Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What is going wrong in your garage?

Along with my workmates we are wondering just what is going wrong at our depot? I have lost faith with our garage staff as many coaches are parked in the workshop, just sitting there waiting, waiting to be repaired. The fitters never seem to start and finish a job on the same day. Coaches are left in the workshop overnight with bits hanging off. Many driver reported defects are still not being resolved. The drivers have just given up all hope of things getting any better. Some drivers are looking to find work elsewhere for other bus and coach operators. I have driven buses and coaches for over 28 years and I tell the other drivers not to abandon ship, because the grass is never greener on the other side. Our industry is obsessed with cutting costs and I think that whichever operator you work for, you will have the same problems from cost cutting and poor vehicle maintenance. It makes no difference whether you are working for a small family firm or for one of the big boys.

To put this all into perspective, let's look at the recent court case involving the mighty First Group. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Centrewest London Buses Ltd - part of the First Group based at Macmillan House, Paddington Station in Westminster - for safety failings leading up to the incident on 18 May 2004. The company pleaded guilty of breaching section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 on 16 December, at Southwark Crown Court. Centrewest London Buses Ltd was fined £400,000. Costs are yet to be determined at a separate hearing.

The court heard that Robert Cherry, 59, from Ruislip, was preparing one of the buses at the station in Uxbridge Bus Garage in Bakers Court. As he stepped in between two parked buses, the front bus lurched backwards, crushing him against the rear, stationary vehicle. He died at the scene. The HSE investigation showed that traffic management at the garage was poor, particularly when buses left the garage at the start of the working day. The garage had originally been designed to hold 65 buses, but at the time of Mr Cherry's death it was the base for 119 vehicles. The garage was not well lit and drivers carrying out checks were forced to walk between closely parked buses that were manoeuvring to leave the garage.

The bus that struck Mr Cherry also had a defective gear selector that may have meant it was in a different gear to that indicated in the driver's cab. Checks carried out on similar buses after Mr Cherry's death revealed that four others based at Uxbridge had similar problems. A check at the company's other garages in London showed that 10 out of 60 buses were significantly faulty and a further 30 per cent suffered from more minor faults.

HSE inspector, Bill Hazleton said:

"Robert Cherry died because his employer did not do enough to ensure his safety or that of his colleagues. He was a much loved family member who was killed while going about his daily work.

"Like so many workplace accidents, this one was entirely preventable and should never have happened.

"The company's traffic management system was poor and its processes for maintaining vehicles and for identifying and repairing defects were inadequate."

...So there you have it and I believe this culture of cost cutting is a nationwide problem, not just a problem that happened at a bus garage in Uxbridge. I do not believe our industry has moved on since 2004 and I urge any of our drivers reading this not to abandon ship because the grass is not greener on the other side.

I expect Graham will comment in the box below!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

PA news pictures of the decade.

Press Association picture editor, Martin Keene, presents his selection of memorable pictures from it's news archives from the past decade. Of the eleven images he has chosen, which do you view as the most memorable? My suggestion is the image below that is of a young shopper caught in the rain at Cheltenham in the summer of 2004.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The ugly tide of Sectarianism comes in again.

When I was a boy I can remember hearing radio and television reports of Sectarian violence in Glasgow between the supporters of Glasgow's two main football clubs, Celtic and Rangers. At the time I thought this was madness, I had little time for football or religion and I hoped that common sense would prevail and that the supporters would grow out of it.

Of course not everybody will grow out of the bigotry that fuels Sectarian violence . Only today I read that at least 25 people have been killed and dozens injured in a suicide bomb attack on a Shia Muslim march in the Pakistani city of Karachi, officials say. The bomber was walking in the middle of a procession with tens of thousands of people, said the interior minister. Pakistan's security forces had been on high alert as Shia Muslims marked the holy month of Muharram, or Ashura. Monday was the climax of the holy period, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. Karachi has a long history of sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis. On Sunday, eight people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a Shia march in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Pakistan also has a long history of violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims that is estimated to have killed several thousand people in the last three decades alone. Some radicals in the Sunni majority regard Shias - who make up about 20% of the population - as heretics.

