I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter.  Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys.  I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference.  However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”.  Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.

In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities.  Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist).  Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62.  However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.

I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users.  Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally.  I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability.  The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?).  I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two.  It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver.  One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway?  It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?

This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast.  I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster).  East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it.  Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise.  I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example).  On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters.  Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers.  It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach.  I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined).  I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour.  I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon.  Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains.  Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition!  (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector.  Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?).   Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?

It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them.  We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours.  This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.

Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election.  Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner.  It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.

In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?


The frivolous (social net)work of polished idleness

Given my use of this blog, Twitter and Facebook it would not have been unreasonable for you to assume that I have embraced social networking.  Well, perhaps given my rather erratic use of both Twitter and Facebook, it might be considered more of a wave across a crowded room than a full-on embrace.  In fact, I tend to view both Twitter and Facebook as an adjunct to GofaDM: as repositories for material too brief or transitory to make it into a full post.

They do have other uses: Twitter does deliver the occasional well-formed witticism and only last week provided me with me first, definitive sighting of Venus (no doubt I’d seen it before, but for the fist time I both saw it and knew what I was seeing!).  Facebook is, I have found, quite handy for keeping up with the lives of friends who are now parents.

Both are, of course, nominally free at the point of consumption – though, we are giving away precious details about ourselves to be sold to “the man” for his nefarious commercial ends as part of this Faustian pact.  I feel fairly relaxed about this – if any commercial concern is able to learn anything useful about me from a combination of dodgy jokes, a somewhat stalled novel and an attempt at a haiku then I say “good luck to them!”.

The presence of location services on my cellphone (retro or what) might cause the worry that “they” can track my movements.  However, whilst sitting in an Australian cafe near Goodge Street (W1) this past week, Facebook thought I was in Biggin Hill (some 18.2 miles away by foot according Google maps, which does not seem to provide a crow-flying option) – so whilst Big Brother may be watching me, he would seem to be either a very long way away or wearing the wrong specs (or both).

However, use can be taken too far.  There are individuals who provide a commentary on their every action (or inaction) – a degree of sharing which I have (so far) managed to resist: if I do start sharing details of my breakfast (the usual) or bowel movements (perfectly satisfactory, thank you), please feel free to stage an intervention.

A huge range of products and companies now want us to follow them on Twitter or like them in Facebook.  I’ve just had a quick scan of my larder, and whilst some products mention a website or even a real address, I couldn’t spot any which encouraged me to start adding them to my circle of friends.  This may be because I tend to buy basic ingredients and make more complex fare myself (through a mix of culinary skill and egomania, I am convinced that I can make something more appetising than that which is produced by piercing a film and sticking a plastic tray of gunk in the microwave for 2 minutes).  My flexible attitude to the Use By date also means that much of the contents of my pantry pre-dates social networking (and in some cases, the internet).  As a warning to marketing departments everywhere: if I spot a foodstuff seeking to become part of my social life I shall discontinue its purchase forthwith and seek some less pushy alternative.

Many companies seem actively to seek cupboard-love by attempting to bribe me to like them on Facebook.  Whilst I am eminently corruptible, I will need to be suitably insulted first: a trip on the corporate yacht might be tempting, some minor discounts and early details of special offers really isn’t.

But, for me, the final straw was being asked to visit the BBC Radio 3 Facebook page when trying to listen to some classical music.  I don’t won’t to live in a universe where Radio 3 would have a Facebook page – let alone visit it.  I realise I’m on thin ice here (as I fully intend to grow old disgracefully) but it’s rather sad when a middle-aged or elderly acquaintance attempts to be trendy in this way.  Is this part of a plan to poach some yoof from the 1Xtra massive?  I know from attending classical music concerts that there is a definite shortage of age and ethnic diversity in the audience (though, plenty of walking aids), but I hardly think that this is the way to address it.  Or am I just showing myself up as a fuddy-duddy while the typical Radio 3 listener has the dextrous thumbs (or would one of them have to be sinistrous for a normal pair?) of a teenager (in a glass jar, perhaps?) and is a social-network addict?

Not a holiday

When I heard on this morning’s BBC 6Music News that Rupert Murdoch was heading for the sun, I did wonder why they thought I would care about the holiday plans of a billionaire media mogul.  This was but a fleeting thought, as I soon realised that I should have been thinking of the Sun with a capital “S”.

It has been alleged that various current and ex-employees of this less than august (July?) organ of the fourth estate have been bribing public officials.  This is, of course, very naughty – a fact that has certainly been rammed home to me.

You may recall the first attempt by my employers to inculcate some basic ethics in the author, and his irritation therewith.  Well, as previously noted, once you have given in to bullies or blackmailers you are never free of their grip.  As a result, I was eventually (when final demand emails began arriving) forced to take their anti-bribery “training”.  It is good to know that my employers continue to think of me as a sociopath with the intellectual capacity of the none-too-bright, but much-loved family pet.

As before, I thought it hard to imagine anyone would believe that bribing a public official (either directly or indirectly) was a good idea when viewed from the legal perspective – but I was still required to work my way through a mass of case studies highlighting the bleeding obvious and then tests to see whether I had managed to take this precious information on-board – which, miraculously I had (in common with most bacteria taking the same test).  The majority of these case studies seemed to involve the corporate yacht – which I didn’t realise we had, and so I am now look forward to my maiden voyage!  (As long as you aren’t a public official, I’ll see if can wangle any of my readers an invite as my +n when my turn comes round.)  As with serial killers, who need a new kill ever sooner after each murder, I am already being bullied to take the next stage of this ethics “degree”.  At this rate of acceleration, by the end of the year my entire job will be taking ethics training.

I can only assume that News International lacks this obsession with its employees’ ethics – which may explain both their profitability and current legal troubles.  Then again, would ethics training have made much difference?  I’m sure that people working in Wapping have much the same idea of right and wrong as the rest of us.

Being a man of a somewhat cynical bent, I suspect that when the ants have taken over the earth (long after the human race has died out) their archeologists will discover that we saw the coming apocalypse, but that our response was to arrange for some serious box ticking, as protection against future legal troubles, coupled with a truly monumental series of meetings to discuss potential action.  These meetings will, of course, achieve nothing useful as making a decision could (a) leave you liable to later reproach (obviously, doing nothing would leave no-one able to sue), (b) put the meeting attendees out of a job and (c) inflame the ire of the apocalypse-deniers who had seized on a couple of typos in the screeds of papers written on the impending disaster.  As a result, all our paperwork will be beyond reproach, but as a species we will have done nothing useful to avert our doom.  Have I wandered into the realm of heavy-handed satire?  And so soon after denying I was Ben Elton…  Disappointing, Fish.  Very disappointing.