Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Labour & the Unions are bending the truth about London’s new buses

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I am well excited about the fact that some of the New Routemaster buses are now in service in London.

What is surprising, however, is the amount of negativity surrounding it.  Christian Wolmar, who styles himself as ‘Britain’s Leading Transport Correspondent’ tweeted yesterday asking if the new buses were anything other than a very expensive joke.

My response to Mr Wolmar is that they are anything but a joke.  Admittedly, I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing one but there are some good reasons to have replaced the bendy-buses with them.

As some of the passengers interviewed in this BBC Report noted, the bendy-buses were often known as “the free bus” because there were so many doors that it was easy to avoid paying and not get caught.  The cynic in me says that if Boris Johnson had made a thing about keeping these buses, Ken Livingstone would have run a campaign decrying the “Tory Free Bus Scandal.”  Prove me wrong, folks.

Secondly, the length of the bendy-buses meant that they were often unpopular with cyclists – as a cyclist, I can totally agree that it is not nice feeling hemmed in by such a long vehicle, and easy to get the feeling that perhaps the driver cannot see you properly.  Mr Wolmar is evidently quite in favour of cycling and I am amazed that he has not made more of this point.

Being more positive, there is a lot to be said for the new bus design.  I like the fact that they will have a conductor on-board and an open platform at the back.  I witnessed one of the major advantages of this when I was in London recently waiting for a Number 15 near Tower Hill.  One of the normal double-deckers turned up and the crowd waiting at the stop took an age to shrink as the driver processed everyone boarding.  After a while, an old Routemaster pulled up behind.  The conductor waved the remainder of the crowd, including me, aboard and in a moment we were speeding off, leaving the newer bus behind.  I also remember the days when the old Routemasters were commonplace and I could get off at a red traffic light by Paddington Station without having to wait for the lights to change and the bus to go along to the stop up the road.

Of course, it will cost a bit to employ the conductors – but if the new buses reduce fare evasion (and possibly increase patronage) some of this will be offset.  In such economic times it is also surely a good thing to see jobs being created and I cannot understand why the Unions are bleating about the new buses.  I’ve never known Bob Crow to say anything positive, but surely he was one of the most vocal people to complain when the last set of bus conductors were made redundant. 

Another advantage of the new buses is that they are built in Britain, which the Unions should be thankful for (after all, they went ape when the order for Thameslink trains went abroad).  Being cynical again, I’d say that the Union stance has more to do with being pro-Ken and anti-Boris than any sort of reasonable argument.

Finally, I am concerned that those opposed to the new bus (again, possibly motivated purely by political reasons) are deliberately scaremongering about the cost of the new buses.  In this BBC Article, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy said “each new bus costs £1.4m compared with the conventional double-decker bus which costs about £190,000,”  but I would accuse Mr Lammy of not calling a spade a spade.

Dividing the development costs of a brand-new bus by the first run of eight units is ridiculous.  This is never done elsewhere in the industry, and I would be very interested to know how much the first eight “normal” double-deckers actually cost per unit on the same basis.

Maybe Mr Lammy, along with the other negative voices, assumes that we’re all fools.  Maybe most of you are, in which case I fear for the result of the mayoral election.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The truth is, I’m not a lesbian

I have to say that I quite enjoyed the sound bite from Radio 4’s Today Programme when Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser were discussing religion.  I loved the delicious irony of Dawkins invoking the name of God, and the fact that Dawkins was caught out and blustered his way through quite an awkward moment.

However, at the end of the day, I do actually think that Dawkins had a fair point.  The “right to self-identification” – as championed by Giles Fraser – is in principle an important thing.  What Fraser seems not to have grasped, however, is that there needs to be some meaning behind it.  I’m sure that he would be very keen for me to have the right to identify myself as a lesbian, but whatever box I tick or whatever I say about myself, it clearly isn’t true.

In the same way, there are some definite truths about Christianity.  Yes, Christians don’t all agree on everything, but through the fuzziness there is a solid core. 

I fear that Giles Fraser is proud of his “inclusive” and relativist agenda, but the reality is he ought to be ashamed of himself.  It is pretty obvious that people in this country lack an understanding of what it means to be a Christian and the likes of Fraser, pushing an “anything goes” attitude rather than having the guts to stand up and proclaim the Christian message must surely take some responsibility for that.

Of course, people have a right to choose what they believe.  But as well as a right to self-identification they have a right to know the facts and an understanding of what people believe and why.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The ugly duck(ling) billed platypus

As a transport researcher, I have to accept that my job is not going to add to my sex appeal.  The fact that I spent some of Valentine’s Day reading about concrete probably says something, as does the fact that one of the more interesting things I was given was a National Rail Timetable (on loan for my work, I hasten to add, not as a romantic gesture).

