Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Govia: a dead man walking

I write this blog about all manner of things, and especially - this is rather the purpose of it - about my books. But there is no doubt, it just electrifies when I write about Southern Railways. I try and move on but I'm drawn inexorably back - as I was yesterday.

But then two things happened yesterday, both related to the ongoing crisis at Southern, which speak directly to the themes of this blog - the appointment of a new chief operating officer at Govia Thameslink, Southern's operators, and the focus of attention on the beleaguered Seaford line.

The new COO hides the fact - which has seeped out the way things do in Soviet-style news organisations - that Dyan Crowther has moved on, to HS1. I only talked to her directly once and we got on perfectly well, though I have since heard through the grapevine that is somewhat cross with me (I won't say what she actually said).

I can understand that. I also have some sympathy for Dyan Crowther, just as I did for the equally beleaguered rail minister Claire Perry before her surprise resignation. Both were caught in an impossible situation, where no room for manoeuvre was allowed, no flexibility to see the situation as it really was, no freedom to speak the truth - or even to seek it out.

Both Dyan and Claire made serious mistakes. But, overall, they were caught in the same dishonest machine as everyone else involved in the Southern fiasco. Because GTR is a financial agglomeration, run by accountants for accountants, and also has to run a railway with at least 20 per cent fewer staff than they need. It is hardly surprising it doesn't work.

They can't say publicly that anything is wrong (except to blame the staff, of course). Anyone who has been in this situation - which is anyone in a large organisation run for accountants - will know how the lies begin to manifest themselves. They know how that corrodes from the inside, until finally all you can do is escape.

When being economical with the truth becomes an outright lie, then it undermines your health, your morale, the morale of your staff and, finally, the organisation begins to fall apart.

A case in point is the Seaford line, which had 80 per cent cuts to its service during the summer months, and has just had its service restored. But at what cost?

At least eight Southern managers have been taken away from their desks, mainly in Brighton but also from East Croydon and given a crash course in being guards.

At least one, as I understand it, has appealed on the grounds that they may be legally liable if there is an accident, especially if they know themselves to be inadequately trained. These are not volunteers. They have been told that they will be away for eight weeks - nobody has replaced them in their management responsibilities. See the leaked memos here.

It isn't clear what will happen at the end of eight weeks. There is more than a whiff of desperation about this, given that the trains on the Seaford line are not equipped for driver-only operation.

Meanwhile, there are still empty rail replacement buses running a 15-minute service from Seaford and will apparently carry on until at least the end of the week.

There is something hopeless about this. I'm reminded of the late Robert Maxwell, taking out new loans every night until all the banks were closed to him. Or Harold Macmillan talking about selling off the family silver. Or General French flinging his army cooks into the front line at the Battle of Mons. It is what happens when fundamental untruths catch up with you.

I find it terrifying and I thank goodness I don't work for GTR every day I find myself in their vicinity. There is a sense of dead man walking about them, so desperate that everything should seem normal that they have to redistribute their managers onto the front line as if what they did before was unimportant.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 26 September 2016

Commuters' lives matter

I realise I risk ridicule, or worse, by using a headline like this one to describe the ongoing unravelling of Southern Rail and the other GTR rail franchises.

It isn't as if GTR are killing commuters, though they may have been putting them into dangerously overcrowded situations. But commuters' lives do matter. It matters that people can rely on the trains to get home or get to work. I know in small ways what can happen when this isn't possible - children not picked up from school or very late rendezvous with the family. Sometimes it makes business meetings completely impossible. It matters.

The situation is not as bad as it was in June, but there are still problems. Even as I write (Sunday night), I see that GTR trains are running more than ten minutes late or cancelled in 23 per cent of cases.

It seems extraordinary to me that government ministers are still blaming the unions for this when, at the moment, there is no industrial action going on. My information also suggests that sickness levels are now back to normal.

The continuing failure of transport ministers to see clearly what is happening is part of the problem. You can see this kind of defence of the indefensible whenever economic mores are about to change - there was the same when the Callaghan government defended indefensible levels of inefficiency in the 1970s, when I was at university. It is the same now.

