Monday, 30 December 2019

Star Wars irl

Ever since man has gone into space, the military have used satellites for their own advantage, primarily as an intelligence gathering platform. The big players in the space race were historically the USA and the USSR. The cold war has ended, but the military use of space may just be about to warm up with the creation of the US Space Force. Up until now, American military satellites have been controlled by the US Air Force (itself founded in 1947) but a recent reorganisation has created the Space Force as an independent branch of the armed forces of the United States.
So is this simply a rebrand of the existing Air Force Space Command? Is it a headline-grabbing publicity stunt to satisfy the ego of Donald Trump? Will satellites become weaponised? Will we see space battles like in the movies? All of this seems a bit far-fetched, doesn't it? At the moment the establishment of a Space Force looks like nothing more than a statement of intent. The service will carry on the work previously done by the Air Force Space Command. Very little will immediately change on the ground. But if the world does get invaded by aliens from outer space, we know who will be the first line of defence.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Putting the "Express" in Transpennine Express.

Way back in the early days of privatisation, Cross Country (Virgin Cross Country as it then was) described itself as the "Cinderella" franchise. Equipped with old, unreliable, yet comfortable and spacious loco-hauled trains, it made the decision to scrap its old fleet of Class 47s and loco-hauled coaches in favour of "Voyager" Class 220 and 221 DMUs. However, its Cinderella transformation is nothing compared to that currently taking place to Transpennine Express.
Tasked with running Inter-City trains within the North of England (and more recently into Scotland), TPX, in its earliest incarnation, inherited a small fleet of Class 158 Express Sprinters from BR. These were, simply put, not man enough for the job. From 2005, the 2-car Class 158s were replaced with 3-car Class 170s and 185s. Then when the Liverpool-Manchester electrification was completed these were supplemented by 4-car Class 350 EMUs. These are quite decent units for cross-country services, but they are still effectively upgraded suburban commuter units rather than full-fat Inter-City trains.
So now, the fleet is to be totally be replaced with longer, faster, better equipped trains than ever before. This new fleet will be known as Nova.
The nova fleet will come in 3 varieties, for diesel, electric and bi-mode services:

Nova 1. This is the bi-mode train, for routes with partial electrification between Liverpool-Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh. It is based on the Hitachi AT 300 design and consists of a 5-car multiple unit.
Nova 2.  This is the Electric train, operating on the Manchester Airport to Glasgow/Edinburgh and Liverpool to Glasgow routes, which follow the electrified West Coast mainline. These are 5-car units based on the CAF Civity design.
Nova 3. This is the diesel train, for unelectrified routes between Liverpool and Scarborough Unusually, this train consists of push-pull Mk 5 coaches hauled by a class 68 locomotive, which should please enthusiasts. When lines are electrified it will be possible to convert this train to bi-mode or full electric simply by swapping the locomotive, to a class 88 for instance, and if trains require to be lengthened it will be a simple matter to insert more carriages into the train.

All these trains will have first class carriages, space for 4 bikes and a catering trolley service.
With this new fleet, Transpennine Express trains will be transformed from an overcrowded second tier commuter TOC to a legitimate competitor to Cross-Country Trains.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Parking mad

Car parking has been in the news this month on two fronts.
Firstly the workplace parking levy. This proposal by the Scottish government follows a similar successful scheme in Nottingham where a tax on car parking has helped fund public transport, particularly the Nottingham tram system. The proposal would allow local councils to introduce a workplace parking levy if they chose. It is not a mandatory national scheme. The theory is that the scheme will encourage commuters to take public transport instead of the car, reducing both congestion and air pollution. Critics have hit out at the scheme as a "tax on workers", especially those for whom public transport is inconvenient. Of course if the tax is used to improve public transport, as is the case in Nottingham, then it should work as planned.
Secondly comes the ban on pavement parking. This has been called for by disability advocates and campaigners for years. The idea is to stop cars parking on footpaths, where they block wheelchair and pram users. The problem here is the limited availability of parking in certain residential streets, particularly those in suburban housing estates with narrow streets and limited on-street parking. Again, public transport needs to be improved, but for residents of older council houses that don't have a driveway, the pavement is often the only place to keep their car. provision of adequate parking needs to be built into any housing development.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Maritime history is rusting away.

Preserving ships is an expensive business. Ships are much larger than road vehicles or even trains,  and they need constant upkeep. Despite the best efforts of preservationists, even ships that have been preserved as museums have been scrapped in recent years. In this blog I am making a list of historic ships in the UK; those preserved, at risk and recently scrapped. This is not a comprehensive list, but gives a sense of the scale of the problems of ship preservation in the UK. The relatively safe and large collections of Chatham historic dockyard (HMS Cavalier, Gannet, Ocelot), Portsmouth (HMS Victory, Warrior, Mary Rose) and Hartlepool (Trincomalee, PS Wingfield Castle) have been omitted for simplicity.

