March 2004

March 31, 2004

A historic building

Michael Jennings | Rail History

When in Manchester recently I made a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry. As is fitting in what was once the greatest industrial city of the world, the museum is relatively weak on science but very strong on industry, and the museum is very worth a visit.

However, as interesting as the contents of the museum is the location of the museum, which is in a complex of buildings that were once at one end of George Stephenson's Liverpool and Manchester railway. In particular, one section of the museum is in this building.

What is remarkable about this building? Well, this was the world's first passenger railway station. When we think of a railway station, it has certain defining characteristcs: raised platforms, ticket offices, waiting rooms, etc. However, rather than drawing on defining chraracteristics, the builders of this station had nothing to work with, and they had to invent all these features, and as a consequence some of the features clearly weren't got quite right in this station. There is a certain half-hearted quality about the raised platforms for instance.

When I mentioned visiting this station to the live from the third rail guys during out little transatlantic blogger get together on Monday, they raised the obvious question, which is that there surely must be two "first railways stations in the world" rather than one, given that the train must actually go somewhere. And I suppose this must be so, but to find that out I would have to go to Liverpool.

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March 30, 2004

Trans-atlantic transport blogger meet up

Patrick Crozier | Blogging

l to r: Brian, Michael, me, Aaron, Randolf
OK, lousy title - you try thinking up something better - but at least it's accurate. Anyway, yesterday, a whole bunch of us Transport Bloggers met up with AMG and RJ3 of Live from the Third Rail (sorry guys, I can't, I mean I really can't, do lower case here) at the not-quite-but-bearing-in-mind-the-clientele-ought-to-have-been-called Caffé Nerd in Covent Garden.

Best quote came from RJ3. Something along the lines of:

"After being a student in Baltimore for two years I finally came up with a journey which justified using the subway. I was so pleased."

Thanks to Zoë for taking the photo.

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March 28, 2004

Why the claim that rail re-integration would damage cross-country businesses should be ignored

Patrick Crozier | Fragmentation

There is a remarkable consensus developing over the future of Britain's rail network and it revolves around vertical integration. Editorials are calling for it. Politicians on both the left and the right are calling for it. Only this week both South West Trains (a train operator) and Network Rail (the infrastructure owner) separately announced/leaked plans to take over the bit of the network they don't already control.

Large object of desire for train operators
The momentum for change is almost unstoppable. And to think a year ago I thought it would never happen.

There is one fly in the ointment, however. In reports of SWT's plans for re-integration dissenting voices were heard from EWS (the freight operator) and the Department itself which talked of "Balkanisation".

I am not sure what "Balkanisation" means. I guess it is an objection to a rail network on a regional rather than a national basis. I suppose the claim is based on the idea that Yugoslavia was a happier country when united than disunited. Well, it's a theory.

EWS's argument (which I think is the same one) is that under a regionally integrated structure their inter-regional trains wouldn't get a look in. And therefore vertical integration should be resisted.

There are a couple of points here. First of all, let's assume the worst. Let's assume that not only are EWS's worst fears confirmed but that it's even worse than that: under vertical integration there are no, absolutely no inter-regional through services whatsoever.

Large object of desire for infrastructure companies
How bad is that? Not very. Freight and Cross Country combined probably only account for 10% of rail revenues, if that. Something like 70% of all rail journeys start and finish in London, which pretty much means they stick to the region ie route they start in. Frankly, the priority must be for something that works for the main part of the business. The rest of it has to take its chances.

Incidentally, if the inter-regional business was the lion's share of the business then the network would be run on a national basis anyway - the market would see to it.

That's the Domesday scenario. But it isn't going to be like that. The reality is that railway owners would only be too happy to path (as they call it) "foreign" services through their network (all things being equal that is). It's money for nothing - and we all like that. Sure, there would be problems. The EWS train from Southampton might get to Reading at 1000 only to find that there were no paths until 1100. And there are all sorts of issues about compatibility, prioritisation, axle weights and reliabilty. But the way I look at it is that if the job is worth doing ie it's profitable it will be done.

I believe there is a precedent for this. I believe that before nationalisation, before Grouping even, there were through services and that these were enabled through a combination of local agreements, jointly-owned lines and the ministrations of the Railway Clearing House.

Anyone out there know for sure?

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March 26, 2004

Lost and found – but not yet back in my possession

Brian Micklethwait | London Underground

Last night, as I have already reported here, I lost my Filofax. (And yes, I still use Filofax. I like Filofax. I have tried silly little pocket computers. They are useless, I find.)

