Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Lessons to be learnt from the Eurotunnel Christmas debacle

Alright, this isn't very timely but I was enjoying my holidays in a nice farmhouse in Dordogne. So, here I am: we too were stuck with Eurotunnel because of some Eurostar trains stuck in the chunnel.

Our short story is that we heard on the radio a 5 am that the tunnel was closed, so we went back to sleep and set off late around 10 to try get through the EuroTunnel shuttles. After spending some time in a traffic jam on the A20 caused by Operation Stack (another typical English Dad's Army band-aid-like approach to solving infrastructure issues) we came back on a trailer lorry after out car broke down. Which wasn't that bad since friends of ours spent 18 hours getting through -not that nice with two small children.

At no point Eurotunnel proactively contacted us to advise on the situation, either by email or telephone, mainstream media was at least 2 hours late and we got our most reliable information from Twitter and Facebook.

Jasmine Birtles puts it well here: How not to do it – lessons from Eurostar and Eurotunnel.

Use social media and use it properly. As I pointed out above, I’ve been following #eurostar and #eurotunnel for at least a week and it was quite clear from the start that neither had a proper social media strategy. Eurostar had brought in a fledgling social media company to promote itself on Twitter using the handle @little_break but they hadn’t even taken up the @eurostar name which was used by a guy in China! It took them days to get round to tweeting information – it should have been minutes. People on the stranded trains were tweeting, angrily, the moment they got out of the tunnel. The anger and hatred poured out on the Twittersphere and Facebook (which set up a ‘We hate Eurostar’ group after just a day or so) and was largely ignored for the first all-important 48 hours after the incident. Social Media is here and is a very important means of communication. Ignore it at your peril.

Their web site was reduced to a single page, only referring to a telephone number. That number was diverted to a recorded message prompting to call that same number.

On the causes of the incident, they are now quite well documented (wrong kind of snow), but I must say the PR has been way better in France than in the UK -they got some journos onboard of the test trains, etc... As Daniele Beccari (@danbec) points out in his blog post "Eurostar communication failure: here is a glimpse of what caused it" point out details of the communication breakdown between Eurostar and Eurotunnel, in particular when it comes down to liaising with the staff in the trains inside the tunnel, it's far from clear whom the responsibility lies with.

Daniele concludes that he is "now getting nervous for my future travels, because I don’t like the idea of being left alone in an emergency situation due to gaps in responsibilities."

This same post also goes on to comment that incredible Eurotunnel press statement fingerpointing Eurostar -well worth a read for anyone in communications. They accused Kent Police too -can't think this will benefit them in any ways...

His conclusions:
  • Eurostar staff inside the trains was probably not allowed to do and say anything at all. They have probably been waiting for information from Eurostar HQ, which was in turn waiting for information from Eurotunnel HQ.
  • Eurotunnel staff have executed the emergency operations, and they probably have the instructions to report to central without leaking any information – even to Eurostar staff.
  • Eurotunnel HQ has probably taken the time to verify every detail and ensure control before communicating to Eurostar.
  • Eurotunnel is not a consumer facing company. Hence I am not sure if they have any marketing, customer service or consumer focused PR agency. I am not sure if they have any procedure for external communication at all. [There is an @eurotunnel Twitter account but it seems never been used].
  • This is probably a stretch, but if Eurotunnel zone of responsibility stops just outside the tunnel I wonder if this explains the reports from passengers that they had to wait again for hours once outside the tunnel for someone to come and pick them up.

On my side've tried to send them an email, but all I only ever get was an autoresponder.

Heather Yaxley MIPR echoes this in her post "Winter blunderland – snow highlights poor PR at Eurostar, Eurotunnel and more":
  • Marketing messages are still being communicated – I called the Eurotunnel FlexiPlus phone number yesterday (to cancel a booking) and instantly was advised this was the fastest route to France. What a joke!
  • When there is a crisis, hiding behind recorded messages is insulting. In the case of Eurotunnel, the customer information line (08444 630000) provided little information and directed customers to the web (www.eurotunnel.com) to rebook. That means of communication was equally poor – and only allowed you to select another date, to travel in the same direction. The online instruction was to call the customer contact centre (08443 35 35 35) to cancel – which was another pathetic recorded message. (Or you can email: customer.relations@eurotunnel.com) Hence, under “contact us” I found the FlexiPlus premium customer line (0844 335 3335) answered (after the marking message) by a real person. Although no apologies were expressed my cancellation was efficiently wiped off the system with a “phew that’s one out of the way” attitude.
  • There has been no direct communication with people booked onto either Eurostar or Eurotunnel – and this seems common in other organisations such as the airlines. When making most travel bookings, you are required to provide email and mobile phone contact details. So, why not use these to actually update customers. Relying on media reports, rarely updated websites or recorded customer phone lines does not put the company in control of its own communications. Hence people turn to Twitter and other forums where wider criticism of the organisations soon escalates. I was busy packing my car to leave yesterday when my mum called – she lives in France but heard a television news report regarding Eurotunnel’s “saturation” meltdown – without this, I would have been stuck with two dogs in freezing conditions for hours. A text or email – or preferably both – would have been simple. After all, my dentist, doctor and car dealer all manage to do this for routine matters.
Not so simple if you don't have a good CRM system...

