I see The Telegraph is asking if train travel has got better since 1997. And the replies are filled with the usual complaints about delays, fare increases and overcrowding1.
For what it’s worth I think things have got a lot better in recent years - certainly in terms of the service. Punctuality, cleanliness, customer information, lighting, the general state of the stations, ticket issuing all seem better.
A few weeks ago I even bought a Travelcard and took a tour round some of the lines round London just to check that we in the South West weren’t just receiving special treatment. I found that things seemed to be vastly better everywhere I went3.
Of course, this is just my opinion and readers may well have their own.
My real beef is with the cost2. Subsidy to the rail industry is estimated at £6bn. In the last days of BR it was about £1.5bn.
1. Doesn’t it seem rather bizarre that we manage to get complaints about overcrowding and high prices? My view is that in many cases fares are too low but there you go.
2. Oh, and seating
3. Or, still at the rare high standard of five years ago.
The Sunday Times travel section has an article about the splendour of the stations on the Moscow subway.
Komsomolskaya station, to the northeast of the city centre, was opened as part of the first wave in 1935. Its atrium is one of the most beautiful: luxuriously decorated with heavy chandeliers, arches made from three types of marble, and granite floors.
On the ceiling and walls are depictions of Russian leaders and civilians, the former heroically leading forces into battle on horseback, the latter with sleeves rolled and backs breaking in honest toil.
All this reminded me of some photos I’d seen of the Pyongyang Metro. That website is run by someone who thinks Pyongyang’s metro has military uses, but it seems that communist transport infrastructure has propaganda uses, too. Sometimes that’s the only use, as in the case of a ten lane highway with hardly any traffic.
Yes! Soon the person sitting next to you on that interminable flight from Greece to London will be able to make continuous phone calls! “Hello, I’m just a quarter of an hour out from Heathrow, so I should be in Croydon in about seven to nine hours! How are the kids? Let me talk to them!” etc. Presumably it will cost a lot, and will be how airlines of the future make any money.
Recent breakthroughs in scramjet engines could mean two-hour flights from New York to Tokyo.
And it looks like a Dan Dare Spaceship:
Cool. Well, not really. It has to work inside a fire, which is what happens when something travels at Mach 6, and they test it by firing a big blowtorch at it to simulate this.
I love this from one of DT’s commenters, even if it is off the transport topic:
I notice Ted Taylor gets a mention. He worked on the early atmospheric tests in Nevada and famously used a parabolic mirror to focus the glare of a 14 kiloton explosion and light his cigarette. Which, I guess, makes him a real hombre and the coolest guy on Earth.
I suppose people playing with fire have to be ultra-cool, so it doesn’t set fire to them.
The other day a bunch of us Transport Bloggers met up at the new St Pancras and recorded a short podcast on the new station.
From the capital letter hating but otherwise superb deputy dog, a piece appropriately entitled ever been on a train this nice?:
with the results looking nicer than most nurseries, the japanese have taken the idea of ‘child-friendly public transport’ to the next level with these 2 beauties, both designed by eiji mitooka. he was the artistic force behind ‘omoden’ (toy train) and ‘ichigo ec’ (strawberry train), a couple of regional trains which travel on a daily basis on the 14.3km kishigawa line in japan. the japanase are intent on making train travel a more comfortable experience for everyone, women and children especially, and the results are incredible.
both trains contain hundreds of toys, tv screens showing cartoons, immaculately clean wooden flooring and cots for younger children. call me cynical but i can’t imagine anything like this emerging in the uk unless it was an attraction at a theme park.
On no account refrain from following the above link, because the photos have to be seen to be believed, and even then you may not believe them.
I am told that the Japanese behave very well in public places. Call me cynical, but the reason you’d never see this in the UK is that UKers as they now are would rip the place to pieces inside a week.
Personally I am a climate change agnostic. I don’t know if it is happening or not. If it is, I don’t know what is causing it and I don’t know if it is worth doing anything about it.
