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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Debate at The Oxford Union, Tragedy on June 26th, Salcombe, My Apology to Chiltern Railways

I had the opportunity to attend a debate at the 189-year-old Oxford Union, the world’s most famous debating chamber. Although I did not go to hear anyone particularly famous, we sat in, and witnessed a debate in the same room as some of the most famous people in the world, far too many to list here, but to give you a flavour, all of the following have debated in the chamber: 

US Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the UK Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Edward Heath and Sir John Major. The former US Presidential nominee Senator John McCain, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, the Reverend Ian Paisley, Yasser Arafat, Russian politician and former finance minister Grigory Yavlinsky, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, US Attorney General and Senator Robert Kennedy, former speaker of the House of Representatives and Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Musicians Lang Lang, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jon Bon Jovi, Barry White, Dizzee Rascal, Yoko Ono, Shakira, Katie Melua, Nigel Kennedy, Billy Joel, Tinie Tempah and Michael Jackson, many of whom also perfumed. Professor Stephen Hawking, Lord Robert Winston, Dr Jane Goodall, the Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Ben Affleck, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Natalie Portman, Kim Cattrall, Bill Nighy, Patrick Stewart, Ewan MacGregor, Matthew Perry, Zoë Wanamaker, Terry Jones, Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, David Walliams, Russell Brand, Bruce Forsyth, Sir Roger Moore, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Ben Kingsley. Enough. And loads of others. 

The debate we attended was ‘This House Believes the UK should leave the EU’. It was a full house and very lively indeed. The key points in favour of the motion revolved around a lack of democracy in the EU and the fact that we would be better off trading with India and China. I remain extremely unconvinced on both accounts and if anything, I came out of the debate more strongly in favour of the EU than before. The democracy issue is fallacious; although there are plenty of elements in the EU’s working that could be more democratic, all new laws need to be passed by the 750 elected MEPs. These MEPs are elected using proportional representation by each of the 28 member states according to their population size. In the UK, our first-past-the-post system elected 1 MP for UKIP who had 3,881,129 votes and 56 MPs for the Scottish Nationalist Party who had 727,218 votes. And then there is the unelected House of Lords. Don’t get me started on that one. So the argument for the UK parliament being more democratic that the EU is not just very wrong, it is actually laughable. As for the India / China question, well France and Germany already do more trade with these countries than the UK does and how is it that our membership of the EU hinders us from trading with these countries, The opposite is far more likely to be true in reality. After both sides had summed up, the audience was invited to vote with a show of hands. I was expecting the ‘get out of the EU’ contingent to win as they had been far more vocal during the debate. But I was surprised to see that a very large silent majority wanted the UK to stay in the EU. Very comforting but was the Oxford audience representative of the UK? The EU debate took an interesting turn two weeks ago when Barack Obama, in an exclusive White House interview with the BBC, just before his trip to Africa, made his views very clear: “Having the UK in the EU gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union, and is part of the cornerstone of the institutions built after the second world war that has made the world safer and more prosperous. We want to make sure that the United Kingdom continues to have that influence.” Great words Barack, Thank You.

The entrance from St Michael's Street

The debating chamber
The building

As I wrote my blog a month ago, we had just suffered a very tragic day; three terrorist attacks on the same day committed by Islamic extremists killing innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One month on, no one is talking about it any more, in part because, regrettably these sorts of attacks have become common. 

The first was the attack by Yassin Salhi, the French lorry driver on the boss of the transport company he worked at, Hervé Cornara, at an Air Products factory near Lyons. Salhi, father of three, decapitated his boss and tied the severed head to the factory gates with two flags on which he had written a Muslim profession of faith. He intended to go on and cause an explosion at the gas factory but failed. Decapitation is the habitual modus operandi of the so-called Islamic State. 

The second attack that day was the crazed gunman who appeared out of the sea at the resort of Sousse, 150 km south of Tunis in Tunisia and murdered 38 sunbathing tourists, most of them British. Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi had become radicalised by those with links to Abu Qatada. He was in some sort of cocaine-induced trance and wandered round killing with his machine gun until he was eventually shot by the Tunisian authorities. Shortly afterwards the British (and later other countries) authorities recalled their citizens from Tunisia, an understandable act that will now lead to thousands of good people losing their jobs right across the tourist trade, one of Tunisia’s main economic activities. 

The third tragedy on that fateful Friday June 26th, was a suicide bomber at a Shia mosque in Kuwait. 27 people were killed and 10 times that number injured. The attack took place during Friday prayers in the holy month of Ramadan and was organised by ‘Islamic State’ who targeted the Shia mosque. The last of these three was scarcely reported in the western press and to underline that point, I have just discovered that a fourth attack the same day in Somalia on an African Union base undertaken by Al-Shabaab, killed at least 70 people but was not reported in the mass media. 

