Useful links: October 2012

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

  • Bike Hike – Web mapping tool, including ability to create and view .GPX files.
  • AutoHotkey – Scriptable desktop automation with hotkeys (via Garry Martin).
  • Parental control app – For iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch (via Bill Minton)
  • Jailbreak Stats – Handy tool for information about jailbreak compatibility with various releases of iOS and devices (see also this Lifehacker post)

Export to spreadsheet from SharePoint 2007 with Excel 2010

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I frequently have to export data from a SharePoint list to Excel but earlier today I found it no longer works since I’ve upgraded to Office 2010.  Our SharePoint infrastructure is based on SharePoint 2007 and each time I attempted to Export to Spreadsheet from the Actions menu on the Toolbar, Excel would hang.

Luckily, I found Gustaf Lindqvist’s post on synchronising data between Excel 2010 and a SharePoint 2007 list. He suggests installing the 2007 Office System Driver Data Connectivity Components (I wasn’t getting an error message to help me find the problem – just a “Not Responding” application and the “doughnut of death”.

It’s still a bit flaky – and I’m not sure I have the complete answer (in fact, I suspect there may even be issues with some of the views in SharePoint) – but at least I can export data now…

Tech.Days Online 2012: Day 1 (#TechDays2012)

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For the last couple of years, I’ve been concentrating on IT Strategy but I miss the hands-on technology.  I’ve kind of lost touch with what’s been happening in my former world of Microsoft infrastructure and don’t even get the chance to write about what’s coming up in new releases as the powers that be have decided my little blog is not on their RADAR (to be honest, I always suspected they had me mixed up with another Mark Wilson, who writes at Gizmodo!).

Anyway, I decided to dip into the pool again and see what Microsoft is up to in its latest releases, with two day-long virtual events under the Microsoft Tech.Days Online banner.

Presented by members of the UK evangelist team, Simon May (@simonster), Andrew Fryer (@DeepFat) and Steve Plank (@plankytronixx), day 1 focused on Windows Server and Azure, whilst day 2 will be about Windows 8 and System Center.

So, what did I learn?  Far too much for a single blog post, but here are the highlights from day 1…

Windows Server 2012

Windows Server 2012 looks to be a significant step forward from 2008 R2. The full list of what’s new is extensive but the main focus is on Microsoft’s “next generation” file server, management, virtualisation and networking:

  • “Next generation” file server. Ignore the next generation part – after all, it’s just marketing speak to make a file server sound interesting (some of us remember the early battles between Novell NetWare and Windows NT!) – but there are some significant improvements in Windows Server’s file capabilities.
  • When it comes to management:
    • Windows can be used to manage non-Windows environments and vice versa.  The details were pretty sketchy in yesterday’s event, but apparently Microsoft now understands that we all run heterogeneous environments!
    • Automation continues to be at the heart of the management story, with both DISM and PowerShell.
    • There’s a new version of PowerShell (v3), which promises to be more intuitive as as result of the Integrated Scripting Environment with IntelliSense as well as adding robust sessions that persist across connection dropouts and even reboots, together with simple creation of parallel workflows.  The good news (although you wouldn’t know it from yesterday’s session) is that PowerShell 3 is also available for Windows 7 and Server 2008 (SP2 or later).
    • Remote management is enabled by default.
    • Server Core is still there, but MinShell is another attempt to reduce the attack surface of Windows Server, providing GUI management tools, without a GUI, as described by Mitch Garvis.
  • Virtual machine mobility provides new scenarios for migrating resources around the entreprise:
    • Using shared storage with live migration now supporting VMs on non-clustered hosts (just on an SMB share).
    • By live migrating storage between hosts, moving the virtual disks attached to a running virtual machines from one location to another.
    • With shared-nothing live migration.
    • Using new Hyper-V replica functionality to replicate virtual machines between sites, e.g in a disaster recovery scenario.
    • There’s also a new VHDX format for larger virtual disks, released as an open specification.
  • Enhanced networking:
    • Windows Server now has built-in NIC teaming (load balancing/failover, or LBFO), described by Don Stanwyck in Yegal Edery’s post.
    • Network virtualisation allows the creation of a multi-tenant virtual network environment on top of the existing infrastructure, decoupling network and server configuration.

