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: