Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Is George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse about to hit the buffers?

George-Osborne

George getting out in time before the Northern Powerhouse runs into trouble

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My last post on the national repercussions of the Great Western electrification shambles has elicited some very interesting information about why Network Rail got into such a big overspend. (£1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion project)

If the information is accurate – and it seems to be based on some sound sources – it would suggest that George Osborne’s strategy to boost the North through better rail connections is about to come to a grinding halt because it has not been properly costed.

Through Tim Fenton well known for his caustic comments on the media oligarchs on his Zelo Street blog , I have become acquainted with an extraordinary obscure debate about the  safe clearances needed to install overhead electrification.

Ever since the electrification of the West Coast mainline in the 1960s Britain has had narrower clearances than the bigger gauge continental railways. We even had a derogation under the EU. But according to rail expert Roger Ford a serious blunder during the privatisation of the rail engineering which meant all the papers justifying the narrower standards were lost. So we now have no derogation because we lost all the paperwork to justify it.

Why this is important is that the higher clearances will add huge costs to ongoing rail electrification projects in every tunnel and under every bridge on the line. They will have to be higher margins between the top of the train and the wires.and the structures  They will  also have to raise the height of every planned pantograph- to protect people and staff coming into contact with it.

Now it appears that if each situation is given a special risk assessment it might be possible to get round the rules – but that will add to delays and costs and will have to be approved by British regulators – the Office of Rail and Road- even if we have left the EU.

As Roger Ford wrote in his December bulletin: “When all this was reviewed by the relevant British Standards committee it was agreed that, while the previous  2.75m clearance  was not justifiable as a minimum limit in a standard, it might be justifiable subject to a risk assessment.  So, according to Network Rail, electrical clearances below 3.5m are possible – with risk assessment.

” What’s really infuriating about this safety-by-diktat, is that the engineers concerned know that it is irrational and yet they go along with it. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of bureaucracy over common sense is that good engineers should do nothing.’

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Picture of Great Bentley station by Ben Brooksbank

Now obviously this is going to effect more lines than just the Great Western – and this is where George Osborne’s plans  turn to dust.

Already costs are rising on the Midland main line electrification from Bedford to Nottingham and Sheffield. With a critical National Audit Office report likely it is possible that electrification  will stop dead in its tracks at Kettering and Corby – nowhere near the real North.

And the Trans Pennine electrification – another Osborne  project -might stop altogether.

No wonder George Osborne is now going to be editor of the London Evening Standard – he will want to be well clear of the North. This is just a brilliant example of how our incompetent and overrated political amateurs  don’t properly assess what they are  doing.

And the public are  always the losers – in this case the travelling public.

 

Why millions of passengers will face years of overcrowded trains because of a staggering electrification blunder

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Electrification work Pic Credit:South West Business

overcrowded train

Today’s Vision of future travel: Overcrowded train Pic credit:BBC

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If you want to know what is wrong with the present state of  Britain’s railways look no further than a recent National Audit Office report into the mess that is the Great Western electrification scheme. I have written about this in Tribune

As reported at the time the cost overrun and delay totalled a mouthwatering £1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion scheme and led to the scheme being curtailed with delays to the Cardiff to Swansea electrification for up to five years and  similar delays for the electrification of branch services in the Thames Valley.

But the damage  goes much further than just the Great Western Mainline to Cardiff and Bristol electrification scheme, bad though that is, the National Audit Office reveals. It will affect train capacity hundreds of miles away

The electrification was supposed to be the catalyst for the release of rolling stock across the country improving train capacity and phasing out old stock that has been around for decades.

The NAO reports: Under the original plan:

Electric trains from Thameslink would replace diesel trains in the Thames Valley from May providing more capacity to reduce overcrowding

Thames Valley could then release diesel trains to the west, providing more capacity for passengers on the Bristol, Exeter and Cornish networks

West Devon and Cornwall routes would then release diesel trains to support service improvements on Northern franchise routes

New Super Express Trains from the Department’s Intercity Express Programme would replace ageing diesel High Speed Trains on the London to Swansea line cutting journey times from London to Cardiff

The London to Swansea route could then release the diesel High Speed Trains to address capacity issues on intercity routes in Scotland.

An additional fleet of diesel and electric ( Bi mode trains) capable trains recently ordered by the train company, Great Western Railway,  would be introduced in the south-west, providing more capacity and faster journey times on London to Plymouth and Penzance routes.

Now:

Diesel trains due to go to the west in 2017 will be retained until 2019 as electrification is completed and new electric trains are phased in

Passengers in the west (Bristol, Exeter and Cornwall routes) will now have to wait almost two years later than scheduled to see benefits such as more capacity.

Passengers on Northern franchise routes may have to wait an additional nine months as trains are retained in the west to protect services

Great Western Railway has also had to make additional orders of new bi-mode  trains to prevent the cancellation of services on busy Oxford to London routes.

