Friday, 17 December 2010

Trams of the day

Or streetcars, as they call them in America. This is silent film of them in Washington DC in the early 1950s. These have long gone, but there is now a plan for a new tram system there.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

What the hell is going on?

Let us be clear: Julian Assange is an arrogant, self-important twat. But even arrogant twats have the right not to be extradited on trumped-up charges. Does anyone seriously believe in the accusations of rape? And what on earth is Sweden playing at? It is almost the last country one expects to see doing the USA's dirty work for it.

I don't of course buy the argument that the Wikileaks operation is morally justified on freedom of information grounds. Not all information can or should be in the public domain. Certainly we ought to be told in general terms what governments are doing in our names, but it is remarkably naive to think that that means every piece of paper can be published.

But there does seem to be an element of "shoot the messenger" in the reaction of our various dear leaders, a sort of mixture of outrage and panic. The clearly guilty party is the US government employee who leaked the stuff in the first place, rather more than Wikileaks for broadcasting it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Bicycling news

The latest issue of the Campaign for Better Transport's London Group Newsletter (PDF) includes a review of the new London bike hire scheme. We are supposed to call it the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, but I don't see why we should give an evil grasping bank any credit for contributing less than one-fifth of the cost. Most people seem to be calling them Boris bikes, but I won't do that either, because B. Johnson has merely brought to fruition a scheme that was already being developed when Ken Livingstone was Mayor.

The reviewer welcomes the principle of the scheme, but is a bit sniffy about the bikes themselves, which he finds heavy and slow. As it happens, I got round to joining the scheme myself a couple of weeks ago, and have now used it a handful of times. I find the bikes just fine, and easier to use than I expected; not terribly fast, sure, but they are not meant for racing, after all.

I do already have a bicycle, but the great beauty of this scheme is that you can take a bike from one docking station and leave it at another, so that you don't have to bother about finding something suitable to which to lock your bike and then still worrying that it might be stolen none the less. The density of the docking stations is quite remarkable: on average they are said to be only about 100 metres apart. The only big problem is that so far they are only to be found in roughly Tube zone 1, so it's entirely an Inner London thing for the moment.

The scheme seems to be a huge instant success. I see loads of people using the bikes, and it's not that unusual to find a docking station with no bikes available at all, so clearly more need to be provided already.

TfL's other great cycling innovation of this year has had more mixed reviews: it is the first two Cycle Superhighways. These are commuting routes into central London from, so far, the east (Barking) and the south (Wimbledon). From what I have seen of the southern route, there are rather few stretches where the cycle path is separate from the road. Mostly the "superhighway" amounts to putting a lot of bright blue paint on existing streets. Amsterdam or Copenhagen this is not. But, as the CBT newsletter points out, it should at least help raise awareness of cyclists on the part of motorists, and it certainly makes the route more visible to the cyclist himself.

Monday, 25 October 2010

London transport spending

London Reconnections reproduces a Transport for London statement about the funding settlement.

Four points caught my eye:

(a) It implies that some sort of Piccadilly Line upgrade is still going ahead, despite the cancellation several months ago of the order for its new rolling stock. Maybe we are to get new signalling but with old trains.

(b) The East London Line extension to Clapham Junction is going ahead "and will be delivered by the end of 2012", though presumably still without the new station at Surrey Canal Road. It will be good to have more frequent trains from Denmark Hill, though I am not sure how far the new journey opportunities will compensate for the forthcoming reduction in Victoria-bound trains (and their removal altogether from Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road).

(c) The congestion charge is increasing to £10. This is a step in the right direction, but I think it ought to be at least £15. Most car journeys in central London are unnecessary and should be penalised accordingly.

(d) Parking on the TfL road network will be charged for. And so I should think. Why on earth that's not already the case is a mystery.

Probably the worst news is the confirmation that fares, already quite high, will rise by a lot more than inflation. On buses, especially, this will hit the poorer citizens disproportionately and is therefore regressive. Ken Livingstone always did his best to keep bus fares as low as possible within whatever financial settlement was available, even when there was no alternative to putting tube fares up.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The cuts

A predictable response to yesterday's Spending Review comes from, among many others, TV's Polly Toynbee and TV's Johann Hari. This is not to say that they are wrong, just that we already know what lefties are bound to say about it.

But now comes the not-at-all-left-wing Institute for Fiscal Studies, confirming that the changes announced are essentially regressive, and that the Chancellor was not being completely honest when he said that the broadest shoulders will bear the biggest burden. It is true that the richest 2% are hardest hit in absolute terms, and so I should bloody well think, but poor families are the biggest losers as a proportion of their income.

This is just what one would expect from a normal Tory government, but this is a coalition government in which the Lib Dems (who say they believe in progressive taxation) are supposed to be a moderating influence. That is the only justification for their being there. I think the LDs are going to struggle to retain much credibility for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they will claim that, if they weren't in the government, it would have been even worse.

Of course, few people actually voted for any of this. But we do not live in a democracy. It is the unelected bond markets who decide what actually happens. It seems that, if we do not have these cuts -- if, for instance, we solve the problem by instead imposing a big one-off levy on the very rich (as advocated, entirely fruitlessly I fear, by the Glasgow University Media Group) -- the bond markets will attack the pound and interest rates will shoot up and then we shall all be even further up the creek than we are already. It is all very undemocratic and very unfair.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why aircraft carriers?

