Blog : Posts tagged with 'railway' : Page 1

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Vampire-Spotting

In which we suspect that some TV cameras might be taking the train


Regular readers over the past couple of years might have noticed that I quite enjoy spotting the filming locations of the paranormal TV drama* Being Human, filmed in a variety of easily-recognisable Bristol locations: Totterdown, Bedminster, Clifton, St George, College Green, and so on. Not for much longer, though, we thought: although the first two series were Bristol-based, the third series is apparently being moved over to Cardiff. Whether it will be the recognisable Cardiff Cardiff of Torchwood, or the generic anycity of Doctor Who, remains to be seen; but this was all clearly set up when, at the end of Series Two, the protagonists were forced to flee the house on the corner of Henry St and Windsor Terrace for an anonymous rural hideout. No more Bristol locations for us to spot, we thought.

Over the past week, we’ve been doing a lot of driving about moving house; we now know every intimate corner of every sensible route from south Bristol to east Bristol, or at least it feels like we do. So we were slightly surprised to see that, about a week ago, some more of these pink signs have popped up. “BH LOC” and “BH BASE”, as before.

We spotted them on Albert Road, near the Black Castle. “BH BASE” points along Bath Road, towards the Paintworks and the ITV studios. “BH LOC”, though, is intriguing. It points down the very last turning off Albert Road before the Black Castle end. That entrance only goes to two places: a KFC branch, and St Philips Marsh railway depot.

If you watched the second series of Being Human, you might remember that there was, indeed, a rather brutal train-based scene in a First Great Western carriage.** So, expect the third series to include, at the very least, an extension of that scene, if not a spin-off plotline. Or, alternatively, those signs aren’t really anything to do with Being Human at all, and it’s just coincidence that they pop up around Bristol a few months before each series appears on the telly.*** My money’s on that train from Series Two being the root of part of the Series Three plot; but, I guess, we’ll just have to wait, watch and see.

* Well, it started off as a comedy, and got more serious as it went along

** I was impressed that the programme’s fidelity-to-location included shooting that scene in a genuine local train, rather than just finding any railway prepared to get a carriage soaked with fake blood. Of course, it was probably a convenient location too.

*** The third possibility, of course, is that someone in Series Three tries to cure vampires and werewolves of their respective curses by getting them to eat large amounts of fried chicken.

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Summer railway

In which we have a trip out by train


Never mind “Spring Bank Holiday”: it’s June, and it feels like it’s summer already: last weekend, we had a day at the beach, and both ended up horribly sunburned. As shorts aren’t an option for work, I winced every time I moved my legs. Yesterday: a bank holiday weekend, and beautiful sunshine again, so we went off for a cream tea and a steam train ride.

The footplate of a steam locomotive on a summer’s day is a horribly hot and airless place to be. Nevertheless, riding behind a steam engine seems like such a naturally summery thing to do. So we travelled down to the South Devon Railway,* for a day’s relaxation sitting in railway carriages and watching trains go past.

The South Devon Railway is, as steam railways go, an unusually scenic one. Being in Devon it’s surrounded by lush, verdant countryside; it follows the River Dart down from Buckfastleigh, past rough, rocky rapids; weirs and once-busy mill-races; finally alongside the more placid deeper, lower stretches of the river, down to its tidal weir just by Totnes station. It doesn’t take much effort for a train to trundle downriver; as we sat in the front carriage with the windows open, we could hear the locomotive clanking its way down the valley with barely any steam on, the vacuum pump making a light chiff noise for each revolution of the wheels. Every so often, a gentle touch of speed was needed, and we heard the deeper huffhuffhuffhuff of the cylinders, four huffs to each vacuum pump chiff. We passed sleepy red cattle, wading fishermen, and groups of wading photographers standing on mid-river rocks to take photos of the passing train.

Country trains often ramble a little, and pause unexpectedly. Midway along the line, we halted in a loop, and waited quietly for another train to pass. Other passengers, not used to this sort of thing, looked around and wondered what the problem was. We were too far away from the signalbox to hear the block bells chiming; but we could hear the rattle of the signal wires as the signals for the down train were pulled off, then we watched it slowly chuff past us before we started on our way again.

This is not Photo Post Of The Week, incidentally. That’s because the photos below aren’t ones I took yesterday; as usual, my photo uploads are far too backlogged for that. These, though, are from the last time I visited the South Devon Railway, about three years ago. The fixed stop signal has been repainted since, but not much else has changed.

