Tuesday, 17 May 2011

TSSA rail union calls for Elsenham public inquiry

The coalition government's Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is being urged this week to hold a public inquiry into why Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson were killed by a train at the Elsenham level crossing in 2005. 
  Gerry Doherty, general secretary of the transport union TSSA, called on Hammond to act when opening the union's annual conference held in Norwich. Delegates heard Doherty speak about two crucial documents about the level crossing that have only recently 'emerged'.
   The documents show Network Rail and its predecessor, Railtrack, had received danger warnings about safety at Elsenham several years before the tragedy. An earlier fatality at the crossing had occurred in 1989.
  Mr Doherty, speaking about the inquest into the girls' deaths, said: "The inquest was a travesty because neither the coroner, the families nor the Rail Regulator were told about them. If either of these reports had been acted upon these girls would still be alive.
   The Office of Rail Regulation has reopened its inquiry into the tragedy. "We are fully co-operating," said a Network Rail spokesman.

Earlier on May 13, Network Rail, as Railtrack's successor, was fined £3 million and ordered to pay £150,000 costs following an Office of Rail Regulation prosecution for a health and safety offence which caused the deaths of seven people and many more serious injuries when a West Anglia Great Northern train derailed at Potters Bar station on 10 May, 2002. 
   Railtrack was responsible for the infrastructure - and Jarvis was the contracted maintenance firm - when the accident occurred.
   Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said: "People need to remember it was the privatised Railtrack and their contractors who were responsible...Network Rail didn't even exist when the tragedy of Potters Bar occurred...It is the directors of Railtrack and Jarvis - including Steven Norris - who should have been held personally liable...It is a scandal that those really responsible have got away with it.
   "Instead of coming out of the pockets of those actually responsible this £3m will come out of precious public Network Rail funds that could and should have been invested in improving and maintaining safety on our railways.
   "That is an appalling indictment of the way that this whole episode has been handled."

Paul Coleman, London, May 2011.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals at Somerset House

Yesterday (Friday, 13th May) London's pigeons bathed in Somerset House's cool fountain waters and sated themselves on the crumbs falling off the tourists' paninis. The birds didn't seem impressed by artist Ai Weiwei's twelve bronze animal heads but at least they hadn't embellished the sculptures with their trademark tags.
   However, tourists and human rights activists are flocking to the Fountain Court at London's Somerset House to see Weiwei's pieces. The heads recreate the Chinese zodiac sculptures that once surrounded the imperial fountain of Yuanming Yuan in Beijing. 
   Somerset House's wildly optimistic What's On guide says "Ai Weiwei and guests will give an accompanying lecture to coincide with the Circle of Animals...Zodiac Heads installation". Currently, Ai Weiwei's whereabouts are unknown. Chinese authorities arrested Weiwei on April 3. The Chinese government labelled him as a "criminal suspect". 
   People throughout the Europe and the United States have turned Weiwei into a 'hero' of human rights. Flustered governments have voiced concern and dismay at this apparently blatant misuse of state power by the Chinese government. 
   But will such apparent official distaste invoke major foreign policy changes towards China? Boycotting Chinese products, services, markets and investment opportunities doesn't seem likely. China's plentiful supply of cheaper labour remains extremely attractive to European and American manufacturers. Chinese investment in the residential and commercial property markets of European and American cities is highly lucrative for players in the development game. 
   Despite well-intentioned people turning the Somerset House installation turning into a de facto shrine to Weiwei and human rights, London sits right at the heart of much government shedding of crocodile tears for Weiwei. Earlier this week, I heard one property developer describe how members of the Middle East's rich and powerful tyrants, increasingly worried by threats of revolution, are seeking safe havens for their vast fortunes by investing heavily in 'super-prime' residential property in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. 
   Apparently, the property developer said, there's a market catch-phrase circulating that says "every time a rebel mortar bomb explodes in the Middle East, another ten pounds sterling is added to the value per square foot of super luxury apartments and offices in central London". 

Photos: Copyright Paul Coleman 2011 (No re-use without permission).
Paul Coleman, London, May 2011.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Elsenham tragedy could lead to level crossing closures

The Times today (Weds, 11 May) reports that David Higgins, the recently installed chief executive of Network Rail, has ordered measures designed to cut deaths at mainland Britain's 6,452 level crossings. 
   In an article written by transport correspondent Philip Pank, supported by a commentary by Chris Bazlinton and by an editorial, The Times reports that the deaths of teenagers Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson at Elsenham level crossing in 2005 could lead to the closure of hundreds of level crossings.
   Higgins has promised full disclosure to the Office of Rail Regulation of all Network Rail documents that preceded the Elsenham tragedy. The families of Olivia and Charlotte discovered safety assessment documents, including one written as early as 2001, that stated the risk of disaster at Elsenham was real. 
   Chris Bazlinton, Olivia's father, highlights these series of warnings and recommendations contained in documents, which if acted upon, would almost certainly have prevented the deaths. They include:

  • the 2001 expert's memo expressing the high risk of a tragedy at the crossing
  • a 2002 risk assessment calling for consideration to be giving to locking the pedestrian gates when trains passed
  • a report of a 'near miss' at the crossing one month before the tragedy in December 2005

These documents were never shown to the Essex coroner during the subsequent Chelmsford inquest nor were they shown to the regulator or to government rail investigators.

Paul Coleman, London, May 2011

Renzo Piano's Central St Giles and The Shard

I donned the PPE gear and squeezed into the service lift with eleven other souls this afternoon. We zoomed to the top floor of architect Renzo Piano's orange, green and yellow Central St Giles development.

It wasn't the sunniest of days but the views from the penthouse were spectacular. I thought it wise to take a photo of Piano's other stamp on the London skyline, The Shard. As you can see, The Shard is well on its way to becoming Europe's tallest building.

Click on images to enlarge. Photos by Paul Coleman. No re-use without permission.

Paul Coleman, London, May 2011