The charmed life of the software business – or why making things is hard

July 28th, 2015

Software businesses have a charmed life. In almost no other field can you turn your own knowledge, skill and perseverance into a successful, profitable product quite so quickly and easily. That’s not to say that building a successful software business is child’s play – but you are at a significant advantage compared with almost all other forms of business. As someone working in embedded systems, I come into contact with a lot of people with very naive ideas about the challenges of making and shipping a physical product, and I thought I might summarise some of them and look at how best to overcome some of these obstacles. Read the rest of this entry »


Stations galore and electrification, oh my!

February 22nd, 2015

It’s almost certainly because there’s an election coming, but a lot of announcements have appeared in the local media about rail improvements in the Cambridge area. Some are vague promises or very early stage investigations, and some are a bit more concrete.

Let’s start with stuff that’s actually happening right now.

Cambridge station area redevelopment (aka CB1): this is now in full swing. The old police station, the Swiss Laundry, the various buildings in the carpark (the CityRoomz Hotel and Station Cycles) and quite a lot of the old carpark have now been knocked down and torn up. Work has started on the hotel/cycle park building, (which is adjacent to platform 5, occupying what was partly carpark and partly the police station, and the new office/retail building One Station Square is being built where the old short term carpark was. In the mean time, we have a hodgepodge of pedestrian and cycle routes through the remaining carpark and through part of what will become the new access road. I’ve got to say that I’m very disappointed by the way that Brookgate, the developers, have totally failed to engage local people or rail users with what’s going on. Their website is mostly marketing material, and there’s no project timeline or progress blog anywhere. Even worse, big changes have been made to road layouts, cycle parking, car park and pedestrian and cycle routes at very short notice with only quite perfunctory laminated signage. Other works are going on inside the station, but Abellio Greater Anglia and Network Rail are giving out little or no information either. There is supposed to be a larger ticket hall and various changes to the passenger flow through the building, but nothing appears to be published about exactly what will be changed and when.

Cambridge Science Park station: the access road and busway works are due to wrap up pretty soon. The County Council’s project page gives a few details about the project, though mostly concentrates on the access issues. They seem to be very slow to publish the minutes of their liaison meetings, and again there’s no project progress website. The latest news comes from the local paper, with a story saying that the project has been put back by six months, with completion now ready for the December 2016 timetable change. The actual details of rail services to the new station are still “to be decided”, though the “probable service” included the London-King’s Lynn trains, the Stansted-Birmingham, Cambridge-Norwich and the Liverpool St stopping services. I note that the Melbourn, Shepreth & Foxton Rail User Group have been told that “from 2018 our stopping service will terminate at the new station”. 2018 is the year that the stopping service becomes a Thameslink service to Tattenham Corner in Surrey (via central and south London), so it seems likely that the new station’s bay platform will be used for terminating at least one of the two Thameslink train services. Nothing has yet been said about the other Thameslink service from Cambridge to Brighton via Gatwick – that may yet remain at the main station.

East West Rail: the Oxford to Bicester section is nearly finished, with trains due to start running to Oxford Parkway in September. Following a rejig of the trackwork and signalling north of Oxford station, trains will run through to Oxford from the May 2016 timetable change. The construction website is rather poor on progress reporting, but it does make an effort to keep local residents informed about road and path closures and the like. The Bicester-Bletchley section is still at the stage of investigating the state of the existing infrastructure and ecology, but there are now site compounds set up and much more of the trackbed has been cleared. Trains are due to run on this section from March 2019, though only the Oxford-Bletchley section will be electrified at this stage. This might mean an Oxford-MK electric service connecting with the existing Marston Vale Line service to Bedford until the electrification reaches Bedford.

Several new-ish ideas have been firmed up somewhat by an announcement by David Cameron in Cambridge last week. These are:

  • exploring the case to electrify the Felixstowe to Birmingham railway line, launching a new competition for the new East Anglia franchise, considering reviving the Wisbech-March-Ely line and welcoming £260m new private investment at Felixstowe Port
  • government will also extend the study already underway of the East-West Rail (Bedford to Cambridge) to explore the options for the Eastern section of the line and consider the possibility of a new station south of Cambridge at the new Addenbrookes campus. Specifically the study will consider how East West Rail could connect Oxford with Ipswich and Norwich.
  • a “task force” to look into ways of improving the Cambridge-Liverpool Street line, which is currently at capacity.