But it really is ridiculous that the Department of Transport has responded to requests for information from the legal team representing commuters with a stonewalling silence. Whose information is it? It is about public money, after all. This is what the Association of British Commuters (ABC) have said:

"Lawyers acting for the Association have written to the DfT requesting documents to confirm whether Govia is in breach of their franchise agreement;including documents referred to in the franchise agreement, the breach notice served on Govia on 7 July 2015 (which the DfT has a clear duty to publish), and the full disclosure of February’s remedial plan by which it is possible to assess whether Govia has been compliant. None of these requests have been granted, and our only response after weeks of waiting has sought to delay further any decision to reveal these documents..."

So this is what we need to find out, and I hope everyone will ask their elected representatives to ask parliamentary questions to the minister:

1. Will they be making public the remedial plan agreed with GTR in February and the other documents requested by the ABC's lawyers?

2. Will they be making public the report by Chris Gibb's project board charged with tackling the disruption on 1 September? If not, why not?

Again, whose information is it? Or is this once again the kind of business that is stitched up behind the scenes by Department officials and Go Ahead executives? Whatever happened to the customer responsiveness of privatised services?

In fact, the real problem is deeper than that, given that the RMT has unhelpfully decided on 14 days of industrial action. It does so because it appears to believe that strikes can be effective when it seems pretty clear that it just gives ministers more of an excuse to avoid the real issues.

The legal action is a crowd-funded attempt by commuters to get action when they have no industrial muscle. They are just the poor dependent, put-upon and patronised commuters - whose lives matter, as I said.

Let's just say that the mutual loathing is so strong - I mean here between management and civil servants and unions - that it rather reminds me of the Labour Party. Both mouth the same platitudes about helping the travelling public and how the other side is letting them down.  But in the end, they hate each other so much that all they really care about is doing down the other side.

GTR management have become obsessed with trade unions, and made serious misjudgements because of that back in April - one of the reasons services have unravelled. So have rail ministers. The RMT meanwhile is obsessed with the government. Both pretend to support travellers but actually, they just can't resist bludgeoning them again. Well, what else is there to do? How else do they express their rage with each other?

It is sad, shambolic and it really makes me cross.

If it makes you cross too, there are three small things we can do about it. Read my short book Cancelled!, Support the ABC's crowdfunded legal action, and get your MP to ask those two questions in Parliament.

NOTE: To add to the peculiarly Soviet information style of the whole GTR set-up, I see that they have appointed a new chief operating officer, without any mention of what happened to Dyan Crowther, who was in that post (as far as I know) until now. Perhaps we have to wait until they have airbrushed the corporate photos...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Friday, 23 September 2016

Are we going to be ruled by computers, or are we going to BE computers?

It is a peculiar thing about robots and fake humans of all kinds, but the motives of those involved in developing them can be deeply paradoxical.

Like Mary Shelley dreaming up Frankenstein as an act of revolutionary imagination, those involved in the debate about artificial intelligence are sometimes motivated by a need to remake humanity along more rational lines.

Or perhaps not so rational. Alan Turing, whose Turing Test I described in the Guardian today, was motivated partly by the incomprehension of those around him about the way he behaved.

And I don’t primarily mean his sense of logic, wearing his gasmask while cycling to avoid hayfever. I mean his gay lifestyle, at a time when homosexuality was illegal and frowned upon. See my short biography of him, Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Hugh Loebner, the delightful inventor who funds the Loebner Prize – his annual version of the Turing Test at Bletchley Park – is well-known for his advocacy of the right to pay for sex.

You can’t help wondering whether in these cases there is a dream of a different, more logical approach to human life, despite contemporary mores – whatever they happen to be. Computers can be programmed differently to our conditioning. But it is paradoxical – logical about passion...

The same goes in some ways for the feminist approach by Donna Haraway and others (see her Manifesto for Cyborgs), which imagines a new kind of human life, part human, part machine, which could sweep away those troublesome distinctions between male and female, straight and gay, human and animal.

