Sunday, 22 February 2009

Train of the day

This is what we used to call (and I still do) a Thameslink train, until the idiotically and meaninglessly named First Capital Connect took over the franchise. I have rather a soft spot for these dual-voltage electric units, even though they have never been enormously reliable. They were produced by British Rail in the 1970s 1980s for the then new route through the Thameslink tunnel, crossing London from north to south for the first time. (They were needed because of the two different electrical systems north and south of the Thames -- yet another of those technical nuisances bequeathed to us by history.)

This one is setting off from Bedford for Brighton. This clip captures what I love about these sets -- the distinctive whining noise they make when picking up speed, which reminds me very much of the old Southern Region electric units with slam doors that I remember finding so exciting when I first came to London as a schoolboy in 1957 (when they were all painted green).

Thursday, 12 February 2009

British jobs for Japanese workers

See this: Anger over new UK trains contract from the BBC.

Ha ha ha! The Supreme Leader must really be regretting making that silly promise at the Labour Party Conference about British workers.

Of course we must all unite against protectionism and nationalism. WTO rules, level playing field, and all that. But have the Japanese bought any European trains? Er, no. Have the Japanese bought any European anything? I think we should be told.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Putting ill-informed people right

It can get rather dispiriting sometimes, the frequency with which people write such ignorant tosh that one feels obliged to write in with a correction.

The Economist website has a new (rather superficial) piece comparing the commuting experience in four world cities. The London section of the report includes this:

(.....) "bendy buses", an incomprehensible waste of precious road real estate (.....)
I wrote in the comments section as follows:
Absolutely wrong. The bendy bus is very suitable for certain high-density routes, where it uses the road space very efficiently. Having three wide doors, it can empty and load large numbers of passengers quickly. With a low floor and no stairs to climb, it is also much more accessible than a double-decker, especially for anyone with impaired mobility or who has luggage, pushchairs, etc. They carry considerably more people than ordinary buses, saving on operating costs. London TravelWatch calculates that the number of ordinary buses needed to match the capacity of bendy buses would be so much greater that the road space taken up in total, if bendy buses were withdrawn from the routes they currently operate, would be more, not less. See London TravelWatch's response to Transport for London's consultation at
On a different topic, someone else wrote in the comments:
"...the train was repeatedly delayed for days on end due to leaves on the tracks. And by delayed I mean it took three hours to make the journey. LEAVES on the track? What century are we living in?????..."
After all these years in which this silly canard has been repeated and rebutted, wouldn't you think people would have got the message by now? (I largely blame dim-witted hacks in the gutter press.) I wrote in as follows:
Leaf mulch, actually. Leaves fall; rain falls; the leaves get wet; the train wheels grind the wet leaves into a sticky mush, which makes the tracks very slippery. So the wheels slide and the train can get going only very slowly. Once it is going again, the driver has to make sure the train doesn't skid. So he/she goes slowly and the train is further delayed. Not at all peculiar to Britain, in fact. It happens every autumn wherever there are deciduous trees next to railway lines. This has been explained so many times, yet people still won't believe it.
I wish there was a law against writing nonsense.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Heathrow: Is there still hope?

I have been depressed and outraged in equal measure by the announcement that the third runway at Heathrow is to go ahead. I'd earlier been resigned to this as the most likely outcome, given all governments' unerring instinct for taking the wrong decision about anything to do with transport.

But more recently Christian Wolmar, among others, revealed that the Cabinet was deeply split on this issue, with the Millibands and Hilary Benn thought to be strongly against. Indeed, Benn went further than Cabinet ministers are normally supposed to go in openly questioning whether the third runway was compatible with Britain's air pollution commitments. (And in my view he should now resign; but people don't seem to resign on principle any more.)

This news of splits at the top level of government gave short-lived hope that Brown and Hoon might just do the sensible thing after all. But it was not to be.

The environmental and social reasons why the third runway is such a catastrophically bad idea have been gone into at length by so many others that there is no point in rehearsing the arguments again here, except to note that the village of Sipson is an extremely minor aspect of the case and not, as some affect to believe, the main point. I don't mean to say that I have no sympathy with the people who live there, only that the many arguments of principle against expanding the airport would still be just as powerful even if it could be done without destroying homes and communities.

The political arguments are a whole other thing, and were well put by Polly Toynbee in This craven airport decision hands Cameron a green halo, in which she describes the decision as "a crass error" purely from Labour's own narrow party point of view, quite aside from any other consideration. In one fell swoop the government has thrown away what green credentials it had, when, as Ms Toynbee points out, there was absolutely no reason why this decision had to be made before the election:

By 2015, when the first sod is cut on the runway, Gordon Brown will be no more than a pub quiz question. Plunging towards depression with air travel slumping, what was the rush?
"In order to be seen to be decisive", is her answer, and that just sums up the whole superficial approach that has always characterised New Labour -- all short-term deviousness and tactical calculation, no long-term strategy or overarching vision, still less anything resembling principled leadership.

All this is depressing enough, but what made me feel ill was that Ms Toynbee also pours cold water on any idea that the incoming Tory government will cancel the thing, despite their present rhetoric against it:
But how green is Cameron really? Only this week he opposed the compulsory switchover to new light bulbs. Few think that once in power the Conservatives will cancel the runway ...
I just hope she is wrong about that. Would a Tory government really take refuge behind a claim that it was now too late to stop it, having been so vocal against the idea? I have been quite surprised by how vehement Theresa Villiers has been on this subject from the Opposition front bench, even while we keep being told that a lot of decidedly non-green Tory backbenchers are secretly appalled at their party's public stance. We should note also that in London itself, Conservative activists, councillors and MPs form a significant part of the almost universal local campaign of opposition, as suggested by the event reported in this post by the Tory Troll.

There are of course those who have all along said that the runway isn't going to get built in any case, whoever is in power in the future. One of them is Vince Cable, as I have noted before. The Plane Stupid campaign also takes this line.

And finally, so does Christian Wolmar:
Either the proposal will be thrown out by the Tories or, by concerted opposition or, when serious money finally needs to be invested in it, the rationale will have disappeared. As one of my correspondents put it, no runway decision has ever survived a general election. This one will be no exception.
The interesting question is why does Labour do this? Why is it so in hock to business? My theory from talking to ministers is that they have no understanding of the private sector, only a fear that it will turn against them. So they feel compelled to give into them at any turn.
I hope these commentators are right, I really do. This is just such a hugely totemic issue for the future shape of our society.

UPDATE: The Campaign for Better Transport says in its February newsletter, "A final decision about Heathrow expansion is many years away". This is very reassuring, if true.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Will the USA become more civilised?

Here is some very good news, if it is true: The Tide Shifts Against the Death Penalty, says TIME Magazine.

It seems DNA evidence is the main reason for a recent fall in US executions. Apparently, various cases in which suspects were able to prove their innocence beyond doubt by means of DNA have made people realise that there really is such a thing as the conviction of the innocent.

Some of us knew this 40 or more years ago. Still, better late than never.