Yet, despite this, it is not unusual for some forms of transport to be described as “sexy.”  By normal people, too, not just geeks.  I’d almost be prepared to bet that at least one of you (all 11 of you who read this) has described a car as “sexy.”

Believe it or not, High Speed Trains can apparently be sexy as well - I guess it’s all relative.  There is an article here entitled High Speed Trains as Sexy as Fast Cars, although as it comes from TreeHugger.com I’m not sure that I can suggest that it’s normal.  I’m also assuming that the writer had not been exposed to this:

My eyes!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Lamenting the good old C of E

For those of you who know me, or who have been long-term visitors to this Corner of the Blogosphere, you will probably know that I am a Christian.  You may also know that although I don’t care much for denominational division that I usually attend an Anglican church.

There is lots which is good about the Anglican church.  Personally, I like the breadth of styles it encompasses, the structure of some of the liturgy it offers and the fact that a lot of Anglican churches are at the heart of communities.  People relate easily to them, even if it’s just for weddings and funerals and the odd Christmas sing-song and the opportunities to share the Christian message and make a positive difference to those communities are theoretically huge.

What a shame, therefore, that these opportunities are so often lost.  Admittedly, I don’t necessarily think much of the BBC’s standard of reporting, especially on this sort of issue, but I thought it sad that the headline for the Archbishop’s Christmas sermon was the fact that he was “lamenting” something or other.  Where was the positivity of the Christmas story?

On New Year’s Day, Rowan Williams used the opportunity he had to address thousands of people to tell them not to give up on young people.  Not a bad thing to say, of course, but this man is paid by the church and in nothing which I saw reported did he talk about the core beliefs which should be at the heart of the organisation.  Again, what a shame that the opportunity to get across the message of Jesus Christ to a population who are largely uninformed and ignorant was wasted.

As C.S. Lewis put it, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”  Here in Southampton, I am really excited by the various initiatives currently going on to help people see the importance of Christianity, and the idea that it is not blind superstition but reasonable faith.  The Christian Union at the University are putting on a series of events on campus to encourage people to engage with Christianity and this also excites me.  As a Christian, I believe that Christianity is true and not only important but something which is hugely positive – it is therefore great to see people investigating it for themselves.

So, don’t get me wrong – there is some good news and I’m not really that much of a grumpy old man.  But it does frustrate me that the Anglican Church, for all its strengths, often appears to see Christianity as nothing more than “moderately important,” squandering opportunities to make a difference.

You reap what you sow, of course, and the decline reported on this blog saddens me but doesn’t surprise me.  I do however like the point made that “General Synod has 4 debates coming up on women bishops, and none on church growth/decline. I'm sorry but that's bonkers. Anyone who thinks women bishops is the biggest issue facing the church at the moment hasn't woken up or inhaled the coffee. There is no point re-arranging dog collars on the Titanic.”

The irony is, of course, that a lot of the problems in the church stem from the fact that a lot of the current bishops lack balls…

Monday, February 06, 2012

On losing beauty sleep

On Saturday afternoon, I travelled on a South West Trains service to London.  I put my headphones in, turned on my MP3 player (The Verve, if you are interested) and fell asleep.  I`d not been asleep long when I was tapped on the shoulder by the guard, who wanted to see my ticket.  Of course, I obliged, but as he disappeared down the train I was not happy that my sleep had been disturbed.

At one level, this was not unreasonable.  After all, it is my duty to have a ticket, and the guard`s job to check it.  But it was not a busy train and the guard passed back through the carriage several times during the remainder of the journey, so I question whether it was really necessary to ruin my nap at that point in time.  After all, I have often been on trains and watched the guard leave those passengers sleeping well alone.  I have also been on trains where it has been announced that "because the train is busy, if you wish to sleep please leave your ticket visible" which is not a bad idea and would have been possible if South West Trains had spent some of my ticket money on giving me a table.

But, flippancy aside, and ignoring the curtailment of my nap, I do think that South West Trains lack an understanding of good customer relations, particularly when it comes to ticketing.  For example, if I get a train on the South West network, I invariably see an aggressive poster telling me that if I don`t have a ticket I`ll be fined a lot of money; I can`t help wondering if this is really necessary.  Southern, for example, also operate a penalty fare scheme, and would - presumably - also fine me a lot of money if I evaded paying for my journey.  But their posters are polite, unobtrusive and they (thankfully) do not adopt the attitude of making me feel like a criminal until proven innocent. 

In the past, with another rail company, when I have needed to travel beyond the limits of my season ticket, I have generally had no problem buying the extra fare onboard the train (I can`t generally buy it from the machines before I travel because they are not that flexible).  But South West Trains seem to think it reasonable for me to break my journey at the limit of my ticket, and buy the extra fare at the station before proceeding on the next train.  Whenever that may be.

