Letters: Perspectives on rail travel

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No need for HGV here

I agree whole-heartedly with the letter from Ally Horne (28 April), referring to the high cost of high-speed rail, and I can add some detail.

As manager of one of Britain's leading European rail-ticketing agencies, I have to deal with this problem day in and day out. It is true that the rush to build dedicated lines is increasing costs to the traveller. The rail companies are seeking to recoup their investment. It is very unfair that the burden then falls on the traveller through the fare-box because it is the traveller, through taxation, who largely paid for the construction anyway.

The cost of a ticket from London to Strasbourg by rail has spiralled up and up since 2007 and is now extremely uncompetitive with air-travel on both price and time, even allowing for the time the plane takes to go to Baden-Baden across the Rhine; that means passengers have to take a bus back. SNCF will say that discount tickets are available but, in practice, these can be limited to as few as 10 per train, and they are soon snapped up.

In France, in particular, high-speed lines are built to superb standards, with trains running at 200mph, but stations are still being built in green fields, up to 20 miles from the town they purport to serve (see Lorraine TGV for Metz/Nancy) so that any gain in time from Paris Est is then lost by local travel to and from the true destination (Lorraine-Metz is 25 minutes by bus, Lorraine-Nancy is 35 minutes).

According to the Thomas Cook European timetable, the fast service to Champagne-Ardennes takes 42 minutes but then leaves the traveller "stranded".

The old service to Chalons-en-Champagne, by EC service to Germany, but now demoted to secondary trains, takes 93 minutes yet takes you to the centre. It was an 83-minute trip before the TGV line was built.

Britain does not need to follow France down the high-speed route. Please do not build our planned line (HS2), but do run one London/ Birmingham train an hour non-stop in, say, 72 minutes, one call at Coventry and International in 80 minutes, and the third call at all principal stations in about 100 minutes, and you have a perfectly adequate service without any more investment.

Birmingham does not need to be 45 minutes from London. Use the money to double the viaduct and twin tunnels at Welywn North on the ECML, electrify the Ely to Peterborough, Birmingham/ Derby and Bedford/ Sheffield lines, and others in the North-west and around Leeds, build a flyover at Newark to eliminate the flat-crossing, reopen Bedford to Bicester so we have a new cross-country link and reopen March to Spalding to remove the freight off the ECML which causes blockages at Peterborough.

The improvements list is endless, and very necessary.

David Gunning, Manager, TrainsEurope Limited, March, Cambridgeshire

Now's the time for reform

The package of constitutional reforms so eloquently supported by The Independent has always included the case for fixed-term Parliaments. That case must be pursued now with new vigour. As soon as the final composition of the House of Commons is known, agreement on the length of the new parliament is urgent and essential.

Calling a general election can no longer be left to the personal and party preferences of the prime minister, whoever that may be. Some doom-mongers have started claiming that a balanced parliament, without a clear overall majority, means inevitable instability. It needn't, if the parties agree a programme now for a fixed-term.

The case for doing so is compelling. First, the present economic crisis demands consistent, continuous, and consensual measures, not more partisan squabbling. The latter would be inevitable in an early "second election" campaign.

Second, the Prime Minister must be deterred from postponing vital but unpopular decisions to gain party advantage, as occurred in 1974. Third, the people are certainly in no mood for relentless electioneering: politicians and the media may relish election campaigns, but they are in a small minority.

Fourth, the Queen must not be placed in the invidious position of a request from the incumbent Prime Minister for an early dissolution, to assist his party's prospects, before the economic chickens have come home to roost.

Finally, no election should ever again be held using the discredited First-Past-The-Post voting system.

Last year, we Liberal Democrats, in both Houses of Parliament, promoted legislation to provide for a "fixed-term parliament" of four years. A notable number of recruits to our proposition have come out of the woodwork in recent months, even, tentatively, Gordon Brown.

And the need to stabilise the financial markets, about which we have heard so much worrying from Labour and the Conservatives, should make this a top priority. The legislation is ready: are our political leaders?

Lord Tyler, Liberal Democrat Constitutional Affairs Spokesman, House of Lords, London SW1 (Paul Tyler was among the 14 Liberal MPs elected to the short "hung" Parliament of February 1974)

A million thanks

The televised debates shook up the election and generated a huge number of headlines. So much so that another innovation of the past month passed almost unnoticed, when all three main parties released accessible, "easy-read" versions of their manifestos. Like the debates, these manifestos have opened up the election to many new voters, finally empowering the one million people with a learning disability to vote.

