Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The death of railway architecture.

Back in the day, railway stations were the height of building design. From the Victorian magnificence of St. Pancras, Glasgow Central and other major termini, to the art deco beauty of Girvan, the Edwardian elegance of Wemyss Bay, even small stations had comfortable waiting rooms in attractive buildings. By the 1970s and 1980s, railway architecture had become far more utilitarian. The attractive buildings of Stranraer and Motherwell were replaced by ugly concrete and steel carbuncles. The ambition of those older railway companies, who used their buildings as a form of advertising, was destroyed by nationalised austerity. Now in the post-privatisation era, is it time to put the ambition back into railway stations? Maybe yes, maybe no. Network Rail, who own the stations, are still a nationalised entity, with little budget for lavish ornamentation. The vast majority of re-opened stations have been unstaffed halts such as Larkhall, stations on the Airdrie-Bathgate line and on the Borders railway. However, where a substantial station has been built, such as Alloa or Edinburgh Park, the buildings tend to be relatively bland grey boxes. Not unattractive, just... dull. They don't make you go "wow". I want to see a bit more ambition in railway architecture. Even if a building is modern, it can still be attractive. Take Glasgow's Riverside museum, for instance. The wavy design is an icon in itself. Let's get creative with railway station design. A good place to start would be Largs. The original station was destroyed by a train crash in the 1990s, and was replaced with a small waiting room on the platform, while the old shop fronts around the original entrance were retained. A better idea would be to start afresh, knock the whole lot down and build something amazing.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Baffling bi-modes.

Electrification; it's good for the environment and good for train operators and passengers, but it's a very slow, expensive process. Back in the 1960s when the west coast main line was being electrified northwards from Euston, electric locomotives would haul the train as far as Crewe, and later Preston, where a class 50 diesel would take over to pull the train along the yet-to-be electrified sections onward to Glasgow. Once the wires were up all the way to Glasgow in 1974, the class 50s were reallocated to the western region. However, swapping locos is a time consuming business. What if an electric loco could carry its own diesel engine for the bits of track with no electricity supply? The southern region's solution was the class 73 electro-diesel. On the 3rd rail electrified network it worked as an electric locomotive, but where the 3rd rails ended it had a diesel engine to power it. Fast forward to the 21st century and a new breed of electro-diesel locomotive has been introduced: the class 88. It can work off the 25kv overhead wires, or use an on-board diesel generator on non-electrified railways. It could potentially be used with the Mk5 "Nova 3" loco-hauled sets being procured by Transpennine Express, although these will be hauled by conventional class 68 diesel locos initially.
A different solution is offered by the Class 800 IEP train, which is essentially a DEMU fitted with a pantograph. These are intended to replace Intercity 125 high-speed trains. However the Class 800 units are far shorter, coming in either 5 or 9-car sets. Given the inadequacy of 5-car Class 221 Voyager trains on Intercity routes, one wonders why any TOC would bother with a 5-car class 800? But I digress...
A more unconventional electro-diesel comes in the form of the Class 755  train for the Greater Anglia franchise. This is almost the opposite of the class 800, being built primarily as a conventional EMU, but with a separate power car containing four diesel generators. To convert the train from electro-diesel to straight electric, it is simply a matter of removing the power car from the train. As electrification spreads and the need for electro-diesels is reduced, this seems like a good way of keeping a train in service for longer. A class 800 would require considerable time in the workshop to remove all of its diesel engines.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

It's time to give up on franchising.

