Tuesday 12 December 2017

When Southern Rail is like HMS Queen Elizabeth

This post blew in from www.radix.org.uk ...

Yet another miserable journey home with Southern Rail (power supply problems again, or so they say), I found myself thinking about Britain’s brand new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
On the face of it, there are not many parallels – I’ve no doubt that the traditions of the navy will make it an effective, efficient and (if needs be) a heroic ship. Whereas Southern is a third-rate operation, and has studiously avoided being effective or efficient. Though managers and staff have occasionally had to be heroic.

But they do have one important element in common. Both are expensive symbols held up by the equivalent of scaffolding – gestures towards the nation we thought we were, rather than practical propositions to serve the nation in the twenty-first century.

Aircraft carriers are the central purpose in a naval task force designed to protect them. They require protection from air and submarine attack. They are the pinnacle of the naval pecking order and can pack a huge offensive punch – but only if the rest of the pyramid is in place.

And it’s not. The navy has a dwindling number of ships, with only a handful to discharge these kinds of duties – plus everything else (there are now a mere 20 fighting ships in the navy, plus ten submarines, compared to 69 plus 34 during the Falklands War in 1982).

Without that protection, the Queen Elizabeth – the biggest and most expensive ship ever commissioned into the Royal Navy – is just a symbolic gesture, a pretence, a dangerous con.

And so it is with Southern and their managers Govia Thameslink. They have the outward symbols designed to give the impression of providing a modern train service, but they lack the staff, the capacity and the sheer willingness to provide one.

Since Govia took over the franchise in 2015, they have removed the spare drivers that used to be rostered to fill in avoidable delays, and can also fall back on overtime. Instead of training more drivers, they use the spare ones to avoid paying overtime. There is no spare capacity at all. (see my short book Cancelled! for more details).

So though the old Southern Railways (died 1948) was known as a byword for efficiency, its successor is known as a byword for the reverse. Passengers taken ill, lorries hitting bridges, may not seem like their fault – but since they make no preparation for inevitable events (claiming this is efficient), the passengers suffer.

So on Friday, for example, they managed only 40 per cent within five minutes of schedule. As many as 30 per cent were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled.

The latest trick took me by surprise. Twice last week, and with no warning or apology, the train raced by Shoreham-by-Sea without stopping on its way to London. On both occasions, the member of platform staff was left to deal with the rage of passengers who had bothered to show up on time – only to be let down – without any information or explanation.

I have asked some of my usual informants (thanks so much, guys) and the consensus is that there has indeed been a change in policy in recent months.

There are reasons why their express trains might race ahead to Hayward’s Heath, after all. It maybe that the driver is due a break before his seven hour limit, and will need to take it – or to go home because, for whatever reason, their end of shift time is inflexible (picking up children from school for example). So if the train has been delayed, then they may have to race through – given that there are no drivers kept in reserve any more.

But the change in policy is in accordance with one of the recommendations in the Chris Gibb Report, some months ago – that controllers need to act much earlier to get services on time again after delays.

Hence the dashes past waiting passengers.

Of course, this is a much wider problem than just Southern, which is an extreme example of a very British disease. There is something admirable in controlling costs the way the UK system does, but when it happens at the expense of those services actually working, the whole system becomes insane.

It was a crucial moment, when civil servants realised they could pay for the outward manifestation – the shiny new trains, the new logos, the timetable or the aircraft carrier – while cutting out all the support infrastructure that would protect it and make it effective.

That is now happening throughout our services, perhaps primarily the result of a lobotomised civil service – who can’t distinguish between the political needs of their masters and reality.

Maybe it doesn’t matter in the future of the nation that we can no longer rely on our trains, but when we have the outward manifestations of military force but none of the safeguards, then that is extremely dangerous. For all of us.

The British disease the lies in the inability to tell the difference between a real institution and one that has no infratstructure to support it. Which is why we have a railway franchise like Govia Thameslink with no reserves for when the weather strikes or the signals fail.

It is why we have an aircraft carrier without the escorts needed to protect it. It is why we have hospitals and schools that meet targets but fail as human institutions.

That is the tragic inauthenticity of Brexit Britain: a fake efficiency that – as anyone who travels by Southern knows – is actually extremely inefficient and ineffective and therefore wasteful.

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Wednesday 6 December 2017

Why we need a whole lot more mavericks

This blog is adapted from one that first appeared on the Real Press website...

I met the folk singer Pete Seeger just before he died. He was jamming outside in the July sunshine, with some young violinists, playing Ashokan Farewell. He had been attending a conference near the Hudson River about local currencies where I had just been speaking.

It was a great honour to meet him, a friend of Woody Guthrie no less, partly also because – when I was growing up – the only 45 rpm single my parents possessed was Seeger singing Little Boxes. I told him this and he told me how the author, Malvina Reynolds, composed the song driving just outside San Francisco when it came into her head – she said to her husband ‘Stop the car! I feel a song coming on…’

It is a powerful song about sprawling suburbs, but it goes beyond that in my favourite lines:

“They were doctors
and lawyers
and business executives
and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
and they all look just the same…”

Because Little Boxes was not just about houses, it was about minds – “tinned minds”, as John Betjeman put it in his famous poem about poor old Slough. The song is a hymn to the only kind of Liberalism I recognise, which is prepared to think outside the little boxes, even though the world thinks differently.

I don’t believe this need to encourage the kind of nihilistic approach to everything that you might hear, to choose a random example, on most BBC comedy panels – I may be showing my age here – but it is an approach to life and politics which dares to think differently and to stand out from the crowd.

I have also realised that a great deal of my writing has been about the maverick approach (which is why I've collected an anthology of three short books, all about people living or working differently, and daring to refuse to submit to the generally accepted tramlines of thought. I've called it Great British Mavericks).

I believe the centre ground in politics needs a great deal more mavericks if they are going to construct the alternative narrative they so badly need. In fact, without a hefty dose of maverick, or at least a maverick wing, I'm not sure a political party can have the three-dimensional life it needs to survive and thrive.

Going to a recent party to remember my predecessor as editor of Liberal Democrat News, my own party's weekly paper (Mike Harskin, who died 25 years ago aged only thirty) forced me to remember the maverick force that the old Liberal Party used to be. "Obstruct the doors," Mike used to say. "Cause delay. Be dangerous". But where is the Lib Dem radical, trouble-making fringe now?

One of only two email comments I received from party members, after I spoke at the Radix fringe meeting at the Lib Dem party conference, accused me of being "off message".

Well, I certainly was and was proud to be. In fact, I intend to remain so. Not because I am by nature awkward - though I am - but because I believe the centre ground is the only place where maverick thinking can emerge. And where maverick thinking can emerge, then life can thrive and we can learn and move ahead.

This is a radical thought in itself - the centre ground needs to shift from the home for those committed to the world's existing arrangements to the home of those prepared to think for themselves. It is happening, but tediously slowly.

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