Thursday, 26 September 2013

Back on the Road - Doha Qatar

So here we are……at long last, back on The Road again.   The Travellin Bob Global Tour re-starts after a 12 month hiatus.  It’s good to be back.

It’s been enjoyable spending my time at home, getting to know my wife and kids again, and we’ve had some good times – documented elsewhere here.  But it’s been incredibly frustrating and (at times) downright scary too – also documented elsewhere here.  So getting back in the saddle, so to speak, has come not a moment too soon, and has preserved my sanity at least, and probably Ania’s too…..I know I’ve been getting under her feet a bit lately!

And a decent first assignment too – back to the Gulf, this time to Doha in Qatar: a new destination – for a good six months or more.   Plenty of material to write about I’m sure – watch this space.

First things first, of course, was digging out the suitcase, and hoovering off the coating of dust it had gained from its long storage under the bed.   Then re-ironing all my shirts and making sure my various suits were clean and pressed (unusually for a Gulf country, I’m having to go to the office suited and booted rather than business casual).  Shoes ok?  Nope – both pairs of work shoes needed attention from my friendly neighbourhood cobbler, to mention nothing of a good Polish polish.  What about ties?  Yep, plenty of those – but a bit of practice tying the damned things was needed since I had not worn one for a few years….now how do you do a decent Windsor Knot again?  Oh, and make sure the camera battery is fully charged, and all my electrical bits have got the right plugs and/or adaptors (UK standard 3 pin replacing my European standard 2 pin)….yep, all in order.

So preparation and packing took rather longer than the half hour it used to, but took care of Friday evening and Saturday morning, in the absence of my Beloveds (who were off to the countryside with some friends of ours, drinking copious amounts of wine and beer, probably, and picking several baskets of wild mushrooms – they are delicious, and I hope they save some for me!).

Ordered my taxi – and noticed an empty wallet, so galloped off to the bank downstairs for cash.  Damn – wrong pin (wait a minute……no, it’s not!).  Back upstairs and on the phone to my bank.  10 minutes listening to piped muzak before getting connected to an English speaking personal banker.  Re-set my pin, and galloped back downstairs….all ok, the taxi fare now nestled in my wallet.  Just in time: here’s my cab.  And off to Okecie airport I go……

It’s amazing how out of practice you get when you haven’t done this properly for a while (I’ll discount my odd daytrips to the UK for funerals and interviews, since there was no packing involved, and our weekend for the wedding because the whole family travelled with me).   All I have to do now is get back in the old routine – which I will do by the time I travel home in a couple of weeks, I’m sure.

There have been a lot of changes at the airport and its surroundings since last year.  Some I had noticed on my few English journeys, but there have been more in the past month or so.  A new network of access roads has sprung up, linked to the new highway network that is under construction around Warsaw, so getting in and out seemed easier this time (though travelling on a Saturday lunchtime may have contributed to that).   A railway now runs into the airport from the central station in town.  There also seem to be more buses coming into the place too, not only locals but from all over Poland.  Inside the terminal, there are a number of new airlines operating – notably Emirates and Qatar Airways, with both of whom there are connecting flights to the Far East and Australasia via Dubai and Doha respectively.  The terminal seemed cleaner and brighter and with a bigger variety of restaurants and bars and a good range of retail outlets too.  All the gates (nearly 50 now) were operating, and there were a number of planes out on the apron too.  It’s all a far cry from when I first arrived in Warsaw back in 2000, when the single small terminal building operated no more than a dozen gates, covering both domestic and international flights, serving a relatively small number of (mainly European) destinations with about four airlines, and offered three shops, one cafĂ© and one Business Lounge.  If ever there was testament to how Poland has prospered since EU accession, a stroll round the airport provides it.
I had checked in on-line the previous morning, so queuing for that wasn’t required, just straight to  the Fast Bag Drop desk.  They issued me a new boarding pass anyway, and unusually put the thing in a nice blue folder.  The reason for that became clear later at Doha.  Security took five minutes – Saturday afternoon is clearly a good time to travel at this time of year – and passport control to the non-Schengen area even less, so I was at my gate with the best part of two hours to spare.  But I had my book and my music, bought a coffee, and was quite happy.

“The World’s Five Star Airline.”

This is the tagline in all the Qatar Airways advertising, including the brilliant new film celebrating their tie-in with Barcelona F.C. (I love the bit where heavy metal god Carlos Puyol saves a kid from a pot plant falling from a third floor window by leaping in the air and heading it clear, shattering the terracotta, then brushes the dirt off his sweatshirt and wanders off as if nothing has happened – brilliant use of his “hard man” image).   Despite this, TripAdvisor carried a number of negative reviews, mainly from American travelers but with a ludicrous one from a guy complaining that, when there was an aircraft malfunction causing a flight cancellation in Doha, there was no passenger announcement in his native language – Mandarin Chinese: now there’s a surprise!  There were also many reviews (rather more in fact) praising the airline.  Its website, on the sections relating to in-flight catering, entertainment and cabin ambience, naturally focuses on the newer planes in the fleet (mostly the Dreamliner) and on the Business and First Class passengers, but this is no different to any other airline website.  So I was looking forward to the flight, booked by my client (I LOVE being able to say that with a degree of truth, rather than THE client!), and sampling its Economy Class service for myself.

I was not disappointed.  No Dreamliner of course, as the flight is relatively short at a bit over 2000 miles: the plane was a regular, common or garden Airbus A320-200, the same as BA use on the Heathrow to Europe routes.  But there the similarity ended.  The cabin was much brighter and well appointed, there was a much better seat pitch (there are around 20 fewer Economy Class seats in all Qatar Airways cabins, giving better leg-room for everybody, even in the smaller aircraft like this), the seat was perhaps the most comfortable I’ve ever had in Economy, and the entertainment system was excellent.  It carried a selection of maybe 200 movies, a similar number of tv shows and dozens of music channels and CDs in several languages and musical genres, as well as the more popular games.   Previously, BA had provided the best system I had seen, on my flight to Trinidad 3 years ago, but it’s limited (or was then) to long-haul routes: QA provides it on all flights.  When it came, the in-flight meal was very good too: proper cutlery, not plastic, well cooked and presented, and a good choice: my chicken with mashed potatoes and vegetables in a spicy tomato sauce was first class.

