CAMPAIGNING FOR BETTER RAIL SERVICES IN THE WEST

On Sunday I had my first introduction to an organisation I’d read about many times in the seven years since I moved to Bristol and started using the public transport here. The organisation’s full name is Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways; admittedly a bit of a mouthful, so they tend to be known by their initials FOSBR. (well, OK, acronym, as it could be a word)

Celebration

The occasion was a celebration of progress made in several of FOSBR’s campaigns and the location was a pub near Bristol’s Temple Meads station. Being fond of trains and pubs, I found it an easy decision to attend; I also found that FOSBR has even produced a guide to pubs along the Temple Meads / Severn Beach line, called FOSBEER of course.

Serious content

Enough of the fun side of it; the content of the meeting, even though billed as a celebration, was deadly serious, i.e. the possible / probable negative impact of the recent McNulty Report. I was impressed with the presentations by three local rail union officials (RMT, TSSA and ASLEF respectively); incisive and fact-filled.

Correction; I’d assumed they’d be local union officials but in fact two of them had national status: Alex Gordon is national President of the RMT and Manuel Cortes is Assistant General Secretary of TSSA.

They also had a local councillor speaking; importantly, he represents an area in North Somerset that could be served by rail once more if passenger services are restored to the (currently freight-only) Portbury branch and it’s extended a couple of miles to Portishead.

Subsidy five times higher since privatisation

I’ve often read, (e.g in The Economist) or heard it said verbally (Richard Wilson’s recent impassioned plea on behalf of harassed British rail users on Channel 4) that the level of public subsidy of our railways was now higher than it was pre-privatisation, despite our fares being the highest in Europe. However it was not made clear in either of those sources if the comparison was inflation-adjusted.

At this meeting, though, the guy from TSSA filled in the blanks; the subsidy is now five times higher; £5 bn, compared to £1 bn at today’s prices back then. How can that be? McNulty apparently thinks that staffing levels and pay costs are a big part of it, which concerns the unions, naturally, including the possibility of DOO (driver-only operation). Maybe his brief didn’t allow him to conclude that the fragmentary and thus potentially chaotic way the railways were privatised had a big impact on costs and that should be addressed first.

Loophole?

I learned some other interesting stuff, all of which I shall check out in the interests of balance; for example that First Group will be able to exploit a loophole and avoid large subsidy repayments by giving up the Great Western rail franchise three years early.

The feeling of the meeting was summed up for me by FOSBR member Mike: “McNulty is Beeching Mk 2”.

I’ve now joined this worthwhile and effective organisation and will be blogging about rail in the West, so watch this space.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

On the McNulty Report:

http://www.togetherfortransport.org/content/what-surprises-will-mcnulty-come

On Driver-Only Operation (DOO):

http://www.scot-rail.co.uk/page/Driver+Only+Operation

On FOSBR: http://fosbr.org.uk/

Advertisements

PHILOSOPHERS I’D LIKE TO HAVE A DRINK WITH

Here in Bristol (the UK version, though I know there are Bristols in many other countries) we have a wonderful institution called the Bristol Festival of Ideas. It was founded, I think, by a great fellow called Andrew Kelly. (may his tribe increase)

The festival’s web address is www.ideasfestival.co.uk and you might have spotted that there is nothing about Bristol in that URL, so it is conveniently shorter than it might otherwise have been. When I first noticed that, I assumed that either we had the first such festival (being of a pioneering spirit, as this city usually is) or that the aforementioned Mr Kelly had been quicker off the mark than other organisers when it came to allocating domain names. So I Googled (as you do) the phrase “ideas festival”. I found that there is virtually no comparable festival anywhere else in the UK, except Cambridge. We’d be happy, I think, to be considered on a par with that city when it comes to ideas.

To be fair, I did that web search a couple of years ago; I can’t be bothered to do it again, in case we have by now lots of imitators.

Our festival has hundreds of informative and (generally) entertaining talks annually, by a fantastic variety of speakers, including but not restricted to scientists, historians, novelists, politicians … and philosophers. Wait a minute, I hear you cry. Entertaining talk by a philosopher? That’s surely an oxymoron?

Well, I have pleasure in informing you, dear reader, that it’s not an oxymoron when the speaker is Prof A C Grayling (Anthony to his chums), whom I had the pleasure of hearing last Friday evening, not for the first time, courtesy of the Festival of Ideas. Grayling was talking largely about the history behind the “making” (his word) of his new secular bible entitled “The Good Book”. I used the word “history” advisedly, by the way, because he reckoned the process of gestation lasted about 30 years.

Space does not permit me even to summarise the content of his talk, so I’ll restrict myself to one of his throwaway lines. He mentioned that he sometimes tells his students about the conversation overheard between two women on a Glasgow bus: “My dear, you must be philosophical about it; don’t give it another thought.”

(… or was it a Bristol bus? Discuss.)

As for the title of this post: I do very occasionally like to read some philosophy (or at least philosophy-lite) because I feel I ought to, but I couldn’t ever have imagined having a drink with a philosopher. However, having heard Prof Grayling and the self-deprecating way he talks about his profession and his work, I’d now go further. He’s high on my list of fantasy dinner guests.