A literary month

Picture of the new books and SLS Journals

A literary month

Two connected, but disparate, sections to this blog post describing my literary month. The first a completed task and introduction to a new role as Editor of The Stephenson Locomotive Society Journal; the second related to local theatre productions.

Stella, my wife, stage managed Me and My Girl so a lot of work in the household went into that both in the months leading up to the show and in show week itself. To add to that drama connection the local Royal Manor Theatre here on Portland recently ran a production of Old actors never Die and as a consequence we got that title at Weymouth Writing Matters as one of our a prompts. Given it will soon be time to assist as a volunteer with the Weymouth Pavilion Panto prep’ time it seemed appropriate to also add my own small tribute to the thespian’s craft below.

A teaching day

The other generator of workload was an invitation to give a talk on the history of railways to a group of Polish exchange students staying over at Clevedon in Somerset. The students had come over to the UK to get experience of a range of topics and issues prior to selecting a career: one of those careers being the option of working on the railway back in Poland, hence this talk. Initially envisioning the usual hour to an hour and half of talking (as for a local club/society evening) it eventually turned out to be a four hour, full day. My recent BACOM experience and training at Bournemouth in presentation skills certainly came to the fore; it went well. A day’s teaching, a first for me, and an experience I found surprisingly satisfying.

Photo from the history talk.
An image used in the presentation. 150 years of progress in one picture. Left – The gas turbine APT – 175 mph in 1975. Centre – Iron Duke (Replica) 60 mph – 1840s. Right – Rocket (Replica) 32 mph in 1830. Image (C) John New

Editing time

Picture of the new books and SLS Journals
The final proofs for the two new SLS books. The final editions are perfect bound NOT wire bound. Images (C) John New.

Since coming back from summer holiday life has been hectic with book editing for The Stephenson Locomotive Society. A deep end start to the role I’ve also just taken on of Editor for the bi-monthly Journal; first edition will be January/February. But back to the books – launching at the Warley Model Railway Show at the NEC on 25/26 November the first two volumes of material from the SLS Archives.

  • Narrow Gauge & Miniature (From The Stephenson Locomotive Society Archives Vol 1)
  • Eclectic Electrics (From The Stephenson Locomotive Society Archives Vol 2)

On launch weekend they will be available on our stand (Hall 5, Stand D44) at £9.50 each (£7.50 to Society members). Postal sales will be available post-Show once the P&P situation is finalised. (When available generally it will be announced on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, the SLS Twitter feed and the SLS Publications page)

Old actors never die

They say old actors never die; like the ancient pagan gods they remain alive as long as they are adored, worshiped, remembered. Their old posters and fading photographs line the walls of musty corridors and theatre bars, slowly fading as the plays they starred in pass from living memory.

The ephemera of a craft, the passing of time, each show a snapshot, unlike cinema, where time remains frozen. The youthful face of the craggy old star shambling from Hollywood café to occasional TV studio appearance, their old movies endlessly repeating on obscure channels; a cruel reminder of past glories. The long legs dancing the kick line, the piercing smile of the male lead, forever captured, reality the decline, the baton passed to the new replacement.

Times change, tastes change, the star of yesterday’s western unnoticed in Wallmart, the silent queens of the silver screen, glorious in mono, passed over in colour. No more repeats of the Keystone Cops to entertain the kids at the Saturday flicks: 633 Squadron flies to face the deadly Hun no longer, the Eagles Dared but the Empire Struck back.

The house lights dim, the curtain rises, the new crop take the stage; from the wings the old look on, coaching, training, remembering. The words they spoke last the ages; for some their memory will be immortal, names spoken in reverent tones, their routines rehashed and recast, even perhaps immortalised as a new sweet desert, fruity, tangy, was Dame Nellie like that in life?

As they say in showbiz, another opening of another show. As the door closes for one for another it opens. For some, the very best, it will stay revolving, but sadly, for most, like a child’s spinning top the hum and buzz will gently fade away.

Copyright on all the above remains with the author – not released into the public domain.

Does an exhibition have to inspire directly?

