Thursday, 20 November 2014

A better railway for the North York 19th November 2014

Track back in my blog to 2010 and I was attending events about rail development in which the North East was being left behind. It has been a regular thread thereafter. Since then my drift has been that whilst the Northern franchise has in fact experienced growth on a standstill basis, for all the talk of devolution and rail spend, the North East has not gained much.

The track record of improvements since Sunderland Metro (a double edged sword in 2002) is exactly what? New trains for FTPE, James Cook Memorial Hospital Station, anything else? A lot of talk about re-opening the Blyth and Tyne and the Leamside (which has been lifted meantime).

So I found myself despatched to York last night for an evening event on the theme organised by the Campaign for Better Transport. There were a lot of people, some quite high powered. A senior civil servant Julie Mills stood in for the minister Claire Perry held at Westminster on a three line whip. The head of  Rail North David Brown chief executive of Merseytravel was a speaker. CEO's from Northern and Transpennine were likewise.

Mood music was good, the Twitter feed was lively, but what did we learn? The DfT is willing to work with Rail North as the franchise manager. People accept some new diesel trains are needed. Planning for growth is essential. That was all agreed. A sleugh of schemes in North West England are in train including major electrifications, Colne Skipton will likely re-open. The Todmorden West curve is a good thing. Trams are being built hither and thither in Greater Manchester.

What was in this for the North East? Exactly nothing on the table although today Northumberland County Council does announce it intends to commit £10 a million a year for each of the next three years to Blyth and Tyne re-opening.

The reason why the North East is not high in the pecking order is blindingly obvious. The civil servant said as much. It does not have a strategy, it has some disorganised wish lists. Neither ANEC nor the LEP have managed to set out a comprehensive rail development plan for North East England. No wonder my hopes that the work of Heaton depot forms a mini franchise for the area go no-where fast.

The challenge for our politicans is simple, they have to work together and fast to get up to speed with what is happening elsewhere in the North if we are not to be in the also ran category. Thankfully a good number of people from the North East had travelled. User groups from Morpeth, the Tyne Valley (three of us), Coastliners, a Northern Echo reporter, three local government officers, Alex Nelson of Chester Le Track were there. But not one North East politician I think. So if you want electric trains in the Tyne Valley, an expanded Metro, stations for Washington and Peterlee and Ferryhill, a local service north of Chathill connecting Belford and Berwick regularly to Alnmouth and Morpeth, the Ashington Blyth & Tyne, the end of the Pacer, an Oyster card for the North East, those who are our politicans at county and government levels are really going to have to start working together. Some are, our Guy Opperman MP is energetically pressing the case for rail investment in the North East. What other MPs should I add to that hall of fame? There are some candidates, Ian Lavery, David Anderson, maybe some others? But Nick Brown whose constituency covers Heaton depot. I did hear Nick Forbes leader of Newcastle City is about to join the Rail North board. Craig Johnston and the RMT were at the event (he asked a question in forum) flagwaving for the cause of the investment and the jobs it creates.

Things are changing I think for the right direction, but there is a long long way to go before I feel that what happens in the Humber Mersey axis happens in the York Berwick corridor. Regional Intercity was being touted. Liverpool Manchester going electric cited. Then think of our version Middlesbrough Newcastle with the city of Sunderland between. An hourly Pacer which then trots onto the Tyne Valley where even a Pacer's maximum speed is more than the line can handle.

Sunday, 9 November 2014


Writing for Remembrance Sunday 2014
Still quiet subdued colours
Of a November Day.
How did humans choose to end
Their war in November,
My month?
My day is the first
Of this month,
All Saint’s Day
My birthday and Remembrance Sunday
Both remember the many
And not the select few.
My written view
Is that of the many
Moving off to War.
Below me is the railway
Along which many travelled
Never to return.
They made their unknowing
Last Journey.
Up the hill is the track
Of Hadrian’s Wall
Where violent civilised men
Defined a line between
Barbarians and Empire.
A border which my poetic hero
Of borders and living on the other side
W. H. Auden utterly understood,
He who did his best to circumvent
World War Two
But lived through
World War One
And went to the
Sino Japanese and
Spanish Civil Wars.
He who used the Pennine metaphor
To understand the Human Condition.
John Taverner’s “Fragments of a Prayer”
Plays from “Children of Men”
A future fantasy of triumph in defeat
Ever the Christian Story.
Our celebration this
Remembrance Sunday
Is unique.  Two of the church’s
Teenage children will be
Baptised this afternoon.
Jesus Christ will not be defeated.
One of those children is my daughter.
We stare death in the face and live.
That is our Gospel.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Who should run a library?

