Ben - 9's Waterways

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Deja-Vu all over again?

It is always a tragedy when someone drowns in a canal.

Unfortunately, in today's culture, it is fashionable to look for something or someone else to blame. It is almost unspeakable to suggest that, in some cases, the person may have brought about their demise through their own unwise actions. In other words, in the namby-pamby world in which we now live, rather than expect people to take responsibility for their own actions there seems to be a notion that everyone should be wrapped in cotton wool and the world made ultra-safe so that, however careless or foolish we might be, we come to no harm.

Last week saw two inquests in Manchester, both of men who had fallen into the Rochdale Canal after an evening's heavy drinking. [Reports here and here.] Immediately the media cries out for steps to be taken. In spite of the coroner declaring that the deaths were accidents, the press mentions responses from police and relatives commenting on the area being dark or slippery.

In both incidents the victims fell into the canal in the vicinity of Lock 84, near Dale Street, around a quarter of a mile from the pubs in which they had been drinking on Canal Street. It is not for me to speculate as to their reasons for leaving the public street and going onto the canal towpath, but it must be fair to say they were not on the way to the bus stop or taxi rank.

British Waterways and Manchester City Council spent £200,000 on stainless steel and glass fencing alongside all three sections of Canal Street following a drowning there a couple of years ago. Many regular canal users now dread the possibility of further obtrusive safety features being introduced in Manchester.

It seems to me that, however many safety precautions are put in place, someone will always find a way to fall into the water. For example, on Canal Street itself I have heard reports of people walking along the top of the original canalside wall, using the new safety fence as a very low handrail. What measures would have been called for if that had led to a fatality?

There seems to be a degree of sanity in Leicester where, very sadly, a student drowned in April after a night out. [Report here.] Even though a Facebook group has called for 15 safety measures to be taken, Leicester City Council and British Waterways have ruled out all except two - to make mooring rings more visible and to make the towpath surface less uneven. The council ruled out putting safety barriers under bridges or railings along the canal near pubs.

I want to make it clear that I have nothing but sympathy for the friends and relatives of those who drown in canals. However, I feel that people must be responsible for their own actions, however unfashionable it might be to say that, and canals are places to be avoided when under the influence of alcohol. Historic canal environments should not be destroyed in order to protect people from themselves.

Better lighting - yes. Less slippery surfaces - yes. More and more safety fencing - no!

Lock 84,Rochdale Canal


Saturday, 9 October 2010

Building Bridges?

Just when boaters on the Leeds and Liverpool thought it was safe to go back to their boats, there came news this week that Moss Swing Bridge on the edge of Leeds was being closed for a week for repairs. [details here]

Before we start firing vitriol towards BW, it should be pointed out that the bridge does not belong to them. In the stoppage notice announcing the closure, BW told us:
"This is a 3rd Party bridge owned by United Utilities. British Waterways are working closely with United Utilities to ensure this stoppage is kept to a minimum."

Then, the following day, another stoppage notice was sent out, in which "United Utilities" had been replaced with "Yorkshire Water". Oh, dear. Being an old cynic I couldn't help wondering just how closely BW had been working with them if they couldn't remember which utility company actually owned the bridge!

Mind you, the whole of the Leeds and Liverpool right down into Leeds is now managed, not from the nearby Leeds office, but from the Wigan office some 55 miles away (or 92 miles by canal). The Wigan office is used to dealing with United Utilities and has only started dealing with Yorkshire Water over this stretch of the L&L this year, so I suppose this is a forgiveable error.

BW must be praised for getting the lock and gate repairs (scheduled for this winter) carried out while 60 miles of the canal was closed recently due to the lack of water. That means there won't now be any stoppages over the winter the, doesn't it? Well, not quite. There is still going to be a stoppage at Thorlby Aqueduct between Skipton and Gargrave between November 8th and December 10th. It is a shame that job couldn't have been re-scheduled to have been done during the closure, as it is only a couple of miles from Holme Bridge, the eastern end of the section that was closed.

