Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Scotrail running short of trains

Even before this week's Forth road bridge closure, Scotrail was already suffering from overcrowding on many peak services. The opening of a whole new railway line to Tweedbank without purchasing any new trains to run on it has meant that the class 170/158 fleet has been spread very thin. Scotrail has for many years now operated a loco-hauled service during the evening rush hour on the Fife circle due to a lack of DMUs. Those trains will be needed now more than ever as the fleet is pushed past breaking point. Already there are reports of cancelled and reduced services as far away as Maryhill and Falkirk. Usually news of more passengers on the railway is welcome, but if trains are cancelled or overcrowded, people may be put off travelling again. Electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow route will bring new trains to the franchise in two years, but Scotrail is short of trains now, and simply can't wait that long. Scotrail need to hire in more trains, whether they are DMUs from another franchise, or more loco-hauled trains from DRS.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

GARL revived as light rail.

Having been cancelled due to budget cuts in 2009, the Glasgow Airport Rail Link looks set to be revived, but this time as a light railway:
I have several questions regarding the development:

  1. Will the "tram-train" be entirely grade separated, or will there be street-running?
  2. If there is street running, what will power the trains? 25kV AC is not really suitable for street running, so will it be battery-electric, dual voltage, diesel or even a Parry People Mover-style flywheel system?
  3. Will there be provision for freight (ie. Aviation fuel) to use the line? Prestwick airport gets its fuel by train. It makes sense for Glasgow to do the same.
I also hope there is an interchange at paisley Gilmour Street to serve passengers from Ayrshire. It would make no sense to have to go all the way into Glasgow Central to catch the train back out through Paisley again to get to the airport.
Edit: RailQwest are urging that GARL should be completed as heavy rail and not light rail. I fully agree with and support this stance.

P8 Poseidon fills capability gap.

Way back in the 1980s, the Ministry of Defence was trying to turn the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod into an Airborne Eartly Warning aircraft. After spending hundreds of millions of pounds trying to get the new radars to work, the project was cancelled and the government bought the Boeing E3 Sentry instead. However, the MoD apparently didn't learn the lesson. When the Nimrod MR2 became due for replacement in the 1990s, the Nimrod MRA4 programme was launched. This was to be a total rebuild of the MR2, with new engines, new wings and new avionics. However, fitting new wings to 50 year-old hand-built fuselages proved to be a problem. After spending many millions of pounds on the project, the government cancelled the MRA4 programme in 2010. However, this has left a bit gap in our Maritime Patrol capability. With Russian submarines carrying out incursions into British waters, something is needed to fill the gap. That something comes from the same source as the E3 Sentry; Boeing. The P8 Poseidon is designed to replace the ageing Lockheed P3 Orion. Poseidon is a brand new aircraft, based on the design of the popular 737 airliner. It will me much cheaper than MRA4, which begs the question, why did the government not purchase it in the first place, instead of wasting all that time on the MRA4? Probably because the P8 wasn't even in planning when MRA4 was proposed. Yes, the MRA4 was in development for so long that the P8 has gone from nothing to in service with the USA in less time than it took for BAe to rebuild the Nimrod.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Where's the dualling for the Highland main line?

A £3billion project has been started to dual the notorious A9 Perth-Inverness road, due for completion in 2025. This has been long campaigned-for by the road lobby, but is it really necessary? Yes the road is busy, but even in summer, it's not that busy. I've driven it many times and have never been stuck in traffic, except at road works. Meanwhile the parallel railway line is still single tracked in places and still features Victorian-era semaphore signalling. So where's the dualling for the Highland main line? If the railway was improved, it could take some of the traffic off the road, making it less busy and reducing the need for dualling, and it would also help the environment at the same time. The government should prioritise rail over road improvements to get people out of their cars (and freight off lorries) and onto trains.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Are the media overreacting over Shoreham airshow crash?