However, lots of people have been baptised into the anthropogenic warming religion and they seem to be the majority.
OK, well that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes, and lots of people think that they can use climate change to push a socialist agenda, hence the proliferation of high-speed railways and bus lanes, but that is no reason why we libertarians can’t play the same game. So instead of getting all huffy and puffy about it wouldn’t the best thing be to be use this flavour of the month to push a free-market agenda?
Take loss-making out-of-the-way railways. As I have. These could go tomorrow. For the sake of the planet of course.
And what about speed bumps? They may save the lives of small children but they definitely cause cars to slow down and accelerate, causing more pollution and killing the planet. What’s more important little children or the survival of life on earth? Come on now, it’s an easy one.
Or, what about environmentally-friendly 60-ton mega-lorries?
And then there’s crumple zones on trains. Sure, they make it slightly less likely that’ll you’ll die in an accident but they weigh a lot and require more energy etc, etc… but it is you versus the planet and you wouldn’t want anything untoward happening to the planet now would you?
I wonder if there’s even an argument to be made in the world of Trans-Atlantic air travel. As I understand it there’s some amazingly convoluted system which restricts the number of slots and hence promotes inefficient gas-guzzling airlines. I reckon they could go too. The regulations I mean.
Anyway, these are just a few suggestions. I’m sure readers can come up with a few of their own.
Climate change: enjoy it while it lasts1.
1. Which may not be that long as Brian points out.
Now, why is it when our politicians want to spend huge amounts of our money on a transport scheme do they never think of trolley buses?
This was from about 1963.
From time to time I buy The Week, and via the latest edition I came across a piece by Kit Malthouse, saying that Heathrow should be moved. This makes a lot of sense to me. This was published ten days ago, but far better to link to this late rather than never.
You need two vital ingredients for a successful international airport: the right wind and loads of space. Heathrow has neither. The prevailing wind in London is westerly. Aircraft have to land into wind; so all those massive beasts (and they are getting bigger every year) have to turn in right over Central London. The noise they cause means only a limited number of flights can land before 6am or after 11.30pm. But as the residents of Wandsworth or Ealing will tell you, it only takes one plane coming over at 4am to wake you up and ruin your day.
Heathrow is also trapped. Hemmed in by the M4, M25 and the A30, surrounded by thousands of residents, our premier airport has nowhere to go and can only cram more and more into what little space is available.
Add to this some truly idiotic planning decisions from the 1950s (Who decided to put the terminals in the middle of the airfield, so the main access had to be through a tiny tunnel?) and you have what is commonly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest planning disasters.
Adding Terminal 5 and also a third runway and a sixth terminal, as the Government wants in its proposals published yesterday, will only make the airport even more of a mess and nuisance. So let’s move it.
The Thames Estuary, he reckons, is where London’s main airport should be.
The Thames estuary is only four metres deep in parts and it would be relatively simple and cheap to construct an artificial island with a beautiful modern airport on it. All the planes would come in to land over the North Sea, which would mean a 24-hour operation, with no disturbance while expanding capacity, at a stroke. In fact, the airport could easily accommodate all the flights from Gatwick as well, meaning we could probably close it too.
A bullet train on stilts or in a tunnel could link the airport to Central London in 20 minutes or so, and a branch line from the new high-speed Eurostar link nearby could connect the airport with the Continent.
Malthouse reckons that the receipts from selling Heathrow off to housing developers might even cover the immense cost of all this.
I mentioned this in a comment over at Samizdata so I may as well mention it here.
It’s been ages (years even) since I’ve regularly driven on Britain’s or anyone else’s roads. But my mother recently had a hip replacement operation (no cancellations, no infections - you’d hardly believe it was the NHS) and she can’t drive. So, I’m borrowing her car.
As I said, it’s been years since I have regularly driven, so I’m a rather good witness to any changes that may have taken place. And there is one big one:
Everybody sticks to the speed limit.
