torsdag 30 december 2010

What a difference fifty years makes

The end of the year, especially one ending in zero, is a time to look back. Here is London St Pancras in 1960. Who, when the picture was taken, would have imagined that fifty years later it would have been possible to catch a train from the same place, that would get them to Paris in three hours? Yet only few years ago, carriages of the same design as those in the train on the left were still in front line service.

Change happens in ways that we cannot expect, but long-lived pieces of capital equipment like trains, on the drawing board today, are likely to be still in use in 2070. What will the world be like in 2070? No-one can know. We can be certain that it will be very different. Energy will be relatively much more expensive. Fewer people will be able to afford cars and air travel, which means that the railways will not have to compete with the alternatives in the same way. Probably too, the train operators of fifty years' time will have to work hard just to offer a service that most people can afford.

In the next five decades, we can expect two or three cycles of boom-and-bust, major changes in technology, which stand as much chance of being lower-tech than higher-tech, demographic shifts, with associated changes in patterns of settlement and land use, and a high probability of significant natural or man-made events, the effects of which will could stretch countries and communities to the limit, and possibly beyond.

To this mix must be added in the chronic uncertainty over investment plans that can be cancelled, reinstated, amended, and cancelled again several times before any works actually start.

What kind of rolling stock is suitable for an environment so permeated by uncertainties? I hope someone is asking the question.

måndag 27 december 2010

It is about priorities

I fell into an argument yesterday with a friend from Derby who was brimming with enthusiasm for the high speed line. The conversation went like this.

"How often do you go to London?"
"About four times a year"
"What is your most common journey?"
"From Long Eaton into Derby"
"How often do you make it?"
"Several times a week"
"What is the service like?"
"So how would the high speed line help?"

It did not take him long to realise that this investment will do nothing to improve his daily travel.

I then went on to explain that the high speed line could not provide an affordable walk-on service and he would have arrange to arrive long in advance to be sure of not missing the journey he had paid for. He is then likely to spend the time drinking coffee or looking at the magazines in W H Smith. In other words, he would have been better served with a slower but affordable walk-on service.

GW electrification back-track

Twyford station, originally uploaded by seadipper.

The vacillations over the Great Western main line electrification are a good illustration of the confusion that reigns over rail policy in Britain. In 2009, electrification of the routes to Cardiff, Bristol, Oxford and Newbury was approved by a Labour minister. Now the project has been cut back to Oxford and Newbury, which are London commuter routes. One factor is the major rebuilding of Reading station and the adjacent junction, a scheme which will continue until 2016 and restrict the amount of traffic that can use the line whilst the work is in progress. Clearly, the electrification project needs to be integrated with the developments at Reading and for this reason it may be that other routes would be better placed in the front of the queue for electrification, of which the most obvious choice is the Midland main line, but another possibility is the Chiltern route to Oxford via a new junction at Bicester. But the aim should nevertheless be to complete the electrification to Bristol and Cardiff at the same time as the Reading reconstruction.

The cut-back of the Great Western electrification project opens up a whole series of questions about rolling stock policy, that have not been helped by transport minister Hammond's announcement that there should be no further life-extension of the HST fleet.

The intention is that the Great Western suburban routes should be operated by cascaded class 319 stock dating from the 1980s, which in turn will be replaced by a new fleet. It has been suggested that the existing DMUs used on the Great Western suburban services (above), which are actually newer than the class 319s, will be deployed elsewhere. However, this is not so easy. These units, of classes 165 and 166, are 23 metres long and 2.82 metres wide, were built specifically to take advantage of the generous clearances on the Great Western routes out of London. A study by the Rail Safety and Standards Board found that the route availability of these units is very restricted, with expensive work being needed to clear other routes.

One option that seems not to have got a mention would be to convert these diesel trains into electric multiple units, but a further question that arises concerns the life expectation of the vehicles. These were the first generation of trains having bodyshells constructed of wide aluminium extrusions with welded seams, and whilst they may have a future life of two or three decades, there is apparently no means of predicting at present, and the same applies to the class 158 DMUs of the same vintage. However, the cost risk of premature failure of the body structures could be minimised by by designing the electrical equipment for recovery and recycling. Alternatively, the units could be converted into push-pull sets powered by electric locomotives, which would be the most flexible and non-committal solution of all.

The subject is discussed in an article by Paul Clifton in the January 2010 issue of Rail Professional.

onsdag 22 december 2010

A long wait for a fast train

The projected opening time for the high speed line to Birmingham is 2026. In the meantime about £25 billion will have been spent without a single passenger travelling on any of the route. The interest charges on this sunk investment are horrendous.

Compare this to, say, the alternative of upgrading and electrifying the Chiltern line to Birmingham, where the pay-back would begin as soon as the wires had reached High Wycombe, with further gains as the electrification included Bicester and Oxford, and more again when it got to Banbury. Add in a possible electrification from Basingstoke to Oxford and Banbury, and the approved electrification of the Great Western route from Paddington to Oxford, and the gains add up to a significant enhancement of the national network of electrified routes. And all of these generate returns on the investment as each stage of the project is completed.

Are methods for assessing transport schemes satisfactory?’

This memorandum to the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport is a concise useful critique of the decision-making process that underpins the policy to proceed with HS2.

måndag 20 december 2010

On not making the best use of space

As is well known, the British loading gauge is notoriously tight. But some designs of train do not make the best use of the room that is available. A common complaint is that passengers sitting next to the window cannot put both feet on the floor straight in front of them, due to the lower bodyside curve, and a skirting duct, which take away the space.

The obvious explanation is that the lower bodyside curvature is to fit inside the loading gauge, but this cannot be the case as the steps stick out beyond the bodyside itself. All that space could therefore be inside the train, to the benefit of the passengers.

As for the step itself, this could more usefully be made to extend when the doors opened, so that there would be no need to mind the gap. The lower bodyside curvature on this Swedish train is needed as some platforms are high, some are low, and this part of the vehicle is the low-floor section in the centre car of the 3-car X31 unit. The odd thing is that both trains come from the same manufacturer so one would have thought that people in the company would talk to each other to the point that it showed in the finished product.

The corruption of British democracy

For sheer awfulness, the present British government surpasses even the previous one. They give the impression that they are driven by the prevailing anarcho-capitalist ideology, whilst at the same time not knowing what they are doing.

Democracy in Britain is failing to deliver the sort of government that people want. Or perhaps, on the other hand, it is a precise reflection of the British people and their attitudes. If it is not, why, I ask myself, would newspapers like the Daily Mail sell more than a handful of copies. I regularly come across people parroting the views expressed by its journalists, which suggests that they are catching and shaping a widespread popular mood. Which is even more worrying. In the meantime, a generation of young people is becoming radicalised - something that has not happened since the 1960s. There will be blood on the streets next year.

Underlying these movements is the same issue that Plato talked about in the Republic. The first qualification for being a political leader is not wanting the job. And so pretty well all politicians are unsuitable from the outset. The corruption of democracy runs deep. Politicians are too easily tempted by offers of lucrative non-executive directorships on retirement, in exchange for favours whilst in office. The system is fool proof, since the corrupting interest groups are obliged to deliver if future politicians are to be drawn in.

What might be done? Perhaps, on retirement, members of parliament should be obliged to live under some kind of house arrest on a modest pension and be forbidden to communicate with the outside world beyond their immediate families. That would certainly discourage the chances and others on the make who hanker after the levers of power. But these turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas.

lördag 18 december 2010

Running under the wires and away from the wires

As I discussed in a previous blog, the most practical way of running trains over routes which are only partly electrified is to do what was done on the Waterloo to Weymouth line when the electrification ended at Bournemouth.

A suitable fleet would be composed of electric locomotives or powered sets, and trailer sets. The powered sets would have a streamlined driving vehicle at the London end for 125 mph running (which might be an electric locomotive) and a gangwayed (possibly, but not necessarily) driving vehicle at the country end.

The trailer sets would have a streamlined driving vehicle at the country end, for 125 mph running, and the gangwayed driving vehicle at the London end, something like a class 375 Electrostar.

Down trains would be propelled from London to the end of the electrified route and would then split, with the trailer vehicles being hauled to their final destination by a diesel locomotive and the electrically powered portion remaining to form a return working to London.

