Railways Blog

A blog about trains, covering photography, railway history, transport politics and modelling, in no particular order.


Arriva Trains Wales class 158 bound for Pwllheli crossing Barmouth BridgeOnce under threat of closure because it was being eaten by worms, Barmouth Bridge is still here 35 years later.

Here’s a Birmingham to Pwllheli train crossing the bridge back in March. Travelling up and down the Cambrian lines in the days following HRH Prog bought back a flood of memories. First from family holidays the mid-70s when the trains were in the hands of a motley assortment of class 101, 103 and 108 DMUs, with the Chester-based 103 Park Royal sets signature trains of the line. There was still a daily freight working up the coast in those days too; a diminutive Sulzer engined class 24 with an assortment of 16-ton coal wagons, vanfits, and the distinctive gunpowder vans carrying explosives from the Nobel factory at Penrhyndeudraeth.

Then there was another visit in 1990, when there were still locomotive-hauled trains on Summer Saturdays, and I travelled from Porthmadog to Shrewsbury on one of the last loco-hauled trains of the season. The sound of the class 37 struggling up Tareddig bank on a dirty night with nine coaches in tow and reduced to walking pace by the summit won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Even that was a quarter of a century ago now. Where has the time gone?

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Network Rail suspends West Coast Railways

West Coast Railways (Wikimedia Commons) West Coast Railways have had their operating licence suspended following a signal passed at danger resulting in a near miss from what might have been a very serious collision.

As the RAIL piece says:

Network Rail has served West Coast Railways with a suspension notice effective from midnight on April 3.

It follows the Signal Passed at Danger (SPAD) on March 7, when a 100mph collision between a First Great Western High Speed Train and a steam excursion operated by WCR was missed by barely a minute. The SPAD ranked as the most serious this year.

This is an unprecedented suspension. Operators have been banned from certain routes, but this is the first total network ban since privatisation, indicating the gravity with which Network Rail is treating the incident.

West Coast Railways provides crews and motive power for charter trains across Britain, including the well-known Fort William to Mallaig run, and this suspension is likely to force the cancellation of many steam specials on the main line in the coming weeks. Two scheduled for this coming bank holiday weekend have already been cancelled.

There have been incidents where a bus company has had its licence suspended after a fatal accident revealed serious issue with driver training and the roadworthiness of their vehicles. But nothing like this has ever happened on the railways.

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Froxfield – A Near Miss

From the Rail Accident Investigation preliminary report when a heavily loaded HST struck debris on the track, and came very close to derailment at 95 mph.

The bridge parapet had originally been struck at about 17:20 hrs by a reversing articulated lorry. The lorry driver had turned off the A4 at a junction just north of the railway bridge, and crossed over the railway before encountering a canal bridge 40 metres further on which he considered to be too narrow for his vehicle. A pair of road signs located just south of the A4 junction warn vehicle drivers of a hump back bridge and double bends but there were no weight or width restriction signs. The lorry driver stopped before the canal bridge and attempted to reverse round a bend and back over the railway bridge without assistance, and was unaware when the rear of his trailer first made contact with, and then toppled, the brick parapet on the east side of the railway bridge. The entire parapet, weighing around 13 tonnes, fell onto the railway, obstructing both tracks

This was the same type of train travelling at the same speed as in the 2004 Ufton Nervet crash in which the train driver and five passengers died. What happened at Froxfield was a narrow escape from what could have been a similar disaster.

It was predictable but disappointing that lorry drivers on a forum I won’t name were keen to shout down any criticism of the driver. If you suggested that someone who recklessly endangered several hundred lives be prosecuted, you were compared with Hitler.

I can understand it’s human nature to want to circle the wagons in situations like this, but when the safety of the public is at stake the idea that “armchair critics” must not comment on “professional issues” is dangerous bullshit. As the saying goes, you don’t need to be a chicken to know when the egg is rotten.

The professionalism (or lack of such) of the road haulage industry is the business of everyone who shares a transport environment with them. Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise.

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70 Through The Trees

Freightliner's 70019 passes Reading on a diverted Southampton-bound freightliner.

A photo that can’t be taken later in the year, for more than one reason. Freightliner’s 70019 rounds the curve between Reading and Reading West with a Southampton bound container train, diverted from its usual route due to the landslip at Harbury.

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Dapol Falcons

Dapol Falcon

Latest new toys for the train set are some newly-released “Falcon” ballast wagons from Dapol. They’re excellent well-detailed models of what has now become a very common sight on the full-sized railway, and at a price that makes them very good value for money.