We read today that the Ark Royal is to be scrapped, but two new aircraft carriers will still be commissioned.

What I want to know is this: Why does Britain need any aircraft carriers at all? I have looked into this, and I find that most countries do not have any aircraft carriers. What most countries have are enough soldiers to defend their territory and enough aircraft to defend their airspace. Only nine countries in the whole world have aircraft carriers. As one would expect, by far the largest fleet of these phenomenally expensive vessels belongs to the USA.

The Prime Minister is quoted today as saying: "Britain has punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come". But why should Britain punch above its weight? What's the point? This idea seems to be a silly post-imperial hangover. Why can't we just be like Scandinavia or Holland?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Electrification: Malaysia shows the way

While the powers-that-be in this country dither over railway electrification, at least one part of our former empire is just getting on with it. Electric services have just begun on a substantial stretch of Malaysia's main north-south line. This is the first stage of a plan to electrify the whole route from Singapore in the south to the Thai border in the north. It's a British-built metre-gauge line. Here is one of the new EMUs bought for the purpose:

Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh is about 200 km and the journey time is reduced from well over three hours to just 2 hours. The article doesn't say anything about acquiring electric locos, so presumably the existing (fun but rather slow) half a dozen through trains a day between Singapore and the far north will continue to be diesel-hauled over the newly electrified section between Seremban and Ipoh.

This is, I think, the first long-distance electrification in the entire region. Up till now the only electric trains in Malaysia have been a small suburban network around Kuala Lumpur, two metro lines within KL itself (both of which are about to be extended), and Siemens' excellent standalone airport link line.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Trains of the day

Various suburban EMUs in Melbourne, Australia.

To the British eye, what jumps out is that these trains all seem to be operated by Connex. Remember them? I wonder what Melbourne has done to deserve this.

UPDATE: I've just discovered that Connex lost the contract in 2009 to Hong Kong's MTR. Ha ha ha!

Friday, 3 September 2010

Back from holiday

We were in Aberdeen and the Grampians -- "a strange choice of holiday destination", as it was put to me beforehand.

It's true one expects Aberdeen to be always grey and wet, but we were lucky -- it was so for only one day. The rest of the time we had warm sunshine. It is actually quite a pleasing city. We hired a car and explored castles in the surrounding countryside, which is delightful. The National Trust for Scotland may be in trouble over its accounts, but the people showing us some of its castles did an impressive job.

The journey from London to Aberdeen and back was courtesy of Messrs East Coast, whose ageing but nicely refurbished HST 125 performed faultlessly. To my surprise, the train was pretty much full between London and Dundee in both directions.

On the way back, a young woman getting on at Dundee and going to York found a seat marked "reserved from Newcastle". "Which comes first, Newcastle or York?" she asked another young woman in the next seat. "I have no idea", was the reply. These were both British (in fact I think English) people, clearly intelligent and middle-class. I never cease to be amazed at some people's ignorance of elementary general knowledge. Do schools teach anything at all nowadays?

Which reminds me, I had been moderately impressed with David Cameron so far -- not all his policies, obviously, but his evident general competence -- until he said on TV in America that Britain had been the USA's junior partner in the Battle of Britain. As any fule kno, the USA wasn't even in the war for another 18 months at that point.

The summer of 1940, when Britain's very survival was hanging by a thread and when it stood alone against tyranny, was always supposed to be a, if not the, defining moment of this country's modern identity. And here we have our prime minister, for heaven's sake, educated at Eton and Oxford, who apparently understands nothing about it at all. It would almost be funny, if it weren't so desperately sad.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Lockerbie: He probably didn't do it!

Lockerbie is back in the news, I see. I wish the meejah would stop talking about "The Lockerbie Bomber" when so many observers doubt whether he had anything to do with it. Maybe the message is begining to get through: TIME magazine (you can't get much more mainstream than that) has an article today that actually includes a section headed: "Could Al-Megrahi have been innocent?" Well, yes, as some people have been saying for many years. If the US Senators who say they want to find out the truth really do find it out, they may not like what they find. But we may be sure that the UK and US and all other involved authorities will do everything in their power to stop that from happening.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Whither electrification?

Just over a year ago in Railway electrification and the Tories, I wrote that a reason for hoping the general election would be postponed as long as possible was so that the then Transport Secretary, TV's Lord Adonis, would be able to let some of the rail electrification contracts quickly enough that by the time the Tories took over it would be too late to stop them.

Well, the election was indeed postponed as long as possible, but it is not yet clear that the new government is going to pick up the electrification baton. The clock has been set back to zero, it seems, and Andrew Adonis might as well not have bothered. It is the greatest of pities that such a pro-rail (and knowledgeable about rail) S of S came along so late in the day. I was very alarmed to read in Rail News recently, in Growing gloom over electrification prospects, that "the chances of electrification of the Great Western Main Line and several key routes in the north west in the foreseeable future appear to have dwindled to almost zero."

This was based on an oral answer in the House of Lords, where the government spokesman (one Lord Attlee, grandson of Clement), more or less said there was no money to pay for it.