Sadly, these attacks have become so common that they often don’t make the news. We clearly have a massive problem and nobody really knows how to deal with it. In the recent past we had terrorist groups such as the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation organisation under Yassar Arafat) who murdered innocent people indiscriminately but had a cause, that even if you disagreed with, you could understand what they were attempting to change and what they wanted. Both of these organisations ultimately ended up with their leaders forming part of the legitimate government. With ‘Islamic State’ it is very different. We have a bunch of brain-washed people spread over a huge geographic area, going round be-heading, assassinating, raping and pillaging in a style reminiscent of the Vikings in the 9th century, using some warped interpretation of Islam to justify their actions. We don’t yet know how to respond as we don’t understand these people. It is so extreme that it is even uniting the West with some of its greatest enemy states in the Middle East to fight this curse. The West, for example, is closer now to Iran than since the departure of the Shah, having just signed a historic nuclear deal that was over ten years on the making, and being united in our hatred of IS. A further attack just over a week ago, the first IS attack on Turkish soil, is going to change regional dynamics again; Turkey is now entering the war against IS but they also appear to be intensifying their attacks on their long-time enemies, the Kurds who at last have representation in the Turkish government, bringing yet more complexity in a region where the only consistent and successful ground force fighting IS are indeed the Kurds.

No pictures. 

We went to stay for a couple of days in Salcombe in Devon. What a pretty little town it is in an idyllic spot on an estuary sheltered from the sea. It has got to be one of the most beautiful places in England. We went on an 18 kilometre long coastal walk passing some of the most breathtaking coves, beaches and cliffs. By co-incidence, Soar Mill Cove and the Winking Prawn, both of which we walked past, were in the previous day’s Sunday Times each listed as one of the 50 best beaches and coastal restaurants respectively in the UK. For us one of the highlights was without doubt the gardens of an eccentric Londoner called Otto Bismark Overbeck (yes, very English) who bought a house on the cliff with a view over Salcombe and the estuary, and enhanced the already impressive gardens on the site. He gave it to the National Trust and today you can visit (which I recommend) the 12 small gardens and the House. And don’t forget to have a cream tea on the terrace in the middle of the gardens. One of the most impressive things is the tropical climate which allowed him to grow banana plants, cocoa and a whole variety of other exotic plants that don’t usually grow in England. You can see from the pictures that this is no ordinary garden and it is beautifully maintained by the National Trust. The other highlight for us was the multitude of single-track roads with stunning vegetation on each side (roads are so narrow that it brushed my car on both sides simultaneously), often running close to or parallel to the creeks which come out of the estuary. The views are amazing (see below) but there are hazards such as meeting another car going in the opposite direction or finding that it’s high tide and the creek has blocked off your exit road! Drive there at your peril and only if you are not in a hurry! The alternative to the two hour trip we did around the estuary from Salcombe is to pay the ferryman £1 at the Ferryman Inn and he will take you across in less than 5 minutes!

Salcombe from the opposite side of the estuary

Overbeck's house and gardens

He grew tropical plants such as these bananas

The creeks can creep up on you and cut off the roads at high tide!

Finally, I have re-produced below my correspondence with Chiltern Railways. The email trail below is in the usual reverse order so you ought to start reading at the bottom and work your way up. I have not received any replies to my final 'Apology' as of today.

From: Adam Sidbury <>
To: "" <> 
Cc: "" <>; "" <>; "" <>; "" <>; "" <>; "" <> 
Sent: Wednesday, 15 July 2015, 8:13
Subject: My Apology

Dear Chiltern Railways

I owe you a huge apology.

Following our recent correspondence (copied below) in which I tried to claim a refund for being transported on one of your trains from Marylebone to Bicester in inhumane conditions at temperatures that would make hell seem cool, I have now taken the time to read your Passenger Charter along with National Rail's Conditions of Carriage.

I was mistakenly under the impression that you had a duty of care to your passengers in regard to their comfort and human rights whilst you transport them. Of course I am entirely wrong and all that matters is getting them there on time. This now clarifies why I am not entitled to a refund. Although temperatures in the 15.48 from Marylebone on July 1st, the hottest day of the year, were in excess of 35 degrees for the lucky passengers in the shade (I was on the sunny side so add ten degrees) as the aircon was broken, the train did arrive at Bicester on time which means that the sweat pouring down my brow for 58 minutes doesn't qualify for a refund. Neither of the two documents refers to passenger comfort so I now understand is not relevant to the rail operators.

Interestingly, your Mission Statement includes the phrase "All day, every day, we aim to offer a safe, reliable, welcoming and value for money service". Whilst I understand the spirit of your statement, maybe clarify that this is about punctuality, cost and minimising crashes rather than allowing other passengers to make the same mistake as I did, thinking there was a regard to passenger wellbeing and comfort. And this naturally explains why no apology or explanation was made on the train.

