December 22, 2004
This article, like every other one in this newspaper and indeed almost every sentence in every book you read in English, will have been typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named after the first six letters on the top left-hand side of the keyboard. Amazing as it may sound, this keyboard was designed in 1873 as an exercise in anti-engineering.
The QWERTY keyboard is actually constructed to slow down the speed and increase the effort of typing. There is a whole series of layout faults on the keyboard aimed explicitly at frustrating the typist. For example, the most common letters are scattered all over the board in different rows, rather than concentrated together and, where they are concentrated, they are on the left-hand side of the keyboard. The aim is to slow down right-handed typists, the vast majority of its users.
In 1873,when typewriters were primitive things, the keys used to stick together if the typist typed too quickly so the manufacturers conspired to create the most inefficient, frustrating, convoluted keyboard possible. So, rather than facilitate the human brain, the keyboard sought to hamstring it.
By the 1930s, the problem of the jamming keyboard had been technically overcome and trials showed that a new layout could double the speed of typing.
But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by that time. The vested interests of millions of typists, teachers, typewriter (and subsequently computer) salespeople and, of course, manufacturers have crushed efforts to introduce a more efficient keyboard for the past 70 years.
This episode mocks most economic and financial logic that contends technology is an irrepressible force which will be ultimately harnessed by all to make us more efficient. This is not always true. In reality, QWERTY stories are repeated everywhere, as there will always be vested interests that are doing well out of the status quo and which force the rest of us to accept second best.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Irish roads, particularly on the M50 around Dublin. We are being ripped off on the M50 toll bridge in what can only be described as highway robbery.
At this stage, let’s establish a few facts. I am not an engineer. I have never built a road or a bridge. But, like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Irish citizens, my life is more affected by the M50 toll bridge than by, for example, whether Ian Paisley gets his photos or becomes First Minister in the North.
On Tuesday, I spent close to half an hour waiting to pay – to pay for God’s sake! On Wednesday, when lots of attention was focused on the North, the owners of the toll bridge announced that the toll would be going up by 20 per cent when inflation is running at 2.5 per cent. What is the state doing about this?
Let us examine what is happening here. A bridge that was supposed to speed up traffic is actually slowing it down. Get your head around that. This is the QWERTY keyboard of 21st century Ireland. Moreover, the daily tailbacks are not caused by an accident or a narrowing of the road, but the modern day equivalent of a highwayman.
What are we paying for? A small bridge. Not a great work of engineering, but a small common-or-garden bridge.
There might have been an argument years ago for a private toll company to build such a bridge because the state’s coffers were not full, but today there is no reason.
Yet last year, the same company was allowed to build a second bridge to toll even more at a time when the government has loads of cash. Why? Would it not have been smarter for the state to build the second bridge last year, reduce the toll or eliminate tolls altogether, which would force competition on the first bridge, bringing down prices across the board? Who is negotiating these sweetheart deals on our behalf?
The M50 toll bridge is probably the most blatant, shame-faced rip-off foisted on the citizens of this country.
Here we have a private sector bottleneck on a public sector highway.
The state funnels us, like lemmings, from a public highway (which we paid for with taxes) into a private sector jam.
So not only does the state pay for all the road up to the 500-metre stretch of bridge, but it is complicit in the rip-off because it actually ushers the motorist into the clutches of the toll.
There is no alternative route once you get on the M50.You are automatically a sucker for the toll bridge. Therefore, this is, a ï¿½no risk – all return’ï¿½ venture for the owners.
It should be no surprise that the share price of National Toll Roads (NTR) has gone from ï¿½10 to ï¿½18 this year alone.
This column blames neither the management nor the shareholders of the company. They are simply responding to apriceless opportunity ï¿½ and who could blame them? It’s nice work if you can get it. The issue is the state’s role in the rip-off. Would the French allow a toll bridge on the Paris pï¿½ripherique?
They would in their oeil. Would the English countenance a toll on theM25?
How is it done in other countries? In France or Italy, for example, the toll roads operate as an alternative to the competition of the national routes. If you want to get somewhere quickly you pay the price for it. The toll company builds the roads from start to finish usually several hundred kilometres of highway at a minimum. It takes a big risk and gets a commensurate return.
In Ireland, the opposite occurs. The state builds the road and then gives a private company the monopoly to extort money at the bridge. This is a win/win proposition for the company and a lose/lose outcome for the motorist. It would be funny, if it were not so serious.
In Croatia, a country which is four times poorer than Ireland and not a member of the EU, it is possible to drive on a newly-constructed motorway from Split to Zagreb (500 kilometres) and pay one toll. This motorway has been blasted through mountains, has monumental bridges over deep gorges and is four-laned. Does this poor country demand a toll over bridges or through tunnels? Clearly not. Would it entertain daily tailbacks on its main ring roads?
Of course not.
In Ireland, we simply have to wake up and demonstrate against our state for negotiating such a rip-off supposedly on our behalf.
On Wednesday, when the 20 per cent increase in the toll was being debated in the Seanad, the French government opened the world’s tallest bridge, connecting Clermont-Ferrand with Beziers across the Tarn valley.
The Millau Viaduct is 23 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower, spans 2.5 kilometres, has seven towers 387 metres high and was described by its builder, the famous British architect Lord Foster, as the ï¿½closest a drive will ever come to flying’ï¿½.
The company that runs it estimates that it will make a 15 per cent return on equity over the lifetime of its 75-year lease. What return will NTR make on its investment in the M50 toll bridge?
The French and Croatian examples simply serve as reminders as to how things should and could be done. It is not a matter of income or national wealth, but of organisation. The cost of the toll is only half the problem. The cost of the hourly tailbacks on the economy is enormous.
The wasted productivity, wasted opportunities and waste of valuable time are what economists refer to as ï¿½negative externalities’ï¿½. These costs add up to millions of euro a week. So, in effect, the M50 toll bridge is costing us much more than just the amount of the toll.
What can the state do about it now? It has signed contracts with NTR that the company entered in good faith, so the company cannot be blamed. As Shane Ross suggested in the Senate, the state should seriously consider nationalising the toll bridge for the good of the citizen. It must buy out the contract because the toll bridge is slowing down, rather than facilitating, traffic.
The M50 toll bridge is the problem, not the solution to our ring-road traffic.
For any smart politician with an eye on the Dublin electorate, this would also be an extremely popular move.
It would be good for the state, the citizens and the economy. The vested interests that are making out like bandits would also be happy, as they would get an exorbitant price for the asset.
The magnificent Millau Viaduct, an amazing engineering feat by any standards, cost ï¿½396 million to build.
Estimates put the price of buying out the poxy M50 toll-bridge at ï¿½300 million. Difficult as it is, the state has to bite the bullet.
NTR have us over a legal barrel, and the law and private property rights must be respected. But unless we want to burden the motorway with the equivalent of the QWERTY keyboard, the government should act on our behalf – and quickly – before the M50 extension at Carrickmines is completed next September.