Monday, 17 October 2016

The lessons of 1066 for Brexit

I spent yesterday watching the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, 48 hours beyond its 950th anniversary, in the grounds of Battle Abbey, and an extraordinary event it was. I was there partly to take my children and partly to sell my detective story based in 1119-20, Regicide: Peter Abelard and the Great Jewel.

It was also a moving experience, and I've been trying to put my finger on exactly why. I believe it was because it was such a pan-European event.

There was no doubt that the crowd was on Harold's side. But there was also a sense that this was what everyone said it was - the moment that England became part of Western Europe rather than Northern Europe. Although we might curse the destruction of the ancient liberties of King Alfred, and the Norman yoke (still with us), that is an inescapable fact of history.

There was, in short, something of a paradox about the day. On the one hand, there was this sense of sturdy English resistance to continental rule - a kind of Leave version of history, but one I have some sympathy with (Margaret Thatcher kept Kipling's poem 'The Saxon is not like us Normans' in her handbag during negotiations about the British rebate).

On the other hand, the amazing Saxon and Norman encampments, which had been braved by volunteers living an authentic medieval life for the weekend - despite torrential rain - was an inspiring example of continental co-operation.

There were members of the English Viking Society, but large contingents dressed as Saxons also from France and Germany, Spain and Poland. What united them was a sense of, and expertise in, a shared European history.

When Jean Monnet, the founder of what is now the European Union, said that - if he had the chance to relive his life - he would have based it on culture, not trade. Yesterday afternoon, on Senlac Hill, was enough to convince me that he was right.

Somehow, the European obsession with managing trade has allowed it to garner some of the centralised pomposity that has served it so badly in recent years. And, yes, I'm aware of which nation that was responsible for putting the single market at the heart of the EU. Yes, good old perfidious Albion, that's who.

But despite the great fog of Brexit, the recognition of a shared European history and culture was so much in evidence on the battlefield of Hastings yesterday, that it renewed my faith in a shared idea of Europe.

And somehow, it doesn't matter how hard our Brexit is going to be - and I've come round to believing that only a hard Brexit can liberate us from the so-called Europe 'debate', so that English history, as part of European history, can continue - that sense of shared history will continue to unite us.

It is also the spark on which we can rebuild a new European community when the EU has unravelled, and the contradictions and indignities of the euro - never mind Brexit - suggests to me that is the likely direction.

If only we had an imaginative, open-minded government, capable of clarity and strategy...

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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Thursday, 13 October 2016

The first 30 years of a new economics

This is the third and final part of my blog series about the development of green economics in the UK over the past decades, designed to mark the 30th anniversary of the New Economics Foundation and its relaunch this week.

Two pieces of feedback first.  One, an extra zero crept in yesterday - so I should reassure anyone who remembers 1986 that it wasn't actually 300 years ago, but only 30. Two, I'm reminded (thanks, Pete) that one of the books which kickstarted the kind of green economics, highly practical, which I am describing here, was Guy Dauncey's groundbreaking After the Crash (1988). It certainly influenced me. The Crash described in the title was the October 1987 one (there is always a crash somewhere...)

The New Economics Foundation was intended, not so much as a think-tank, but as a permanent secretariat for TOES (The Other Economic Summit), and regarded those counter-summits as the main purpose of its existence for the first few years.

During those years, the first TOES speakers were beginning to find their way into the mainstream. Professor David Pearce became advisor to Environment Secretary Chris Patten, Jose Lutzenberger became Brazilian environment minister, and a whole string of ideas shifted almost without anyone noticing into the mainstream as well – green taxation, ethical investment, alternative economic indicators, became almost conventional. Community banks sprouted all over the world, apart from the UK.

The problem with a ‘new economics’ is that it was always hard to pin down, though nef’s first director Paul Ekins edited together the contributions to TOES as The Living Economy (1986). “I do not believe that such an economics yet exists,” said the Chilean radical economist Manfred Max-Neef at the original TOES conference in 1984.

George McRobie, soon to be nef chair, was more optimistic: “It is a formidable agenda for a massive advance in human welfare and wealth, in the widest sense of the word, worldwide. With apologies to my old friend, Fritz Schumacher, it is not a small agenda, but it is beautiful. It is also becoming increasingly obvious that it is possible.”