The information provided by Eurotunnel on the situation was to not travel and we decided to tempt our chances again on Tuesday 22nd. We had been unable to either call Eurostar or change our booking via your web site as the reservation below did include a password.
At this point, Eurotunnel was still indicating long delays and even that your Folkestone terminal was closed.

We eventually crossed but this has not only costed us a 180 miles roundtrip and a full day in the car for nothing and we missed two important Christmas celebrations with some relatives we typically only see once a year.

We arrived there and saw the shortest queues we've ever experienced in over 12 years of regular custom!

Bottom line:
I believe all that could have been much better managed by Eurotunnel (not to mention Eurostar), via real time communication with their customers by SMS, email and some PR that would focus on actually helping customers (rather than finger pointing Eurostar). Or put in other words, their response has simply been inadequate: answerphone, autoresponder, finger pointing PR.

I've asked Eurotunnel a full refund of my ticket, some vouchers for a new crossing in the future and £100 in compensation for the journey that we undertook in vain and the expenses incurred then. We'll see what we get...

Slate.fr explains (in French) that UK is now much more European than it was 15 years ago and that Brits can't now do without the tunnel anymore. UK isn't an island then?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Recipe: truffled quail eggs

Very easy, once you get hold of the ingredients (readily available in Dordogne).

Take some quail eggs and lay them in a tupperware with a good sized truffle for a few days in the fridge.

Break them in small dishes and add some raw foie gras.

Salt, pepper and grill for about 10 mn.

Serve warm and enjoy!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

CardAid in Richmond

Sharmin from CardAid asked me to post this -you can help by buying your cards from them:


I apologise for springing this on you out of the blue but I couldn't find another way of contacting you. Basically, I'm writing from one of the Card Aid shops in Richmond. As an organisation, we represent over 250 Charities and each year, during the winter season, we set up two shops in Richmond Old Town Hall and St Mary Magdalene Church. Unlike many commercial outlets where as little as 2% goes to charity, all profits go to charity from our cards. Just so you know we're not crazy frauds, our website is here: http://www.cardaid.co.uk/

In short, and I hope it's not too cheeky to say this, would you be able to do us a huge favour and mention us on your blog? We would be incredibly grateful - the charity xmas card market is really suffering this year!

I love Mar I Terra too, by the way!

Thanks so much,

Sharmin, Card Aid

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

US Police sounds Orwellian

There's a weird sense of Orwell blended with Minority Report, a la Brazil in this clip:

(via Nothing To Do With Arbroath: G20 protesters blasted by sonic cannon)

A bit frightening if you ask me, that it takes so much armed force and sound canon to police a demonstration...


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reversing the burden of the proof would encourage cycling

Commuters cycle across Blackfriars BridgeI read today in The Times, an article sensationally titled Cycling plan to blame drivers for all crashes.

As usual, facts are quite different from the eye catching headline: it is only question to reverse the burden of the proof towards motorists for accidents involving cyclists. Which seems only fair as they don't have a metal body around them when travelling as opposed to those driving cosseted within two tonnes of metal

Such scheme would place the presumption of blame against whoever was driving the most powerful vehicle involved in an accident, so they or their insurers would be liable for costs or damages.

If a cyclist were hit by a car, the presumption of blame would fall on the driver, while a cyclist would automatically be blamed if he or she knocked down a pedestrian.
It's already the case in the Netherlands for instance, and it forces drivers to be more careful.

I already hear the voices saying that
...the risky behaviour of some cyclists — particularly those who jump red lights and ride the wrong way along one-way streets — that is to blame for a significant number of crashes.

This comment for me stems from people who never ride, as jumping a red light is often safer than risking being mowned by cars turning left or accelerating forward when the green light comes on. Some odd cyclist behaviours are also caused by the stupidity of those planning cycle lanes in the most bizarre fashion (read this great book for more: Crap Cycle Lanes)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cyclists to be given the right to ride the wrong way

An addition to the no-entry sign will sanction what many cyclists are already doing to avoid long diversionsRead in the Times of this morning:
Cyclists will be given green light to ignore one-way signs - Times Online

At long last, it seems that common sense is prevailing and that the DfT is recognising that road rules made for cars are not appropriate for the poor souls plodding the street with no armour and taking little space.