Up trains would be pushed by the diesel locomotive (ie blunt end first) to the point where electrification began, where they would couple to the electrically powered portion of the train. The diesel locomotive would be detached and the train would continue to London under electric power.

Is this so difficult?

fredag 17 december 2010

Green Party on High Speed Rail

I received this from my MP, who is the only Green Party Member of Parliament.

"My position on high speed rail is that in principle I support it, provided there is clear evidence of greenhouse gas reductions. I also want to ensure that any rail investment is progressive and does not end up simply benefitting the most well off in society. I think it is critical that any projects are genuinely sustainable, by which I mean they must not cause any environmental degradation such as loss of habitats, for example, and the local communities affected must be properly consulted. I am opposed to the current plans to run a high speed track through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty like the Chilterns. Insufficient consideration has been given to alternative routes and there is local opposition to the plans, which I fully understand. The Secretary of State will be making an announcement about High Speed 2 next week and please be assured that I will be doing what I can to instead press for investment in sustainable public transport."

Which sounds as if Caroline Lucas is against HS2, certainly in its present form. From her perspective, the objections to the line must outweigh any conceivable benefits. This kind of investment must be assessed in comparison with other ways of investing the same amount in public transport infrastructure. Experience in other countries, notably France, has been that high speed railways have been developed at the expense of the local railway network, with the result that lines have been severely curtailed, thereby forcing people to travel by road, which generally means that they will drive. Whilst this might tempt people to travel by train instead of by air for longer journeys, the much more numerous short journeys the people make are now by road rather than by rail, which cannot be good for carbon emissions.

There is a more general issue here as well. Running trains at 200 mph costs more than twice as much as running at 125 mph. The only way to make this economically viable is to use sophisticated yield management, which can only offer affordable fares at limited times on a book-ahead basis. It is anything but a walk-on service. Thus those who want to travel at short notice are more likely to travel by road than if the train service was slower and with affordable walk-on fares. Worse still, the need for passengers to book onto particular trains means that they have to arrive at the point of departure long beforehand, thereby losing most or all of the benefit of the higher speed trains.

This project really needs to be exposed for the folly it is, and the Greens should be in the forefront of the campaign for public transport that addresses people's daily travel needs.

torsdag 16 december 2010

Replacing the HST fleet

4REP unit 3014 leaving Waterloo, originally uploaded by 74009.

What to replace the fleet of Inter City 125 trains with continues to be a headache. The Hitachi dual-electric/diesel concept is dead partly because of the cost and complexity of the concept, and partly because its performance would not have been up to the task. One wonders why the Japanese wasted their time on the project.

But the underlying problem has not gone away. There are many routes in Britain that are electrified for only part of their length. The alternatives are either to run diesel-powered trains on electrified lines or to change the motive power where the electrification comes to an end.

Locomotive changes are awkward and undesirable as they involve shunting in congested locations. There is, however, a long-established technique that gets rid of most of the inconvenience. It was employed on the line between London and Weymouth, which was electrified as far as Bournemouth. The four cars at the London end of the trains comprised a 3000 hp unit (4-REP, photograph above) capable of powering a 12-car train. The eight cars at the country end of the trains comprised two 4-car trailer control units (4-TC) each with a driving cab at both ends. In the Weymouth direction, the trains were driven from the leading cab in the trailer unit, with the REP power unit pushing the train. At Bournemouth, the REP was detached and the front TC units hauled to Weymouth with a diesel locomotive. In the other direction, the diesel locomotive pushed the train back to Bournemouth, where it coupled to a REP unit which hauled it to Waterloo. In this way, locomotive movements at the changeover point were minimised.

A similar situation will develop on the Great Western main lines, where electrification is likely to extend only as far as Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff. A similar solution suggests itself, with the electric power being provided either by locomotives or with special high powered EMU sets. The trailer sets will need to have vehicles with driving cabs, probably in two varieties: one with a streamlined front for 125 mph speeds, and another with a blunter end and gangway connection. The latter type would be placed at the London end of trains from, say, Cornwall, from where they would be pushed to, say, Bristol and then couple to the electrically powered portion of the train. The streamlined driving cars would be at the country end of trains, which would split and be hauled over non-electrified tracks to their destination.

London to Bristol could of course be operated by conventional EMU trains similar to the class 444 used on the longer distance services out of Waterloo. Given the number of stops on the GW main line, there is little benefit in 125 mph operation and little opportunity these days for sustained fast running, a further build of class 444 units or their successors would be adequate. And it would not be disastrous if services between London and Devon/Cornwall were diesel powered all the way, with under-the-wires running between London and Newbury.

Whatever the case, the operator will need a uniform and flexible fleet of passenger vehicles which can be deployed in alternative configurations to suit the line and its traffic conditions. It may be that the best solution would be a standard fleet of hauled stock made up into fixed formations with between five and seven vehicles, with diesel and electric locomotives as traction.

onsdag 15 december 2010

The Bishop of Stockholm's comments on terror attack

In a short commentary about the terrorist attack in Stockholm, Bishop Anders Arborelius encourages everyone to distance themselves from all violence that is done in the name of God.

The full text is as follows...

"We are all shocked by what has happened amongst us: that a young man has blown himself up in the middle of Stockholm and perhaps planned to drag others to his death.

"It is deeply tragic that he should have done this from religious motives, as is now being claimed. All of us, whether Christian, or Muslim or belonging to some other religion, must say yet again: we distance ourselves decisively from all violence and especially from violence carried out in the name of religion.

"Such actions are actually an attack on God Himself, a blasphemous action directed against God and a denial of God and His love.

At the present time it is also important to pray for God's help and protection, so that nothing like it will happen again and that no innocent people will, in any other way suffer from the actions of a blindly fanatical individual."

Stockholm bomber - just a maverick?

I came across this from a friend on Facebook...

"It's time for the secular, post-modernistic and atheistic Europe to wake up about Islam. Islam's role model is "prophet" Mohammed. It's time that we study his life. Then we will stop being naive about Islam and its political goals for slumbering Europe."

The followers of all religions have done both good and bad things. The difference between Islam and the others is that when Buddhist and Christians do bad things. they are going against the teachings of the religions and what they are doing is the opposite of the actions of those whom the religion venerates eg Buddha, Jesus. When Muslims do bad things, they are following in the footsteps of Mohammed. The prophet IS responsible for the evil doings of Muslims. We need to be clear about this. Islam has only ever spread itself by violence.

söndag 12 december 2010

lördag 11 december 2010

Killer jeans

The jeans I am wearing in the picture below are old ones I got from a market stall or charity shop. Apparently, the worn-out look is fashionable, though I reckon that clothes in that condition belong in the dustbin. I would never pay good money for a pair of "new" worn-out jeans.

It now turns out that the fashion is deadly. The worn-out look is achieved by sandblasting, and the factories where it is done are full of dust. As a result, the workers have been getting silicosis, the lung disease that used to be common amongst coal miners. The practice has been banned in Turkey since 2007, but not before many factory workers became incurably ill. The manufacturers have moved production to other countries in the world, which has simply shifted the problem.


tisdag 7 december 2010

What capacity problem?

I picked up this comment from "Thomas the Tank" in the Guardian's Comment is Free...

"If there is a capacity problem on the West Coast line we should let Deutsche Bahn know quickly as they're proposing to bankroll new Scottish services utilising some of this non-capacity. But keep the capacity options between Rugby and Birmingham quiet or they'll want that too. And if you want even more capacity just spend a bit of time standing in the quiet on Banbury station to see where that might come from as well.

"Still more? Then we'll electrify and upgrade this line through Banbury too. And after all that, if we still aren't satisfied then connect the West Coast to the old Great Central at Rugby and reopen that for freight and as a diversionary route. (amazingly, HS2 would destroy this valuable future option).

"Still not content - then let's reopen the Peak line north of Matlock (perfectly feasible and relatively short) which would restore the old Midland route between Manchester and London.

"This will give the East Midlands a better service to the north west too - but that's not to London so not fashionable I guess). As a trainspotter, I shouldn't really be encouraging all the many obvious and sensible alternatives to HS2, as I'll be doing myself out of the opportunity of photographing all these lovely spanking new super powered trains, roaring through pristine, virgin countryside. Lovely in the snow!

