House sale plaudits

February 5th, 2014

Our house sale completed on Monday – goodbye, Oxford! I’ll miss the lively atmosphere and convenience of Cowley Road, though I suspect that my waistline will benefit from not having quite such easy access to supermarkets and restaurants.

Now the sale’s over, I’m going to give out my customary plaudits to the firms we used for our move.

Firstly, the estate agents: Breckon and Breckon, who were constantly helpful and professional, responded well to emails and phonecalls, handled all the bidders, supervised all the viewings, took decent photographs and even arranged for extra surveys and quotations on behalf of the buyers. In short, they did everything possible to make the process straightforward, so thanks very much to Jenny, Julie, Ellie and the rest of the team there.

Secondly, our solicitor: Chris Wingfield from Woodfines‘ Cambridge office, who handled our conveyancing last time. Again, excellent on email and managed to keep us up to date with everything without needing to be chased.

Finally, the removers: A G Jacob & Sons (they must get a lot of renditions of this song – but I resisted, just!) who quoted sensible prices for removals and storage and would supply packaging and do all the packing for £150 extra. Steve, Melvin and the team were courteous and helpful and very efficient. They’ve got all our stuff in storage down in Wallingford and we’ll probably see it again in a couple of months. I would strongly recommend that if you have enough furniture to need a full-service remover that you pay extra for packing – it doesn’t add a lot to the cost and massively reduces the levels of stress and hassle beforehand. In fact, you’d probably pay almost as much just for the packing materials if you bought them yourself.

The house purchase process grinds on slowly, with pretty much all the delays being caused by Clydesdale Bank, whose business process is so slow it makes most glaciers look positively rapid by comparison. They are at least helpful when I speak to them, and I don’t have to deal with them via the execrable London & Country Mortgages this time – Clydesdale’s mortgage team answer the phone on the second or third ring, which is more than L&C ever did. But we’re now into the fourth week since we had our offer accepted – two weeks were spent waiting for Clydesdale to give us an appointment to discuss the mortgage, and I’m told that the necessary forms and paperwork have been finished today and should be with me tomorrow. However, their process apparently can take up to another eight weeks from them receiving these forms before the mortgage is ready to draw down. The vendors are already getting shirty with us (via their estate agents), which is exactly what happened last time. I’m only sticking with Clydesdale because it’ll cost me £8k in early repayment penalties to go to someone else, and because they at least are prepared to give us a mortgage when we’ve both just changed jobs, which it seems a number of other lenders have a problem with. But generally, don’t touch them with a bargepole. I don’t own a bargepole any more, but I might just buy a new one so that I can not touch them with it. Let’s hope we inch forward a little bit in the next few days.

Busway complexity

January 31st, 2014

Stagecoach have just announced a new timetable for their Busway services from 23rd February onwards. This has been reported in the press as offering five minute frequency between Cambridge and St Ives during peak hours, as the present service is now apparently at capacity. Let’s have a look at the timetable:

  • the five-minute frequency service starts at 0700 from St Ives (for service towards Cambridge) and continues until 0840. Buses going outbound from Cambridge in the morning peak have a 7-8 minute frequency.
  • In the evening peak, the five-minute service starts at 1613 and continues until 1753, when the service goes back to a 7-8 minute frequency. Buses from St Ives to Cambridge are 7-8 minute frequencies during this period.

Stagecoach are admitting in the News article that they don’t have enough buses to operate a more intensive service than this, but did suggest that they’d be open to buying some more in the near future – particularly with “Chesterton Station and Northstowe” coming onstream in the next few years.

