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.

 

The day I shook the hand of Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro who died today. Pic Credit: BBC

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Today’s death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the age of 90 brings back an extraordinary memory of an event that took place nearly 40 years ago when Cuba hosted the 11th World Youth Festival.

The event  was organised by the left wing World Federation of Democratic Youth under the banner ” For Anti Imperialist Solidarity,Peace and Friendship ” and  some 17,000 participants from 145 countries attended.

At the time in 1978 it attracted a fair amount of criticism from the Establishment even though we had a Labour government with questions in Parliament on whether the government was funding the British delegation ( it wasn’t).

It also became  ” the event to be seen  at” for the rising  elite of  the British student movement – whether from the Left or the Right – who formed the British delegation.

I hitched a ride to report the event for the Guardian – therefore adding to the view that this was a Leftie event. I also conned the Cuban Communist authorities- by bringing along my wife, Margaret, by getting accreditation through a friend as representing the youth wing of British electrical engineers ( she wasn’t). I can’t remember whether I told the Guardian newsdesk, I probably didn’t.

Not only was this a rare opportunity to get to Cuba which then had no tourist industry but it gave me an insight into a generation of British students who went on to become part of the country’s elite.

Cuba was the place that Peter Mandelson honed his dark art of plotting before going on to advise Tony Blair and damage Gordon Brown. He was then the master of arranging meetings in dark rooms to weaken any support for the world Communist order. I had his measure then.

Charles Clarke, who went on to become a pretty establishment Labour home secretary, was seen  then as a dangerous Red Marxist, who had gone out to Cuba in advance to organise everything for the British delegation. His biggest achievement was probably to obtain a huge supply of  British stainless steel cutlery ( knives and forks were in short supply in  Cuba) and they got there despite US sanctions.

Tom Shebbeare, then of the British Youth Council  who went on to advise Prince Charles through the Princes Trust, was another big player.

So was Sue Robertson, a SDP follower when the handsome David Owen was the pin up boy for the moderate left,and went on to become a director of Channel Four, was also in the moderate camp.

And Young Tory  David Hunt, who went on to become a government minister under Margaret Thatcher, was in the delegation. He became closer to ” Tory wet” Peter Walker. He was coal minister during the miner’s strike of 1984-5.

As for Cuba itself there were certain facts at the time that no one wanted to know. The Foreign Office could not believe that you needed no vaccinations to go there because of its standards of health care. And education was a huge thing.

As remarkable  was that it was then trying to be a Communist state but was far too  Caribbean laid back for the Russian allies who despaired at its lack of Stalinist efficiency.

I remember chatting in halting Spanish to a Russian soldier ( it was neither our first language) who despaired at the laid back ways of the Cubans after living in the ruthless world of Moscow. I could see neither Russia nor Cuba were natural bedfellows.

The inefficiency was shown when Margaret and I gave our female minder the slip and wandered off to see laid back Havana for ourselves one evening. We got told off later but nothing happened.

The final image I have was a huge rally of thousands of people listening to Castro’s oratory  for over two hours  and later meeting him and shaking his hand.  Eat your heart out Jeremy Corbyn  your mass meetings have a long way to go  to beat Fidel’s.

There is rare footage of this rally here .

 

Where’s St Helena? It’s off Jersey isn’t it?

St Helena Pic Credit St Helena government

St Helena: in the South Atlantic not off Jersey. Pic Credit: St Helena Government

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A rather amusing aside was missed by the national press and the BBC when they reported on the scandal last week of  St Helena’s  spanking new £285m airport which can’t be used by jets because it is too windy to land.

True they had fun with the video of a British Airways  jet having to abort a landing because of the wind. So no chance yet of a new tourist boom because the only way there is by a six week journey on an ageing mail boat.

But they missed an extraordinary table hidden in a report commissioned by the St Helena government about where the island was located.

The National  Audit Office reports  that a marketing company- Acorn Tourist Consulting – asked lots of savvy long haul tourists where  is St Helena.

Extraordinarily 19 per cent put the island in the Mediterranean – perhaps near Malta or Cyprus.

Another 15 per cent put the island in the English Channel – perhaps confusing Jersey’s St Helier with St  Helena.

Another 8 per cent thought it was a tropical paradise in the South Pacific – perhaps near Fiji!

And another 5 per cent thought it was in the Indian Ocean – somewhere near Sri Lanka perhaps.

And 15 per cent admitted  honestly they hadn’t a clue.

This left just 38 per cent who correctly identified it as a rocky island in the South Atlantic.

Mind you it might be as well that the Department of International Development has mucked up the project. Not only will it give it time for the island to find a jet that could land safely there but it will give isolated  St Helena a bit longer to prepare for the tourist hordes.