Now I am left wondering why the work on Moss Swing Bridge couldn't have waited until November, when the stoppage at Thorlby would be in operation and there would be fewer boats about?

Moss Swing Bridge, Rodley


Thursday, 30 September 2010

Oh, and another ting...

Up north we have so far been spared the worst excesses of towpath cycling. Yes, I know that there have been a few cases of cyclists trying to ride the whole Leeds and Liverpool Canal in record time. And there have been occasional unfortunate incidents involving over-keen cyclists, including one I heard of recently where a cyclist travelling at speed hit a rut on the towpath and ended up taking a dive into the Upper Peak Forest Canal at New Mills. I wasn't laughing just then, honestly!

Apparently one of the liveliest places for towpath interaction in the Regents Canal in London, which is a popular commuting route for both walkers and cyclists anxious to avoid the busy city streets. However, some of these cyclists seem to regard towpaths as dedicated cycle lanes and show little interest in slowing down to pass other users, which has resulted in a number of collisions between cyclists and pedestrians and a larger number of heated verbal altercations.

Luckily, things aren't quite that bad up here at the moment but, with the Rochdale Canal's towing path currently being transformed into what seems like a high-speed cycle track, who knows what the future might bring?

Surprising news comes this week that Debrett's, the authority on matters of etiquette, have issued a "Code of Conduct" offering hints for "harmonious towpath usage". The code states that "pedestrians have priority" which may come as news to some cyclists. The advice to cyclists is to give "two tings" on the bell to warn of their approach and to pass carefully and slowly. Then the spoilsports tell cyclists that they should "never cycle too quickly".

This all sounds wonderful for walkers, until you read that walkers should be listening out for the ting-tinging so as to "allow cyclists to pass wherever possible". In return, the jolly cyclists are expected to smile and say thank you when other users have moved out of their way.

In reality there are two problems with this idyllic scenario. Firstly the majority of cycles these days don't appear to be equipped with a bell. This creates a bit of a flaw in the ting-ting twaddle. Secondly there are some cyclists who apparently regard ringing a bell as an alternative to slowing down. They ting their bells or, if they haven't got one, simply shout "coming through!" and ride straight at the pedestrians who have little alternative but to dive out of the way.

As another commentator has said of this elsewhere: "all towpath users are equal, but some are more equal than others!" Pedestrians may have priority on paper but they know what's best for them when a lump of metal is hurtling towards them at speed!

But what about old buffers like me who are hard of hearing? How are we supposed to know that someone is merrily ting-tinging away as they fast approach us from behind? Some cyclists don't seem to have considered the possibility that some walkers may not be able to hear them.

Other parts of this code from Debrett's suggest that we shouldn't drop litter and that we should clean up after emptying our dogs. Gosh! Whoever would have thought of that?

It would appear that BW has commissioned Debretts to produce this advice, yet it is hard to see what it includes that has not already been said by BW. Was this really a sensible use of BW's fast-diminishing financial resources? Are people more likely to take notice of advice if it comes from Debrett's rather than BW?

If that's what they ting, then perhaps BW have got another ting coming.


Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Health and Safety Hang-ups

Canals are potentially dangerous places. Especially at locks. People drown in locks, boats sink in locks, people get injured by helicoptering windlasses at locks, and so on. This is something that all boaters are fully aware of. Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you?

When you've done a few locks it all starts getting easy, so you can while away the time as the lock is filling or emptying by chatting with people from other boats, photographing the delightful scenery, popping below to put the kettle on, or even wandering down to the next lock to open the paddles there, which might save a minute or two.

Of course, the problem with taking your eye off the ball is that you are not immediately aware if a dangerous situation presents itself and you are not in a position to take immediate action to prevent a serious incident.

Boats sink in locks usually because the stern has become caught on the cill as the lock empties or because the boat gets caught up on the bottom gates. Alert crews can act instantly if this starts to happen or, better still, make sure the situation doesn't happen in the first place!