The result according to the NAO will mean higher costs as diesel trains cost more to maintain, lower revenue because of lack of capacity and a bill for converting older trains to comply with stricter laws on helping disabled passengers that would not have been necessary if they had been replaced.

But it goes further than the NAO findings. The privatised rail companies- many owned by state railways in France, Holland and Germany – will be allowed to raise fares every year regardless- so they charge commuters more for inferior services but spend the profits modernising train services in France, Holland and Germany.

And they won’t care if the trains are overcrowded as they can maximise revenue. If ever there was a case for reforming the rail system and ending privatisation this is a perfect example.

Exposed: The Whitehall high flyer who stole ministry secrets to help Adam Smith International bid for overseas aid contracts

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Raja Dasgupta: pic credit Daily Mail and keyword suggestions

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This is Raja Dasgupta. He was a fast stream entrant to the civil service elite. He had a  good career . He started in the private office of  Alan Duncan ,the minster for international development in 2011.

He was promoted to climate change manager in South Africa in 2012 and then became head of the business effectiveness team in 2014 also in South Africa.

His Linked In profile says : “I have played a leading role on strategic business planning for DFID’s regional Africa programme, directly advised and worked with UK International Development ministers, and officially represented the UK during international treaty negotiations at the United Nations.”.

But in June last year he joined Adam Smith International – a British private overseas aid contractor ( annual income £130m) which relied on 80 per cent of its money from the Department for International Development – as a senior manager based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Now he has proved to be the catalyst that has brought down ASI Ltd – which has been effectively banned from bidding for any more contracts until the organisation has proved to the ministry that it has been completely reformed. Three senior founder directors, Peter Young ( in his youth a far right Tory), Andrew Kuhn and  Amitabh Shrivastava have resigned and the founder executive chairman,William Morrison, is to leave once the reforms are completed.

Three separate sources in England and Africa  (and the Mail on Sunday) have named Raja  Dasgupta as the civil servant who gave confidential ministry  information to ASI Ltd which gave them a competitive edge to bid for contracts across Africa.

One source said : “when moving to ASI in South Africa he took with him DFID country plans and country specific private sector engagement plans that DFID would then rank bids against, it set out specific priorities and specific sectors and markets that DFID wanted to focus on…This then allowed ASI to bid on contracts specific to these Southern Africa private sector engagement plans as set out and created by DFID and FCO.( Foreign and Commonwealth Office).”

Certainly the official findings of a DFID report – which does not name him – confirm this.

“The withdrawal by ASI is the result of serious concerns about the company’s behaviour:

  • ASI employees sought to make use of improperly obtained DFID documents shared within ASI by a former member of DFID staff.
  • The documents in question were draft internal DFID documents which contained information clearly confidential to the Department.
  • The documents were nevertheless shared widely within ASI, including to senior personnel, in full knowledge that ASI should not have had access to the documents.
  • This was done with a view to exploiting the material to ASI’s commercial advantage.
  • At no point did ASI or any of its employees question this or raise concerns with DFID.
  • DFID has conducted its own forensic investigation into these allegations. There have been serious questions over ASI’s ethical integrity. It is therefore right that ASI is taking action to address this.”

I tried to contact Raja Dasgupta by ringing his Nairobi office. There was no reply nor message facility to leave my name. I tried to contact ASI’s media team and did leave a message about whether Raja was still working for them. They have not come back to me.

Reprehensible as his actions were, this story has wider ramifications. He is not just a rogue  chancer or trader even if DFID seem to pin the blame on him. The culture exposed at Adam Smith International is a damning indictment of the British company. They knew they had access to confidential material which could be used for commercial gain. They wanted to make more profits in a company that already paid six figure salaries  and huge dividends to its top people. They were millionaires dealing in poverty. That is why – even if it is reformed – DFID are right to say there will be no “quick fix” which allows them to resume business next month.

But it also raises questions about DFID and its capacity to monitor what is going on. While the aid budget has gone up – the staff budget has been cut. So fewer people are monitoring larger sums of aid. DFID will not release the  full forensic report into what happened – either to the public or to the Select Committee for International Development, which holds the ministry to account. What have they got to hide.

This story began when the Mail on Sunday exposed the firm trying and failing to hoodwink the Select Committee on International Development by creating favourable reports of their work. It has now morphed into an example of how British private contractors can try and rip off the British taxpayer for private gain by any means they see as necessary.

 

 

Hidden:The secret influencers bankrolling centre right think tanks to change your mind

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Policy Exchange – direct line to government but secret about donors. Here Theresa May address a seminar as home secretary Pic Credit: Flickr

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An important report was published today by  Transparify , examining British think tanks whose reports and proceedings influence government policy on anything from education to health, and attitudes to smoking and climate change.