It was a five hour flight, and I passed it in comfort watching the movie (I chose Oblivion, a recent sci-fi thriller starring Tom Cruise – not bad, but I’ve seen better: I found it a bit confusing at times) and listening to Springsteen’s classic Born To Run album (amongst other delights).  The sound on both was a little muffled, but I put that down to an ill-fitting headset – nothing new there, I’ve never yet found one an airplane that was the right size for my bonce -  rather than the system itself.  I had a minor issue with my seat too, in that it wouldn’t stay upright – no matter what I did, it constantly reclined all the way: not a big deal for me,  but a problem for the lady behind me especially at meal time.  But I could nothing about that except apologise. 
My overall verdict: Qatar Airways is first class, and I’m more than happy to use them for the duration of this project.

We landed at Doha at 11:15 p.m. local time (that’s an hour ahead of my home CET), and the temperature was 38C……..ridiculous.  We parked on the apron, as there is a lot of refurbishment going on here, and hopped on a couple of buses.    I remember years ago, when I was a kid, my late brother-in-law, many years older than me, was by trade a master scaffolder, and got a job at Gatwick airport which was then (as now) being extended, and was delighted that he had found a job for life – and he was right: judging by the fact that every airport in the world (even the newer ones) seem to be in a constant state of flux and development, nothing seems to have changed in all that time.  I sometimes wonder whether going into the City at 17, rather than building or plumbing or something, was the right career move……then I remember how many times I’ve hammered a thumb instead of a nail, or shelves I’ve painstakingly put up have fallen off the wall as soon I’ve put anything (like a feather or something) on them – and I know I made the right choice, despite all the aggravation I’ve been through.

Anyway, the bus took us round a circuit of the airport buildings, depositing us at various arrivals halls and transfer terminals, all of which were colour coded – hence the nice blue ticket folder.  It took maybe 15 minutes to reach the blue Arrivals Terminal, where I joined the ubiquitous line snaking round to the security desks, where 20 minutes later I presented my passport and credit card to buy my 30 day visitor’s visa.   Here I encountered a minor problem: you have to stand on these foot shapes painted on the floor and stare wide eyed at a camera over the guy’s head to have your picture taken for posterity and the local security services.  The thing is I suffer (if that’s the right word) from lazy eyelids – as did my mum – so I can’t open my eyes wide: at least not wide enough for the camera here.  After five or six attempts had failed to capture an image, and I had demonstrated twice what the problem was (much to the amusement, fortunately, of the two security guys) they gave it up as a bad job, stamped my passport and waved me through.

The baggage had all come through by then and the belt was motionless, but my case (along with 2 others) was standing safely on the floor, so I headed into the Arrivals Hall to find my driver from the hotel.  There was no sign of anyone waving my name, probably spelt wrong, on a sheet of A4 as I had been expecting, so after wandering around inside the terminal building and out, I went to the Information desk.  Very helpfully, they called the hotel who told me to go to desk 9 (of 20-odd) back through where I had come from, and there I would be attended to.  The security guy was very helpful, and smilingly waved me back through the door marked EXIT (I had to wait a minute for someone else to come out through it).   Sure enough my name was on a board at desk 9, and the bloke escorted me to a taxi driven by a very pleasant Indian from Poona who took me to the hotel (at least I think that’s what he said, but his English was so strongly accented and he had such a terrible stammer that I can’t now be sure).
But at least I had arrived safely.

The drive to the hotel took around 15 minutes, through typical Gulf city streets, well lit, with half-finished pavements and concrete barriers separating the carriageways, and rows of market stalls and shops, many still active even at midnight, along each side.  It reminded me very much of Beirut, where the airport is similarly within the confines of the city rather than out of town as at Abu Dhabi, although the look of obvious prosperity was more UAE than Lebanese.

The Wyndham Grand Regency Hotel, where my client had booked me for three nights (pending relocation to an apartment) is as opulent as the name suggests.  It stands on a busy road, one of the main thoroughfares through Doha, and right next to one of the busiest roundabouts, on the edge of the business district, but out about 3 km from the touristy city centre and seaside Corniche.  As we pulled up, a couple of doormen raced each other to my door to help me out and take my baggage, and the winner escorted me smilingly to Check In.  This was done at individual desks, and was a far more personal and friendly service than I think is normal – no queues for a start (but then it was by now nearly half past midnight).  I was pleasantly surprised to receive an upgrade from a Standard Room to an Executive Suite, with separate lounge and bedroom and free internet – and very nice and comfortable it is too.  I was shown to the room by my faithful doorman, who explained all the tv and air-conditioning controls, pointed out the coffee making facilities (hidden in a cupboard under the flat screen hi-def tv) and the mini bar (ditto) and didn’t seem at all put out when I explained I couldn’t tip him as I had no local currency yet.  I have some now, but I’ve not seen him yet to grease his palm……ah well, such is life.