Art exhibition observations

At last week’s Writers Group Meeting the day’s writing challenge was to look at the adjacent art exhibition and write about one of the pictures. However, faced with a selection of paintings that didn’t particularly inspire me to write based on their subject content, I pondered on the work by the first artist who’s name was displayed, thinking; who is she, who is it behind the name? The work displayed, two views of what looked like images of the Lake District and one of a walled garden in sunlight, form a character shape in the mind: a liker of the pastoral, a creative person, a holiday traveler, or is it deeper?

For obvious reasons I have left out the name here. It doesn’t really matter of course, her work as presented is what should count, but on some days the creative in me wanders. the abstract and obtuse taking off in a direction of its own and often on a tangential flight of fancy. Is the name a cover, a pseudonym? At a local charity art exhibition probably not, but then, is the artist actually proud of her work or somehow feeling the displayed pieces could be better, that hiding behind the anonymity of a name change, protects her, or even his, true identity.

Is there a deeper meaning?

Martyrs memorial, Tolpuddle, Dorset. Image: John New

What do the chosen works say about their inner character? Was the juxtaposition for this exhibition of the three images deliberately chosen to create the contrast? The first a bright summer day in the cosseted world of the grand household, the land of the gardener and servants placed as a contrast alongside a gently pastoral version of the rugged upland world of the isolated hill shepherd and harsh mountain winters, is the choice making a statement about society or was it merely accidental? Her soft portrayal of bleak northern fells, the home of massive estates and the life of the privileged built on the backs of working men and women toiling in poverty in mill and mine, was it picked to contrast or compliment the garden scene? The garden may be Athelhampton House and if it is Athelhampton was it chosen because of its’ siting adjacent to Tolpuddle, another representation of grandeur built on the exploitation of humble farm labourers thus another subliminal dimension based on the Georgian struggle for workers rights?

Coincidence?

Alternatively, is the selection mere coincidence, the observation of a casual tourist artist, the pick of the perceived best from the artists portfolio and,  if it wasn’t the day after the feverishly politically charged atmosphere of a general election, would I have even taken this line of thought?  Regarding the choice I suspect the latter, the portrayal of societal angst through art, too much part of the semi-closed London set; the Hampstead inner circle, the chattering classes beloved of Radio Four. This is local, unpretentious, random sampling. The evening class and art group not the coffee house bespoke studio, nor even the local Art Week offerings so often given titling and write ups pretentiously adding little to the selected works.

Who ever you are you’ve put your work out there for all to see, and hopefully, purchase for a good cause and for that we can only offer thanks.

Girl book titles

Picture close up girl title book

Girl used in literary titles

Book picture girl in title
Just some of the girl title books Image: John New

The word girl is appearing everywhere in titles of literary works, including this observational piece of my own from 2014. Why did I use “girl” is perhaps the question I need to ask myself? I could easily have used woman in the title instead, from my memory of her age that might even have been more appropriate, but it didn’t feel right when I wrote it originally and still doesn’t now in revisiting the work, making a few minor edits and posting it here. Was it then, and still is, a subconscious decision based on the commonality of the word in titles since the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or any of the variations of The Girl on the Train titlesHowever, the origins of girl and train titles dates back over a century to operatic works written in German and performed in Vienna therefore there is clearly more to it than just the recent works. Girl is an odd word, even my mother at 93 still refers, when going out in a group with female companions, as “out with the girls” so it isn’t just a sexist, male, view of the feminine ideal. In reality I’m guessing that as a word it feels friendlier in usage than woman in the same way that the, now ubiquitous, guy(s) and the earlier chap sound warmer than man or bloke when describing the male.

With regard to the item itself, included, below just a random observation from one day on a bus ride.

The girl on the 902

A random chance meeting
on the Bristol Park and Ride.
She, sitting opposite, a few rows down.
Stunning redhead, powerful looking
but so tired, the stress lines,
forming dark shadows
spoiling her demeanour
A haunted, frightened look;
you could read that fright
see it in her eyes.
Outbound, park bound,
homeward bound
but can we assume;
and even if homeward
to what, to whom?

