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.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

How feasible is ferry to Norway?

Way back in 2008, DFDS cancelled its Newcastle-Bergen ferry due to losses, leaving tourists the options of flying, or taking the car the long way round through Europe to get the ferry across from Denmark.  Since then, there have been several abortive attempts to try and restart the service (most recently by British Scandinavian), and there's a campaign group trying to start a service as a co-operative. Meanwhile in Scotland, many MSPs have come out in support of a service from Aberdeen, but sop far there has been lots of talk and very little action. The main problem here is the distance involved. There's a lot of sea between Britain and Norway, which means high fuel costs. The shortest convenient crossing would be between Aberdeen and Stavanger. Government subsidy might make a link more feasible. Climate challenge or similar funding might be made available.Freight still has the option of the DFDS freight ferry from Immingham to Brevik. DFDS also runs a ro-pax ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam, which is a similar length route to Aberdeen-Stavanger.  If a freight-only ferry on a longer route can run at a profit, why can't DFDS, or even Northlink run a combined freight/tourist ferry on a shorter crossing?

Monday, 5 September 2016

WCML local services

Watching a class 350 speed past Motherwell today made me think: Some Virgin trains stop at Motherwell, but Transpennine Express do not (weirdly their Edinburgh services do call at Haymarket). You would think the slower, more "local" TPX trains would stop at places Virgin's Pendolinos do not. Same for Carstairs. (Transpennine Express do call at Lockerbie.) If Beattock station gets rebuilt (as is the aim of the Beattock Station Action Group), whose trains will call there? If I were in charge of the network, I would put Transpennine Express in charge of stopping trains, calling at the intermediate stations on the route (Motherwell, Carstairs, Beattock and Lockerbie), and have the faster/longer-distance Virgin trains going non-stop to Carlisle.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

UK train building boosted.

Not so long ago, the train building industry in the UK was in a parlous state. Alstom closed its plant at Washwood Heath in 2005, leaving Bombardier at Derby as the only builder of passenger trains in Britain. Bombardier itself almost halved its workforce 2011. But now the industry is back in growth. Bombardier is building trains for Gatwick Express and Crossrail, Hitachi is opening a new factory in Newton Aycliffe to produce IEP and class 385 trains, and now CAF has announced it is to open a new factory in the UK. The Spanish firm recently won an order from Northern to replace unpopular Pacer units with more comfortable, modern trains. With expansion and electrification of the railway network underway across the country, demand for new trains continues to grow. This is good news for the British manufacturing industry.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

TS Queen Mary returns to the Clyde

The last surviving Clyde Turbine steamer has returned to the Scotland for restoration. TS Queen Mary has a fascinating history. Built in Dumbarton in 1933, she was renamed Queen Mary II in 1935, to avoid confusion with the Cunard liner Queen Mary (now preserved in the USA). She retired from service in 1977 and was eventually moved to the Thames, where she became a floating restaurant. Having fallen into disrepair, she has now been rescued from scrapping by the Friends of TS Queen Mary. With so many former steamers and ferries scrapped or at risk (including Southsea, Ryde, Lincoln Castle, Dover and Duke of Lancaster), to save one for preservation is a great achievement. Sadly her engines were removed when she was converted into a restaurant, so a return to seagoing service is practically impossible, but she will form a museum on the Clyde and her beautiful 1930s interiors will be restored.

Filling the Defender gap

With the Land Rover Defender and Iveco/Santana Massif now off the market, Ovik (who have experience in up-armouring Land Rovers for the MOD and PSNI) have developed a vehicle that looks rather like a butch Defender: the Crossway. The Crossway comes in a heavy 6x6 variant, which pushes it into Pinzgauer territory, so it could also be seen as a replacement for that vehicle (which has also ceased production).

Meanwhile Supacat have developed a reconnisance vehicle based on the Land Rover Discovery: http://supacat.com/products/lrv400/

With the Defender replacement rumoured to be based on the Discovery platform, does this give us a clue as to what a Defender replacement might look like?


***UPDATE***
The boss of oil giant Ineos, Jim Ratcliffe, has announced his intention to build a "spiritual successor" to the Defender. Details of the vehicle are non-existent at the minute: http://www.autoexpress.co.uk/land-rover/defender/96387/ineos-confirms-plans-to-create-uncompromising-off-roader

Monday, 9 May 2016

New Antarctic survey ship to be named RRS Sir David Attenborough.

If operation best Korea has taught us anything, it's that you should never ask the internet to make a decision for you. So it was no surprise that in an online poll to choose a name for the British Antarctic Survey's new ship, the name "Boaty McBoatface" came out on top. In the end, the powers that be have decided to name the ship after famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough, whose name came fourth in the poll, and who has done much work over the years to make the study of nature accessible to the general public. It is reported that the name Boaty McBoatface will go to one of the ship's ROVs. The ship's keel will be laid at Cammell Laird in October. This investment will be good for British science and good for British shipbuilding. It is fitting that an icon of popular science will give his name to the ship.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Closure of WCML highlights resilience issues

The closure of the West Coast Main Line over January (and now into February) 2016 highlights the need for alternative routes during closures and disruption. Trains have been diverted via the G&SW and East Coast main Lines for the duration, but many passenger services have had to be replaced by buses. The G&SW main line via Dumfries and Kilmarnock is a handy alternative route between Glasgow and Carlisle, but it suffers from a lack of capacity. There are several stretches of single track, and it is not electrified. A double tracked, electrified line would allow the use of Pendolinos, class 350s and electric-hauled freight on the route.
The campaign for Borders Rail has also highlighted the fact that a fully-rebuilt Waverley route to Carlisle would allow Carlisle-Edinburgh trains to be re-routed that way, instead of being replaced by buses. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-35412900
Again, the route as built so far is single track and not electrified. In the long term, such upgrades may become necessary.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Falcon 9 is go!

History was made on 21 December 2015 as Falcon 9 became the first rocket to ever return from space and land vertically on a pad, Thunderbird 3-style. Well, almost. What actually landed was the first stage booster, while the second stage carried on into space to deploy a number of communication satellites. Up until now, multi-stage rockets have discarded their initial stages to burn up in the atmosphere or crash into the sea. Reusable spaceships have been a dream of engineers for decades. The Space shuttle was the most successful so far, but it still relied on disposable solid fuel boosters to get it into space. Space X's Falcon 9 may lead to fully reusable space rockets like the fictional Thunderbird 3, massively reducing the cost of getting into space.
http://www.spacex.com/
Rockets are the traditional means of getting into space, but the stresses of acceleration have limited rocket travel to a few trained astronauts. But what if you could get into space via something resembling a normal airliner? Reaction engines' Skylon spaceplane could be the answer. Still in development, this spaceplane could revolutionise the way we get into space.
http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/space_skylon.html
While the prototype is designed to take cargo, the principal could easily be used for a passenger carrying spacecraft.passenger carrying is the principal aim of Virgin Galactic.
http://www.virgingalactic.com/
Virgin's Spaceships utilise a carrier aircraft propelled by normal jet engines to take the rocket ship as far as the upper atmosphere, where it detaches and uses a rocket engine to access low earth orbit. The same principal will also be used for commercial satellite lunch.
For the latter half of the 20th century, the space race was between governments; the USA versus the USSR. Now the race is between corporations, and the demand for GPS, communication and weather satellites means whoever can get to space for the lowest price will get the most business.