Category Archives: devon

Cut off!

It seems the southwest is very largely cut off from the rest of England.  And now it’s indefinite!

The main railway line across Somerset has been closed for some time, along with many roads.  An inconvenience, but at least an alternative (much slower, single-track) line to London remains open.  But now the serious problem has happened: the Dawlish/Teignmouth coastal stretch has dramatically collapsed.  The BBC has some footage of it here, showing the waves crashing over what remains of the line.  Right now they’re apparently not even running replacement buses: conditions on the roads are challenging too.

This has long been a disaster waiting to happen: that stretch is surely not maintainable (as many of us, including Yours Truly, have long been saying).  Time to get that alternative Exeter-Plymouth line North and West of Dartmoor reinstated, not in many years but as a matter of urgency!

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Railway Consultation

Devon County Council are running a consultation today about proposals for a new branch-line railway connecting Tavistock to Plymouth.  There’s a whole lot more to it than that: it’s tied up with a proposal to build the biggest development of all of new houses which, coming on top of what’s recently been built will see Tavistock’s population rise by 40-50% since the 2001 census.  There are linked proposals for a new cycle route, though that won’t go anywhere very useful and will only really serve any purpose if it persuades more parents to let their kiddies cycle to school.

Anyway, the main topic is the new railway, to be built from Tavistock to Bere Alston where it joins the existing Tamar Valley line.  That scenic line serves areas which are quite cut-off by road due to local geography, a consideration that doesn’t apply to Tavistock where we have a decent road, an excellent bus service to Plymouth, and a selection of buses to other destinations.  Much of this line will follow a section of the old route that was closed in 1968.

I’ve now sent them a detailed response, which for posterity I’ll reproduce here.  I may add footnotes for blog readers who don’t have the local knowledge assumed in my response.

Q2: Proposed Railway Tavistock – Bere Alston – Plymouth:

It is difficult to answer the question as posed, because there is insufficient context. Specifically, what consequences flow from acceptance or rejection of the line. Two questions in particular need to be addressed:

  1. Is it likely that rejection of the railway would imply major road projects, such as widening the A386? If it were a choice between spending similar money on either the one or the other (with no option not to spend it) then I would definitely favour the railway.
  2. Might the railway be extended to provide a through route to Okehampton and Exeter[1]? If so this becomes a project for the entire region, and potentially a long-term national-scale solution to the problems of the existing line where the coastal stretch around Dawlish/Teignmouth[2] is surely not going to be maintainable. I would strongly support that project.

Answering the question in isolation and without the above context:

Firstly, I would use the rail service myself. I would find it particularly useful to be able to use a through ticket when travelling to destinations outside the local area. However, this is a very marginal utility, and could be served in other ways (of which more below).

However, the proposal as it stands is surely a White Elephant. We have an excellent bus service serving many popular destinations in Plymouth that will not be touched by the proposed rail service[3]. It seems inconceivable that a single-track railway will compete with a bus service that runs up to four times an hour, and can get me home after an evening in Plymouth[4].

Congestion on the A386 may be a problem, but that begs the question: if motorists aren’t using the buses now, what are the chances they’ll use a train in future? They are making the choice to sit in traffic jams when an alternative already exists!

It is true the bus service has shortcomings:

  1. The buses have hard seats and are less than comfortable, especially when crowded.
  2. At peak times, the buses can get overcrowded in the Plymouth sections of the route, specifically between Roborough and the city centre. This is not a problem on the out-of-town (Tavistock-Roborough) stretch.
  3. Many of the buses, including frustratingly all evening services, take tortuously long routes “round the houses” into Plymouth. The diversion at Roborough hardly ever picks up or sets down passengers, and the diversion to Marjons and Derriford would surely be quicker to walk from the Tavistock Road for any able-bodied person. Does the hospital really run evening appointments for those patients for whom a short walk would be a problem?
  4. Buses cannot be used as part of integrated transport:
    1. There are no “through” tickets to combine bus travel with trains, city buses or other public transport.
    2. It is not possible to carry a bicycle on the buses. I have even been refused a folding bike that fits very comfortably alongside other things on the luggage rack and is always welcome on trains.

A new railway could address all of these problems. But so could an express bus (or coach) service with fewer stops, particularly in-town in Plymouth. Together with joined-up thinking on the subjects of through tickets, and carriage of bikes (at least folding ones – and drivers need to be aware of such a policy). It would surely make sense at least to trial such a service before spending substantial money on the proposed railway!

