Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Why that Scotrail Alliance soundbite is wrong on so many levels.

“We are building the best railway that Scotland has ever had”, said ScotRail Alliance Programmes and Transformation Director Ian McConnell as testing of new Class 385s on the newly electrified Edinburgh to Glasgow route last month. It's a bold claim, but is it true? Well that depends on your definition of "best". How do you define "best? And if we are to call this route "the best Scotland has ever had", how does it compare to every other railway Scotland has ever had?
Does it have the best scenery? No. The Falkirk High route isn't exactly pretty, running through the industrialised central belt, so if scenery is your thing, no it's not the best railway in Scotland. Not even close. The West Highland extension trumps it by miles. 
Does it have the best trains? No. The Buchanan Street to Aberdeen "3 hour expresses" of the 1960s ran with ex-LNER A4 pacifics. Ex-GWR High Speed Trains will be introduced on the modern equivalent service from Queen Street when displaced by IEPs down south. The Caledonian Sleeper and Virgin East Coast High Speed Trains are all more comfortable than anything currently in use by Scotrail. Virgin West Coast run Pendolinos from Glasgow to Carlisle via Motherwell and Lockerbie. Need I go on?
Does it have the best catering? Again, no. Just a tea trolley.
Does it have the fastest trains? No. The East and West Coast Main lines heading south are faster.
Does it have the most frequent trains? No. Glasgow suburban services are more frequent.
Does it have the best looking trains? No. they're hideous, but at least they aren't as ugly as class 380s.
Yes, the modernisation will mean trains are greener, faster and more frequent than ever on Scotrail's flagship route, but having seen the mock-up class 385 interior on display, they certainly won't be as comfortable as the trains they are replacing, and even they aren't as quiet or as comfortable as the push-pull Mk 3 sets that ran on this route back in the '80s. The improvements therefore make the E&G line better in some areas, but not the best.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Power gives way to sail

For many centuries, man sailed the ocean by wind power alone. Then along came steam and diesel power, with bigger, steel-hulled ships that allowed people and goods to be moved faster and in greater quantities than ever before. However, environmental concerns over burning fossil fuels have recently put pressure on the shipping industry to cut fossil fuel consumption. While bigger container and cruise ships allow economy of scale, these ships are still heavy polluters and now a few companies are attempting to bring back sail power.
Star Clippers are a long-established cruise company who operate some of the largest sailing ships afloat today. Their cruises are marketed towards those who want to experience the "romance of sail", but with all modern conveniences. Windstar Cruises ships are far more modern looking but cater to a similar market. Much smaller startup Voyage Vert are most definitely aimed at the ethical traveller. They are refitting a former ocean racing yacht as a cruise ship with the emphasis on low passenger numbers, and "hands-on" involvement where Windstar ships are more like full-size cruise ships with sails.
Moving cargo as well as people is the aim of the Sail Cargo Alliance, an association of four ships: Tres Hombres, Nordlys, Avontuur and Grayhound. These traditional sailing vessels move small quantities of high-value cargo, such as rum and wine, while also offering passengers a "hands-on" sailing experience. Another, similar venture, with a new-build ship is the Ceiba, being built by Costa Rica-based Sailcargo inc. This ship, built on traditional lines, will carry cargo up and down the pacific coast of the Americas. A much bigger and more modern cargo ship is proposed by Neoline. This hi-tech ro-ro cargo ship is similar in style to the Windstar cruise ships and, in the author's opinion, represents the way ahead for commercial sailing ship design, which will deliver goods economically and in quantities to satisfy the demands of the modern economy.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Blurred tramlines

