Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Bridge.

The photo above shows the view looking West, along Bexley Road, from Erith towards Northumberland Heath. You can clearly see the scaffolding that runs underneath the bridge across the railway line that connects Erith and Slade Green stations on the Dartford to London Bridge / Cannon Street and Charing Cross stations via Greenwich. To say that I am perplexed by the actions of Bexley Council would be an understatement of epic proportions. As you may well have read over the last few weeks I have been recording the progress of the work to refurbish and strengthen the road bridge over the railway in Bexley Road, Erith, as shown above. This vital communications focus point connects The A206 Queens Road, which leads to the Dartford Tunnel and M25 with the A2016 Bronze Age Way, which leads to Woolwich and the South Circular, and the A220 Bexley Road, which connects with the A2 and the coast. As you can see, the single lane each way bridge forms an almost perfect choke point – the Bronze Age Way, and Queens Road are dual carriageways, that are filtered down into a single lane when traffic needs to head West along Bexley Road towards Northumberland Heath and eventually the A2. There has been talk for several years about widening the carriageway, which would involve replacing the existing road bridge with a double width structure. This was discounted a couple of years back, as Bexley Council decided that they could not afford the cost of the work in the current economic climate. Instead they did commission some urgent refurbishment and strengthening to the bridge, as the years of heavy traffic passing over it, and the corrosive atmosphere had caused the steel structure to develop cracks and weaknesses. None of this has been readily apparent from the road side – it is only underneath the bridge that the damage had become obvious. At the time of writing, the bridge is swathed in scaffolding as you can see above, and is reduced to a single carriageway, which is controlled by temporary traffic lights. Much local traffic is being re – routed via Bronze Age Way and Lower Belvedere, where it then can re – join Woolwich Road via Picardy Road (often erroneously referred to locally as Picardy Hill). The heavy foods vehicles and double decker buses on diversion up Picardy Road have caused all sorts of chaos and congestion, as for much of the roads’ length it is very narrow and winding – a fact that is not helped by parents who park their Chelsea tractors there whilst dropping off their children at the nearby Lessness Heath Primary School. The reason for my astonishment with the actions of the council is that whilst work is still under way to repair the existing bridge, at some not small expense, the council are now sending out letters to local businesses and stakeholders, in which they propose to replace the (newly refurbished) single lane in each direction bridge with a double width, dual carriageway bridge in 2015. If they had been contemplating this project, why did they authorise the repair work on the existing bridge? It seems that they are throwing good money after bad; the bridge will have less than a years’ use before it is replaced with the new structure – surely it would have been preferable to bring forward the dual carriageway bridge project, and not bother to have the expense of repairing the existing structure at all? It seems to make absolutely no sense to me; it would appear that the work, if it receives approval, will take up a year of time, starting at an unspecified date in 2015. It would thus appear that the current work, which is causing a huge amount of disruption to both local traffic and businesses, may be completely pointless, since it is all going to be dug up and replaced in a relatively short time frame. I fully appreciate that the bottle neck that is currently formed by the old bridge needs to go; it just seems that if the council had been proactive, rather than reactive in their traffic planning, they could have avoided expensive, unnecessary and embarrassingly wasteful work.

South Eastern Trains have been given a well deserved slippering by the local press this week; on Tuesday evening the main signalling control centre at London Bridge Station suffered a fire. The control centre manages the signalling on the Bexleyheath, Bromley South, Hayes, Sevenoaks, Sidcup and Greenwich train lines – basically everything running into and out of South East London and North Kent. There is no backup to this system, and all trains were suspended at the start of rush hour; many services did not start again until 11pm or thereabouts, and the whole of the region was in transport chaos. On top of the usual commuter related problems, the Greenwich line has the additional passenger load of travellers returning from a concert at the O2 Arena, and a football match at Charlton. This led to a complete train melt down. OK, in rare instances, this kind of problem can be expected; the important thing is how those responsible for getting things moving again react to the crisis. Typically for South Eastern, to whom it would appear that competence is an anathema. The Public Relations department of South Eastern Trains went into overdrive, sending out messages on Twitter that were not so much hopelessly optimistic, as completely untrue and misleading. At 5.45 pm they tweeted that the signalling issues had been resolved, and that normal service would be resumed shortly. In fact, severe delays and disruption continued for the rest of the evening, with commuters reporting four or five hour journeys home on overcrowded buses and an overloaded Docklands Light Railway service. South Eastern Trains abruptly deleted their misleading tweet, but not before many commuters had read it. Later, South Eastern Trains blamed the tweet on Network Rail, the company that maintain the railway infrastructure, then to make matters worse, then blamed customers who were trapped on trains stuck just outside of London Bridge Station for opening the train doors and climbing down onto the track to return to the station. Traction power had to be switched off due to safety concerns. Nobody it seems was talking to each other in an effective manner, and even though the signal control centre is a point of critical failure, little consideration of a backup system seems to have been made. What really comes out of this horrible situation is that people want honesty from the transport suppliers; Better to be told an accurate “the service is completely stuffed and we’re not sure when it will be back” than a completely erroneous and falsely optimistic “it will all be back to normal in a few minutes”. I just fear that South Eastern Trains will try and put gloss over substance when this happens again; they don’t appear to be capable of learning from their experiences.

