27 September 2005

What leaves mean to trains

I've blogged before about the golden rules for writing press releases, but I've just been sent one that breaks one of the rules (Try to avoid writing anything longer than a page) ... and gets away with it.

Virgin Trains have just sent out a press release about how they are using washing up liquid to simulate mouldy leaves on the track so they can train their drivers (see story here), but it is a lengthy release, not least because there are several paragraphs of notes. Normally the longer the release, the less readable/interesting it is.

Not this time. For once it is interesting background info. (which I can't use in the news item, so I'll share it here!)

I never really understood what it was about 'leaves on the line' that causes so many rail delays each autumn. I'm mean, obviously it makes it slippy and that must cause trains to take longer to get going and to stop. Maybe the occasional train slides through a red light and that upsets schedules. But it can't add up to more than a slight reduction in efficiency - why do the railway companies get so steamed up about it?

Well the answer is, because it can be a bit more serious than that...

Effect of 'leaves on the line' on trains/track/signalling

In addition to delays caused by train drivers having to drive more cautiously when approaching signals and stations (known as 'defensive driving'), there are three specific problems leaves cause to the infrastructure:-When the train tries to stop, the wheels can lock and the train could slide through a station. The sliding wears a flat spot on the train wheels (known in the trade as a 'flat'). When the train gets going again the 'flats' hit the track with the force of a sledgehammer, causing potential damage that can lead to broken rails and possible derailments. It also results in the train having to be taken out of service to allow the wheels to be re-profiled. When a train tries to pull away from a station, particularly on an incline, the wheels can spin. This can lead to shallow dips (known as 'wheel burns') on the railhead. When subsequent trains travel over the 'burn' they have a similar effect on the rail as 'flats' and can cause damage leading to broken rails.

Every signal box has an electronic diagram of the track and signals it controls. Signallers know where every train is by the movement of lights across the diagram. The movement of train along the track causes a short circuit of a very low voltage charge in the track, thus illuminating its position on the signaller's diagram. (This is how a track circuit works.) Leaves on the line can interfere with this process, causing the lights not to illuminate on the signaller's diagram; hence the signaller 'loses' his trains and no longer knows where they are. (This is known as a 'track circuit failure' or TCF.) As a consequence, every train has to stop at affected signals and contact the signaller before getting permission to proceed, all of which adds considerable delay to the train.

There! Now while you are waiting on a windswept platform for a delayed rail service, you'll have a better understanding of why!

26 September 2005

Parasite Directories

Monday morning begins with the usual small collection of link exchange request emails in my in-tray.

"I have found your website travel-lists.co.uk by searching Google for "luxury villas and country inns in tuscany italy". I think our websites has a similar theme, so I have already added your link to my website...." blah blah blah.

Of course if they HAD actually looked at Travel-lists they would see we have a clear reciprocal links policy, because Travel Lists is a REAL directory for the benefit of internet users, not a link farm.

It's not a big deal. All such emails are instantly deleted, so they hardly waste any time!

But I mention it again now because I've become more aware in recent days of how parasitical the 'directories culture' is, after spending some time looking around a tech/SEO/webmaster forum.

I'd never really given much thought to the reasons for the huge number (thousands) of junk directories online. They are all very similar. They look similar, they use the same open source or paid for software scripts, and they are all seeded with listings from Dmoz.

I assumed they were just created by naive enthusiasts. What I found on the forum were lots of exchanges from the people who create these things, and actually they are quite shrewd and analytical about what they do. Most of these webmasters run several directories and are exchanging ideas about the merits of new niche directories they are planning and how efficient they will be. Their purpose is not to provide a useful index for surfers, but to tap maximum revenue from Google Adsense and possible submission fees from punters.

The whole trick is to generate as many reciprocal links as possible to increase search engine rankings for the site - more visitors means more ad revenue and when you have several such sites that revenue begins to add up. Ironically, the targeted adverts from Google are even more attractive (likely to be clicked) if the listings on the page are poor.

(What a contrast! I check Google ads displayed on my pages to make sure that all the good companies are already in my listings - that there aren't any quality companies I've missed! The general result is that the Google ads are always LESS useful than the page they are on.)

It's a self-perpetuating world of income-generating Internet junk. The losers are surfers who get caught up and waste time in it, and advertisers who pay for it.

23 September 2005

You can't rely on the weather

Hmm, I like this. It's a really quick way to check likely weather conditions pretty much anywhere around the world (1400 locations). It's compiled by some people at Pinewood Studios who tell film producers where to go to get the weather they want.

But I wouldn't rely on it too much.

It may tell you what the weather 'should' be like for your forthcoming holiday, but it is not a forecast - just an historical average.

