Monday, April 21, 2008

Commuters - the voiceless minority

Being a white, middle class professional commuter living in the South East, it's not that often that I can claim membership of an oppressed minority (although I am half-Welsh). But all the excitement (and I write that with an entirely straight face) generated by the impending London Mayoral election has left me feeling a bit left out. In spite of the fact that I spend the majority of the working week in central London, I subsidise the transport system, occasionally spend a bit of money and generally contribute fully to the economic powerhouse that is our capital city, I don't get a say in the decision over who should run it. I think it's a little unfair.

It's not because I feel disenfranchised. I can, of course, vote in my local elections in Hertfordshire. I've just opened an envelope containing my postal vote, which I will definitely action (democratic duty, and all that, even it feels a bit unsatisfying. Personally I always enjoyed the process of going down to the polling station in some infant's school hall, feeling properly validated as an active participant in the government of the nation, as well as glorying in the inherent silliness of asserting my inviolable right to self-determination in a room where just a few short hours later some poor six year old would most wet himself because he couldn't wait til the end of assembly (I speak from experience). Postal voting feels all wrong to me - it's just too easy for something so important, and removes my one physical interaction with the political machine. Perhaps I'll write to my local MP to try to get in reinstated. Mind you, that's Peter Lilley, and there's always the faint chance he might decide to pop round for tea, as politicians do from time to time, so maybe it's too risky.

The real reason I am a bit miffed not to able to have a say in who runs London is that it means I can't tell any of the bastards how utterly distasteful I find their campaigns. With the honourable exception of Brian Paddick, who by all accounts has about as much chance of getting elected as I have of writing The Great British Novel. (See what I did there? Cunningly juxtaposing two predictions which I fervently hope will be proven wrong), the campaigns have been waged not with messages of hope and the promise of a fully functioning transport system, but with cheap jibes at the other candidates ("He's gay! He's racist! He's a toff! nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah nyah!").

I have a degree in Politics, and although my course mainly focused on International Relations and the history of various extreme political movements like Apartheid and Nazism, I did a few modules about political ideas and the importance in democratic societies of a robust discourse driven by the main issues of the day. I did not, however, come across any lectures or books on the importance in progressive or reactionary politics of slagging off your opponent in the hope that The Voters really are thick enough to be taken in by it. It's not a new thing, of course - witness the Major's governments hopeless "New Labour, New Danger" campaign, Blair's own (successful in spite of itself) "Get out and vote or They get in", or the might-be-clever-if-it-wasn't-so-smug "Britain is Working, Don't Let the Tories Wreck it Again" campaign from the last election which, let's not forget, saw a massive swing away from Labour that nearly resulted in a hung parliament (nice job, Trev. See that one on a fax machine did you?).

So now we're in a fully-fledged muck-raking contest, and the race is on to see who can come up with the most infantile smears. If it isn't Ken comparing anyone who looks at him funny to a Nazi, it's Boris or his media cronies claiming that Ken's campaign team is pro-suicide bombers. The other day I came out of the Underground station at Kings Cross to be confronted by a guy giving out Ken leaflets and imploring people to "Stop Boris Johnson." I mean, what about some positive messages? Ken's been Mayor for eight years! Surely there must be something he's done in that period worth boasting about? In fact, there is, but it was left to Brian Paddick to mention it in a radio interview the other day. When asked what the best thing to have happened under Ken was, he didn't duck the question, or try to be clever. He replied, straight away, "Oyster Cards". Wow. A real innovation that has actually made residents' lives easier. Amazing. Isn't that, in part, what politics is all about?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Kings Cross revisited

In the wake of the much-publicised problems at Heathrow ("No one does cock-ups quite like the British", as Denis Norden once remarked), I have been given cause to reflect once more on the changes wrought by three long years of construction, tons of heavy machinery, legions of hard-working builders in bright orange puffer jackets, and doubtless large sums of investment, on Europe's newest and most exciting travel hub, Kings Cross St Pancras. Not to the well-documented Eurostar terminal, which is of course fabulous to behold, whatever one thinks of the big statue, but the concurrent reconstruction of the Tube station. I know I've mentioned this before, but now the dust has settled on the new access arrangements, you do have to wonder whether they've actually achieved anything.

When the rickety old staircase that led down into the subway and under Euston Road was initaially widened, it was a revelation (I even posted my admiration on here). Where before Rush Hour at Kings Cross had been something like the attack on Helm's Deep, with two opposing hordes of commuters trying to trample over each other to get up or down (unlike Helm's Deep, there was never a clear winner - but then Gandalf never showed up), for a brief period after the new, improved portal was unveiled it was wonderfully spacious, and suddenly those same hordes were happily trotting back and forth in harmonious, mechanical efficiency, with nary a delay or traffic problem in sight. Now though, the old kitchen bin theory has once again been borne out (ie. just as if you had another bin in your kitchen it would be full too, so if you add a lane to the M25 it will get gridlocked the same as the other twenty-seven).

The Powers That Be have now decided to reinstate the rule that people can't go down the stairs during peak periods, just as they can't descend the steps within the station itself. I'm a bit confused as to where you can go, to be honest - it seems to change on a daily basis. Certainly if one wants to cross Euston Road to get a bus, one had to walk halfway across London to find a safe pedestrian crossing, then double back on oneself to get to the bus stop just in time to see one disappearing into the distance.

It would be interesting to know what metrics could be used to judge the success (assuming that failure is not an option) or the project. If one thinks in terms of number of commuters getting to the platform per hour, then there has probably been a very slight increase - something like ten more per hour. That's a pretty shoddy return on investment. But at least they don't have to worry about baggage transfers. Then we really would be in trouble.