Archive for Subjects I am somewhat informed on

Inexplicable Demands

Posted in Alas the Mystery Remains Holmes, Rantings, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by awickerman

Train operating companies, you would hope, would know something about how the railways work. It is therefore inexplicable why ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) wants a “swift and rigorous” review of railway investment.

This is the British rail industry we’re talking about, nothing is swift and nothing is rigorous. Actually that’s unfair; much rigorous work is done, it’s just always ignored due to the paralysing fear of change or the fact it might cost more money. With the railways already being a colossal money pit (in stark contrast to the roads which turn a ‘profit’ for the government) it’s obvious why rigour is officially discouraged.

Their main points seem to be that the rail/train interface should be under unified control (theirs) and that a more commercially minded approach is needed. The later is debatable, certainly everyone else in the world manages to maintain their railways cheaper than in Britain but I’m not sure that’s a commercial issue. That’s an arse covering, fear of litigation problem. The former though is a common rail complaint which puts ATOC in the unique position of agreeing with the RMT, they both want unified control. It just the RMT want to bring back British Rail while ATOC want a fully privatised railway under their control (and no Railtrack emphatically didn’t count, it was never even slightly independent of government control and interference).

Quite why railwaymen are so keen on train operators controlling the track (or vice versa) I’ve no idea. I know why the RMT want it (nationalise everything!) and why ATOC want it (more money!) but why does anyone else want it, and want it they do. As a counter example no-one argues that air traffic control, runways and airliners should be controlled by the same people so why are the railways special? Indeed as the same people who want unified control normally looks enviously at German railways (with their cunning ‘timetable huge gaps to allow slack’ system) it should be remember that Germany operate a franchise system for train operations. But as that fact is inconvenient it will doubtless be ignored.

For all that getting ATOC involved would be handy, there are dozens of unglamorous but useful jobs that Network Rail aren’t interested in but would help train operation (it should come as no surprise that NR view actual trains as a necessary evil). But as passengers are way down the bottom of the priority list, only just above the taxpayers, there’s sod all chance of that happening.

Railway Costs, Yet another misguided review thereof

Posted in Alas the Mystery Remains Holmes, Even Stevie Wonder Saw That Coming, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , , , on June 16, 2010 by awickerman

Amongst the scintillating reads I receive was this gem, the review into railway costs has, despite reporting early, discovered the well known fact that British railway works costs far more than anywhere else. They’re also expected to report that the Pope has Catholic tendencies, though that has not yet been confirmed.

Sadly after this promising start it appears to go down hill as it starts talking about ‘innovative working’ and other such border line management waffle. While some new thinking would of course be welcome, starting with banishing the Luddite fear of new technology, that is not the real problem. The real problem is summed up by my work on the railways last night.

I arrived on site at 11:45 or so, as is always the case with these things I drove there. (No-one who works on the railways actually uses them, they’re just too inconvenient.) I meet the cast of thousands that is required these days and had a chat with the sparkies (HV electricians) about the books/papers they’d brought to read that night, sparkies only being employed to turn the power off at the start of the night and then on at the end, in between nothing.

Eventually by 12:15 I started wondering when we were going to start, at which point the supervisor turned up and announced the driver hadn’t turned up and as such our nights work was off. Of course the other job was going ahead and had the space for us to tag along, however that wasn’t in the paperwork and so would have been illegal. After checking this was definitely the case I gathered my merry band, gave them the bad/good news and we went home to enjoy a moderately late night and then a day off. Last nights work will be rescheduled as soon as possible as an urgent job, which means in at least 8 weeks time thanks to minimum notice periods.

In those two paragraphs you see all the problems afflicting railway work; the huge number of people needed for even a simple job, the bureaucratic delays, the problem of abortive work where jobs get cancelled on the night but the client still gets charged, the fact ‘urgent’ means ‘in a couple of months’, the paper work which means last minute changes are impossible and most importantly the fact all of this happens alarmingly regularly.

Unless this review deals with those problems, and the real elephant in the room of  the Railway’s horrific approach to health and safety (which is more about paperwork and arse covering for management than safety) it will be just another waste of paper. My hopes are not high.