What it reveals is that while a number of British think tanks are open about who funds them – including the Institute for Government, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute- and some like RUSI ( the Royal United Services Institute )have improved their transparency – some of the most influential think tanks which impact on current Tory government policy are extremely secretive.

Nearly all of the secretive think tanks are on the Right of the spectrum. They are the Adam Smith Institute,Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies,Policy Network, Civitas,the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

What the report reveals is that the largely US financed Adam Smith Institute – a firm advocate of privatisation and libertarian thinking particularly over smoking- does not disclose ANY details of its donors or where it gets its money . It is dominated by a sister organisation Adam Smith International (UK) ltd, which receives British taxpayers money and World Bank cash  for advising foreign governments and has a turnover £130m. Adam Smith International has its own website  which does provide details of its projects and staff- and shows its projects vary from assisting privatisation to good governance. It only has one project in Jordan tackling climate change.

ASI’s American equivalent, according to the report, has filed a tax return showing it has received $1.2 million in donations but only spent just over $5000 in the US.

The Centre for Policy Studies, according to the report, has been active in fighting further regulation of the tobacco industry. It does not disclose its donors.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, according to the report, also has had backing from tobacco companies. It also claims it managed to change Government policy over the funding of charities financed by a ” mystery ” donor.

The report says : “In early 2016, The Independent reported that the IEA had “secured [a] change in government policy” on the back of a £15,000 donation from a “mystery donor” whose identity the IEA refused to reveal. The IEA told the newspaper that it had met with ministers or officials “as often as we were able” to discuss the proposal with them.”

Policy Exchange – which is a very active think tank with frequent debates involving MPs from all parties – and  very influential.  It was forced to withdraw large sections of one study The hijacking of  British Islam which controversially named mosques up and down Britain of spreading hate speech – which turned out to be untrue. Again we do not know all the donors to Policy Exchange but we do know it has strong links with ministers, including Lord Maude, a former civil service minister.

According to the Sunday Times, Policy Network was initially bankrolled by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a banker who by 2002 had reportedly donated £250,000 to the organisation. It is had not published details of donors for two years and is dominated by prominent Labour right wingers. Its president is Lord Mandelson who runs his own lobbying consultancy Global Counsel.

Finally there is the case of  the International Institute for Strategic Studies which appear to be transparent but missed out donations totalling £25m from one big donor, Bahrain.

Leaked papers revealed that secret memorandum of understanding had been drawn up between the think tank and Bahrain’s ruler to fund the organisation. The report says:

The Guardian reported a figure of £25 million, noting that this would account for “more than a quarter of IISS’s income“. Compiling data from multiple sources, pro-democracy group Bahrain Watch arrived at a figure of £30 million, corresponding to just over a third of IISS‟ overall income. The Middle East Eye published calculations according to which Bahraini funds may add up to nearly half of total IISS income.”

Given Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, as reported on this blog, launched his new ” East of Suez” policy in Bahrain – it appears that Britain will be driven to defending Bahrain should a new wave of Arab unrest spread. It now appears in return that Bahrain will be in a strong position to influence the British government to present itself as a modern liberal society when it is obviously not the full picture.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange or the Institute for Economic Affairs campaigning on any issue they want in a democratic society – including if they want to take up issues raised by tobacco companies or climate change.

But I am against secret backers using think tanks to try and influence government – and  public debate from  behind the scenes – and creating the illusion that these bodies are simply independent researchers with no agenda.

Transparify have done an invaluable job in drawing attention to this. The full report which has not been funded from external sources is here.

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: Southern Railway contract to be investigated by National Audit Office

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A Southern Railway train: often overcrowded even if it runs. Pic Credit:BBC

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The badly managed and strike prone Southern Railway contract is to be investigated by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office.

After months if not a years of misery for commuters caused by failing services and strike action over safety  the NAO has quietly decided to investigate the Department of Transport’s  handling of the contract alongside another investigation into the modernisation of Thameslink services. Both are major commuter services  into the capital and both are owner by Govia, the country’s biggest privatised train operator.

The decision by the NAO has been quietly slipped out on its website as an update to the Thameslink investigation without an official announcement. Such a move is bound to cause some consternation for transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and his officials.

Publication of the report due this summer will trigger an investigation by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee where officials will be called to account depending on the NAO’s findings.

Southern is one a series of franchises owned by Govia, a consortium set up by the British  Go Ahead bus company and the French state owned railways, SNCF, whose international arm trades as Keolis.

The NAO investigation comes after the disclosure that Peter Wilkinson , a senior civil servant who is paid £265,000 a year, as director of rail passenger services at the Department for Transport, has been exposed by an investigation in The Guardian for an apparent conflict of interest.