This blog post is not about the differences between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. What I am angry about is the mindless Sectarian violence in Pakistan . In the last two decades, as many as 4,000 people are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan, 300 in 2006. At least 25 people have been killed in this latest attack in Karachi, whilst they were marching for the Day of Ashura . This violence is dreadful and all because some people support the "other side". It really saddens me that some people cannot simply live and let live. It should make no difference if you are a supporter of one particular football team or one particular branch of a religion. You will not hear about Atheists attacking Agnostics because they will not make their minds up. I hope that in 2010 people put aside their religious differences and let others live in peace. I do fear that Sectarian violence will continue in Pakistan, a country that has a long way to go before it becomes a safe place for it's people to live.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Quote of the year.

Looking at the article written by Pandora in the Independent newspaper regarding quotes of the year, I have a suggestion as to which quote I consider to be the winner.

"I had to sit in a small airless waiting room for half an hour. It was worse than Auschwitz."

Michael Winner whips out the wrong analogy while addressing guests at the Jewish Book Week.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Nigerian student at University College London burns his leg!

Oh dear, the stakes in the development of Improvised Explosive Devices has taken another step forward. As usual with al-Qaeda, it is three steps forward and one step back. al-Qaeda will always keep plugging away at terrorist attacks until they become successful. al-Qaeda has a history of finding new and rather clever ways to attack the West.

23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device strapped to his leg as a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew came in to land in Detroit on Friday. He suffered second degree burns before being overpowered by other passengers including one who jumped on him and was also burned. According to US intelligence officials, the explosive device was a mixture of powder and liquid. Witnesses described seeing the suspect using a syringe to inject one substance into another before flames erupted; it raised the prospect that terrorists have discovered a form of explosives that cannot be detected by current airport screening. Witnesses said that they saw the suspect - who was in seat 19A - emerge from the toilet with a pillow held over his stomach and a syringe in his hand.
He then injected the syringe into something held in his stomach area, possibly a powdery substance, and smoke and flames quickly followed. "It sounded like a firecracker in a pillowcase," said passenger Peter Smith. “First there was a pop, and then there was smoke."

The suspect later told authorities that he had explosive powder taped to his leg and used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder and cause an explosion.

...So there you have it, another step forward by al-Qaeda with their new pick and mix IED recipe that is very hard to detect and prevent. I fear that a plane will soon go down, probably over American soil.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Two dead in Cornwall coach crash.

When a coach driver announces over the microphone that "seats belts must be worn" there is a reason for this. It is not just to save the passengers the risk of incurring a £30 fixed penalty ticket for not wearing a seat belt but to save their lives should things go wrong. This warning applies to all coach journeys throughout the UK regardless of operator. As a coach driver operating regular scheduled services for a nationwide company, I know that this instruction to passengers is routinely ignored by them. The coach driver has no authority to enforce the passenger to wear a seat belt or to refuse travel to them, if they refuse to wear a seat belt.

Sadly on Tuesday night, a coach skidded off an ungritted road in icy conditions, killing two women and injuring 47 people. The casualties, were named as Irene Spencer, 78, and Patricia Pryor, aged 70, both from Camborne, Cornwall, were among a 48-strong party on a trip to see Christmas lights when the coach overturned at about 10.15pm. The first police car to arrive at the scene in Townshend, near Penzance, also lost control and smashed into the coach's undercarriage while passengers were still inside. One of the women was pronounced dead at the scene, while the other died in hospital. Six people remain in hospital tonight - one in a serious condition, police said.

