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Sunday 31 October 2010

An Evening At La Bombeta

Think how eating out happens in the UK. Now consider how it happens in the suburbs of Barcelona – the suburb in question being the port area of Barceloneta.

The place to go for tapas in Barceloneta is La Bombeta on Carrer Maquinista, which is just off the area’s main street, Passeig Joan de Borbó. The speciality of this particular house is Bombas, which are a kind of potato and meat ball with spicy sauce. It’s in the comfort food category.

But there are the usual regional staples: Pan amb Tomaquet (bread smeared in tomato, oil and garlic) is an almost obligatory side order. Skewers of meat, and smoked sausage, are other popular choices. And the place is busy.

How busy? I got there at about 1945 hours, and that is a good latest time to arrive. Soon, every table was taken, and outside, punters waited patiently. Many came into the restaurant and ordered wine and beer, which was then taken outside and sipped as the drinkers waited for a table.

Not the kind of scene you would find in many parts of the UK. And was it pricy? Heck, no: a good feed including vino – there has to be vino – came in at under fifteen Euro.

Cracking stuff. No doubt there will be more tomorrow.

In The Catalan Dusk

This week, Zelo Street is in Barcelona. Arrival – thanks to an EasyJet captain who had to step in at short notice, and really did give it his best shot – was in the mellow late afternoon, with the accommodation (yes, with very good Internet access) reached just after dusk.

Walking, even with hand baggage, is definitely the right thing to do in this part of the world: the traffic is horrendous out in Barceloneta at present, and parking is either equally expensive, or non-existent.

I’ll try and update the blog at least daily during the week, with the usual mix of subjects, and maybe a few topical items. Meanwhile, if you can spare twelve minutes, the following video has Jon Stewart’s speech from the Rally To Restore Sanity, which I covered earlier today.

Sanity Is Restored

The Rally To Restore Sanity is over. Yesterday, the National Mall was packed solid with people being, well, reasonable. Folks came from all over the USA: buses, trains and planes were sold out well in advance, and vacant hotel rooms anywhere near DC were either non-existent, or very expensive. The HuffPo put on two hundred buses to take 10,000 attendees from New York.

How popular was the gathering? One direct comparison with a previous event came from CBS News, who had earlier estimated the turnout from the “Restoring Honor” rally at 87,000, that being the shameless attempt to hijack the legacy of Martin Luther King by Glenn Beck, increasingly wayward “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

CBS put the attendance of yesterday’s event at 215,000 – well over twice the number that had come to see Beck and probable GOP 2012 hopeful Sarah Palin. That the Rally To Restore Sanity was hosted by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, who appear on Comedy Central, yet are taken more seriously than much of the MSM in the US, should not be lost on anyone.

Stewart’s closing speech, following on an afternoon of comedy and music, was heartfelt and memorable. You can read it in full at the foot of this posting. Whether the 24-hour media machine pays any attention is another thing.

Saturday 30 October 2010

The Vote Approaches

Next Tuesday is Mid Term Election day in the USA. The results are not expected to be good overall for the Democrats, though not as bad as in 1994 when Bill Clinton got his wake up call. All of the House is up for election, and some of the Senate (the latter is on a six year cycle, rather than two).

You can see how the various Senate, House and Gubernatorial races are shaping up HERE.

But there are already rumblings coming from the right. Voter fraud is being alleged, which appears strange given that the same right wing is in the lead in so many races. There is method in this madness, though: any close race – and the outcome for the Senate may be very close indeed – that does not go the way of the GOP instantly becomes a target for conspiracy theories.

The accusations of Democrat led fraud have already been debunked, but they keep on coming, with the issue of voter suppression being largely ignored. This time round, there is no ACORN to demonise, but a target will be found. And in the vanguard of whipping up voter fraud allegations? As MMFA have shown, this is a continuing speciality of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Another Weather Event

Those exceptional weather events just keep on coming, and for some reason unknown to the climate change denial lobby, they seem to be coming more often over time. Yesterday’s beneficiary of exceptional weather was the city of Lisbon, where three inches (71mm) of rain fell in 24 hours, most of it late morning, coinciding with a high tide.

The effect, as the various video clips in this link show, was that the central Baixa area of the city was flooded up to a depth of around half a metre, or well over a foot and a half. Buses appear to have tried to carry on, but one Metro line had to close, and I suspect the trams took their own rain check.

I’m told that more rain is forecast for the area. Lisbon in the rain is an occasional hazard in the autumn and winter months, but yesterday’s downpour and high tide produced something rather more than exceptional. It’s not just a coincidence.

Friday 29 October 2010

Power Bill – It Pays To Shop Around

Here in the UK, ordinary folks get to shop around for the best deal on their power supplier – electricity mainly, but also gas. But what if you’re in a rather bigger league – for instance, buying traction power for a rail network? Well, there are savings to be made there – and they add up to over a million Euro per year, even for the smaller buyers.

As infrastructure and operations have been separated on rail networks across Europe, we have got used to RFF as well as SNCF in France, Adif as well as Renfe in Spain, and Refer as well as CP in Portugal. And Refer have been putting their traction power contracts out to tender recently.

Even so, Refer provide less than half the traction power for their own network. Somehow, when train and track got separated, operator CP retained the (then) substation network. Only subsequently built substations belong to Refer, which must make for interesting calculations on cost allocation, especially now that the power returned to the wire – regenerated – is also part of the mix.

High voltage, big business

How much did Refer save on their annual electricity bill? Following the tendering process, the annual saving is claimed to be 1.2 million Euro. That has been achieved by switching from home supplier EDP to Spanish provider Iberdrola. Not to be outdone, CP claims that it has also made savings through renegotiating supply deals, to the tune of 2.2 million Euro annually.

That’s a saving worth making. For the much larger networks of countries like the UK, it would be interesting to see if the idea catches on.

Cut Off Nose – Spite Face

After a discussion with a Zelo Street regular about civil service goings on in Merseyside, the impression is given that there may be an ideological edge to the spending cuts, as some have suggested.

The latest investigation by the Beeb’s Panorama strand looked into the behaviour of “rogue” landlords, the availability of source material suggesting that the spirit of Peter Rachman lives on across the UK.

Fortunately – until now – there has been a civil service unit on the trail of the new Rachmans. My contact goes to the football (Everton, in this case) with one of the Merseyside section called John, whose colleagues target the more serious larcenists and racketeers.

John’s group has one advantage over many other Government departments: it’s effectively self financing, as they recover large amounts of housing benefit, or prevent it being paid out and siphoned off for the benefit of organised criminality. It might be thought that this kind of public service would be left well alone by the wave of spending cuts.

But that, it seems, would be wrong: John and his team have recently been handed what are called “first stage” notices: volunteers for redundancy are being sought – with the added incentive of better terms – but if there are not enough takers, the job losses will be compulsory, and the terms worse.

John and his colleagues are not being informed why there should be cutbacks, especially given the valuable work they do in preventing fraud and recovering money. What is the game here, if not one of cutting for the sake of ideology?

Yikes Chaps, It’s Still There!