Now the new issue of Modern Railways arrives and the plot thickens further. No mention of electrification not going ahead at all, but in a surprisingly small and non-prominent news item it has Tony Miles quoting Iain Coucher, the outrageously arrogant and greedy CEO of Network Rail, who I see is now departing early (no great loss there, I think), as saying that the Midland electrification should go ahead first, not the Great Western. This would be a cheaper option, and makes more sense in various technical and rolling-stock respects.

If this really is what's happening, I'm quite happy with it, indeed I said in the first place that my own preference would have been for the Midland to go first. For one thing, it serves a slightly greater population overall. For another, the line is already electrified as far as Bedford, whereas the GWR is electrified only as far as Airport Junction. Thirdly, one feels the poor old Midland deserves a bit of a break after all these years; it always seems to have been last in the queue for investment. I think maybe you could also argue that electrification would benefit the Great Western somewhat less since it was laid out for speed in the first place, whereas the Midland is more like the WCML in its profusion of curves and gradients, disadvantages which electric traction can mitigate in part. It's also probably potentially more significant for freight, especially if some of the idiotically short-sighted 1960s reductions from 4 tracks to 2 can be reversed.

Anyway, maybe this idea was just Coucher thinking aloud, and clearly now he is not going to be involved in it, so we await the outcome of the various "value for money" and other reviews that are now under way. It will be extremely disappointing if major railway investment is put on ice for the foreseeable future. During a recession is precisely the time when projects of this kind should be going full speed ahead, as on the Southern and on Merseyside in the 1930s. It creates jobs, and costs less than when asset values are higher, and means you are in a good position to exploit growth when the economy revives.

And what of TV's Philip Hammond, the new Transport Secretary? He certainly is not Lord Adonis, sadly. Railway Eye has already decided he is a "petrolhead". TV's Christian Wolmar is equally unimpressed. He did not get off to a good start by saying he was going to end "Labour's war on the motorist", a piece of brainless tabloid nonsense - motoring costs are actually 14% down in real terms over Labour's period in office, while rail fares have been rising sharply in real terms for ages. Hammond did go out of his way to say he was not a fan of Top Gear, so at least he is aware of the danger of appearing too car-obsessed. He didn't sound completely hopeless in a too-brief interview today on Radio 4's You and Yours, though the questions put to him were not exactly probing and his answers were not followed up. Crossrail is going ahead, but he is going to try hard to make it cost less: that was about as much as we heard from him on railways. I hope Wolmar is wrong on this. I don't think Hammond is another Ernest Marples, at least. No doubt it will be the Treasury beancounters who finally determine what happens, as usual.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Train of the day

The Singapore metro (called the MRT) is probably the most efficient public transport system I have ever used. A couple of weeks ago somebody sprayed graffiti on one of its trains, seen in this clip. This is unheard of in squeaky-clean, conformist, authoritarian Singapore, and has caused national outrage. You just do not do things like that in Singapore! Bizarrely, the culprit turns out to be a Swiss expat and he is now in deep doodoo.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Poetry corner

So. Farewell then
Matthew Parris and David Aaronovitch
and Peter Riddell
and TV's Danny the Fink.
I shall not be reading
your columns anymore
unless I happen to find a copy of The Times
discarded on a train.
Because the Times website is going behind
a paywall
and I am certainly not paying two quid a week
to Rupert Murdoch.

P.Z. Thribb (61½)

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Trains of the day

Rare footage of the Liverpool Overhead Railway (closed 1957). Eerie and sad.

For more on this now vanished line, including a route diagram, see this post at Scott's "Merseytart" blog.

The appropriately 1950s music used to be the signature tune of "Children's Favourites" on the Light Programme every Saturday morning.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Do we care who leads the Labour Party?

Lord Heseltine said on telly the other day that it didn't matter who led the Labour Party, though his preference would be for Ed Balls (easiest for the Tories to beat).

This reminded me of my own feelings after the Tories' defeat by New Labour in 1997. There was a lot of media fuss about their leadership, and my reaction, and that of everyone I spoke to, was: "Who gives a toss?" The Conservative Party seemed hugely irrelevant. It felt possible at the time, and for long afterwards, to hope that it was in terminal decline, and that, if we just ignored it for long enough, it might simply disappear.

Do we actually still need a Labour Party? If we ever get proportional representation, a quite different party structure could be envisaged, in which the more liberal-minded social democrats in the Labour Party were absorbed into the LibDems, and the radical left merged with the Green Party. This would leave the illiberal authoritarians of the Blunkett/Reid cast, who need a new Authoritarian Party, in which quite a few Tories would also be more at home. The more libertarian-minded Europhobes on the Tory right ought to be in UKIP.

One of the most difficult problems with the Labour Party is its trade union link. I cannot see what trade unionism has to do with social democracy. Much trade unionism seems to be about maintaining differentials, which is pretty much the precise opposite of equality. BA cabin crew, for instance, understandably want to keep their relatively well-paid jobs, but that is of no concern to the rest of us. I don't really see why I should care if BA goes bust. How does the promotion of sectional self-interest assist the cause of a fairer society?

The unions do make a certain amount of noise about poverty, but that applies only to certain notoriously ill-paid trades like cleaning and catering, where jobs are often precarious and unionisation is weak anyway. I presume that most of the real poor are not working at all.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that, for Labour politicians, the main purpose of the trade union link is simply to provide funding for the party. Quite why the trade unions still think this worth their while, when Labour governments nowadays are so deaf to their demands, is one of the great mysteries of our time. It is difficult to feel convinced that the phrase "The Labour movement" still contains any rational meaning. It is a hollowed-out vehicle that has been running on empty for a long time.