The main advantage is to allow cycles to use quieter roads, moving them off busy and dangerous main roads in many cases. It is also a good traffic calming measure for one way streets, where cars tend to go too fast.

It's a small step in the right direction towards better ways to share the space between users of the roads. We just have to get proper cycle lanes now (post series on the subjet coming soon on this blog!)

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Moonsoon halts London transport system

Says a lot on the state of our transport infrastructure...

I mean I understand (well not really but) that we can be un-prepared for meterological events that occur once every 5 years in average, like for instance snow. But rain, even when it's a lot?

But I can't comprehend how or why rain can still flood Richmond tube station (it's not underground!) or the M4 (elevated section).

The Department of Transport has a Dad's Army approach to infrastructure engineering: it's so bad it becomes farcical!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Restaurant review: Mar I Terra (Blackfriars)

Mar I Terra - Spanish Restaurant, LondonI ate at Mar I Terra on Saturday, en route to check the Thames Festival on the Southbank.
Both were quite pleasant. The fete was interesting because of the laid back village to watch this country becoming more continental as the years go by: the ambiance was laid back, with performers and food.

However, by that time we were quite full having made a detour via Blackfriars to have dinner at Mar I Terra for some proper Spanish tapas. All felt right in place, relax and good. We had the classics: boquerones, patatas bravas, some meat balls and some cervesa to wash it. All tapas are around a fiver except the jamon, which at thirteen and a half quid isn't cheap. It's very very good and probably worth it though.

It's my idea of casual food: simple, with good ingredients and no fuss. I would recommend this highly for a dinner with friends, around a good bottle -their wine list is well researched. No real downsides, apart the fact they don't take bookings -but they do have a bar. It's also a bit out of one's way, but worth the trek.

I haven't been to the Soho one, but the address is here as well.

Mar I Terra (www.mariterra.co.uk)
14 Gambia Street, London SE1 0XH - 020 7928 7628

Soho: 17 Air Street, London W1B 5AF - 020 7734 1992

While I'm on the subject of tapas, here's are some quick comments on two others I have in mind:
  • Don Fernando in Richmond: not very refined nor cheap, but okay for a casual dinner if you catch their offers. Just.
    27f The Quadrant, Richmond TW9 1DN -020 8948 6447
  • La Tasca in Covent Garden and elsewhere: avoid like plague unless you're really interested into finding out how tourists can be (badly) treated in London ; probably the worst paella I've ever had, we almost walked out as the service was agonisingly slow.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Heathrow is not safe: chilling crash map

Just found the web site of the Friends of the Earth on LHR T5 -a must read, there's also a chilling map by Hacan of possible crashes on Heathrow flight paths.

Stricken jumbo flew over West London (also there)
Campaigners against the expansion of Heathrow have long predicted that a disaster will eventually happen because more than 500 flights a day pass over Central London as they approach the airport.

The Government has proposed building a third runway at the airport, which would add 1,000 more flights a week over the capital. Most other big cities have positioned their airports in places that do not require planes to approach over the centre."

FOE comment. Heathrow is by far the most dangerous airport in the country for those on the ground. This is because there are far more planes flying over far more people than anywhere else. This fact is largely ignored by the government, which takes into account only 'individual risk' as opposed to 'societal risk'.
The AIB report is here (direct link to PDF).

See map of potential crash sites.
Update: Seems  Friends of the Earth moved to a proper website but did not migrate all files, this link doesn't work anymore. Fortunately,
Waybackmachine had an archived copy... Here's another link to the document, just in case.

Check also this post:Heathrow is just dangerous where it is

24/5/12 update: removed/changed dead hyperlinks.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bring on High Speed Two, not more runways

rail planRegular readers will know I think high-speed rail is a necessity. Today, on BBC.com there was an interesting statistic in this news article: Cities urge high-speed rail lin

Over 60 years, it is estimated that the line could save 30 million tonnes (29.5m tons) of CO2 worth £3.2bn by diverting passengers from air travel to rail.

Although 60 years can seem a very long time, rail infrastructure is ammortised over long periods. The real saving could be that a proper high-speed rail (HSR) network could avoid building more runways around London. I'm sure BAA thinks differently, but it worked just like that in France where TGV has displaced air travel on routes such as Paris to Nantes, Lyons, and even Marseilles.

Will this happen in the UK? I'm sceptical it will happen quickly, mostly because of the lack of proper planning, decentralised decision making and short-term focus.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

BAA caught lying... again.

The list of BAA lies is very very long, Terminal 4 was going to be the last one, then it was Terminal 5 to be the last expansion, the planes noise data is based on theoritical levels and future emissions calculations are based on planes that don't exist.

The Advertising Standards Authority has caught them for the last one:
BBC NEWS | England | London | Heathrow noise claim 'misleading'

According to BAA, the Government said that a third runway would "would have to result in a Heathrow noise footprint no larger than with two runways in 2002, and that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide around Heathrow would have to be within the future EU limit."