"As long as they don't build a new motorway alongside it. 'Well, there's already a high speed railway there so what's the harm in ...'

måndag 6 december 2010

Third-rail deficiencies

The recent bad weather led to widespread cancellations of trains on routes south of London, electrified on the third-rail system. As a result, it has come under criticism, with calls for it to be replaced by overhead electrification.

That is not, of course, going to happen and would be a waste of money even if the cash was available. The third-rail electrification system is fundamentally robust and needs little attention most of the time, by contrast with overhead systems which need regular adjustment and can be brought down be a faulty pantograph.

During a similar spell of cold weather in the 1980s, a railwayman told me that the CIGs were nowhere near as good as the older stock when the weather was icy. The difference was that on older trains, the pick-up shoes were attached to massive timber beams like those in the trains in the picture. This enabled them to smash through the ice on the conductor rail.

I don't know if there is any truth in this but it looks as if a bit of research in this area could lead to improvements which would not cost any great amount.

onsdag 1 december 2010

A very different style of railway

A reminder that railways are about more than whisking businessmen from city centre to city centre at 300 kph or more. It has to be said that these Soviet era TE-10 diesels always seem to be throwing out clouds of black smoke, which means that they must be wasting fuel.

tisdag 30 november 2010

Not the only shooter on the beach

Got up early to take pics of the Brighton swimmers going in the cold sea. I have not been going in myself as I have got a bad tooth and have been drugged up, also have been expelled from Brighton Swimming Club, which is a long story in itself.

What rolling stock?

One of the great unanswered questions concerning HS2 is what kind of rolling stock will run on it? British rolling stock is lower and narrower than standard continental stock. And standard continental stock is too tall and wide to run on existing railways in Britain. Will there be a small fleet of continental-sized stock that will be confined to the new lines? And will it be necessary to build a special, and therefore expensive, fleet of British-sized high speed trains that can run on existing routes?

This raises yet another question. Continental stock actually varies in size from one country to another. Scandinavian trains are wider than those anywhere else, which makes for added comfort, or alternatively, more seats can be fitted into the carriages. And would also be possible to build the line large enough to accommodate double-deck trains that did not have low curved ceilings like those in most of Europe apart from Finland, where the gauge is slightly wider. (1525 mm instead of 1435 mm). I cannot find any discussion of this issue.

Project gathers momentum

As the project gathers momentum, it will become increasingly unstoppable. That a good case has been made to show that the economics of the project are based on dubious assumptions seems to cut no ice with the politicians.

The HS2 Action Alliance

The principal focus for opposition to HS2 is the HS2 Action Alliance (see link on right). Naturally, the opposition has arisen amongst those who stand to be worst affected, which is people in the areas of the Chilterns through which the line passes. However, having a vested interest in something does not invalidate an argument. The more the economic case is considered, the worse it seems. One wonders why HS2 has survived the cuts.

Selective door operation

An effective standard system of Selective Door Operation (SDO) must be one of the keys to increasing capacity on the railways. The lengthening of station platforms to accommodate longer trains can be prohibitively expensive at some locations and is unnecessary at others.

The solution is to fit every door on every train with a detector linked in to the door-actuating circuit, to prevent it from being opened unless there is a station platform alongside. It might take the form of a light and photocell on the train, with the face of the platform being fitted with a strip of reflective material like that on car number plates. Or it could use some kind of sonic or infra-red device - the principle is the same. In the long run this would be a good investment as all trains could stop at all stations. It would be fail-safe, automatic and do away with the complexities of GPS location finding, which requires the train to "know" where it is.

Alternatives to HS2 - official

Last year, the Department for Transport commissioned consultants W S Atkins to consider alternatives to HS2. Referred to as the High Speed 2 Strategic Alternatives Study, it comprises four separate reports. It looks at a range of road and rail interventions between London and the West Midlands, which could effectively increase passenger capacity in line with forecast demand. The documents are available for downloading here.

The Rail Interventions Report concentrates on upgrades to the West Coast Main Line and the Chilterns route to Birmingham and in case of the latter, an interesting list of interventions are postulated. Amongst the options discussed is the possibility of running much longer trains on the WCML. But this is dismissed in the following sentence:

"However, operating a fleet of 400 metre would require platforms at every station served by WCML “fast” services to be lengthened. Selective Door Opening (“SDO”) is unlikely to prove acceptable or workable."

This curt dismissal of a major policy option is strange because what is called for is better SDO systm. Probably this would incorporate a detector system linked into the door opening mechanism. Such a device could be fitted to every door on the train, to ensure that the door could not be opened unless there was a platform alongside. Obviously it would take quite a lot of development work but calls for nothing that existing technology could not solve.

The report dealing with rail interventions mentions in passing that "HS2 Ltd have been tasked by DfT to test the cost and capacity of an entirely new conventional route between London – West Midlands ." I would like to get a look at that report.

måndag 29 november 2010

External costs of road use

I came across this in the Guardian's Comments is Free

The annual external costs of road use in the UK have been estimated as follows...
  • Air pollution £19.7 bn
  • Congestion £17.5 bn
  • Accidents £9.4 bn
  • Noise £2.6 bn
  • Road damage £1.5 bn
  • Climate change 0.1 bn
  • (Road building not included)
  • Total £50.8 bn.
This contrasts with the revenues obtained by the exchequer from motorists via fuel taxes and duty (Fuel tax: £12.5 bn, Excise duty: £3.6 bn; Total: £16.1 bn)

Thus motorists are being subsidised by an amount three times larger than the taxes and duty they pay.

The fate of the BREL International train

Experimental train 1986, originally uploaded by seadipper.

This experimental train built in 1986 was one of the more attractive products of British Rail Engineering Ltd. It was eventually sold to the Irish railways and re-gauged.

Most of the vehicles were scrapped in 2009. A couple were brought back to the UK and used for bombing practice. Nice to know that a proper value was put on these assets.

måndag 22 november 2010

The BT10 bogie

An unsung design classic
The BT10 bogie is fitted to mark 3 Inter City stock, including the HST trailer cars. Introduced in the mid-1970s, some units have now been in service for 35 years. These were amongst the first to be fitted with disc brakes and for several years there were complaints about the smell. But once this had been cured, they proved to be exceptional, giving a smooth and steady ride at high speed on indifferent track. Recent tests have shown them to be superior to more recent designs, as well as being significantly easier on the track.

I was discussing this with a colleague recently who has been involved recently in the maintenance of vehicles fitted with these bogies. Apart from a few minor details, he told me that there are no fundamental weaknesses in the design - such as areas prone to fatigue - and after three decades in service they would have shown up by now.

The elegant simplicity of the concept is revealed in the diagram.

onsdag 17 november 2010

Pendolino Britannica


I have to admit that Pendolinos look really good from this angle, pretty, even. Pity about the insides and the tiny windows which have made them Britain's most unpopular train. I see that the new generation of continental Pendolinos have better windows.

New Pendolino SBB CFF FFS

lördag 13 november 2010

Bonkers air freight restriction

I cam across this on Ebay just now.

***Transportation of ink and toner cartridges by air is restricted***

Following recent incidents with improvised explosive devices, the Secretary of State for Transport has issued a directive prohibiting the transportation by air of ink or toner cartridges, to any destination inside or outside the UK. This directive comes into effect immediately. To avoid any doubt, an ink or toner cartridge is defined as ‘a cartridge weighing more than 500g designed for use in printing equipment such as printers, photocopiers and fax machines’.

What is bonkers about it? It isn't clear whether it applies to stuff purchased from one's usual computer consumables supplier such as Dabs or Misco, but all it means is that anyone with malicious intent will in future conceal explosives in something other than a printer cartridge. There must be an infinite number of objects that could be filled up with explosives and turned into bombs. It is a strange response to ban them after they are discovered. And it is only good fortune and effective intelligence that keeps the security services on top of the situation.