A Comparison

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Irregular Features, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2010 by awickerman

The new Construction Minister has been announced, a fact I realise is probably of negative interest to most readers, but hey it’s a risk you take reading this blog. First off it should be noted Construction is never actually considered importance enough to get a full time minister, it’s normally combined with a few other areas and then given to a second string Minister of State (or worse an Under Secretary which I believe ranks below ‘tea boy’ in terms of importance)

However let us now compare the current chap and his predecessors and see what we can learn;

Looking over the last few years construction has rejoiced under;

  • Baroness Vadera – Investment Banker who saw ‘Green shots of recovery’ in January 2009. So not even a good banker.
  • Stephen Timms – ex-phone consultant for Logica who is probably most famous for thinking IP address stood for “intellectual property address” despite being Minister for Digital Britain). That or recently being stabbed by a nutter in a Burkha. One or the other anyway.
  • Most recently, Ian Lucas – a personal injury lawyer who has done a lot to work on producing documents on de-carboning construction. Sod all to stop the collapse in orders or haemorrhaging jobs, but maybe I’m being uncharitable. Perhaps he worked out the paperwork wasn’t helping so realised only by decimating UK construction can he cut carbon. No jobs = No carbon.

If these seem unimpressive idiots who know nothing about their brief don’t worry, with nine ministers in less than eight years they don’t have any time to do much serious damage. That also means they can’t do any good either, but that was only ever a theoretical possibility.

So who is the new chap? Well it’s Mark Prisk. He’s been shadowing the job for years, he’s a qualified survey and has actually has worked on construction sites and even ran his own surveying consultancy. Therefore there is massive pressure on his shoulders, should he fail the case for ‘Employing ministers who have had real jobs and who know about their subject’ will take a hefty blow.

Good luck Mr Prisk, a great deal rests on you not being an idiot.

The Entrails are Wrong. As usual.

Posted in Alas the Mystery Remains Holmes, Even Stevie Wonder Saw That Coming, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , on May 13, 2010 by awickerman

Today the High Priests of my employer descended from the boardroom to dispense their wisdom, the augurs had been consulted and the news was bad. The new Conservative-Liberal coalition government was a terrible result for the company and would end badly for everyone.

The reasoning appeared to be that a Labour government would have been good for the firm as they would have continued borrowing money the country couldn’t afford and spending it like it was going out of fashion. That this would lead to national bankruptcy and general misery was ignored by our economic soothsayers for reasons I still don’t really understand.

On the other hand the entrails clearly indicated that David Cameron would undoubtedly slash all infrastructure spending, cancel all spending and we would all be jobless by the end of the year and living in a cardboard box. There was no mention of the Liberals as they were dismissed as frankly irrelevant. (And to be honest, looking at the cabinet posts they got I’m forced to concur)

So what happened today, at almost the exact time the Priests were reciting this prophecy? The new Transport Secretary confirmed CrossRail thus guaranteeing every tunneller in the country a job till 2016 at least. And with High Speed Two also getting heavily promoted there may even be a solid conveyor of mega projects well into the 2020s.

All in all another stunning success for our divine forecasters, the same people who recommended we ‘Go into Property’ and that ‘The Middle East is a booming market’, leading to us ending up with a massive property business in Dubai just before the crash and Dubai bailout. That ended about as well as you’d expect.

What worries me is not that our forecasters are inept, it’s not that we keep employing them, it’s the fact we sell their services to others that scares me. How bad must the competition be?

Excellent News!

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, The Underground, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , on May 9, 2010 by awickerman

The Tube has now fully returned to national ownership, Boris and Transport For London (TFL) have brought out Bechtel and Amey and nationalised TubeLines. While this is bad news for me as a tube user and taxpayer it is outstanding news for me as a tunneller.

On the bad side there is a £310 million hit this year to buy them out (this is pure extra money and so will have to either come from the LUL budget or somewhere else in London) and there is the problem that TFL can’t manage a contract to save their life. All in all I expect to see less improvements costing even more money, hardly a good sign.

However on the plus side we wont have to deal with Bechtel, they are hard arsed contractual bastards and really squeezed their sub-contractors and stuck to deadlines. Tube work on their lines will become a great deal easier and a great deal more profitable for us tunnellers, which is always nice. Sure it wont be as easy as the good old days under Metronet (they were not only inept but also very, very dodgy) but it’ll be close.

