Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Reply to the Prime Minister

Well no-one's going to read it in the PM's office, so why not any lingerers on Blogger!

Dear Prime Minister,

Thank-you for your email. I’m fully aware that this reply will probably just go into an in-box like the 1.7m others, but on the off-chance that somewhere, sometime, a human might glance at it here is my response.

I’m not an expert in these matters. However, I am a reasonably intelligent voter and tax-payer who has been using the roads for 25 years and I think my views have some validity. Here are the points I’d like to make:

1. There is a fundamental disconnect in government planning policy, increasing demand for road use just as we’re being told congestion is costing billions and CO2 emissions from the increasing usage is causing devastating damage to the environment. In my local area on the south coast:-

a/ A major local hospital A&E unit is closing. It is somehow more ‘efficient’ to centralise to another hospital, 15 miles away, accessible only by travelling through two of the area’s worst traffic bottlenecks.
b/ In the last 5 years, several out-of-town retail parks have been built. I’m sure it’s theoretically possible to travel there by bus and travel home again with a week's shopping, but no-one with any option would even consider it when the alternative, to use a car, is so much more comfortable and convenient.
c/ Also in the last 5 years, several commercial office and industrial unit have also been built on the edge of local towns, each with a large car-park, and near major roads.
d/ Several thousand new houses are going to be built on the edge of a nearby town. There will be no school, shops, leisure facilities, or significant employment opportunities in this development, all it will lead to is thousands of additional road journeys as the residents travel to school, work, etc
e/ Our local post-office will close. The nearest one is two miles away.

Each of these developments, all controlled by central or local government, will lead directly to increased demand for road traffic. The alternative, a strategy encouraging self-contained communities with integral work, education, health, leisure and retail facilities, safe bicycle routes and cheap, clean, safe public transport just doesn’t appear to be part of government thinking at all. Surely that’s where the answers lie, not in taxing travel?

2. We, the tax payer, just don’t trust government not to start with a zero-net gain tax level on these schemes, and then just ratchet it up to feed the bottomless maw of Treasury spending. Sorry Gordon, this means your lot. We’ve seen this on every indirect tax set by your and previous governments, including stamp duty, inheritance tax, Community taxes, personal allowances. We’ve also seen direct taxes climb to near 50% of our salaries, and I don’t want to think of indirect taxes I pay.

3. In addition, we don’t trust the Government to run this scheme efficiently. Your track record of large-scale IT projects in the public sector is abysmal, and the experience of London’s congestion charging scheme shows that the costs of running the scheme may just outweigh the revenues.
Neither do we trust you to spend any net revenue on public transport. Sorry, but we just don’t, only a fraction of the billions currently raised by taxes on fuel, road-tax and VAT on related services go towards roads or public transport, and we don’t expect this to change.

4. And we don’t trust you not to miss-use the personal data that this scheme will generate.

5. In the past ‘simple’ technology led solutions to complex issues just haven’t worked. In the last 10 years, >5,000 ‘safety’ camera’s have been placed on the UK’s roads, ostensibly to prevent deaths and serious injury in road collisions. Yet, KSI numbers haven’t dropped in those 10 years. However unintended consequences include a growing lack of respect for the Police Service, erosion of driving standards, and creation of a large number of self-serving quangoes. None of these are to the long term benefit of society.

6. And by the way, I strongly suspect that the ‘£30B’ figure quoted as the cost of congestion is one of those number dreamt up by a treasury economist with a political objective to meet. Much like the ‘£1M’ cost quoted for every road collision fatality, where in reality <£100k are costs for damage, Emergency services and medical care, and the >£900k balance are vague opportunity costs.

7. And lastly, no-one is able to demonstrate how tax revenues from road pricing are going to be used to alleviate global warming.

In your last few months of office I hope you will bear these comments in mind as you continue to develop strategy in this area.


From the Prime Minister

Here's Tony's response to all the 1.7million irritated Brits who asked him to re-consider his plans for nation-wide road pricing. It's certainly got a ring of truth about it - you can even hear him saying it....

Thank you for taking the time to register your views about road pricing on the Downing Street website.

This petition was posted shortly before we published the Eddington Study, an independent review of Britain's transport network. This study set out long-term challenges and options for our transport network.

It made clear that congestion is a major problem to which there is no easy answer. One aspect of the study was highlighting how road pricing could provide a solution to these problems and that advances in technology put these plans within our reach. Of course it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible.
That is the backdrop to this issue. As my response makes clear, this is not about imposing "stealth taxes" or introducing "Big Brother" surveillance. This is a complex subject, which cannot be resolved without a thorough investigation of all the options, combined with a full and frank debate about the choices we face at a local and national level. That's why I hope this detailed response will address your concerns and set out how we intend to take this issue forward. I see this email as the beginning, not the end of the debate, and the links below provide an opportunity for you to take it further.

