Railways Blog

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

Die Krankenhausbahn

The delightful narrow-gauge railway serves the hospital in the Austrian city of Lainz, transporting food from the central kitchens to the wards.

There cannot be many hospitals in the world where the hospital porters get to play trains, and I do wonder if it was an inspiration for the Castle of Bequest in Iain Banks’ novel “Walking on Glass“.

Filmed in 2009, I have no idea if this railway is still operating today. But I hope it is.

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Revolution Trains News

321Revolution Trains, the crowdfunding-based model railway brand run by Ben Ando and Mike Hale. have concluded the expressions of interest phase of their two most recent projects. The good news is that the class 321 EMU will almost certainly be going ahead.

Class 320/321/456 project: the levels of interest in this project are very promising and we are 99% certain that the project can begin design.  The only area that we are still finalising is the cost for the units – until we have a confirmed price we will not open orders. As soon as we have a price we will open orders for the 320/321 with a deposit option and with incentives for people who back us early.

The level of interest shown rather contradicts the conventional wisdom thar nobody is interested in electric mutiple units. Sadly there was not the same level of enthusiasm for their other proposal

Unfortunately the results of the 21/29 project were not so promising with neither the class 21 or class 29 getting sufficient support to justify production as things stand. To be frank both locos were significantly below production minimums. Even in the situation where we only produced one of the classes (and customers had agreed to swap their interest to that class (it would have been a class 29 as it was approximately 50% more popular than a 21) we would still have been significantly below the minimum production run.

That’s something of a surprise, since the prototype’s stamping ground, the Scottish Highlands, with its spectacular scenery and relatively short trains is a popular subject for modellers, and there are plenty of complementary models are already available.

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Lone Star Treble-0-Lectric

When I was three years old, my parents gave me a train set for Christmas. I was probably a little too young at the time; on seeing it I’m an told I exclaimed “Oh, rails”, and promptly trod on it.

It was a Lone Star Treble-0-Lectric set, in what is now called N gauge, but then labelled as 000 gauge, half the size of the more popular 00 gauge. I had what must have been the deluxe version, with vacuum-formed scenery and buildings. The track was a looped eight which made two circuits of the board crossing over itself.

As the very first manufacturer to make ready-to-run electric models Lone Star were ahead of their time. The range descended from an earlier die-cast push-along system which used an 8mm track gauge. The locomotives used an ingenious but ultimately troublesome design with a large central motor powering both bogies via a transmission that used rubber bands. This precluded any British-outline steam locomotives, which meant the only steam locomotive in the range was an American-outline Baldwin 0-8-0 switcher with the mechanism in the large bogie tender.

The range ultimately included four different locomotives. There were two British diesels, an English Electric “Baby Deltic” and a Derby-Sulzer class 24. The other two were American-outline models, the Baldwin 0-8-0, and an EMD F7 diesel which ultimately appeared in eight different North American liveries. There was a limited range of rolling stock, again split between British and American prototypes.

Lone Star never developed the system beyond that small initial range. They didn’t have the resources to invest in a more flexible and smaller mechanism that would enable them to make anything other than four-axle diesels. The range was discontinued after only a couple of years, with some models perpetuated in a newer push-along range that used to be sold in Woolworths for another few years. Not until the late 60s did German company Arnold introduce a new range in the same scale, and what we now know as N-Gauge became established.

Most of that original train set is long gone now. A few items have somehow survived; a battered American “Mobilgas” tanker, one piece of curved track, and of all things, the controller, which survived to power a later TT gauge layout, but that’s another story. There may be more survivors hidden away in the back of cupboards. But when on holiday last summer in the Isle of Man I visited the tramway shop in Laxey, and saw a few items of rolling stock, three coaches and three wagons, and nostalgia got the better of me.

It got worse after that; I started scanning eBay for Lone Star items and bid for another pair of coaches, which I ended up winning. And then a couple more wagons from a secondhand dealer at the Maidenhead & Marlow exhibition. All I need now is the two British-outline locomotives…

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Save the Douglas Horse Tram

The Douglas Horse Tramway which runs for a couple of miles along the promenade of Douglas , capical of The Isle of Man, is now unique in the Northern Hemisphere, the very last survivor of a means of transport that was once commonplace in towns and cities before the development of the electric tram.

In a statement that simply beggars belief, Douglas Borough Council on The Isle of Man have announced that it is to close, citing substantial financial losses. The announcement itself is an awful example of weasel-worded bureaucratese, formulaic doublespeak that waffles about having a duty towards ratepayers. One paper it looks like a bone-headed decision by small-minded bean-counters.

The Council recognises the affection in which the horse tram service is held, both in the island and around the world, but these are difficult times that demand rigorous examination of expenditure, current and future. Against this background the horse tram service is, regrettably, no longer sustainable.

When I visited Douglas last summer the place smelled of money. My guess is the tramway stands in the way of somebody’s lucrative property deal, and the platitudes about value to ratepayers is a load of horseshit.

I’m reminded of Jonathan Calder’s observations about Jersey. That island once had a prosperous tourism industry and a thriving agricultural sector, but its status as an offshore tax haven meant the financial sector ended up eating the rest of the economy, such that tourism and agriculture withered away. Is the Isle of Man going the same way?

I went there on holiday last summer. The island’s heritage transport network was the sole reason I chose the Isle of Man as a destination. The Douglas Horse Tramway is a small but significant part of that. Both the Isle of Man Steam Railway and the Manx Electric Railway have had to struggle to survive and came close to closure in past decades, and even the steam railway is a surviving fragment of a far larger network that survived until the mid-1960s. The horse tramway will be a loss, and will diminish the island’s appeal as a tourist destination.

I hope wider councils prevail, and there is still a chance for this idiotic and short-sighted decision to be reversed. There is already an online petition opposing it.

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The publication of the RAIB report for the  Froxfield incident and the beginning of the court case of the Wootton Bassett near-miss is a reminder that both indicents put 750 lives at risk. They threw the book at West Coast Railways and the driver of “Tangmere”. What action will be taken against Eddie Stobart and their driver?

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The British Railway Modernisation Plan

Preserved class 14 "Teddybear" on the Forest of Dean Railway

One of the most short-lived classes in BR service, the diesel-hydraulic class 14, seen preserved on the Forest of Dean Railway

There is a very interesting discussion (for given values of interesting) on the RMWeb forum about BR Modernisation Plan diesels.

As any student of British motive power knows, the early years of the nationalised British Railways saw large-scale building of new steam locomotives, including a whole range of new standard designs. Then in the late 1950s there was a crash programme of dieselisation in an attempt to stem increasing financial losses, followed by a drastic rationalisation of the size of the network in the shape of the Beeching cuts. Both those newly-built stream locomotives and many of the early diesels were scrapped after ridiculously short lives. The epitome of this was D601 “Active” spending years sitting in Woodham’s scrapyard in Wales surrounded by the rusting steam locomotives it was built to replace. What a waste of resources.

What was to stop British Railways adopting the policy of West Germany? They had a far earlier end to steam locomotive building, accompanied by a rolling programme of electrification and what was initially a partial dieselisation. The first diesels replaced the oldest life-expired steam power, with the surviving newer steam engines concentrated on those routes eventually scheduled for electrification. West Germany saw thus a slower and more gradual elimination of steam over a period of 25 years rather than a decade. The last steam ran into the mid-1970s by which time the locomotives had reached the end of their economic lives.

Class 24 at Grosmont

Tbe Derby/Sulzer class 24s were built in significant numbers yet withdrawn after less than 20 years.

The original 1955 modernisation plan envisaged a pilot scheme, whereby small numbers of locomotives would be ordered of a variety of different designs from different manufacturers, to be evaluated in traffic before placing large-scale repeat orders. That never happened. Such was the rush, perhaps motivated by a belief that government money must be spent now or it might not be available later, that BR placed repeat orders before they had time to complete any meaningful evaluation.

The least bad consequence was bulk orders of lumbering and obsolescent designs like the English Electric class 40, which at least had the advantage of working reliably. The worst was the ordering of more than a hundred Paxman-engined Clayton class 17s straight off the drawing board, which proved to be not fit for purpose.

