Christmas greetings, lego and music

A very different Christmas, as the booklet handed out at St Jude’s, Ballynafeigh and other churches says.

It was also my first in St Jude’s, where I moved from Greenisland Presbyterian Church in November, delayed a week by a period of self-isolation, which is a frustrating business. Our friends came through for us, finding things where Sainsbury’s offbeat substitutions (no own brand puff pastry sheets, so here’s a shortcrust pastry sheet instead?) had let us down. We had had to self-isolate in March as well, but we’ve stayed well throughout. I’ve been at work most of the rest of time – our friends Phiip and Lucy lent us their cottage at Torr Head for two weeks in September, and while Jo was furloughed for much of it, the relief of my going to work kept the rhythm of time going, and Jo was kept busy doing Art Journalling Zoom sessions with Art Therapy students and cooking Thursday night dinners for friends.

So yes, so far our families are untouched by Covid. We know too many friends who have been affected, thankfully very few suffering from what is now known as “Long Covid.”

The closure of churches for five months was difficult for someone who lives and breathes music and had very few outlets for that period of time, but I had to look at it from the other side. I can’t turn up in church and play piano, what can I do to serve God? I contributed a couple of thoughts for the day to Greenisland, sang and played djembe for the Irish Blessing, and contributed in other ways to Greenisland’s online services. From August, I helped Jonny Weston and the AV crew at Willowfield with their evening camera work.

Greenisland has been very kind to us over the last seven years, and it wasn’t an easy decision to move on, but one which I was sure, after praer and the prayer of others, was right. We experienced so much generosity, and I now have a Lego stormtrooper helmet on top of my Lego grand piano. I’m finding my feet in St Jude’s, including navigating how to hold a Covid Carol Service, and seeing how others have approached the same problems of social distancing.

I did get to sing one of my own songs, but the December circuit breaker meant that there wasn’t time to teach it to the rest of St Jude’s music group. The video is at the top of this post – I wrote the song back in 2018, and brought the first draft to Greenisland’s choir an hour later, and the second draft, with bridge, a week later. I will teach it to the rest of the group later!

I’ve also started doing Lego videos, including my Christmas lego on our new longer dining table (a leg fell off the old one!). Jo has also started doing baking videos – so far, she’s done flakemeal biscuits and cinnamon shortbread, with more to come. I’m learning to use Adobe Premiere Pro quickly, using skills learned years ago on CoolEdit Pro (now Adobe Audition).

We spent Christmas Day quietly in the end – church in the morning, then just the two of us, Bonnie and Clyde for the rest of the day, finding out how little was on television. We took a little time out to record this Facebook live video:

Merry Christmas, everyone. Remember that we all need each other, that we are not alone, and that maintaining community requires intentionally keeping in touch with each other.

God bless, and let’s live in hope of a better 2021.

Banter with badges with AndyB

That’s supposed to be a pun on Fun with Flags with Sheldon, by the way. My jokes being atrocious, it’s probably wasted…

Yesterday I did a quick interview with Louise Cullen for BBC Newsline on the subject of GB stickers for cars. The facts on this are fairly straightforward: under the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, if you’re driving in another country, you must have an identifier on the back of your car, and for the purposes of the convention, the code is the ISO 3166-1 alpha 2 code for the United Kingdom, GB. GB because with notable exceptions such as the USA and at least one of the Koreas, words such as United, Kingdom, Federal, Democratic and Republic don’t count when determining ISO country codes.

If you have what are sometimes called Europlates because they have a blue stripe with the European flag emblem at the top and GB at the bottom, you’ve been grand up to now because the Vienna Convention says that’s good enough. The Convention says a national flag or emblem of the issuing state or of the regional economic integration organization to which the country belongs can be included, and the stripe can be any colour as long as it’s on the left.

And there lies the rub. At the moment, we won’t belong to a “regional economic integration organization” in two months.

The chances are, based on the 42 years since that particular Vienna Convention (there have been several) came into force, that the Garda aren’t likely to start pulling you over for not having an oval badge, and even if they pull you over for something else, I reckon they won’t bother unless you’re giving them a really hard time.

France, I understand, and other countries in mainland Europe, are stricter, although for years you would be given an IRL plate at Rosslare if heading to Cherbourg. Strictly speaking incorrect, but I never heard of anyone being fined.

But the point?

The British Government cannot speak for Ireland. They cannot say it’s safe to take your car across the border without an oval badge, because they don’t have a piece of paper saying so.

It’s not a trade negotiation matter. They could simply have asked Ireland for an informal agreement to waive the identifiers on this one matter at any time in the last three years, and avoided all the hassle and bad publicity. There’s no evidence that they did.

But as Seamus Leheny points out, it’s another frivolous avoidable inconvenience for motorists and hauliers wasting time and money, even before you come to the anger in nationalist and republican circles, making community relations even more difficult.

It’s totally avoidable.

A week in Denmark…

So it’s time I got back into blogging regularly – even my posts on Slugger O’Toole are more the exception than the rule.

Aeroplane selfie!

And where better to start with than the summer holiday?

Monday 13th saw too early a start down to Dublin Airport and onto our Ryanair flight – and then the metro, the S-tog (high frequency suburban train) and 5 minutes walk to our lovely Airbnb apartment.

Ricardo was there to meet us, and introduced to the Danish soft drink Faxe Kondi (hint of lemon, but very very nice)  The apartment in Kongens Lyngby is second floor with two balconies, and we thoroughly recommend it (contact us if you want details on Airbnb!)

A quick discovery was the ice cream shop opposite (where I set our Facebook friends the challenge the next night of figuring out who had the chocolate ice cream and who had the strawberry sorbet) and which also sold Flødeboller, and the local irma supermarket, which is big on økologisk – organic produce, and also sells sweetener-free Ribena!  A coffee shop provided breakfast each morning.

Tuesday we took a canal boat tour – best described by having a look through this gallery…

Andy’s bar

We also found my pub (but didn’t call in) on the way to the State Art Museum.

Wednesday took us off to the Lego house, of which more in another post, but left us glad of a comfortable bed – it also got us as close to the Tivoli Gardens as we would actually get, as we came out of Copenhagan Central Station.

Thursday we explored Kongens Lyngby a little!  It’s something of a mixture of Lisburn and Lisburn Road, with shops including the department store Magasin du Nord.

Reflecting back, I think it was a mistake only to book Monday-Friday when we could easily have stayed another night at only about £60 per night – or even gone to the Lego House on the Friday and flown back from Billund airport, saving the train fare (and letting me pick up the Lego Architecture model of Billund airport!)

Train fares.  Much is made of Translink fares, but these will make your eyes water.

404 krona or £48.50 each way from Copenhagen to Vejle for 150 miles plus another 62DKK or £7.50 on the bus for 17.5 miles – yes, NI is cheaper, a lot cheaper, including suburban fares (8 miles for 48DKK or £5.76 on the zonal basis)

So Denmark is definitely expensive, but we loved it.  We barely scratched the surface of Copenhagen, and there is more to learn about the Lego house.

Will we go back again sometime?  I hope so.  It’ll be a few years, but some day.

Glider, bus lanes and the Bible

It’s no secret that I’m in favour of good public transport, nor that I strongly support the new Glider service, even though it isn’t a tram system.  If you are serious about reducing congestion, buses, however smart, won’t cut it, because the public know they’re buses. It was the same when railway lines closed and former passengers voted with their car keys.

But we are where we are.  The new bus lanes still ought to improve congestion, because buses will be using traffic lanes formerly used for parking seven hours a day and not ducking in and out of the outside lane, even before considering the impact of the higher frequency service and buses not getting stuck in general traffic and actually starting to run to time more reliably.

So where does the Bible come in?

Well, if you’re not a Christian, let’s face it, it won’t.

But if you are, several places.

First of all, the earth belongs to God (Psalm 24:1).  Everything we have comes from God (1 Chronicles 29:11-14).  It isn’t ours to abuse, and the stories of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the minas (Luke 19:11-26) show the consequences of using (or not using) what God gives other than to serve him.

It’s therefore important what we do with what God gives, whether it’s to please him or to please ourselves.  It’s something I’m not going to get into here, because pleasing God does include keeping well, rest and holidays, and bluntly it’s complicated.

That’s an excerpt of the standard theology concerning environmental protection for Christians – we are answerable to God for how we use what we have been given – with great power (dominion – Genesis 1:26) comes great responsibility.

But there’s another aspect.

The invocation of rights (perceived or actual) always comes at a cost.  There is certainly a right to go about ones own business.

But that right does not extend to driving as one pleases.

The questions come down to:

Do I need to drive to get about my business today?

Does my decision to drive impact on somebody who has no choice as to whether they drive?

And this is the sticking point.

Is it Christlike to insist on driving?

Consider how many people need to drive.

Delivery drivers.


People whose business requires them to go places not easily or conveniently accessible by public transport.

People whose disabilities prevent them from using public transport.

Journeys which would be unreasonably expensive or unreasonably long if taken by public transport.

People who drive for a living.

People who carry things not easily carried on public transport or a bicycle (not limited to going to your preferred supermarket and returning with four hessian bags overflowing with groceries!)

And then remember that most people who own a car might be able to cycle or use public transport some or even most days, but need to drive on others.

The nature of congestion is that multiple vehicles are vying for the same limited roadspace.  As I observed the other day in a discussion on Facebook, it’s all very well wanting more traffic lanes to be provided, but whose houses do you want to have demolished to achieve this?  Realistically, there is little or no scope for adding capacity to the arterial roads of Belfast, just a question of how do we use what space we have.

And that’s where the line “I drive because I own a car” comes in.

It isn’t efficient.  Given the peak congestion in Belfast, it is unfair to those who can’t avoid driving (never mind that probably half the commuters on a given bus own cars and use them in the evenings and at weekends!)

And that’s the thing.

If you can use public transport to get about your business efficiently and choose to drive, I suggest it’s theft of utilities that other people need.

In the end, that costs everyone because tradesmen and hauliers have to increase their charges to recover time and fuel wasted in congestion, both of which have to be paid for by the customers – plus the cost to commerce of delayed deliveries.

Add in the cost to lives of delays to the emergency services.

Personal freedom is there, but it isn’t there to be abused.  The key verse is probably this:

23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23)

Public transport got so unpopular for several reasons, including the convenience of driving, the fact that buses can never match up to rail-based solutions for traveller popularity, the fares, and the unreliability of buses delayed in congestion.

Glider isn’t a tram, but as is always the case, we get exactly what our politicians pay for.  If we want better public transport we need politicians who will commit money to making it worth giving up the freedom of driving if not cheaper.  The question is will Christians lead the way in giving up that freedom if their journeys will allow?

Glider replaces Metro 4, 10 and 26 from Monday 3 September 2018, and will be running in shadow form for the last few days of August.  All fares are as per existing Metro fares.

Adult Autism Family Workshop

I spoke at an Adult Autism Family Workshop run by Belfast Health and Social Care Trust yesterday morning on the theme of identity.

Below the line, you will find an introductory video, followed by my script and an audioboo (now split into three chunks) I recorded of me giving the talk.  Listening to one and reading the other will reveal how many apparent ad libs were anything but!

UPDATE:  as well as adding a couple of pictures, I’ve written up the rest of the day for Slugger O’Toole.


to parents of young children

You may be fed up watching this

(the kids will be just fine)


“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.”

Good morning everyone!

My name is Andy Boal.

Frozen is about a lot of things.  When my wife and I first watched it, we saw two different things, and we were both right.

Jo saw the love Anna had for her sister Elsa and how she pursued her into her self-imposed exile.

I saw something else.  I saw Elsa coming to terms with her true identity as the Snow Queen and the terrible damage that having to hide it for the sake of everyone else, including Anna, even for the best of reasons, had done to her.

This talk is going to be on that theme – identity. What it means for me to be a person with Autistic Spectrum Disorder or Condition, but, as with many people at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, I still refer to Asperger Syndrome.  Being my own story, I will inevitably retread some of the ground Shirelle and Caroline covered before the break.

I should say that I am comfortable enough with the terms Asperger’s, Aspie, ASD and ASC to use them about myself almost interchangeably, and I’ll be doing that today. Not everyone is, and I apologise in advance if it upsets you.

Growing up

I’m a kid of the 70s and 80s, a time when the ZX81 was the bees knees (or at least it was a computer, much as I really wanted a Spectrum, or if I had a chance, a BBC Model B.)


Andy with plastic meccano on a good rug for toy cars

I grew up in the middle of a pile of Lego, or rather I would have done if my parents hadn’t made me tidy up afterwards. Our living room when I was little had a rug with very convenient tracks within the pattern for playing with Matchbox cars and Lego cars – hiding under the plastic meccano crane in that shot, and in those long days when there were three channels and nothing on for a few hours a day (as opposed to now, with hundreds of channels and nothing on 24 hours a day) my parents discovered that their hyperactive little boy who exhausted them by going to bed late and getting up early each morning could be kept occupied for more than ten minutes at a time with Lego.  In fact, more than that – maybe even half an hour.

That was a big deal for my exhausted parents.

So Lego it was for me.  Meccano less so, but it was there too, until I gave it to my grandpa who would spend a lot of time tinkering with it.  After retiring from Shorts, he had a lot more time to give to repairing clocks and watches, and after I left school, he would take me with him when he was repairing Ballymena Town Hall clock and Bushmills Northern Bank clock (now a coffee shop).  He was almost certainly Aspie himself.

Lego has stuck with me all my life – so much so that in 2011, Jo wondered when the pile of Lego I was moving into her spare room was going to end. I’m not sure Jo realises just how much Lego is still at my parents’ house, in both my old bedroom and my shed, which also houses my music and Beano, Dandy and Whizzer and Chips annual collection.

Lego, music and comics. Three of my biggest interests to this day, and my memories of 40 years of weekly Beanos and other comics still inform discussions on websites like Comics UK, despite the horror of having had to throw out comics on a regular basis at my mum’s insistence.

With that sort of specialist interest, complete with a love for railways learned with the aid of the original Railway Series by Rev Wilfred Awdry (aka Thomas the Tank Engine), being the son of a church organist and music teacher at the local high school, having an English accent, having sensory issues affecting my diet and touch, being reasonably clever (hanging out at lunchtime with the other smart kids) and generally just different, it’s no surprise that I was bullied.  It was called teasing in those days, and while I enjoyed being in the Robins, I only survived a couple of months in the BB junior section as a result.

Unfortunately, the bullying has resulted in me having a rare understanding, not without a little help from others such as my wife and Orchardville’s Kyle Duncan, that overreaction to bullying – fighting back or just losing my temper and going into meltdown, and getting caught for example – can far too often leave the bullies getting off scot-free. My head of year at Regent once wrote that I had to learn to live in harmony with others, but that’s because he was so often dealing with the consequences – the symptoms.

I sometimes joke that had I been thirty years younger, I would probably have had a Statement of Special Educational Needs. I was academically gifted except for sheer inability to study – something I still haven’t learned to this day, and something that does hold me back – and inability to structure essays, something which I can only do now in the age of computers where I wrote the last line of this talk more or less straight after putting in the Frozen clip, and they certainly held me back at University where I failed most of final year and eventually graduated with a pass degree.  My A level French teacher, a brilliant man whose ability was not reflected in my D at A level, commented in my final school report that I needed to learn the conventions of formal written English – he died a year and a half ago after two strokes, but I think he would have been pleased to see some of my current writing, particularly for Slugger O’Toole.

What I was able to do in Maths class where I think I drove my teachers potty by always being a page ahead of everyone else, and intelligence and understanding not always reflected in exam results (I went from a C in GCSE Business Studies through scores in the 60s in A level economics to an A in my actual A level)  still left me with issues of what my current level of self-awareness tells me was ADHD, which is still reflected to this day in my ability to be distracted from the task at hand, even if I move 40 years more slowly than when my parents had me on reins to keep me under control, and 20 years more slowly than when my second girlfriend was trying to get me to slow down.  Jo would know the feeling – not about the reins, though, and she is well used to me retreating into my phone or upstairs onto my computer.

In the 1980s, autism was a kid with severe communication difficulties who was typically a savant. A brilliant artist, perhaps, and with my intellectual ability and hamfisted clumsiness, that wasn’t me!  Kids diagnosed with autism certainly weren’t to be found in mainstream schools.

I wrote to my GCSE Maths teacher, who like Jo and myself is a member of the Corrymeela Community, to see what the experience is like for kids with an ASC/ASD diagnosis in a grammar school in the 2010s, and here is what Marianne said:

Back in the day we just thought some kids were special/different/more self-contained.  There definitely were not as many ASD kids (in grammar schools) as there are now.  It was never a problem in Maths – they were usually pretty good at it: I suppose they had to be to have passed the transfer test. Also Maths didn’t involve discussion or group work so much then – and that probably worked in their favour. 

The ASD kids now have way more support and all teachers are aware of it and the implications.  We even have a quiet room for kids to go to at break/lunchtime if they can’t cope with the hordes in the canteen!!!

Ah, the difference over 25 years – that’s scary.  I’m 43.  The difference over 25 years, where those who either couldn’t cope with the hordes in the canteen or just didn’t fit tended to congregate in the library or in the music department.  Both were gathering places for misfits as well as the truly talented people around the Music Department.

Asperger’s wasn’t proposed as a diagnosis until the 1990s, by which time I was at University.

Relational difficulties would continue at work, although how much they happened was largely a function of how I was managed. I really flourished under some line managers, but others struggled with me and I with them, because I don’t fit into boxes.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip 2 Mar 1991

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip 3 Feb 1991

Fitting into boxes.  Let’s pick that up for a minute.  Watch this.

Ah, the glory of Mr Bill Watterson’s work – and that punchline.  “Sometimes that’s the way things are!”

The other parallel, and it fits just about as badly as the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, is the Matrix – and the red and blue pills.

Sometimes things just are the way they are.  And sometimes you wish that you could have a choice of pills, because being ASD can be compared to living on the red pill but never having the chance to choose the quiet life plugged into the Matrix that comes with the blue pill.

That black and white world I mentioned a minute ago doesn’t really reflect the reality for me of living with ASD, but it does reflect part of my communication difficulties.  I see a great many things in shades of grey and shades of colour, but when it comes to expressing my thoughts, it can come out in very black and white terms that don’t necessarily reflect how I’ve come to those conclusions.

I am now going to contradict what I’ve just said, because another factor is my problem solving ability.  How do you explain why a solution you’ve just proposed works when it’s driven by pure instinct and you have to start working backwards to find the shades of grey and colour that will test the idea to see if it’s workable?

It is therefore pretty difficult at times to prove my abilities and potential, because intellectual ability is not experience and thinking outside the box requires application. Only having a pass degree has held me back, and those black and white answers mean I interview poorly and so I haven’t advanced at work to a level which I feel reflects my potential.  On top of that, clumsiness meant that I wasn’t able to pass my driving test until I was 37, and it has also restricted my musical ability.  I run on musicianship, rather than actual skill, but there is an undoubted foundation in there. That was the only picture I have to hand of me playing keys, for an event up in Clonard.

But the good news for me is that I’ve had opportunities with people.  I was part of a team leading worship in my then church for about six years before becoming Musical Director in Strand Presbyterian church in East Belfast. I’m now musical director in Greenisland Presbyterian, and surrounded by a pile of support that recognises the difficulties I face – especially when I am misunderstood or don’t express myself the best way – people who have given me chances.

I’ve volunteered for Summer Madness for 22 years, doing a variety of responsible roles (and living that fine line between responsible adult and vulnerable adult!), and I’ve helped at other festivals as well.

My interest in trains has developed into a broader interest in transport issues, resulting in me making occasional TV and radio appearances (thanks to Roads expert Wesley Johnston), as well as writing for Slugger O’Toole on a range of subjects, and leading me to start exploring doing academic research into the cost to society of congestion and the impact of choosing to drive rather than use public transport on those who don’t have the luxury of choice because they need to drive to get about their business.

I was unlucky in love. I overinvested emotionally, and I particularly paid the price with one girlfriend who left me devastated and feeling frankly used at a time when I was very vulnerable for other reasons. My next two girlfriends, several years later and several years apart, were stories of recovery and discovery as I learned more about myself. Thanks to what I learned from being with them, I was finally fit to meet Joanne in August 2010, and marry her in February 2013. Her patience and love has been incredible, especially as she has walked with me through the whole diagnostic process, helping me, encouraging me and supporting me, and I live in wonder at that love, and pray that I will never abuse it. She also has friends and family who won’t be a bit slow to tell me if I step wrong.


Going forward for diagnosis with Jenny Soule was the result of several things. I was having difficulties at work, and an ex had suggested I was on the spectrum, and as I learned more, I was able to say, yes, this sounds exactly like me.  Fortunately, my GP was supportive, but one of my friends wasn’t so lucky when she approached her GP in England recently.  You may be shocked by this reaction, and I apologise in advance.

So the doctor started ticking me off as soon as I came into her consultation room. Apparently I seemed unprepared, highly tense and spoke too quickly. She thinks I have a mental health problem rather than ASD, and would like me to get Talking Therapy before she can even start to think about any kind of diagnosis. It really didn’t help that she started the confrontation by being angry, tense and running 20 minutes late herself… She suggested getting involved in a local amateur dramatics club as a way of learning how to be myself – learn how to put on a mask and pretend to be neurotypical better, and thus be more able to fit into the world.

I was shocked.  I talk too fast.  I felt unprepared and I felt tense when I talked to the doctor and when I went to the Arches centre for assessment.  I’m sure many of you, when you either went for assessment yourself or went with your friend or family member felt pretty similar.

Libby told me yesterday morning when she saw another GP in the same practice that she has in fact been referred for assessment.  It’ll be a long journey, but that news did a lot to help her self-esteem.

On my own journey, I was worried. Did I hide it too well because I was an adult? Did my general tendency to do all right mean that I wouldn’t merit a diagnosis that requires “functional difficulty” – in other words, that there were tangible problems in daily living?

I also knew the damage and frustration that pretending to be “normal” had caused me.  How the lack of space to express myself in a safe way led ultimately to explosion when the pressure of inappropriate internalising had built up too much – just as Elsa was damaged by years of trying to be normal out of fear for her sister Anna.

You can imagine how nervous I was after the various interviews I had with Jenny, Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule  and Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – a broad-based intelligence test often used as part of the diagnostic processs to help identify developmental weaknesses – when we went into the meeting room in the Arches Medical Centre, to face Jenny and Jayne Perkes, the team’s OT.

Kirsty Quigg, the team’s Social Worker asked me what changed between not knowing and knowing. What difference did it make?

The answer isn’t that straightforward.

But I think it comes down to two things.

The biggest thing was relief.

Relief that I had a name to describe my behaviour. An explanation, in fact.

Relief that I wasn’t imagining things, and that Jenny, Jayne and Bridie had seen through the façade to what lay beneath.

If I’m honest, relief that I would be able to get help at work, although it would take quite some time for me to see what I needed help with – that business of hiding things far too well, and not necessarily having the self-awareness required to understand it.

The other difference?  Determination.

I wanted people to understand that I would not always respond normally.

I wanted to be accepted for who I am, not who people want me to be.

I wanted to be safe to not always have to conform, within reason. Autism, a label that is being rehabilitated by being used as a term for the whole spectrum of relational and social communication difficulties is a term with which I am comfortable because I know what it doesn’t mean, and I want to be safe to live up to my identity – not just my identity as a Christian which underlies everything, but who I am as an Aspie.

That reminds me of the A word.  If you’ve been watching you’ll know the problems caused in the first episode when the psychologist used the word autism without unpacking the terminology.  It’s been interesting to watch the A word each week, and last night’s show with Maggie’s truth telling and her confrontation with Alison over her bullying of Maggie when they were children rang a few bells, but it leaves me wondering how Christopher Ecclestone got to be old enough to play a granddad!

I, in fact, we, all of us on the spectrum, can only be our true selves when we are allowed to be who we are and comfortable in our identity, just like Elsa.  I would even compare it to my gay friends when they come out, rather than feeling they have to pretend they are “normal” just to make everyone else happy.

I wanted to not be pigeonholed.  People know I’m a good listener, although stress reduces my capacity to empathise, and I want people to see that I don’t fit the stereotype of an Aspie, mainly because there is no such thing.

In a post-diagnostic group which Kirsty and Bernadette Doherty facilitated, I s3d plotaw loads of evidence that the Autism Spectrum isn’t so much a straightforward rainbow curve.  There were six of us, and each of us had a unique mixture of abilities and reduced abilities. A rainbow doesn’t even begin to describe the map of peaks and troughs that describes our different abilities – that graph on the screen gives you some sort of concept of how I see the spectrum.  A grid of things like how we do, look at, and think about things, and the third dimension showing a collection of peaks and troughs that’s very different for each one of us.  Something that can’t be cured, and even if it could be cured, I wouldn’t want to lose it – and nor do I think my friends would want it to be cured either – because with it would go other parts of me that are what I uniquely offer to the world.

Nor is it remotely as easy for everyone as it has been for me to come to terms with the diagnosis, and I’ve seen that in the post-diagnostic group.

But what I really want, my real determination, is for people to see past the oddities, the failures to comply with societal norms, the help that I need with what is either difficult or impossible for me, to see what I can do.

To see what all of us Aspies can do.

To see how our different perspectives on life from the norm make a real difference to decision making, how we see things that others don’t – something of intrinsic value to an employer, identified by agencies such as Specialisterne who exist to match Aspies and others on the spectrum with jobs which quite literally pay for their abilities.

To see what our insight into any specialist interest we have offers to the rest of the world.

To see that, in the end, and no matter what our difficulties are, this one thing.

We are worth it.


My name is Andy Boal.

I am many things.  I am a musician, a Christian, a husband, a son, a friend, a blogger, a Lego fiend. I am many other things besides.

Somewhere in the middle of all that I have Autism Spectrum Condition or Disorder.  It’s part of what and who I am, but it can never define me.

Sometimes having Autistic Spectrum Disorder gets in the way of being who I truly am, because people can’t see past it.

Sometimes having Autistic Spectrum Disorder is the only way I can express who I truly am.

Thank you very much.

In the darkness…

This has been a week of reflecting on darkness.

On Friday 4th March, Jo and I were woken up by the bomb that led to the death of Adrian Ismay, a prison officer described by the head of the Community Rescue Service Sean McCarry as:

a person who was in the business of building communities, not destroying them; he was in the business of saving lives, not taking lives; he was in the business of helping families not hurting families and there is a stark contrast between Adrian and others, and its as stark to us as black and white. Adrian was everything that anyone wanted to be. We described him as the ‘big man’ and he was big in heart and big in everything.

(Do read my friend James Currie’s blog post for more reflections on Adrian)

Brian Anderson, President of Methodist Conference, told mourners at the funeral of Adrian Ismay that “in the darkest part of night – probably dressed in dark clothes, dark men did a dark, dark deed, leading to the loss of Izzy.”

At the same time, ISIS is threatening “dark days” if the West should retaliate for the suicide bombs in Brussels.

Then there is the darkness over the Daniels, Lee and McGrotty families after losing five of their family at Buncrana pier.

It reminds me of the famous quotation from Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, at the start of the First World War:

The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time

Certainly, Donald Trump appears to think so as he adds Brussels to the places he paints as increasingly dark.


I think I prefer this quotation by Wesleyan minister William Lonsdale Watkinson in 1907:

Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

At the funeral of the Buncrana pier victims, Father Paddy O’Kane referred to:

one ray of hope bravely breaking through the dark clouds

He was speaking of Davitt Walsh’s action to save Rionaghac-Ann.

Darkness cannot withstand light. Even a torch with worn out batteries presents a little light.

Holy Week is a time to remember darkness.

Between Sunday and Thursday, Jesus enters Jerusalem as king on a donkey, recalling Zechariah 9:9, and then highlights the darkness in the Jerusalem Temple by driving out the money-changers (not for the first time) and spending days teaching in the precints, before being anointed with a very expensive alabaster jar full of perfume at Bethany.

In the meantime, the chief priests and elders secretly plotted to kill Jesus, but only got their opportunity when Judas promised to give him up.

After the Passover meal, which we know as the Last Supper, Jesus found himself in the darkness, and alone as Peter, James and John fall asleep while he prays.  Betrayed by Judas’ kiss, then arrested and tried in the dark with the testimony of liars while being denied by his friend.  Then there was the literal darkness for three hours before Jesus died on the cross, and the darkness the disciples felt without him.

That darkness only lasted for two nights.  With sunrise on the Sunday morning came the resurrection – Jesus was alive.  The light could not be extinguished.

How one tackles the darkness of terrorism is beyond the scope of this post, and if I’m honest, beyond me, apart from two notes: a people wronged by the actions of terrorists who claim to share their faith should not be further wronged by the response to that terrorism; and a response to terrorism, as with any other wrong-doing, should not merely address the crimes thus committed, but also ask why – what excuses are offered, and what fuelled those excuses?

What I do know is that fear perpetuates the darkness and darkness causes fear to grow, but light reveals the truth.

The darkness of grief is far easier to deal with, and I don’t say that lightly.

Presence.  Being there.  Space to grieve.  Support.  Freedom to feel (or to be numb) without expectations that the person grieving will be a particular way or do particular things.

Walking with the grieving person.  Knowing that only they can decide when they can make what tiny steps, because trying to drag them doesn’t work and can actually push them backwards.

Celebrating the life lost.  Remembering, and learning from them.

All incredibly difficult, but all things that can be done.

Perhaps I shall indulge myself by recycling a quotation I have used more than once, but at least it’s one of my own:

On the darkest day, in the loneliest night, when everything is lost, we know this one thing deep within. We are never alone, because the Holy Spirit, our comforter and guide, is with us. Our heavenly Father doesn’t promise to protect us from heartbreak, cancer and evil, he walks with us through it all – and knowing that makes all the difference.

And perhaps that story Tony Campolo loves to tell of the famous sermon by SM Lockridge.

It’s Friday.  Sunday’s coming.

Committee for Regional Development slams DRD in Coleraine-Waterside inquiry

Seven months after agreeing their report from the Inquiry into the Coleraine to Londonderry Rail Track Phase 2 Project on 1 July 2015, the Committee for Regional Development appears to have lost patience waiting for the report to be laid before the Assembly, and has therefore quietly published it on their own website.

The report is critical of Translink, but the most damning criticism is reserved for DRD itself: “The Committee supports the political decision to proceed with the project but remains concerned that sufficient lessons have not been learned from the upgrade of the Belfast to Bangor rail track and has no confidence that the Department has sufficient experience or expertise to adequately challenge NITHCO/Translink.”

This is not a new criticism, and here the Committee for Regional Development not only echoes previous comments it has made, but also comments from NIAO that DRD does not have the skills to “effectively manage public transport in Northern Ireland.”

The tenor of the report is very much that Translink has had failures, but with proper management DRD could have mitigated those failures.

If this blog is a bit TL:DR, an abridged version is available on Slugger O’Toole.

Report summary

The report focusses on the procurement process by which McLaughlin Harvey was appointed to carry out civil engineering works, primarily at Castlerock and Bellarena stations, and Babcock to upgrade the signalling between Coleraine and Waterside stations as sole tenderer.

The Committee recommends that the Department and NITHCO/Translink put in place processes that ensure that they comply with all relevant guidance.

Translink is criticised for understating Optimism Bias, a mechanism for quantifying risk in economic appraisal in the original tender process leading to Invensys being the sole firm to tender for the work in 2012.  The cost estimate was only increased by 20.2% due to Optimism Bias, but Network Rail practice at a stage when work is so undefined is to use a cost enhancement of 66% to reflect the high risk of cost increases as a project gains higher definition.  DRD is criticised equally for failing to detect this.

The Committee recommends that the Department and NITHCO/Translink devise a market engagement strategy for all capital programmes. This should include a commitment to encourage value for money through competition in the market.

In addition, the Committee strongly recommends that the Department cease forthwith the practice of announcing budgets that have been established for projects as this has the potential to inflate the market cost.

The Committee is incredulous that an estimated figure should be publicised by DRD for the project, given the likelihood that only a single tender might be received for the work.  This is problematic, because public representatives do ask for estimated budgets in written questions to the Assembly and the House of Commons.  In addition, it is less than clear that keeping the estimated budget figure confidential would have led to lower bids in what is undoubtedly a sellers’ market.

But this is something that has history anywhere and everywhere in procurement.  Firms tender according to the convenience of taking on the work – the cost of ensuring adequate staff, materials and plant, including diversions from other work already in hand and the occupancy of suppliers.  If they don’t particularly want the work, they may bid at a level where it is worth their while if they are the only bidders, but not so high as to be overlooked the “next” time.

Nevertheless, the Committee considers that failure to factor in market engagement and other strategic marketing was a failure on the part of DRD, together with announcing budgets publicly due to the potential to inflate market costs.

The Committee endorses the PAR report recommendation regarding the use of dashboards – management information systems that map progress against key performance indicators – as a means of enabling not just instantaneous and informed decisions, but also as a means of effectively communicating the project objectives and commitments.

This arose from Translink not being made aware that the Phase 2 project was a Programme for Government commitment on the part of the Executive.  The Committee states that Translink and DRD were therefore in danger of failing to comply with the requirement for effectiveness in public procurement.

DRD is criticised over the 2013 Invensys bid for the work, which was rejected due to being substantially over budget, but as later estimates revealed, once the undefined part of the works had been identified, it was estimated that Invensys could have been slightly cheaper.  An opportunity was therefore missed, although with the later additions (platform extension at Castlerock and replacements at Bellarena and expanded signalling requirements including a VDU solution instead of extending a 25 year old time-limited physical panel in Coleraine) the final contract sum may not have been much less.

The Committee continues to criticise DRD and Translink for not releasing the Project Assessment Review for the Invensys bid, but to an extent this undermines statements that project budgets should not be put in the public domain in case potential bidders should take advantage, because the PAR includes the cost estimates.

The Committee recommends that the Department ensures that robust cost-estimation and accurate forecasting techniques are identified and applied for all capital projects currently in development to ensure that sufficient optimum bias levels have been included.

The report identifies that the increased costs created by phasing the overall scheme to relay and resignal Coleraine-Waterside were not correctly identified as they ought to have been, and decision making was faulty as a result.

Mention is made of a 2007 Booz Allen Hamilton report predicting a 25% rise in travellers, which actually turned out to be 238%.  However, it has to be understood, and I don’t think the Committee fully appreciate this, that any consultant suggesting such a massive increase in passengers would have been laughed out of the room as beyond credibility.  Such an increase is the stuff of fairy tales, or perhaps the determination of NIR management to prove everyone wrong by running services at times and frequencies that made them desirable.

The Committee does not criticise either DRD or Translink over the remainder of the principles of Public procurement in Northern Ireland for their consistency in approach to all suppliers; fair-dealing with all suppliers; integrity; legality and responsiveness.  They do raise the risks to integration with overall Executive economic and social policy created by the overall threat to the project caused by the bad cost forecasting.

The Committee recommends that the Department conduct an urgent review of the NITHCO/Translink project management framework to ensure that the failures recorded by the Committee and in the PAR report are negated.

The Committee completely disagrees with the PAR statement that “There is a strong internal Translink project management framework in place which forms a sound base for taking the recommendations of this review to strengthen the project’s delivery confidence”, citing the change of direction of the policy proposal without the Minister’s authority, not challenging the cost estimates, not challenging the passenger number estimates, and not having a contingency plan.

Now, I am not sure that stopping a procurement process because it has come in over budget and reassessing it constituted a change of direction in the policy proposal, and I’ve already challenged the comments about the passenger number estimates, but the problem is that the contingency plan when the work costs more than the budget can only be one thing: reassess the project to see what went wrong and what can be afforded within the envelope (or whether additional funds can be made available if everything else stacks up, as would eventually happen with Babcock’s bid), and to make do and mend in the meantime.  If the money isn’t there, there is no alternative.

The Committee recommends that the Department urgently commences an Internal Audit review of the governance arrangements currently in place in respect of the organisations working on its behalf and to ensure that their scrutiny role is vigorously enhanced. The Committee requires that a report on the findings of the review is forwarded to the Committee.

The Committee entirely endorses the PAR report recommendation to with regards to tightening reporting mechanisms but would itself recommend that an urgent review of communication within and between the Department and NITHCO/Translink is required.

The Committee remains critical of the Department for not bringing the necessary clarity to this role. The Committee endorses the recommendation contained within the PAR report and recommends that the Department review the roles of all representatives on project boards urgently. The Committee further recommends that the Department advise other Executive departments of the PAR report recommendation on making departmental representatives more active on project boards.

This was inevitable.  The Committee perceives the relationship between DRD and Translink to be “cosy”, much as the experiences of passengers suffering fare rises, service cuts and old and unreliable trains and buses caused by the failure of DRD to fund Translink properly will tell a very different story.  However, this is far from the first report that I have reviewed, let alone actually published, that has called into question the ability of DRD to manage a public transport organisation due to lack of skills.


This report will have been anything but comfortable reading for Translink, because mistakes were made. A correct optimism bias assessment could have seen the works completed before now, with a passing loop at Eglinton, but with variations for a VDU solution for the signal cabin at Coleraine, and extending the Up platform at Castlerock and providing a new platform at Bellarena, and with the state of the signalling market, we could have ended up with a similar final contract sum.

However, while the recommendations are directed at both DRD and Translink, the report is utterly damning of DRD’s supervision of Translink and failure to catch potential problems in good time.  Additional staff are required to give DRD the skills identified by NIAO and the Committee, against the background of reducing headcount.

Phase 2 will now continue to completion, but in the medium term a lot of work will be required to restore confidence between the Committee and the Department, and indeed their successors after the Assembly election in May.

Remembering Rev Louise Duncan

Louise, myself and Jo This time on 17th February last year I had just arrived in Glasgow after a long drive up the A77 and M77 from Cairnryan and the 3.30 ferry from Belfast, and was looking forward to the pancakes that Holly McGuigan was making for me on my way to the Marie Curie hospice in Edinburgh to join Derek, Tom, Joanne, Christine, Robert and the rest of the family in their vigil for Louise.

I remember driving Jo and her dad back to Balerno manse, and the phone call we got from Christine as we joined the City Bypass just before 1pm to say we’d lost Louise. I remember how I texted my friends. I remember the three weeks we spent in Scotland staying at our friends Neil and Anne’s house and just being present with Derek and Tom. I remember the videos that Louise made. I remember the hordes who came to her memorial service to give thanks and to mourn.

I could say many things. Today is a day when the family will remember together, whether in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and we will be there for each other. We will stand with friends. We will remember Louise and we will give thanks, and support each other.

Jo and I will spend a little time in the church she served, with members of the church and community dropping in and out. Tonight we will all remember Louise over dinner, whether in Balerno or Ballyclare.

Jo’s and my wedding anniversary will always be linked to losing the woman who so joyously married us, at last getting to wear a bridesmaid’s dress instead of her ministerial robes, and who encouraged us on our way throughout.
Louise wanted us to remember her and live. “Run for me, dance for me, think of me.”

I’ll not be running with these knees today. It isn’t a day for dancing, but I can remember the Robinson girls dancing together. I can remember her and her love for Derek, Tom, family, friends, congregation and God.

And I will remember God walking with us through the darkness and pain. The reality of his presence. How he comforts those who mourn and binds up the broken-hearted. How we are not alone, no matter how difficult it is to see that when we are hurting.

And I will remember that imperfect humans like me still need human reminders that they matter and are cared for – and that is this week’s job in the midst of sorrow and pain.

Why a railway line can close for 24 hours after one incident

I nearly landed up on Talkback twice last week, but both items were pulled in the end – the first one was to discuss John Simpson’s call in the Belfast Telegraph for bus and train fares to go up (the law of diminishing returns would apply as fares are already perceived to be ridiculously expensive, and the added traffic would cost the economy more in congestion, even without bus lanes.)

The second one was in the wake of an incident on Thursday morning where the first morning service from Belfast to Portadown hit a digger bucket left fouling the line near Lissue level crossing.  I was asked (at Wesley Johnston‘s suggestion) why the line had to stay closed for so long.

Having seen photographs of the damaged train (thanks to Chris Playfair), it’s now clear why it took so long, but even before considering the train itself, there is one simple one word reason for the delay.


Any incident where a train strikes something (or indeed in the case of a near miss) has to be fully investigated.  The Rail Accident Investigation Branch has a statutory duty to investigate, and needs time to examine the scene, and the Health and Safety Executive will take an interest as well under its own statutory role.  Translink will also have been carrying out an internal investigation, because of its accountability not only to RAIB, but to DRD as sponsoring department.

In a situation such as this where interference by vandals is suspected, the PSNI also needs time to examine the scene and consider whether a crime has been committed.

All of these things take time.  Translink will have been in a position to carry out its own evidence-gathering as quickly as humanly possible (subject to making sure that RAIB, PSNI and HSE could all do likewise on the basis of the same information), but the attendance of other agencies, in particular RAIB travelling from GB, will have been entirely out of their control.

In past times, such an incident would have been cleared sooner, or at least we have that impression.  It may even be a true and accurate impression, but in practice that’s difficult to say, given that Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate would have been responsible for the investigation and would again have had to travel from GB.


In the pictures I linked to above, there is clear damage to the underfloor equipment that will have ruled out moving the affected carriage by rail – doing so could have damaged the track, especially on the turnouts at Lisburn and Adelaide yard, as well as damaging the equipment further.  Mar-Track, a Lisburn firm who transported the vehicle by low loader to Belfast that night, will have needed considerable space to operate cranes to retrieve the vehicle – and may have had to wait until they could access the adjacent car park in Knockmore Industrial Estate to do so once all the normal users had gone home.

Included in the Belfast Telegraph article above is an indication that there was damage to the track to be repaired, which could only have been addressed once the train was removed.

Single Line Working?

In times past, one might have expected Single Line Working to have been established between Lisburn (Platform 2) and Moira, where there was (and may still be) a crossover, once everyone who needed to examine the location from the Down line (away from Dublin) had done so, and the leading carriage had been secured, ready to be lifted by crane later.  There will have been several reasons why they didn’t.

First and foremost, even the short section from Lisburn to Moira can only allow a much reduced service to pass through.  Even with double-length sets, there would have been unacceptable delays to passengers in rush hour – or in other words, the buses may have been needed anyway.

Secondly, all four level crossings in the section (Lissue, Maze, Damhead, and Trummery) would have had to have been operated manually, unless they were equipped to operate as normal for trains coming in the “wrong” direction – very labour intensive, and it may even have been necessary for Moira level crossing to be manned.

Thirdly, with speed restrictions in place approaching the level crossings and passing the site of the incident, there would have been delays for even the Enterprise had it been the only train to run through – and the Enterprise is already extremely sensitive to delays – the impact of a ten minute delay between Belfast and Dundalk can be a further 20 minutes between Malahide and Dublin due to missing its slot (“path” in railway parlance) between DART trains.

