Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Boris, there's a fly in my Oyster sauce

Londoners have waited years for Oyster ‘pay as you go’ cards to be valid on National Rail services but as the big day looms – this Saturday, 2 January 2010 - will the long wait be worthwhile?
No doubt London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and various train company spokesmen will merrily pontificate about their big ‘Oysterisation’ day. But hang on a mo’ though, BoJo, ol' bean, we could all do with a bit more pastry on this Oyster business and less puff.

For instance, I live almost an equal distance between two Zone 5 stops, Oakwood tube station on the Piccadilly Line, and Grange Park, a National Rail station on the Hertford North-Moorgate line. Most days I use the Piccadilly Line to get to central London but from 2 January I’ll have the choice of using my Oyster at Grange Park to access National Rail services operated by First Capital Connect.

On Monday morning – 4 January - if I commute on the Piccadilly Line from Oakwood to Oxford Circus in Zone 1 during the peak (Monday-Friday, 0630-0900) £3.80 will be deducted from my Oyster, a 10p rise on the fare up to 1 January. If I make the equivalent commute to Oxford Circus during the peak using National Rail from Grange Park, changing onto the Victoria Line at Highbury & Islington, a whopping £5.00 gets whipped off my Oyster. So I think I'll stick to my overcrowded but less expensive tube train and save myself £1.20 rather than take FCC's equally overcrowded but more expensive overground train.

Will Oyster's new validity on National Rail persuade me to travel from Grange Park during the off-peak, on weekends and public holidays? Oakwood to Oxford Circus off-peak on the tube will cost £2.40 – a rise of 20p on the 2009 fare - but £3.70 will come off my Oyster if I touch in at Grange Park and head towards Oxford Circus using an FCC train. Once again, even with the 2010 fare rise, using the off-peak Oyster option on the tube will save £1.30.

I’m forwarding this post to FCC just in case I've missed a less expensive option amongst the train operator’s bewildering array of nine ticket products that cover that journey between Grange Park and Oxford Circus. However, I did seek an antidote for my confusion with Transport for London’s helpline. The friendly operator, using TfL's useful Farefinder, confirmed Oyster is generally less expensive on the tube than on National Rail. “The National Rail companies wanted to retain their own fares," the operator explained.

So, Bozza, before you orate about Oysterisation, perhaps you might advise Londoners that, before touching in with our cards at National Rail stations, we should check with Farefinder to see whether it's the tube or National Rail that gives us the least expensive Oyster deal.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Christmas message from the Ocean

Seventy-five years ago an Ocean Letter wireless telegraph was the only way my seafaring grandfather, Leslie Coleman, could wish Happy Christmas to his wife Win, my grandmother.

On 18 December 1934 the telegraph operator on board Les' ship, the Andalucia Star, bound for South America, transmitted his Christmas greeting by wireless to the Kaisar I Hind that was heading back to Blighty. Les' Ocean Letter (above,click on to enlarge) was printed and then sent to Win on Christmas Eve by registered post from the Kaisar I Hind's first port of call - although I'm not sure exactly when Win received it at their Turnpike Lane home in north London.

It's touching that Win and Les, both now passed away, lovingly kept their Ocean Letter telegraph in pristine condition. How many texts, emails, e-cards, social network postings and blogs will still be cherished 75 years from now?

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.

Monday, 21 December 2009

From Russia with love

Shaken and angry, hundreds of exhausted Eurostar passengers finally arrived at London's St Pancras International station after being stuck in the Channel Tunnel for over eight hours last Friday (18 December).

Shaky and humiliated, Eurostar's chief executive Richard Brown faced the TV cameras trying to blame French melting ice and snow for electrical breakdowns on five trains on route from Paris. Brown couldn't, or maybe wouldn't, explain why Eurostar's 'winterisation procedures' brought in after similar past breakdowns had failed to prevent this latest spate of failures. 

Eurostar might have further explaining to do if Russia's new 'blizzard-tested' high speed trains - the 250kph (155mph) Velaro RUS, built by Siemens - start running between Moscow and St. Petersburg without suffering any winter breakdowns. 

The Russian rail company RZD calls these trains, the Sapsan, which means peregrine falcon. RZD is confident the Velaro RUS can run in Russia's harsh weather conditions. Moscow thermometers currently show the temperature at a bone-chilling -11˚C.

One possible long-term consequence of Eurostar's failures is that Eurostar could face competition to run high speed passenger services through the Channel Tunnel from other European operators. A new European Union law in force from December 13 means alternative train companies must be allowed to bid for open access operation on the continent's rail networks. Who knows, maybe a Deutsche Bahn train or a Russian Sapsan might glide into St Pancras International one fine but freezing day.

Photo shows a Velaro undergoing severe cold climate testing.
(Image courtesy of Siemens Press Pictures).

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Come fly with me and watch the ultimate in-flight movie

The age of cheaper air travel might be defined as breakfast in London, lunch in New York, dinner in Tokyo...and your baggage in Dusseldorf. 
Cynicism aside, the amount of flights criss-crossing the Earth each day is astonishing. 
This ultimate in-flight movie (above) claims to represent a typical 24-hours in the skies with each little yellow light representing one flight.
Be guided also by the night shadow passing across the globe.
It's a fascinating attempt, apparently from the University of Zurich's School of Engineering, to depict daily patterns of air travel...and a reminder that, if you ask an air traffic controller about what kind of day they've had, it's reasonable to worry if they reply, "I'm so tired. I've far too much on my plate these days."
It's a timely film too. Air travel is rarely out of the news, whether it's about aircraft emissions, airport expansions, striking British Airways flight crews or the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's maiden flight. 
However, forget the headlines for a moment.
Just click on the play arrow and enjoy setting in motion a world in flight.

