Railways Blog

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

The Manx Electric Railway

MER No 5 waits to depart from Derby Castle

The Manx Electric Railway is the Isle of Man’s second three-foot gauge railway, running along the coast from Douglas to Ramsay in the north of the island. As the name suggests, it’s an electric interurban railway, a type of line still found in parts of continental Europe but unique in the Biritish Isles. Here’s car no. 5 at Derby Castle in Douglas, the southern terminus of the line.

MER No 32 at Groudle Glen

Much of the route runs parallel to the main road, something that was once common on local railways in Ireland and Wales, but now the last survivor of its type. There’s something vaguely Swiss about stations like Groudle Glen, a couple of miles out of Douglas.

MER No 7 at Laxey

Laxey is the most important intermediate station on the line, junction for the Snaefell Mountain Railway as well as the stop for the Lady Isabella water wheel, one of the island’s top attractions.

Snaefell Mountain Railway No 2 at Laxey

The Snaefell Mountain Railway is built to the slightly wider 3’6″ gauge in order to accomodate the Fell braking system. Here car No 2 has just arrived after decending from the 2000 ft high summit. The original 1898-built cars, though much rebuilt, are still in service.

Fell brakewheels

The Fell system is an early form of rack railway using a pair of opposing wheels gripping a centre rail. Some other Fell railways used the system for both traction and braking, but the Snaiefell line uses it solely for braking, relying on adhesion for traction, and the Fell rail is only present on the steep grades. Once used in Italy, France, Brazil and New Zealand, the Snaefell Mountain Railway is now the last surviving Fell system in the world.

MER No 22 passes The Mines Tavern at Laxey

There are three tracks at the north end of Laxey station, the double track of the MER line to Ramsay, and the single track of the SMR heading towards the summit, which becomes double track just beyond the level crossing. The difference in gauge between the MER and SMR should be apparent in this view.

Okell''s SaisonThe Mines Tavern is right beside the tracks at Laxey, and is an excellent place to enjoy a beer while watching the trams go past. The Okells Saison is highly recommended on a hot day.

MER No 21 at Dhoon Glen

Dhoon Glen is another of those Swiss-style roadside stations, with a little tearoom next to the tracks. It’s near the summit of the line at 500 feet above sea level, and there are a lot of steps down the narrow glen to the sea. You then realise you have to walk all the way back up to return to the station.

MER No 4 couples up to the trailer after running round at Ramsay

Ramsay is the northern terminus of the line. Since most trains consist of motorcoach and an unpowered trailer, it’s nexessary to run round at each end of the line.

There were once two competing railways to Ramsay. The steam railway also serving the down via a more circuituitous route along the western side of the island, while the electric railway took a more direct but far more steeply-graded route along the east coast.

MER No 22 at Derby Castle terminuus in Douglas

Journey’s end at Derby Castle. Having worked its last run for the day. the conductor reverses the trolley collector before the train propels the trailer into the depot. The open-topped vehicle visible in the background belongs to the Douglas Horse Tramway, the island’s third railway.

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N Elevation – The Vertical Fiddle Yard

Nelevation Train Lift

Nelevation demonstrated their high-tech train lift system at the N Gauge Show in Leamington this weekend. It’s a very clever idea, a vertical traverser that doubles up as a display cabinet. The footprint is far smaller that a conventional fiddle yard with associated pointwork.

It’s designed for N-gauge, though the concept ought to work for proportionately shorter trains in larger scales.  The website quotes a length of 1400mm, which isn’t quite long enough for a 2+8 HST,  though talking to the designers on Saturday I got me the impression that it may be available in muliple lengths.

A the moment it’s not yet commercially available, though when it does go into production the likely price will probably run into four figures. Which seems a lot until you look at the likely value of the trains you will put in it.

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The Queen Opens The Borders Railway

Union of South AfricaGood to see The Queen celebrating becoming Britain’s longest reigning monarch by taking Nicola Sturgeon on a train ride pulled by a locomotive whose name includes the word “Union”. I’d love to know if she had any influence in choosing No 60009 “Union of South Africa” as the locomotive to pull the train.

The Borders Railway, which runs for more than 30 miles from Edinburgh to Tweedbank via Galashiels is the most ambitious railway reopening project to date. The original line, the former Waverley Route, ran from Edinburgh through Galashiels and Hawick to Carlisle. It was one of the last and most controversial of the sixties Beeching closures, wrongly considered an unnecessary duplication of the existing west coast main line despite being an important link for communities along the route.

Hopefully Tweedbank will only be the temporary terminus, and the line will be extended in due course to Hawick and beyond. Will The Queen still reign when 60009 steams beyond Tweedbank towards Carlisle?

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No Security Theatre on the Railways

SNCF "Sybic" on a Basel-Brussels international working at Luxembourg

Following the foiled terrorist attack on an interational train on the border between Belgium and France, there’s a worry that opportunistic politicians will propose airport-style security theatre for rail travellers. Anyone who actually cares about rail travel must resist and oppose such proposals by every means possible.

It’s not just that such things have the potential to make rail travel as miserable an experience as air travel has become post 9/11, but they would completely ineffective when it comes to saving actual lives. All it will achieve would be to make would-be terrorists find other softer targets. We learned that lesson fighting the IRA in the 1970s.

At worst, degrading the passenger experience of rail travel would encourage a proportion of travellers to take to their cars instead, and a proportion of them would then die in additional road accidents. Even if that doesn’t happen, how about multiplying an extra 30 minutes enforced check-in time by the many millions of rail journeys a year. Just how many lifetimes’ worth of wasted time will that add up to? All for something which will achieve precisely nothing.

It goes without saying that any politician advocating such things as policy guarantees that their party will never get my vote.

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N Gauge Minories, anyone?

Blue Mk1 Suburban(Photo from Hattons)

Graham Farish’s BR Blue Mk1 suburban is now in the shops. It’s the sort of model that suggests a Minories-style inner-city terminus using the recently retooled class 31s and the forthcoming DJM Baby Deltic as motive power.

The prototype Mk1 suburban coaches were short-lived and should probably never have been built. Designed as like-for-like replacements for life-expired pre-nationalisation non-corridor stock, the short-distance services on which they were used rapidly went over to DMUs soon after they were built, and without toilets they were unsuitable for longer-distance services. Most of them had their bodies stripped off so the underframes could be used as Carflats.

There was one exception. Peak-time services on the City Widened line between Kings Cross and Moorgate had to negotiate the notorious Hotel Curve in a tunnel beneath part of the station. Clearances were two tight for 64′ coaches, which meant none of the high-density suburban DMU designs would fit, and the low-density 57′ DMUs didn’t have the capacity.  So a small fleet of 57′ Mk1 suburbans lasted until the Great Northern electrification in 1977 when the Hotel Curve closed. They were the only Mk1 suburbans to survive long enough to receive BR blue livery.

A cramped partially-underground inner-city terminus based around that theme would make a tempting model. But someone other than me can build it.

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The Isle of Man Railway

Douglas sheds

A few photos from my recent visit to the Isle of Man Railway, which runs from Douglas to Port Erin. Here No 4 “Loch” leaves the shed at Douglas to work the mid-morning train to Port Erin. Douglas station is much reduced from its heyday as the hub of a network covering the entire island.

No 12 and No 4 at Douglas

No 12 “Hutchinson” arrives at Douglas with the morning train from Port Erin, while No 4 waits to take the return working. All but one of the line’s operational steam locomotives are these 2-4-0Ts built by Beyer-Peacock on Manchester.

IoMR No "Loch" at Castletown

No 4 again, two days later at Castletown. There are several crossing loops on the line, a legacy of the days when the railway ran a far more intensive service, but for the 2015 timetable all trains cross at Castletown.

IoMR No 5

No 5 “Mona” leaves Castletown bound for Douglas. This locomotive carries the older green livery rather than the Indian red of the majority of the operational fleet.

IoMR Arrival at Castletown

No 13 “Kissack” arrives at Castletown from Douglas. The three-foot gauge gives the line a very different flavour compared with the two-foot lines of Wales. The well-maintained permanent way is reminiscent of the meter-gauge lines of Switzerland, and the locomotives seem more like scaled-down late Victorian standard gauge machines.

Leaving  for Port ErinKissack departs for Port Erin. If the locomotives have a standard-gauge feel, the coaching stock reminds me a lot of the bogie coaches of the Talyllyn railway.

IoMR No 12

Journey’s end. No 12 “Hutchinson” at the southern terminus of Port Erin. The railway has a complicated history. Initially built to serve the tourist industry, it had a lot in common with the standard-gauge railways of the Isle of Wight, which also ran with vintage equipment into the 1960s. The entire network closed in 1965 after making heavy losses, reopening two years later. Now state-owned, only the Douglas to Port Erin section survives.