We didn’t speak.
So no way to know,
the story left unlearned.
T’was just random chance
That meeting of strangers
on the Park and Ride.
But what could she tell,
what would she tell,
that girl on the 902?

From an observation on the Bristol P&R service 902 – 7 August 2014.
(As revised 26 Feb 2017)

The image is by John New. No copyright is claimed for the photographed works.

Happy New Year / Delville Woods

Detail from the commemorative frieze in the museum.

2017 – Happy New Year

This first blog post of 2017 was to have begun, as it does in the heading, by wishing readers a Happy New Year for 2017 and then continuing solely with this content about my writing. However, as you will see later, computing issues continue to aggravate hence the additional material below.

Delville Woods, Longueval, Somme, France.

View of the woods on 8 July 2003.
Delville Woods. The white cairns on the horizon marked the front line positions. The worst fighting here was between 14 & 20 July 1916. John New 2003.

Spring morning – Delville Woods

It’s quiet now in Delville Woods
No smoke, no guns, no flame

It’s quiet now in Delville Woods
No blood, no gore, no pain

It’s quiet now in Delville Woods
Where white stones mark the slain

It’s quiet now in Delville Woods
Just tranquil thoughts remain

It’s quiet now in Delville Woods
No smoke, no guns, no flame.

John New 2003 (as revised 2004)

The above is a poem first drafted in the adjacent coach park immediately after visiting the the Delville Woods battlefield and South African First World War memorial museum (Link 1) (Link 2) at Longueval, Somme, France on a still and quiet day in 2003. At the time one of the many Iraq wars was in progress, the whole idea that as a society we have learnt nothing since the fighting here in 1916 struck a chord, hence the poem’s first draft. It was recently adapted as a song by my eldest daughter, Eleanor. (See Ellie’s Facebook for original of the video).

This, much shortened, final, version of the poem came from what was originally a considerably longer piece, which was I quickly felt was so unsatisfactory that I doubt it will ever surface. It greatly benefited from one of the heaviest edits I have ever done on a piece of my own writing and if there is a tip to pass on from that it is don’t simply throw a work away, the kernel of the idea may have been sound. The red pencil can at times also be your friend and not just your enemy.

The museum
View of the museum.

 

Detail from the commemorative frieze in the museum.
Detail from the commemorative frieze in the museum.
Detail from main entrance arch. (NB Has had digital adjustment)
Detail from main entrance arch. (NB Has had digital adjustment)
Photograph. The cemetery, adjacent Delville Woods.
The cemetery, adjacent Delville Woods. John New 2003.

Computing issues

Microsoft continue to aggravate with their continued way of making unnecessary changes to parts of their software that worked better before the upgrade!  Not that Apple are free from criticism either, looking at the new phones for a potential upgrade and the iPhone7 (the logical choice) I noted as being sized too big to fit in a man’s shirt front pocket. Oh well I can live with the existing one for the time being.  On the positive side, however, my mother is at last trying to use her first computer, a donated laptop.

Microsoft Word – letter templates

Screen grab - Word template editing options
Screen grab – Word template editing options

The first time waster to be reported is the way Word deals with document templates. Nothing actually wrong with the process except that there is no mention that for setting headers there is an Option A and Option B. The fact that if you want a different page one header in multiple page documents the tick box to set that function is not too difficult to find; unfortunately the back-up description of what it does when ticked/unticked is not! (I think in fact it is missing completely) I am sure the help file writers very carefully proofread the help file, but whilst the spelling and grammar may be OK they failed to notice the glaring omission that what Word actually does varies according to when you FIRST save the document in relation to that tick box being ticked or unticked. This tutorial supplies the answers (see 4th entry from shereens dated 29 November 2015 for full text) and I wasted several hours during December before finding this out.

Microsoft – two steps forward – three steps backwards!

Whilst writing about Microsoft regrettably also more time wasting as a result of the Windows 10 upgrade. The move function when reorganising files used to a simple one, highlight the necessary file(s) right click, drag and drop. Although that principle is broadly the same in Explorer (Win 10 version) it seems to result in a lot more clicks, swearing at the machine and accidental programme opening than previously. Definitely a case of two steps forward and three backwards for me.

