Worthless Protection

Intercity 125 train running alongside the sea near Llanelli
Sorry, no dolphins: I don’t have any good Cardigan Bay / Wildlife photos, so here’s a train by the sea in Carmarthenshire instead.
It seems nothing is safe. Late last year (2016), the Welsh Government announced that they would be allowing scallop dredging across the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC). How are we to know what untouched, natural seabed looks like if it is periodically ‘dug up’ by scallop dredging equipment? We can’t do so now, because beam trawling also disturbs the seabed and this, apparently, has been permitted throughout the area for some time. What is the point of giving something ‘protected status’ if destructive practices are allowed regardless?

This matter is not, you may think, on-topic for this blog; but Cardigan Bay isn’t the only example of ‘protected status’ not meaning much. Four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and the River Usk SAC, would be impacted by the second M4 motorway around Newport backed by the Welsh Government. It is not just the Welsh Government that is ignoring valuable wildlife habitats either, on the 3rd of February 2016 the Woodland Trust pointed out on the radio that HS2, as-planned, would destroy ancient woodland.

Class 47 locomotive in Manchester Liverpool Road station (museum of science and industry)
Now unrepeatable: 47500 at Manchester Liverpool Road station, having been brought here off the national network
Wildlife protections are not the only ones being overridden either. The Museum Of Science and Industry (formerly abbreviated as MOSI and now as MSI) in Manchester incorporates two grade 1 listed buildings. One of these is Manchester Liverpool Road station, the original terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester railway (the world’s first locomotive-hauled passenger line between two cities). While the old station is no longer used by service trains, until recently it was still connected to the national network allowing occasional visits by present day rolling stock, and the museum ran demonstration rides around their site hauled by a steam engine. However, as part of the Ordsall chord project the connection to the national network was cut off, which also restricts the available track for the museum’s internal trains. Admittedly, the project does not actually destroy the listed building and the impact on the museum’s services was probably unavoidable in order to deliver improved national rail services. However, I feel the Ordsall chord should have been designed with a flat crossing to allow trains from the national network to run into Liverpool Road station occasionally.

While my views on the Ordsall chord could be considered a ‘minor quibble’, since trains wouldn’t use the link into the museum very often, there are listed buildings elsewhere that appear to be treated as though they had no such protection. A case in point is Cardiff Central. The station was listed as the most complete major city GWR station of its time, and currently looks well looked after. However, the plans for its future suggest otherwise.

Comparison of Cardiff Central now and if Powell Dobson's plans were implemented
Clock Clobbered: Among other parts of the building (such as that currently home to M&S), the clock tower is gone in Powell Dobson’s horrendous plans for Cardiff Central.

Listed building consent has already been granted for electrification at Cardiff Central. While I am in favour of electrification, I do think the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) designs Network Rail are using on the Great Western scheme are far more visually obtrusive than necessary. On sections where speeds may reach 125mph the heavy-duty structures are perhaps justified, but surely structures of that scale aren’t necessary in and around Cardiff Central, where speeds are much lower. It appears from the listed building consent application that most of the OHLE structures Network Rail are planning to install are a standard XL TTC design with chunky masts of square cross-section. I think that means Extra Large Twin Track Cantilevers, but there are enormous portal structures spanning many tracks at the ends of the platforms too. It is all very square in modern-industrial style with I-beam sections etc. completely out of keeping with the existing cylindrical columns holding up the classic platform canopies. Elsewhere on the GW, Network Rail have come up with a more-subtle design of OHLE especially for Bath’s Sydney Gardens. It isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure they’ve finalised the design, but with elegantly-arching tube-section masts it is a least a good effort; whereas in Cardiff they’ve gone for the standard brutish monstrosities. So far, the only successful consideration of the listed building I’ve found in the plans for Cardiff is that a small degree of care has gone into choosing sites for the outrageous masts (avoiding placing one directly in front of the station name). Because of that, Network Rail’s ‘school report’ from me would be ‘should try harder, shame on Cardiff council for not pressing them to do so’.

Another illustration of the extensive demolition planned at Cardiff Central.
Deplorable Destruction: Another illustration of the extensive demolition planned at Cardiff Central.

Architects ‘Powell Dobson’ fare much worse. If the headmaster was strict, they would be expelled (or sent back to elementary school). Surely, the obvious thing with a listed building is that you do not demolish it, yet that is exactly what their plans for a major refurbishment of Cardiff Central seem to involve. Although it is obvious at first glance that the current northern frontage is retained, a closer inspection reveals that vast swathes of the current station would disappear. Even northern concourse building would have a large hole knocked through one side of it in the plans and the structure on the other side (currently home to M&S) is gone completely, along with the station clock it appears. The platform buildings, all of them, and canopies could also go; there would be little left. Again, although a planning application has not yet been submitted, the council seem to be complicit in this blatant disregard for the station’s listed status. Far from criticising the poor design, the powers-that-be appear to be busy pressing for the project to happen as soon as possible.

Former station building at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Bags Of Character: the beautiful station building at Fishguard & Goodwick station, now demolished.
You could say that the version of Cardiff Central which ‘Powell Dobson’ have designed is still on the drawing board and may never happen. Granted, there is (I hope) time to stop the destruction, but just look at Fishguard & Goodwick station. Although it is not listed, it is within a conservation area which apparently was deliberately designed to include the station. Despite this, the characterful station building there was demolished in its entirety. Yes; it was falling down anyway and yes a replacement building was constructed but this failed to capture any of the character of the original. The materials used in the new build are all wrong, the chimney stack is missing and the shape of the canopies isn’t quite right. The replacement building doesn’t do the original justice; not one little bit.

Close-up of the new building at Fishguard & Goodwick station, showing the wrong roof and wall materials and crazy angle of canopy supports.
Mad Materials: close-up of the new building at Fishguard & Goodwick, showing the wrong roof and wall materials and crazy angle of canopy supports.

If something is given special protection it should be protected, end of. This isn’t happening currently, something needs to be done or more treasures will be lost. This post is timed, almost by-chance, to coincide with WWF’s Earth Hour 2017 (25th March, 20:30), so I will end with the following: If we don’t protect the climate, one of those treasures might be life itself (at the very least, some species would go extinct as a result of climate change).


Part 4 of my railway modelling series. While the legless board was lying in the house following the events of part 3, a couple of shopping trips were made. On the first, I picked up a shiny new length of flexible track. The metal-cutters I had tried on an old length of broken flexible track produced very untidy results so, at the same time, I also bought a track-cutter to use on the new track.

Part of chipboard hill structure on model railway baseboard
Base layer: the structure of my hills begins to take shape
As well as ‘IT guy’ I am also ‘furniture assembler’ at work; the desks come packed with four strips of chipboard (roughly 2in by 1in cross-section) and I already had collected quite a few of these. At home, I had been given a small amount of chicken wire and Polyfiller, but this was not going to be enough to landscape my model. The aim of the second shopping trip was there to obtain materials for scenic development. I picked up some more plaster along with some PVA wood glue and cork tiles for laying under the track. I thought I would probably need some wallpaper paste too, so bought some of that as well.

A Step Up: Another level added to the hill structure (in the far corner)
A Step Up: Another level added to the hill structure (in the far corner)
Before commencing the messy work, I marked out the position of the track on the board, and rolled one of my longest items of rolling stock over the layout to mark the overhang on the curves. I then realised I wouldn’t be able to see these markings once I laid the cork. Fortunately, my grandmother had a bright idea; once I had lifted the track she produced a large amount of ‘tracing paper’ (I think it was actually baking parchment or greaseproof paper, given that it came on a roll in a cardboard box) and I copied the markings onto that.