Once again, the East Coast Main Line franchise has failed leading the government to take back the route and hand it to to a nationalised "operator of last resort". Last time it was National Express East Coast who couldn't afford the premium payments they had agreed to. This time it's Virgin Trains East Coast. Exactly the same problem, exactly the same result.This time, instead of branding the line "East Coast", the nationalised franchise will be called "LNER", to perhaps evoke the good old days of the pre-nationalised operator. Back then of course, LNER owned all the track, designed, built and ran all their own trains without the government specifying their services. Franchising is a different kettle of fish. Tracks are owned by public sector Network Rail, trains are leased from ROSCOs, and the new IEP trains that will replace BR-era rolling stock on the route is being specified by the Department for Transport. The franchisee is merely there to sell tickets and provide customer service. Which makes privatisation a joke. In any other business (including on the railways before 1948), a private company raises capital and invests it in making and/or selling goods/services. They have total freedom to specify the design of their product, the level of service they provide and the price they can charge. On the railways, the franchisee bids to run a service. They tell the government how much they will pay back to the treasury (or how little subsidy they want in the case of loss-making services) and the DfT picks the highest bidder. Services are tightly specified by the government, taking all decision making out of the hands of the franchisee. The flaw is, if the company overbids (as was the case on the East Coast route) they can run out of money and then have to pull out leaving the government to pick up the pieces. The trains must still run even if the franchise fails. All for the illusion of private enterprise. It's a farce. It would be far simpler to go back to British Rail. Have the whole network run by the public sector. Profits go back into the railways instead of the pockets of private shareholders. The service remains the same. The need for re-branding every few years is eliminated. The need for rewriting contracts every few years is eliminated. Money is saved by getting rid of a pointless and expensive bidding process. The taxpayer wins, railway employees win, passengers win.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Why that Scotrail Alliance soundbite is wrong on so many levels.

“We are building the best railway that Scotland has ever had”, said ScotRail Alliance Programmes and Transformation Director Ian McConnell as testing of new Class 385s on the newly electrified Edinburgh to Glasgow route last month. It's a bold claim, but is it true? Well that depends on your definition of "best". How do you define "best? And if we are to call this route "the best Scotland has ever had", how does it compare to every other railway Scotland has ever had?
Does it have the best scenery? No. The Falkirk High route isn't exactly pretty, running through the industrialised central belt, so if scenery is your thing, no it's not the best railway in Scotland. Not even close. The West Highland extension trumps it by miles. 
Does it have the best trains? No. The Buchanan Street to Aberdeen "3 hour expresses" of the 1960s ran with ex-LNER A4 pacifics. Ex-GWR High Speed Trains will be introduced on the modern equivalent service from Queen Street when displaced by IEPs down south. The Caledonian Sleeper and Virgin East Coast High Speed Trains are all more comfortable than anything currently in use by Scotrail. Virgin West Coast run Pendolinos from Glasgow to Carlisle via Motherwell and Lockerbie. Need I go on?
Does it have the best catering? Again, no. Just a tea trolley.
Does it have the fastest trains? No. The East and West Coast Main lines heading south are faster.
Does it have the most frequent trains? No. Glasgow suburban services are more frequent.
Does it have the best looking trains? No. they're hideous, but at least they aren't as ugly as class 380s.
Yes, the modernisation will mean trains are greener, faster and more frequent than ever on Scotrail's flagship route, but having seen the mock-up class 385 interior on display, they certainly won't be as comfortable as the trains they are replacing, and even they aren't as quiet or as comfortable as the push-pull Mk 3 sets that ran on this route back in the '80s. The improvements therefore make the E&G line better in some areas, but not the best.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Power gives way to sail

