HS2, don’t scare the faster horses

Henry Ford said that if he had listened to what the public wanted he would have made faster horses. This is exactly the thinking that has gone into the Government’s decision to invest £32bn in the folly that is HS2, the fast train line from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham.


I could go into the arguments against HS2, the environmental ones are compelling in many respects. I actually think the biggest negative is that it will suck enterprise and economic activity further away from the north and into the south-east of the country. HS2 is presented as allowing fast access to the Midlands and North of England. Anyone who travels regularly by train knows that the reality is that morning trains to and from London are full to bursting with people travelling from north to south, and evening trains take the same people back north. Northbound trains in the morning and southbound trains in the evening are relatively empty. HS2 will exacerbate this process, making it easier for northern people to do business in London, not in their home locations.

HS2 is old thinking because it is based on the assumption that everyone needs to travel for business and they want to do it faster. The reality of life is that the internet is allowing us to find new ways of not travelling, and we should be investing in furthering these processes for the sake of the environment and our quality of lives.


HS2 is also flawed thinking because it assumes that travelling time is unproductive time. Indeed the economic justification for it only begins to stack up because its advocates discount all time spent in a train as economically wasted. Again, this ignores a reality of modern life that many people work while on trains. People still wedded to their cars miss the point entirely that working on the move is possible. Working on trains is not ideal, but this is an area where investment, if it is available, should be going. So, a key part of the alternative to HS2 is to make our existing train network a more amenable place to work. Invest the money into more carriages, new kinds of trains, and, crucially, force collaboration between train companies to make new routes, interchanges, and ticketing systems possible (renationalisation anyone? Maybe not).

Trains can be mobile workplaces. They already are for many. I think we should have “mobile office carriages”, with proper workstations, powerpoints, watercoolers, and working wifi that doesn’t keep dropping out. And, no, train companies, I don’t want you to charge extra for these services, rather, see them as a tool for attracting people out of their cars and into your carriages. We need more co-working-type spaces in railway stations too, to make interchanging between services an easier process that is less disruptive to the passengers’ workflow.

Wakefield Westgate Station

If we treat journeys as part of our working day, where the ability to work effectively is more important than getting there faster, we will achieve the transformation of the railways into a support infrastructure for 21st Century life. HS2 is just faster horses.

Grand Central Trains – deserving of support

Last week I took advantage of what I consider to be an amazing offer. Grand Central Trains is offering return tickets from West Yorkshire to London for £25 during the month of February. I am not sure what price the normal Grand Central journeys are, but, using other services, it can cost anything up to £25o, if you travel peak times, to get to London by train from the area where I live. The £25 fares are only available during February, but, they are available on any of the company’s services, at any time, and the tickets can be bought on the train, at no extra charge. This is a fantastic offer, and a real boon for people who have to travel to London on a limited budget.

Table on a Grand Central Train

Grand Central’s services from West Yorkshire call at some unusual stations (including the dreaded Wakefield Kirkgate) and they take a bit longer to get there than some of the more established providers, but their trains are modern, clean, comfortable, and have free wifi throughout.

I think this is a great initiative by a company that deserves to succeed, and I hope they do it again. And, now, they have introduced the “Community Card” offering half price travel to voluntary and community organisations. Now, if you are based in West Yorkshire (or the North-East), work in the voluntary sector, and need to visit #thatlondon, you really have no excuse for not making the trip.

Social Media Train Phase 2

Last year, I had a bizarre idea which came to fruition. Now, I’ve got another one, which may, or may not, go in the same direction.

In February 2010, I ran the Social Media Train event (see here and here). This started off with what I thought was a silly idea, and ended up, on a snowy February day, with a large group of people turning up for an unconference in Sheffield and then piling onto a train to do stuff with social media as the vehicle rattled it’s way to Huddersfield and back.