Copyright

All images and text on this page are by, and remain in copyright to, John New. Video and music remains copyright Eleanor Grady. They are not released under Creative Commons.

Last week I caught a train

Trains, the ticketing nightmare
Trains
Southbound Cl 185 Trans Pennine Express at Shipton by Beningbrough (Yorks). The acceptable side of train travel.
Southbound Cl 185 Trans Pennine Express at Shipton by Beningbrough (Yorks). The acceptable side of train travel.

Trains are an interest, last week I even rode on one just like that pictured above. For people who know me well, or sometimes visit this blog, that probably seems an obvious statement. I am PRO for a railway society (The SLS) and manage the website for two other rail related groups so train travel should be a norm. Unfortunately it isn’t, partly down to geography/available routes, and partly down to the nature of the rail industry today. This blog post is reflections on trying to actually plan/use the train to make three main-line trips from the major UK rail hub of York; for only one was the train actually usable!

Ticketing
Tickets and cards.
Tickets and cards.

It used to be easy, you turned up, you bought your ticket and got on the next train. These days each Train Operating Company (TOC) has its’ own range of discounts and options; woe betide the person who gets on a wrong train or thinks they can just buy one from the guard/ticket collector. On Friday I was 50:50 lucky, there was a very substantial discount to travel restricted to Trans Pennine Express but it meant leaving at a set time to get the last train back. Why was that only 50% lucky, the event over-ran so I missed the last few minutes.

Empty reservations

Even though I take advantage of it because it is there what is annoying to me as a passenger is the discount for advance payments. This is for two reasons, (1) the number of no-shows means reserved seats get left empty and (2) it is simply illogical from a passenger perspective. It may make wonderful commercial sense to travel providers, be they train or airline operators, but for the passenger it means the turn-up and go fare payer (where there is all the risk of no seats etc.,) pays the premium rate. The premium should be for the early booking guarantee of a seat. Why this observation; in my coach on Friday of the 10 reservation slips visible only 4 were actually occupied for the leg specified!

Parking and evening buses

Another issue that creates an issue for train choice is parking and lack of late evening buses. On top of the train fare you have the parking tax as the lack of evening buses means a car or taxi is needed to get you home, and if the journey is rural, that can be surprisingly early. A Park & Ride scheme is great, but useless for the inward journey if the car-park is locked after 8pm so you can’t get your car out even if you get a taxi back to the P&R site after the last bus.

Why do I write this? In a fortnight I want to go to an evening meeting. It is in a neighbouring town to York and the expected 9:40 to 10pm finish is hardly late! However, I will be staying over that weekend at a relative’s house and there is no public transport option back out of York to their village after 7pm, outcome will be a 90 mile round trip drive.

My experiences using Scotrail whilst on holiday earlier in the month were slightly better but these general principles still have validity for services north of the border too.

Seating and people types
A southbound Voyager near York
A southbound Voyager near York. The route I won’t be taking!

The final straw, to this cumulative disaster, is the Cross-Country Voyager train. My Saturday afternoon meeting in Derby shortly coming up has to be another 100 mile plus round trip car journey as everything conspires to make the train a non-starter. The first blow, no evening village bus home and the park and ride alternative would be touch and go for getting back on the last one, so dare not risk.  Car park fee at station -don’t ask! However even if I pay that fee the train has such jammed in seating that as a tall man I can only sit in First Class with a guarantee of getting enough leg room.

So another weekend another motorway journey, not from a lack of motivation to use public transport but because it isn’t available as a practical alternative.

Going back to that Friday trip last week, people watching sure is fun. What a mix. Outward it was fine despite the train being pretty full but another downer for evening travel are the parties of tipsy and drunk fellow travelers. Not fighting on this occasion but raucous and with hardly the most desirable language choice at times.

General status update

The Kelpie statues, at Falkirk.

General status update

The Kelpie statues, at Falkirk.
The Kelpie statues, at Falkirk.

A general status update as it has been a while since I posted anything here so time to get back onto the blogging trail. It has been busy summer including helping both my daughters make family house moves, two brief holiday breaks, one in the Lake District and a second in Scotland together with presenting and writing a conference paper. In Scotland we saw the amazing, award winning, Kelpie statues at Falkirk.