For the same company which discovered the ignorance of British tourists has issued another health warning about going there.

It warns: “There will be new expectations of St. Helena as a destination. In just over 4 hours the tourist will have flown from South Africa to the Island. No time to adjust, reflect, read, and prepare for arrival as they do at the moment. This is likely to make visitors more demanding and less forgiving. They will start to lose sight of the remoteness and challenges an island 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa and 1,800 miles from Brazil faces.

Today, very few tourists leave St. Helena disappointed, but this may change once tourists start arriving by air. St. Helena then runs the risk of over-promising and under-delivering, and this will lead to some tourists returning home and not passing on in a positive way that most effective form of marketing – word of mouth.”

 Perhaps it might be better to look for St Helena off Jersey after all.
St Helena

The report’s findings in the National Audit Office report

Why all the UK should see this brilliant exhibition on the Calais Jungle

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Until June 22 there is an extraordinary exhibition of art, sculpture,photographs, documents, multi media  and sound on the Calais jungle migrant camp.. It is at the London Newcastle Arts Project Space in Shoreditch,London.

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An amazing sculpture at the entrance to the exhibition. It looks like a mass of people but each of them is an individual. A fitting symbol for the exhibition.

© Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen

The exhibition tells the story of the huge migration from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa to Calais and the people involved.It is probably the biggest issue in the whole of Europe today.

It is both a harrowing and uplifting showing the strength of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity. There are evil people, neo Fascists,nasty people smugglers, and thugs who exploit and deride them  but there are also many ,many caring human beings who are prepared to help them on their way to a better, safer life.

What is extraordinary about this exhibition is that much of the art comes from the very people themselves as a way of expressing their own plight. And the squalid Jungle is  a place where people play music, dance, paint,cook,and create as well try to survive.

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These are the tents they livedin. Picture

© brandingbygarden.

 

Everyone who has any humanity should see this exhibition – especially the people who denigrate them as hordes or swarms of people. They are people like them. It is antidote to the crass debate on Brexit.

And denying them a safe haven is also denying our country the benefit of their enormous talents – many are highly educated and many have discovered new talents on the way. Worse the plight of unaccompanied children aged from 8 to 14 or 15 is something this country cannot ignore – and thanks to the efforts of Alf Dubs ( Lord Dubs) who pushed Theresa May, the home secretary, to allow them to come in – there is some hope  for a few now. But there needs to be more.

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These lifejackets were taken from the beach in Greece. Believe it or not the smugglers gave them fake lifejackets, they don’t float.

© brandingbygarden.

 

At a very moving reception where the organisers- through the Migration Museum Project – was attended by asylum seekers – and some who had managed to be smuggled into Britain. They mingled with students, artists and campaigners looking at the exhibits.

Museums and art centres in Britain you should thinking of staging this exhibition so the people  across the United Kingdom can see the whole story. How about some of you rising to the challenge.

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The sculpture as you enter the exhibition. © brandingbygarden.

1000 miles of Russian Reflections:Why the Russians don’t think Putin is an ogre

President Putin; Pic credit BBC

President Putin: Pic Credit: BBC

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It is popular in Britain to think of Putin as a dangerous ogre. That is hardly surprising after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the assassination of opposition politician, Robert Nemstov. And the revelations kept from the Russian public about Putin and other prominent people’s secret offshore funds revealed in the Panama papers. Let alone Russia’s position on gay rights.

After travelling some 1000 miles along  waterways from St Petersburg to  Moscow on a very adventurous  and exhausting trip organised by Viking cruises it would strike me that it would be very short sighted to think that the West could simply bully and threaten Russia.

In 13 days the trip takes in two major cities and five centres in rural Russia. There are lectures on Russia’s bloody history from the Vikings through the Romanovs to Communism, a frank debate on present day Russia, lessons in Russian, vodka and Russian food tastings and a punishing schedule of included and optional excursions, morn,noon and night.

For all the misgivings about him, Putin appears to be popular. He gained some 64 per cent of the vote in a criticised election (down from 75 per cent before) in 2012.Outside Moscow the main contenders were not the liberal reformers but  the Communists who  got 17 per cent of the vote. Liberal reformers did better in the capital.

Ask our guides on the trip – and one of them voted for the Communist  presidential candidate- and they would say Putin has brought them stability (despite much higher inflation there than here) and also defended Russian interests.

The Crimea vote to rejoin Russia is popular and seen as righting a wrong created by Khrushchev in the 1950s when he handed it over to Ukraine. The Russians don’t forget the battle of Sevastopol.

The real villains for the Russians  are Western hero Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  Gorbachev is seen as a major destabilising factor over perestroika and Yeltsin for creating poverty and chaos through his shock capitalist therapy.

As one guide put it: ” Under Yeltsin we had money but no goods. Now we have lots of goods and not enough money.”