But let me be clear straight away: we have not made any decision about national road pricing. Indeed we are simply not yet in a position to do so. We are, for now, working with some local authorities that are interested in establishing local schemes to help address local congestion problems. Pricing is not being forced on any area, but any schemes would teach us more about how road pricing would work and inform decisions on a national scheme. And funds raised from these local schemes will be used to improve transport in those areas.

One thing I suspect we can all agree is that congestion is bad. It's bad for business because it disrupts the delivery of goods and services. It affects people's quality of life. And it is bad for the environment. That is why tackling congestion is a key priority for any Government.
Congestion is predicted to increase by 25% by 2015. This is being driven by economic prosperity. There are 6 million more vehicles on the road now than in 1997, and predictions are that this trend will continue.

Part of the solution is to improve public transport, and to make the most of the existing road network. We have more than doubled investment since 1997, spending £2.5 billion this year on buses and over £4 billion on trains - helping to explain why more people are using them than for decades. And we're committed to sustaining this investment, with over £140 billion of investment planned between now and 2015. We're also putting a great deal of effort into improving traffic flows - for example, over 1000 Highways Agency Traffic Officers now help to keep motorway traffic moving.

But all the evidence shows that improving public transport and tackling traffic bottlenecks will not by themselves prevent congestion getting worse. So we have a difficult choice to make about how we tackle the expected increase in congestion. This is a challenge that all political leaders have to face up to, and not just in the UK. For example, road pricing schemes are already in operation in Italy, Norway and Singapore, and others, such as the Netherlands, are developing schemes. Towns and cities across the world are looking at road pricing as a means of addressing congestion.

One option would be to allow congestion to grow unchecked. Given the forecast growth in traffic, doing nothing would mean that journeys within and between cities would take longer, and be less reliable. I think that would be bad for businesses, individuals and the environment. And the costs on us all will be real - congestion could cost an extra £22 billion in wasted time in England by 2025, of which £10-12 billion would be the direct cost on businesses.
A second option would be to try to build our way out of congestion. We could, of course, add new lanes to our motorways, widen roads in our congested city centres, and build new routes across the countryside. Certainly in some places new capacity will be part of the story. That is why we are widening the M25, M1 and M62. But I think people agree that we cannot simply build more and more roads, particularly when the evidence suggests that traffic quickly grows to fill any new capacity.

Tackling congestion in this way would also be extremely costly, requiring substantial sums to be diverted from other services such as education and health, or increases in taxes. If I tell you that one mile of new motorway costs as much as £30m, you'll have an idea of the sums this approach would entail.

That is why I believe that at least we need to explore the contribution road pricing can make to tackling congestion. It would not be in anyone's interests, especially those of motorists, to slam the door shut on road pricing without exploring it further.
It has been calculated that a national scheme - as part of a wider package of measures - could cut congestion significantly through small changes in our overall travel patterns. But any technology used would have to give definite guarantees about privacy being protected - as it should be. Existing technologies, such as mobile phones and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, may well be able to play a role here, by ensuring that the Government doesn't hold information about where vehicles have been. But there may also be opportunities presented by developments in new technology. Just as new medical technology is changing the NHS, so there will be changes in the transport sector. Our aim is to relieve traffic jams, not create a "Big Brother" society.

I know many people's biggest worry about road pricing is that it will be a "stealth tax" on motorists. It won't. Road pricing is about tackling congestion.

Clearly if we decided to move towards a system of national road pricing, there could be a case for moving away from the current system of motoring taxation. This could mean that those who use their car less, or can travel at less congested times, in less congested areas, for example in rural areas, would benefit from lower motoring costs overall. Those who travel longer distances at peak times and in more congested areas would pay more. But those are decisions for the future. At this stage, when no firm decision has been taken as to whether we will move towards a national scheme, stories about possible costs are simply not credible, since they depend on so many variables yet to be investigated, never mind decided.

Before we take any decisions about a national pricing scheme, we know that we have to have a system that works. A system that respects our privacy as individuals. A system that is fair. I fully accept that we don't have all the answers yet. That is why we are not rushing headlong into a national road pricing scheme. Before we take any decisions there would be further consultations. The public will, of course, have their say, as will Parliament.

We want to continue this debate, so that we can build a consensus around the best way to reduce congestion, protect the environment and support our businesses. If you want to find out more, please visit the attached links to more detailed information, and which also give opportunities to engage in further debate.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair

Thursday, 8 February 2007

What's a 'Real' Porsche?

There's a lot of debate about this in the on-line Porsche world. Here's the definitive answer:

'Real' Porsches were built by old man Ferdinand Porsche and young Ferry, his son, in an old sawmill in Gmund in Austria in 1949 and early 1950. They wielded the hammers and spanners themselves, beat out the panels over wooden bucks, raided the British VW factory for parts and built 60 cars.

Anything built after that is a commercial sell-out.

(possibly with tongue firmly in cheek)

Let me tell you the tale of my Audi A2. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin……

Here’s another mid-atlantic blog entry.

I purchased my A2 in early 2005. It was less than 3 years old, had around 26k miles and only two owners. This was my second A2, I was attracted by the concept of the lightweight aluminium construction, the superb packaging, the modern efficient FSI engine which promised 45mpg, & it had all the usual Audi mod-cons and premium car feel.

At the time it was the only current Audi with decently resolved steering feedback and control weighting, and with 110bhp and only 960kgs it was a pretty good drive. The downsides were mainly the ride – this is a ‘Sport’ with 17” wheels and 35% tyres.

Poor ride is the A2’s weakness & the big wheel’s unsprung weight and stiff sidewalls made it even worse. Recently I drove a non-Sport spec. car. This was actually a much better car over-all (although it had the smaller engine), because it didn’t ride like a 1957 Landrover.

Anyway, back to my A2 purchase. After buying older cars and squaring up to pretty big repair bills, I thought at least this one is new(-ish) and should be reliable and cheap to run!

In Autumn 2005, just before the end of the three year warranty period, I arranged for it to go to my local dealer, Aston Green (nee Slough) Audi in Slough, for a service. I wanted any problems to be identified while the car was still under warranty. Sure enough, there was a fault with the front suspension which was causing a knocking sound. However, it appears that while the correct service schedule had been carried out by the original selling dealer in Dulwich and the service book was fully stamped, some central computer system had not been updated. As a consequence Aston Green were unwilling to carry out the repairs.

Dulwich Audi were brilliant though, and accepted full responsibility for this mix up, arranged to collect the car and carried out a full service and the necessary suspension repairs.

A high point of my year…..

A few weeks later, I started to notice that the car was losing power in the low and mid-range. The ECU warning light also lit intermittently. I arranged for my wife to bring the car in for a check by Aston Green in December. They were unable to locate a fault and asked us to bring the car back again for further diagnostics.

This we did, but were told the error codes in the car’s ECU did not appear to be correct & that a package of information had been sent to Audi UK in Milton Keynes for advice. I was also informed that I’d be contacted when a reply had been received.

Now taking the car to a dealer in Slough was a blessed inconvenience. Each time we had to juggle work, school runs, nannies etc. and it was always a nuisance.

I heard nothing from Slough Audi.

Meanwhile the car continued to run poorly and the ECU light was lit permanently. Eventually, it stranded me, and I had to be recovered by AA Relay. The AA technician diagnosed that two of the coil packs had failed. He replaced them, and the car at least ran, but the performance was still poor.

The continuing poor running then started to be accompanied by a rattle when the car was started from cold. Girding my loins for another encounter with Aston Green Audi, I again arranged to bring the car in. This was around March 2006. On this occasion I was told that the catalytic converter had failed, and that this was the cause of the noise and probably the poor running too. Unfortunately it seemed a cat failure on this car was so rare that there were none of the necessary parts in the system and I’d have to wait several weeks for them to be sourced in Germany. Meanwhile it was strongly recommended I didn’t drive the car. This wasn’t practical for us, so I rang around the Audi network and located a cat in Audi Portsmouth, which I had fitted at a total cost of over £500-.

Naturally I enquired why the cat had failed after just 30,000 miles – judging by the lack of availability of the cats it clearly isn’t at all common – but was informed that it had “probably received a shock or impact”. I’ve driven the car almost exclusively for nearly 10,000 miles and was unaware of any shocks or impacts.

However, replacing the catalyst still failed to improve the poor low and mid-speed running. This had now reached the stage where I was unwilling to allow my wife to drive the car with our children, as the response to the throttle was now so erratic it was a liability, for example trying to pull out onto a busy roundabout. And a rear tweeter had started to buzz annoyingly.

So in June I faced up to yet another round with Aston Green, and organised to bring the car in for more diagnostics. This still failed to identify the fault, although at least on this occasion after I demonstrated the problem, the technician acknowledged that there was a mechanical issue. Once again, information was sent to Audi UK, and this time I was asked to bring the car back in again for more diagnostics.

At this point, I was told that a £30- charcoal filter has broken up, needing the fuel system to be cleaned out & parts replaced at a (discounted) cost of £600, in addition to the £300 already paid for the diagnostic work. Again, I was told that this fault is unheard of in an A2, but it should “probably” fix the poor running problem. Although I mentioned the tweeter, it still buzzes annoyingly.

At this point, I wheeled out the PC and drafted a ‘I’m not happy..’ letter to Slough Audi’s gaffer (dealer principal) and the head of Audi UK.

To be fair, Audi Slough’s response was good. The head of their customer services got in touch, and once again the car went in – this time it was collected from my office and I got a nice A4 courtesy car.