Last week we heard the latest tale of a boat sinking in a lock. A hire boat from Wyvern Shipping Company sunk after becoming hung up on the cill of a lock at Buckby on the Grand Union Canal. There are several lock sinkings a year, mostly, but not always involving hire boats.

This does not mean that privately-owned boats don't get into dangerous situations, but more experienced boaters spot what is happening before it becomes catastrophic and know what to do to save the day, such as dropping all paddles to stabilise the situation so that they can then calmly decide the best way out of the problem.

One issue is the variable quality of the training given to new crews (no criticism aimed at Wyvern here) and how well crews listen to instructions when they are keen to get going. But, however good the training, there is no substitute for experience, which boat hirers often don't have the time to build up. Having said that, I'm sure we have all seen conscientious hire boat crews paying careful attention to everything they do, and then seen complacent boat owners seemingly oblivious to the risks they are taking.

There can't be many locks left that do not have warning notices attached to the balance beams of the top gates. It's a pity that the signs are confusing by asking you to keep the boat forward of the cill marker, leaving some ambiguity as to what it means, as forward could be taken to mean the way you are facing when you read the sign!

Have all these thousands of warning notices made any difference to the number of boats getting caught on cills? It doesn't seem like it. However, BW have covered their backs by putting the signs there, so that Compensation-For-Everything-Lawyers-Are-Us Ltd can't claim that BW have made no attempt to draw people's attention to the dangers when someone attempts to grab money from BW to compensate themselves for their own inattention.

I suppose we can look forward to further notices appearing on the bottom gates saying Keep Boat Away From Gate, and attached to each paddle saying Do Not Leave Windlass On Paddle, and painted on the lock edge saying Do Not Fall Into The Lock. No, sorry - that last one won't be necessary once all the locks have safety railings around them!

I don't know what the answer is. How do you stop people becoming complacent once they start to gain a bit of confidence? How can you convince happy holidaymakers that you can't fend off 20 tons of boat heading towards a wall with your hand or foot? How can you suggest that it is not a good idea to have children running around on the roof as the boat hurtles around a corner towards a low bridge? How can you convince people whose children are sitting on the bow with their legs dangling over the side that children don't make very good re-usable fenders?

Health and Safety: Not even the experts get it right every time.


Friday, 6 August 2010

Mugs Wanted?

I for one am not impressed by David Cameron's so-called "Big Society". The magic word seems to be "empowerment" which, roughly speaking, means the Government is going to stop doing lots of things that it has done for years and is going to let us volunteer to do them ourselves without payment.

If you think I am being cynical, take a look at what British Waterways is starting to do, as a step in this direction. They are advertising for volunteers to do what, in any normal universe, would be proper paid jobs. Waterscape's "Opportunities to Volunteer" page lists a number of such jobs.

Do you fancy driving the trip boat that goes up and down the Anderton Lift? You would be responsible for the safety of the 56 passengers, helping them on board and giving the commentary over the public announcement system. And all for nothing! You will need to be a qualified Boatmaster - BW is not offering to train you up or pay for the cost of becoming a Boatmaster.

Yes, I know that lots of people volunteer to drive steam trains on heritage railway lines, but do they do this full time? BW is only asking for one boatmaster, so presumably the successful sucker, er... applicant will be volunteering to work full time for nothing?

I know a lot of retired people who do volunary work. But there is a rota of volunteers so each one might take a turn once or twice a week, or even once or twice a month - not full time!

If you don't want the responsibility of being a Boatmaster, there are other voluntary jobs available.

You can be a café assistant at the Anderton Lift, where you would man the till, prepare and serve a range of food and drinks and ensure the cafe area and kitchen are kept clean and well presented at all times. They don't want much from you as a volunteer, do they? Anderton is also looking for a volunteer Deck Hand, Retail Assistant, Visitor Guide, Booking Office Assistant, Events Co-ordinator, Events Assistant, Grounds Maintenance person and Education person. Will there be any paid staff left at Anderton? Surely visitors pay to use the cafe, the shop and the trip boat, so why doesn't this generate enough income to pay the staff?