Still, as things stand we do have a Labour leadership contest, which those of us who are no longer in the party can watch from outside for its curiosity value. The best news is that Hattie Half-Bake isn't standing. It is bad enough that we have to put up with her as acting leader for the next few months. As for TV's Diane Abbott, I can't quite imagine her as Prime Minister but at least she will surely liven things up a bit. I was sorry that Jon Cruddas decided not to stand.

TV's Ed Balls would be a disaster. (His wife is at least as clever, and might have been marginally less obnoxious, though she shares his infuriating penchant for never answering the question being asked.)

The rest seem much of a muchness, so far. Perhaps the debate will illuminate their differences. None of them seems to me much like leadership material. The only person who comes across on the telly as a reasonable and competent human being is TV's Alan Johnson -- but he isn't standing, either.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

LibDem U-turn on nuclear power?

The coalition government's policy on new nuclear power stations is being reported as a U-turn for the LibDems.

In fact, though, I saw Vince Cable on the telly before the election already saying that, for his part, opposition to nuclear power was not ideological but economic. Nuclear power is fantastically expensive if you include all the building and decommissioning costs. His main concern was that it should not be subsidised by the taxpayer (as it always has been up to now). And that proviso remains, it seems, in the new government's approach. If they stick with that, the likelihood is that no nuclear power stations will get built in any case, so this "U-turn" looks a bit like a distinction without a difference.

I must admit I have long been a bit of a wobbler on this issue, and was never absolutely sure that the LibDems (still less the Greens) had got it right. If we look out to the medium and long term, the looming world energy crisis might mean we are going to need all the (carbon-free) energy sources we can get -- the James Lovelock view.

Where I know I differ fundamentally from most of the pro-nuclear lobby is that nuclear must not be seen as a substitute for renewables. On this view, it is an either/or question, hence the appearance of people paid by the nuclear industry, such as Sir Bernard Ingham, in the ranks of the anti-windfarm fanatics. The danger is that if the spotlight is shifted from renewables to nuclear, it provides an excuse for not bothering to pursue wind, wave and solar energy. (Which reminds me, how is the Severn Barrage study coming along?)

One point I have never seen mentioned relates to the (probably slight) danger of a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident releasing a vast radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. And it is this: What is the point of the UK not pursuing nuclear energy on those grounds, unless our nearest neighbours are going to do the same? France and Belgium already get most of their electricity from nuclear, and are completely signed up to developing it further. Radioactive clouds do not respect national boundaries. Furthermore, Germany and Sweden are, I believe, already rowing back on earlier Green-inspired commitments to phase out nuclear power.

I don't much like it, and maybe we won't need it, but I don't see any point in expending political capital on empty gestures.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Let's look on the bright side

Naturally I am gobsmacked by the past 48 hours, like everyone else. But whatever else about all this, there are some good things:

(1) The Heathrow third runway is definitely off. LibDems and Tories both said they were against it before the election, and the new govt confirms it now on its very first day. They couldn't possibly go back on this. This alone is a great cause for celebration.

(2) Fixed-term parliaments is a huge step forward. This isn't just a recent LibDem demand. Radicals have been campaigning for this for centuries. No longer will the incumbent PM be able to rig the election date to suit his or her short-term party advantage.

(3) As has been widely noted, the Alternative Vote is not designed to be a proportional system (it can't be, because it retains the single-member constituency). But it is a preferential system, so the elector does get a bit more power. Above all, voters need no longer try to second-guess how everybody else in a particular constituency might be voting. Under such a system, we can at least stop worrying about tactical voting (provided the system is properly explained to people). Also, once people have got used to numbering candidates in order of preference, it lends itself to easy conversion to STV at a later stage -- you just have to combine groups of constituencies together.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Tories, PR and short memories

People have short memories. Everyone is correctly pointing out that most Tories currently harbour a visceral hatred of the idea of changing the voting system, and a great attachment to first-past-the-post.

They are also implying that "it was ever thus". This is not so. The last time there was a big groundswell of support for proportional representation, in the 1970s, most of that support (other than from the Liberals, of course) was coming from the Conservatives, including some quite leading ones who had been in Ted Heath's government of 1970 to 1974. There was also a phenomenon jokingly known as "Moggism-Levinism", after then Times editor William Rees-Mogg and his star columnist Bernard Levin, both of whom banged on endlessly in the mid-1970s about the need for PR "in the national interest" -- this of course when the Times was still a respectable, non-Murdoch paper.

Indeed, I remember many on the left in those days describing PR as a sinister right-wing plot whose real purpose, in their view, was to keep Labour out of power. I was an elected member of the Council of the Electoral Reform Society for much of that decade, and although we did have some maverick Labour Party members on board, a greater number of Tories were in evidence. In truth, it was an issue that cut right across party lines. It was only when Mrs Thatcher's extremist far-right clique hijacked the Tory party that this changed.

It is funny to see party tribalists on both Tory and Labour sides now rushing to the defence of first-past-the-post. Their arguments generally purport to be altruistic but in fact they are usually calculating party advantage. The Tories who oppose PR claim that only FPTP preserves what they claim is the essential constituency link, but probably their real reason is that Tories always represent only a minority of voters (this was true even at the time of the Thatcher "landslide" in 1979) and, under PR, the country's natural anti-Tory majority would always find expression in terms of seats, as it has mostly not done under the present system.