Windows Server 2012 is already available but an evaluation edition is also available as an ISO or a VHD.

Windows Azure

Windows Azure has been around for a while, but back in my days as an MVP (and when running the Windows Server User Group with Mark Parris), I struggled to get someone at Microsoft to talk about it from an IT Pro perspective (lots of developer stuff, but nothing for the infrastructure guys). That changed when Steve Plank spent an entire afternoon on the topic today.

In summary:

  • Windows Azure has always provided PaaS but it now has IaaS capabilities (although they don’t sound to be as mature as Amazon’s offerings, they might better suit some organisations).
  • When deploying to the cloud, the datacentre or affinity group is selected. Azure services are available in eight datacentres around the world, with 4 in the US, 2 in Europe and 2 in Asia.
  • Applications are deployed to Azure using an XML service model.
  • Virtual machines in Azure differ from the cloud platform services in that they still require management (patching, etc.) at the operating system level.  They may be deployed using a REST API, scripted (e.g. using PowerShell), or created inside a management portal.
  • Virtual hard disks may be uploaded to Azure (they are converted to BLOB storage), or new virtual machines created from a library and it’s possible to capture virtual machines that are not running as images for future deployment.  Virtual machine images may also be copied from the cloud for on-premise deployment.
  • If two virtual machines are connected inside Azure, both are on the  same network, which means they can connect to the same load balancer.
  • Virtual networks may be used to connect on premise networks to Windows Azure, or completely standalone Azure networks can be created (e.g. with their own DNS, Active Directory, etc.)
  • When using a virtual network inside Azure, there is no DHCP but DIPs (dynamic IPs) are provided and the operating system must be configured to use DHCP. Each service has a single IP address to connect to the Internet, with port forwarding used to access multiple hosts.
  • Inside Azure, operating system disks are cached (for performance) but data disks are not (for integrity). Consequently, when installing data-driven operating systems (such as Active Directory), make sure the database is on a data drive.
  • Applications on Azure may be federated with on-premise infrastructure (e.g. Active Directory). Alternatively, a new service is currently in developer preview called the Windows Azure Active Directory. This differs significantly from the normal Active Directory role in Windows Server (which may also be deployed to a virtual machine on Azure) in that: it has a REST API (the Graph API), not an LDAP one; it does not use Kerberos; and it is accessed as an endpoint – i.e. individual instances are not exposed. Windows Azure Active Directory is related to the Office 365 Directory (indeed, logging on to the Windows Azure Active Directory preview shows me my Office 365 details).  Single sign on with Windows Azure Active Directory is described in detail in a post by Vittorio Bertocci.
  • Microsoft provides service level agreements for Azure availability, not for performance. These are based around fault domains and update domains.

A Windows Azure pricing calculator is available, as is a 90-day free trial.

Photograph of Steve Plank taken from the TechNet UK Facebook page.

Searching for the right Windows Twitter client

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last week, my company-owned PC was rebuilt after a hard disk failure. Whilst my IT department got me back to a point where I had all of the standard apps installed, there are many others that I use that are not part of the standard build. Some of these are company sanctioned (e.g. I use Office 2010 rather than the company standard of 2007, as well as Cisco WebEx productivity tools and CUCILync softphone); others are not “official” but are an important part of my workflow (e.g. Google Chrome browser). One of the apps in this second category is a Twitter client.

In the past, I’ve tended to use TweetDeck. Unfortunately, after Twitter bought TweetDeck, they wrecked it. In common with many other people, I’ve been running the old, unsupported, Adobe AIR version of the app but I really didn’t want to have to install more Adobe middleware on my PC (it’s bad enough having Adobe Reader and various browser plugins for Flash, etc.).

I started to look around for alternatives but it seems that Windows client apps for Twitter are a bit thin on the ground (unlike for mobile operating systems, where they are two-a-penny).

  • There’s MetroTwit but it only has single account support, unless I pay for the professional version, and I’m not sure how long it will be before Twitter kills off client apps (paid or otherwise) as part of it’s apparent desire to self-destruct (I’ve since been told that it’s possible to run multiple instances of MetroTwit).
  • Some people recommend Seesmic, but they have been swallowed up by Hootsuite.
  • Hootsuite is another option, but I’m not paying a tenner a month. The free version would probably serve my needs but it only seems to have apps for mobile platforms – and I really do want a desktop app, not another tab to be lost in the melee in Chrome.

