Pandemic lessons

This story is of its time. In a year, maybe less, events may have passed it by. But it’s important for all our futures, nonetheless.

A few days ago, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced that by mid-June, most restrictions on personal behaviour, imposed to help stem the global pandemic, would be lifted. For people who have endured a year of staying at home (most of the time), avoiding meeting friends and family, this was gold dust. I get it, really.

The immediate result was, according to newspaper headlines, that airlines and travel companies experienced uplifts in bookings of well over 300%, in some cases. In other words, a rush for normality. Again, I get it.

But what I don’t get is the idea that suddenly life can resume as if the pandemic had never happened. That we can resume life as it was. Because we must not.

The roots of the pandemic are in human behaviour today. The wealthy of the world, those in the so-called developed countries, jet around the globe as if it were their personal paradise. And why not? They have the time, the money and air fares are cheap. Astonishingly cheap.

Part of the reason they are cheap is that there is no tax on aviation fuel, which is by far the industry’s biggest single expense. The lack of tax emanates from an international agreement in 1944 that the nascent commercial aviation industry needed a kick start, and the best action was not to tax fuel. This policy has been adhered to ever since. Part of the reason can be found in the encapsulating statement by Bill Hemmings, of Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment, that “there aren’t any votes in making trips to Malaga more expensive”.

Yet as he points out, people who drive to France or Spain pay tax on their fuel so why shouldn’t those who fly. And people who don’t fly effectively subsidise those who do. Even if there were tax on aviation fuel at the same rate as road vehicle fuel, it would probably add about €15 per flight. Not onerous – and possibly not onerous enough.

The point? The global pandemic was spread worldwide amazingly quickly by casual aviation. The ability to jump on a plane without considering the real cost. Because aviation contributes 3% of human carbon dioxide emissions, and there is no greater danger facing us right now than the climate emergency.

And this is where it ties into the pandemic. Within the hegemony of ever-expanding growth, seemingly ad infinitum, together with the rocketing human population, there are almost no areas of the planet that humans have not touched in our insatiable demand for food and resources.

We plunder the seas as if they were infinite, we chop down tropical rainforests at a growing rate. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest, according to the World Bank – an area larger than South Africa. Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of all deforestation.

With the disappearing rainforests and the growth of CO2 emissions comes an acidification of the oceans and a huge and a devastating effect on marine life. And a reduction in the rainforests’ uniquely huge ability to soak up CO2.

And as we destroy the rainforests and other habitats around the world to grow food and wrench raw materials from the earth, we destroy the habitats of the plants and creatures that live there.

Evolution has equipped those lifeforms with unique adaptations tailored to their environments. When their world is desecrated, they have to go somewhere. And as human populations grow, the demand for food, products and land grows commensurately. This brings us increasingly into contact with creatures who previously lived in their ecological niches – niches that are being destroyed by human activity.

Those creatures, be they bats, pangolins or whatever, may carry bacteria and viruses that evolution has equipped them to survive with – otherwise they wouldn’t still exist. You can see where I’m going with this: greater contact with humans means a greater opportunity for a virus to jump to another species.

Most of the time it probably won’t. But occasionally, it will, and this is one theory for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) in homo sapiens.

Once established in one or more humans, pandemics used to stay where they were. Yes, the Black Death in the Middle Ages spread across Europe by ship but it was a slow spread, and had there been modern communications and modern understanding of disease transmission, it could have been stopped very quickly.

The modern pandemic on the other hand spreads around the world before vaccine makers have got their boots on. Thanks largely to global and overly cheap aviation.

So before we all jump for joy at the lifting of pandemic restrictions, my suggestion is that first we think about the impact on the planet that our lifestyles are having. That we think more than twice before jumping on a plane. And most of all, that refuse to vote for politicians who promise growth at all costs – because the planet that has sustained us so far, cannot do so for much longer.

Growth has to stop – or at the very least, the true costs of raw materials, including water, the air, and land, known as externalities and deemed to be free, need to be added to the balance book.

Imagine the age of the Earth as a year’s calendar. Humans arrived sometime in the last 30 seconds or so. We have done all this damage in the last 0.2 seconds. Let’s just stop.

When ‘can do’ becomes can’t do

A lesson for modern management

Buffer stopAfter several decades of interaction with the IT industry in all its many forms, in addition to my role as magazine editor when I could see how the publishing industry works from the inside, I can safely say that one over-arching characteristic of modern management is a ‘can do’ attitude.

And this is all very well, and helpful to achieve project goals by instilling a sense of momentum and enthusiasm among those tasked with carrying them out. It’s built into modern managers that they must be positive: to be anything else, especially in front of your peers, is frowned upon; being negative is not a career-enhancing move.

