The hard-pressed life of Britain’s average rail commuter



With the UK struggling back to work after the holiday season, the start of the New Year is a good time to reflect on others less fortunate than ourselves. Like commuters, for instance.

Every morning you’ll find them shivering on windswept suburban platforms, strafed by rain and wind. Little chance of taking refuge in a waiting room – nowadays, the best that can be hoped for is a canopy offering little protection from the rain.

Once aboard, the daily journey consists of standing like the proverbial sardine, while your train rumbles along congested tracks, the compartment fuggy with the odour of damp overcoat, and your ears assailed by the sound of fellow travellers alerting their work colleagues via their mobiles that they’ll be late – usually in a voice loud enough to be heard in the next county.

Well, this dubious daily pilgrimage will seem even less attractive to rail passengers now, after the various UK train operators announced yet another hike in fares, the fifth one in as many years.

This year’s increase may only be in line with inflation (3.1 per cent), but it has nonetheless catapulted many more commuters into the infamous 5,000 club: namely, those who have to spend more than £5,000 (Dh30,000) on their annual rail season ticket.

Yet even those who complain most bitterly about these price rises still cite overcrowding, rather than cost, as their primary grievance with rail travel. “It’s not the fares that make my blood boil”, explained one of them to me on Friday as we waited for our train, “It’s the fact I still can’t get a seat.”

In fairness, the current coalition government is reaping the whirlwind of nearly 50 years of chronic under-investment.

Our system, once the pride of the world, has been allowed to fall into such a state of decay and decrepitude that it became not so much a national treasure as a standing joke. Remedying these decades of neglect is proving an expensive business. Yet if overcrowding is indeed the thorniest issue facing the train companies, the solution may literally have been staring them in the face.

On any typical nine-carriage commuter train in Britain there will be 101 first-class and 526 standard (or second) class seats. This archaic segregation is a hangover from a previous era when such distinctions were part of the social fabric of the nation, but the divide still remains. Thus during peak travel times the standard sections are still a hopeless crush, while the more rarefied first-class compartments are tenanted only by the lucky few sufficiently well off to contemplate the eye-watering costs involved.

Some bright spark in Whitehall has spotted the potential of all this unused capacity, because this week the government announced an initiative to convert first class carriages (which are seldom more than two-thirds full) for use by the rest of us – thus freeing up seats and thereby cutting overcrowding at a stroke.

Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, has confirmed that he is preparing to pay one train company, First Great Western (nicknamed Worst Late Western by many of its long-suffering customers) to dispense with a proportion of first-class seats, thus increasing overall capacity.

The best ideas are often the simplest, or so it’s said, and this initiative has been welcomed by rail users up and down the country as an example of the sort of lateral thinking all too rarely seen in politics: even if Stephen Hammond, the rail minister, displayed some good old shunting when questioned more precisely about the scheme.

“There are some new ideas we are looking at”, he confirmed, before continuing coyly “Is it going to happen? It may. It may not.”

If the poor put-upon commuter has anything to do with it, it certainly may. Nonetheless the scheme may not be as simple to administer as it sounds.

Even in the enlightened 21st century, any attempt to smudge the distinction between different social strata in this most complex of cultures is almost always fraught with unexpected trauma. We may think ourselves equal, but old social prejudices can soon assert themselves when privileges are threatened.

“Put three Englishmen on a desert island and within an hour they’ll have invented a class system”, wrote the playwright Alan Ayckbourn. The same, I fear, may be even more likely in a railway carriage.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

THE BIO

Family: I have three siblings, one older brother (age 25) and two younger sisters, 20 and 13 

Favourite book: Asking for my favourite book has to be one of the hardest questions. However a current favourite would be Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier

Favourite place to travel to: Any walkable city. I also love nature and wildlife 

What do you love eating or cooking: I’m constantly in the kitchen. Ever since I changed the way I eat I enjoy choosing and creating what goes into my body. However, nothing can top home cooked food from my parents. 

Favorite place to go in the UAE: A quiet beach.

The Last White Man

Author: Mohsin Hamid 

192 pages 

Published by: Hamish Hamilton (UK), Riverhead Books (US)

Release date: out now in the US, August 11 (UK)

Company Profile

Company name: Hoopla
Date started: March 2023
Founder: Jacqueline Perrottet
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 10
Investment stage: Pre-seed
Investment required: $500,000

ROUTE TO TITLE

Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: Beat Naomi Osaka 7-6, 1-6, 7-5
Round 3: Beat Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2
Round 4: Beat Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0
Quarter-final: Beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2
Semi-final: Beat Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-4
Final: Beat Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-2

Essentials
The flights: You can fly from the UAE to Iceland with one stop in Europe with a variety of airlines. Return flights with Emirates from Dubai to Stockholm, then Icelandair to Reykjavik, cost from Dh4,153 return. The whole trip takes 11 hours. British Airways flies from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Reykjavik, via London, with return flights taking 12 hours and costing from Dh2,490 return, including taxes. 
The activities: A half-day Silfra snorkelling trip costs 14,990 Icelandic kronur (Dh544) with Dive.is. Inside the Volcano also takes half a day and costs 42,000 kronur (Dh1,524). The Jokulsarlon small-boat cruise lasts about an hour and costs 9,800 kronur (Dh356). Into the Glacier costs 19,500 kronur (Dh708). It lasts three to four hours.
The tours: It’s often better to book a tailor-made trip through a specialist operator. UK-based Discover the World offers seven nights, self-driving, across the island from £892 (Dh4,505) per person. This includes three nights’ accommodation at Hotel Husafell near Into the Glacier, two nights at Hotel Ranga and two nights at the Icelandair Hotel Klaustur. It includes car rental, plus an iPad with itinerary and tourist information pre-loaded onto it, while activities can be booked as optional extras. More information inspiredbyiceland.com

SPEC SHEET: SAMSUNG GALAXY S24 ULTRA

Display: 6.8" quad-HD+ dynamic Amoled 2X, 3120 x 1440, 505ppi, HDR10+, 120Hz

Processor: 4nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3, 64-bit octa-core

Memory: 12GB RAM

Storage: 256/512GB / 1TB

Platform: Android 14, One UI 6.1

Main camera: quad 200MP wide f/1.7 + 50MP periscope telephoto f/3.4 with 5x optical/10x optical quality zoom + 10MP telephoto 2.4 with 3x optical zoom + 12MP ultra-wide f/2.2; 100x Space Zoom; auto HDR, expert RAW

Video: 8K@24/30fps, 4K@30/60/120fps, full-HD@30/60/240fps, full-HD super slo-mo@960fps

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2

Battery: 5000mAh, fast wireless charging 2.0, Wireless PowerShare

Connectivity: 5G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.3, NFC

I/O: USB-C; built-in Galaxy S Pen

Durability: IP68, up to 1.5m of freshwater up to 30 minutes; dust-resistant

SIM: Nano + nano / nano + eSIM / dual eSIM (varies in different markets)

Colours: Titanium black, titanium grey, titanium violet, titanium yellow

In the box: Galaxy S24 Ultra, USB-C-to-C cable

Price: Dh5,099 for 256GB, Dh5,599 for 512GB, Dh6,599 for 1TB

Dengue fever symptoms
  • High fever
  • Intense pain behind your eyes
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle and joint pains
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash

If symptoms occur, they usually last for two-seven days

A German university was a good fit for the family budget

Annual fees for the Technical University of Munich - £600

Shared rental accommodation per month depending on the location ranges between  £200-600

The family had budgeted for food, books, travel, living expenses - £20,000 annually

Overall costs in Germany are lower than the family estimated 

As proof that the student has the ability to take care of expenses, international students must open a blocked account with about £8,640

