Monthly Archives: January 2013

Railway Consultation

Devon County Council are running a consultation today about proposals for a new branch-line railway connecting Tavistock to Plymouth.  There’s a whole lot more to it than that: it’s tied up with a proposal to build the biggest development of all of new houses which, coming on top of what’s recently been built will see Tavistock’s population rise by 40-50% since the 2001 census.  There are linked proposals for a new cycle route, though that won’t go anywhere very useful and will only really serve any purpose if it persuades more parents to let their kiddies cycle to school.

Anyway, the main topic is the new railway, to be built from Tavistock to Bere Alston where it joins the existing Tamar Valley line.  That scenic line serves areas which are quite cut-off by road due to local geography, a consideration that doesn’t apply to Tavistock where we have a decent road, an excellent bus service to Plymouth, and a selection of buses to other destinations.  Much of this line will follow a section of the old route that was closed in 1968.

I’ve now sent them a detailed response, which for posterity I’ll reproduce here.  I may add footnotes for blog readers who don’t have the local knowledge assumed in my response.

Q2: Proposed Railway Tavistock – Bere Alston – Plymouth:

It is difficult to answer the question as posed, because there is insufficient context. Specifically, what consequences flow from acceptance or rejection of the line. Two questions in particular need to be addressed:

  1. Is it likely that rejection of the railway would imply major road projects, such as widening the A386? If it were a choice between spending similar money on either the one or the other (with no option not to spend it) then I would definitely favour the railway.
  2. Might the railway be extended to provide a through route to Okehampton and Exeter[1]? If so this becomes a project for the entire region, and potentially a long-term national-scale solution to the problems of the existing line where the coastal stretch around Dawlish/Teignmouth[2] is surely not going to be maintainable. I would strongly support that project.

Answering the question in isolation and without the above context:

Firstly, I would use the rail service myself. I would find it particularly useful to be able to use a through ticket when travelling to destinations outside the local area. However, this is a very marginal utility, and could be served in other ways (of which more below).

However, the proposal as it stands is surely a White Elephant. We have an excellent bus service serving many popular destinations in Plymouth that will not be touched by the proposed rail service[3]. It seems inconceivable that a single-track railway will compete with a bus service that runs up to four times an hour, and can get me home after an evening in Plymouth[4].

Congestion on the A386 may be a problem, but that begs the question: if motorists aren’t using the buses now, what are the chances they’ll use a train in future? They are making the choice to sit in traffic jams when an alternative already exists!

It is true the bus service has shortcomings:

  1. The buses have hard seats and are less than comfortable, especially when crowded.
  2. At peak times, the buses can get overcrowded in the Plymouth sections of the route, specifically between Roborough and the city centre. This is not a problem on the out-of-town (Tavistock-Roborough) stretch.
  3. Many of the buses, including frustratingly all evening services, take tortuously long routes “round the houses” into Plymouth. The diversion at Roborough hardly ever picks up or sets down passengers, and the diversion to Marjons and Derriford would surely be quicker to walk from the Tavistock Road for any able-bodied person. Does the hospital really run evening appointments for those patients for whom a short walk would be a problem?
  4. Buses cannot be used as part of integrated transport:
    1. There are no “through” tickets to combine bus travel with trains, city buses or other public transport.
    2. It is not possible to carry a bicycle on the buses. I have even been refused a folding bike that fits very comfortably alongside other things on the luggage rack and is always welcome on trains.

A new railway could address all of these problems. But so could an express bus (or coach) service with fewer stops, particularly in-town in Plymouth. Together with joined-up thinking on the subjects of through tickets, and carriage of bikes (at least folding ones – and drivers need to be aware of such a policy). It would surely make sense at least to trial such a service before spending substantial money on the proposed railway!

[1] This through route existed before 1968.  I’m told that Dr Beeching even recommended keeping it open as the main route between Exeter and Plymouth, but was overruled.
[2] This coastal stretch runs under a crumbling cliff that from time to time loses a chunk (as in this story – the railway is visible in the second and third pictures), and is so exposed to the sea that in high tide and rough weather the waves wash up right over the roof of a train.
[3] The train route will be ideal for commuting to the naval dockyards and for central Plymouth, but that’s about all.  The bus, by contrast, serves a number of Plymouth’s most important modern employment hubs.
[4] Timetable is here.

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Fast train to where?

