Saturday, 3 June 2017

Buses need to be more user-friendly.

I have something of a love-hate relationship with buses. I love buses, the actual vehicles themselves, but travelling on them can be quite stressful at times, especially in an unfamiliar area. There are several factors that contribute to this:

  • No or poor route maps. Train and metro networks are usually well-mapped and journeys are easy to plan. Bus routes often aren't.
  • Some buses give change, but many don't. If you don't know what the price of a bus journey is going to be, you may not have the right fare to hand.
  • Confusing ticket types. Some companies sell return tickets, some do not and in some cases a day ticket can be cheaper than a return so you may not be getting the best deal if you are unfamiliar with the fare structure.
  • You need to know when your stop is coming up to let the driver know to stop. If you're new to an area, you may not know where you need to get off. Train station stops are often announced and trains stop without the need to ask the driver.
  • Surly drivers. If there's one thing guaranteed to put people off the bus, it's poor customer service.
Bus companies need to up their game to make it easier to travel by bus. Attracting more customers to public transport is important if congestion and pollution are to be reduced.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Council elections are a chance to stop the NIMBYs.

The Mossend International Railfreight Park is a controversial development at the well-established Mossend freight terminal near Bellshill. The development is said by local residents, including Labour councillors, to impinge on greenbelt land. The council has objected to the scheme, which is backed by the Scottish government at Holyrood. Today's council elections might be a game-changer, however. It all depends whether Labour retain the council, or will they be replaced by the SNP, who are more likely to listen to their masters in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Could Britain ever have double-deck trains?

Double-decker trains. They're fairly common in North America and continental Europe, where they allow increased passenger numbers for the same length of train, but they have never been adopted in the UK because of our restrictive loading gauge. Britain was one of the first places in the world to build railways, which unfortunately means a lot of our infrastructure (bridges, tunnels, etc) was built at a time when railway carriages were smaller. Now overcrowding is common, and Britsh railways need to accommodate more people. Longer trains have been introduced, but there comes a point where you just can't add any more carriages. The only way to expand is upwards!
Double-deck tramcars were used all over the UK for many years, but adding a top deck never happened on the railways. The Southern region of British Railways experimented with a "double-decker" EMU designed by Oliver Bulleid, which instead of being a true double-decker (as a bus or tramcar), it has dovetailed compartments that resembled a mezzanine more than an extra level.
Now one designer may have come up with a solution. Andreas Vogler's Aeroliner 3000 design has the end vestibules (over the bogies) at platform height, but the centre of the carriage is split into two decks, with the floor of the bottom deck below platform level allowing space for a top deck above. The design is similar, but more compact than the Dutch class DD IR-M double-deck EMUs (pictured).
The building of High Speed 2 presents an opportunity to create a new line to continental loading gauge. This would allow double-deck TGVs (as used in France) to use the line. Of course rebuilding would have to take place at stations or anywhere these trains had to go onto "classic lines".

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Defining standards for passenger train accommodation.

Amongst all the railway enthusiasts on facebook (and IRL) there is (and has always been) a certain amount of banter about which trains are "the best". Among enthusiasts styling, the ability to see out of windows and provision of tables are most normally the highest priorities when it comes to rolling stock. Complaints abound that modern "plastic rubbish" isn't as good as old BR Mk1 stock, where all the seats lined up with the windows. But for the modern day traveller, such quirks come secondary to facilities such as wifi, and the ability to find a seat at all (just check out the facebook page of any TOC to see the number of complaints about the unavailability of wifi.)
To define what I think makes a good train, I've come up with a list of standards of what I think trains should provide, categorised by the type of route the train is on.