Buckfastleigh station, South Devon Railway, down end Watering an engine whilst rounding the train, Buckfastleigh, South Devon Railway GWR tablet catcher, Buckfastleigh, South Devon Railway

* Things it is important not to confuse pt. 373: the South Devon Railway, the line from Exeter to Plymouth designed by Brunel, opened in the 1840s, and bought out by the Great Western Railway in the 1870s; with the South Devon Railway, the heritage railway formed in the early 1990s to take over the Dart Valley Railway’s tourist line from Totnes to Buckfastleigh and turn it from a business-oriented tourist attraction into a more charitably-run steam railway. You may spot a problem of similarity with the names there.

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Secret Passage

In which we look for some Parisian history


Every so often, search requests come in for things like “disused stations on the Paris Metro”. I’mk not entirely sure why, because this site doesn’t have very much content at all on that topic. All there is, in fact, is this post from a few years ago, which wasn’t really about disused Paris metro stations at all: it was more about all the various interconnection lines and mysterious secret underground depots that you can see from a passing train.

When I was in Paris the other week, though, I kept an eye out. Because there are the odd one or two disused stations on the Metro, even if there are fewer than on the London Underground. I kept my eyes open, and I spotted a couple.

Firstly, if you head north along Line 5, across the Seine and through Quai de la Rapée station, you will find that the line quickly disappears underground on its way to Bastille station.* Once in the tunnel, well-lit and easily spotted, there is a stretch of broad station tunnel, heavily graffitied like almost everything on the Paris metro. This is the remains of Arsenal station: off the top of my head, the only Paris Metro station to share a name with one on the London Underground.

Secondly, turn around back to Gare d’Austerlitz, then head westward on Line 10. Past Odéon, there’s a complex network of underground tunnels linking Line 10 to various other routes; the modern line has a complex history. And somewhere in-between all the various connections, past Mabillon station, there is another secret. Croix Rouge station, originally the terminus of the line. It’s harder to spot than Arsenal, but it is there.

Hopefully, then, if people come here looking to spot disused Parisian underground stations, here are a couple of hints. If you want to see what they look like inside, there are photos on the web, of course: where doesn’t have photos on the web nowadays? Alternatively, you might prefer it the other way: sit on the Metro, ignore the buskers and the beggars, and look out the window for a flash of abandoned platforms.

* incidentally, foundations of the original Bastille fortress are visible on the Line 5 platforms at that station.

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we look at an old diesel train and a newer steam train


Another thing I mentioned that I hadn’t posted really: some pictures of old trains. Which, I know, isn’t something unusual for this site. But I did rather like this one:

Hymek passing Washford, West Somerset Railway

Which, I like to think, could almost be a Western Region publicity poster – or rail safety poster, maybe – from around 1964. The impressive new Hymek diesel-hydraulic, made in Britain with the latest German mechanical technology, sweeping past Washford with a non-stop express to Minehead. Here’s some more, and a rather newer steam engine.

Carriage window, West Somerset Railway
Track circuit indicators in "Midford Signalbox", Washford, West Somerset Railway
60163 "Tornado", Washford, West Somerset Railway

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High Speed News

In which we look at trains and the money behind them


Today’s big news story: the East Coast rail franchise is to be temporarily taken into state hands, because the company running it, National Express, has decided that they can’t make the huge wodge of cash that they have promised to pay. Which, to be honest, many many people could have told you was a little unlikely.

The East Coast route has always been seen as a bit of a cash cow, ever since it has been operated by a single company. Back in the 1930s the LNER, the aforesaid first company to own the route from end to end, was struggling somewhat, as most of its profits came from servicing the declining heavy industries of the North-East. So, it negotiated itself away from the non-compete restrictions which hampered its London-Scotland timetable,* and started to introduce faster, record-breaking, headline-grabbing expresses. They introduced the longest regular non-stop train service in the world, and the fastest type of steam engine in the world; and introduced innovations such as at-seat radio services, and the “in-flight movie”. The route has stayed at the forefront of speed, technology and publicity ever since, and at several times has featured the fastest trains in the country.**

By the time privatisation came along, the East Coast route was one of the few profitable rail services in the country. It was quickly grabbed, by Sea Containers, the shipping company which had already bought British Rail’s Sealink shipping line. And everything went smoothly, for some time, because the route did indeed make plenty of money.