Students are permitted to withdraw £720 per month

The specs: 2018 Maserati Ghibli

Price, base / as tested: Dh269,000 / Dh369,000

Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Power: 355hp @ 5,500rpm

Torque: 500Nm @ 4,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined: 8.9L / 100km

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Haltia.ai
Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends

Director: Nag Ashwin

Starring: Prabhas, Saswata Chatterjee, Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Shobhana

Rating: ★★★★

CHATGPT ENTERPRISE FEATURES

• Enterprise-grade security and privacy

• Unlimited higher-speed GPT-4 access with no caps

• Longer context windows for processing longer inputs

• Advanced data analysis capabilities

• Customisation options

• Shareable chat templates that companies can use to collaborate and build common workflows

• Analytics dashboard for usage insights

• Free credits to use OpenAI APIs to extend OpenAI into a fully-custom solution for enterprises

Destroyer

Director: Karyn Kusama

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Sebastian Stan

Rating: 3/5 

UAE release: January 31 

Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government

The specs: 2019 GMC Yukon Denali

Price, base: Dh306,500
Engine: 6.2-litre V8
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Power: 420hp @ 5,600rpm
Torque: 621Nm @ 4,100rpm​​​​​​​
​​​​​​​Fuel economy, combined: 12.9L / 100km

WORLD CUP SEMI-FINALS

England v New Zealand (Saturday, 12pm)

Wales v South Africa (Sunday, 1pm)

Sarfira

Director: Sudha Kongara Prasad

Starring: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Madan, Paresh Rawal

Rating: 2/5

The Africa Institute 101

Housed on the same site as the original Africa Hall, which first hosted an Arab-African Symposium in 1976, the newly renovated building will be home to a think tank and postgraduate studies hub (it will offer master’s and PhD programmes). The centre will focus on both the historical and contemporary links between Africa and the Gulf, and will serve as a meeting place for conferences, symposia, lectures, film screenings, plays, musical performances and more. In fact, today it is hosting a symposium – 5-plus-1: Rethinking Abstraction that will look at the six decades of Frank Bowling’s career, as well as those of his contemporaries that invested social, cultural and personal meaning into abstraction. 

Why it pays to compare

A comparison of sending Dh20,000 from the UAE using two different routes at the same time - the first direct from a UAE bank to a bank in Germany, and the second from the same UAE bank via an online platform to Germany - found key differences in cost and speed. The transfers were both initiated on January 30.

Route 1: bank transfer

The UAE bank charged Dh152.25 for the Dh20,000 transfer. On top of that, their exchange rate margin added a difference of around Dh415, compared with the mid-market rate.

Total cost: Dh567.25 - around 2.9 per cent of the total amount

Total received: €4,670.30 

Route 2: online platform

The UAE bank’s charge for sending Dh20,000 to a UK dirham-denominated account was Dh2.10. The exchange rate margin cost was Dh60, plus a Dh12 fee.

Total cost: Dh74.10, around 0.4 per cent of the transaction

Total received: €4,756

The UAE bank transfer was far quicker – around two to three working days, while the online platform took around four to five days, but was considerably cheaper. In the online platform transfer, the funds were also exposed to currency risk during the period it took for them to arrive.

Green ambitions
  • Trees: 1,500 to be planted, replacing 300 felled ones, with veteran oaks protected
  • Lake: Brown's centrepiece to be cleaned of silt that makes it as shallow as 2.5cm
  • Biodiversity: Bat cave to be added and habitats designed for kingfishers and little grebes
  • Flood risk: Longer grass, deeper lake, restored ponds and absorbent paths all meant to siphon off water 
COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Clinicy
Started: 2017
Founders: Prince Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman, Abdullah bin Sulaiman Alobaid and Saud bin Sulaiman Alobaid
Based: Riyadh
Number of staff: 25
Sector: HealthTech
Total funding raised: More than $10 million
Investors: Middle East Venture Partners, Gate Capital, Kafou Group and Fadeed Investment

DC League of Super-Pets

Director: Jared Stern

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, John Krasinski, Keanu Reeves, Olivia Wilde, Kate McKinnon, Jameela Jamil

Rating: 3/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Klipit

Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Digital receipts, finance, blockchain

Funding: $4 million

Investors: Privately/self-funded

WHAT MACRO FACTORS ARE IMPACTING META TECH MARKETS?