This is not to dismiss artificial intelligence. I get suspicious of AI when the corporate giants use it. This kind of dreaming is the very roots of utopian radicalism, and always has been.

But I have been fascinated by the delusions of AI as well as its dreaming. Its advocates don’t always grasp that it is the sheer imperfections of human beings that make them human. Or beautiful or attractive or thrilling to sleep with.

So, no, Ray Kurzweil and others, virtual sex will never be “better than the real thing”, because the real thing revels in human imperfection and diversity. There is in fact no such thing as ‘hyper-real’. It is a concept without content from California.

It is the opposite of this – the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, worn, imperfect, human – on which I based my thinking about authenticity (see my short book of essays, The Age to Come).

One of the comments below the line for my Guardian article suggests that AI may not happen, but the cyborg idea might. We may not be replaced by computers, but we might find ourselves increasingly computer enhanced.

The boundaries between computers and humans would begin to blur. I don’t particularly welcome this – and there are worrying implications – but I think they may be outweighed by the advantages.

In any case, it may just be inevitable.

As long as we keep a close eye on what is real and what is not. We have to remember that human beings and the virtual versions, the numerical approximations of humans, are completely different. There is no point in making AI seem closer by limiting our idea of the sheer paradoxical diversity of what humans can do,

Hence the name of this blog...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 19 September 2016

The critical importance of Doing Things

You have to read between the lines about this, but it appears that Theresa May’s objection to George Osborne, who she sacked as Chancellor, was partly that she felt he and his Etonian colleagues treated politics too like a game – a game of symbolism and positioning.

This was certainly true of Boris Johnson, who played around with the idea of banning tall buildings when he stood to be London mayor for the first time. He promised to do so, in fact, but did nothing of the kind in office. I suppose he thought that is what politics is all about, and he should be praised for his cleverness, but I certainly haven’t forgotten.

It is peculiar in some ways that politics is supposed to be about Doing Things or Making Things Happen, when it is usually nothing of the kind. It is about positioning, symbolism, gestures which show you are Serious About Change, which may actually have very little impact on the actual problem.

At the same time, there is a professional snobbery which is now extremely powerful about doing things. Those who strategise, or evaluate, or train, or consult, or finance, tend to look down on those who actually do stuff.

What is more, for the professional strategisers, there are grammar schools, pensions, subsidies, Oxbridge, and for the rest – well, of course they are well-provided for. Aren’t they?

So this is how I understand the latest push towards co-operation on the Left, the subject of the new book called The Alternative – and the subject of my Guardian article on Saturday as the Lib Dems gathered in Brighton. There is also a chapter which links to this in my new book with Joe Zammit-Lucia, The Death of Liberal Democracy?

The problem is that, once again, all the talk is about strategies, electoral or otherwise. None of which mean anything unless the various divided parties actually DO something themselves.

We have to use our political institutions to make things happen.

That sounds obvious, but it isn’t. Some opposition parties I might mention regard Parliament as a showcase for themselves as an alternative government. They tend to avoid winning votes in case it undermines the case for a general election victory that would put them in charge.

All too often, the opportunities to reach out across party lines, to co-operate to change the law in Parliament and beyond, get stymied because of obscure and irritating rivalries between the opposition parties – and because their priorities and strategies are different, and because actually they prefer strategising and campaigning pointlessly to doing.

Yet the government only has a slim majority. Imagine we could agree across party lines to use Parliament for shared objectives.

We might not be able to impact on the big symbolic policy areas – shifting the NHS or changing fiscal priorities, but we can do something. As long as it can attract MPs across party lines.

If we want to break up RBS and turn it into local lending institutions, we could hammer out a cross-party strategy to achieve that. If we want all public service contracts in the public domain, an end to commercial confidentiality for public services, we could do that too.

It might sound unexciting. It might stretch parliamentary conventions. There will be squabbles about who can claim the credit. But if we can achieve things together – then and only then can we move forward to any kind of electoral arrangements.

But I’d go further. Political salvation lies in understanding that everyone, no matter how poor, how ill, how old or how young, has a basic human need to feel useful.