Early Railways Conference 6
A wooden waggon at the Causey Arch. Typical of the early railway period.
A wooden waggon at the Causey Arch. Typical of the early railway period.

The conference was an excellent event held in Newcastle, with the cradle of early railways being Tyneside and adjacent areas a most appropriate venue. My own paper was on Why Replace the Horse? The subsequent write up stretching over the summer; now awaiting the peer review, and hopefully, acceptance for the ultimately published proceedings book.

Current status

Working full-time at home this week on web updates and management committee reports in my role as PRO for the Stephenson Locomotive Society (SLS) but definitely missing the anticipation of a further year at Uni. After several short courses on IT and Graphics at Kingston Maurward College, and then three years at Bournemouth University, it seems very strange not to be getting new books etc., and anticipating the new modules. I have plenty of on-going research in hand, to say nothing of the website rebuilding and writing to be done, plus attacking the Autumn tasks of the garden, so I won’t be short of tasks, that is for sure.

Corrupted software issues

As for today a fight with the blog software; this would have been posted yesterday if the part of the package needed for adding new posts hadn’t been corrupted.  I still have to fix the Instagram links and plug ins as isolating that has fixed the editing and updating processes.  Why can’t IT stuff just work?!

 

 

 

 

WCRC suspended from running trains

WCRC diesel Upwey

WCRC – Legal constraints update

This legal constraints update is a follow up to my blog entry of 5th January this year regarding the West Coast Railway Company (WCRC).  At that time the company’s operations were under the spotlight due to the pending court case action arising from the Wootton Bassett incident of 7 March 2015.  That case is still proceeding and therefore although some aspects, for example the name of the driver involved, can now be reported many of the the legal constraints still apply.  The ORR report that the next hearing will be at the Swindon Crown Court on 18th March.

WCRC diesel at Weymouth
A WCRC Diesel locomotive at Weymouth 5th Sept 2015. Image: John New
West Coast Railway Company suspended.

In the earlier post an incident at Weymouth on 5th September was mentioned and as that has been an influence in another decision relating to WCRC, now published, further albeit cautious comment is appropriate.  The Office of Road and Rail (ORR) had been conducting a review during December and January of their competence to operate trains on the national network and their findings have led to a suspension notice being issued today.

Ian Prosser, HM Chief Inspector of Railways at ORR said:

“A decision to stop a train operator from running rail services is not taken lightly. However, my concerns about West Coast Railway Company’s lack of appreciation of the seriousness of a collective range of incidents over the last year, coupled with ORR’s concerns on the company’s governance, regrettably make this prohibition necessary. These failings create a significant risk to operations on the mainline network.

We want to encourage successful business operations on our railways and hope WCRC will be able to put in place steps to ensure fit and proper safety management with a view to resuming operations.  Our inspectors stand ready to work with the company to support and advise as it strengthens its approach to safety.”

The ORR website has a full copy of the letter sent to West Coast available for public reading and their website was also the source for the quotes included above.

The issues leading to the suspension

“The safety incidents involving WCRC over the past year include:

  • In June 2015, a WCRC train moved forward while preparing to leave Reading station, due to miscommunication between the guard and driver.
  • In September 2015, a WCRC train collided with the buffers at Weymouth, In September 2015, ORR inspectors found WCRC’s safety risk assessments for operating steam trains were out of date and that, even so, WCRC staff were not aware of their existence.
  • In October 2015, staff on a WCRC train near Doncaster turned off its Train Protection and Warning System isolation equipment, designed to apply an emergency brake if the driver makes an error.”

The quote above is from the ORR website.

The suspension in context

As West Coast are the leading provider of the crews to operate steam hauled excursions on the mainline network this suspension will leave a serious hole for the short term in the ability of tour companies to run trains. However, this does not only affect steam tours; West Coast are also the supplier of locomotives and crews for a variety of other services too including maintenance services for Network Rail.

This suspension will not totally stop all mainline steam locomotive operations as an alternative Train Operating Company (DB Schenker) also has a licence to operate steam tours. However, DBS do not currently contract to do as many and only time will tell if they have the desire and/or capacity in appropriately qualified staff to fill this (hopefully) short term void.

