Marshal Stalin, no slouch when it came to mass murder, may or may not have said that "the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million men is a statistic". Mathematicians among Pandora's readers will be aware of several Laws of Large Numbers in the field of statistical probability. Non-mathematicians will be aware of another, rarely stated but commonly observed: when numbers get big, really big, awfully big, readers lose interest. It's Stalin, but in a different guise.
We have all read that an awfully big sum of money - £43 billion or thereby - has been lost through fraud, ineptitude or sheer negligence in the supply of useless testing kit during the pandemic. Or was that the sum lost for much the same reasons on useless PPE? That Pandora is in doubt is proof that - let's call it Stalin's Law of Large Numbers - is powerful. The numbers are so big that no-one can get their heads round them. Were a piece of government procurement been found to have wasted a sum one could get one's head round - £250 million, say - then the Opposition (to say nothing of the Daily Mail) would be on the heels of the errant minister without pause. One has only to think of ferries to see the truth of this. But where is the scandal over the £43 billion?
What has this to do with the railway? Since 2004 it had been the UK government's settled policy (settled in the sense that changes of governing party or parties has seen precisely no change in policy) that fuel duty on petrol has not been increased. According to the current issue of RAIL this is worth some £9 billion this year to motorists, and approaching a total of £100 billion since 2004. At the same time rail fares have increased in most years by 1% more than the Retail Price Index. That's an increase of over 80%. Government policy is to reduce carbon emissions, and to this end government policy is to encourage motorists out of their cars onto public transport. In order to do this they are asked to pay 80% more to do so while being given £100 billion to stay put. Over-riding government policy - unspoken, but easily inferred - is to avoid annoying motorists, almost all of whom are old enough to vote and cynical enough to do so with their own wallets firmly in the forefront of their minds.
Clearly no government is about to change this habit. Equally clearly there is little sign that government is preparing the ground for the day when petrol (boo!) is so rarely bought that the revenue would not buy the DfT's biscuits, and electricity (yippee!) is used to fuel cars - with a whopping tax charge. Pandora remembers the jolly processions of three-abreast tractors on the M6 when Mr Blair had the temerity to try to push up fuel duty. Marshal Stalin wasn't very nice to farmers, and would not have stood for such nonsense, but Mr Blair backed down. Pandora hopes that there is a middle ground somewhere, but then Pandora is famous for having hope.
(Other laws of large numbers tell us that in a city of 8 million it is easy to justify billions on a new bit of railway, whereas - though the benefits to individual passengers might be just as great - it is well-nigh impossible to justify even a few million where folk are thin on the ground.)