By coincidence, there is also an almost limitless need – not for strategies or management – but for the human skills, that face-to-face ability to give time, that practically everyone possesses. What we lack are the local institutions, largely informal, that are able to bring those two together – the need and the time.

It isn’t just politicians who need to Do Things. Everyone needs to feel the sense of achievement that doing something gives them. Politics must steer radically away from being a spectator sport that attracts those who like to watch and those who want to be watched. It needs to find ways that everyone can make a difference, in small ways, and to draw some purpose in life from doing so.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 5 September 2016

At last, a way for passengers to take back control!

"Men fight and lose the battle," said William Morris in A Dream of John Ball, "and what they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat."

That is the grammar of change (though most politicians don't get it). So instead of being a little downhearted that GTR/Southern's operators Go Ahead has made £100m in profits this year - despite their obvious inability to discharge their duty to their public in the south of England - I'm actually rather optimistic.

Three reasons.

1. Because the shadowy absentee landlords of Southern at Go Ahead have been forced into the open, to go public about how they are extracting resources yet failing to do the work. It was about  time (Go Ahead chair Andrew Allner has made a statement which has been widely quoted, but the BBC link takes you to a private website marked "only for investors").

2. Because Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has taken my advice and set up an inquiry into the disaster at Southern, Thameslink and the Gatwick Express - just as I urged him to. In fact, he has put "an experienced rail executive" in charge of it and given him a budget of £20m to sort out the problems, whatever they happen to be (I could have told him without all the effort, but more on that in a moment...)

3. Because finally, the passengers are getting themselves together with a crowdfunded action for judicial review against the government.

This is especially important because it is a potential way forward to make things happen by the put-upon passengers, without them having somehow to dismiss the whole government - or to go on strike in some way.

The perils of strikes are obvious from the two most public disputes at the moment. The junior doctors have clearly been infantilised by years of central government targets, so much so that they are prepared to put patients at risk without having a clear idea what they are actually striking about.

As for the RMT, Chris Grayling's long-awaited intervention demonstrates that he finds the situation easier if he can blame the rail unions rather than face up to the real problems. Again, more on this in a moment.

I know - because I'm one of them - that the passengers are angry enough and, between them, wealthy enough, to fund a legal action. The barristers need an initial £10,000 to get started, and to start the action - and start demanding documents from the Department of Transport. The case is being managed by the brand new, and homegrown, Association of British Commuters. This is what they need:

1. Donations, however small, now and in the future - find out more here.

2. Information from individuals who have lost jobs or livelihoods because of the government's far too cosy relationship with their incompetent contractors. Contact here.

3. Local businesses who might be able to guarantee larger sums to kickstart the action. Contact here.

I'm certainly going to contribute, if for no other reason that passengers can show they have some leverage in a situation where Department of Transport officials and the even better paid Go Ahead executives between them seem to have it all.

But don't let's leave Chris Grayling's article quite yet. I've said I was optimistic: that was partly a result of reading what he had to say.

Because no modern minister has had so muddled an article drafted for him by his officials before, and that means something. At some level he must realise it too.

He blames the unions for the disruption on the non-strike days, explaining - quite wrongly and with no evidence at all - that "train guards have been calling in sick in unprecedented numbers .... what is clearly an organised attempt to disrupt services".

As most commuters know, the heroic efforts of the guards - faced day after day by furious passengers, crowded platforms, dangerously overcrowded trains and no information - have been the saving grace for many during this appalling period.

If Grayling believes this, why does he need to investigate further? Why does he need to hand over £20m to fix problems if it is all the fault of the guards?

Grayling manages to demonstrate in the most embarrassing way that (a) he hasn't talked to frontline rail staff, (b) he hasn't talked to passengers, and (c) he has only talked to a small coterie of officials and Go Ahead executives in his cosy bunker. It is, in short, time he got out more.

If he had been, he would know that GTR no longer employs revenue support staff, that they have contracted out cleaning and engineering and some ticket collecting to agency staff with no commitment or regularity, that they have closed ticket offices, and have discussed turning some of them into mini-supermarkets. He would know that they are continuing to organise voluntary redundancies even though they have a continuing and unaddressed staff shortage. He would find, in short, that GTR is an extractive money-maximising machine which happens to run a few trains, and doesn't do it very well.