Peter Kellner in Rise of small parties shackles the big beasts pointed out on Sunday that the political landscape has gradually changed over the years and it is now quite likely that even if the system remains unchanged we are going to end up with hung parliaments in future:

Last week’s inconclusive outcome may be the first of many, even if first-past-the-post survives.

The reason is that the Labour and Conservative parties no longer dominate politics as they once did. In 1951, only nine MPs did not take the Labour or Tory whip; in 1970 the number was 12. By 1979 the number had climbed to 27, but the 70-seat Conservative lead over Labour delivered Margaret Thatcher a 43-seat overall majority.

Last week even a 70-seat lead would have been insufficient. As well as the 57-seat contingent of Liberal Democrats, 28 MPs will represent eight smaller parties. To secure an overall majority of just two, the Tories would have needed 86 more MPs than Labour.

(...) One of Cameron’s problems is that his looks like such an English party. There will be 298 Tory and 235 non-Tory MPs in England; but the rest of the UK returned just nine Tories compared with 108 non-Tory MPs.

To which the Tories could counter: those lopsided figures are exaggerated by first-past-the-post. They secured the support of one Scot in six. A proportional system could have added another nine MPs to accompany the solitary figure of David Mundell.

There is an even bigger reason for Conservatives to dislike first-past-the-post. Had Thursday’s voting figures been reversed, with Labour winning 36% of the vote and the Tories taking 29%, Labour would have enjoyed an overall majority of nearly 70. Even after the latest boundary changes, which in effect gave the Tories 12 extra seats, Britain’s political geography remains tilted against the party.

Yet the Tories are fiercely attached to the system that causes them such anguish.(...)

This being so, perhaps more Tories might start changing their minds about this. Michael Portillo, as so often, is already ahead of the curve. He said on telly the other day that he was beginning to see the advantages of a more proportional system.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Election: Good news, bad news

Good news:

(1) How marvellous that the ghastly humbug Esther Rantzen only managed to come fourth!

(2) Total lack of progress by the BNP and UKIP.

(3) I am delighted by Caroline Lucas's success in Brighton for the Green Party.

(4) Gutter press propaganda in favour of the Conservatives and its smears against Labour do not seem to have had much effect. It is remarkable that the Tories failed to do any better than 36% of the vote in such favourable circumstances for them. The newspapers seem to be losing some of their influence.

(5) Good riddance to Jacqui Smith, who was a thundering disgrace.

Bad news:

(1) The defeat of Evan Harris in Oxford is a grave blow. From the rationalist/secularist point of view, he was one of the best MPs in the House.

(2) Above all, it's a tragedy that the Lib Dem score was not enough to give them the clout to secure a proportional voting system. We may not get another chance. I hope I am wrong.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

What a stupid woman

Janet Street-Porter on this week's Question Time said she was turned off by the prime ministerial debates on TV. Because all three candidates were men, she said, she found it all irrelevant and couldn't relate to it. "Hello", she added, "more than half the electorate are women!"

What a stupid attitude! It was noticeable that her remarks gained no sympathy at all from the studio audience of both sexes, who just looked bemused.

It causes me to wonder once again why it is that so many (not all) women in public life so often come across as just irredeemably silly. One thinks also of Anne Widdecombe, Melanie Phillips, Caroline Flint, Margaret Hodge, Tessa Jowell, Germaine Greer, Hazel Blears, Jan Moir and several others.

Of course, there are also quite a few sensible women. And there are some silly men (John Redwood, Peter Hitchens, Sir Stuart Bell, George Galloway, Christopher Booker), but proportionately a lot fewer. I'm not talking merely about people whose opinions I disagree with -- that would be a very much longer list -- but about those who lack common sense and say things that are simply idiotic.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Worth having a look at

(1) Anthony Wells has a stab at explaining What happens in a hung Parliament. Note that the Queen doesn't have to grant a dissolution and a second election if she is advised that somebody else (who need not be a party leader) might be able to form a government.

(2) Who will lead the opposition? by Martin Kettle raises a so far neglected question. Suppose the LibDems come second in votes but third in seats, Nick Clegg has a moral claim on the post of official leader of the opposition. Kettle explains why this is important and how it could turn nasty.

(3) Stephen Tall explains Why gay voters are deserting the Tories for the LibDems. It's become rather clear that real commitment to gay equality in the Conservative Party is largely confined to the small modernising clique around Cameron, and a lot of their backwoodsmen turn out to be (as also on several other issues) not on message. Quelle surprise! Incidentally, now that Alan Duncan has been sacked from the front bench, as far as I know we have only Nick Herbert to hold the fort as a guarantee against future Tory backsliding on gay questions.

(4) Neil Harding points out that coalitions are not necessarily indecisive. "The 12 best countries for controlling the deficit and maintaining decent public services are all run by coalitions", he says.

(5) My old Campaign for the North chum Austin Mitchell MP explains why all this talk of "efficiency savings" is just hot air. He also writes, and I am inclined to agree: "Sadly no party is saying the one thing people want to hear. Bring the troops back from Afghanistan. What's the point of a war we can't win?" Actually I think the BNP and the Greens are saying that: strange bedfellows.