At the last election, our research found that more than half a million people with a learning disability did not vote, either because they did not know they had the right or because the information available was too complex.

Easy-read manifestos use pictures, jargon-free language and large print to make politics accessible and understandable for more people. We hope the manifestos encouraged thousands of potential voters with learning disabilities to have their rightful say in how our country is run at this critical time.

Vigorous campaigning from United Response and Mencap culminated in the main political parties working closely with Mencap's communications experts to produce the accessible manifestos. Making politics easier to understand not only benefits people with a learning disability, but people with low literacy, poor vision, and anyone who has ever found politics confusing.

We hope the manifestos helped make this the most inclusive election in our country's history.

Mark Goldring CBE, Chief Executive, Mencap

Su Sayer OBE, Chief Executive, United Response, London SW15

Locked in love. Or not

John Lichfield's article on the love-lock phenomenon ("Paris falls out of love with tokens of affection on city's bridges", 5 May) resonated with my recent discovery of the practice.

One leg of my five-day overland return journey from Trondheim to the UK as a participant in the Great Volcano Cloud Race involved walking over the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne.

Here there were thousands, not hundreds of these tokens, again with the similar variations as noted by Lichfield, indigenous lovers; tourists; same-sex couples; the odd single person who just didn't get it and, no doubt, the thrifty characters such as his Philippe S who updated the name of his current everlasting lover in felt-tip.

One lock stood out. Someone had scrawled angry and derogative remarks in felt-tip all over the name of their presumed, erstwhile lover, and the metallic message remained, steadfastly locked to the railings, perhaps forever.

Nick Bell, Oxford

I was interested in John Litchfeld's article. I first saw these padlocks, thousands of them, on the gates of Pécs cathedral, southern Hungary, in December 2003. My friend in Pécs pointed out that the first gateway to have been used was now so congested with padlocks that it was physically impossible to add any more.

A second gate was now being used, and was already pretty well covered. So, one suspects that this "tradition" probably goes back to last century, if not earlier.

H R Mann, London, W8

Children have their say

For the past 15 years, the National Children's Board has been the leader in including children and young people on its interview panels for job appointments at all levels (letters, 12 April). Children and young people are usually one of four interviewers. They select questions to ask from an agreed set of questions based on the skills specification and have an equal influence with other panellists in the collective decision-making process.

Our aim is not to encourage or facilitate a transfer of authority from adults to young people, but to ensure that children and young people have a genuine say in decisions that affect them. Including young people in the interviewing process for NCB appointments helps us make clear to candidates that young people are at the heart of our work, helps draw out how candidates view the issues that children and young people face, and helps the young interviewers to develop an understanding of the work that the NCB does. They treat the role with seriousness, and the candidates with the utmost respect.

Barbara Hearn, Deputy Chief Executive, National Children's Bureau, London EC1

The reliability of reactors

Although there is much good information on the CO2 impact of the nuclear fuel cycle, some of Blaise Kelly's assertions on nuclear power are not entirely accurate (letters, 4 May).

The oldest operating reactors in the world are the two Magnox units at Oldbury in Gloucestershire, opened in 1967 but expected to be finally closed within a year. New designs of reactor are expected to be operated for 60 years or more and it remains to be seen whether this bold claim can be fulfilled.

On reliability, while it is true that reactors have frequently not been as reliable as hoped, in the past two decades the record for current designs has improved. For example, seven of Germany's 17 operating reactors have a life-time capacity factor (kWhs generated as a percentage of the maximum possible) of more than 85 per cent.

All four of Finland's operating reactors beat 85 per cent, making the appalling mess with the construction of their new plant Olkiluoto 3, which is four years late and 75 per cent over-budget, even more surprising. It also remains to be seen if it, and other new-design reactors, can match this performance.

British reactors have a much poorer record and only one of the 17 commercial stations we have built, Sizewell B, has exceeded the 85 per cent reliability level, with the average about 70 per cent. None of the 58 units that EDF, the most likely builder in the UK, operates in France exceeds this level.

But none of this changes the weakness of the economic case for new nuclear build in Britain.

Steve Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy, University of Greenwich, London SE10

Calling all old radio ops. Over

Michael Clemitson's letter (30 April) about the shortwave receivers accompanying the interview with Alan Sillitoe intrigued me. Like Sillitoe, I was a Royal Signals wireless operator (though a year or two older), and I remember the AR88 ("Ack-R88") as being good for listening to music.

