Category Archives: Transport

Still, that railway, from the south

Southern’s parent company know that they’re in the G4S bracket of mean thugs. The government know it, and that’s what they’re for.  The RMT know it, and fighting them is their job.  The non-union marketing people at Southern, who are probably your nice mates, don’t. This is unfortunate.

Me at the New Statesman

Southern Railway, now arriving in 1973

I did a piece at Citymetric on why the disastrous shenanigans at Southern Railway are actually a resumption of a very old battle. They paid me a lot less than a Southern Railway guard gets for the same hours. I probably enjoyed it more, though.

Image: an EMD E6A leading the US Southern Railway’s The Tennessean (public domain). Used solely to annoy lazy picture editors.

He was watching the defectives

Extremely sad to hear about the sudden unexpected death of long-time friend, crony and partner in crime Tom Barry, of BorisWatch and @boriswatch fame.

Tom provided exactly the kind of hard-nosed, subject-expert and ruthless research and writing into London’s terrible mayor and supine general assembly that nobody in traditional local journalism has (bothered to do / had time for) in decades.

He did this while carrying on a day job as a telecoms expert and being a fully committed dad to two  adorkable boys aged under 11*, and whilst being at the very least a good enough partner to Ish that she put up with him for the whole timeframe.

And he was only 41, and this has broken me a bit. Young people get run over or end their lives or  have tragic but long-running illnesses, they don’t just die, that isn’t how it works. They don’t send pics from beer gardens the same month they die of glorious fun with the kids they love mockingly labelled “when will the torture of parenthood end?” because the fucking concept that it might is ridiculous.

This blog seems to be eulogy-focused lately. Unlike Meg Williams , as well as not being  in his 80s, Tom had a great deal of internet presence – but the two share the context of having touched shedloads of lives for the better. Also, CAN EVERYONE FUCKING STOP DYING?

Two updates.

One: Tim Fenton has written a great piece on Tom’s extremely well researched ‘blogging’ (or ‘investigative journalism’, as it used to be called when paid journalists could be bothered to do it) exploits.

Two: I wrote this at the start of day on 3 November (AEST – lat night 2 November GMT) when the news was under semi-embargo from family. Even since then, I’ve had at least one thought on naval history where I  thought “I’ll ask Tom about this one… fuck.

*I fully expect to get a write-in comment from Tom’s eldest saying “actually I am 11 so I’m not under 11”, because did I mention adorkable? Hopefully I’ll be able to ask him for naval history clarifications in due course.

Don’t get your Germanwings over France

Regular readers will be aware that France is to air safety what Scotland is to gastronomy and New South Wales is to probity in government. Today’s news, though, had me genuinely shaking with incredulity and rage.

Not the fact that Germanwings flight 4U9525, flown by 23-year-old A320-200 D-AIPX crashed mid-morning on 25 March (Europe time), of course. Flying is unnatural. The fact that we don’t all die every time we go up in an aluminium-and-plastic tube that doesn’t even float in water is a miracle in its own right, and like all the best miracles it is down to limitless human innovation, experimentation, and learning from experimentation.

It is generally better to be in a plane of the sort that has learned from experimentation, rather than the sort which is experimenting, which is why despite building the world’s first jetliners, De Havilland is not the world’s leading civilian aircraft manufacturer (although admittedly, it is one of the companies that is now merged into Airbus, so it sort of is, a bit, but not really).

Anyway. If you hit granite at 600km/h, then you become shrapnel, which definitely makes learning from experimentation harder. In particular, if you hit a low but pointy Alp at 600km/h, then you end up with bits of aeroplane and person and luggage all over the unwalkable hellhole that vaguely resembles a place, so it will take you months to collect the full jigsaw of former Airbus and frozen Germans.

Every passenger aeroplane carries two black boxes, which are orange because aviation engineers believe themselves to have a sense of humour, and are easier to find and survive crashes better than their fellow passengers. So far, the only one authorities have for D-AIPX is the cockpit voice recorder (CVR); the one recording technical data (FDR) hasn’t yet been retrieved.

After the CVR was recovered and read on the night of 25 March (Europe time), The New York Times, which is broadly honest, quoted some unnamed officials who had heard it. According to them:

  • one of the two pilots was locked out of the cockpit during the eight minutes that the plane went from cruising height to mountain height.
  • the plane’s path, in longitude-and-latitude terms, was in line with the flight plan.
  • the plane descended, quite consistently and at about the steepest level consistent with a normal rather than emergency descent, for the eight minutes before it hit the mountain.

This seems like a reasonable enquiry leak, of the sort that the people leading the enquiry should deny, but which focuses the public mind on key issues. Such as, why did the fucking plane fly into the fucking ground, and why couldn’t the locked-out pilot get in the cockpit?

But then, something really terrible happened: the formal investigation was handed over to a French judge-prosecutor.