Jane Moore, who helped the walking wounded in the aftermath of the crash, praised the driver's actions. "He managed to avoid two huge trees and go through the gap, which saved a lot of them I think," she said. "He did fantastically. He was very shaken. There was no way he could have done anything to avoid it. It was sheet ice all the way down. It was like a mirror. We stepped out and nearly went over." Mrs Moore said not all passengers had been wearing seatbelts. "Apparently, the driver said many times to put them on but not everyone did," she said. "Without the seatbelts, it could have been a lot worse."

Cornwall County Council said the route was not treated because it was classed as a "minor" road.

Looking at the website of Williams Travel , the operator of the coach in this crash, there is a press statement about the accident. There is also some pictures of their fleet of coaches and it looks like this was their only Bova Futura coach.

I am saddened by the avoidable deaths of Irene Spencer and Patricia Pryor, I offer my condolences to their families.

My gut feeling is that if all the passengers had been wearing their seat belts then nobody would have been killed or seriously injured. Oh yes, it would have been a very nasty shock for the driver, just look at the photographs above and imagine you were driving in the dark with those trees heading towards your windscreen. But then with the coach on it side and what appears to be some minor body damage, you would hope to get away with the odd bruise and not some other passenger thrown on top of you because they chose not to wear their seat belt.

I hope that the Police do not bring a case against the driver involved in this accident. It is always a worry being a coach driver that you are always putting your licence and your freedom at risk whenever you drive out of your depot. In other jobs you could face disciplinary action but not the loss of your licence and work or a custodial sentence is things go wrong. You could be involved in a nasty accident and face prosecution, which is a bit responsibility to face everyday. However, if any one of your passengers chose not to wear their seat belt, then what could have become a serious motoring charge would escalate into a charge of causing death by dangerous driving or manslaughter. This seems very unfair to me that passengers who refuse to wear their seat belt not only increase the risk to their own lives but also the driver who can take no action against their non-compliance.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Our county was grinding to a halt and why?

What is going on in our country? Okay, so the weather is a little cooler and there has been a smattering of snow. That does not explain why roads have become gridlocked and telephones unanswered. It is not rocket science, you know. Send the gritting lorries out and put enough monkeys in front of telephones to answer them. You could even route your telephone calls to India, at least they would be answered.

I left London in my coach yesterday afternoon at 16.30 - a regular scheduled service for a nationwide company that was due to arrive in Cardiff at 19.50 It was a fairly average journey out of London onto the M4 motorway with the usual slowdown of traffic just past junction 4B. But then the traffic stopped for a minute, then crawled, then stopped again for a minute or so and then crawled again for hours on end. Eventually I got to junction 10 where the traffic was stacked from the exit road all along the motorway in lane 1. I passed this traffic and progress was better but not fast. I continued driving until I got the motorway service area but by this time I had exceeded my 4 hour 30 driving limit, the 10 hour daily driving limit and the 15 hour daily duty spread over limit.

I telephoned my employer but could get no response. I telephoned the nationwide company but I could get no response from them either. I had my 45 minute rest break and had only 2 options. I could have told the passengers that it was "no go" for another 8 hours 15 minutes until I had my minimum daily rest period of 9 hours OR I could use the VOSA guidelines regarding unforeseen circumstances, that only for the safety of my passengers, I could continue driving until the nearest location where I could discharge my passengers.

There is a problem in the passenger transport industry of staff being physically assaulted by passengers, so I thought it was best for me to continue driving. I am not a fearful person and you will never read about me claiming to be verbally abused or assaulted. If somebody has a sharp word with me, I am simply not bothered. I tried later to get a telephone response from both my employer and the nationwide company but although both companies claim a 24/7 customer focused service, nobody answered my calls. This was very frustrating as there were passengers on my coach for Swansea and I was sure there would not be a relief driver waiting for me in Cardiff. I looked at the company phone again and found an obscure 07 number. I rang this number and got an answer, although the guy did not say who he was. I challenged him to admit that he was a member of my company and then told him that by this time I had a gusts full of his office AND the office of the nationwide company who where not responding to my telephone calls. He claimed that our company could not get the nationwide company to respond either and that he, with others were rescuing stranded drivers and passengers. Okay, I told him, I am over my hours and have helped you guys out, what I will do now is continue to Treforest depot with the passengers for Swansea on board and dump them in your traffic office before I go home. Thanks Stephen, the guy replied, there will be a driver there waiting for you.

