Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

November 27, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

East Coast trains to be run by Virgin


This morning, the government announced that a consortium of Stagecoach and Virgin will take over the East Coast rail franchise in March 2015. Although Stagecoach own 90% of the consortium, Virgin’s 10% stake means that the trains will carry the Virgin brand, like those that currently operate on the West Coast Main Line (Virgin’s west coast franchise is 49% Stagecoach and 51% Virgin).

The awarding of this franchise has been controversial, and more-so than most others, because for the past five years the East Coast ‘franchise’ has been operated by the government. In 2009 the previous franchisee, National Express, surrendered the franchise after only a couple of years as it was making a loss. National Express had won the franchise in 2007 after the original operator GNER also surrendered as well. Rather than run yet another franchise competition, the Labour government at the time decided to bring operations in house, using a holding company called ‘Directly Operated Railways’ (DOR) and branded the services ‘East Coast’.

The intention was always to return the franchise to the private sector, even when Labour was in government, but originally this was to happen within two years, rather than five. I believe there have been several factors that caused the delay:

  • The mess that GNER and National Express left. GNER was originally one of the better franchisees, having invested in a high-quality refurbishment of its trains, being one of the first to introduce on-board wifi and improve its offerings for first class customers. But after it retained its franchise in 2005 it started cutting costs, and National Express continued this, including maintenance cutbacks. An example was a reduction in maintenance of the automatic doors, which meant that when East Coast took over the doors were becoming increasingly unreliable.
  • The fallout from the failed franchise competition for the West Coast Main Line in 2012. In August of that year, the government announced that Virgin were to lose the franchise to FirstGroup, but irregularities in the process led to the competition being cancelled and all other competitions being delayed. Virgin remain in charge of the West Coast franchise through ‘direct awards’ – essentially franchise extensions, with a new competition due in a few years.
  • A major timetable change, called ‘Eureka’ took place in 2011 and this took some time to bed down.

DOR’s aim was to turn the East Coast franchise around, so that it would be in a better state to return to the private sector. East Coast’s train livery was kept deliberately neutral so that a new franchisee could easily re-brand the trains in their own colours, and the East Coast brand could be transferred to a new owner if required. Evidently this took longer than anticipated.

Of course, once the franchise was back in the public sector, after 12 years of privatisation, there were arguments that it should stay there. The improvements made, along with a subsequent increase in passenger numbers, means that DOR has returned around £1 billion in premium payments to the government. And as DOR is not a private company, it doesn’t have any shareholders or investors who would want a share of the profits.

Labour, now in opposition but seeking re-election in next year’s General Election, have made it their policy that DOR should also be able bid for franchises along with private-sector businesses. I don’t really agree with this as private companies spend millions on their bids, many of which aren’t successful and this could be a waste of money if DOR has a low success rate. In any case, it’ll be too late for East Coast – Virgin will take over the new franchise two months before the election, and will run it for at least 7 years.

Stagecoach now has an effective monopoly on north-south train services. It operates East Midlands Trains on the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras and Sheffield, and with Virgin it operates the London Euston to Glasgow services. Now it’ll also operate the London King’s Cross to Edinburgh services too, meaning that the only other operators for north-south services will be the open access companies First Hull Trains and Grand Central. Stagecoach also operates Megabus with a significant proportion of north-south coach traffic.

On the plus side, the new franchise should see some positive changes. From 2020, new trains 140mph built by Hitachi in the north-east will be introduced, and there will be more services serving new cities. A map shows that Bradford will gain an additional 6 direct services to London each weekday – right now East Coast offers a token service in each direction, with Grand Central running four trains each way to Bradford Interchange. Harrogate and Lincoln will also benefit from similar service increases, and Huddersfield will gain a token direct daily service for the first time. Existing stations such as York, Newcastle and Leeds will also see additional services running. These new services will start in 2019, subject to Network Rail granting access to the track.