However, they’ve done the usual bus company thing of complicating the timetable in order to shoehorn in extra occasional services to various outlying districts. If you look at the timetable document, you’ll find the main timetable shows buses on the “core” busway – the northern termini are Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke hospital, RAF Wyton and Marley Road in St Ives. However, towards the end of the document, you’ll find details of “village commuter” services in the morning and evening peaks. So, for instance, a bus shown in the main timetable as starting at Marley Road at 0710 has in fact come from Chatteris via Pidley. Whilst these extra services are no doubt welcome to the residents of the places they serve, they all operate as part of “busway route A”, meaning that users unfamiliar with the timetable are potentially going to be quite confused by the destination indicator. The “A” route is supposed to start from Trumpington P&R, which means a single decker bus – the double-deckers don’t fit under the bridge in Trumpington, and terminate in St Ives or at RAF Wyton. We now have a number of morning peak buses that are designated as Route A but which don’t go to Trumpington, terminating instead at Cambridge station – I wonder if these are double-deckers? One of them makes an off-timetable continuation to Long Road Sixth Form College, just for bonus complication! Likewise, in the evening peak some of the “route A” services start from the station rather than Trumpington. “Route B” buses are even more complicated – even on the off-peak schedule they have 2bph to Hinchingbrooke (calling at Huntingdon bus station), with 1bph to Peterborough (again, via Huntingdon bus station) and 1bph which terminates at Huntingdon, but which is the only one of the four to go to Huntingdon railway station. Effectively, the only thing the route letter tells you reliably is which stops the bus serves in Cambridge – “A” buses go via the Science Park, Milton Road and Victoria Bridge, call at New Square and continue to the rail station and “B” buses go via Orchard Park West and Shire Hall, terminating at Drummer Street. Going the other way, you do at least vaguely get the idea that “B” buses go to Huntingdon, although a few “A” buses do as well…

Clear as mud. Perhaps it’s time to think about how the complex routeing and timetable arrangements affect how easy the system is to use?

A new era for electro-diesels

January 27th, 2014

We’ve had electric trains in the UK since the 1890s, and diesel locomotives first started to appear in the 1930s. But for the last fifty years, the UK has had one unusual locomotive: the boxy Class 73 Electro-Diesel. These rather uncharismatic locos have a unique talent – they can run on electrical power from the third rail, or on their own power from a diesel generator. They were built for the Southern Region of British Rail mostly to handle freight, but they did also get used to haul the Boat Trains that ran from London to the Channel ports. The 73s are still in service, rescuing dead EMUs and handling freight and engineering trains all over Southern England.

The electro-diesel concept didn’t really catch on because it was difficult to squeeze both power systems into the locomotives. The Class 73s are very successful, but they are primarily an electric locomotive: the diesel generator can only supply half the output power that’s available in electric mode. Improvements in both the efficiency of diesel engines and the compactness of power electronics means that these limitations can now be overcome, and we’re about to see a whole range of new electro-diesel trains enter service in the UK.

Freight operations on UK railways are mostly diesel-hauled at present, since many freight terminals are located on private sidings that aren’t electrified. Most freight trains run point-to-point rather than being shunted in marshalling yards, so there’s often no sensible reason to switch from an electric loco to a diesel one. However, the rising cost of fuel and the fact that much more of the mainline network is to be electrified means that one freight operator, Direct Rail Services, has decided to order new ED locomotives. These are being made by Vossloh in Spain, and will be primarily electric locos, using 25kV overhead supply. In electric mode, the power output is 4MW (nearly 5,500 horsepower). However, they have a “last mile” diesel capability using a 700kW (930hp) onboard generator – just enough to shunt gently down a siding or short branch line. For example, the BMW-Mini factory here in Oxford is served by its own short branch (which is all that’s left of a line that once went to High Wycombe), and long car-carrier trains are shunted a couple of miles to the main line just south of Oxford station. Once the “Electric Spine” programme is completed, trains from the factory could change to electric power and run at full speed as far as Southampton docks, or join the main electric network in the Midlands.

