(james benedict brown) on the road

Unbalanced and smug

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 18 September, 2010

Back in Glasgow, and this news story caught my eye:

Glasgow tourist chiefs hit out over guide
18 September 2010

Glasgow tourist chiefs have hit out at a new guide which claims the city remains blighted by violence, deprivation and unhealthy lifestyles.

The Thomas Cook guide praises the city for its “vibrant” arts scene, high culture, green spaces and shopping.

But it also warns visitors to expect poor weather, sectarianism and alcohol and drug abuse in its deprived suburbs.

Glasgow’s weather is also drawn to readers’ attentions.

It comments: “The city’s rainy reputation is well founded and the likelihood is that you’ll experience more than a few showers, if not a full-on downpour. Going out without an umbrella or a hat is foolhardy, to say the least.”

Scott Taylor, chief executive of Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, reacted angrily to the guide, describing it as “unbalanced” and “smug”

We spotted the link to the article at the top of the localised section of the BBC News homepage (screengrab below). Just above Man scarred for life after attack, Gang attack teenager at bus stop, Probation over runaway boy images and Man guilty of Christmas Day death. And any suggestion that it’s always rainy is clearly disproven by an afternoon of “white cloud” ahead of us in the three day forecast.

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Breaking the last link

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 17 August, 2010

At 19:37 on Friday, the Stena HSS fast ferry docked at Stranraer harbour in south-west Scotland. Three minutes later, the 19:40 Scotrail train to Glasgow Central departed Stranraer’s railway station, located next to the ferry terminal.

Only two people made it off the packed Friday-night sailing and onto the train. I was one them, under-exercised muscles burning, lungs heaving and every inch of my skin sweating. As the diminutive and noisy two carriage Sprinter train rolled slowly out of the shabby railway station, I caught the briefest of glimpses of tired, angry and frustrated passengers just making it onto the platform, heaving suitcases, prams and bags with them.

This is the state of integrated public transport in Great Britain today: a fragmented and privatised patchwork of private companies, each concerned more with their own bottom line and the penalties of not running their own services to time than with serving the people who feed their profits.

Stranraer railway station is built adjacent to the Stena Line ferry terminal, and is in fact closer and more easily accessible by boat than it is from the town of Stranraer itself. Stranraer Town railway station has long been closed, and the word Harbour has subsequently been dropped from the name of this station. It was built in the late nineteenth century and, for most of the twentieth century, has been the designated interchange for British rail passengers crossing the North Channel to Northern Ireland. Until the early nineteen-nineties, there were daily Intercity Sleeper trains to and from London that were timed to connect with ferries. Until a year or two ago, direct trains connected the port with Carlisle and Newcastle. And until next year, the last remaining passenger trains connect these sailings with Glasgow. In a bid to shorten ferry crossings by about ten miles, services are being moved north towards the mouth of Loch Ryan.

The new Loch Ryan Port will have no rail access, and foot passengers will be dependent on bus connections instead. Great Britain and Northern Ireland will lose their last direct rail and sail connection (the alternative being via Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire or Dublin). The relocation of the port has been sold on the promise of “shorter” crossings, since Loch Ryan Port will be about eight or nine miles north of Stranraer, and closer to the opening of Loch Ryan onto the North Channel. However, Stena aren’t just building a new port. They’re also buying two new “super fast conventional ferries” that will complete the “shorter” crossing in “just over two hours”. As you can see from the timetable above, that means the new (geographically) “shorter” crossing will actually take longer than the fastest existing Stena HSS service, which takes two hours exactly. Due to rising fuel costs and its horrendous fuel consumption, Stena Line will be retiring their Stena HSS gas turbine fast ferry and replacing it with conventional boats that are cheaper to run.

You can buy a ticket to Belfast (or any station in Ireland, north and south) from any British railway station. Fares are astonishingly reasonable, if sometimes difficult to purchase. A ‘Anytime’ single from London to Belfast costs just £46, and is available right up until departure. Likewise, a single from Glasgow to Belfast costs justs £25. Both fares can be reduced by about a third with a 16-25 or Senior Railcard as well. The problem is, Stena Line and Scotrail have no interest is facilitating the interchange of such low-yielding passengers.

Scotrail hold a franchise to operate passenger services on the National Rail network. The bizarre legal arrangements of the systems once nationalised under British Rail means that they have to meet certain punctuality targets, or pay financial penalties. The railway line between Stranraer and Ayr (where it joins the suburban lines towards Glasgow) is mostly single track with just a handful of passing loops. Single track segments are securely controlled through the use of physical tokens passed between train drivers and signalmen at various points along its route. The countryside through which the railway runs is very remote, and track maintenance is difficult due to limited access by road. The clickety-clack of bolted railway tracks still fills the train carriage as it bounces through rural Wigtownshire: unlike mainline railways this one has yet to be modernised with continuously welded and tensioned rails. One late train on this route can cause havoc, delaying the next service in the opposite direction which will usually be waiting for it at the next passing loop. One late train means financial penalties to Scotrail, but two late trains means twice the penalties.