MV Balmoral
Status: Preserved/under restoration. After many years acting as back-up for the Waverley, and re-engining in 2003, the ship was given up by the paddlesteamer preservation society in 2012. Now in the hands of the MV Balmoral fund who are planning to return her to service.
Location: Bristol

HMS Belfast
Status: Preserved by the Imperial War Museum
Location: London

HMY Britannia
Status: Preserved. A well-visited and well-funded vessel in the Scottish capital.
Location: Leith

Status: At risk. Currently owned by the Tug Tender Calshot Trust, it was announced in May 2019 that due to "lack of financial resources" the vessel would have to be scrapped.
Location: Southampton

City of Adelaide
Status: Under restoration. After many years languishing at the Scottish maritime museum in Irvine, the former clipper ship was transported to Australia for restoration in 2014.
Location: Adelaide

Cutty Sark
Status: Preserved
Location: Greenwich

Daniel Adamson
Status: Preserved/Active. Offers cruises on the river Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal.
Location: Liverpool

RRS Discovery
Status: Preserved. The ship's engines were removed for scrap during the second world war.
Location: Dundee

TSS Dover
Status: Scrapped in 2018, following a fire in 2017 that rendered the ship beyond saving.
Location: N/A

Duke of Lancaster
Status: At risk/Abandoned. Campaigners are currently hoping the ship can be saved, but no work has been carried out.
Location: Llanerch-y-Mor 

Falls of Clyde
Status: At Risk. A campaign is underway to return the vessel to Scotland from Hawaii, where she has been neglected for some time, even though she was officially part of a museum
Location: Honolulu

Status: Preserved
Location: Riverside museum, Glasgow

Great Britain
Status: Preserved. After decades rotting away in the Falkland islands, Brunel's masterpiece, once the biggest ship in the world, was returned to the UK for restoration in 1970.
Location: Bristol

PS Lincoln Castle
Status: Scrapped 2010. The ship served for many years as a floating restaurant, and was in relatively original condition, retaining her engines. Sadly the owner could not afford the upkeep of the rotting hull and she was dismantled where she lay.
Location: Grimsby
Website: N/A

PS Maid of the Loch
Status: Preserved/under restoration. The Loch Lomond Steamship company are carrying out a multi-million pound restoration of the paddlesteamer with the intention of returning her to service on Loch Lomond.
Location: Balloch

PS Medway Queen
Status: Under restoration. This is more of a rebuilding than a restoration, with the original machinery being installed in a new hull.
Location: Gillingham

Status: Preserved
Location: Belfast

HMS Plymouth
Status: Scrapped 2012. Despite serving as a museum in Birkenhead for many years, the museum closed in 2006 and the ship reverted to the ownership of Peel ports, who sent her for scrap, despite the historical importance of the ship as a Falklands War veteran.
Location: N/A
Website: N/A

TS Queen Mary
Status: Preserved. After many years as a floating restaurant on the Thames, the Queen mary has been returned to the Clyde for preservation. Sadly her engines were removed and scrapped previously, so she will be unable to return to service.
Location: Glasgow

PS Ryde
Status: At Risk. Despite several attempts to form a preservation group over the years, the funnel and forward superstructure have collapsed and the ship is considered beyond saving.
Location: Isle of Wight
Website: N/A

Status: Preserved/Active
Location: Southampton

PS Tattershall Castle
Status: Floating restaurant. Although still afloat, the ship has been modified from its original appearance so can't really be considered preserved.
Location: London

HMS Unicorn
Status: Preserved. A remarkable survivor of the post-Napoleonic era. The Unicorn was put straight into reserve when she was built and was never commissioned, remaining a hulk for her entire life.
Location: Dundee

PS Waverley
Status: Preserved. Waverley has been taken out of service in 2019 for reboilering, but should return to service soon.
Location: Glasgow

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Track gauge in Ireland.