Thanks to Dave for kindly forwarding the movie.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The world is your Oyster...if you go slowly

A 30-minute blast into space on Richard 'Beardie' Branson's new Virgin spacecraft sounds great fun but the ride will cost you £200,000. It's a familiar story; a fantastic new bit of kit comes out and only folks with a shed load of cash can afford to buy a ticket. A similar tale emerged on Monday morning (14 December) when the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Olympic golden girl Dame Kelly Holmes waxed lyrical about Britain's first high speed commuter train service whisking passengers between London and Kent.

All of this high speed hype was lapped up and regurgitated by TV news and media, including the London Evening Standard. Understandably, they dwelt on the impressive new Hitachi Class 395 trains that were made in Japan. They also focused on the equally impressive Dame Kelly - made in Britain - as she was beaming a smile at a gleaming train named after her. But they failed to mention that Oyster pay as you go cards aren't valid on these high speed services.

Oyster's invalidity is a bit strange because these new Southeastern services make a Zone 3 stop at Stratford International station right next to London's 2012 Olympic Park. The Zone 1-3 St Pancras International-Stratford International journey takes only seven minutes. But we can't use our Oyster cards on this one journey, We won't even be able to use them from 2 January 2010, the big 'Oysterisation' day when we can use our Oyster cards on almost every other National Rail service across the London Travelcard Area's nine Zones.
Why not? Whilst researching an article for RAIL magazine, a Transport for London spokesman told me: "The Southeastern service between St Pancras and Stratford is classified as a premium service and will not be included in the extension of Oyster pay as you go at the request of Southeastern."

So, "at the request of Southeastern", we're invited to hail high speed rail whist forced to inhale its premium price.
A single from St Pancras International to Stratford International costs £5.
That's £1.40 per minute!
True, the new high speed trains offer an air-conditioned and much faster trip than an often crowded and baking Central Line ride to Stratford Regional station (also right next to the Olympic Park). But that Central Line Zone 1-3 journey using Oyster, typically from Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus, costs a far less painful £2.70.
An off-peak day return on a high speed train is set at £6.50 and an 'anytime return' at £8.50.
That's the premium stacked on the price of travelling at high speed between two increasingly important London stations.
I'm still waiting for Govia, Southeastern's parent owner, to reply to my request for some answers. If and when they do, I'll post their response.

Will the bar on using Oyster be lifted during the 2012 Olympics?
Highly unlikely, I'm afraid.
Southeastern and the Olympic Delivery Authority's transport chiefs are planning to run a high-frequency high speed Javelin service between St Pancras and Stratford during the Games. They hope the Javelin trains will zip about 25,000 spectators to the Games each day but they fear demand will exceed the service's capacity. So tickets will have to be booked in advance, possibly when buying Games event tickets. The transport guys, quite rightly, don't want thousands without Javelin train tickets turning up and causing chaos at St Pancras International...even if they're waving their Oyster cards.

True, 'demand management' makes sense during the Games when 400,000 people per day are expected to bowl up at the Olympic Park at Stratford.
But it doesn't make much sense before the Games.
Why didn't Transport for London, the Department for Transport and Southeastern come up with a mutually acceptable agreement that would've enabled Oyster usage on these high speed trains, especially as it could've helped to relieve overcrowding on Central Line and North London Line services to Stratford Regional?
Was protecting Southeastern's revenues a good enough reason to invalidate Oyster?
Or was it because someone didn't want us Oyster oiks using a premium high speed service affordable mainly by bonus-bagging bankers from Kent?
Surely, off-peak Oyster validity would've been an acceptable compromise.

The Oyster bar on Southeastern's high speed services makes even less sense from 2011. That's when Stratford City opens right next to Stratford's two rail stations. Westfield's massive development means Stratford City will become Europe's largest urban retail mall - bigger apparently than Westfield's White City colossus - yet Oyster card users won't be able to reach it by a high speed train. Are Southeastern going to tell Stratford City's lower-paid retail staff that they'll have to pay the high speed premium to get to work?
'Oysterisation' on 2 January is a long-awaited day. Finally, Londoners will be able to get around London more easily thanks to the biggest expansion of the Oyster network since Oyster was launched in 2003.
It's been a long time coming because of tortuous negotiations between TfL and private train operators keen to protect their precious fare revenues.
Even so, there'll still be this one glaring high speed omission.
The world is not yet our Oyster.

Photo shows one of Southeastern's 140-mph Class 395s - 395017 - dwelling at Ebbsfleet International as escalator maintenance is carried out.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009

Monday, 14 December 2009

Fabio says TV van man to join World Cup squad

Mark, a friend of mine who works in the frenetic world of Outside Broadcast TV, tells me his work mates enjoyed the company of a surprise visitor during the build-up to last night's BBC Sports Personality of the Year Show. Their impromptu guest watched most of the Liverpool v Arsenal game in their van - although he wouldn't say if he's taking goalkeeper David James to next year's World Cup. 
It's a priceless photo, showing engineer Les Cannon and England manager and Coach of the Year, Fabio Capello. (Click on photo to big it up)
Apparently, Fabio told Les he has a chance of being part of the England squad. 
With all respect, Les, mate, let's hope Don Fabio doesn't rate England's chances that badly!

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009

Friday, 11 December 2009

The sunken ship still making waves

In the early hours of Wednesday (9 December) I wrote about my grandfather Leslie Coleman, a ship's steward, who had frequently sailed on the Andalucia Star but never spoke about its sad demise. The posting, All at sea, also recalled William Wheeler’s courageous rescue of a passenger, a little five-year-old girl, after a torpedo attack by a German U-Boat submarine sank the Andalucia Star on 6 October 1942. 

Later that Wednesday, at 9.35pm, I receive an email from Jill McNichol-Harrell (née Bicheno). “I was the little girl,” says Jill.

