Reflections on “The whole world a Black Country” by Matt Stallard

This is an article published in the Spring 2023 edition of the Blackcountryman, reflecting on an article by Matt Stallard in the previous edition

In the last issue of the Blackcountryman, Matt Stallard described the rather bizarre way in which the Victorians saw the Black Country as a horrific paradigm of environmental devastation that was uncomfortably close to home, whilst at the same time extolling those places elsewhere in the Empire which had taken the same path of industrial exploitation and were described as local Black Countries. Reflecting on our own Black Country he writes

In world-historic terms the Black Country has a rightful and still-underappreciated place as foundational when it comes to the engineering and scientific breakthroughs and forms of knowledge that were later transported in the minds and bodies of people … throughout the world; Dud Dudley, Thomas Newcomen, Abraham Darby, John Wilkinson and all the others, names and unnamed….

A proud legacy indeed, and one that resulted in major benefits for humanity, in terms of health and quality of life, but one that needs to be balanced against how this knowledge was used to cause significant environmental damage in this country and around the world. After a thorough survey of the developments of the various Black Countries around the world, driven by the process of colonialism tinged with classism, eugenics and racism, he concludes with the following more optimistic words.

For our region, placing our proud and truly world changing history at the centre of the most critical debates of our time has the potential to put us on the map in a positive, constructive way – where we dismantle those tangled, toxic legacies and write our own twenty-first century narrative, and map out new futures for our, and the many other Black Countries they imagined across the planet.

As I reflected on this article, another thought struck me. If the role of the Black Country was indeed foundational in the engineering and science developments that enabled the extraction of large quantities of coal which in turn fueled the Industrial revolution, with its legacies both positive and negative, then it has to be admitted that the current climate crisis, caused by climate warming fuel due to the greenhouse gases that result from the use of fossil fuel, also has at least some of its roots in the Black Country. This is not in any way to apportion blame or to lay the responsibility for the current crisis on those who live there now – the effects of fossil fuel burning on the climate have only become apparent in the last fifty years, and many of the current inhabitants of the area are descended from those who were as thoroughly exploited by the rich and powerful landowners and financiers as those held in slavery in the colonies. But nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that our region was instrumental in the causes of the present crisis.

Now, it is clear that unless urgent action is taken, then the effects of climate change will be felt in a major way around the world, even within the Black Country. Whilst we will not be affected by the inevitable sea level rise, which is already underway and will continue for many decades whether or not action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, many low-lying areas around the world are facing inundation by rising water levels. Some parts of this country are most definitely at risk – I would very strongly advice about buying houses in the Fenland for example with or without flood insurance! But the Black Country will suffer in two ways – by consistent higher temperatures in summer, exacerbated by the urban nature of the Black Country leading to an “urban heat island” effect, where temperatures will be several degrees higher than the surrounding areas; and by the greater weather instabilities that can be expected, with higher winds and rainfall, which will be magnified by the significant elevation of the Black Country above sea level. No one will be immune.

Nut to return to Matt Stallard’s final observation, in the light of this legacy, what is the new narrative that we could write, the new future that we can map out? It has to be admitted that here I write in hope rather than expectation, but there is a potentially positive future in view, where the Black Country becomes a paradigm for adopting measures to mitigate the future effects of climate change internationally. The region still has a major engineering and construction skills base, that could be utilized in the production and installation of green energy products such as wind turbines and solar panels. In the nineteenth century, the Black Country was exploited for its underground wealth – could it now be exploited, for its much more environmentally friendly surface and aerial wealth. As I noted above, the Black Country sits on the Midlands plateau, 150m above sea level – an ideal location for onshore wind turbines. Although such turbines are currently something of a political hot potato, they do offer the prospect of significant amount of green energy. Similarly, there seems to me no reason why the huge stock of low-rise housing across the region should not be fitted with solar panels, and thus become a large-scale solar farm. Wind and solar energy are of course not continuous, and some sort of balancing energy source is required. The most efficient, and indeed most environmentally friendly, is the use of pumped storage – pumping from a low-level reservoir when energy is available and releasing the water to a lower level through turbines to produce energy at times of peak demand. Again, the topography of the Black Country is ideal for small scale pump storage schemes, with rapid drops to lower levels at the edge of the plateau – the long flights of locks on the Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Dudley canals testify to this fact.

In addition to becoming a paradigm for green energy production, the Black Country need to do something about its direct production of greenhouse gasses – through insulation of the building stock to decrease energy use, and through a move away from carbon fuel-based transport to transport powered by renewable means (usually through electricity) of through active travel – cycling and walking. Indeed, across the UK the transport sector is a major issue in terms of carbon emissions, being the one sector where carbon production is still increasing. This presents a major challenge to the Black Country, which is very much the centre of a car dependent culture. The development of the Midland Metro and light rail schemes, and the roll out of electric buses and electrically assisted cycles and proper cycle infrastructure, are hugely important in this regard. A move away from car-based transport would also have a major effect on more local environmental and medical issues such as poor air quality due to transport emissions (which is estimated to kill between 28000 and 36000 people each year nationally) and obesity due to the lack of exercise.

So, I would suggest it is possible to map out a future for the Black Country that acknowledges that at least to some extent, the issues over climate can be traced back directly to engineering and scientific developments in the region but positions itself as a region where its skills can be used to develop new methods for solving the issue. A fanciful, optimistic vision? Maybe, but perhaps one that is worth holding on to.