In the US and the UK, which are generally recognised as being at the forefront of aviation safety – and also in Germany and Switzerland – formal authority over air crashes goes to an independent governmental agency. They have priority over cops and prosecutors seeking to assign blame, because it is recognised that working out what the fuck happened is far more important.

In France, this is not the case. The French BEA is generally respected for its technical skills, but doesn’t have control over air crash investigations or sites. Instead, they are handed over to local avocats (I’d translate this as “solicitor”, but I got a bit of pushback from doing so on Twitter), who know a fair amount about French law, absolutely jack shit about aviation, and are immediately forced into an adversarial situation of assigning blame (the word for ‘investigator’ and ‘prosecutor’ is the same).

Provincial avocat Brice Robin, who is in charge of the Germanwings crash, is a perfect example of this. Less than two days after the crash, he gave a press conference insisting that the plane was deliberately destroyed by its first officer whilst the captain was in the toilet. And naming both gentlemen.

This conclusion isn’t completely inconsistent with the evidence available. But it’s a gigantic reach from the evidence available, of the sort that a prosecuting counsel would absolutely reach for, but which someone seeking to find the facts would absolutely not. We still don’t have:

  • Any physical evidence from the wreckage showing the status of the door.
  • Conformation of whether the captain’s problem was the electronic lock or the manual deadlock.
  • The Flight Data Recorder
  • Any psychiatric or other medical evidence showing the state of the pilot
  • Basically anything explaining why the plane flew into the bloody Alp

As a result, well before there is any justification for doing so, the French system has struck fear into the hearts of air travellers worldwide, grossly impugned a dead man who may well be completely innocent, and – worst of all – forced the investigation into a specific narrative rather than going through the facts until a narrative is unimpeachable.

(Falsely claiming people are responsible for jet crashes is a bad idea. It turns out that even when they’re dead already rather than waiting to be shot by a crazed relative their homes still need police guard.)

No, white people, we don’t get to decide what’s racist

Boston Review editor Simon Waxman wrote a piece this June in the Washington Post, saying that the US Army’s decision to name its weaponry after Native American tribes – like the Apache helicopter above – is worse than the Washington Redskins’ decision to keep its gross racial slur name.

Waxman is white and not of Native American descent [1]. His piece doesn’t contain quotes from, or interviews with, Native American writers tribal leaders, or members of the public. Or indeed anyone at all, except Noam Chomsky, which is probably slightly worse than not quoting anyone at all.

This makes him less qualified to comment than, uh, the US Army. Who, sensibly, require any decision to name a weapon after a Native American tribe or chief to be approved by both the relevant tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs:

Native Americans get to decide whether the Washington Redskins is an acceptable term. They think that it is totally unacceptable. Therefore, the Washington Redskins need to change their name. Native Americans get to decide whether Apache helicopters is an acceptable term. They think it is fine. Therefore, Apache helicopters don’t need to change their name.

Neither white sports fans, nor white Boston lefties trying to demonstrate their contrarian right-on-ness, get a say in either, and nor should they. Case closed.

Why am I bringing this incredibly basic point up now? Well, because of a response to Waxman’s piece by US Army aviator Crispin Burke. It is well-researched; indeed, it is where I found the reference to the consultation with Native American tribes that I’ve reproduced above.

But the tone it takes is absolutely terrible. The lede is:

Everyone Relax—The Army’s Native American Helicopter Names Are Not Racist
There’s a difference between honor and exploitation

The piece goes on from the tone set there, pointing out for several paragraphs how the names are chosen to honour Native American warriors, complaining that Waxman’s piece reads like an Onion parody of political correctness, and generally following the irrelevant ‘it’s honour! Not a slur!” line that the Washington Redskins’ defenders tend to spout.

The key point that Burke has found: that all decisions to name military hardware after Native American tribes are approved by the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is buried almost as a sarcastic aside.

And it ends with this sign-off, which is a vat of aaaaaaagh no large enough to pickle an elephant:

Taking Waxman’s logic to the extreme, we should expect to see legions of Peloponnesian-Americans demand the military purge its references to Spartans from its lexicon. And let’s not forget the howls of protest from disgruntled Fighting Irish.

No, if Greek-Americans were overwhelmingly offended by the term Spartans; if Irish-Americans were overwhelmingly offended by the term Fighting Irish, then changing them would be a good idea. The only reason changing them is not a good idea is that those groups aren’t offended [2].

Neither Simon Waxman nor Crispin Burke get to decide whether the use of a term is racist. Only the people on the other end of the term get to decide that. Although Burke’s conclusion is the right one in this particular case, that appears to be only by coincidence.

[1] Unless I’ve missed something whilst researching his biography and his other work, in which case I apologise. Although if he is of Native American descent then it might have been a good idea for him to mention this in the original piece.

[2] Relative privilege and historical guilt may also mean that people in the US are obliged to give special consideration to the views of Native Americans compared to those of Greek- or Irish-Americans. But since the latter groups aren’t making these requests, we don’t need to worry about that here.