In days gone by you could be pootling along at 70mph in the slow lane with people zooming past you at 130. Now, it would appear, that just doesn’t happen.
And you know what?
I rather like it.
Well, on the M25 at least. Everybody driving at 70, or whatever the variable limit says, means a much less stressful atmosphere - less tailgating, less having to change lane - and you seem to get where you’re getting that much faster. There is also that wonderful schadenfreude at the thought of all those thousands of boy (and girl) racers getting their comeuppance courtesy of Mr Gatso.
The widening to five lanes in some places may also have something to do with it.
Of course, what we may be seeing here is a statist solution to a problem the state created in the first place. If the M25 existed in the free market it might well be the case that price was used to regulate the number of vehicles on the road and so there would be no need to regulate traffic flow. It might also be the case that there were no speed limits at all. But equally private road owners might come up - in the more efficient and sensible manner that the private sector usually does - with more or less the same solution we see here. We just don’t know and I would look forward to finding out.
Having praised the value of speed cameras on the M25 I should point out that they are a total pain everywhere else. I find that I am constantly having to direct my glance at the speedo rather than the road where it should be.
Further to the previous posting, I took some pictures last week of St Pancras, and mentioned as an afterthought, that the place didn’t look entirely finished. Fellow Transport Blogger Michael Jennings responded thus:
It is also worth observing that as well as being unfinished in the sense of shops not open and stuff like that, the station is very much unfinished in an operational sense as well. When St Pancras is finished, there will be four sets of services running from it. The first set is the long standing Midland Mainline services to places like Derby and Sheffield. The second set is the Eurostar services to continental Europe. The third is the Thameslink services, which will move from the present disgusting station in Pentonville Rd to a new set of platforms at St Pancras underneath the main station on December 9. Then in a couple of years time high speed domestic services to Kent (which will be operating Japanese Shinkansen “bullet trains” by the way) will start operating from more platforms inside the main old trainshed. And finally, the Thameslink line is going to be upgraded in the next few years to at least quadruple its capacity, which is going to mean that a large range of services to Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Surrey, Sussex, and Kent will be operating from St Pancras as well.
The point is that when all this happens, St Pancras will be just about the most important domestic station in London, even regardless of the international services.
I want to press Michael on the Shinkansen thing. Will trains travel towards Kent at three hundred miles an hour, like in Japan, or will they trundle about the countryside at a mere hundred and fifty miles an hour?
As was (just before closure):
As it is now (after the expenditure of £800m’s worth of extorted cash):
All I can say is that they got something for their money. Oh, it has some ridiculous touches: that statue, the longest champagne bar in Europe1, but it is magnificent. Probably the best station in the world.
At times like this I am reminded of Brian Micklethwait quoting P J O’Rourke admiring a US aircraft carrier: “Now, that’s the way to waste public money.”
1. Who, exactly, goes around measuring the lengths of champagne bars? Anyway, it’s not the bar itself that’s long - just the seating area. The stupidest champagne bar in Europe, perhaps.
The London Paper today has a story (unfortunately not linkable) about a man named Tim Burke who pulled a man to safety from tube tracks at Gloucester Road. Apparently the man fell down there during a row, and was frozen rabbit-like at the sight of an oncoming train. Burke says:
I instinctively went to help. I jumped down and grabbed him but he was rigid with fear. I led him across two tracks and tried to lift him up and then people on the platform lifted him up to safety.
While I admire the getting on and solving the problem attitude, what confuses me about this story is that neither man was electrocuted by the live rails. The tube uses a four rail system. I find it implausible that it’s possible to fall onto the tracks, and be led across two tracks, one of which was presumably the central live rail, without getting a zap. The central rail is at -210 Volts DC. I’d expect a nasty burn at least.
It’s important to know, because my instict would have been to stay well clear of the fallen man and advise others likewise. It’s easy to judge the relative dangers of approaching trains, but the danger or not of live rails remains a mystery.