed. As in the volcano crisis, international co-ordination was virtually nonexistent.

The technology to disseminate information is increasingly available, but many transport providers are still unwilling to share their data. Transport is an unusual industry, offering a standard service to individuals who are all different. The personalisation of mass transport services is the crucial challenge that service providers now face. And central to this is real-time information, before and during the trip.

Second, there is no escaping the need to spend on transport - be it on infrastructure, additional services or better deployment of staff in contingencies. Rethinking infrastructure design and standards will help: To most people it is incomprehensible the Europe's high-tech rail lines suffered technical problems with catenaries collapsing or the third rail icing over.

Third, demand management is more than ever needed. Faced with a surge in traffic from diverted airline passengers and serious disruptions in its own service, Deutsche Bahn was forced to discourage passengers to use its services. Eurostar had to completely close its booking system, and even then could not deal with the queues. At airports in Frankfurt and Moscow, police was called in to keep furious passengers in check.

So there is a wider need for proactive risk management: Systematically identifying critical points in transport infrastructure and services as part of an overarching reliability strategy creates the conditions to reduce vulnerabilities. And when something happens, active incident management should be in place to minimise negative impacts.

Finally, better pricing of mobility needs to be included in the toolbox. Road charges or congestion tolls remain politically sensitive, but they may become more acceptable if they are perceived less as penalizing motorists and more as an insurance against unreliability. And if capacity has to be reduced, pricing cen ba an efficient way to do it.

These days, transport ministers in many countries are chairing emergency meetings to draw lessons. In the face of austerity and an angry public, policy-makers have the ever-difficult task of finding cost-effective solutions. They are more likely to find them if they look at transport's reliability in a wider context, not just at the number of snowploughs. There are going to be new transport crises - only we do not know what will trigger them. Nevertheless, we should be much better prepared to meet them.