Trains at Christmas, Muslim headscarves and others

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Why is our train service so shambolic and overcrowded?

Why is our train service so shambolic and overcrowded?

Sir: We travelled by train this Christmas holiday. Having now fully attuned ourselves to the "be grateful you get anywhere" culture of the train companies, fostered by the policies of both the Conservative and Labour parties, we were well satisfied with our Midland Mainline services from St Pancras. The outward journey was 30 minutes late and the return journey a mere 15 minutes late - a great advert for the rail system.

How lucky we considered ourselves, having seen at Derby station, as we waited for our train, a Virgin train bound for Taunton arriving so full that it was impossible to find a place for a poor traveller's pushchair and suitcase. Passengers were standing packed as on the most crowded tube for a long cross-country journey. It appears that Virgin and the train regulators are happy for passengers to pay high fares to travel in absolute discomfort. Surely having run no trains on Boxing Day, any company with common sense would have arranged to run a train on this day with more than five carriages, on a popular cross-country route.

On arriving at St Pancras we then found ourselves involved in the nightmare that is currently King's Cross St Pancras tube station. Clearly there is a need to dismantle the old station in order to allow for the new station to be built. However the millions being spent on the project should have allowed for a decent logistics exercise about how to provide a reasonable service to travellers whilst the work is in progress. Instead we found a shambles, the same disregard for the traveller as that displayed by the train companies, their regulators and governments of both political parties.

The UK is a small and very wealthy country. We should be able to have a magnificent travel system. Why don't we?

London N15

No choice about the Muslim scarf

Sir: How long is the fiction that Muslim women wear the headscarf by choice (letter, 27 December) to be allowed to go unchallenged? If wearing a headscarf is "simply a tenet of the Muslim faith" then how can it be a matter of choice, unless that is, adopting the Muslim faith is a mater of choice in the first place. Apart from few cases, someone's religion is never a matter of choice. You are born into a religion. You do not choose it.

Wearing a headscarf is a symbol of women's subjugation and those apologists, be they Muslims or so-called liberals, who want us to believe that Muslim women are given a choice of wearing the headscarf forget about the very strong sense of tradition coupled with intense intimidation by male relatives.

London NW2

Sir: Dr Afzal simply doesn't get it (letter 22 December). It isn't the Muslim headscarf that is offensive to secularists, but all public displays of religious symbols - including the ones she mentions that have been adopted by the police.

I really don't care what people believe or practice in private, provided they do no harm. But I truly find it disturbing to be forced constantly to witness public symbols of humanity's sad, supernatural and irrational beliefs. There isn't an exact secular equivalent of displaying such symbols, but I would like to know if Dr Afzal would be happy to see a large proportion of the population carrying large badges saying: "Religion is the problem, not the answer".

I don't do this, out of respect for the feelings of religious believers, however much I disagree with them. Perhaps Dr Afzal would consider doing the same for me?

Burwell, Cambridgeshire

Sir: Katherine Scholfield (letter, 27 December) uses the evidence of 50 years ago when "job applicants had to state their religion and were often discriminated against on the basis of their belief or lack of it" to suggest that therefore we should not bring religion back into the workplace. She suggests that cultural and religious diversity belong in the private, not the public domain.

Surely we have moved on in the past 50 years. Is there really such a firm boundary between school, the workplace and the high street and home? Are not school and the workplace microcosms of society with all its social, cultural and religious diversity and should they not be the very places where that diversity can be taught, understood and, if not celebrated, at least respected for its richness? What on earth does it mean to a person of faith to say, "Sorry, you've got to leave that at home!"

Director, UK One World Linking Association
Marlborough, Wiltshire

Sir: Katherine Scholfield claims "secular institutions allow individuals freedom to go about their lives without fear of discrimination for their private beliefs," but banning individuals from showing their religious beliefs, whether it is the Jewish skullcap, the Muslim headscarf, the Sikh turban or the Christian crucifix, is a form of discrimination.

Moreover, how does a prayer room "interfere with individual freedom and others' enjoyment of their lives"? Use of such a room is voluntary and increases the very things Ms Scholfield claims it interferes with. Would she have objected similarly to a smoking room?