So, all this points in the direction of improvements in infrastructure and services. Electrification of freight routes to the major ports has been on the agenda for a while, but there are lots of potential passenger benefits from the Felixstowe-Birmingham upgrade. First and foremost it would mean that the line from Cambridge to Peterborough via March is electrified, and that almost certainly will allow for a better passenger service on that route. If completed, it would give Cambridge an all-electric route to the ECML northbound, and also to the soon-to-be electrified Midland Main Line at Leicester and West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton. This gives the potential for electric inter-regional services.

The Wisbech reopening campaign gets useful endorsement here, which is encouraging – and given it’s actually a pretty short branch from March this would again make sense for electrification at reopening if the wires are already going to reach March.

The Felixstowe electrification would also mean that the Ely-Ipswich line would be electrified, and since the Newmarket-Cambridge section is an obvious “infill job” it seems likely that Cambridgeshire and Suffolk will be much better connected with faster electric trains.

The East West Rail announcement is interesting, too – this reads to me like the existing paper studies will be re-run to look at ways of providing more benefit to Norwich and Ipswich. The existing report notes that the top demand for journeys of an hour or so is actually Cambridge-Northampton, and no journeys from Ipswich or Norwich make the “priority journey” rankings. If the study is re-run assuming that the Cambridge-Ipswich and Cambridge-Norwich lines can be upgraded (with higher linespeeds and electrification), it may bring them more into scope. An interesting exploratory report from Network Rail has already mooted the idea of a Norwich-Cambridge-London service which would operate along the same lines as the King’s Lynn service – using the existing hourly fast service from London to Cambridge, with a front portion that continues to Norwich. If this connects well with the eventual Cambridge-Reading service, Norwich gains a second fast route to London and connections across the whole of southern England.

I’m pleased to see that an Addenbrooke’s station has been formally “considered”, too – the County Council have it in their development plans, and the land has been reserved for it in the present development. It should help take pressure off the main station, provide a better service for the new housing in Trumpington and people in South Cambs, and probably also presents a nice opportunity to enhance Cambridge’s southern rail approaches. At the moment, the two lines from London converge at the confusingly-named “Shepreth Branch Junction” just north of Great Shelford. The four tracks briefly become three, and then merge down to two (an unusual case of where facing points on running lines have been used in place of a double junction – this is unusual because it’s considered less safe, as a train could end up routed down the “wrong line” into a head-on collision, though the interlocking should prevent it). Just north of Long Road, the line becomes three tracks again to approach the station. A new station at Addenbrooke’s is likely to cause a bottleneck if it was just built as-is (especially given the increased services once Thameslink starts, and even more so if the East West Rail route ends up being via Royston and Hitchin as seems most likely to my mind), so it seems likely that the whole area would be remodelled, with the two main lines becoming four parallel tracks as far as Addenbrooke’s, and then three or four tracks from there to Cambridge. This allows fast trains to pass slow ones and gives a lot more resilience.

Just to mention the Liverpool St line – it currently feels like the poor relation compared with the King’s Cross route, because the Cambridge services stop everywhere, with no real fast service. The line’s actually completely maxed out in the Lea Valley south of Bishop’s Stortford, not least because the Stansted Express is using a lot of the available paths. There are all sorts of ideas about how to solve this, a lot of which are expensive and involve trying to widen an existing two-track railway into four, which will take a long time to happen. There seems to be some traction around the ideas though, so it may well happen.


What are universities for?

February 16th, 2015

I have been riding a bit of a hobbyhorse about the shortcomings of universities (particularly those in the UK, I’ve less experience of those elsewhere in the world) for a good few years, but it’s taken me a while to settle it into anything like a coherent argument until recently. So, here goes…

What are universities for? I think we might traditionally argue that they are about the pursuit of knowledge, and the distribution of that knowledge to wider society – both via teaching, and via outreach, consulting, spin-off companies, research collaborations, media appearances, expert witnessing and all the other ways that practicing academics share their knowledge with others. They have their origins in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the lecture, with one person speaking andh students taking notes, was originally the only cheap way by which books could be copied: the lecturer dictated from the original, and the students wrote it down. Of course, lecturers took to sharing their margin notes and other thoughts and this evolved into teaching.

