Friday, July 24, 2009

Leadership By Statistical Inevitability

The government's announcement that the Great Western Main Line is to be electrified leaves me with something of a quandary; how do I react to the government actually doing something I want them to do? At one level I suppose I'd have to admit that even a government that was trying its hardest couldn't get every single decision wrong and that statistically the odd correct decision is inevitable (even from Pa Broon). But equally you have to ask yourself how we got here in the first place...

Before British Rail, the only significant electrification project in Britain was the Southern Railway's effort on its commuter lines south of London. Overhead line electrification only began in earnest with the British Rail Modernisation Plan of 1955, which lead to the first main line electrification (of the West Coast Main Line between 1959 and 1974) and suburban electrification in Glasgow and East London. Over the years the suburban systems crept further outwards, joined by the occasional new project like the North London suburban system (1976 to 1983).

Nevertheless, when the time came to replace the remaining main line diesels, electrification was never a consideration as BR was pouring all its money into APT. The result of that was the HST, a pure BR product; designed in Derby, built in Crewe. But no sooner had HST made its debut than the suburban electrifications became full main line electrifications, reaching Norwich on the Great Eastern in 1986 and Edinburgh on the East Coast in 1991. Then privatisation kicked in and suddenly no-one was interested in new anything. Except Heathrow, which wanted a fast rail link to keep up with the airport joneses. One fairly chunky tunnelling project later, Heathrow Express opened in 1994, complete with the first piece of electrification on the Great Western, from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington.

And then New Labour enter our tale, demonstrating their deep commitment to strategic thinking in the railway industry by handing it off to a quango with no actual power. But while transport planning was one thing, sucking up to City bankers was quite another and thus Crossrail was (re)born to make their commute from Berkshire to the Bank easier. A literal hole to pour money down though it is, Crossrail does at least extend the Great Western electrification to Maidenhead.

Meanwhile despite a highly successful engine replacement programme the HSTs will fundamentally be forty years old in 2016. As we've discussed previously, the government had to step in to procure a replacement, at which point they will have discovered how difficult that is when the factory that built the originals has closed and we're virtually the only country with high speed diesel trains. But with the specification for the Intercity Express Programme written to require that the trains be deliverable as diesel, electric and dual-power, the government will have had to ask itself whether it should electrify.

Now once you've got to Maidenhead you've already covered a significant proportion of the commuter services as it is and pushing on to Oxford and Newbury gives you complete coverage. Oxford takes the main line electrification to Didcot which means you're already half way to Bristol. If you go to Bristol you probably have to use both routes (Bath and Bristol Parkway) and if you get to Parkway you're virtually in Wales anyway so why not at least go to Cardiff, but if you only go to Cardiff half the trains there will still be diesel anyway as they continue on to Swansea so you might as well go to Swansea too and do the whole job... And suddenly you're there. One horribly bad decision eventually begets a good one, something for which I'm not sure we should be doling out enormous amounts of credit.

But I suppose some is due to Labour, if only to underline that absolutely none is due to Plaid Cymru, who've been on the blogs and in the papers spinning the announcement as a triumph for Ieuan Wyn Jones as Assembly Transport Minister. Which is fine, except for the extent to which the logic for electrification has everything to do with how you run a railway and nothing to do with the politics of nationalism, the mounting evidence that Ieuan is desperately trying to cover up diverting funding from east-west transport projects against the advice of civil servants (which has everything to do with the politics of nationalism) and particularly except for his "National Transport Plan" which basically listed all the things he'd already announced he was doing and then said which ones he was cutting...

So let's be happy that we're getting the electrification we need but if the Assembly want any credit from it, let's see them ditch their pathetic plan and support the electrification the way it needs to be, with investment in electric local trains for Cardiff-Swansea and electrification of the Valley Lines. Until then, they and the Labour Party in general can shut the hell up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jeremy Paxman Ate My Earlobes

Among the many sacrifices I make to serve as a councillor, missing University Challenge is, in the grand scheme of things, not exactly life-changing. Still, when your alma mater is on one of the most successful runs in series history (semi-finalists each year since 2005 with three finals appearances and two-ish wins) and you had more than a little to do with that, there's an emotional bond that makes it hard to give yourself up to the delights of group meetings (two Mondays a month here in Cardiff.) And while there is always iPlayer, it's not the same when you've missed your institution in the most hyped final in history as I did earlier this year.

Still, occasionally you're rewarded for sticking with it and I thought I was going to be tonight when the boy Paxo opened up a set of bonuses with, "Which British city includes the wards of Adamsdown, Butetown..." Apart from decrying the laziness of the question setter in using the wards in alphabetical order, I thought all was well.