The tragic accident at the recent Shoreham air show has sent the popular media into a frenzy, with some calling for restrictions on flying of vintage aircraft at these events, and some asking whether air shows should be banned altogether. This seems like a typical tabloid overreaction. So let's have a reasoned debate. The cause of this particular crash has yet to be determined. Was it pilot error, or did something go wrong with the aircraft? Should vintage aircraft be performing aerobatics at all? Well, the aircraft in question, the Hawker Hunter, was built as a high performance combat aircraft. Aerobatics are what it was designed to do. But it is 50 years old now. You wouldn't take a Jaguar E-type to a drag strip and thrash it, but there's no reason why you couldn't take it for a spirited drive in the country. It should be up to the engineers who take care of the aircraft (not tabloid journalists) to judge what is a safe flight envelope for the plane to perform in.
But do we really need air shows at all? I enjoy the spectacle of an air show as much as the next man; the skill of the pilots is quite amazing. However in today's environmentally-conscious world, can we afford to burn jet fuel for fun? And what about all the smoke given off by the Red Arrows and similar display teams? Why is it OK for aircraft to emit potentially carcinogenic VOCs into the atmosphere, when other industries, such as shipping, are penalised for smoke emissions? Is it time for such polluting events to be consigned to history? Or are they simply a great way to encourage young people into the engineering and aerospace industries?

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Where next for Welsh narrow gauge?

For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the main industry of north-west Wales was slate quarrying. The quarries fed a dense network of narrow-gauge railways, including the Ffestiniog and Penrhyn lines. Today most of the slate quarries are shut and the ones that remain send their product by lorry. The railways, however, are seeing a rebirth as tourist lines, carrying sightseers through the beautiful Welsh countryside. The first railway in Britain to be preserved by a volunteer group was the Talyllyn Railway. From small beginnings in the 1950s, the Talyllyn inspired a movement that has shaped the tourist industry in Wales and throughout the UK. But the Talylluyn started out with a railway that was already intact. One of the most ambitious preservation projects of recent times was the rebuilding of the entire Welsh Highland Railway from nothing more than an empty trackbed. The WHR had been closed and lifted in the 1940s. Nothing remained. Despite the legal disputes and controversy, the determined enthusiasts finally completed the rebuilt Welsh Highland Railway in 2011. The original WHR only ran from Porthmadog (where it connects with the Ffestiniog railway) as far as Dinas, but the reborn railway continues as far as Caernarfon on the former BR trackbed.
Using standard gauge trackbed as a basis for narrow gauge tourist lines has been tried elsewhere, notably by the Bala lake railway. An interesting case is the Llanberis lake railway, which occupies the trackbed of the former 4 foot gauge Padarn railway. The Padarn Railway originally carried slate as far as port Dinorwic, on the north Wales coast. Llanberis was also served by a standard gauge railway, which ran to Caernarfon. One wonders whether it would be possible to extend the Llanberis lake railway on this route to Caernarfon to meet up with the Welsh Highland Railway?
Another famous slate line I mentioned earlier was the Padarn railway. Here, again, a group of volunteers are rebuilding part of the line as a museum. The WHR demonstrates what is possible. It will be interesting to see how much of the Padarn railway can be rebuilt.

Talyllyn railway:
Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways:
Bala lake railway:
Llanberis lake railway:
Padarn Railway:

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The future of the Land Rover Defender.

The Land Rover Defender is an institution. Evolved from the original Land Rover, which appeared on the market in 1948, the Defender is an exceptionally able off-road vehicle. Its main rival is the Jeep Wrangler, which evolved from the original world war 2 Willy's Jeep (itself the original inspiration for the Land Rover). The Land Rover quickly evolved from a basic soft-top short wheelbase Jeep copy into a modular design encompassing van, "station wagon" and pick-up variants in two (and eventually with the Defender, three) wheelbases. The Jeep stuck with a short wheelbase, soft top design for many years (gaining a plastic hard top later), but the body shape and interior design evolved over time. Nowadays the Wrangler has a long wheelbase model to match the Defender 110. The Land Rover still retains much of the design of the original model, and these days it has been subject to stiff competition from Japanese pick-up trucks, which offer more comfort for drivers and passengers. The Land Rover might be able to beat them off road, but the comfort levels are still stuck in the 1950s. Safety concerns are also an issue for the Defender. So it will soon be replaced by a new model. The DC100 prototype has given the world a sneak preview of what the new Defender will look like, but will it be good enough to compete with its old rival, the Jeep?
So what do I think the new Defender should be like?