Close up of the larger of the two hill sections, cobbled together from scrap chipboard
Recycled Material: Close up of the larger of the two hill sections, cobbled together from scrap chipboard
Going back to the track-lifting; this was necessary to avoid getting scenery-building material all over, and proved to be a challenge. Despite the fact I had left part of the track pins protruding, they took quite a bit of effort to pull out. When the pins eventually came up they did so suddenly and violently, taking the track with them and bending the fishplates joining the rails to the next (still fixed-down) piece of track. I hope only the fishplates are bent, not the track itself.

Chipboard hill structures on model railway baseboard
Chipboarding Complete: the basic structure of the hills, now complete
The bare baseboard was then taken back out to the shed and the legs re-attached. Over several days, I then constructed the underlying structure of the hills at one end of the baseboard using the free chipboard gathered from work. A lot of sawing and gluing was necessary, and I wasn’t able to get a lot done each day partly due to the limited length of daylight (there is no electricity in the shed) but mostly because I kept having to leave the glue to dry. Before I could glue the bottom layer of chipboard to the ply surface, I had to cut and fix the first small section of the cork base for the track (this can be seen in the photos, running through the cutting).

Looking down on the chipboard hill structure
Top View: the completed hill structure from above.
Finally, on 29th December, I completed the gluing of chipboard. On the 31st, I mixed up the left-over Polyfiller I had been given and made a start on trying to round-off the hills. More on the that will follow in the next instalment.

A Dangerous Distraction

As one consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise draws to a close, I have been informed that another is coming up. As part of this Transport for Wales / Welsh Government, the authority who will award the franchise, will be holding a series of consultation meetings from 20th March to 3rd April. Continuing my series on issues for the new franchise, this post will focus on a problem with service patterns in north Wales.

Distant view of a class 158 DMU on the North Wales Coast Line
Along The Coast: a class 158 on the North Wales Coast Line
The present operational rail infrastructure of north Wales comprises the North Wales Coast Line (let’s call it the NWCL for this post) from Holyhead to Chester, with the short branch to Llandudno joining roughly half way along. A separate line diverges from the NWCL just west of Chester and heads south to Wrexham, before leaving north Wales and heading south to Shrewsbury. The Conwy Valley Line and part of the Wrexham to Bidston ‘Borderlands Line’ also lie in north Wales, but are largely self-contained operations that will not be discussed further in this post.

Virign trains Super Voyager in north Wales
London Link: Virgin Super Voyager on the NWCL
A glance at a map will show you that the NWCL runs broadly west-east, and thus trains from Llandudno and Holyhead to Crewe and Manchester would be reasonably direct and stand a good chance of being time-competitive with road travel. Unfortunately, at present one train every hour from north Wales (normally Holyhead) reverses at Chester, joining the line to Wrexham. Roughly half these continue to Birmingham and the others to Cardiff, both rather roundabout routes. The fastest rail route from Chester to Birmingham is via Crewe, but currently few north Wales services (other than Virgin’s Euston trains) run through to Crewe. There is of course no direct rail route between Cardiff and Holyhead/Bangor, which cannot help attract through passengers.

Fortunately for the railway, the A470 is a slow road. Even so, only the loco-worked ‘Premier Service’ manages Cardiff-Bangor in less than four hours, the other through services take around 4hr 14mins; close to the AA route planner estimates for driving. I feel the indirect Birmingham and Cardiff trains are a waste of train paths on the NWCL. In this regard I am supported, anecdotally, by several users of internet forums who suggest that the pattern of travel demand in north Wales is largely focused on the big cities of north-west England; Liverpool, Manchester and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Birmingham. As far as linking north and south Wales is concerned I believe the appropriate level of service is three express trains (like the original ‘premier service’) each way, 7-days a week, rather than frequent stopping/semi-fast services.

Arriva Trains Wales 'premier service' mark 3 coaches at Cardiff Central
WAG Express: complete with Welsh Government branding, the ‘premier service’ train (funded by the Welsh Assembly Government) departs Cardiff Central for the depot.
To my dismay however, the Welsh Government’s reason for funding the partial redoubling project between Chester and Wrexham (currently underway but experiencing difficulties) is to provide further Holyhead-Cardiff services (bringing the frequency up to hourly). The redoubling is otherwise welcome (though it is a shame that a single line section will remain), but again Holyhead-Cardiff services aren’t the best way to use the resources available.

In preparation for the franchise consultations, I carried out some research into other’s aspirations. A key source was a report on the re-franchising by the House Of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. Some of the evidence they received supported the forum comments, for example this from Paul Maynard MP. “Clearly, there are two major rail markets in Wales, one through South Wales and one through North Wales, and what you have to do with any franchise that you design is ensure that it is as economically viable as possible”. The Institution Of Civil Engineers also stated in their response that the key links are with England and not Cardiff. They did support through trains from the NWCL to Wrexham, which is understandable but unfortunately does not address the problem of NWCL paths being taken up with trains that don’t link effectively to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Bangor university aren’t worried, they support the Welsh Government’s plan for hourly Cardiff trains AND ask for increased frequency of direct services to Liverpool, Manchester, London and Birmingham and Manchester airports. That would be five different routes, so potentially five trains per hour. Even if the NWCL has enough paths, would demand be sufficient for five trains per hour?

Virgin trains Pendolinos at Manchester Piccadilly railway station
Magnet: Manchester Piccadilly is an important destination for north Wales passengers.
If you ask the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association (or some of its members, at least), the Cardiff trains, at least, would be rather under subscribed. I hope they submit the comments in their newsletter 71 to all the consultations, because I found a fair amount of good stuff in there. Almost echoing the quote from Paul Maynard MP above, they stress the importance of “expanding the revenue flows with the most potential”, this being “the best way to achieve extra income.” Cardiff-Holyhead isn’t one of those flows, it is a dangerous distraction, apparently described as “a barrier to bidders, unless the Welsh Government would adequately compensate them for lost revenue elsewhere”.

The Welsh Government’s plans for frequent through trains between Cardiff and Holyhead fly in the face of logic for another reason, too. Of equal importance, in my opinion, to the pattern of demand is an issue other parties seem to have overlooked. By taking away paths that could otherwise be used for electric trains to Birmingham (via Crewe) and Manchester, having NWCL trains reverse at Chester damages the case for electrification in north Wales. Electrification is a key aspiration for the GrowthTrack360 campaign. Ironically, their report suggests retaining the current NWCL-Wrexham through services that continue alternately to Cardiff and Birmingham. At least they are not suggesting the Cardiff trains should be hourly, I suppose.

Class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
No Chance Of Electrification Here: class 158 on the Cambrian Coast Line. These trains interwork with the Wrexham-Birmingham route.
For Holyhead-Cardiff trains to be electric, Network Rail would need to electrify not only the NWCL but also the Chester-Wrexham-Shrewsbury-Newport route. I don’t think even the Welsh Government would go beyond hourly Holyhead-Cardiff services, and that wouldn’t justify electrification of such a distance by itself. The other services sharing the route include the Swansea/Cardiff-Manchester trains (which to become electric would also need the Shrewsbury-Crewe line wired) and the Holyhead/Chester/Wrexham-Birmingham service. The latter has to use the same rolling stock as the Cambrian lines (Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli) because they interwork in Birmingham. I don’t see Pwllheli being electrified in the foreseeable future, and Aberystwyth’s chances of wires aren’t all that much better. That seems to lock the whole Chester/Crewe-Shrewsbury-Newport route into diesel operation.

