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Blog : Posts tagged with 'heritage'

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Local Transport

In which we consider the Wensleydale Railway


Sometimes, when we’re idly sitting on the sofa after work, we put the telly on and can’t even summon the energy to change the channel. Instead, we leave it showing things we’d never normally bother watching; but sometimes that throws up an interesting gem.* Like tonight’s One Show for example. We wouldn’t normally watch The One Show, but occasionally it does have some interesting inserts. Tonight: an item on the Wensleydale Railway.

Coming from Oop North, I’ve been on the Wensleydale Railway a couple of times. It’s pretty long, for a private railway, pushing the length of busy, popular private railways such as the West Somerset, the Ffestiniog or the North Yorks Moors.** Unlike those railways, though, it’s something of a quiet backwater, slightly ramshackle, with a sparse service operated mostly by 1950s diesel trains which main-line companies retired in the 90s. Being a bit of a backwater, appearing on the telly will hopefully be a big boost for it: not many people tend to know it’s there. It may be in the Yorkshire Dales but it stops just short of the National Park; it may be on the A1, but it’s damn hard to notice from the road. If you want to see what it looks like, I run a small Flickr group for Wensleydale Railway pictures, largely because I had some Wensleydale Railway pictures on there and there wasn’t a group for it already.

One of the Wensleydale’s directors appeared on The One Show, and told the world what a unique railway it is; and how it performs a vital link in the community, and in Wensleydale’s regeneration, providing services to commuters and enabling them to get to major regional centres. Neither of those claims, really, are true. The director carefully skirted around the issue of whether the Wensleydale provides those services right now. Certainly, they’re hoping that it will do: that the company will be able to connect to the main line at Northallerton, and thence provide a connection to Newcastle, York, Teesside and Manchester. Right now, though, it stops short, and completing the connection seems to be on a distant horizon. When it does, the company will need a fuller timetable to be a reliable link: at present it operates three trains a day, on about 185 days of the year. The first one starts moving just after 9 o’clock; the last has stopped by 5.

Running a community rail service is hardly a unique aspiration to have, too. In fact, almost every private, preserved, or steam railway in the country has aspired to run a commuter and/or community service at some point. Very few have even got as far as trying it; the Worth Valley Railway did, in the late 1960s, and rapidly found it to be unviable. One private railway has done it successfully: the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, operating services for schoolchildren. They do not, unlike most private railways, rely on volunteer workers to operate. The Ffestiniog also provides a genuine service for local residents; but it is strongly subsidised by their tourist revenues, which the Wensleydale doesn’t have.

There are two big problems with trying to operate a community service; well, make that three big problems. Firstly, there are two connected problems: price, and workforce. Railways are workforce-intensive, and private railways have to either pay staff, or get volunteers to turn out every day. Moreover, if they want to run a commuter service, they have to persuade those volunteers to start very early in the morning. Paying the staff, and the running costs, is very expensive; when you’re operating a railway which was considered too expensive to run at a profit, you end up charging fares which are too expensive for commuters. A return ticket on the Wensleydale already costs over £10, for the full line.*** Moreover, there’s a third problem: speed. Nearly all private railways have to operate with a blanket speed limit of 20 or 25mph. Over the sort of distance the Wensleydale operates, that means a long journey. Fine for a summer jaunt; not good for serious travel. It’s the speed, more than anything else, that makes the Wensleydale’s long-term aims rather impractical.

There’s nothing wrong with the Wensleydale aspiring to their aims, of being a community railway operating a non-tourist service. I would be very surprised, though, if they do manage to complete them, purely because so many have gone before and so many have failed. If the Wensleydale think they are unique, and if they don’t realise that they are treading down a well-trodden path once more, they are very unlikely to reach that path’s end.

* such as a local news item about the wildlife of the BS3 district which made me laugh, for entirely the wrong reason – but that’s a story for another day.

** Incidentally, the local news has been annoying me recently, by proclaiming loudly that the West Somerset Railway is the longest steam railway in the country. It’s one of the longest, certainly, at just under 20 miles operational and 3 more miles not regularly used; but the Welsh Highland Railway, owned by the Ffestiniog, is longer and not yet fully open. By the end of the year, the Ffestiniog Railway Company will be operating a network pushing 40 miles in length. Longest steam railway in England, maybe.

*** The Ffestiniog gets around the price issue by having local residents’ discount cards.

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Photo post of the week

In which we visit the Bodmin & Wenford Railway


This week: it’s mostly trains.

Bodmin General engine shed, Bodmin & Wenford Railway Bodmin General station, Bodmin & Wenford Railway 4247 running on to its train, Bodmin General, Bodmin & Wenford Railway
4247 leaving Bodmin General, Bodmin & Wenford Railway Cab of 4247, Bodmin & Wenford Railway 33110 on shed, Bodmin & Wenford Railway

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Guided Bus

In which we discuss the West Of England Partnership’s misguided Guided Bus proposals


Through my door the other day: a leaflet from the West Of England Partnership, the organisation made up of local councils* that replaced the dead and unlamented Avon County Council. It’s about their proposals for a guided busway scheme in this part of the city. A new road, in other words, limited to buses only. Some of the buses on it would be expensive new buses cunningly disguised to look like trams, and running on “sustainable fuel”;** the rest would be the boring ordinary diesel ones that already serve this area. It would replace the current park-and-ride buses in this area, which are already the nicest and most modern buses in this part of the city. So, frankly, I don’t see why that’s the bus route that most urgently needs replacing.*** You can see their proposals for yourself, on the Partnership’s website – they very carefully avoid using the term “guided busway”, and instead call it “rapid transit”, using the word “bus” as little as possible.