Conventional wisdom is that trams are those bus-like things that run on rails in the street and trains are those long things that run on grade-separated tracks to big stations, and never the twain shall meet. However, the new Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train is rubbing away at that distinction. Based on an idea pioneered in Karlsruhe, Germany, the tram-train runs on conventional tramlines in the city centre, then transferring seamlessly to heavy rail lines to go further afield. It's not the first time trams and trains have shared tracks in the UK. Prior to 1967, freight destined for Fairfield's shipyard in Goven used the tracks of Glasgow corporation tramway to access the shipyard. However, there are technical barriers to allowing tramcars onto the railway. Vehicles need to meet crashworthiness standards and be compatible with signalling on the "main line". Another issue is power supply. A tram-train is proposed to connect to Glasgow Airport, but the main line between Glasgow and Paisley is electrified to 25kv AC, while street running trams are limited to 750v DC power, meaning tramcars would need dual-voltage electrical systems. Another potential tram-train route is in Edinburgh, where re-opening of the south suburban line is currently blocked by congestion at Edinburgh Waverley station, but a tram-train could bypass the station by transferring onto the Edinburgh tram lines.
In British railway history, there have been a few lines that have blurred the distinction between tramways and railways, such as the Swansea and Mumbles railway in Wales. Now a new generation of tram-trains is set to continue breaking boundaries.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Oban passengers want trains, not buses.

Back in 2015, I was returning home from the Skerryvore Decade festival in Oban by train. Attempting to board the train at Oban, I was lucky that I had pre-booked tickets because the train was full, and rather than adding additional coaches to the train, Scotrail had provided a replacement bus service for walk-up passengers. This would seem rather unfair to people who, having paid for a train, were given a bus instead. Having witnessed this, I feel some sympathy for anyone taking the Caledonian Sleeper to Crianlarich with the intention of travelling to Oban. The first train to Oban in the morning leaves Crianlarich at 0718, to arrive in Oban at 0835. The Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William stops at Crianlarich at 0745, just missing the Scotrail train. the next train to Oban isn't until 1015, so to ensure that their passengers aren't left waiting in Crianlarich for two and a half hours, those nice people at Serco have laid on a bus to get their passengers to Oban. Now if I was a train passenger, I would be rather miffed at being shoved onto a bus when there is a perfectly good railway there. This sort of thing would probably be avoided if the sleeper was still part of the Scotrail franchise, or if the whole lot was nationalised, but now the two trains are operated by separate companies, who have no obligation to connect to each other's services. Hopefully, with the electrification of the Shotts line coming next year, more class 156s will be released to increase frequency on the rural routes, such as Oban, Stranraer and Dumfries. There are also suggestions that Caledonian Sleeper could start providing a direct portion to Oban themselves. A direct Oban sleeper was trialled in February last year when the route to Fort William was closed for engineering work. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Easy alternative to GARL

Discussing the Glasgow Airport Rail Link on Facebook recently, someone suggested that the route of the old Paisley and Renfrew Railway could be used. ( This would be far easier to build than the original design incorporating an expensive viaduct over the M8. A smaller bridge over the white cart water would be needed and possible relocation of the sewage farm and/or some of the buildings on the airport side of the river (depending on how the line was routed). The disadvantage of this route would be the lack of interchange at Paisley Gilmour Street (passengers from Ayrshire and the west would have to change at Hillington West).
Paisley and Renfrew Railway This line is closed. Some of its course is now a footpath and some is a roadway through the Babcocks works.

I was then informed that this route was put forward, only to be rejected by the council (was the lack of interchange at Gilmour Street the reason?)
How open are the council, government and airport to using this route for a heavy rail line? Could this be pushed as an alternative to the proposed "tram-trains"? 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Cars to switch to electricity while diesel trains chug on.

Two announcements from the government this week show remarkably disjointed thinking on switching from diesel to electric power on the roads and railways. Firstly came the announcement that several railway electrification schemes have been delayed (yet again) due to spiralling costs.
In other news the government has also committed itself to ending the sale of internal combustion cars by 2040.
The cynical way of putting this is that the government is happy with switching from diesel to electric power so long as they are not the ones that have to pay for it. The cost of switching to electric cars will largely be borne by car manufacturers and their customers. In fact car makers such as Volvo are already switching to electric power without politicians insisting, so the government's "commitment" will basically involve zero effort from them other than providing charging points up and down the country. Meanwhile wiring up hundreds of miles of railway will cost large sums of money that inevitably must be paid for by taxpayers. It's time for the government to put their (our) money where their mouth is by committing to wiring up more of the country's railways. Michael Gove is absolutely right when he says that we have to deal with air pollution, but there is a difference between soundbite announcements about something that will happen anyway without your intervention and actually rolling up your sleeves and making things happen.

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.