So BAA would buy a brand new runway but not put extra planes on? Give me a break...

Read on this article on why they get away with it: BAA's close links with the DfT.

Concerns over their influence have been heightened by the presence of Tom Kelly, formerly the official spokesman for Tony Blair when he was prime minister, who has taken charge of "all aspects of BAA's communication activity" since being appointed as group director of corporate and public affairs for the company in late 2007, when the campaign for a third runway was in full swing. Kelly heads a network that plugs BAA directly into government and Labour, several of whose senior figures are involved in the pro-runway campaign. Julia Simpson, another former adviser to Blair, left Downing Street in 2007 for BA.

On the other side of the fence is Joe Irvin, former head of corporate affairs at BAA, who has switched to Number 10 to be a key adviser to Gordon Brown. Irvin was also involved with one of the main aviation lobby groups, Freedom to Fly, which was funded by BAA and BA - as was Stephen Hardwick, a former adviser to John Prescott and ex-head of public affairs at BAA. BAA also employs financial PR company Finsbury, which is headed by Roland Rudd, a close friend of business secretary Peter Mandelson, who was in favour of the third runway.

BA has fostered close links with government for years through PR firms Brunswick, headed by Gordon Brown's friend Alan Parker, and Lexington Communications, run by Mike Craven, a former Labour press chief. Senior Labour figures, paid to help the runway lobby funded by BAA, include Lord Soley, a former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who has appeared in the media to promote the runway for Future Heathrow, one of the BAA-backed successors to Freedom to Fly.

The issue of Heathrow was tackled in a recent report on lobbying by the public administration select committee. After the inquiry, MPs concluded that lobbying needed to be open to public scrutiny. The report said: "There has also been widespread public concern that some areas of government policy have effectively been captured at an early stage by interest groups, usually within industry, and that public consultations have been unbalanced in the favour of these interests." It named Heathrow as an example of this.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Traffic pandemonium: just a sign of things to come?

Thanks to Thames Water who shut the Northbound Clifford avenue section to replace aging water mains the A205 South Circular in Richmond (This Is Local London), combined with Transport For London who revamped Richmond Circus to add more car lanes but still no cycle lanes (I'll post again on this) plus some more water mains replacement in White Hart Lane, Richmond was totally grid locked this summer.

Great planning guys....

One of the fundamental issues is that our borough has the plight of being sectionned by a train line with only a few crossings: a bridge on the Quadrant, another one in Church lane, a level crossing in Manor Road, a bridge on Clifford avenue and then some more level crossings in Sheen Road by Mortlake train station, White Hart Lane in East Sheen/Mortlake, Vine Road in Barnes. There are then only three bridges before Putney, including on Dryburgh road -which is closed during rush hours...

IFlowers placed by level crossing gates at Elsenham Station in Essex where Charlie Thompson and her friend Olivia Bazlinton died.'ve been lobbying long to get a footbridge in North Sheen and believe level crossings are a problem in general, I'm not the only one it seems according to this BBC article:

More people die on level crossings than in derailments or train crashes, killing on average one person a month.

Network Rail says that every year 2,000 people are reported to misuse level crossings with motorists ignoring warning lights or weaving round barriers.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers Union (RMT) says that even crossings with barriers and warning systems are unsafe and should be replaced with bridges or underpasses over a period of ten years.

The bad news is that it's only going to get worse for local residents, with longer wait at crossings if BAA gets their way.

Yes, BAA, the London Heathrow airport operator who's wanting to put more planes overhead. Because they just figured out that Heathrow is poorly deserved by trains. No, not really, the truth is that they are trying to curb on car mouvements around the aiport in order to land more planes without breaching too much the European directive on air quality (thank god for the EU). Insane? Yes, but these are the facts.

So, if Airtrack goes ahead the trains frequency will double -from 8 to 16- with no or little benefits for local residents as it's far from certain the extra trains will stop in North Sheen for instance, while Manor Road will be continuously clogged with a traffic jam caused by the level crossing barriers being shut for 45 minutes in one hour!

This is obviously not acceptable, and this train line should be buried under street level from Putney to Richmond. Period.

Our MP Susan Kramer is running a petition: http://www.susankramer.org.uk/pages/airtrack.html. The consultation closes on 18 September.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chaos in Chalkers Corner

A316 by A205 Chalkers CornerIf you're just back from holidays you're in for a surprise at rush hour: Chalkers corner is completely grid-locked, so is Lower Richmond Road (A316) Eastbound, Manor Circus and Richmond Circus aren't better...

I'll post later on this but it seems it's largely due to Clifford avenue being closed to Southbound traffic due to water mains replacement.