We can only hope they make sure to keep on good terms with Mossad who seem to be the most effective outfit worldwide when it comes to infiltrating Islamic terrorist groups.

onsdag 10 november 2010

What a horrible design

F SNCF 72571 Manosque 31-07-2009 , originally uploaded by peters452002.
This really looks a mess. The trouble is that there are two different aesthetics in conflict with each other. Or has the cover fallen off the gubbins? If it hasn't, then it is pointless giving the train a sexy front end.

These trains below, with simple, functional front ends, have exactly the same coupling so there is no necessity for the thing to look so awful.

St Leonards Warrior Square station

SJ train at Ängelholm

ASBO double bind

Last night I heard a story about a man with an ASBO who was called for a health test to try to get him off his benefits and into - what, exactly? The trouble is that attending the test will put him in breach of his ASBO as he is not allowed to be in that part of town where the health checks are done.

tisdag 9 november 2010

Rail operators must pay for new carriages - report

Rail operators will have to rely less on subsidies to increase train capacity and the transport department should require new operators to provide enough carriages for passengers, a report by the British Public Accounts Committee said on yesterday.

The problem is a combination of a shortage of carriages, poor seating capacity in the carriages themselves, and short platforms in some stations, which prevents the running of longer trains.

The troubles go back a long way. One of them is that the rolling stock itself is too expensive. A mark 1 coach cost about £5000 in the 1950s. That is about £200,000 in present-day money. But a new hauled vehicle cannot now be purchased for less than £600,000, and self-powered electric or diesel multiple unit (EMU/DMU) vehicles cost at least twice that amount. And in the 1950s - and right up to the late 1980s, EMUs were usually powered with recycled the electrical equipment which was very robust and was often decades old already. Such recycling is unheard-of today.

Of course in the 1950s, train speeds were much lower and modern equipment is more energy-efficient, and there are safety issues as well, all of which have driven up the cost. Air conditioning has come to be expected as a standard fitment, and toilets that discharge onto the track are considered unacceptable.

Nevertheless, there has been waste on a gigantic scale. For example, the electrical equipment and many other components in the 1300 or so mark 1 EMU fleet could have been recycled into new vehicles, as the same equipment continues to give good service on a substantial proportion of the fleet and is likely to remain in use for another 20 years or so. Indeed, the mark 1 fleet itself, despite its age, was perfectly acceptable for use on secondary routes and superior to the slightly newer stock now running on those lines.

The spread of fixed-formation trains also contributes to the shortage, as it is not possible to add extra vehicles kept on standby.

Where do we go from here? There is a need
  • to shift to locomotive-haulage, which is more economic when trains are five cars long or more and allows vehicles to be added or removed in response to demand.
  • for vehicles which can have a variety of seating layouts without compromising comfort unduly - which rules out the customary 1:3/2:3 door configuration.
  • an effective platform-detection system which can be fitted to all stock, so that long trains can stop as stations with short platforms without the risk that passengers will step off into oblivion.
  • to evaluate the systems fitted to vehicles on a value-for-money basis. This applies to features such as air-conditioning, fault-detection systems, at-seat power supplies, and all the other expensive things that fall into the category of nice-to-have.
  • to establish what are the optimum trains speeds on a value-for-money basis.
Once the specifications are cut down to prioritise capacity and basic comfort, there will be a better chance of curing the present troubles.

Missed tram - missed opportunity

Mini-Tram Brighton, originally uploaded by david.sewell46.

This mini-tram was on trial in Brighton in 1994. An example of the Parry Peoplemover, it came to nothing and the streets are still choked with cars.

fredag 5 november 2010

Hooray, journalists on strike!

I switched on Radio 4 this morning only to find that the usual news programmes had been replaced by a much more interesting documentary.

Which makes me wonder if we really need all this urgent-sounding gabble pushed into our homes morning, noon and night. It could be good for the nation's equanimity and sense of proportion to have regular breaks from the endless stream of matters of the immediate moment, of no lasting consequence. They serve merely to make people anxious.

söndag 3 oktober 2010

Ex London buses being shipped to Ceylon in the 1950s

After the war London Transport ordered a new fleet of buses, mostly with AEC engines but some with Leyland also. The latter being non-standard, even though there were more than 1600 of them, they were quickly disposed of. They were apparently not popular with the drivers but one would have thought that a programme of modifications would have sorted out the problems.

What a waste though, when there was a surplus and then the trolleybuses were to be replaced which was another waste and a mistake as well. And for that matter the previous tram replacement programme was also a great mistake but that happened all over Britain.

Why the British tramway operators never bought new standard fleets from the continental manufacturers is an interesting question, the answer to which would probably not reflect well on those responsible for this failure in policy.

The view I do not like

Containers on ship's deck, originally uploaded by seadipper.

It is a beautiful view - early morning on the North Sea. But it is not a view I can enjoy. Every moment it is taking me further away from the place that has become my home, to where I do not want to go to. Only one more time, I hope just for a short stay and after that it will just be for a brief annual visit to catch up with friends.

lördag 2 oktober 2010

What is this camera about?

Leica has just brought out this special titanium version of the Leica M9 digital camera. Launching the limited-edition model, Leica states, "The exclusive special edition Leica M9 "Titanium" is the result of a collaboration with Walter de'Silva, the prominent automobile designer. Responsible for groundbreaking design concepts for the latest models from the Volkswagen Group, the chief designer and his Audi Design Team have re-interpreted the design of the LEICA M9 just as he envisaged it. The outcome is a unique camera with a new interpretation of the characteristic features of Leica rangefinder cameras, which lends precision engineering, unique style and solid titanium to extraordinary formal design."

At a price that is intentionally outrageous, this is obviously aimed at the super-rich extravagant consumer and not intended to be a professional's workhorse in the way that the M2 was, in the early 1960s. The latter is still regarded by many as the best-ever Leica. I have one and enjoy using it, but it is getting too fragile to carry around all the time. I have also got used to the built-in metering of the current MP, launched about ten years ago, which is in most respects identical to the M2. Leica film cameras continue to be made in small numbers but the main production is now devoted to the digital cameras, including the successor M9.

With its 1950s styling, the latter is in some ways a bit of an anachronism. However, it has an overwhelming advantage over all other full frame digital cameras - its small size and simple viewfinding and focussing system, which show not only what is in the picture but what is outside the frame as well. This makes it particularly easy to use and has brought Leica a full order book.

Because of Leica's iconic status, the brand has tended to be taken up by the super-rich, although in fact the prices are within the same range as other full-frame digital cameras used by professionals and serious amateurs. The firm can hardly be criticised for exploiting this niche market, even though the cameras themselves end up in display cabinets or are rarely taken out of their presentation boxes. Who, one wonders, would want to buy a gold-plated camera covered with red crocodile leather and would they ever use such a thing?

As it happens, the Titan development programme led to some unintended technical developments, including the abolition of the frame illumination window and its replacement by LED illumination. It would be surprising if this feature does not soon turn up in the standard M9. I would be surprised also if a titanium bodied M9 similar to this special edition will not soon be on offer as a new professional workhorse, preferably without that peculiar strap.

Boffins, nerds and aspies

., originally uploaded by

In the 1940s men in white coats who worked in laboratories were called "Boffins". They were very much sought after. They were as important as the generals in helping to win the war. After the war, they were still sought after as it was recognised that they were essential to industry and to provide the things that we all use, that rely on sophisticated technology to keep them working.

Later on, people realised that there were easier ways of making money, by moving it around at watching it grow. Nothing was actually produced in this process and industry was spurned. After that, the value of boffins were not recognised so much and the pejorative term "Nerd" was applied.

But now matters are even worse, as these boys (it is usually boys and men) are now considered to be mentally deficient or even ill, and get diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome.

If you want your computer fixed or you have a problem with your web site, no-one will do the job better than someone with this "syndrome". They might not be able to make witty light conversation but these people should be regarded as gold dust.

fredag 1 oktober 2010

Labour set for a come-back?

With a new leader elected, some people are suggesting that Labour could make a come-back sooner rather than later, as the government's policies start to unravel.

At the moment, Labour has no credibility but to judge from the way the £ is tumbling, outside the UK there is a lack of confidence in Britain, regardless of who is in charge. The exchange rate went up after the election, reflecting expectations that have not and probably cannot be fulfilled.

We are all in this together is true in the sense that the boat is going down. People will start to notice as prices in the shops start to soar.