Part of the problem was that the old assumptions had power and money behind them. They still do.

As the years went by, nef has had only five directors (Ekins, Hatfield, Mayo, Wallace and Stears), and the last three have covered the whole period from 1992 to 2016. But nef has also managed to lead the agenda on a range of issues at different times – even being voted Think Tank of the Year in 2002.

Those issues include developing the concept of social auditing, including building a whole social audit department inside the Body Shop. They included developing alternative social indicators alongside KPMG. .

They included various important interventions in the debate on better economic measures – including the UK version of Cobb and Daly’s Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and the Happy Planet Index (downloaded over a million times around the world in 2006).

They included the UK launch of the time banks movement and co-production and the launch of UK community development finance institutions. It included the development of a range of ideas around local economics including Local Alchemy, BizFizz and LM3.

They included, more recently, a successful lobbying campaigns on Clone Town Britain and on the problem of fish depletion in European waters. It included a very great deal more besides.

The counter-summits continued too. In Munich in 1992, all the TOES organisers were arrested on the eve of the conference. In Naples in 1994, they were given a guard of honour by the mayor. And finally, in 1998 in Birmingham, Blair and Clinton asked to see nef director Ed Mayo and Jubilee 2000 co-ordinator Ann Pettifor (now a nef fellow) at the height of the summit.

Recent years have seen the emergence of the organisers network NEON and NEF Consulting. In fact, during those years, nef also became nearly the biggest think-tank in the UK (in terms of staff, though not in terms of income).

What comes next? Well, that is more difficult to predict - a whole range of thinktanks, from IPPR to the Royal Society of Arts, are now dedicated to re-thinking economics. Trickle down economics is dead, but not quite buried. For the agenda to develop in the mainstream, it is going to need to be challenging and detailed at the same time. It will also need the emphasis on practical tools which it has always carried and does again as part of the re-launch this week...

Fingers crossed.

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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Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The birth of the New Economics - what was it about 1984?

This is the second part of my series on the history of green economics in the UK, timed to coincide with the relaunch of the New Economics Foundation. This one looks at the launch of nef 30 years ago this year.

Despite the efforts of Harford Thomas in the Guardian, the word ‘alternative’ was officially frowned upon in the early 1980s. “There is no alternative,” said Margaret Thatcher only a few years before. There was disapproval of any other ideas, new or old.

That also went for the other leaders of what was then the G7. It was the spirit of the time. And it was the arrival of the G7 summit in London in June 1984 that gave birth to what is now the New Economics Foundation.

The idea of a counter-summit, that could challenge their right to speak for the future of the Earth came from the Ecology Party activist Sally Willington, who emigrated to Australia in 1989.

She presented it to the party council as the WEDGE project in July 1983 – a bid to get to grips with the ‘economics of more’ – after an article by Harford Thomas, urging the G7 summit in Williamsburg to tackle the issue of the unemployment on their own doorsteps.

She and colleagues planned to fly to Williamsburg to confront them, but were warned that the American authorities would refuse them entry. But still, wasn’t the summit going to come to London next?

Sally persuaded Jonathon Porritt, about to be appointed director of Friends of the Earth and then Ecology Party chair. Jonathon believed a counter-summit required a new organisation to manage it. He contacted James Robertson, whose influential book The Sane Alternative had recently been published. He and his wife Alison Pritchard, co-ordinator of the Turning Point network, hammered together a committee which met in Jonathon’s basement flat, around the corner from King’s Cross Station in London.

The steering committee included many names that were going to become familiar as the sustainability debate took hold: John Davis, Diana Schumacher, Sheila Rothwell, David Cadman, John Elkington, Liz Hosken, Duncan Smith, Jakob von Uexkull and many others.

It was in Jonathon’s flat that James first suggested that, to balance the heads of government, the counter-summit should be called TOES (The Other Economic Summit).

TOES brought together a diverse mixture of environmentalists, radical economists, futurists, mystics and community activists. The three-day event attracted more than 140 people, and launched with a rally at Friends House on the Euston Road, chaired by the former British Ambassador to Washington and future BBC economics correspondent Peter Jay.

Among those on the platform was the World Bank economist Herman Daly, shortly to make his name as one of the godfathers of green economics, as the co-author of For the Common Good.

