Archive for First Great Western

Critical Masses

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news floating around academia at the moment is the announcement that my current employer (until the end of next week), Cardiff University is to join forces with the Universities of Bath, Exeter and Bristol in an alliance intended to create a ‘critical mass of knowledge’ and help Cardiff  ‘better compete for more research income’ (apparently by pretending to be in England rather than in Wales).  How successful this will be – or even what form this alliance will take – remains to be seen.

There’s been a lot of gossip about what inspired this move, but it’s not the first attempt to create a collaborative bloc of this kind. Last year five universities from the Midlands announced plans to do something similar. The “M5″ group of   Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick got together primarily to share infrastructure in order to help them win grants, which is probably what also lies behind the Cardiff-Bath-Exeter-Bristol deal.

Of course there are also a myriad  alliances at the level of individual Schools and Departments. I’ll shortly be joining the University of Sussex, which is a major player in SEPNET – the South-East Physics Physics Network which was set up with help from HEFCE There are other such networks in England, as well as SUPA in Scotland, funded by the devolved Scottish Funding Council. Attempts to form a similar arrangement for Physics in Wales were given short shrift by the Welsh Funding Agency, HEFCW. The inability or unwillingness of HEFCW to properly engage with research in Wales is no doubt behind Cardiff’s decision to seek alliances with English universities but I wonder how it will translate into funding. Surely HEFCE wouldn’t be allowed to fund a Welsh University, so presumably this is more aimed at funding from the research councils or further afield, perhaps in Europe. Or perhaps the idea is that if GW4 can persuade HEFCE to fund Bath, Bristol and Exeter, HEFCW will be shamed into stumping up something for Cardiff? Sneaky.

Anyway, good luck to the new “GW4″ alliance. Although I’m moving to pastures new I’ll certainly keep an eye on any developments, and hope that they’re positive. The only thing that really disturbs me is that the name “Great Western Four” is apparently inspired by the Great Western Railway, now run by an outfit called First Great Western. My recent experiences of travelling on that have left a lot to be desired and I’m sure the name will have negative connotations in the minds of many who are fed up of their unreliable, overcrowded, overpriced and poorly managed services. They say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but so far this is only a name – and one with a distinctly questionable odour.

Welcome to Britain

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on April 17, 2012 by telescoper

Well then. Back to Blighty. Not the  best journey home, though.

For a start, the 11-hour flight from Cape Town became a 12-hour  flight because of an hour spent circling around in a holding pattern over South London. One expects that at Heathrow. Air traffic delays are the rule rather than the exception, and you learn to get used to it. Kind of. Although since it always happens you would think the airlines might include it in their timetables and other advertising, for the sake of honest and accuracy. Just saying. Nevertheless, this didn’t particularly annoy me.  Despite  getting no more than an hour’s sleep last night I was in a fairly good mood when I got off the plane.

At least until I got into the terminal building, Terminal 5 at Heathrow. For those of you not familiar with this terminal, it’s a gleaming and apparently spacious affair only a few years old. The problem is that when it gets busy, like this morning, you discover that this glitzy exterior masks a design that’s completely idiotic.

We landed at a `B’ gate on a satellite building connected to the main terminal via a `transit’, i.e. a small train. A very small train. When passengers from my flight got to the concourse from which the transit departs, it was crammed full of people who had to squeeze onto the the little train when it eventually arrived:

All this for a journey of about 2 minutes. It would have been much simpler to have constructed a walkway to the main terminal. In fact there is one. For staff only. But not for the passengers. There had to be a transit. Transits are the thing. Of course having a transit means having an extra subterranean level to the building, with lifts going down to it at one end and up from it at another. But lifts are the thing also. There are lots of lifts at Terminal 5. Going forward we’ll all be going up and down.

I wonder if the architect had shares in a company that makes lifts and transit trains?

Anyway on arrival at Terminal 5 there was a similar scrum at the lifts up to passport control. No escalators were working, so I had to wait in the crowd of disgruntled passengers, gradually inching forwards while the 3 operating lifts came and went. As we went up it dawned on me that there might be a delay at passport control..

In fact there were delays before we even got there. The immigration hall was so full that we had to form three separate queues along a corridor just to get into the main queue.

When I finally got into the immigration hall, it was pandemonium. The capacity in this area is clearly far too small and there are far too few people checking passports. The system just can’t cope with the traffic being sent through it. It’s a basic management problem that apparently nobody is prepared to do anything about. Improving it would cost money, of course, but why bother? Passengers are hardly going to turn around and go home at that point, so who cares?