  • The Defender has always had a separate chassis, which makes it easy for coach-built conversions such as fire engines, ambulances and caper vans. This feature needs to be retained.
  • It has also had a power take-off option. Although not quite to the level of the Mercedes-Benz Unimog, this does mean the Defender is a good platform to built a snowplough, cherry picker or anything else that needs hydraulic power.
  • Military Defenders and the Jeep Wrangler have a removable plastic hard top. This would be a nifty feature to have across the range. 
  • Fix the ergonomics. The worst thing about the Defender at the moment is that it is very uncomfortable, with little leg or elbow room and controls that are difficult to reach, a problem the Jeep has managed to avoid.
And now here is a gratuitous photo of some old Land Rovers:

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Whither the northern powerhouse?

George Osborne's pre-election pledge for a "northern powerhouse" to rebalance the economy away from London seems to have derailed mere months after the election. It has been announced that much-needed electrification work between Leeds and Manchester will be delayed due to financial worries. Meanwhile London Overground and Thameslink remain on track to receive brand new trains.
Away from the North of England and its "powerhouse", Scotland is faring little better. Prestwick airport in Ayrshire has lost £4million in the last financial year. Meanwhile Heathrow airport remains in rude health and some are arguing for a third runway to be built. On the rails, electrification to Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa was shelved some time ago along with GARL. It remains to be seen how soon we will see these projects restarted.
Going slightly off the transport theme for a moment, house prices in London continue to reach ludicrous hights, while those in Scotland remain in the doldrums.
London seems to be a black hole, sucking in wealth and investment from the surrounding nation. Unfortunately government soundbites aren't followed up with real action and the economy remains as skewed as ever.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

General election 2015

So the general election is just around the corner, so I decided to summarise the transport-related manifesto proposals from all the main parties.


  • £38billion investment int he railway network.
  • Commitment to HS2 and HS3. 
  • Electrify Great Western main line and Midland main line. 
  • Crossrail 2
  • £200 million "to make cycling safer" (cycling infrastructure?)
  • Many road improvements, including dualling the A1 north of Newcastle.
"We will continue to support the construction of High Speed Two, but keep costs down, and take action to improve and expand rail links across the North to boost its regional economies. We will support long-term investment in strategic roads, address the neglect of local roads, and promote cycling. Following the Davies Review, we will make a swift decision on expanding airport capacity in London and the South East, balancing the need for growth and the environmental impact."

Liberal Democrats:

  • Develop a comprehensive plan to electrify the overwhelming majority of the UK rail network, reopen smaller stations, restore twin-track lines to major routes and proceed with HS2, as the first stage of a high-speed rail network to Scotland.
  • Invest in major transport improvements and infrastructure. 
  • Transport for the North strategy to promote growth, innovation and prosperity across northern England.
  •  Develop more modern, resilient links to and within the South West peninsula to help develop and diversify the regional economy  
  • Complete East-West rail, connecting up Oxford and Cambridge and catalysing major new housing development.
  • Ensure London’s transport infrastructure is improved to withstand the pressure of population and economic growth. 
  • Work to encourage further private sector investment in rail freight terminals and rail-connected distribution parks. We will set a clear objective to shift more freight from road to rail and change planning law to ensure new developments provide good freight access to retail, manufacturing and warehouse facilities. 
  •  Opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick and any new airport in the Thames Estuary, because of local issues of air and noise pollution.  
  • Ensure new rail franchises include a stronger focus on customers, including requirements to integrate more effectively with other modes of transport and a programme of investment in new stations, lines and station facilities. 
  • Support a new generation of light rail and ultra-light rail schemes in towns and cities where local people want them. 

