Obsessive: Fascination with the weather leaving Britain ‘high and dry’

torquay_2036288c

#UKStorm2013 is the hashtag being used by thousands, including Downing Street, to archive the plight of Britain. Our fascination with the weather. It has been dubbed the “worst storm for years” yet in reality it feels very much like the biannual occurrence of high winds and heavy rain. British media aims to reach to so many and so you could be forgiven for thinking nothing else has happened over the past 24 hours. Some websites have even produced maps so that viewers can “track the storm”. Worse than all, it isn’t just the ‘storm’ that will bring down Britain. Any peak of any weather type seems to grind Britain and her economy to an unflattering halt.

As some commentators observed, the motion of cancelling rail services before the storm had even arrived, had similarities to caving in before the worst arrived; others suggested it wasn’t typical of the British to simply give in, in the face of ‘adverse’ weather conditions. But that is what happened. By 5pm Sunday evening, the majority of train services in the South (before 9am) had already been cancelled, leaving rush hour commuters in chaos and stranded at home. Fallen trees, flooded lines and dangerously high winds had been predicted and predicted correct they were. An empty passenger train was hit by a falling tree, whilst power cables on lines in and out London’s busiest stations have been brought down, leaving many commuters, those as far as the North West and beyond receiving the effects of the weather that the South had suffered with overnight. It is a similar story when every type of poor weather conditions hit Britain. The rail network instantly crumbles, costing the industry millions of pounds worth of delays and cancellations, thousands of pounds worth of customer refunds and exchanges, and unimaginable amounts to Britain’s economy.

As is with the anticipation and subsequent arrival of any weather news, journalists and reporters are sent out into the depths of Britain to gain a true understanding as to how people are coping in the face of abject misery. Although many are suffering, with thousands of homes without power and schools closed, what humour can be gained is served from digital news channels. There is something eerily strange about an empty Victoria Station at the height of the Monday rush hour; for those who arrived only to find their trains cancelled, comments such as “I’m considering getting a taxi” may beg the question as to whether it is actually news. A cameraman being blown over on a beach by the force of the winds is more you’ve been framed than Sky News, whilst the drenched appearance of a journalist amongst the weather questions the safety of BBC reporters.

Some of the topics discussed during the out of ordinary weather conditions seem to be rather nonsensical. BBC Local Radio have been requesting people to email, tweet them or phone them if they have lost power in their home. Some reporters have turned consumer advisor, telling people how to cope in the weather ahead of the apparent end of the world. Coastguards have warned of the dangers of being near the coasts and so nearly every journalist covering the natural event has headed to the coast. Every breath taken by somebody covering the story seems to be point blank obvious to the extent where it becomes funny.

For hour upon hour, TV news channels tell the same story. Amongst the warnings issued, even with Downing Street advice, include not to travel. It is always a bizarre statement. How are we not to travel? In the face of such acts from above, Britain cannot just grind to a halt and wait for the rain to pass by. It is completely and utterly unviable. Over one hundred flights cancelled at Heathrow is perhaps understandable, as is the cancellation of cross-channel ferry is such rough conditions. How can motorists travelling the United Kingdom simply give in? If everybody did take advice on driving slower and taking more time for journeys then we would be in a pleasant environment. Arrogant drivers who appear in a completely different environment to everybody else are those who cause danger and death. There are still ways of keeping Britain going in the face of wind and rain.

It isn’t just the #UKStorm2013 that has got TV news gripped. The snow troubles advise thousands to simply sit tight and wait. The same footage of sliding cars, closed schools, snowy fields and disrupted airports are unimaginatively churned out every time. At the other end of the calendar lies unexpected warm weather which causes disruption, oddly. Buckled railway lines, melting roads and warnings of stay indoors and drink lots of water feels very much like a political nanny state recycled again through news bulletins. Whatever the weather, 24 hour news channels will cover events. It isn’t news, we all know. Yet there is some kind of trepidation and enigma of seeing somewhere feeling the force of the weather compared to your own comforts which are unaffected.

The fascination with our weather is unexplainable. 24 hour news feeds our habit and keeps us at home away from working and doing what we must do. Double page spreads of huge waves ‘battering’ the coast will surface in tomorrows newspapers, to further serialize the drama. The ‘storm’ may be in its full power, but Britain remains on this side of the Atlantic, so it’s not the worst…yet.

Advertisements

All aboard for HS2 ?