Ireland. Cut off from Great Britain and continental Europe by the sea, it might as well be on another planet as far as railways are concerned, and that's because Ireland uses a different track gauge. Back in the 1800s when the railways were first being built, a number of different gauges were in use in Ireland. The Dublin & Kingstown Railway used the same standard gauge of 4' 8 1/2" as most of Great Britain (not counting Brunel's Great Western, but that's another story). Meanwhile the Ulster Railway used a broad gauge of 6' 2" and the as yet unbuilt Dublin & Drogheda proposed a gauge of 5' 2". This was a mess, so the, the board of trade decided in 1846 that Ireland should standardise on one gauge. Bizzarely the gauge of 5' 3" was selected as a compromise between the two gauges in use at the time. This seems wasteful, since rather than regauging the non-complying half half of the island's railways (if they had chosen one of the gauges in use), they would have to change them all!
The use of broad gauge would be fine so long as Ireland's railways remained separate from British railways. However, this might cause a problem if proposals for a bridge over the north channel came to fruition. That would mean there would be a break of gauge in Ulster, resulting in need for transshipment. Frankly, though, due to the depth of the north channel, such a bridge is probably nothing more than a fantasy. The biggest real life problem in today's globalised rolling stock market is producing rolling stock just for Ireland. If stock is transferred from Great Britain, as has been done on occasion, bogies need to be changed to suit the Irish track gauge and vice versa. This is of course an expensive undertaking. A recent rumour appeared in the Railway Magazine that ex-Transpennine Express class 185s could be transferred to Ireland. This might be cheaper than buying in new trains specially made for Ireland, but it would be so much cheaper if they didn't have to be modified. one wonders, if Ireland had used standard gauge, not only would they have had less track to reguage (only the Ulster Railway would have needed regauging; the Dublin & Kingstown would have stayed as it was and the Dublin & Drogheda would have been built to 4' 8 1/2" from new) but stock could have been bought "off the shelf" or even second hand from Great Britain, without modification. Alternately, Irish stock could be exported to Britain, opening up potential for Irish manufacturing and providing a second-hand market for Irish trains.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

How eco-friendly is cruising?

I've seen quite a few posts on social media recently demonising cruise ships as being particularly harmful to the environment, but how much of this is true and how much is scaremongering?
Let's break the pollution down into categories:

Air Pollution.

It's a fact that ships burn a lot of fuel, and that fuel is often heavy fuel oil, which is some of the dirtiest fuel there is besides coal. MARPOL Annex VI, introduced in 1997, aims to regulate air pollution from ships. Certain special areas (a full list can be found here) ban high-sulphur fuel oil from being used, and some only allow Marine Diesel Oil (which is much more expensive) to be burned. A handful of ships are fitted with seawater scrubbers to reduce the sulphur content of exhaust emissions, but these are experimental and not in widespread use, and essentially cut out the acid rain middleman by washing sulphur directly into the sea.Nevertheless, a typical cruise ship will emit more CO2 per passenger mile than an aeroplane, and if you fly to get to the cruise ship, you are adding even more emissions to the atmosphere. While modern vessels are far more efficient than the steam ships of old, they are still a major source of air pollution. For the lowest possible emissions, you may with to consider a cruise on a sailing ship

Disposal of sewage at sea is regulated by MARPOL Annex IV. It's probably easiest to quote the Annex at this point: "The discharge of sewage into the sea is prohibited, except when the ship has in operation an approved sewage treatment plant or when the ship is discharging comminuted and disinfected sewage using an approved system at a distance of more than three nautical miles from the nearest land; sewage which is not comminuted or disinfected has to be discharged at a distance of more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land." Typical cruise ships are fitted with a Marine Sanitation Device, which disinfects the sewage in a similar manner to a municipal sewage plant. Ergo, it is no worse for the environment than what your city is pumping into the sea, with the advantage that the ship is dumping sewage much further from the shore! Untreated sewage may be discharged outside 12 miles, but a modern cruise ship will not do this except in an emergency. Some cruise ships are fitted with an Advanced Wastewater Purification System (AWWPS), which produces clear water (which is harmless and can be discharged almost anywhere) and a small amount of sewage sludge (which can be discharged as per treated sewage). Solid waste is pumped ashore for disposal at landfill.

Garbage comes under MARPOL Annex V. There are a variety of types of garbage, which must be separated and disposed of in different ways.
Food waste is usually comminuted and dumped at sea, since it poses no threat to marine life.
Solid waste can either be sent ashore for recycling or (if burnable) burned in an incinerator (outside of emission control areas with reference to Annex VI). Scrap metal and glass will be sent ashore for recycling. Although legally it cold be dumped at sea there is a financial incentive to sell scrap metal in port. Throwing plastic overboard is absolutely banned and companies can and have been fined for dumping plastic at sea. 

Oil is the most harmful waste stream and it is very heavily regulated by MARPOL Annex 1. Ships must keep a record of all waste oil disposed in an oil record book. Bilge water must be treated in an oily water separator and contain less than 15ppm of contamination before it can be pumped overboard. Waste oil can either be burned in an incinerator (see above) or boiler, or be sent ashore for disposal. 

Is cruising any worse for the environment than any other holiday? Well, yes. Certainly it's more harmful than backpacking/cycling holidays or a "staycation". Is a cruise from a UK port better than flying abroad? It depends on how far you're flying. A fly cruise to the Caribbean is probably the most harmful option. If you want to visit the Med, but want to avoid the pollution, it might be worth taking the train to Spain, France or Italy.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Anxious about public transport?

I've seen several posts recently on youtube and in facebook groups about people with autism spectrum conditions and anxiety struggling with public transport, especially when there are delays and cancellations, so here are some tips I use to cope:

Plan ahead. Book your tickets in advance if you can. Request assistance at the time of booking if you have a disability and need help with checking in and boarding. Research the route you're taking so you now where to change if neccessary.

Buses can't usually be booked in advance. You have to buy a ticket from the bus driver. Some bus companies don't give change while others do, so it's best to take some loose change with you so you can give the exact fare. Many companies now take contactless payment. Ticketing on buses can be confusing. Some companies do return tickets, some don't and some have day rover tickets. It's a good idea to research ticket types online before you travel. Unfortunately through ticketing may not be available if you need to change buses.
Most timetables are online and many of the major companies have mobile apps so you can check bus times before you leave the house.
Google maps is a great tool for checking the locations of bus stops. One problem I find is that a lot of bus routes aren't mapped, so you have to cross-check the timetable with a map to figure out where the route goes. When taking the bus in an unfamiliar area I have been known to follow the bus on google maps on my phone so I can see if a bus stop is coming up so I know when to ring the bell to stop the bus.
Another problem is that buses often don't run exactly to time. Some bus stops now have dot matrix signs to tell you when the next bus is, but these are quite rare. A mobile app may be a good investment in this case. If you miss your bus, as the saying goes, "there will be another one along in a minute".

The best thing about trains is that routes are mapped, stops are announced in advance and through ticketing is available. If there is disruption on one route, it's quite easy to find a diversionary route to get you to your destination, and if a train is unable to proceed, the company can put on a replacement bus service or allow tickets to be used on buses to get you to where you need to go. Guards and station staff are available to assist if required. If you are stuck, someone will be able to tell you how to get to where you are going. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Tickets should be bought before you board (unless you are boarding at an unstaffed halt, in which case the on-board staff will sell you a ticket). You can buy tickets in advance online or at a station, or you can just buy at the station when you travel, but often the cheapest fares will be online. If you need assistance (especially for wheelchair users) this must be booked in advance. A wide variety of ticket types are available. If you need help choosing, ask at the ticket office.
I find the Realtime Trains app incredibly helpful, as it allows you to see whether trains are delayed and what platform they are expected at for any station in the country.

If you're travelling internationally, the chances are you will end up flying. This will involve the double hassles of airport security and Customs & Immigration.
First of all, checking in. When you book your ticket, the airline should tell you how soon before the flight you need to arrive for check-in. Budget airlines such as easyjet prefer you to check in online and print your boarding pass at home before you go to the airport. If you have to change flights on your trip ask if the bags are checked in for the whole journey, or if you need to re-check your bags when you change planes. When changing planes in the USA, you will probably have to re-check your bags, but if you're travelling withing the EU this may not be necessary.
Prepare for security. Metal detectors will pick up belt buckles, keys, steel toecaps and spare change. It's best to wear trainers for flying and pack work boots in your checked luggage. Likewise, avoid wearing a belt. Stick to elasticated trousers that aren't going to fall down. Put keys and wallet in your hand luggage (you won't need your keys until you get home anyway) and keep your boarding card, passport and any other travel documents in a poly pocket. Some airports require laptops to be removed from hand luggage, so ask you to keep them in the bag. Ask a member of staff which it is before you get tot he front of the queue.
Immigration needs a lot of patience, tact and diplomacy. Be polite but firm with immigration officers. You may be stressed by having to wait in a queue but don't lose your temper with law enforcement. Have any documents you need in a poly pocket (as I said) ready to give to them. Inquire before you travel what documents you will need. The USA has a myriad of different forms to fill in depending on the nature of your trip, how long you are staying in the USA or whether you are a resident. Ask a member of staff to help filling in the form before you get to the front of the queue. If it isn't filled in properly you might be sent to the back of the queue again and nobody wants that.
When you finally reach the departure lounge, don't forget to arrive at the gate in good time. Some airports announce flights, some don't, so you have to keep an eye on the dot matrix screens. Don't get too engrossed in that book and miss your flight!
Delays and cancellations are rare, but when they do happen they can be catastrophic. It helps to have the phone number of your travel agent or a family member who can help you if you get stuck. If you have to stay overnight in a hotel, save all your receipts so you can claim compensation later on.

Ferry trips can vary from 10 minute hops across to a small island or longer international trips to the continent. These almost always have to be booked in advance, as aeroplanes do. You may travel either as a foot passenger or you can take your car with you. The check-in process for international ferries is much the same as at an airport, but without the security theatre. Loading is first come first served. If you arrive early, you may get put on an earlier ferry. Ferries are usually just an end-to-end journey without any changing or intermediate stops. Once you're there, you're there. Delays and cancellations can happen due to weather or mechanical failure, unfortunately in these events there are no alternatives, you just have to wait. Sit back, relax and enjoy your cooked breakfast.