The route isn’t really any more useful than the current park-and-ride scheme, either. It’s going to be built along the old railway line that served Bristol Harbour. A small part of this is disused; some is still used by trains to the docks that are still open, but most is used by the Bristol Harbour Railway, a council-owned steam railway that chugs up and down the Avon and the Harbourside, and does a pretty good trade. Here’s an extract from the map on the website:

Proposed rapid transit scheme map (c) Crown Copyright (I'm claiming fair use)

The purple line there is the new bus route, and the yellow line is the railway. The black blob there, looking like a station, is a proposed Cumberland Road bus stop – handy for Southville, because there’s a footbridge across the river there. The green line is a cycle path.

Now, so far, this is just a line on a map. Not much detail design work seems to have been done – one of the councillors responsible, Mark Bradshaw, said as much to the local paper with the words: “Residents, businesses and other stakeholders are invited to engage in this work and help shape the detail of the proposals.” However, the Partnership have gone as far as producing a mockup of the proposed Cumberland Road bus stop. Here’s their design. On the right: the new bus stop. On the left: a photo I took a few days ago from almost the same location, although I didn’t quite get the angle right.

Cumberland Road from Vauxhall Bridge Cumberland Road guided busway proposal.  Crown Copyright, but I still think this counts as fair use

You can see, on my “present day” photo, the railway line – it’s behind the yellow fence and in front of the road, and you can make out the rails if you look carefully. More interestingly, you can see that on the Partnership’s artist’s impression, the railway isn’t there any more. The cycle path along the riverbank is still there; but the railway line on the other side of it has been paved over and turned into busway. So, in fact, has half of the road on the other side – you can see, the busway near the platform comes out almost as far as the centre-line of the road.

Mark Bradshaw is, as it happens, one of the councillors for my ward. I wrote to him, and my other councillor, before I’d realised that he was on the relevant West Of England Partnership committee that has put these proposals forward. Based on that artist’s impression, I wrote:

The project will be hugely expensive in infrastructure costs, [and] will apparently destroy the popular tourist attraction that is the Harbour Railway and replace it with a buses-only road

I must have been writing in Pompous Mode that day. You can see, based on the above, why I’d think that. Councillor Bradshaw replied:

The Harbour train service will continue and the BRT services will not prevent this (see yellow line on map in consultation leaflet)

Which is fair enough – you’ve already seen that yellow line on the map. The problem I have, though, is that building a busway isn’t quite as simple as drawing a line on a map, as the artist’s impression shows. If the Harbour Railway is still going to be there, why did the Partnership put out proposals for consultation that show it paved over? And how is the busway going to fit between the railway and the road? Something will have to be moved, for sure.

If this scheme does go ahead, I strongly suspect that the guided busway along that section of the route will have to be dropped, purely because there isn’t room to build it. In the meantime, I’ve replied to Councillor Bradshaw and asked why that artist’s impression shows the buses running over the site of the railway when the railway is, according to the map, still going to be there; when he replies, I’ll update this post. Tomorrow, I’ll show you – with the aid of Google Maps and existing guided busways – just how much room the proposals would need on the ground, and how much land it might take up.

UPDATE: local blogger SteveL has, in the comments, pointed me to the Partnership’s video of the scheme. Which apparently shows the railway being turned into a tramway along the southbound busway, something that wasn’t apparent on the still images. So, the busway won’t prevent trains from being run, so long as trains only want to run when there aren’t any buses about. I see.

* and “a range of social, economic and environmental partners”, they say. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a grand name for what is, in land area, only a small part of the West of England, but it’s hard to think what else they could have called it – anything with Avon in it was and is taboo, and “Greater Bristol”, although that’s essentially what it is, would no doubt irritate everyone out in the hinterlands.

** They haven’t decided what fuel, only that it will definitely be Sustainable. Buzzwordtastic!

*** except the political reason. This is going to be built in Bristol, but funded partly by the local councils in the surrounding area. Hence, it serves commuters from North Somerset who might want to park-and-ride more than it serves Bristolians.

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Steam trains

In which we visit Levisham


A spare weekend: we went wandering, in the car, and on foot. We drifted through the moorland village of Levisham, as untouched a village as you’ll find in Yorkshire, with one road wandering through it across a broad green. Ambling downhill, we reached the railway station. We watched a train pull in, and shunt about, great clouds of steam rising in the December cold.

Prowling around the station, we discovered its Artist In Residence, Christopher Ware, in his studio. We chatted a little while, and studied his prints of bucolic trains. He can’t have many visitors on a day like that; hopefully we were a welcome distraction for a few minutes.

Levisham station Levisham station Levisham station
Levisham signal box Pulley wheels

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