There then followed the most painful mangling of Cardiffian mispronunciation I've heard in quite some time. To set the record straight, it's CAN-tun (not can-TON) and ka-TAY-ze (not KATH-ays). Given that little display I'm unsurprised the poor Loogabaroogans misidentified it as Manchester (although in fairness, they might have noticed that none of those names are nearly northern enough...) But then it got worse, for the next two bonus questions were about the same ward.

My ward. Which apparently is called hlan-DARFF, so much so he said it twice.

Now unless it has it's hat on (as in Cwmbrân) that vowel sound is an ah, so in Welsh it hlan-DAHV and in English it usually becomes LAN-dahff.

Still, thanks for trying, I suppose...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bring Me My Arrows Of Desire On The Chattanooga Choo-Choo

The American constitution, as we know, cares little about the dangers of widespread possession of guns. Which makes what the American justice system does care about in the field of firearms even more remarkable...

Steve McNair was quite the All-American story. Born and raised in small-town Mississippi and educated at a historically black university with no great sporting reputation, he developed into one of the great quarterbacks of his era, sharing the NFL Most Valuable Player award in 2003 and leading the Tennessee Titans to within inches of a Superbowl title in 2000 before retiring in 2008 to tend his Mississippi farm and work on various business interests in Nashville.

The details of his death two weeks ago were therefore all the more shocking. McNair was shot dead by his 20-year-old mistress in a murder-suicide in an apartment he owned near the Titans stadium. Although initial reports suggested that he had already instigated divorce proceedings, it turned out that his wife (the mother of his four children) had been completely unaware of the affair.

But it's today's arrest in the case that is particularly bizarre. Adrian Gilliam, convicted in Florida in 1993 of murder and attempted armed robbery, is charged with supplying the gun to McNair's mistress. Or rather, he isn't, for while licensed firearms dealers can't sell to anyone under 21, private sellers are only restricted in selling to under-18's. Instead, the charge is that as a convicted felon he is not allowed to possess a gun. And even then, the law specifically says that possession is only an offence if the gun has been subject to interstate commerce, i.e. it was made outside of Tennessee.

And so on the perversest of technicalities, a man who by all accounts was a relatively innocent party in matters (he had no record beyond 1993, the gun was purchased shortly after a burglary at his house and was sold at no profit to the mistress who he met when looking to purchase a car from her) faces 10 years in federal prison. A satisfactory outcome it ain't...

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Putting The National Into Express

So the East Coast Main Line rail franchise has collapsed. In other news, after their exhaustive review into toilet provision bears have announced a ten-year extension of their contract to use the woods for their defecatory needs...

What's surprising is that it took until the late bulletins to catch up with the fundamental point that all this has happened before. If AA's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, I don't know how else to describe the government's bungling of the East Coast Main Line franchise. Having demanded ludicrous amounts of money from GNER and ended up bankrupting their parent company, they demand even more ludicrous amounts of money from National Express who end up telling them where to shove it.

Heck, I'm this close to giving Lord Adonis' comment, "the rail franchising system as it now exists, and is broadly running successfully" the Scunner Broon award for the sheer boldness of its naivete. For starters, the basic fact in this case is that rail subsidy has soared so much since privatisation that a desperate government is trying to force franchise bidders to pay enormous amounts back to them so they can get the sum down.

Consider also that the East Coast Main Line is the only intercity franchise that has not purchased any new trains, ever. Indeed, ECML services to Aberdeen, Inverness, Skipton and Harrogate are amongst those set to benefit from the Intercity Express Programme which was established expressly because train operators couldn't deliver major capital investment.

And then there's my personal favourite. The greatest single failure of privatisation has been competition, a beautiful idea that died about five minutes after the franchises were granted (specifically when Virgin told the government to guarantee them no competition on the West Coast Main Line or the deal was off). Still, in the few lucky places where there are different services on different lines, competition has been a success, places like Birmingham, Exeter... and Southend, where the Great Eastern and London-Tilbury-Southend lines head to Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street respectively. And who has the franchises for those lines?

National Express.

So while Lord Adonis goes round complaining that National Express get to keep both those franchises, be in no doubt that that is the result of a system that the government he serves in has done nothing to reform and has used so as to make things worse. What's more, it's a system that is beyond incremental changes and needs a bomb sticking up it; I liked Mark Valladares' ideas on that but I suspect that there's no route from this system to a fundamentally different one that doesn't go through nationalisation and if that's the case we should screw the fruit loops and get the hell on with it.