Astonished, I read on. Jill, who lives in Texas, says in the autumn of 1942 she was crossing the Atlantic on the Andalucia Star with her father, S.G. Bicheno. Her father worked for Cable & Wireless in Chile. The Blue Star Line ship was off the West African coast when it was struck simultaneously by two of U-107’s three deadly torpedoes.

According to one account, Mrs L.A. Green, “an elderly stewardess”, switched on a red light on Jill's lifejacket before lifting the little girl into a lifeboat with other women and children. Most of the lifeboats had already been safely lowered but, as another survivor Douglas Gibson later recalled, one of the lowering lifeboats went down bow first, throwing many of its occupants, including Jill it seems, into the sea. "The bar steward and an elderly stewardess were crushed between the ship and the lifeboat and killed,” said Gibson. Mrs Green received a posthumous commendation, the Merchant Navy’s equivalent of a military ‘mention in dispatches’. Her cool, dutiful and devoted care for the women and children passengers received high praise. 

Jill, now 72, says: “Since I retired I have been able to find out quite a bit about the ship but I have not found any relatives of the stewardess, Mrs. Green. 
However, I did hear from the granddaughter of the brave man who saved my life.”
William Wheeler heard little Jill’s cry for help and then spotted her red light switched on earlier by Mrs Green. For saving Jill’s life, William Wheeler, the Andalucia’s lamp trimmer (the ship's lighting technician), was awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry in Saving Life at Sea.
An official citation in the The London Gazette, said: “The cry of a small child was heard some distance away. Wheeler immediately dived into the water, swam through wreckage for a distance of 600 yards to the child and supported it for 30 minutes…Wheeler displayed great courage in plunging overboard into a choppy sea…But for his gallant action the life of the child would have undoubtedly have been lost.”
Wheeler helped Jill into the lifeboat where she was handed to another survivor Marcia Maxwell (then Ferrier). Maxwell had served as an assistant in the Andalucia’s shop. Maxwell, speaking in 1977, recalled: “The awful cries for help led us in their direction. We picked up seven – one a little girl still clinging to her doll…I took charge of her. She was very good, but suffering from shock.”

The Andalucia Star is still making waves even though the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean 67 years ago. In the late 1970s, Marcia Maxwell hailed a taxi outside the Sydney Opera House. The cab driver was Bryn Burris.  Maxwell and Burris had last met on that Andalucia Star voyage. Burris had been the ship’s quartermaster. He told an Australian newspaper: “Jill and her father were in separate lifeboats and he was frantically trying to find her. We were the last to reach the corvette (H.M.S. Petunia) and it was only then that he learnt that his daughter was still alive.”

Burris and Maxwell remembered that third torpedo zipping through the water and blasting into the stricken and soon to be sunken Andalucia. Jill tells me: "Daddy was getting into a lifeboat when the third torpedo struck. He was very lucky not to have been killed on the spot. Every year when he was alive he would phone me on the anniversary of the sinking and we would drink a toast to the ship and her brave crew."
Jill tells me that she asked the New Zealand artist Wallace Trickett to capture that moment in a painting. (Click to view). “It is hanging here in my house in Texas,” says Jill.

In All at Sea, I clumsily tried to guess why my grandfather Les never revealed to my father or I how he felt about the sinking of the Andalucia Star and the lives lost. Peter Stacey, who was at sea with the Blue Star Line for 15 years and is researching the sinking, suggests my grandfather had possibly "grown very attached" to the ship. "Seamen tend to view their ships as home, bonding very closely with their shipmates," says Peter. "From what I can gather, the Andalucia Star was a happy ship."

So, it seems my Grandad Les understandably felt it was too personal and painful to talk about the tragic sinking of one of his favourite ships. 
It's a possibility strongly supported by Jill’s own remarkable discovery about William Wheeler - the brave man who saved her life. 
Well, Jill ends her email, with this revelation: “His (William Wheeler’s) family knew nothing about the Andalucia Star until after he died when they went through his things and found the medal.”

  • Jill McNichol-Harrell would like to receive any information about Mrs L.A. Green and/or help to trace any of her relatives.
  • In writing this post, I am grateful for the help of Peter Stacey in Wellington, New Zealand. 
  • The photograph shows crew members in an Andalucia Star lifeboat, possibly during one of the ship's frequent boat drills that later paid off when so many lives were saved. Unfortunately, I've no way – currently(!) – to date the image.
  • For more Blue Star Line info, visit Fraser Darrah's well-crafted site.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

All at sea

Sons who try hard to please their fathers sometimes get hurt.
Back in the late 1970s, I remember my father John buying a special birthday present for his father, Les.
John reckoned that Les would really appreciate his gift - an enlarged and framed sepia photograph of the S.S. Andalucia Star, one of several merchant ships on which Les had voyaged across the world during the 1930s.
Grandad Les always enjoyed telling me, his only grandchild, about his life and times aboard the Majestic, Almeda Star, Doric Star and the Andalucia Star (above, click on ship to enlarge)He'd regale me with exciting tales of Tenerife, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro.
As chief steward (photo below) on the Andalucia, Les looked after some famous people, including former Prime Minister Lloyd George. He recalled the Great Britain rugby team practicing on deck for their 1936 Argentina tour.
Most of all, Grandad Les spoke of happy times spent with his colourful and mischievous shipmates.
He’d often pipe up with ‘When I was at sea…’
Understandably, my Dad anticipated his dad would be chuffed to receive the Andalucia Star photo.
But Les’ birthday smile disappeared when he opened his gift.
Les blurted a muted thanks to John but the image of the old ship had clearly upset him.
A rejected and hurt son pressed his father to explain.
‘I’d rather not say right now,’ Les replied sullenly.
In the 1970s, Dad didn’t have the web to do instant research into the fate of his father’s ships. Even if he had, not even Google searches find submerged emotions.