He would also discover that the sickness is back to normal levels, without really improving reliability.

And he would know that there is another explanation for the high levels in May. GTR insisted that any sickness absence needed to be covered by a doctor's note. As most people know, these are only available for weeks off work, not days off - which guaranteed that more staff were of for longer than they otherwise would have been.

In fact, the failure to acknowledge the loyalty and commitment of guards and platform staff has been an important factor in the current dispute.

Personally, my feeling is that the best response to this kind of bluster is to put money into the legal case against the government. Remember: commuters don't have to win the case to win - all they need to do is force the officials to drop these parrot-like, patronising responses. And they will.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 29 August 2016

Bisexuality, dual nationality and the frustrations of identity politics

Why do I feel so frustrated about the new world of identity politics? I suppose because it is politics based on partial blindness, rather than understanding the whole picture. Because it accepts no progress except complete victory. Most of all, because everybody has to be one thing or another.

This is something I have discovered the hard way by writing recently about two people who were clearly bisexual.

Earlier in the year, my book about the criminalisation of homosexuality came out, and the narrative interwove the rather tragic story of my great-great-grandfather, who got caught up in the Dublin Scandals of 1884 (the book is called Scandal and it is selling quite well).

The trouble began when I wrote about it in The Guardian, and they used a headline that included the phrase 'my gay ancestor'.

I had not realised at the time how much a headline like that would irritate the doyens of identity politics. I mean, was he gay or not? If he was gay - as a number of people pointed out to me, rather forcibly - how could he have had children or great-great-grandchildren?

Nobody wants to fall foul of the ferocious commentators who lurk below the line in the Guardian, but worse was to come. One man posted no less than eleven messages on Facebook explaining that he hated the book (though not actually why). That means I can't necessarily claim him as an irritated member of the identity politics brigade - but I have to assume he was.

The one thing identity politics can't cope with is the idea of people being both/and... People who, as I am, feel European, and British, and English, and from Sussex, and from Steyning and from South London (born in North London). That is the essence of Liberalism, it seems to me - the acceptance of multiple identities.

More than acceptance, in fact. It is embracing these different aspects - in the face of those who believe that men and women, gay and straight, French, Scots and English, can't possibly understand each other because we are too culturally conditioned. In the coming struggle between humanist and postmodernist, I know I'm on the human side (for my definitions of these terms, see my book The Age to Come).

Now, I realise, I'm doing it again. My new medieval detective novel has a main character, a real character in fact, a wandering scholar known to history as Hilary the Englishman. Six of Hilary's poems still exist, three are love poems to nuns and three are love poems to young men.

So whose side was he on? Was he gay or straight? Come on, David, don't sit on the bloody fence on this critical issue!

Well, the answer is that he was both, and in that spirit, let me put two fingers up to identity politics and nationalism of all kinds by reproducing here my translation of Hilary's famous Latin poem 'To an English boy'.

Those who know me well will know that I can't really translate Latin, at least well enough for this, but I can return other people's translation to the original shape of the poem with the rhymes and rhythms in the original places. Here it is (it is reproduced from the end of my novel about Hilary and the weird and mysterious death of William Rufus, Regicide):

I might add, as an aside, that the Regicide ebook is on special offer at 99p until Tuesday, and there is also a paperback version.

To an English Boy

By Hilary the Englishman (Hilarius of Orleans)


Hail to you, the handsome boy, who’ll never ask
For anything, no gift, no gain, no task,
On whom integrity and beauty bask,
Who captures all who see behind your mask.

Your golden hair and face I can’t resist,
Your conversation, but why make a list?
There is no flaw in you that I have missed
Except your vow that you just won’t be kissed.

Nature wondered for a moment, to employ
Its forces to make you girl or boy –
But while deciding which gender to deploy,
You leapt out male to give us all some joy.

Later, when she began to make you wake,
She marvelled that she could such a creature make.
Yet poor nature had made one mistake:
She still had forced you to mortality take.