Passenger services will also be moving to electro-diesel in the next few years. The Intercity Express Programme is a project to replace the UK’s fleet of IC125 High Speed Trains, which date from 1975. Hitachi Rail have won the tender, and will be delivering two fleets of fast, long-distance passenger trains. The Class 800 trains are described as “bi-mode” and are electro-diesel sets which are designed to operate at full speed in diesel mode. These will be used for services to destinations “beyond the wires” – such as London-Aberdeen. The sister Class 801 trains are designed for service operation only on electrified routes, but will still have a small diesel generator set that can be used to shunt in depots and deal with power failures. Modern trains are air-conditioned and a power failure can result in severe discomfort for passengers, so the new trains will be able to start their generators to keep the lights and air conditioning working, and crawl slowly to the next station.

Finally, the venerable 73s are not being forgotten – two units are currently in the workshops of Railway Vehicle Engineering Ltd in Derby being fitted with modern Cummins diesel generator sets. These are much more powerful than the units they replace, meaning that these two new 73s will have equal performance in diesel and electric modes. I suspect that these will be really useful engines…

Plusbus again

January 2nd, 2014

Following my previous rant about the complexities of Cambridge’s bus ticketing, there’s a further interesting item to add to the mix – Plusbus. As I’ve discussed before, Plusbus is an add-on to a railway ticket that allows use of local buses. The Cambridge version costs £3.10 (plus your rail ticket), which is a reasonable saving on a £3.90 dayrider. it covers the same area as the Stagecoach Dayrider but also works on Whippet buses, including Busway routes C and D. If you’re a railcard user, the discount applies, cutting the cost to £2.05 (plus rail ticket). Greater Anglia (who manage Cambridge, Waterbeach, Ely and Shelford stations) are supposedly upgrading all their vending machines to sell Plusbus tickets, otherwise you can buy one as an upgrade to a machine-issued ticket when you arrive at Cambridge station. It’s also possible to buy them online and then collect from any ticket machine.

Bus frustration again…

December 28th, 2013

I was in Cambridge at the weekend, and re-acquainted myself with its bus system. A few things have changed in the two years I’ve been away, but some obvious things appear not to have been acted upon.

Let’s start with some good news – the guided bus system appears to have been popular enough for the original routes to have been expanded somewhat, and for some routes to now be operating at a higher frequency. For instance, the Stagecoach route A service from Trumpington to St Ives is now every 15 minutes rather than every 20, and now makes a slightly better job of connecting Addenbrooke’s with the railway station, although the Park & Ride bus service from Babraham to Milton still actually has a faster journey time.

I used the route A to get from our temporary flat at Addenbrooke’s into the city on Saturday (partly because the guided buses stop within 2 minutes walk of the flat, whereas the main bus station is about a ten minute walk) and it arrived ahead of time at the railway station and sat there for a few minutes. The new bus access road and bus stops at the railway station (built as part of the CB1 development) are a big step forward for traffic flow around the station, but I can’t help feeling that some important details have been lost in the remodelling. Our Route A bus stopped at stop 9 at the station, which is the one that’s nearest to the station entrance. No fewer than six people came and asked the driver if his bus went to the city centre. He answered no – which is probably the right answer, the route A calls at New Square, which is fairly central but not the main shopping street – and directed them further down the road to another stop (stops 6 and 7 both have buses to the city centre). Surely it would be more logical for the “buses to town” to be using the stops nearest the station entrance, so as to make things easy for people unfamiliar with the city?

This has been a longstanding complaint of mine. Outside the front entrance to the station should be a large signboard explaining where to go to take the buses to a few popular destinations (the city centre and Addenbrooke’s being obvious ones). The bus stops themselves should also be clearly labelled “buses to city centre from this stop” and should also clearly show the fare and explain that the drivers can give change for banknotes but don’t take credit cards.

