Thursday, 11 December 2008

Worth checking out

Some interesting stuff that has caught my eye recently:

Broadcasting guru Richard Rubin has a wise and thoughtful piece about dodgy BBC outsourcing, the Ross/Brand affair (expressing exactly my own thoughts about how this was just a particularly ghastly example of what has become a "nasty, cruel and very regrettable" aspect of British popular culture), and how TV stars can get radio wrong. Also fond memories of meeting Kenny Everett and Keith Skues.

In Ross's case, there can be little doubt that the negative coverage was partly prompted by his outrageous but seemingly sincere belief that his £6,000,000 a year contract with the Corporation was "worth a thousand journalists". It was that remark that prompted me to stop listening to him -- I rarely watched him, in any case -- because the BBC must have, as its irreducible core, robust, well funded and well staffed journalism, and the thought that, at a time when it was cutting journalist posts, such cuts were helping to pay this grossly overcompensated 'star' was offensive, to say the least.
There is a new edition of Joel Crawford's online mag Carfree Times. Among other things, he puts forward An Agenda for President Obama. Nothing less than the fate of the Earth is at stake, he says:
It has become apparent that we simply cannot continue growth in the manner prescribed by the World Bank and the IMF. Unfettered capitalism is the road to vast riches for a very few people, a better standard of living for many, but not all, people, and massive damage to the ecosystems that sustain life on Earth.

The only solution is a completely different approach. We must focus not on material standards of living but on quality of life. (.....) Rising material standards of living have led, in the main, to a falling quality of life. We must focus not on goods, the manufacture of which is nearly always accompanied by damage to the environment, but on services, which can provide a livelihood to enormous numbers of people while improving the quality of life and protecting the environment. One service in desperate need is indeed the repair of damage we have already done to the environment ..... 

He goes on to deal with the transport and energy implications in particular. With the aim of ending dependence on fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, he calls of course for a national system of renewable electricity generation, but also, in the short to medium term, for an urgent large-scale programme to reduce energy consumption in all buildings (labour-intensive work which will provide many jobs), an end to new housing in rural areas and distant suburbs, a new tax on air tickets, a ban on all airport expansion, and heavy public investment in the railway network. The article focuses on the USA but most of what he says applies everywhere, and it is well worth reading in detail.

Progressive London is a new website designed to keep alive the progressive policies of Ken Livingstone. It is cross-party, not a purely Labour affair. It is campaigning on various fronts, including a petition against the latest above-inflation fare increases.

Intriguing revelations from Christian Wolmar, who claims that the Cabinet is deeply split over transport policy:
On transport, it is clear that Geoff Hoon has little truck with the environmental agenda. He is a definite supporter of the third runway at Heathrow, the touchstone issue in this debate. A host of younger Cabinet members, such as the Millibands, more tuned into the Green agenda, are ranged against him. Gordon Brown's instincts are to side with the arguments in favour of economic development and I suspect that means the third runway will get the go ahead in the New Year. 
Bendy buses revisited: following my posts in March and September, London Travelwatch has given its attention to TfL's proposal to abandon bendy buses on, in the first instance, routes 38, 507 and 521. I am happy to say they wholly agree with me that this is a stupid idea:
London TravelWatch believes that there are overwhelming advantages in terms of accessibility, manoeuvrability in limited roadspace, loading and dwell times at stops, and economies of operation to the use of articulated buses on routes with high volumes of passengers. In particular these are very suitable for use on routes which serve main line railway termini where large volumes of passengers often arrive at stops in very short spaces of time from arriving rail services.
Congratulations also to Dave Cole, who has been following this issue as well, and has managed to extract some information from TfL. One commenter on his blog points out that the proposed replacements for the Red Arrow routes (507 and 521) will lead to a net increase in the amount of road space required of 21% and an increase in the number of drivers required of 82%.

And finally, European socialism is back, according to Neil Clark in the Staggers and Naggers:
Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

Train of the day

Super art deco design: "The Rocket", streamlined diesel, on the Rock Island Line (USA), 1937.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Happy birthday to Edmundo Ros

I am delighted to learn from Russell Davies's excellent Radio 2 programme that Edmundo Ros is still with us, and celebrating his 98th birthday this week.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember when he and his Orchestra, with its very good band arrangements, seemed to be hardly ever off the wireless (BBC Light Programme), except when it was Victor Silvester or Sandy McPherson.

Edmundo Ros surely did more than anyone else to bring Latin American popular music to Britain. I honour him by presenting here his signature tune, Cuban Love Song:

Cuban Love Song - Edmundo Ros

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Grim news on transport in London

A couple of months ago I attempted to draw up a quick balance sheet of Boris Johnson's record on transport issues over his first few months in office.

At the time there was (a bit of) good news and (rather a lot of) bad news.

Since then, all the news out of City Hall has been dismal in the extreme:

(1) The Cross-River Tram scheme has been scrapped. This is a serious blow to hopes that Britain could resume its earlier progress towards catching up with our continental neighbours in the matter of sensible use of light rail in cities. The undoubted success of the tram schemes in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Croydon has made it clear that there is nothing peculiar about the UK and that here, just as in France, Germany, Holland, Spain and elsewhere, trams are easily the best transport solution for high-density routes in cities.