Fisherman's Friends will not save the country
Anyone who thinks it is helping imports is deluding themselves. The only British products in the shops in this part of the world are a few sweeties - Fisherman's Friends are curiously popular but they are not going to save the country.

From a bigger perspective on could say that it is the result of the country's moral failure over many decades. Extreme selfishness prevails and is noticeable in the behaviour of people in public places, politicians get elected for saying what the public wants to hear, the politicians themselves are cowardly and vain, the get-rich-quick culture has dominated, there is a widespread belief that moving money around is the way to create wealth, nobody really cares about people forced to sleep in shop doorways, unborn children are literally disposable.

It is not a pretty sight and it is the road to ruin. If Labour reflected on this, reconstructed itself, and took a leadership role, the party might just get itself back when the present lot find themselves presiding over the ruination that Britain seems to be heading for.

Socialism has shown itself in practice to have no effective solution to economic problems that are of very long standing. Socialist and Keynesian economics both rest on shaky foundations.

This is unfortunate because the present coalition have no interest in anything other than (a) survival in power and (b) maintaining ancient and entrenched privileges.

Whatever happens it is not going to get any better until the party that claims not to represent privilege engages with the underlying problem that afflicts the UK. The question that then arises is whether the privileged ones, and those that wrongly imagine themselves to be privileged, have sufficient vision and patriotism to see beyond their immediate self interest and accept the need for change.

måndag 27 september 2010

Israel settler moratorium ends

As a supporter of Israel, I despair at times.

I was sorry to see that the moratorium on settlement in the West Bank was allowed to run out. I have no great expectations of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, nor of the Palestinians' ability to run a peaceful and stable state. But the Israelis need to be careful not to put themselves in the wrong. The moratorium should have been extended and the Israeli government should have had the courage to stand up to any opposition.

It seems that the settlers are mostly "orthodox" Jews from the USA and it would not be unreasonable to describe them as religious fanatics, with much in common with the US Protestant Christian religious right. This kind of worship of land has nothing to do with traditional orthodox Judaism as it has been understood for the past 2000 years. It is little more than a pernicious and dangerous form of idolatory.

lördag 25 september 2010

Palestine - how the occupation began in 1967

Most people alive today where not even born when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. Too much comment is made without an understanding of the background.After 1948, the Gaza area of Palestine was annexed by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. This was the situation until 1967.

After the 1956 war, a contingent of United Nations troops was placed in Gaza, in a buffer zone between Egyptian and Israeli territory. In the early part of 1967, the Egyptians built up a concentration of military forces in Gaza and then asked the UN force to leave. The aim was an invasion of Israel. Considerations of sheer numbers made it certain that the Israelis would be wiped out, with an invasion from the Jordanian side to deliver the final blow. It is said that there was some kind of agreement made with the Jordanians that they would not attack Israel, the rationale being that the Jordanians were not keen on the idea of a Palestinian state as neighbours, and the Israelis were not keen on fighting a war on two fronts.

In the event, the Israelis knocked out the Egyptian forces through an attack on Egyptian airfields, leaving them with air superiority, and the Egyptians were quickly routed. The Jordanians attacked nevertheless even before the Egyptian defeat, and were also defeated.

The end result was that Israel ended up in control of the whole of the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. Initially, the occupation was as peaceful and benign as any occupation can be. The Israelis were anxious to talk to representatives of the Palestinians and get themselves out. Unfortunately, no Palestinian representative with any authority emerged. The leadership eventually coalesced around Yasser Arafat and his terrorist group Al Fatah - who began their career with a series of aircraft hi-jackings. They refused to actually talk to any Israelis as they regarded the country's entire existence as illegitimate. Thus were sown the seeds of the present troubles. It was all unnecessary as the Israelis at that time would have happily departed with a peace agreement in their hands.

From the early 1970s, things changed. Settlers started to move in to the West Bank, leading to conflicts at a local level. And then the Israeli government changed. Since 1948, the Israeli government had been a benign left-leaning social democratic alliance. The 25-year dominance came to an end with the election of the nationalistic Begin government and the rise of hawks like Ariel Sharon. The Palestinians had missed their opportunity.

Even so, the Israelis have not been completely intransigent. Following the 1973 war, there was a final peace treaty with Egypt. The Sinai peninsular was returned and normal diplomatic relations established. But Egypt did not want Gaza and that remains as a problem too.

Israel v Israel

DSC_5763, originally uploaded by abcharlie.

Last night I saw the premiere of a film about Israelis who protest against the occupation of the West Bank. They are a handful of people who are making a brave stand against the Israelis, often at considerable personal risk. The film showed the degrading conditions the Palestinians are having to endure with the constant security checks at an increasing number of barriers where they are caged in whilst they wait to be searched and have their papers examined. And to add to their problems are the settlers, often from the USA, who are stealing land and then abusing the local Arab population - even the young children of orthodox Jews in Hebron are behaving in this way. And then there is the hideous concrete wall.

The trouble is that the Israelis have not done this for no reason at all. The draconian security is largely a response to the suicide bombings that were a regular feature of Israeli life before these measure were introduced.

One difficulty is that the Palestinians have got themselves an image problem. The picture above is iconic of Palestine. One interpretation is that it is a case of David fighting Goliath. But there is another reading, and it is not favourable to the Palestinian cause. Quite the reverse. It is very unflattering. Like Yasser Arafat's constant wearing of an army uniform. It inspires no confidence. It does not suggest the possibility of peaceful intent.

Where does this end? To help in understanding, it is really necessary to go back to the origin of the occupation in 1967. Unfortunately, supporters of the Palestinian cause tend not to do that. And there is also the issue that there seems to be more concern about Palestine than a host of other injustices round the world that receive nowhere near the same amount of attention. Israel is of course a nice assignment for journalists who want to record disturbances. They can live in a nice air-conditioned hotel in conditions of safety that depend on the effectiveness of the very Israeli army whose behaviour they condemn. The film shows how ugly that behaviour can be. It reflects no credit on the Israelis and is immensely damaging to the fabric of Israeli society itself. This is a situation with two sets of rights and wrongs and it is not useful to take sides at all.

torsdag 23 september 2010

Has Fuji filled gap in the camera market?

A few months ago, I wrote that it ought to be possible to produce a camera with a much reduced specification that will do most of the things the Leica M9 will do at a fraction of the price. It would incorporate a bright optical viewfinder like that on the M, but with a simple fixed projected frame. The sensor would be between 20mm and 25mm square and somewhere around 12 to 15 megapixels - no more. The lens would be fixed and wide-angle, with an equivalent focal length of about 30mm and an aperture of f/2.8 or f/2.

It looks as if Fuji has come up with a camera that comes close to this specification, and will presumably be followed by others.

It is not precisely what I was proposing, which was for a square format sensor, and it has power-focussing, which I am not keen on, but it appears to provide most of what I have been looking for in digital cameras. And at a price of well under £2000, it should give Leica something to think about.

tisdag 21 september 2010

Papal and other impressions

The Pope has duly come and gone, and seems from this distance to have made a good impression. The aggressive atheists duly made their protest and seem to have made little impression at all. But what kind of impression is the Catholic church as such making?

We have plenty to say about sexual morality, abortion, euthanasia and so on, and we need to because no-one else is making a stand. It sets us well apart from the mainstream secular way of thought in modern Europe. You cannot win a debate about the immorality of abortion with someone who thinks that an embryo is just a blob of jelly. If you argue that the individual comes into existence at the moment of conception, they will look at you with blank incomprehension. Mention of the human soul cuts no ice at all. So this not a useful way to conduct discourse.

Yet adultery, abortion, homosexuality or contraception have consequences that are readily discovered by empirical observation. There is no need to invoke revelation.

Then there is Catholic Social Teaching. The church and scripture have long spoken out against usury. The present financial crisis was the consequence of - usury. Yet who has referred to the connection?

We need to do better in the way we present the teachings of the church. Otherwise we shall just be picked up on our weaknesses.

söndag 19 september 2010

Southern Railway to axe toilets from new train fleet

This headline from the BBC web site is not quite right, as the trains in question are not new but in fact some of the oldest in Britain, dating from 1976. Originally used for local services in London, they are being transferred for South Coast routes, including Brighton to Portsmouth, a ninety minute trip. The trains have no toilets, which is unacceptable but people will just have to accept it.