Not interested in Anderton? You could work in BW's Northwich office, where you would help things run smoothly and give customers a good standard of service. You would man the front desk and be the first point of contact for visitors so you'd need to have "good communication skills and a winning smile". You'd be "responsible for dealing with enquiries face-to-face and over the phone which will include boaters booking passages through locks and licensing enquiries. You will also help visitors sign in, manage the enquiries email inbox and undertake a range of administrative duties."

Is that all? And what salary are they offering for this post, which they have named "Customer Service Superstar"? Oh yes, I forgot - nowt! So what will the paid employees in the office do? Will there still be any paid employees?

You could be an "Archives Angel" and collect, preserve and make publicly available records relating to our inland waterways. You could be a "Bicentenary Events Coordinator" at Standedge Tunnel to plan and deliver a programme of vibrant events and activities to engage both locals and visitors from further afield.

You could be a "Waterways Volunteer Officer" and "work with a wide range of community groups and statutory organisations to aid delivery of the Waterway Destination Delivery Plan and help make Dewsbury's waterways a more vibrant and desirable place to be. On a day to day basis you will be responsible for developing and organising a wide range of volunteer and community engagement events and activities such as vegetation conservation work, habitat management and green space projects. You will get the opportunity to plan and deliver innovative community consultation and taster activities to encourage people visit their local canal to appreciate heritage, environment, health and well being factors." Phew! What will you do for the rest of the day?

All of the job descriptions sound like either full-time jobs or at least jobs that would occupy a large portion of each week, rather than the odd day or so a week that most volunteers like to put in. If someone has the necessary qualifications and qualities to do these jobs why would they offer their services for nothing rather than get themselves a job elsewhere? What is going to happen to BW's paid employees once (or if) these tasks get done by volunteers?

If BW really wants to save a shedload of money, perhaps they should stop paying so much money to its directors and advertise for volunteers to take on some of those positions.

I am all for volunteering, but the sort of things done by volunteers should be the extras that might otherwise get left out, rather than core roles. There are six pages of these volunteer posts on Waterscape. Okay, some of them perhaps fall into the category of "extras that might otherwise get left out" but some of the jobs listed are definitely ones that should be carried out by paid employees. Will BW attract volunteers to fill these posts? Only time will tell.

Is this the sort of thing we can look forward to under the "Big Society" where other cash-starved public services become desperate for volunteers to take over important jobs. Will we see vacancies for volunteer nurses, school dinner ladies, fire fighters and rat catchers?

Oh yes, I forget - there is also a vacancy for an "Editorial fact-checker" for the Waterscape site. Could it be that there are a few errors on the "Opportunities to Volunteer" page?


Thursday, 10 June 2010

Don't Jump On The Miliband Waggon!

I never quite know who reads my ramblings but I know that people do. I wonder whether any of those readers are members of the Labour Party or know someone who is? Labour Party members will be having a chance shortly to choose a new leader who might one day become Prime Minister.

I wouldn't normally consider this a topic worth having a rant about, except that it would seem that the current front runner is David Miliband, and history shows that he is no friend of the waterways.

Cast your minds back to 2006 and the series of IWA/Save Our Waterways demonstrations around the country's waterways. Do you remember what that was all about?

DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural affairs, got itself into massive trouble with the European Union. DEFRA had failed to meet its obligations to make payments to farmers under the EU's agricultural policy and incurred a huge "fine" - really a withdrawal of some of the grants DEFRA would have received from Europe. This led to a massive shortfall in DEFRA's budget.

Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, could have made some extra cash available from contingency funds to help bail DEFRA out if they had needed it. However, the Minister in charge of DEFRA, keen to impress Mr Brown, insisted that he could cover the shortfall by making cutbacks elsewhere in his Department. Of course, the farmers had to receive their payments to keep the EU off DEFRA's back, so the burden of the cutbacks fell to the various quangos and other organisations that depended on DEFRA for their funding.