The genesis of this idea was my frustration at spending a lot of time on that particular train route, which, in the winter, rattles for 90 minutes through the dark, seemingly stopping at every small village in the Pennines. I suppose it was about putting to bed one of my pet hates, or even fears, and enlisting the support of my social media networks in doing so. Hopefully, those who came got something out of it too.

So, this idea has a similar root. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that another pet hate of mine is Wakefield Kirkgate station . I have dubbed it the worst station in the country, although I think somewhere else was officially given that title (if so, I can’t believe the judges ever visited Wakefield Kirkgate). Some people think I am joking about Wakefield Kirkgate, but, it’s neglected, wind-swept, desolate environment is a stark reality, particularly to the woman who was raped there in 2008.

So, like last year’s Penistone Line journey, This idea involves trains, social media, and slaying some demons. And, there’s a serious point to it as well. I have no idea what the people of Wakefield are doing to tackle the problems of Westgate station, I have chatted to some people in the council, and I know there are plans afoot, although whether these have withstood the public sector funding cuts, I don’t know. But, if we can do a little bit to help kick start a process of a wider public awareness of the state of the station, and, perhaps, encourage others to take an interest in its future, then we will have done some good. Maybe we won’t do any of this, but we could have a good time any way.

As I’m writing this, I haven’t actually been to the station for several months, and I certainly haven’t checked out how feasible what I am proposing is. I will do that soon, but, meanwhile, here goes. I am proposing that we hold an event at the station on the Pecha Kucha format (Leeds colleagues will know this as the Betta Kultcha format). These events are fun and informal evenings where a succession of speakers present to 20 slides which move on at 15 or 20 second intervals. They are quirky and ribald, with lots of audience participation. I think it is just the sort of event to brighten up a horrible environment and start the process of getting people to change their attitudes about a place.

Now, as I say, I have some work to do to work out the practicalities of this. When I initially thought about it, my idea was to run the event on the central platform island, on a warm spring / summer’s evening. But, then I thought, if we’re doing slide presentations, we need power. I don’t know if we could bring power to that part of the station (anyone got a portable generator?). There are buildings on the site, but I have got an idea that they are unsafe and not able to be used. And, of course, even if we solve the power issue, there is the weather.

Still, I am going to press on and see if all this is feasible. If I did it, would anyone come?

Mobile Working in Extreme Conditions (i.e. on a train in the UK)

This is another one of my posts on working on a train. I’ve written about this before here, but the latest edition of the BBC Click programme put the issue at the front of my mind again.

The programme opens with a feature on mobile working, which incorporates an interview with the wonderful Christian Payne, known to many of us as @Documentally on Twitter. As he often does, Christian describes in the programme the kit and the methods he uses to stay connected on the move. Now, Christian does this stuff in some extreme situations, like war zones in Iraq, and remote parts of Pakistan. But, what particularly caught my attention, was his reference, towards the end of the interview, to working on trains, which is my particular bug bear. And, in many cases, I have the same problems trying to get and stay connected on a train in the UK as someone like Christian does in Iraq.

Cross Country Train at Manchester Piccadilly

The worst offender in all this is Cross Country trains, whose Voyager Trains (see picture above) have metalised windows, which prevent much of the signal from penetrating the carriage. And, it was only after I wrote my first blog post on this that I found out that Cross Country had failed to deliver on the commitment they gave, when taking over the franchise from Virgin, to install wifi on all its trains by November 2009. And, even where train companies have installed wifi, such as on the East Coast franchise, it so often fails to get a connection with the outside world that I have just about given up trying to use it.

I’m quite taken with Christian’s connectivity solution of tying a mifi to a string of helium balloons, and, if you ever see me looking around the outside of a train, trying to find an anchoring point, you will know what I am doing. I will say again, the fact that the mobile phone companies concentrated on motorways to ensure coverage for car phones in the early days of mobile network development and ignored train lines, plus the reluctance of train companies to address the issue, are severe barriers to mobile working and to getting more people out of their cars and using the trains. Getting on a train, particularly a Cross Country Voyager, often feels like cutting yourself off from the world. If mobile working is ever to become properly feasible, this issue must be addressed. I bet it would be easier for Christian Payne to get connected in some of the more remote and dangerous places on the globe, than it is on a Cross Country Voyager.