What remains of Peel station

The lines to Peel and Ramsey closed in 1968, when it became clear that operating the entire network as a vintage steam railway wasn’t viable. Here’s the site of the station throat at Peel. The station building also survives as a coffee shop, though much of the station site has sadly been built over.

No 8 on a demonstration freight train at Douglas

And finally, No 8 “Fenella” with a demonstration freight train at Douglas. The IOMR was always primarily a passenger carrier, and never carried volumes of mineral traffic like the lines in Wales. General merchandise traffic tended to be tail loads on passenger trains.

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A Runway for the 1%?

Sometimes the arguments used in favour of something can be the best arguments against that thing. For an example, see this press release I received about the expansion of Heathrow Airport:

A significant amount of time, effort, and energy has been spent at arriving at the conclusions. Strong account has been taken with the need to meet EU air pollution limits, address noise pollution concerns and move most ground traffic from road to rail. What must happen is action by the politicians: further delay would significantly damage UK plc.

In context, the UK has not built a full-length runway in the South East since World War 2. Our neighbours in the EU have overtaken us – Frankfurt, Paris, and Amsterdam already have much more runway capacity. What this means is that we’re losing out in the global connectivity race: Paris already offers 50 per cent more flights to China than London, for example. This is significant, because by 2025 there will be 7,000 new $1bn companies globally, and nearly 7 in 10 will be in emerging economies. If we want to connect with these we have to act.

With the world’s biggest cities planning 50 new runways by 2036, allowing for 1bn new passenger journeys, we simply can’t afford any further political delay. Given that Dubai will soon have more capacity than all of London’s airports combined, it is clear that expansion of airport capacity in the South East is a must. The world is watching to see if London and the UK has the ambition to maintain its position as a Global trading hub – we’re losing ground to our competitors, and further political delay would be unacceptable.

I find this self-serving corporate-bureaucratic bullshit a lot more offensive than Anglo-Saxon terms for bodily functions used as expletives. Look at the way it glosses over the environmental impact with meaningless empty platitudes, and says nothing at all about how it might affect the lives of ordinary working people. It’s clearly not about the transport needs of the those who actually live and work in the south-east of England, let alone the rest of the country. It’s all about “competing as a global hub”. Who cares how many runways they have in bloody Dubai?

The whole thing speaks volumes about the worldview of big money. The only people that matter are the global elites who owe no loyalty to any nation or culture. The same people who are slowly and steadily turning London into a soulless corporate wasteland filled with luxury apartments that they occupy for a few weeks a year while ordinary Londoners are relentlessly priced out of their own city. The people who only see the rest of us through the tinted windows of the chauffeur-driven cars, except then they’re barking orders to the staff in expensive restaurants.

Screw these people. And if their needs are really the main thing  that’s driving the demand, screw their runway as well.

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Electrification Postponed: Echoes of 1963?

Midland Main Line 222 Meridian

So the government have postponed the Midland Main Line and Trans-Pennine electrification schemes amidst suggestions that the high-profile Great Western electrification is running seriously late and way over budget.

Given the Tories pre-election promises it’s looking like their equivalent of the Liberal Democrat’s tuition fees débâcle, at least on the surface. So much for the “Northern Powerhouse”. Though in this case, since it’s widely suggested that there were plenty of warning signs that the GW project was in trouble, but bad news was being deliberately suppressed prior to the election. Which means the charge against the Tories one of deliberate lying rather than broken promises.

There is horrible echo of the 1963 appointment of Dr Beeching in response to the cost overruns of the 1955 modernisation plan, though in a time where passenger numbers are rising year upon year we’re unlikely to see Beeching-style closures. The 1955 plan was a crash programme following years of under-investment on a network that had never really recovered from being run into the ground during World War 2. It involved a lot of new and untried technology, much of which wasn’t terribly successful, from manufacturers who seemed to be chosen as much because of politics than their expertise. A lot of money was misspent, both on unsuccessful locomotive designs and on vast freight marshalling yards which soon turned into massive white elephants. And let’s not mention the unspeakable horror that is Birmingham New Street station.

Likewise we’re now playing a heavy price for the lack of any large-scale electrification schemes since the late 1980s East Coast Main Line, a full generation ago. Paul Bigland describes it well: The Labour government from 1997 to 2010 believed there was no need for electrification because some magical new technology was just around the corner. So the British railway industry lost the skills base necessary for such large and complex engineering projects, which is one reason the Great Western scheme has run into such difficulties. It’s just the same as the stop-start-stop approach to rolling stock procurement has decimated Britain’s train manufacturing industry. We’re now importing locomotives and multiple units from America, Spain, Germany and even Japan because British works went out of business during lean years.