Those, of course, included British Waterways and the Environment Agency.

The cutbacks to BW's funding came part way through the financial year, with money clawed back that had already been promised, and BW's funding was reduced again in the years that followed.

Can you imagine how much better a state the waterways would be in today if funding had continued at 2005 levels?

And who was this Minister of State in charge of DEFRA who was so keen to show the Chancellor what a good boy he was and who, by a complete coincidence, was then appointed to the prestigious role of Foreign Secretary when Mr Brown became Prime Minister? Why - none other than David Miliband, who is now seeking to lead the party.

So - anyone who will have a say in that leadership election, or who is in a position to influence the opinion of anyone who has a vote... just ask yourself "What has David Miliband ever done for Britain's waterways?"


Sunday, 23 May 2010

Hang on to your photos!

I was talking to Mr PW on Friday night and he told me about an email exchange he'd recently had.

He had received an email from some sort of travel company asking if he had any photos of a particular canal that they could use in their advertising and website. I won't name the company but neither Mr PW or I have ever heard of it. (I wouldn't want to give them to benefit of any extra publicity, anyway!)

Mr PW replied that his photos could all be seen on the "virtual cruise" of that canal. He was a little surprised when a reply came back asking for seven of these photos to be sent by email.

Mr PW tells me he sent a polite reply informing the sender that photos from Pennine Waterways were not available for free use for commercial purposes, adding that he would be happy to discuss terms.

The reply came back: "Unfortunately I don't control our budget. Thanks for your time, and help."

Mr PW, not one to let things pass without comment, send one last reply:
"I am astonished to hear that you are preparing advertising and a brochure but have no budget available for doing this. That could be the reason why I have never previously heard of [insert name here]."

"Hear, hear!"
I say. What a cheek! So this guy was hoping to use some of the wonderful photos from Pennine Waterways to help his company make a profit but without offering anything in return!

He is probably now working his way down a list of websites and asking their owners for free use of their pictures.

All I would say to any webmasters out there who might read this, or indeed anyone with canal photos on any of the publicly accessible photo-sharing sites is "Hang on to your photos! Don't let the greedy grabbers get their mits on them!"

When I asked Mr PW whether he wasn't being a bit of a greedy grabber himself, asking for payment, he assured me that whenever he has allowed commercial companies to use photographs for websites or brochures, he has asked for payment to be made not to him but to a local charity or canal society.

He told me he is happy for a charity or society to get some benefit out of his photos being used, but doesn't see why a commercial company should get rich out of his efforts!



Monday, 10 May 2010

Guillotines For The Chop

Well - they should be. Guillotine gates on locks, that is. They seem to be nothing but trouble!

I see that the the guillotine gate at Salterhebble has thrown another wobbly and is having to be operated manually by a man in blue. Trouble is that he is only there for three two-hour sessions each day.

This is not the first time, either. There were similar restrictions there for a whole year, along with some total closures, until the mechanism was supposedly fixed around 12 months ago.

What's more, I seem to remember problems on the guillotine lock in Todmorden a few years ago, as well.

The only other guillotine lock in this part of the country is the one on a narrow lock in Slaithwaite, on the Huddersfield Narrow. That one is not electrically operated so it should be alright, shouldn't it? Well, no. Even that one has had some sort of malfunction and has had to be operated manually by a man in blue. Last I heard it had scaffolding around it so it might have been fixed by now.

Why do we have these unreliable monstrosities on our locks? Because the roads that pass over the lower ends of the locks have been widened, leaving no room for the normal balance beams.

However, there are other ways of tackling this problem that do not involve potentially troublesome guillotine gates.

There are a number of locks with crook beams - where the beam is bent so that the path of its sweep remains upstream of the gate recess. One of the Huddersfield Broad locks is like this.