Now, let’s get onto the thorny topic of ticketing. Stagecoach have a near-monopoly on services in Cambridgeshire, so the majority of people will be happy buying Stagecoach’s tickets: there are singles, returns and two all-day tickets (Dayrider covers the city only, Dayrider Plus covers the whole county). It’s impossible to obtain the single or return fares on the web – you have to call the depot and ask – which seems daft in this day and age. About 20% of buses in Cambridgeshire are operated by other independent operators, so the County Council applied some leverage to the bus companies and made them issue a ticket called a Multibus, which was originally a day ticket covering all buses in the county. A Multibus is quite expensive – £7.80 as against a Dayrider Plus at £6 and a city-only Dayrider at £3.90 – and I suspect they don’t sell very many. Until recently it wasn’t even listed on Stagecoach’s website! However, the Multibus ticket now doesn’t cover the Stagecoach-operated Busway A and B routes, for no reason I can properly understand. There is, however, a special busway smartcard ticket that works on both Whippet and Stagecoach busway buses, but nowhere else! Logical!

Cambridge rail improvements 2013-2019

December 20th, 2013

We’re moving to Cambridge in the new year, so I thought I’d follow up the previous post about Oxford rail improvements to cover changes in the Cambridge area.

Hitchin flyover

One of the long-standing problems with the Cambridge-Kings Cross service has been the flat crossing at Hitchin, where trains going north to Cambridge had to cross all four lines of the East Coast Main Line in order to reach the Cambridge branch. Any disruption to the timetable tended to result in a Cambridge train getting held at Hitchin station whilst waiting for the line to become clear. Network Rail have built a new line that crosses on a large curved viaduct, which opened in the summer of 2013. Only a few trains a day have been using it so far, but with the timetable change in December 2013, the Cambridge route trains have been switched to using the new line. This actually adds about a minute to the journey time, but should avoid the previous delays.

Cambridge Science Park station

Cambridge’s main station is to the south of the city centre, and it can take up to 45 minutes by bus to reach the northern part of the city. To help resolve this, a new station is going to be built in Chesterton, using land that’s currently occupied by goods sidings. This will be called Cambridge Science Park, and is in the advanced planning stage at the moment. Assuming no major holdups, construction should start in the summer of 2014, with the station being open from December 2015. The station will be served by the existing King’s Lynn – London trains (every hour), and should also get an hourly semi-fast service (i.e. stopping at Royston, Baldock and Letchworth). There should also be a service to Norwich. Detailed train provisions will be worked out nearer the time. The station will have three platforms – two on the main line and one “bay” platform for terminating trains from London. Access to all three platforms will be via a footbridge, as passengers need to cross over the line that leads to the remaining goods sidings. Vehicle access will be from Cowley Road, and a guided busway spur will be built along the trackbed of the former St Ives branch line to reach the new station. There will be no through route for buses or other vehicles, so it will be interesting to see if the bus companies choose to terminate some of their bus routes from St Ives at this station rather than run all the way into the city.


The Thameslink Programme is due to finish in 2018, and one of the final changes is the connection of the East Coast Main Line to the Thameslink route via a tunnel under the Regent’s Canal. The current proposal is to re-route the half-hourly Cambridge-Royston-Baldock-Letchworth-Kings Cross semi-fast trains to go via Thameslink. These trains will run through London and continue to Horsham in Sussex, providing a direct link to Gatwick Airport en route. They’ll use Thameslink’s new 12-car Siemens trains, which are unusual in that they are a fixed formation of twelve carriages rather than being made from two smaller sets joined together.

Intercity Express Programme

The existing Class 365 trains used for the fast services from Kings Cross to Cambridge and King’s Lynn are due to be replaced with shiny new Hitachi-built Class 801 sets as part of the government’s Intercity Express Programme. These are a more comfortable “long-distance” design, which will also be used to replace existing high speed sets (HSTs and IC225s) on several routes. They are due for introduction in 2018. These sets are designed for electric operation, but have an emergency diesel engine which should help reduce disruption on the days when high winds bring the wires come down on the Fenland section!