Yet any other mortal can’t compare
With this unique son and nature’s heir.
Her beauty chooses now to live in you, in there –
Within your flesh as white and light as air.

Believe me, if Jove was ever to recover,
Then Ganymede would hardly be his lover.
You would be helping him discover
Wine by day and kisses under cover.

You’re loved by every boy and girl the same,
They sigh to hold your unrepeated flame.
Those who call you ‘English’ are to blame:
Change the vowel and use the ‘angel’ name.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund). One of my correspondents suggests that we all buy the paperback version (£4.75) and leave copies on the trains...

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Monday, 22 August 2016

The strange and worrying silence of Paul Maynard

Apologies for my absence for the past week or so. This was partly because I've been away, but it was partly also because I've become so frustrated at the level of public debate about my chosen subject (the collapse of Southern Railways) - of which more in a moment.  I find it staggering, even under the new government, how close the embrace has to be between government and operator if the market is dominated by semi-monopolies.

That is the only explanation I can think of why the new rail minister remains silent, why the Transport Secretary blames GTR's failure to run its franchise to any kind of acceptable level on the unions - when their disruption (a pain in the neck too) is a drop in the ocean in comparison.

In comparison to what? Well, it is worth exercising the reasons why the trains in the south east are so disrupted (and you can find out more in my book Cancelled! for just £1.99 for the ebook!). Here they are:

(1) Serious and unaddressed staff shortages - they are about a quarter down in some depots just on the drivers they need to run their full timetable.

(2) Inflexible new centralised arrangements for overtime which prevent depot managers from negotiating anything less than a full shift. 

(3) New and inexperienced staff at the control centre at Three Bridges.

(4) GTR's failure to engender trust with frontline staff, despite their courageous loyalty during the recent three months of disruption - not helped by this persistent myth that the delays are due to some kind of industrial action. 

(5) A catastrophic collapse in morale among frontline staff and middle managers.

To which you might add that these issues are not being addressed because of the debilitating myth that this is the result of industrial action, the so-called 'sicknote strike'. There is no evidence for this and it is frankly astonishing that Chris Grayling keeps peddling the myth at all.

As I understand it, the sickness levels among frontline staff have now sunk back to pre-dispute levels, yet the disruption continues. They don't actually have the staff they need. Even today, I see that the Gatwick Express has cancelled a fifth of their services.

Even more staggering, the Department of Transport - which originally agreed to a shortened timetable because of the levels of staff sickness - has agreed to extend it for four weeks, even though there is no more sickness than usual.

I also understand - but could do with some confirmation of this if anyone reading this post knows more than I do - that GTR has decided to stop training their new on-board supervisors and have shifted them into a full training to be guards, which at least means they are thinking ahead.

What is being done about all this? Well, thanks to the myth that this is due to industrial action, far too little. And what is being done is all short-term, emergency measures. I gather the new emergency timetable gives GTR the right to increase the number of hours their drivers will work per shift, without consultation.

GTR managers are also being drafted in to drive trains. And as far as I know, they are still processing applications for voluntary redundancy to cut costs.

None of these amounts to a solution. It also threatens to bring the drivers union Aslef into the dispute, which will allow the politicians to create even more of a smokescreen.

In fact, both smack of the sort of desperate short-termism that characterises British governments at their very worst, as has done now for decades - short-termist, unimaginative, cravenly authoritarian.

There is a whiff of the end of privatisation about all this. Not that we can go back to the old central control. It means there are now so few bidders for the franchises, and the relationships are so incestuous, and the control by Whitehall so tightly detailed, that none of the benefits of privatisation are possible - where is the breath of fresh air, the imagination, the customer focus, the investment, the competition?

It is extraordinary that the ministers and the GTR managers are now locked into a mutually destructive relationship that means that they have to continue to remain silent, or to defend the indefensible.

Something has to give. And the silence of the lambs, and Paul Maynard, continues.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund). One of my correspondents suggests that we all buy the paperback version (£4.75) and leave copies on the trains...

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe