INDEPENDENT 2024-02-14 12:04:20

Six more months of train chaos as drivers vote for more strikes

Train drivers at five rail operators have voted to continue taking strike action for six months in the long-running dispute over pay and conditions.

Aslef says its members on Chiltern, c2c, East Midlands, Northern and TransPennine railways had overwhelmingly backed carrying on with action, which began in July 2022.

Unions involved in disputes have to reballot their members every six months on continuing with industrial action.

The train drivers are in dispute with all 14 rail firms controlled by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). No progress has been made since an offer was made, and immediately rejected, in April 2023. It offered a modest pay increase contingent on wide-ranging reforms to working practices.

In the latest ballots, the lowest percentage in favour of more strikes was 89.4 per cent at C2C, which links London with south Essex. All the rest were above 90 per cent.

In terms of all eligible members, the highest majority in favour of strikes were at the north of England operators, Northern (72 per cent) and TransPennine Express (73 per cent). Both are run by the government. C2C had the lowest proportion, at 63 per cent.

Announcing the voting figures, Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef said: “These results show – yet again – a clear rejection by train drivers of the ridiculous offer put to us in April last year by the Rail Delivery Group on behalf of the train operating companies with whom we are in dispute.

“The RDG knew the offer would be rejected because we had told them that a land grab for all the terms and conditions we have negotiated over the years would be unacceptable.

“Since then our members have voted, time and again, for strikes. That’s why Mark Harper, the transport secretary, is being disingenuous when he says that offer should have been put to members.

“Drivers obviously wouldn’t vote for industrial action, again and again and again, if they thought that was a good offer. They don’t.

“That offer was dead in the water in April last year – and I think Mr Harper knows that.”

Since national rail strikes began in the summer of 2022, hundreds of millions of journeys have been cancelled. Billions of pounds have been lost to the UK economy, particularly hospitality businesses – and taxpayers are subsidising an increasingly decrepit and unreliable railway to the tune of £90 per second on top of the normal public funding.

In a snap social media poll for The Independent, with 2,142 responses, one in three passengers say they will permanently travel less after the industrial action finally ends.

Sara Cox leads tributes to legendary DJ Steve Wright

Long-time BBC Radio DJ Steve Wright has died at the age of 69.

The veteran presenter, also known for fronting Top of the Pops, hosted shows on BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 for more than four decades. His cause of death has not yet been announced.

“All of us at the BBC are heartbroken to hear this terribly sad news,” said BBC director general Tim Davie.

“No-one had more energy to deliver shows that put a smile on audiences’ faces. They loved him deeply.”

Starting his radio career in the 1970s, Wright gained nationwide recognition for his Steve Wright in the Afternoon show, which ran for more than 35 years.

Wright was presenting Sunday Love Songs on Radio 2 as recently as Sunday (11 February).

Following the news of his death, tributes from across the entertainment industry have poured in for the late star.

Follow live updates below.

Forget the flowers – here’s what women really want for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day might be my least favourite “holiday” of the year. It’s when our other half feels pressured into buying uncomfortable lingerie you’ll never wear again; coming home with chocolates that get eaten by your kids before you’ve got to them; being presented with flowers that really aren’t your style and that get lost in the kitchen table detritus anyway.

That’s not even going into the sheer terror that strikes my heart when I’m faced with the question of what to buy him. Although maybe that doesn’t matter so much because it turns out that men spend way more on Valentine’s Day than women do and are therefore prime targets for Valentine’s marketing campaigns too: in the UK in 2021, men spent an average of £100 on a Valentine’s Day gift to women’s £65.

The thing is, I love the idea behind modern Valentine’s Day. Show your loved ones that you care, reach out with thoughtful gifts and signs of affection, remind yourselves why you’re with each other in the first place.

Of course, it’s nice to do these things at any time of year, but we’re all busy and we all forget – especially as a grown-up, with a job, mortgage (or rent), kids and a household to worry about. Relationship maintenance does tend to fall to the bottom of the pile.

Yes. I appreciate the reminder as we recover from darkest January and focus outwards again. It’s the pressure to perform and the stereotypes of acceptable gifts that I find unnecessary. In tandem with higher male spending around 14 February, I often feel like the gifts women are meant to be given are quite reductive – turning us into objects to be won over. Quite often they’re performative rather than actually thoughtful.

Apart from fixing all the things that make me mega rage-y – like the pay gap (100 years to wait for equality!), the lack of normalised flexible working even now, societal pressure on female body image, and the fact that the law doesn’t even require seatbelts to be tested on female-modelled crash test dummies – I can think of quite a few things that would help re-ignite the midlife spark in my house.

Here are my new Valentine’s suggestions:

Ditch the serenading (I’m far too Britishly awkward to be serenaded anyway) – I’d rather be listened to. Forget the flowers (roses are expensive, don’t you know there’s a cost of living crisis on?) – I’d settle for my partner donning Marigolds and taking over the kitchen sink. Or, if you must get me a plant, buy me a succulent – they’re really hard to kill, and they last for ages!

A Valentine’s Day gift doesn’t have to be complicated. I’d love a simple bit of time by myself. But stay away from breakfast in bed (the crumbs!) just let me have a lie-in and take the kids out for the morning. If you want to throw in a massage, then be my guest, but I’ll be happy with the headspace created by not listening to my kids fighting.