At least the queue for UK/EU passport holders was moving. As I inched forward through the rat’s maze towards a desk I looked from time to time at the “Other passports” line, which barely budged. I felt a sense of anger mixed with shame. What sort of message does this send to visitors to our shores? What kind of country is it that makes showy new buildings like Terminal 5 and then runs them like Fawlty Towers?

They don’t allow photography in the passport control area, by the way. The ban is no doubt an attempt to conceal the evidence of what a shambles it is.

Anyway, at least the long delay at Immigration meant that my bag had arrived at the Baggage Reclaim by the time I got through. I picked it up and made for the Heathrow Express connection to Paddington. The time was just after 8.30; one hour and three quarters after we’d landed.

Still at least I was on my way. Or was I? The train departed and then stopped at a signal. We waited. Eventually the driver explained that there was a major points and signal failure so only one line was operating. We got to Paddington, but it took 35 minutes rather than the usual 15.

There is an alternative way of getting back to Cardiff from Heathrow, which involves taking a bus to Reading and getting the train from there. Although that route is cheaper, there is a risk of severe traffic delays at rush-hour periods, so opted for the Heathrow Express in the belief it was more reliable. More fool me.

When I arrived at Paddington, it too was a mass of disgruntled people. The reason? No trains.

The same signalling problem was disrupting trains into and out of Paddington. All departing trains were simply marked as “delayed” on the boards. Eventually, I got the 9.15, which departed at 9.38. Not too bad in the end. Except that it had to navigate a crowded route westwards. We arrived at Reading after 50 minutes instead of the usual 25.

Then things seem to settle down. We started to move at full speed. I even had a short nap. I was woken by an announcement from the guard. It had been decided that the train I was on would not, after all, be going to Cardiff but would terminate at Newport. First Great Western like to make the most of any possible inconvenience. It’s only 15 minutes from Newport to Cardiff, but it was too much trouble to take us that short distance. We were turfed off and had to wait for local commuter train. Not surprisingly, it was packed so I had to stand all the way.

I’ll be expecting a refund from First Great Western, but that’s not the point. It’s their contemptuous attitude to the travelling public that’s the point. Their prices are so high one might expect them to treat passengers with some respect. But no.

Anyway, I got home exhausted, stressed and frustrated. Given how badly things had gone I half-expected my house to have fallen down while I was away, but thankfully all was well back at the ranch. I decided to cool off a bit before writing this account of the journey, otherwise it would have been even more intemperate! I had been planning to go into work this afternoon but was in no fit state.

Still, it’s good to be home. Kind of.

Trouble on the Line

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 6, 2011 by telescoper

Well, I’m finally back on line. After reporting the fault with my broadband connection on Saturday morning, the technical team quickly diagnosed a fault at my end and mobilised an engineer. Unfortunately the earliest appointment was this morning, between 8 and 12, so I had to hastily rearrange some appointments in order to take the morning off.

Actually the chap came quite early (just after 9) and quickly figured out the broadband modem wasn’t working properly, so he gave me a new one, complete with wireless hub. Great, I thought. All operational parameters looked good, so he proceded to try activate it to connect with the Virgin Media network. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, quite a lot. After numerous reboots of both computer and modem, the darned thing still wouldn’t connect to the outside world. Then the engineer called back to base and was informed that there was a fault at system HQ which meant no new services were being activated. The engineer then left – at about 11am -for another job, telling me just to wait and it would get activated in due course. To be fair, he did phone back later to check whether it was working. It wasn’t.

Rather irritated at the impasse I decided to remain in the house and get as much work done as I could without an internet connection whilst checking back every now and again to see if it was working. The little green lights never flickered, though, and the activation wizard stubbornly refused to venture further than the first screen of instructions.

Eventually, about 4.30pm, the connection appeared to be emerging from its comatose state. I followed the activation instructions, and for a change actually got to the second screen. But it crashed again. I rebooted the modem yet again. No joy. Then tried restarting the computer and – lo and behold! – it started working. Must have auto-configured itself better than I could configure it. No surprise there, I’m not very good with computers really. I’m too old.

So now I’m back on line, annoyed at having wasted a day but in the end pleased that I do now actually have something like proper broadband speed. Before it failed completely on Saturday, I’ve been struggling along at <50 kB/s for a few weeks now. “Virgin Media – the Broadband that’s slower than Dial-up” is not their official slogan, but I assumed my slow connection wasn’t unusual given the horror stories I’ve heard. Anyway, I’m now actually getting – though only occasionally – the 10 MB/s I’ve been paying for.

All’s well that ends well,  suppose. and it’s nice to be back online. Even the e-astronomer has managed a post while I’ve been off!