Last Thursday night in a surrogate role on behalf of my wife Fiona I attended a debate by CILIP North East . The motion was "This house believes a volunteer run library service is better than no service at all". Four people voted for the motion of whom I was one, fourteen voted against and there was a non voting panel of five. So 23 people had assembled in Newcastle on Tyne to debate this important subject. There's a message there. Now had the motion been "This house believes that any library without a chartered librarian responsible for its provision is no library service at all", I would have voted for it.
Perhaps arrogantly I think there is a ready made answer to the whole issue and it is one that requires the Library profession to make a radical change, certainly those within it engaged in local authority funded libraries. The answer comes out of the experience of the last fifty years of the railway industry, There was an inherent mistake in the opening motion. It was to put the emphasis on the word "volunteer" and not to use the word "professional". In so doing it threw the focus onto job protection, unionism and politics. This is entirely misconceived. For all sorts of clear reasons, the world of public library provision is changing radically just as the railway industry was forced too in the 1960s.
On Thursday night, you could pickup the sense that people felt a library service was only "safe" and "effective" in the hands of paid employees. I would suggest few industries are as safety critical as running a railway. And rafts of legislation and accreditation have arisen at every level on the railway to certify that everyone involved should know what they are doing. That legislation operates not on the basis of paid/volunteer but on the basis, are you a public railway or not? As the public network contracted in the 1960s, a new type of railway appeared. That run by locally based groups, often all or part volunteer led. But such railways were/are not exempt from the operating legislation. It took British Railways something over a decade to get comfortable over this, but to its credit, the entire railway industry, now part privatised and very diverse, has.  Quite rightly the core Network today is fully employee led. However volunteers do function even within that in two areas. One is the marketing and promotion of designated Community Railways. The other is in the operation of heritage trains over the main network. These are both complex areas of operation, especially the second, yet the whole panoply of professionalism has been applied. So when a North Yorkshire Moors train runs over Network Rail to Whitby and Battersby, considerable volunteer input is involved, but every function is fully professionally accredited. The interworking of Network and heritage operations occurs in several places throughout the UK. It has done so since the Bluebell Railway and British Railways shared Horsted Keynes station from 1960. It happens regularly at Grosmont, Sheringham, Swanage to mention a few.
Beyond the interworking of the Network and the heritage sectors, there is a now vast area of independent heritage railway operations unconnected to the Network. Some random examples, the Snowdon Mountain Railway (never a part of British Rail), the South Tynedale Railway at Alston, the lengthy and wholly isolated Llangollen Railway running from there to Corwen. The list would bore you. All of these are regarded as statutory railways, just as there are statutory libraries. They all have to perform professionally and they all are subject to exactly the same HSE inspections as the main Network.Had this change not been made,a very considerable number of communities in Britain would have no rail service at all. I name a few CONNECTED to the national network thereby: Dartmouth, Swanage, Minehead, Grantown on Spey, Pickering, Haworth, Rawtenstall, Holt, Bridgnorth and Bewdley.
Over 60 years, this partnership, has first been created and then made to work in one of the most safety conscious of British industries. It is very rare on the railway network, you hear people second besting the employee and the volunteer, they are all professionals. That is the lesson that Britain's Library profession will have to learn now in the 21st century, if it is not to become a dinosaur.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Greater Manchester