Should you wish to steal a march on your competitors and start to focus on passenger comfort during transportation, may I suggest you get inspiration from the government website, "Live transport: welfare regulations" which you can find at You may be inspired for example by the EU legal requirement to transport pigs and other animals at temperatures below 30 degrees but above 0 degrees for longer journeys. There are many other useful pieces of advice that you could well include in your next Passenger Charter, should you wish to step up to this exciting new challenge. But who am I to preach to a successful rail company?

My apologies for living under the misapprehension that you have a duty of care to your passengers. If I have the misfortune to again step out of one of your ovens covered in perspiration and my clothes thoroughly drenched, good only for the knackers yard, I will of course not attempt to complain. Unless it was late.

Once again, accept my apologies for seeking a refund which you rightly rejected, and do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions, or if I can be so bold, should you require any assistance drafting your new Charter.

Kind Regards

Adam Sidbur

PS Can't wait for new Oxford service to start on October 26th

CC MD Chiltern Railways, CEO Arriva Trains, The ORR, The Oxford Mail, My Local MP, Twitter and Facebook

From: Customer Service <>
To: Adam Sidbury <> 
Sent: Tuesday, 14 July 2015, 15:46
Subject: RE: Form submission from: Contact Us

Dear Mr Sidbury,

Thank you for your email.

Yes, I did read your previous email, I am aware you did not have a pleasant experience which is why I apologised for this.

We monitor the air conditioning on each of our trains on a daily basis and record all faults. These faults receive priority attention from our train technicians at the first suitable opportunity, normally at the end of the working day and overnight to avoid taking trains out of service and increasing overcrowding on our peak services.

Regrettably, we have encountered difficulties with the air conditioning recently on some of our trains. Due to the volume of air conditioning failures encountered during the last few weeks of warm weather, our air conditioning maintenance strategy with be strengthened from 14th July 2015.

Regrettably, a refund is not due on this occasion.

Thank you, once again, for taking the time to contact us. I hope you see an improvement very soon.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Ashley Lamb
Customer Services
Chiltern Railways

From: Adam Sidbury [] 
Sent: 09 July 2015 15:39
To: Customer Service
Subject: Re: Form submission from: Contact Us

Dear Ms Lamb

Thanks for your reply.

Did you actually read my email?

I travelled down to London earlier the same day and the aircon was working and the staff were fantastic.

On my return journey either the aircon was broken or it was pumping out hot air. A few other facts in response to your email:

The train was not crowded (nobody was standing).
As far as I could tell the entire train was the same temperature.
None of the doors were left open - if only that had been possible it would have helped cool down the carriages!

This is the worst train journey I have ever taken - by a long measure.

Thank goodness I could get out at Bicester.

Did you have to pull out any bodies by the time it reached Snow Hill?

Seriously, the temperature was in excess of 40 degrees C and for those sitting in the sun, substantially hotter.

One of the passengers said it was a fairly regular occurrence that the aircon was not working.

This was the hottest July day ever recorded and I don't suppose you can imagine the intense discomfort and heat in the train. A packed Bakerloo line tube was 10 times cooler.

The least you could do is to provide me with a refund as the service was not worth a penny - I would rather have walked - and if you refuse here is what I will do:

1. Not use your services any more.

2. Circulate my descriptions of the way you torture your passengers in social media and the press.

Yours sincerely

Adam Sidbury

From: Customer Service <>
To: Adam Sidbury <> 
Sent: Thursday, 9 July 2015, 13:38
Subject: RE: Form submission from: Contact Us

Dear Mr Sidbury,

I am very sorry to learn of your experience when travelling with us on the 1st July.

Our on board heating/air conditioning is set to one temperate to provide warm carriages in the winter and cool carriages in the summer. When we have a particularly warm day, it can take a little time for the air conditioning to cool the carriages especially if the train is busy. To help keep the trains cool, we would recommend closing trains doors behind you as when they are left open, it can cause the carriage temperatures to rise and then the air conditioning modules are unable to keep up. This can be the cause of faults in hot weather as the modules can overheat. 

Unfortunately, faults can occur occasionally and once reported, our Fleet team work hard to rectify the issue as quickly as possible. If you should find yourself in a similar situation in the future, which, hopefully you will not, it is advisable to move to another carriage, if possible, as it is unlikely that the whole train will be affected.

I apologise if you encountered an uncomfortable journey on this occasion. 

Thank you, once again, for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Ashley Lamb
Customer Services
Chiltern Railways

1st July 2015 (Submitted via website)

Dear Chiltern Railways

I had the misfortune to take your train this afternoon from Marylebone to Bicester. The outside temperature was 34 degrees and the temperature in your train was far far in excess of this. The aircon was not working. We could not open any windows. The sun was shining through onto us and this is by far the most uncomfortable train journey I have ever taken. The Bakerloo line was better. I have travelled on trains in the summer in India that are better. I expect hell is cooler than your train. We were transported in conditions that are illegal for cattle under EU law. There were no announcements, no apologies, no explanations. No water offered NOTHING.

Up until now I had been a fan of your service.

I am appalled.

Adam Sidbury
I'm ashamed to admit is was worse than this...

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