Decades later, and some years after both Grandad Les and Dad passed away, I drifted across a clue on the web to possibly explain Grandad Les’ terse reaction to the picture.
Built and launched in September 1926 by Cammell Laird’s shipbuilders at Birkenhead, the Andalucia Star - a 15,000-ton steamship - took to the seas as one of the Blue Star Line’s ‘luxury five’ liners. The others were the Almeda Star, Arandora Star, Avelona Star, and Avila Star.
When Les was part of her crew, the Andalucia was a refrigerated passenger, cargo and mail liner.

On 26 September 1942, the Andalucia Star set off for Liverpool from Buenos Aires by way of Freetown on the West African coast. On board were 170 crew and 83 passengers including 22 women and three children. Captain James Hall’s ship also carried 5,374 tons of meat and 32 tons of eggs.
On 6 October, at about 10pm, the Andalucia was steaming at her full speed of 16 knots without lights about 180 miles south of Freetown.
She was spotted by Harald Gelhaus, a 27-year-old German from the Lower Saxony town of Göttingen.

Gelhaus, the Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) of U-107, a Type IXB U-Boat submarine, ordered the firing of two torpedoes.
The devices struck the Andalucia abreast of two of her holds.
The explosions ruptured the hull, causing the main engine to flood.
Captain Hall gave the order to abandon ship.
All lifeboats were lowered and rowed away – except for lifeboat Number 2. Whilst being lowered, this lifeboat fell forward, tipping its occupants into the freezing, darkened sea.

This cost the lives of a steward and a stewardess. One of the last acts of stewardess Mrs. L.A. Green was to switch on the red lifejacket light of a little girl, aged five. After the lifeboat tipped, it was this red light that enabled another crewman William Wheeler to spot the little girl. Wheeler swam 600 yards through choppy, oil-strewn waves to save her. 
Green, thrown into the sea by from Number 2 lifeboat, was sadly never found.
Incredibly, only one of the Andalucia’s passengers died during this lethal U-Boat attack. Another crew member suffered heart failure and also died.
Meanwhile, Gelhaus ordered another attack.
A third torpedo detonated so violently on the ship’s port side bow that it ripped out the starboard side also (click on link to see Trickett's painting of torpedo hitting the ship).
At about 10.25pm, the Andalucia Star sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Six hours later, the H.M.S Petunia picked up the survivors and took them to Freetown.  

Family letters show Grandad Les was posted to Liverpool to join the Doric Star in August 1937, just over five years before Gelhaus issued his orders to fire. The Doric was sunk by the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee south of St Helena on 2 December, 1939 although Grandad Les - thankfully - wasn't on its voyage from New Zealand.

I can only speculate how devastated Les must’ve felt on hearing about the Andalucia’s violent end.
Probably, Grandad Les keenly felt the loss of two former colleagues, Mrs Green and the other steward.
Possibly, he felt guilty for escaping their fate.
After all, Grandad Les had lost two older brothers in the trench warfare madness of World War I, a conflict that began when he was just eight.

The Andalucia Star was just one of 39 ships destroyed by U-107. The submarine itself was sunk on 18 August 1944. A Royal Air Force Sunderland aircraft dropped depth charges close to the sub as it lurked in the Bay of Biscay. All 58 crew were lost.
However, Gelhaus escaped their fate. He wasn’t on board. By that time, he’d also been posted elsewhere. Haphazardly, I can only guess Gelhaus felt sad when he learnt of U-107’s demise.
Gelhaus died in December 1997, aged 82, one of 144 U-Boat men who’d received the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, the highest award given by Hitler's Third Reich for 'successful military leadership' during World War II.
I'm left with one thought. The Cross showed how Gelhaus had pleased his 'Fatherland' but did the Cross help Gelhaus please his father?

My grandfather Les' 1935 Christmas card to his wife Winifred, my Nana. (Click on photo to enlarge).

Interested in the Blue Star Line? Visit Fraser Darrah's excellent website.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A life on the ocean wave

Amitav Ghosh, the Calcutta-born author of The Calcutta Chromosome, appeared in London last night (1 December) telling a funny tale from his youth.
Ghosh recalled being a homesick anthropology student in Egypt. Often he'd take refuge in a dowdy bar from the mad swirl of life in Alexandria.
One night Ghosh was delighted to see a gaggle of Indian sailors staggering in through the beads.
Happily shooting the breeze with his countrymen over a few drams, Ghosh confessed he envied their ocean roaming from port to port.
One of the sailors asked Ghosh: ‘Why don’t you grab your passport and come with us?'
Ghosh: ‘Wouldn't your captain object?'
Sailor: 'No, he probably wouldn't even notice. He’s Cypriot. He can’t tell us Indians apart anyway.’
The sailors nodded and chuckled.
Sailor: ‘And you can jump ship wherever you like. Manila. Singapore. Rotterdam.’
Ghosh: ‘You make the ship sound like a bus.'
Sailor: 'The world's your oyster.’
The sailors nodded and chuckled again.
Terrified but enthralled, Ghosh spent a sleepless night dredging up enough courage to leave his life behind.
By the time he'd hauled himself down to the docks, he was too late. 
His ship and new life had already sailed.
Ghosh sat on the quay and stared out to sea. 
Until that moment, he'd always regarded himself as well-travelled.
But now his travels resembled a mosquito flitting over a familiar expanse of skin.
The sailors, on the other hand, lived by flowing through the world’s entire bloodstream.