Coincidentally, the first thing I read on Twitter after reconnecting was the story of the First Great Western train that got stuck between Newport and Cardiff because about 60 cows surrounded it and appeared to be holding it hostage. I thought this breaking moos was quite amusing, but hope the passengers aren’t too cowed by their experience. Even in cattle-class. They’ll have plenty to beef about when they eventually get home, that’s for sure….cont, p. 94.

The Travellers and the Rest

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday’s journey to the Big Smoke wasn’t as bad as it might have been, although it was a bit frustrating at times. The train was diverted through Bath to avoid flooding near Bristol, which added about 20 minutes to the journey time. That was expected, so didn’t cause any major anxiety. After the rather scenic detour we found ourselves back in familiar territory on the Cardiff-London line, Swindon. I never thought I’d see the day when I was pleased to arrive at Swindon! However, my pleasure soon evaporated when we sat on the platform at Swindon without moving, and with no announcements or information or explanation, for another 15 minutes. Obviously 25 minutes late just wasn’t late enough for First Great Western, so they had to hold the train to enhance further their record of unpunctuality. In the end we arrived at Paddington 40 minutes late. Not good.

I still got to the meeting in time for a quick cup of tea before the afternoon’s proceedings. Straight away there was some great news. The President of the RAS, Prof. Roger Davies, announced the recipients of this year’s medals and awards and among them was Cardiff’s own Matt Griffin, who receives the Jackson-Gwilt Medal.  According to the RAS website

The Jackson-Gwilt Medal is available for award annually for the invention, improvement or development of astronomical instrumentation or techniques; for achievement in observational astronomy; or for achievement in research in the history of astronomy.

Matt Griffin’s citation reads as follows:

This year’s winner is Professor Matt Griffin of the University of Cardiff, for his work on instrumentation for astronomy in the submillimetre waveband, the region of the electromagnetic spectrum between the far-infrared and microwave wavebands.

Matt Griffin is one of a select group of scientists that helped establish a UK lead in the technical development of instrumentation for submillimetre astronomy. He has been involved in most submillimetre instrument projects over the last three decades, including the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) camera on Herschel. Matt led a diverse international team to bring this project to fruition, encompassing 18 institutions on three different continents.

SPIRE represents a step change in capability. With the ground-based SCUBA camera, 20 nights of observing led to the detection of 5 galaxies at submillimetre wavelengths. With SPIRE, 6000 galaxies can be detected in 8 hours.

Matt Griffin thus receives the Jackson-Gwilt Medal for in particular his outstandingly successful work on SPIRE, an instrument that is transforming submillimetre astronomy.

Heartiest congratulations to Matt and, of course, to the rest of this year’s awardees!

After the RAS meeting it was time for dinner. Owing to a muddle with bookings The Athenaeum wasn’t available for this month’s RAS Club dinner so we dined instead in the unfamiliar surroundings of The Travellers Club, which is actually next door at 106 Pall Mall.Given the trials and tribulations of travelling with First Great Western, perhaps I should apply for honorary membership?

The room we had was smaller than usual, but cosy, and the staff were very friendly. The dinner wasn’t marvellous but as always there was no shortage of interesting conversation, some of it even relating to astronomy! I got grilled by a few people about what’s going on with STFC new consolidated grants system. I told everyone who asked everything I know about it, which didn’t break any confidentiality because I don’t know anything at all.

The table service was a bit slower than at the Athenaeum so it was quite late by the time we got onto the club business. The January dinner is the “Parish” dinner at which new members and, if necessary, new officers are elected by an amusingly arcane process. A few members had to leave  to catch trains before the business was completed but I stayed to the end at about 10.00pm,  placing (perhaps unjustified) confidence in  the 10.45 train from Paddington actually existing and getting there in time to get it.

I did get to Paddington in good time, and the train hadn’t been cancelled, but it was a bit late leaving.  It then apparently developed an unspecified “mechanical fault” which made for slow running. I got into Cardiff about 25 minutes late. No diversions on the way back – presumably the floods had subsided. Perhaps there’s an excuse for the chaos ensuing from the floods, but poor maintenance is surely entirely the fault of the train company.  Not a good day for First Great Western, especially when they’ve raised their already exorbitant fares for the new year..

Oh, and one other thing that’s not at all connected with anything else. As I walked back through Sophia Gardens from the station to my house in Pontcanna about quarter to two in the morning, I saw a fox hurtling across the path in front of me then vanishing into the trees. When I lived in Beeston (a suburb of Nottingham) I saw foxes very regularly, often in my own garden. Likewise even when I lived in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. I was  quite surprised when I moved to my house in Cardiff, right next to Pontcanna Fields and Bute Park, that no foxes were to be seen despite the apparently more promising surroundings. I’ve now lived here for two and a half years and this is the first one I’ve ever spotted. I wonder why there are so few foxes in this area?


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