Monday, January 28, 2013

I blame you, Robert Pirsig

Over the past few months I've become obsessed with motorcycles -- to the extent that I am increasingly able to rattle off tedious facts about displacement and torque and various other words that are as foreign to the average person as Congolese plant life. You don't have a motorcycle, so you don't really need to know these things. I understand that, which is why I haven't blogged in a while. I find it difficult to think about anything else.

I also don't have a motorcycle, but I tell myself constantly that Someday I will. And when that magical faraway future becomes the present, I tell myself, I will be one of those dudes who pays attention to his bike and is capable of resolving most mechanical issues on his own. I will be a guru, man. I'll ride around with little more than a roll of duct tape and the hunter-orange screwdriver I bought at Mills Fleet Farm, confident in the knowledge that if there's a problem, yo, I'll solve it.

(Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it)

Inevitably, of course, this sort of thinking was going to lead to my deciding to read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Which is what I started doing this weekend after giving up on the esoteric tripe of Zadie Smith. In the first few pages of the novel, a character is introduced who seems to hate the idea of fixing his own motorcycle. He prefers to take his bike to a mechanic and let him deal with it.

He does this not because he is dumb or elitist but because he possesses a hatred/fear of of the great uncontrollable unknown that swirls around him. Technology in its broadest sense is named as the object of his frustration, but I take it as something even less tangible. And it's a same sort of anger/anxiety that I struggle with in my own self. This is why, when I had a car, I would feel physically sick and filled with rage when I had to take it to a mechanic.

My car would make a rattling noise or fail to operate in the way we expect of cars, and I would have only a faint idea of the problem. I could point to the right front wheel well, say, and identify that a noise was coming from there, and thereby narrow down the list of possible maladies. Maybe it's the brakes. Or the steering. Or the suspension. But I wouldn't know. I didn't possess the knowledge to say to the mechanic: "Here is the problem, good fellow. Correct that issue and all will be well."

No. I had to take it to a person whom I inherently did not trust, to a person who did not really care about my car in the way I care about it (the mechanic doesn't need my car to get to work, he/she doesn't use my car to pick up stuff from Ikea), and who stood to benefit financially from exaggerating the severity of my car's issue. I had to put my faith in this person, I had to force myself to trust them, and after a series of inconveniences that would too often leave me feeling like a needy girlfriend ("Hi, I'm just calling to see if my car is ready... uhm... because you said it would be ready five hours ago and that you would call but you hadn't called, so I thought maybe... No? It's not ready? You found an additional problem with it? Oh, yeah... OK... that's cool. Well, you know, if you could just call me when it's ready. OK... uhm... bye... Call me.") I had to give them great sums of money that would set me back for months thereafter.

As much as I like where cars can take me, I have always hated them for the way they make me feel -- so inferior and out of control. When I sold my Honda Accord for scrap last year, I very much wished that I could be there to watch them crush it, to laugh and spit on the crumpled heap of metal that had caused me so much misery.

But, of course, a car is an inanimate object, and the thing I felt angry toward was the culture around cars and my ignorance thereof. I didn't want to have to learn about cars; I didn't want to invest my mental energy in them. I wanted the damn things to take me from point A to point B. In reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I realised I was the dude with the BMW R60, the dude who felt angry and cheated by the fact that mechanical things sometimes break.

Motorcycles, meanwhile, are notoriously more temperamental than cars. They are famous for zipping along doing what they're supposed to do be doing, then suddenly, inexplicably, not doing it*. Bike was going, bike is not going, seemingly nothing occurred between those two states apart from the passage of time. But, for some foolish reason, I tell myself that I will be OK with this aspect of motorcycling. Perhaps I am lured into a false sense of security because a motorcycle's engine is smaller and easier to see: all the bits are there and relatively accessible.

"Hell, fixing my bike will be fun," I've told myself.

I'm sure that "fun" is exactly the word I'll use when I'm sitting on the roadside in pissing rain, trying to figure out why the engine has seized up. But I'm not allowed to have any of that fun yet due to the absence of funds. (See what I did there?)

Which leads to last night. In an effort to somehow find money that could go toward motorcycle ownership I've decided to stop taking the train to work. Instead, I will take my bicycle. Brilliant. A monthly savings of roughly £28. That's not a lot of money, admittedly, but having £28 is more than spending £28.

The only flaw to this plan, though, is the state of my bicycle. When I first moved to the UK, I brought along a fancy new Trek 7.3 FX. It had to be disassembled to go on the plane and was reassembled in Cardiff by a nice chap with a shop in Roath. That was the last time it saw maintenance. In the interim 6.5 years, I have ridden the bicycle hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles, been bumped by a car, run into a bus (just because you can go fast doesn't mean you can stop fast), and subjected it to all other forms of neglect.