New franchise

First Capital Connect’s franchise comes to an end in September 2014. The new franchise is already being advertised by the Department for Transport, and will cover an even bigger area – incorporating the existing Southern franchise from 2015 (London-Brighton and branches) – as a result of the planned expansion of Thameslink services from 2018 onwards. Some new requirements have already appeared in the Invitation To Tender document, the most interesting of which is the provision of two trains per hour (as against one at present) serving King’s Lynn, Downham Market and Ely. This will probably be achieved by extending the hourly Kings Cross-Cambridge non-stop train to run to King’s Lynn. This hasn’t been possible previously because of a single-line junction in Ely, but this is going to be dualled during 2014.

Freight improvements

Various improvements are being made to rail routes in East Anglia as part of a programme of works to improve railfreight access to Felixstowe docks.  At the moment, container trains leaving Felixstowe either have to go to London, down the busy main line to Liverpool Street, or the locomotive has to change ends in Ipswich station, which is very disruptive. Network Rail are currently building a new piece of line (a “chord” in rail jargon) just north of Ipswich station, which is due to be finished in the spring of 2014. Once this opens, container trains will be able to travel from Felixstowe to Ely without reversing, and will then carry on via March and Peterborough to reach the East Coast Main Line. Those going to the West Midland and North West of England will carry on via Stamford, Melton Mowbray and Leicester and join the West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton, using a new flyover that opened in 2012. These proposals will allow much more freight traffic from Felixstowe to travel by rail to the Midlands and North of England, and should help to relieve congestion on the A14. A single container train can carry between 30 and 45 lorryloads!


  • December 2013 – Hitchin flyover in full use by Cambridge route trains
  • Spring 2014 – Ipswich chord opens, more railfreight travels via Ely
  • Summer 2014 – Construction starts on Science Park station
  • September 2014 – New franchise begins
  • December 2015 – Science Park station opens
  • December 2018 – Thameslink route trains start serving Cambridge. IEP trains take over Kings Cross – King’s Lynn services.

Oxford railway improvements 2013-2020

October 20th, 2013

Oxford and the surrounding area are about to experience a massive shakeup in railway services, and I thought I’d try and draw all this together into one simple summary. Things are going to get better, though they may get worse first!

Oxford to Bicester

Let’s start with the project that will affect Oxford soonest. Chiltern Railways are about to start work on their new route from London to Oxford. The line between Oxford and Bicester Town via Islip will close in February 2014 in order for a major upgrade to take place. The line is due to be completely relaid, and the section from Wolvercote to Bicester will be upgraded to double track. Bicester Town station (which also confusingly serves the Bicester Village outlet mall) is going to be completely rebuilt. A new piece of line (a “chord” in railway jargon) will be built in Bicester to link the line from Oxford with the main line to London. A brand new station, to be called Oxford Parkway, will be built next to the Water Eaton P&R site near Kidlington, with the car park site being expanded considerably. Oxford Parkway will open in the summer of 2015 as the temporary terminus of the line, with the line connecting to Oxford’s main station in the spring of 2016. Chiltern are planning to offer an Oxford – Bicester – High Wycombe – London Marylebone rail service with a journey time of 66 minutes. This compares favourably with the current 58 minute journey time to Paddington via Reading. Chiltern’s service will undoubtedly be cheaper to compensate for the slightly longer journey time.

Electric services to Paddington

On the main line to Paddington services are also being improved – the line will be electrified by the end of 2016, and the existing 90mph Class 165 trains will be replaced with 100mph Class 319 electric trains. This should shave a few minutes off the journey time and result in a much quieter ride. Trains from Paddington to Bristol will be electrified at the same time, and the wires will eventually reach Cardiff and Swansea.

Oxford station improvements

Oxford station will undergo a thorough remodelling. Extra platforms will be provided next to the short-stay car park for Chiltern’s service from Marylebone, and it seems likely that another new platform will be built on the south side of Botley Road (in what’s now the long-stay car park), with a new connecting footbridge to the station building. It seems likely that the exisiting rail bridge over Botley Road will need to be made wider to accommodate additional railway lines, and I’ve heard rumours that the span will be widened to make more space for vehicles, cycles and pedestrians passing beneath it. These improvements are due to finish in 2016.