Of course, TOES wasn’t the only challenge to the G7 leaders, over at Lancaster House – with TOES taking place around the corner at the RAC Club in Pall Mall. There were protest vigils outside by Quakers, protest drumming by Buddhists and a major CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

But TOES also ignited something. When economics seemed constantly to be the end of the argument for sustainability, when economists seemed lined up hopelessly for the narrow status quo, it was an attempt to pull together a new kind of economics that would work for people and planet.

Or, more accurately, it was an attempt to bundle together work by a wide variety of people in a range of fields as a single school of thought – a New Economics. It was ad hoc, it was makeshift, but it was enormously hopeful.

TOES met again in a much bigger event the following year, and the papers of the two conferences were edited together by the green economist Paul Ekins as The Living Economy. By then, Paul had been appointed as the first director of the New Economics Foundation.

The rest isn’t yet history, but it will be one day.

Tomorrow: how the new foundation led the way into the 1990s.

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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Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Four decades of green economics - what was it about 1973?

The New Economics Foundation is re-launching itself today, and I am a fellow. It seemed like a good moment to look at the history - not just of nef - but of green economics in the UK. This is the first of three blogs, to be published over the next three days...

The year 1973 was almost apocalyptic – war in the Middle East, the energy crisis, the three-day week, private armies, the imminent breakdown of society. It was all very unnerving. Nothing seemed to be working.

Perhaps that was one reason why the atmosphere was suddenly alive with alternatives. Ivan Illich published Tools for Conviviality. Fritz Schumacher published Small is Beautiful. And a former civil servant – James Robertson, the man who wrote Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech – was exiting swiftly from his job with the big banks to work full-time writing and speaking about the emerging post-industrial society.

He had been head of the Inter-Bank Research Organisation and had found himself involved increasingly with the ferment of new ideas.

“I didn’t criticise the banks, but we agreed that I’d had enough there,” he says now. “Looking back on it, I really think I was taking them for a lark because I was getting them to do things which they hadn’t hired me to do.”

At the beginning of 1973, he was on his own, with a desk and a research assistant – Alison Pritchard had been working in educational television in the USA – and expecting to be offered consultancy work. “Actually,” he says, “I found myself involved with much more interesting things, like the energy debate, alternative politics and what was then called the Conservation Society.”

In 1973, James joined the Campaign for Social Democracy, set up by Dick Taverne MP and stood against Tony Benn in Bristol South East at the February 1974 general election, immediately after the three-day week – this was a good seven years before the SDP was a twinkle in the eye of Roy Jenkins.

He won only 886 votes but garnered huge publicity from the support of the prominent Times columnist Bernard Levin.

But what really launched James on his new career was an article he wrote for the Sunday Times called ‘Can we have a non-profit society?’

Illich’s publisher Marion Boyars read it and commissioned James’ second book, Profit or People?

At the same time, Alison was co-ordinating the Turning Point network - a range of thinkers and activists who were emerging with a bundle of ideas that looked remarkably coherent, and which were to emerge over the next generation as post-industrial alternatives including the new economics.

A link was forged between James, Alison and their futurists and activists with those who were congregating around Schumacher, which was to prove the lynchpin of the emerging set of ideas.

“The first time we both met at a conference, I wasn’t very impressed by him,” says James now. “I had criticisms of him. There were certain things he missed out, like feminism, and I was surprised he didn’t go back in a revolutionary way to look at the monetary experience he had. But I came to like him.”

Alison says now: “He was a natural leader; people flocked to him – he spoke very well and he was funny.”

When Schumacher died suddenly on a train in Switzerland in 1977, James and Hazel Henderson had to step in as the main speakers on his speaking tour of Canada.

What firmly grounded the new movement was when James linked up with the former Guardian city editor Harford Thomas and wrote an ‘Alternatives Manifesto’ for the 1978 general election that was never actually called.

“I don’t think I thought of myself as a new economist,” says James now. “I was influenced very much by Illich.”It was the post-industrial society, as much as the post-industrial economy, that James was working for.