Ghosh feels the web, satellite TV and mobile communications allow migrants to physically live in their new country but remain emotionally connected – and loyal - to their country of origin. 
Even the English diaspora plonks its feet in two camps. London taxi drivers tell Ghosh they’ve taken second homes in the Dordogne because it reminds them of life in England thirty years ago.
Ghosh's half-year neighbour in Goa is a fireman from Liverpool.
Ghosh believes globalisation is evaporating the nation-state, once the goal of bitter wars of independence. But he acknowledges the frustration of people who can't afford to travel but who glimpse on TV a world by-passing their lives.

Ghosh's insights came when he delivered the Jim Rose Lecture 2009, entitled Belonging, Community and Diaspora.The Runnymede Trust organised the event. 
The London School of Economics played host at its swanky new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Jim Rose would’ve enjoyed Ghosh's broad brush world outlook.
Rose co-founded the Runnymede Trust in 1968 to counter racism in Britain.
Quietly, behind the scenes, Rose also offered practical support to other anti-racist projects.
I worked for Runnymede in the 1990s and always found Rose an attentive man, thoughtful yet quietly determined.
Sadly, ambitious self-serving Blairite-types shunted Rose and Runnymede's thought-provoking director Robin Richardson to the margins.
The Trust lost its sense of direction and relevance to ordinary people.
Richardson moved on.
Rose passed away in 1999.
Last night's event hints at a possible Runnymede revival.
If so, it's timely.
More than ever, there's a strong need for a thoughtful and dynamic approach to this whole sad business of 'race'.

Amitav Ghosh's most recent novel is the Sea of Poppies.
For more information: www.runnymedetrust.org

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.

Monday, 30 November 2009

St Giles, Renzo Piano and a cast of outcasts

The five blocks of Central Saint Giles have clambered onto the London skylineClad in 5,479 yellow, orange, green and red ceramic panels, the blocks tower over Henry Flitcroft's church of St-Giles-In-The-Fields (click on photo to enlarge). The two-acre complex also creeps up on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue, Centre Point and Denmark Street, London's electric guitar alley, writes Paul Coleman. 

Architect Renzo Piano's development promises 'a new public realm' just off St Giles High Street, one of London's forgotten thoroughfares. 
The new edifice rises in an area rich in history because so many of its former inhabitants, many of whom were Irish immigrants, were crippled by poverty. It's close to the site of the 'Rookery', a notoriously overcrowded London slum.
Burials in St Giles' churchyard ceased in 1853 after public health fears. 
The ruinous Gin craze of the 17th Century destroyed many lives in St Giles.

Some claim highwayman Claude Duval was buried at St Giles after being hung at Tyburn in 1670.
Earlier, many Londoners accused St Giles' dwellers for starting the Great Plague of 1665.
The church started out as a hospital for lepers.
St Giles was also thought to have been a Saxon village and a Roman burial ground.
Aptly, given its inhabitants' tortuous history, St Giles was named after the patron saint of outcasts. 

Bovis and Stanhope's joint development will offer new offices, private and 'affordable' homes, shops, restaurants, cafés and a public piazza.
Central Saint Giles replaces the demolished St Giles Court office block. 
Built in the early 1950s,the old block housed the former Ministry of Aviation. 
In recent years, spiked railings and banks of CCTV cameras protected this Cold War remnant. 
Grimed net curtains concealed a vast array of darkened, seemingly empty rooms. Mysteriously, lights could be seen shining from one upper floor.
To add to its mystery and menace, I've heard it was still being used by MI5, er...sorry, the Ministry of Defence. 
Only falling London Plane tree leaves, the odd beer can and wandering plastic bags evaded the railings. 
Look closely at the tree branches in the photo (above). 
The mysterious block might've disappeared but you can see that 'witches knickers' still like to visit St Giles. 

Want to see for yourself? Nearest tube:Tottenham Court Road.
Nearest cool coffee place? Ola, on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Photo (above) shows Central Saint Giles, the white buildings next to Centre Point, as shown on the huge model of London displayed at The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, WC1. The blue line shows the Crossrail route east and west of Tottenham Court Road. Of course, Crossrail will run underground beneath central London!

Nearest cool coffee place: Er...the coffee bar in the foyer of The Building Centre!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Carrots and homes, sticks and jobs

I’ve learnt recently that some London councils might begin to favour unemployed council home seekers if they agree to actively look for work or sign up to training courses, writes Paul Coleman. Distilled, councils want to say:  'If you want the council to find you a home, then help yourself by getting into training or find a job.' 

It’s a carrot and stick manoeuvre to try and reverse a situation where social housing has become a refuge for people who aren't working.  Andrew Baikie, Newham’s lead councillor for housing, tells me his east London borough is looking at legal ways to give added weight to jobless council home applicants who can show they’re seeking, obtaining and - crucially - holding down a job. 

Newham, like most councils, allows applicants to choose and pursue tenancies through a Choice Based Lettings scheme. Applicants are more likely to be successful if they've enough points or are in the right 'band'. “I think one of our CBL options may be to put in a new housing band,” hints Baikie. “If people need to find work to get into a particular housing band, that might work.”

However, another idea is that working age members of families in temporary accommodation who show no intention of finding work might have to wait longer for a council place than those who do want to train or work. “There’s a need for the right blend of carrot and stick,” says Baikie.

Another plan is to offer shorthold tenancies to younger jobless members of overcrowded households once they've agreed to join a training scheme. A typical target is a jobless young man, aged 20 or over, who lives with his parents and siblings in a cramped home. 
But will the smaller ‘harder to let’ housing association flats on offer be enough to lure unemployed young people into training? Over 80% of new housing association tenants under 25 are jobless. It’s a plan being hatched by London councils, including Camden. 

Housing law says local councils must consider every application; and that's unlikely to change. 
But these discretionary London schemes are catching the eye of national politicians on the look out for vote-winning policies for 2010. 