This is another one of the indications that Britain is turning into a third world country. At one time there were toilets on the stations, but these got vandalised and were closed. There were few complaints as there were toilets on the trains at that time. Putting toiletless trains on a ninety minute run is probably going to cause the train company more trouble than they bargained for as desperate passengers are going to use the gangways between the carriages to satisfy the call of nature.

These use of stock is stupid, because there are trains used on short journeys in the London area, with toilets which are locked permanently out of use. These are the class 456 sets, operated by Southern itself. A bit of judicious shuffling of the fleet would largely solve the problem. If it was not that the railways were so fragmented and new stock is of so many incompatible types, it would also have been possible to shuffle to units around so that trains with toilets, presently used on South West Trains services could be used on the Brighton to Portsmouth run. An alternative would be to transfer the Brighton to Portsmouth service from Southern to South-West trains, as they have more suitable stock.
Story on BBC web site

lördag 18 september 2010

Solar flare threat to transport system

A conference next week will discuss the threat from electromagnetic storms from the sun, which could paralyse high-tech infrastructure. The last such storm was in 1859, and blocked telegraph communication, then in its infancy. But the low-technology systems then in use were little affected.

Electromagnetic storms are caused by solar flares but similar damage can be caused by electromagnetic pulses from nuclear explosions. Most affected will be - it is only a matter of time before this happens - extended power lines such as the electricity grid, and satellites and the systems that depend on them, including GPS. But the disruption could potentially be far more widespread, as heavy current surges in the grid would damage switchgear and transformers, and it could take years to get everything back into service.

The most vulnerable services are the pumps that keep the water supply and sewage systems running. Failure would quickly lead to flooding, contamination and outbreaks of disease. Electrical transport systems would come to a standstill, with the failure of both traction supplies and signalling.

The question that must be asked is whether we have made ourselves too dependent on high technology and what can be done to reduce our vulnerability?

Aggressive atheism at large in Britain

The Pope, on the first day of his visit to Britain, has warned of an aggressive atheism, and in particular, anti-Catholic emotion, at large in the country. That is certainly my impression. I have noticed this even with old friends. But if one is any doubt, take a look at the comments in the Guardian's Comment is Free page. There is plenty to criticise the Catholic church about, and anger is by no means out of place, but there is a crude, ugly and vicious tone to what is being written which suggests that something else is going on in the country.

Britain is, of course in a bad way, with the public finances in a dire condition. That itself points to moral bankruptcy, since it indicates that politicians have been offering the voters goodies without regard to the cost, and that the electorate have failed to question how they are to be paid for.

And underneath that has grown up a culture whereby people think they can make a packet by scrambling onto the housing ladder, thereby playing the land value game. But it was a game that could only ever be played for a few decades. Moral bankruptcy has brought about actual bankruptcy. Now it is game over.

fredag 17 september 2010

Cardinal Kasper - "Britain Third World"

Cardinal Kasper has been criticised for referring to Britain as a Third World country. In a critical article in the Guardian, Catholic progressive Catharine Pepinster hinted that it verged on the racist.

I don't know what the meaning behind the statement actually was, but in my experience, Kasper was spot-on. I come into the country twice a year, at Harwich. You get overwhelmed by the smell of Jeyes Fluid when you step off the boat, the immigration officials are gratuitously offensive and the trains to London are carefully timed so that you have to wait an hour for the next one. Then one gets onto a cramped and uncomfortable train which is well overcrowded by the time it gets towards London.

Definitely not First World any more.

onsdag 15 september 2010

Swedish train accident on Sunday evening

This accident, with one fatality, appears to have involved a train and a heavy construction vehicle. The exact cause remains to be discovered. According to one report, the train was going too fast past a site where repairs were in progress. However, a union commentator has been critical of the practice whereby work is successively sub-contracted to the point that those actually doing the work are unaware of the correct safe working practices. Does that sound familiar?

In the UK, track maintenance these days is usually done with a complete line possession, the trains being diverted or replaced by buses. Despite all the complaints this leads to, perhaps there is more to be said for the practice.

Trams are good value for money? Or are they?

"Trams are very expensive to install, especially on UK streets. Where ever the track goes, the road has to be dug up and all the services (water, gas, elec, phone) have to be moved 50ft to one one side. For miles."

You are talking about on-street trams. Outside the city centres, most of the mileage of tramways in many European cities is off-street anyway, the same goes for Manchester and Croydon.

The expense of renewing services for on-street tramways must be compared with the alternative of underground railways. Buses can only carry a limited volume of traffic before they become inefficient and cause environmental problems of their own. Cities need tracked electric transport if they are go grow beyond a certain point and still flourish. Stockholm, with a metro, has also supplemented it with a new tramway, the first section of which opened last month.

Many British cities have had, or will soon have, their underground services renewed anyway. If a decision is made to relocate them on the assumption that there might be trams in the future, the additional cost is minimal. Had this decision been made ten years ago in Brighton, for instance, the streets would now have been tram-ready. It is a matter of planning ahead.

It is also the case that many British cities had extensive tramway systems until the 1950s and the services may still be mostly in the right place. Until the information is obtained and collated, nothing can be said with certainty.

In the Edinburgh case, it has been remarked that the utility companies have taken everyone for a ride and got their old pipes and cables renewed at the taxpayers' expense. I don't know how true this is, but it does not sound entirely slanderous.

måndag 13 september 2010

Tea party gathers momentum

The spread of the Tea Party is a manifestation of the beast named ANARCHO-CAPITALISM (A-C).

Its prophets are Ayn Rand, and its high priests are Murray Rothbard, Bruce L. Benson. The economic theory comes from the Austrian School via Chicago, and it is founded on the fallacious theory of property rights put forward by John Locke. This leads them, paradoxically, into the same trap that Marxists fall into - that land and natural resources is a form of capital or nothing other than capital. That particular error makes it impossible to analyse contemporary economic and social problems.

A-C was the guiding principle behind Thatcherism, possibly having entered the political bloodstream via academics at St Andrew's University. Early UK advocates included Keith Joseph, and the principles of A-C underly the utterances of such as John Redwood. In a diluted form it was and remains a strong influence on both Labour and the LibDems. With Marxism discredited, there is nothing much else to draw on at the moment as a source for ideas in political economy. In the UK, the Taxpayers' Alliance is a front for this movement.

The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church (CST) offers the best hope, since it takes the view that both socialism and capitalism are flawed in their different ways. But CST offers no more than a framework of basic principles to work from. There is a job to be done in developing new practical policies.

Station dwell times

Slam door train at night

Station dwell time is the time a train stands at a station while the passengers get on and off. In the days of slam door trains (above), with ten doors on each side of the carriage, this could be less than 20 seconds. This was possible because passengers were well disciplined and closed the doors after them. Circumstances change and some time in the 1960s, the decision was made to replace slam door trains by trains with power-operated doors, a changeover that was finally completed about five years ago. One effect is that station dwell times have become a matter of concern, due to, amongst other things, the operating time of safety devices; for instance, plug doors do not open until 15 seconds after a train has come to a stand. When there are many stops on the route, the extra time builds up.

Commuter trains normally have doors at the 1:3/2:3 positions, which is intended to give better access than the alternative end-door location, but this layout has disadvantages. When bodyshells are designed on the monocoque principle, substantial reinforcement must be provided around door openings part-way along the vehicles. The vehicle itself is divided into three compartments, which restricts the options for seating layouts. It is difficult to provide intermediate doors between the entrance lobbies and the seating areas, which makes extra work for the heating and ventilation system; in the winter, seated passengers are blasted with cold air every time the doors open. Unless station platforms are fairly straight, there can be large gaps between the platform and the train. In some of the earlier designs of train such as the class 313 and 455, loading and unloading was glacially slow until the vehicle layouts were redesigned a few years ago.

Is there scope for improvement? There is a need to study precisely what happens at stations when the trains are in actual service. First, the passengers alight, and then the waiting passengers get on. The delaying factor for alighting passengers seems to be the need to take care stepping down off the train. For boarding passengers, the delay seems to be the time for those already on the train to move down inside the car, so that the queue backs-up on the platform.