The whole Type One saga is illuminating. The specification was for a single-cabbed locomotive with a power range of around 800hp to replace small tank locomotives on local freight working. The most mechanically reliable of the pilot scheme designs proved to be the English Electric class 20. But it was deemed unsuitable due to poor driver visibility when running hood-forward. What they wanted was a centre-cabbed locomotive in the vein of the German V100, but the combination of low hood and high cab proved impossible within the restrictive British loading gauge.

So they came up with centre-cabbed twin-engine design using railcar-style engines which became the ill-fated class 17. The reliability was so poor the whole lot went for scrap after a very short period and BR placed a repeat order for more class 20s. By the time those locomotives arrived, changing traffic patterns and Beeching’s branch line closures meant the original need for these low-power machines had evaporated. The 20s eventually found another niche working in pairs on coal traffic in the East Midlands, quite different work from that for which they were originally designed.

A lot of what went wrong was down to politics, both interference by government and internal within British Rail. There is the distinct impression that some business went to firms purely because they were based in areas with high unemployment. At the time each of British Rail’s regions had a lot of autonomy and all did their own thing. The Western Region famously chose diesel-hydraulic power rather than the electric transmissions preferred by everyone else, and got its own Pilot Scheme designs. The Southern Region rejected the Pilot Scheme altogether, came up with its own specification and ordered the class 33s from BRCW, which proved to be highly successful. One mystery was why there were no further orders of 33s for other regions, while Derby works were content to churn out vast numbers of underpowered class 25s.

It was the Type Two specification, double-cabbed locomotives in the 1100-1300 power range for secondary passenger and freight work which saw some of the real turkeys. You could even argue that the BRCW class 26 and 27s were the only unquestionably successful designs. The Metrovick Co-Bo class 28 suffered from the shockingly unreliable Crossley engines which had proved equally useless in the very similar A-class locomotives in Ireland. The class 21s demonstrated that North British, despite being one of the most successful steam locomotive builders, were nowhere near as adept at building diesels, a parallel with America’s Baldwin Locomotive Company. The class 23 “Baby Deltics” were English Electric’s one failure, needing complete rebuilds very early on. Even the numerous and eventually very long-lived Brush class 31s needed re-engining early in their lives after problems with the original Mirrlees power units.

Western at the NRM

One of the most iconic “non standard” designs withdrawn before their time, Swindon’s magnificent Western.

At the end of the 1960s British Rail found themselves with a surplus of motive power following Beeching’s heavy pruning of the network, and made the sensible decision to reduce the number of types in service by eliminating the unsuccessful and unreliable designs. The decision to phase out the Western Region’s entire fleet of diesel hydraulics as non-standard remains controversial to this day, since some of the locomotives such as the Hymeks and Westerns acquitted themselves well in service and were built in significant numbers. But few would question the cull of Type One and Type Two designs; even when teething troubles had been eliminated and the locomotives could be made to work reliably, classes like the Baby Deltics were too few in number to make economic sense to keep.

We’re lucky some of those unsuccessful early designs survived to make it into preservation. One of the Metrovick Co-Bos, now under restoration in Bury, spent many years as a carriage heating unit, while one Clayton class 17 has a lengthy post-BR career as a works shunter at Ribble Cement. There were sadly a couple that frustratingly got away despite surviving into the diesel preservation era. Pioneer diesel-hydraulic D601 languished at Barry only to be scrapped as late as 1980, and Baby Deltic D5901 lingered in departmental use and was only scrapped in 1976.

But despite the obvious waste of resources, it does mean British railway modellers have a far wider array of different locomotives to model.

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Driverless Cars and Predicting the Future

There is a lot of hype about driverless cars swirling around the interwebs at the moment, but this piece of pseudo-utopian nonsense is ridiculous by any standards.

When he simultaneously talks about wholesale destruction of industries employing millions of people while declaring it’s a great time to be alive, it really does speak volumes about the combination of utopianism and sociopathy that Silicon Valley is notorious for. He does come over as someone who’s read way too much Ayn Rand.

For starters, the idea that driverless cars will make existing mass-transit obsolete and “release the prime real-estate occupied by bus stations for other purposes” suggests the author has not experienced any kind of urban environment other than the low-density suburban sprawls typical of much of North America.