In all my years of travelling THE most common greeting on arrival at any destination has been: "Oh no, this weather is MOST unusual for this time of year! Pity you didn't come last week!!"

... You know. That's what they say when you arrive in Istanbul airport in March and look forlornly at the thin layer of snow on the ground.

I mean, just ask anybody from the seaside towns of America's Gulf Coast if they feel they've had normal weather this summer!

22 September 2005

Guyana, the next 'hot ticket' for British travellers?

It's funny how co-incidence can fuse several ideas when they come together.

My son made me watch a wildlife programme (Animal Crime Scene - David Attenborough, BBC1) last night, which - although I found the 'detective' style a bit irritating - was a fascinating reconstruction of the death of a 3-toed sloth in the rainforest. Whodunnit? Which likely predator was the likely killer? The Caiman, the Jaguar, the Harpy Eagle, etc There were some extraordinary animals.

This morning as I was working on some new lists (travel lists) for the Guyanas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) I suddenly found myself looking at all the same amazing animals. And some others.

What is my absolute favourite animal? The 'must see' exhibit every time we go to our local zoo (London Zoo)...? The giant anteater. Where does it live? The Guyanas.

Guyana in particular - a country I've not been to, not sent anyone (journalists) to, and not given much thought to in the past - has now fired my imagination...

  • The only English-speaking (and cricket-playing) country in South America.
  • With stunning landscapes, rainforests and waterfalls - the Kaiteur Falls are five times the height of Niagra Falls and twice as high as Victoria Falls. The Essequibo river has over 300 islands in it, some as big as the island of Barbados.
  • And wildlife to die for: Tapirs, Ocelots, Jaguar (25% of visitors get to spot one of these elusive creatures), Giant River Otters, Spider Monkeys, 2 & 3-toed Sloths, Giant Anteater (yippee!), Giant Armadillo, Golden Frog (secretes a poison 160,000 times more powerful than cocaine), Black Caiman, Arapaima (the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world, up to 10 ft.) and Harpy Eagle (one of the largest of the eagles, half the length of a man, aka "the flying wolf"!).
  • Even Georgetown, which I had thought might be a fairly grim place, turns out to have loads of flowering trees and shrubs, some fine 19th century buildings, lots of pretty white-painted wooden houses on stilts, the tallest wooden building in the world (the Anglican cathedral), elegant (Victorian) botanical gardens, the 'finest cricket ground in the tropics', and the world's longest floating bridge (1.25 miles across the Demerara River).

Best of all: It is, as they say in the brochures, "unspoilt by mass tourism".

Not for long. If word gets out, I predict Guyana could be the hot new ticket for adventurous British holiday-makers before too long.

A few years ago the hot-spot in Latin America was Costa Rica. I think Belize (one of my favourite destinations) is still under-recognised and may yet 'take-off'. Guyana won't be far behind.

20 September 2005

HK Disneyland... and this is important, because...?

Hong Kong, or Disney, or both, clearly had a plane-full of UK journalists out there for the opening of HK Disneyland a week ago yesterday, because their copy has been appearing all over the place in the last 7 days.

(They all say pretty much the same thing: pretty island setting / much smaller than other Disney parks with fewer rides / bizarre cultural juxtaposition / tri-language difficulties.)

I keep wondering, why? Why were they invited and why did they go? What's in it for a UK audience/readership?

I mean, I know 'why' - the opening of a multi-million dollar Disney park is quite a big thing, and wouldn't you enjoy a freebie out to Hong Kong - but it's not really going to be a big draw for a British traveller is it?

Disney World/Land in California or Florida might be a significant reason to go to the USA (their true cultural setting). Disneyland Paris is important because it's our local Disney park. But no Brit would travel to Japan primarily to visit Tokyo Disneyland, would they? These parks are aimed at their local/regional markets. That's why the next one is planned for Shanghai.

If Disney and their government partners want to attract both domestic and international visitors they have to give the parks more individuality and autonomy. At the moment there are minor regional differences but, like KFC and MacDonalds, it's essentially the same.

Put more simply: my family have no interest in going to Disney in Paris, Japan, California or Hong Kong because we've seen it all, 'got the t-shirt', in Florida.

If the parks had greater autonomy for their own 'imagineers' to develop their own rides and attractions (within the Disney intellectual portfolio) each one could reach both markets.

Meanwhile the fact box at the bottom of Fred Mawer's HK Disneyland piece in today's Telegraph tells me I can fly halfway around the world with BA for £x to stay in a Disneyland hotel, how much the park tickets will cost, etc, etc.... yeah right! That's useful to know!

19 September 2005

Title Mania - How do some Sub-Eds think them up?

