The trouble with GPP pension schemes

March 28th, 2016

My current employer’s pension scheme is what’s called a Group Personal Pension scheme, or GPP for short. I’ve been a bit sceptical of the way these schemes operate for a while, but a recent letter has pushed me into blogging about them.

A GPP scheme is very simple. I join the scheme when I start work, and the company deducts a percentage of my salary every month and pays it into my pension. It also contributes a bit more on top – which is money I wouldn’t otherwise get paid if I didn’t participate in the pension scheme. Both payments are invested by the pension provider, and when I retire, I cash in the investments and take the money  – either as a big pile of cash, or as a monthly income for life (an annuity) or  a bit of both. Because saving for retirement is seen as a Good Thing, the government also offers a tax incentive: the money that gets paid in each month (both mine and my employers’ contributions) is paid in free of tax. The investments attract no tax whilst they remain in the pension scheme, and when I retire I can claim 25% of my resultant pot as tax-free cash, with the rest attracting income tax if it generates a big enough income.

Effectively, each employee’s pension is a completely separate account – which is why it’s called a “personal pension”. However, because the employer is bringing the pension company a large number of customers, the pension provider (usually a large City firm – mine is BlackRock) gives a discount on the fees based on the number of employees in the scheme. Fees? Yes, fees. Pension funds cost (some) money to operate, and this money is taken from your total invested funds in the form of an Annual Management Charge (AMC). If I go and buy a personal pension scheme from a high-street firm, the AMC will typically be 1% of the fund (for example, here’s Virgin Money’s personal pension). My current employer’s GPP scheme charges 0.6%, which you can see is a significant saving. I still have a GPP from my previous employer too, which was a larger company and charged 0.38% because it was able to negotiate a bigger discount.

Most GPP providers allow you to choose how you invest. This is often rather poorly presented and explained, and they frequently conceal the fact that different funds you might invest in attract different AMCs. For instance, my employer’s default fund charges 0.6%, but it’s possible to change to a fund that charges 0.4%. Whether the latter fund has better or worse performance is hard to say, but a reduction in AMC is potentially going to save you some money.

My firm’s scheme defaults to an actively-managed fund. This means that a specialist fund manager is choosing what the fund invests in and aiming to produce a good return for the investors. The alternative is a passively-managed fund (sometimes called a “tracker”) where the fund simply buys shares in every company in the index so that the fund “tracks” the value of the index overall. Passive funds are pretty much run automatically by computers, and hence are cheaper to manage as you’re not paying for the fund manager’s salary and overheads. The overwhelming evidence is that active management doesn’t actually convey any benefits (in the long term, it’s not usually possible for fund managers to “beat the market” by choosing shares) and so it’s actually less risky to choose the passive fund.

The letter I received this week is from my pension provider, saying that they are “very pleased to announce” that they are reducing the AMC on my pension funds. That’s very nice of them. Reading a bit further down, it becomes clear that the pensions advisors, a local firm called NW Brown, who my employers use to administer the pension scheme, have been being paid a commission out of the AMC, and that new government regulations have stopped this. This commission was 0.1%, so out of every thousand pounds in my fund, I was paying a pound to NW Brown every year!

I’m glad this has been regulated out, but it does bug me that the increasing popularity of GPP means that the pensions industry is now something of a stitch-up for the individual employee. In order to access the extra pension contributions my employer offers, I have to invest the money with their chosen pension provider. The pension providers restrict the funds that I can invest in to a shortlist of a few dozen, as against the hundreds that are available on the open market. They provide relatively skimpy information about how their funds work, and take a management fee – some of which until this year was commission paid back to the pensions advisors! I think this is quite anticompetitive: why can’t I take the money to any pension provider? Also, there’s no reason for the AMCs to be so high – there are passively-investing funds available on the open market charging less than 0.2%, but my pension provider doesn’t list them. I can’t help feeling that the whole thing is set up to provide a steady flow of clueless capital into the City firms, for them to do as they please!

A game of phones: VoIP at home

August 31st, 2015


Our house has three stories, with our bedroom on the top floor. It’s not really possible to achieve a direct shout from there to the ground floor, and since my beloved likes to wander the house in his pyjamas without his mobile, using mobiles is not really an option. So, like a proper engineer, I developed a massively overkill solution: install an internal phone system!