This suspension will, undoubtedly, have a knock on effect therefore beyond the immediate, and direct, impact on West Coast Railway Company.  We have to hope for the tourist industry’s sake that this company can sort out these ORR identified issues quickly and create the long-term safety culture, which is apparently lacking currently.

The good news to emerge is that it is at least only a repeat suspension, not a complete withdrawal of the ability to operate, there is a light visible at the end of the tunnel if the right steps are taken.

A WCRC run steam hauled rail tour
A WCRC crewed tour. 70013 near Weymouth. Image: John New.

For the sake of all concerned let us hope scenes like the one above will not be absent from the rail tour scene for long.

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Research facts – story spoilers

Primary research I have carried out suggests that journalistic staples in the Christmas build up differ from reality. Recently on Storify I published two posts, the first outlining how journalists predicted Christmas rail misery, and the second describing how shopper behaviour impacts on retailers.  In the background, I also posted two research questionnaires  surrounding those same topics.  The feedback from those is now available and suggests that citizens are in fact street-savvy, and old preconceptions require modification.  The old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, is, in this instance, perhaps being proven correct.

Rail engineering – predicted travel chaos
Research shows track maintenance accepted - photo of equipment.
Track maintenance equipment Image: John New

As identified in my earlier Storify post, chaos has in the past occurred when works have overrun, therefore some elements of the journalists predictions have validity.  This post, however, challenge to the regularly promoted expectation that travellers resent the large scale rail closures over holiday periods.  Primary research in fact suggests that travellers think holiday closures are, perhaps, the least troublesome option.

[infogram id=”rail_closure_survey”]

Those responding to the question “No they were not aware there were likely to be closures” were asked to select from five options as to the reason for their lack of awareness. However, the no response was so low that the individual answers to that question are statistically of little value. The major surprise from the survey, given that there had been considerable mainstream news coverage (in particular regarding temporary replacement of the services to Heathrow and Gatwick airports), was that there were still 10% who responded that they were unaware of such closures.

A deserted London Waterloo. Image: John New
A deserted London Waterloo. Image: John New
What shoppers think of Christmas retailing

As an independent blogger, a survey will never match the accuracy of nationwide sampling by specialists such as  IPSOS-MORI, but that does not negate its use.  My own survey was to ascertain consumer attitudes to the early arrival of Christmas in retail outlets, and whether that conflicts with the standard journalistic coverage of retailers’ announcements regarding Christmas.

What the survey showed is that, whilst shoppers feel it is OK to be able to buy Christmas goods in store at an early date, there is resentment at the modern trend for getting the rest of the Christmas trappings into stores at such early dates.

[infogram id=”christmasnew_year_retail_survery_20156″]

The fact that consumers are buying early to spread the Christmas spend over a longer period also makes a mockery of articles published quoting from retailers’ press releases regarding their poor Christmas build up.  If customers previously spent £x in December, but now spread that £x budget over September to December, the spend is the same, merely to a new pattern.  The reality may well be that by spreading the purchase time the actual spend by consumers is now £x+n. There is perhaps a situation where not only have retailers had their cake and eaten most of it, they are also anticipating delivery of a second cake!

What also emerges from the survey is that the New Year sales are perhaps no longer the big draw for consumers that retailers previously expected, as only 24.4% of respondents had deliberately withheld making a purchase until the post-Christmas sales period.  Perhaps therefore the mainstream media outlets are missing the deeper story.  When retailers release their New Year comments on the sales, journalists should perhaps be asking why are you bothering with a sale?  The January sales were, after all, originally primarily to shift winter stock to make room for the new spring ranges, not as the profit centres retailers now expect them to be.

The survey, however, does confirm that where consumers have access to the internet they are highly likely to purchase gifts on-line, including vouchers, so that the recipient will also spend on-line.