The photo above dates back to 1920; it shows shrimp fishermen employed by William Gilder, the fishmonger who had a shop in Erith High Street for many years between the two World Wars. The distinguished chap in the Fedora hat the helm of the vessel is Mr. Gilder himself; I am not sure if he regularly went out on shrimping trips, or if this was a special occasion that merited a commemorative photograph. I was surprised when I came across the photo; I knew that the River Thames off Erith was a rich source of Lemon Sole, Dabs and Eels, but I did not know that it had been a historic source of shrimps. What is somewhat troubling is that back then, raw sewage was pumped into the Thames from Crossness Sewage Works. Shrimps and Prawns get their nutrients from filtering the water they swim in, and any noxious substances tend to get concentrated in their bodies as a consequence.  This would have made eating Erith caught shrimps a bit of a lottery regarding whether they would give you food poisoning or not; I guess that people’s constitutions were a bit more hardy back then; personally I would have avoided local shellfish just to be on the safe side. More on this later.

One unexpected outcome of the proposed transfer of the Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre to Bromley Library would be the cessation of local studies book publication; Bexley has for many years run a small publishing house, printing small runs of books that are of local historical and social interest; if the transfer to Bromley takes place, there will be no more local studies books once the current stocks have been depleted. I found out this shocking fact from the Librarian in Erith Library – somewhere I frequent only very occasionally, as the new building is airless and horrid compared to its’ beautiful old home in the Andrew Carnegie gifted building in Walnut Tree Road, which now stands empty and unused.  Although I am far from convinced that Bexley Council will outsource the Local Studies and Archive Centre to Bromley (it is too much of a vote loser, and it is not that long before the local council elections) and I share Malcolm Knights’ opinion that it will be a popular vote winner to retain the service, which after all costs very little to run in the greater scheme of things, and the size of the petition against the plan may mean that Bexley drop the scheme. Either way, I would strongly recommend that if you have an interest in local history, you purchase any books on the subject sooner rather than later, as I don’t think the local studies publishing house will survive, whatever else happens.

I have a smart TV that has active 3D technology embedded in it. Like nearly all owners of such televisions, the 3D functionality gets little, if any use. I have to admit that whilst I have a degree of antipathy about 3D in general, I did watch the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who on the special Sky channel that the BBC hired just for the one – off show. What was novel was seeing the old classic BBC test card having been re – jigged for 1080i HD and 3D before the programme started. The show itself was excellent, and the use of 3D actually added an important element to the story, if you saw it. The thing is, the BBC have very little experience with 3D, and whilst the overall viewer experience was good, the Beeb did make one very basic error. The format chosen for streaming the show in a form suitable for  passive 3D TVs, computers and tablets is "side by side": each transmitted frame contains left- and right-eye images alongside each other. The receiver splits the frame into two down the picture’s vertical centre and presents one and then the other. Stereoscopic glasses make sure the correct eye sees the correct image. The BBC forgot to embed the station ID logo in the right hand image; this can cause the visual cortex of viewers to confuse the 3D illusion, causing eye strain and blurred vision. The active 3D transmission was not so affected, as it uses a single image that looks similar to a blurred conventional picture – the active shutters in the glasses synchronise with the TV to ensure that the correctly separated image is sent to the relevant eye. The Doctor Who 50th special is likely to be the last venture the BBC makes into the 3D market for quite some time, if ever. The take up of 3D technology is very low, and it is not financially viable for them. As I have written in the past, 3D will never become mainstream until such time as a practical system that does not require special glasses can be perfected.