Fourthly, the mechanical engineers will have needed safe access from the Down line to assess how to move the front carriage safely and efficiently.  We don’t know how long that will have taken, or how much work is involved.

The other issue is why, if crossovers were available at Moira or Lurgan, could trains not have operated to there and changed line?  It would have required one member of staff to operate the crossovers (again, assuming one or other still exists, given the cost of maintaining pointwork that is rarely used), and in principle it’s doable.  We don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect that the reason is that making everyone get the train to Moira and then getting the bus from a station with a busy Park & Ride and relatively narrow approach roads might in fact be slower or at least cause more traffic problems than a direct bus from Portadown to Lisburn.


Only time will tell the full story of what happened, but if there’s one thing that comes out of this, it’s the crucial importance of railways to fighting congestion in Northern Ireland.  On the face of it, it’s a mere four buses to replace one 3-carriage train, but in practice, it’s a lot more because some buses will operate non-stop from Portadown to Lisburn for through traffic to make up for the delay, and others would stop at Lurgan and Moira.

The biggest impact, however, is not the buses so much as commuters who enjoy getting the train to work but cannot stand buses to the point that given enough notice of a railway line closure, they will take the car the whole way into work.

John Simpson’s article, linked above, in calling for bus and train fares to rise to cover more of Translink’s operating costs, ignores a declared intention to operate at a loss in 2014-15 paid for by profits made in the previous two years, and also the real reason for Translink’s worsening performance:  the withdrawal of the Fuel Duty Rebate, paid as “Bus Service Operator’s Grant” to all operators (mainly private sector) of local bus services in Great Britain, and recompensing the companies for 89% of the duty paid on diesel to operate all but rail and express bus services.  His article misinterprets Public Service Obligation, which is not paid in respect of any bus services in Northern Ireland, which run almost entirely based on farebox income and concessionary fares (actually compensation for fares not paid by the over-60s), barring a tiny amount for a few services supported by the Rural Transport Fund.

The key problem is the price sensitivity of bus and rail fares in Northern Ireland, and that sensitivity is the reason why Ulsterbus passenger numbers have fallen over the last 20 years. If the buses and trains are too expensive or at the wrong times, people will vote with their steering wheels.

Reading the papers…

On the day that Rev Stephen Johnston has had a letter published in the News Letter calling out the Finaghy True Blues Band for breaking the third commandment, David McNarry had another letter published.

I rewrote some of it in my own way.

Orange Walks should be lawful and thugs should say sorry

Orangemen are reporting alleged persecution by the Parades Commission in a fashion suggesting that they have no knowledge of the Bible they purport to follow.

They are aided and abetted in this by bands who display the emblems of loyalist terrorists and who refuse to obey the law of the land, all in the name of tradition and cultural expression. To those who cannot see further than the end of their bigoted noses, I say it is time to say, ‘read your Bibles on the subject of obedience to the lawful authorities.’

No matter how you express it, it is important that they get the message – as in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:20, Matthew 22:21, and Matthew 5:38-48.

It is now time for the Orange Institution to move positively in one clear direction – that is the way of Christ and reconciliation. We must put an end to the ridicule which our unChristlikeness causes from others. 

We must start afresh to be peacemakers during the whole of the year and not just on great annual occasions.

We must abandon attempts to get the Drumcree walk completed, because there is a perfectly reasonable alternative. We must engage with communities to ensure that walks such as Ligoniel can be completed peacefully, as there isn’t a reasonable alternative route. This is an absolute prerequisite for improved community relations.

We may have a right to walk anywhere, both civil and moral, but our religious obligation is to give a good account of Christ. Our only religious right is to witness to Christ at all times and in all places, and we should not damage our witness by association with lawbreaking.
Finally, I say to those behind the thuggery and violence who today should be feeling very sorry for their unacceptable behaviour – go now this week and apologise to the chief constable, the Orange Order, and your local communities. Stop using decent law-abiding Orangemen as an excuse for criminality.
No PSNI officer should have to stand fast and face down a barrage of bricks and bottles. 

No police chief should have to ask his officers to risk serious injury in the line of duty. 

The PSNI demonstrated outstanding courage in having to defend themselves from people who are allegedly ‘loyal.’ This must end now.

What is wrong in politics is the same as what is wrong on the streets – a lack of leadership.

Always know how many sweets you have.

Time for a little silliness!

The Belfast Telegraph today is carrying a report on the bafflement caused by a question on EdExcel’s GCSE Maths paper and the viral reactions on Twitter.

The question was as follows:-

Hannah has 6 orange sweets and some yellow sweets.
Overall, she has n sweets.
The probability of her taking 2 orange sweets is 1/3.
Prove that: n^2-n-90=0

It’s not actually as difficult as it sounds.

The probability of drawing an orange sweet is the number of orange sweets over the total number of sweets, in other words 6/n.

Once Hannah has eaten the first orange sweet, there is one fewer sweet, and so the probability of drawing a orange sweet is 5/n-1.

The rules of probability are that if you want the chances of two things happening, you multiply their probabilities – so the chances of the first two sweets out of the bag being orange are (6/n)(5/(n-1)) and they equal 1/3.  (I’ll talk about some other probabilities in a minute.)

So take (6/n)(5/(n-1)) = 1/3 and multiply out the left hand side to get:
30/(n^2-n) = 1/3

If you multiply both sides in turn by the denominator of both sides (cross-multiplying), you get:
90 = n^2-n, or:

QED, and rather nerdily.  Worse, I ran it through the quadratic formula and I can tell you that unless Hannah lived in a parallel universe where you can have negative numbers of sweets, she had four yellow sweets, and n = 10.

I said I’d come back to other probabilities.  The first of these is the probability that at least one of the first two sweets would be orange.  You get these by adding the probabilities, but you have to add the right probabilities:

  • The probability that the first sweet would be orange (6/10) and the second would be yellow (4/9) = 24/90, or 4/15
  • The probability that the first sweet would be yellow (4/10) and the second would be orange (6/9) = 24/90, or 4/15
  • The probability that both sweets would be orange, which we already know to be 1/3, or 5/15

That makes 13/15, which is pretty high.  To check, the final probability is that of drawing two yellow sweets (4/10 for the first and 3/9 for the second) is 12/90, or 2/15.

To complete the picture, in the parallel universe of negative numbers of sweets, Hannah would have had -15 yellow sweets for n=-9.  If you took those four sweets and an IOU for 15 more, shame on you. 😉

On modern worship songs and traditional hymns

A friend has recycled the old trope of what constitutes a modern worship song in the form of a cartoon which someone posted to his Facebook, which goes as follows:-

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write modern worship choruses, I write…”

You get the idea.

I couldn’t resist it.  I did the other half of the conversation.

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I take my pen in my right hand
And I sit at my desk
Perchance shall I have a long walk
And go to church and pray

I meditate on all God’s works
Sometimes will I espy
Some little thing that makes me think
Of words obscure and long

I always have reams of A4
The more words to fit in
I must explain in deep detail
The one thing I must say

For why have one short four foot line
When I could write much more
‘Tis far more fun four feet to write
Or four sheets of A4

Had I more time I’d check my rhyme
And make sure this would scan
And this, and this, my ditty brief
Would answer you most kind.”

“Oh, I get it – you write traditional hymns!”

It reminded me of this description of the difference

Experiences of bus privatisation in GB

As threatened a number of times, I’ve finally pulled together this piece on why bus privatisation isn’t all it’s made out to be (cross-posted to Slugger O’Toole)

I simply want to walk through the scenarios for privatisation we have seen in GB since 1986 and their pitfalls.


The main model followed in GB outside London was to deregulate bus transport.  All publicly owned bus companies, including municipal fleets, were privatised, either by sale or Management-Employee Buyout, and were no longer regulated.  They and any bus company holding the appropriate accreditation could operate on any route having given 56 days notice, and charge as they pleased.

Popular routes saw plenty of competition and some at best doubtful (and in some cases quite illegal) practices designed to get competitors off the road, such as selective price reductions (which presumably had to be paid for by higher fares on less profitable routes) and running extra buses just before the competitor’s bus arrived.  Former multi-operator ticketing schemes being undercut by operator-specific schemes (as in Birmingham) have seen it made harder for entrants to gain access because of the convenience and price to the customer of sticking to the incumbent operator.

Off-peak services and rural routes saw very little competition, and this has got worse because the market is dominated by five main operators – Arriva, First, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach – who largely run monopolies in local areas with little outside competition.

Public subsidies were restricted to unprofitable services, which meant that fares in former metropolitan areas rose by 47.7% in real terms between 1986 and 1994, compared to a GB-wide general rise of 16.9% over the same period – Sheffield, for example, had to increase its fares by 35% due to the ending of subsidies.  Between 1984 and 2010, bus fares would rise by 60% in real terms from 1986 to 2010 against an increase in motoring costs of 10% – which in itself is enough to push people off public transport.

Unprofitable services, which include evening and Sunday services on otherwise profitable routes, had to be subsidised.  In one case I read of, but for which you won’t find the citation in my further reading at the bottom of this article, a bus company gave notice that it was going to withdraw a particular bus service because it wasn’t profitable.  The local authority decided it was socially necessary, and tendered it as a subsidised service.  The same company won the tender, where in the past they would have cross-subsidised against other routes where possible, costing the ratepayer/council tax payer money.

There were two added problems with tendered services.  Firstly, a local authority might not be able (or might not even wish) to subsidise all routes that might be considered “socially necessary,” and routes would therefore cease.

Secondly, as would happen in the course of rail privatisation, a minimum service would be specified.  Unless there was sufficient farebox income to be made from running additional services, the successful company would not operate more that minimum.

The effect of the cut in subsidy in 1986 was to increase the proportion of bus operating costs paid for through the fare box from 64% in 1985 to 72% in 1986.  Falling demand and increased subsidy of unprofitable services saw this proportion fall to 50% by 2009.

Tendering arrangements

London followed the opposite model.  Route planning and fare setting were centralised, and private companies were able to tender to operate London bus services – so no competition on the ground, but rather companies were able to compete to receive the farebox income for the duration of their contract.

This model was actually quite successful, with the rise in passenger numbers far eclipsing the fall in the rest of the country, although much of this can be attributed to increased subsidy, particularly since 1999.

General notes

The key problem with privatisation is that every privately-owned commercial company has the same object in its Memorandum of Association: to carry on the business of a company, or, in short, to make money.

The immediate cost to the staff of a privatised company is downwards pressure on wages, which in the case of bus drivers was to see their average wages fall from 7% above the average manual wage in 1985 to 13% below in 1995.  This was caused by a number of factors, such as more part-time drivers, and the explosion in the use of minibuses, for which new drivers could be paid a lower rate (as indeed happened on Ulsterbus – new drivers would start on 25-seaters at a lower rate of pay, and be promoted to big buses later)

The cost to the council tax payer is that the tolerance of a private company for cross-subsidisation is low, which has pushed up the burden on them of supporting unprofitable services.  By way of contrast, the Rural Transport Fund in Northern Ireland subsidised a number of Ulsterbus services, including tourist services, but Metro is expected to cross-subsidise all of its services from the profitable ones.