  1. Inter-city trains. These mostly are the fast expresses running to London termini, but also include longer distance Cross-country services such as Aberdeen-Penzance. Journeys of 3-8 hours require comfortable seating with sufficient legroom and catering, ideally from a full buffet as full meals, rather than mere snacks are likely to be required. Sufficient luggage space will be required for people going on holiday or on long trips away. First class accommodation will be required and of course toilets! Doors will be at the end of the carriages to provide a comfortable, draught-free cabin environment. Best practice example: Class 390 Pendolino. While some criticise these units for small or no windows and a generally "enclosed" feel, they have loads of legroom, even in airline-style seats, a shop selling burgers and drinks and charging points for laptops, tablets and smartphones. Worst practice example: Class 220 Voyager. For long distance services, these trains are far too small, often having to run as pairs, which necessitates doubling-up of catering crews since there is no gangway connection between units. Legroom is poor and the noise from underfloor engines is intrusive. For diesel services I would prefer locomotive haulage to a DMU.
  2. Cross-country/Inter regional. With journeys of 1-3 hours between Glasgow and Aberdeen or Glasgow and Manchester, for instance, accommodation needn't be as lavish as Inter-city trains, but adequate legroom and luggage space is still required. Catering may be provided by a trolley and DMUs with underfloor engines become more tolerable. First class accommodation is still desirable and of course there must still be toilets. Best practice example: Class 170 Turbostar. With comfortable seating and a tea trolley, a turbostar is a relatively pleasant way to enjoy the 3 hour journey from the central belt to Aberdeen. They are quiet by DMU standards and have enough luggage space for those expecting an extended stay at their destination. 
  3. Outer suburban/Rural. This category takes in a wide range of services, but generally involves trains running between towns and cities to smaller towns and villages in hinterlands, such as London to Brighton or Glasgow to Ayr. It also encompasses services on rural branch lines, where passenger numbers are generally lower, and services to ferries and airports, where extra luggage space is required. Journey times are up to 2 hours, but may be longer on some services to more remote parts of Scotland for instance (in which case a tea trolley may be provided). First class accommodation is not required, but may be offered on services to larger cities. Best practice: Class 380 Desiro. These new trains have transformed services to Ayrshire, bringing more luggage space and free wifi to south-west Scotland. Worst practice: Class 142 Pacer. The ubiquitous "railbus" has no legroom, no luggage space and is noisy and uncomfortable. Simply the worst train on British Railways.
  4. Inner City commuter trains. People movers. These trains carry workers and students to their place of business. Journeys are generally less than 1 hour and passenger numbers are extremely high, so numbers of seats are more important than luggage space. Catering is not required. First class accommodation is not required. Wide double doors in 1/3 and 2/3 positions allow for rapid loading and unloading. Best practice: Class 313 family. The PEP-derived trains (classes 313, 314, 315, 445, 446, 507 and 508, which share a common body with AC or DC power in 2, 3 and 4-car formations) These veteran units are approaching the end of their service lives, but still set the standard for commuter trains. Worst practice: It's those pesky class 142s again. On unelectrified commuter routes, the 142 is outclassed by the class 150 Sprinters.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

X points the way to Vegas

Given its notable tourist industry, you would think that Las Vegas, Nevada would have a frequent passenger train service. Sadly, this is not the case. In fact Amtrak haven't served the city since 1997. Now, however, a new private venture is hoping to tempt tourists out of their cars and onto the rails. It's called the X train, and the intention is to run as an open-access operator on what are currently freight-only rails from Los Angeles and Fullerton to Las Vegas, using heritage rolling stock. It's an ambitious scheme, but it will cost much less than a controversial high speed line being proposed by rivals XpressWest. In the long term, the HSR option might be the best one. The very reasons Amtrak pulled out were low ridership caused by long journey times and low frequency, in turn caused by sharing the tracks with slow freight trains. High Speed Rail would eliminate the freight/passenger conflict and allow a faster, more frequent service. However, the problem as usual is money, with Chinese investors reportedly pulling out of a deal with XpressWest. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

It's not easy being DC

The Southern Railway and its predecessors were early adopters when it came to electrification, and most of the former Southern region is currently electrified to 750vDC, third rail. However, third rail electrification is considered outmoded and most lines electrified since the 1960s have been with 25kvAC overhead wires. This combination of systems is now causing a lot of head-scratching when it comes to filling the gaps in electrification in the South East. North of the Thames, there are a number of places where 750vDC meets 25kvAC, and trains need to be dual voltage. The London Overground is an obvious example. The Gospel Oak-Barking line is currently being electrified to 25kvAC, which is sensible, as it carries a great deal of freight destined for the 25kvAC West Coast main line, but many of the other Overgound lines are third rail DC.
South of the Thames, there are only a handful of dieselised lines remaining. One is the Wealden line to Uckfield. It is surrounded by third rail lines, but the Wealden line campaign want it electrified with overhead wires, to connect to a proposed line to Croydon. This seems very ambitious, and I would say a more realistic option would be to electrify the existing line with 3rd rail and possibly rebuild the Wealden line to Brighton (which would run through the currently preserved Lavender line).
Another feasible candidate for 3rd rail electrification is the North Downs line from Reading to Gatwick Airport. Parts of the line are already electrified to 750vDC, so it would make sense to use this system for the rest of the line.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Putting all our eggs in one airport is the wrong choice.

It was announced today that a third runway at Heathrow is to get the go-ahead, despite opposition from environmental groups and local residents. While supporters of the scheme rave about the economical benefits, the plan concentrates airport capacity in the South-East of England. Surely it would benefit regional airports like Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to have more international flights terminating at those airports instead of using Heathrow as the sole hub for the UK? Again, London suffers badly from air pollution, so it would make sense to move aircraft away from London. With HS2 imminent, Birmingham is in an ideal position to share international routes with the London hubs. If the idea of high speed rail is to bring the midlands (and eventually the north) closer to London, it's time to move airport capacity away from the capital.