Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

A short break

This blog is now on holiday (see post 13 August 2012). I’ll be back on 10 September with some images and reflections on travel with a tandem along the Rhine and the usual topical areas; not least the state of the railways and the inevitable getting back into the swing of things after the Olympics. The economy is in poor shape, if I am not mistaken.

FirstGroup ‘win’ West Coast rail franchise in the UK

I am no supporter of rail privatisation. I wrote my PhD thesis on the subject. But the award of the West Coast franchise to First Group and the arbitrary way in which the rail companies can raise the price of their fares – RPI+3 per cent, suggest that there is something dysfunctional – at best – in the way the railways are managed and structured.

I’m no fan of Virgin and Richard Branson (see, but as an opener, I would endorse Branson’s statement, released this morning, outlining the non-learning that the Department of Transport has shown over the franchise bidding for this important piece of UK infrastructure.

“The Government decision to award the West Coast Main Line Franchise to FirstGroup is extremely disappointing for Virgin, and for our staff that have worked so hard to transform this railway over the last 15 years.  We submitted a strong and deliverable bid based on improving customers’ experience, increased investment and sustained innovation. To have bid more would have involved dramatic cuts to customer quality and considerable fare rises which we were unwilling to entertain.

We also did not want to risk letting everybody down with almost certain bankruptcy at some time during the franchise as happened to GNER and National Express who overbid on the East Coast mainline. Sadly the Government has chosen to take that risk with First Group and we only hope they will continue to drive dramatic improvements on this line for years to come without letting everybody down.

We won the franchise in 1997 with an agenda to change radically the way people viewed and used the train. At the time the track was run-down, staff demoralised, the service riddled with delays and reliant on heavy subsidies. We set hugely challenging targets to dramatically speed up journey times with modern tilting trains, increase the frequency of the service, improve the on-board experience; as well as double passenger numbers and return the line to profit.

We were told it was “Mission Impossible” and our plans were laughed at by critics. However 15 years later, despite continued problems with the track, we have achieved our targets. Passenger numbers have more than doubled to over 30 million, the fastest growth in the UK and world leading. We have the highest customer satisfaction of any long distance franchise operator and dominate the air/rail market between London and Manchester. It has been a remarkable achievement by an outstanding team who have successfully delivered on our promises.

I am immensely proud of our staff for turning the West Coast line from a heavily loss-making operation into one that will return the taxpayer billions in the years to come.  Last year we paid a net premium of £160 million to the taxpayer and have created a franchise worth more than £6 billion which is hugely valuable to the country.

These achievements have counted for little – as this is the fourth time that we have been out-bid in a rail tender. On the past three occasions, the winning operator has come nowhere close to delivering their promised plans and revenue, and has let the public and country down dramatically. In the case of the East Coast Main line, both winners – GNER and National Express – over promised in order to win the franchise and spectacularly ran into financial difficulties in trying to deliver their plans. The East Coast is still in Government ownership and its service is outdated and underinvested, costing passengers and the country dearly as a result.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When will the Department for Transport learn?

Interestingly before Virgin took over the West Coast there were more passengers using the East Coast than the West Coast. Now there are 12 million fewer.

Under our stewardship, the West Coast Mainline has been transformed from a public liability into a valuable asset for the UK, worth many billions of pounds.  The service is a British success story and one to put up against rail companies around the world. It is a great shame that such a strong track record has been discounted in the evaluation process for one of the UK’s most important infrastructure assets. The country’s passengers, taxpayers and the West Coast employees deserve better.   Based on the current flawed system, it is extremely unlikely that we would bid again for a franchise.  The process is too costly and uncertain, with our latest bid costing £14 million. We have made realistic offers for the East Coast twice before which were rejected by the Department for Transport for completely unrealistic ones and therefore will have to think hard before embarking on another bid.

Our amazing staff have been the driving force behind the West Coast Main Line’s transformation and I am sure that for the last months of the contract they will all continue to run the high quality service that has helped win us many awards and attract millions more customers to rail.”

Tandem preparations

I spent some of the weekend preparing the tandem for the journey. We now have a cycle computer attached, bags and lights. Lights are a bit of a problem because most come with fittings that do not account for luggage. One has to adapt the fittings to attach them to a part of the bicycle that is not obscured by the panniers and and other luggage attached to the rear and front racks. Why is this?

As for the route, we take the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and then the ride is approximately along the Rhine. Beyond that we have no plans. The maps below represent roughly the route.

I’ve circled in red the places of note…click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

Section 1: Rotterdam east towards Duisburg      
Section 2: Duisburg south towards Köln
Section 3: Köln towards Koblenz
Section 4: Koblenz towards Wiesbaden and Mainz
Section 5: Mainz towards Worm, Mannheim and Heidelberg
Section 6: Karlsruhe towards Strasbourg
Section 7 Not clear yet whether we continue along the Rhine to Basel or whether   we brave the Black Forest.

Smear as a political strategy by so-called journalists

ImageJournalism as practised by some is a dishonourable profession. The news values are significantly out-of-line with real agenda – the things that really should matter. The Olympics is a case in point. In context, the Olympics is just a sporting event; though readers will appreciate that it has many political and corporate undertones that trouble me. It is a relief, therefore, to find that some of my readers are equally sceptical about media and journalism. One of those readers, Mary Tweed, found herself incensed by the cover of the Spectator magazine last week (above left). I reproduce her assessment below.

The names have been changed. Sometimes to protect the innocent, occasionally to protect the guilty. In this case it’s probably to stop any comeback about the mendacity behind an outrageous front-page headline. Bullied by the NHS. Try as I might, I can’t connect the headline with the contents of the article.

This disconnection becomes more obvious with just cursory research. On Mumsnet and other websites where mothers share their experiences of childbirth, it’s clear that many people have had positive experiences of NHS maternity care. Maybe even a sizable majority. For example;

So why run such a lightweight piece under such a damning headline? Do they believe the story told adds up to bullying? Or worse some sort of systemic bullying unique to NHS maternity services? The author got a rude midwife and wanted a personalised service. Notice there is nothing in the article about the quality of care she received.

Page 1 here;

Page 2 here;

In fact it’s clear she intends to lie to get what she deems to be an appropriate personalised service for someone in her tax bracket. Good enough care is not good enough it seems.  I’m not claiming NHS maternity care is flawless. I am claiming the headline “Bullied by the NHS” has nothing to do with the contents of the associated article.  I keep coming back to that front page. Its almost like the publishers of the Spectator want to kick out at the NHS and will take even the most tenuous of opportunities to do this.

The Smear. It begins with a smear and ends with privatisation. The railways and council housing were the same. State education and the entire civil service are getting the negative propaganda treatment as well. Smear, degrade, sell. It feels like a propaganda war.  Ironically Boris Johnson used to be boss at the Spectator. In the most recent London Mayor election he accused Ken Livingstone of trying to wind the clock back to the 1970s. As opposed to the Spectator, which seems to be trying to wind the clock back to the 1870s.

Leah McLaren states in this article that in Britain infant mortality is “significantly higher” than in France. She does not give any facts or any details of the research at all to back this up.

According to the United Nations the mortality figures per 1000 births for France and Britain are as follows; 2005 – 2010 UK: 4.91 FRANCE:3.54

According to the CIA world factbook for 2012 the numbers per 1000 births are; UK:4.56 FRANCE:3.37

Both sets of figures above and the links come from wikipedia;

In percentage terms that could be described as a significant difference. In numerical terms it’s slightly more than one extra death for every thousand births. The author goes on to make the assumption that the differences in mortality rates are solely due to the method of birth chosen. This is not clear from the statistics and could be the result of other differences.

Her point about home birth and hospital birth seems muddled. She seems to say France has a lower infant mortality rate due to “medicalised birth.” Then a few paragraphs later says in the UK the risks of home birth vs hospital birth are virtually the same.

It’s unclear what she means. Are UK home births as safe as hospital births? Is there a problem with “medicalised” birth care in the UK versus France?

It also bears no relation to the front page about bullying by the NHS.

The irony is she has a genuine complaint against the midwife who upset her. The person in question disclosed confidential information about other patients. If Leah McLaren was serious about improving the care at that particular maternity unit she should have made a complaint. Disclosing confidential patient information is something health-care professionals take seriously.  Instead the author chose to write a quasi-anonymous article about feeling bullied.

Olympic sponsors’ advertising

BA Hoarding, 7_8_12

The official sponsors of the Olympics have excelled in the fatuousness of their advertising. Take British Airways. BA has draped itself around the UK airports in which it operates and beyond. Annoying they certainly are. Take the one on the left. Not my best picture, I have to admit, but the point is well made. And it is a theme of sponsor advertising.

So, if you shout loud enough from the comfort of your own home, the athletes will hear you and hence do well. It is patently untrue. Even if I had a television and even if I cared to shout, which I do not on both counts,  it does not matter how loud I shout, they will not hear me.

And since when has it been propitious for an airline to advise people not to fly and instead to watch television?

The McDonald’s campaign shares with BA the patently untrue theme of Olympic sponsor advertising. Clearly it is about ordinary people who are proud, patriotic and enthusiastic, amongst other things. However, what are the indicators of the proudest mum? There are not too many mums who are not proud. I know mine was proud when I graduated, but to suggest she was ever the proudest would have been silly. There were a lot of proud mums at the graduation ceremony. I would not have liked to have tried to measure proudness on that day.

What is also quite interesting about the McDonald’s advertising is the tagline at the bottom: “We all make the Games”. There has been much debate about who can and cannot use the term “Olympics”. As a key sponsor of the “Games”, oddly, McDonald’s chooses to use the term “Games”, omitting the adjective that they paid so much to use!

Coming next…BP

Preparations for the tandem tour

The tour starts in just over one week. The weekend just gone gave us our first opportunity to take the the tandem out for a decent ride. 55 km along a series of different terrains, including the old railway track from Shoreham to Henfield (now the Downs Link); B road from Henfield to Ditchling; a reasonable climb up Ditchling Beacon and then into Brighton through Hollingbury.

Some new accessories purchased. The tent was erected for the first time and we are nearly ready to go.

Mars Rover successfully lands


What a contrast between the noise of the Olympics and the awesome team achievement of getting the Mars Rover safely onto the Martian surface, first with a parachute and then with rockets. And then get some pictures of the planet before breakfast. The seven minutes of terror proved anything but. Though images from NASA’s control room showed the tension.


Let’s do the math: Mars Rover £1.5billion; Olympics: £9billion. That’s about six Rovers for an Olympics. Legacy…let’s see, but I suspect the science will endure in a way the Olympics will not. Plus, if we talk about inspiring a generation, surely Mars/planetary exploration topCuriosity decends_6_8_12s running fast?

And here is the image taken from a satellite of the craft decending to the surface being slowed by the largest parachute ever used in a space programme.