Then there are several systems which involve using a windlass to open and close the gate, like the chain-operated gates at Lock 92 at Castlefield and the ratchet mechanisms on the gates at Lock 84 on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Wigan.

When Locks 1w and 2w on the Huddersfield Narrow were restored, hydraulically operated gates and paddles were installed, but these were not such a good idea as they proved to be very heavy to operate. Lock 2w has now had crook beams and standard gate paddles fitted and is very easy to operate. The same thing is supposed to be happening to Lock 1w as well some time soon.

So why bother with troublesome guillotine gates at all? The costs of all of these repairs and of the manual operation could instead be put towards the cost of replacing them with something simpler and more reliable. It would be more economical in the long run. So I say - give the guillotine gates the chop!



Sunday, 18 April 2010

BW Missing a Trick?

A few weeks ago there was great dismay in the Wigan area when the canal ran out of water. The main lock flight was closed for repairs, so there wasn't the usual water coming down with boat movements. A local feeder was turned off because it was flooding a local estate. Then "vandals" came along and emptied the main pound through the town.

Then a mysterious thing was noted. Some blokes were seen dragging trolleys, bikes and other scrap out of the drained canal and loading them onto a lorry.

What is not clear is whether these blokes were opportunist metal collectors who spotted a chance of an unexpected haul while the canal was empty, or whether they were, in fact, the culprits who had drained the canal in the first place.

Now, having little better to do with my time, I have been giving some thought to this.

If loading a lorry with scrap metal to sell onwards is such a worthwhile thing to do, then since our canals are so full of such scrap crap, it seems to me that BW have missed a trick here.

Why doesn't BW make contact with blokes like the ones with the lorry in Wigan, tell them when various pounds are going to be drained on a planned and managed basis during the normal Winter stoppages, and invite them to come along with their lorry and clear the canal bed of scrap?

The scrap collectors would be happy at having a legitimate source. Boaters would be happy that there was less chance of getting grounded on a trolley or a motor bike. BW would be happy that someone wasn't coming along at night and emptying their pounds. They would also be happy that the junk was being removed for them at no cost.

I can't see a downside to this idea. Maybe someone should mention it to BW?


Thursday, 25 March 2010

Poo Bags

Dog owners, like their pets, come in a number of different sorts.

Most dog owners, of course, are thoughtful and considerate people who care about other people and about their environment. Some, unfortunately, are not. A small number, it would seem have smaller brains than their pets.

Most dog owners, enjoying a walk along the canal towpath, will take plastic bags with them. Then, when their pets feel the urge to leave something behind, the owners will pick it up in the bag and dispose of it in a bin or take it home with them.

Some, however, who are not so considerate, will not take bags with them and simply look the other way when their pooch crouches down!

Then we have the few dog owners of little brain. They do take bags with them and they do use the bags pick up the poo. But then what do they do? They drape the bags from the branches of trees or hedges! And if there are no handy hedges then they lob them into the cut!

It would be better if they left the poo on the path for others to walk into their homes. Then, at least, any poo left behind will bio-degrade after a while. Not so the plastic bags. They will just stay there until someone takes them off. Leaving the poo in a bag somewhere totally misses the point of picking it up.

An old cynic like me, however, might suspect that these bag danglers are not quite so lacking in brain cells as their behaviour would suggest. It would not surprise me if they take the bags out with them only for the show of it. If no-one is about when their dogs do their doings, then the bags stay in their pockets. However, if anyone is in sight when their dog leaves its message, then they show what good dog owners they are by using the bags to pick the stuff up. But then, as soon as other people are out of sight, they decorate the nearest hedgerow with their stinking trophies.

Have you seen the photo on Pennine Waterways News of the tree in Todmorden that BW decorated with poo bags to make the point?

A great idea for a publicity stunt. However, I suspect that the lazy, selfish, inconsiderate people who do this sort of thing are unlikely to take any notice unless BW staff collect the bags from the hedges, follow them home and deliver it through their letterboxes.

I know that's what I'd like to do!