(6) In British political landscape could change for ever, Neil Clark reminds us that the existing parties are themselves rather artificial coalitions, only held together by the first-past-the-post voting system. Under a proportional system, the whole party structure could change over time, giving everyone clearer choices. He's right if we have a list system but I don't think the argument works so well if we have STV in multi-member constituencies, since that system gives voters the power to choose themselves between different strands of the same party.

(7) Dave Cole argues against David Cameron's suggestion of recall elections for bad MPs. This seems to be one of those "good ideas" that becomes less and less good the more you look into it.

(8) David Aaronovitch in Radicals or conservatives? How can we tell? speaks for many of us when he expresses utter confusion about where today's Conservative Party really stands. "The Conservatives are excellent on defence and internationalism, but useless and deceptive on Europe. They say good words about the poor, but suggest that their policy emphasis will be on reducing taxes for the middle classes and — amazingly — the very wealthy. Their key word is change, but much of time they seem to promise the past as much as the future. It's a promise that cannot be kept."

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The election: Let's not get too carried away

I think some people are getting a bit ahead of themselves with all this talk of who might coalesce with whom and under what leader. Anything could happen, but it seems clear the most likely outcome at present is still that the Tories don't get an overall majority but do come first in seats and first in votes.

It remains entirely possible, and is I think quite likely, that David Cameron could form a minority government and brazen it out for many months if not years. The opposition parties may be in no position to mount a challenge for a long time -- especially since Labour after its defeat could well implode in recriminations and backstabbing. Also, nobody will want another election any time soon because the parties are all broke.

Naturally, I hope this is not what happens, but we need to keep our feet on the ground. People are forgetting that, historically, minority governments are not especially weird or unimaginable. We had one for nearly all the period 1974 to 1979.

Just saying.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Why progressives should vote LibDem even if they hate the LibDems

Amid the great swirl of endless speculation currently going on about the general election, it's clear that nobody really has a clue what is going to happen. Has there ever been an election when everything is so much up in the air so near to polling day?

Naturally, the extraordinary LibDem surge and the possibility of a major constitutional upset is very exciting. But as Steve Richards notes yesterday in Talk of revolution is still premature, we should try not to get too carried away because "it is still quite possible that the mould will not be broken".

Mind you, both Steve Richards and I have already been proved completely wrong on one point: last July he wrote The last thing we need is a televised election debate and at the time I found his arguments persuasive. He now says "Originally, I was worried they would be dull, too constrained by rules, and would put viewers off politics. I am thrilled that I was wrong. They have energised the election."

Polly Toynbee yesterday issued her customary instruction to hold our noses and vote tactically to try to keep the Tories out, in Your heart might say Clegg. But vote with your head.

This stance -- opposing the Tories, more than positively embracing any one of their opponents -- has also been my pretty constant political position for the last 50 years. She says, "I have never much minded what the best anti-Tory party is called, I just want the left of centre to win. I will always back whichever group combines being furthest left with winnability."

But her view that Labour, while not ideal, is left-wing enough to be going on with, is no longer one I fully share. It seems to me to rely far too much on a simplistic single-dimensional left-right spectrum as a way of viewing politics. It leaves out of account the fact that, on quite a lot of issues (Heathrow third runway, habeas corpus, the database society, individual freedom in various contexts), Labour is actually WORSE than the Tories, or anyway worse than what the Tory leadership currently claims to believe. The Labour government has been for some years been alarmingly illiberal and authoritarian, as well as alarmingly un-green. Ms Toynbee is probably still at heart a top-down nanny-state Fabian social democrat, and although she does happen to take the correct view on most of these individual issues (she has been excellent on Heathrow and on secularism, for instance), when push comes to shove, these things clearly matter less to her than they do to me.

Anyway, I now live in one of those odd inner-city Lib/Lab marginals in which the Tories are nowhere, so all this no longer applies to me. For what it's worth, I am voting for the sitting LibDem MP (Simon Hughes), not that there is anything especially wrong with his Labour opponent here, as far as I know.

Now, I actually don't especially care who is the next Prime Minister or what are the manifesto commitments of the parties. Whoever becomes the government will probably break their promises anyway; they usually do. It is all hugely irrelevant compared with my overarching desire, which is to get a change in the utterly bonkers voting system. To this end, I think people should vote for the LibDems in any constituency where they have any reasonable chance of winning, however little enthusiasm they might feel for LibDem policies or however much they do not warm to Nick Clegg, or wish Vince Cable was their leader, or would really prefer to vote Green, etc. etc.

I for example wish the LibDems were being a lot more radical on Trident and Afghanistan, but, as I say, none of this is to the point. Achieving proportional representation is the ONLY thing that matters this time. Once we've got it, we can argue all we like about parties and policies.

Ms Toynbee also wants electoral reform, but for her it is only one of two equally important aims, the other of which is to keep the Tories out. Her assumption is that if the Tories get into government, even if it is a minority government, there is no chance of PR. This may be true, but I'm not sure.

Michael Portillo made an interesting little outburst on Andrew Neil's This Week on Thursday: Diane Abbott was saying "The Tories will never offer the LibDems PR", and Portillo jumped in to say "Oh yes they will!", adding that Tory high command will be so desperate for power that they could well outbid Labour on conceding a referendum if it is the price they have to pay. (This whole 10-minute section of the programme, a most interesting discussion also involving Andrew Rawnsley and Charles Kennedy, is well worth watching and you have a few days left in which to view it here.)

