Railways Blog

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

When the customer changes the requirements

Before the customer added a requirement

This must be a familiar situation to any software developer. You come up with a clean, elegant design that meets the customer’s stated needs. Then at the last minute they come up with a new requirement.

After the customer added a requirement

So you end up with this. Someone I won’t name has described it as looking like “the world’s most disturbing sex toy”.

Coming up with an elegant way to add a corridor connection on the front of a train is a challenge that’s defeated generations of industrial designers. Even the better results have been functional rather than beautiful. But it does help if the door at the front had been a requirement from the start.

(Photos from Transport Briefing)

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Slumbering Dragons and White Elephants

The A recent Guardian piece on Welsh nationalism highlights the fact that the only major road linking south Wales and north Wales is the single-carriageway A470, “slowed to a crawl by tractors and hay wagons“, and touches on the complete lack of a north-south railway link within Wales.

In fact, there never has been a north-south main-line railway within Wales. It’s true that up to the 1960s it used to be possible to travel across Wales without passing through England, but those north-south lines were really little more than a network of local routes. What little long-distance traffic they did carry was mainly between regions of Wales and north-west England. All of them were winding single-track affairs unsuitable for high speeds or heavy traffic, not that there was much volume of traffic to start with. It was little surprise that the lines linking Afon Wen to Bangor, Carmarthen to Aberystwyth, and the meandering route from Merthyr to Moat Lane all succumbed to the Beeching axe. The only reason the Central Wales Line didn’t join them was that it ran through too many marginal constituencies.

There have been suggestions for reopening the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line, so that it would be possible to get from Cardiff to Aberystwyth without having to pass through England. But would that journey actually be any quicker than the existing route via Shrewsbury?

A more outlandish suggestion in the comments was for an “east border” line route running along the Welsh side of the border. This would be little more than a pointless duplication of the existing Welsh Marches line that runs along the English side of the border via Hereford, Ludlow and Shrewsbury, a line that as far as rail franchises go is treated as part of the Welsh network anyway. There is no economic point building a second, parallel line just a few miles further west for purely political reasons. It would be an equivalent of the Wutachtalbahn in Germany, built for military reasons purely to avoid passing through Swiss territory.

The best way to improve rail links between north and south Wales would be to upgrade the Welsh Marches line to allow higher speeds and increased capacity. It’s just that some people might balk at spending money on infrastructure in England even if it’s for the benefit of Wales.

The truth is that Wales exists as a nation culturally, but doesn’t really function as nation economically. With half the Welsh population living close to the English border, much of Wales has far closer economic ties with neighbouring English regions than with distant parts of Wales, and transport links reflect this. Pragmatic Welsh nationalism needs to accept this reality, and abandon pipe-dreams about ambitious north-south transport links that make no economic sense and will prove to be little more than costly white elephants.

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Cornbrook to Manchester Airport in two-and-a-half minutes

A driver’s eye view of the latest extension of the Manchester Metrolink network. It starts off along the long-established Altrincham line before crossing over to the re-used formation that once carried the Midland Railway main line out of Manchester Central towards London. We then branch off to the all-new formation with several street-running sections before terminating alongside the existing heavy rail terminus at Manchester Airport.

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Rats!

Graham Farish class 25/2

The long-awaited Graham Farish class 25/2 is finally here. Graham Farish have had a class 25/3 in the catalogue for many years, but the model dating from the Poole years is getting very long in the tooth. Following on from the new model of the similar class 24 from a couple of years back, a new class 25 was the obvious follow-up. In contast to the older Farish 25. the new model represents the earlier body style with front-end communication doors and bodyside grilles.

Known by the spotters’ nickname of “Rats”, the prototypes were built in the early to mid 1960, and the class eventually numbered no fewer than 327, making them the second most numerous class of main-line diesel after the class 47. The majority were allocated to the Midland Region though the Western and Scottish regions also had a few. Despite their large numbers they were relatively short-lived; the reduced demand for lower-power locomotives saw them last ones withdrawn in 1987, with many of them seeing less than 20 years service.