As always, your thoughts are welcome.
You can read more about this approach to council housing in an article I've written for the November 2009 edition of 24 housing, a magazine for housing professionals. Or you can visit www.24housing.co.uk

Friday, 27 November 2009

No newts is good news

Thought I'd share with you some birds' eye views of the 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford, east London. (Just click on each image to big them up!) Excuse the poor quality. I snapped these on 28 October, a damp and dull morning.

Games events at the Olympic Stadium (above) will attract 80,000 capacity crowds. Another 17,000 will be seated beneath the Pringle-shaped roof of the Aquatics Centre (below).

My vantage point was a balcony at the top of the Omega Works apartment block on Fish Island (see photo on previous post). The Olympic Delivery Authority leases a flash penthouse to give hacks and snappers an overview of one of Europe’s biggest ever construction sites. Apparently, Amy Winehouse is a neighbour. But Amy wasn't home so my host was Hugh Sumner, the ODA's Transport Director. Over 400,000 people could rock up at Stratford on busy Games days. If transport chaos ensues, the buck will stop with Sumner. 

However, I found Sumner to be bullish. The ODA’s Transport Plan will work, he told me. You can't argue  with a confident man, though I did try. You can read my encounter with Sumner in the latest edition of RAIL magazine (Issue 631. A few copies still grace WH Smith’s shelves).

The 633-acre Olympic Park site once comprised filthy canals and rivers, silting through a labyrinth of roads, rail lines, sidings, goods yards and a rail freight terminal. It was dotted with allotments, a greyhound stadium, derelict land, warehouses, and salvage yards. For folks in possession of hundreds of used car tyres, the river was a popular dumping spot.

The low-lying, marshy land needed extensive decontamination for the Games. Immense ‘soil hospitals’ processed site soils and canal silt for reuse (above). 
Over 200 buildings were demolished.
Power cables were moved into two new 6km tunnels. 
Overhead pylons were removed. 
New sewerage pipes was installed. 
Thickets of invasive Japanese knotweed were destroyed. 
Before the diggers tasted earth, the ODA proudly boast 2000 newts and 100 common toads were ‘translocated’ from the rivers. 
‘Cute newts scoot’ croaked the front page headline of Pond Life...

More about London 2012 in future posts.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Your train is now leaving Hiroshima

A grizzly archaeologist discovered an elephant's skeleton in the mud of the Ebbsfleet Valley. 
He sported designer stubble, a leather fedora and a bullwhip.
‘Digging up this elephant is a mammoth task,’ he said.
‘I’m taking a break from kicking Nazi arses,’ he added.
‘By the way, archaeologists make good spouses; the older you get the more interested in you they become.’

The elephant is relevant, writes Paul Coleman.
Herds of Palaeoloxodon Antiquus once roamed the Garden of England in the Palaeothic era, long before there was a garden or even an England.
Unfortunately, Palaeoloxodon Antiquus' remains are too fragile to risk public display.
C’mon, most of us would feel a tad Antiquus after being crushed in muddy sediment for 400,000 years.

The elephant isn’t malevolent.
Peacefully, a model Palaeoloxodon now lives inside Ebbsfleet International railway station’s light and airy concourse.
The station hall and mall straddles the tracks of High Speed 1, Britain’s one and only high speed railway. Eurostars hurtle you along these tracks when you’re off to Paris for a romantic weekend - or to Brussels to get bored.

It’s Thursday lunchtime.
Ebbsfleet International is very impressive but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
Shops? Hmmm…
Bars? No. Er...
Passengers! That’s it!
A handful of Eurostar and Southeastern trains staff outnumber travellers.
Later, I tell a rail industry insider about the elephant at Ebbsfleet.
He chuckles, ‘Is it white?’

Go nose to tusk with Palaeoloxodon.
It’s a scaled-down model standing in a glass case plonked in front of a full-size mock-up of a Class 395 high speed train.
Class 395s will be called ‘Javelins’ during London’s 2012 Olympic Games.
A fleet of 29 six-car Javelins - ordered, built and delivered - will speed an estimated 25,000 Olympics spectators per day to Stratford International, the flagship station just yards from the Olympic Village.
And the journey time from St Pancras International?
A whip-cracking seven minutes.

My scheduled Javelin - 395017 - forms the 1207 from St Pancras International to Ebbsfleet International.
Javelins are sleek, aerodynamic, and shiny blue.
Their aluminium body shells impact relatively lightly on High Speed 1’s tracks.
The single leaf door slides back.
I step into the vestibule of the first car behind the driving cab.
It’s a bright, powder blue interior with no frills.
Functional yet comfortable.

Eventually, I find a seat fully aligned with a window.
I’m keen to see as much of Stratford International’s deep station box as 140mph will permit.
Martin, the on-board Train Manager, checks my £12.50 return ticket.
A six-car Javelin can carry 348-seated passengers and another 200 standing. But today’s 1207 carries more air than folk.
Martin has counted the passengers on one hand.
He disappears into the second car.
I’m on my todd.

With a soft click, 395017 eases away from an empty Platform 11.
Bang on time.
The driving cab and carriage glides from underneath the station canopy into flaring autumn sunlight.
The Javelin curves gracefully eastward, passing over long boats moored on the Regent’s Canal.

Javelins are dual voltage; they can collect electrical power from two sources.
To run at 140 mph (225 kmh) rooftop pantographs rise to make contact with High Speed 1’s overhead 25kV AC power lines (above photo).
Javelins can also run at 100 mph (160 kmh) on 750V DC third rails across Kent.
That’s good news for commuters in Ramsgate, Dover, Folkestone, Canterbury, Ashford and Ebbsfleet. Train operating company Southeastern plan to run a full domestic timetable running between these towns and London from December 13.
Watch out though. Southeastern, who lease the Javelins from owners HSBC Rail (UK), could whack a 35% premium on the Javelin fare.
Vastly reduced journey times could come at a hefty price.