First there was Brian Haw, protesting against sanctions, and later war, against Iraq. Then came the “Peace Camp”, a gathering of those objecting to the continuing involvement of the UK in conflicts abroad. Both of these were camped out in Parliament Square, across the road from the legislature.

More recently, those in the right leaning side of the blogosphere made adverse comment on those involved. The usual comments asking why these folks were not gainfully employed were followed by remarks about the smell around the square, though those urging action against the protestors stopped short of suggesting that suffrage be made conditional on regular bathing and clean underwear.

Eventually, calls were made for the mayoralty to exercise its power and clear the site. So it was that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, occasional Mayor of London and regular collector of “chicken feed” from the Maily Telegraph, went into Action Man mode and commanded that Parliament Square be cleared of protestors.

Under the gaze of Winshton and LG

But – and there is inevitably a but in such matters – even though Bozza had the grassy area not only cleared, but fenced off (so nobody could use it), Brian Haw and the Peace Camp have not gone away: they have merely decamped to the pavement outside the fence.

Haw's protest (left) and the Peace Camp (right)

The array of Haw’s banners has been reduced, but he and the anti-war protest remain in place. Added to these has come a protest apparently aimed at freemasons, this on the south side of the square. This, too, does not look as if it is for moving on any time soon.

"This is just the beginning!"

So where are the calls for further action? And when is the green space of Parliament Square to be made available to the public once more? It might not earn him much in the way of additional “chicken feed”, but for Bozza, showing some leadership on the issue – without curtailing the right to protest – would not come amiss.

Section 44 – Heat But No Light

Just occasionally, the now free Evening Standard throws up a nugget of valuable information, and yesterday’s paper brought a good example.

Under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, the police have been stopping and searching a lot of folks. In fact, in the year to April 2010, that was over 100,000 people – 101,248 to be precise. So how much terrorism was unearthed as a result of this endeavour?

Well, as the Standard has reported, there were 506 arrests, or about half of one per cent of all those stopped. But none of the arrests was for a terrorist related offence. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The impression is given that legislation has been passed into law merely to appease certain parts of the Fourth Estate (including the Standard under its previous ownership), and to make it look as if something is being done.

So maybe it’s time to repeal this one.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

National Public Ruckus

It was, at first, a straightforward event: Juan Williams, who worked partly for National Public Radio (NPR), was sacked for saying that seeing Muslims on planes made him nervous. However, that he did so in a broadcast by his other employer, Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) was always going to make things messy.

Since Williams lost one of his two jobs, Fox have milked the event, and a number of right leaning pundits have lined up to demand the end of public funding for NPR, rather in the manner of their counterparts in the UK calling for the dismantling of the BBC for daring to present the news in a manner which displeases them.

And Fox have now given Williams a substantial pay rise, with his two year contract worth a reported two million bucks. The problem is, of course, that they can no longer present Williams as “NPR News Political Analyst”, which is Fox’ way of telling their audience that they really do the fair and balanced thing.

But in the meantime, the manipulation of the Williams dismissal by NPR for the means of Muslim bashing has continued apace. On Tuesday’s Daily Show (video available on 4OD HERE), Jon Stewart and his team presented a number of clips of Fox talking heads, with pride of place going to the rhetorical question “Is NPR an agent of a jihadi inquisition?”

Yes, someone actually put that forward as a serious talking point. Only on Fox. Because, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has shown in this clip, there is a difference between Fox and other news networks – all the others may be expressing opinions, but only Fox is organising against the Government.

The Leaving Of Liverpool

With a coincidence which must have brought back painful memories, as the Government’s spending review was being digested by local authorities and public sector workers around the country, BBC4 broadcast the last episode of Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff, set against a backdrop of early 1980s Liverpool, a once great city then in sad and apparently terminal decline.

In George’s Last Ride, we see former union firebrand George Malone sent home from hospital to spend his last days with his family. Son Chrissie pushes the wheelchair bound George around the former docks, past derelict factories and warehouses, as his father reminiscences about the past. Chrissie helps him out of his chair and George stands up to look out over a waterfront which saw its last ship dock many years ago.

And then George dies.

Bleasdale uses the event to make a symbolic point: in the 1950s, Liverpool’s population was 770,000. By the time the series was broadcast, it had fallen to around half a million, and fell yet further. All that many outside the area saw of the city was rioting, militancy, and yet more unemployment.

Ferry Cross The Mersey

But in the past two decades, Liverpool has slowly got off its knees, and the city has reinvented itself. Those docks that had stood derelict have been transformed and reclaimed. New jobs have come. Liverpool is well established on the tourist trail. The city centre has been renewed. But there is one drawback: 40% of the city’s jobs are in the public sector.

Yes, cars are still built at Halewood and over the river at Ellesmere Port, but far less are employed here than thirty years ago. The private sector would be starting from such a low base that it could not absorb significant public sector job losses, according to the Chamber of Commerce’s CEO.

There are those on the right leaning part of the political spectrum who will, now as in the 80s, tell that Liverpool is a basket case which should be left to decline. In support of this view will come the usual uninformed characterisation of Merseysiders, supposedly authoritative think tank studies, and exposition of yet more of the economics that failed us in the 30s and 80s.

But that would be to miss the point: this is not about cheering on the right against the left, and nor is it about whether one economic ideology is superior to any other. It is, ultimately, about tens of thousands of real people, living real lives, with real hopes and fears about the future. For the inhabitants of Liverpool, that most human of people, the figures on a Treasury spreadsheet could bring the cruellest of news.

Monday 25 October 2010

Tough On Immigration ... Or Maybe Not

First to go was the ending of free school milk, which was hardly a major policy initiative. There was bound to be more, shall we say, flexibility in the Coalition approach, and so it has proved. Yesterday, Corporal Clegg went on The Andy Marr Show (tm) and signalled a cap on tuition fees, and today it has been Young Dave’s turn.

Immigration – the Tories were determined to get tough on it. They wasted no opportunity to tell how Labour had employed an open door policy, and how that door would be firmly closed. But now, Cameron, in a speech to the CBI, has moved to modify the coming points based system before it has even started.

The Coalition is going to take a “flexible approach”. What that? Well, that part was not made clear. But Dave did say that the Government would not “impede” businesses from employing the “best talent”. And that is, well, clear as mud. Are we to have a strict points based system, with a cap on total immigration, or what?

Even if, as the Maily Telegraph has headlined, the flexibility is only a “hint”, this looks like there will be exceptions to the supposedly strict rules. What are they? Is there some kind of exemption list being drawn up? Or is it simply that when businesses shout loudly enough, they will be allowed to by-pass the system?

This needs to be thought through, discussed fully, and then formalised. Otherwise it’s not good enough. Again.

Travelling Hopefully – 2

Last month, I noted that Crewe and Nantwich MP Edward Timpson had urged consideration of using Crewe Works for refurbishment work. At the time, I wondered whether he knew the current state of the complex, and, now that an update on that front has been received from a source at the Works, I am sure he does not.

My assumption in that previous post was that the Works was still capable of refurbishing rail vehicles. However, that is no longer the case, following the closure some months ago of 10 Shop, which will be familiar to Channel 4 viewers as the location of a live debate just before the 2008 by-election.