In 1986 my first curatorial job was abolished by Mrs Thatcher. It was with West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council. I profoundly disagreed with her policy then. Much of my life since then has been spent under the shadow of how to progress the Northern cities. Today the governing coalition is cementing a major step in writing that wrong. All credit to Greater Manchester for achieving this. The problem for me is that Prudhoe borders Tyne & Wear. TW was always too small and too full of Newcastle and Sunderland warring. Steps are being taken to rise above this, there is a North East Combined Authority sort of getting into gear. But it does not include Tees Valley and I will suggest until it does it will never have the clout it needs. I will also suggest a city like Glasgow would do well to learn from Manchester rather than hope that a shift to hard left Nationalist politics will resurrect its fortune.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The fight is not worth more than a relationship

Today, as I am not infrequently, I was worshipping in Stocksfield Baptist Church. Some slight added significance as our daughter will be baptised there in a few weeks. I was slightly anxious in advance as the sermon was to be on Samson. The preacher was Mark Bonington from the King's Church in Durham. Matters got off to a bad start for me since a newsletter from The Christian Institute was staring at me from a chair in front. (Rather relevantly my wife intervenes at this point and says "The Kingdom is not won in a law court".) I have several issues with The Christian Institute. The assumption it makes of itself that it represents all Christians is rather presumptive when I rather guess the Orthodox and Catholic Christian might have something to say? At times the issues it raises like the persecution of Christians in the Middle East are matters of great moment. At other times they strike me as pure folly. The story of the Ulster Bakers is one such. And this was staring up at me. In a province renowned for its ability to see community willingly setting onto neighbouring community, and with myself nursing a long standing Ulster Unionist heritage, to read a tale of how a volunteer LGBT activist and Asher's bakery are squaring up to a legal battle raised my hackles. I cannot conceive how Jesus would wish his followers to argue about cakes, still less clog up the Ulster legal system with caselaw on the matter. Both sides strike me as cracked. To them the fight is worth more than the relationship. Why should a progressive body of gay campaigners feel there is anything to gain by taking this on? And why do Christians find themselves incapable of solving the situation outside a law court. Just bake the cake and get on with it.

This mindset was an unfortunate preparation for Mark Bonington's sermon. In truth he did not preach an outrageous sermon and indeed it was quite time controlled. For instance there was only one finally before the final finally. The text was the story of Samson and Delilah (not a Tom Jones' song it was pointed out, although was not Tom Jones brought up in Welsh chapels?). It did not go well from my viewpoint. The dangers of nagging women were brought up.  The actual exposition of the text was perfectly straightforward, that God achieves his purpose even when man frustrates and abandons his God.

But what went wrong was what was unsaid. Samson, Delilah, the Jews and Philistines is a contemporary story of nations unable to relate and content to be proud of disproportionate gore. That which the authors of Judges are proud of is exactly what the Middle East conflict suffers from in 2014. The preacher did point out that the setting of the story was Gaza and then failed to mention one syllable of the idea that thousands of innocents died in Gaza this summer at the hands of God's people. I cannot conceive of Jesus standing in front of us and not having anything to say on the linkage.

Why did Jesus walk this earth? Surely it was to say that the fight of the sword was not worth more than the duty of creating relationship imposed upon the Children of God. The problem of the Old Testament is exactly the problem of Gaza today. People who believed that their faith in God did not give them a message of grace and liberation to those who they met, but instead entitled them to dispossess and kill. When you adopt an ethos of this divine entitlement you liberate a cancer and that has been the story of the Middle East since the West's support of Zionism in the 1920s (actually for rather longer with the occasional intermission).  I have no objection to Jews living in Palestine. I am sure Jesus would say all communities should live at peace and grace in the Holy Land. But do you see Jesus saying that it is fine to live on land without legal title to it?

All these thoughts swirled through my hand as the pretty unpleasant tale of Samson's denouement was described. Gouged eyes, bound to a grindstone, he manages in death to kill more than he killed in life including the little boy who he got to advise him about pillars. And of course the immediate advent of Delilah is a tale of a pretty woman who is a prostitute and waylays Samson. Yes, let us get it in for the sex workers along the way.