After about 3 weeks I was told they’d fixed it. Hurray! They delivered it all nice and clean and I looked forward to the drive home.

After 20 minutes I was cursing Slough Audi, as the poor thing struggled to climb a moderate incline – fixed my arse!

So it was back to Slough Audi for visit number 5. Or 6 - I’ve lost count. Again I got a nice courtesy car – this time a brand new A4, and waited two more weeks when the call came again – they’ve fixed it, all it needed was a new ECU…

But this time I wasn’t going to take their word for it and insisted on an accompanied test drive. Their technician, Ian, was nice bloke, but I could tell that it was really down on power as soon as I headed up the road. Sure enough, after 25minutes of running, the poor thing stated running like a knackered Trabant. Rather embarrassedly, Ian agreed, and back it went, and this time it stayed for 9 weeks!

At this point it’s December 2006, the Cayman had arrived, we’ve moved to the south coast, and whole forests have grown up and been cut down for timber. All I wanted was a running A2 and I’d be happy.

Now to be fair to Slough Audi, they’ve picked up the costs for all this failed diagnostics. This amounts to 36 hours, £1000 of parts, and car hire. I estimate the total cost is nearly £5000 so far.

Finally, I got the call. “We’ve isolated the fault!” they said. Apparently; it was contaminated fuel all along, all caused by the failure of the £30 filter. It’s just that the first attempt to clean the system hadn’t been entirely successful.

So the big day came and I went to try it out again. Well, it now goes better than a Trabant, but guess what? Its still not 100%. In fact it isn’t even 70%. Sometimes I put my foot down and it pulls clean & hard to the redline in 3rd and then 4th. Try it again 60 seconds later and it feels like someone’s shoved a potato up its exhaust.

So after more than a year of a poorly running A2, more than 8 visits to Aston Green, probably £1500 in unscheduled repair costs, as well as fuel consumption that now struggles to reach 35mpg instead of the normal 45mpg. And at the time of writing the issue is still not resolved.

I chose an Audi because of its premium brand & reputation and because I wanted an efficient, high quality & reliable car with an excellent ownership experience and dealership back-up. Had I wanted to enjoy poor dealer support and unreliability, be assured I would have chosen something made in Italy or France.

PS Feb 2007 and the A2 is back with Slough Audi. There’s a part of me that wishes it would go away, but fingers crossed its in Slough for the final time.

To be continued….

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Sunday Drivers

I’m doing a coaching course at the moment. It involves three full Sundays, not great timing as it means another day per week away from the family. I have to be in Slough at 9am too, necessitating an uncomfortably early start.

Last Sunday’s was a lovely drive over the south Downs, taking it easy in the corners because of the frost. There wasn’t much traffic around, but what there was ran smoothly at the speed limit or a little above, and was generally being sensible. Then a quick run up from Milford to Slough via the A3/M25 all without incident, not having exceeded 90mph, but making the 70 miles in a little over an hour..

After the training, I left Slough at around 4pm in the afternoon. From the M4/Slough West exit to Datchet is a long straight stretch of road that used to be 3-lane, but is now 2 lanes with the centre section crosshatched (broken white line) because there were some nasty Darwin crashes in the middle last year.

After the roundabout at the start of the straight there were two vehicle in front, both doing 40mph (it’s a NSL). Neither seemed interested in picking up the pace, so I pulled out to overtake – there was only one vehicle approaching in opposite direction – and slowly drifted past, no more than ½ throttle in 4th as there was plenty of room Mr 40mph saw me coming past and accelerates hard in his V6 auto 406 Coupe. Once its clear what’s happening I decide he’s not worth it and fall in behind.

A few minutes later, I reached Windsor Great Park (now a 50mph limit, but generally a fast open stretch of road). I was in another queue of 40mph traffic, probably a dozen cars following a struggling white transit van. I slide past a couple, but there was heavy on-coming traffic.

After the Ascot ‘peanut’ roundabout, the queue is still doing no more than 40mph along the two long straight sections of the A329 towards Ascot, this time all NSL National Speed Limit, or 60mph in this case). There was no on-coming traffic so I safely overtake about 6 cars on the first section, at no great speed in 3rd gear. On the second straight section, there was still no oncoming traffic (visibility at least 1 mile to the junction ahead, and no side turnings) and I pull out and slide past the rest, all strictly IAM one-at-a-time stuff.

Four folks flash their lights and wave their fists. Presumably in appreciation of my fine driving, as it surely can’t be in impotent rage and avarice.

Later on, I bang the Cayman up to 7200rpm in 3rd, having now run it in for 1100miles. This was on a deserted section of quiet open road next to Ascot racecourse. It used to be a NSL, but is now inexplicably a 40mph limit.

Then head ‘home’ to tea and biscuits & read the paper.