A more rational approach would have seen a slow but steady rolling programme of electrification over the past four decades; as one project finished the teams would move on to the next, and lessons learned in past projects applied to future ones. The Midland and Transpennine routes would have been electrified years ago, along with other trunk routes who’s electrification isn’t even on the horizon.

One final point. A lot of ill-informed commentators with political axes to grind are now claiming that the MML and TPE schemes are being scrapped in order to save HS2. Paul Bigland again skewers this argument as complete cobblers, emphasising the fundamental difference between upgrading existing lines and building brand new infrastructure. And yet again the anti-HS2 mob have no answer to the fundamental rationale behind HS2, the lack of capacity on existing routes heading north out of London.

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DEMU Showcase

DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent

A few photos from 21st Anniversary DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent from a couple of weeks ago. DEMU stands for “Diesel and Electric Modellers United”, an organisation dedicated to modelling British prototypes after the steam age, formed at a time when steam-age modelling was considered the default. Here’s the spectacular viaduct at one end of the 2mm finescale Fencehouses, set in County Durham in the 1960s.

DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent

I’m probably in a minority here, but “Diesels in the Dutchy”, based on St.Blazey in Cornwall in the late 1980s doesn’t quite do it for me. It captures the look of the place very well, including details like the stone blocks of the tramway that preceded the railway. But as someone very familar with the prototype in the era modelled, there’s an element of verisimillitude missing for me; the simplified trackplan means it doesn’t operate like the prototype, turning it into a working diorama rather than a reproduction of a real working railway.

DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent

Graeme Hedges’ Stoney Lane is a perennial exhibition favourite, a N-gauge slice of south London with all the buildings scratchbult from card and based on real buildings from the area. Graeme claims to have had a pint in each of full-sized versions of the layout’s multiple pubs.

DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent

The term “Modern Image” coined by the late Cyril Freezer after the end of the steam in 1968 needs to retired. Layouts like Wibdenshaw, set in early 70s West Yorkshire demonstrate why. It’s a time as far removed from the present as the end of steam was from the 1923 Grouping, and the railway of the early 70s was in many ways the steam-age railway with diesel locomotives at the head of the trains. Loose-coupled trains of short-wheelbase wagons or parcels trains made up of heterogeneous pre-nationalisation vans are a world away from the railway of 2015.

DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent

DEMU doesn’t do chocolate-box branch-line scenes from the inter-war years. Instead it’s lovingly modelled representations of 1980s urban decay. Farkham even features half-sunken shopping trolleys in the canal.

DEMU Showcase at Burton-on-Trent

And finally, the show also feaures manufactures showing off their wares. Here’s some samples of the forthcoming Graham Farish Mk2a coauches in Network South East livery, looking very smart. They’re in the later version of the NSE livery as used on the Waterloo-Exeter line, which was the explanation I was giving for the absence of any first class vehicle; the Mk2a FKs painted in NSE were in the earlier version of the livery with the lighter blue, used on Thames valley services out of Paddington.

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Old and New

Sir Edward Elgar

Edward Elgar’s birthday a few days ago was an excuse to give 50007 a spin on the layout. The prototype was painted in Great Western green to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the GWE in 1985.The repaint and renaming was somewhat controversial in some quarters, earning the locomotive the nickname of “Snotvac”. It survives in perservation, although it’s currently running in its earlier guise of “Hercules”.

The model is one of the oldest on the layout, resprayed and detailed by Chris Marchant of CJM something like 25 years ago. This one’s still running on the original Farish 5-pole chassis; one of the early ones with nylon gears that therefore still runs. The coaches are very much newer; a rake of the the recently-introduced Farish Mk2as.

Farish 31 No 5826

In contrast, the newest addiion to the fleet is one of Graham Farish’s newly retooled 31s. No 5826 was one of a handful of locomotives outshopped in the late sixties in an unusual interim livery, still wearing the original green but with full yellow ends and BR double arrow logos normally applied to locomotives repainted into BR blue.

5826 was one of the locomotives transferred to the Western Region at the beginning of the 1970s to replace the WR’s non-standard diesel-hydraulic fleet. It was running in this livery in 1973, representing an earlier era to the 1980s class 50, but ideal to run alongside the hydraulics.  Here it’s pulling a very mixed parcels train, typical of the sort of duties these medium-power locomotives found themselves working during the 70s.

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