Sunday, 16 December 2012

More Europe than just the EU

Trying to get a grasp on the number of European institutions located in Strasbourg is complicated enough, if they were all part of the same organisation.

However, as many even European tourists find out, the various institutions based here are not necessarily all part of the same body.

Let’s start with the easy one – the European Parliament Building

This is the giant White Elephant that is used for just 12 weeks of the year because the European Union has it written into treaties that the Parliament (that’s where your local MEP ends up) must sit in Strasbourg 12 times a year for symbolic reasons, and any attempt to remove that clause would just be vetoed by the French on the spot.

This is part of the European Union (or just “Brussels” as the British Press like to portray it).  This part of the EU is the most democratic being entirely elected by 400 Million odd eligible voters of the EU.  This is also the place where Britain sends the people it likes to get rid of for a while (Robert Kilroy-Silk being the obvious example)

Next up is the European Court of Human Rights
This is the bizarre but strangely elegant lopsided cylinders building just down from the Parliament.  This is a noble institution, founded after the Second World War to ensure the human rights of every citizen on the continent is respected by members.  Anyone who has exhausted their home court system can take their case to the ECHR (or as the British Press describe it “Strasbourg” or when a case goes against what the press want – “unelected Euro-judges in Strasbourg imposing their Justice on Britain” – not that British judges are elected, by why let that stand in the way of righteous indignation) to seek a final, binding, ruling – The most recent example in the UK being the blanket ban on prisoners voting being ruled unlawful (it should be noted it’s not unlawful to ban prisoners from voting, just not all prisoners – the rights or wrongs of allowing those people who are likely to be back in society before the end of the next parliament the right to decide their elected representative possibly a vital part of reintegrating people into society – or as certain papers would describe it – woolly liberalism)

Finally we have the Council of Europe
The politest that could be said about the building is that it is distinctive.  I think quite a bit of the design may have been base on, or inspired the design of, Darth Vader’s helmet.

Despite the fact it fly’s the 12 star flag of the EU, it’s not part of the European Union.  In fact it’s a much wider group encompassing some 47 member states including EU refusniks Switzerland and Norway, the minnows of Liechtenstein, San Marino and Andorra (though notably not the Vatican City) and many of the former Soviet nations including Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.

And it’s this institution whose membership comes with the obligation to submit to the European Court of Human Rights.

Confused, you should be!

Perhaps it might be easier to explain the differences between Britain and the UK, then again…

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Virgin vs First

Earlier today I was asked in a Tweet where I stood regarding the franchise on the West Coast Main Line.

There has been a lot of press coverage over the decision to award the franchise to First Group over the incumbent Virgin Trains, with the whole process looking like the Government have awarded the franchise based solely on the amount of money that was being offered without taking into consideration that this has not always worked in the past.

As my travels show I am a fairly frequent traveller on Britain’s Railways, and in addition to my journeys on trips I also commute to work by train and regularly travel for work, so have a fair breadth of experience on the niceties of the various train operating companies.

Personally, I am disappointed that Virgin has lost the franchise.  Whenever I’ve travelled with them for work the service has always been excellent, and even on my travels they have scored highly, with just one journey being marked down (and re-reading my review I was probably being a little over harsh with them.)

Virgin does have its faults.  I’m a Virgin Media customer for broadband and TV at home and at times I would happily wrap the telephone cord round Richard Branson’s throat, their service can be patchy and unreliable and when things go wrong they take ages to get fixed (so, in summary as useless as BT)

I always preferred HMV to Virgin for music and if you gave me a choice between BA and Virgin Atlantic I would probably go for BA.

So I’m not enamoured with the Virgin brand, but their trains are something different.

When First ScotRail totally failed with the sleeper service it was the Virgin trains staff at Stafford Station who helped calm everyone down and try to make onward arrangements.

You always get the impression that Virgin train staff actually enjoy their jobs.

That’s not to say that First Group services are all bad.

From recent experience First Hull Trains is an excellent service and I’ve not really got much to hold against First Transpennine express.

First Great Western, when things are working fine, are great – but when they start to have wobbles, you can see how little backup there is.

First ScotRail in general are good, but again, when things go wrong they go spectacularly wrong.  Twice I’ve had the sleeper fail on me and the number of times I’ve had other trains cancelled is pretty high.

Then there’s First Capital Connect.  And this, I think, is the one that really does make me scared for the future of the West Coast Main Line.

I use the Thameslink service quite a bit and it was always pretty useless when it was run by Go-Ahead.  West Anglia Great Northern was regularly called We Are Going Nowhere when it was run by National Express.

These are pretty low baselines to start from, so it was with high-hopes that First Group was awarded the combined Thameslink and Great Northern franchise.

Sadly, from a dire service they’ve actually managed to make it worse.  First Capital Connect is an example of how to run trains for profit rather than customer service.  The trains are dirtier, the carriages more uncomfortable than they were before.  The number of trains they allow to run around absolutely covered in Graffiti that other companies clean off is amazing, it’s almost like they don’t care about the customer experience.

I’d like to think that if First Group do get the franchise that they will bring the Hull Trains level of service to the West Coast, which will match and possibly slightly better Virgins.  However, I fear that it’s three years of First Capital Connect levels of service before First Group do a National Express and decide they can’t be bothered any longer, throw the keys back at the government and walk away.

GNER was an excellent service, they overbid, cut and became so poor that they collapsed and the franchise had to be re-let to National Express who over bid, cut and then walked away from the service.

You would have thought after that the department of transport might have learnt some lessons.

I’m not going to refuse to travel on the West Coast if it is run by First, but I will be quick to complain if the service is anything less than Virgin’s standards.

And yes, I have signed the petition to get the whole fiasco reversed.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Loving the lingua franca

I’m sitting in the bar of the hotel listing to an interesting conversation between a restaurant customer, the lady on reception and the hotel manager.
The conversation is a discussion over whether the hotel should be charging for parking for someone who is just dining in the restaurant rather than staying.

What’s most amazing is that all three are having the conversation in a language other than their mother tongue.

The customer is French (he has stated this fact on at least four occasions “at home in France we do not charge to visit the restaurant”), the lady on reception is Polish, the manager, judging from the accent (and the name on the duty manager board) is German.

Yet they are all having this conversation in English, which means I can listen in and enjoy a rather pompous customer being brought down a peg or two.

His general complaint is that in France you are never charged car parking to visit a hotel restaurant, and has finally escalated to the statement that if the hotel was run by a proper hotel chain this wouldn’t happen.

I’m trying not to laugh, as I’ll give the game away, as I can clearly see both the receptionist and manager are about to leap on this open goal.

It’s at this point I suddenly realise that perhaps English has become a little too pervasive.  The fact that it was automatically the language of choice for the customer when travelling abroad, and the fact that the hotel staff are fluent leaves me feeling a little thick.  After all, I can barely master please and thank you in Polish, let alone attempt to defuse an annoyed patron in another language.

And the punch line.

The hotel is part of the Accor chain.  France’s largest hotel chain

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Globalisation in action

With the flexing nature of the borders in this part of the world Wrocław has lead an interesting life (being Breslau for a significant part of it right up to the end of the war)

Today it’s a confidently Polish city, but everywhere I looked I caught glimpses of other cities.

Heading in on the tram we went past a block of buildings with a Nordsee fish bar and Rossmann chemists, both big German chains, and then a little further on a Marks and Spencers next door to a BP garage with a large sign pointing to the Tesco Express on the edge of town.

Oh, and there was a Carrefour.