A few months back I posted about the confusion of the franchising in the rail industry, with some lines being privatised, others returning to public ownership and some which are in complete limbo. But that led me to the ongoing debate about the new high-speed rail link project (HS2). The facts are great: cutting journey times, creating jobs and boosting business. However, what about the actual reality of the project. Will it actually work?

The project leaders are very good at persuading ordinary rail users into thinking the new line is a good move. HS1 is already in action. It links London with the South of England and to the Channel Tunnel. The new HS2 line will link London and Birmingham and then join the West Coast Mainline north of Lichfield for journeys to Manchester and Leeds. The HS2 website, a modern and rather contemporary document, outlines the main problems with the current running of trains, such as overcrowding, delays and the need for more freight. It further adds that the new project will create a “connected Britain” with railways of a “worldwide standard.”

On a journey between Warrington and London, I compiled a few thoughts.

Current Capacity

It is a clear fact that the railways are running at near full capacity. Ministers behind HS2 estimate that “by 2020 a further 400 million journeys will be made” on top of the 1.46 billion made last year. So it certainly makes sense to have a new rail route in order to ease overcrowding and congestion on other lines.

In 2009/2010, 59 percent of all train journeys started or ended in the London region, according to the Department of Transport. Business and management professionals are amongst those who make regular trips to the capital, the majority of whom travel from other regions. But for ordinary day-trip visitors, commuters and tourists, overcrowding is serious.

A recent BBC documentary, Railways: Keeping Britain On Track, highlighted the daily troubles that travellers face at peak times. Passengers on the East Coast Mainline were seen being crammed into carriages at near-bursting point, many commuters making their feelings known. It is impossible to determine where each single passenger would travel to but certainly the majority interviewed on TV were travelling to the suburbs of London and major towns on the outskirts of the capital. On this basis, ordinary commuters won’t benefit as much from a high-speed link between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, apart from a slight ease on crowded coaches. But surely the point is contradicted by the desire of the long-distance traveller. Like me, on my first visit to the capital, I paid to go First Class. This was mainly because it was a long distance and a reasonable deal. For business class and regular first-class passengers they will always remain in the privileged carriages which are less crowded and more comfortable. So it seems the next direction would be to make trains more focussed on the average commuter not the first class buyer.

A commuters nightmare

A commuters nightmare


Current Trains

Like the last point mentions, there are more people crammed into standard class carriages than those who used first and business class. So whilst the few may pay more, the majority will still use trains at the same time and use the same standard class everyday. This brings me to the question of whether money should be spent on the trains themselves and not a new railway line.

A recent Inside Out investigation revealed how fleets of trains operated by Northern Rail had been questioned over safety. Operating in regions across the North of England, the Pacer train, effectively a bus chassis on rails, has proved unpopular with commuters, unsuitable for disabled passengers and unsafe on the rail network. BBC Yorkshire’s Alan Whitehouse outlined how the trains had first come into operation in the 1980’s as a cheap build and a life span of no more than 20 years. Almost thirty years later, these fleets still operate on the Northern Rail network; The rail regulator has now questioned whether the trains should continue to be used. By 2019, Pacers will have to be withdrawn from the rails because of new legislation ensuring that people with disabilities can gain easy access on public transport. The Pacers do not meet the intended guidelines. Northern Rail has accepted that the trains are old and need replacing. However, they insist that passenger numbers are rising meaning the trains need to fulfil extra demand and that there are questions over how to afford replacements.

That word “afford” is crucial in this debate, as the government announced the HS2 project will go beyond budget and cost in excess of £40bn. A lot of money indeed. For the ordinary commuter whose journey takes them between towns and cities they will still use the shorter, suburban lines. So perhaps the billions of pounds worth of investment into a single new line should instead help towards replacing tired trains, not capable of driving the demands of the modern-day.

The Pacer has been brought into question over safety.

The Pacer has been brought into question over safety.

The Commuter

The person who uses the train to get to and from work, college, shops, university, meetings, holidays and visiting family will feel an impact. Why? Because the money for the new high-speed link on top of the improvements needed on existing networks will come from ticket prices. 2013 saw another consecutive hike in rail prices. The Campaign for Better Transport and Railfuture have calculated that over the ten consecutive years, rail passengers’ fares have increased by over 50 percent, whilst some areas of the UK have seen increases in fares above the national average.