Graham Farish class 25/2

The Farish model comes in three different bodyshell variants representing the locomotives at different stages in their lives. The one I’ve got has both the boiler vent and the nose end doors plated over, and represents the condition of the locomotives in their final years in service.

I intend to renumber it to one of those allocated t o Plymouth Laira in the mid 1970s. These locomotives were brought into the West Country at the beginning of the 1970s to replace the class 22 diesel-hydraulics on local freight and passenger work in Devon and Cornwall. They were a common sight on china clay workings and Cornish local freight up to 1980 when the more powerful class 37s replaced them.

So far I have identified 25048, 25052, 25223 and 25225 as candidates for the new number. The above photo shows 25223 at Plymouth in 1976, and comes from John Woolley’s excellent photostream.

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Murdoch Bulk Muck Shifting

Oxford Diecast Murdoch tipper with Scania T-Cab

It’s almost disappointing to learn that “Murdoch Bulk Muck Shifting” is a real company based in Scotland rather than a joke at the expense of a well-known Australian newspaper proprietor.

The model is from Oxford Diecasts, filling what has until very recently been a big gap in the market, for modern commercial vehicles in British N (1:148) scale.

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Par to St Blazey in N

Par to St Blazey in N

This is another one of those draft project track plans of mine. It’s an attempt to squeeze one of my long-term ambitions into the loft space I currently have available; Par and St Blazey in Cornwall.

I started building a layout based on this prototype many years ago, in a 12′ x 8′ outbuilding when I still lived in Slough. It got as far as the main-line part, with trains running and some rudimentary scenery. It never ran that well due to the poor quality of my baseboard construction, and an enforced move for work reasons eventually put it out of its misery. But it’s an idea that never died, and of course I have all the necessary rolling stock.

Par & St Blazey

It was a fascinating prototype back in the late 1980s, when I started building the original layout, and visited the area several times. Par was (and still is) a classic junction station fully signalled by WR lower-quadrant signals. The marshalling yard and locomotive depot at St.Blazey sat half a mile along the branch to Newquay, and was the operational hub for freight operations in Cornwall. Most of the traffic at the time was wagonload, and the yard was the place where trip workings from various locations were assembled into long-distance trains for destinations outside Cornwall.

China clay was the predominant traffic, but the yard also saw cement to Chasewater, calcified seaward from Drinnink Mill, beer from Truro and fuel oil to Penzance. Freight traffic to and from west Cornwall had to reverse in Par station, usually running round in the station. It was a busy place; St Blazey yard saw up to seven arrivals and seven departures a day, including three to west Cornwall, and the main line saw a procession of passenger traffic, as well as a fair bit of parcels and mail. Most of the long-distance passenger workings were HST sets, but the local trains were four or five Mk1 coaches behind a class 47 or 50.

St Blazey Yard with an unidentified class 08 shunter in faded Mainline blue livery
St Blazay yard in 2004, by which time it was far less busy

My original layout was in a U-shape, with Par station along one wall, and St Blazey (had the layout got that far) along the other, with the staging yard for the main line behind St.Blazey. The main line was arranged as a dumbbell, so up trains could reappear as down trains, meaning you could operate a representative 24 hour timetable.

I couldn’t work out a good way of fitting that plan into my current space, which is slightly larger but a different shape, but this alternative plan seems to cover most of my “givens and druthers”. It’s still a U-shape, but with the main line a more traditional oval with the main fiddle yard behind Par, and a sexond smaller fiddle yard representing the Newquay branch tucked behind St Blazey. The plan uses Kato Unitrack, which for me is ideal for a layout focussed on operation rather than display. This will not be a finescale layout.

Single unit class 153 railcar in Cornish advertising black livery at Par
By 2004 all the local services were railcars

A few caveats. First, this is a first attempt to see if the concept can be made to fit the space; some of the track lengths in St Blazey yard have been bodged to fit, and will need some fiddling about with funny length straights for any final design. Second, the turntable is a Fleischman manual one, since I’ve actually got one available. The plan might work better with the newly-released Kato electric turntable. And finally, I haven’t designed the main line fiddle yard yet, which might be one of the more challenging aspects of the plan; exhibition-style up and down loops won’t work for the sort of operation I’m planning.