I'm struck this morning by the headline of a CNN International story about two British divers who got caught in a current while diving on the Great Barrier Reef and ended up 10 Km away from their dive boat having drifted for six hours in the water. Understandably they were very happy to be rescued.

The headline is: Lost amid the sharks for six hours

But on reading it, it turns out there was, in all that time, only one shark. Only one of the divers saw it. And it circled briefly below them before continuing on its way.

"I think it was a white-tipped reef shark," she said, referring to a species of shark not known to attack humans. "But not too big."

So, hardly the scene of two defenceless meals floating in the middle of the ocean surrounded by fins... as conjured up in the headline.

No doubt the sub-editor who dreamed up the title (could have been CNN or Associated Press) was focused on the similarity with the film 'Open Water' based on the real life disappearence of two divers left behind on the Great Barrier Reef, but distortions like that only make the public more & more suspicious about anything they see in the press.

Yesterday I was looking at the website for a tour operator: The Gambia Experience. It has a page of recent travel articles published about The Gambia. Interesting, but disappointing, to see how many sub-editors came up with variations of the same cliche for a title... 'Gamble on the Gambia','It's not a gamble going to Gambia', etc!

Most journalists know that feeling you get when you've produced a sophisticated piece of writing - to spec and to deadline - only to see it published with the most crass headline.... which, since it is immediately followed with your byline, every reader assumes was written by you - not some brain-dead sub editor fresh out of work-experience and desperate to finish work and get down the pub!

Coming up with a good headline is not always as easy as people might think... but mostly it is.

04 September 2005

Dropping visitors - what an idiot!

Oh God, what an idiot I've been!

Around the second week in August I began to notice a decline in visitors to the Travel Lists site. I wasn't too bothered. August, and particularly the second half of August, is the least likely point in the year for people to be looking at travel websites.

But then the figures began to get worse. I checked over a basket of keywords I use at Digital Point to keep tabs on how the site is , and found a load of red numbers - indicating Travel Lists was slipping down the rankings.

"Help!" I thought. We've got caught up in the purge that Google has been having this summer on scraper directories - directories that are all broadly similar having taken their content from Dmoz, the Open Source Directory. But that didn't seem likely. The falls weren't that dramatic and they began to slow up. And most importantly of all, Travel Lists is entirely 100% original & unique content.

The decline kept up all the way into Sept.

I can't even say for certain that is has bottomed yet.

What I can say is that
I've realised what has happened and it's all my own fault!

In the immediate aftermath of the site relaunch in June we were left with a hotpotch of files with .htm suffixes and a large number of .html files that had been converted from .aspx.

Under the old subscription system there were two version of every list; a short extract (.htm) which the search engines could see, and the full list (.aspx) which could only be seen by logged in subscribers.

As a housekeeping excercise I've been tidying up these , turning them all into .html in small batches as I'm working on the individual lists... without realising that when they were labeled .htm they had several years of search engine legacy, which they instantly lost when I added the 'l'!

You can see the difference in the few remaining .htm lists.

For example lk2villa.htm has a page rank of 2 on google and hasn't dropped at all in search results. While lk2ig.html, which used to rank highly, now has a PR of zero!

How could I have been so stupid!

Nothing for it, now. I'll just have to be patient while the renamed files slowly re-establish their credibility.

02 September 2005

Why So Secretive?

I think surfers are instinctively wary of secretive sites - sites whose identity is hard to pin down. I think consumers like transparancy. They like to know who they are dealing with. Who they are buying from.

This is a real problem for the online travel industry which, with the growth of dynamic packaging, often presents tiers of different identities to the buyer. He or she goes to a website called (eg) deadgoodhols.com, finds a holiday in Australia which, when they click on it, goes to a new (affiliated) site, kangaroohols.com. The booking procedure involves hotel, flight and excursion components that appear to come from sisterbrand.com, and when they finally get the email confirmation, it's from parentcompany.com (which these days is inevitably OTC.com! Oh sorry, no. Their parent, lastminute.com!)

Anyway, I'm straying slightly off-topic.

I've just come across a new site: www.WeDoWeekends.co.uk. Weekend breaks at five country house hotels in the UK which feature talks or performances from celebrities.

Nowhere on the site is there any information about the company. Just an 0870 phone number for bookings. There's no address. No 'Contact Us' page. No 'small print'. Not even a clue in the online booking url. This is clearly a brand for somebody, but who? And why are they being so secretive?

A visit to Whois at Nominet reveals the answer. It is the Bourne Leisure Group (Haven, British Holidays, Warner and Butlins). But why would they want to hide that and what makes them think a consumer isn't going to be wary about a company hiding behind a brand name?