So, TweetDeck it is, Adobe Air or not.  It’s still a decent app, if a little resource hungry, and it integrates with my Bitly.Pro account for custom URL shortening. If you are looking to track down “old” (yellow) TweetDeck because hate the new (blue) version, then there are a couple of posts that might help from David Amador and Jon Choo.

Fibre to the community; business hubs; and killing the commute

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Our country desperately needs investment in infrastructure yet we can’t afford it, either politically, financially, or environmentally. At the same time, driven by rising house prices and other considerations, people are living ever further from their workplace, with consequential impacts on family life and local communities. So what can we do to redress the balance?

In a word: localisation.

Or, in a few more words: stay at home; cut down travel; and rebuild communities.

For years now, we’ve been hearing (usually from companies selling tools to enable remote working) that teleworking is the future. It is, or at least working remotely for part of the time can be (people still need human contact) but we’re constrained by our communications infrastructure.

Super fast broadband services are typically only available in metropolitan areas, with fibre to the home (FTTH) or even fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) a distant dream for rural communities, even those that are a relatively short distance from major cities.

So why not create business hubs in our small towns and villages – office space for people to work, without having to travel for miles, taking up space on a train or a road, and polluting our environment?

Local councils (for example) can provide infrastructure – such as desks and Internet access (a connection to one central point may be more cost effective than wiring up every home) – and employees from a variety of companies have the benefit of a space to network, to share ideas, to work, without the need to travel long distances or the isolation and poor communications links (or family interruptions) encountered at home.

The location might be a library, a community centre, a coffee shop, the village pub (which desperately needs to diversify in order to survive) – all that’s really needed is a decent Internet connection, some desks, maybe meeting rooms and basic facilities.

Meanwhile, instead of spending our money in the coffee shops of London (or wherever), local businesses stand to benefit from increased trade (fewer commuters means more people in the town). Local Post Offices may become economically viable again, shops get new trade and new businesses spring up to serve the community that was previously commuting to the city.

Cross-pollination in the workplace (conversations at the hub) may lead to new relationships, partnerships with other companies and generally improved collaboration.

Families benefit too – with parents working closer to home, there’s time to see their children (instead of saying goodnight over the phone on a long commute after another late night in the office); and, generally, there’s an improvement in social well being and community involvement.

The benefits to the community and to society at large are potentially huge, but it needs someone (which is why I suggest local government, although central government support may be required) to kick-start the initiative.

If foundations like Mozilla can create Mozilla Spaces in our cities, why can’t we create spaces in our small towns and villages? Spaces to network. Spaces to work. Spaces to collaborate. Spaces to invigorate. To invigorate individuals and to rebuild our communities.

It all seems so logical, so what have I missed?

The “desktop” is an outdated concept

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

In terms of productivity, yesterday was a write-off – and it looks like today will be too. My company-supplied notebook PC is unusable and I need to get it fixed.

Understandably, a loss of service for one user is not allocated the highest priority and at least a desktop services technician can see me when I make it into the office this morning, for which I’m very grateful.

I hope he has a stock of hard disks though, as I’m not convinced that a simple PC rebuild will be enough – this machine, despite having 4GB of memory and a reasonably-capable Core 2 Duo processor, has been getting slower and slower to the point that, yesterday, it took 15 minutes to send an email and after a restart it wouldn’t even get past the Starting Windows screen. The hard disk light is almost never off, and the diagnostics I’ve run suggest that the disk is about to fail completely.

I did, thankfully, manage to get Windows running in Safe Mode, and managed to copy off the files I’ve updated in the few days since my last backup, but with data transfer rates of around 40 KB per second, across Gigabit Ethernet (security restrictions preventing access to USB disks), something was not right…

So, it’s a PC, these things go wrong from time to time, get over it, right? Yes, I will. It looks like I have my data and I’ll be up and running again in a day or so. But at what cost?

2 to 3 days of my time has a not insignificant price and, with a modern IT infrastructure, I could have been working on another device over that period. Unfortunately, I live in a world where mandatory full-disc encryption inhibits recovery tools, where VPN access is required for internal websites and applications, and where emailing documents to my personal account and working on an alternative device is a breach of security.