In addition, the only opposition to the Cross-River scheme was coming from one or two loony maverick petrolhead Tories. Everybody actually involved, in particular all the boroughs along the route of all political hues, was very much in favour of it. All sorts of consultations had already been held by TfL, even down to the precise line of route (I declare an interest: I live near the route and took part in that consultation). There was none of the groundswell of local feeling against it that characterised the West London tram that Ken Livingstone wanted to introduce along the Uxbridge Road and which was scrapped earlier.

Boris Johnson says he is not against Cross-River in principle, and that the plan might come back on to the agenda if funding can be secured. But that is no good. Even if the go-ahead had been given now, it was going to take ten years to build it, which I find incomprehensible (the Victorians managed to build tram routes in months, not years). In effect he has junked the plan and all the work that has already gone into it. Funding could certainly have been organised if the political will had been there at City Hall and national level.

The consequence of this is that we have bequeathed to future generations more congestion on the roads and on the Tube, and a less livable London. We have also extinguished the hopes of deprived areas like Peckham that they will ever get properly connected to an efficient transport network, or benefit from the wider regeneration that that would bring.

(2) A lot of the initial coverage of Johnson's long-term idea of a new airport in the Thames Estuary assumed that this would be INSTEAD OF Heathrow. As he himself has often said, Heathrow is in the wrong place. But he made clear during Mayor's Question Time the other day that there was absolutely no question of shutting Heathrow. Any new airport would be AS WELL AS existing capacity at Heathrow. It is merely supposed to be an alternative to an extra runway at Heathrow. So the final effect of it would be a huge net increase in total airport capacity, which is exactly what we do not need at this point and which the citizenry, I suspect, simply will not put up with.

The only cheering note in all this came from Vince Cable, who as MP for Twickenham represents a lot of constituents angry about aircraft noise. He said last week that whatever Geoff Hoon finally announces (mysteriously and intriguingly, the announcement has just been postponed until the end of January), he is confident that the third runway is never actually going to get built, for a variety of practical, financial and political reasons. I am inclined to trust Vince Cable to know what he is talking about.

(3) The western extension of the congestion charge will be abolished. This makes no sense from an environmental, transport or urban-planning point of view, and seems to be a straightforward caving-in to the Jeremy Clarkson petrolhead tendency. It suggests that Kulveer Ranger has won the argument about "modal agnosticism" and that we are now supposed to go back to regarding the private car as equally entitled to take up scarce urban road space (a finite public resource), despite the fact that its use of this resource is enormously inefficient compared with other road users (bus passengers, cyclists, pedestrians).

(4) Once the DLR extensions that are already well under way (to Stratford International and Woolwich) are finished, no further extension to the DLR will be planned. So the longer-term ideas of pushing it eastwards to Dagenham Dock, and westwards from Bank to Fleet Street, Charing X and Victoria (part of which would have exploited some existing disused infrastructure), are dumped.

(5) Thoughts of extending the tram network in Croydon seem to have fallen off the table.

What are we left with? Well, there is Crossrail, and contrary to some recent whispers it does now look as if this is going ahead. That is very good, but some are worried that part of the financial justification for it is based on the assumption of a third runway at Heathrow. Although nobody has, as far as I know, suggested anything so crude as a straight quid pro quo, one might wonder whether the BAA share of the funding, for instance, would melt away if they see that they are not going to get their wretched Heathrow extension. Are we going to be told that we can only have Crossrail if we also get the third runway?

Crossrail is a very long-term scheme, the benefits of which will not appear before ten years from now, at the earliest. Much more urgent, indeed a lot more important than anything else, is getting on with upgrading the existing Tube services. Some work is pottering along, but there are big delays because of the funding crisis. One tube station near me has now been boarded up for nearly three years, with no sign whatsoever of any work starting behind the hoardings. TfL has a jolly website called "We are transforming your Tube" which attempts to put everything in the best possible light, but if we look at the details we see that the Bakerloo Line, for example, is not going to be finished until 2020, even if all goes to plan from now on. And the trains on that line are already 36 years old.

Here, the mess we are in is NOT BoJo's fault, and not Ken Livingstone's either. The blame lies with Gordon Brown, and his crazed sidekick, former investment banker Shriti (now Baroness) Vadera, who concocted the Public Private Partnership scheme on which squillions of taxpayers' money has been wasted in a now completely discredited attempt to part-privatise the modernisation work. As Chris Randall writes in Rail Professional magazine:

Despite fierce opposition from London's then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and his transport commissioner Bob Kiley, who, with great prescience, described the public private partnership as 'fatally flawed', it was steamrollered through by Gordon Brown. Four years later, one of the contractors, Metronet, folded owing £2bn, causing prime minister Brown political embarrassment. And now the remaining contractor, Tube Lines, is demanding at least an extra £1.4bn of public money to plug a widening funding gap.
And yet New Labour seems never to have uttered a word of contrition about this. They continue to behave as if the PPP is a wonderful idea. And Baroness Vadera is rewarded with a ministerial job (not at Transport, thank goodness).