But there are times when that attitude is positively and absolutely counter-productive. Most of the time, we on the outside don’t see this: internal corporate mistakes are usually covered up, no-one admits that an commercial organisation could possibly have done anything incorrectly – or as journalists like to say, fucked up – for fear of damaging reputations, share prices, product sales and so on.

There’s a prime example of how ‘can do’ became ‘can’t do’ that came to light because it affected tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. And the dirty laundry had to be washed in public because – hey – public money was involved. I’m talking about the railways, and how a timetabling process that should have worked didn’t, in part because of various forces majeures, but mainly because of the inability of a group of managers to accept that a project could fail if they carried on with it.

A new British railway timetable was introduced in May 2018, and it didn’t work. The consequence was that hundreds of trains had to be cancelled, more were hugely late and the days of many, many travellers were ruined. Only by removing hundreds of services from the timetable was a semblance of order restored. It was a mess, and it cast the railway industry in a poor light.

There was a variety of reasons for this. There weren’t enough drivers in the south and, in the north, track work that was planned to have finished hadn’t been because of unanticipated ground conditions, for example. But mostly it was because those in charge didn’t galloped ahead with a timetable they weren’t sure was going to work.

What went wrong?
Railway timetables are fiendishly complicated things. Not only do enough track paths have to be found for the services that train operating companies (TOCs) want to run, they have to fit in around a range of other factors such as engineering and maintenance possessions, driver rosters and availability, different train acceleration and braking characteristics, freight trains, gradients, and variables known and unknown such as weather, station dwell times and so on.

Normally the planning for a railway timetable in the UK starts about 65 weeks before implementation, known in the trade as T-65. A variety of iterations then ensues as TOCs bid for track space to run their services, and Network Rail (NR), the organisation tasked with drawing up the timetable, examines the bids and either accepts them, or rejects them if it believes they are unworkable. If the latter, the TOC has to think again and re-present its bids. By T-12, the timetable is supposed to be cast in stone, as that’s the date that advance tickets – which are tied to specific timetabled trains – go on sale to the public.

Most timetable changes, which happen in May and December each year, are fairly minor. But the May 2018 timetable was different.

One of the big differences was the fact that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) had a huge number of changes to the timetable to submit as a result of new Thameslink services that were planned to run through London Bridge, under central London, and onto the East Coast main line. Initially up to 20 new trains per hour (tph) were planned, though this was eventually reduced to 18 tph to allow for bedding in. But its initial bids for the hundreds of new train paths were rejected by NR, resulting in the iteration process going back and forth for weeks.

Long story short, GTR’s new services overwhelmed the process, which had never in recent memory had to cope with that volume of changes. It took a long time and only at T-3 was the timetable finally declared ready. But it wasn’t, and it was only the week before the new timetable was due to go live that GTR realised it had a problem: when the TOC overlaid its driver rosters onto the new timetable, they didn’t match, as the company didn’t have enough drivers with appropriate route knowledge to run the new services.

The post-mortem
There was an Industry Readiness Board set up specifically to manage implementation of the new GTR services, on which were represented all stakeholders, including NR and GTR. It had the final say on whether the new timetable should go ahead. But, as Modern Railways magazine reported in its September 2018 issue, when the chair of the committee Chris Gibb, an experienced railwayman, asked if the changes should go ahead, no-one put their hand up to say they should not.

An NR manager on the board, John Halsall, said that at the point where it could have been stopped, T-26 in November 2017, everyone believed the new timetable could be delivered. He said: “That ‘can do and get on with it’ approach, which was so helpful up to a point, was actually the problem when we got to the split second when we could have put our foot on the ball: ‘everybody said, no, we can do this, and we must push on’.”

NR’s systems operations manager Jo Kaye identified the problem: “Everyone was in a spirit of hugely positive forward momentum to make [the timetable] happen. Perhaps because of the culture, of being so keen to deliver, blinded us in some way to the risks.”

So basically, collective lemmingness happened: no-one dared challenge the prevailing ‘can do’ culture for fear of being declared a negative ninny. There’s a lesson there for us all.

Whatever happened to the railway?

Have you noticed how no-one talks about the railway any more? From BBC downwards, the place where you catch a train is now a train station, not a railway station. In other words, we talk about the vehicles, not the system. And the problem with that is that we’re getting a worse service and it’s costing us a lot more.

The reason why we’ve lost the concept of a railway system is clear: there is no system any more. Since the rushed, ideological privatisation of British Rail in the dying days of the last Tory administration, the railway has been run by train operators, such as Southern or First Great Western, and an infrastructure operator, Network Rail. Within each of these two broad groups — train and infrastructure operators — there are further schisms, such as train leasing companies, train refurbishment companies, track maintenance companies, signalling and telecommunications etc etc. The list goes on.