Another put it: ”  Gorbachev was rather like Thatcher. Both were seen as world statesmen  abroad but both were loathed by a lot of people in their own country.”

And one should not  underestimate Russian determination to defend their homeland. Our visit coincided with Russia’s equivalent of Armistice Day – Victory Day over the Nazis in their 1941-45 War. Some 27 million Russian died.

It is also used by Putin to show off the latest military equipment. But in St Petersburg ( and also in Moscow) – the most poignant moments were the thousands of people marching with placards and pictures  of relatives (often grandfathers) who had died in that conflict. They are called the ” immortal regiment” and it has grown from a grassroot gesture. to  one of the main ways to remember and honour the dead.

The one school we visited in  the small rural town of Kirillov (7000 people) also had large displays  commemorating former pupils who died in the 41-45 war.The town  also has had a statue of Lenin, a huge fortified monastery favoured by Ivan the Terrible and a rebuilding project for its local church used by the Communists as a drinks warehouse.

The other striking feature is the rise of Russian Orthodox Church. Not only have old ones that survived been restored but new ones built in the old style where they were blown up by Stalin. Church attendance  at seven per cent is probably little higher than in the UK, with more people attending at Christmas and Easter or for weddings and funerals. Nor is it confined to just the revival of Christianity – synagogues have been re-opened and other religions tolerated

.Moscow has a new  enterprising  high tech Jewish museum in an old art deco bus garage – the only place where I have experienced the Old Testament with surround sound in 3D . You get a bit wet during Noah’s flood and experience  what  a plague of locusts is like.

And yes there is much greater disparity of wealth. Moscow’s eight lane  highways are perpetually jammed by foreign cars bought by Russians. The River Neva outside St Petersburg is lined with huge new dachas – the  Toad Halls of the nouveaux riches. There are almost as many 4×4’s as in Berkhamsted.

And Yaroslavl – an old city some 160 miles from Moscow – where the aristocrats retreated from Napoleon after Moscow was captured in War and Peace – has a UNESCO World Heritage city centre. But nearly all its 600,000 inhabitants have jobs in industry. Uemployment is  1.4 per cent – though this is not typical for all Russia.

And the Russians appear to have stopped demolishing Communist statutes and buildings – the Moscow port where out ship docked has a huge Stalin designed building complete with a  spire topped with Red star and hammer and sickle. The 1937 hall is to  be restored and refurbished not demolished.

Russia wants to become a major tourist destination. The West ought to adopt a more sophisticated approach to dealing with Putin who is no fool Carrots and sticks may be better than aggressive containment.. By being ultra aggressive all they will do is unite the Russian people against the West while at the moment I found them both curious and  welcoming to Western visitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russian Reflections:How you can’t spend a rouble in a Russian loo

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USE McDONALDS LOOS IN EMERGENCY SAY RUSSIAN EMBASSY IN LONDON -THEY WON’T MIND.

Russia under the Communists was well known for its queues. Food was scarce, shoes and clothes pretty unobtainable. All that has gone under Putin. But in a visit this month with my disabled wife,Margaret, we discovered a new Russian queuing phenomena – just to visit the loo.

The reason is that in Russia a public loo is a rare phenomenon even in the most popular venues in Moscow and St Petersburg. And a disabled loo is such a rare creature that it verges on extinction. What mostly passes for a disabled loo would also struggle to meet the British Trades Description Act.

Most Russian loos look like a builders’ portacabin. The row in the picture above are believe it or not the public conveniences off Red Square. In the Kremlin itself there are toilets for just six people – a place visited by millions every year.  And only one disabled person can pee at a time. Within little more than a stone’s throw of Putin’s apartment strict rules ban flushing toilet paper down loos, a babuska  rations the number of sheets, and comical notice in English warns the disabled not to stand on the toilet seat.In most cases the pleasure of such facilities sets you back 25 roubles or 30p.

But what happens when you don’t have the cash as in St Petersburg when both my wife and I had not yet visited a cash machine to get any roubles. My wife pleaded desperation and the babuska let her in only to find the double doors led to a series of steps to get on the throne of the loo. When there was a crash the babuska rushed to see over the door  to see if she was all right.Fortunately she was.

I had a little more difficulty. WIth no money it was Niet. So desperate was I to enter the portacabin that I even offered a crisp five pound note. That was refused . In final desperation I went round the back of the Portabin. It was only when I was poised to piss on the historic wall of  Peter the Great’s fortress that suddenly she started banging on her office window. I was literally relieved in every sense and allowed to enter for free.

