Friday, 22 August 2014

The Plum Tree Exposed to the Time Vortex

There's a new Doctor Who series starting tomorrow and we get to see Peter Capaldi taking on the mantle of the time traveler.  Yes, Doctor Who has regenerated again to cheat death.  If only that could happen in real life, eh?

Well, on our allotment plot we might have a plum tree that, like the good Doctor, has been exposed to the Time Vortex and can regenerate when it is time to meet its maker.  And meet its maker is exactly what it has done this summer.  It was lush and green in the Spring, flowered profusely, fruits appeared and then suddenly one weekend its looking like this:

The leaves have shriveled, turned brown and dropped off.  The fruits remain and are slowly rotting on the branches.  We thought it had been weedkillered (which is a bit odd as we're organic so don't use weedkiller) but raspberries and brambles around it are still fine.  Whatever has afflicted it, this tree is a goner.

Except it has started on its own regeneration.  Yes, like a Time Lord, this tree is cheating death by regenerating.  Just a little way away from the scene of death and destruction is this:
That's a little new plum tree.  There are no other plum trees close by so this is almost certainly coming up from the roots of the dead tree.  In its dying breath it appears to have pushed up into new life!

However unlike Doctor Who, this new plum is in the middle of a path so its going to have a very short regeneration....

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Notes on the July 2014 Great Central Railway shareholders AGM

NOTE: These notes are just what I managed to jot down during the meeting.  They aren't in any way a formal, official record of the meeting - that's what the company secretary does.  I try to capture the main points of the meeting but I apologize if I've misrepresented anything (I'm sure the GCR Board will correct me if I have got something wrong!).

Great Central Railway AGM 12th July 2014

Meeting opened by David Morgan at 10.29am

Standing room only - some of the chairs were out on a train! Introduced Malcolm (new auditor), Caroline Mate (now company secretary) and Lili Tavener. Apologies from Bill Ford who was taken ill whilst on holiday in Scotland. Handed over to Peter Morley (now ex-company secretary) to explain report and accounts. Peter passed to Malcolm to give the auditors report first. Malcolm said the auditors opinion on the accounts was that we have a "clean audit report" and the report and accounts give a clear and accurate view of the company's financial position, which is in profit this year.  The director's report was in a slightly different format from the past with a strategic view that is a government requirement with a short director's report giving the traditional set of notes on the accounts.  The accounts and underlying data provided to the auditors was as they would have expected and didn't provide any difficulty to the auditors.

Peter Morley said that the page at the back of the accounts showing the overall profit and loss is the really important one.  We're in profit this year and it takes a relentless effort from everyone at the railway to keep the kind of momentum required going.  We've had a substantatial level of growth in events and catering, with catering now over £1.1m of income from the various outlets around the railway.  The railway needs to keep costs under control in order to maintain such a profit in the future.  Bill Devitt has been promoting external contracts which has resulted in a year-on-year income increase, often with limited costs.  The overall income is now at £2.6m, and we're approaching £3m turnover, which is up from £1.6m in 2008.  This is significant growth that represents the amazing efforts made by many to make the railway go from strength to strength.

The downside is that costs are also increasing, with coal & oil costs constantly increasing due to global prices.  We can try to buy the best we can and use the most efficient locomotives, but the cost pressures are always there. Total expenditure is close to total income. A operating loss is turned into a profit from revenue grants and depreciation.  Revenue grants are from bodies outside the GCR who pay to have events put on.  The directors expected a loss of £100K so were pleased with a £10K profit.  Net assets has grown up to £1.6M thanks to share sales and little bit of the profit (up from £1M in 2008).  This growth shows that share income isn't just flowing out in payments.  Net current liabilities is showing £10K, whereas 6 years ago it was -£500K, which means that the railway is now living within its means.

Q: How are we showing on the results to date for the first quarter of current year?
A: Income is still growing at 12-15% which a very good sign.  We're getting good publicity and are on the crest of a wave which we need to maintain.  Ticket sales are up.

Q: Approximately how much of the increase is due to price increases?
A: During the recession we've controlled price increases. Family tickets are £25 which targets peoples on lower incomes.  Growing the customer numbers rather than increasing price per customer where possible.

Q: Drive a train incomes are down why?
A: Unknown, but could be people spending less on expensive premium products during the recession.

Nigel Harris (ex-director) said that it was a fantastic acheivement to turn £500K in net current liabilities into £10K profit, especially during a recession.

Report and accounts approved by the shareholders.

Election and re-election of directors.  Dennis Wilcox, Fellow of institute of Mech Eng, emeritus professor at Sunderland Uni and editor of Mainline magazine.  Proposed and elected to the board.  Two other directors retired by rotation and were re-elected.

Auditors reappointed by the shareholders.

Mike Gregory, president of the company, then spoke briefly, thanking staff, volunteers and shareholders for their help in achieving what the GCR has become. Things have improved over the last 5 years... what will it be like in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? Hopefully better and stronger still. Please keep supporting us and continue to make the GCR the People's Railway.