Moreover, my information is that 10 Shop has been cleared of machinery, so the idea that Bombardier Transportation might be angling for refurbishment work appears less than plausible. It would be interesting to know how our MP has been caused to believe otherwise.

Also, the ability to move any kind of rail vehicle around the Works has been effectively lost as key equipment has been decommissioned and dismantled. The buildings to the east of the wheel shop – the only part of the site still with regular work – were demolished recently.

The rail link into the Works has not been used for many months, and whether it is usable any more I doubt, especially as debris from the recent wall collapse is still strewn across it. If not, any vehicles to be worked on would have to be brought in and out by road.

As I posted previously, it would not just be our MP who would be happy to see more done at the Works: more jobs are always welcome in this part of the country. But the sad reality is that, right now, the Works has ceased to do repair and refurbishment work, and is not in a position to do any more.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Alas, Poor Christopher

Time was – as recently as January this year – that when you looked at the Maily Telegraph homepage of a Sunday, the “Comment and Blogs” headlines would include the latest dubiously crafted screed from Christopher Booker. How things have changed for the Great Man – and not for the better.

Today, Booker’s comment piece is neither signposted at the outset, nor given any prominence on the Comment homepage. The subject is out of the usual Booker hate list – today’s is trying to paint a picture of EU takeover of the Royal Navy – but over time the columns convince less and less.

And the hundreds of commenters have dwindled to a couple of dozen (correct at 1855 hours). Yes, I considered most of those who responded to Booker’s more popular rants to be certifiable, but the columns were popular nevertheless.

Perhaps the lack of prominence is a hint by Telegraph editorial staff. I’ll give it until the end of March.

End Of The Spill? Maybe Not

Back in July, I noted that oil was no longer spilling into the Gulf Of Mexico from the well involved in the Deepwater Horizon accident, and that there was cautious optimism over the dispersion of the remaining oil. That optimism may have been unfounded.

Because there is still a lot of oil out in the Gulf, according to those fishing the waters. That discovery was made last Friday: a large orange slick of weathered oil was moving towards marshes in the Mississippi delta. The prospect of having to close fishing areas that had only recently been reopened is not a welcome one.

Moreover, this is the time of year that millions of migrating birds head to the Gulf. So it was good to hear that the Coast Guard got on the case swiftly, but their conclusion – that the orange substance was only algae – did not impress the fishers, some of whom are having their own lab samples tested.

As one of them put it, “I’ve never seen algae that looked orange, that was sticky, smelt like oil and that stuck to the boat and had to be cleaned off with solvent”.

Could be a little too early to celebrate.

Friday 22 October 2010

Suburban Selloff?

When Good Old British Rail (tm) was taken apart with unseemly haste in the mid 90s, operators in mainland Europe looked on, and most decided not to follow the UK any time soon. However, there have been moves to bring new entrants into the rail travel market in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Now the Government in Lisbon has decided to dip a toe in the water, with the city’s commuter network, and I expect that their counterparts in Madrid may be watching. Why? Well, in both Spain and Portugal – to the frustration of travellers from the UK – rail travel is not just rail travel.

Commuter services are run as a separate operation to Regional and Inter-Regional ones. Long distance services have two separate brands in Portugal, and in Spain ... there are so many brandings for them that I’ve lost count. All the various operations issue their own tickets, for use on their own services only.

So any one of those train types is already a self contained profit centre. The claim is that Lisbon’s Urbanos are covering 90% of their costs, and they would be making a profit, if only fares had not been held down for the past two years. But I don’t buy that: the costs being covered cannot include a full market rate for track access, and there is no way that the cost of the trains themselves is being met.

A Sintra Line train passes Entrecampos

From central Lisbon out to Sintra or Cascais, a full price round trip costs just three and a half Euro, with a monthly ticket at just under 36 Euro. Both are around 16 mile journeys. Even at peak times, there is nothing like the overcrowding that is routinely endured around London, Manchester or Leeds.

And whether ownership of the trains remains with current operator CP, is transferred to the concessionaire, or passes to a leasing company, needs to be decided. Also, there is a need in the next few years to begin fleet renewal on the Cascais line: the oldest of the trainsets are over 50 years old, and the “newest” in their mid-40s. There is no sign yet that those issues have been addressed.

Cascais line trains: an elderly fleet

Neither has that of track access: were infrastructure owner Refer to be forced to cover more of its costs this way as a result of Government cutbacks – and cuts, as I’ve already observed, are being imposed across the Portuguese economy right now – this would have to be fed through into higher fares, as would the cost of new trains.

Nevertheless, there has been an expression of interest from two potential suppliers. One is Barraqueiro, who already run Fertagus, the only private passenger operator on the Refer network. But the Fertagus concession has already been renegotiated once, and passengers have voiced concern about high fare levels (they clean the graffiti off the trains, though). The other aspirant is Arriva, about whom Alex Ferguson might have mused “
Arriva ... bloody hell”.

How Much Is That U-Turn In The Window?

And the answer appears to be thirty thousand quid – per week, every week, injured or playing. Yes, Wazza is staying at Man U, and has signed a five year contract. So that’s the end of the matter, isn’t it?

Well, no it isn’t. The “intensive negotiations” including representatives of the Glazer family – for which read “approving a higher offer” – have not necessarily secured the services of Rooney for anything like five years. But they have demonstrated the power of players and agents, and the necessity for Alex Ferguson to make his star player far more likely to give a good return on his investment.

This is because, at (say) season’s end in 2011 or 2012, Rooney will still be less than half way through his contract. So anyone wanting to buy him out of it will have to pay rather more than might have been the case on his current deal, which only has a year and a half to run. Stumping up another 30K a week makes sense for the owners if it increases the player’s transfer value from around 35 million to perhaps 55 million.

That would not give the kind of payday that Man U enjoyed when selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid – or the same rate of return – but to get 25 million plus into the bank, with all the debt hanging over the club, would be most welcome.

Except, of course, that not all of that money would accrue to Man U. When Rooney signed from Everton, there was a sell-on clause in the deal: the Toffees will, I believe, get a quarter of any fee over the 27 million or so that was paid to them at the time. So the blue part of Merseyside could be set for a six million plus windfall of its own.

And that would mean, on a fee of 55 million, Everton would be the bigger beneficiary over time. Lawyers acting for FC Sporting are believed to be sick as parrots.

Sinking Ship – Dropped Pilot Attempts Interview

The time is fast approaching when the original cable network, CNN, will say goodbye to perhaps its most iconic presenter. It’s now less than three months ahead that the last Larry King Live will air, and the great man gives way to Piers “Morgan” Moron, with the result that The Percy Moron Show is inflicted on the channel’s dwindling audience.

King spent some time yesterday interviewing Daily Show host Jon Stewart, ahead of the Rally To Restore Sanity on October 30. Stewart gave the game away at the start, by telling Larry that “You’re the last guy out of a burning building”, and later suggesting that it might not be the best idea to give the time slot to “some British guy no-one’s heard of”.

King did not dissent from Stewart’s characterisations, and even seemed a little embarrassed by the suggestion that things were not in the best of states at CNN. No such problem affects the Daily Show host and his team, and to underscore this, the Prez himself will be interviewed by Stewart: Barack Obama will appear on next Wednesday’s show.