I unpacked and went to sleep in my king sized, canopied bed with a mirrored headboard, but tossed and turned for over an hour before falling asleep.  My morning shower, in a beautifully tiled stall in a beautifully tiled bathroom two thirds the size of my bedroom at home, came as a deluge from a shower head the size of an open laptop, and very nice it was too.  Decent spread for breakfast – plenty of cold cuts and cheeses and a dozen different varieties of bread, hot stuff like eggs and beef sausages and beef bacon (remember, Muslim country so strictly no pork), lots of fresh fruits and yoghurts and cereals, and a fine selection of pastries and donuts.  Spoiled for choice, really.  But I managed.  The food in the hotel (mainly I’ve settled for room service meals in the evenings) has been first class, huge helpings and well-cooked and served.  Last night I treated myself to dinner in one of the hotel restaurants – it was more expensive than a roomy, but well worth it: a serve yourself buffet where you can take as much or as little as you like.  I settled for a tasty cream of chicken soup, a main of lamb meatballs in a savoury tomato sauce, with a big pile of roast potatoes and steamed vegetables, and for dessert a plate full of various cakes and donuts that the bald bloke in Masterchef would have loved. 

If I stay here much longer, I will for sure put on quickly the weight I’ve lost over the past few months – for the first time in years I’m below 90kilos.  Fortunately the hotel has a pool and a fitness centre so I can exercise it away.  I’ve not used the pool yet, but gave the gym a go a couple of nights ago.  It’s well equipped and I had a good half an hour on an exercise bike, covering 15km while on my iPod  listening to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers: good music to sweat by.  So the facilities are very good, but as we’re working until after 6, by the time we’re back in the hotel it’s nearly 7 and frankly I can’t be arsed most nights to get changed and head for the gym – it would make dinner too late for my digestion to be comfortable if I did so.  But now it’s the weekend (again the Muslim one, Friday and Saturday  - I still can’t used to working on a Sunday) I’ll have more of a chance, between sight-seeing expeditions, to use both the pool and the gym.  Then on Monday – at least, in theory – I’ll be checking out for the apartment: no idea if there will be similar facilities in the block – I somehow doubt it.  That said, I’ve been extended at the hotel twice already as a suitable apartment hasn’t been found yet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I were still here this time next week.
Again, TripAdvisor reviews have been largely positive, but with some unflattering niggles (mostly from Yanks and Chinese – what is it about those miserable sods?) but frankly I can’t fault the place at all.  It’s one of the best hotels I’ve had the pleasure of staying in, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

So there we go.  After a longer than expected holiday my life is getting back to normal.  I’m back on the road, and happy to be so.   I’ve missed it more than I had expected to, and it’s proven to me that I’m not ready to retire just yet!

Work is fine so far, but of course the project is still very much in the early stages and there is still a lot of information needed before we can make any real progress.  We’re still short of people (nothing new there) with one more joining us on Sunday and a couple more being sought.  I’ve found stuff to do and kept busy, but as yet have not been extended at all – that will come later, I’m sure. 

In the meantime, I now have a couple of days off, and as the temperatures are falling I intend to get out and about, see the sights and shoot off a bunch of pictures.  So watch this space for more on Doha, this time next week I should think.

Happy travelling.

Friday, 20 September 2013

What a difference a year makes: Scraping Past the Scrapheap

This time last year, I was enjoying a fairly relaxing four week assignment in Malta.   It was very typical of the work I had been doing for much of the previous four years or so, hand-holding a client through testing and giving them guidance when needed.   The people were very friendly and it was a pleasant enough working environment: our little team of three was ensconced in a conference room on the third floor, where the bank people could come and find us if they had any major issues.  In the time I was there, they had very few minor issues, never mind major ones.  Truth be told, it was a bit of a vacation.

The weather was good, as you would expect in the central Med at this time of year, with sunny skies and temperatures in the high 20s Celsius.  It was also something of a trip down memory lane, as I'd been to the island on vacation some years previously.  The bank also put us up in some rather fine spa hotels, including one week where I had my own private sun terrace and pool (which I was not able to use as I was at work during daylight hours).

But it was a good month in the sun, and I enjoyed it.  What I had no way of knowing at the time was that it would be the last piece of work for the company and indeed my last piece of work for a year.

I came home, and settled down to wait for the next assignment.  This is typical of the way I have worked for the last several years: you did your rime on site, whether a couple of days or a couple of years, then wait at home enjoying family life while the resourcing people find you something else to do.  Sometimes you might be benched for a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks.  On rare occasions it can stretch to a month or so, but hardly ever more than that (largely because the company is losing money when you're at home).  So when I was at home for a second week, this was nothing unusual.  I was talking pretty much every day to my line manager and the resourcing people, and it seemed there were a few options under consideration - dates were still open, or contracts were still not signed, the usual kinds of delays that happen in my line of work.

So it came as a bit of a surprise on a sunny early autumn Tuesday morning when a DHL Courier turned up on my doorstep - neither Ania nor I were expecting any parcel deliveries  When I opened the package, there was a letter from the company, advising that my contract had been terminated and from that day I was suspended while I served out my three months notice period.  The letter arrived two days after "celebrating" (if that's the right word) 13 years with them - I'd even received a congratulatory e-mail from our recently retired Charismatic Greek Founder and ex-Chairman.  The previous day, I'd spent half an hour talking with my line manager about a probable assignment in Italy where contracts were due for signature that week.  So the letter, completely without prior warning, came as a real bolt from the blue.

Now I know and accept there is no easy way of getting rid of someone - in previous lives I've had to do it myself - but of all the many and varied ways of doing it, sending a letter by courier without prior discussion must be one of the worst.  Many friends and co-workers had been in similar positions over the previous couple of years, but to the best of my knowledge all of them were given at least some inkling something was about to happen by their managers or HR.  Most had been advised at least two months earlier, officially, that their job was "at risk", so were able to start planning their next career move.  I had none of that.  In all my banking years, too, warnings had generally been given, unless the severance was a firing for misconduct or something.  Only once in my life had I lost a job in similar unforeseen circumstances, and that was when the company itself folded one lunch time, as a result of the chairman and chief executive having a monumental fall-out over trading losses, and the chairman (who owned something like 80% of the share capital - it was a private company) decided he'd had enough and closed the place down.  But at least he had the decency to meet with us all personally, as a whole-staff group and individually, to explain his reasons and answer our questions.