Government reveal plans to extend HS2 (the UK’s bid to install fast trains such as exist in more developed parts of Europe and Asia).  Fast trains from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Since these are already among our fastest lines, one might suggest there are altogether more deserving candidates for major upgrade.  For example, lines between Southwest England and anywhere else are truly dire as soon as you get west of Exeter.  But they tell us this is more about capacity than speed, and outside of holiday season it’s true our lines are less overloaded than some of those serving the HS2 destinations.

What about the HS2 itself?  The HS2 destination with which I’m most familiar is Sheffield, where I lived and worked for some time.  Sheffield is one of the major cities of the industrial north, and will be served by the Leeds branch of HS2.

In my time there, Sheffield was the northern end of a mainline service via the East Midlands to London, and a station on the “cross country” mainline route from southwest England through Bristol and Birmingham, and north to York, Northeast England and Scotland.  What it lacked were comparable connections to nearby major cities: Manchester was a scenic but very secondary route through the Peak District, while the Leeds journey was ugly, slow and hideously uncomfortable.  Both routes were a sick joke in the context of the size and importance of the cities they link.

So at least the HS2 connection to Leeds should be a real and big improvement.  Except, it isn’t quite that.  The station won’t be in Sheffield city centre, it’ll be at Meadowhall, which is convenient for nothing but the motorway.  So that makes two journeys with a change at Meadowhall, which would seem to lose most of the benefit.  The East Midlands station looks even worse: a station midway between Nottingham and Derby serving bothneither city.

There are valid reasons to site airports in inconvenient out-of-town places.  Doing it with railway stations seems perverse, losing one of the major advantages of rail over air.  Will anyone really benefit in Sheffield, Nottingham or Derby?

Oh, erm, and what about the Nimbys?  Can’t blame them for kicking up a fuss: they’re laying down a marker for compensation.  But some of the commentators in the meeja (notably whinging MPs) are just beyond ridiculous.

Me-neither

We’ve all heard of MeToo: in the absence of a monopoly, an idea that is seen to work for someone generates a bandwagon[1].

I’ve recently been frustrated by its dark twin me-neither in retailing.  When a product disappears from one shop, others soon follow.  And I suspect there’s a very bad explanation: we’re all losers from it.

The story starts when I serendipitously encounter a particularly delicious herb tea: Peppermint and Eucalyptus on the shelves of our local supermarket (Morrisons).  It rapidly became a favourite.  Then it disappeared, along with most of the other Twinings varieties I would buy: what remains are the sweet blends which I like occasionally but not so often as to want a whole pack, and some ‘popular’ varieties (like mint, nettle, fennel) where I won’t buy the supermarket ones because there are nicer versions available from a local wholefood shop.

My reaction was to see if I could source it online.  Indeed I can: I can buy it at the Twinings website.  But there’s a catch: their delivery is not merely several times more expensive than the product itself, but also quotes 2-5 days.  That’s a helluva long time to stay in waiting to take delivery.  Ugh.

Could I get together with a few friends to form a ‘tea club’: batch a lot of purchases to bring an order above the £35 threshold for ‘free’ delivery, and add a bit of value to the ordeal of waiting in?  I started to ask around, and John hit on a better idea: he was going to Waitrose in Exeter a couple of days later and thought they might have it.  So I prepared for that by reviewing varieties available on the Twinings website and making a list of half a dozen to look for – including some I’d never tried “on spec”.  He came up trumps with Lemongrass and Eucalyptus: another delicious blend and a worthy alternative.

Having found that, I was subsequently able to buy more at Waitrose in Brighton, when visiting the parents there (Brighton being a city with lots of shops, I also looked in many others there; only Waitrose had it).  OK, there’s a plan: I can maintain supply just so long as I find time to go to Waitrose each time I visit.

No longer.  Waitrose have followed Morrisons in abandoning any kind of interesting flavours.  I tried on my recent visit to the parents, and asked a member of shop staff when I failed to find it.  I asked John if he had any plans to shop in Exeter: he did, and he found it’s gone from there too.

MeNeither retailing.  One shop drops it and they all do.  The last-shop-standing has lost my reason to visit, along with anyone else who likes the flavour.

Surely I can’t be the only person to like these flavours?  I suspect another explanation is more likely: as the interesting teas disappear from Morrisons – and indeed other mainstream supermarkets as evidenced by my looking around in Brighton – shoppers like me were driven online as a last resort.  And for many, delivery may be less of an issue: for example if you can get it delivered at work where someone else will be around even if you’ve stepped out.  Instead of the last shop standing benefiting from all the demand, we are driven to a thoroughly unsatisfactory alternative.

Bah, Humbug!

[1] Can I have a monopoly too?