The truth is that nobody really knows how soon this technology will be mature enough for widespread adoption, and what sort of economic impact it might have. We’ve had the technology for fully-automated trains for almost half a century now, but it’s not been adopted beyond a very small number of closed systems. Perhaps the evangelists for self-driving cars ought to investigate why?

Predictions of the future when potentially disruptive new technologies emerge usually turn out to be wrong.

The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read on the subject has to be the idea that driverless vehicles will open up the industrialisation of sub-Saharan Africa through columns of automated trucks trundling across the Sahara delivering African-made goods to Europe. It never seemed to occur to them it would merely replicate what was feasible using 19th century technology in the shape of a railway. But no trans-Saharan railway has ever been built or seriously proposed, because there’s never been enough economic demand for one. It’s far easier to ship goods from Africa to to the nearest port and send it by sea.

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Farewell King Coal

Farewell King Coal

Poignant photo (taken from Facebook) from Ferrybridge signalbox marking the final shift at Kellingly Collery, the last deep coal mine in Britain.  The end of an era.

The histories of the British coal and railway industries have been intertwined from the very beginning. The first railways were built to carry coal. If you look at a historial rail atlas, all of Britain’s major coalfields were covered in a maze of lines, most of them now long closed.  Even after privatisation, coal was still one of the major freight traffics on the network.

The railways still carry a fair bit of coal, mostly foreign imports plus a handful of opencast mines in Scotland and Wales. But as CO2-emitting coal-burning power stations are being phased out it’s already in steep decline. Relatively new bogie coal wagons are  starting to go for scrap because there’s no longer enough work for them.

The closure of the last deep pit marks the beginning of the end.

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ORR prosecutes West Coast Railway Company

That thump you heard was the sound of The Book being thrown at The West Coast Railway Company.  ORR is to prosecute over the incident at Wootton Bassett

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has today started criminal proceedings against train operator West Coast Railway Company Limited (WCRC) and one of its drivers. The charges relate to breaches of Health and Safety Law which led to a train passing a signal warning at danger on 7 March 2015.

The prosecutions follow ORR’s investigation into an incident involving a steam locomotive operated by WCRC, which passed a signal at danger near Wootton Bassett junction, Wiltshire. This extremely serious incident resulted in the train coming to a stop 550 metres after the signal, across a busy junction on the Great Western main line, directly in the path of high speed trains.

The train’s driver is facing charges under section 7(a) and 8 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA). This relates to his alleged intentional misuse of the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) equipment. ORR’s investigation found that the driver directed a colleague to turn off this essential safety system, designed to apply an emergency brake if the driver makes an error.

WCRC is separately facing charges under section 3(1) and 2(1) of the HSWA. This is on account of its alleged failure to implement managerial controls, procedures, training and monitoring to prevent staff turning off the TPWS equipment.

ORR has been closely monitoring WCRC’s operation since this incident. ORR has also today launched a review of WCRC’s safety certificate, which is needed to operate its trains on the rail network.

This comes after the West Coast Railway Company had it’s steam operators’ licence suspended a second time after another incident in which a driver isolated the TPWS system on a moving locomotive hauling a train carrying passengers.

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The Wootton Bassett near-miss

Battle of Britain Pacifit "Tangmere"(Wikimedia Commons)

The official report into the near-miss at Wootton Bassett (pdf) makes interesting reading, and demonstrates what I’ve often said about rail and air accident reports making useful reading for software testers.

In this case there were no injuries or indeed any damage to the train, although it could have been a very major accident; a collision at high speed with one train formed of 1950s-design rolling stock that doesn’t have the crashworthiness of modern trains.

The immediate cause of the incident was blatant disregard of rules and procedures which rightly raised questions about the levels of training and safety culture, so it wasn’t really a surprise that the operator’s licence was suspended.

Aside from the chain of events that led to the train overrunning a red signal, what makes it a worthwhile read is the details of how modern automated safety systems interface with literal steam-age techology in the shape of a 70-year old steam locomotive. It also highlights some user interface issues with the controls within the locomotive cab.

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