For serious work in the field (British Second Army HQ 1945, in my case), the HRO was preferred, for its greater sensitivity and for its ability to filter out background noise. Its large micrometer tuning-dial made it a joy to use. Because the transmissions from Bletchley Park were bounced off the ionosphere, you had to change the coil according to the time of day in order to be sure of a strong signal.

Unfortunately, I missed The Independent of 27 April. Could the unidentified receiver be an HRO?

Colin Cooper, St Leonards-On-Sea, East Sussex

Like Mr Chambers (letters, 1 May), I was among the "impecunious schoolboys" who saved many months' pocket money to find the £12 typically demanded by war-surplus dealers for the admirable R1155 short-wave receiver. My dealer's assistant later told me that his boss had bought tons of them, price 3s6d per cwt.

Don Newton, Oxford

Islamic war on Somali pirates

The takeover of the Somali pirate base of Haradhere (report, 3 May) by the radical Islamist group Hisbul Islam was as predicted in The Independent letters page (9 April). Will a similar attack now be mounted against the last remaining pirate base of Hobyo, which is in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, by the ruling Islamist group of Al-Shabaab?

As sharia law has followed the takeover, the moral dilemma is then posed of whether pirate activities, which are considered unIslamic, will be stopped, or whether these groups will muscle in on ongoing pirate activities.

The latter course would provide a handsome source of funds to jihadist activities in the region and exert massive influence over a large area of international waters strategic to the shipping of oil from the Gulf.

The international forces patrolling the region's waters may have to increase its activities with a view to hostage releases and enhanced shipping protection.

Dr Joseph Mullen, UN & EC Lead Consultant to Somalia (1985, 1994 and 2005), East Dean, East Sussex

Calling time on our pubs

May I say how much I enjoyed Byron Rogers's piece about the resurrection of the Red Lion in Litchborough (4 May). It's appropriate that local interests in the village should be taking on and reopening the pub, since Litchborough was in the vanguard of the microbrewing revolution. There, in 1974, Bill Urquart, newly made redundant by Watney's, set up one of the first micros, Litchborough Brewery, which survived until 1980, was then moved to Daventry, and closed in 1983.

The survey to which Byron refers was done by the Rural Development Commission 15 years ago and found that half of England's rural parishes were without pubs.

The big wave of village pub closures was started by a house-price boom, which meant period or character properties were worth far more on the residential market than as pubs.

The present wave of closures is being driven by two factors. One is overhead inflation: beer duty, business rates, commercial rents, staff wages, and compliance costs have all risen dramatically in the past decade. The other – and harder to deal with – is that people don't seem to want pubs any more.

My village has about 2,500 inhabitants of drinking age of whom 200 to 300 could be classed as regulars, keeping two pubs pretty well afloat. How to make pubs attractive to the 2,200 left? Nobody seems to know. But we do know pubs won't survive unless they are relevant to their potential customers.

Ted Bruning, former editor of 'What's Brewing', Sandy, Bedfordshire

Get the hook

Ash Stewart's proposal (letters, 4 May) that Ian Fleming's hitherto "anglotypal" James Bond should be "black" starts the ball rolling. Why not also a "black" Lewis, Holmes, Marple, Father Brown, Sexton Blake, etc.? Then a "black" Lear, Antony, Shylock, Iago, etc for Shakespeare's plays? Why not Hamlet, Romeo and Coriolanus not only "black" but optically challenged, for example, or in "wheelchairs"? You know it makes sense.

Jason Robertson, Sheringham, Norfolk

Keep the faith

Phillip Cole and Jean Elliott make a spirited defence of Richard Dawkins (letters, 1 May). Dawkins does indeed set a shining example by outlining reasons for and against believing in gods. That's why his book is called Believe What You Like: There's No Evidence Either Way, rather than something arrogant and dogmatic such as, say, The God Delusion.

David Woods, Hull, East Yorkshire

In the name of ...

I appreciate that this might be better off in pedantry corner, but in the Who and What section of the Daily Quiz (5 May), the link is given as Oxford Colleges. Campion Hall (picture F) is actually a permanent private hall and therefore not strictly speaking an Oxford college. I promise to get out more.

David Seymour, Sturminster Newton, Dorset