This weekend I visited a friend who is a train enthusiast and all round public transport expert. We took a special service from Bristol to Minehead called the Butlins Express. It runs partly on Network Rail track, and partly on the West Somerset Railway, a preserved railway run by volunteers. According to the BBC, it’s the longest privately owned passenger line in Britain. Few things are untainted by the state, though. The engine and carriages for the Butlins Express are provided by ECT Mainline Rail. This is a “social enterprise” (read: government teat suckling contractor), tagline: “Combining Business Thinking With Social Values”. Yuck.
Once off of the main line, the train seemed slow. My friend explained that the Light Rail Act of 1896 means trains are limited to 25mph. You can run your trains faster than that, but this presumably involves meeting stringent track and signalling requirements. On the bright side, the train passed through a number of tiny stations run by volunteers, the route was picturesque and in Minehead there were various unusual trains to be seen, including some working steam trains.
I learnt some other fascinating facts this weekend: rail regulators go so far as to specify the number of seats on trains to London (is there any aspect of running a train service the regulators don’t control?); and a strange emergent property of the fare system is that while a single from Swindon to Ealing Broadway costs more than £30, a ticket from Swindon to Didcot Parkway and another from Didcot Parkway to Ealing Broadway together cost £21.60. Now I just need to design an algorithm to search the fares database for other such anomalies.