Anger at UK minister’s Qatar trip amid rail fare row

British Transport Secretary Chris Grayling came under fire over his ‘globetrotting’ visit to Qatar. (Reuters) 
Updated 03 January 2018
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Anger at UK minister’s Qatar trip amid rail fare row

LONDON: Union bosses have slammed Britain’s transport minister for visiting Qatar amid an ongoing row over steep hikes to UK rail fares. 

As millions of Britons bemoan the country’s largest rail fare increase in five years, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has been criticized for fleeing the fray with a trip to Doha.

The purpose is to drum up business for Britain as it looks to exit the EU — but unions criticized the timing after protests at 40 UK train stations over ticket-price increases. Fares rose by an average of 3.4 percent, with season tickets increasing by 3.6 percent at the start of the year.

A spokesperson for ASLEF, a trade union for train drivers, told Arab News it was “typical” of Grayling to be absent on the day the train fares went up. 

“It’s interesting that he doesn’t want to be around when there’s a lot of justified anger that the privatized train operating companies in this country are profiting yet again at the expense of the passengers that they are meant to serve.”

Carmel Nolan, head of communications at the TSSA, an independent trade union for the transport and travel trade industries, said Grayling was “missing in action” and “doing anything but helping the British rail industry.”

“His job is to be the secretary of state for transport and rail fares have seen the biggest hike in five years,” Nolan said. 

“Effectively there’s an extra penalty on workers to go to work and he’s not here addressing a crisis in transport, he’s in Qatar, avoiding journalists, avoiding accountability, no doubt trying to drum up new trading relationships and partnerships because he’s such a hard Brexiteer.” 

Bobby Morton, Unite national officer for the rail industry, said: “Chris Grayling’s sudden trip to Qatar smacks of running scared as millions of commuters faced unacceptable rail fare increases for 2018, including his constituents. The transport secretary should have had the guts to have faced the media in the UK, so he could explain what he is going to do to curb such draconian increases in the future.”

The Labour party accused Grayling of trying to escape the outcry over the price hike, which will see passengers paying up to £2,500 ($3,378) more for their annual season tickets than they did in 2010.

“Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has gone into hiding, unable to defend today’s 3.6 percent fares hike and refusing to explain the £2 billion taxpayer bailout of Virgin East Coast. Passengers deserve better than this,” said Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald.

Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Rail passengers are shivering on platforms angered by the biggest fare increase in years while Chris Grayling is off globetrotting.”
Speaking on LBC radio, Grayling said he was in Qatar to “win a couple of big contracts” for UK businesses. 

"I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue, but I think it’s really important we get out and try and win business for Britain."

Responding to questions raised about the timing of Grayling’s two-day trip to Qatar, after which he will head to Turkey, the Department for Transport released a statement saying he was on “a pre-planned visit to promote the UK overseas, support British jobs and strengthen the important relationship between the two countries.”  

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: "There are ministers visiting a whole host of countries spreading the message that Britain is a very good place to invest and to do business in. Chris Grayling obviously plays an important part in that.”

Transport unions in the UK criticized the rail price hikes and called for a return to public ownership of Britain's railways, which were privatized in the mid-1990s. Many feel that regular price increases have not been reflected in improved services, with delays and cancelations common across the country’s rail networks.

Research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that Britons spend up to six times more of their salaries on rail fares than commuters in other European countries.  

“Another year, another price increase. Many commuters will look with envy to their continental cousins, who enjoy reasonably-priced journeys to work,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.

Grayling’s absence during the UK’s latest rail fare furore has added to speculation that his job may be on the line in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

Grayling, who served as justice minister from 2012 to 2015, was also behind a controversial decision to restrict prisoners’ access to books, which was subsequently declared unlawful and revoked.


6 shot on street near north Florida stadium before NFL game

Updated 14 min 9 sec ago
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6 shot on street near north Florida stadium before NFL game

  • Police reported no link to the game, which went on without incident

JACKSONVILLE, Florida: Six people have been wounded in a street shooting blocks from the Florida stadium where the NFL’s Houston Texans played and defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon, authorities said.
Ron Lendvay, director of investigations for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, said several shots rang out about 12:35 p.m. Sunday on a boulevard in the stadium’s general area and that five men and one woman were hit by gunfire. All were rushed to hospitals, and the sheriff’s office tweeted that three of the victims were in critical condition. The victims ranged in age from their 20s to the 70s, according to Lendvay.
The shooting broke out before the scheduled 1 p.m. start of play. Lendvay reported no link to the game, which went on without incident, and said investigators were investigating whether it was gang-related.
The Texans won their fourth consecutive game Sunday, defeating the Jaguars 20-7 to take a one-game lead in the AFC South at the stadium, TIAA Bank Field.
Local media reports cited authorities as saying the shooting had had no impact on game day activities though some fans headed to the game reported hearing the gunfire.
Lendvay told reporters that a shooter fired from the passenger side of a gray, four-door sedan driven by a companion and that the victims were hit outside on the sidewalk near a laundromat. He said the car immediately drove off and that detectives had been checking surveillance video in hopes of identifying the vehicle and those involved.
“There were at least two people in the car,” Lendvay said. He added that investigators didn’t know if any others were in the car and he didn’t rule out the possibility of other shooters elsewhere.
“This may be gang-related based on information obtained in the early stages of the investigation,” he told reporters Sunday, declining to elaborate.
Some fans told local broadcast outlet New4Jax that they heard shots as they headed to the stadium.
“We had just parked our cars,” Vanessa Holmes told the new outlet, adding she and some family members were walking when it happened. “We heard the shots. We didn’t know if we should fall to the ground. We didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Others told the broadcast outlet that they saw people running out of the coin laundry business when the shots were fired.
Some said it was a series of shots.
“We were over there talking and suddenly, it was like ten gunshots. We ran and went for cover and then I saw the police, and people were crowding down there,” a woman identified as Yvonne Lee told News4Jax.
An update on the conditions of the wounded wasn’t immediately available late Sunday and they were not identified by name.
“A couple of them were in very serious condition on their arrival at the hospital,” Lendvay said. He added that five of the wounded were rushed by paramedics for emergency care and the sixth by private vehicle.
He said authorities have been unable to immediately determine whether there was any relationship among the wounded, noting none could be immediately interviewed though authorities hoped to do so later.
“It’s hard to say if they are all associated or not,” he added.
Lendvay spoke near the scene Sunday afternoon even as the game was in progress, saying investigators had cordoned off the area but fans who had cars parked in the area could expect an escort to their vehicles so they could leave unhindered after play was over.
Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, told local media he was aware of crime problems in the neighborhood and urged a greater law enforcement presence there.
“In talking to the sheriff’s department; they are going to beef up patrols ...We have a crime issue,” Gaffney said. “Every other week and every other month out there, it’s too much.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott also said in a statement that he had reached out to Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, offering any state resources that the city may need.