Tom Ingall then gave one of his classic presentations on the current state of the railway and projects around it. Leicester museum partnership - proposal to build third annex of NRM down by Leicester North station.  Lost out on first round of HLF funding but the team aren't knocked back and are gojng back for the second round.  The team have business plans and documentation ready to go.  LCC have advised not to share details of land acquisitions, etc.  However V2 Green Arrow would be the star of the show at the museum, with interpretation telling the story of how the locomotives and railway tie in with people.  Butler Henderson is also likely to come, and Barrow Hill (where it currently is located) know this as it would mean it would have a much better environment to be preserved in than their round house.  Barnum carriage restoration would happen in front of visitors. APT-E and Woodhead electrics planned to go there.  The Unique Selling Point for the museum is the juxtaposition of the carefully curated museum displays with the working heritage railway next door.  There'll be extra track required.  Its not just big objects like locomotives and carriages though - smaller objects like shovels and uniforms will be on display as well.  It will show what differences the coming of the railways (not just the GCR - other lines covered too!) affected the lifes of people in the area.  The overall project is £15M and the first round failed HLF bids was £10M so we'd need to find £5M ourselves.  Whilst the bid failed it was viewed as a strong bid and just pipped at the post by Nottingham Castle who had a urgent need for the money immediately as they had subsidence.  More surveys and engagement will be made before the bid document is resubmitted at the end of November, with the decision made in April.  We have two more chances for HLF (maximum of three submissions for any one bid).

Bridging the Gap.  Two years ago the scheme wasn't coming together but now it is.  Tom said hopefully this may be the last AGM when there isn't a bridge over the MML.  Bridge was taken away in 1980s to make room for electrification. We have a cost of £1m to reinstate the bridge which is limited lifetime opportunity given to us by Network Rail.  The GCR is in partnership with NR and they have been doing a tremendous amount of work. Consultant engineers on board to make sure that the project is done right. NR have employees who are volunteering for this project (its great experience for them and adds to their CVs).  We have actually had people digging on the site getting ready for the bridge - NR can do ground investigations that we couldn't even afford the insurance to do!  Soil sampling shows that it will need to be a few metres closer to St Pancras than it used to be to get the best possible alignment. This also means one signal gantry doesn't have to move which reduces the costs somewhat.  Concrete abutments and middle pier, both of which will have blue brick slips facing them.  Single track with a walkway on one side - CBC wanted walkways on the sides at one point.  Reading bridge decks have already had old water proofing removed, ready for shot blasting, repairs and replating.  Signal sighting on NR has already been done.  Construction is likely to start during the Xmas shutdown, with pile driving being the major first job (which may well take the whole of the Xmas period, in which case the bridge will go in later in 2015 or even 2016).  Currently raised £535K in one year - funding coming from all over the world.  Need to reach £750K in a few months time - send that money in now!  NR are pleased to be involved in the project - Tom read out a great positive statement from NR thanking everyone involved.

The local growth deal fund has awarded us a £1M grant towards reunification. We can only draw £500K at a time (ie at most once per year) and is match funded against us raising the £1M we need for the MML bridge (this can't be used in the timescale for the MML bridge so we still need to keep on raising funds for that anyway).  This could be used for the canal bridge, embankment and railway terrace bridge.  This week the canal bridge has undergone a survey - worth £10K but done for considerably less than that.  When the numbers are crunched this will tell us how much the canal bridge restoration will cost and how it will be done.  Tom said that there is an element of "organised chaos" as the plan will evolve as we get new data, funding, equipment and resources donated to us. Tom asked us to all go out and fund raise - don't ask for permission from the GCR to run events but just do it and send the money back in!

Q: Are they any thoughts about having a GCR advert on the bridge.
A: Can't have it facing the tracks.  Could be on the abutments but would require extra planning permission.  Good idea though as its "prime retail space". ;-)

Q: When making press releases about £1M should we make it clearer that it doesn't cover the MML bridge?
A: Its in the press releases but its important that everyone realises this and spreads the message that we still need to raise the £465K for the MML.  Don't stop fund raising and making donations to the bridge fund!

Q: What's happening to the Workington Engine Shed?
A: Bits of it survive and GCR would like to incorporate them into a future building?  Talking to the GCR(N) but there are still many unknowns.  The joining up of the Mountsorrel Branch is seen almost a dress rehersal for joining with the GCR(N).

Q: Is there an overall cost for the whole Bridging the Gap project?
A: Tom said approximately £6.5M - railway terrace bridge & embankment will be expensive.

Q: Once the canal bridge is refurbished could we advertise to boaters to get them to come to the GCR?
A: Yes that's a great idea.  No detail plans on how it would be done yet - many things need working out first.

Q: What about Loughborough High Level station?
A: Its an aspiration still but no concrete plans yet. Not ruled out by current bridging plans.

Q: Where will be engine shed move to?
A: Tom not privy to that as he's not on the board.  One suggestion is to have a facility on the western side of the existing loco shed (where the stores containers are).  Lili said that consultant engineers have been asked about location of loco shed based on new alignment required for bridging the gap.  Once joined with the GCR(N) there's opportunities to have engineering facility in Ruddington.