Some people would suggest a hosted desktop as an answer. After all, with that, I could just log in from another device and get on with my work. But that’s just applying old-world thinking in a new way.

First up is the VPN. What? HTTPS access to key applications ought to be the norm these days – and it is, inside the firewall. Time to open that up to other locations, surely? Thank goodness I had ActiveSync access to email from my phone (which is a step in the right direction and I should be grateful for small mercies).

Then there’s the full-disc encryption. Firstly, it’s a third party product (for complex reasons involving Microsoft licensing and the need to support a dual Windows XP and Windows 7 estate) but really, surely an encrypted volume (Trucrypt-style) would suffice? Then I could swap out the disc and, providing I can supply the necessary details to access the encrypted data, use it on whatever device I like…

Which leads me to devices. Working for an OEM does present some challenges when it comes to implementing BYOD policies (it doesn’t look good if your staff choose another vendor’s kit) but, if the data is secured, rather than the device, I should be able to use anything I like to access it when things go wrong.

I know the guys who create our standard builds, and I know the effort that goes into creating a standardised PC estate that works for all, even when half the users are technical and want to break things. But the cost of supporting a plethora of devices is tiny compared to the cost of lost productivity, particularly if the support is limited to application and data access, making any device or operating system issues an end-user concern.

In a bring your own device (BYOD) world, I would have bought a new disk (probably an SSD) and been up and running in a few hours. Instead, I’m looking at two or three days total loss of productivity, plus travel costs to see a desktop support technician. Now who thinks BYOD will cause more chaos?

Of course, BYOD is no panacea. I’d suggest that many of the answers to my issues may be found in architecting an IT estate (and supporting processes) where application access is not dependant upon the device or operating system – and that takes time, money and effort. But one thing’s for sure: thinking about “the desktop” (hosted or otherwise) is an outdated concept in 2012.

How does your organisation handle IT for its mobile knowledge workers?

Business as usual? @euan at #DigitalSurrey

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last week, I made my regular(ish) trip to Surrey’s digital networking evening, Digital Surrey.  This month’s speaker was Euan Semple (@euan), former BBC Director of Knowledge Management, author, consultant – and, it seems, entertaining public speaker.  This blog post covers some of what Euan had to say about business and the social web…

Back to reality

Euan started out by saying that he used to dread talking to people working with social media but then he realised that even people in “social” don’t have the time to stop and look at what it is, and where we’re going. In fact, he takes issue with some of the basic premises of what’s going on right now [and he has a point]:

  • Labelling something as “digital” draws a line between it and the alternative – it makes the rest “other”.
  • Social media has been turned into a “thing” – the industrialisation of something that should be personal…
  • “Social” is not a collection of channels, it’s a singular phenomenon, that’s been hijacked by marketing…

Wow. Controversial. Perhaps? But what Euan suggests is that what we’re doing with “social media” is really about getting back to real connections with real people doing real stuff, albeit in a digital format.

At this point, Euan moved on to knowledge management [something which has been causing me pain over the last couple of weeks, as a result of some dubious decisions made…]. In his time as the BBC’s Director of Knowledge Management he found that people wanted him to create knowledge repositories. But a repository sounds like a medical term, leading to knowledge extraction, which is just a short step from knowledge harvesting (some sort of cerebral milking machine)?! And then we wonder why people don’t engage with knowledge management, he says.

At the BBC, Euan’s team started of by putting in a basic bulletin board, which has only recently fallen by the wayside in favour of Yammer. They also created wikis and blogs. And yes, that was all some time ago but even today, Euan’s clients are being forced to spend money on Jive, Tibbr and Yammer, etc. but he says it’s all still just little text boxes. Over engineering what is required so that the IT guys feel comfortable.

What I found most interesting is that the BBC created its blogging guidelines with collaboration via wiki – in effect they created a social media policy without any meetings and people lined up behind the policy because they had been part of creating it.

By comparison, many organisations are stuck in a mindset of managers telling staff to do things, then measuring and monitoring. We can but hope that this will move to the side as people self-organise.

The Cluetrain Manifesto [a book which is often quoted but which I have yet to read] talks of “globally distributed, near instant, person to person conversations” and Euan has examples to demonstrate this in reality: journalists catching up on Twitter after an event happens; educationalists trying to get their head around informal learning (a process that is sometimes disparaged). But, reassuringly, it’s all about people, building relationships and trust in relationship.