It’s the kind of implicit endorsement that is hard to see being given to The Percy Moron Show.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Beeb Survives Shock Horror

It would be swept away as an act of revenge for all the leftist propaganda it was fielding against the poor and defenceless Tory Party. Its “chilling” ambition would be put to rest, and its ability to remain an irritant to Rupe and Junior would cease. Its charter would be “torn up”. Or maybe not.

Because the BBC is safe for the next six years at least. The licence fee will be frozen at its current level, the Corporation will have to take on financial responsibility for the World Service and S4C, but otherwise things will continue as before. For starters, its news output will still wipe the floor – both in quality and viewers – with the appallingly inferior offering of Sky News (“first for breaking wind”).

Not for nothing has the Maily Telegraph’s Neil Midgley asserted that the Beeb “has good reasons to celebrate”. The Corporation has the certainty of income in the medium term, and has escaped any party political interference. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the licence fee negotiations would not take long this time round, and has been as good as his word.

But the Beeb had already embarked on a period of cuts: talent will no longer be rewarded as generously as before, reduction of management numbers has started, and ultimately the move to locations outside London, such as Salford Quays, will also lower the cost base.

Yes, Beeb spokesmen are saying that the deal is “challenging”, but the reality is that they will manage perfectly well, thank you. And so will all the whingers who try to paint the Corporation as biased and “left leaning”, for which latter read “it doesn’t serve the news in the style that I want it to”.

So no change there, then.

Tea Party – Growing Concern

What is the Tea Party? It doesn’t consist of one particular organisation, and nor are the origins of Tea Party groups the same. What kind of people and views does it represent? This is a question which has been addressed by the Tea Party Nationalism report, the first of its kind.

The origins of the Tea Party movement, the factions involved, and some of those lending their support to the movement, are considered. So too is the tendency of some in and around the Tea Party movement to racism and anti-Semitism, together with what the report called the “Militia Impulse”.

Also explored is the “birther” movement, which is prevalent within Tea Party circles – the idea that Barack Obama was born outside the USA, often allied to an assertion that he is also a Muslim.

The report is a comprehensive analysis and makes disturbing reading. Take, for instance, the summary of the “Tea Party Express” group: “leaders have unleashed vicious rants and explicit racism”. Yet more disturbing is that this group is getting favourable coverage from one particular media outlet.

Yes, despite Rupe telling that his troops “should not be supporting the Tea Party, or indeed any party”, Tea Party Express is being shamelessly pushed by Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Beck With The Monkeys

Not everyone across the USA accepts that Charles Darwin was right: there is still a body of opinion that supports creationism. And there are those in the media that are more than ready to lay into evolution for their own ends, the latest being the increasingly wayward Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Beck, on his radio show yesterday, told listeners that it was “ridiculous” to think that we “came from monkeys”. As he went on, the thought entered that this was the exact same line that Christine O’Donnell was following all those years ago on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect show, which I covered recently.

The rambling Beck then told his listeners how evolution had been “forced down your throat”, before concluding that “I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet”.

Mirror jokes have just been banned.

CSR And Railways – Doesn’t Make Sense

Reading through yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), as one does in a moment of more than average boredom, inevitably brings the eye to the area of transport. And what is in store for the railways does not make sense when taken in the round.

In the North West, the previous Government’s commitment to electrification between Liverpool and Manchester, from both those cities to Preston, and from Preston to Blackpool is restated. But upgrades and new trains for London’s Thameslink are still “under consideration”.

But, so what? Well, the two schemes are linked – the electric trains for the North West won’t be new build, but rather will be provided via a stock cascade of the older sets at present running on Thameslink. And, although electrification would be useful to freight operators, the prime user would be local passenger services. No electric trains, no point in putting up the wires.

Elsewhere, commitments to electrify are not restated, but neither are they ruled out. On the Great Western Main Line (GWML) from London to South Wales and the South West, there will be “investment to improve journey reliability”, which suggests that the wires may not be going up between Paddington, Bristol and Cardiff.

Between Sheffield and London – a route which showed a better cost/benefit analysis for wiring than the GWML – there is talk of “line speed improvements”, which also ducks the electrification issue.

The issue of electric working isn’t merely enthusiasts’ vanity: electric trains cost less to run, they’re quieter and cleaner, and their power source is not dependent on one particular fuel. Moreover, the InterCity 125 trains, although they can go on for a few years yet, will not last forever. The GWML is almost totally dependent on the IC125, and Sheffield to London partly so.

That the Blair and Brown administrations also ducked this issue is not disputed. But that decisions need to be made soon, and in a joined up manner, is where we are right now.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Breaking The ICE?

The man from DB almost shrugged, then put on his best face: “It’s not for the public” he explained, as another hopeful punter asked if he could see the first ICE3 high speed train in the UK close up, rather than through the glass screens or through a wire fence.

And it’s a demonstration that press junkets are disconnected from reality: if the entry of DB into the UK-Europe high speed market is to be a success, it will be through the patronage of those excluded from yesterday’s event, not by handing out goodies to the softball-pitching specialist press.

So what will be the reality of DB’s new service? Well, they helpfully distributed flyers to anyone showing a flicker of interest, and these state with some certainty that the ICE3 will be “Connecting Britain by high speed rail to new destinations across Europe from 2013”.

This may come as a surprise to the relevant authorities, who have not yet approved the trains for operation through the Channel Tunnel – as far as is known, DB have not even made a formal application. Apparently, the rules governing minimum length of trainsets passing through the Tunnel will be satisfied by running two ICE3 sets together between London and Brussels.

Images as published by DB

This is slated to happen three times each day, with the two sets splitting in Brussels to give services onward to both Amsterdam (via Rotterdam) and Frankfurt (via Cologne). Journey times of four hours to Amsterdam and five to Frankfurt may be bettered, but not significantly. So who will travel?

The leisure market alone will not provide sufficient revenue, though there will be no shortage of takers. So DB must appeal to business travellers, even though the journey times to Amsterdam and Frankfurt look, on the face of it, less attractive than flying.

The marketing push, I suspect, will emphasise the city centre to city centre ability of rail, the (hopefully) more robust and reliable timekeeping, and the ease of working on the move. All these will tempt business travellers. But one obstacle will remain.

And that is the patently ridiculous treatment of customs and other security issues, principally by UK authorities. It doesn’t get meted out to those who pass through the Channel Tunnel on car shuttles, and it is high time that it be scaled back in order to allow Eurostar, DB, and whoever else may enter the market in future to run a train service, rather than a ground transport airline.

Zelo Street, and no doubt other parts of the blogosphere, will continue to push for this. The specialist press will say very little, but continue the junkets.

Wayne’s World – But Don’t Party On

The rumours started back in August, but until the last few days, nobody had enough reliable information to stand them up. But now even Alex Ferguson is coming clean: Rooney is going, and most likely sooner rather than later, if Manchester United are to get their payday from selling.