Empty Spaces in Railway Stations

As I travel the country I see increasing evidence of empty spaces in stations which are not being filled. I believe these could be put to community use, and help to turn stations into more thriving entities as well as making rail travel a more pleasant experience.

I have created a Flickr group to collect evidence about these empty spaces. Please take a photo of the empty space and upload it here with the name of the station. If possible, please photograph any “to let” boards with information on how we might contact the agent.

An Open Letter to the Managing Director of Cross Country Trains

Dear Mr. Cooper

Internet Connectivity and Mobile Phone Signals on Voyager Trains

Cross Country Voyager Train

A Cross Country Voyager Train - Image courtesy John Grey Turner http://www.flickr.com/photos/johngreyturner/

I am writing to you to ask if you can please do something about Internet connectivity and mobile phone signals on your Voyager Trains. I write following two particularly frustrating journeys; from Leeds to Bristol Temple Meads on 25th January, and Bristol Temple Meads to Manchester on 26th January, when neither of the devices I normally carry with me for Internet connectivity on the move, a Vodafone dongle and a Mifi mobile wifi unit on the Three network, could get anything more than fleeting signals. I am a regular user of Cross Country trains, most frequently between Leeds / Wakefield and my office in Sheffield, but also on longer journeys too.

I travel a lot in my job, and, partly because I live within walking distance of Huddersfield station, partly because I believe in keeping driving to a minimum in the interests of saving the planet, but mainly because I can work on the move rather than treating travel as “dead time”, I nearly always travel by train. I firmly believe that efforts need to be made to attract more people out of their cars and on to the train, and that making the travel experience more like a mobile office could be a key factor in this.

I travel regularly on East Coast Trains between Leeds and London, and find the free wifi offered on those services to be a great help, even though actual connectivity to the Internet can be patchy. I also note Virgin Trains’ introduction of wifi on its West Coast services, although I believe that the fact that there is a charge for this is a powerful disincentive for most people. Personally, I think free wifi on trains has to be the way forward and is the main way to create the mobile office on rails.

The Cross Country Voyagers are the trains I have the most problems with connectivity on. And I know it is the Voyagers which are the issue, because there are no such problems when using your refurbished HSTs on my usual route between Leeds and Sheffield. Now, I realise that Voyagers are designed to be very safe trains, and, I of course, welcome that, but it is evident that, with safety also comes the inability of mobile phone signals to penetrate into the carriage. Virgin had the same issue on its West Coast Pendolinos and has addressed this by placing signal boosters in the carriages. I now find that I often get an near unbroken 3G signal when traveling from Manchester to London on Virgin services, which means I have an alternative to using the (paid for) wifi.

So, my request to you is, can you please consider introducing signal boosters into Voyager carriages. Free wifi would be great, and if you would consider it, that would be an extra incentive to the mobile office worker. But, if wifi is a step too far at this stage, please look at 3G signal boosters similar to those adopted by Virgin, I am convinced that this would be an important tool in driving up business use of your services and would pay for itself over not too long a period.

No signal on Mifi on Voyager Train

No signal on Mifi on Voyager Train

I know there are lots of people who feel the same as me, as is evidenced by replies to my blog post on the issue (https://johnpopham.wordpress.com/2009/11/05/campaign-for-better-connectivity-on-trains/) by the many comments of people who use the #uktrain hashtag on Twitter (http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23uktrain) and other people I come across in my travels. In the modern age, people need to stay connected to their networks to operate efficiently, and it is immensely frustrating to lose this connectivity for long periods while traveling on your train services.

I would be grateful for a reply indicating whether this is something you are prepared to look into.

With best regards