FIRST PUBLISHED April 2005
Strategic Rail Authority, Association of British Drivers, Merc folding bike
Good news from Bogworthy Junction! The much derided Strategic Rail Authority has finally been abolished, but not before dropping, as a parting bombshell, that services to Bogworthy will be downgraded in the new Greater Western Franchise. But at least we have seen the back of an organisation that was neither Rail-friendly nor Strategically-minded.The bad news is that most of the staff are expected to transfer to the Department for (Road) Transport and continue mishandling rail matters from there. Still, one assumes that the forces of the state know what is good for us.
Most trains these days have space for only two to four ‘cumbersome’ machines, and long-distance travellers are generally obliged to book ahead. Once upon a time, this was done by speaking to a humble, but knowledgeable, railway clerk, who would transfer the information to another similar bod in the bowels of railway HQ, who presumably signed a chit or stuck a Post-it note on a giant map of the network. However it was done, the system worked reasonably well until January 2005, when modernisation resulted in the new, and fearsomely powerful, National Reservation System, costing a staggering £80 million. Booking has since become a hit-and-miss affair, particularly when crossing network boundaries with a bicycle.
To provide just one example, the little train for Kyle of Lochalsh, which carries two bicycles, recently pulled in to Inverness, where no fewer than ten cyclists were waiting, reservations in hand. Eight of the ten weary cyclists travelling that day had already been crammed into six bicycle spaces on another train.
Regular cycle/rail commuters are buying folding bikes in droves, and who can blame them? But these days, folding bikes might not be all they appear to be either. The Chinese have developed some serviceable nuclear weapons, and shot all manner of dangerous things into space, but the finer points of folding bike technology continue to elude them. The latest arrival from the east is the Merc, a straight copy of the Brompton. This sounds great news for consumers, being made of aluminium and very pretty to look at, but the reality is something of a disappointment. As one understands it, aluminium is lighter than steel, but for reasons that only the boffins are able to explain, the aluminium Merc weighs a hefty 13.2kg, and is thus significantly heavier than the steel Brompton. The Mole took the opportunity to ride one of these faux-Bromptons at the CTC York Rally and found all sorts of oddities in the handling, brakes and folding. A bit of a dodgy purchase at £499 then, but is the company really allowed to sell such blatant copies? As with so much in and beyond the Euro-zone, the answer appears to be yes and no. Merc bikes have been seized and impounded on the European mainland, where copyright laws are interpreted in a relatively protectionist manner, but not in Britain, which adopts a more laissez-faire approach.
Surely the Merc is a straight copy, passed off as a Brompton, bringing only some rather heavy aluminium to the party? Even the Merc instructions are copied from the Brompton handbook. And if the frame is wobbly and the brakes dangerously weak, surely the bike must fall foul of British Standards too? It seems not, or at least Trading Standards has made no move to prevent the open sale of the machines.
The road lobby isn’t all it might appear either! Road interests are advanced by something called the Association of British Drivers, a hang ’em, flog ’em and run ‘em down operation, composed largely of middle-aged men of the kind that wear trilby hats and grip the wheel with chamois leather driving gloves. Believing in broad terms that motoring should be fast, cheap and convenient, the ABD lobbies hard against speed cameras, taxation and road pricing, as one might expect. But Mark McArthur-Christie, the ABD’s Road Safety spokesman appears, to have gone native! After riding a Dawes Galaxy to work and rather enjoying the experience, Mark ‘didn’t bother’ replacing his car when it was written off, and is now car-free. ‘If I absolutely need a car, I hire it’, says the ABD man. For National Bike Week in June, he went a step further, organising a car, bike and bus Oxford commuter challenge.
It’s an odd world: Strategic Authorities that offer no strategies, Bromptons that are not Bromptons and now car lobbyists without cars. While the bearded, sandal-wearing anti-road types arrive at demos by car, the bicycle in the bushes could well belong to the ABD man behind the bulldozers, or perhaps even the chairman of Shell (see previous issues), should he happen to be passing. In the era of Peak Oil, one would be well advised not to jump to any conclusions.
So where is personal transport heading? Celebrities are flocking to folding bikes as never before: in the old days, if you pulled up beside a vaguely familiar face on a Brompton it was almost certain to be Adam Hart-Davis or Simon Calder.These days, it might be all-purpose celeb Jerry Hall, former boxer Chris Eubank, Member for Bath Don Foster, or Tory something-or-other Bernard Jenkin MP. The latest convert is television presenter Kevin McCloud, who felt sufficiently strongly to order Bromptons for himself and two other directors of his production company.
Incidentally, Strida enthusiasts include film maker Spike Jones, Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves, racing champion Stirling Moss, and the Queen’s nephew Lord Linley.
At the more vulgar end of the transport scale, it seems Hummer owners are enthusiastically signing up for the new SYNus, which sounds like a nasal problem, but is actually an ‘urban command centre’. According to manufacturer Ford the SYNus is a ‘mobile techno sanctuary sculpted in urban armour and inspired by the popular B-cars of congested international hotspots’. In practice, this means it’s a security truck, complete with steel shutters that rise up to shield the windows, and deadlocks to disable the doors. Lock your keys inside and you might as well start saving up for another one. Lock your dog inside on a fine summer’s afternoon and the poor chap will be done to a crisp by the time they cut him out.
…such everyday accessories as bullet-proofing, a mini safe and infrared night-sight…
But as one rather suspected, the SYNus is a mere runabout. Meet the $225,000 Bad Boy Heavy Muscle Truck, a post-apocalyptic urban nightmare, based like the Hummer, on US military hardware, but in this case on the rather larger Medium Tactical Vehicle. The Bad Boy weighs six tons, stands ten feet tall and can be ordered with such everyday commuter accessories as bullet-proofing, a mini safe and infrared night-sight. The $750,000 ‘NBC’ version offers protection from ‘dirty’ nuclear bombs and biological agents. Fuel consumption is a little under 8mpg, which sounds rather good, all things considered. The Mole is waiting for the civilian version of the Chieftain tank.