[1] This through route existed before 1968.  I’m told that Dr Beeching even recommended keeping it open as the main route between Exeter and Plymouth, but was overruled.
[2] This coastal stretch runs under a crumbling cliff that from time to time loses a chunk (as in this story – the railway is visible in the second and third pictures), and is so exposed to the sea that in high tide and rough weather the waves wash up right over the roof of a train.
[3] The train route will be ideal for commuting to the naval dockyards and for central Plymouth, but that’s about all.  The bus, by contrast, serves a number of Plymouth’s most important modern employment hubs.
[4] Timetable is here.

Waste Collection or Hot Air

West Devon has introduced a new waste collection regime.

They started by leafleting us some time ago.  Fine.  The leaflet promised more information nearer the time, so I didn’t pay too much attention except to note the date: second half of October.  They also promised a recycling box and a food waste box.  The recycling box duly arrived, but no sign of the food waste one.

Last night I was due to take the rubbish out.  A fortnight’s worth: I don’t take it out every week.  Since I have no food waste box, it includes food waste.

I check the recycling box.  In it is a leaflet, longer than the original one.  But it’s illegible!  Or rather, it’s stuck together and won’t open: slicing it delicately with a swiss army knife shows traces of print on the corner of the inner pages, but it’s irretrievable.  But visible on the back page is a collection calendar, which shows there’s no general waste collection this week.  Damn!  We’ve always had weekly collections in the past.

OK, I can live with that.  Awkward when one is away on a Monday night and misses the opportunity for a fortnightly collection, but so be it.  Just so long as I know and can plan around it.  At least I can fill the recycling box this week!

So I went to the West Devon website, to check the full information, any further guidance on what goes in the recycling box, and those leaflets.  This is where it gets surreal: I found myself going round and round in circles on the site, but not finding any substantial information.  The first link claiming to be PDF turns out to be a page about PDF (and acrobat), and I curse my way through several more links to it before I find an actual PDF leaflet.  That then turns out to be a useless one-pager, not the ones I’m looking for.  Some annoying rummaging at home finds the old leaflet in its glossy printed form, but nothing I can reference without the hassle of paper.

Now truly p***ed off at this vacuous website, I try sending them a complaint:

Your leaflet on kerbside recycling and refuse collection describes an “outside food bin” and “kitchen caddy”, and implies we should be provided with them before the new service starts.  The new service has started, and none have been seen here.

OK, not a big deal: I can presumably contact you to ask for them.

However, having only a vague memory of the leaflet, I naturally came to your website to look for the information.  I was also looking for the leaflet that came in the big green boxes, but is illegible due to inadequate production quality.

WHY THE **** ARE THESE LEAFLETS NOT AVAILABLE ON YOUR WEBSITE?

Is this nothing but hot air?

Now it gets all the more surreal.  It refuses my submission, telling me something on the form is incomplete.  I go through the normal fields again looking for the little red star, iterate several times.  WTF???

Finally, a break and a cup of tea later, I find it.  The last entry in the form is a big textbox captioned:

If there is anything which makes it difficult to use our service, for example if English is not your first language or you have a disability, please use the space below to tell us how we could help you.*:

It’s refusing form submission because I’ve left that box empty.  This is vintage irony: their misguided attempts at accessibility have made the thing inaccessible!  I entered in that box:

How about enabling submission with this box blank?  For those of us who are sufficiently able-bodied and english-speaking to fill your form, but whose eyesight isn’t quite sharp enough to spot a tiny red star above this box?

(Pardon the grammar, but it was past 2 a.m. and I’d been struggling for far too long with it to care.  Not an excuse, but a plea for mitigation).

For any techie readers, this mess of a site proclaims WCAG AA accessibility, at which I can only shake the head.  A look at the source reveals heavy div-soup that is void of any HTML semantics.  An automated analysis reveals markup that is surprisingly close to AA conformance in box-ticking terms.  While not as bad as many 1997-style monstrosities, it shows all the hallmarks of following rules with no insight into their meaning.

I guess the whole website is a box-ticking exercise, just as waste collection is a box-filling one.  Maybe B for effort, C- for outcome.  I could forgive the missing receptacles and the web design if only they’d provided those simple leaflets!  Grrrr ….

Rural Broadband

I’ve been invited to offer my thoughts on rural broadband, and its effect on business[1].  On the grounds that I’m both a techie and a user, and might therefore have something more to contribute than those who are one but not the other.  The audience for this exercise might even include some of our elected politicians!

So here are some thoughts.

Policy Confusion

Politicians have spoken of a new generation of high-speed broadband based on optical fiber.  An admirable goal subject to cost constraints, but a completely separate issue to basic, always-on ADSL-grade connectivity.  The latter is what really matters, and we want it now, not ‘eventually’.

Politicians have tended to confuse the basic essential with the more ambitious goal.  They need to be clear.  Rural areas don’t need motorways, but we do need basic access, and we don’t want to be kept waiting while the new motorways are rolled out!

Anecdotal

My own experience is that ADSL arrived in about January 2004.  2004 is the year my circumstances moved away from poverty, before completing a turnaround and generating good money in 2005.  Since then it has helped me to work for clients and later an employer on distant continents, and to work with a US publisher on my book.  ADSL has made all the difference between poverty and prosperity!

The Sword of Damocles

The biggest issue facing rural business is the risk of moving to a new home or premises and finding there is a problem with broadband.  We desperately need to be able to get a reliable indication of whether broadband will be available at a prospective address.  This has improved since the days of no guarantees anywhere, but that leaves large no-go areas where BT’s checker is ambiguous.

Alternative Solutions

For areas where ADSL (or other terrestrial solutions) are irredeemably uneconomic, might a better solution be satellite broadband?  Not to be confused, of course, with the one-way-only data used by satellite TV and optionally supplemented by other means (usually ‘phone lines).  Promoting satellite broadband more widely could help bring costs down (economies of scale), and policymakers could perhaps encourage it – e.g. with tax breaks or even rural development funds.  Could be particularly useful for a rural hamlet too small for a telephone exchange, where a satellite connection could serve as a shared hub.  This is something where we (locally) could seek to ally ourselves with other rural areas more widely: at EU-wide level (for instance) it could have real weight.

[1] My definition of business here includes self-employed and employees working from home or from a small rural office, as well as more traditional business premises.  The arguments apply to everyone short of bigger-biz with the resources to provide their own broadband connection privately.

Late notice

Notice of works: No parking for two days (March 4th-5th)Once upon a time a notice went up, warning motorists not to park on a short stretch of road because works were to be done.  That was for March 4th for two days.  It’s still there, and the works have gone through a number of phases chronicled in part here, here and here.

Following my last post here – the one where they’d outright poisoned my home for two days – I went and had a word with the local paper.  I had already complained to environmental health, but their response came only on the third day as the offending engine was being removed.  The story I thought might interest the paper is the contrast: how they’d gone to the trouble to protect those overhead wires but hadn’t even bothered to tell the residents what we were to be subjected to.

The reporter called the council, and (probably) as a consequence of that they’ve finally notified us of what’s going on, with apologies for “late notice”.  A result of sorts, though it’s to be a minimum of another three weeks, and with no detail of how much more nuisance to expect.

April 27th: Notice was finally sent to us!

April 27th: Notice was finally sent to us!

Winter == this morning

This morning we had a sufficiently hard frost for much of town to be dressed in white.

Why am I remarking on such a perfectly normal thing?  Because it’s no longer normal.  We’re a thoroughly maritime climate, meaning we get neither cold winters nor hot summers.  But twenty years ago we’d have had our first such frost sometime in November, and the coldest days would remain below freezing all day.  Indeed, the government in the 1980s introduced a “cold weather” payment to help pensioners, which was triggered when the temperature maximum remained below -2 for several consecutive days (I forget how many).

And now, a first visible frost comes only in February, and is pretty much gone by 11a.m.  No wonder things like English wine are becoming mainstream!

Waste disposal

OK, I have a dead lightbulb.  I bought a new one, and read on its little box that I should dispose of it carefully.  Not throw it out with my regular household waste.  At the same time, I’ve had to replace the batteries in my radio (for the first time this century, I believe).  Ditto.

Don’t these things come under electronic waste disposal regulations these days, meaning that someone is under an obligation to take them off my hands?  I looked at the council’s website for clues, and found none.  Their feedback form asks for such extensive information I thought it almost easier, and potentially more satisfying, to go round in person and harangue someone.

So I’ve just been.  I put the stuff I need to be rid of in a small carrier bag, and went round to complain of the absence of information, and point out that most such waste is almost certainly going straight into standard household dustbins, and hence landfill.

FWIW, they told me I can take such waste to the Crowndale facility.  I expect for most people, that means a car trip, and hence more pollution than you save by not throwing the stuff in standard domestic waste.  Yeah, right.

I also took the opportunity for a rant about the absurdity of how they recycle glass.  The lady I spoke to took the bait, and started telling me about washing all those difficult jars in hot water and detergent.  Good grief, she’s probably doing more damage washing them up than sending them to landfill!

I don’t expect it’ll do any good (except in that they took the rubbish off me).  But it can’t hurt, either, if someone gives them a hard time about it.