As such, he and his now wife Alison decided to set up home in the cradle of the original Industrial Revolution, in Ironbridge where they lived for five years before moving to their present home in Cholsey, Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile, the Alternatives Manifesto – with Harford Thomas blowing on the embers with his regular ‘Alternatives’ column – provided a critique that predicted many of the long-term trends that still wrongfoot the establishment today.

Tomorrow: how the New Economics Foundation began, 30 years ago this year...

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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Thursday, 6 October 2016

Southern Rail: mutualise not nationalise

Two different ways of holding our public services to account. One a do-or-die strike which stands in the great tradition of the Battle of the Somme, and other frontal assaults. The other an inovative, customer-led legal action.

If I was Southern Railways, I know which one I would fear the most,

What is the way out of the appalling trains service we have been served by Southern Rail and its co-franchises, Thameslink and the Gatwick Express - all collectively managed by a finance operation called Govia Thameslink, which also happens to run a railway, and doesn't do it well?

Today is Sledgehammer Day, thanks to the decision by GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) to impose contracts on their guards so that, although they have promised to use them as customer service managers on trains where possible, they can if necessary run trains without them.

That deadline is today and it promises even more chaos (though I notice that, during strikes, GTR does actually pull out the stops to get an effective service, which they don't most days).

The two different ways of holding distant, secretive and incompetent public service operators to account are:

  • The successful crowdfunding of £25,000 to take the Department of Transport to court, which is something of a breakthrough for ordinary passengers. Barristers have already been appointed and they are currently battling to get the government to let the public see key documents - like the February remedial plan - which really ought to be in the public domain.
  • The decision by the RMT union to hold 14 days of strikes before Christmas. This boneheaded decision - equally dismissive of ordinary passengers - risks handing the government and GTR the excuse they need to pretend that this is somehow the fault of the staff. This is what they have been struggling to achieve since the services unravelled back in April.
I got involved in this crisis by having a strange conversation with  member of platform staff back in June, blogging about it, and suddenly finding that the blogs had been read by over 100,000 people.  Soon I was the centre of a storm - platform staff, drivers, guards, commuters and managers were sending me information from all over the region. I realised I would have to put it to use.

That is why I wrote and published my conclusions, along with some history - and a look back at the old Southern Railways between the wars, which were a byword for efficiency (and smoked kippers). You can buy the kindle version of Cancelled! here, the paperback version here, and other e-versions here.

What I have found so frustrating since then is that even the BBC persist in the canard that the appalling levels of service have been because of the dispute. This is what the government wants us to think - on the grounds of the mythical 'sicknote strike' in the summer - for which there was no evidence at all, except that sickness went up because of the huge strain that frontline staff were under in the chaos.

But guess what. The sickness rates went back down again and the service stayed appalling, Night after night, passengers were forced to from motionless train to motionless train, in dangerously overcrowded conditions, ministered to by a heroic staff who were kept in the dark about what was actually happening.

And to be fair, the managers were largely in the dark too. They didn't understand that their reforms, preventing depot managers from negotiating overtime locally, meant that the staff shortfall - which has remained a feature of GTR's finance-driven management - would not cover the missing shifts.

GTR has kept staffing below minimum levels. Thee are not enough drivers. Platforms staff have been made redundant. Ticket collectors have been replaced by contract staff. I even applied to be a train driver myself, and have yet to get a reply. And all the time, they hoped to solve the problem by doing what their government contract insisted they should - impose driver-only operations on all their routes, and not just the urban commuters ones.

In this sense, the collapse of services has indeed been about the dispute. There is an argument that driver-only operation is right for short services - and they have been for some time on Gatwick Express and Thameslink, which have had as a result the worst timekeeping record.  But I've become convinced that safety demands two train crew to man long distance routes and to share responsibility for safety.

The point about this dispute is not that GTR are planning to sack the guards. They have even tried negotiation, which GMT has barely done. They are not. They are retraining them as customer service managers minus a safety role, and without making them compulsory on services.

This is GTR's get-out-of-jail free card.  It means that, from today - assuming they get away with it - the principle will be in place that you don't need a guard in routes where you can't get hold of one. I've no doubt that this will eventually lead to the end of on-train staff.

My attitude to the safety question is this for long-distance routes or long trains: would you do away with a co-pilot on flights, or redesignate them as customer service managers? Would that actually be 'modernising' the airways? Would that actually be welcomed by passengers? 

