Thursday, 13 March 2008

A listening post

For the past couple of years I've been searching for the perfect volunteering opportunity, since deciding I wanted something to fill the rather empty gap between work and play.

Apparently, I'm quite a good listener, and I've always wanted to get involved in a cause where I can use those skills to help someone through a problem. I really believe people can be helped through their demons by listening to someone who's got the time and willingness to hear them, helping them through logical steps and positive thought to find solutions.

Personally, I guess I was brought up in the 'pull yourself together and get on with it' school of thought, but that doesn't mean I'm somehow emotionally distant or incapable of showing it when I've got a problem. Perhaps that's a sort of strength - a sign of a true Taurean maybe - but it makes it all the more frustrating for me when other people don't talk about their problems!

Towards the end of last year, I thought that the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard might seem the perfect outlet for my skills. After an interview back in January they offered me a place on their core assessment training (CAT) course. I tried something quite similar once during my university days - it was 'Niteline' then - or 'Gayline' on Wednesday nights. I remember getting very passionate and angry when the union decided to close it down and even took motions to our union council condemning it. University distractions and the lure of the pub meant that I never persevered with it.

Last night was the second session, in which we learnt lots of useful tricks on how to answer a call. For example, 80% or so of communication is through face to face contact, so you have to make up for it on the phone. You can give verbal 'nods' so a caller knows you're listening, and callers can be encouraged to divulge more of their problem through reflection and 'echoing' of the question. I've started to irritate Andy already with my practice of my new-found skills in everyday conversation. I don't want to give away too much about the training here, because it's probably not the done thing!

I think this might turn into quite a worthwhile distraction for me - the course is very well run, and I'm confident I can reach the standard required to pass and become a fully-fledged volunteer. It'll also be another string to my bow in terms of communication skills - I passed the first stage of British Sign Language level one course last week. There's still a long way to go with both, but the journey's immensely enjoyable.

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard
020 7837 7324 (daily 10am -11pm)

Monday, 10 March 2008

A Routemaster response from Boris' campaign team

Further to my earlier blog post, I got in touch with Boris Johnson's campaign team about Boris' ill-thought out plans to replace London's Routemaster buses with a 21st century replacement. Here's my email, my reply and my response to Boris' policy team.

Dear Mr Swaden,

Thank you for your detailed reply, which I was pleased to receive. I was already aware that TfL do not own the bendy buses outright, this being a by-product of the London Buses privatisation in the 1990s. I think my issue is with the costs of designing and producing an entirely 'new' vehicle essentially based on what is essentially a 1900s design. Your projected £8 million cost of wholesale bendy bus replacement ignores the fact that the original Routemaster took some five years of development, some fifty years ago,and even then it wasn't perfect. Who would pay for the cost of a new bus? TfL? The private companies? I am also sceptical of a bus with an open rear entrance (leaving TfL and the bus companies open to expensive lawsuits from a higher accident rate) would be the safest and most appropriate solution for London in 2008. Personally, I love the Routemaster for its 1950s charm and classic design - I've worked on them as a conductor in a part-time job for a private hire company too, so I know how they operate down to the last detail! So, for Boris to envisage wholesale replacement of the bendy bus with a replacement vehicle within the four-year term of the Mayor's office is just impractical. A new double decker with ample Oyster readers, wide doors and disabled access is what is needed. London doesn't need special treatment as other European cities will testify.

With regards to consultants, it's easy for politicians to demonise the 'army of consultants' employed to suggest improvements to services. But, when you consider that London has a transport system which is the envy of the world, an extra £79 million a year, with the 2012 Olympics coming up is hardly a huge price to pay. Ken Livingtsone, to his credit has placed great faith in public transport and the slightly extended price of a professional, expert opinon is far lower than the potential cost overun which could be caused by a Mayor who has never run anything bigger than a political magazine. Mr Johnson would easily be out of his depth.