If this is the case, the most useful improvements that could be made would appear to be the provision of a larger step-board to close the gap between the platform and the train, and the elimination of pinch-points inside the vehicle. These changes could mean that there are many routes where end-door vehicles could be used instead of the present 1:3/2:3 stock. There are many commuter routes where the original sliding-door fleet is approaching the end of its service life, and could therefore be replaced by newer cascaded stock presently running on longer-distance commuter services where end-door vehicles would be more suitable, provided that attention was paid to the detailed design of the doorways and the space around the entrance areas.

söndag 12 september 2010

Short life expectancy of X2000 trains

An article in Göteborgs Posten recently referred to the growing list of defects occurring on the Swedish X2000 tilting trains (picture in blog title) and predicted that they would be replaced after a relatively short service life.

New trains such as the Regina have better acceleration and bogies which are easier on the track, giving similar journey times without the need for the same top speed and the associated complications of tilting.

There is probably a more effective alternative to premature scrapping. The X2000 trains could be provided with new bogies and the power cars rebuilt or converted to driving trailers. An off-the-peg type of locomotive such as the Bombardier TRAXX would provide the traction. This ought to offer very much better value for money.

torsdag 9 september 2010

Koran burning madness

Mary and Jesus, originally uploaded by bweston23.

The Koran is an unpleasant book. Some authorities have attributed it to an Arian Christian source. Arians were a heretical group of Christians who asserted that God did not become incarnate in Jesus Christ, which is the orthodox Christian doctrine and is one of the reasons for the spread of the image of Jesus as a child in the arms of his mother. Moslems venerate both Jesus and Mary, and follow the same teaching as the Arians on the matter, which suggests that there may be something in the view that there is a connection. In any case, ideas spread.

But essentially, Islam is a religion of the book. In fact, in this respect, it differs not at all from the heretical version of Christianity followed by the mad pastor who wants to burn the Koran. Such an act will actually be counter-productive.

If one wants to challenge the Koran, use the intellect, not the methods of half-literate street mobs.

måndag 6 september 2010

Terror weapon

marmite, originally uploaded by dontcallmeikke.

I asked a friend of mine to bring a couple of pots of Marmite with him from Britain. They were impounded at Stanstead airport on the grounds that the jars contained more than 100 ml of fluid.

This confiscation of property is unacceptable. In the first place, my friend would not have gone to the trouble of buying the stuff if he had been informed about the restriction, so the publicity was obviously inadequate. In the second place, the security officer could easily have ascertained that the contents was indeed Marmite and not something that could have been used to blow up the aircraft he was travelling in, so this is just the usual story of officials deliberately being awkward. In the third place, he should have been able to leave the offending item somewhere and retrieve it on return, or post it back to his home address.

But the most worrying and serious matter is that the 100 ml limit is not sufficient to prevent anyone from doing serious harm if they were so determined. There is an almost endless list of substances of which a mere 100 ml would be sufficient to cause mayhem and the death of hundreds of people. So is this really to do with security or is it more about exerting control by causing difficulties for people and humiliating them? And if the aim is security, then all fluids should be taken from the passengers, placed in an envelope and transported on the aircraft in a secure container, the items to be recovered by the owners on arrival. These is something amiss here.

torsdag 2 september 2010

Christian Democrats

A friend of mine mentioned how disappointed he was about the performance of the Christian Democrats. His objection was that they were too liberal, especially in relation to abortion and "gay marriage". He suggested that they had become too concerned with chasing votes and lost sight of principles.

The two issues he referred to need a whole discussion in their own right, but there is a more general point, which is whether there is a place for parties which describe themselves as "Christian"?

In some European countries, notably Germany and Italy, Christian parties are major political forces. In others, such as the UK, they have never gained a foothold and the idea is alien. In the UK, committed Christians of various persuasions have found a place in each of the three main parties. Amongst the most famous was Hilaire Belloc. In 1906 he ran as Liberal candidate in the marginal South Salford constituency where the electorate was overwhelmingly Protestant and Belloc’s Catholicism was considered an insurmountable political liability.

Urged by his campaign manager to make no mention of religion, Belloc began his first election speech in typical pugnacious fashion: “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”

After a shocked silence, there was applause. Belloc won. Whether contemporary British voters would have rejected him on the same grounds is an interesting question, given the wave of anti-Catholic emotion which is currently sweeping the country.

In practice, the Christian Democratic Parties in Germany and Italy have never been much more than parties of the centre-right. The social and economic ideas set out in the series of encyclicals beginning with Rerum Novarum have had little, if any, influence on their programmes and policies. One wonders whether the British model is not preferable. There is little Christian influence anywhere in contemporary British party politics. That merely reflects the mind of the British public, as a democracy, even with an unrepresentative electoral system like the UK's first-past-the-post, is bound to do. In that environment, a Christian party would get nowhere unless it watered-down its policies to the point that they were indistinguishable from anyone else's. And Belloc's gesture would probably ensure that he did not get elected.

If one feels sufficiently dissatisfied with the state of all the political parties, it is probably best not to engage directly at all. Catholics at least, have a duty to be aware of the social teaching of the church, which is a closed book to most people. This calls for study of what the church is actually saying, and it stands outside all the current fashionable -isms. Of particular relevance is Caritas in veritate, issued in June 2009. This pointed out that the most important means of charity was through justice. But of what precisely does economic justice consist? What is unjust about the present economic dispensation. These are big questions which the encyclical leaves open, rightly in my view, because this is the challenge for the laity to explore.

Results will not come quickly but ideas leak out gradually and in the long run this approach is more likely to produce worthwhile and lasting change.

onsdag 1 september 2010

God exists, but only in the mind of the believer.

"As an atheist I will make this admission. God exists, but only in the mind of the believer."

That applies to the entire universe. What one actually knows about everything is a construct of the mind as it interacts and interprets bodily sensations. Even basic concepts like hot, cold, salt, red, blue, pain, pleasure.

"There is actually no God out there in space,"

Of course not. But what is space? Nobody even knows how many dimensions it has. At one time, the figure was three, then Einstein came along and it went up to four, now cosmologists are coming up with all sorts of bids - eleven, if I recall.

"What you believe to be true is true for you."

No, that is when people are mad. If belief is out of line with experience and reality it is not true. One can believe in, say, Father Christmas but this being untrue, it has no interpretative value and it would be very foolish to lead one's life on the assumption that he exists.

söndag 29 augusti 2010

A little adventure

Got stuck in a lift yesterday and had to be rescued by the fire brigade. There were six of us and though there was a notice saying "maximum load 6 people or 500 kg", the lift started and then stranded us between floors, with the LED display saying "excessive load". As I weigh less than 60kg and the heaviest was 90kg, I can't see how we could have exceed the limit, and there ought to be a margin of error anyway. We were there for 45 minutes.

This was a good team-building exercise and funny in retrospect but if there was an emergency door-opener and a short ladder inside the lift, it would not have been necessary to call the fire brigade at all, at considerable expense to someone.

måndag 23 augusti 2010

Fertility treatment madness

Britain's fertility regulator is planning big changes to the strict rules governing egg and sperm donation in order to try to stop more childless couples from seeking treatment abroad.

The sweeping liberalisation would see the most significant shift in policy governing sperm and egg donation since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was established. The changes could see the amount paid to women who donate eggs rise from £250 to several thousand pounds – but experts have warned the move would see women donating eggs purely for money.

Donated sperm could also be used to start as many as 20 families rather than the current limit of 10, despite fears such a move would increase the risk of half-siblings unwittingly marrying or having children together

The madness is that each year in Britain, hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy embryos are lost through abortion. Why can't the NHS get its act together and arrange for pregnant mothers who cannot bring up their children can have them adopted by couples who want children but can't have them?

This would solve two problems at once and save a small fortune. And not only that. These procedures are risky and the children produced by these artificial interventions can have lifelong health problems.

Confirmation day in Gothenberg

It was confirmation day at Kristus Konungen Catholic Church in Gothenberg yesterday. Bishop Arborelius came to confirm what seemed like a huge mass of young people - I didn't count them but they must have been at least thirty. The church was very over-full, which these days can not be a cause of complaint.