But what are they really for? My suggestion is that the 21st century British university is in the business of the pursuit and distribution of reputation rather than knowledge. Let’s unpack that. As an undergraduate student, I apply to study a subject at university partly because of my intrinsic interest in the subject, and partly because I hope very much that having a university degree will help me to get a job. In fact, I choose to apply to the University of Somewhere Famous, because I know that having a degree from U. Famous enhances my reputation much more than a degree from U. Nowheresville would ever do. The admissions tutor eyes my application with a view to deciding whether I, the prospective student, am likely to enhance the reputation of the university in the short, medium and long term. If so, they award me a place. Having worked to complete the course, and hopefully learned something about the subject and some transferable skills along the way, I leave the university with my BSomething from U. Famous, and find that indeed, the borrowed reputation of the university helps to open doors. Once I begin my paid work, the reputation transfer starts to go back the other way – my career helps to enhance the reputation of U. Famous, especially if I go on to be a Notable Alumnus. But even in a graduate level job, the positive experience of my colleagues and managers of my skills and knowledge shapes their impression of U. Famous, and thus I start to pay back the reputation that was loaned to me on my degree certificate.

Of course, universities also undertake postgraduate study and research, but I would argue that these, too, are now about the pursuit of reputation. PhD students are the indentured apprentices of academic research, undertaking much tedious gruntwork on behalf of their supervisors whilst being paid relatively little, and all because of the pursuit of the reputation that a U. Famous PhD will bring them. The lucky few will enjoy the experience, and the majority will feel that it was probably worth all the sleepless nights, frustration and despair in the end (you can tell that I’m a little bitter about my PhD!). But the transition to postgraduate study makes the reputational transaction more complex – if the research results in published papers, that enhances the university’s reputation as being a centre for research (and, in the UK, can directly influence the amount of funding it receives). The new doctor that leaves and seeks a job outside academia benefits from the university’s reputation, and the reputation of the institution of the PhD itself, in their new career, and again repays that reputation to the university as their career progresses.

For those that stay to be post-docs, and those appointed to be faculty, it has become ever more clear that their role is to enhance their personal reputation, and that of their group, department and university, as quickly and effectively as possible. This means bringing in more and larger research grants, publishing more and more peer-reviewed papers, and (perhaps also) speaking in public or in the media where they will of course be credited as “Dr X from U. Famous”. The actual research outcomes matter not – in fact, the overwhelming majority of academic research is in obscure and niche fields specifically so that they can ensure ease of publication. Generating reputation allows the university to enhance its income through sponsorships and donations, build nicer facilities, attract better undergraduates, and (in many places) charge higher fees. There are several cases now where academics have been sacked for failing to generate sufficient grant income – that is, failing to enhance the reputation of their institution sufficiently quickly – and so the idea of the pursuit and sharing of knowledge plays very much second fiddle to climbing the reputational greasy pole. The deepest irony is that the pursuit of research reputation often means that the best and brightest researchers can ill afford time to teach the undergrads and supervise the postgrads who come expecting to benefit from their knowledge, experience and reputation.

I should also briefly mention that the plight of the post-doctoral researchers, caught on short term contracts with very little job security and precious little hope of being appointed to a permanent role. Most university departments give menial jobs to post-docs (writing and indeed printing and stapling lecture notes for a professor, in the case of a friend of mine) because it looks better to employ more post-docs than it does to employ proper support staff (or to pay for the university’s own support departments on the internal market). The universities exploit the need for post-docs to continue working in their field for the sake of their own personal reputation in order to swell the reputation of the university itself.

So, what’s to be done? I might suggest that we break apart the “teaching” and “research” aspects of universities into separate but closely-linked institutions. The teaching institution concentrates on undergraduates, and employs those who primarily enjoy teaching. The research institution undertakes research and employs researchers. There will be those who enjoy both, and they are primarily employed by one institution and have part of their time bought out by the other. The management and funding structures are separated, so that neither aspect can be crowded out by the other. On the research side, I would end the pursuit of heavily metric-based management of research, and ensure that research institutions have a steady flow of basic funding to pursue “national capability” research, with project grants awarded on top. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think the present situation is sustainable for too much longer. Universities need to be freed from the pursuit of reputation to re-focus on sharing knowledge with wider society.

 


Did The Great Escape give us Nigel Farage?

October 8th, 2014

Have a listen to this track, Spitfire, by the retrotastic Public Service Broadcasting. Chances are that if you’re white, male and British (and possibly even if you’re not) that the stirring rhythm and clipped narration conjures up the romantic image of the Spitfire aircraft “wheeling and banking” in the bright blue skies over Beachy Head. We see the young pilot in his flying helmet and RAF moustache – “Hunter Leader, bandits approaching!” -and gripping his flight controls before unleashing a hail of bullets.