Why does a footballer with a 150K a week contract ready to sign want to up sticks and go? Ferguson says there hasn’t been a falling out, something he does not normally see fit to point out: players that stay at Man U are by implication on good terms with the boss, and those that are not are moved on in short order.

Which may explain why Ferguson garnered some sympathy from the press pack after yesterday’s statement. Players don’t leave his club unless he says so. That even applied to Cristiano Ronaldo: although the Portuguese was always going to leave for Real Madrid, the deal did not happen until Ferguson decided to allow it.

And he is clearly not minded to allow Rooney to walk away and leave Man U with a lack of firepower, despite the player not scoring from open play for several months. But the player is out of contract at the end of next season, so push will come to shove when the transfer window reopens.

The rumour mill suggests that Rooney is headed for the blue part of Manchester: City are now the money club in the city. But do they need him? Manager Roberto Mancini may have his hands full getting his current squad to gel, without yet another big money buy having to be fitted in.

Moreover, Mancini brooks no dissent: Rooney would find him if anything even less forgiving than Ferguson. And Wazza’s smoking and binging wouldn’t find favour with a manager from Italy, where drunkenness is less socially acceptable than in the UK. And that constraint would apply equally if Rooney went to play his football in Spain.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have been linked with the player, and Real boss José Mourinho is already at work on the mind games. But here is another manager who won’t accept a player who by the age of 24 is still on the cigs and the sauce – and that is before the occasional tabloid revelations.

Rooney will have to accept that, if he wants to keep shaking the money tree, he will have to change his lifestyle and his attitude – wherever he plies his trade.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Mind Yer ‘Arris!

Today featured a brief visit to London, to see the new kid on the blocks. The place was St Pancras International Station, the invitations did not extend to ordinary enthusiasts, and the occasion was the display by German rail operator DB of one of their ICE3 high speed trainsets in the UK.

Along with several others, I had to look on through the screens under the clock, as the specialist press, getting the payoff that comes with wall to wall favourable coverage, were allowed on the platform. Unfortunately, for some time, the view was impaired by a not insubstantial figure sprawled forward over the buffer stop railings.

A helpful Network Rail person identified this presence – doubling as a model for the Michael Foot memorial donkey jacket – as RAIL magazine editor Nigel Harris. For him, the temptation of rubbing onlooking enthusiasts’ noses in it was apparently too much. But eventually he dragged himself upright and found something marginally more useful to occupy himself.

This allowed a clear view of the train, and the assembled snappers could get to work. You can see photos of ICE3 “Schwäbisch Hall” on display at St Pancras HERE. I’ll return to the aspirations of DB for running into London soon.

Monday 18 October 2010

First Paranoia Of Autumn

One fact for Michael Caine’s next volume of things that not a lot of people know about: Plymouth is on the same latitude as Kiev, in the Ukraine. Compare and contrast weather patterns, especially those in winter. Kiev routinely has winter temperatures which we would find grim – exceptionally so.

We don’t tend to get grim winters, because not only do we have the benefit of the Gulf Stream, bringing warmer water from the Gulf of Mexico, the prevailing wind direction is usually from the south west, bringing milder if wetter weather with it. But when the wind direction turns, winters turn colder, and the assembled hackery gets terribly worked up.

First out of the blocks this autumn are the obedient servants of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail. There is, they tell us, to be a “big freeze”, with “Polar winds” on the way, along with “heavy snow”. It sounds authentically apocalyptic. And as with any overinflated hype, a few prods of enquiry and it falls flat in short order.

The cold snap, it is conceded, is due to the wind turning to the north, due to a depression over Scandinavia. But then, the article explains, the high pressure area that has given settled and dry weather over the last few days will then reassert itself – and temperatures will recover.

As for the “heavy snow”, that is “up to” two inches by the end of the week – for parts of the north. Those parts, it is conceded further on, are the Scottish Highlands. And the phrase “up to”, as any fule kno, includes the number zero.

The New Smear Machine – Same As The Old Smear Machine

Yesterday’s Mail On Sunday carried a less than flattering analysis of Defence Secretary Liam Fox: his “partying” lifestyle, enjoyment of an “occasional social drink”, and his tendency thereafter to “get ... carried away and ... very chatty” were dropped into the article.

This has caused Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda, to show signs of distress. “The smears against Liam Fox must stop” he bleated in a recent blogpost, clearly unable to grasp the significance of this off-the-record briefing.

Fox has been playing a game of high stakes in defence of his budget, and to the clear irritation of Young Dave and The Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet. The supposed leak of a letter to Cameron – not copied to Osborne – was, I reckoned at the time, done either by Fox or on his behalf.

And, as I pointed out, this was a clear sign of someone trying to build a rival power base. My conclusion was clear: that Cameron had to sack him (followed up HERE and HERE). Downing Street hesitated, but has now clearly given the nod to a routine campaign of character assassination.

From the smear about his supposed drinking will follow – if need be – a further one suggesting that this may have security implications. From there it will be a straightforward task to propel Fox out of the door and into political oblivion. Young Dave will have, at last, mastered his basic Machiavelli: do not allow opponents to build a rival power base.

Which is what Dale and the rest of the right leaning blogosphere do not seem to get: there will be a need to put the boot into purveyors of inconvenient behaviour whoever is in power. No-one doubts that Alastair Campbell was behind the description of Pa Broon as “psychologically flawed”, and Big Al shares the same journalistic background as Andy Coulson.

So there should be no surprise when the new smear machine looks very much like the old smear machine.

Sunday 17 October 2010

No Beard, No Marx

The Senate race in Delaware is one I’ve covered before, if only in featuring the GOP candidate, “tea party” favourite Christine O’Donnell. She is trailing her Democrat opponent Chris Coons in the polls, and some of her rhetoric is getting desperate.

First off, she’s at odds with her own party: the National Republican Senatorial Committee has given her a 42,000 Dollar contribution, but is not spending on advertising additional to this amount. Their reasoning is that there are more deserving candidates who are in tighter races – where the extra spend could make the difference.

But O’Donnell is also having trouble making her attacks on Coons stick. She has persistently labelled him as a “Marxist”, a characterisation taken up by a number of hosts at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) as they try to bolster the various “tea party” hopefuls across the country.

Unfortunately, the basis for the Coons “Marxist” story is a very obvious joke he made in an article for his college student newspaper, written in his senior year. Otherwise, O’Donnell uses the guilt-by-association smear when observing that Coons praised one of his professors who was a Marxist – then saying that made him one too.

It’s quite desperate stuff. And, following their customarily thorough examination of the facts, the folks at Politifact.com have awarded Christine O’Donnell their coveted Pants On Fire accreditation.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Pay Up Or The Tram Gets It

Most visitors to the city of Lisbon see the central Baixa district, the sights on or near the waterfront at Belém, and maybe take the train out to Sintra or Cascais. They tend not to cross the river.

And that means they miss a large part of the extended metropolitan area: the sprawl outwards from the ferry terminals at Cacilhas and Barreiro, and alongside the motorway that leads to the Ponte 25 de Abril, is extensive, and so much so that in recent years, rail transport links have been put in place to help in the demand for people moving.