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Cambrian Coast Line Reopens

The new bridge at Pont Briwet (photo from Network Rail)
(Photo from Network Rail)

The Cambrian Coast railway is now re-opened with trains again able to run the full length of the line following completion of the railway part of the new bridge at Pont Briwet just south of Penrhyndeudraeth.

The entire line was forced to close following the severe storms in January. The southern section reopened in stages during the spring following repairs to the sea defences at Tywyn and Barmouth, but until now trains had been unable to run north of Harlech due to the ongoing bridge reconstruction work.

The reopening means that Porthmadog, Cricceth and Pwllheli are once again connected to the main line rail network, although it was still possible to reach Porthmadog via the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway.

The fact that there was never any doubt over the line’s future says something abou the change in political climate towards rail over the past couple of decades. Back in the early 1970s the line was under thread of closure; indeed it got as far as closure notices posted at stations. At the end of the decade the future again hung in the balance as the mile-long Barnouth Bridge was being eaten by worms. But today, although it still runs at a loss, it’s recognised as being an important part of a regional economy that relies heavily on tourism.

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The Advanced Passenger Train

Thirty years ago, the Advanced Passenger Train represented the future of inter-city rail travel in Britain, a revolutionary tilting train that promised far higher speeds on existing tracks than conventional trains.

Sadly the project suffered many teething troubles after the trains entered public service prematurely, and generated much negative press in the media. In a climate where the governement of the day was so hostile to the rail industry that fringe cranks who wanted the entire rail network converted into roads had the ear of ministers, the project was abandoned, and the trains scrapped.

There was a time when the Advanced Passenger Train represented the future of rail travel.

Only a few coaches now survive, on public display at the Crewe Heritage centre, where they’re formed into a shortened representation of a typical set. What’s left of the train that represents what rail travel could have been sits alongside the West Coast Main Line, the route for which it was designed.

Now Virgin Trains’ Pendolinos and Super Voyagers speed past, running between London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, delivering what the APT promised a generation before.

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UK Train Fares – The Highest in Europe?

London Midland 350 at Rugeley Trent Valley

Rail fares are in the news again, with the annual announcement of above-inflation fare rises for the new year. The usual headlines emphasise how British rail fares are far higher that equivalents in most other countries. But given the complexity of British fare structures with astronomical peak-hour prices on prime business routes and extremely cheap bargains that are only available when booked weeks in advance, it’s not quite that simple.

The Man in Seat 61 has analysed a range of different journey, and concludes the real story is a lot more complex.

So the next time someone says (or you read) “Britain has the highest rail fares in Europe”, you’ll know this is only 15% of the story. The other 85% is that we have similar or even cheaper fares, too. The big picture is that Britain has the most commercially aggressive fares in Europe, with the highest fares designed to get maximum revenue from business travel, and some of the lowest fares designed to get more revenue by filling more seats. This is exactly what airlines have known, and been doing, for decades. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself, check some UK train fares at www.nationalrail.co.uk…

But all this is academic if you actually want to make a specific journey rather than a hypothetical one.

If, for example, you need to travel from Reading to York in three days time, the fact that the peak hour fare from London to Manchester is eye-wateringly expensive or you can get a really cheap ticket to Cleethorpes on a Wednesday in November isn’t relevant. All that matters is the tickets available for your journey. And in my case the cheap advance tickets never seem to be available for the times I need to travel, and the cost of an off-peak return is a three-figure sum.

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Porthmadog Again

Ffestiniog Railway's double-Fairlie A few more photos from norh Wales, starting with 1979-built double Fairlie “David Lloyd George” at Blaenau Ffestiniog, having just arrived on the morning train from Porthmadog. It’s still running in grey livery following an overhaul. Despite being one of the “new” locomotives build since preservation, it’s now 35 years old.
Continue reading

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