I have rarely had a problem with the rail network. Even on my journey to London, the price was reasonable compared to taking a car for instance and the train was plush and comfortable. But I do understand the gripe of travellers who use the network everyday. The age-old problem of leaves on the track, crew member not available and signal problems have all added to frequent delays up and down the country. When the train eventually arrives, disgruntled passengers find carriages like a tin of sardines: uncomfortable, unpleasant and below par. One must wonder as to why an individual would dip into so much money for such a poor service. The fact is there is no other solution. The cost of living has rocketed, along with the cost of owning, insuring and running a car. Whilst public transport has seen major hikes, it is one area that can actually help someone save money.

Whilst the cost to the commuter will increase next year and the year after that, I would question whether HS2 meets the need for the majority of paying travellers. As mentioned earlier, the majority of train journeys are suburban taking people from one town to another often within the same region. Yes, there is a clear demand for the passengers who travel long-distance, but many of these journeys are “one offs” or only on “occasion”. That was the view from some of the people I spoke to on my journey. The demand is where the lines are bursting at the seams. Liverpool – Manchester is one of those lines because the tracks visit towns and villages in-between the two cities. The areas where the commuters live. It can be quite hard to explain. People I spoke to onboard the London bound train made it known they did not want a new line and instead they wish current operations could benefit from the cash. And I agree. Because who exactly is the HS2 going to benefit?

The West Coast Mainline is popular with travellers.

The West Coast Mainline is popular with travellers.

HS2 Users

It is hard to see who HS2 will benefit. It’s certainly easy to see who will be at a disadvantage. Home owners forced out of their homes, tax payers who will see increase in payments because of the new infrastructure, rail passengers who will see increase in fares for similar reasons, people who don’t travel long distance. There are plenty of groups who will be against.

One of the biggest gripes I have with the new project is availability to users. HS2 will leave London bound for Birmingham and then on to Manchester and Leeds. It would be excellent if there were actually any stations to board. Considering where I live, Warrington, I wouldn’t be able to use the new line because it would cost more in money and time to actually get to a station where I could board. Similar situations in Widnes, Liverpool, Macclesfield, Runcorn, CREWE, Bury, Bolton and plenty more. Hundreds of rail passengers will stay in the same boat, or carriage, and use operators and routes they know best. Virgin Trains on the West Coast Mainline is one of the most respected rail operators in the country. Excellent service and trains are quick. Is there actually anybody who needs to get from the North to London any quicker than what is already offered? It took me less than two hours to get from Warrington to London. I’d say that was pretty quick. Granted, there will always be someone who wants to get to the Capital quicker, but for any average user, the train is quicker than flying (when you take into account check in etc) and certainly faster than driving.

And, furthermore, it will only be the people of these large cities who will benefit. Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. That is where the stations will be based. There are no official confirmations if there will be stations in between, but if ministers are promising a quicker journey time, there will be no chance for trains to slow down and stop for several minutes.

Cost

£42 billion. Well over the original budget. It’s interesting to note that on the HS2 website there is little mention of how much the project will cost. There is much talk about “investment” and creating opportunities. But the simple fact is that the project is an unbelievable amount of money. All of which has to be repaid or at least be worthy of value for money. There is little more to say. The government would always get a harsh backlash whatever the cost would be. The fact that it is an extraordinary amount, in such hard economic times, seems to be a laugh in the face to ordinary families and workers. But will it be a good investment? The economic benefits seem very good indeed.

The Economy

Undoubtedly very positive. The official HS2 website offers some confirmation of job numbers and investment when it comes to the workforce who will create the new track, drive the trains and operate new stations. There will be 9,000 construction jobs for the first phase, 1,500 permanent jobs and a further 60,000 jobs when it comes to phase two. The website does offer a statement: “HS2 will generate £47 billion in user benefits to businesses when the entire network is completed, as well as between £6 billion and £12 billion is wider economic benefits.”

A rail network which connects Britain better than current connections is without doubt very good. Businesses will be able to communicate with suppliers and traders more efficiently. An increase in freight on the new line, alongside current operations on the West Coast and East Coast Mainline, will improve trade, imports and exports. Furthermore, HS2 planners confirm that more room is needed for freight. “By 2030, overall volumes are expected to be 120% of current levels.” The new line, campaigners suggest, will not hold back the UK economy. Growth and connections are needed.

An impression of what the HS2 trains could look like.

An impression of what the HS2 trains could look like.