Personally I’d have liked East Coast to stay in public hands, and other franchises to join it as and when the current contracts run out. But realistically this would never have happened – none of the main political parties show any willingness to roll back rail privatisation. I just hope that Virgin continue DOR’s work at improving the service that runs on the East Coast Main Line and stick to their promises, without massively raising ticket prices.

November 25, 2014
by Neil Turner

Home media streaming with Plex

Screenshot of Plex on iPad

If you have a lot of media stored on your computer, and you want to be able to watch it on other devices – your TV, or a tablet, for example – then Plex is one of the best ways to go about it. Originally a fork of XBMC (now known as Kodi), Plex has matured to the point where it is really easy to set up and use.

It works as a client and server. You install the free server software on the computer that has your media – be it films, music or photos – and then install client apps on your devices where you want to watch that media. Plex makes its money by charging for these apps, and for its premium Plex Pass tier which adds some cloud features.

What sets Plex aside from its rivals is its very broad platform support. The server software runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, but the client apps also run on iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices. And if you have an Xbox, Roku, ChromeCast, Ouya, Amazon Fire TV or Google TV device, there are Plex apps available too, along with smart TVs from Vizio, Samsung and LG. So you should find that Plex works with the equipment you already have, rather than having to buy another thing to plug into your TV. This is where Plex’s rival Boxee perhaps went wrong, as it required an extra set-top box; Boxee was recently acquired by Samsung and no longer offers its software for download.

When you install the Plex Media Server on a Mac, it will automatically make your iTunes music and video, and your iPhoto photos, available. You can then add any other folder with media in it, which Plex will download cover art and plot synopses for automatically. Plex also handles transcoding, so you don’t need to worry about what format your media is in – as long as Plex can open it, then you’ll be able to play it regardless of what your device normally supports.

You can also add internet TV channels. There’s a BBC iPlayer app, for example, although I don’t think it’s official and it’s not as good as the app on my Roku device. YouTube, Vimeo and Apple Movie Trailers channels are also available.

My only issue with Plex is that the server software will not run on a Raspberry Pi. RasPlex turns a Raspberry Pi into a Plex client, so you can hook it up to a TV, but you can’t plug an external hard drive with ripped films on it into your Raspberry Pi and have them available to watch on other devices. This is mainly down to the lack of processing power in the Raspberry Pi but it’s still a bit of a shame.

I would definitely recommend checking Plex out. Especially as its client apps are on sale this week.

November 24, 2014
by Neil Turner

Susan Calman

ACMS #8 @ Edfringe13: Susan CalmanAfter seeing Frisky & Mannish on Friday, Christine and I went to another comedy gig on Sunday. This time it was to see Susan Calman, a diminutive Scottish lesbian and stand-up comedian on her tour ‘Ladylike’, at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. Hebden Bridge is something of a lesbian capital and so it was not surprising that the gig had sold out a few weeks ago.

I’m familiar with Susan Calman through her work on BBC Radio 4 – she is a regular guest on the weekly panel show The News Quiz, and has presented two series of her own show Susan Calman is Convicted. On TV, she’s appeared on Have I Got News For You and a few other programmes, mainly in Scotland. She’s been top of my list of stand-up comedians whom I have yet to see live so last night was a chance to fix this.

And I’m pleased to say it was really worth waiting for. Calman is a fantastic observational comedian, with all of her material drawn from her own life and experiences. It helps that she has an interesting story to tell – about her height, her sexuality, her career change and her three cats, each of whom has its own theme song.

Her tour continues into next year and whilst a number of dates are already sold out, hopefully there will be a gig near you with tickets still available. If you want to hear someone who is charming, inspirational and, most of all, hilariously funny, then find the time to go and see her when you can. Tour dates are on her web site.

Now, to make time to see Bethany Black and Chris Addison, who make up the rest of my list of comedians to see live.

Photo by Isabelle on Flickr, CC-licensed.