But there were other extraodinary toilet events to come. Nothing really surpassed the public convenince  at the Nunnery where the Czars in the past sent their discarded wives rather than choosing the Henry VIII solution. To enter this loo you went into the bowels of the earth down a spiralling staircase. Hardly suitable for the disabled.When my wife eventually go down there it turned into a communal experience women able to see each other  over  stable doors.Still at least the experience was free. See the entrance below.

However  there is one disabled loo in Moscow that shames everyone  So high tech and brilliantlly equipped that it has no rival. It is in Moscow’s magnificent and brilliant Jewish Museum – more in another piece on Russia –  and boasts a bum warmer and a bidet . It is easily  accessible and i t is free for the price of an admission ticket. If only all loos were like this.

Russia needs to get its  act together if it wants to become a big tourist destination. It so needs another revolution, a proper disability agenda and a body to champion the disabled and fight for decent loos.

I took this up with the Russian Embassy when we returned from the trip . This is their unedited reply:

“Thank you for letting us know about your impressions and concerns. Indeed, there are fewer toilets for the disabled in Russia than there should be. Standards for accessible environment were legally set in 2001, and they are complied with in new buildings and structures, but, regretfully, less so in the already existing ones. This is really an issue we should deal with. Note that the safe option in larger towns is McDonalds – they always have good accessible toilets and are OK with non-customers using them.”

Seven Guys in a Boat: The Caen Hill challenge

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The challenge: Caen Hill Locks

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Some of my ultra fit lobby journalist colleagues and nephews run marathons. Some of my friends do mad things like cycling from London to Paris in 24 hours. But  for some of us at our time of life the challenge has to be a little more measured.

So seven of us  decided to  take on the challenge of Britain’s longest flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon canal as part of a four day trip from Bradford on Avon to Horton. Given our average age is 69 and some were novices on a narrowboat it was still a serious challenge.

Particularly when your hearing is not so good, your balance is not quite perfect and your muscles not as agile as a 20 year old and one of us, my wife Margaret, excused lock duty, is recovering from a stroke.

But in 24 hours -punctuated by an overnight stay next to a canal side pub at Horton- we negotiated no fewer than 58 locks to get up and back down again without a mishap.

The locks known as Caen Hill (pronounced Kane) rise 237 feet over two miles – with 16 of them virtually back to back.Each trip up and down takes five hours. They were restored in the 1970s and 1980s after they fallen into serious decay.

For a group of ” golden oldies ” – our cumulative age total is over 480  – this meant working each lock and involved opening a closing a double set of locks  as a relay team. Amazingly none of us fell in, only one of us fell over and this had nothing to do with a lock, and we found ( at least my surprise) that we still had the energy to do it. So much due to that free orange juice and cod liver oil we got growing up under the Attlee government.

On the way up we were able to double up with another boat – relying on the brawn and brains of youth to aid the elderly. On the way down we had the flight to ourselves – passing only one boat on the way up.

The Canal and River Trust – successor to the nationalised British Waterways- has  people around to help if you get into difficulty. But apart from several pleasant conversations they had no need to intervene.

Indeed the main obstacle was two pairs of nesting swans – right next to the locks . But once we had mastered the gentle art of throwing grass into the water to distract the male from following the boat into the lock where it would be crushed when the water drained out, it was literally plain sailing.

We also were lucky with the weather. we had a downpour when we arrived and a downpour when with left – with mainly brilliant sunshine – and warm enough for a few hours  for T shirt weather – in between.

My one complaint was the building work on the canal – which closed one road and diverted the towpath elsewhere. Foolishly relying on the workman and locals I was told I could still cross a bridge on foot to reach the pub and ended up crossing the canal a mile up tramping through three muddy fields and breaking and entering the building site – a pensioner vandal -in desperation to get to the bar.

The real thanks should be to my shipmates, my co-author Francis Beckett – skilled navigator and his (newly wed )wife, Linda Cohen, who organised and booked the trip.  Chris Kaufman, singer and accomplished crewman; Mike Brereton,.a great cook who kept us well fed from dawn to dusk, and his wife, Pearl, who mastered  nautical skills faster than me. Margaret, who had a bit of trepidation, about the trip, had great guts in mastering her river legs in a confined space.

I should recommend four pubs. Pride of place should go to the  refurbished Barge Inn, Bradford on Avon, which had an imaginative menu, and served London Pride, Ringwood brewery ale and surprisingly draft beer from New Zealand.

Also good on the trip were the Three Magpies at Seend which served a proper beef and ale pie as well as Wadsworth bitter; The Bridge at Horton, which served a  wider selection of Wadsworth ales and the Barge Inn, Seend.

maraget hencke on the canal

Margaret on the prow of the narrowboat enjoying the sun

I have added a Youtube video from my young work colleague Alex Varley Winter  of a trip they made down the Caen  Hill flight . Much younger, fitter and faster than us as you will see  here.