East West Rail – Oxford and Bicester to Milton Keynes and Bedford

The East West Rail project, currently in the advanced design stage, will open in December 2017. The abandoned line from Bicester to Bletchley will be reopened as a double-track, 100mph line, meaning that Oxford will have a direct rail service to Milton Keynes in 40 minutes, and to Bedford in 60 minutes. It is likely that some of these services will start from Reading or Didcot. Only one new station will be opened on this line – at Winslow in Buckinghamshire. This line is due to be electrified – the Oxford to Milton Keynes route will be electrified during construction, but the section between Bedford and Bletchley will be electrifed by 2019. The line did used to carry on to Cambridge, but this section has been built on, and early feasibility studies are underway to consider building an entirely new line between Bedford and Cambridge. However, travel to Cambridge will get much quicker, as a 60 minute train ride to Bedford can then be followed by a 60 minute coach ride to Cambridge. This compares with a 3.5 hr coach ride on the X5 at present, and a 2.5hr journey time by train via London. An additional part of this scheme is a connection to Aylesbury (and onwards to Marylebone) from Milton Keynes.

Electric services to Banbury, Leamington and Coventry

The line north of Oxford will be electrified by 2019, with the wires continuing to Banbury, Leamington, Coventry and Nuneaton. This is being done mostly to allow freight trains from Southampton Docks to run to the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland under electric power. It’s likely that the CrossCountry passenger services that pass through Oxford will switch to electric trains once this is completed.

Other bits and pieces

There’s a strong possibility that there will be a new service running from the South to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, using the new Oxford-Bedford line. This might start at Southampton or Reading and run to Leicester, Derby or Sheffield, as all these routes will be electrified by 2020.

A project is in the design stage to construct a west-facing connection to Heathrow Airport. This will give Reading a direct service to Heathrow (replacing the execrable RailAir coach) and could potentially allow services to Heathrow from further afield, including Oxford. It’s most likely that the service will operate as  a Reading-Heathrow shuttle, or possibly a Reading-Heathrow-Crossrail route.


  • Feb 2014 – Oxford-Islip-Bicester Town service replaced by buses
  • Summer 2015 – Oxford Parkway opens. Oxford Parkway – Islip – Bicester – High Wycombe – London Marylebone service starts
  • Spring 2016 – Oxford – Bicester – High Wycombe – London Marylebone service starts
  • December 2016 – Oxford – Reading – Paddington electrification complete, introduction of electric services on this route. Oxford station remodelling complete
  • December 2017 – Oxford-Bicester-Milton Keynes and Oxford-Bicester-Bedford services start
  • December 2019 – Oxford-Bedford service electrified. Oxford – Banbury – Leamington – Coventry electrified

An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!

Data management

September 20th, 2013

There’s a software-developer maxim that I heard recently, which is “if you’re writing code, you should be using source control”. Source control, also known as version control, is a system that looks after all the code that you write and stores it, and data about all the changes you make to it, in a form that allows you to revert to previous versions easily. It also allows you to work collaboratively with other people. By analogy with this principle, let me introduce a new maxim: “if you’re collecting data, you should be doing data management”. What’s “data management”? Let me explain…

Data management is looking after your data, and storing it a form that makes it easy to retrieve and understand later. A common situation is that you start out doing some “play” experiments, fiddling about to try and get a handle on some new piece of equipment. You collect some data, perhaps some numbers in a logbook, perhaps some sort of data file. Then you do more experiments, and unless you were meticulous, you end up with a whole load of different experimental results with filenames like DATA_EXPT.xls, DATA_EXPT2.XLS, DATA_TUESDAY.xls, etc. You put them aside for a week and then come back to them. They were meaningful then, but now you’ve forgotten what the parameters were, or which of the runs produced interesting results. Now you have a data management problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembrance Sunday

November 11th, 2012

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and this is also one of the rare years where it falls on Armistice Day itself – the Armistice is remembered on the 11th of November, at 11am, but traditionally this occasion was marked on the second Sunday in November by services and ceremonies in churches and at war memorials all over the country.