November 23, 2014
by Neil Turner

Frisky & Mannish

Frisky & Mannish at the Bradford Alhambra Studio, September 2012

On Friday Christine and iI went to The Wardrobe in Leeds to see Frisky & Mannish – a cabaret act who parody popular music. We’ve seen them before in September 2012 when they came to Bradford – we stopped back after the gig for the above photo. Which, incidentally, was one of the last photos taken on my iPhone 4 before I replaced it with my current phone.

Anyhow, as we enjoyed ourselves so much last time, we made a point of booking tickets for their gig in Leeds. This was for their new show, ‘#justtoomuch’, which was a departure from their previous shows. Whereas in the past they have focussed on ‘educating’ people about pop music, this show was about celebrity excess and the inevitable fall into depression and drug abuse – see Amy Winehouse, Miley Cirus et al.

Which sounds depressing but it’s put together in a great way. 2/3rds of the show was made up of new material, including some topical jibes at Bob Geldof, ballet dancing and made-up letters from Sinead O’Connor.

The rest was set aside for their greatest hits – nursery rhymes set to the tune of ‘Sound of the Underground’ by Girls Aloud (“The wheels on the bus go round/The wheels on the bus go round and round…”), ‘Beep’ by the Pussycat Dolls in the style of a Blackpool end of the peer variety act, and various love songs with creepy undertones sung in a psychotic way.

Frisky & Mannish have a very loyal fan base – Frisky asked the crowd who had been to one of their gigs before and more than half had – but it’s easy to see why people keep on coming back. F&M’s current tour has a few more nights to go, so if they’re in your area I’d thoroughly recommend taking the time to see them. If you remain unconvinced, their previous three shows are free to watch on YouTube, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

November 22, 2014
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for November 22, 2014

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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November 21, 2014
by Neil Turner

The Record Café, Bradford

The Record Café

Last night I went to a preview night at Bradford’s newest bar, The Record Café, on North Parade. Officially it opens tonight, and it will be a great new addition to Bradford’s new independent quarter.

The Record Café is three things. First and foremost it’s a bar, with four hand-pulled cask beers and six keg beers, along with a fridge full of bottled beer. Most of the beers are either British (Saltaire, Great Heck, Brewdog and Camden Town were present when I visited) or American, including the Anchor Steam Brewery’s Porter available in a keg – this is the first time I’ve seen their beers in anything other than a bottle in this country. There were also a small number of bottled continental beers, and an eclectic selection of gin that eschews the more common brands. No mass-produced mainstream lager here. Continue Reading →

November 20, 2014
by Neil Turner

Northern Rail’s “Intercity” services

144 Crossing the River Calder

I’m a northerner, and I travel by train a lot. At least 95% of my journeys are with Northern Rail, a franchise run jointly by Serco (to whom all your base are belong to) and Abellio, which is owned by the Dutch government. The franchise was let in 2004 on a ‘no growth’ basis – the assumption being that passenger levels wouldn’t grow significantly during the franchise period, and so there was no real requirement for any extra trains or to increase service levels.

In reality there has been a huge growth in passenger levels in the north over the past ten years. Thankfully Northern has invested in some extra trains, although these are mostly old trains that other operators no longer need, and some services have been improved. But there haven’t been any brand new trains ordered, and whilst most have been ‘refreshed’ with a coat of paint, new flooring and seat covers, internally most of Northern’s fleet retains their original fixtures.

Around the time that the rail franchises in the north were re-jigged in 2004, the intercity services that Northern’s predecessor (Arriva Trains Northern) operated were mostly split off into a different franchise – First Transpennine Express. These services received new trains. Northern was left with mainly commuter and rural services, and the internal layout of its trains reflect this. But it still operates a few intercity services that I’ll get onto. Continue Reading →

November 19, 2014
by Neil Turner

App of the Week: Documents by Readdle

Screenshot of Documents by Readdle on the iPhoneThis week’s app is Documents by Readdle, an app that allows you to open documents on your iPad or iPhone.