I wrote that after listening to the track without having seen the video (brilliantly recut from the 1942 film The First of the Few) and was surprised as to exactly how closely my mental images match what appears.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. World War II has already become our “founding myth”, our “war of independence”, part of our national identity. It seems as if it’s become ever more popular in recent years – the “austerity” calls of the post-2007 politicians harking back to it all the more loudly. Why? Mitch Benn put his finger on it for me in his show “the 37th Beatle” – he says that his generation, born in the Seventies, have had to put up with all their older relatives saying how great the Sixties were, and having an overwhelming sense of missing out. It suddenly struck me that this almost certainly applies to the Baby Boomer generation in the UK – probably uniquely – because of the UK’s particular wartime experience. These children, born in the 40s and 50s, would have been brought up being told how their parents’ generation had saved the world from fascism, and how they ought to be respectful and grateful for that. They also will have watched the endless romanticisations of WWII produced once the rawness of the truth was leached away by nostalgia – The Dam Busters (1955), The Great Escape (1963), 633 Squadron (1964) and so on – and so their WWII is the technicolor Hollywood version, where the good guys are handsome and the bad guys wore black hats. Of course, this generation will have had to have kept quiet about the war whilst their parents were alive, but now that generation has mostly gone off into the sunset, the Boomers are free to bring out their romantic views of The War (it’s always The War to them) without fear of rebuke. They can tell you details of tank battles, name strategic bridges and reel of the names of battleships destroyed. They weren’t even born at the time in many cases! I was born in 1980, but I don’t go on about the Falklands War (or the Miner’s Strike) because I’m too young to remember it. But every stately home and preserved steam railway has a WWII weekend now – people dress up and pretend – which still strikes me as pretty tasteless. Can you imagine attending a Bosnia, Iraq or Falklands themed event as a jolly family outing in twenty or thirty years from now?
What’s worse is that this romantic war-fauxstalgia affects politics, too. It plants the idea of Plucky Britain Stands Alone in the hearts of its people – which is dangerous rubbish of the worst kind. Yes, we got into the war before the Americans did. But don’t forget that a goodly fraction of the moustachioed pilots in the Battle of Britain were Polish, and that infantrymen came from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Australia and New Zealand. But of course, in the films, they’re all airbrushed out – and so our Stands Alone myth fuels cheap populist isolationism – a refusal to engage with the rest of Europe and a reluctance to realise that so much of what was taken for granted in Britain at the time was based on the system of Empire Trade that ensured the high value manufactured goods were Made in Britain using raw materials shipped in from the colonised countries.

It worries me that this war romanticism will take us out of a close engagement with our European neighbours, out of the EU and out of relevance to the 21st century. Spitfires will not save us this time.

(and in reply to the headline, Nigel Farage is surprisingly young – born in 1964, the year “633 Squadron” came out…)


Transmanche Metro

September 9th, 2014

Two recent articles in the news have poked me into writing a bit more about Transmanche Metro, the long-talked-about scheme to allow people in the Pas de Calais region of north-east France to commute to Kent and London via the Channel Tunnel. The PdC has quite an unemployment problem, and today’s Guardian points out that a number of people already commute daily via the Eurotunnel car shuttle service. The Opale Link consortium has argued for a “local train” to Ashford, Ebbsfleet and London from Calais, and with the support of Kent County Council has tried to lobby Eurostar into providing a better service. Eurostar, of course, is not remotely interested (it only serves Ashford four times a day each way anyway) as its main business is shifting people between the cities of London, Paris and Brussels.

Eurostar no longer technically has a monopoly on passenger services through the Channel Tunnel, and so it’s theoretically possible for someone else to operate a passenger service. They’d have to buy train paths from Eurotunnel (not too difficult, there’s apparently still spare capacity) and also acquire running rights on either HS1 (preferably) or the classic lines. Southeastern, the incumbent Kent operator, is an obvious candidate, not least because they’re already operating a high speed service to Ashford via HS1. Whoever it is would also have to acquire a train suitable for use in the Channel Tunnel, which has its own safety regulations (e.g. – the trains have to be at least 300m long so that wherever they stop one coach will be near a cross-passage to the service tunnel) and this is likely to be one of the biggest headaches unless they can get hold of a few of the ex-Eurostar sets that were intended for UK Regional Eurostar services that are now being operated by SNCF. Southeastern’s existing Hitachi-built high speed trains are not suitable due to being too short and not having the necessary fireproofing.