I have been doing some more historical research this week, following the excellent photo sent to me recently by reader Dana of Bexley, which showed an open topped tram from the original 1905 Erith Tramways fleet undergoing restoration at the National Tramways Museum at Crich in Derbyshire.  I wrote about how the tram company was tiny, and their network only ran from Abbey Wood to Northumberland Heath via Erith. Subsequent to this, a chap called John King, who patently knows far more about the history of Erith's trams wrote me this Email:- "I read with interest about Erith Council Tramways, However this is not an Erith Tram. 106 was built for the LCC (London County Council) in 1903. In 1926 it was converted to a snow broom. I think Dana of Bexley may have been confused by the board on the tram displaying Belvedere, Erith, and Dartford. But is does say change at Abbey Wood for those destinations. Seen the LCC Tramways Trust for details. I have a small piece on my website here ". Thanks to John for the additional information - much appreciated. Since my piece, I have uncovered an old photograph of the dedicated tramway power station, which was located in Walnut Tree Road, on  the site of what later became Erith Swimming Baths.  The photo above dates from approximately 1910, and shows not only the power station, but also some allotments in the foreground. The site is still used today by EDF energy for their local high power step – down transformers – it turns high voltage current fed from underground cables into lower voltage power, suitable for domestic and industrial consumption.

As previously stated, I am not a hardcore video gamer; I have played and completed all three BioShock games on my Apple iMac, but I don’t have a games console, and could only really be called a lacklustre dabbler in the genre. Nevertheless, I have had quite a number of Maggot Sandwich readers contact me recently; they know of my professional background as a technology analyst. Despite the question being asked and answered many times online and on TV shows like the excellent “Click” on the BBC, I have still been asked on my opinion of the debate of  the day – which is better, the Xbox One, or the PS4? Well, they are both excellent machines, and to be honest, the real deciding factor between the two machines will be the quality and range of games that are made available for them. Both machines have very similar specifications – this incarnation, both are based on a conventional PC architecture. This will almost certainly be good news, as it will make porting games between the two competing platforms much easier than has been the case with the Xbox 360 and the PS3. The problem (which has impacted PS3 sales) is that the PS3 used a very powerful, but difficult to program processor called the Cell. This meant that many developers did not bother with the difficulty and expense of converting Xbox 360 games for the PS3, and sales of the PS3 suffered in consequence. Sony have not made that design error this time around. The bottom line is if you want an integrated entertainment centre, which is capable of handling everything from your BluRay collection, streaming online content, Skype calling and gaming too, with a high definition motion capture camera, then the Xbox One is likely to fit the bill for you. Of you want something a little more powerful, but a little cheaper, that has a stronger focus on games alone, then the PS4 will be my advice for you. Alternatively you may wish to wait a while, as Valve Software are currently working on several prototypes for a future Steam console, which will run a modified version of Ubuntu Linux. Why would you want one of these, from a newcomer to the console hardware market? Well, there are a number of strong rumours that when the console gets launched next year, that the launch title will be Half Life 3. This will go a long way to attract gamers even if they have already bought one of the consoles from the big players in the market. As always, your mileage may vary. As to which I would go for personally? I would rather purchase this little beauty. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