It has to be admitted that a new rail line is needed. The West Coast Mainline is already severely congested and if a new line isn’t created within a generation then commuters and the economy will be at risk. It’s a brutal fact. For me, I won’t benefit entirely from a new line, in fact I’d guess I would very very rarely use it as I am closer to the West Coast Mainline. Further consultations are needed. It’s a fact. Routes and lines do need to be altered. To destroy villages and houses is unnecessary and a sad consequence.

The whole idea is about improving Britain’s rail network. A new link should, say the government, take pressure off existing lines. It’s high-speed because trains will be quicker but they won’t stop at large towns outside the terminal cities. Furthermore, what about the far North of England? Cumbria, the North East and Scotland. Numerous points have been made about the economic benefits to an already struggling North. Why can’t the line go further than Manchester?

The plan is probably quite good on paper. I am not entirely convinced by the idea and nor are many others. I see the benefits but also see through to the problems that will be encountered. High-Speed 2 will be “high-speed” but perhaps more thinking about the execution of the project and current state of the rail network is needed.

For more information visit http://www.hs2.org.uk

The great railway robbery…again ?

Dr Beeching stands with the report into railway cuts.

Dr Beeching stands with the report into railway cuts.

Virgin Trains now operate the West Coast Mainline

Virgin Trains now operate the West Coast Mainline

Today is a historic day in British transport news. Not necessarily the best news, but on this day, 27th March, fifty years ago, Dr Richard Beeching announced huge cuts to the railway industry. The decisions included closing 5,000 miles worth of track, thousands of railway stations and cutting thousands of jobs. The reason? Because Beeching saw the rival, the car, bring passenger numbers down on the railways. Today, the need for railways is greater than ever before.

Many people see Beeching as a man who destroyed the rail industry in Britain. The operator of the railways, British Rail, were losing millions of pounds per year. In fact, it was previous governments who made the decisions to go ahead with the cuts. Beeching was simply the man behind the report into the government changes, not the man who wanted them to happen. Whether he pushed for the cuts to happens remains a matter of divisions.

Fifty years on and there plans to reinstate lines which were closed, including links between Edinburgh and the Scottish borders, Cambridge and Oxford, and at last the Portishead railway may reopen to serve the people of Portishead.

Today, however, the railway industry is a very different place. British Rail, the previously public owned operator, is no more and many of the main routes in the UK are privatised. These include the West Coast Mainline running between London and Glasgow now operated by Virgin. Whilst the route remains mainly untouched from the previous nationalisation eras, the railway network is now a huge multi billion pound business with private companies competing for the most money. Increases in rail fares are a reflection on the system which requires constant upgrades and maintainance work, whilst delays and disruption also cost millions to the operators and Network Rail every year.

Soon, however, the East Coast Mainline, currently in public ownership, is to be privatised, as the franchise goes up for sale. Previous operators, National Express, couldn’t afford to run the line and by 2009, one of the main intercity routes was back in the public hands. Now it seems that companies including Virgin and First Group will be competing for the right to run the Eastern railway route. A similar previous bidding process was run in 2012 for the West Coast Mainline – After 15 years operating the route, Virgin Trains were denied the rights to run the line after the government approved a £5.5bn payment bid from First Group, who stated they would carry more passengers than the previous operators. Soon after that announcement, the government backtracked, blaming financial mistakes. The bid was cancelled due to an investigation. Virgin Trains were reawarded the line to run until 2017 when another bidding process can take place. The selling of the East Coast Mainline will take place before 2015, along with fifteen other franchises, wiping out the remaining publicly owned rail networks.

And with that, the government also announced at the beginning of 2013 that the plan for a new high-speed rail link between London and the North will go ahead. It will take at least another twenty years to see the completion of the new line which will see travelling times between Manchester and London reduced by a half. The government says this will be good for business’, employment and tourism. However, many of the concerns of the people I have spoken to is that there is no need for a new line which will destroy local eco-systems. Many travellers want to see an investment in new rolling stock for the mainly short, urban journeys which are undertaken everyday. Passengers say that want value for money, something they believe they are not receiving.

Whilst the railway may be an expensive mode of transport, the need for the train is greater than ever. Many lines and rolling stock are well over capacity, resulting in what some customers describe as a poor experience. The fact is that train fares will continue to rise, next year being the eleventh on a row, and whilst some believe this is unfair, the government, train operators and Network Rail claim the money is spent on ensuring the railways are safe and properly maintained. Many more increases in fares will be needed for a real revolution of British railways.