That might not sound particularly interesting until I tell you that those documents can be located pretty much anywhere in the cloud, on your network or on a server at your workplace. Documents’ strength comes from its wide support for cloud storage services, as well as any FTP or WebDAV server, and its ability to open most document file types using its own viewers.

Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, iCloud Drive, Box, Microsoft Office 365 and SugarSync are all supported, which for many will remove the need to have apps for each installed on your device. Documents will also connect to any SMB shares on your local network, and has its own WebDAV server for uploading documents into the app, or downloading them to your computer. It’s really, really powerful.

Any files that you open are downloaded to your device, so you are working with copies rather than the original documents. Uploading these back to the cloud isn’t quite so straightforward as it should be – if you have a document open, then the save option only applies to the app’s own storage or iCloud Drive. Instead, you have to go into, say, Dropbox, and select Upload. It’s a minor inconvenience.

Of course, you can send documents to other destinations as well, and any app that supports iOS 8’s share extensions should be available to you. You could, for example, take a photo stored in Dropbox and post it to Pinterest, all whilst within the Documents app.

Having WebDAV support has been a life-saver whilst in meetings at work, since I can access any documents saved onto the network there without needing to remember to move them into Dropbox beforehand. And it’s really useful to be able to access multiple cloud storage providers in the same app.

I saved the best thing about Documents until last – it’s completely free. No in-app purchases, no adverts, no cost to download. To me, it’s a must-have.

The only other feature that I’d like is perhaps settings synchronisation between the iPhone and iPad versions of the app. If you use both devices then you will need to set up each of your cloud storage accounts on each device – it would be nice if it used iCloud to copy your settings between devices.

Documents is free, and is a universal app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

November 18, 2014
by Neil Turner


Nottingham Council House

Whilst I spent Sunday wearing a top hat and too many cogs, on Saturday Christine and I went to Nottingham to meet up with some friends from university. In the past, the only bit of Nottingham that I’ve been to has been the marina; my grandparents had a narrowboat there for several years, but the last time I’d have visited would have been around 20 years ago. Until now I’d never been to the city centre.

We took the train, which from Sowerby Bridge was three hours each way; in all we spent more time getting to or going home from Nottingham than we did in the city. Nottingham’s rail connections going north aren’t that great, but it is served by regular trains going south to London and some cross-country services.

Nottingham Railway Station

Nottingham has just the one central station nowadays, built in 1904 and recently restored with a new, glassed-in porte-cochère at the front. In fact the station has had a lot of work done recently, with changes to the track and platforms. It looks really nice and shows what can be done when a sympathetic restoration is carried out.

Sadly once you leave the station via the main entrance, no-one has really thought through how pedestrians should get into the city centre. You basically reach a huge concrete wall, with a tiny opening in it taking you into the Broadmarsh… sorry, intu Broadmarsh shopping centre. The Broadmarsh centre seems to be stuck in a 1980s timewarp (it was last refurbished in 1988) and doesn’t reflect well on the city – not at least because the name of it reminds me of Broadmoor. Thankfully its owners have plans to refurbish it again; whether these plans will go as far as turning into a more open space like Liverpool One or Leeds Trinity remains to be seen, as right now it comes across as a major barrier.

Bombardier Incentro AT6/5 tram in Nottingham

Public transport geeks (hello!) will like Nottingham for a few reasons – as well its large station, it has buses that are still run by a council-owned company, and an expanding tram network, called NET. NET opened a little over ten years ago, and unlike many other light rail schemes in Britain it has been very popular right from the start. So much so that it’s being extended and the fleet of trams increased from 15 to 37.

In our brief visit to the city the main thing we saw was the Old Market Square, and the Council House, which is the large imposing building pictured at the top of this blog post. It’s primarily home to council offices, as well as tourist information and a small shopping arcade called The Exchange. We also headed to the area around The Lace Market, which is now home to many small, independent shops including several that sell vintage clothing. Most of the city centre is pedestrianised.