The real question is what we poor put-upon commuters can do about this situation, where otherwise intelligent people, caught in the web woven in Whitehall, find themselves believing two or three impossible and contradictory things before breakfast?  Here are my suggestions.

1. Phone the BBC every time they suggest that the poor service this summer has been about the dispute. All the evidence suggests, and despite the best efforts of management and unions, that it was about serious under-staffing and poor management.

2. Get your MP to ask question in Parliament. Will the remedial plan be made public? Will they make the report by their new consultant Chris Gibb public? If not, why on earth not? Are we not affected by it? Is it not public money that is being used? 

3. Demand a repayment for season ticketholders and other stakeholders.

Otherwise, it is about backing those who are unambiguously on the side of travellers. In that situation, it is the Association of British Commuters, the people behind the legal bid to hold the government to account for their ridiculous handling of the crisis. Their success raising the £25,000 to launch a legal action is a huge achievement and a possible way forward in similar failures of service contracts in the future...

What do I want to happen? After Jeremy Corbyn's intervention, this is a good question. It seems to me that if a company messes up as much as GTR has done, then - for the sake of every other public service - the franchise must be reassigned. Especially if they have messed up for financial reasons.

Who it is assigned to in the short term is less important than where we want to get to.  The main problem with the GTR franchise has been the suffocating involvement of the Department of Transport. So it makes no sense to nationalise the franchise which can only make that situation even worse.

No, long term, the objective must be to hand the franchise over to a new mutual entity which is owned by passengers and staff, That's the idea: mutualise, not nationalise.

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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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Monopolies and fierce Liberalism

I wrote an article in the Guardian today defending Liberalism from the otherwise invariably correct Martin Kettle, and trying to distinguish it from neoliberalism.

I made the mistake of reading about 200 comments below the line afterwards, which is always a depressing business, but could - in the midst of all the other rage - discern something of an argument emerging. There was a similar pattern going on in the Lib Dem Policy Debate Facebook page.

The argument was about how much Milton Friedman was right that most monopoly was caused by governments - and whether, therefore, we are about to be stuffed, trussed and chopped up by the new private monopolies I mentioned.

It is true that a number of the oligopolies that rule us, and most are the result of the wrong kind of regulation - the banks, the mega food corps, for example. Or is it that the government simply failed to regulate their market dominance, which would lead to a different conclusion?

But where are the market monopolies, ask my critics online - at least the ones on the right? I have a choice whether to use Visa, Amazon or Google, after all...

But do I really? I could go to huge lengths by refusing to sign Google's customer agreement or refusing to buy from Amazon when most of their high street rivals are closing their doors. I could theoretically avoid any company using Visa's payments system, but don't think I would achieve it.

It is true that, as the situation stands now, the sins of those three are the same as the sins of Christopher Columbus (the monopolistic sins anyway) - that he wanted to take a share of every transaction involving the New World (the court case took two centuries and the Columbus family lost). They want to so insert themselves into the global economy that they can rake off a percentage of everything we buy.

I don't believe that government regulation has caused that. Quite the reverse, it has failed to tackle it.

I realise I make people extremely cross when I say - as Hilaire Belloc said before me in The Servile State - that we are on the verge of a whole new kind of slavery. That is the message of my book (written with Joe Zammit-Lucia) The Death of Liberal Democracy? It is a slavery that will raise costs, lead to far worse customer service, but will have a far more dangerous effect over half a century.

It is in fact a threat that will catapult us into chains. The European Union was blind to monopoly power - the impression I got from their competition regulators was that their main concern was building up European champions to take on the American behemoths. The Liberal parties of Europe, which should have been the main opponents of monopoly, have forgotten the issue. So who will defend us?

I don't think the defence will come from Jeremy Corbyn, who it seems to me is equally blind to monopoly and giantism as the Labour Party has always been, and despite 'neoliberalism' having become the insult of choice for his supporters.

I suppose I am hoping that we can, between us, build up a political head of steam behind the attack on monopolies, public and private - but without getting too over-excited about services which have to be delivered as such. Local councils and the NHS will have to be made responsive in other ways.

And if we do that, then we will have brought a fiercer kind of Liberalism back to life.

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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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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