The latest system to be inaugurated has been the Metro Sul do Tejo, a tram network running out from a terminus by the ferry landing at Cacilhas. The first phase was completed in late 2008 and the modern trams are now carrying upwards of 30,000 passengers per day.

An MTS tram at Santo Amaro

However, the assumption on which the concession was let is based on a daily ridership of 80,000. This may come in the near future, but in the meantime, there is a mechanism for the Government to make up for the shortfall by means of a subsidy.

So far, so straightforward, but it seems that the Government is behind on its payments – well behind: apparently no subsidy has been received since the payment for the first half of 2009. The accumulated shortfall is 7.2 million Euro.

The concessionaire has now said that, unless the Government stumps up, push will come to shove next month. By that time, it will not be possible to pay the power bill, and so the current will be cut off (much as one might expect with a domestic disconnection).

And if the trams cannot run there, it is not outside the bounds of possibility that they might be sold on to another operator (the four section Siemens Combino Plus cars would be welcomed by capacity starved operators across Europe and perhaps beyond).

Then there really would be no way back.

Fox News And Hate Speech

The past week has seen a number of incidents involving the behaviour (or fallout thereof) of hosts from Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

The CEO of the Tides Foundation, Drummond Pike, has taken the gloves off following a sustained campaign against his organisation by Glenn Beck, and the subsequent arrest of Byron Williams, who was on his way to gun down Tides’ employees after seeing Beck’s chalkboard assisted ranting. Pike is urging companies that advertise on Fox to cease buying time on the channel (over a hundred companies have already pulled adverts from Beck’s show).

As Pike says, the next wingnut might get through. He stresses that “no-one ... wants to see another Oklahoma City”, in a reference to domestic terrorism, something maybe forgotten yesterday on Fox And Friends by host Brian Kilmeade, who asserted that “all terrorists are Muslims”, which might interest a number of Governments across Europe.

Fox’ Bill Shine has responded that Kilmeade will return to the subject on Monday, the next airing of the programme, but that means his assertions will remain unexplained and unanswered for almost 72 hours, which is a long, long time in today’s 24/7 news cycle. That’s not good enough.

And another Fox host whose behaviour has not been good enough this week is Bill O’Reilly, who caused a furore when he guested on ABC’s The View last Wednesday. Following a full and frank exchange of views on the proposed Islamic Centre at 51 Park Place with co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, O’Reilly then asserted that “Muslims attacked us on 9/11”.

This was too much for Goldberg and Behar who walked off set. They only returned after Bill-O apologised. O’Reilly later explained his actions on his own show, but his comparison with Pearl Harbor and the Japanese is total guff. There isn’t a country called Islamland which has declared war on the USA.

But there is a disturbing coincidence of hate speech coming out of Fox.

Friday 15 October 2010

EXCLUSIVE – Compulsory Cuts In Euro Land

While we wait for the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), there is one country in mainland Europe where a budget has just been presented, and some of the cuts are eye watering. That country is Portugal, and these are some of the measures put forward by the minority administration of PM José Sócrates (whose party, the PS, is nominally of the centre left).

Family allowances are being cut. Government employees are facing a pay cut of “up to 10%”, although in some cases, increased pension contributions will make the effective cut higher. This category includes civil servants, teachers and lecturers, judges and court staff, and most significantly public sector health workers.

This last is worrying, as retaining sufficient doctors and other key workers in the public sector is already a problem. The sector does not, however, include the military, police, or public transport workers at state owned bodies such as Lisbon street transport operator Carris.

And then there is a two-pronged VAT increase. Firstly, all three VAT rates are going up: those previously at 5%, 12% and 21% will rise to 6%, 13% and 23% (the EU’s highest top rate is 25%). But the second part is the transferring of groups of items from one of the lower VAT rates to the highest, and of course this could happen in the UK, should the Coalition decide.

So what is moving up the VAT scale? Chocolate and other flavoured milk, canned meat, canned fruit, canned veg, marmalade, jam, fire alarms and extinguishers, fizzy drinks, soft drinks and juices including those made from concentrate, cooking oil, and margarine, for starters. Much in that list is (still) zero rated in the UK.

However, red wine appears to be staying in the 13% category. Moving that on to the top rate really could kick off the unrest.

The Leverages Of Power – 5

And so, at the eleventh hour of the very last day before a potential slide into administration, New England Sports Ventures (NESV) bought Liverpool FC, and the burden of debt loaded onto the club by its previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett was lifted.

What this new era of ownership hold for the Reds is not yet certain, but there is one sign that the new order “gets it” in a way that their predecessors did not. NESV chairman Thomas Werner started his statement thus: “We recognise that Liverpool Football Club is an historic institution ultimately grounded in the community and the fans”.

That would be a good start. Meanwhile, Tom Hicks is still threatening a lawsuit against, well, anyone at the club in an effort to recoup something. Given the legal reverses he and Gillett suffered in the courts this week, he might as well save whatever funds he has left and leave the scene.

Back at Anfield, they now have owners who are in the business of winning. That could, of course, be another false Liverpool dawn – there have been plenty in the past two decades – but NESV’s track record thus far is one of improvement.

Tickets for Goodison on Sunday? Hmmm, that’ll cost you. It will now.

Never Mind The Bus – Get On The Plane

Last month, I noted that Arianna Huffington had offered to put on as many buses as needed to get folks from Manhattan to Washington, DC to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity, to be hosted by Jon Stewart on October 30. My thought that ten thousand people might take up that offer was not an optimistic one: that figure has now been exceeded.

Well, guesting on last night’s Daily Show (this evening in the UK on More4 at 2030 hours, then on 4OD, or outside the UK direct from Comedy Central) was Oprah Winfrey, and she’s gone one better. Oprah couldn’t be there in person – that’s one stylish person – but, appearing via satellite, revealed that everyone in the audience had a gift under their seat.

That gift was a return flight from New York to DC and a night’s hotel stay. I don’t know the size of the Daily Show audience, but it sounds like there are several hundred voices behind the cameras – so that’s a lot of hotel rooms, and more than one aircraft filled.

Might it be busy on the National Mall on October 30? It just might.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Marrakesh Express Arrives Back Home

Which was the first “supergroup”? There’s another few hours of harmless fun for the next rainy day. One of the first, Crosby, Stills and Nash, produced a debut album in 1969 that was of quite staggering originality and quality.

The participants came from differing backgrounds: Steven Stills had been one of the main men of the Buffalo Springfield, David Crosby had been in The Byrds, and Brit Graham Nash had been in The Hollies, a journeyman group that had produced hits, but wasn’t in the exceptional category.

But one listen to that debut album was to discover that exceptional was an understatement. As the Stills-penned opening track Suite: Judy Blue Eyes faded out, the thought entered that nothing could top that. Then came the lyrics “looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes”: that was Marrakesh Express.

In less than three minutes, Graham Nash had announced his arrival as a seriously good singer songwriter. Although that CS&N album is over forty years old, the music endures, and so it was good to see Nash arrive at Buckingham Palace yesterday to receive his OBE from the Queen.

As his contemporary and occasional colleague Neil Young might have put it, Long May He Run.

Bonfire Of The Waterways?