In this decade, though, there were problems. As the line was seen as a cash cow, other companies started running competing services over what was already a very crowded and busy route; and their franchise payment went up to £130million per year. Sea Containers tried to bring a court case arguing that there wasn’t enough room for anybody else’s trains on their line, but the case failed. The company started hinting that it was having trouble making money on the route, and that its position was financially unsustainable. In October 2006 the company filed for bankruptcy protection in the USA, and told the British government that they would walk away from the East Coast route if not allowed to renegotiate their contract. A month later, the government told Sea Containers that their franchise was being withdrawn.

In the auction for the rights to run the route from 2007 onwards, Sea Containers played little part, holding a 10% stake in a joint bid made in the names of Virgin and Stagecoach. The winner, though, was National Express. They promised to pay £1.4 billion in total, to operate the route from 2007 through to 2015. Rather more, in other words, than the £130 million per year that Sea Containers had had trouble meeting. You have to wonder what was going on in their decision-making. It must have been obvious to them that the line would have trouble generating that much money. Did they really think they had enough spare cash elsewhere to prop it up with?

It’s not surprising at all, then, that they haven’t managed to keep the line running. It’s more surprising, though, that it apparently took National Express 18 months to realise that their sums were a bit off. Never mind the recession: passenger figures were already falling well before National Express took over, which was partly why Sea Containers had trouble. Maybe they thought they could get things to turn around faster. Evidently, though, they made a mistake somewhere. That still leaves this, though, as one of the more predictable news stories of this part of the decade.

* ever since the mid-1890s, the East Coast and West Coast companies had had a minimum-time agreement restricting the point-to-point average speed of their trains to around 50mph, following the dangerous “Race To The North” competitions of 1895.

** For the past 20 years almost it has had its own specially-designed trains which are capable of 140mph, until recently beating every other domestic train in Britain – but for the whole time, it’s been in the slightly silly position of having a top speed limit of 125mph, leaving that speed advantage unusable.

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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

Another camera-equipped wander around the city


More weekend jaunts around Bristol.

Eroded wall, Southville Alleyway Bridge rail, Wapping Road, Bristol
Yachts, Floating Harbour, Bristol Holy Trinity Church, Hotwells Vauxhall Bridge, Bristol

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Chauvinism

In which we are shocked by vintage sexism


If you get involved in some hobbies, some fields of interest, you have to get used to the fact that you’ll end up finding yourself alongside older men with unpalatable views. If you like trains, for example, you will sometimes find yourself alongside elderly trainspotters who haven’t yet worked out that there might be a link between “being single” and “not washing”. You get used to hearing them espousing rather reactionary viewpoints, such as “we should send them all back to their own countries”, and so on.

Nevertheless, occasionally, something comes along which makes you think: I can’t believe they said that. Or, in this case: I can’t believe they printed that. I was reading a book I picked up recently in a charity shop: Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel From Old Photographs by Jeoffry Spence, a 1980s reprint of a 1970s book, and came across this delightful passage in the introduction. It starts off with saying how Edwardian railway timetables were far too complicated for women to understand, and goes on:

But even today, with so many regular-interval services and absence of complexities, there is something rather irritating to us chauvinistic males about the sight of a woman standing haughtily in the circulating area of a big station, telling us firmly what time the train goes, which platform, where to change, and even the time of arrival at the destination; it makes a bad impression on our younger children.

I’m sorry? It “makes a bad impression” for children to be allowed to see a woman advising a man? To see a woman having responsibility? To see a woman speaking firmly? Or, indeed, all of the above? Even for something written in the late 70s, that’s a bit much to see in print.

A bit of research suggests that Spence was born in 1915, so was probably in his early 60s when he wrote that. He died* in ’92, at 77 or so. Getting a bit elderly when he wrote those words, then, you could argue. But I don’t think that’s an excuse, given that feminism was already alive and well when he was growing up; and that there are plenty of people of his generation who weren’t such terrible bigots. Thirty years later, it comes across as a shockingly sexist piece of writing. The worrying thing is: I’m sure there are still men today, lurking in the backwoods and writing down the numbers of trains, who would probably still agree with him.

* Assuming I’ve found the right man, but the unusual spelling helps

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The Detail

In which we look at the detailed plans of the Guided Busway


Long-term readers will recall that, particularly last November, I’ve been covering the local guided busway developments: to whit, the West Of England Partnership, the quango which is, you could say, the haunting ghost of Avon County Council, and its plans to turn an old railway line into a private buses-only road. Sort of. Railway lines, of course, aren’t generally wide enough for that sort of thing; so they will mostly be building half a road.