The other big headache will be dealing with the onerous “Fortress UK” policies on immigration and security. Eurostar are already having a fair few issues with this, and have just announced that their new Marseille-London service will stop for nearly two hours in Lille in order to complete border formalities! This is totally ridiculous, but the odds of getting it changed are slim. So, I suggest a partial workaround. The Transmanche Metro would use ex-Regional Eurostar trainsets, as noted above, and would terminate at Calais-Frethun station, which is already a border control post. Local trains would be timed to connect sensibly and allow time for border formalities. London-bound services would call at Ashford, Ebbsfleet and Stratford International stations, and would be considered as UK domestic train services and not subject to any additional border control (since all this would have been done in Calais). The return journey would involve a complete de-train at Ashford for Calais-bound passengers to have their passports checked and baggage x-rayed. If the x-raying could be waived, the border control could then be done on the train whilst standing at Ashford station, potentially with the doors locked so as to prevent anyone boarding after the inspectors have checked each coach.

I’d like to see it happen, but I doubt it ever will, more’s the pity.


More detail on the new Thameslink franchise

July 12th, 2014

I discovered last week that Govia have updated their website with a lot more detail about their plans for the Thameslink Southern Great Northern franchise. They take over the franchise on 13th September – so we have nine weeks left of First Capital Connect before the changeover. Govia are known for not stamping their name all over the companies they own, and so they’ve chosen to use relatively simple brand names for the new franchise. These are:

  • Thameslink
  • Great Northern
  • Gatwick Express
  • Southern

Here in Cambridge, we can expect our trains to be branded “Great Northern” from September, but not a lot else will change immediately. Govia have very sensibly chosen not to try and make any major changes in the first year of the franchise, and a lot of the enabling work for future changes will still be in progress. They are planning to shake the fares up a bit, introducing cheaper advance-purchase fares, so there’s a possibility that they might appear in the first year.

One year on – September 2015 – they intend to have franchise-wide smart ticketing. This means an ITSO-type smartcard which can be loaded with pre-purchased tickets rather than having to use paper tickets. For people like me who buy daily or weekly tickets depending on what they’re doing that week, this’ll be a big step forward – buy your ticket from your computer or phone before leaving the house, then just go straight to the ticket gates, no need to queue for a machine. ITSO will not (initially) work like the Oyster PAYG system, though they hint that they would like to try and make that happen!

For my London friends, you will be pleased to know that they plan to extend the Oyster PAYG system well beyond Greater London, so that you can use Oyster to pay for your train journey to Gatwick or Luton Airports and to stations as far north as Welwyn Garden City.

In the spring of 2016 we will start to see a bigger change, as services will switch to being operated by different types of train. The fast Cambridge trains and the King’s Lynn trains will be operated by Class 377 sets that will be transferred from Southern. These are relatively new trains (built in batches from 2003-present) whereas the existing Class 365s date from the mid-1990s. The 377s are very similar to the 379s being operated by Abellio Greater Anglia on services to Liverpool Street – they have air conditioning and may well have power sockets and wifi. Those of us who use the slower trains are actually getting brand new trains during 2016 – the Siemens-built Class 700s will be introduced, replacing the existing 1980s-built stock. However, these are relatively spartan inside as they’re designed to handle massive numbers of passengers when passing through central London, so we’ll see how comfortable they are!

Once May 2017 comes around, the King’s Lynn services will become half-hourly. Finally, in May 2018, Cambridge will get through services on the Thameslink route – so the stopping trains will serve St Pancras rather than King’s Cross – and trains will run through to Gatwick and Brighton. The full service won’t be implemented until December 2018, giving time for the new systems to bed in. Govia promise “a range of stopping patterns” on the four trains an hour to serve Cambridge – so there’s a good chance of getting additional trains serving the smaller stations on the Cambridge-Hitchin line. Royston will almost certainly benefit from having another fastish train to London and Cambridge.

 


Closing the Lille Loophole?

June 12th, 2014

We went to Aachen in Germany for a long weekend, and returned on Tuesday night. This involved taking the last Eurostar train back from Brussels, which leaves at 1952 each weeknight, calling at Lille Europe, Calais-Frethun, Ebbsfleet and London St Pancras. Having used this route before in 2012 I was expecting to have to deal with quite a lot of border-control paranoia associated with the “Lille Loophole” – which involved passengers buying tickets on Eurostar from Brussels to Lille, allowing them to board the Eurostar without having passed UK border control, and then remaining on the train at Lille and continuing to the UK. The UKBA imposed quite unnecessarily draconian restrictions on all other Eurostar passengers arriving in London on trains that had called at Lille (see Jon Worth’s blogpost) by checking everyone’s passports on arrival, causing a 20-30 minute delay!