He awarded Govia both contracts but it was revealed that he was, at the time, a
director and the main shareholder of First Class Partnerships, a consultancy which had Govia as a longstanding client.  He has declined to comment about the internal inquiry which is said to have decided that this was a conflict of interest.

Since then Govia’s Southern Railway has been involved in a long dispute with unions over plans to abolish guards on trains. The company has been backed by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, and unions fear safety is at risk and the plan will be extended to other franchises they run like London Midland.

Southern also decline to provide a comprehensive service to disabled passengers.

The NAO statement on its site announcing the extension said :

“The Department for Transport is sponsoring a £7 billion programme to increase passenger capacity on the Thameslink route through central London. The programme involves the improvement of tracks, signalling and stations, a new fleet of trains and new franchise arrangements for running the passenger service on the Thameslink route.

“Since 2015, train services on the Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) franchise have been subject to significant disruption, particularly on the Southern services. Alongside our work on the Thameslink Programme, we also plan to report on the Department’s management of the TSGN franchise.”

Rail unions are welcoming the investigation with ASLEF, the train drivers union, keen that such an inquiry will bring transparency to how the contract was monitored by the ministry and also how it was awarded.

Meanwhile  government spin operators have indicated that perhaps the line might be taken back into public ownership if it continues to fail. While this story is officially denied ministers do not like being wrong footed by a detailed National Audit Office investigation and often plan some diversionary tactics when a report is about to be published.

It is question of watch this space. I have also written about this in Tribune.

 

Are German State Railways exploiting train drivers in Britain to put lives at risk?

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A DB Cargo UK train in the UK. Pic Credit: Flickr

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Earlier this month I  wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror about exhausted freight train drivers going over danger signals because they were asleep at the wheel.

The source was a highly respected but until then completely unnoticed report from Whitehall’s Rail Accident Investigation Branch. It followed two cases of drivers last year “momentarily falling asleep ”  while driving huge  freight trains on the Great Western main line near Reading.

The report made damning reading of the way DB Cargo UK, the Doncaster based British subsidiary of  state railway Deutsche Bahn, was treating its  train drivers with little concern for their  welfare and for that matter rail safety.

The report revealed that a combination of long shifts – ten hours at a time – and rest facilities which were ” unfit for purpose ” –  two sofas in a  brightly lit corridor – meant that drivers had little or no sleep. One driver hadn’t slept for 19 hours when he went over the danger signal. Another came to a halt where a luckily empty high speed passenger train was due to cross its path on the way to London Paddington. It was stopped by automatic train signals.

“Evidence gathered during the current investigation found widespread dissatisfaction with the standard of the drivers’ facilities at Acton train crew depot relative to equivalent facilities at other depots.

“The RAIB’s inspection confirmed that the designated rest facility at Acton was not conducive to napping because of the amount of noise, its location (being on a through route between other rooms), and the unsuitability of the furniture for napping.”

“Drivers’ rosters fell outside the guidance in respect of maximum duration for a night shift, minimum rest period between night shifts and clockwise rotation of shift start times,” says the report.

“The shifts being worked by both drivers when the incidents occurred involved starting in the middle of the night (00:48 hrs for Driver A and 23:51 hrs for Driver B) and working a relatively long shift (10 hours and 57 minutes for Driver A; 9 hours and 38 minutes for Driver B). Driver A was working a sixth consecutive shift, five of which were similar night duties.”

 

They also found staff reluctant to  complain.

“The RAIB also found a perception among some drivers that management are not sympathetic to drivers being fatigued and that controllers might pressurise drivers into continuing working in order to meet operational demands. Driver A stated that he experienced such pressure concerning a turn of duty in September 2015.”

The train drivers union,ASLEF, is campaigning for train drivers to be treated like truck drivers by allowing them to have greater rest periods.

You certainly could not drive a lorry for the length of time you can drive a train because tachographs would record that you had broken the law. And the driver who had not slept for 19 hours would have been stopped driving a car because his fatigue would probably register the equivalent of having too much alcohol in the blood.

DB Cargo UK say they have taken action to tackle the rosters and to provide newly refurbished facilities in another building in Acton for staff to have a nap.

Lee Bayliss, Head of Safety and Risk at DB Cargo UK, said: “Fatigue is an issue we take very seriously and we have implemented robust processes and policies to manage it. This includes establishing a Fatigue Working Group to integrate best practice from the Office of Rail Regulators and the Railway Safety Standards Board in order to continually improve procedures and standards.”

However while the report revealed the company did have regular safety meetings they were not well attended which suggested they did not command much priority.

The report shone a light on a hidden side of the rail industry. People are already fed up with the performance of some privatised firms running passenger trains – enough to make rail nationalisation popular again.

The freight side is overlooked but on this evidence it might suggest Labour should look at extending their pledge to freight.- particularly if foreign state rail companies behave like this. After all, both passenger and freight share the same tracks.