"Other senior colleagues of Mr Cameron privately concede that offering a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems could be a price worth paying to ensure he becomes prime minister", adds George Parker in yesterday's FT.

I am perfectly happy to see a Cameron government for a while if it is a way of getting voting reform. A Tory government will do damage, but it will be temporary; whereas changing the voting system permanently alters everything.

Meanwhile, Matthew Parris yesterday claimed that Nick Clegg cannot stand Gordon Brown and will do nothing to prop up Labour (something Clegg himself more or less confirmed this morning in his very impressive interview on the Andrew Marr show). Parris concedes that Cameron would be "intensely reluctant" to concede electoral reform, but sets out a scenario in which Clegg might be able to insist on it, especially since "first-past-the-post might be looking pretty discredited by May 7".

Of course, this is all terribly speculative, and in reality, almost anything could yet happen. My main hope is that the LibDems (and, if necessary, smaller parties which also want PR) are fully rehearsed for getting the most out of any eventuality and will not allow themselves to be bought off with, I dunno, a cabinet post for Vince Cable, or a mere Speaker's Conference on PR (we have been there before), or some other titbit which does not embrace voting reform or at least a referendum thereon.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Pointless helicopters

Am I alone in getting irritated by the broadcasters' use of helicopters? The Prime Minister goes to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen for a dissolution, and his motorcade through central London is covered live on TV via a helicopter. I suppose at least you could say that is a way of visualising a constitutional ritual. But then he sets off to St Pancras to get on a train, and we have to watch that journey from a helicopter as well. It is of no conceivable interest, except perhaps to notice in passing how many one-way streets the PM is allowed to go the wrong way down. It is wasteful of BBC licence-payers' money, exceedingly un-green in fuel terms, and damned noisy to boot, if you happen to be in the streets concerned.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Shadow Home Secretary and the Shadow Attorney-General

Chris Grayling. (I only fairly recently realised he is not the same person as A.C. Grayling.) He seems a bit accident-prone -- only a few months ago he put his foot in it about some announcement or other.

The fuss about gay couples at Bed and breakfasts (see e.g. Peter Tatchell here) seems a little bit manufactured to me, and I write as a former gay rights campaigner myself. He made an unwise passing remark in private, which doesn't mean that in office he would try to change the law back to allow the kind of discrimination being talked about.

In practice, who would actually want to stay at a B&B run by a proprietor who was hostile? I detect a certain lack of commonsense floating around in all this.

By and large, Grayling is a clever and mostly reasonable fellow. When he was shadow transport secretary he seemed unusually well-informed.

This storm in a teacup has been given a lot of publicity, while something that to me is more important is being ignored, if we are going to start analysing the suitability or otherwise of Cameron's would-be ministers. I speak of Edward Garnier. No, me neither, but he is the Shadow Attorney-General. According to the latest Private Eye, he is also a libel lawyer and he has come to the defence of his chum, the disgraceful Mr Justice Eady, the judge who keeps upholding scandalous "libel tourism" claims, and who I am delighted to see has been overturned by the Court of Appeal in the Simon Singh case. This is a case that was crucial for freedom of speech in Britain.

The Eye also reports that Garnier was hand in glove with Carter-Ruck over the even more scandalous Trafigura affair, in which Carter-Ruck, unbelievably, were trying in all seriousness to put an injunction on the reporting of Parliament.

Edward Garnier is reported to have vigorously defended the status quo as regards the libel law, and he added that he has earned his living and paid his mortgage thanks to it, as if that were some kind of justification.

Are we to have an Attorney-General who believes that freedom of speech should be compromised by monstrously unreasonable libel actions? This seems to be a matter of much greater significance than bigoted bed-and-breakfast proprietors, yet none of the mainstream press has reported a word about it yet.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The three main parties' transport policies

Transport Extra has produced useful quick summaries of the three main parties' transport policies as we go into the general election:

Where the Tories stand on key transport issues

Where Labour stand on key transport issues

Where the Liberal Democrats stand on key transport issues

I am not very surprised to discover that my views coincide most with those of the Liberal Democrats, as on so many issues.

Of course, what none of this tells us is whether any transport projects will survive the budget cuts that everybody says are coming.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Train of the day

It's the right kind of snow as the Hakutaka Express battles through the Japanese winter at Echigo-Yuzawa station.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Fashion parade of the day

Why doesn't British TV have programmes like this?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Manhattan: Broadway traffic ban becomes permanent

Good news from Manhattan, where sections of busy Broadway have been experimentally car-free for nearly a year. According to this article in Business Week, the ban has been so successful that New York's Mayor Bloomberg is making it permanent. Pedestrian injuries are down by 35%. Taxi journey times are improved by 7%. The car-free zones are to become public plazas where outdoor events will be held.