Javelins also use regenerative brakes; when a Javelin brakes its traction motors feed current back to the supply system. Over my head all that power hums into the train as 395017 accelerates powerfully through
London Tunnel 1. After just five minutes the train is racing through Stratford International’s new, expensive yet still unused platforms. Only dust stops at this station.
Although Stratford International is as long as Tottenham Court Road, it’s just a flash of blurry light.
Breaking out of London Tunnel 2, the Javelin rapidly brings Ford’s at Dagenham into view, then the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge at Dartford and Rainham Marshes. All quickly vanish.
Apart from a few seconds of lateral wobbles, it’s an effortlessly smooth ride.
The Javelin passes my crude coffee cup test. No spillage.
The 395 glides to a soft halt at Ebbsfleet International, merely 17 seamless minutes after leaving St Pancras.

Just before I get off, I look down at the vestibule floor.
Embossed on the plate at the foot of the doorway is one word.
This entire 29-strong Javelin fleet has travelled from afar.
Not just from the fleet’s overnight maintenance depot at Ashford.
Not simply from Southampton’s East Dock hauled by freight trains.
The first Javelin – 395001 - arrived in August 2007.
The last – 395029 – was carefully rolled off MV Tamesis on 17 August, 2009.
All 29 sets were shipped to the United Kingdom - via Panama - from the Japanese port of Kobe.
Hauled to Kobe from Hitachi’s train-building factory at Kasado.
That’s 12,772 miles (20,600 kilometres).
Surely, one of the world’s longest ever train journeys.

Alistair Darling selected Hitachi as the preferred builder of Britain’s first fleet of domestic high speed trains back in November 2004. A £250 million order, financed by HSBC Rail (UK), was duly placed in June 2005.
The Transport Secretary’s decision raised more fury than eyebrows.
Why couldn’t these trains be built by British train-builders at Alstom’s train manufacturing plant at Washwood Heath in Birmingham?
Or at Bombardier’s train factory at Derby?
After all, British engineers have been building trains for over 150 years.
British firms exported trains worldwide.
Britain invented railways!

Darling’s Hitachi dalliance stoked a fiery reaction from working people in the West Midlands. In June 2003, Alstom, a transport engineering giant backed by the French government, proudly announced it had won a £100 million contract to build new trains for London Underground’s Jubilee Line. The very next day, the company dropped its bombshell, revealing the new trains would be built overseas.
Worse still, Alstom decided to permanently close the vast 150-year-old factory at Washwood Heath, tipping 1,200 vastly skilled and experienced train engineers, fitters and livery decorators onto the tough West Midlands labour market.

Back in 2004 I remember listening to guys like David Scragg, Bob Charles and David Evans on Washwood Heath’s shopfloor. They’d just helped Alstom to build a fleet of 53 tilting Class 390 Pendolinos for Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains. We walked out of the factory gates and past Alstom’s offices on Leigh Road heading towards the Cross Guns pub. Bob Charles, a fitter, lamented: “Many of these men are in their fifties. When they walk out of here, they and their train-building skills are never coming back.” (See Rail Professional, December 2004)

Today, Pendolinos continue to clock up thousands of journey miles between London and Glasgow but Alstom’s 56-acre Washwood Heath plant is now owned by St Modwen. The property developer has renamed the plant, Heartlands Park.
It’s a total misnomer.
Washwood Heath’s heart was ripped out six years ago.

Whatever happened to Scragg, Charles and Evans and the rest of those 1200 likely lads?
What became of the people they used to be?
One day soon, hopefully, I’ll catch up with them.

As for the future of train building in Britain, well maybe, just maybe, there might still be hope.
Cock-a-hoop Hitachi believe their Javelins represent a potentially lucrative entry into the European train market. Of course, the Javelins’ need to punctually and reliably operate Southeastern’s full timetable.
Enter the smidgeon of hope.
Britain’s reliable yet ageing inter-city fleet of High Speed Trains (built 1976-85), Class 91s and Mk 4 coaches will be replaced from 2013 with 1,400 coaches.
The Intercity Express Programme is a mammoth £7.5 billion deal with the Department for Transport.
The government has selected Agility Trains to design, build and maintain this new Super Express Train fleet. Agility is a consortium of Barclays, John Laing and…you’ve guessed it – Hitachi.
But where will they be built?
Bombardier’s Derby factory?
Now, don’t be silly.
Or the Land of the Rising Sun?
You’ve guessed right again.
Well, almost.
Hitachi says the first 70 vehicles will be completely built in Japan.
Robots and 20 workers will weld the remaining body shells for shipment to the UK.
Once in Blighty, 200 or so engineers will install equipment into those remaining SET shells.
Hitachi, as Agilty Train’s main shareholder, says it’s looking at one of three sites for a new factory – Gateshead, Sheffield and Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Until the DfT signs the final agreement, it’s still all very corporate and hush-hush.
Up-in-the-air stuff.

Meanwhile, I'm struck by one final thought as I enjoy my high speed Javelin ride back to London. 
Would trains built in Britain ever be allowed to run in Japan?
That’s about as likely as discovering a dead elephant at Ebbsfleet.