It's a testament to the quality of Trek bikes that it is still usable. But the bike definitely needs some work. It needs new tires, new chain, new gear cassette and new crankset. Those last two things are words I have just learned in the past 24 hours, because I have decided that if I really am going to fix stuff on my motorcycle of the future, I should be able to do the same on my bicycle of the present. I mean, hey, how hard can it be? Right?

Right.

Great googly moogly are bicycles loaded with fiddly bits. Dozens and dozens of itty-bitty grease-covered bits that have no visibly logical way of fitting together. So that if you are so unlucky as to drop the bits on the floor before getting to thoroughly examine them and memorise their order, you will not have a clue as to how to put them back onto the bike. I may imagine motorcycle maintenance to be "fun" but the words coming out of my mouth as I adjusted my brakes last night were: "You shitting cock of worthless fuckery." 

That's my new nickname for the bicycle: SCOWF for short.

But I'm committed, my friends. I am determined to restore the SCOWF to full working order, even though doing so will eat up money I'm supposed to be saving for a motorcycle. And, yes, becoming skilled at repairing and maintaining the SCOWF won't go very far toward developing the skills necessary for doing the same with a motorcycle, but I think it can still be beneficial. I'm hoping it will help me accept that some things require time and effort, and help me to overcome my fear/disdain of putting in that time and effort.

Or, it will instill in me a new appreciation of trains.

-----

*I should point out that modern motorcycles are infinitely more reliable than the machines of old.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Plenty of blame, little action: The train commuter's woe

CARDIFF –– It is 8:33 a.m. and the train from Barry is full. Squealing into Eastbrook station, three stops from Cardiff Central, it is running nearly five minutes behind schedule. Passengers standing on the bare platform engage in a personal battle of will as the train comes to a halt: the ear-splitting noise from its brakes makes them want to move away, but to do so would result in losing one's place in the amorphous queue forming at the door.

They wince, turn their heads and plug their ears at the noise, and jostle for position. The doors open with a clunking hydraulic exasperation and those standing on the Eastbrook platform are greeted by the sight of the backsides of passengers already on the train. There is no place to sit. Bodies have packed into the small space near the doors.

There is a tiny moment of resignation –– a steeling of will –– and the Eastbrook passengers begin to muscle their way onto the train. Apologies are muttered, awkward glances are exchanged.

"Excuse me," announces a heavyset woman still on the platform.

The passengers in the door well of the train look at her apologetically, shift from one foot to another, but there is nowhere for them to go.

"There's another one coming just now, love," shouts the guard, who is standing at the other end of the train. "You'll have to wait for that one."

The next train is scheduled to arrive in 10 minutes. No doubt it, too, is running late. With a determination that would see her capped for her national rugby side, the woman lurches into the crush. A young man finds himself embracing her in a manner that can only be described as deeply intimate. The doors close and the train begins to trundle forward.

The train is a Class 142 Pacer, an almost 30-year-old diesel unit known to train buffs as a "Nodding Donkey" or "Skipper," due to its rough ride and tendency to derail. It is a train from a different time, a different Britain, when the population was shorter, thinner and fewer. Its door hinges are caked in grease. The floor is sticky. Its seats and walls are cut with graffiti. On this morning, the windows are completely fogged from the breath of passengers. The air is heavy and damp, almost unbreathable. It is the sort of choking atmosphere to make one's clothes feel ill-fitting, to make the shower taken not an hour before seem for nought.

This is how it always is –– how it has been for a long while. On the Vale of Glamorgan Line, the Merthyr Line, the Rhondda Line, the Rhymney Line, and just about any other Arriva Trains Wales service rolling into Wales' capital city on the morning commute, the evening commute, school holidays, or special events like a rugby international match. The carriages are packed dangerously full and passengers wear the beleaguered posture of a people who know there is nothing they can do.

Privatisation has provided no options, no competition. This is the only choice in terms of train travel. The one accomplishment of privatisation, it seems, is in making culpability more difficult to determine. Ask who's to blame for the woeful state of things in Wales and you will rarely get more than pointing fingers.

"You will need to contact the Welsh Government for information on your enquiry," came the terse reply from Network Rail in response to questions about overcrowding on South Wales trains.

The issue of overcrowding is so bad that Arriva Trains Wales has allegedly been unwilling to cooperate with environmental organisations promoting train travel, for fear it will bring them new customers. It doesn't want any more business.

Faced with consistently brimming trains, the first question many passengers ask is: Why not add more carriages? If trains are time and time again arriving full of rumpled, unhappy people who have had to stand, cuddling a stranger, for the whole of their journey why not just make the trains longer?

For years, Arriva's response was that the platforms could not accommodate such a solution. Like the trains being used in South Wales, many of the area's train platforms were of a different time and not long enough for anything greater than a four-car train.