Therefore, in order to make a strong case for electrification of the NWCL, the trains on it need to go to places that can actually support electric trains without having to string up much more than the NWCL itself. Chester-Crewe (for Birmingham) and Chester-Warrington (for Manchester) are relatively short stretches to electrify along with the NWCL. Keep the diesels to Cardiff down to three per day in order to make the most of the electrification or there’s no chance of wires in north Wales. A good starting point for a debate on future NCWL services might be:

  • Hourly fast Holyhead-Manchester service, with a few hours missing (with the path taken by one of the three Cardiff services or a Euston service)
  • Every 2hrs stopping service between Holyhead and Llandudno
  • Hourly semi-fast Bangor-Birmingham service (via Crewe)
  • Hourly stopping service between Llandudno and Liverpool, via the Halton Curve

Even that is pushing it a bit, since the Halton curve would only have an hourly service (if it had a second train each hour, that would probably run to Wrexham and hence would be a diesel).

Time Crisis

As promised, here is the post focusing on several challenges related to the timing of rolling stock requirements in the “Wales & Borders franchise” (W&B) area.

Arriva Trains Wales DVT and coaches at Holyhead station
Crowd Buster: DVT 82308 about to leave Holyhead on a Manchester service, unofficially dubbed ‘The Irish Mancunian’
Arriva Trains Wales’ (ATW’s) current fleet is spread thin. In December 2012, over 80% of the 125 Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) in the fleet were in use on weekdays and Saturdays*. ATW introduced a 4-carriage set of mark 3 coaches to relieve overcrowding on services between north Wales and Manchester, but crowding continues to be a problem across their network. The fleet is so stretched that ATW were forced to reduce maintenance time for a class 158 DMU, which now works a morning service before heading into Machynlleth depot, to enable additional Aberystwyth services.

Looking to the future, the challenges for the new W&B franchise start almost at once. It was announced in 2016 that infrastructure works would be carried out to allow a new hourly service linking Chester to the Liverpool via a largely disused stretch of track known as the Halton Curve. The new service is due to start in December 2018. Although Northern operate the current meagre service, there are longer-term ambitions to extend the new service into Wales, and thus it is expected that the W&B franchise will take responsibility for this. Therefore, within months of the new contract, Wales’ rolling stock fleet will need to be increased in size, lest it be stretched even further, perhaps to breaking point. This is on top of crowding issues.

First Great Western's Pembroke Coast Express service leaving Tenby
On the way out: First Great Western’s Pembroke Coast Express leaving Tenby; this service is due to be withdrawn in 2018
It is of course possible that the Halton Curve service could be delayed, deferring the need to find rolling stock. The second major challenge facing the new franchise cannot be deferred. Six months later, in May 2019, the summer timetable will begin. During ATW’s current franchise, Great Western Intercity 125 trains have operated on the Pembroke Dock branch on summer Saturdays. These trains provide valuable additional capacity, given that ATW’s services on the line are only 2 coaches and large numbers of tourists head to and from Tenby on summer Saturdays. The problem facing ATW’s successor is that the latest Great Western franchise agreement will see the Intercity 125 seasonal Pembroke Dock service withdrawn with effect from December 2018. The Intercity 125s are perhaps overkill but, on a busy day, trains at least 92 metres long (four 23 metre carriages) are needed to accommodate the Tenby crowds. 4-car class 150s at 80m are unlikely to be sufficient. I cannot see ATW’s current fleet stretching to that, given that north Wales is busier on summer Saturdays too.

If the challenges stopped there, it could be a relatively simple matter of leasing additional rolling stock (if any diesel stock becomes available in the necessary timeframe). A big complication is introduced on 1st January 2020, just over six months later. From that day onwards, passenger trains must comply with regulations concerning accessibility for disabled persons. With those regulations a rapidly looming prospect, some options for increasing the fleet to resource the Halton Curve and Pembroke Dock requirements might be ruled out. Any investment to make rolling stock suitable for W&B is unlikely to be seen as good value for money unless it produces trains that the franchise can use into 2020 and beyond. This probably rules out additional loco-hauled coaches (the only non-electric stock available right now), leaving W&B dependant on other operators releasing stock.

Arriva Trains Wales class 150 and class 153 in multiple at Carmarthen
Painful Problem: Much of the Welsh fleet is not compliant with the 2020 accessibility regulations, including the units pictured here (a 153 and a 150)
Only 51 of ATW’s 125 DMUs are even close to being 2020-compliant at present. Of the rest, 38 probably will need scrapping (Pacers and class 153s); as would the mrk3 coaches unless complicated door modifications are carried out. A large number of trains will thus need to join the fleet by 2020, even before we consider the 36 class 150 units. These could be made compliant, those with Northern and Great Western will be, but there’s a further issue specific to W&B. Again, there is a time factor involved. The exact timing of this fourth challenge is uncertain, unlike accessibility regulations, the Halton curve and summer tourist traffic. ValleyLines electrification (or, if passengers are unlucky, conversion to tram operation) could change everything. ATW’s Pacers are largely confined to the ValleyLines network, along with at least half of the 150s. If the owners spend millions on the 150s to make them 2020-compliant, they will want them running for as long as possible in order to generate a return on investment. There is therefore a dilemma, since most of the 150s (and whatever replaces the Pacers) will be surplus to requirements when replaced by electric trains (or trams). They shouldn’t be seen as a potential cascade to other areas of the franchise, since the ValleyLines need rolling stock able to cope with frequent stations stops on a busy metro network. That sort of train cannot provide the comfortable interior, with ample leg-room etc., that is needed on the longer-distance rural routes which would be the only other use for trains with a top speed of 75mph (such as the 150s).

* source: “Today’s Railways UK” magazine, December 2012 issue

The Last Years Of Pain?

A red sunrise seen through a bus window
New Dawn? Will the new rail franchise offer a rosier future?
Welcome, rather belatedly, to 2017. This year is potentially the last full year of the Arriva Trains Wales franchise. The end-date for Arriva’s current reign is generally given as October 2018, but the UK government’s re-franchising schedule shows a short extension is available at the discretion of the Secretary Of State for transport. That raises the question of whether this power will transfer to the Welsh government when rail franchising powers are devolved, as they are expected to be shortly.

Regardless of the exact end date, the process for selecting the next operator to run the ‘Wales & Borders franchise’ has begun, with four firms (including the incumbent Arriva) having been shortlisted to bid for the contract. As the Welsh Government prepare to let the new franchise, a committee of the National Assembly For Wales is conducting an inquiry into the matter, as part of which they are running a public consultation which is open until 23rd February 2017. As part of this, they have an online survey, and following this a stakeholder meeting is planned in Shrewsbury in early March.

The Invitation To Tender is likely to be issued later this year, with franchise award in early 2018 ready for the new franchise to begin in October 2018, assuming the option to extend the franchise is not taken up. The challenge now is to ensure the specification of the new contract brings improvements and provides what is needed to resolve the issues currently faced with Arriva Trains Wales (ATW), such as shortage of rolling stock.

Class 150 DMU at Port Talbot Parkway station
Unsuitable train: class 150 on the long-distance Gloucester to Fishguard Harbour working
Some aspects of the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise agreement, particularly the omission of any provision for growth in passenger numbers, are widely regarded as a colossal failure. Because of this, we are enduring the pain of overcrowded, and in some cases unsuitable, trains. Perhaps now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as the 15 year ‘no growth’ franchise draws to a close.

This post is the introduction to what I hope will become a series on issues related to the new franchise. I did intend to include a look at several challenges related to the timing of rolling stock requirements in the “Wales & Borders franchise” (W&B) area in this post; however it got so long I have decided to split this introductory section off. The rolling stock challenges post will follow in the next few days.

Tracks And Trees

Part 2 in my model railway series teased that I had played around with some track, arranging the layout, but did not show the track plan I had in mind. That will be revealed in this post.

Model railway track on baseboard
Computer-Aided Design: the track plan from SCARM
As the frost on the grass in the completed baseboard photograph last time shows, it was rather cold outside back then; so I detached the legs and brought the board inside for the track laying. I started by eliminating most of the plans I had created on the computer, one by one. When only one was left, I placed the track on the board in that configuration and took a photo. Next, I rearranged the track to match the layout arrived at using real 00 gauge track as described previously; and photographed that too. After flicking back and forth between the photos, I decided on the plan I’d invented in the physical world (rather than the virtual realm of layout-planning software).