Today, the list of Quangos to be axed has been published. There are likely to be job losses, although many of the bodies will have their functions transferred elsewhere: as I noted recently, most of the jobs these organisations do will still need doing.

And one quango whose work will certainly still need doing is British Waterways, which looks after the hundreds of miles of canals that nowadays host a growing leisure industry. Typical of those waterways is the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which winds its way across the Pennines to Ashton-under-Lyne, recently restored to use after decades of neglect.

When I was living in Huddersfield in the mid 80s, the Narrow Canal was a mess. Most of its locks – 42 on the eastern part, and 32 on the western – had been covered by concrete caps, or partly filled in to let water cascade over them. The route had been lost completely in Huddersfield and Stalybridge. Only a short stretch above Uppermill had been reclaimed and restored by volunteers. The tunnel at Standedge, where the canal passes under the Pennines, had suffered rock falls and had been gated shut at both ends.

Slowly and painstakingly the whole route was reclaimed, the locks rebuilt, the tunnel cleared, and the channel dredged. The area through which the canal passes – former mill towns and villages – now has folks visiting to use the newly restored waterway. This is the kind of transport artery that British Waterways now looks after. It’s not just part of the past, but part of the economy.

The idea has been put forward that British Waterways may become a charity on the same lines as the National Trust. But then, if this were the right way to go, one might wonder why this did not happen decades ago. I hope that the body that comes out of the change really does bring new investment and secure jobs, as British Waterways’ chairman Tony Hales suggests (letter HERE [pdf]).

Because that letter contains the line “agree a long term funding contract with Government” in its to-do list. With the Coalition bent on cuts all round, Hales might just be disappointed. I hope he is not, and that the 2,200 miles of canal continue to contribute to a number of local economies across the UK.

How Tired Is Your Pilot? – 11

Regular readers of this blog in the south of France have just had some less than welcome news, as has anyone else that flies in and out with a certain low cost carrier. This is because a potential dispute with the French authorities has been used as an excuse for corporate mardy strop throwing – with a little implicit bullying on the side.

The airline throwing the strop will be familiar to Zelo Street readers: it is of course our old friend Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everyone hates us and we don’t care). Marseille, their last base in France, is to close next January, with the aircraft and crew moved out of the country, and around half the route network will be lost.

Why is this? Well, Ryanair base their crews, for purposes of payment and taxation, in Ireland, which is not unreasonable, given they are an Irish airline. The dastardly French, however, have been trying to insist that those crews be considered as based in France, which would mean paying taxes locally.

It is more than likely that this would impose an extra cost on Ryanair, so for them to contest the matter is understandable. The way in which they have behaved, however, is the usual mix of brinkmanship and bullying, and will be familiar to those who witnessed them pull most of their services from Manchester after failing to secure a reduction in handling fees.

So, instead of staying put and letting the EU authorities find adversely on the French – which is more than likely, even if decisions do not tend to happen overnight in such matters – Ryanair demonstrate their contempt for the long suffering passengers, especially those who use the flights regularly and depend on them.

And, just to rub salt in the wounds, Michael O’Leary said yesterday that “Ryanair remains committed to Marseille Airport”. With 13 out of 23 routes about to go, that’s a strange kind of commitment.

[The 13 routes to go includes that to Eindhoven, folks]

Don’t Risk The Wine

The advertising break is a routine distraction for anyone watching what used to be called, slightly sniffily, commercial television. Normally this does not concern me, but a recent ad for Jacob’s Creek wines has caused a little worry.

Not that there is anything less than totally bonzer about Jacob’s Creek, or indeed any other vino coming out of Oz. I’m sure it’s just bladdy good, and no worries. My problem is with the way in which the dinner party guests dispense the stuff.

This usually enjoyable task is shown in the ad being done by holding the bottle by its base. For some wine waiters, this is no doubt a straightforward action, but I worry that anyone imitating the style may not be in full control of bottle and contents.

And you wouldn’t want to spill any, so my tip is to keep firm hold of the bottle around the middle. Copying the advert may look swish, but where it could lead, as Harry Callahan once said, is a hell of a price to pay for being stylish.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Murdoch Is Served (23)

As the Guardian has revealed today, the Metropolitan Police can be a clueless crowd. Following the C4 Dispatches programme on Phonehackgate, the Met’s finest have decided to get off their collective rears and do something about it. They have written to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

So what? Well, the assembled rozzers have asked Rusbridger if he has any new evidence for them. Mr R, having picked his chin off the deck, has written back pointing out that, as Nick Davies has noted on more than one past occasion, the Met have plenty of evidence in their own files.

Moreover, the Guardian editor advised that Davies had obtained much of his evidence from interviewing former Screws employees, and suggested that they do likewise. He also noted that the Met could have interviewed those people back in 2006, when the story broke, but they did not.

Rusbridger concluded, having mentioned the involvement of the NYT and C4 in addition to the Guardian, “The fact that three separate news organisations have been able to uncover this story must give you hope that you, too, could get to the bottom of it without too much trouble”.

The full text of his letter is HERE [pdf].

The Leverages Of Power – 4

And so, after a night sleeping on the matter before him, Mr Justice Floyd has granted the injunction sought by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). This required Tom Hicks and George Gillett to effectively restore the board of Liverpool FC to its state before Hicks’ intervention last week, where he tried to sack two of that board’s members and replace them with his own appointees.

Moreover, costs have been awarded against Hicks and Gillett in the matter of the action by RBS. Chairman Martin Broughton is now pushing for a board meeting by this evening in order to facilitate a sale of the club. The consequences for Hicks and Gillett are straightforward: unless they can overturn the decision, Liverpool FC will be sold and they will lose a cool 140 million quid (plus costs).

But, given the soap opera which the Liverpool saga has become, there will be no sympathy whatever on Merseyside for the two owners, and that will include the Blue part of the area as well as the Red. The only unanswered question now appears to be the identity of the new owner – will it still be New England Sports Ventures (NESV), or perhaps Peter Lim from Singapore?

Leveraged buyouts – the end of one, and maybe a vision of what might await Man U. Not good for the game.

[And Mr Justice Floyd has declined to grant an appeal. Sound fellow]

Tuesday 12 October 2010

The Leverages Of Power – 3

As I suspected, there were more than a few Reds fans in attendance today at the Royal Courts of Justice. There will no doubt be more tomorrow, as Mr Justice Floyd, having heard arguments from the various protagonists, has decided he will give his judgment at 1030 hours on Wednesday.

Only then will there be any sign of the future direction of Liverpool FC. No doubt supporters of Man U will watch with an initial amused detachment, but they should study events closely. Their club is nowhere near this state yet, but given their losses, the amount of debt on the club, and the shaky state of the rest of the Glazer empire, they might do well to remember this week’s events.

Moreover, Alex Ferguson cannot go on for ever. And what happened the last time a long serving and successful Man U manager stepped down is a lesson in itself. Except that on that occasion, the club had not been piled high with debt.

What The Fox? – Revisited

Back in August I looked at the case of Byron Williams, who had been stopped by the Highway Patrol on Interstate 580 and showed his displeasure by engaging the police in a gun battle in which he fired a variety of ordnance, including the armour piercing variety.