I got straight on the phone to my manager, who was totally embarrassed and said very little, beyond "I'll call you back in 10 minutes" - which she did, as part of a conference call with the regional head of HR.  We had what can only be described as a full and frank exchange of views.  It didn't change anything, of course, but at least it got things off my chest.  They also agreed to allow me to keep my laptop (it was only a year or so old, and a good one, so that saved me a few quid), and agreed that I could write my own reference which they would sign (and so they did with minimal changes).

So truth be told, once I'd slept on it, I felt quite relaxed about the whole thing.  I had been expecting something to happen for the best part of two years, as the company culled good people left, right and centre, with no rhyme or reason or obvious strategy in mind beyond cutting costs.  It was a relief, really, and for a week or so I slept soundly, better than I had in a long time.  I had three months' notice, hence three more salaries to come, plus with the last pay packet a redundancy pay-off (less than I felt I deserved after 13 years loyalty, but better than some people received) so paying the bills wasn't an immediate problem.  I felt confident that my knowledge and experience would find a home fairly quickly and easily.  I would start my own company, work for myself as a contractor and earn considerably more than the company had ever paid me.

It was all bollocks, of course.  But it's very easy to see things more clearly with the benefit of hindsight.,

I registered with an agency, run by an old pal of mine who had also worked for the company when I first joined it way back when.  He had been trying to tempt me away several times over the years, with promises of immediate placement and good money, but out of a stubborn and misguided sense of loyalty I had always said no.  He was sorry to hear I'd been dumped, but was confident he could do something soon, and cited a few possibles in various parts of the world.  I told him to go ahead.  I registered on Jobserve, the internet recruitment site, and updated my LinkedIn profile and CV.  I started making enquiries about forming a company, both registered here and off-shore.  I was very bullish.

Very soon, through contacts I had on LinkedIn, people I had worked with, I got a number of leads for business consultancy opportunities, and pursued them vigorously.  I got a number of  telephone interviews lined up, and got one pretty good job offer that I turned down because I felt it wasn't quite right (there was an element of sales involved, and if there is one thing I'm not it's a salesman).  Through another agency (and Jobserve) I pursued another possible in Mauritius that also led to a job offer, but the money was derisory so again I turned it down.  But this was all within the first month and a half, so it looked set fair for a better year in 2013, as the Christmas wind-down kicked in.

But it didn't work out like that.  Instead the market, at least the bit I was aiming at (independently supporting my old company's projects by plugging the obvious resource gaps that exist as a result of its wholesale staff reductions) dried up.  The contacts I had at the company (those of them that stayed in touch anyway....) all agreed that it was very difficult right now, the pipeline as poor, nothing on the horizon yet etc etc etc.  So I had to broaden my horizons.

I changed my Jobserve search criteria.  It did the trick, in that my Inbox was flooded with BA jobs from the entire UK (and even the odd one from elsewhere).  The problem was the vast majority of them were completely irrelevant, and beyond the magic words "Business Analyst" seemed to ignore completely all the other defined keyword.  So I would spend an hour or two every day wading through the latest batch, and sending out applications for those that were even marginally relevant.  I was probably sending half a dozen applications every day for a period of maybe six do the math: that's a lot of CVs out there.

Net result?  Fuck all. Not one single interview with a potential employer, and precious few with the agencies.  I reviewed and re-wrote the CV half a dozen times at least (that's ignoring the regular tweaks to make it more interesting for a particular job that really caught my imagination), and sought advice from a couple of agencies who (to be fair) were doing their best to help me, as well as one of my sons, who happens to be in the recruitment business (but in a different sector).  It didn't make a lot of difference.  Meanwhile, I opened my company and updated all the software on my laptop (my old employer's licences ran out and it stopped working).  I got business cards printed up, and very professional they look too (not that I've had many opportunities to give 'em out).  I suspended my company again, as I was paying out corporation tax and various other mandatory contributions on an income of bugger all.

I had regular disputes with arrogant young recruitment consultants who clearly had no clue what they were on about when it came to matching my skills with a job requirement.  But most times, when I called to follow up an application, the agency guy was in a meeting, or with a client, or on vacation.....always a polite brush off, but a brush off nonetheless.

By the middle of the year, I was beginning to doubt myself.  By this time, I was over three months past my 60th birthday, an age where many people (myself included) would happily retire and devote their time to different, personal projects.  Like reading newspapers and books.  Writing that long gestating novel or life story (that probably no-one will ever read, but what the hell....).  Travelling for the sake of it, to places you want to go to when you want to.  Growing old (dis)gracefully.

But this was not an option for me.  The money had long run out, and we were living hand to mouth, borrowing from whoever we could to pay the bills and maxing the credit cards.  I hated every minute of it, and feel a deep sense of shame and embarrassment still that I had to do that.  But I have a wife and two little kids whom I adore to support, so I had to face it and not run away (as have some people I know - but that is another story altogether, and not for this blog at all).  But clearly, whether I liked it or not, I had to face up to the fact that quite possibly I was bound for the scrapheap.  Not that I could let on, of course......

Then, through an old colleague who I had spent a very pleasant six months in Limassol (look back to 2011 for some posts about that project), I heard of a good looking position with his company.  I applied, more in hope than belief.  I heard nothing for a couple of weeks, then one Wednesday afternoon, while on holiday at the Baltic coast, I had a call from the HR people - could I come in for an interview tomorrow?  I explained this would not be possible because of my location, but agreed Thursday the following week was good.  My spirits soared - it looked a great opportunity, and as soon as I got home that Saturday evening I booked a flight to London (not that I could afford it....).