As I only have a 4 foot by 2 foot board, there is clearly not much scope for an extensive track layout in 00 gauge. Even a traditional train-set oval would never fit* so my layout is based on the ‘Inglenook Sidings Shunting Puzzle’ concept. That involves three sidings, one a bit longer than the others, and a headshunt. I do like my passenger trains though, so I’ve added an extra line (for a short passenger platform) to the basic Inglennook plan. Trains in that platform will have nowhere to go, but maybe one day I’ll be able to add a second board with hidden sidings for trains to run to.

* even if it would, I doubt a minimum space continuous run could be made interesting; if space is limited end-to-end layouts are more likely to be fulfilling in my opinion.

Just in case you’re wondering how the shunting puzzle works there’s a website on the topic.

Model railway track laid out on baseboard
It just fell into place: the chosen track plan, designed without the aid of a computer
With the track plan finalised, I was keen to get some locos running, so I grabbed some IPA (Isopropyl Alcohol) and paper towel and tried to get the track clean. The clean(er) track was then carefully pinned to the board, with the exception of the curve heading off the end of the board and the platform road (the latter because I didn’t have suitable track). I tried to avoid driving the pins fully home so that the track can be lifted to allow the messy landscape modelling to take place. A couple of Peco buffer stops were clipped onto the ends of the short sidings; this was harder than expected and I wonder if they will ever come off again.

I had a go at cleaning the wheels of one or two locos as well, but unfortunately the initial tests were disappointing; something still isn’t clean enough. The locos still don’t run smoothly enough to run the layout without them (or the stock being shunted) hitting the buffers rather hard.

Office drawer full of network cables
Top Drawer: collection of network cables at work, waiting to be put to use (the brand-new ones in plastic wrap are tied up with wire that is useful for tree-making).
That’s the track story, now what about some trees? At work one of my roles is ‘IT guy’. As such, I have drawers full of cables and every now and then I install some of them. The new cables are often tied using wire wrap things, which I keep in a pile on my desk in case the cables ever need to return to storage. A while ago, I decided the pile was getting rather big and I was never going to use all of the ties. I was about to throw some away when I realised they are basically wire, so why not use them for the same job that modellers use other odd bits of wire; making trees?

Office desk with model trees and wire cable ties
Wire Trees: my desk at work with two trees (the black one is on a black background so doesn’t show up well) and the material used to make them
So that’s what I did, I made one then and there (it must have been a quiet time at work). Several weeks later, while waiting for a slow computer to do something (while trying to fix a problem on it), I built a second tree and used the webcam on my laptop to take some photographs (I don’t tend to take any other camera to work with me). The trees need more work to finish them, but will presumably end up on the layout at some point.

Cloudy, With Heavy Detours

Photo of bus-stop X50 branding with TrawsCymru T5 timetable
Rebranding Exercise: the logo of the former TrawsCambria X50, together with a timetable for the TrawsCymru T5
It’s that time of year again; January the fifth, the anniversary of the launch of the TrawsCymru T5 service (which runs between Aberystwyth and Haverfordwest). Last year, to mark the first birthday of the service, I criticised the use of the single service number ‘T5’ on what is really a collection of different routes. This year, I will explain why I believe that only one of those routes deserves the ‘TrawsCymru’ tag.

In 2010, a consultation was held regarding improvements to what was then the TrawsCambria network, which at the time consisted of the following services:
X32 Bangor – Porthmadog – Dolgellau – Machynlleth – Aberystwyth
X40 Aberystwyth – Aberaeron – Lampeter – Pencader – Carmarthen – (Swansea – Cardiff)
X50 (Aberystwyth) – Aberaeron – Cardigan
550 Aberystwyth – Aberaeron – New Quay – Aberporth – Cardigan
X94 Barmouth – Dolgellau – Bala – Llangollen – Wrexham
704 Newtown – Llandrindod Wells – Brecon

Having already read rumours that it was planned to rename the network TrawsCymru, I spoke up in favour of retaining the ‘TrawsCambria’ brand when I visited the consultation roadshow. Professor Stuart Cole’s reply, as I have written before, was that the old name had some ‘baggage’. He may have meant there were intellectual property difficulties with using it (the TrawsCambria name might belong to Arriva, I’m not sure) but my preferred interpretation is that he felt passengers had negative experiences tied up with the TrawsCambria name.

TrawsCymru T5 bus in Haverfordwest, with branding showing place names from along the highly indirect routes
Failing To Keep It Clean: TrawsCymru T5 bus in Haverfordwest, with branding showing place names from along the highly indirect routes
The logical thing therefore, in my opinion, is to ensure the new brand is a squeaky clean example of a top-notch long-distance bus service.

If I recall correctly, the consultation suggested moving to a limited-stop coach network as one of the options. While a limited-stop direct service would be ideal for long-distance passengers, in many cases the TrawsCambria services were the only public transport available. My response to the consultation thus included the proviso that limited-stop services should not come at the expense of bus services which stop anywhere. This comment was echoed some time later by Dr Victoria Winckler, who the Welsh Government commissioned to review the network; the need for speed does not outweigh the need for a bus service.

TrawsCymru T1 bus (foreground) with TrawsCambria liveried bus in the distance
Change Of Brand: TrawsCymru T1 bus (foreground) with TrawsCambria liveried bus in the distance
But, if you’re going to have a flagship brand, that brand has got to stand for something, otherwise what is the point of creating that brand? I don’t think anyone has done that with TrawsCymru; if I recall correctly there were requirements for TrawsCymru livery, free WiFi, smartly uniformed staff and minimum legroom in the invitations to tender for several TrawsCymru services, but most bus operators have services with most of those things anyway. The legroom requirement might have been a Unique Selling Point, but either it was ignored or the value specified was the same inadequate legroom found on most normal buses (I must get a tape measure and check one of these days). More relevantly, there appears to be no criteria for deciding which routes should be branded TrawsCymru. Dr Winckler’s report put forward one view which I had come to myself by that point; that TrawsCymru services, while not being limited stop, should avoid detours.

As I have posted previously, Dr Winckler felt that TrawsCymru journey times should ideally be no more than 33% slower than by car. Again, as I stated before, the 412 and 550 services (which have now been merged into the TrawsCymru T5) flouts this recommendation to a serious degree. The TrawsCymru website has the cheek to call the T5 a direct service, but a service which travels via New Quay, Aberporth, Fishguard and Mathry Road to get from Aberystwyth to Haverfordwest cannot be taken seriously as a realistic alternative to private cars. Even the faster journeys which omit Aberporth are too slow; Cardigan to Haverfordwest via Fishguard is a lost cause for end-to-end competitiveness and likewise (to a lesser degree) Aberystwyth to Cardigan via New Quay is a big detour.

Of course we need all those detouring services; the need to provide a bus service to as many places as possible trumps end-to-end speed, but such services cannot be sold as a useful long-distance travel option, so why are the Welsh Government trying to do so by branding them as TrawsCymru? If we can’t afford direct services IN ADDITION to the slow ones, then we should wipe the TrawsCymru brand away and just run local buses.

TrawsCambria X50 bus in Cardigan, note the branding on the bus does not include New Quay, because the route didn't.
Much Missed: TrawsCambria X50 in Cardigan, note the branding on the bus does not include New Quay, because the route didn’t.
Of course, I am largely repeating myself here; previous blog posts have covered this topic (this one, for example). I think however that this is the first time I’ve gone over it in detail since the T5 launched and confirmed that yes, they did go ahead and do exactly what I had been hoping they wouldn’t; the major detours of the former 550 and 412 service have been included in the TrawsCymru network.