I pulled into Cardiff Central Station at 03.08 - some 7 hours 18 minutes later than advertised. A London to Cardiff journey time of over 10 hours 30 minutes with just a 45 minute rest break - that is disgusting. But there was no need for this to happen, there was not a problem that simple salt gritting with lorries would avoid. I continued to our Treforest depot and sure enough there was a driver waiting to take the passengers onto Swansea! But look at my digital driver tachograph chart and what does it show? 13 hours and 37 minutes driving all because Berkshire County Council could not get it's act together and grit the major roads in it's area. Transport Minister Sadiq Khan said he would be "asking questions" about the difficulties in Basingstoke, Hampshire, and Reading, Berkshire, where up to 2,000 motorists were trapped last night and many cars were abandoned. Mr Khan said local authorities had enough grit and the issue was why the grit had not been applied. The Royal Berkshire Hospital, in Reading, cancelled all operations and appointments - treating emergencies only.

So, I think that Sadiq ought to start kicking some backsides in Berkshire. His dad used to be a bus driver and how would he feel if his dad had to consider driving for 13 hours and 37 minutes in one day OR face the risk of physical assault? As for my employer and the nationwide company not responding to telephone calls, well - forget the public relations stuff, there is no profit in responding to telephone calls and you are both obsessed with saving costs and do not want to pay for the increased operating costs of providing a truly professional service.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Associate by John Grisham .

Kyle McAvoy, a 25 year old law student gets a $200,000 job with the top New York law firm. He takes this job only because he has been blackmailed into commercial espionage.

This crime/thriller has 373 pages and was written in 2009. John Grisham has written 20 other novels but this is the first one I have read. The quality of this book right from the start is poor and I wondered if it was worth continuing to read it. I found no empathy for Kyle, the central character of this novel. This story is very far fetched but John's writing style is very clear although there are a lot of very short paragraphs. This novel has a lot of dialogue between the characters but it lacks depth and attitude. It is easy reading but on page 177 when Baxter is talking to Brother Manny it reads...

Brother Manny issued the questions and absorbed the answers with such ease that after fifteen minutes together, Kyle felt as though he could chat for hours and tell him everything.

...Only Kyle was not there!

There is nothing special about this crime/thriller and I rate it as simply OKAY. I do not suggest that bloggers buy a copy of this book. What is good about this novel is the exploration of the American salary based work ethic. Kyle's firm had head-hunted him and his co-workers with very large salaries. The catch is that although the work is charged to the client by the hour, the lawyer gets a flat salary regardless of the number of hours worked. I think that this practice is totally unfair and that all workers should be paid by the hour as I am. The whole billing culture of corporate America is explained and it is this tale of workplace culture that saves this book from being an AVOID. The ending of this book is poor and I wonder how the owner of this book felt when he got to the end? I did not buy this book but I would like to thank the person who left this book in the reception of the Riu Green Park hotel at Port El Kantaoui in Tunisia for other holiday-makers to enjoy.
My holiday review .

Oh yes, I always plan to write up a holiday review shortly after I return from my holidays. Natural yogurt is back to normal, which will please Christmas Card Writing John of Bristol. So, here is the link to my holiday review that I keep on a stand-alone blog - to keep the content focused!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Night of the Miraj by Zoe Ferraris .

On her website Zoe features her first novel called "Finding Nouf", which is a little confusing because I bought and read the same novel although it's printed title was "The Night of the Miraj". This novel has 356 pages and was written in 2008. I do not know why there is a difference in titles for the same novel. 16 year old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Nayir is on the trail to find the truth with the help of Katya Hijazi.