The interview went well.  I liked the guy and he liked me, on a personal level.  The job was indeed a good fit, and I was told I would have work immediately: there was a backlog just waiting for bodies to join the company to take it on.  We tentatively agreed a second interview for the following week and I flew home in high spirits.  The next day I had a mail from the HR guy, telling me that I had made an excellent impression, but the interview would need to be pushed back another week as one of the guys who wanted to meet me was on a week's leave.

So two weeks later, on another sunny August day, I flew back to London again (I could it afford even less this time).  I met three people, and again felt the discussions had gone well - indeed I flew home fully convinced I had got the job.  Time dragged over the next week or so, with no news.  I contacted the HR bloke, and was assured there was no problem beyond the people I had met being unable to schedule a convenient time to sit down and come up with a plan for me.  Frustrating, but nothing I could do.

Then - my hopes crashed.  I had a very nice and friendly mail, thanking me for my time, but there was no longer suitable work for me so they were not able "at this time" to make an offer, but this situation was likely to change "very soon" and would I still be interested.  I sent a brief mail back expressing my disappointment, and stating that if the situation did change I would indeed be interested, but on my terms - that is contractor rates, not permanent staff.  I have heard not a word since.

One of the guys who had interviewed me the second time expressed a slight concern he had - namely, that while I had extensive knowledge and experience in my chosen banking discipline, much of it was some years out of date, and that my BA experience was actually quite narrow, focusing on one part of one banking system, and he was worried that at my age the learning curve might prove too steep.  At the time, I sought to reassure him and convince him that for me that was one of the major attractions of the job, the opportunity to learn new things and new disciplines, and that I couldn't wait to get started.  He seemed satisfied, but the rejection brought that concern sharply back into focus, because I shared his concerns and had done so from Day 1.  It's a classic Catch 22 situation - if I lack certain skills I need to be in the job to learn them (and want to do so),  but without those skills I'm not going to get the job in the first place.  And as for the at my age stuff.....well, ageism in the workplace is illegal (at least, so I thought....).  And anyway, I don't feel anything like my age, physically or mentally, so that is total bollocks.

But the scrapheap loomed ever larger.

I was depressed for the next couple of weeks, found it difficult to keep positive and optimistic in front of people, Ania especially.  The new school term came around, so life got back to normal - early start, morning school run, morning and (maybe) afternoon job hunting, afternoon school run, dinner, homework, tv for a while then bed.  ......and next day, do it all over again.

That scrapheap was now definitely overshadowing my life, and I began to feel (though not openly admit) that I could well end up on it, whether I liked it or not.  I was scared.  Sleep became harder and harder to find, and less refreshing when it did come in the wee small hours.

Then an old pal sent me a mail introducing me to someone who was looking for someone with my profile to fill a couple of positions in Africa.  Angola for a year didn't fill me with enthusiasm in all honesty, given the state of the place, but what the hell - beggars can't be choosers.  A touch reluctantly, I sent in my CV. Simultaneously, an agency set up a telephone interview with a bank in Belgium for an interesting looking project.  I didn't dare hope that something might come from either one, but as we were now in desperate straits, a little prayer at Mass that Sunday (a special service to mark the start of the new school year, so we had to go) seemed worthwhile.

On the Wednesday, I had a mail - can we talk this Friday about your CV.  Damn' right was can.  Friday came, and we connected - the guy my mate had referred me to.  I knew him already from some years back, when he had been a bank PM at a project I had worked on for a month or so.  We talked for an hour, and at the end of it, had agreed terms for a 6 month contract, with good potential for extension beyond that time. He promised to get the paperwork moving as soon as possible "but probably next week".  By the end of that same day, the contract arrived in my InBox.

Cue much yelling, tears and dancing around the flat like a couple of lunatics.

So tomorrow, I hop on a plane to Qatar (not Angola: thankfully someone else can take that one) for an initial three weeks on site.  I've never been there before, so I'm looking forward to experiencing a new country (Qatar), a new city (Doha) and a new airline (Qatar Airways, "the World's 5 Star Airline", it says).   Look out for some blogs, probably illustrated for a change, over the next few weeks.  Most of all, I'm looking forward to doing some work again, after 11 months, 3 weeks and 2 days.

The scrapheap is receding behind me now, as I've managed to scrape past it, but I am acutely aware of its existence - I always knew it was there somewhere but the past year has shown me how close it actually is, especially at my age.  Bur forewarned is forearmed - it's in my hands to make sure I continue to avoid it now.

I can't wait to get started.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Future of Travel - Part 2: Railways and Roads

Regular, long term readers (if there are any....) will know already that I do enjoy a train ride.  That doesn't mean I'm like the sad bastards in anoraks you see sitting at the end of the longest platform on busy stations like Waterloo or Clapham Junction, munching cheese sandwiches and Digestives and swilling tea out of a thermos flask whilst scribbling train identification numbers down in little notebooks.  Nor does it mean I go all misty eyed at the very mention of the Great Days of Steam Locomotives (although my dear departed uncle was a bit like that - he had a huge train set in the basement of his house and a collection of LPs [remember them? Black, plastic, 12" across with a hole in the middle?  OK, perhaps not.] featuring various locomotive sounds and whistles). That said, like many people of my generation I remember fondly the big black smoky beasts that used to criss-cross the countryside in a manner that seems to my memory far more exhilarating and efficient than anything that's come since. And, yes, I do still enjoy a Thomas the Tank Engine story, even though my kids have all outgrown them now.

I'm also not thinking about commuting during the rush hour, which is something I've done all my life to a greater or lesser degree, in a number of countries, and it's hell on earth wherever you do it.  The nearest I've ever come to an enjoyable commute was in Switzerland, where I've done it for several months on and off, in both the Zurich and Geneva areas.  At least Swiss Railways are clean and (generally) run on time, and don't suffer as often from the overcrowding so common elsewhere - but they can be crowded too, with standing room only.  Just not every day.