Williams, who confessed at the time that he was on his way to kill “people of note” at the Tides Foundation, has now made a series of further admissions to Californian news anchor John Hamilton, who visited him at the Santa Rita jail in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin.

In a series of interviews, Williams names his main information sources: conspiracy theorists, right wing propagandists, and our old friend Glenn Beck, increasingly wayward “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). His regard for Beck and his chalkboard comes through strongly.

The conspiracies fed by Beck, and taken on board by Williams, include Brazilian oil company Petrobras, George Soros, the idea that the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill was a contract hit, and involve the NAACP, ACORN and the New Black Panther Party.

As the Deepwater Horizon explosion had killed eleven, Williams intended to kill the same number at Tides. Fortunately, the police stopped him.

The full text of Hamilton’s interviews, and more, is HERE. Worrying.

Prius On Rails

While checking sources for last week’s post on the fall-out from cancellation of the Third Tagus Crossing, and its implication for high speed rail travel in Portugal, I came across some blurb for a hybrid high speed train. What that? Well, this is an electric train that can also run under its own power on lines where there is no electrification.

And that is a question that has recently taxed the Department for Transport (aka DaFT), and preferred supplier Hitachi, over the saga of new so-called “bi-mode” trains, which may never see the light of day as a result of spending cuts. Astonishingly, some in the industry who should know better are championing a new build of electric locomotives instead, although how that powers trains where there are no overhead wires is not explained.

Once again, the company behind the hybrid high speed train is our old friends Patentes Talgo. No, I am not being paid a retainer by them, but yes, perhaps I should put in for one. The concept is simple: a proven existing design [pictured], which can operate on different track gauges, has its present end coaches replaced by what the blurb quaintly calls “Technical End Coaches”. These house a diesel engine.

A Talgo 250 pauses at Aranjuez

As the power generated by the diesel engine is transmitted via the traction equipment in the existing power cars, the weight of these new coaches is kept down. The engine itself is the same MTU V12 used in a variety of traction applications – such as the recent refurbishment of the UK’s InterCity 125 power cars. It’s established technology.

But is it a practical proposition? A first look at the blurb did leave me wondering whether the axle load would stay low – very important for higher speeds – and there is a trade-off of some passenger accommodation, with a resulting higher proportion of what we would call Standard Class seating, but the fact of the matter is that the order has been placed, and the trains are slated to start operation in 2012.

Top whack on the high speed network will remain 250km/h, with 220 on conventional electric lines, and 180 is claimed for diesel operation. The trains will run out of Madrid to destinations such as Algeciras and Cartagena – well off the wires. Journey times will be better than using hauled sets, because of higher speeds and quicker gauge changing, and there will be better use of capacity at busy terminal stations such as Madrid Atocha.

Will it work? Well, Talgo have already done some work on high speed diesel trains, so the prognosis is good. Once again, while we in the UK debate the concept, someone else just goes ahead and does it.

[The PDF with detail of the hybrid train is HERE. In English!]

Monday 11 October 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 21

Today, in an event with the BBC as a participant (though with no apparent mention on its website), much of the media came together to petition Business Secretary Vince Cable not to allow the full takeover by News Corporation of BSkyB. A lot of differences were put aside as everyone who is anyone in the business made common cause against Rupe’s troops.

Signatories included the Maily Telegraph, Guardian Media Group, Trinity Mirror, the Daily Mail and General Trust, the BBC, BT, and Channel 4. The keyword emerging from the petition is plurality: that the further encroachment of the Murdoch empire would crowd out other players and consolidate power in fewer hands.

What may also be uppermost in the minds of those in the worlds of media and politics is the impact of the Murdochs on matters Stateside, where the lack of regulation over broadcasters has allowed Rupe to inflict the slanted and partisan attack dog that is Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) on the population.

What happens next? Cable has to make his mind up whether to refer the matter to Ofcom. That would certainly cause Rupe’s troops to up the ante, and there would be a tide of hostile hackery trained on the saintly Vince. Then the rubber stamp has to be given by Young Dave, who has one of the Murdoch “family” on his payroll.

No pressure there, then.

Spotty Scot Excoriates Citizen Scribblers

As the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger kicks off a thoughtful examination of where the Fourth Estate now finds itself, there has been a less measured critique of the blogosphere by the Beeb’s very own Andrew Marr, formerly political editor and now front man of The Andy Marr Show (tm).

Marr has been to the Cheltenham Literary Festival – to which I say big expletive deleteding deal – where he made his views clear: “the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night”. He later added “most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. Terrible things are said online because they are anonymous”.

Well, Andy, I can only speak for myself here, but have to say that you are in Gerald Ratner territory. I stop putting together blog posts before opening the vino, this blog isn’t anonymous, and as I’ve set out long ago, Zelo Street does not do effing and blinding – although I can’t deny that there are a number of “sweary blogs” out there. So, recalling the wise words of Mel Brooks, I say “Up Yours”.

But seriously, I can also see where Marr is coming from: far too much of the blogosphere adds little or nothing to what is already put out there by the established media. Much is churned out by those using some kind of alias, although this approach is, for those who become better known, next to useless (pace Michael White exposing Paul Staines).

Moreover, whenever blogs break stories, they still need at least the threat of exposure in the MSM to have any effect: that would be Staines again, with the Draper and McBride emails, which ended up in the Screws. And the resources available to the MSM are generally better than what the average blogger can lay their hands on.

Thus the awful truth for many bloggers. But there’s no point getting angry at Marr, because he’s hit a nerve. And there’s also no point letting it get you down. Just remember: “don’t get mad – get even”.

Anyone up for that? I am.

The Leverages Of Power – 2

While fans of Manchester United mull over the latest news of their club’s losses and continuing debt burden, things have started to move over at Liverpool FC. The action of co-owner Tom Hicks last week, when he attempted to remove two members of the board and replace them with his own nominees, is being challenged by the Royal Bank of Scotland, with a hearing at the High Court tomorrow.

This should not be confused with the action taken by club chairman Martin Broughton to force through the takeover by New England Sports Ventures (NESV), which still looks to be on for Friday next. However, if RBS win tomorrow, there appears little chance of Hicks and his co-owner George Gillett mounting any credible opposition to the sale.

So fans will be watching tomorrow as the seventh case in the day’s eighteen scheduled actions comes before Mr Justice Floyd. Given the numbers that may descend on London, the Echo has helpfully provided a map locating the Royal Courts of Justice (it’s at the eastern, or City, end of the Strand) along with nearby Tube stations. Temple looks nearest, so from Euston that means change at Embankment.

The Echo has also printed a full version of the RBS statement on the affair. A quick read through leaves the impression that RBS claim to have been given various undertakings by Hicks and Gillett at the last round of refinancing, and that they regard Hicks’ actions last week as being in breach of those undertakings. Were Mr Justice Floyd to agree their analysis, the current owners would be unable to block the takeover by NESV.

Which would end a sorry chapter in Liverpool FC’s history, and leave a lesson for any other club where takeover features the word “leverage”.

[UPDATE: things are moving quickly - the Beeb's Robert Peston has just revealed that there may be another bidder for LFC]