So long as people have to work, then religious beliefs, just like political beliefs, will be part of the workplace and will often, again like political beliefs, be to the benefit of all who work, whether they support those beliefs or not.

Copt Hewick, North Yorkshire

Sir: The Queen wore a headscarf for many years.Could she be a secret fundamentalist?

Prescot, Merseyside

Dying of cold

Sir: Your headline "Britain is a rich nation; its old people should not be dying of cold" (leading article, 24 December) is spot on. But I am not sure that the remedy you prescribe is.

The reason why we, unlike colder countries such as Finland and Russia, see a surge in cold-related deaths each winter is not because insufficient people receive the £300 bonus, intended nominally to pay for fuel, but used in more affluent pensioner households to buy the grandchildren presents. It is mainly because we have such appallingly poorly insulated housing stock.

In 2000 the Conservative MP David Amess successfully piloted the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act on to the statute book. This mandates government to ensure that none of the five million households deemed to be in fuel poverty (defined as needing to spend over 10 per cent of disposable income to keep warm) remain in this perilous state. The energy efficiency of the homes in question must be improved, by 2010 for the more vulnerable, by 2016 for all eligible homes.

To achieve this requires substantially higher funding than at present : the Government's official advisory group on fuel poverty is urging a 50 per cent uplift on present expenditure to comply with the law. In practice, expenditure has dropped 23 per cent in England in the past two years.

Advocating, as you do, further subsidies for fuel bills, without addressing whether that fuel can be burnt efficiently, is akin to trying to fill a bath with hot water but omitting to put a plug in at the bottom.

Association for the Conservation of Energy
London N1

Sir: A fat lot of use extending Gordon Brown's winter fuel payment arrangements would be. I'm certain I'm not alone in having had to put aside mine to meet the increased council tax. He might just as well pay it straight to the council and save a lot of paperwork.

London SE26

Smoking danger

Sir: I read the article by John Walsh (26 December) with surprise that there is still someone who has not read about the hazards of smoking and of passive smoking.

Only 27 per cent of people in most Western countries smoke, and a large number of these smokers are teenagers and young adults. It's a lot easier for them to stop before addiction really sets in, and, as they are also a large part of the pub-goers, perhaps no-smoking pubs will encourage them to drop the habit altogether. Fighting a "no-smoking policy" is discriminating against the 63 per cent of the population who do not smoke.

Perhaps with a few words with the tourists from overseas, particularly North America, Mr Walsh would learn that the smoky atmosphere in the pubs and restaurants of the UK and Ireland is one reason that many do not return for another visit.

A few years ago I moved back to England from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where there is no smoking in public places. What a disappointment I had, to find that England is so far behind in its thinking.

Maidstone, Kent

Awards away  

Sir: I have gold medal from the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance. Will you please ask Yasmin Alibhai-Brown whether I should return it. And (oops) whether we should cease dancing to the "Emperor Waltz".


Sir: Peter Coghlan (letter, 26 December) is wrong in his assertion that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is not a citizen, but a subject of the Crown. My passport states (page 31) that I am a British Citizen, as no doubt does Mrs Alibhai-Brown's. Nowhere does it state that I am a subject of the Crown.

Keighley, West Yorkshire

Sir: It is now nearly 30 years since I was awarded a CBE. The first note of congratulation I received was from Sir Francis Hill, a distinguished scholar and a fellow Lincolnian. It came in the form of an open postcard on which was written, "Welcome to our order, which persists in lofty disregard of the fact".


Beyond belief

Sir: Far from "sniggering" at The Prime Minister's "deeply held religious beliefs", as the Archbishop of Canterbury has accused the media of doing, I have felt despair that such a man could lead his country into an unprovoked "war" resulting in the killing and maiming of thousands of my fellow human beings. I did not hear Dr Rowan Williams' voice raised very loudly against the war, either. If this is Christianity, I reject it.

Colchester, Essex

Terror terrier

Sir: I read (29 December) that the RSPCA believes that the Princess Royal's English bull terrier "should probably be put down after it savaged one of the Queen's corgis". Why is it that I cannot recall a similar plea being made by any organisation when that same dog bit two small children in Windsor Great Park last year?

Bicester, Oxfordshire