I do from time to time wonder exactly who does read the Maggot Sandwich. The Blogger management console does offer quite detailed and varied information into where readers are geographically located, what computer operating system and web browser they are using, and what particular posts they have found interesting. What it does not do is let me see who they are – understandably, as this would be a major privacy issue. The reason I mention the subject is that I suspect the member of the Welsh Assembly, and Welsh Health Minister Mark Drakeford must be a Maggot Sandwich reader, as he has put into law something that I have been proposing for a long time. On Thursday, Wales became the first country in the United Kingdom  to make it compulsory for food outlets to display their “Scores on the Doors” health rating sticker. The scheme is still voluntary outside of Wales, as I have  written about extensively in the past – this means that essentially the scheme is toothless – food establishments that get a bad rating just don’t display their sticker, or put up an older one with a better rating (or worse still, just change the name of the restaurant or fast food outlet, as has happened in Erith – the Oyin Nigerian restaurant merely changed its’ name to the Wazobia in order to evade a dreadful health rating). Other countries have similar systems; in New York the Metropolitan Authority introduced a compulsory rating system a few years ago; Food outlets were inspected, and graded as A, B or C for food hygiene. Since this compulsory system was introduced, 95% of inspected restaurants now merit an “A” rating. Anything with a lesser grade risks going out of business. We urgently need a similar level of enforcement that is backed up with law for the whole of the UK, and not just Wales.  Erith holds the unenviable title of having the worst rated food outlets in the whole of the country; a total of nine places rating zero out of five hygiene stars – yet the Council don’t shut the places down. Consequently I have not eaten anything from a takeaway or local cafe for several years. I should point out that there are a couple of independent local establishments that buck this dreadful trend. Both the Mambocino coffee house / restaurant in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre, and the T-Bone cafe in Fraser Road both score a creditable four out of five hygiene stars, and both proudly display their stickers. It is a pity that they are the exception to the general rule.  The newly opened King of the Grill kebab shop in Manor Road has not yet been rated, but I think it will do well. The Food Standards Agency has released statistics showing that there are over a million food related poisoning cases every year in the UK, with twenty thousand people hospitalised as a result, and a staggering five hundred deaths, all directly attributable to poor food hygiene. Perhaps Mister Gilder would not get a great rating if he was alive and working in his fishmongers’ shop today – I doubt his pooey prawns would go down very well with the inspectors (actually, they would probably go down fine, they would just come back up shortly thereafter!)

Longer term readers will recall that I have been banging on ad infinitum about the Raspberry Pi computer – the small, cheap (£35) computer designed to teach school children how to program. I had several people doubt my claims that the machine was a game changer – until recently, kids had zero exposure to computer programming at school; most “IT” lessons consisted of learning how to use proprietary software, like Microsoft Office, rather than writing programs. I was accused of wanting to turn back the clock to the 1980’s when pretty much any kid could write a simple BASIC program on a machine like a Sinclair Spectrum, BBC Micro, or Commodore 64. I am pleased to say that I was correct – the Raspberry Pi has become a game changer. Since its’ launch in February 2012, the Raspberry Pi has sold two million units, mainly to school children (and not just to 80’s throwbacks like their parents, as had been thought by some). The Pi has not only exposed kids to languages like BASIC and Python, but it has done something many pundits thought impossible – it has got Linux on the popular desktop. The Raspberry Pi can use a number of Linux distributions specially compiled for the little computer, and children are seeing that there is more to a computer than a PC running Windows. So great has the impact been, that the Raspberry Pi has entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful educational computer in British history. It has sold two million units in a little under two years; it took the BBC Micro seven years to sell 1.5 million machines, and that was considered a resounding success. Many of today’s elite programmers started off on the “Beeb” – in fact the team that wrote “Grand Theft Auto 5” were almost exclusively BBC Micro users in their pasts. The game was written in Scotland, not California as many people think.

This weeks' ending video is something that I have featured before, though this video is brand new. It is the world's largest model railway, located in Hamburg, Germany; the place is known as the "Miniatur Wunderland", and it certainly looks worth a visit if you are ever in the neighbourhood. Do feel free to leave a comment below, as always.


  1. As critical as I am of southeastern, I'm not sure they've done much wrong. They were told the signalling was fixed by network rail so put that on twitter. Just as they did so people jumped off a train with live power rails causing everything to come to a halt. The problem with them is their train faults and them sending trains up north for repainting which lessens the available stock. They could keep passengers better informed of the procedure, and why it has taken over 3 years.

    As for the ps4 v xbox argument. I think the PS4 wins that one. £80 less and substantially more powerful according to some decent technology website articles I've read. A faster GPU and GDDR5 RAM against GDDR3 in the xbox will help it long term. Also with psplus sony give a free game or two fro free each month which MS don't. At launch they offer resogun and contrast. Psplus also gives a game or 2 free each month on the PS3 and also another on the PS Vita all included in the same package.

  2. ''Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful educational computer in British history'' ?