With kind regards, but a vote for Ken Livingstone,

Paul Prentice

Dear Mr Prentice,

Many thanks for your email, Boris has asked me to reply on his behalf. Boris feels that Londoners want an iconic bus that they can identify with. Pensioning off bendy buses will not cost anything, as when we renew the bus contracts we will specify to the bus companies that they must not use bendy buses. TfL doesn’t even own the bendy buses, so the removal of this unloved bus will not cost Londoners anymore than it has already. TfL claim getting rid of bendy buses and introducing a new Routemaster with conductors wouldcost £60 million. This is untrue. The current per annum cost of the 24 conductors on the remaining Routemaster routes is £590,000. That is £24,600 per conductor. If you replaced the 337 bendy buses with new Routemasters,with conductors, that would cost £8,290,200 per year, not £60 million.

To put that into context, TfL plan to spend an extra £79 million next year juston consultants, so even if it did cost £60 million, we could afford it by scrapping the extra consultants without having to increase fares. If there is anything else you would like to raise with us, please do nothesitate to do so, it is vital that we hear from Londoners on issues thatconcern them.

Yours Sincerely

David Swaden, Boris Johnson's Policy Team

I'd like to know how Boris' plans for a 21st century Routemaster would befunded. I agree that bendy buses are not the ideal solution, but reintroducing buses with conductors (which would double the cost of staffing each individual vehicle) would be unworkable.

I can't see how any Mayor could develop an entirely new vehicle whilst continue to improve bus services at the sametime. Most cities don't have their own specially produced buses and I wonder how it would be possible for London to afford it, especially as the Mayor's fare rises are always criticised (I think, unjustifiably, given the price of oil etc) every year.

I'd appreciate a response, thanks.

Paul Prentice

Monday, 3 March 2008

Why bringing back the Routemaster isn't the answer for London

Boris Johnson launched his transport manifesto for London today, but his ideas struggle to sound coherent or even workable. The Conservative candidate for the job of Mayor claims Ken Livingstone has "run out of ideas", when the current incumbent of the job has demonstrated anything but. TfL is a remarkably different organisation from the old London Transport inherited some nine years ago. Bus use has risen dramatically - a reverse of the considerable decline outside the capital and there are signs of considerable investment in the Tube (even if the Metronet debacle has somewhat damaged public confidence in the funding structure). It's all down to a co-ordinated, well-funded and integrated transport policy and a Mayor with a genuine passion for the things which make a difference to Londoners.

Johnson's latest wheeze proposes bringing back the Routemaster, seemingly in an attempt to capitalise on public mistrust of their replacements, those nasty European bendy-buses which happily purr down continental boulevards but which have never really caught on in Britain.

The last Routemasters were retired from front-line service in December 2005, minus the ten or so which currently ply their trade on the 'heritage' routes. There was public outcry at the abolition of these venerable old beasts, as many a Time Out article and opinion piece pointed out. What the travelling public didn't quite realise is quite how time expired these vehicles were.
The Routemaster was developed as a replacement for London's trolleybus fleet, in a post-war Britain, catching up on the development of new vehicles had been stalled for at least six years during wartime. The concept of the vehicle was revolutionary for its time, but its basic look and feel was little different from the pre-war 'RT', itself a development of the 1910 'B' type. So, in 2005, a fleet of buses was operating on front line services in central London based on a design which originated before many passengers' grandparents were even born. Operators of the Routemaster struggled to find spare parts, their capacity restricted their usefulness somewhat, and they cost considerably more than one-person buses to operate because of the necessity of the conductor to collect fares and oversee passengers embarking and disembarking.

Boris has announced a competition to design a new Routemaster - a bus fit for the 21st century. But London Transport long ago stopped building its own vehicles, and in an age of standardisation and globalised transport manufacturers, a bus that's specially designed for London use only isn't going to find markets elsewhere. The black cab only survived because its basic design was so adaptable elsewhere.

To Boris and his campaign team, this dewy eyed notion of a cheery conductor returning to shout 'fares please' up the stairs might be a vote winner. But, as TfL have stated, returning the conductor to London's buses, not least developing the replacement vehicle, would cost something of the tune of £108m. Is that a price Johnson is prepared to pay? And if so, how would he fund it? It's a question I've already put to him - and it'll be interesting to see how nostalgia will survive in a mayoral election which is already more bitter than the previous two.

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