Services with a bishop present are a demanding test for the altar servers. The parish has a very competent team who rose to the occasion, and all went off smoothly, so congratulations all round.

lördag 21 augusti 2010

Seat comfort and design

Despite decades of collecting ergonomic data, seat design on public transport is as erratic as ever. The most comfortable train seat I have ever sat in was in a second class compartment in a carriage built for the North London Railway in the mid-1860s. This was a bizarre shape - the back of the seat had a cross section like half a pear. Which meant that it provided good lumbar support. I have sat in uncomfortable seats in first class inter-city trains, and comfortable seats, like the one illustrated, on commuter trains.

The key things to get right are lumbar support ie of the lower back, and the angle of the cushion, which should slope slightly from front to rear. If lumbar support is absent, a rolled-up sweater will provide it. Once these two things are correct, the spine will adopt the correct position.

Seats in British Railways mark 1 stock were mostly on the sloppy side, exept for the last of the type, introduced in the 1970s. Much research went into the seats on mark 2 stock, and these felt odd at first but one noticed the benefit at the end of a long journey. Unfortunately, the designers went and spoilt the things with headrest wings which were hideously uncomfortable for people with long torsos.

More recently, seats are something of a lottery. Southern's class 377 stock has excellent seats in some of the vehicles whilst others in the same 4-car unit are exactly wrong, with a horizontal cushion.

Most train seats these days are curved in both directions, like car seats, to provide lateral support when cornering, but this makes them difficult to upholster. Trains do not go round corners so fast that lateral support is needed, and bench seats with a correct cross section are all that is required.

The need to provide lumbar support coincides conveniently with the need to provide room for luggage between seat backs, as the curvature needed for the former creates space for the latter. An excellent example is the class 180 Adelante (below).

The fashion for unidirectional (airline style) seating in trains ought to be questioned. A few more seats can be fitted in, but at the cost of luggage space. A further drawback is that the upper edge of the seat back is unsupported, which means that the seats need a much heavier frame than if they were designed to be back-to-back or fixed to a bulkhead, and even then are liable to uncomfortable resonant vibration. With seventy or eighty seats in the average rail vehicle, this must add a substantial weight penalty.

The subject needs to be looked into.

tisdag 17 augusti 2010

Never mind the gap

Never mind the gap, originally uploaded by seadipper.

Retractable steps are standard on modern Swedish trains. This one slides out from under the floor. This probably pays for itself because people get on and off quicker and it presumably prevents accidents.

måndag 16 augusti 2010

The growing menace of Anarcho-Capitalism

The actions of the Cameron government are best understood when one recognises that the driving force in contemporary political economy is Anarcho-Capitalism, A-C and nobody seems to have noticed. The beast needs to be named and revealed in the light.

Its High Priests are David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Bruce L. Benson, etc, drawing on recent sources such as Ayn Rand and much earlier ones including John Locke.

The mark of an A-C advocate is their assertion that all taxation is theft and deification of "the market." "There is no such thing as society comes" from the same stream of thought.

A-C notions are cropping up regularly in discussion groups such as the Guardian's Comment is Free, though probably most of those who are spouting them have no idea of their origins.

The left has no answer to this which is why A-C is making the intellectual running at the moment and will continue to do do. It is very dangerous nonsense because it is grounded, partially, on familiar experience which makes it superficially plausible.

The underlying fallacy of A-C is that it accepts John Locke's flawed theory of the origin of property rights. Since the left in general has no coherent theory of property rights to pose as an alternative, it is defenceless in the face of this onslaught. The alternative notion "All property is theft" does not stand as it is so obviously flawed.

The only plausible arguments against A-C is the set of ideas put forward by Henry George in the nineteenth century. Better get familiar with them or A-C will take us over and society will be smashed to smithereens.

Time for a new Papal encyclical methinks.

The Traditional Latin Mass (again)

I attended a Tridentine Mass this afternoon. Latin for the mass and readings, Swedish for the sermon. I was not in the most attentive of moods, I never am at that time of day, in fact I was pretty dozy and the effort of maintaining attention consumed more than my available energy. I did not really have much to bring to this particular party.

The ceremonial was down to the bare bones, with no singing. However, even in these circumstances, it clearly does provide a more intense experience. Something special really is going on here. Objectively. I don't think it is my imagination.

onsdag 11 augusti 2010

A Catholic success story

St. Aloysius, the Oxford Catholic parish church for the centre of Oxford, is now served by the Congregation of the Oratory.

It was originally a Jesuit parish, and the building, designed by J A Hansom, was completed in 1875. In the 1980s, the parish was taken over by the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and in 1990 the Archbishop of Birmingham invited members of the Birmingham Oratory to run the parish and found a new Oratorian community. In 1993, the Oxford Oratory was established as an independent Congregation.

Since then, the congregation has built on the Oratorian tradition of fine liturgy, with the Sunday Solemn High Mass as its centrepiece, and in this way has built up a vigorous parish life.

Language and music in the liturgy

Over the last few months I have come across a variety of languages in the liturgy. In England, I have encountered the new ICEL translation, which is soon to become mandatory, replacing the rather free interpretation dating from the late 1960s. An accurate translation of the definitive Latin text, it has a slightly antiquated style and I wonder how it will go down. Published with it have been the recommended musical settings, which we tried for a few weeks. We found that the notes do not fall naturally with the rhythm of the words and trip one up all the time. Someone familiar with the Gregorian chants needs to re-work the settings so make them easier to sing. It does not help either, that they were written out in modern notation instead of the four-line Gregorian notation, which is easier for inexperienced musicians to sing.

Then I have been in Sweden, where the most commonly-heard phrase seems to be "what did you say?" About one-third of what is written is never voiced, and with wide variations in dialect, it is notoriously difficult to hear what is being said. The difficulty is compounded with a high proportion of clergy who have come from other countries. It is possible to speak the language with grammatical perfection and not be understood.

In Sweden, mass is often celebrated in other languages, usually for national or other groups. Thus there are liturgies in Polish, Croatian, Aramaic (in the Chaldean rite), and English, mostly for visiting students from former British countries. A Polish one I attended was a particularly moving experience on account of the the piety of the celebration and the quality of the music, even though I understood not a word. Then there was the celebration of a mass in Swedish with (excellent) newly composed musical settings to the Italian text. I came across a mass in German, celebrated by a German bishop, which I passed up on, and a friend of mine, a priest, is soon going to be visiting but has only been taught to say the mass in English, so he will be concelebrating in silence, if at all.

I also made a visit to Riga, where I attended a mass in Latvian, and again, despite not understanding a word, this was a moving experience due to the piety of the celebration, helped also by the fact that it was in a medieval building where mass has been celebrated for the best part of a millenium.

What is one to make of all this? On the one hand, having liturgies in the languages of national communities is an encouragement to members of those communities to remain in contact with the church, which provides an important point of focus. On the other hand, the end result is that parishes become divided into national sub-communities who rarely get to meet each other, and to that extent it is divisive.

With the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that the normal celebration of mass in the vernacular was unfortunate. It seems not to have been the intention of Vatican II, since the official document states only that mass "may" be celebrated in the vernacular, with the implication that it was a departure from the norm, which would for the mass to continue to be celebrated in Latin.

In the spirit of the liturgy
But we are where we are and Latin is not going to become the norm again, at least not for a very long time. So what could be done? It would be beneficial if clergy, particularly seminarians, with the encouragement of the bishops, were encouraged to learn the Latin mass in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms, and to say it more frequently. Another option would be for the priest to recite the Canon of the mass in his own language, but silently, whilst the congregation follow it in the missal, also in their own language. This would follow from a suggestion made by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy". The dialogues and Ordinary, together with the readings and any hymns, would then be either in the local vernacular or, preferably in the case of the Ordinary, in Latin.

It would also be beneficial if members of both immigrant and native communities were encouraged to attend these masses together and to share in their social activities. This is a two-way thing.

There is also work to be done in the schools, in particular, the teaching of the simpler Gregorian chants, which are well within the ability of schoolchildren.

Humpty-Dumpty is not going to be put back together again but something more coherent might be made of the pieces.

Virus questions - and the Swedish exception

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