Measurements of Carbon Dioxide concentrations in a church

The measurements reported in this post were made by colleagues of the School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham – Dr David Soper and Dr Mike Jesson – whose help is gratefully acknowledged.


Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has understandably been increased concern over ventilation within buildings and on buses and trains etc. This has been reflected in church circles where church ventilation has also been much discussed. Whilst more modern churches will have been specifically designed with ventilation in mind, with proper ventilation paths between windows and doors, the same cannot be said about older churches. For many such churches the only ventilation is offered by the opening of doors, and by leakage through windows and roofs. Because of the large vertical size of such buildings, this lack of ventilation is ameliorated by the ability of any pollutants of pathogens to diffuse throughout the large church space.

One such church is St. Michael on Greenhill in Lichfield (figure 1 below), which is essentially two large, connected boxes – a nave, and a chancel, with a main door in the north wall of the nave and a smaller door into the choir vestry on the south side, and internal doors between the vestry area, the nave and the chancel (figure 2). A though ventilation path is rarely established however as the external and internal doors are seldom open at the same time. There are plans to build new parish rooms to the south of the church, on the grassed area of the figure below.

Figure 2. Plan of church (the measurement positions are indicated by red circles)

This brief post outlines a short series of measurements to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in St. Michael’s. CO2 is produced naturally by people during breathing and CO2 concentration levels are often taken to be an indication of pathogen levels when the population is infected. These measurements were made on Sunday May 15th 2022, when the service pattern was somewhat different from normal, with the normal 8.00 and 10.00 Holy Communion services supplemented by the Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM) at 11.15 and a 4.00 service at which a new Rector was Instituted by the Bishop and Archdeacon. As such it gave the opportunity to look at the effects of different congregation numbers (10 in the chancel for the 8.00 service, 50 for the 10.00 service and the APCM, and 150 for the Institution). A screen shot of a video of the Induction service is shown in figure 3 to give some idea of the density of the congregation.

Figure 3. The congregation during the 4.00 service

The measurements

Carbon Dioxide measurements were made with small transducers and data loggers at different points around the church. These were attached to pillars of left on suitable window ledges. These sampled automatically every minute and the results were transmitted wirelessly to a Raspberry Pi computer and from there to a University of Birmingham web site from where the data could be accessed in real time. These measurements were supplemented by measurements of temperature and pressure using further transducers with built in data loggers.

For the sake of simplicity only the results from two of the CO2 sensors will be shown, as the results from them all were very similar. The location of these are shown on the plan of Figure 2 – one on a pillar in the nave, and one on a window ledge in the chancel. The photographs of the instruments shown in figure 4 indicate that they are quite small and discrete and indeed were barely noticed by the congregation. The results will be presented from midnight on Saturday May 14th to midnight on Sunday May 15th.

The results of the trials

The weather on May 15th was quite pleasant with early morning temperatures of 10°C rising to around 20°C in the late afternoon and evening. The external humidity varied from 20% to 100% throughout the day. Inside the church however there was far less variation with temperatures between 16 and 21°C and humidity between 55 and 70%. The was a light southerly wind in the morning, with a somewhat stronger easterly wind from mid-afternoon onwards.

The results of the CO2 measurements are shown on the graph of figure 5. These are shown in terms of parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by volume and are relative to a general background level of around 400 ppm.

Figure 5. The carbon dioxide concentration measurements

The church was opened at around 7.30 am for the 8.00 Holy Communion service held in the chancel, which went on until till around 8.45. Around 10 people attended. There can be seen to be a small increase in CO2 levels in the chancel over the course of the service (A). Later in the morning there was a 10.00 Holy communion service in the nave with around 50 in the congregation, with a small choir of 4 or 5 in the chancel. This was followed immediately by the APCM from 11.15 to 11.45 in the nave with about the same number attending. During this period there can be seen to be a steady increase in CO2 levels both in the nave and the chancel (B). At 12.00 the church emptied and the doors were closed. This led to a steady decrease in concentrations (C) till about 2.00 when people started to arrive at the church to set up for the major service of the day – the Institution of the new Rector by the Bishop of Lichfield. At this point both the main door and the choir vestry door were opened (as Gazebos were being set up to the south of the church for refreshments after the service), and a ventilation path was opened through the church, with major CO2 concentration reductions (D). Around 3.00 the congregation for the 4.00 Induction service began to arrive and the church rapidly filled with around 150 attending, including a choir of around 20 in the chancel. There were significant increases in CO2 concentrations during the course off the service through till around 5.30 (E). When the service was over, both the main door and the choir vestry door were again opened, and there was a rapid drop in concentration levels till around 7.00 when the choir vestry door was closed (F). After some clearing up, the church emptied by around 8.00 and there was a gradual fall off in concentration levels (G).

Two main points emerge from these measurements. Firstly, and quite obviously, the levels of CO2 increase with the number of people in church and with the time they spend there – B and E on the above figure. Secondly it is clear that there are two different types of ventilation – the slow diffusion of CO2 throughout the building and leakage through the building envelope – roof, doors, windows etc. (C and G); and the rapid lowering of concentration levels when there is a direct ventilation path through the building between the two doors (D and F).

Now from the slope of the graph for the times when concentrations are falling, it is possible to get estimates of the time it takes for the concentrations to fall by 50%. For C and G these times are around 2.5 hours, whilst for D and F these times are between 10 and 30 minutes. Thus the through ventilation reduces the carbon dioxide levels much more quickly than simple diffusion and leakage.