Euan describes how his blog has the power to form relationships – he has online friends that he knows better than people he’s worked with – just connected differently [I can echo this].

“The knack of blogging is a willingness to open up and share – it can foster some really powerful relationships.

[Euan Semple, Digital Surrey, October 2012]”

Three different mediums, three different uses

Euan went on to describe three different social mediums and how there are subtle differences in their use.

Looking first at blogs. He’s written posts that he thinks will change the world and nothing happens [me too!]. Conversely, he’s written “rubbish” after a drink and the world thinks is interesting! Either way, we still create networks. Your blog with your own domain name is your space on the web.

Euan believes that organisations should allow their “nerds” to blog, first internally, then externally. In this way, they can be seen to be trustworthy and reliable. And, if everyone blogs, we get a sense of the organisation that’s not possible yet. Taking that a step further, if we make the content available externally, it can have a huge impact on the brand.

The second medium is Facebook, where we seem to have a willingness to open up compared with internal social networks where we tend to think “what will we share?”. There’s also the point about oversharing and drunken student photos to which Euan’s response is that “I wouldn’t employ someone who hadn’t got drunk as a student” [A view that I also share]. And then there’s his view on dress sense for business:

“Suits used to make you look respectful and trustworthy – they just make you look like a banker now!

[Euan Semple, Digital Surrey, October 2012]”

Next up is Twitter, which Euan used to see as yet more “inane twoddle”. Now he confesses that he can’t do without it (although he may have to soon if Twitter continues to make the changes that are hacking off users). He says that Twitter filters the web and cuts out a lot of noise but the numbers can get ridiculous – so he has some advice in order to make better use of the medium.

Euan has over 7000 followers [I have around 2000 and recognise the issue]. He follows many so that they can send direct messages but he only actively follows a list of 100. The resulting effect is better information, faster. And Twitter is also a resource – people will give answers to questions, because of reciprocity: if enough enough people get value from his tweets, they will decide to follow and then converse.

The de-industrialisation of knowledge

The old phrase that knowledge is power used to mean that holding on to knowledge made you powerful. Now the power is in giving it out…

Once you have a blog, you find that you start to write more. You see things and think “oh that’s interesting, I might blog about that”. [I have many unwritten posts inside my head]. This creates a chain of thought, and hopefully others will find it interesting, point to it, comment or react to it…

Euan suggests that this has potential as another way to run businesses – noticing people, setting things off, creating ripples…

We used to recognise the power of the hyperlink but this has been corrupted by Facebook likes and Google pluses. Even so, there are other means to harvest information sources and make them work for us.

RSS  is a mechanism that allows people to subscribe to content. By choose sources carefully (blogs, etc.) we can add value without causing stress or noise, making choices about information, assembling our channels rather than relying on others to pump information to us.

Many Twitter constructs, such as hashtags, or even even the @ sign to direct a message were user-created. Now they appear on hoardings, TV captions, almost everywhere and they represent a user-driven method of assigning meaning and importance.

What we’re doing is really about de-industrialisation. Pre-industrialisation, more people used to work in what we would now recognise as freelance roles, as artisans, travelling in small groups. Maybe this is where business is heading today?

Finding our voice

As businesses, Euan suggests that we’ve outsourced communications to professional communicators; we’ve outsourced caring to Human Resources; and we’ve outsourced storytelling to the media.

We need to find our voices. More than that, we need to find a way to communicate that we’re comfortable with, that’s authentic, and that gives the confidence to express ourselves. Euan has seen senior people getting worked up about writing a blog post [I’ve experienced this too], finding it difficult to get their heads around non-vetted conversation.

Euan cited an example of an organisation that captioned themselves as thought leaders. But how can you be a thought lead when no-one knows what you think? We need to take the time to think (blogging has the advantage of giving someone the time to stop and think “why am I doing this”) and to start “writing ourselves into existence”. There’s something therapeutic about the network way of thinking, and leaving a trace on the world.

Retaining knowledge

About a month before Euan’s role was made redundant at the BBC, he was asked to take part in a meeting to discuss preventing knowledge leaving the organisation! Ironic, maybe, but it illustrates a certain way of thinking inside many organisations.