When I said I was visiting Nottingham for the day most people I spoke to seemed a bit perplexed. At best, people perceive Nottingham as nothing special – whilst it doesn’t get the (unfair) bad rap that Bradford does, it’s not perceived as somewhere to go on a day out. Which is a shame because, apart from the aforementioned shopping centre issue, I quite like Nottingham. I’d be happy to go back there sometime, anyway.

November 17, 2014
by Neil Turner

Thought Bubble Comic Con, Leeds

Neil & Christine at Thought Bubble in Leeds

Yesterday Christine and I went to our first every comic convention, as part of this year’s Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds. It’s been running since 2007, and I’ve been aware of it since 2012 but this was the first time we’d been.

Running over two days, the comic con concludes the week-long Thought Bubble Festival which takes place across Leeds and celebrates comic art. It’s based at the Royal Armouries Museum, taking over the Royal Armouries Hall (recently renamed from the ‘Saville Hall’), the New Dock Hall, and a large marquee in the square outside, plus some small rooms for talks. There were hundreds of mainly independent comic book sellers, artists and all sorts across the three main venues.

Me and Christine, dressed in Steampunk outfitsOne-day passes were £15, or two-day passes for both days – for die-hard comic fans who want to attend as many talks and panels as possible – were £24, and in both cases there was a £4 discount for cosplayers. So Christine and I dusted off our various steampunk paraphernalia and dressed up for the occasion. In doing so we spent more than the £8 that we saved on the entry price but we had a significant number of positive comments about our outfits – especially the octopus fascinator that Christine bought at a previous Leeds Steampunk Market. I’d say around 10-20% of attendees were in cosplay, some more elaborate than others. Kids under 12 had free entry so there were plenty of children around, many also dressed up. We saw a small Tardis, and a young, grumpy Hulk in a pushchair amongst others.

We followed the web site’s advice and made sure that we took out plenty of cash before we got there. The bigger stalls take cards but many of the exhibitors are regular people like you and me who just do this on the side, and the one cash machine nearby usually runs out of money on Saturday morning, apparently. And we spent most of the cash that we took.

Comic books bought at Thought Bubble

Here’s the point where I’ll admit to not being an avid reader of comic books, but you don’t necessarily have to enjoy reading comics to have a good time at Thought Bubble. It did mean that we knew very few of the exhibitors – Moo and Keo being one of the only major exceptions, along with Dr Geof whose Tea Museum has recently returned from an exhibition at the Cutty Sark in London. However we did come across the official Professor Elemental comics, about the steampunk-themed ‘chap hop’ rhymer, and James Chapman whose Soundimals comics I’ve come across on Tumblr and Facebook. We bought their books, the latter signed, with a sloth illustration.

Speaking of sloths, we also had a couple of commissions, or pieces of art drawn for us. The first was by Sajan Rai, who offered to draw you as a sloth – Christine volunteered, hence the octopus. And Lucy Bellwood drew us the beautiful red panda, which we’re planning to get framed.

Commissioned pieces - red panda and sloth

Leeds’ major comic book stores – Forbidden Planet, Travelling Man and OK Comics – were also there and we picked up The Oatmeal‘s book 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth.

Part of the fun of Thought Bubble, for us, was simply people-watching. Obviously some of the cosplay outfits were amazing, although regrettably I only took one or two photos. But it was also fun looking at the bemused expressions of those who were on their way to the Royal Armouries Museum and weren’t aware that Thought Bubble was taking place – and were thoroughly confused by all the people dressed up. In Pizza Express, at lunch, we were one of two steampunk groups, with a girl on another table wearing a painted morphsuit showing all of the muscle groups in the style of a flayed corpse.

It was really good fun, and I can’t believe we’d never been before. We’ll be there next year.