• Looming global slowdown and recession in key economies

• Russia-Ukraine war

• Interest rate hikes and the rising cost of debt servicing

• Oil price volatility

• Persisting inflationary pressures

• Exchange rate fluctuations

• Shortage of labour/skills

• A resurgence of Covid?

Changing visa rules

For decades the UAE has granted two and three year visas to foreign workers, tied to their current employer. Now that's changing.

Last year, the UAE cabinet also approved providing 10-year visas to foreigners with investments in the UAE of at least Dh10 million, if non-real estate assets account for at least 60 per cent of the total. Investors can bring their spouses and children into the country.

It also approved five-year residency to owners of UAE real estate worth at least 5 million dirhams.

The government also said that leading academics, medical doctors, scientists, engineers and star students would be eligible for similar long-term visas, without the need for financial investments in the country.

The first batch - 20 finalists for the Mohammed bin Rashid Medal for Scientific Distinction.- were awarded in January and more are expected to follow.

Tax authority targets shisha levy evasion

The Federal Tax Authority will track shisha imports with electronic markers to protect customers and ensure levies have been paid.

Khalid Ali Al Bustani, director of the tax authority, on Sunday said the move is to "prevent tax evasion and support the authority’s tax collection efforts".

The scheme’s first phase, which came into effect on 1st January, 2019, covers all types of imported and domestically produced and distributed cigarettes. As of May 1, importing any type of cigarettes without the digital marks will be prohibited.

He said the latest phase will see imported and locally produced shisha tobacco tracked by the final quarter of this year.

"The FTA also maintains ongoing communication with concerned companies, to help them adapt their systems to meet our requirements and coordinate between all parties involved," he said.

As with cigarettes, shisha was hit with a 100 per cent tax in October 2017, though manufacturers and cafes absorbed some of the costs to prevent prices doubling.

Indika

Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: Odd Meter
Console: PlayStation 5, PC and Xbox series X/S
Rating: 4/5

'Midnights'

Artist: Taylor Swift

Label: Republic Records

Rating: 4/5

EMIRATES'S REVISED A350 DEPLOYMENT SCHEDULE

Edinburgh: November 4 (unchanged)

Bahrain: November 15 (from September 15); second daily service from January 1

Kuwait: November 15 (from September 16)

Mumbai: January 1 (from October 27)

Ahmedabad: January 1 (from October 27)

Colombo: January 2 (from January 1)

Muscat: March 1 (from December 1)

Lyon: March 1 (from December 1)

Bologna: March 1 (from December 1)

Source: Emirates

Specs: 2024 McLaren Artura Spider

Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 and electric motor
Max power: 700hp at 7,500rpm
Max torque: 720Nm at 2,250rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch auto
0-100km/h: 3.0sec
Top speed: 330kph
Price: From Dh1.14 million ($311,000)
On sale: Now

NYBL PROFILE

Company name: Nybl 

Date started: November 2018

Founder: Noor Alnahhas, Michael LeTan, Hafsa Yazdni, Sufyaan Abdul Haseeb, Waleed Rifaat, Mohammed Shono

Based: Dubai, UAE

Sector: Software Technology / Artificial Intelligence

Initial investment: $500,000

Funding round: Series B (raising $5m)

Partners/Incubators: Dubai Future Accelerators Cohort 4, Dubai Future Accelerators Cohort 6, AI Venture Labs Cohort 1, Microsoft Scale-up 


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