Two

This was my view at about 3pm today:

That’s the front carriage of the 2.51pm Northern Rail service from Greenfield to Manchester Victoria. This isn’t rush hour. It’s 3pm on a Saturday. Admittedly, a Saturday four weeks or so before Christmas, when the Christmas markets are on in Manchester, but still. The train was busy at Greenfield, full at Mossley, overloaded at Stalybridge, and if you wanted to get on at Ashton you were basically SOL. In the evening, when I went to Victoria station in Manchester to catch the train home, there were so many people waiting for it on the platform already – 15 minutes before it was due – that I gave up, turned around, and went to catch a bus instead. The bus home takes about twice as long as the train.

Why are these trains so crowded? With very few exceptions, they’re only two carriages long. This is a busy commuter route running into the centre of the third largest urban area in the country, and the trains are only two carriages long. They run, outside rush hour, only once an hour. You can see, above, what it was like this afternoon. Imagine what these trains are like at 8am on a Monday.

Anyone familiar with Britain’s rail network, of course, will not be entirely shocked to learn that this line is not anywhere near the London area. Overcrowding, apparently, doesn’t exist in the north. Local trains, aside from on a very small handful of lines (the Merseyrail Electrics in Liverpool and the Airedale and Wharfedale lines in West Yorkshire), are routinely made up of just two carriages, three if you’re lucky (that’s as opposed to between four and twelve on lines running into central London). At any busy time, these trains will probably be overcrowded. The service is unreliable (Northern have recently been running an ad campaign claiming that 93% of their services ran on time last year – but one, that means that 7% of their services ran late, and from experience I have to assume that most of those were on the Huddersfield line, and two, ‘on time’, as defined by Northern’s performance figures, simply means that a train arrived at a given station within five or ten minutes of the time shown on the timetable, depending on the line). The trains themselves are unpleasant – on the line I use, mostly Pacers, built on the cheap in the 1980s (they’re essentially bus bodies on a railcar chassis), with feeble heating, painfully uncomfortable seats, a semi-functioning toilet if you’re lucky, no luggage space, and not enough doors.

For added fun, there are no ticket machines on the stations, aside from in the city centre. In the (miniscule) ticket office at Greenfield (which closes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on Saturdays, and doesn’t open at all on Sundays), there is one employee. When the ticket office is open outside peak hours, you have to buy your ticket before you board the train in order to get the off-peak fare (which is about half the peak rate). You can imagine the queues. Every single National Rail station I’ve ever used in the London area has ticket machines… but this isn’t London, this is the north.

It gets loonier. This line, like every other railway line in the country, is privatised, with service provided by a franchise operator. You’d think, therefore, that the franchise operator would be able to see a certain level of demand and add additional services as required. Nope. The carriages – crappy diesel multiple units, in this case – are leased (from private companies, natch). In order to lease more carriages, a franchise operator would have to petition the Department for Transport for additional funding, because this isn’t really a privatised system with free competition between operators, it’s a nationalised system in which the state subsidises shareholder-owned private companies to provide a level of service that it specifies. This effectively means that Northern – a company whose management, in any case, largely appears to hold their customers in something resembling contempt – couldn’t boost service levels on the busy lines they operate even if they wanted to. This week, the government announced significant investment in new carriages and electrification – but if you read closely you’ll see that only 650 or so of these 2000 new carriages are destined for use on the network outside of London. The really interesting bit comes near the bottom of the article – the 650 carriages destined for use outside London will be allocated, essentially, according to which franchise operator makes the most cost-effective bid, rather than to the lines where the overcrowding is worst. And to pay for the new carriages, fares will keep rising faster than inflation. Welcome, once again, to post-Thatcher public services.

The system, on one level, more or less works. The trains are unpleasant, uncomfortable and unreliable, but they usually get you where you want to go within a few minutes of when they’re supposed to (unless things really go wrong, in which case vaya con dios). But really, two carriages only, when you get the kind of loadings you see in the photo above on a Saturday afternoon, and when fares go up, every year, by two or three percentage points above the prevailing rate of inflation? That’s not even a joke. That’s an insult.

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Election II: The Misguided Revenge of Elwyn Watkins

This time it’s personal.

Oh, wait. It was personal the first time too, and that’s the problem.