No, when I say I enjoy a good train ride I'm thinking about the longer distance, non peak hour trips that I've taken before and would like to take again.  I've blogged on the subject before, a couple of years ago (see Let the Train take the Strain), so this is really a return to familiar territory.  Being able to relax in a comfortable seat, in a warm compartment, gazing out of the window at a new and expanding landscape, is one of the more pleasurable experiences I can think of.  And in many countries it doesn't cost the Earth.  I think I have the American travel writer Paul Theroux to thank for that: he's written a number of excellent books about his railway travels around the world, and his descriptions of smoky old boat trains, spittoons in overcrowded and claustrophobic compartments on trains in China and India, and luxurious sleeping compartments on the Trans-Siberian Express captured my imagination and made me want to experience stuff like that as well.  So whenever I get the chance I buy a ticket and off I go.

I just don't do it enough.  Of course, this is partly due to sheer economics - right now my budget hardly stretches to a ten zloty all-day Metro ticket here, never mind an away-day to Krakow or somewhere.  But it's also been (in the recent past) due to the projects I was assigned to.  Typically, my hotel - or if I was lucky, apartment - has been within walking distance of the client office, so there has been no possibility or for that matter requirement to hop on a train.  There was the odd exception - Geneva and Zurich being the main ones (written about in more detail in the post I mentioned earlier), a couple of weeks in the States where I did a reverse commute from Grand Central Station in New York to the university town of New Brunswick, across the river in New Jersey, and a week in Germany where I couldn't get accommodation in Frankfurt because my trip clashed with the Book Fair (great planning that, by the client) so had to stay in Mainz and spend two and half hours each day commuting on the Bundesbahn - and very nice it was too.  In my work travelling days about the only long distance train ride of note was from London to Warsaw via Brussels and Berlin when that Icelandic volcano caused travel chaos in May 2010 - again, see Let the Train take the Strain.

When I first moved here, about the only train journey possible that passed outside the country's borders was one to (predictably enough) Moscow.  On one of my early projects in Warsaw we had a group of Russian techies who used to catch the service every third week to go home for a long weekend, half of which was actually spent on the train (armed of course with cases of fortifying vodka) - but it was half the cost of a flight (of which there was only one a day anyway) so for them it was fine and good value.  Now the choice is much wider.  I passed through the main station here a week or so ago, and in one hour at lunch time there were services to Vienna via Prague and Bratislava, Berlin, Amsterdam (via Berlin) and Moscow.  At other times there are services to Brussels, Paris, Zurich, and Budapest, amongst other destinations.  They don't run every day, of course, but still - there are some rides I'd love to take there.  They may take a day or more to complete, but I would enjoy them thoroughly I know.

There are other trips I would like to take as well, given the opportunity.  I saw an article in the Independent newspaper website last week describing one that runs from Seattle across the Canadian border and through Vancouver to Whistler in the Canadian Rockies, that for the first half (to Vancouver) runs along the Pacific shore with the mountains to the right, then from Vancouver climbs through the mountains themselves.  The carriages are all specially designed observation cars with glass roofs, and the thing only travels at about 40mph so there's ample time to enjoy what must be some of the most beautiful and spectacular views to be found anywhere.  That one tickles my fancy.  Then there's an Australian service that crosses the entire continent from Sydney to Perth, and includes the longest straight stretch of track on Earth, over 200 miles through the desert wastes of the Nullabor Plain.  Oh yes.  I wouldn't mind the London to Fort William and Penzance services back home, and there are decent runs through France (from Paris to Marseilles) and Spain (Madrid to Malaga) that look quite scenic, on the latest high speed trains.  Two problems with all of them - one, money (or the lack of it), and two, I don't think Ania and kids would join me.  I'd still love to do them though - so if anyone wants to sponsor me and commission a book or something about the trips then by all means get in touch (and I'm serious about that.......).

But this article is supposed to be about the future of rail travel (I'll get to the roads in a mo, I haven't forgotten). Let's split it a little - and say the future of rail travel inside the UK and without - because I'm sure they are two very different animals.

Inside the UK, there has been some progress, some modernization, in the years I've been away (that's 11 years and counting).  But the progress seems to be glacial in its pace.  When I left, there was a mish-mash of different franchises providing services across the country, some good, some not so good, but all ludicrously expensive and all seemingly losing money.  Commuter routes in and out of London (and I'll focus a bit on them since I have the most experience in them) were more overcrowded than ever before and criminally expensive.  There were passenger protest groups all over the place, lobbying Parliament for service improvements and cost cutting and getting precisely nowhere (like many of the trains, in fact).   There were plans under discussion to improve and electrify both the West and East Coast main lines to improve and speed up the services to Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond.  There was discussion going on about a service that would cross London from West to East to improve trans-City commutes, and link west London quickly and easily with high speed trains to the Kent and Essex ports and the Channel Tunnel.  All lines and signals were in any case to be modernized and improved, and rolling stock updated with new safer trains.  The high speed line to the Channel Tunnel terminus near Folkestone was still under construction, and a lively debate was going on about whether the London terminus for it should be at Waterloo (which made sense, since it was already there and south of the Thames - as is Folkestone and the English Channel) or at a newly rebuilt St.Pancras in north London.  The costs involved were astronomical and featured many zeros - which is why all this discussion and argument was going on: the Labour government wanted to be prudent in its spending and save as much as possible, whilst the Tory opposition roundly condemned them for not going ahead with the plans and creating jobs and tax revenues and so on and so forth - the usual bollocks.

Fast forward to 2013.