Then, in 2007, the Welsh Government forked out £13.2 million to extend some 42 platforms to ensure they were at least long enough to accommodate a six-car train. The work was carried out by Network Rail. In a July 2012 written response to plenary questioning by Assembly Member Eluned Parrott, Wales Local Government and Communities Minister Carl Sargeant said the aim of the project had been to "future proof the infrastructure to accommodate longer trains to provide additional capacity at such a time when demand necessitates."

Most daily commuters would have said such demand already existed in 2007. Six years on, however, not one of those extended platforms has been graced by a six-car train (the nature of the stock used by Arriva in South Wales means the number of carriages must be even; a five-car train is not possible). The largest passenger trains seen on South Wales Valleys lines are still just four cars long.

When asked to explain the situation Arriva Trains Wales took a month to respond. Their eventual reply was simply: "As this was a Welsh Government initiated project, you will need to speak to them."

And in an earlier Twitter exchange, the rail provider had stressed that the project was not their own: they didn't pay for it, they didn't do the work. "Platform extensions funded by Welsh Govt and delivered by @networkrail," the company said on its official Twitter account.

It would be interesting to learn whether Arriva asked for the project, and whether longer trains were promised as a result of it. Was the whole thing a surprise? A rogue move by a Welsh Assembly keen to flex its platform-funding muscle? That's a question no one seems able to answer.

What is clear is that the need for six-car trains exists. According to Liberal Democrat AM Eluned Parrott, who has held frequent talks with Arriva, the company are "happy to operate larger capacity trains" but the problem they face is a lack of stock.

Funding for the private company's stock comes from the Welsh Government. In 2006 and 2007, the government put forward funding for an additional 17 diesel units, which would appear to contradict Arriva's Twitter claim that "(we) did not receive funding for extra trains."

It also contradicts Carl Sargeant's response to a question about capacity posed by Conservative AM David Melding.

"The Welsh Government has invested in extra rolling stock for additional and strengthened services in South Wales," he wrote on 28 November 2012.

Parrott appears to have been told otherwise by Arriva.

"It is my understanding that there are no second-hand units currently available in the UK," she wrote in an email. "A large number of suitable units are likely to become available as other parts of the rail network are electrified. The first of these units is likely to become available in 2014."

In July 2012, the UK government announced plans to electrify large swathes of the country's rail network, starting in 2014. Lines in the South Wales Valleys are set to be a part of that electrification process, but Parrott suggests it will still be worthwhile to purchase additional diesel units because South Wales will be one of the last places electrified. According to the BBC, electrification work may not even begin in South Wales until 2019.

This wide timeframe for electrification seems to vindicate additional diesel units. But at the same time, according to Parrott, it vindicates the decision not to fund new trains. New stock "would take approximately 2-3 years to deliver and would be redundant once the lines are electrified," she wrote.

New trains, she said, would need to be operational for 20 or more years to be seen as "commercially viable as an investment to one of the private firms."

One can't help but wonder why commercial viability is relevant when the Welsh Government is apparently expected to foot the bill, but, as Parrott points out, "buying new for 5-8 years service cannot be considered a good investment for the taxpayer either."

According to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, the reason the Welsh Government is stuck throwing money at a private company is down to a decision made by Tony Blair's government in 2003. At that time, the Welsh Assembly existed but it did not have the powers necessary to make decisions about Wales' rail network. A 15-year contract was entered into by the UK Department of Transportation.

"What the Department failed to do at that time," explained Wood, "was forecast correctly the growth in passenger numbers."

In light of the recent scandal involving First Great Western's bid to run the West Coast Main Line, the insinuation of bad maths is not hard to believe.

Wales is locked into its contract until 2018, said Wood –– a contract that means Arriva "are not required to do anything more, in terms of service provision, than is included in the franchise." Which means the Welsh Government has had to pay for most service improvements, the platform extensions, and additional stock. Network Rail has provided some funding as well.

Though, the Welsh Government may also shoulder some of the blame for all this. Quite often it appears one hand doesn't know what the other is doing. Requests for information were met with a number of responses that occasionally contradicted one another.

For example, a response from James Ardern of the Welsh Assembly Government Rail Unit claimed that six-car trains are being operated regularly. This is a claim that contrasts both the experience of passengers and all available evidence. Indeed, if it were true, it most certainly would have been Arriva Trains Wales' response, rather than claiming it hasn't been given enough stock. A request for proof to substantiate the claim of six-car trains in operation has thus far gone unanswered. (Investigation for this story began in mid-November 2012)

The observed truth for South Wales commuters is that nothing is really changing, but with each passing year they are paying more for a substandard service. For the 10th consecutive year, UK rail passengers were last week hit with fare rises that are above the rate of inflation. In Wales this comes on top of a 6.2 percent fare increase that was implemented in August.