About the research

Both surveys  remain live via Google Forms, although it is unlikely that either will receive significant additional input.  The rail survey received a reasonable response rate at the original survey date, the retailing questionnaire required a further request for completion.  The retailing question regarding on-line shopping is skewed in favour of a yes answer as it was conducted on-line.  For this reason therefore, perhaps the most significant aspect is that around 9% of the respondents did not buy a gift on-line despite being IT users with internet access.

What this small research element identified is that when the 2016-17 Christmas build up occurs, the real news stories should be around changing shopping habits, not the retailers spin on short-term sales figures.

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Flooding – Yorkshire

Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New

Horrendous flooding

I witnessed the flooding in West and North Yorkshire first hand yesterday during a visit to my sister-in-law.  I also needed to consume the news on the flooding as it happened in order to plan a return journey. The flooding news varied from excellent, live coverage by BBC Radio Leeds & BBC Radio York, to misleading (BBC travel website version), to surprisingly useless (the Environment Agency website).  This blog post therefore asks some questions of the quality, and usefulness, of the information available.

Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New
Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New

Sadly the flooding is escalating, getting into new areas today as the water flows downstream.  The scale of it is awesome in the genuine sense of the word.  One can see how such monster floods in the past led to legends and fables such as Noah’s flood being passed down the generations until being later written down and preserved.

Excellence of local radio

I am a retired Emergency Planning Officer with experience of major flood events, including the Ouse in York. From that experience I appreciate (a) the difficulty of getting accurate information from an ever-changing live situation but also (b) that it is vital to make accurate information available to both responders and the general public.

The scale of this flooding caught people out.  As a family we had a Boxing Day meet up planned with two car loads driving over into Airedale.  The advance weather forecast was for rain and my daughter and I discussed our driving plans so as to avoid a few bits of road that we anticipated might have some surface water flooding.  The significance of that discussion will be seen later.  On the day it was much wetter than expected but at departure time it did not seem bad enough to abort or delay for 24-hours.

As we drove over, local radio were reporting the unfolding scale of the issue, and that became visually apparent the nearer we got to our destination, although Airedale, at that stage, was not as badly affected as Calderdale. We also began to hear that the roads we had anticipated in advance to avoid due to possible surface water were now flooded and shut!  Although Calderdale was getting the worst of it, the Aire and tributaries were also rapidly rising, the normally placid River Worth was like a white water rapids course and some low lying sports fields passed were inundated to almost the 8ft soccer crossbar height, around 6-7ft of water!

Flood warnings which didn’t appear

Local knowledge of the possible routes back to York suggested that either the A658 or A58 might become flooded where they crossed and ran near the River Wharfe, therefore prudently the Environment Agency website was checked.  This is bearing in mind the Wharfe was already flooding roads and properties upstream of both points. At 12 noon there was no flood warning in place for either Pool in Wharfedale or Collingham, either as a current or expected later scenario. This was extremely worrying.  By the time we came to leave at 2pm the A658 at Pool in Wharfedale was, predictably, flooding and only passable with care but still no warning for Collingham was being given by the EA on-line.  The equally predictable closure of the A58 was announced by live traffic news as we headed eastwards.

What is worrying with this scenario is that if someone with a bit of local knowledge can predict these potential flood spots 36 hours beforehand based on weather forecasts, why was there no on-line EA warning of even the lowest risk level?  We did not predict a biblical deluge, but equally neither did the Met Office issue a red-warning until it was almost on top of the area on Friday morning.  Collingham flooded around 2-45 to 3pm, the Wharfe by this time had already flooded upstream at Ilkley, Burley in Wharfedale and Otley, I knew it was highly likely to flood, it was after all why I had checked the EA website. If I knew that, why didn’t they?  If I had chosen that way to get home the potential was there to be stranded.

The broadcast media constantly advise citizens to check the EA website for the latest information, obviously in anticipation of reliable data.  Based on yesterday’s random sampling of quality – the question has to be asked, what is the point of the EA website flood warning system in the current configuration if expected, and obviously predictable, floods are not being added/displayed?  It was not possible to check whether there is an issue with full content only available via desk-top browsers, with slimmed down data content versions automatically adjusting for viewing on smaller mobile phone screens.  That is an issue for future checking, but if it  is occurring it adds to the problems.