Railways are inherently complex organisations: they’re subject to disruption by all sorts of events, most of them not entirely or at all under the railway’s control. People fling themselves off platforms in front of trains, hardware wears out or fails before its time, external electricity supplies go down, weather results in key personnel — think train drivers and signalmen — being unable to get to work, and so on. You can imagine.

At the best of times, for a system such as a railway to work effectively it needs communication between the various elements. In the days of a single railway organisation, it wasn’t perfect but at least everyone was working for the same employer and could be orchestrated as such.

Today, that is no longer the case. Each organisation has a profit motive first which means there has to be a cash incentive to make something happen that’s out of the ordinary. Usually, that works to the disbenefit of the rest of us. For example, you want to make a train connection but your incoming train is 10 minutes late. In BR days, the connecting train might well have been held for the benefit of the arriving passengers. No longer. There’s a financial penalty for train operators if they are late so today you can happily watch your connecting train drive away as you arrive at the station.

Another classic example is a small incident that happened in July 2011 at the entrance to Edinburgh Waverley station. A train derailed but it was a slow-speed incident, the train stayed upright, and no-one was hurt. In BR days, a crew would have been out to to jack it up and get on its way, and make overnight repairs to the track. In this incident, before the train could be moved, there had to be a full investigation to find out what had failed in order to establish who would pay for the damage. This meant that, instead of there being a delay of perhaps an hour or three, it took a day and a half before Edinburgh was fully open for trains again.

Given that, you can imagine what happens when one railway company needs to contact another in an emergency. Something has gone wrong and it needs to be sorted out, as passengers are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Since the profit motive comes first, the various parties have to talk about who will pay, who is at fault and therefore potentially liable, and whether it’s worth fixing now or later. That’s before they get around to talking about how to solve the problem. Meanwhile, passengers sit in trains for hours.

This is not a hypothetical problem: it’s happened plenty of times. Yes, we’ve had some nice new trains following privatisation. We’ve also had beyond-inflation price increases every year to pay for them — and for the huge profit margins the trains companies demand before they will get involved, even though their profits are underwritten by the government — that’s you and me.

Privatisation of the railways has been a disaster overall. We’ve lost the concept of a railway system, and replaced it with a patchwork of train operators’ turfs, each of which doesn’t connect, and results in a blizzard of confusing ticket prices as they attempt to segment the market and screw more cash out of the customers (we’re no longer passengers). Woe betide you if you miss a train, even if it’s not your fault, as the mega-prices are backed up by penalties if you don’t get exactly the right ticket.

As my good friend John May sings: it’s time for a change.

Lessons from Murdoch’s News Corp

There’s a number of depressing conclusions to be drawn, even at this early stage of affairs from the revelations about News Corp’s activities.

The first is that people — from individuals rightly sickened at the thought of News of the World journalists poring over Milly Dowler’s voicemails to politicians who should have known better — only seem to have voiced concerns when it involved a little girl. ‘It could have been us’, runs the thought.

And yet, the hacking — if it deserves that description as it only seems to have involved dialling into publicly available numbers and trying passwords until they found one that worked — had not only been going on for years but was known about for years. Few seem to have cared much about it when it involved people seen as disposable — actors, sportspeople, Z-list celebrities and the like.

It’s much the same when you discuss the issue of whether the UK should retain the monarchy. The two most common responses I’ve encountered concern the individuals — the Queen’s doing a good job and I wouldn’t want Blair — or the tourist money they supposedly bring in. Whether or not a country that describes itself as a modern democracy can continue to do so while it has an unelected head of state seems to be irrelevant: it’s simply not part of the discussion.

In both cases — Murdoch or royalty — the principal of whether it;s correct per se to hack into phones or to maintain an unelected head of state is not an argument it’s possible to have, or that people raise with themselves. Issues seem only to matter if they has a directly personal relevance. How we are governed seems not to fall into that category.

The second issue is that the ones truly responsible for this dismal state of affairs — the politicians who have been kowtowing to News Corp all these years — seem likely to be the ones who will be let off lightly. Cameron will be dented and might, in the most optimistic of scenarios, resign. But the rest of them will get away with it.

This is a direct consequence of the feeble level of political debate in this country, as I’ve already noted. It seems we get the politicians we deserve. If we continue to buy the News of the World — or Sun on Sunday as it will morph — then nothing will have fundamentally changed.

Yet the third issue is one that can be easily fixed: the low level of priority assigned by mobile operators to security compared to convenience. Voicemails seem to have been ridiculously easy to break into because passwords weren’t changed from their defaults; subscribers are unlikely even to have known their voicemails had a password let alone that they needed to change them because the operators didn’t tell them about it.

Britain prides itself on being a stable democracy with traditions many of which have changed little over the last 500 years. Consequently, people are not encouraged to think about issues of governance or principal involving public life. Maybe it’s time we did.