I’m pleased to report that despite having taken one of the trains (9161) that Jon identifies as a “loophole” train, we were not subject to additional border control in London. There was a UKBA agent at the arrivals desk, but she appeared to be pulling aside a few randoms for extra checks, and we were able to get out of St Pancras within minutes (in fact, we managed to make our 15-minute connection with a Cambridge train from neighbouring King’s Cross). I think that Eurostar, the UKBA and the Belgian authorities have finally managed to find a way around the problem.

Firstly, as of November 2013 (6 months after Jon’s post), Eurostar have reconfigured their arrangements at Brussels-Midi. Lille and Calais-Frethun passengers no longer use the same check-in as UK-bound passengers, and the famous “Lille Corridor” that bypassed the UK border control has now been locked shut. Instead, they are directed to a new “Eurostar intra-Schengen” terminal, which is upstairs, adjacent to the Eurostar arrivals hall. The SNCB news page announcing the change gives several useful clues about what’s going on:

  • Passengers are asked to complete security checks and passport control in the new Intra Schengen Terminal located on the mezzanine level of the station, near the Place Horta entrance”
  • “Eurostar passengers to Lille/Calais are asked to remain in the Standard Class carriage reserved specifically for them for the full journey
  • “Please note, access to the onboard bar buffet will not be possible for passengers travelling between Brussels and Lille or Calais”

So it’s pretty clear that intra-Schengen passengers will be travelling in a locked carriage, separated from the rest of the train. I suspect that given that they cannot legally routinely check passports for an intra-Schengen journey, they will issue some sort of numbered boarding card or temporary photo-ID (taking a photo of each passenger and printing it onto a boarding card, as is done at some airports for passengers on domestic flights). This means that Eurostar can easily ensure that all the Lille and Calais passengers disembark at the relevant station, and I’m pretty certain I overheard the train manager discuss this with her colleague on a two-way radio whilst our train was at Lille. Solving this problem is obviously key to Eurostar being able to operate to a wider range of European destinations – they’re talking about services to Amsterdam, calling at Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol, from December 2016 – and they will almost certainly be carrying intra-Schengen passengers between those cities and Brussels, Lille and Calais once those routes open. I do wonder how they’re going to solve the luggage scanning and border control problem for these trains though – there seem to be three options:

  • have the train operate conventionally within Schengen, but require all UK-bound passengers to disembark at the last stop before the UK (Lille Europe or Brussels Midi, probably) and go through border control and security before rejoining the train. This is the easiest to implement, but will negate the value of a through train and be seriously inconvenient for passengers. Eurostar do currently do this for some trains that have come from French stations with no security facilities (Avignon, for example).
  • build a dedicated secure terminal and platform for UK-bound Eurostar trains at all of the above stations, allowing UK-bound passengers to board the train “pre-cleared”. Schengen-bound passengers would have to be segregated to a separate part of the train as appears to be currently being done between Brussels, Lille and Calais.
  • as above, but without a secure platform. Schengen passengers board the train as usual, in their own section. UK passengers are security cleared, and then escorted by staff onto the platform, who recheck ID and boarding cards at each door to the UK-bound section of the train so as to ensure that no-one not cleared boards the UK-bound section.

Realistically, I suspect that the “everyone off in Lille” option might prove to be the only that works, but I remain hopeful that a better solution will be found. It would also be nice if we could abolish the largely pointless baggage scanning process, which made some sense twenty years ago (yes, it’s the 20th anniversary of Eurostar services this year) when a fire or explosion in the Channel Tunnel was an unknown quantity and there was a serious threat from the IRA, but is now basically irrelevant. As far as I can tell Spain is the only other country with baggage security control on trains, because of the risk from ETA, but we haven’t tightened security on the London Underground since 7/7 – it isn’t practical. I would argue that the risk to passengers on Eurostar is much lower than on the Tube even if the baggage scanning was abolished. Let’s hope we get a more “train-like” Eurostar service in future, rather than treating it as an aircraft at ground level!

 


Thameslink returns!

June 3rd, 2014

It was recently announced that GoVia have been awarded the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise, with the new management taking over in September 2014. GoVia is a consortium of the British firm GoAhead (mostly an operator of buses) and the French firm Keolis, which is part of the state-owned rail operator SNCF. They will take over the services currently run by First Capital Connect, some operated by Southeastern, and then integrate all the services operated by Southern from 2015 onwards. GoVia have promised that they will resurrect the “Thameslink” brand for this extensive network.