Euan says that PwC call their document repositories “knowledge coffins” and that they are “where documents go to die” but internal social networks are different. One piece of advice that he offers is to try to resist people trying to “tidy it up” and make things more sanitised.

To use an analogy, villages grow other centuries, they are haphazard but work, based around a focal point. Euan compares this to the modern town of Milton Keynes, built around a grid system that seems makes sense but which people struggle to relate to [I live near Milton Keynes and can’t see the problem with the grid, but I do have to work with internal social networks that I don’t relate to…].

Effectively, we’ve become too good at tidying up and, in cutting out the noise, we cut out the signal.

We can’t achieve everything in one go and Euan suggests taking a “strategically tactical” approach. Set up projects that will go off and find their own way but eventually come together – a concept described as “Trojan mice”! Or, to put in another way, create a “start-up”/entrepreneurial attitude and fund some small things to see where they go.

Making it real, with enthusiasm

Whilst many organisations grapple with becoming “web 2.0” businesses outside the firewall, Euan suggests that they struggle to be even 1.0 inside. That may be harsh but there are are organisations where sign-off is required on blog posts, tweets, etc. and, if you’re lucky, you might get to release a 140 character press release! It makes no sense and, Euan suggests, is the organisational equivalent of your dad dancing at the disco. You’re proud of him for having a go but you’d really rather he stopped!

The reality is that the inside is the outside – all of your staff are on social networks. But are they allowed to talk about work, or even to admit where they work. In the modern, connected, world we expect 24×7 communications but what’s the impact of this?

Brands need to allow staff to be advocates, to be enthusiastic about working for them. After all, if your staff are not enthusiastic, you have a problem anyway.

Euan tells a story about his Crumpler bag and how the company helped him to understand how to re-thread the strap but then the zip failed, and he tried to make contact again, only to find that his contact was no longer there. He had a sense of relationship with an individual inside the organisation but then he felt let down because it was no longer there. That’s disappointing [and a reason that organisations need to plan for long-term social media engagement].

At the other extreme, Euan talks of organisations where they think no-one wants to know about their product (for example, a brick manufacturer). But they do… sometimes! There is latent interest in even the most superficially dull topics, we just need to find out how to unlock it.

Euan suggests that we’re really at the start of something and, just as when the  printing press was invented, we don’t know where we’re going. That might take another 50 years, but we have to be in there and making the space habitable in order to gain the benefits.

Euan Semple’s book, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do: A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web, is available from Amazon.

When trains stop at stations but passengers can’t use them…

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

As I paid for a ticket to for the rail journey into London this morning, I was reminded of my anger and frustration the last time I made this trip, herded like cattle onto a packed commuter train, whilst being refused access to one of the many trains that stop at my station but which travellers are unable to use because they are either “to pick up” or “to set down” only.

As a nation, we tend to blame all that is wrong with our railways on privatisation but this practice is not new. Indeed, it serves to show that, even in the halcyon days of nationalised rail service, some ludicrous decisions were made – and that some of those decisions still stand today.

I live just outside Milton Keynes, a town 50 miles north of London with a generally good rail service, from two train operating companies, London Midland and Virgin Trains. London Midland operates stopping and semi-fast services whilst Virgin runs the express (formerly inter-city) trains (Southern also operates services via west London). But there is a flaw – and it’s a big one. Between 07:14 and 09:19 southbound, and between 15:43 and 18:43 northbound, passengers are not allowed to board Virgin trains that stop at Milton Keynes. And yes, you read that correctly, passengers are not allowed to board trains that already stop at their station at the busiest time of the day!

Last week, faced with huge queues for a the 16:48 London Midland service for which the inbound train had not yet arrived, I tried to board the 16:43 Virgin train instead. At the ticket barrier I was told “this train doesn’t stop at Milton Keynes” but, when I pointed out that it does, at 17:13, the Virgin Trains official still refused me access to the platform.
How do I know about the unadvertised stops? Well, aside from working timetable information being available online, looking at Milton Keynes arrival and departure information on the public timetable clearly showed a train at 17:13 which was the 16:43 from Euston.