Let us hope that, on his next visit to London, Mayor Bloomberg will have words with his pal Boris Johnson about this success. Quite aside from the ongoing kerfuffle over what to do about the nightmare that is Oxford Street, our own theatreland could also do with some radical thinking of this kind. Christian Wolmar has recently blogged about being stopped by an idiotic jobsworth of a policeman for walking in the road in Soho where the pavement is too narrow and there were no cars coming. Mentalities are going to have to change.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Train of the day

The Class 507/508 is a train I associate with Merseyrail over many years of visiting Wirral. But, oddly, SouthEastern has one or two of them as well, though probably not for much longer. Currently they are operating on the Tunbridge Wells via Croydon service, and here is a pair of 508s at East Croydon.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Whither the euro?

I always said Greece (and Italy) should never have been allowed to join the euro in the first place.

When the euro started up I was living in Belgium and I thought it was a jolly good idea, not least on purely practical grounds. The Belgian/Luxembourg franc was an irritating nonsense: it had been successfully tied to the Deutschmark for ages, so there was no point in having a separate currency with all its inconvenience whenever one crossed the border to France, Germany or the Netherlands.

If I remember rightly, the original idea was that the members of the euro would be the Benelux countries, France, Germany, Austria, and Denmark, all countries with strong economies tightly linked to Germany's, and whose currencies were fairly closely aligned on the mark. (Denmark later decided it didn't want to belong, largely I suspect for emotional or symbolic reasons. I never thought there was the slightest prospect of Britain joining in, so whether it would have qualified or not is a question that need not be addressed.)

Great stress was laid on "economic convergence" as a criterion that had to be met before a currency could join. The Germans were especially keen on this if their people were to be persuaded that losing their strong, stable currency was a good idea.

I was really taken aback when it was later proposed that the lire and the drachma should be admitted. This involved turning a blind eye to what everybody in Brussels surely knew, that Italy and Greece were, and had always been, corrupt basket cases. It seemed that a sensible and prudent economic project was being replaced by a rash and purely political one. I don't understand why Germany agreed to this.

So I have a bit of an "I told you so" feeling about recent events. But the current British schadenfreude is misplaced, as Will Hutton points out in Don't laugh at Europe's woes. The travails facing Greece are also ours. Hutton is highly critical of our Supreme Leader for giving the impression that the euro's problems are nothing to do with us. He adds:

We also have no interest in Greece triggering a wave of exits from the euro and the 1930s-style competitive devaluations that will follow. Those dreaming of the free-market utopia of floating exchange rates should be careful for what they wish. By now you might hope there might be just a grain of suspicion about the manias and panics of free financial markets. Hope in vain.
If the struggle for economic reform in Europe is lost, Hutton says, we all go down. The reform programme, if it is to have a chance of success, must have at its heart the concept of "fairness - both within Greece and between Germany and the rest of Europe". Let us hope the powers-that-be will heed this wise commentator.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Drain in Network S.E. livery

One tends to forget about the Waterloo and City line. Even though it's just a stone's throw from where I sit, I think I've only used it about twice in 60 years.

I suppose it's rarely of any use to people who actually live in London, its target market consisting entirely of commuters into Waterloo main line.

This video clip reminds us that it used to be run by BR and was not part of the London Underground, and for a brief period its trains bore Network SouthEast colours, something I had quite forgotten.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Super jingle

I came upon the following US toothpaste ad from the 1960s.

What a fabbo music track! I really love that style, which reminds me a bit of PAMS radio station jingles of that era. What a pity today's commercials don't have the same schwung.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Boris lambasted by transport consultants

This from TransportXtra:

In an unusual step for a transport consultant, Colin Buchanan has spelt out its transport vision for the capital in response to the Mayor's draft transport strategy.

The consultant is critical of some of the mayor's priorities, such as the plan to scrap the western extension of the central London congestion charge, replace bendy buses and commission a new bus design for the capital. “In the present financial circumstances the mayor needs all the sources of revenue possible and not to incur expenditure which provides no improvement in transport services, for example the replacement Routemaster,” said Colin Buchanan chairman Andreas Markides.
I agree with both those points, as I have written before. The abolition of the western extension to the charging zone is merely pandering to the selfishness of Kensington petrolheads who no doubt vote Tory, and runs altogether counter to any conception of a sensible transport policy. The replacement of bendy buses is just an absurd hobby-horse of Boris Johnson's, on which I have written several times, most recently last February. Dave Cole also devoted a good deal of attention to this issue, notably here.

The TransportXtra article continues:
The consultant suggests that bus travel could be made more attractive by allowing Oystercard holders to make unlimited boardings of buses within 90 minutes of the first boarding without an additional charge.
Something of the kind was one of the relatively few interesting ideas put forward by Brian Paddick as LibDem candidate for Mayor. I was always impressed with the system in Brussels when we lived there: you pay a flat rate ticket for one hour's use of the whole city transport network, however many times you change buses or trams or metros in that period. It does seem arbitrary and inequitable that people whose journey happens to necessitate a change of bus should pay twice as much as those whose journey happens to be all on one route.

UPDATE: This from Boris Watch: New Bus For London – Costs Shoot Up, from which it appears that this wholly unnecessary project is going to cost us Council Tax payers over £11 million, and that only includes the first five vehicles.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Useless Thameslink, part 94

Another light coating of snow, another near-total collapse of the Thameslink suburban service:

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Messrs First Crapital so-called Connect are simply not trying.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Living on rations

My friends Jamie and Chris are trying to live on World War 2 rations for a month as an experiment. So far they are still alive. No doubt it helps that Jamie is an excellent cook. Follow their progress throughout January at On The Ration.