The advantage of the London model is that because the farebox income goes to TfL rather than the operator, it means little to the operator whether they carry five passengers per bus or 50.

There was a massive increase in subsidy for London services from 1999 to 2002, coinciding with the establishment of Transport for London, with the clear intention of pulling more people onto the buses to aid congestion.  A further country-wide increase in 2003/2004 can be attributed to expansion in concessionary fare entitlement.

The Northern Ireland picture

Translink is painted as a monopoly, which isn’t actually entirely true.  As in GB, express services (with stops more than fifteen miles apart) are already open to competition, as with AirCoach and the excellent Eamon Rooney coach service to Rostrevor.  Local services not currently operated by Translink are I believe open to a private operator to tap into, and I don’t think this is restricted to school services.

The same subsidies are available to private operators as are available to Ulsterbus and Metro:  concessionary fares and, until April of this year, fuel duty rebate – so the services have to be run commercially.  This mirrors the situation in GB, where fares for commercially viable services cannot be artificially lowered through subsidy.

Significantly, apart from the Rural Transport Fund, there is no operating subsidy for Ulsterbus and Metro services in Northern Ireland.  Actual buses are paid for through the capital budget of DRD, partly due to Executive policy to reduce the average age of buses and keep it low, but otherwise the two bus subsidies of Translink are left to balance the books between farebox income and operating expenses.


What I was not able to do was source figures on public transport subsidy all the way from 1985 to the present day – something I suspect Salmon of Data could dig up rather more quickly.  Rail subsidy is known to have escalated quite considerably (it doubled within a year of privatisation, and had gone up a further 50% to £3 billion by 2003), and I would want to see figures excluding the impact of concessionary fares to be able to comment accurately on the potential impact of privatisation on subsidy levels for Northern Ireland.

What I can do is present some general principles.

It is known that DRD do not intend to deregulate bus or train services in Northern Ireland, probably because of the examples throughout Great Britain where services have been lost because of lack of profit to the operator and the cost to local authorities of maintaining unprofitable services.

They do intend to follow one of two models: to invite tenders for baskets of routes (some profitable, some not) where either the operator keeps the farebox income in return for a fixed sum, or where all farebox income is handed to DRD in return for a higher fixed sum.

With the number of unprofitable routes being operated in Northern Ireland (and of course unprofitable journeys on otherwise profitable routes), I think they are tending towards the latter model, one with its own dangers.

One of the things that has pushed Translink subsidy up over the last fifteen years has been bus replacement, partly to get rid of buses with increasingly difficult to source parts due to engine age, and because old buses are not attractive to passengers.  Private bus companies would be required to buy their own vehicles, and would tender on that basis – or, indeed, tender in such a way that average bus age considerably increases so they can avoid renewing vehicles at all to save money.  This is considerably less obvious than when one could board an aging Leyland Leopard or Bristol RE in the 1990s compared to the new Cityliners and Goldliners from 1989 or so, because passenger comfort is in a completely different world from when I went to school in the 1980s, but even to compare the oldest vehicles in the Metro fleet with the newest shows the newer buses off well.

It also changes competition from an illusion to non-existent.  The passenger is likely to get the same bus (purchased from Translink by a private operator) and the same driver (different uniform) in the same traffic jams at the same time (if not less frequent), with fares theoretically set to balance the books (certainly this side of 2020, where DRD and its successor are likely to remain substantially underfunded), and making the same complaints about the buses being late, and probably seriously considering moving back into their car.  In other words, nothing will change.

There also lies within this a question of responsiveness to customer demand.  Translink used to issue monthly amendments to its timetables, although these have decreased in frequency.  With tendered services, there will be restrictions on how quickly DRD can expect a private company to respond to increased demand, including obtaining vehicles and the services of drivers.

The final aspect for now is the prospect of selling Translink off to the private sector wholesale.  The NI Audit Office report highlighted that the big firms in GB experience a lot lower overheads due to sheer size, but there would have to be considerable reorganisation before this could happen – if bus operations in NI are not to be deregulated, transport planners currently working for Translink would have to be transferred to DRD, for example.  Both the NIAO and the Committee for Regional Development have raised questions about DRD’s ability to plan transport effectively, and since Translink would need to retain some planners to deal with private hires, drivers’ rosters etc, it isn’t clear that enough professionals would be available to move to DRD.  It also isn’t clear how much Translink would raise on the open market due to its dependence on public subsidy.

Between that uncertainty, the expectation I would suggest that will maintain pressure to keep fares up to maintain the profits of the private company (whether directly through the farebox or indirectly through the tender to operate) and the lack of funding available from the Executive that goes way beyond the problems of Stormont House it is hard to see how any of the suggested benefits to the ratepayer and passenger of privatisation in terms of lower subsidy, lower fares and certainly better timetables would actually come to fruition beyond the short term.

Further reading

Alan Howes Associates (2011), Overview of Bus Industry Performance, Great Britain, since Deregulation

Balcombe, RJ (1988), Bus deregulation in Great Britain: a review of the first eighteen months, Transport Planning Div1sion, Transport and Road Research Laboratory, Department of Transport

Butcher, L (2010), Buses: deregulation in the 1980s, House of Commons Library

Donald, R & Pickup, L (2007), The effects of local bus deregulation in great Britain on low income families—the case of MerseysideHouse of Commons Transport Committee (2oo6), Bus Services across the UK

Lawton-Smith, H, Deregulation and privatization in the UK freight, and bus and coach industries, Regulatory Policy Research Centre, Hertford College, Oxford

Matthews, B, Bristow, A & Nash, C (2001), Competitive tendering and deregulation in the British bus market – a comparison of impacts on costs and demand in London and the British Metropolitan Areas, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds

Mayer, M (2004), Public Transport – the Real Cost of Privatisation, Radical Statistics

Pond, R, (2006), Liberalisation, privatisation and regulation in the UK local public transport sector, Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University

Preston, J (2004), The Deregulation and Privatisation of Public Transport in Great Britain: Twenty Years On, Transport Research Foundation

Savage, I (1993), Deregulation and privatization of Britain’s local bus industry, Departments of Economics and the Transportation Center, Northwestern University

Ashers, equal marriage and 21st century evangelism

At times, I think the Christian Church has lost the plot.

Being on the evangelical wing of the Church, beyond denominational boundaries, and also having a lot of friends who are not, the fuss over the Ashers bakery case and the Irish equal marriage referendum has ensured that my Facebook feed has plenty to read.

A number of things disturb me.  Perhaps it’s the influence of a sermon I heard by a Presbyterian minister about a year ago which pointed out that you can’t expect people who aren’t Christians to behave like Christians.  Perhaps it’s Jesus reminding us of planks in our own eyes and that we are hypocrites when we judge others despite being less than perfect ourselves.  Perhaps it’s the realisation I had a number of years ago that there isn’t a hierarchy of sin and we can’t look down on each other.  The humility to realise what it means for me to be no better than anybody else (more on that another time.)

Sin.  There’s a word that is not very popular, and it’s probably because the world has no concept of what sin is, except when it’s Christians banging on about how we need to be saved from them.

And perhaps that is my point.  I remember my friend who tells of her time in the Christian Union at DCU, where someone quietly saying the word “jargon” was enough to get whoever was talking to take a step back and reframe in words other people could actually make sense of.

So in a world where people don’t know what sin is, a different language is needed, that meets people where they are.  I’ve suggested in the past that we should explore what God means as creator, sustainer and life-giver, and if he is all of those things, then we owe him everything, and, actually, ignoring him and generally failing to thank him is a big deal – essentially, why God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is relevant to life in a country that I’m not particularly certain was ever Christian to begin with.

It’s all about meeting people where they are.  Explaining why we believe even that God exists.  Having an answer about the Bible (it’s more certain with the New Testament than with any text of a similar age that the standard Greek text as received today is pretty much as it was written in the 1st Century, due to the number of early manuscripts, which predate and far exceed the number of early manuscripts of Pliny, Caesar’s Gallic Wars etc), and things like that if we’re asked.

It’s also about reading the book of James and realising the reality that preaching the Gospel is going to be all words and no action if the person you’re witnessing to is hungry, poor, or in any other way disadvantaged – that we are hypocrites if we do not act as we believe.

And, as I overheard this morning, having an answer about equal marriage, given that the terminology I’m using is loaded.

There are certain things to note.

Firstly, throughout Ireland, marriage is a civil matter.  It is lawful for a heterosexual couple to be married within the context of a religious service: the minister is licensed to conduct the ceremony, witness the vows and pronounce the couple married, and I think most ministers will recite Jesus’ words Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” as a prayer over the newly married couple, because many Christians, myself included, believe they have indeed been drawn together by God, but in the end it is the local authority Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages who will certify that the marriage is valid.

Secondly, and I suspect this is a large reason why the referendum passed, equal marriage doesn’t affect straight people other than when it’s their friends who are affected.  I’ve seen the pain in my friends’ eyes because all they could get in 2012 in Scotland was a civil partnership, something that felt to them, and I know to many others, as incomplete (they got married a few weeks ago.)

Nor is it intended that it will affect the Christian Church, not least because probably the majority of Christian ministers, Jewish Rabbis, and certainly of Muslim Imams could not offer a religious same-sex marriage ceremony – I cannot speak for other religions.

Thirdly, I don’t think that equal marriage is much of a threat to traditional marriage, if any.  Others may disagree with me about that, but I think that a far greater threat is from men and women who break their vows to love and cherish each other and to be faithful.  I’ve seen the effect of emotional abuse in particular, and many readers will know the impact of physical abuse.  That is the real threat to marriage.

More than that, my dear lesbian friends who are committed to each other for life are a challenge to me and to all other couples to live up to their dedication and love.  To love my wife as I ought.  To treat her right.

That is the serious business.

And so to Ashers.

It’s a judgement that worries me.  Not because of the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which I’m not convinced of in all honesty, but because of the discrimination on the basis of political opinion.

Does that mean that if I were a printer, I would be obliged to print posters for DUP and Sinn Fein even though I would thoroughly disagree with some of the content, simply because I might do so for another political party?

The answer is “probably.”  I can’t say I would be at all happy, but then again I’d’ve made the cake in question if I had been Ashers.  I probably can’t have it both ways.

One good thing arising from the decision concerning political discrimination, however, is that the judgement did put to bed the notion that a conscience clause would have been a let out for Ashers.

In the end, however, I think the wisest words about the cake I have read are here, especially with regard to Matthew 5:41 and 44.  I can say no more.