This book is poor and I vote it a MISS. I will not buy another of Zoe's books because the quality is not there. The whole tone of this book is set on page 2...

Allah forgive me for imagining her ankles, he thought.

...This is not a regular crime/thriller. This story is long winded and it is not realistic. Imagine the chances of a wealthy Saudi family having a son who is engaged to a forensic scientist who can analyse samples and DNA. This book explores at great length the strict Islamic traditions of Saudi Arabia and the role of women in Saudi society. The only humour in this novel is from how daft the characters act because of the practicalities of their interpretation of Islam. "Oh no!" the men gasp as they get a glimpse of a woman's bare ankle. There are no great twists in this story which grinds slowly to an end with no great surprises. This novel does not move the reader but the life of Saudi's is very sad. Never mind our fear in the UK with the constant monitoring of the population by CCTV and speed cameras, the religious police in Saudi Arabia are really to be feared. There is a huge difference in the choice of clothing that women can wear in Saudi Arabia compared to the UK. Saudi women will not be allowed to wear those lovely low waist jeans that we like to see that show off their buttock cleavage as they shift their luggage in coach stations. Saudi women are forced to dress modestly and there is nothing in this book to offend anyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup .

Vicky Rai, has been shot dead by one of the guests at his own party. The Police arrest six suspects, each with a gun in their possession.

This novel has 558 pages and was written in 2008 by the author of Q&A, which became the film "Slumdog Millionaire". This book is a joy to read and it is the tale of six very different characters. This novel explores at great length current day India, with it's many cultures, problems, economic realities and political scene. This story has a good structure, it starts with the murder itself, followed by the individual stories of all six suspects. Then the evidence up to the murder is examined, followed by a trail of breaking news stories.
This story has a great ending with many twists that forces the reader to question whether the problems in India of apathy, politics, corruption, greed and consumerism are global problems shared by the Western world.

I will not spoil this book for the reader but on page 534 Vikas writes...

There is a grimace frozen on his face, mocking the scales of justice.

...It was then that I suddenly thought about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes , who was a Brazilian national shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station in London, England. He was shot in the head seven times at close range by Metropolitan Police officers ("The Met") who misidentified him as a suicide bomber about to explode a device on the London Underground. Within hours police discovered that he was not involved in any terrorist act, but was actually an innocent victim.

Six Suspects is a good book, I like it and I think it is a far better book than The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga . Vikas writes with a rich vocabulary and there is so much detail and background with this novel that you feel as though you are living in India. This makes this book a great journey for the reader.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga .

This 321 page novel was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008 and tells the story of Balram Halwai as he moves from rural to urban life in India. This book is written in the first person in a style adopted by many bloggers for their personal blogs. Aravind explores the differences between life in the Darkness, a simple agricultural life and life in the Light, in prosperous expanding and vibrant cities. This book is okay but I would not suggest that bloggers buy a copy, although it would be okay to read if it is passed onto you.

The story is quite claustrophobic and there is very little humour to enjoy. I would not consider The White Tiger to be a prize winner because although the story starts off bright it does become a little tired. Aravind's writing style is quite left-wing in attitude and he paints a gritty picture of current day India. This story shows that the poor have very little hope of getting a better life, whether they live in the Darkness or the Light. Even in the vibrant cities the poor cannot escape the poverty although their slums are adjacent to the luxury homes. The success of the rich is always made from the suffering of the poor, regardless of location within India. There are better novels about current day India but The White Tiger is okay as a taster.
Ah!!! The lights and other junk.

Oh what a lovely 14 day holiday I had in Tunisia, a country that is clean and tidy. What did I come back to on Sunday but the Festival of Consumerism. It was a shock to come back from a Muslim country to the UK where the Christians and the Pseudo-Christians have adopted gaudy Christmas decorations and lights blazing from homes. We went around to the Jones's for dinner and they put on as many exterior and interior Christmas lights to try and wind me up. The Jones's are not worshiping Christians, just people who like to show off with Christmas lights on the front of their home.