I suppose it is technically possible it could work out, there are a few million quid that could be saved on Bechtel’s secondment rate (basically the outrageous rates they charged for using their staff at TubeLines, a fairly cunning tax dodge and PR ploy to artificially lower TubeLines profit while still making money). But that does assume that TFL will raise their game massively and start doing the job to the same high standards, the evidence from their work since Metronet’s nationalisation suggests they’re at best average.

Still those of you who use the tube or  have to pay for it should hope that happens, personally I’m just looking forward to a less demanding client who’s easier to bluff and confuse with long words.

A Day In The Life of a Tunnel Engineer #4

Posted in Irregular Features, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2010 by awickerman

Today was an unusual one as it involved grappling with the question ‘Does that tunnel need closing?’

Technically I’ve done this many times before, every tunnel inspection ends with someone ticking the box marked ‘Tunnel is safe’ on their big compliance sheet, however as you may have guessed from that description of the it’s normally as much for form’s sake as anything else. Certainly it’s very rare to actually find anything of note, all the old Victorian tunnels that were built badly have long since fallen down (leaving only the good ones) and the newer stuff just doesn’t go wrong as there is so little to go wrong.

This time however we received a nice report saying a tunnel had moved a worrying large amount, hasn’t actually stopped moving and is right on the edge of the trigger level marked “COLLAPSE”. The question therefore was should the client close the tunnel or should they throw a load of realtime monitoring at it to try and work out exactly what is going on. We did in the end recommend the latter, if the client had in fact closed this tunnel I suspect it would have made the national news. In fact given the site and it’s history it may even have made it further afield, though who can fathom the world of the news editor’s priority list?

As always with these bits of news I feel I probably can’t go into detail as the company involved would not be impressed, which is something of a shame as it’s the kind of story I just know would make a nice splash in the tabloids and thus get me my few minutes of blogging fame. Ah well.

Safety Priorities

Posted in Almost Beyond Words, Irregular Features, Rantings with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by awickerman

A somewhat regular feature round these parts is the railways and the general ineptitude of all involved. However of all the idiots found on the railways I reserve a special hatred of Bob Crow, a man who richly deserves his place in the Wicker Man.  My problem is not that he only cares about his members to the detriment of everyone else, that is after all his job as a union leader, no my problem is that he doesn’t even care about the safety of his members. I hope this example illustrates why;

This circular recently came round from Network Rail, one of their regular safety advisories telling everyone who ever works on the railway what the latest dangers/accidents/f*cks up are. Normally these are fairly useful but not too shocking (though occasionally they are just outright hilarious, last year we were all officially warned about adders. Snakes on a train anyone?).

This one though shocked the hell out of me, the lookout warning system was so badly designed that a low charge battery would fail the self test but leave the display frozen saying “Status OK”. Given anything on the railways has to go through horrifically expensive and exceptionally drawn out type approval lasting months or often years (hence why it all costs an utter fortune and there is never any choice in what to buy) they really should have caught this. Particularly as the Hun who make it specifically mention hot swapping batteries as a feature. On top of all this the unit was prohibited from all rail operation for many years after a string of dodgy accidents, hell just last year a warning was issued about it’s very counter-intuitive control system. All in all it is not a good unit, it’s hard to use and clearly not properly tested. Frankly it’s dangerous, which is a shame as conceptually it’s a damned good idea, certainly it’s better than blokes with flags shouting and blowing whistles, which is the current NR system for much of the country.

So has anybody from the RMT said anything about this threat to their members? Demanded proper type testing? Perhaps attacked management for sending them out with unsafe equipment? Decried privatisation forcing cost-cutting on safety? Of course not, not even in the specialist press has anyone heard a peep about this. If Bob actually gave a damn about his members safety he might have mentioned it, if nothing else it could be used to support his argument that Network Rail’s modernisation plan rests on untested and possibly dangerous technology, but he clearly doesn’t.  He’d much rather spend time shouting about the evils of rail franchises than actually working to keep his members safe, truly the Wicker Man is too good for him.

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