In the end, I did preach myself a sermon, not the sermon of the preacher, but my own sermon that linked the story of Samson, to the story of Gaza in 2014, the LGBT community and the bakers of Northern Ireland and my utter conviction that religion has to abandon nutterdom. Period. I go to the church, for the people, for the amazing work done for the church's children, for the enthusiasm, for the love, for the evangelical faith, we have good news to offer. But I don't go to have my fears re-inforced, my tribe vindicated. In conclusion for any sermon on the story of Samson and Delilah to be preached in 2014 and not to mention the Arab Isreali conflict of this year is to be marked a fail. It is at the level of Mr Milliband being unable to bring himself to mention the national deficit in his leader's speech at party conference. The duty is to preach a gospel about how grace and faith in Jesus is a tool for overcoming seeming irreconciliable enmity. And on this very day Ian Paisley's memorial service in the Ulster Hall proved that point.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Alan Henning

Alan Henning has been murdered so we must pray for him, his family and his murderers. What else must Britain do? The prime minister vows to use all necessary means to bring the murderers (and behind them ISIS) to justice. At I quote a letter, the tenor of which is both: much of this conflict is totally ununderstandable but then even so the West is ultimately to blame. Two matters are present here, the complicated philosophy of causality and the urgent need of what to do. On causality the letter is very persuasive, ultimately however it is appeasement. These events take place on the border of a NATO member. They take place on lands where for a 100 years Britain or France has been deeply involved (and that is putting it simply). To fail to respond extremely forcibly to such murderous barbarism is to invite the movement to expand and ultimately work on our own streets. In the past this sort of insanity was present, it is not new. It happened in the 19th century. At those times we had the power to project. If you compare this to Khartoum, you would build a railway, assemble ships, march in a relieving force. It is hard to think Britain can do this now. ISIS essentially claim 8 Tornados "caused" them to murder Alan.

So what do I think needs to happen. At a deeper level we need to accept that the ease with which certain Islamicist groups resort to disproportionate violence has to be tackled. It has been there for a long time. To say that Salman Rusdie (himself with a Muslim background) was one victim is to hardly go far back in history. Islam says it is a religion of justice, its adherents (and I am sure many agree) must then insure all its member behave with great justice, and not pervert justice into barbaric inhumanity.

And since history suggests we are in this for the long haul. We need to re-arm, I think every military commentator I have heard, has said that only a well trained Western style army can get in there with any speed and wrest back the communities involved. It is a very unpleasant prospect and I assure you I would be the world's worst soldier despite my father's example. But if we will not do this and ISIS prevails, initially their barbarism will be both writ across the Middle East and as our own British nationals show, it will be exported back to us in person. The murderer was British. It is astonishing. Like the recent referendum this suggest deep unsettlement with our national British identity.

So the bottom line, if ISIS is to be consigned to history, expect an expansion in Britain's armed forces despite all the recent cost cutting. Not just to work in the Middle East but there is also the rather forgotten matter of the Nigerian girls, a former colony and one with a large British community with us. My brother is married to a Nigerian. We are responsible and we should act there too, if Goodluck Jonathan would let us.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The neverendum lives

Unfortunately its the neverendum again! Last week Salmond said he accepted the democratic verdict, that was it for a "generation" and he resigned his jobs. Possibly the laws of fecundity are different north of the Border but this week it is a different story. Buoyed by the most amazing recruitment success in history which followed the SNP defeat (not kidding) AS now announces how it all hinges on next May. Be certain that if the SNP "win" next May, they will succede. It is very simple, either the SNP are voted out next May by the Scots or the Union collapses. Sounds extreme, please don't take my word for it. I am sure the Nationalists who follow this will confirm it. In turn everything will hinge on the Labour party reversing recent performance. There's a chance they will do this. A lot of folk may feel the SNP are pissing them around. Gordon Brown may be back on the trail clunking fist and all. But just before anyone moans about the undemocratic nature of the SNP strategy, bear in mind how Devo Max landed in the referendum campaign. So in short whichever way you feel, it all hinges on next May and that is assuming Devo Max is clearly being delivered by then (and English MPs for English votes IMHO). Personally I hope the wise people of Scotland will realise what is happening and give the SNP an electoral drubbing, otherwise change the flag after all. 

BTW the paper story is slightly different to the online and includes a tweet from Jim Sillars which makes the gameplan utterly clear as does the Facebook page 45 which now has 163,000 likes.