I am an Atheist and I have no time for Christmas decorations or lights. I can party with the best of people but I do not need a calendar to tell me when to party. I think that Christmas decorations and lights are simply naff. Gail does not feel the same way as I do and this afternoon she has got her way, yet again, and our home is looking like Santa's grotto. Oh, the mess with all this junk in my lounge. There is a tree with balls and lights on, a row of lights on top of the television, 7 Santas, 5 snowmen, 1 turkey, a gang of biblical characters and some Christmas cards plastered on the doors. Gail is not a Christian but an Agnostic, she is hedging her bets and thinks that there maybe a God and a life after death, she wants to keep her options open! Mind you, she believed that Iraq had battlefield Weapons of Mass Destruction that it could launch in 45 minutes, so believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden should be no surprise! Gail does like her Christmas decorations though, thankfully she is not asking for lights outside our home! It surprises me the number of houses on our estate displaying exterior Christmas lights, some of these lights are running 24/7 - what a waste of money.

Ah well, it was lovely to spend 14 days in Tunisia away from all these gaudy Christmas decorations and lights. I am not a kill-joy, I just do not like all this junk that serves no practical purpose at all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Codex by Lev Grossman .

This 376 page novel was written in 2004 and it starts off okay, the writing is bright and on page 3 we find...

The woman looked up at Edward. She was older than he was, maybe thirty-five or forty, with pale skin and dark wavy hair - beautiful in a way that was long out of fashion, like a girl in a silent movie. He could see the pale tops of her breasts in their lacy white cups. Edward hated this kind of public display - it was like rounding a corner and stumbling directly into somebody's bedroom - and he tried to slide past her, but she made eye contact before he could make his escape.
"And what about you? Are you just going to stand there looking down my dress, or are you going to help me look for my earring?"

...This book is easy and very clear reading, employing a vast vocabulary. Trouble is that from this bright begining this book just plods along slowly only to disappoint the reader further as you progress through the story. This novel then drones on about a computer game and fails to connect with a flimsy plot about a lost codex from medieval times that may hold some secrets. You then wonder why our hero Edward Wozny, a hot shot banker, could be bothered with the menial task of cataloging a library? The search for this codex by Edward and Margaret could have developed into a romance but it does not. Sadly on page 325 I read that...

"After I stared at them for a while, I decided to make a list of all the letters that the scribe had chosen to illustrate. I was thinking of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,..."

...NO!!! This damn novel is running parallels with that other failure of a book, The Rule of Four .

Codex fails as a mystery, a conspiracy, a thriller or a romance. The reader takes nothing away from this book. This book is poor and I vote it a MISS. There is no humour in this novel and the only detail is about library methods and medieval English literature. For an author who can write so clearly there is no compelling story plot. Lev has not got the skill of story telling and I do not believe that he can become a successful novelist.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Back on the radar.

Hello readers, Stephen is back online after having been away for 14 days on holiday in Tunisia. I am now back on the radar after having a very refreshing time off the radar. It was a nice change from the day job, home and the usual routines. It was nice strolling about in shirt sleeves, not bothering with the internet, not driving coaches or a car. It felt odd not walking with our pet dog but a wonderful release not trolling from shop to shop with Gail and pub lunches with drab British food. Oh dear, there was no television droning on with Gail's soap operas in our hotel room! Just relaxing in the sun, beside a pool, reading 5 novels and everything was within a short walk. I will post a review of the holiday and the 5 books later.

It was rather funny that Gail left her mobile telephone at home, she felt quite lost and disconnected without it. The charger was in our suitcase though! I gave her my mobile telephone and she got excited, only to find that none of her friends were on it! Still, she looked through my phonebook but I had nothing to worry about because I do not play around so there were no dodgy names or numbers in there. Mind you, I am glad the immigration officials in either the UK or Tunisia did not examine my telephone because there is one number listed as the "Taliban" - I wonder if you can guess who it is?

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