Engineering trains used to be the poor relation of revenue-earning freight,and were seldom modelled. Such trains were often made up from superannuated repurposed revenue-earning wagons running behind the oldest and most clapped-out locomotives in the fleet.

With the massive investment in an increasingly passenger-focussed railway, all that has changed.  Engineering trains represent a major part of the privatised freight companies’ businesses, and a more typical train today is made up of modern purpose-built wagons behind the newest and most reliable locomotives.

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Here’s a short train of the full-sized versions at Dawlish back in 2004

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Triang TT Class 31

Back in my teenage years I used to have a TT3 gauge layout. It was all dismantled when I went away to University, and when I returned to the world of model railways in my late twenties I switched to the more readily available N gauge. The track is all long gone, but most of the rolling stock, such as this class 31 diesel, survives.

TT3, three-quarters the size of the already extablished 00 gauge, was introduced by Triang in 1957. But sales never reached critical mass and production ceased by the late 60s, by which time the significantly smaller N gauge had appeared on the horizon. TT3 never completely died out, but has long become a specialised scale reliant on kits rather the 50 year old ready-to-run models. Even now you still regularly see TT layouts at exhibitions; there were two at the Eastleigh show last weekend.

It was a different case in the former East Germany, where TT became a popular scale in the days of Communism. Manufactured by Zeuke, who later became Berliner Bahn, and are now Tillig, it remains in production today. Just as in OO vs HO, British and German models shared a track gauge of 12mm, but have different scales, Britain’s 1:100 to Germany’s 1:120. The reason, as in the larger scales, is that it’s impossible to get a dimensionally accurate model of a British steam locomotive to go round corners, and having an underscale track gauge is the least bad compromise.

In recent years, other manufacturers have entered the 1:120 TT market, including Arnold, the long-established Gernan brand now owned by the British Hornby group.  Prompted by this, and by rumours that some of the original Triang tooling still exists, there’s been a long thread on RMWeb about the possibility of Hornby bringing back TT in some shape or form.

It’s not going to happen, and the realist in me knows it makes more sense for Hornby/Arnold to follow up their N Gauge Brighton Belle with more British N. Which is precisely what they’te now planning on doing.

But it’s always fun to speculate. If Hornby did venture into British TT, what should they make? And should it be 1:100 to match the old TT3, or 1:120 to be consistent with the continental models?

Were they to stick to the old 1:100 scale, I’d suggest models representing the same steam/diesel transition era as the old Triang range. The possible initial models might be the following:

  • Class 47 diesel
  • Standard class 5MT 4-6-0
  • Mk1 coaches, initially TSO, CK and BSK
  • 16t mineral, Vanfit, 5-plank Highfit and BR brake van

That’s essentially a cross-country secondary main line in a box. You could even sell the whole lot as a train set, perhaps with two of each wagon for a decent length train, along with a double-track oval. I chose the 47 as the most numerous diesel class, and the Standard Five because it ran on multiple regions.

Were they to choose 1:120, the fact that there already is a British outline ready-to-run locomotive in the shape of the class 66 diesel made by Hobbytrain suggests a very different approach. Instead of the mid 1960s, go for the present day. Start with a range of modern British loading gauge wagons that run on both sides of the channel; intermodal flats, Cargowaggons, Polybulks, steel carriers etc. If successful, then perhaps expand the range to include some British multiple units, perhaps a Voyager or 170.

But all this talk makes me want to get out my old TT3 stock and see how much of it still runs. I’ve considered both a small shunting layout using Peco HOm track (Designed for HO scale metre-gauge models), or just getting an oval of Tillig sectional track to use as a test circuit.

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Five of my Favourite Bridges

Liberal England is trying to resurrect the old fashioned blog meme with “Five of my Favourite Bridges“.

Not that it’s easy to pick just five, but here are five that have made an impression on me over the years.

Photo by Geoff Shepherd/Wikipedia
(Photo by Geoff Shepherd/Wikipedia Commons)

The Royal Albert Bridge

We’ll start with Brunel’s famous bridge across the Tamar linking Devon with Cornwall. Because the approach spans are on a tight curve with a 15mph speed limit you get a good view of the bridge from the train window while crossing it, and the low speed does make it feel like you’ve crossing into another country.

(Phoro by E Gammie/Wikimedia Commons)

Barmouth Bridge

Back in the late 1970s the timber viaduct across the Mawddach estuary was being eaten by worms, and the cost of repairs was used as justification to close the Cambrian Coast railway, which was said to be losing too much money. But wiser councils prevailed, the bridge was repaired, and it’s still possible to travel by train up the top left-hand corner of Wales. Crossing the bridge at high tide it feels like you’re on a boat rather than a train.