Bus lane cameras and a few more seconds of fame

Last night the BBC called in search of commentary on the new bus lane cameras.  Only the last question got used, but Tara Mills and I talked for over a minute and a half about why I think the cameras are good news for law-abiding motorists, the amount of the fine (same as a parking ticket) and Belfast traffic (with a name check for Wesley Johnston) and bus usage, including my suggestion that the City Council should have capitalised on off-peak access to Belfast for those who want to shop outside rush hour.

I’ll write in a little more detail about the principles on Slugger later on, but for now here are the notes I wrote last night to talk around. The last paragraph is more or less what got broadcast.

I think the bus lane cameras are great news for motorists, buses and cyclists, despite what Jimmy Spratt said on behalf of the committee for regional development last July about it being nothing more than a revenue generating tax.

I’ve sat too often either driving or with my wife at the wheel in the outside lane at 8.30am watching dozens of private cars go up the inside, including some private hire taxis. I came to the conclusion that the Ormeau road bus lanes actually had a different set of three letters beginning with B.

I’ve sat on buses delayed waiting for gaps to pull round parked delivery vehicles, and slowing down other traffic as a result. This morning I was on my bicycle depending on the kindness of motorists to let me out and round – slowing them down.

In the end, the law-abiding motorist has nothing to fear, although as a motorist I hope to see discretion where people duck round a car turning right without holding up legitimate buses, cycles and public hire taxis in the bus lane.

There are issues of buses not using lanes which are designed to take them where they are going. The Donegal square South camera, if it stops others using the bus lane, I hope will see more buses go through the bus gate at line hall street as designed.

The proof will be in the eating. The PSNI are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as having paid relatively little attention to bus lanes, and I think that is why there was so much abuse. NSL will also have to up their game, as many motorists suffer from delays due to the existing lack of clearway and bus lane parking restriction enforcement on many routes.

£1.1 billion running public transport to stand still

This article reflecting on today’s Northern Ireland Audit Office report on DRD: the effectiveness of public transport in Northern Ireland was due to appear in today’s Belfast Telegraph, but was bumped before it went to press (although I did make it onto Good Morning Ulster and Radio Foyle Breakfast, and I’m due to be on BBC Newsline 6.30 thanks to Wesley Johnston!)  More detail on Slugger O’Toole later. [edit: here it is]

It sounds like a lot of money, but consider where we were in 2002.  No new trains for local services since 1986 (and to call the 450 class with its reconditioned 1960s mechanical equipment new was generous).  Buses which had once rolled out of Walter Alexander’s Mallusk factory at a decent number every year had slowed down to slightly larger batches every few years. Railway track deteriorating, bus services being cut, and the campaign by this newspaper to Save our Railways.

The NIAO report records how £1.1 billion went into addressing the maintenance and bus and train renewal deficit, plus expanded concessionary fares, and servicing an increase in demand for rail services such that anyone daring to predict it would have been laughed out of the room.

At the same time, demand for Ulsterbus services has diminished (how much can be attributed to the transfer of some services to Metro is still to be determined) and an expansion of Ulsterbus town services in the mid-2000s has largely been rolled back, with more cuts proposed.

Yet it also highlights how much has yet to be done.  It notes that Transport NI was created in 2013, and then reduced to Roads Service plus Park&Ride and Belfast Rapid Transit in 2014.  It comments on how the customer gets public transport on the cheap compared to similar distances in GB, but doesn’t indicate how much the ratepayer in Plymouth pays in subsidy to get their cash fare of £1.00 – one of a number of interesting questions not considered in the report.  It also considers the rise in cheap car parking provision, both public and private, in Belfast.

I wrote to DRD regarding their budget consultation late last year, and one of my notes was that I couldn’t see how they could reallocate the little funds they had received differently, given the challenges of trying to fund NI Water adequately and deal with the maintenance requirements of our road network.

I appealed for them to use any funds from quarterly monitoring rounds for public transport, but this is probably only a drop in the ocean beside what is actually required in increased subsidy.  I have argued elsewhere for a holistic solution that diverts unnecessary traffic away from Belfast city centre, but at the centre of that solution remains modal shift for the possible to public transport – and if you want people to get out of their cars, you need buses and trains at the right time and a lot cheaper.

Andy Boal blogs at and

Christians on the Left Stormont launch

I’ve recently been writing for Slugger O’Toole but up to now I have deliberately avoided cross-posting here.  I felt that the original of this post, however, is a good case for an exception.

Some weeks ago, Barton Creeth talked to me about Christians on the Left, the (relatively) new name (since 2013) for the Christian Socialist Movement, which was founded in 1960, tied to the Labour party in GB, and whose current director is Dr Andrew Flannagan, originally from Portadown.  Its Northern Ireland grouping was due to have its Stormont launch last Monday night, but at the time I wasn’t available to go along anyway.

My key question, as a trade unionist and a social liberal, was whether I was sufficiently left wing!  Barton was satisfied that I was, and with a change of circumstances I was able to make it last Monday night.  Chris Lyttle MLA sponsored the event, which took the form of a panel discussion chaired by Barton – about thirty people of various ages and from different professions were present.

Rev Dr Lesley Carroll (Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian churches) observed that Christians tend to talk about a single “Christian” position rather than reflecting the many positions that such a diverse bunch of people will take, particularly with reference to culture and principles – both moderated and absolute, such as regarding abortion, and how and whether compassion is shown.

She considered her willingness to entertain views other than her own was what made her a Christian on the left.

Rev Chris Hudson (All Souls’ Non-subscribing Presbyterian church) suggested that if Christians engage with the question “Who is on the left?” that is a start!  For him, liberal views on for example, equal marriage do not make someone “on the left”, rather it is their economic and political views.  He gave the example of water and property taxes: the new Greek government didn’t propose to abolish their water charges, and he did believe Bono should pay his property tax.

Many years ago, Chris had gone to El Salvador as a trade unionist to investigate human rights abuses, and staying with Irish Franciscans who lived among and identified with the poor.  He was surprised to see the opulence of the local Jesuit priests when he visited them, but their role was to educate the children of the rich who would later lead the country and to teach them to have compassion for everyone and have responsibility for their wealth.  All Jesuits present were murdered six months later.

Chris made clear that you cannot separate moral and political thinking from one another.

Barton noted that with regard to issues such as equal marriage, it was necessary to have respectful and engaging dialogue because of the variety of differing views across the left.  By contrast, there was common ground on economic justice.

Alban Maginness (SDLP MLA, Belfast North) highlighted the separation of faith and politics in Western Europe, including the UK and Ireland. He came into politics because he is a Christian, and would not have done so if he hadn’t been – he believes that many others were inspired in the same way.  The UK Labour party arose from non-conformist churches – Harold Wilson said it owed more to the Methodist Chuch than Marxism – and also from Catholic social action.

The local problem was that because political divisions correspond with religious divisions, religion with politics was being rejected, but faith has a lot to contribute.  Alban believes that Christ came to reconcile man to God and also man to man.  It was his Christian duty to be involved in politics in such a divided society.

Stewart Dickson (Alliance MLA, East Antrim)  gave his life to the Lord in 1969, and his world was turned upside down – he did things he didn’t expect to do, and he didn’t do lots of things he thought he might have done!  His parents worked for the Co-op, and Stewart was involved in trade unionism.

The “One Christian voice” tends to drown out all others.  Stewart wishes to defend the rights of Christians and also the rights of those who do not wish to be Christians.  Many will have different views on conscience clauses, abortion etc, but it was essential to discern what the Lord wants in our lives.  It was his aim as a member of the Alliance party since 1976 to keep it grounded in faith, as do many others in the party.

Concluding the evening, Jonny Henson alluded to the French principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and wrapped up with words from Isaiah 61:

61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendour (NIV)

So why Christians on the Left for someone who thinks that the SDP should demerge from the Liberal Democrats, and is a lot less uncomfortable with the Labour party than the Tories but isn’t a Socialist and believes pretty broadly that people should be able to make as much money as they wish as long as they don’t exploit people by avoiding and evading taxes, overcharging customers, underpaying suppliers and staff, etc?

That exploitation thing is the key.  I may consider myself third way, because I see how levelling out of people in more extreme versions of socialism cannot reward or encourage excellence because there is no incentive, yet individualism and libertarianism espoused by Ayn Rand et al loses its social conscience, and denies equality of opportunity – indeed, because the market is king, those with power – and money – in a “free” market will use that power to squeeze out others, either by making sure that they don’t have enough money to make great ideas reality, or simply pricing them out of the market.

In the change of name of the Christian Socialist Movement to Christians on the Left, even though it remains tied to the Labour party, I see a widening that will allow more people like me to be involved, because of that common ground in concern for others – and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Roads Service, Transport NI, and the Inquiry into Comprehensive Transport Delivery Structures

I actually wrote this post last year with the intention of submitting it to another website. For one reason or another, it never got published there, but with the succession of Transport NI from Roads Service, it has suddenly become current again.

For more information on the handover, please see my friend and local roads expert Wesley Johnston’s blog.

In the meantime, let me take you back to September 2013, when the Committee for Regional Development released their much-anticipated Report on the Inquiry into Comprehensive Transport Delivery Structures.

Well, it turned out to be a bit of a storm in a teacup.

Any examination of the minutes of the Committee for Regional Development shows what I could politely describe as serious concern about the level of subsidy received by our public transport providers and the return on that investment. This is a concern which I hope to address in another post.

Today’s post, however, is about the Committee’s Report on the Inquiry into Comprehensive Transport Delivery Structures, which was finally published on Tuesday. While subsidy and return on investment in Translink was undoubtedly the main theme of its 286 pages, the main criticism was reserved for the DRD itself.

To explain this requires a little background, which thankfully is fairly comprehensively covered in the report itself.

EU Regulation 1370/2007, which came into effect in 2009, aims to ensure regulated competition within public transport delivery. In practical terms, and I am unashamedly borrowing from Austin Smyth’s submission to the inquiry, this meant that “public authorities who award exclusive rights or provide funding to an operator [must] do so within the framework of a public service contract that must be strictly controlled and adhere to a performance-based contractual regime.

This was intended to be implemented in a three-tier system – DRD to be responsible for policy, legislation and funding, the bottom tier to be providers including (but not limited to) Translink, and as confirmed by a DRD official when the Transport Act 2011 was passing through the Committee Stage, the middle tier was to be an Executive Agency responsible for tactical planning, service requirements, securing provision, managing contracts, and permits for new entrants.

The middle tier proved to be the sticking point. As implemented, rather than an agency, Transport NI was established within Roads Service, with responsibility not only for public transport but also roads planning. The new structure won criticism from several witnesses and the Committee itself for several reasons:

  • Limited staff with experience in transport planning, contract specification, contract management and fares regulation
  • Lack of trust in Transport NI to properly fight the corner of public transport, reflecting that roads spending is rising in proportion to public transport spending (although I would note that this is more due to a long backlog of maintenance, a legacy of the Troubles, as witnessed by the number of small schemes which have hit the ground in the last few years, as well as long overdue schemes such as the A4, the deferred A5, A2 Greenisland, and the A8)

Indeed, the Committee directly called for the Agency to be implemented independently of the Roads Service (but very much part of DRD, rather than any form of arms-length body), for it to be staffed with appropriate professionals (without reference to the salaries they would receive) and that the Department reviews its future budget allocations to make “a more proportional apportionment” between roads infrastructure and public transport.

