#onenorth

Somewhere in the North of England

I love the north of England, I have lived in the north for more than 20 years, and even before that I sort of considered it my spiritual home. I was brought up just outside Nottingham which is in the East Midlands. But, historically, the River Trent was seen as the dividing line between the north and south, and, as the maternity hospital where I was born was three miles north of the river, and the village where I was brought up was another 5 miles north of that, I have always considered myself to be a northerner. I realise that if you are reading this in Newcastle or Carlisle, you’ll consider that Huddersfield, where I now live, is pretty far south, but I think most people would consider it to be pretty much at the heart of that thing known collectively as “the North” (in England at least; “hello” to my Scottish friends).

As a child I was fascinated by the North. My mother was a Londoner, and my dad had a job in which he travelled the country, but had regularly to visit his head office in London. When this happened in the school holidays, the family would all get in the car and be dropped off at my uncle’s house in North London while my dad went off to the head office. This happened regularly, we would all get into the car, head off towards the M1 motorway and turn left to head south for London. And every time we did this, I thought “what would happen if we turned right and went north?”. And then, one day, we did. I can’t remember why, but we turned right and headed north. And it was early evening in winter, it was getting dark. One of the things I remember vividly was that, as we crossed the Tinsley viaduct near Sheffield, there were jets of flame illuminating the night sky, emanating from the steel works. That left a big impression on me. My romantic notions of “the North” were now enhanced by a mental image that was almost like dragons breathing fire beside the road. Of course, those steel works are not there any more, and have been replaced by the Meadowhall shopping centre, which may be some people’s idea of a romantic venue, but not mine.

Somewhere else in the North of England

It was around this time, or a bit later, that my romantic notions of the North were significantly boosted by studying “Wuthering Heights” at school. And I also had this idea, perhaps fostered by my mother’s declaration that, having left London at the age of 21 she would never go back to live there, that the further north you went, the kinder and more collaborative people got (apologies to my southern friends, I know this is a stereotype). So, having lived in the West Midlands, as well as the East, when I got the opportunity to move to Yorkshire I jumped at it.

Even though I love living in the North, it cannot be denied that some of the infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. It always amazes me when I visit London and people complain about the Underground. Of course it has its faults, not least being the over-crowding at rush hour, but the fact that you can disappear underground and be whisked miles across the city in quick time is something that residents of most other cities in the country can only dream of. And, there is the issue of the extra investment being pumped into new lines like Crossrail and Thameslink, at the same time that projects such as the proposed electrification of the Transpennine rail line between Manchester and Leeds have been cancelled. So, is it any wonder that people in the North are angry, and suspecting that the south is being favoured?

And we have had the Northern Powerhouse, which is something I have been sceptical about since its inception. My big problem with it was that, in common with many high-level strategies, it failed to engage with the people of the North in any kind of tangible way. Most of the imagery that came out of it was the usual stuff featuring middle-aged white men in suits. And little of what they produced seemed to have much relevance to people’s lives. And then there came a change of government, and the one project that might have made a difference to how we live, the rail electrification, was cancelled.

A Northern Rail Pacer

Is the Northern Powerhouse dead? I don’t know? What I do know is that the people of the North are angry, and that anger has crystallised around the latest debacle, which has been the failure of the train operating companies, in particular Northern Rail, to adapt to the new timetable which was supposed to give us at least a slight upgrade in terms of speed and frequency of train services. The result has been the opposite of what was promised, with chaos across the region, and reports of people losing their jobs because they can’t get to work on time, among other negative consequences.

I have often been asked for my opinion of the most effective means to get communities organising using social media. My response has often been to suggest that anger is the most likely stimulus. And the Northern Rail situation has produced lots and lots of anger. One of the unexpected results of this has been rival newspaper groups across the region putting aside their normal competitive instincts to come together in a collective expression of the region’s rage at the situation. And much of the anger has been focused around the social media hashtag #onenorth which has been used both to rally people around the campaign to get the government to re-instate its previous promises for investment in northern infrastructure, and to catalogue the nightmare journeys many people have been facing. It is interesting that this began as pretty much a grassroots expression of frustration, with the newspapers offering some kind of leadership and amplification of the message. The politicians of the north, with the possible exception of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have been late to this party. Their leadership has been largely lacking.

So, does #onenorth represent a major coming together of the collective spirit of the people of the North? Who knows? It is perhaps too early to tell. I suspect that any collective spirit that does exist will dissipate if the immediate issues are addressed. But I have a hope. It is a hope that this might be a start of something. Could it just be that we can keep the #onenorth spirit going and use it to ensure the people’s voice is heard in future developments across the north of England? The Northern Powerhouse has been something that few people in the North have been able to engage with. Let’s make #onenorth a real movement of the people?

I am being absurdly optimistic about this? Let me know in the comments below.

Oh, and why you are here, I urgently need to get to 1,000 subscribers on my YouTube channel (I make videos about social issues and people’s efforts to improve the world), so please click here and subscribe if you can.

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.