The results show firstly that the method that was used is a simple and viable way of assessing the main ventilation parameters in a church. Colleagues from the University of Birmingham recognise that there is still work to on improving the frequency response of the sensors but overall the method has much promise. Secondly there are some implications for St. Michael’s itself – that large congregations in the church for lengthy periods of time can result in significant CO2 concentrations (and thus pathogens in times of infection), and that through ventilation is much more effective in reducing these concentrations than simply relying on diffusion and leakage. In the Parish Rooms developments that are under consideration for the area adjoining the choir vestry, it may be worth investigating if it is possible to design through ventilation paths through the church and the new development.

Train services on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways

The March / April 2022 service pattern

There are ongoing discussions, which at times are becoming quite heated, within the wider Ffestiniog / Welsh Highland Railway community about the nature of the services planned in this post pandemic period. On the one hand, the company sees the need to maximise train loadings and thus reduce the unit costs, to cope with huge increases in fuel and staff costs. This leads logically to the need to continue the successful pandemic style timetable of booked tours – from Porthmadoc to Tan–y-Bwlch / Blaenau Ffestiniog / Beddgelert / Caernarfon and back, with one train journey being filled before another is timetabled, and with no intermediate stops. The service pattern for late March 2022 shown above reflects this and consists of a number of named and themed trains. Without a doubt this meets the needs of most passengers, who are not necessarily railway enthusiasts, but simply want a good day our for them and their family, and is cost effective in that trains are maximally loaded. On the other hand, there is a strong, and as I perceive, growing, feeling amongst Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Society members and supporters that a more normal scheduled timetable with intermediate stops should be reinstated, to restore the railways to what are perceived as their true selves as service providers. I have sympathy with both points of view – the financial challenges are certainly significant and need to be addressed, but the provision of specific tours simply does not meet the needs and aspiration of many. This includes myself, as I nearly always use the railway for journeys to intermediate stops, with walks of varying length between stations and “tours” hold no attraction at all for me. As things stand I, along with others, have no real reason to travel on the railways. As I write there are, I understand, proposals are being worked on to reinstate intermediate stops on some journeys, although it is not clear if this will approach anything like a regular service pattern.

The purpose of this post is to raise just one issue that is of potential significance. Last year I had the privilege of being an examiner for a University of Birmingham PhD thesis by Robin Coombs entitled “The sustainability of heritage railways”. I quote from the thesis abstract.

………In particular, the thesis explores the necessary condition(s) for the successful operation of a heritage railway in terms of governing their sustainability as expressed through consideration of their life cycle trajectory around the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic and social. The hypothesis proposed in the study is that good governance of railway assets and management is the key determinate of the sustainability of a heritage railway. This hypothesis was tested through a survey of 39 Directors and General Managers and 252 heritage railway enthusiasts of 104 heritage railways, semi-structured interviews with 15 Directors and General Managers, and the author’s recorded field observations and participation in 52 heritage railway visits and events. The research shows that the longevity of heritage railways does not simply arise from ‘good governance’ but is in fact the product of multiple interlinked variables and processes. Indeed, many heritage railways have survived and prospered despite poor governance, rather than because of ‘good governance’. One of the most significant of these explanatory variables is social capital, a hitherto under-researched governance variable in heritage railway studies. Through case study examples, social capital is demonstrated to have compensated and mitigated for failures of organisational governance and weaknesses in operational conditions on heritage railways. In this respect, heritage railways are argued to be similar to charitable and other public-good organisations. On this basis the hypothesis was rejected, and an alternative hypothesis proposed: that social capital (of which philanthropy, reciprocity and trust are key constituents) is a key determinant of the sustainability of heritage railways.

Robin makes a very strong case for the importance of what he calls social capital in the long-term sustainability of heritage railways – supporters contributing financially and materially and through voluntary activities. To my mind this is of very great importance in the current Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland context. A robust approach to income and expenditure through a business plan is certainly required in these financially constrained times, but if in doing so the relationship with volunteers and supporters is fractured, through the provision of a service pattern that does not meet their needs or their aspirations for the railways, this could potentially have a serious effect on the provision of social capital and thus on the long-term future of the railways, as supporters direct their time, efforts and money elsewhere. This simple fact should not be forgotten as future service provision is considered. I would thus suggest that conserving and expanding the social capital that the railways have built up over the decades is as important for the future of the railways as a financially robust business plan.

Robin’s thesis will in due course appear on the University of Birmingham’s ethesis web site at . In the meantime he can be heard describing his work in this podcast.

Football leagues – development sides and lower divisions

From time to time, the coaches of Premiership football clubs call for their development teams (usually for under 23s with a limited number of older players) to be allowed to play in the Championship or League 1 to give them more competitive games. Such proposals are usually strongly resisted by the lower leagues, as an attack in the integrity of their divisions. In this short post, I will try to show that league competitions can be constructed in a way that allows for the needs of the higher league Development teams and yet retains the integrity of the lower league competition and perhaps even enhances it. The method outlined is not just applicable to the football Premiership and Championship, but could be applied to other sports at all levels where there is a similar of “second” trams playing those in lower leagues.

Suppose we have 20 higher division developmemt teams and 24 lower division teams (the current numbers in the Premiership and Championship). We divide each group into two – HD1 and HD2 for the higher division development teams (10 in each group) and L1 and L2 for the lower league teams (12 in each group). The teams would play each other as follows.