To compound the things, they (not sure who is "they") have reversed the one way in Kingsway (from Lower Richmond Road) for no apparent reason as now Shalstone road and Kingsway are both only leading into Clifford avenue (Northbound), creating even more congestion...

Daft really?

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Is Britain about to jump on the high speed bandwagon?

UK rail mapVery exciting news today: BBC NEWS | Business | New high-speed rail plan unveiled

At long last, Network Rail has made a proposal for a second high speed line to link London to the Midlands and further North.
I do hope sincerely it's more than just talk, as high speed train is the best way to curb air pollution and give this country the transportation infrastructure it badly needs.
France had embarked in such a programme 25 years ago, and now train has the lion share in passenger numbers between Paris and London, Lyons, Marseilles, Nantes and even Bordeaux.

With Edinburgh only 2 hours from London, who needs to endure the hassle of flying?
And there's probably no need to expand airport capacity in London...

Unfortunately, it won't be before 2020...

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I could not agree more with Jon!

Saw this post, not much to add bar that he's got a rationale explanation for the tragic short sight that's affecting people in charge of our transport networks:

RER at Châtelet-Les Halles, CC / Flickr
Jon Worth » Crossrail and multi level governance
Second, why, oh why, would anyone seriously want to oppose Crossrail as Next Left alleges that Cameron does? OK, the line does not serve too many Tory constituencies, but London is projected to grow over the next few decades and the London transport network is already horribly saturated. Why can we not even manage to get behind one high speed, high capacity line? After all Paris has just five similar lines (RER), each with 10 carriage trains, some of them even double-decker. The hub station alone – Châtelet-Les Halles – handles almost half a million passengers a day on its RER platforms. Anyone who has ever tried to take the Central Line at peak times must clearly see that more east-west capacity is vital.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Antidiots screen

On my way to work this Tuesday and on the M4, I saw no less than three minor accidents, merely some bumper to bumper action probably caused by bored distracted people and others who forgot to fill their petrol tanks? mechanical failures. That's life on a congested motorway, but more annoying are the rubbernecks kind.

They slow right down to check, ohhh nice flashing lights, ohhh creased bumper, ohhh woman standing behind safety barrier in the rain. And the re-accelerate, slowly, only to brake when they have caught up with preceding vehicles.

Nothing To Do With Arbroath "reports" that the Highways Agency is considering Giant screens at crash sites to end 'rubbernecking' danger. See the picture -doesn't need many more words.

Just that... by the time they've arrived, erected their 70 metres screen, etc... they'd have plenty of time to actually remove most, OK maybe not all, but most of the sources of distraction.

So I think this is another ill conceived idea from our DfT. What we need is not more powerless traffic wombles in their checkered green 4x4 but a fleet of rapid response plaform lorries, strategically placed along the motorway. They'd get rid of any hard-shoulder mishaps in minutes.

But that won't happen because it would be a far too sensible plan for the Department of Transport whose idea of transport is just about bulldozing houses to create more airport runways.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Open letter to Plaxo

The great things with blogs is to be able to post anything. Like rants about customer service or else.

In this case, here's an open letter to Plaxo, a service I thought was very useful.

Guys, about the fact your Outlook connector will now be a pay service....

I believe this is a strategic mistake, just wanted to post my thoughts.

I started to use Plaxo years ago as a way to back-up and synch my contacts and calendars. Worked pretty well so far, allowed me to move job without loosing my electronic brain -despite some (severe) technical glitches (with the Yahoo! and Gmail contacts synch).

You then introduced "social" features and many of my contacts now refuse to update their details because of privacy concerns and also as they don't see the point signing onto another service. The Plaxo Pulse has thus reduced the value of your mainstay service. That's bad.

Now, with making the Outlook synch a paying service, I can see that the user base will shrink massively as people won't synch their address books anymore and see even less point in updating their own details. That's worse.

While I understand nothing can remain free forever, I believe that you're making a strategic mistake.



Friday, July 17, 2009

My do Barclays offer Oyster on a Barclaycard if they can't manage both seamlessly?


I've got a Barclaycard. It used to be Gold (no idea what it add to the standard, but it's a bit cooler).
Used to be, because I had the idea to try the new Barclaycard with an Oyster card on it -probably so that both the government Big Brother and the Barclays Little Brother (or is it the other way around) has the possibility to always know where I am on the underground network.

The least I can say is that the customer experience isn't very seamless.

First, you have to give up your gold card and reapply for a new Barclaycard -which they don't make in any other metal than standard plastic. Since I never really saw the benefits of the Barclaycard Gold, it did not bother me but it's daft from a marketing standpoint (why create product tiers if you can't carry them across your portfolio?).

More annoyingly, you have to reapply for a direct debit, send the form, etc... They can't do it for you, nor have they the intelligence to pre-fill the form you send them. #fail, as I tweeted today.