I’ve chosen to use Mitel phones because they are readily available secondhand in good condition on eBay, and we have them at work so I’m already familiar with them. The newer models support SIP, the open VoIP protocol, and they can be powered over Ethernet, meaning you don’t need a power supply to each handset. Our current inventory consists of:

  • a 5304 – newest and smallest of the phones. Despite appearances, it doesn’t support handsfree or on-hook dialling. This one has had “hotel” firmware put onto it so that the bright blue backlight turns off when the phone’s not been used for a few minutes – so we can have it on the bedside table without disturbing our sleep. Mitel firmware is available rather haphazardly on the internet, and I found that once I’d upgraded this phone to have the backlight control,  I could only find a French-language UI for it.
  • a 5212 – this is a cut-down version of the 5220: it’s a bit smaller and the user interface is a bit more limited. It has a more subtle blue backlight.
  • a pair of Dual Mode 5220s. These (and the closely-related 5215s) are the oldest Mitel phones to support SIP, but there are two versions: if the phone does not say “Dual Mode” on the sticker on the back, it does not support SIP, only Mitel’s proprietary Minet protocol.

All the phones take 100Mbit/s Ethernet, and I supply power to them via a cheap TP-Link POE switch. They have a downstream port to provide 100Mbit/s Ethernet to another device too. Note that they don’t support gigabit: Mitel sold a “Gigabit Stand” which was effectively a PoE-extracting three-port gigabit switch that fitted onto the back of the phone, but these are relatively rarely found second-hand, and can be expensive.

There are a few gotchas with Mitel phones. The SIP firmware is a bit finicky to set up, though Voip-Info has lots of details on how to configure them. You need to switch them from Minet to SIP, and then configure the SIP settings so that the phone knows its extension number, password and the IP address of the server. The web interface is relatively straightforward though it sometimes appears to fail to update silently when run from modern browsers: I’m using an old Windows XP virtual machine to access it via IE6 (joy!). Don’t worry too much about updating the phones to the latest Mitel firmware: if the version they come with works, don’t fiddle with it! I’ve wasted several evenings upgrading mine to very little benefit.


After several false starts, I’ve had success with MiniSipServer, which is available for Windows or Linux. I’m running their Raspberry Pi edition on a spare RPi that happened to already be on the network. MSS is a relatively easy system to set up, certainly when compared with Asterisk, but is not open-source. They give away a free trial, but you can claim a free licence for personal use if you review it in a blogpost. A commercial licence is $200 for 20 users, and there are free licences available for nonprofits and OSS projects.

Because my RPi is “headless”, I’m using the web-based configuration for MSS, which seems relatively well laid out. I did have to guess the default password, which turns out to be “minisipserver”. I’ve created three local users (i.e. three extensions) one for each phone, and put them all into the same Ring Group so that they ring together when the external line rings (more on setting up the external line later).

I wanted to set up a dial plan to avoid the traditional “dial 9 for an outside line” scenario, as most people don’t expect a household phone to need a prefix to dial out. The MSS FAQ gives some hints and shows that you can disable the dial-out prefix and instead look for certain numbers as externals. I’ve gone for a very simple approach. Here in the UK, all “full” phone numbers begin with a leading 0, so it’s easy to set up a dialplan rule to route all numbers beginning with 0 to the external line. In MSS you go to Dial Plan-> Analyse Called Number and define the prefix as 0, and then set the route type to External Line. I then created similar dialplan rules for 1 and 9 (since there are lots of service-related numbers beginning with 1, and 999 is our code for the emergency services) and indeed for every number except 4. I looked at Cambridge local phone numbers and none appear to start with a 4, so I’ve set my local extensions to start with a 4.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a bug in MSS: once I’d added more than a few dialplan rules they all disappear from the web interface – but they do appear to still work…

External line interface

Our household router is an AVM Fritz!Box 7390, which is a very all-singing-all-dancing unit that includes its own VoIP server and can interface to the voice line. We used its internal VoIP server in a previous setup, but it has a few key limitations, one of which is that it can’t transfer a call from one extension to another, which quickly became irritating. However, it does work just fine as an external line interface to MSS: I just created an extension on the FritzBox and put the relevant details into the External Line settings in MSS.

Why making things is hard, part 2: stock and suppliers

August 18th, 2015

Second in a series about why running a successful manufacturing business is more tricky than running a successful software business. Part one is here.