All this is worrying as my main residence is in flood-prone rural West Dorset; when you are out and about you only have a mobile to access the system, and even that assumes access to a signal.  Data coverage, and the lack of it in rural areas, is of course another issue.

Travel news that isn’t accurate

Information should be accurate, however, and update information correctly applied; sadly that was not the case yesterday.  Not only was some travel news misleading, out of date and inaccurate, the BBC were giving opposing messages dependant on which of their media channels you were accessing. I have already mentioned local knowledge, again this appeared to suggest issues with quality of the data accessible for route planning, and where strangers to the area would potentially opt for routes taking them into, rather than away from, potential danger.

I give two examples from yesterday afternoon.  On the morning run part of the A6120 Leeds ring-road near Meanwood had begun to flood as we headed west around 10:30am.  As by the afternoon the expectation was it would have flooded, the BBC local travel service on the internet was checked, with nothing showing as a closure.  As we drove towards it no closure was being mentioned in the local radio’s on-going broadcast.  Arriving at the location, however, we found it was shut, forcing a diversion.  The diversion was unsigned, that is understandable, given how many blockages were in place, but the lack of radio and travel website notification that one of the major routes within the area was shut, and probably had been so for sometime,  was perhaps not!

Equally problematically, the A64 near Tadcaster was being shown on-line by BBC Travel as only passable with care and long delays to traffic; as that was not being broadcast as a current issue, we gambled on that info’ being obsolete.  The A58 has been mentioned already but would have been one of the alternatives.  We drove the A64, there were no problems.  On arriving home the BBC Travel website was re-checked, the false information that had been there most of the day was still present and shown as recently updated!

BBC budget cut backs are wrong

The lessons of 2007 have still not been learnt with regard to this need for quality information so as not to divert travellers into areas that are liable to be the next place to flood, trapping them.  Forcing the BBC into cut backs  will only exacerbate the scenario; weather forecasting needs to be good quality and accurate, not simply based on the cheapest available via competitive tendering.  Local radio is vital, a community asset to be expanded not slashed.

Conclusion

As a citizen sampling a largely unprecedented weather event yesterday the local radio coverage via BBC Radio Leeds was superb, informative and, as it was live with on the spot reporting, current.  Unfortunately the same could not be said of the same organisation’s on-line travel news.  It was proven by practical sampling to be inaccurate and incomplete even with regard to main A roads.  That may not be the BBC’s fault directly, but in a world where the internet is increasingly touted as the source to be turned to for breaking news and information, it is clear that as yet, the back office systems are not serving up the material. The Environment Agency was also found wanting in exactly the same way, back office systems not getting information out fast enough.

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Christmas peace

The Peace Cafe, Bethlehem. 1999. Copyright John New
Christmas peace message - Candles in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. 1999.
Christmas peace expressed by the candles in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. 1999. Image John New

Bethlehem 1999

As the header image to this part of the website shows I visited Bethlehem on a troubled day back in 1999.  As we were leaving the town following a visit to the holy sites it all kicked off, with Palestinian locals stoning the armed Israeli troops adjacent to one of the holy sites of the Jewish faith, The tomb of Rachel the Matriarch  This was all a far cry from the peace and goodwill to all message and the Christian nativity for which the town is famous worldwide and the message proudly carried (then) by a local cafe.

The Peace Cafe, Bethlehem. 1999. Copyright John New
The Peace Cafe, Bethlehem. 1999. Image John New

Regrettably the troubles which were kicking off that day in the Palestinian Territories have not stopped since, spreading and inflaming old wounds and the Middle East is now a cauldron of problems.  That it had been sufficiently quiet in the build up to our visit appears with hindsight to have been a matter of luck as I doubt it will be safe enough for a return visit for many years to come,

Bethlehem steet scene 1999
Bethlehem street scene 1999. Tourists and locals together. Image John New

Back then the souvenir shops were thriving with local men able to get employment on taxi work and all the other touristy normality.  Whilst there were guards about and security was tight there was no immediate threat.  As this report from the International Business Times states, not so in 2015, since October tourism figures are well down with all the attendant problems that brings to a town dependent on tourism for most of its income.

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