Saturday, 2 October 2021

Truck driver shortage is an opportunity for modal shift.

 Recent days have seen reports of panic buying of fuel as the media have suggested a fuel shortage due to a lack of truck drivers to deliver to petrol stations. This brings up two issues:

1. A shortage of truck drivers.

2. Car dependency.

Let's deal with the driver shortage first. Brexit has resulted in many European drivers quitting the UK, and the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a backlog of trainee drivers needing to be tested. This has created the perfect storm of a driver shortage, which will affect deliveries of all manner of products. Fuel tanker drivers need additional hazardous goods training, which exacerbates the problem for that particular trade.

To cut down on the number of lorries on the road (all of which need drivers), industry must look to getting more freight on the railways. Of course trucks are still needed to deliver to petrol stations, supermarkets, and high street shops. However longer distance trunking routes between suppliers and regional distribution centres should be moved onto the railways, freeing up truck drivers for local deliveries as well as reducing pollution. Bulk movements of commodities such as timber, cement, grain, etc. are obvious targets for modal shift. With the rise of online shopping and home deliveries, parcels traffic should return to the railways as well. 

Panic buying is a symptom of wider cultural issues, but car dependency is one problem that can be easily solved. Cars themselves are a very inefficient way of moving people around, particularly for commuting and short journeys. Investment in active travel and public transport should provide the public with car-free alternatives that pollute less and aren't dependent on a finite and fickle resource for fuel. Electric cars will also help in this area, but should not be relied upon as a solution to problems such as pollution and congestion. since an electric car takes up the same amount of space on the road as an internal combustion-engined car, and also consumes the same amount of material to build. Petrol shortages have happened before, yet every time queues form outside petrol stations, nobody stops to ask "can we get by without the car?" It's time to stop relying on the car and look for alternatives.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Undoing Beeching could wipe out heritage operations.

Back in the 1960s, when British Railways were closing "unremunerative" branch lines left, right and centre, plucky bands of volunteers stepped in to save scenic branch lines and the steam trains that ran on them up and down the country. Over the subsequent decades, the heritage railway sector has become a massive part of Britain's tourist industry, as well as saving some pretty important historical trains, stations and other infrastructure. Volunteers have spent decades carefully curating their railways to present an idealised image of a bygone era. There's only one problem. Now the government want to rebuild some of the lines that previous generations closed and these steam railways are standing in the way. The Rossendale to Manchester route for instance could be a strategic commuter route for local residents. however, the East Lancashire Railway is currently occupying the trackbed. Likewise the Spa Valley Railway stands in the way of Brighton Main Line 2 and a potential reopening of the Matlock to Buxton Line would result in Peak Rail being shunted into the sidings. So what is to be done? local commuters need these reopenings to relieve congestion and cut down on CO2 emissions, but closing the heritage railways would hurt the local tourist trade. The simplest answer would of course be to simply shut up shop, sell or donate rolling stock to other nearby heritage railways and let Network Rail move in. Peak Rail, for instance, is practically next door to the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway. Does the area really need two heritage lines, or could the two railways co-locate? This solution wouldn't work so well for the ELR as there are no other heritage lines close to Manchester. Another solution would be to allow heritage trains to operate over Network Rail lines or vice-versa. This would be a legal and managerial nightmare, but not entirely impossible as the NYMR Whitby trains (operating over the NR line from Grosmont to Whitby) demonstrate. You could potentially have National Rail trains running Monday to Friday and have the heritage operation running weekends-only. A third option might be to simply convert the heritage loco sheds to static museums with no operating trains. This would not go down well with the volunteers or visiting public, who want to actually ride on the trains.
So which is more important? A museum (or more derogatorily "toy") railway for tourists and enthusiasts to enjoy of a weekend, or a modern, functioning mass transit system to move people and goods?

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Is there a future for domestic air travel?

The recent collapse of flybe has made headlines, but many in the industry have seen this coming for some time. The short-haul airline was operating on a flawed business plan and had been in financial trouble for some time before the sudden drop-off in passenger numbers caused by the COVID-19 outbreak tipped it over the edge.
But with the climate crisis and the rise of the flygskam movement, can short-haul flights continue to be justified? To avert the climate crisis, there will need to be fewer planes in the sky. However, this will inevitably hit the profit margins of the airlines. Can short-haul airlines remain viable businesses?
Within mainland Britain and Europe, rail (and high-speed rail in particular) is the main competitor for short-haul air travel. However in the UK, rail is very highly priced compared to budget airlines. If you can get where you're going faster for less, why bother taking the train? For the sake of the environment, higher air passenger duty could be used to subsidise rail fares, encouraging more people to take the train.
Air travel starts to look much more appealing when you get out into the islands. The Hebrides and the Orkney and Shetland islands are a long ferry ride away from the mainland. Air travel is much, much faster for foot passengers and mail. But out here, passenger numbers are far less, meaning airlines need to use much smaller aircraft to make routes economical. But with the speed advantage, airlines should be able to charge a premium over the ferry operators for foot passengers.
Can the airline industry be saved? Should it be allowed to fail?
Long-haul airlines will probably be alright, as air travel has such an advantage over sea travel. Short-haul airlines are inevitably going to lose out as people turn from air to rail travel to save the planet. I suspect the era of the budget airline may soon come to an end and we may return to the days when air travel was a premium service for the well-to-do.

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