In other words, Scotrail aren’t going to delay the train for delayed Stena Line passengers. Similarly, Stena Line operate almost as if the railway doesn’t exist. Stena have operated the route since British Rail sold its Sealink Ferries division in 1991. Whereas the ferry was once an effective continuation of passenger trains from all over Great Britain, they are now just awkward bed fellows who happen to serve the same small town in Wigtownshire.

But not for much longer. On 10 February 2010, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh washed their hands of any responsibility on the matter of integrated tansport, and approved the Loch Ryan Port (Harbour Empowerment) Order 2009. The £200m “investment” in an unintegrated ferry port on Loch Ryan and two new ferries seemed to sway more political minds than the thought of losing Britain’s last rail and sail interchange for Northern Ireland. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond even went so far as to say:

The relocation of the port to the new Loch Ryan Port will also aid tourism with faster crossings between Scotland and Northern Ireland and help the regeneration of Stranraer as a major marine leisure area. This is a significant day for transport and investment in Scotland.

And a significant day for anyone who lives in (or wants to get to) Northern Ireland, by affordable, sustainable and enjoyable rail and sail.

Footnote: The Stranraer to Ayr Line Suport Association, who had volunteers on my train, have unearthed data from Department for Transport Maritime Port statistics and “Sustainable Development Commission recognised sources” relating to the relocation of the port. With my emphasis:

The environmental damage will be considerable as the A77 corridor currently contributes in excess of 45,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere of which over 26,000 tonnes derives from the Stranraer and Cairnryan areas alone.  It is hard to reconcile this decision with the Scottish Government’s climate change agenda.  The ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan have also declined over the last decade with reductions in cars (down 36%), passengers (down 38%) and lorries (down 21%) at Stranraer and in cars (down 16%)and passengers (down 18%) at Cairnryan.  This suggests that whilst Cairnryan may have some advantage over Stranraer, the decline is structural.  It is interesting to note that local authorities in North Wales are lobbying for a rail freight facility at Holyhead in complete contrast to Dumfries & Galloway and South Ayrshire Councils.  Ironically the amount of rai/ferry passenger traffic at Stranraer has increased over the last six years.

It’s still your fault

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 30 July, 2010

Earlier this week I caught a flight from Stansted Airport back to Northern Ireland. I first visited Stansted shortly after it opened in the early nineteen-nineties, when the vast £100,000,000 terminal was home to just a handful of airlines. Back then it was a delightful experience; a crystal clear navigational experience, with clean signage and spacious circulation spaces.

The plan was for Stansted to become London’s premier gateway, a true alternative to Heathrow and Gatwick, which could tempt the long haul airlines and passengers out into the Essex countryside. Then the ground beneath the aviation industry shifted, and it became instead a low-cost hub for budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Designed with the intention of making your passage through the airport as smooth as possible, Stansted was rapidly reconfigured to make your passage through the airport as expensive as possible. The airside lounge is a grotty and crowded retail hellhole, designed around the meandering line principle that if you expose passengers to the maximum possible surface area of shop frontages, they will eventually succomb and buy something.

Despite having three satellites (and a fourth under construction) departing passengers are bottle necked inside this cramped area in the main terminal until the hour or half hour before their departure. This is again to maximise their exposure to retail enlightenment rather than the relative tranquility of the satellite buildings.

Of particular amusement to me, spotted while waiting for my gate to be called, was this notice, applied in vinyl beneath the departure screens:

Stansted Airport does not verify the accuracy or completeness of this flight information which is supplied direct from your airline. The airport accepts no liability for any loss or damages suffered as a result of the reliance on such information which may later prove to be inaccurate or incomplete.

Departure information? Nah, this is just the departure information screen. Not our responsibility, mate…

A Streetcar named Elaine

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 July, 2010

Two nights ago I walked into to a dingy nineteen-sixties public car park on Mitchell Street in Glasgow. Climbing to the first floor, I was met with the sight that would bring horror to most car owners. My parking space was empty. There was a large BMW shaped hole where my BMW should have been.

Not to panic though. I just fired up an iPhone app, which routed a call for me to speak to a nice man in a London call centre. He told me that due the designated bay being occupied at the time, the car had been parked four levels up by the last person who used it. And sure enough, after a short ride in an intimidatingly vandal proof elevator, I found my bright blue BMW 1 Series parked on the fifth floor.

This was, as you might have guessed, not my BMW. It belongs to Streetcar, a British car sharing club that has recently gained international attention having been acquired by the American car sharing giant Zipcar. Thanks to a recent favourable enrollment promotion, I’ve become a member of Streetcar just in time to see it rebranded as Zipcar. Presumably the little non-recyclable plastic smart card they sent me (with its own non-recyclable plastic wallet and non-recyclable laminated cardboard welcome pack) and the plastic parking bay signs will all have to be re-issued in due course. You can see the environmental benefits of car sharing already.

At least the impressive iPhone app won’t need much work to be re-branded from Streetcar blue to Zipcar green.