Looking at this mostly from a Cambridge perspective, a number of interesting service improvements are promised for our route:

  • firstly, the ongoing refresh of the Class 365 trains will continue over the summer, so the new operator should have a newly-refurbished fleet of trains on the fast services to Cambridge and King’s Lynn
  • the current hourly service to King’s Lynn will become half-hourly from May 2o17 (once the junction improvements in Ely have been completed)
  • the Cambridge-Kings Cross expresses will be retimed to get the journey time down below 50 minutes again (this is probably as a result of needing less margin now that the Hitchin flyover is open)
  • new trains (the Siemens Class 700) will be introduced

Once the Thameslink Programme is complete in 2018, there’ll be quite a big change to the timetable. The DfT and the Thameslink Programme have both published maps that show services we can expect in four years time – now, there’s always a risk that they might be changed again in that time, but it’s worth having a look now anyway.

Promises, promises

So, the DfT map promises (mouse over “Cambridge”) that Cambridge will have “six trains an hour to and from central London off-peak” from 2018. Cambridge currently has four trains an hour to London off-peak: two non-stop (one of which has come from King’s Lynn), one semi-fast (calling at Royston, Letchworth etc) and one slow one that serves all the stations between Cambridge and Hitchin and then major stations into London. So, what’s going to happen to the existing services, and what new services will we get?

Helpfully, there’s a clue in the map published by the Thameslink Programme, which shows how trains will be routed through the “Thameslink Core” (between St Pancras and Blackfriars) linking up destinations north and south of London. Each line on the map represents two trains per hour each way (so a half-hourly service, approximately), and two lines are shown as serving Cambridge – making four Thameslink services every hour! The grey line on the map shows a Cambridge to Brighton service, which will also serve Gatwick Airport. The red line shows another Cambridge service serving, err, Tattenham Corner? Really? I used to commute from Croydon to Kingswood on the Tattenham Corner branch – it’s a popular commuter route but by no means a major destination in its own right. Tattenham Corner station itself is really only there to serve Epsom racecourse anyway! However, the reason for doing the Thameslink upgrade is to get more line capacity by reducing the congestion caused at major stations by terminating trains in central London – and the Tattenham Corner off-peak trains currently terminate at London Bridge.

Fast trains to Gatwick and Brighton

Now, my hunch is that the Cambridge-Brighton service will take over the existing stops and timings of the Cambridge semi-fast service, except that it’ll run half-hourly instead of hourly. It currently takes an hour for this service to reach Kings Cross, and likewise an hour for the limited-stop service from London Bridge to Brighton. Given 20 minutes to transit through London and 20 minutes to turn the train round at each end, that makes a nice neat 3 hour cycle – so the half hourly service can be fulfilled using six trains.

Slow trains to Tattenham Corner

I suspect that the Cambridge-Tattenham Corner service will take over the existing Cambridge “slow” train, which takes 90 minutes to reach London. London Bridge to Tattenham Corner services currently take 50 minutes, so with the 20 minute transit time through London that makes 2 hours 40 minutes. Assuming a ten minute turnaround at each end also gives a 3 hour cycle – six trains again would give a half hourly service. If this happens, this’ll be a big step forward for the smaller stations on the Cambridge branch – they’ll get twice as good a service as they get at present.

So, here’s your answer: six trains an hour – two that start from King’s Cross,  run non-stop to Cambridge and continue to King’s Lynn; two that start from Brighton and call at major stations only to Cambridge; and two from Tattenham Corner serving all the local stations.

New trains too

Now, the Thameslink services are all going to be operated by the new Class 700 trains, which will come as an eight-car and a twelve-car version. These trains have big walk-through connections between coaches, so they won’t be coupled and uncoupled the way that our existing trains are. Since the small stations on the Cambridge and Tattenham Corner branches have 8-car platforms, it would seem likely that our stopping services will see the existing Class 317 and Class 321 trains (dating from the late 80s) phased out and replaced with the new Class 700s. I suspect that the old trains might find their way to newly electrified lines in the north-west of England or on Great Western suburban services in the short term. Siemens are supposed to be delivering the new trains from 2016 onwards, so it’s likely that we’ll start to see them operating our existing services before the Thameslink services begin.

The King’s Lynn trains are also due to be replaced with Hitachi-built Class 801 trains eventually – these should start to appear in 2018 as well.

