Thursday, May 21, 2009

The railway system and the limits of complexity

I work in Nantes but live i Saint-Nazaire, a medium-sized city located roughly 60 km from it. It is a professional necessity; Since I have a politically oriented job, I can't have a political activity in the same city as the one whose mayor I work for. Of course that means that I must commute by train every morning – I don't own a car and even if I did, I wouldn't go through the center of Nantes by car in the morning. The traffic is nightmarish.

Most of the time, things go pretty well. The train leaves the Nantes station at 17:21 and arrives at Saint-Nazaire at 18:00. It is often crowded, especially on friday, but aside from that, it is quite modern and comfortable.

This week, however, it was delayed twice in a row. Not by much, mind you, a mere fifteen minutes, but after a long and tedious day of work it was quite of an annoyance. It was also a sign of things to come.

The French railway system was once hailed as one of the best ones in the world. Delays happened, of course, as did mechanical break-down, but they were rare and had little consequences. Today, they seem to become more and more common. This is especially true of the vaunted high-speed train, the TGV.

The TGV is very rapid. It can go from Nantes to Paris in a mere two hours and this could be reduced to a mere 90 minutes in a no so distant future. The problem is that it is dependent upon a very specific and very high maintenance grid network and that they company running it – which by the way is no longer the same company as the one running the train itself - can no longer maintain it efficiently, or, to put it more accurately, can no longer maintain it while maintaining the rest of the network at the same time.

The result has been a string of very embarrassing grid failures, stranding TGVs full of businessmen and politicians in the middle of nowhere for hours, and since the whole French rail system is organized around TGV lines, this could, and did paralyze a significant part of the country's transportation system.

This no longer happens, but not because grid failures have been eliminated. The railway company (yes, singular) has just become better at dealing with them – being summoned in the Minister for Transportation's office is a very good motivator. Last time I went to Paris – a tv show about the French language where I was to be the Devil's advocate – I arrived back home nearly three hours late because of what seems to have been just another grid failure, more than doubling the duration of my journey.

Sci-fi amateurs will be reminded of the famous scene where Eto Demerzel points out the noise produced by Trantor's mass transit system as a sign of the decline of the Galactic Empire. Others will rather turn to Tainter's limits of complexity or Ibn Khaldun' infrastructure failure. The same phenomenon is at work here.

French railway workers are highly paid professionals, heavily unionized and with a strong work ethic. Their situation have been deteriorating for years, however. The SNCF – the still state-owned French company – has been under financial stress for decades and, partly out of ideology, partly because of local political pressure has focused upon the high figure TGV lines at the expense of local transportation. The maintenance – and ownership – of the network has been transferred to another state-owned company which relies heavily upon private contractors. Needless to say, the employees of said contractors are far less payed, and therefore far less motivated and skilled than those of the old SNCF were.

Even inside the SNCF itself, conditions are deteriorating. The strong union culture within it has enabled workers to significantly slow the ongoing slide down, but it is a losing battle. The problem is that SNCF workers are not fighting only against a pervading free-market ideology, they are fighting against a whole system reaching its limits.

The French society, like Asimov's Trantor, has most probably reached the point where further investments in complexity can no longer yield positive returns. To make things worse, it has reached it at the very time where natural resources grow scarcer and scarcer at the world level, triggering he onset of what John Michael Greer calls catabolic collapse.

The end result is unlikely to be pretty, even if one shouldn't expect an Hollywood-like massive system failure. As a pointed out, the SNCF has become quite good at dealing with grid failures, and the rest of the French society will doubtlessly adapt to its own version of catabolic collapse, as all societies did in the past in similar situations. For instance, local railroad transportation has been devolved to Regions, and while those lines are not perfect they run better than the rest of the network.

The main problem is of course, that this adaptation goes against the interests of many entrenched power groups inside the French society, and that their resistance is very likely to make the unraveling of the French state far messier than it needs to be.

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