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

Preparing for the Social Media Train

In preparation for the Social Media Train, I conducted a signal test on the Barnsley-Huddersfield stretch of the Penistone Railway line on 14th December 2009.

This was in no way a scientific test. I simply took the three different devices I normally carry around with me and watched their signal meters. The devices were:

• Apple iPhone 3G on the O2 Network
• Blackberry Bold 900 on Vodafone
• Nokia N95 on Three

I recorded every time the signal changed on at least one device, plus I recorded the state of the signal at each station. It could well be that the Network performance was affected by the properties of the different devices.

Nevertheless, this test suggests that the idea of getting some sponsored mifis connected to the Three network for the Social Media Train could offer us the best prospect of connectivity.

All three devices had different methods of recording the signal, and not all were able to distinguish between HDSPA and 3G, or Edge and GPRS, so I have used the broad categories of 3G, GPRS, GSM, and no signal, although there may have been gradations between these.

Time

Station

Three

Vodafone

02

17:03

Barnsley

3G

3G

3G

17:05

 

3G

No signal

3G

17:06

 

3G

3G

3G

17:09

 

3G

GPRS

3G

17:10

Dodworth

3G

GPRS

3G

17:12

 

3G (weak)

No signal

GPRS

17:13

Silkstone Common

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:17

 

3G

GPRS (weak)

GPRS

17:19

 

3G (weak)

No signal

GSM

17:20

 

No signal

No signal

No signal

17:22

 

GPRS

No signal

No signal

17:23

 

GPRS

GPRS (weak)

No signal

17:25

 

GPRS

GPRS

GPRS

17:26

Penistone

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:28

 

3G

GSM

No signal

17:29

 

3G

GPRS

No signal

17:30

 

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:32

Denby Dale

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:33

(Tunnel)

No signal

No signal

No signal

17:34

 

3G

No signal

No signal

17:35

 

3G

No signal

GPRS

17:36

Shepley

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:40

Stocksmoor

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:41

(Tunnel)

No signal

No signal

No signal

17:43

 

3G

No signal

3G

17:44

Brockholes

3G

GPRS (weak)

3G (weak)

17:45

 

3G

GPRS (weak)

GPRS

17:46

 

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:47

Honley

3G

GPRS

GPRS

17:49

 

3G

3G

GPRS

17:50

Berry Brow

3G

3G

3G

17:51

 

3G

GPRS

3G

17:52

Lockwood

3G

3G

3G

17:55

(Tunnel)

3G

No signal

GSM

17:56

Huddersfield

3G

3G

3G

The Social Media Train?

Sheff01

This is a fanciful idea at the moment, but it may come to fruition.

The idea is this. To coincide (roughly) with the opening of the new station bar at Sheffield station (after a 40-year break without one) in December, we run a Social Media Train on the Penistone Line between Sheffield and Huddersfield.

The Penistone line is a beautiful scenic railway, which wends through Pennine countryside. But, I hate it, for three reasons:

1. It takes an hour and 20 minutes for a journey which, by road, is 26 miles and can be driven, at off-peak times in 40 minutes

2. It is populated by some of the oldest, dirtiest, most uncomfortable, rolling stock on the UK rail system; and

3. Although it runs through beautiful countryside – after dark, this benefit is lost completely, and, as much of the journey is through areas with no lighting, you can sit there for ages not being able to see anything outside the train. The experience of sitting on a dirty, rattling train, hurtling through total darkness, is what has led me to call it the Ghost Train.

HPIM0671

The Penistone Line Partnership does a great job of making life a little better for the people who use the line, running music and beer trains on a regular basis. My idea (which is not really my idea, but taken from an original concept of @timdifford ) is that we run either a Social Media Surgery, or, perhaps a Social Media Cafe on the train one evening in December.

My concept was that we do this on the 18:36 from Sheffield; returning on the 20:13 from Huddersfield, and finishing up in the new Sheffield station bar.

Brockholes Station

What do YOU think?

Trains……………

I travel around a lot in my job, and I prefer to travel by train if I can, because I live near a railway station, and I can work on a train in a way that is just not possible if you are sat behind the wheel of a car.

IMAGE_00008

I have been intrigued, if perhaps not a little disturbed, by the reactions of people who follow me on Twitter to the fact that a lot of my tweets are from trains. A guy called Peter Hindle (@petehindle), who I have only physically met once, invented the #uktrain hashtag and dedicated it to me, so I suppose I ought to look after it. In the last few years I have gone from being someone who drove 60,000 miles a year, to someone whose car is mainly used as Dad’s Taxi, and I have come to feel quite strongly that we should all use public transport if we can. That is not to say that the UK public transport system is anything like fit-for-purpose, and I don’t really go near buses unless I really, really have to.

Any way, I had this really mad idea for #uktrain radio – the basics of which is that someone (maybe me) sits in the corner of a railway carriage broadcasting live on the Internet (good luck with that on most trains, even on the ones that have free wifi) and interviewing random passengers.

A mad idea, I thought. But then a couple of people said they thought it was not that mad.

Please, please tell me it’s insane and impractical……