Waiting for a disaster on the London Underground
Sir: I read your recent report about the overcrowding on commuter lines whilst waiting on the Central Line platform at Holborn in the evening rush-hour - just as well since I couldn't have opened as much as a paperback once I'd squeezed on to the train. From my cramped position I could see perhaps a third of my carriage and made a count of passengers. Extrapolating up to the whole carriage gave 160 travellers, or in excess of 1,200 passengers on the train. This is not uncommon.
The news of two derailments this weekend makes for unnerving speculation. An accident in a tunnel involving a train with 1,200 passengers could be horrendous. Evacuation through the train ends would take a long time. If a train caught fire, you would be looking at a death toll probably of several hundred. Does London Underground have a plan for such an event?
There are only three possibilities to reduce congestion. The first and easiest is to increase the frequency of trains. We operate nowhere near the capacity of the network in rush hour most days. The second would be to restrict access at peak times - difficult to police and very unpopular. The third would be to redevelop the Victorian stations which make boarding and leaving trains so congested and dangerous. Stations should have wide platforms, and much more exit space than most older stations have today - not a quick fix, and horribly expensive.
A good first step would be for London Underground, the health and safety authorities and the emergency services to recognise that a problem exists and to formulate a clear, public strategy to address it. I fear, however, that it will take a disaster before this happens. Regrettably, this is likely to happen - the network cannot be defended against terrorist attack and its safety looks increasingly fragile. Such a disaster would not only affect those involved, but also destroy London's credibility as an international business centre.
Buckhurst Hill, Essex
Wind power helps to save the climate
Sir: Your leading article of 20 October states that wind power is "much more expensive" than nuclear. This will be news to British taxpayers who have just been given a bill for another £4bn to bail out British Energy on top of the untold billions that have already propped up BNFL and will be required to pay for nuclear decommissioning.
You call for a tax on fossil fuels. The fact is that we have all been paying a secret tax on nuclear for half a century.
It is self-evident that the location of some windfarms in areas of high landscape value can be problematic. It is equally self-evident that unless we drastically cut our carbon dioxide emissions, we may not be around for much longer to enjoy the areas of high landscape value.
Of course, the management of demand through energy efficiency and new technologies is the key to making big cuts in carbon dioxide. But wind, wave and solar have a massive contribution to make. If you seriously think that nuclear is the cheap option, why not launch an Independent campaign for new nuclear stations to test your readers' response?
DAVID CHAYTOR MP
(Bury North, Lab)
Chair, All Party Group for Intelligent Energy
House of Commons
Sir: I am one of those who regard the loosening of Sunday trading legislation as a big mistake which has damaged the fabric of our national life. We need to have one day a week which is largely free of economic activity.
But for the life of me I cannot understand why people are making a fuss about shops opening on Christmas Day (leading article, 20 October). The date of Christmas is of course an arbitrary one (whereas Sunday, the first day of the week, is the day on which Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and therefore has great significance). The birth of Jesus was not generally celebrated at all by the Church until the fifth century. Considered apart from his death and resurrection it is not important. Two of the gospels do not bother to mention it, while the other two are generally held to record no reliable information about it, merely telling theologically significant stories.
The modern "family festival" is a fairly recent invention. It encourages many to be inward-looking and uncharitable. It can be dead and unpleasant for those left on the outside, painful for those with no family and those who have lost family members - and sometimes stressful for those with families too. Every year, sadly, I hear more people say that they hate Christmas. Why should it be forced on them? Why, in particular, should it be forced on people from other faith communities?
Sir: Your leading article "The right to shop" (20 October) completely misses the point of the proposed legislation. Most shop workers have little choice as to when they do or do not work. Increasingly contracts of employment are eroding their entitlements to additional payments for working at weekends and unsociable hours. The proposed legislation will at least protect our most vulnerable workers from unscrupulous employers on one day a year.
Sir: Judith Brown (letter, 20 October) claims to have Saudi women friends who are happy to return to Saudi Arabia and push for improvements when "the time is right". I don't recognise them.