  • L1 teams would play all the other L1 teams home and way (22 matches), the L2 teams once, half home and half away (12 games) and the HD1 teams once at home (10 games), giving 44 games in total (27 home, 17 away).
  • L2 teams would play all the other L2 teams home and way (22 matches), the L1 teams once, half home and half away (12 games) and the HD2 teams once at home (10 games), giving 44 games in total (27 home, 17 away).
  • HD1 teams would play all the other HD1 teams once, half home and half away (9 games) and the L1 teams once way (12 games), giving 21 games in total (4/5 home, 17/16 away).
  • HD2 teams would play all the other HD2 teams once, half home and half away (9 games) and the L2 teams once away (12 games), giving 21 games in total (4/5 home, 17/16 away).
  • L1 and L2 teams would be ranked separately on the basis of all games played, with the winners of each playing for the L title of that division. Both would be automatically promoted to  the league above, with the second and third place teams in each section playing off for other promotion places.
  • HD1 and HD2 teams would be ranked separately on the basis of all games played, with the winners of each playing for the title of the HD section of that division .

This format thus ensures the following.

  • The lower league teams and the development teams of the higher league teams would be ranked in separate divisions, even though there is some cross over on the teams that are played.
  • All teams would be ranked only alongside those teams that have played the same opponents the same number of times, ensuring integrity of competition.
  • The lower leagues teams would play a similar number of games to those that would be played in a conventional competition (44 as against 46), but with an increased number of potentially attractive home games against the higher league development teams.
  • The higher league development teams would play a significantly smaller number of games than the lower league teams, which conforms with current practice for such sides (for example on the Premier 2 league, teams play around 14 to 15 games in a season). All the games they play against the lower league sides can be expected to be very competitive.

The World Test Championship

The cricket World Test Championship is perhaps one of the most impenetrable of all sports competitions, with playing regulations and points coring systems that are not all easily understood by any except those who devised it and those with advanced statistical training. Details can be found here for those interested. The result of this complexity is to make it poorly understood by media and public, and it does little to generate interest (and perhaps financial sponsorship) for the test match format. But it needn’t actually be so. In this short post I describe a simple format for a World Test Championship that would be easily understandable; would result in meaningful matches and series; and would produce an undisputed champion every year. There is a snowball in hells chance of anything this sensible being implemented by the ICC, but its formulation has proved to be intellectually satisfying at any rate.

The basic principle would be to divide test playing countries into divisions of three. Based on current rankings (January 2022) these would be

  • Division 1 – India, New Zealand, Australia
  • Division 2 – England, Pakistan, South Africa
  • Division 3 – Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh
  • Division 4 – Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan

Given the current political climate Afghanistan’s position in Division 4 might be untenable, and it might need to be replace by another side (perhaps Netherlands or Scotland).

The basic principle would be that the sides in each division each year would play each other in a three-match series – one home series and one away series. The position in the division would be determined by giving 2 points for a series win and one point for a draw, or, if these points are equal, on the number of matches won. The top side in each division would either be declared world champion for the year, or be promoted to the next division, whilst the bottom side would be relegated. It would be no more complicated than that.

Essentially this would give a baseline for the number of test matches per year of six per team, which ought to be achievable. It does not preclude other series (such as the Ashes) being played as required – and indeed the world championship games could be designated tests in, say, a five-match series.  Each team would play different teams in succeeding years, apart from the top two in Division 1 and the bottom two in Division 4.

 The main requirement would be a need for flexibility in arranging fixtures on an annual basis, rather than as part of the longer-term future tours programme. This may be easier if designated periods were kept free from other series. The real advantage of such a method would be that it would greatly increase the profile of the long form game, with each of the series that are played being meaningful in terms of promotion and relegation, and gives the possibility of the championship finding a significant sponsor.

A new rail connection for Blaenau Ffestiniog?

In a 2019 issue of the Ffestiniog Railway Society magazine, a brief article described the early days of a project to restore the Dinas branch at the Blaenau Ffestiniog end of the line, thus reconnecting the town centre with the area in the midst of the slate heaps to the south of the Conwy Valley line tunnel (see the above map from Wikipedia which shows the complex FR layout around Blaenau). A useful history of the branch is give here.  It was lifted in the 1950s but the trackbed remains visible and accessible to the west of the Conwy Valley line south of the Ffestiniog tunnel. The main driver for the project would have been to provide a connection between the town centre station and the Llechwedd quarry, to the east of the Conwy Valley line near the tunnel portal, which has become a major tourist attraction, both in terms of its mining heritage but also as a mountain cycling and zip line venue. Unfortunately, with the advent of the pandemic, this project seems to have dropped from view, which is hardly surprising. The idea was raised recently once again on the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways Insider Facebook page, and the large potential costs of re-opening the branch against the potential income was again emphasized as the main barrier to taking this idea further.

Whilst I quite understand why the project has not progressed, it still seems to me that the initial reason for the proposed re-opening still remains. The centre of Blaenau has been transformed in recent years, but it is still an area that requires much investment in its future. To have its major tourist attraction an inconvenient mile and a half out of town with no public transport links, does little to help with the development of the town itself – indeed visitors to Llechwedd have no real need to stop off in the town centre at all. And of course the lack of any public transport connection simply encourages what is being increasingly appreciated as the unsustainable use of the private car. Thus in this brief post I suggest a way in which this project could be taken forward in what might be an affordable fashion (although I present no sort of cost benefit analysis at all).