Now, there is a mish-mash of train operators, some good, some not so good, and most of them losing money.  I caught a train from Luton Airport into St.Pancras, and there were I think 4 different franchises operating that route alone - madness!   It didn't make purchasing my ticket in advance on-line very easy - in fact, I couldn't find one that combined all of the possible operators plus London Underground and the Docklands Light Railway in a single fare, so in the end I gave up and shelled out thirty four quid for a full price One Day Travelcard when I landed.  I can remember paying a similar price 20 years ago for a one week season ticket from Kent to London, also covering the Tube and DLR.....prices have clearly rocketed in my absence.  I'm still trying to justify how London Underground have a cheapest single fare of four and a half quid, and that covering only one Zone - in other words if you went from say Notting Hill Gate to Whitechapel (at opposite ends of the Central Line in Zone 1, the fare would be the same as if you traveled from St.Paul's to Bank, on the same line and perhaps 300 yards apart.   Makes no sense to me.  In contrast, the Warsaw Metro offers a one day travel card costing about 15 zlotys - that's about three quid - for which you get unlimited journeys on the entire metro, tram and bus network (which is huge) within a 24 hour period.  Which is better value?

So it seems to me that in the future, the railways in the UK have somehow got to find a way of reducing fares and offering much better value for money to attract more customers (I'm talking off-peak here, since rush hour volumes are still astronomical).  The rail operators, I'm sure, will say this needs more government subsidy, and the government will I'm equally sure say you can't have it - so you have an impasse that I can't see being broken in my lifetime.  Incidentally, the Warsaw transport system is not supported by central government but by the city administration, similar to the US model and elsewhere.  Is that not one area where the London administration under good ole Boris might be able to help (yes, I know they already do, but given the amount of money London takes in direct and indirect taxation from its residents and visitors, I would suggest more could be done....)?

Beyond the ludicrous number of operators out there, and scandalous fares, the trains I caught at least ran more or less on time, and were newer and a bit more comfortable than those I remember.   they still pale in comparison with those operated in places like Switzerland, Spain, even the USA and here in Poland, but clearly there has been an improvement.  There are more high speed services, and the rail link for the Channel Tunnel is finally open so that trains don't get held up behind slow local services.  The terminal was indeed moved to St.Pancras, and very nice it is too - although the security screening (identical to airport security) seem to me decidedly over the top.  St.Pancras also operates high speed services through Stratford and under the Thames to the North Kent coast and Dover, which came as a pleasant surprise, with a journey time to Ebbsfleet (close to where my kids live) of only a quarter of an hour: (the usual suburban routes still take 50 minutes or more) and for a reasonable price too.

The East and West Coast mainlines are still being worked on, and the West Coast line (nicknamed HS2) seems particularly contentious as costs have escalated and people are now questioning the business rationale for it - so expect the government to develop a severe case of Cold Feet and cancel the project some time soon.  The arguments seems to be getting more heated and muddied and hardly a day goes by without another article in the Guardian or the Independent newspapers on the subject (though without adding anything to or taking anything away from the argument).

And this is typical of the British way.  I remember clearly back in the 80s and early 90s when the Channel Tunnel was being built.  Before the thing opened, the French had decided on the route for and built the high speed rail-link to and from Paris.  I assume there were protests from French towns and villages that were likely to be affected by it, but I don't remember too many press reports on that - mainly because of the rage and fury that the people of Kent were pouring on successive governments over our side of the route.  There were protest marches in my home town, Edenbridge, which is a good 30 miles from any proposed route (my mum was a regular attendee).  The route was chopped and changed with depressing regularity as civil servants and ministers tried to keep everyone happy, while scratching their heads about why places like New Barn and Istead Rise were screaming blue murder without appearing in any plans.  The answer to that one is a classic, told to me in a meeting with my MP at the House of Commons: it seems the original planning had been done by some civil servants at Transport getting a map and drawing a line on it from Folkestone to London, avoiding major towns like Maidstone, Tonbridge and so on.  Unfortunately the map used was over 20 years old, so their proposal carved right through the middle of New Barn and Istead Rise, villages that hadn't even existed when the map was drawn.  So the route had to be changed yet again.....and so it went on.  So when the Tunnel finally opened (late and over budget, of course), the brand spanking new trains were able to thrash along at 300kph in France, then come out of the Tunnel in Kent - and join the queue of slow moving commuter trains lumbering slowly through the countryside.  It took years before the British side was done.

So the future of rail travel in the UK is not very bright I'm afraid - expect more delays and crumbling infrastructure and mega price rises and overcrowding, until the whole British mentality changes and starts embracing the change that is clearly required, and an acceptance that money will need to spent to realise it.

Meanwhile, the French will continue to expand their high speed network - it's now possible to have breakfast in  Paris, hop on a TGV to Marseille for a freshly caught fish lunch on the Mediterranean coast, and be back in Paris, again via TGV, in time for dinner.  And at a reasonable price.  The Spanish too have an impressive high speed network linking the Madrid heartland to the likes of Barcelona, and Valencia and Malaga, far to the south, in comfort without spending hours queueing at airports.  Italian services are improving, the Swiss and Germans continue to set the benchmark for comfort and efficiency, with the Dutch not too far behind. And of course, all of them are interconnected, and route through to the rest of Europe where the services may not be as fast but at least you can catch a train in Amsterdam and wend your merry way through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Denmark, to end up  in Poland or Russia  or the Czech Republic, amongst other places.  Polish railways are improving - I mentioned earlier the increased variety of destinations on offer earlier in this piece - with investment in new rolling stock (for both local and intercity services) and signalling and track infrastructure.  The work is still going on, so journey times can still be quite long, but at least the new trains are airy and comfortable, and on the intercity services (at least on the longer routes) offer dining cars, bike racks, and even carriages dedicated to families with children that offer play areas and tables.  Certainly within Europe, it seems to me, these interlinked railways provide a decent alternative for those of the travelling public who are happy to spend a little more time getting to their destination and are sick and tired of the increasingly intrusive security screening process and overcrowded airports with their expensive bars and restaurants and persistent flight delays.  In my last post, about the future of air travel, I suggested this situation was likely to continue for the foreseeable future: that said, we can expect continued growth and improvement to railway travel, provided there is sufficient investment made by countries in the upkeep and improvement of the necessary infrastructure.  This is likely across mainland Europe, where the railways still seem to be recognised as an integral part of any sensible transport solution - but less so in the UK.