A lot of space is devoted to the apparently close relationship between DRD and NITHC seen through the prism of the subsidy it receives (I tend to see it through an entirely different prism, that of the long-term train passenger noticing the number of speed restrictions Coleraine-Derry, Belfast-Larne and Belfast-Bangor before those lines were relaid, and how many years after NIR had told us all that the 80 class sets needed to be replaced it was before the DRD finally funded the C3Ks!) but few conclusions other than that the CEO and COO of NITHC should cease to be Directors of NITHC and the group be audited by NIAO.

Fares are discussed mainly in the context of regulation, as it appears that fares policy will fall under Transport NI or the Agency originally intended, but there is also implicit criticism of the lack of integrated ticketing, eighteen years after Ulsterbus, Citybus and NIR came under common ownership. To date this is still limited to iLink cards as successors to the Freedom of Northern Ireland tickets; “Plusbus” tickets sold by NIR for use on local town bus services (but not Metro), but not sold by Ulsterbus drivers to extend onto train services; and annual commuter cards.

The usual complaints arise in correspondence about NIR not offering multi-journey tickets as an alternative to unlimited travel weekly and monthly tickets, which is a matter of revenue protection unless the money is going to be made available to provide vandal-proof ticket machines at all stations.

Two models are suggested in the appendices for franchising – either fixed fee to run the service and income goes to DRD, or all fare income goes to the provider. Privatisation of Translink is not being considered.

The most interesting parts of the report concern how providers other than Translink (who retain a legal right to provide the “majority” of public transport services under the Transport Act 2011) will gain access to the market.

The good news is that it appears to be intended that to retain the necessity to cross-subsidise unprofitable services, routes will be tendered to franchisees in bundles of profitable and loss-making services.   (Before passengers start licking their lips at the prospect of friendlier drivers, they would do well to remember that they would get the same drivers in different uniforms!)

The complication will be that providers will expect to have their services co-located so that they can have a single depot rather than having isolated drivers elsewhere.

It also appears that fares for franchised operators will be centrally regulated, and there will hopefully be through ticketing where it already exists (with reservations which have been expressed to me by other companies that they would have to buy the “standard” ticket machines as a result – I had a conversation with a private operator some years ago who said that he had got round the requirement with an older ticket machine which still provided enough of an audit trail for him to reclaim his concessionary fares), but private companies such as Eamon Rooney will presumably still be able to compete on their own terms outside the Translink plus franchisees model where licences are granted.

Even with all these, I’m not convinced that the status quo is going to change to any great degree. With either tendering process, the pressure will be on Translink to reduce costs even further, much as I am unconvinced that there is great scope to do so, but I’m not convinced that many providers will come forward, especially if they do not consider there is enough profit to be made under regulated fares, and with regard to Transfer of Undertaking (Protection of Employment) regulations requirements regarding NILGOSC pension rights.

On top of that, franchising arrangements will have to be very tight. Practice in GB has been that unless a route is profitable, private companies (and this has been observed on National Rail in particular) will eventually reduce service to the absolute minimum required under the contract in order to maximise profit. This is likely to be highly unpopular, and will require Transport NI or the Agency to specify service levels similar to the status quo if any aim to increase bus passenger numbers is to have any hope of success.

In the end, any desire to expand public transport usage, which it must be recalled requires money to be spent on loss-making services to attract potential passengers as well as providing enough park and rides to persuade drivers to change modes mid-journey if they don’t need to use cars to do their work or reach their work with any reasonable speed compared to multiple changes of bus.

It may be that, as with Coastal Bus Services in Portrush and Sureline Coaches in Lurgan which came into being alongside Ulsterbus in 1967, any new entrants might not indeed last that long before their franchises revert to Translink.

So DRD have stuck to their guns with regard to Transport NI not being an arms-length body.  It remains to be seen whether it will be business as usual in terms of roads over public transport, especially with the June monitoring round being bad news in terms of cuts for most departments, and whether they will attract sufficient staff with the necessary skills, particularly in transport planning.

On James McConnell, Peter Robinson, and Islam

I’ve been following this for a few days.  I’m a Christian, no secret about that, but there are a few things I understand.

First of all, there’s no point asking me to leave my Bible at the door before I come in, because it’s on my phone 😀 However, it’s about what I do with it.

The more serious bit of that is that I want to live and breathe the good news about Jesus.  Not to spend the day preaching, but, when I’m paying attention, to live like I believe the words I say I believe.  The only way to get me to leave my Bible at the door is to get me to stop breathing, although I need regular upgrades for how I live to reflect what it actually says.


Every Muslim I have ever known, and I have to admit to only having had one or two proper friends who happened to be Muslims that I can remember, has been a decent ordinary person who is as much of a threat to me and everyone else in Northern Ireland as the next white Westerner (a little ironic, really.)

More seriously, I think of my friend Jawad whom I haven’t seen for many years. He’s a good lad, loves Belfast, attends Friday prayers every week, dreams of Hajj to Mecca (he may well have made it by now – more than once). Knows something about being friends.

He also understands that he and I belong to religions that both claim to have the whole truth about God. At least one of us has to be wrong.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t respect each other as friends and each other’s right to have our beliefs. The same goes for any Muslim I meet – I will assume in the absence of other evidence that I should treat them with the same trust or mistrust as any other human.

That especially applies in a work context. I don’t care what the other person doing the same job as me is, in terms of gender, sexuality, colour, religion, or pretty much anything else. All I care is that they know what they’re doing or are there to learn, can preferably teach me a thing or two too, and ideally they make good work friends. That’s all that matters.

I did just say that I believe that Christianity has the whole truth about God. Well, maybe not really, because the argument is that we know just enough to be getting along with.

On the other hand, that “just enough” contradicts the beliefs of other religions. That should concern Christians, because if we’re right we should want others to join us.

However, we have to be careful how we do it. Preaching on how awful another religion is can lead to dehumanisation of its followers, and self-righteousness about ourselves. We have no right to that, and as soon as you treat people as though you are better than them or their beliefs are worthless, you lose the ability to witness to what you believe is the truth.

It also misses a massive point. We should never say “You should be a Christian because all those religions are worthless.” Rather, we should say “You should be a Christian because of Jesus and what we believe he has done” – let the gospel speak for itself. Of course, there is always what St Paul did in Athens, where he noticed something about their religion (the altar to the unknown God) and using it as a hook without denigrating it or the Athenians’ beliefs. His integrity was untouched, and his witness strengthened (and I saw an excellent blog post about this the other day – pity I can’t find it now.) Christianity should be able to stand on its own without needing to push others down to stand out – even Christian apologetics, defending Christianity on the facts as we see them, does not require us to denigrate other religions.

As Christians, we don’t so much have a right as an obligation. To live with respect for others, including their right to disagree with us. To honour them. To live lives that witness to God by how we love despite our own imperfections, not by how we condemn those of others. To love unconditionally and make people wonder “Hang on, there is nothing in this for them. What is going on? What makes them different?” or even “That guy knows he’s a hypocrite, and he doesn’t hide it, instead apologising for it. What’s happening?”

I think that’s one of the reasons I get wound up when people talk about being Protestant when they don’t pretend to be Christian or even go to church.  It denigrates my own faith because they’re taking a label that belongs to a particular sort of Christian and attaching it to things of man, including flags.

Love, honesty and humility.  All three will get you more listeners than denigrating others and their beliefs.

On the way home…

So here we are in Frankfurt Al Main Airport, waiting for the 1545 flight to Dublin, which is due to touch down two hours and five minutes later at 1650.

We’ve had a class time.  Jo says it’s been good to see all the Italians being touchy-feely towards each other (she says demonstrative) but I hadn’t personally noticed for some reason.  She thinks it sets a good example.

Plans to visit San Gimignano fell by the wayside in favour of sleep (and rest for Jo’s left leg, which is still sore from too much dancing at our wedding disco), but we did venture into the snow in the Italian Riviera and the Cinqueterre the day before we left Lucca.  We had taken in some of the city walls the previous day.

We discovered the truth behind Darach Mic Giolla Cathain’s wise words about the decorative red, yellow and green lights all over Rome as we went on the bus tour, visiting the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and of course the Vatican, where they were putting out a few seats yesterday for some reason.  I wonder what that could have been?

St Peter’s Basilica was milling with people, but it keeps certain areas set aside for prayer and worship.  One wonders where Sunday worshippers sit, as there are not many pews in front of the main altar, although the side chapels all have seats.

We stayed in two hotels in Italy, both four star – the Albergo Celide in Lucca, which is quite modern, although attempts to sleep during the day were stymied somewhat by work in the room above us, and the Hotel Quirinale in Rome.  The Quirinale was built in the 19th Century and left me feeling it was quite pretentious in many ways – as though it were trying too hard to be five star.  We did though like the lift nearest to our room, as it was an old traditional style metalwork lift with manual doors (including wooden internal ones!) but had a modern control panel.

We did all our travel around Italy by train, and got to see a lot of different sorts of trains – ultramodern Eurostar-type trains (Frecciarossa) and the Leonardo Airport Express (entirely 1st Class officially, but no particular service), down to rather older trains which, not unlike some of the stations, were showing their age.  All the track we saw was electrified and had modern signalling, but the stations, while all clean, varied from recently decorated to grey with imperfect platform surfaces. Some stations and trains felt much as I think NIR would have done at the heights of the NIO’s parsimony in the early 1990s, or rather worse, but punctuality was generally excellent – the one late train which affected us was to our benefit!

Apart from the tour bus in Rome, we only chanced one bus, which we were told was the right route for the Duomo from the right side of the street outside Firenze Santa Maria Novella station.  We gave up when it came back from the wrong end of the route.

The one problem with travelling so far is the layovers.  We had a three hour wait in Zurich airport last Wednesday, and unfortunately we’re in the middle of another three hour wait here in Frankfurt – on the other hand, we should be back in my car all being well by 6pm, and in Belfast by 8 – the car is at the City North hotel where we stayed last Tuesday night.  City North is very modern, but also quite homely, and we’d far rather get something for our money than pour money into the coffers of the Dublin Airport car park operators – and being at Gormanstown, it’s only an hour and a half from Belfast and rest for tired feet, give or take a stop to buy bread and milk for the morning and keep ourselves going along the way.

Still, we’ll be home not much after the time we reached the Hotel Quirinale last Wednesday – unfortunately we started a lot earlier, checking out before breakfast at 7 this morning!  Jo says, “Try doing that in high heels!” to which I can only point out that they are not something I ever intend to possess…