The basic idea is simple – instead of relaying the former Dinas branch, the existing track formation of the Conwy Valley line should be used instead. With the current level of service provision on the line, in normal times the section from Roman Bridge just north of the  tunnel is occupied for only 45 minutes every 3 hour period. With a little imagination in the development of a signaling system to ensure safety, I would suggest that the line between the town centre and Dinas could be used for a shuttle service to take visitors between the town centre and the quarry complex when that section of track is not occupied. This could be done in two, relatively cheap, ways – either through the use of (lung destroying) standard gauge heritage DMUs, between the Conwy Valley line platform and a new platform at Dinas (which could be positioned on the eastern, Llechwedd side of the track and would avoid the need for a foot crossing that would be inherent in the relaying of the FR Dinas branch) and an access road to the quarry. More interestingly, a narrow-gauge track could be laid within the standard gauge track, with switches to allow narrow gauge trains to access these rails from the FT station, and a short station branch at Dinas. This would of course allow existing FR stock to be used.

Both these alternatives should be much cheaper than the relaying of the branch and could provide an attractive link between town and quarry. Realistically however they are likely to meet with strong opposition from the very conservative Network Rail culture, with its massively inflated approvals procedure, and great determination would be required to take forward these or other similar ideas.

At some stage in the future, I will write another blog post on the development of public transport links within the World Heritage Slate Landscape region – there is much to be said about transforming the current private vehicle dominated system into something that could be accessed by public transport. But that is for another day / week / month / year.

The English domestic cricket schedule


Following the recent Ashes debacle, there has been much talk of why the England cricket team’s performance has been so poor. One of the reasons (but by no means the only one) seems to be the lack of emphasis given to the red ball game in the domestic structure.

Ben Stokes bowled at the MCG

In addition the fact that red ball cricket has been increasingly pushed to the margins of the season to accommodate more and more white ball cricket, and in particular the abomination called the Hundred (and here I let my prejudices show clearly), and thus not allowing the development of batting skills in dry, hot conditions – which are the normal conditions in most other cricket playing countries. Thus in this blog post I set out a possible programme for the domestic season that, whilst allowing the financially lucrative white ball cricket proper exposure, also allows for red ball cricket to be played in the high summer months. I think it would be workable, but, inevitably, others will disagree.


In setting out the proposal, I adopt the following principles.

  • The domestic season should have a clear, identifiable structure that allows for each of the three formats to take the limelight at appropriate times.
  • All formats should be contested by the existing county teams, rather than by multi-county franchises based on the larger grounds, thus allowing for equitable treatment of all counties based on performance, and thus acknowledging the importance of history and tradition.
  • That there should be space in the high summer months for both red ball and white ball cricket.
New Road Worcester

What I propose is for the men’s game – I am afraid I simply don’t know enough about the structures, resources and finances of the women’s game to be able to make coherent proposals. That being said, it would seem to me that something mirroring the proposals below might be quit feasible, albeit with a reduced number of teams and matches.

Fifty over format

  • Three groups of six county teams, perhaps geographically based, playing each other twice (10 games) with quarter finals, semi-finals and final.
  • First round of five group matches to be played in last two weeks in March in southern hemisphere countries, and perhaps marketed as a cricketing holiday to county members and the public.
  • Second round of five group matches to be played in last two weeks of April in England (which will thus give an interesting variety of conditions overall).
  • Quarter finals on the Friday before May Bank Holiday. Semi-finals a week afterwards.
  • Final on Late May Bank Holiday Saturday.

Two innings format

  • First division of eight county teams, each playing each other twice (14 games) with bottom two relegated to second division.
  • Second division of ten county teams, split into two groups of five, which may or may not be geographically based. Each team to play the others in the group twice and those in the other group once (13 games). Top team in each group promoted, with play off for the divisional championship.
  • Games to be played from Sunday to Wednesday from first week in May to second week in August (15 weeks) with some exceptions to accommodate the twenty over format (see below). This would allow games to be played in high summer conditions.

Twenty over format

  • To be played in two stages. County teams in first stage to be divided into three geographical groups of six, each playing each other twice (10 games), with games on Friday evening or Saturday afternoons between the start of May and end of July. Games would thus not be spread through the week which might not please broadcasters. There might need to be some slight modification of the schedule for two innings games to accommodate two games on one or two weekends. Top two in each group and two best third place teams to Premier league, and others to National League.
  • The ECB to give contracts to twenty or more overseas players with different skills, who would be allocated to the Premiership counties at the start of August, based on the county’s requirements.
  • The Premier league would run in the last two weeks in August and the first week in September, with each team playing the others once (7 games). It would be desirable for their to be no international games during this period to allow England players to compete. A “hundred” format could be used if felt desirable (although I can think of no reason why it should be so). Finals day on the second Saturday in September would consist of a play off between second and third place teams, and a final between the winners of that tie and the first placed team.
  • The National league would consist of ten counties, play six franchise teams composing those displaced from premiership squads, second eleven, university and academy players etc. over the same period. These would be divided into two groups of eight, and each play each other once (7 games). The franchise teams would be based at holiday destinations, or conurbations normally without top level cricket as a means of widening audiences. The top teams in each group would contests the final, on the same occasion as the Premiership finals day.

Final thoughts

I would suggest that the advantages to such a system would be as follows.

  • The format would thus give a structured approach to the season, with the three formats contented sequentially, with manageable overlap between the formats.
  • There would be three high points in the season – the fifty over final on the late May Bank holiday; the climax to the two innings game in early / mid-August; and the short form finals day in mid-September.
  • The international / domestic structure for the fifty over competition would both be attractive in its own right for at least the more affluent spectators, would give players experience of a range of conditions, and would also take some scheduling pressure off the domestic season
  • The structure would allow two innings games to be played in high summer conditions. The proposed second division structure would enhance the integrity of the competition with teams only being judge against teams that have played the same number of games against the same opponents.
  • It would also maximise audiences for the short form game on summer evenings and during the last two or three weeks of the school holiday period.

As a final point, such a schedule would also allow space in late September for a regional championship between, say, teams drawn from northern south eastern and south western counties with three four day matches over a two week period. This would give the players some experience of cricket between county and international level. But this is not an integral part of the proposal.

Covid-19 – how risky are church services?

As I write, in late July 2021, Covid-19 infection rates are increasing rapidly, at the same time as restrictions are being eased, and people from all walks of life are becoming increasingly nervous about being infected. This nervousness is, quite understandably, shared by church congregations, and some are questioning whether it is actually safe to come to church in the current circumstances. Is it therefore actually possibly to be a bit more precise about what the actual risk of attending church might be? The answer is a qualified, yes, it is possible, very approximately, to calculate the risk of infection at church services, and, in this article, I will describe the risks of attending church for different scenarios, based on the current situation at St. Michael’s church in Lichfield, where I serve as a minister.

The method I will use is that developed by Prof Jose-Luis Jimenez at the University of Colorado – Boulder in the USA. This is a simple spreadsheet-based model of Covid transmission and infection using the latest scientific knowledge and which can be used in a variety of situations – residential homes, shops, public transport and places of worship for example. It is more fully described here. It is based on aerosol transmission of the virus, which is now regarded as the main way in which the virus is transmitted, particularly if simple hygiene methods are followed, such as regular cleaning of services and washing of hands, to reduce the risk of picking up the virus by touch. Prof Jimenez would be the first to admit that the method is very approximate and comes with lots of uncertainties, not least because the understanding of the way in which infected people emit the virus is at the moment poorly understood. Nonetheless it does give a rough indication of risk.

The situation I have looked at is effectively the current practice in St. Michael’s in Lichfield – a large, fairly poorly ventilated area, with a congregation of about 60 and a choir of 6. Social distancing is assumed, together with everyone wearing masks and only the choir singing, for a one-hour service, with the current community infection rate of about one in a hundred people being infected with Covid at any one time. 80% of the congregation are assumed to be double vaccinated. Plugging this lot into the spreadsheet gives a risk of any one member of the congregation being infected with the virus at a particular service of 1 in 26,700. To give some perspective, the risk of being involved in a road vehicle accident in Britain in the week following the service is 1 in 22,000. Thus, attending a service at St. Michael’s with the current practice is very safe indeed, even allowing for the very approximate nature of the calculations – we are all likely to be in much more hazardous situations at other times in the week.

As restrictions ease, churches across the country are considering easing their own restrictions, and Jimenez’s spreadsheet gives a way of how this might change the risk. Again, for St Michael’s, having 100 people in the congregation in church as opposed to 60 (and reducing social distancing) increases the risk to 1 in 17,500. Doing away with masks as well increases the risk further to 1 in 6,100. This is a big jump, as masks both restrict the spread of the virus from those who are infected, and also give some protection to those who aren’t. Taking the next step and letting the congregation sing hymns increases the risk to 1 in 2500. This is because singing, or speaking loudly, increases the breathing rate and allows more virus to be both exhaled and inhaled. As an interim step, should we keep social distancing and mask wearing but allow congregational singing with masks on, the risk of infection comes out as 1 in 10,200.

How these results should be interpreted is of course a matter for the individual. I personally would find a risk of 1 in 5000 acceptable but would begin to get a bit twitchy if the risk were as high as 1 in 1000.  Importantly though it should be remembered that the risks are more or less proportional to the number of infected in the general population. So as the community infection rate drops, as one hopes it will, the risk decreases. For example, if the community infection rate was 1 in 500, the risk of being infected at a church service with no social distancing, no masks and with singing, falls to 1 in 12,500, which I, for one, would regard as very acceptable and quite safe.

Covid-19 death rates – an international comparison


One of the things that has become clear during the pandemic is the widespread public misunderstanding of statistics. Nowhere is this clearer than in the attempts to compare the UK performance in the pandemic with that of other countries. Many on social media attempted comparisons with countries of very different social structure (such as those in East Asia), or with very different levels of connectivity (such as New Zealand and Australia) – effectively trying to compare apples with oranges. Comparisons were also made using daily statistics for case numbers and deaths on specific days, completely ignoring day to day statistical variability, the place of the country in the pandemic cycle and indeed the variability in population size. Very often comparisons of this kind were made on Twitter etc. for overtly political reasons and to attack or support the government and were very selective both in their content and timing – government critics were at their most vociferous when infection rates were increasing and strangely quiet when they were decreasing, and the opposite was true for government supporters. All these comments served to do was to illustrate the ignorance and prejudice of the commentator.