For many centuries, man sailed the ocean by wind power alone. Then along came steam and diesel power, with bigger, steel-hulled ships that allowed people and goods to be moved faster and in greater quantities than ever before. However, environmental concerns over burning fossil fuels have recently put pressure on the shipping industry to cut fossil fuel consumption. While bigger container and cruise ships allow economy of scale, these ships are still heavy polluters and now a few companies are attempting to bring back sail power.
Star Clippers are a long-established cruise company who operate some of the largest sailing ships afloat today. Their cruises are marketed towards those who want to experience the "romance of sail", but with all modern conveniences. Windstar Cruises ships are far more modern looking but cater to a similar market. Much smaller startup Voyage Vert are most definitely aimed at the ethical traveller. They are refitting a former ocean racing yacht as a cruise ship with the emphasis on low passenger numbers, and "hands-on" involvement where Windstar ships are more like full-size cruise ships with sails.
Moving cargo as well as people is the aim of the Sail Cargo Alliance, an association of four ships: Tres Hombres, Nordlys, Avontuur and Grayhound. These traditional sailing vessels move small quantities of high-value cargo, such as rum and wine, while also offering passengers a "hands-on" sailing experience. Another, similar venture, with a new-build ship is the Ceiba, being built by Costa Rica-based Sailcargo inc. This ship, built on traditional lines, will carry cargo up and down the pacific coast of the Americas. A much bigger and more modern cargo ship is proposed by Neoline. This hi-tech ro-ro cargo ship is similar in style to the Windstar cruise ships and, in the author's opinion, represents the way ahead for commercial sailing ship design, which will deliver goods economically and in quantities to satisfy the demands of the modern economy.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Blurred tramlines

Conventional wisdom is that trams are those bus-like things that run on rails in the street and trains are those long things that run on grade-separated tracks to big stations, and never the twain shall meet. However, the new Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train is rubbing away at that distinction. Based on an idea pioneered in Karlsruhe, Germany, the tram-train runs on conventional tramlines in the city centre, then transferring seamlessly to heavy rail lines to go further afield. It's not the first time trams and trains have shared tracks in the UK. Prior to 1967, freight destined for Fairfield's shipyard in Goven used the tracks of Glasgow corporation tramway to access the shipyard. However, there are technical barriers to allowing tramcars onto the railway. Vehicles need to meet crashworthiness standards and be compatible with signalling on the "main line". Another issue is power supply. A tram-train is proposed to connect to Glasgow Airport, but the main line between Glasgow and Paisley is electrified to 25kv AC, while street running trams are limited to 750v DC power, meaning tramcars would need dual-voltage electrical systems. Another potential tram-train route is in Edinburgh, where re-opening of the south suburban line is currently blocked by congestion at Edinburgh Waverley station, but a tram-train could bypass the station by transferring onto the Edinburgh tram lines.
In British railway history, there have been a few lines that have blurred the distinction between tramways and railways, such as the Swansea and Mumbles railway in Wales. Now a new generation of tram-trains is set to continue breaking boundaries.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Oban passengers want trains, not buses.

Back in 2015, I was returning home from the Skerryvore Decade festival in Oban by train. Attempting to board the train at Oban, I was lucky that I had pre-booked tickets because the train was full, and rather than adding additional coaches to the train, Scotrail had provided a replacement bus service for walk-up passengers. This would seem rather unfair to people who, having paid for a train, were given a bus instead. Having witnessed this, I feel some sympathy for anyone taking the Caledonian Sleeper to Crianlarich with the intention of travelling to Oban. The first train to Oban in the morning leaves Crianlarich at 0718, to arrive in Oban at 0835. The Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William stops at Crianlarich at 0745, just missing the Scotrail train. the next train to Oban isn't until 1015, so to ensure that their passengers aren't left waiting in Crianlarich for two and a half hours, those nice people at Serco have laid on a bus to get their passengers to Oban. Now if I was a train passenger, I would be rather miffed at being shoved onto a bus when there is a perfectly good railway there. This sort of thing would probably be avoided if the sleeper was still part of the Scotrail franchise, or if the whole lot was nationalised, but now the two trains are operated by separate companies, who have no obligation to connect to each other's services. Hopefully, with the electrification of the Shotts line coming next year, more class 156s will be released to increase frequency on the rural routes, such as Oban, Stranraer and Dumfries. There are also suggestions that Caledonian Sleeper could start providing a direct portion to Oban themselves. A direct Oban sleeper was trialled in February last year when the route to Fort William was closed for engineering work.