Further afield, the Chinese are making massive investment in rail travel (as they are with road building, air travel and all kinds of other infrastructure projects) as a result of their drive for economic supremacy. Thousands of miles of new track have been laid and opened over the last few years, and thousands more are planned. New technology is also being developed and trialed, including high speed trains that are faster than anything currently operating, as well as mag-lev technology: I commend you once again to the excellent BBC Future section on the News website for more detail and information.  Indeed, the Far East continues to invest in new technology (as they have done in the IT and telecommunications sectors where their products have far outstripped the leading western alternatives - think of Samsung mobile phones and a whole slew of laptops and tablets that are as good as - and crucially cheaper than - anything HP or IBM or Apple are producing).  The Bullet trains have been running trouble free for years in Japan.  The Indian network is expanding as does its economy, much needed as people migrate from the vast countryside to its major cities of Delhi and Chennai and Pune and the rest.  As more people in the region want to travel, and more tourists are prepared to make the long haul flights to sample the new holiday destinations being opened up (a trend likely to continues, as these vacations offer great value for money against the dollar and euro and sterling) this rail expansion seems set to continue.  Clearly, it's a good time to be a railway buff.

So what of road travel?

Again, there seems to be a situation where the UK lags behind the rest of Europe certainly, and arguably the rest of the world - and for exactly the same reasons.  When the Conservative government in the 1980s started making announcements about new motorways and rail routes, across the country protest groups sprang up to oppose them, purely on the basis that, no matter how important the developments were no-body wanted them near to their homes.  A whole new sub-class of citizens was created to rival the Yuppies - the Nimbys: it's an acronym of Not In My Back Yard.  To this day, nimbys survive and flourish, even though yuppies and yippies and so on have been consigned as footnotes to history.  The nimby delayed the Channel Tunnel rail link and the CrossRail project (because not only do they not want the new railway to run within about 20 miles of their front doors, they most certainly don't want to pay for it).  The nimby has now turned his ire on the HS2 project I mentioned above, and seems to be having a similar level of success. Airport expansion delays?  Nimby driven.  Against wind farms (noisy and unsightly and inefficient, despite evidence to the contrary)?  Nimby driven.  Against fracking (the current environmental campaign in the UK, aimed at preventing exploratory wells being drilled to get at previously unreachable oil reserves)?  Nimby driven (with the ecologist lobby).  It seems to me that until the nimby culture is broken or expires of old age (and a good dose of common sense) there is little chance of much in the way of new road building anywhere in the UK - and judging by the horrendous traffic volumes on the roads that exist now something needs to be done.  The obvious answer is to try and move as much freight and human traffic onto the railways......oh, sorry forgot: can't do that, the nimbys won't like and besides it's all way too expensive.  So be prepared to spend more and more time stuck in interminable traffic jams.

Again, my best contrast is what I see every day in Warsaw and Poland, where a massive amount of road building is going on.  There is a clear co-ordinated transport policy here, and as well as the rail improvements I mentioned above, the road improvements complement it.  Highways are springing up all over the country, most of them toll roads - but I'm happy to pay PLN15 (say three pounds) to lop a good 2 hours off the drive to the coast, and travel on a new and uncrowded motorway.  Around Warsaw, there is a new network of ring roads under construction to link these new highways, so that the TIR freight trucks carrying goods to and from Western Europe to Russia and Ukraine and elsewhere no longer have to pass through (and block up totally) the city centre.  Perhaps in 10 years time this network will be as crowded and unpleasant as the M25 is today - but I hope not.

India and China, in particular, are improving and expanding their road networks to handle greater freight requirements, and again there seems to be some integration with rail improvements.  The same is true elsewhere, as African countries drag themselves, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the modern world. South America too.

All of this is good and necessary.  But probably more important are improvements and developments to the vehicles themselves.  Some of this is environmental, as the oil runs out and we become more aware of the effects of fossil fuels on the environment and climate forces manufacturers to develop alternative power sources for cars and other vehicles.  Hybrids (half petrol and half electric) have been around for a while led by the Toyota Prius, and there are now some half decent all-electric vehicles around, again led by Japanese manufacturers.  Expect this to continue over the next few years, as more and more charging points spring up and battery ranges (and sizes and weights) improve to make them a more cost effective alternative.

Other developments are safety driven.  Many top end cars now come with a variety of sensors that automatically brake if you're too close to the car in front, or straying into the wrong lane or too close to the side of the road.  Most cars have sat-nav fitted as standard (or as a low cost option).  All have air bags and seat belts and strengthened bodywork and crumple zones to protect driver and passenger.  There are reasonably priced cars (again mostly from Asian manufacturers) that have hands-free parking - can't wait to get one of those, parallel parking has never been my strong point!  There are even a few experimental cars that do the lot: you get in, start the engine, give your destination and let the car take over: it can plan the best route using sat-nav (and take into account road work delays and so on), then drive you there with the speed controlled to give optimum fuel consumption and all the safety sensors making sure you get there in one piece.  Even 10 years ago, this was the stuff of science fiction.  In 10 years time it will be the norm in cars, and in 15 likewise in bigger vehicles like buses and trucks.  Travelling may start to become fun again then - provided the road development keeps pace with the vehicle development.

So there you go.  That's how I see things changing (or not as the case may be) over the next few years.  I'll put my crystal ball away now, and wait to see how much (or how little) actually comes to pass.

Happy travelling.