In this post, I want to address the same question – how did the UK cope with the pandemic in comparison to similar countries – but to do so in a slightly more rigorous way. It will become clear I am no epidemiologist, but hopefully the argument will be based on a rather more firmly based methodology than in the do so, I will use one statistical measure only – that of deaths due to Covid-19, which seems to me the statistic that is most likely to be recorded accurately. I will not use case numbers as the variations in testing regime between countries means that any such comparisons are unreliable from the beginning. Further, I will only make comparisons with a subset of countries in Western Europe, essentially extending as far east as Poland and Hungary, but not including countries in the Scandinavian or Balkan peninsulas, 18 such countries in all. These are all broadly similar in terms of culture and society. An argument can be made that the comparison should be restricted further to just that small number of countries with populations similar to the UK – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland – and indeed we will use this subset to some degree in what follows. 

Nature of the analysis

The weekly death rates from March 2020 to June 2021 for the UK are shown in figure 1 below from the WHO web site. The curves for all the other countries considered are broadly similar, but the precise shapes and timings of the curves depend crucially upon the lockdown measures that were imposed by different countries, upon the spread of the new variants through the countries (in particular the so-called Kent or alpha variant) and the effectiveness and rapidity of the vaccination programmes.

Figure 1 United Kingdom weekly death rates throughout waves 1 and 2

In the analysis we use WHO data for deaths and data from Wikipedia for country populations. The cumulative death figures at 30th June 2020 and 30th June 2021 are used and are shown in Table 1. The first wave of the pandemic was over by the first date, and the second wave well on the way to being over by the second, at least in terms of deaths. The death rates up to June 30th 2020 and between July 1st 2020 and June 30th 2021 have been calculated from the data and are expressed in what has become the conventional statistic of deaths per 100,000 population.

Table 1 Death rates per 100,000 for first and second waves

(At the time of writing – June 30th 2021- the delta variant continues to increase case rates in the UK, in effect a third wave, but deaths remain at a very low level. It is likely that this wave will spread across Europe in the next few months, but hopefully because of the vaccination efforts, serious illnesses and deaths in those countries too will remain at a low level.)

The first wave

The distinction between the first and second waves of the pandemic is important. For the first wave up to 30th June 2020, it can be seen from Table 1 that some countries were affected significantly whilst others hardly at all. The death rate per 100,000 in the UK of 60.6 was amongst the highest in the countries studied. The reasons for this variation are complex, and can be expected to include the degree of initial seeding of the countries from areas where Covid-19 was already endemic, the age profile of the population etc. The February half term skiing trips by many on the UK seem to have been a significant source of the spread, together with international travel from affected areas. There also seems to have been a pronounced west / east gradient, with the easternmost countries in the sample suffering very few deaths in this phase. Germany seems to have straddled this boundary. To unravel these effects would take a much more sophisticated analysis than I can carry out, and it must be left to those better able to do it, . This is not to say that what happened in this wave is unimportant, and the UK death rates were very high. Indeed, it is likely that the UK government will ultimately have to answer serious questions on their level of preparedness, PPE supplies, and in particular the decisions that were made to send untested elderly hospital patients back into care homes. The government estimate for the excess deaths in care homes up to mid-June 2020 was 19,394. If this figure is excluded from the totals the UK death rate in the first wave falls to 31.5 – close to the average of the death rates in the other countries.  That being said, the level of the analysis I am able to undertake does not enable me to draw any further conclusions concerning the relative performance of the different nations in the first wave of the pandemic.

The second wave

In the UK the rise in September and October 2020 was brought under control through a fairly severe lockdown from November 5th 2020 to 2nd December 2020 although by the end of the lockdown it had not fallen to pre-lockdown values. There was much criticism if the government at the lateness of the imposition of the lockdown. The rate began to rise again in early December, due to the emergence of the Kent or alpha variant, peaking in mid-January before being brought down by another lockdown which started on January 6th and was relaxed in stages from March 8th. Again, there was a widespread feeling that the government were late these restrictions and should not have allowed social mixing over Christmas. Vaccinations begin in late December 2020, and this also played a significant role in the lockdown. In the other countries under consideration, the peak in early 2021 due to the Kent variant usually began a month or two later, and the vaccination programmes were also a month or two behind those in the UK, so in general the curves were shifted along the time axis by a month or so. But by the end of June 2021 death rates were very low in all countries.

The international comparison shown in Table 1 indicates that in the second wave, the deaths per hundred thousand of all 18 countries varied widely between 33 in Denmark and 299 in Hungary. The population weighted average was 133. The average of the seven most populous countries was 129. The value for the UK was 132 – very close to the average for both the complete data set of all countries and for the restricted number of countries. Many of the death rates are similar with half the countries having rates between 75 and 150. The data offers little encouragement for those who would either praise or denigrate the performance of the UK – it was boringly average. No doubt it’s mistakes in not locking down quickly enough have been compensated by the rapid vaccination roll out, but the same sort of trade offs can be found in all countries. Perhaps the most important questions to ask are how Denmark, Ireland and Holland achieved the lowest death rates of less than half the average. There are almost certainly important lessons to be learnt from these countries.