It’s been all over the news all day. My MP, Phil Woolas, is apparently no longer my MP. I have no MP. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rudderless. My sakes, how on earth will we cope?

A specially-convened election court has found Mr. Woolas guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. He’s been suspended from the Labour Party; there will apparently be a statement on Monday about his status as MP, but in the meantime his election has been declared void. He’s seeking a judicial review of the ruling, but the likelihood is that we’ll have to suffer another election. Apparently, one wasn’t enough. In the meantime, he’s barred from standing for parliament for three years. The odds are that his political career is effectively over.

He’s been found guilty of making false statements about the character and conduct of his Lib-Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins. The charges were brought by Mr. Watkins, who was beaten in May by a margin of just 103. And, for all sorts of reasons, it’s troubling.

On the one hand, yes, the election campaign in this constituency was brutally negative. This was a Lib-Dem target seat and Mr. Watkins and his team pulled out all the stops to claw it from Mr. Woolas. Indeed, the Lib-Dem pamphlets and mailings were the first to get personal in their attacks on their opponents (God help me, I read all this stuff when it came through the letterbox). The Lib-Dem campaign, in fact, went negative less than 24 hours after the election was called. Among other things, they more than implied that Mr. Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims were fraudulent, and that he was, therefore, a criminal; there were certainly a couple of claims made in error, but they were more or less certainly genuine mistakes. As the campaign went on, the accusations from both sides became wilder and wilder (since the Tory candidate was never going to win this seat – he finished trailing a fairly distant third – he managed to remain mostly above the fray.)  Mr. Woolas – and this is inexcusable – cynically played the race card in a constituency in which there is a very real racial divide, and tried to play on white fear of Muslim extremism by presenting Mr. Watkins as a candidate who had allegedly tried to woo the extremist vote, whatever that is. Disgusting and distasteful, yes – and I didn’t vote for Mr. Woolas – but also no less vicious than the crap printed by Mr. Watkins’ own team.

Beyond that, I have a bigger issue with the way all of this has played out. We had an election campaign, and it got very nasty indeed. Both sides sailed too close to the wind. We cast our votes, the votes were counted and then recounted twice, and there was a result. And then the loser – who had, himself, behaved appallingly badly during the campaign – lodged £5000 with the court himself to trigger the challenge. If anybody else had put up the money, I’d have less of a problem with it. As it is, whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what about whom, more than anything else this smacks of a bad loser throwing a fit because he didn’t win the prize.

And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Phil Woolas. He fought a dirty campaign – but he did so against an opponent who also played fast and loose with the rules. He sometimes seemed to be out of his depth as a minister – Joanna Lumley wiped the floor with him over the Ghurka issue (justifiably, the government’s position was wrong, and insupportable – if we’re prepared to send people into battle on our behalf, we should be prepared to let them live here afterwards) – but he’s been a good, committed and genuinely caring constituency MP, and it shouldn’t give anyone any pleasure to see his career end in humiliation. It’s been particularly nauseating to watch the Labour Party drop him like a hot potato, and it’s been just as nauseating to watch Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib-Dems, effectively gloating on national television, as if his party’s candidate’s behaviour during the campaign was above reproach.

The big question now, of course, is what’s going to happen next. Mr. Woolas is seeking a judicial review, yes, but it’s more or less certain that we’re going to have another election, a prospect which I’m sure absolutely nobody, apart from Mr. Watkins, views with anything even slightly resembling joy. The Tories will have to pay for another campaign they’ve no hope of winning. Labour will have to find another candidate, who will have to run in a seat where the last Labour MP’s personal reputation has been shot down in flames in the national press. The Lib-Dems will have to run a by-election campaign when they’re rating far, far lower in opinion polls than they were in April, and try and sell their platform to an electorate that, in the centre and on the left, is increasingly mistrustful of the coalition that they themselves engineered. Mr. Watkins lost in May, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll win the rematch, whenever it’s called. He certainly won’t be getting my vote – and, yes, this time it *is* personal. There’s a certain delicious irony in Mr. Watkins using his own money to lodge a complaint that will lead to a by-election in which it’s very likely that he’ll be far more roundly defeated than he was the first time. Whoever Labour puts in to stand in Mr. Woolas’s place is quite likely to be returned to Parliament with a substantially increased majority. Sometimes, in politics, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.