Q: There's quite a large pot of money at East Midlands Airport community pot - could it be tapped?
A: Yes.  Lili said that as well as the Gap and the museum we also need smaller grants for other projects on the railway.  Someone pointed out that we already have had EMA money for the lift in Loughborough.  David Morgan said anyone with information on grant givers should contact Lili or the railway with details.

Q: What implications does the Leicester North museum have on Loughborough Central museum?  Look at how Kent and East Sussex railways are joining.  Why does the shareholders meeting start before the first train on the GCR arrives at Loughborough?
A: The last point is taken on board - maybe we should run a DMU or an early morning "milk train" next year.  Tom said that he didn't forsee the Loughborough museum disappearing - the Leicester North museum is an outstation of the NRM whereas our own award winning museum has its own stock.

Q: There's a very early Brush electric loco in the NRM - could it come to the museum?
A: Tom said the museum stock list hasn't been released yet so it could be included.  Someone also suggested that they know of a Brush built steam loco located in west Leicestershire.

Meeting expressed its thanks to Network Rail for its work on the Gap project.

Q: Could the AGMs be laid out differently so that more people could see the screens?  Eg have two screens.
A: We could go back to the town hall, but that costs £2K.  Point about being able to see taken on board and they'll have to see what can be done next year.

Q: How well did the model railway exhibition do? Could we use a similar large marquee at Quorn for the AGM as there's no parking problems either.
A: Could be an idea to be looked at, but need to make sure that we don't let the costs increase (just as with everything else on the railway).

Q: We're doing a lot less trade at the weekend for the Bronze drive a train weekend - it might be that having more themed weekends means having less drive a train slots. Could there be a midweek day for Bronze drive a train experiences?
A: David asked Caroline to make a note of it.  Would be interesting to see if other railway have experienced a drop in there datex services. David Morgan said that at the last HRA managers meeting it came out that over all hertiage railway footfall has increased by 7% whereas general tourist event footfall has fallen by 6% - HRA aren't sure how railways have ducked the trend.  We're not turning many customers away at the moment though.

Q: Why single track bridge rather than double track?
A: Tom said it would cost far, far more.  Nigel Harris said that clearances are very tight and we'd have to move the brook and do lots more heavy engineering to deal with water course flows, which would be massively expensive.  Railway Terrace needs to be full height access for the tip lorries to get under.  If in the wrong place the bridge over Railway Terrace would be longer than the one over MML.  Its going to be single track... end of story.  Bottom of embankment needs to be to full flood protection standard to meet EU and Environment Agency requirements - we're lucky that the EA are happy with the current plans.

David Morgan then thanked everyone again, highlighting the efforts of Bill Ford, Richard Patching & Mike Gregory. Meeting closed at 11.56am.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Optimism and Pessimism over Carbon Reductions

This afternoon I attended an interested debate on energy policy, held at Loughborough University as part of their Impact Festival for research.  Four leading academics working on topics such as carbon capture and storage, renewable energy generation, energy efficiency in the built environment and energy policy were brought together and lead by a chap from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).  The ETI is a Government funded institute that encourages research and development of technologies intended to help the UK in its goal of saving 80% of its 1990  CO2 output level by 2050.

The debate was really interesting, with experts touching on a number of mechanisms that could help us reach this target, and with a bit of disagreement amongst them here and there.  Carbon Capture and Storage is seen as important given the amount of existing fossil fuelled power generation but the jury was out on whether the UK would be willing to fund it and whether China and India would have somewhere safe to put the captured carbon (one option being underground in old oil or gas wells, which isn't such a great idea in a geologically unstable area).  Some support for community involvement in renewable energy development (ie what has been happening in Germany and to some extent in the UK too).

At both the start and end of the debate they asked the audience (about 60-70 of us, a real mix of academics, students, industrialists and the general public) three questions.  Paraphrasing they were:

a) SHOULD the UK aim toward the low carbon target by 2050?
b) CAN the UK access technologies to allow the target to be reached?
c) WILL the UK actually make that reduction target.

You could answer "yes", "no" and "don't know" to each of these The answer to a) had a majority saying "yes", both at the start and end, so we mostly seemed to agree a low carbon Britain was something to aim for.  The answer to b) was a bit more mixed, with more folk seeming to move a bit more between start and end.  But the answer to c) was the most telling: the majority at the start thoughts "no" and that hardened at the end, mostly thanks to "don't knows" being converted to "no".
For what its worth, I said "yes" to a) and "don't know" to b) and c) at both ends of the debate, so I wasn't in the majority for either of the latter two questions.

But the majority answer was a great example of why politicians have a problem with supporting green policies.  They know that most folk think that these policies are a good idea, but the politicians also probably realise that most folk have already seen the mess governments (of all sizes and hues) have made of things like energy policies and now cynically don't think there's a hope of reaching the target.  The politicians thus feel free to mess around, cut and generally play short term politics with green policies and know that it isn't likely to rile people up as much as taxation, benefits or the NHS. Its a rather negative feedback loop of course, because this sort of action will just make the general public even more cynical about how likely we are to meet our targets.