Holding stock is a problem that affects both manufacturers and retailers: you could be holding stock of raw materials, or stock of finished or part-finished products. That stuff represents money in limbo: you have paid out for it, and you hope to sell it eventually, but right now it’s taking up space and running all sorts of risks: pilferage, accidental or deliberate damage (these three are collectively known as “stock shrinkage”), the risk that it’ll just gather dust and eventually get sold off at a loss or be thrown away. The longer your stock is on the shelf, the more money you’re losing because the money is tied up in the physical stock and not available to do other things with. The elite ninjas of manufacturing – Toyota – have gone to great lengths to avoid holding stock, setting up whole supply chains that are designed to ensure that all their suppliers deliver exactly the right parts at exactly the right time.

Of course, there are business for whom holding stock is their whole business: this is what distributors (and to some extent retailers) do – they buy goods wholesale, hold the stock and sell it out in smaller quantities for immediate delivery. They accept the risks associated with stockholdings in order to buy in high volume at low prices, and sell in smaller quantities at higher ones.

Accountants, and particularly auditors, really, really hate stock, because it often forma a large part of a business’s assets and there’s always some uncertainty over how much the stock is really worth. It’s only really “worth” what a customer will pay for it, and that may turn out to be less than you had hoped!

So: try not to hold too much stock, and look carefully at the price breaks on your materials to decide how much to order. You can outsource, too: some contract manufacturers (Newbury Electronics, for example) will supply common components for you from their stock so that you don’t have to – in Newbury’s case, passive components they have in stock are free, included in the price of the board manufacture. If you’re making small volumes and don’t have the storage space, this may sway you to a more expensive manufacturer offering a full kitting service rather than using someone cheap and having to manage it all yourself.


Suppliers can be astonishingly difficult to deal with. Compared with the world of retail, where you take a product off the shelf, or choose it from a real or virtual catalogue, the world of business-to-business (B2B) suppliers can be excruciatingly opaque and inconvenient. You will rarely find that manufacturers give pricing on the web, preferring instead that you get a quote from a salesperson. Even some distributors can be astonishingly reluctant to give you a price unless you hand over a huge amount of detail about your business and all the details of your new product idea. Generally, if a company gives you prices upfront after a short conversation with a salesperson, it means they’re keen to deal with you and will probably be quite good to deal with generally. In electronics, semiconductor vendors can be astonishingly fussy about who they deal with – particularly if the IC you want is a new one, the chances are that their production process may not actually be producing all that many good ones to start off with (i.e. a low yield) and they may be “rationing” the ICs for their biggest customers. Apparently when Intel first made microprocessors, the yield was 1% – the other 99% went back in the furnace to be recycled!

The other reason for IC vendors to be awkward is “application support” – the time and effort spent by their engineering team in helping you to incorporate their product into yours. This is effectively free consulting you get bundled into the price of the chips, and so companies are often keen to restrict supply to “serious” customers only. One chip vendor I dealt with (when working for a big multinational) actually refused to deal with me in a rather brusque automated email – I’d filled in a web form asking for prices on a particular IC and giving some details of my product design programme, and they came back and said pretty much “no, we’re not interested in selling you our chip”. I was astonished at how rude that was!

So beware. You can waste weeks just getting prices for the parts you may or may not end up using in your product. It’s vital to know your “volume”, and a good rule of thumb (for electronic products) is that if you are intending to make fewer than 10,000 units a year, you are probably going to be buying everything from a distributor, as manufacturers won’t be all that interested in orders of that size. 50k or 100k volumes start to make people take notice, and buying more than a million of anything generally gets you the best prices and attentive salespeople. A keen salesperson will often offer you free samples of the product for your prototype, or free evaluation kits, and will generally make an effort to support you. There is an encouraging trend for the more customer-focussed electronics firms to sell sensibly-priced (<£100) evaluation kits via the major distributors (RS, Farnell and Digikey are the three I use most often) so that you can try out their product right away, whereas in days of yore you were often charged several hundred pounds or more for an eval kit to make sure that you were a “serious” buyer…

One final useful rule of thumb: if you are pricing a prototype, it’s fair to assume that the wholesale price for 100k/year is roughly half the distributor’s price for a one-off. Never make the schoolboy error of trying to write a business case based on the cost of making your one-off prototype, as your product will appear to be much too expensive!

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!