Even simpler, you could buy me that book by my favourite author that I’ve been going on about. You could sit me in a room with that book, a cup of tea and a packet of Hobnobs and shut the door. Or call up one of my friends and organise for us to have coffee together rather than wrangling the kids’ Saturday swimming lessons.

If you really want to go down the comestible route, buy me something I actually crave – like those cinnamon buns from that trendy bakery I’m always seeing on Instagram. Or instead of going out for an overpriced dinner, I’d actually appreciate you cooking our favourite supper. Though do make sure you clear up after yourself, darling.

But the biggest, most heartfelt gesture of affection I can think of? Letting me watch Death in Paradise rather than the Six Nations rugby match next weekend. It’s giving me shivers of anticipation just thinking about it.

Convicted stalker armed with crossbow killed by police

A convicted stalker armed with a crossbow was shot in the neck and chest by police, an inquest has heard.

Bryce Hodgson was shot dead by armed officers on January 30 this year after he broke into a home in Bywater Place, Surrey Quays, south-east London.

The inquest into the 30-year-old’s death was opened on Wednesday at Southwark Coroner’s Court, which heard that Hodgson had gained entrance to the property armed with a crossbow and other weapons.

Senior Coroner Dr Julian Morris said: “He had entered Bywater Place armed with various weapons, including a crossbow.

“Police were called to the scene and, when he exhibited some threatening behaviour, armed response units were called and subsequently shots were fired.

“He was pronounced dead at the scene.”

A provisional post-mortem examination report found Hodgson died from gunshot wounds to his neck and chest.

The Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) is currently investigating the incident and Harriet Griffiths, lead investigator on the case, said: “Police units attended but were unable to detain him and they were shortly followed by their firearms colleagues, who, as you know, fired shots.”

The inquest heard that Hodgson, from Sheffield, was single and working in IT at the time of his death, and his last known address was in south-east London.

The hearing was adjourned for the IOPC to continue its investigation.

Mushroom sprouting from live frog leaves scientists stunned

Scientists have made a baffling discovery of a frog with a small mushroom sprouting from its leg in the lush foothills of India’s Western Ghats.

The finding marks the first ever time a mushroom has been spotted growing on live animal tissue, researchers affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund say.

Since the frog was not captured to be studied further, images shared online of the amphibian with a mushroom growing near its hind leg sparked intrigue among scientists.

The frog species, named Rao’s intermediate golden-backed frog (Hylarana intermedia), is a creature native to this region – one of the world’s most biodiverse.

Fungus experts identified the mushroom to be a Bonnet Mushroom (Mycena sp.), which is known to occur mostly on rotting wood.

Several microbes, including bacteria and fungi, have been known to grow along with organisms with most of them being symbiotic or at least benign.

There are also however, some that can cause infections under certain circumstances, such as the fungi causing athlete’s foot, yeast infections, or the oral fungal disease candidiasis.

However, a mushroom growing on a live organism has never been previously documented, according to the study, published in the journal Reptiles and Amphibians.

“To the best of our knowledge, never has a mushroom sprouting from the flank of a live frog been documented,” researchers said.

This could be because mushrooms require nutrients that are usually not present adequately on the skin of any animal.

Researchers suspect that in the latest case, the humid, monsoon-fed Western Ghats may have provided an ideal environment for mushroom growth, providing adequate moisture and organic matter.

The exact nature of the mushroom growing on the frog – whether it is infectious or benign, and how deep it had penetrated the skin – remains unclear.

This could be a cause for concern as already frogs and hundreds of other amphibian species across the world are under threat by another parasitic fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis – more commonly known as the chytrid fungus.

Chytrid fungus infections have led to a steady decline of amphibian populations globally as they throw off the balance of water and salt on the skin of these species and eventually cause heart failure.

However recent studies show that this amphibian killer fungus is present in low levels in frog hotspots across India.

Unmissable New York State experiences

Can any good emerge from the wreckage of the Rochdale by-election?

With the highly honourable and notable exception of its last MP, Tony Lloyd, it’s fair to say that Rochdale has in recent decades not been served well by politicians. The failings of the Labour council during the grooming gangs scandal have been well documented, and governments of all parties have allowed the town, like others, to be “left behind”.

“Levelling up” remains, at best, a vague promise. Even Rochdale’s one-time national celebrity MP, the Liberal Cyril Smith, was eventually uncovered as a serial child abuser. Its last-but-one Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, was suspended from the Labour Party in 2015 after it emerged that he had exchanged explicit messages with a 17-year-old girl. He is now standing in the by-election as the candidate for Reform UK.

Now, Labour’s by-election candidate, Azhar Ali, has been disowned by Labour for some appallingly antisemitic remarks. Yet his name will appear on the ballot paper next to the words “Labour Party”, and he could still win. Labour has thus let the people of Rochdale down badly – but it is not the first time, and neither is it the first party to be guilty of this.

How can Keir Starmer control the PR nightmare engulfing Labour?

With his U-turn on the £28bn green prosperity plan and the Labour campaign in the Rochdale by-election cancelled, it’s fair to say the last few days have been difficult for Keir Starmer. The news has been dominated unexpectedly by splits and antisemitism in his own party, and Starmer has found himself out of control of events. 

His oft-repeated claim that the Labour Party has changed under his leadership has been challenged, and his stance on Gaza continues to be a source of resentment among his MPs. Fortunately, Starmer has better prospects to look forward to in the coming days…