I grew up in Liss, a small village in Hampshire. Remembrance Sunday was a hugely important fixture in the village’s calendar, much more so than in most other places I’ve visited since. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that the presence of a very large number of retired servicepeople had a lot to do with it – we had a lot of military facilities close by, and a large and active branch of the Royal British Legion. I was in the Scouts (starting as a Cub Scout, later a Scout and a Venture Scout) and it was always made clear to us that attendance at Remembrance Sunday was absolutely compulsory. I have to say that I found the whole thing rather scary when I was young. We would assemble in our uniforms by the War Memorial, which was in front of the Junior School in the village centre. As well as all the various branches of the local Scouts, there would be the Brownies and Guides, the Army Cadet Force, a military band, and then a huge formation of members of the British Legion, probably 50-100 people, the majority of whom were wearing medals. We stood in groups facing the Memorial, and then a military officer (probably the gent that ran the ACF, I think) would bark “Parade, attention! Slow march!” (or words to that effect – it took me years to work out what he actually said) and we’d all march down the hill through the village, over the level crossing and up the hill the other side to the church. The church was comprehensively redecorated for the occasion: all the usual bright flowers were replaced with arrangements made from paper and plastic red poppies. As we approached the church, the standard-bearers for each group would line the church path with their flags, and after everyone else had entered, they would then process up to the altar rail and hand their standards over to the clergy in the sanctuary, to be racked up alongside the altar while the service was in progress. The service took the same format every year (in fact, the same ancient typewritten orders of service were given out year after year) and completely replaced the usual Sunday morning parish Holy Communion service with a service of remembrance modelled on that being held at the Cenotaph in Westminster. This included the two minutes silence, the reading of the famous poems, the playing of the Last Post and the Reveille by a lone bugler, and the singing of various traditional hymns, like O God Our Help In Ages Past, and at the end O Valiant Hearts. The latter I used to find pretty execrable as a young man – the hymn is only just about acceptable on its own (as the lyrics come extremely close to the glorification of war), but combined with the maudlin tune played slowly on the organ and all the rest of the military ceremony, O Valiant Hearts was just too much.
Anyway, after the service, we would process out again (the standard-bearers having collected their standards from the altar rail), and would first assemble by the smaller War Memorial in the churchyard, where wreaths were laid, and then we would then march back to the village memorial by the school, for a further laying of wreaths before we could all disperse.

As an inquisitive child, I would ask various people questions about why the ceremony was held, and why it was felt necessary for us as young pre-teen Cubs and Scouts to stand there in just our uniform shirts on some freezing wet November morning (you learned to wear multiple vests and if at all possible a thin pullover under your uniform…). The only real explanation I got from the adults involved was “These people fought, and their friends and relatives died, for your freedom. It means a lot to them that you are here, showing them respect for what they did. You won’t ever really understand what they went through, so just shut up, show some respect, and do as you’re told!”

Ironically, as an adult, I learned that in most other parts of the UK, Remembrance Sunday is nothing like it is in Liss. Most churches will pray, and hold a silence, and people will lay poppies on war memorials, but the parade and the “takeover” of the parish church by the British Legion is not a widespread phenomenon. Having had it laid on so thick as a child, I sometimes find myself surprised at how little fuss is made elsewhere, and the radio coverage of the Westminster Cenotaph ceremony can bring tears to my eyes, for reasons I can’t really explain. I do think that the dead of all wars deserve to be remembered, with respect, but that the church and society must always be wary not to glorify the wars of the past in their remembrance. We will remember them…