Then, if you loose your card and get a replacement, they're not smart enough to relink the Oyster and the Barclaycard. They probably call it a daftcard?

So, when that lady (or whatever gender is that made up name meant to confer) sent me an email with the following question, here was my reponse:

Aderemi Ademola
Aderemi Ademola
Oyster Customer Services Manager

"We hope you are satisfied with the level of service you have received."

Quite frankly? No.

I've got my Oyster on my Barclaycard -it's the same card! Why do I have to deal with all that then?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A commuter's week...

This week, I'm wondering why we have to make do with third world infrastructures? Of course, we should have adequate sewage systems. Of course, we should not have level crossings in densely populated areas.

Monday: storm causes sewer discharge in Thames -900 thousand tonnes it seems.

Tuesday: the BCC pushes a reoport saying Heathrow must be expanded to add £30b to the economy. For me, I'm very sceptical of those hair raising figures pushed by the aviation lobby: "John Stewart, chairman of campaign group Hacan, argued that the report contradicted previous findings, saying the Government’s own figures suggested the benefits to the economy would be £5bn over 70 years."

Nothing about the indirect costs of course, no mention of alternatives such as shutting down 2, 3 or 4 airports around London to move them in the Estuary or developping high speed trains.

See my other posts on LHR Expansion.

The scene at the level crossing last weekWednesday: train delayed because of incident at the White Hart Lane level crossing. Just like the one reported here:
Sheen Lane crossing most misused in Britain (From Richmond and Twickenham Times)

While I'm on about the level crossing, we may eventually get a level crossing in North Sheen -I've been campaigning for years and lobbying MP Susan Kramer. Not before 2010 it seems though....

In the meantime, schoolchildren will probably continue to jump it.

Still on about level crossings, our MP's met with Network rail, but with little results it seems.

See my previous posts on the level crossings.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Sourdough Instructable

sd-buttered-sliceI found a nice instructable for Sourdough Bread, with lots of pictures. The blog post from

Personally, I have tried the "Dutch oven" method with in a cast iron pan with a lid but not everyone has one.
I prefer "freeform breads", with a thick crust: I preheat my oven to the max temperature and use a tray with ice cubes: I posted the receipe here.

I also keep using the same sourdough: I keep it in a litre glass jar and refresh it every week. If it smells too much, I throw away half and refresh again. If it turns orange or green, you would have to throw it away and start again.

Over the last 2 WE, I've added 2 handfuls of lineseed and another 2 of sunflower seeds, and used either my favourite Shipton Mill's  "malthouse" flour I got from Olivers in Kew or the Doves malthouse flour (Waitrose).

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Ramblings on the US healthcare systems

I could not help myself to commentBoing Boing - A directory of wonderful thingss on this post: Health insurance versus health - Boing Boing

Just some facts:
- the US spends almost twice as much on health (about 16% of the GDP) than France
- yet, France has "free" care and a much higer life expectancy (one of the highest in the World, certainly the highest in France or top 3, depending on the stats.
- there is a good basic service, supplemented by US style private insurance
- you can also go to a commercial hospital, go see a GP privately, etc...

In the end, you have to rationally accept that some services (street lighting) will never be profitable and should stay public. Not only this, but you should also accept that the nation overall has to pay for a minority (education is another example).

For others, it is debatable whether competition is a great benefit for the consumer to enrich shareholders if prices aren't going to go down. The failure of UK rail privatisation, with higher prices and not much other benefits, is an example.
But deregulation was good for telecoms -remember those international call charges 30 years ago? Do you think we'd have the iPhone and Blackberries if telephones were ran by the Bells and AT&T?

Back to insurance, I'm left to wonder why Americans still accept an unfair and expensive system?
My best guess is it's the weight of lobbies in Washington, where policy has ceased a long time to be in favour of the majority of citizens.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What is the use of roadside census?

Root of the problem: traffic crawls down Godley Lane into Halifax as the surveyors question driversI happenned to be caught in tailbacks caused by a roadside census, like this one: Roadside census causes rush-hour chaos - Halifax Today.
It was in Lionel road, a busy cut-through to the M4 from Kew Brige.

I'm not sure what is the point of delaying people who already have a long journey?

They did not stop me, but if they did I would have declined to answer: no thanks to more traffic jams!

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are London Taxis and tube really the best

London taxisThe BBC reports today that London's taxis [have been] voted world's best. The article is quite un-interesting overall, with a quote from the Licenced Taxi Drivers Association and a reference to the source at the very end: a survey of 1400 travellers commissionned by Hotels.com. It just says they're not particularly good value for money.