If you’re unfamiliar with how car sharing works, it’s pretty simple. Rather than owning car that sits unused most of the day, Streetcar members have access to several hundred cars and vans dotted around Britain’s largest cities. Members (who normally pay £60/year) can book one by the hour, day, week or month by phone, internet or smartphone app. I booked my Beemer – named Elaine, incidentally – at just five minutes notice. When you get to the car, your membership card or iPhone app can unlock the vehicle, and you’ll find the keys in the glove box. Thirty miles per calendar day and all the petrol you need are included in the hourly, daily or weekly rates (a payment card is nestled in the handheld device that releases the key). A VW Polo costs £4.95/hour or £49.50/day, while a BMW 1 Series costs £6.95/hour or £69.50/day. Current promotions include £1/hour discounts during the early evening and £20 6pm – 9am overnight rentals, the latter of which persuaded me to have my first spin in the Beemer. There are just ten cars here in Glasgow right now, although that number should grow soon, and hopefully will grow outwards from the city centre. Streetcar bays aren’t generally on public streets outside London, so secure and easily accessible off-street parking is usually needed. Most vehicles are parked in city centre car parks, which isn’t particularly handy for suburban or inner-suburban residents, although there are three very close to Glasgow Central station. I’m actively petitioning Streetcar to bring some to the inner Southside, one of the city’s lowest car-owning neighbourhoods, but until then, this will have to do.

The experience so far has been almost entirely positive. The cars are new 2010 models with low mileages and clean interiors. Members who get them dirty are invited to use the petrol payment card in the car to buy car wash and vacuuming tokens whenever needed, and so far it seems that Glasgow’s members are looking after their cars. Either that, or there aren’t many of us. Watching my iPhone app here and in London during my last visit, there seems to be very good short notice availability for cars compared to the capital. Perhaps the £1/hour and £20 overnight promotions are there to encourage more use of the cars we’ve got.

Living in the city, and surviving on a modest budget, we have absolutely no need of our own car. Over the last two years we’ve used a variety of rental companies to borrow cars for 24 hour periods: just long enough to get to Ikea or B&Q, and come home and regret our fiscal excesses. The daily Streetcar rate works out roughly comparable to the costs of renting from a major rental company, perhaps even cheaper when you include the cost of fuel. The limited 30 mile daily mileage allowance with Streetcar is, a problem, however. Streetcars are clearly marketed for inner-city use on short rentals: you only get greater mileage allowances if you go for a more than 72 hours. I very nearly max-ed out the daily mileage allowance driving out to an suburban courier depot to collect a mysterious and as-yet unclaimed package (note to DHL: try buzzing our apartment, knocking on our door or perhaps pushing the card through our letterbox next time).

The biggest problem I have with Streetcar, however, is the choice of vehicles. Here in Glasgow we’ve got four VW Polos and six BMW 1 Series. The former are fantastic little cars – beautifully designed and made, very nippy and ideal for urban driving. But the BMWs are insane choices for a car club. Only marginally larger in terms of passenger and luggage space, they have dreadful visibility and an rock solid ride. It seems bizarre that a car sharing club – ostensibly designed for people who are not seduced by the cachet of owning a car – should choose a car that is so ostentatious and yet so compromised as a city car. What’s more, Elaine, my Mitchell Street Streetcar, was not a base model 1 Series, but a performance-oriented M Sport model. On a £20 overnight promotion, I enjoyed bouncing around Glasgow in this lively and sporty little car, but the leather sports seats were desperately uncomfortable, and the rigid suspension was completely unsuited to our poorly maintained and potholed city streets.

There is also a longer term calculation to be made. On the deal that enrolled me to Streetcar, I’m basically getting membership for free. The costs are limited to the hourly or daily rental fees (and my third party excess insurance, which covers me in the event of damaging occurring to the car and Streetcar lifting £750 from my credit card). If I were to take into account the normal cost of membership plus the rental charges, I’d be hard pressed to say Streetcar is better value than the five to six car and van rentals I’ve made in the last year from the likes of Hertz, Europcar or Arnold Clark. And I will continue to need them, because Streetcar don’t have any vans in Glasgow (and looking to cities where they do, they’re very poor value compared to most rental companies’ daily van rental rates). There is no doubt at all that Streetcar can be a lot cheaper than owning a car, but I remain unconvinced that it’s the best choice for non-car owners who want a more convenient form of occasional car rental.

Romance isn’t dead. It’s just incapacitated.

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 June, 2010

You wait ages for a reason to go to Manchester, and then two come along at once. Less than four days after I said goodbye to the metropolis of the north-west (following a delightful excuse to get drunk and dance badly), I’m back (no drinking, no dancing). Shortly after arriving in town, however, this newstand caught my eye.

You’ve got to admire the romantic sensibilities of the subject of this front page article. If my legs were stolen, I suspect the disruption to my imminent marriage wouldn’t be the most upsetting thing in my life. And this is just the morning edition of the M.E.N. If this is headline news in the morning, just imagine all the crap that’s still to go down today.