The Globe Inn in Lostwithiel, viewed from across the river in the evening light.

Lostwithiel Bridge

The only non-railway bridge of the five. This medieval pack horse bridge across the river Fowey links the railway station to the pub, neither of which existed in the 13th century when the bridge was first built. But what more can be asked of any bridge?

A pair of BLS

Tellenburg Viaduct

Switzerland is full of spectacular railway engineering, and this graceful viaduct is a faviourite of mine. It dates from 1915, built to carry the Bern Lötchberg Simplon main line across the Kander valley a mile south of Frutigen. The rather more utilitarian concrete structure alongside is a later addition, built in the 1970s when the railway was doubled to cope with increasing traffic.

Castlefield Viaduct

Castlefield Viaducts

This is not one bridge but several, and the combination of railway bridges at multiple levels and canal basins forms a kind of Victorian spaghetti junction. Some of the railway viaducts are still in use, one has been reused to carry the trams of Manchester Metrolink, though the most impressive one visible in the background has been disused since 1969, and now has trees growing on it.

What are your five favourite bridges?

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Misguided Busways and their Moonbats

Misguided BuswaySo the Institute of Economic Affairs are yet again proposing converting British commuter railways to busways, using reams of dubious statistics gathered from third-world countries that can’t afford rail-based commuter networks to try and make their case.

The one case of a former railway converted to a guided busway in Cambridgeshire is widely considered to be a costly failure, providing none of the benefits of light or heavy rail while sharing all the drawbacks.

Crackpot ideas for converting perfecly good existing railways into private roads have been swilling around in right-libertarian circles and their tobacco industry funded “think tamks” for many years. Back in the 1980s British Rail spent a lot of time and effort refuting their technologically-illiterate nonsense, when there a serious worry these moonbats had the ear of a notoriously rail-hating Prime Minister.

Yet despite being throroughly debunked at the time, much like young-earth creationism, the bad idea stubbornly refuses to die.

Can they seriously never have noticed the public’s reactions whenever the words “Rail replacement bus” are heard?

What is it about these cranks? It makes you wonder if these people have never quite got over not getting a train set for Christmas when they eight years old. Or perhaps they used to get beaten up by train-spotters at school?

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Revolution Trains

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The Baby Pendolino Kichstarter project has now morphed into Revolution Trains. The Kickstarter project came tantalisingly close to meeting their £210,000 target, and even through it “failed”, it proved the proect would be commercially viable. So there will still be an N-gauge Pendolino, now financed by pre-orders.

They have been taking orders at the original Kickstarter prices, restricted to those who had already backed the project. Now they’re taking further orders at a slightly higher price for those who didn’t back the Kickstarter. The price for a “basic” DC 9-car train is now £300, which still represents good value for money. It’s also available as an extended 11-car set, or as a 5-car “fun size” version for those without space for the prototypical 9 or 11 car train, with all variants available in either DC or DCC with sound.

The Pendolino is only the start. The intention is to follow up with other models, using the same pre-order model.

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Minitrix announce Cisalpino Re484 and coaches

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It’s the time of year when continental manufacturers announce their new models, and there are some interesting things in the Minitrix New Items brochure (pdf).

The Cisalpino Re484 with matching coaches has been on my wishlist for a while, since they were regular performers on the Lötchberg route in the mid-noughties. Cisalpino was a joint Swiss-Italian venture for through trains between Switzerland and Italy over the Lötchberg and Gotthard routes. The coaches on the Lötchberg were the standard Swiss EC stock, initially hauled by pairs of Re4/4s, later by dual-voltage Re484s that eliminated the need to change locomotives on the Swiss/Italian border.

They’re selling as a set with the locomotive and three coaches (two first class and one second), with additional second class coaches sold individually. This will enable modellers to assemble the correct prototypical six-coach formation of two first class and four second class coaches.

The EC coaches have been in the Minitrix range for several years, as has the 4-pantograph Bombardier TRAXX locomotive. Since a similar train has also appeared in the Arnold catalogue this year, using Eurofima coaches, I’m assuming the simultaneous appearance is to do with past licencing issues with the livery.

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Here’s the prototype at a rather wet Spiez in 2007. The six-car Cisalpino sets were frequently strengthened with older Swiss coaches during their run through Switzerland, in this case the three leading vehicles are rebuilt RIC stock, available in model form from Kato, which means the whole train can be modelled.

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