Aside from WiFi, TrawsCymru means nothing more than TrawsCambria did; the new brand is tarnished at least as much as the old. In fact, if anything, the problem is worse. While TrawsCambria included the 550, which should always have been just a local service, it did at least also feature three or four direct X50 services each way daily between Aberystwyth and Cardigan avoiding New Quay (with direct short workings between Aberaeron and Cardigan in addition); the T5 has just one direct journey per day in each direction between Cardigan and Aberystwyth. Plus, TrawsCambria never included the service between Cardigan and Haverfordwest (via Fishguard), which may well be the most indirect bus service in Wales (it takes almost twice as long as driving); TrawsCymru does.

‘The most indirect through service in Wales, at twice the travel time of driving’, hardly a great advertisement for TrawsCymru is it? The only part of the T5 which deserves to be TrawsCymru is the sole remaining direct service between Aberystwyth and Cardigan, without the extension to Haverfordwest (there is, I think, a possible extension south of Cardigan which might work, but that’s a story for another day (maybe 5th Jan 2018!).

Beyond World’s End?

The previous instalment of this travel-report series concluded after leaving Oxford on Tuesday 22nd March 2016. This post brings the story of our ‘short holiday’ to its end with an account of the last day of the trip, Wednesday 23rd March.

Sika deer in Woburn Abbey's deer park
I’ve Seen The Sika: Sika Deer In Woburn Abbey’s Deer Park
In the morning, after my brother had been dropped off, the three of us (my mother and grandmother, plus myself) headed over to Woburn Abbey. While their safari park is a segregated tourist attraction, a public road runs through part of Woburn’s deer park. This had been an interesting feature of many of our journeys between our accommodation and the various places we had visited, and we drove through another part of it on route to the Woburn Abbey car park.
Oriental-style structure on rocky outcrop across a pond in Woburn Abbey Gardens
Spirit Of The East: Oriental Architecture In Woburn Abbey Gardens
Together we took a quick look around the Woburn gardens which, slightly unusually, featured a number of structures of oriental architecture (some of which I thought worked aesthetically). I then returned to the car and sat listening to music while my elders visited the house itself.

My brother wasn’t doing a full day, so our next move was to go and collect him, before heading into the centre of Milton Keynes for the first time. We didn’t like what we found; the place was all very grey and dreary. Long, straight, dual carriageways flanked by car parking with a slightly shabby shopping centre.

Photo by Tom Parnell of Silbury Boulevard in Milton Keynes
Post-Apocalyptic: Silbury Boulevard, Milton Keynes (photo by Tom Parnell).
The overall impression of the place was ‘post-apocalyptic’. I’m not kidding, something about it reminded me of the scenes set in Pripyat in the game “Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”; Pripyat being the city that was abandoned due to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

Photo by Tom Parnell of Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes
Depressing View: Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes (photo by Tom Parnell)
Being me, I blame the car. Milton Keynes appears to have been designed around it; the grid of roads (many being dual-carriageways), the acres of asphalt/concrete; all designed to support a population of motorists. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia article on Milton Keynes states that the central area was not designed as a traditional town centre. Instead, it is like out-of-town shopping centres (a “car-culture” idea, probably impractical to use on foot) but in the centre of town. Even ‘Milton Keynes Central’ railway station is on the edge of the central area, the wrong side of one of the dual carriageways, rather than dead-centre. Maybe there was a good reason for that; but I don’t know what that might be. Just like motorways, Milton Keynes itself (what we saw of it, at any rate) is characterless, uninspiring and depressing. Although there is some greenery, even this is standardised and fails to prevent the place looking artificial and near-lifeless (again, just like motorways and most dual-carriageways).

Photo by Stephen McKay of Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes
Beyond World’s End? Another view of Milton Keynes’ Midsummer Boulevard (photo by Stephen McKay)
Almost needless to say, we didn’t stay long. But what was the best way home? I’m writing this some time after the event, so my memory is hazy, but I think I directed us along the A421 and A4421 to Bicester, then the A41 and M40 to avoid the Oxford ring road, then off the M40 at junction 8a onto the A40 briefly then the A329, B4015 and A415 to Abingdon where my plan unravelled. The traffic was terrible and it took us some time to get through the town. My mother, in the driver’s seat, was therefore rather displeased with my navigating (I think I may have had an alternative in mind, and may have even voiced it, but since that was using minor roads I doubt that would have gone down well either). Anyway, we eventually made it to the A34 and headed south towards the M4. On the way, I noticed that one of the minor roads alongside the A34 led to a place called “World’s End”, we drove right past it. This was the inspiration for the title of this post; very appropriate given that parts of our trip had been something of a culture-shock. I’m opposed to the proposed second M4 around Newport, and various other bypass projects, on the grounds that creating more space for more cars encourages even more car use, leading to increased pollution and congestion (leading to more tarmac and so on in a vicious circle). But having seen Milton Keynes, I wondered if it is already too late; have we already spiralled beyond the point where the car addiction is fatal to life on this good Earth?

Returning to the journey, having joined the M4 at Newbury and travelled some distance along it, we had to turn off the motorway for fuel (at junction 18, I think), having just missed a service station. The road to Pennsylvania was “chock-a-block” with traffic so we headed in the opposite direction, hoping that the petrol station I could see on the map would be open; it was. It was on this little detour off the motorway that Mum cheered, having seen some cows in a field (she was suffering from ‘withdrawal symptoms’ caused by all the concrete and arable farming). Once back on the motorway, we made our familiar drive home along the motorway and A48 to Carmarthen and then on into the land of the living and home. What a relief; these few days were a real eye-opener for me.

Photograph of N.W. Wales mountains from a Cambrian Coast train
Beautiful West Wales: a view from the Cambrian Coast Line between Dovey Junction to Pwllheli.
So, if you want to escape the post-apocalyptic concrete wasteland of southern England on your next holiday come to the west of Wales; but leave your car at home, we don’t want our country ruined in the same way. Use our ‘delightful’ bus services.

Happy New Year (this post was scheduled to appear in the last minute of 2016, so by the time you read this it is probably 2017).

Saved By The WiFi

We Wish You A Merry Christmas… There hasn’t been much to be merry about recently, so to avoid another rant I’ll put out a mini travel report with a happy ending.

Twenty days ago (5th December 2016), I left work in a hurry. I had just realised what the time was; I normally leave a few minutes sooner if I’m aiming for the bus I was intending to catch that evening. Thanks to quite a bit of running, and the bus being slightly late, I caught it.

TrawsCambria bus at Aberaeron with Christmas lights in the background
One from the archives: I couldn’t find a photograph relevant to the story, so picked one of a TrawsCambria bus with Christmas lights in the background
Later in my journey, while changing bus, I got out my mobile in order to phone home and arrange my lift from the bus stop. It wouldn’t turn on; it would light up and make the right (horrible) start-up noises, but then the screen would be blank. On about the third attempt I noticed that, just before it went blank, it would say ‘recharge battery’ or something to that effect.

Oh blast, I thought; either I had forgotten to turn the thing off last time I used it or it had turned itself on without me realising (it has a habit of doing that, if I lean on something in the wrong place the power button can be ‘pressed’, for this reason I try to remember to leave it at home if going to the theatre/cinema). Given the time of year, it would be too dark to walk home from the bus stop (had this happened in the summer, I’d probably have walked).

Fortunately, I had recently replaced the battery on my laptop with one that works, so it had some charge. That, in theory, would give me the means to send an e-mail in the hope of arranging my pickup; but would I be able to connect to the internet? My next bus was a TrawsCymru T5 service; TrawsCymru services are supposed to have WiFi, I could be in luck. But would the vehicle be one of the TrawsCymru fleet, or a stand-in due to a failure? Even if the booked bus arrived, would the WiFi be working?