The calculation of Covid-19 infection rates on GB trains


In a recent post I looked at the ventilation rate of trains without air conditioning and compared them with the ventilation rate of airconditioned trains. The context was the discussion of the safety of trains in terms of Covid-19 infection. For air conditioned trains, the industry accepted number of air changes per hour is around 8 to 10. For non-air conditioned trains with windows fully open and doors opening regularly at stations, I calculated very approximate values of air changes per hour of around twice this value, but for non-air conditioned trains with windows shut and thus only ventilated by door openings, I calculated approximate values of a of 2.0. On the basis of these calculations, I speculated that the non-air conditioned trains with windows shut probably represented the critical case for Covid-19 transmission. In that post however I was unable to be precise about the level of risk of actually becoming infected and how this related to ventilation rate.

The work of Jimenez

I have recently come across the spreadsheet tool produced by Prof. Jose Jimenez and his group at the University of Colorado-Boulder that attempts to model airborne infection rates of Covid-19 for a whole range of different physical geometries, using the best available information on pathogen transport modelling, virus production rates, critical doses etc. They base their  analysis on the assumption that aerosol dispersion is the major mode of virus transport, which now seems to be widely accepted (and as anyone who has been following my blogs and tweets will know that I have been going on about for many months). I have thus modified the downloadable spreadsheet to make it applicable to the case of a standard GB railway passenger car compartment.  A screen shot of the input / output to the spreadsheet is shown in figure 1 below.

Figure 1 Screen shot of spreadsheet input / output parameters

The inputs are the geometry of the passenger compartment; the duration and number of occurrences of the journey, the air conditioning ventilation rate; the number of passengers carried; the proportion of the population who may be considered to be immune; the fraction of passengers wearing masks; and the overall population probability of an individual being infected. In addition, there are a number of specified input parameters that describe the transmission of the virus, which the authors admit are best guess values based on the available evidence, but about which there is much uncertainty. The outputs are either the probabilities of infection, hospitalization and death for an individual on a specific journey or for multiple journeys; or the number of passengers who will be infected, hospitalized or die for a specific journey or for multiple journeys.

The spreadsheet is a potentially powerful tool in two ways – firstly to investigate the effect of different input parameters on Covid-19 infection risk, and secondly to develop a rational risk abatement process. We will consider these in turn below.

Parametric investigation

In this section we define a base case scenario for a set of input variables and then change the input variables one by one to investigate their significance. The base case is that shown in the screen shot of figure 1 – for a journey of 30 minutes repeated 10 times (i.e. commuting for a week);  80 unmasked passengers in the carriage; a ventilation rate of 8 air changes per hour; a population immunity of 50%; and a population infection rate of 0.2% (one in 500). The latter two figures broadly match the UK situation at the time of writing. For this case we have a probability of one passenger being infected on one journey of 0.096% or 1 in 1042. The arbitrariness of this figure should again be emphasized – it depends upon assumed values of a number of uncertain parameters. We base the following parametric investigation on this value. Nonetheless it seems a reasonable value in the light of current experience. The results of the investigation are given in Table 1 below.

Table 1 Parametric Investigation

The table shows the risk of infection for each parametric change around the base case and this risk relative to the base case. There is of course significant arbitrariness in the specification of parameter ranges.  Red shading indicates those changes for which the infection risk is more than twice the value for the base case and green shading for those changes for which the infection risk is less than half the value for the base case. The following points are apparent.

  • The risk of infection varies linearly with changes in journey time, population infection rate and population immunity. This seems quite sensible, but is effectively built into the algorithm that is used. 
  • Changes in ventilation rate cause significant changes in infection risk. In particular the low value of 2ach, which is typical on non-airconditioned vehicles with closed windows, increases the infection risk by a value of 3.5.
  • The effect of decreasing passenger number (and thus increasing social distancing) is very significant and seems to be the most effective way of reducing infection risk, with a 50% loading resulting in an infection risk of 28% of the base case, and a 20% loading a risk of 6% of the base case.
  • The effect of 100% mask wearing reduces the infection risk to 35% of the base case.
  • 100% mask wearing and a 50% loading (not shown in the table) results in a reduction of infection risk to 10% of the base case.

From the above, regardless of the absolute value of risk for the base case, the efficacy of reducing passenger numbers and mask wearing to reduce risk is very clear.

An operational strategy to reduce risk.

The modelling methodology can also be used to develop a risk mitigation strategy. Let us suppose, again arbitrarily, that the maximum allowable risk of being infected per passenger on the base case journey is 0.1% (i.e. 1 in a thousand). Figure 2 shows the calculated infection risk for a wide range of national infection rate of between 0.01% (1 in 10,000) to 2% (1 in 50). Values are shown for no mask and full capacity; 100% mask wearing and full capacity; and 100% mask wearing and 50 % capacity. It can be seen that the no mask / full capacity curve crosses the 0.1% line at a national infection rate of 0.2% and the 100% mask / full capacity line crosses this boundary at 0.6%.

Figure 2 Effect of national infection rate on infection risk, with and without mask wearing and reduction in loading

Consideration of the results of figure 2 suggest a possible operational strategy of taking no mitigation risks below an infection rate of 0.2%, imposing a mask mandate between 0.2% and 0.6% and adding a significant capacity reduction above that. This is illustrated in figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Mitigation of risk to acceptable level through mask wearing and reduced capacity.

As has been noted above the absolute risk values are uncertain, but such a methodology could be derived for a variety of journey and train types, based to some extent on what is perceived to be safe by the travelling public. Regional infection rates could be used for shorter journeys. Essentially it gives a reasonably easily applied set of restrictions that could be rationally imposed and eased as infection rate varies, maximizing passenger capacity as far as is possible. If explained properly to the public, it could go some way to improving passenger confidence in travel.