There are plenty of directions in which to point the finger of blame –– privatisation, pre-devolution government, infinite bureaucracy –– but that has little effect on the pertinent issue: people are still packing uncomfortably onto Cold War-era trains, and will be stuck doing so for the foreseeable future. South Wales commuters will be cuddling up to each other for a long time yet.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Back and forth

In many ways, 2012 was a pretty damn good year. My naturally cynical mindset doesn't want to outright admit this, though, so when I first sat down to write about my 2013 resolutions I spent too much amount of time focusing on the fact I had only managed to fulfil half my resolutions for 2012.

At the beginning of last year the goals I set for myself were to read at least 12 books, write one book, get a full-time job, and visit Scotland. The first two goals I managed, the other two not so much. I read a little more than 20 books (I am presently halfway through Bill Bryson's At Home), with my favourites being Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome (thank you to whomever it was that made that suggestion), Andrew Miller's Pure and John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. The latter I recommend especially. JS Sullivan's style is close to the sort of thing I'm trying to develop in my own writing and I really enjoyed it.

As far as my own writing was concerned, I finished work on Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama, a narrative nonfiction piece that I feel is the best thing I've written so far. It is presently in the hands of a literary agent in Los Angeles, so I'm afraid I can't make any predictions about when it will be published (though I am proud enough of it to promise it will see the light of day in some form or another, even if I have to release it as an e-book).

The full-time job, though, never happened. Those of you who really have your fingers on the pulse of current events may have heard that the economy is poopy just about everywhere in the world, which has a negative effect on the job market. That is especially true in this little corner of the Soggy Nations, where the economy hasn't really boomed since the Victorian age. But I did manage to find a part-time job that I love –– so much so that I almost don't care about failing to hold this particular resolution.

Indeed, the only reason I would want a full-time job is for the sake of money. Lack of that all-important commodity was at the heart of my abandoned ambitions to visit Scotland. But, hope springs eternal, so I will put it again at the top of my list for 2013. Because I seem to be fond of listing things by eights, here are eight things I hope to accomplish in the new year:

–– Visit Scotland ––
This may or may not be achievable. The coming year looks to be particularly demanding in a financial sense, because Jenn and I are getting married in July. But there is talk of a group of us taking a holiday in Scotland. There is also talk of the same group doing the National Three Peaks Challenge, which would result in my spending a very small amount of time in Scotland but enough to say I had been there.

–– Read 20 books ––
I managed this amount in 2012, I don't see why I can't do it again. I've never been a particularly strong reader, but I am working on it, yo.

–– Write at least one book ––
I'm hoping a good deal of my creative energy will be spent getting Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama ready for print, but I'm keen, too, to be able to look back on the year with a sense of also having created something. I have two books in my head; I plan to start work on something the first week of January.

–– Get a motorcycle ––
This is the most challenging one because Jenn sees it as folly. But I am obsessed. Obsessed, y'all. Obsessed. I have sworn to give up drinking in an attempt to free up a bit of money for the sake of this dream. Part and parcel of getting a motorcycle, of course, will be getting properly licensed in the UK. In an attempt to mollify Jenn's opposition I will first ensure that I finally have my full UK driver's license.

–– Run a marathon ––
Jenn and I plan to run the Belfast Marathon in May. I may also run the Wales Marathon the week before we get married. Add the Three Peaks Challenge and this could be an active year for yours truly.

–– Take Spanish courses ––
Yo quiero aprender el español. I have a pretty strong foundation, having taken beginner Spanish any number of times. In my first year at Cardiff University I took Spanish and performed astonishingly well, but then allowed myself to get bogged down in the challenges of trying to perfect my Welsh. I'm not planning on running off to some Spanish-speaking country in hopes of finally gaining acceptance, but I do want to get fluent because it's a beautiful sounding language, it's rather influential in the United States, and it's a language that's spoken in a lot of places I want to visit.

–– Take Jenn to Texas ––
I feel I've sold my home state poorly. I think Jenn pictures it as a hot, miserable place full of hyper-conservative nutjobs. And certainly there's some truth in that image. But it's also an incredibly beautiful place whose residents are very friendly and easygoing. It's a place that I love and I want her to be able to see what I value about it. Equally, I am keen to show her Minnesota in summer, so she'll understand why I sometimes get so debilitatingly homesick.


–– Develop a more positive attitude ––
I'm a grumpy dude, bitches. Partially because I am lonely in Britain, partially because I am not as successful a writer as I want to be, partially because I have not had a full-time job in six years, and partially because I'm simply getting older, I have been growing ever more cynical and unhappy. I don't enjoy it. I'm not sure what to do about it, but I know I don't want to be this way. I'm hoping some of the things above will help me accomplish this.