Thankfully, the bus that turned up was one of the WiFi equipped TrawsCymru branded ones. Once seated, I nervously tried to connect; and BINGO it worked. I managed to get a message through and somebody was there to collect me, all thanks to TrawsCymru’s WiFi. There’s the happy ending. If you want to leave it on a happy note, don’t read the following paragraph.

Now what if my laptop battery had been flat too? Some of the TrawsCymru vehicles have power sockets, but most don’t and even the ones that do have very few (and I don’t think they work, although it’s years since I last tried one).

Modelling Foundations

Following the events chronicled in the first post on my model railway projects, I made a trip to our nearest Jewson store in search of a sheet of plywood and two lengths of 2-by-1 timber. Unfortunately they did not have birch ply, which my internet searches indicated was the recommended material for model railway baseboard surfaces. They did have sheets of ply the size I was after (2ft by 4ft) though so I purchased one along with the 2-by-1 timber which they cut into two lengths for me.

Back at home, work continued on the baseboard legs. I cannot remember the exact sequence of events, but each of the tasks undertaken will be covered here (just not necessarily in the correct order).

Photo of baseboard framework on legs
Unstable Table: my baseboard much as it would have appeared following the events of the previous post (except that the bolts holding the legs on weren’t installed then)
Somebody had found me some bolts to attach the legs, so four holes (one for each corner of the baseboard) were drilled to accept the bolts. As with the legs, the timer of the framework was rather hard; each hole took a while to drill and required a fair amount of pressure. The result of this was the drill would jump forward dramatically once it was finally through, hitting the internal bracing of the framework and causing me some alarm that the strength of the structure might be compromised. Fortunately the damage was minor and I was reassured that it was not a problem.

Close-up photograph of timber with a notch cut in it
Notched: one end of one of the two new brace timbers (the second timber, already installed, can be seen in the background)
After some measurements, I made a notch a short distance from each end of the two new lengths of 2-by-1 softwood timber. This was done by sawing roughly halfway through the timber and chiselling out the wood in between. The cutting was much easier than the old timber, and I doubt I would have been able to chisel it by hand as I did with the new stuff.
Close-up of baseboard leg brace timbers
Braced? Close-up of the two braces slotted into place on one of the legs (they aren’t fixed, to allow me to dismantle the structure)
These two lengths were then used to hold the base of the legs apart, with the notches slotting over the lower horizontal brace of the leg assemblies. At some point (probably before the notches were cut) it was noticed that these horizontals were not the same height above the ground, so one had to be moved to correct this so that the new spacers could work. Even now however, the table still wobbles slightly, though my idea of the new notched lengths of timber seems to help.

Photo of baseboard support structure (braced legs and framework)
Framework Supported: the near-complete baseboard, just waiting for the plywood top
I got out some track and had a play to make sure the layout I had in mind would fit. Interestingly, the arrangement I came up with was different from the plans I had created using layout planning software, so I recorded the plan (in the layout-planning program SCARM) before packing the track away.

The ply sheet was varnished, both sides, and measurements were made in an attempt to get the ply centred on the framework (the framework is slightly smaller than the ply sheet). Eventually it was pinned onto the framework using about 12 pins around the edges. I may have got the ply slightly off centre, despite all the measuring, but I’m happy enough.

Photo of bare baseboard outside shed
Outside The Shed: the ‘completed’ baseboard (now only slightly wobbly).

Christmas Is Cancelled

For this year anyway, and probably next year too.

Nework Rail electrification hoardings at Newport station
Waiting For The Wires: Nework Rail electrification hoardings at Newport station
Today, (December 11th) the December 2016 to May 2017 rail timetable begins. This was also when the current Great Western electrification project was supposed to have reached Bristol, Oxford and Newbury. Now though, only one of these places, Newbury, is expected to receive wires by the time the current Network Rail control period ends (2019). Alongside Newbury, electric trains from Paddington will be able to reach only one other Great Western intercity destination: Cardiff Central.

In fact the electrification to Cardiff, now due in 2018, is only one year late (it was originally supposed to be completed in 2017), whereas the rest of the project is much further behind schedule. I believe Network Rail’s latest update is that they expect the electrification infrastructure for Newbury, as well as Cardiff, to be complete and ready for passenger use in December 2018. Disturbingly however, timetabled public use of the electrification infrastructure is given as ‘CP6’ (2019-2024), rather vague. I hope that doesn’t mean the new class 800 trains will be running on diesel power to Cardiff/Newbury into the early 2020s. So, as far as Christmas 2018 is concerned, fingers are crossed (metaphorically).

There are many reasons for the delays; but perhaps the most significant is a missed opportunity years ago. In 1981 British Rail published a report proposing an extensive electrification programme. In it, they stated that a commitment to a specific programme should reduce the cost of electrification as a result of “continuity of production”. That word ‘continuity’ is key.

Diesel Intercity 125 train with locomotive in special '90 Glorious Years' livery at Newport
Glorious For Some, but not consistently so for the rail industry. Had British Rail had their way, this Intercity 125 would probably have been replaced by an electric train by now
With unconstrained funding, the report stated, the best option would be to immediately embark upon the “the largest and fastest programme”. That would have completed electrification of many lines over 20 years, including the Great Western main line all the way to Penzance. Alas, the government never committed to it. Even the ‘do nothing option’ in the BR report included electrification between Preston and Blackpool, which apparently was expected to be underway in 1981. It was obviously cancelled, because we are still waiting for it in 2016; perhaps the people of Blackpool will have a Christmas present from Network Rail in 2017?

Going back to BR’s ambitions, the government did eventually authorise some extension of electrification, most notably the East Coast Main Line (ECML) which was completed in 1991. Perhaps surprisingly, the ECML was electrified all the way to Edinburgh, despite the fact that electrification of the Midland Main Line to Leeds was not carried out (BR’s report had put that before ECML electrification north of Newcastle). Once the ECML was done though, it appears the government lost interest; the continuity was blown.

HOPS (electrification 'factory train') unit at its Swindon base
Electrification Absent: HOPS (electrification ‘factory train’) unit at it’s Swindon base
Thus, when Network Rail was given the green light to electrify the Great Western, the UK rail industry’s last experience of a main line electrification project was almost two decades earlier. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances, there is a therefore a skills shortage, which cannot have been helped by the (otherwise extremely welcome) government commitments to electrification in other parts of the county. It isn’t just the Great Western of course, the various issues are also delaying the other electrification projects.

Another problem has been scope creep; but the additional scope is not the “why not electrify this branch line while we’re here” kind, which would be a good thing in some respects. I’m talking about the requirements for the overhead equipment and, specifically, the distance between the live wires and various structures (and related ‘health & safety’ issues). British Rail had decided they could in some cases safely put the overhead wire closer to, say, a tunnel roof than Network Rail is currently doing, since the latter raised the required clearance recently. According to the November 2016 issue of Modern Railways this accounts for about half of the trouble on the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, as (for example) more bridges have to be raised (or the track beneath them lowered) to make room.

Electrification installed at Didcot Parkway
Wires On The Western: Network Rail have at least managed to electrify a section of the Great Western (this is Didcot Parkway station)
Back on the Great Western, other issues are more serious; meaning the proportion of delay and cost overruns due to the increased clearance requirements is less than in Scotland. That Cardiff has leapfrogged Bristol in the electrification queue is perhaps an indication of one of the other issues; that the electrification is dependent on signalling works (and signalling resources are also scarce). The Cardiff Area Signalling Renewal (CASR) is due to be completed over the Christmas period this year, but some of the works at Bristol (and possibly Oxford too) aren’t due to happen yet. For example, I believe additional platforms are planned at both stations. So, perhaps part of the puzzle is simply that; rather than electrify Bristol and Oxford now and have to come back and wire up the new platforms when they are built, Network Rail will simply focus electrification efforts elsewhere until the station works are done before stringing up the wires.