  • Connecting Scotland to HS2 as a priority, with construction beginning in Scotland as well as England, and a high speed connection between Glasgow, Edinburgh and the north of England as part of any high-speed rail network."
  • Pressing for a fair deal on fuel prices for rural areas
Scottish Green party:

  • Renationalise the railways
  • Scrap HS2
  • Campaign to re-open Manston airport to address the lack of airport capacity in the South East
  • Ensure speed cameras are used to improve road safety, not just to raise money.
  • End road tolls wherever possible
  • Oppose ‘pay-as-you-go’ road charging schemes 
  • Support British HGV drivers by charging foreign lorries extra to use our roads
  • Roll back the VED exemption for classic vehicles to 25 years.

Monday, 9 March 2015

New Caledonian Sleeper franchise ads another unnecessary layer of bureacracy to the railways.

 When the Transport Scotland consultation went out a few years ago suggesting separating the Caledonian Sleeper from the Scotrail franchise as an option, I objected, suggesting to either keep it as part of Scotrail or include it in either the West Coast or Cross Country franchises (the sleepers were nominally part of Intercity under British Rail) on the grounds that a separate franchise would cost more to run and effectively be the country's smallest franchise, only operating four trains a day (two going north and two south, although both trains split into 2-3 portions north of Carstairs). What would be the point in having a whole franchise just to run these few trains? So it's finally here; the new Caledonian sleeper franchise, which will be operated by Serco from 1st April, with locomotives supplied by GBRF (instead of DB Schenker as is the case at the moment). This could almost be an April fool's joke as the locos that will haul the train in the highlands will be Class 73 Electro-diesels; a type designed to run on the DC third rail-electrified regions of the South East and the Wirral. Why not stick with DBS and its proven Class 67s, or go to DRS and its Class 68s? Cost must be the obvious answer. But why the need to borrow locos from a freight company at all? With the supply of new Sleeper coaches (to be built by CAF in Spain) imminent, why not acquire a few locomotives (either new or second hand) and drivers for Serco itself? The use of third-party locomotives is not unique to the Caledonian Sleeper. Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales also have long-term arrangements with DBS for supply of Class 67s. Under British Rail, where everything was owned by the same organisation, you could easily more locos and drivers between sectors. Under our fragmented system of Privatisation, such arrangements are complex and no doubt require a lot of back-room staff and lawyers to arrange. It's time to re-integrate our railways, not break them up even further.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

I have a car! And why crossovers are the way for the future.

Crossovers. Part 4x4, part family car. They have become incredibly popular in the last few years, but the concept is not a new one. Jeep's Jeepster of 1948 was an early attempt to mate the practical body of a Jeep with an inexpensive two-wheel-drive drivetrain. Rover's "Road Rover" prototype of the 1950s was a more refined concept, but never made it to production. The Range Rover eventually became a successful, refined 4x4, but it still retained all the off-road engineering of its Land Rover brother. The Land Rover Freelander introduced the concept of the "soft roader", a vehicle with slightly less off road hardware, resulting in a lower price. In the late 1990s, demand for family 4x4s rocketed. However most of these vehicles never went off road. The time was right for a vehicle with the looks and practicality of a 4x4 with the economy of a regular estate car. The Nissan Qashqai, introduced in 2006, was an immediate success, with more than 39,000 sales in 2010 making it the tenth best selling new car in Britain. Other car companies have jumped on the bandwagon, with "crossover"models in varying sizes and styles. Some are more "soft-roader" like the Skoda Yeti, which is available with or without four-wheel drive. Others are essentially restyled or re-engineered conventional cars like the Volvo XC70, which is a 4x4 variant of the V70 estate car, or the Rover 25 Streetwise, which was a regular Rover 25 with chunky plastic bumpers and styling modifications. Similar to the latter is the Ford Fusion, which is based on the Fiesta chassis, but with raised suspension and a chunky 4x4-style body. It's a practical little car, although it's not very sporty. I just bought one and I love it. It's economical (the 1.4TDCi diesel I own managing 52mpg), practical (with a relatively large estate-style boot) and good looking. Confusingly, the Fusion name is used in the US market on an executive saloon, but that's a whole other subject.