Unfortunately, there's nothing on their web site to check on the methodology and the sample demographics, etc, which reminds me of another bogus award where the Tube voted Best Metro in Europe. When the news came out, in disbelief I tried to check the source but coult not find it, but thankfully London Underground pinpointed it to "a small group of Londoners who did vote for the Tube".
What all the newspapers failed to report from these bogus awards is that the best metro was Singapore's SMRT and the best passengers experience was Seoul's -two relativement recent transportation systems indeed.

Trying to get on Crowded TubePersonally, while I agree the London Black Cabs are courteous and knowledgeable (quite unlike the rude and ignorant Parisian or New York drivers) and set a benchmark for the industry, the London Underground is dirty, saturated and not running well. For instance, the drain (Waterloo & City Line) has been CLOSED in 2006 for 6 months to refurbish signalling but I still get a text message saying it's to blame for this line not running at least once a month.

Where the tube could easily win an award though would be when it comes down to its ticket price: it's probably the most expensive in the world?

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Ready for the pizza party!

I just came up with a new entertaining concept!
As I bake bread almost every week, I just thought about doing a pizza party -it's the same dough after all!
It's been a hit with the littlelings... and adults too.

- dough mix: 1 kg strong white bread flour, 35g fresh levure, 3 tbs olive oil, 450 water
- knead (see previous posts on bread)
- let prove for 2h, cover with linen
- shape some dough balls, about the size of a tennis ball
- let prove 1h
- set-up all the ingredients, see picture
--> creme fraiche, chopped oignons, lardons
--> origan
--> tomato passata
--> seafood mix
--> chorizo, ham
--> mozarella, blue chees, goat cheese, emmental (not cheddar!), parmesan for a 4 cheese pizza
--> anchovies, capers, olives
--> spinach, mushrooms, peppers, fresh basilic (add at the end, just like rocket)
--> fresh and cooked eggs
--> etc, check the picture

Start with baking small sough balls, about the size of a wallut, dunked in oil and chopped gardlic for the aperitif. You can also bake some brushettas by stretching some of your dough balls, brushing with olive oil and adding chopped tomatoes, oregano and basil, salt and pepper
You will then need two baking trays, abundantely floured or with a silicon cooking mat. Each guest makes their own piza and bakes it in a very hot oven. Just keep in mind that the best pizze are often the simplest one -avoid the dog's dinner by setting the example!

- passata, anchovies, capers, seafood, origan, pepper (no cheese on seafood for traditional Italian pizze though I am not too sure about where this rule comes from)
- four cheese (see above), on a tomato base, no salt!
- creme fraiche (no tomato), oignons, parsley, pepper (no salt)
- tomato base, chorizo, mozzarella, peppers
- Florentina: tomato base, lardons raw egg (w/o the shell ;-), capers


Monday, May 11, 2009

Are high-speed trains viable in the US?

Interesting article here:
tripso.com | Are high-speed trains viable in the U.S.?

Certainly thought provoquing in a country where "high-speed trains" mean 150 mph only.

Here are the comments I've posted.

To me, there are a few truths:
- Rail is less polluting in general (it takes less energy to move something on iron-to-iron railways), even more so if lines are electrified and electricity comes from renewables or nuclear

-  Rail competes with air easily for distances less than 1000 km / 600 miles

- The city-centre to city-centre networks work well in dense connurbations with adequate public transport between the city centre and suburbs. When megapolis have no centre, advantages are less obvious.

- For the end-user, convenience/speed and price must be right, unlike in the UK where people choose cars because public transport fails them, despite congestion and high cost of the personal convenience called "car".

- Railways are never going to turn up a profit, they need subsidies and have to be built upon long periods to become alternatives to automobiles. Just like roads and street lighting. Of course, single lines can be profitable under some cicumstances, but it's missing the point about the advantage of an integrated public transport network.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Time to nationalise the trains?

Library file photo dated 12/12/2004 of two Midland Mainline trains at Kings Cross St Pancras, London. Transport group National Express said today it had exceeded expectations for this year after strong performances at its coach and bus businesses. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday December 18, 2006. Shares in the group, which runs rail services including Midland Mainline and Central Trains, rose 2% as it told investors that it had ended 2006 strongly.Read in The Times this am:
National Express wants taxpayers’ cash to keep running East Coast trains - Times Online

At a time where rail fares have been increasing faster than inflation, I was reading this and thinking it was a further proof that the rail privatisation did not work, in the UK or anywhere else.

Its results are:
  • a poor deal for the consumer with one of the most expensive transport system in the world, sending more people than ever on the roads (an overused infrastructure with little investment over the last 20 years)
  • little progress in upgrading and investments, with for instance no high-speed links between London, the Midlands and Scotland ; I mean Crossrail and HS1 are not much in 20 years
  • overall, the service is sort of improving but is running on many lines over-capacity 
In the meantime, the government continues with its double standards and taxes cars CO2 emissions while not taxing aviation fuel and not phasing out diesel train engines with electrified lines.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My no-knead sourdough bread

I've now been baking bread almost every week-end for well over 3 years and have tried many different recipes, including this one or that one, but also ciabattas, lardons breads, walnut and apricots breads, etc etc etc.