At least, that is what I hope will happen. The delays and, more significantly, the increased costs are raising concerns that the government may refuse to invest in further electrification. That would be a disaster; with electrification rail would remain one of the cleanest modes of transport, without it electric road vehicles might make a railway stuck with diesel look filthy. That said, given the resurrection of Heathrow’s ambitions for a third runway and the election of Donald Trump perhaps ‘disaster’ is too strong a word for the possible death of rail electrification.

Electrification masts in place near a bridge between the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff, with the sun setting in the background
Sunset On Electrification? Electrification masts in place near a bridge between the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff. Will the electrification programme survive the troubles it has encounted? Let us hope that it will.

Scaling Down

It is a fact that I am a rather disorganised person. This blog is a good example of that, there’s no fixed time in my week allocated to ensuring that I regularly manage to publish posts. Thus, the blog can go months without a post, then have a run of posts at weekly intervals. That probably isn’t going to change, but my lack of organisation is not the sole reason for the irregular posting. There’s only a limited amount of content I can put out, and the stories I have are generally too lengthy to be completed in one sitting (so they get left in the drafts folder for months or even years). I’ve decided to try and resolve that second issue by broadening the scope of the blog.

Rather than just talking about real-life transport (and important but off-topic issues), starting with this post I will also cover my model-railway project(s). I have a dream to construct a rather large layout, but currently I have next to no space to set up a model railway. After many years hoping to find space, I have given up and decided to build something small and try to squeeze it in anywhere I can. This will also give me a chance to practice and improve my (currently very limited) modelling skills in order that, if I ever get onto my big project, I have a chance doing the idea justice.

Anyway, the starting point for this ‘something small’ is one of three baseboard frameworks of 2-by-1 timber made by my father for the layout I had in our previous house (the other two frameworks will remain in storage for the time being). I cannot find the legs the baseboards once stood on, maybe somebody used them to build something else. The first order of business therefore was to design and build some new legs. Design-wise, the big problem was how to attach them to the framework; initially I planned to have them hinge up under the board but it was pointed out to me that the bracing of the framework would get in the way of the screwdriver when I tried to attach the hinges. Outside hinges couldn’t be attached at one end, due to some damage on the timber, and they would have put the legs outside the framework. Back to the drawing board. I want the layout to be portable, meaning fixed legs are undesirable. With hinges ruled out, the new plan was detachable legs (held on by nuts and bolts).

Photo of damaged screwheads
Mangled Screwheads; they’re all too soft
Using some 2-by-1 timber found in our ‘random bits of wood’ storage area, a pair of legs (each formed of two verticals with two horizontals as bracing) were assembled over the weekend of 12-13th November 2016. The timber was very hard, sawing it to length was a pain and efforts to screw the components together were thwarted. The screws heads were too soft, with the slot for the screwdriver getting mangled (this happened both with brass-coloured screws and silver-coloured ones). After a few screws, the drill bit used for making the pilot holes snapped and screwing was abandoned in favour of nailing.

Parts of model railway baseboard in workshop
My baseboard legs and the framework leaning against the woodwork bench
Once the legs had been made, the structure was loose-assembled (we did not have bolts yet) and it was found the structure was not sufficiently stable; the framework would wiggle back and forth. Quite a disappointment, but I had an idea to solve it. The idea involved more 2-by-1 timber, and the remaining lengths from the stash I had found were not long enough.

That didn’t matter too much since I was intending to go wood-shopping anyway; the chipboard tops from the old layout have probably been thrown away, so some ply to form the new surface was on my shopping list. Progress would however have to wait until the shopping had been done.

So, I now have at least one follow-up post to write, but I don’t know yet whether this modelling series will run for very long.

Silent Threat

Yesterday morning (15th November 2016) at about 08:32, BBC radio 4 had an interview with Bernie Sanders, one of the Democratic party’s candidates who were in the running to fight the recent presidential election in the USA. Of course, it was Hillary Clinton who the party eventually put forward, but back to the BBC’s interview.

Asked what he feared now that Donald Trump has been elected as the next president. First, he replied that he was afraid racism and sexism would rise, but he didn’t stop there. Importantly, he continued to voice the very same fear that I have; that Trump believes climate change is a hoax. Mr Sanders was very clear on this, climate change is NOT a hoax and Trump’s failure to recognise that frightens him very much.

Yet Trump’s dangerous stance was hardly presented during the campaign, and the interviewer yesterday asked whether Mr Sanders thought of Donald Trump as a fascist (he didn’t), and whether he thought he would have had a better chance of beating Trump than Hillary, but there was nothing more on the climate. Similarly, the coverage of the UK general election last year and national assembly for Wales election this year barely featured the various party’s policies on greenhouse gas emissions.

It appears that much of the media won’t talk about climate change. That’s a very dangerous silence, yesterday’s interview also asked how Trump could be stopped on issues like women’s rights, given that the republicans control Congress and President Trump will be able to appoint people to the relevant court. Bernie Sanders answered that they would need to educate and mobilise millions of people, to make the political cost of implementing such measures too expensive for the republications to go ahead.

Mobilise and educate millions; that would be rather difficult if you cannot reach them because the media refuse to transmit the messages. It is time they gave the climate the coverage it needs.

Varsity Ventures

The M4 motorway at Port Talbot
M4 Port Talbot (photograph by Kevin Corcoran)
After a pleasant afternoon watching, and riding on, trains, my ‘short holiday’ started to go downhill. I’m picking up the story where I left off, in a car on the M4, having been met by family members at Port Talbot. There’s no doubt about it, motorways are very dull ribbons of dreary tarmac (and/or concrete), apparently without exception. Actually, that’s a good question, can anyone think of an exception? We did of course leave the motorway eventually, but not until after stopping for dinner. Thus we were in darkness as we headed up the A420, negotiated the Oxford ring road and the A418 past Aylesbury and onto the A505. Unfortunately, if there’s any travel more boring than miles of motorway then it is probably night-time motoring. Of course family chat and, occasionally, the radio can partly relieve the monotony, and so can navigation, but these don’t really make up for not being able to see what you’re passing. I think we were all relieved when we finally arrived at our booked accommodation, after crossing the A5 and twice passing the M1. No, I didn’t get us lost, the written directions used for the last few miles to our destination were written as though we were coming up the M1 from London and I didn’t want to risk finding my own route with just a road atlas (I might have tried it if I had been equipped with an Ordnance Survey Landranger map).

While helping to keep me sane, navigating was perhaps also a little stressful; there’s often an argument between at least two occupants of the car over the best route. On this occasion though, there was at least general agreement that the motorway network didn’t really suit our journey, much like the rail network it radiates out from London and I don’t think any of us fancied the M25.

Second Severn Motorway Bridge
Into England (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Anyway, so why are we here, in self-catering accommodation not far from the M1? Why would anyone want to come here? Although the accommodation was of a reasonable standard, the noise of the motorway could be heard if you stood outside and my mother wondered why somebody would come on holiday here. Our reason was that my brother had educational commitments in Milton Keynes, and the rest of us were just taking advantage of the trip to see a few things. I had a stab at answering Mum’s question by taking quick look at the map, the obvious tourist attractions were Woburn Abbey and its Safari Park. Apparently, none of us were interested in the latter, but the Abbey was one reason for my elder’s interest in the visit. Another of their reasons, and one I’d come along for too (though not the main reason) was Bletchley Park.

The next day, after dropping my brother off, we drove down towards Didcot to one of the other attractions which had drawn me, ‘Pendon Museum’. This ‘museum’ features three model railways, one a very early example of the craft. The other two are much more recent, at least one is still under construction, and very impressive with detail extending to the interior of buildings and a birdwatcher observing a bird of prey. These model various parts of the steam-era Great Western Railway, although they are intended to capture a snapshot of buildings and scenery typical of the areas concerned rather than being models of a particular location (the buildings in the model village don’t all belong to the same real-world village). We decided the Oxford ring road (with its many roundabouts) was no more appealing in daylight than it had been at night, so went back to Bicester via a different route (which involved the M40).