Well, all has been quiet for a while; the consultation was completed, and the Partnership wrote off to the Department for Transport to say “can we have some money, please? Oh, go on.” A reader of this site, the other day, tipped me off to the fact that WEP have published their persuasions on their website. So, finally, we can read all the details which were conspicuously absent from the public consultation documents.

Firstly, there seems to be a change as to where the money is coming from. In the past, it was mooted that this application would be to the Transport Innovation Fund,* and therefore would need to have a congestion charge element to it. That’s not the case: the application is for Major Scheme Funding. So, no congestion charge: nothing is going to be done directly to reduce traffic. All we get is a new, shiny, park-and-ride service which replaces the still-shiny existing park-and-ride service, but serving Spike Island instead of Hotwells.

Secondly, it includes documentation on service frequencies. And half of the buses using the route won’t be the shiny new “Rapid Transit” buses; they’ll be the same old buses to Weston and Nailsea that already exist. Another thing which isn’t going to make the guided busway scheme any friends: it’s being marketed to the government as the first stage of a Rapid Transit Network, in which it becomes the Ashton Vale-Emerson’s Green route. In other words, the old let’s-pave-over-the-Railway-Path scheme which attracted large amounts of protest.

One of the most interesting bits, though, is the detailed plan of the new route. We learn, for example, that the rather worn and tired old swing bridge across the New Cut is to be “refurbished” – it sounds cheaper, after all – with a new footbridge alongside it. The small Butterfly Junction nature reserve is to be flattened and paved over – it isn’t even marked on the maps – and the Bristol Harbour Railway’s stop there is to be replaced by a new one.

Plan of guided busway at Butterfly Junction

The Bristol Harbour Railway is where it gets most silly. The plans finally confirm what was hinted at in the consultation: it is to be turned into a tramway, with buses running on top of it. According to the bid documents:

The tracks for the heritage railway will be retained to provide for seasonal Sunday services and events such as the Harbourside Festival. When these infrequent events occur, services will run on Cumberland Road.

In other words, trains on the Harbour Railway will run on about half as many days as they do now, and along a tramway, which doesn’t quite tally with what my local councillor has told me in the past. As the railway is only just wide enough for one bus, one bus there will be; outbound buses will run along the road all the time, not just on Sundays. To squeeze under Cumberland Road and keep the cycle path, the busway will be narrowed to a single-track road/tramway with traffic lights.

One of the vaguest parts of the consultation documents was: what happens at Prince St Bridge, which isn’t currently strong enough and probably not wide enough to take buses. The consultation map was hard to read; the Evening Post reported that there would be a new bridge. Some people suspected that the current “trial” arrangement of having cars on one side of the bridge and pedestrians on the other was a taste of things to come, ready for the guided bus scheme. Well, it turns out they were right.

Guided bus plan for Prince St Bridge

Red in that diagram means “bus lane”. Prince St Bridge will be closed to cars; with this scheme, it will be divided between pedestrians on one carriageway, and buses and cyclists on the other. Instead of cyclists being able to run into pedestrians whilst dodging opposing traffic, as now, they’ll be able to get flattened by buses instead. It’s also quite hard to work out how much money has been set aside for Prince St Bridge works, because the costs aren’t itemised very clearly – indeed, the surveyors who reviewed the WEP costings also had trouble on that point.

I don’t think the busway scheme is going to go ahead. That’s partly because the funding bid includes a convenient “low cost alternative” scheme. It is, essentially, the same scheme, same nice new buses, new bus stops, but using the existing park-and-ride route with no new infrastructure. The funding bid says:

A key element of the [Low Cost Alternative] route is the avoidance of the main bridge structures at Ashton Avenue and Prince Street … in order to reduce the construction costs.

The infrastructure will, they say, halve travel times along the park-and-ride route. Whether the Department for Transport think that that will make it worth the money remains to be seen. I’m not convinced they’re going to go for it. In a few months, though, we will all find out.

* as you can see from this Joint Transport Forum presentation released under FOI. Thanks to correspondant Gareth for pointing me to that URL.

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Photo post of the week

In which we photograph some models


This week, it’s mostly been model trains. Not my own – I don’t have any – but at an exhibition.

Station and carriage, "Lydham Heath" Mixed train, "Lydham Heath" BCR cattle wagon, "Lydham Heath"

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