Correction, it began with me not being able to find my Filofax. It took me a while to work out, by a process of elimination, that I had actually lost it, and that, to be precise, I had left it, on top of a telephone, at Sloane Square tube station.

So, this afternoon, with no very great sense of optimism, I began the process of trying to recover my Filofax. First, I rang 118 500, to find out who I should really be ringing. It turns out that individual tube stations can't individually be rung, but I was told of a number I could ring for London Transport Lost Property. I got a machine. Leave it about three days minimum, said the machine, and then call round at our office in Baker Street, between 9.30 am and 2 pm (they close at 2 pm). What I could not do, it seemed, was ring anyone to try to find out if if they had my property without going anywhere.

So I went to Sloane Square tube station, with no very great optimism. But, I went. The man I asked had scary tattoos on his arms, but he was very nice about it and immediately showed me into his Station Manager's office. The Manager asked me my name, and told me that my Filofax had been recovered. However, it had already been cast into the maw of the London Underground Lost Property system, and I would, as already stated by that machine, have to wait until about Tuesday, and then go to Baker Street, before 2 pm. The Manager gave me a little chit to give to the Baker Street people. He was also very nice. As was another lady who was in the office on another matter who had once worked at Baker Street and was able to advise me of the earliest time when a visit to Baker Street would be likely to work.

They do have it. I will, barring disasters, get it back. Good. The people I managed to speak to, once I had gone walking and actually met them, were as charming and helpful as such people can ever be, and I thanked them effusively. It is taking a bit of bother on my part to actually get it back. Not good, for me, but I guess that if they make it too smooth and simple to recover lost property, even more people will be leaving junk on their trains. And, the times being what they now are, they don't want to encourage that by being too obliging to people who now do this. Think of my delay before getting my Filofax back as a fine.

So, on the whole, I have to say, I'm impressed. I just wish I could also thank whoever handed my Filofax in to the station staff in the first place.

Stay tuned for the excitements of going to Baker Street.

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March 25, 2004

Transport Blog not-properly-thought-through theory of the day

Patrick Crozier | Rail Miscellany

The UK government hasn't the slightest idea what to do about the railways. There is a policy vacuum. So long as the industry can present a united front it will find that it can fill that vacuum with more or less whatever it likes.

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Christian Wolmar has a website

Patrick Crozier | Christian Wolmar | Links

The only transport journalist honoured with a Transport Blog category all of his own now has a website. It's a bit good.

Update 03/09/04

I have noticed that on some browsers the site's navigation doesn't work. In case you are having difficulties here it is:

Online Column
RAIL Archive
Transport Articles
Best of the Rest
Public Speaking

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March 24, 2004

Of place mats, privatisation and possibilities

Patrick Crozier | Privatisation Benefits

While on my journey on First Class last week I took this photo. While it may look like a pretty unexceptional picture of a set of crockery there’s more to it than meets the eye.

First of all, were you to touch the place mat you’d find that it is (to coin a word) frictionful – it’s difficult to slide. And it’s difficult to slide on both sides. That means that when placed on the table of a moving train it doesn’t move around and neither does anything that might be placed on it. Not bad, huh?

Secondly, look at the placement of the paper serviette, between the plate and saucer. The great thing about this is that it stops the two clattering about which can be very annoying especially if there are several dozen sets in a carriage all clattering at once. I think there was a scene in the 1971 movie Get Carter illustrating precisely this.

Now, I don’t know if the place mat and the paper serviette were in service and in this configuration prior to privatisation. I don’t know if the material the place mat is made of was even in existence back then. So, it is difficult to add this to that short list entitled “Benefits of rail privatisation” . But it is the sort of thing I would expect. The private rail companies cannot invest long-term because their franchises aren't long enough for them ever to pocket the return. But they can invest short-term and cheap and easy improvements to rail travel are worth pursuing.

But there’s another thought I have. One of my great beliefs about railways is that in order to get them right you have to get a whole bunch of little things right. It is categorically not about building great, new headline-grabbing lines. It is about concentrating on a whole bunch of old technologies and human systems and continually searching for small improvements.

A corollary to this is that if you can get the little things right then you are much, much more likely to get the big things right.

And the fact that Virgin (and others) can get such little things as this right suggests (to me) that they may well be able to get rather bigger things right if they are ever given the chance.

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March 22, 2004

Is British first class the best in the world?

Patrick Crozier | Virgin

By means that have never been entirely clear to me I have managed to travel first class in Japan, Germany, Italy, Canada and on the Eurostar. But until last week, on my return from my trip up to Keele, I had never travelled First Class on a long-distance journey exclusively in the UK.

Euston: journey's end

It was quite something.

The journey started at Stoke-on-Trent and Virgin's First Class Lounge. Comfy sofas, free newspapers, hot and cold drinks, chewy sweets space. Very nice.

Then I caught the train and took my seat: a nice, big, comfy seat with no one anywhere near me. It is difficult to underestimate the pleasure of having an empty seat next to you and opposite you. You can just dump you bags and stuff. It's nice.

Virgin do not have a restaurant car but they do have a trolley service during the day.

"What would sir like to drink? Alcoholic or soft?"

That's always an easy decision. I had a beer.

"And would sir like one for later?"

I think readers can decide for themselves how I answered that one.

Then the sandwich trolley arrived. One tray had a filling of roasted vegetables, another cheese but the last was empty. What no chicken sandwiches?

"Don't worry sir," said the man in the waiter's uniform, "I'll just go and make some." And surely enough...

And at that point something happened which I haven't experienced on a train for a long time: I started to relax. A layer of tension fell off like a snake shedding its skin. And I started smiling. I haven't done that on a train for a while either.

It was very, very nice.

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Change to comments

Patrick Crozier | Blogging

I have just altered the comments to add what is known as a Turing test. This is because over recent days Transport Blog has fallen victim to a whole bunch of automated comments spammers and it was becoming too much of a fag to delete each one individually. Hopefully, the business of adding a security code at the end of comments will not prove too inconvenient.
As in the time-honoured Crozier tradition, testing has been cursory so if you do find any bugs please let me know.

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March 18, 2004

Keele University Libertarians

Patrick Crozier | Other

On Tuesday, I went up to Keele University to speak to their Libertarian Society on the subject of "The benefits of privatised roads". It was a very enjoyable and worthwhile trip for all sorts of reasons and I hope to be blogging about it extensively over the next few days. In the meantime I would like to thank my hosts Matthew and Craig for looking after me while I was up there.

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They are here

Michael Jennings | Buses and Jitneys

Last week, your mild mannered reporter was walking through Knightsbridge, and he glanced in an easterly direction. Coming towards him was a brightly coloured double decker bus, with the word "Bristol" on the front.

That was odd. Buses travelling long distances are normally darker in colour and more modern looking with tinted windows and stuff.

But.... I remembered something. Could it be?


Yes, it was Megabus. My goodness, that bus has been painted to look like something out of the 1970s. Maybe I should go to Bristol on the weekend. Nice city.

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March 16, 2004

Trains can't stop - or can they?

Patrick Crozier | Fragmentation

In a comment to an In Brief item I found myself (in response to the whole fragmentation debate) asking the question: what is it about replacing tarmac with steel rails and rubber tyres with steel tyres that means that whoever operates the vehicles must also control the infrastructure?

And me being me I immediately set about trying to answer it.

My understanding is that one of the big problems with trains is that they find it difficult to stop, (remember "The Railway Children" anyone?) Specifically, they can't stop in the space that the driver can see. Therefore, they need signals to tell them that the stretch up ahead is clear.

But what about trams? They have to operate in mixed traffic conditions ie with normal road vehicles. They don't need signals. They seem to stop all right. So, why don't they have this problem? Is it the speeds involved? Or is it because they are lighter? And if it is because they are lighter why not make trains lighter and get rid of the signals?

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Angle Grinder Man is …

Patrick Crozier | Roads - Parking

…still with us. And, he has a website. He also has a vacancy for a henchman it would appear - just the sort of thing if you are too short even for MI5.

Much as I object to what he is doing I have to say: I do like his style.


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March 11, 2004

Do we talk about terrorism and security on Transport Blog?

Patrick Crozier | Transport Miscellany

The latest death toll in the Madrid Metro bombing is 190. Iberian Notes seems to have all the details.

In the last few weeks and months we have seen two terrorist outrages on Russia's railways, a threat to blow up the TGV and the death sentence passed on the mastermind of the Sarin attack on the Tokyo Subway.

In London, railway stations (though not trains strangely) are still without litter bins because in the past they were used to plant bombs.

All the time we live with the global impact of 9/11.

And I don't know if we talk about this sort of thing here.

It's hardly a great time to ask. Rather tasteless in fact what with the bodies still being counted. But I do feel it's time we thrashed it out one way or the other.

My instinct is "no". My feeling is that terrorist and other outrages are really quite separate from everyday transport issues.

I also hate the way that it is transport that pays the price for the failings of others. For instance, I hate the way that I, as a passenger, am deprived of litter bins because my government can't be bothered to sort out the IRA. It is ultimately the job of the state to deal (one way or another) with terrorism, not the job of transport authorities.

And I also fear that if we start talking about terrorism we'll never talk about anything else.

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Transport Blog is …

Patrick Crozier | Blogging

…two years old today.

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March 10, 2004

Entirely gratuitous train pic

Patrick Crozier | Railways - Japan

Freight train at Gifu, Japan


Click to enlarge. Freight trains are supposedly a rarity in Japan but I kept seeing them all over the place. Notice how the train is reflected in the concrete at the platform's edge.

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March 09, 2004

New trams – pretty in Nottingham – losing money in Croydon

Brian Micklethwait | Trams

I don't know what these new trams in Nottingham cost, or whether they were worth it, but they sure look pretty.

What happened in Croydon doesn't make me optimistic about the economics.

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March 08, 2004

Comparative safety statistics

Patrick Crozier | Air Safety | Best of Transport Blog | Rail Safety | Road Safety

I found this table on the PACTS (boo, hiss) web site:

ModeFatalities per billion passenger kilometres
Motor cycle/moped112
Pedal cycle33
Bus or coach0.2

First of all, it is perfectly possible to cast doubt on these numbers on the basis of a) their accuracy and b) their significance but let's pretend for the sake of argument that they are accurate and that they do represent the best measure for safety possible for there are several things that really strike me about these stats.

Me: safe and sound
The first thing is the enormous spread. You are 10,000 times more likely to die on a motorbike for every mile travelled than you are in a plane.

The second thing is: who would have thought that walking was so dangerous? I would have thought that pretty much the only way you can get killed when out walking is when crossing the road. OK, the vehicle could have mounted the pavement or failed to stop at a pedestrian crossing but that is pretty rare. In other words 9 times out of 10 it's your fault. And only a third of these accidents are children under the age of 16. Personally, I would like to know what the figures are for children under the age of 7. After that age most children have a pretty good idea that cars are dangerous. In other words we are pretty reckless with our own safety. More evidence perhaps that safety is not the only thing?

The other thing that strikes me (and has struck me before) is the inverse relationship between the cost of the seat and the danger involved. An aircraft seat costs a lot of money (I would guess about £150,000 (£60m/400 seats). A train seat about £14,000 (£1m for the carriage/70 seats). A car seat (assume one passenger) about £10,000. It doesn't quite work (the big exception being motorbikes) but it's not a bad rule of thumb.

Me: about to dice with death
Why is that? My guess it's because if you have forked out £60m for something you are going to look after it. Indeed, it would appear that you are going to look after it more than you are going to look after yourself. Which says something about the real value of human life.

It is also interesting that buses and coaches are 10 times safer than cars. This seems very odd as you would have thought that buses and coaches are just as likely to crash as cars but yet almost no one on board will be wearing a seat belt.


Just one final thought. If the safety campaigners are as concerned about child safety as they say they are shouldn't they be campaigning to reduce the minimum age for a driving licence to, say, 5 years old and for the removal of all forms of motoring taxes to make it easier for children to drive which, after all, would be 16 times safer than walking?

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Successful appeals against London congestion charge penalty notices

Brian Micklethwait | London Congestion Charging

I find Prospect a relentlessly good read, and one of the better bits is the "In Fact" bit. Here is a fact from the In Fact bit of the latest (March 2004) issue which came as quite a surprise to me:

Three quarters of the 35,000 appeals against congestion charge penalty notices made by London drivers have been successful.

That was apparently in the Guardian, on February 14th. Apologies if I am the last person here to have heard about this.

Isn't the Congestion Charge something to do with Transport for London, the organisation that is demanding a Huge Cash Injection (see below).

Evidently it is also in the habit of wrongly demanding Small Cash Injections.

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March 07, 2004

London is doomed … doomed …

Brian Micklethwait | London Underground | Transport General

This is my first Transport Blog quota post. I promised Patrick a minimum of one post per week, and the week is nearly up, because the week ends (I have decided) on Sunday evening.

So I did what I do when I need a quota posting on my Education Blog. For that I type "education" into google. So for this, I type in "transport". And I strike pure gold with result number one:

An apocalyptic vision of choking roads, collapsing bridges and 'unimaginable' rail overcrowding is unveiled in a report into a looming transport crisis in London that has repercussions for all of Britain.

What is "looming"? Seriously, what does that word mean? And why is it only crises which loom. I mean, why can't you have a looming taxi, i.e. a taxi on its way but not here yet.

Predicting that it will 'be difficult to describe how unpleasant' travelling in the capital will be, the report spells out in the bleakest possible terms what will happen to Tube, bus and road trips without a huge cash injection into the transport system.

Ah. A huge cash injection.

The report, compiled for Transport for London (TfL), the body in charge of the capital's roads, railways and buses, warns that the crisis will have a huge impact on the UK economy, stifling investment and leading to job losses.

If nobody gives me ten million quid next week, the impact upon the British economy in terms of stifled investment and job losses will also be huge.

I can confirm that the London Underground (which probably sounds to foreigners a lot more exciting than it is – it's just trains in tunnels) is getting quite crowded.

However, my opinion of London is that it is always crowded - full of horse manure, traffic, plague, fill in your preferred misery to suit which century you're in, pedestrians (the current infestation), or something as yet un-nightmared about – because that is London's nature. Crisis in London always looms. If someone improves matters, with the idea of smoothing everything out and making everything nice, all that then happens is that another three million people descend on the place and clog it up again.

If, on the other hand, this particular crisis lives up to its current loom-rating and things get as bad as Transport for London says they will, then people will switch their business to other places.

Meanwhile, put the price of Underground tickets up. Enough to make a difference I mean. And spend the money making the Underground nicer. But trust me, if bridges start falling down, that will cut down on the the traffic now stuck on top of them.

Actually, as for traffic, my impression is that there is a looming crisis to Transport for London caused by the fact that Transport for London gets its current huge cash injections from the Congestion Charge, and the traffic now paying that is less than they hoped and hence the cash injections they now get aren't huge enough to keep them in the manner they are now accustomed to.

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March 06, 2004

Transport Blog Quote of the Day

Patrick Crozier | Air - Low Cost Airlines

Gary Leff on airline economics:

I do think there's hope for the legacy carriers, and it lies in bankruptcy. United's pilot productivity has improved 61% since bankruptcy.

So, that's how to make money.

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March 02, 2004

How did they do rail maintenance in the past?

Patrick Crozier | Maintenance Contractors

Jonathan Elias, who is writing a dissertation on, er, something to do with railways (I guess) e-mailed me to ask how rail maintenance was done in the past. I e-mailed him back to ask him to clarify things a bit. This is how he replied:

I think what i mostly mean is whether the maintenance was done "in-house" by BR as is supposedly done by Network Rail now, or whether there was the situation of companies fighting for contracts. While I acknowledge that this must have gone on to a certain extent-major projects etc., I wonder if the situation was as messed up as it appears to have been under Railtrack who apparently didn't have a R+D department which surely isn't right. I'm quite keen to learn how maintenance was handled even prior to nationalisation in the 40's. I assume that the big 4 maintained enormous engineering resources which accounted for them being some of the biggest companies around at that time. I suppose the main reason i have trouble with this was that i grew up in germany where the trains seem to work as a relatively privatised thing, perhaps britain's system is a case of too many cooks...

Right, well I'll have a go at answering some of this from off the top of my head. As I understand it BR did all its own maintenance. As I understand it Network Rail does not yet do anything in-house unless it has already taken over the West London stretch. BR's R&D Department was indeed sold off before Railtrack even came into existence. Likewise Railtrack never got the chance to negotiate its own contracts, at least, not until a lot later c.2000.

I know very little about how maintenance was done in the past. Two snippets. There were men called "linemen" who were responsible for their own stretch of the permanent way (about a mile or so). They even had their own little huts. There were annual competitions for the best stretch of permanent way.

To the best of my knowledge Germany has never had a privatised railway.

Again all of this is on an "as I understand it" basis.

For what it is worth, although the old practices seem to have worked well, I doubt if they would work well today. They are appallingly labour intensive ie expensive. Just as much (in theory) can be achieved by regular automatic track recording and the use of machines. That's how the Japanese do it.

Anyone out there (Mark Ellot, Brian Hayes, I'm thinking of you) who can help?

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This is a list of date-based archives from the In Brief section:

November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004