Bletchley Park introduction exhibit entrance
Bletchley Park introduction entrance. Image from ‘The Hub’ (fit-out contractor) website.
On the third day (Monday), we made the much shorter journey to Bletchley Park. We had thought we may move on to somewhere else afterwards, but our visit took us through until it was time to collect my brother again. We didn’t even visit the adjacent national museum of computing, which contains more of the code-breaking machines created on the site, although it wasn’t fully open that day anyway. Interestingly, the entrance to Bletchley Park’s introductory exhibit had a railway theme. The word ‘entrance’ was in white text on a midland-red background, while the doorways beneath it had imitation railway-carriage slam-doors. Also present was a four-way ‘fingerpost’ sign, also in midland-red, pointing to ‘platform 1 for Oxford, platform 2 for Cambridge, platform 3 for Glasgow and platform 4 for London. I doubt such a sign actually would have existed on a station, but railways from Bletchley to the four places in question certainly did exist.

Bletchley Park Cambridge-Oxford sign, photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Varsity fingerpost, Bletchley Park. Photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Sadly, you cannot currently make a reasonably direct journey from Milton Keynes to Oxford by rail today, because the central section of the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’ has been closed since 1967; so when we headed off to visit Oxford on the fourth day we couldn’t leave the car in Milton Keynes with my brother. The line which would have taken you to Cambridge still exists as far as Bedford, but beyond that it is also gone.

Chiltern Railways service at Oxford Parkway station
Stopping short of Oxford: Chiltern Railways service waiting to London at Oxford Parkway
One of the many Milton Keynes roundabouts we traversed on our excursions in the Oxford direction was called, I kid you not, ‘Bottledump Roundabout’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was liberally scatted with discarded plastic bottles, presumably thrown out of passing cars. Whether the bottles were there first and this inspired the name or vice-versa I do not know. The railway between Bletchley and Oxford is now to be reinstated, but we were several years early. So, to avoid the Oxford traffic, we parked at ‘Bicester Village’ station, which until the recent complete rebuild was ‘Bicester Town’. Previously, ‘Bicester Town’ was served by a shuttle to Oxford, but now Chiltern Railways have had a new section of track built to allow services from London Marylebone to Oxford, running through ‘Bicester Village’ station. This project wasn’t complete either, enhancements work was still taking place near Oxford so we had to transfer to a bus for the final leg into Oxford from Oxford Parkway station.

Of course, it is not only Chiltern who have significant changes planned on their part of the network. The electrification work of parts of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) will see Intercity Express Programme (IEP) class 800 bi-mode trains introduced from next year (2017). Thus we get to my principle reason for coming on this trip; the five class 180s currently with the franchise will be moved to Grand Central, probably by the end of 2017, as the 800s arrive. Having never been on a 180, I was keen to get a ride on one to compare them with the related class 175 units we have in Wales while I had the chance.

Class 180 number 180108 at Oxford Railway Station
180108 arrives at Oxford to take me to Kingham
I left my elders and boarded my first 180, 180108 on a Cotswolds line service to Kingham. From there, I returned to Oxford on another class 180. I was pleased to discover that the interior of standard class did indeed have much in common with the class 175s, with ample legroom even in airline-style seating. Rather strangely however, especially on a line with short platforms like the Cotswolds line, the first-class carriage on the 180s (class 175s are standard-class only) was not one of the driving vehicles at the ends. Instead, one standard-class coach was isolated on its own at one end, with the adjacent coach being the first-class one. Given that I’ve read standard-class ticket-holders are not even allowed to stand in the vestibules of first class coaches on Intercity 125s, I wonder what happens if somebody in the isolated standard class coach wants to alight at a short platform where that carriage is off the end of the platform. One of the four standard class carriages on the 180, perhaps the isolated one, also seemed to have fewer bays of four around tables than the others. Another feature that the class 175s lack but can be found on a 180 is the mini-buffet/cafe. This is really quite small, with just one of the main external windows blanked out by it, though it didn’t appear to be open. I’m not sure if First Great Western bother with it anymore.

Old building in Oxford
One Of The Old Ones: building in Oxford
Back in Oxford, I rejoined my mother and grandmother for a walk around parts of the city; admiring the architecture of some of the old university buildings and other heritage structures. One of these was a church whose tower is of Saxon origin (it is close to the building in the photograph, click that to go to my Flickr where you should be able to find photos of the Saxon tower too). It was then back via bus, train and car to Milton Keynes, to collect my brother, and to our ‘holiday’ accommodation.


We return to Wales in the final instalment of this mini-series of blog posts, which will be coming to this blog at some point in the future, if I ever get around to writing it.

The Real Zombie Apocalypse

In May 2010, it was announced that the recently-formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government had cancelled plans for a third runway at Heathrow. George Monbiot called it “the biggest victory for the environment movement since the scrapping of the last Tory government’s road-building programme.” and the BBC report claimed that “It was always common ground between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to oppose the third runway.”

How things have changed. Like the zombie road schemes that refuse to stay dead, the 3rd runway has risen from the grave to threaten the land of the living yet again. Despite his famous claim, from before he came to power, “The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts”, former prime minister David Cameron is at least partly responsible for the recent resurrection. After all, it was his government who set up the airports commission to report back once the 2015 general election was out of the way. His so-called ‘greenest ever’ government has therefore put one the most environmentally damaging proposals devised in recent times back on the agenda. If the Tories with this abysmal record are genuinely the greenest government ever then it is no surprise we are in the colossal mess we are in; because the previous governments must have been even worse than abysmal.

Theresa May, apparently, was also once opposed to Heathrow. Does becoming Prime Minister magically blind people to the unthinkable environmental consequences of a new runway? Her promise “to build a Britain not driven by the interests of a privileged few” now sounds terribly hollow too, since 70% of all flights are taken by people earning over £155,000 per year, against an average UK salary of £26,500. Even airline pilots apparently earn less (£78,482) than most of their passengers.

The extra runway is certainly a serious threat to the climate; in 2005 it was estimated that aviation CO2 emissions alone made up around 6.3% of UK emissions. It seems likely that UK emissions will need to be cut by more than that every year to meet our targets, and that 6.3 figure doesn’t capture the full extent of aviation’s climate impact (although nobody seems able to agree on the extent to which emitting various greenhouse gasses at attitude effects the climate, it is generally considered to be significantly worse than ground-level emissions of CO2 alone). That was without the third runway, with it aviation could account for two thirds of the UK’s entire carbon budget, what would other sectors have to do to cut enough emissions to free up enough carbon budget to ‘fund’ the aviation industry?

While Heathrow is pretty much full, many other UK airports have spare capacity. This suggests to me that Heathrow is where airlines and/or passengers want to fly to and from. Looking at it that way, there may be an argument for the third runway, but to be reconcilable with the need to curb emissions you would have to remove flights from other airports to provide the carbon ‘funding’ for Heathrow’s extra flights. Monbiot’s latest article on the topic at the time of writing states that the airports commission justified expansion via either bigger emissions cuts in other sectors (no thanks, the challenge is big enough as it is thank you) or a carbon tax to price the lower-margin routes out of existence (which as I see it is equivalent to my suggestion of cutting back flights at other airports).

Monbiot, 2010
Monbiot, 2016
BBC news, 2010
No ifs, no buts
Theresa May U-Turn (Green party, 2016)
carbon budgets
impact of flying on the environment, Guardian 2010
frequent flyer earnings
Mirror 2015, average UK salary
two thirds of the carbon budget, The Ecologist, 2016