One unresolved question

As yet, we don’t know exactly which services will call at the new Cambridge Science Park station. Cambridgeshire Council’s consultation suggests that all the services currently using the Cambridge-Ely line will call at the new station (i.e. the King’s Lynn trains, the Birmingham-Stansted train, and the Ely-Liverpool St trains), plus one “semi-fast” service currently terminating at Cambridge station will be moved up to terminate at the bay platform in the new station. On that basis it seems likely that some or all of the Thameslink trains will serve the new station – given that it has only one bay platform I might be tempted to suggest that two out of the four Thameslink trains will call there – most likely the faster Brighton services as they have a bit more turnaround margin and will give the promised “semi-fast” service. Let’s wait and see!

 

 


Identify yourself, citizen!

May 16th, 2014

If you’re dealing with a bank, building society or other such financial services provider, you’ll inevitably have to hand over some documents to prove your identity and address. The Money Laundering regulations require such institutions to carry out checks on the identity of people opening new accounts – and with good reason. However, the regulations don’t specify exactly how this should be done. Typically, you’re asked to produce some sort of document that links your photograph to your full name – such as a passport – and some sort of proof of your home address, such as a printed utility bill or bank statement. However, the documents accepted by each bank vary considerably! Of course, we increasingly bank online now, and so this means that a new account opened online inevitably results in a letter from the said bank saying “we need to see these documents, but don’t send the originals in the post”. They usually provide you the option to provide a “certified copy” in lieu of the original. However, no-one can agree on exactly who can certify a document, and how they should do it. I have in front of me, by way of example, two letters from two different institutions asking for certified copies.

Post Office Savings (aka Bank of Ireland UK) will accept a tax coding notice from HMRC as proof of ID (which is useful, and unusual), but if you send a photocopy of a passport or driving licence it must be certified by a “legal professional, accountant, bank official or post office clerk”. They must “sign and print their name, specify the date, affix an official stamp or write their business address and contact details and write or stamp the words Certified Original Sighted or words to that effect”.

Tesco Bank (aka RBS), by way of comparison, won’t accept HMRC correspondence as proof of ID or even as proof of address – but they will accept certified copies by “a bank, a post office clerk, a senior civil servant, a police officer, a member of the judiciary, a lawyer, solicitor or notary public, an accountant, an Authorised Financial Intermediary, a Doctor (as long as you’re one of their patients), a Teacher (with whom you have a pre-existing relationship), a local councillor, MP, AM, MEP or MSP, an official of an embassy, consulate or high commission issuing a passport of origin.” That’s a much longer list of people (though with some odd caveats), but their certification is more onerous – they must:

  • add the words “original seen and copy provides a good likeness of the individual”
  • record their full name, date, signature and official stamp (if they have one)
  • Record their business address (or personal address if they don’t have a business address)
  • Record their professional qualifications and professional body membership number
  • Record their contact details (I presume this means a phone number or email address)

This is clearly quite barking mad, as it means every time I open a new bank account I have to get a new photocopy certified with the right form of words and with a person deemed acceptable by the bank in question. The Post Office will certify documents (they charge £7 to do up to three different documents) but they have a standard form of words and I’ve often struggled to persuade the clerk that they need to use the form of words specified by the bank. Quite often, you get a little leaflet from the British Bankers’ Association explaining the need for ID documents – given that the BBA can get a standard leaflet together, why can’t they get their members to agree on a standard list of “suitable people” and a standard form of words for a certified photocopy? I might think that this was the sort of restrictive practice designed to discourage people from changing their bank account too often…

Of course, the rise and rise of online banking, online council tax payments and so on means that the old paper “proofs” are starting to go away. I know that there is a digital proof-of-ID scheme being developed by the government, but I fear that’ll go the way of all government IT projects. We could start by making the paper process less irksome!

 


Cheap peak rail fares to London (and the West Midlands!) from Cambridge

March 10th, 2014

I have to go to Coventry in a few weeks to go to a trade fair. I looked up the rail fares and discovered that they can be astonishingly cheap – typically around £12 each way, provided that you book in advance. However, some of these fares take you via London and therefore provide for a cost-effective way to travel to London at peak times if you can book in advance. Simply search for fares from Cambridge to Coventry and specify “via London King’s Cross”, and you’ll often find you can travel on the 0715 or 0815 to Kings Cross for £12, and likewise return on the 1745 or 1843 for £12, which would normally attract a full fare of £38.60 return, saving you £12.60. You do have to travel on those specific trains though! If you have a nationally-valid railcard (i.e. not a Network Card) you can get a third off the already-discounted price, too. The trick also works in First Class, where you can pay £34 each way on that same routeing.

If the Coventry fares have sold out, you can also try booking to Rugby, which is technically a different ticket but is charged at the same price.