I've got several books just , including the "ultimate" The Bread Bible, a very concise and good book in French called Les recettes du boulanger : Pains et viennoiseries.

My current routine is to refresh my sourdough starter which I keep in a jar in the fridge on Thursday night, mix the ingredients together on Friday and bake on Saturday. I always keep some dough if it's a white bread to make pizzas for the Sunday night.

So far, I was using the proportion that Joanna gave me:
  • 675 g strong organic white bread flour + 75g organic rye flour, or any mix I like of different flours (such as spelt, malted, buckwheat, etc...) but keeping the total at 750g
  • 270 g sourdough starter, usually using rye flour or wholemeal or white bread flour -I keep them at around 100-120% hydratation, which is same weight water and flour or a bit more water
  • 495 g water
  • 15 g salt -regular, coarse sea salt doesn't make a difference except sprinkled on the crust
  • Note that you can also add up to 20% of "whatever": dried apricots and walnuts, sunflower and other seeds, lardons (pancetta cubes) and rosemary, etc...
The rest of the recipe is:
  • Knead for 15 mn (that's a whole blog post on the subject...)
  • Leave overnight to prove on a silicon sheet on an oven tray
  • Pre-heat the oven to the max (275 Celcius for me)
  • Bake for about 50-55 mn with a metal tray and 7-10 ice cubes on the oven bottom but NOT under the bread -makes it all soggy
  • Reduce heat to about 180 degrees after 20 mn
  • Wholemeal, spelt, rye breads take more time to bake: to see if they're done, tap on the bottom to hear if it sounds hollow, if not continue for 5-10 mn.

Now, 750 + 135 = 885 g flour for 495 + 135 = 630 g water, which is about 70% hydratation or 66% if you don't account for the sourdough starter.

Over this bank holiday WE, I've tried my new toy -a very nice electronic scale and have altered the proportions to go well over 70% hydratation:
  • I've kept the flour at about 750 g (using a mix of my favourite Dove's Organic StrongWhite Bread Flour and about half of the lovely Bacheldre Smoked Malted Flour)
  • However, largely due to a handling error I've ended up with over 320 g of starter
  • Thinking back of the "no-knead" NYT article I had read some time earlier, I decided to experiment and added about 600 g of water.
  • Now, this makes a very soggy dough which you can't knead -just leave proving for about 14-18 hours or thereabouts
  • Shape as best as you can trying to to add too much flour or you'll see the seams inside the bread
  • Mark and prove for 2 hours (on the photo, I had only the time to leave it for 1h but the result is still good).
  • Bake as above (again, on the picture, I did not have time to pre-heat the oven really hot, so the bread is softer but it's still OK, kids loved it)
  • The NYT recipe suggests baking it into a cast iron pan. I've tried it and like the result but prefers my bread to be more wonky and hand shaped. The ice cubes (thanks god I have an fridge with an ice machine) seem to do the job.
  • If you use yeast, either frest or dried, you need to reduce the proportions or your dough will deflate back due to the long proving time. You can also do a biga or a starter the day before with a bit of yeast and a 100% hydratation flour-water mixture.
  • Sourdough can be started but you need a week to develop it.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth day: NOx, electric cars and diesel

I was listening to Robert Evans from Cenex, a company developping fuel-cell and "low carbon" (whatever that really means) technologies in this podcast on guardian.co.uk.

He suggests electric cars are THE solution (he would says that, would he not?) as they cut pullution. The interviewer doesn't buy this and questions if it's not just moving the pollution to coal fired plants (in the UK between 60% and 33% of the electricity is generated from coal and the 74% from fossil (can't seem to cross-reference 2 sources), 49% of electricity is made burning coal in the US, while in France 78.1% comes from nuclear in 2006).

Evans answered that moving the CO2 emission from tailpipes up to a power station chimney reduces NOx emissions. Which brings the whole issue I've been raising about diesel.

The goverment has been focussing solely on CO2 emissions, via car tax bands linked to emissions for instance (note that airlines and ships are exempt of fuel duty), which had the effect to favour diesel cars: oil burners registrations have grown from 13.8% in 1999 to 43.6% in 2008!

The problem is while diesel engines emit less CO2 (about 20-30%), they emit much more NOx and particulates, about 24 times more according to this source. While CO2 is not an actual pollutant, NOX and particulates are and are harmful to anyone in the vincinity of traffic -in particular children in urban environments.

Just another proof that the government is using CO2 as an excuse to tax with no proven ecological reasons.

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