And what is it with the grumpy staff at Southampton Central station?  Despite having a growing pool of unemployed people to choose from, South West Trains have seemingly been unable to find anyone who knows how to smile.  I did get an apology (of sorts) on one of the occasions I was mistakenly accosted at the barrier despite having a valid ticket, but the attitude of their staff could be a lot better. 

I don`t have a problem with South West Trains` desire to minimise fare evasion.  But they need to learn that those of us who do willingly pay for tickets also pay their wages.  A smile, some respect and an understanding of what makes for a pleasant journey go a very long way - as Southern have become quite good at demonstrating.  Not only does it improve things for us as passengers, but if staff are less grumpy with us then chances are we`ll be less grumpy about them.  It`s not exactly rocket science, is it?

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Transparent Benefits?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News this morning about a family on benefits and how they will be worse off under the proposed benefits cap.

At first glance, it is very easy to feel sorry for the family.  He is unable to find a job (and it is fair to assume that he has been trying to do so) and she is unable to work.

But then I read some of the comments and looked at the breakdown of spending in detail.  £15 a week on Sky TV? A substantial amount of beer and cigarettes?  Now, maybe I shouldn’t be so judgemental about what people spend their money on, but the comment about “eight people having to choose between eating and heating” doesn’t exactly hold water.

I’d also speculate that some of the teenagers have a part-time job.  Additionally, although we’re told that some of the children are from previous marriages, we’re not told anything about how much time they spend living with the other side of the family, nor what “maintenance” they might receive from them.  I don’t feel that we have been told the full story, and there is a lack of transparency in the report.

At the end of the day, there will be some people who are worse off under a benefit cap.  The important thing is to make sure that those who genuinely need the support are still provided with it and sensationalist reporting such as this article from the BBC only serves to cloud the issue.  To imply that this particular family are in danger of starving or freezing is not right, and could ultimately be quite irresponsible.  One of these days there will be a report about a family who don’t have the money to spend on copious amounts of beer, cigarettes or television and – not unlike the boy who cried wolf – they will be ignored by a population who have become understandably cynical.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Big News

I have just read the leading paragraph of a BBC article on the new Bond film.  Apparently, the first official image from the film has been released and “actor Daniel Craig is shown wielding a gun and sporting stubble.”

How is this any more news-worthy than the fact I brushed my teeth this morning?  Honestly, I’d almost be prepared to bet that more people have commented on my own facial hair in the last month (I had a beard, which I have now shaved off) than care about the fact that Daniel Craig has been photographed with stubble.

In the same way that “the name’s Bond” is usually followed by “James Bond,” much about a Bond film is fairly predictable.  There will be a villain, a fast car, a girl who is hopefully quite attractive and Mr Bond won’t die.  Sorry if I’ve just spoiled the new film for you, but the point is that it is probably quite difficult to come up with some truly surprising news about the new film.  However, someone somewhere could surely have said something other than “he is seen wielding a gun.” 

The only surprising thing is that this made it on to the BBC News in the first place, even with my ever diminishing opinion of its standards.

Suits you, sir!

I am intrigued by the debacle over Fred Goodwin and his knighthood, or lack thereof.  There is an interesting article in The Telegraph which suggests that it is nothing but a political game and a “capitulation to mob rule.”

I am equally intrigued by the farce over Stephen Hester and his bonus.  At one level, I don’t disagree that the bonus seemed a bit outrageous in this time of recession, but we need to get some perspective.  Firstly, like it or not, it is true that if you want the best people you have to pay for them accordingly.  I’m sure I can hear voices of disagreement, but if you’re not going to object to the fact that football managers get paid several times what Mr Hester was paid and most clubs will pay handsomely for their players then you’re not being consistent.  Similarly, I have no time for those Union bosses who whine, without even suggesting that they should cut back on their own six figure salaries.

Secondly, whereas we may be right to acknowledge the fact that there have been some terrible mistakes in the banking industry, the way in which it has become popular to vilify anyone remotely connected is deeply concerning.  Toby Young, in the aforementioned Telegraph article suggests that if such vilification continues, “the consequences for the British economy will be catastrophic,”  but there is more to it than that.  To point the finger squarely at the bankers, and to enjoy blaming those who appear to have more than us (“in the interests of fairness,” perhaps) is to subconsciously or otherwise absolve ourselves of all responsibility.  Yes, some people may have done more to damage the economy than others, but would you have done anything differently?  Would you turn down a large bonus?  Do you think that you have a right to buy what you want when you want?  Have you got a good rate on your mortgage and a large credit card bill?

With rights come responsibilities and it’s amazing how many people appear to ignore that.  If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above then I suggest you think twice before opening your mouth and blaming the bankers.  Take the speck out of your own eye first, and all that…