Category Archives: transport

The Humbug that stole Christmas travel

The bizarre story of the Gatwick Drone(s) seems to have gone quiet, and some of what’s been reported appears to indicate the possibility that responsible authorities may have egg on their face.  Very likely the Police: they’re a regular scapegoat for idiocy on the part of politicians, civil servants, and the judiciary, as well as their own cockups.

The jokes have done nicely on it: a fat bloke on a sleigh, or Liliputian tourists, for example.  And when a senior policeman suggested the possibility there was never actually a drone, only to be “corrected” the following day, how could conspiracy theories fail to follow?  Quite apart from the obvious kneejerk reactions and the added complication of the sale of Gatwick airport itself in the middle of the crisis!  Someone has something to hide, but what?  Do even TPTB know?

My non-conspiracy theory: it was christmas lights.  There seem to be a fair few coloured lasers around: could some of them have interacted to produce an accidental holographic display?  The first reported sightings being at night and in the rain (unlikely flying conditions for a drone), it was presumably just lights that someone actually saw.  And after it had been reported, I should imagine only the merest ghost of a hologram would be needed to convince the brain it had seen a drone!

Would TPTB ever admit such a thing?  No suggestion of malicious intent, just too embarrassing for someone.  And lots of people no doubt wanting compensation, and lawyers circling around delayed travellers!  Mind you, it would be rather satisfying if the whole thing were indeed down to humbuggery!

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.

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.


I don’t think I’ve blogged this before.  Has anyone?

When you get a train ticket valid via London, it includes a tube journey to connect the mainline stations of your arrival and departure.  Or you can walk it – some connections are not unpleasant (for example, Victoria to Paddington is 40 minutes and largely across the park).

Now London has Boris-bikes, we have at our fingertips an altogether more pleasant alternative.  But since I rarely go to London, I’d much rather get one-off journeys than a season ticket.

So, rail companies and TFL, when will you start selling via-London tickets that offer the option of one journey on a Boris-bike as an alternative to that tube journey?  You know it makes sense!

The power of the uniform

Travel to FOSDEM ran smoothly, with just the one glitch.  But it bothers me, because it shouldn’t have happened.  And if it can happen once, …

The Eurostar arrived back at St Pancras a couple of minutes late, but nothing serious.  If I could get to Paddington in 25 minutes, I could get the 13:06 train; if not I’d have to wait another hour in London.  Not a prospect I was keen on, especially since the sleet was falling (there had been snow crossing Kent).  So I headed straight for the tube.

… where I was refused entry.  My ticket was one issued by Eurostar, from the Eurostar terminal through to Plymouth.  It was in a large size, so I couldn’t just use the automatic entry.  And the dumb woman on the manual entry refused to recognise it!

A moment later, another passenger appears (presumably from the same Eurostar train as me) with a similar ticket.  When she too is refused, she explains that she makes this journey regularly and it’s never a problem (well, why should it be?)  Eventually she convinces the idiot to let her through.  Since my ticket was the same, I assumed she’d now let me through too, but no, “I already told you, you have to go to …” well, I’m not quite sure where, but I think it must’ve been someone’s ticket office.  So that’ll be queue up to be told I have my ticket and I should just go ahead and … be turned back again by the idiot in uniform.

Still trying to convince her, I pointed very clearly to where my ticket said “From  LNDON ESTAR CIV”, and the little cross that denotes that a ticket includes a tube connection.  “So where the hell is LNDON ESTAR CIV if it’s not here?

At this point, I see another London Transport uniform: a little man has appeared alongside the moron.  So I tried showing my ticket to him.  He starts off with “That language you used to my colleague is not acceptable“, to which I agree but point out extreme provocation.  He goes on to say that is assault on a member of staff – I guess that’s his training showing through.  But to his credit, he takes my point, and finally lets me through.

I arrive at Paddington at 13:08 for a 13:06 train.

All of which leads me to wonder, what’s the point of having any ticket at all, if a person in uniform can just arbitrarily refuse it?

And next time I hear some horrifying figure for the number of assaults on London Underground staff, I shall know better than to take it seriously.  I wonder how widely that particular nonsense extends?  Perhaps it’s the norm amongst public-facing organisations, at least in the public sector?

Disjointed thinking

We know that the powers-that-be can’t do joined-up thinking and come up with coherent policies.

The coincidence of two news items today illustrates this rather clearly:

  • Congestion charging for Manchester.
  • Social and Economic benefits of a much-improved broadband infrastructure.

Manchester’s proposed congestion charge will, at best, work like London’s. That’ll only happen if there’s consistent political will to make it work. It needn’t take more than one person in a key management position to scupper it, and turn it into an expensive fiasco. Think “Sir Humphrey”, though if he opposed a proposal he’d (one hopes) at least stop it before spending billions on it. But at best, congestion charging is a poor substitute for John Major’s fuel price escalator.

Coupled with the congestion charge will be a huge investment in public transport. That is, public investment: the state poking its nose in. We’ll pour billions of taxpayers money into providing more inefficient and polluting transport so we can move ever more heavy, reluctant bodies on their daily journey to the cubicle. Public transport should be less polluting than private, but that’s not automatic. Even if they get it right it’s a marginal improvement, and massive public investment is a great way to get it wrong.

Meanwhile, also today, the Broadband Stakeholder Group‘s report points to benefits such as flexible working, lifelong learning, and a big impact on social exclusion. Now that’s an altogether better way to invest large sums of public money. Instead of one city catching up with where it should’ve been maybe two generations ago (by European standards), the whole country can catch up with where it should be NOW!

Actually I don’t think public money should go into broadband either, except at the fringes to ensure universal basic availability. Let the market do that, and let it compete honestly with old-fashioned transport. With energy much more realistically priced than it has been for a couple of generations, efficiency will soon win. Sustainably.

Stop subsidising last century’s solutions!