Millions of Saudi women - 95 per cent of whom are unemployed - are screaming for basic rights, aware that even in comparison with other Gulf states, they are isolated and disenfranchised. They alone are banned from driving cars - even in emergencies to save the life of a sick child. At the hospital, they are banned from signing the consent forms for children's operations - that role falls to a male guardian. Even elderly women are prevented from leaving the country without the signature of a male relative. So much for Saudi women setting the reform agenda!
Despite Judith Brown's comparisons with Victorian England, Saudi women do not live in the past. Nor is it valid to compare Riyadh in 2003 with Victorian London. Saudi Arabia has pretensions to being a modern and enlightened state. Let's judge it by its own words and the degree to which it fails to live up to them.
Judith Brown explains the rise of the hardline Wahabi religious faction as a defence against colonialism. That is a bad mistake. The Wahabi sect is a minority both in Saudi Arabia and the wider Muslim world. Its own ideology is responsible for the widening divisions not only in the Arab world, but with the West as well. Many of the restrictions on women are the result of Wahabi pressure.
Dr MAI YAMANI
Royal Institute of International Affairs
Sir: Just this once, Johann Hari has got it right ("The Saudis need freedom", 17 October). Saudi Arabia is indeed the world's biggest prison, thanks to its heretical and stultified vision of Islam. The tragedy is, however, that many of the inmates have no idea what the alternative might be.
For several generations, Saudis have been indoctrinated with the idea that the vile Wahabi doctrines are the only possible interpretation of the Quran. Spirituality and intellectual life are therefore absent. The fledgling human rights movement has to try and justify itself within Wahabi parameters alone; but this will never work.
Most Muslims reject Wahabism as a crude Bedouin puritanism that is alien to the traditions of Islam, and is absolutely inflexible. Only when the Saudis themselves abandon it can a human rights discourse be constructed which respects both religion and the right of the Saudi people to be free.
Lack of opportunity
Sir: Alan Milburn's comment that "redistribution, not of wealth but of opportunity, is the primary purpose of a Labour government" (Opinion, 20 October) just about sums up the moral vacuum at the heart of British politics and in particular that of the present-day Labour Party.
Wealth means power and unless there is equality of wealth there cannot be equality of power. It is unrealistic to expect absolute equality but there needs to be enough equality for people to recognise what they have and exercise it. The low numbers of people voting in elections and becoming members of political parties is a direct consequence of people realising that they are, for the most part, powerless.
There never can be such a thing as equality of opportunity. To suggest that we can all have the opportunity to become Prime Minister or a multi-millionaire banker or popstar is ridiculous. Opportunity is inextricably linked to the chance and circumstance of one's birth and the environment in which one grows up. For those who are born into wealth and power and privilege opportunities come thick and fast.
As someone from a very poor working-class background I once believed that the Labour Party was concerned to ensure that wealth and power would become more equally distributed, not that it would form a government committed to the opposite.
VICTOR N TAYLOR
Sir: Deborah Orr's article "We just can't stop chasing Diana's ambulance" (21 October) is all part of the conspiracy to deflect the attention of the public from their desire to worry about people they know nothing of and affect to love dearly.
Sauce for the goose
Sir: The reaction of the media to Germaine Greer's latest book, in praise of boys, is one of general, if qualified, approval. As a 57-year-old male I am thinking of writing a book in praise of girls who are no longer children but not yet women, on the theme that any man of taste would rather have such a girl for a lover than a woman. What do you think are the chances of my finding a publisher and/or avoiding being lynched?
Record in stone
Sir: I don't know about melon-seed spitting, but Miles Kington (20 October) should be assured that the village of St Aubin in south-west France holds the world championship prune-stone spitting contest every September. This year the winner cleared a height of 4.5 metres.
Sir: I cannot understand the fuss. Houdini took less than three minutes to escape, handcuffed and chained, from inside a nailed-down packing case which had been thrown into New York Bay. David Blaine took 44 days and he still couldn't get out of a plastic box.
Working at home
Sir: How can the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation be said to be outsourcing jobs to Asia (report, 18 October)?