(james benedict brown) on the road

Snapshot: Glasgow Airport

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 8 December, 2010

Seen from the departure loun… sorry, shopping mall, inside Glasgow Airport. The suitcase dropped off a baggage tug, and was retrieved about five minutes later.

The Liberties

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 13 October, 2010

I was in Dublin last week for the first events of the annual Open House weekend. I met a friend in town to see the opening debate (a snooze fest from which we escaped early) before he kindly gave me a lift part of the way back to Belfast. I asked him, based on his knowledge of Dublin and of me, which neighbourhood in the city he could see me living in. I don’t know whether this reflects more on me or more on Dublin, but he suggested the Liberties.

I generally wait ages for a trip to Dublin, and then two come along at once. So I’m back again this week, doing some research in Dublin (today and Friday) and Waterford (Thursday). With an hour or two spare, I took a tram towards Heuston and the Museum of Modern Art. Heading back to town, I diverted through the inner city Liberties to have a look around.

It’s only looking back at this photograph an hour or two later that I realise just how green the grass would seem to be on this side of the border.

However, just to re-assure everyone who might be surprised at the thought (including my family, my girlfriend, my supervisor) – I’m not moving to Dublin. It’s just a handy way to ask someone who knows you and a city that’s unfamiliar to you where your characters might overlap. It was on that visit last week I realised that I’ve been to Paris more times than Dublin. Being so close to this city, that’s something of an embarrassment. So I’ve made some allowances in my schedule to rediscover my flâneur-ish behaviour in a city that’s shamefully quite unknown to me. I’ll be uploading some more photographs from my trip in the coming days on Flickr.

Edit: More pics from my walk around the Liberties here.

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.

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…