Copyright: Paul Coleman, London, October 2009

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Behind Gate 14, Beyond 2012

Welcome to Hackney Wick, a largely forgotten nook of London that doesn’t really do visitors or tourists. Not even on a bright, blue-sky Saturday afternoon in September. Just cyclists, joggers and one or two, like me, tentatively walking, writes Paul Coleman. Likewise, I don’t find a white post on White Post Lane but a mash of scrap metal merchants, car spares dealers, anonymous warehouses and at one end, a set of big blue gates. ‘Olympic Park. Gate 14’, says a placard on the gates that block access to the Lee Navigation and to the 500-acre construction site for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Drawn by a glimpse of water and towpath, I skulk through a brick archway next to the big blue gates. The top of a fire escape offers a good spot to watch teams of rowers in sculls skimming southward over the bottle green surface of the Lee Navigation. A jogger in a white T-shirt, pounding the far towpath, runs past a ferocious creature with craggy teeth, undulating pink lips and angry eyes focused on a yellow clothes peg stuck on its nose.  It’s not a Lee Navigation Monster but a garish, nightmarish slab of graffiti covering half the wall of an abandoned four-storey building. The green and steel grey carcass of the International Broadcast Centre rises in the mid-distance beyond in the Olympic Park.

Firing off a few more photos, I hear the sound of footsteps and so discretely stash the camera out of sight. Two men sidle down a small opening to the right of the gates, crossing over the Lee. Curious, I follow. They head off to the right, down towards the towpath but my interest is diverted straight ahead by a gleaming, hi-tech and menacing structure, incongruous in the midst of this fraying neglect and fester.  It’s a 2012 Olympic Park security outpost with stark black turnstiles, identity card swipe machines and some weird looking boxes. It looks like Darth Vader’s front door.

Two young security guards, wearing yellow hi-visibility jackets and white safety helmets, curtail my approach towards the checkpoint. The young man offers me directions back along the towpath and then onto the Greenway. “You can get a better view of the Olympic Stadium from up there,” he advises. “Thanks for your help,” I reply, looking over his shoulder. The security point looks similar to the checkpoint used outside the Houses of Parliament. Signs inform Olympic Park construction workers and site visitors that from October entry will only be possible after they’ve had their fingerprints scanned by biometric technology. “People with disabilities, with injured hands, will have their faces scanned instead,” the guard says.

Surprisingly, he leads me right to the gate, lifts the lid on one of those strange black boxes and shows me the cashpoint-type keypad where identity card pin numbers must be entered. Beneath the keypad sits the hand and finger pad where thousands of construction workers – and Olympic bigwigs like Seb Coe and John Armitt – will have to splay their palm and fingers so that the biometric technology can verify they rightfully own the identity card. “Security is very tight,” the guard adds, deliberately shutting the box before I could snap a photo. “We’ve even got Gurkhas doing security around the Park.” Sunday newspapers have claimed the Gurkhas on 24/7 patrols around the entire 2012 site perimeter are being paid only £7.45 an hour, leading to charges that Olympic security subcontractors are exploiting these heroes from the wars in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Turns out, the guard is a local lad, from Limehouse, working to support his father, brothers and sisters. He’s happy to break the monotony of his 12-hour shift with some conversation. “Not many local people like me are interested in working here,” he says. “I tell my mates about vacancies but they’re too lazy. They don’t want to work – happy to live on benefits, off the taxpayer. That ain’t me. I’ve got more self-respect.” That’s interesting, as last weekend I heard the Olympic Delivery Authority’s chairman John Armitt say that 20 per cent of those working on site are local people. Seems like this young guard owes his career start to the 2012 Games. But just how far will the Games and its legacy dismantle local worklessness in east London?

A few minutes later, on a lonely stretch of towpath right next to the Olympic Park, I meet some of the local youths who, people like Armitt and Coe confidently chime, will benefit from the Games and its pontificated legacy. I’d seen these three lads earlier on the towpath. They’d cycled past me as I was taking a photograph of an imposing housing development that dominates Fish Island, (see photo) the bend in the river where the Lee Navigation joins the Hertford Union Canal.  When they cycled past me again, I was blissfully distracted by the flitting sky blue abdomen of a magnificent male Emperor Dragonfly. Sadly, the lads weren’t interested in my photos, Emperors or their job prospects in light of the Games. They were solely intent on jacking my camera and my rucksack and introducing me directly to the dark green and weed-ridden water. Towpaths are places where opportunistic muggers flourish - even those right next to £9.3 billion Olympic construction sites surrounded by security guards and CCTV cameras.

Luckily for me, lads, you're not very subtle as you scope me as your intended victim. Yes, you’ve picked an isolated stretch; just far enough away from all that Olympic Park hi-tech security and manpower. Three against one are also good odds from your point of view but signalling your intent within earshot and with too much eye contact isn’t very clever. ‘You grab him and I’ll grab his bag,’ I hear one of you say as you all ride past me.

You also foolishly gave me valuable minutes to jog off the towpath up onto the Greenway, the embankment enclosing the Northern Outfall Sewage system that runs through the Games site.  The security guard at Gate 14 is right. There’s a good view of the Olympic Stadium from this point on the Greenway. Forgive me though, I'm not admiring the view. I stop and face the three bandit musketeers.

Guys, you cycle right past me – not daring to come too close. I could say you are intimidated by my smouldering rage and physical presence. But such a vain tale of my heroism would be false. In truth, I suspect it's the bulky Gurkha security guard standing behind me in his yellow hi-visibility jacket that puts you off.

Later, breathing easier, I’m standing on the platform at Pudding Mill Lane station waiting for a Docklands Light Railway train to speed me to the City. I look at the Olympic Stadium and stare at a freight train trundling more building materials to the vast site.  One thought troubles me. An Olympics legacy company is about to start fathoming out objectives and strategies. Will this body ensure the benefits of the 2012 London Games flow across the Lee and down White Post Lane into the lives of Hackney Wick folk whether they currently work or laze, toil or rob? It’s a £9.3 billion question - and right now the view across the tracks looks better than the view from the river.

Words and photos: Copyright of Paul Coleman, London 2009.