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.’

Great_Bentley_station_geograph-3890553-by-Ben-Brooksbank

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.

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

southern-railway-train-pic-credit-bbc

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.