Sunday, 24 November 2013

train travel 2050 style

We took the Cathedrals Express to Ludlow yesterday, picking it up at Bath.

We topped up with water at Magor.

REAL carriage interior!

Hereford stop.

Britannia at Bristol Temple Meads. 

Perhaps the most enduring image of the day ...
We took our first ever steam excursion yesterday, taking the Cathedrals Express from Bath to Ludlow. I wasn't sure what to expect. I have of course travelled by steam on the main line before, but don't have any memories of it! And apart from a few brief glimpses of steam in the sixties - at Waterloo, Ryde, Lyminster and a few other places that was it! Seen plenty on heritage lines, but that's a whole different experience.
All in all it was a great experience but what struck me really strongly was how much a look into the future it is. A busy train, real coaches with space to sit and windows to look out of, superb service and, of course, all pulled by a locomotive that can run on sustainable fuel. The most striking example of this future experience was when we ran alongside an allotment in south Wales, with rows of compost bins looking over vegetables and good soil with a steam train in the background!
On the return we got a taste of the past, or what will soon be the past - a diesel loco heading the train. Britannia stayed on to provide (rather ineffective!) steam heating, but the diesel was doing most of the work.
As always I urge people to get out and travel behind diesel and photograph them as much as possible - it won't be many years before they are replaced by electric and steam locos, and once they are gone they really will be gone forever.
But the highlight of the day, for me and many others standing on the station, was watching - and listening - to Britannia reversing through the main station and vanishing in the dark on its way to London.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

how the future will look

Switzerland is spot on with public transport. A superb national rail network links to dozens of private lines, many narrow gauge, as well as numerous funicular railways, cablecars and urban tramways. Where there isn't rail there is trolleybus or even old fashioned diesel buses. Basically you can get anywhere you want in the country, quickly, cleanly and cheaply. Nobody needs to own a car.
This is the Forchbahn, a suburban light railway which links several small towns and villages to Zurich. It's a single track line but has a very intensive service. The last mile or so is on Zurich city tram tracks, the trains get right into the city centre.
Yet back in the late 1950s this line was under threat of closure. Back then it was a rickety rural tramway, but the Swiss saw sense and rather than close the line modernised it. It's now an absolute showpiece and should become the model for rural and suburban transport throughout Europe,
When the oil runs out the Forchbahn will keep running. House prices will remain the same, people will still be able to get to work, to the shops and indeed anywhere else they need to be by changing to the rail network at Zurich.
This is a roadside route so the land footprint is tiny. The line is electrified using hydro power so is sustainable. The vehicles looked modern even back in 1987, they will almost certainly be running for many decades yet.
This is the future, 1987 style, and we should all be doing everything we can to bring this to the towns and villages of Britain.



Sunday, 3 November 2013

the road thing

Imagine you were standing at Templecombe station in 1952, on a summer Saturday. If I'd told you then that the busy line to Bath and Bournemouth, on which at that time there was a constant stream of passenger and freight trains, would be closed within 14 years and that the very busy station you were standing on, served by both the Somerset and Dorset Railway and the main line from Waterloo to the west of England, would also close on the same day, you'd have probably dismissed me as a nutter! Yet all this came to pass.

Now think about today, think about our busy road network and what is your reaction if I was to say that within 20 years it would nearly all have gone? Pretty much the same I would think!

But think about this. Our rail network wasn't destroyed because the fuel to run it no longer existed. In fact there is still plenty of coal underground in the UK and, more importantly, plenty of commercial forests. But we saw fit to destroy our country's resilience so we could IMPORT oil to run our trains and, of course, our cars, lorries and buses. It was a short term political decision masquerading as an economic one. True, diesels were easier to run and much more comfortable for the people running them. And cars, lorries and buses gave us greater flexibility. Up to a point  ...

But take a look at the picture above. This was our trip into Bristol Friday morning. Two miles, it took about half an hour. Should we have taken the bus? Not really, because look what is a few vehicles ahead of us!

Think of all these stationary vehicles, burning precious oil. Think of it happening all over the world. Oil is a finite resource and most commentators now accept that we have already used more than is left in the ground. And at the same time we are burning more than ever before, not just in road vehicles, but in diesel locomotives, ships, aeroplanes, making plastics and growing food. Our whole economy is built on it, yet within twenty years almost all of it will be gone. Yet to look around you'd think there was an unlimited and renewable supply!

So what exactly do planners and politicians imagine we WILL be using in twenty years' time? They waffle on about exotic things like biofuels (hopeless as they depend on huge fossil fuel INPUTS to grow, and compete with food growing anyway), hydrogen (an energy sink as it is only an energy carrier, not a fuel, so the energy would still need to be generated), electric cars - really, with the power companies already warning us that we face electricity blackouts into the future? Imagine all those electric cars charging up as well! The fact is there isn't a serious contender, and when the oil runs out (or more precisely becomes too expensive for most of us to afford) road transport will come to a stop. There's nothing we can do about this, it's inevitable.

So if we want to keep things moving we need to switch to rail. Some will say 'but doesn't that need energy as well?' Of course it does, but the inherent energy efficiency superiority of rail means that we can move far more freight and people with the same amount of energy. This will become the ONLY factor considered in future transport planning. Rail also has a huge advantage in that the energy can be transmitted to the locomotive, through wires, conductor rails, stubs, conduits etc. This simply can not be done with road vehicles (with the exception of trolleybuses, but they may as well be trams anyway!) - it means both flexibility of delivery system and also (very important in an energy-poor world) the traction units don't need to carry on board fuel.

So the roads may seem busy today, and perhaps look like they will always be there, but return to Templecombe in 1952 and you'll see looks can be deceptive. The roads will begin to empty, less and less money will be available to maintain them (asphalt needs oil for example), people will start demanding an alternative way to get around and all of them will look to rail.

As for Templecombe itself? The station reopened in 1982, the line, which was savagely singled in the 60s, is gradually being returned to double track, soon trains will go beyond Exeter via Okehampton to Plymouth, and even the Somerset and Dorset is gradually being rebuilt. We are already seeing the switch from road to rail happening in this little corner of the world, soon it will be happening everywhere.