I can understand the desire to keep seats free on long-distance trains for long-distance travellers: that’s why seats are sold with reservations and also why there are fare structures that limit travel on peak-time journeys. I can also see the timetabling logic (when I have travelled to Manchester, trains are often “late” when they stop at Stockport “to set down only” but “on time” when they make it to Piccadilly a few minutes later, due to the recovery time built in to the timetable). But there is a difference here: Milton Keynes is 50 miles from London;  it’s not a suburb of the same conurbation, like Watford is to London or Stockport is to Manchester. Preventing travellers from boarding/leaving trains here is equivalent to saying that passengers can’t use Virgin trains from Wolverhampton to Coventry or from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent and that they should use local services instead. Madness!

When I vented my frustrations on Twitter, Virgin Trains backed up their position, but some people suggested that those with cheap tickets shouldn’t be able to use the fast trains. Let me just be completely clear: there are discounted Virgin-only or London Midland-only fares but I was attempting to travel with a full-price peak ticket – in other words a ticket that should allow travel on any service between Milton Keynes and London.

So, what’s the real point of this 500-word missive?

Give Milton Keynes the express train service that it deserves! Network Rail spent millions adding platforms to our station so that more trains can stop here, yet one of the train operating companies doesn’t let the passengers get on or off at the busiest time of the day.

The trains may be privatised but the railway is a piece of national infrastructure, and Richard Branson et al would do well to remember who their customers are when  complaining about losing lucrative franchises to rival bidders*…

*I appreciate that this decision was later reversed due to issues with the bidding process – that doesn’t change the fact that Virgin Trains sometimes seems to forget who its customers are.

A little consideration please…

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Over the summer, in common with a lot of Britain, I’ve got more and more interested in cycling. Maybe it’s the Olympics, maybe it was Bradley Wiggins’ success in the Tour de France, or maybe it’s just that a lot of my friends from the running club are also cyclists.  Regardless, that’s meant that I’ve started reading more cycling magazines, listening to cycling podcasts, etc. and it strikes me that there’s a very “them and us” view with cyclists against the world.

I tend to walk rather than take the tube in London and, as a pedestrian, I regularly have skirmishes with cyclists who don’t feel the need to stop at zebra crossings.  I know the argument about lost momentum but I’m afraid that’s no excuse. Imagine if a car driver used the same excuse (considering the environmental impacts of stop/start in urban areas)… it’s no reason to ignore crossings, stop lights, etc. and the argument just doesn’t stack up.

Then, last Thursday, in Guildford, I was driving at night and I (only just) spotted a cyclist coming towards me a hundred metres or so away on a road I was just about to pull out onto.  I stopped and waited but, as he passed me, the cyclist abuse me with a four letter word. Perhaps I would have seen him sooner if he had proper lights – instead, he had a flashing green light on the front of his bike (and no white light)! As it happens, I probably had time to pull out anyway, but flashing lights make it difficult to judge distance and speed so I played it safe, avoiding a potential collision between 2.2 tonnes of car and 100 kilos of vulnerable cyclist, yet resulting in abuse because I was a metre over the give way line…

Today, I was a cyclist, on an organised ride in Epping Forest. I slowed down on a number of occasions to be considerate to horse riders, families with small children, and dog walkers but it was amazing how many people seem to think it’s fine to wonder aimlessly across a wide track or to stop in the middle of a path.  On one occasion I was riding along a track and met a dog walker coming the other way, with two dogs, a small one dashing around and a large one, lumbering along. I slowed to a walking pace but he did nothing to call his dogs to safety. Then, as I passed the large dog, it moved suddenly, I slammed on my brakes, and my pedals left a nasty gash on the back of my leg. The result: in order to avoid inflicting injury on a dog, I injured myself instead… great.

Pedestrian, equestrian, cyclist or motorist, it really shouldn’t matter. We all need to share roads, paths, etc. and co-exist, so how about a little consideration for others? Is that really too much to ask, or are we all just too caught up in our own worlds?


This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I had lunch with a friend today who has recently given up his corporate job in order to build a business with his wife. He and I were talking about the need to have passion in one’s work – if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, how can you expect others to?

Then, at an event this evening, Euan Semple (@euan) spoke of brands allowing people to be advocates and to show their enthusiasm about working for a company (and how, if they are not enthusiastic, the company has a problem). Again, he used the word “passion”.

It felt a bit serendipitous – two discussions, both touching on the same topic. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis thing… but it’s given me some food for thought…