Puffles looks at trains again


Musings on maps – of the railway kind. And following the wanderings of my mind.

This blogpost started off from reading an article about Blackpool – see it here. There’s one thing that troubles me not just about Blackpool but northern England in general from a political perspective. Despite having lots of MPs in the north – and especially while in office, Labour failed to deliver the integrated public transport system that John Prescott signed his name to in the mid-1990s. Essentially, Labour today needs to show it has taken on board the ‘public administration lessons’ from its time in office. Part of the problem in my view is that in the world of politics, the political actors like the policy but they don’t like or pay enough attention to the public administration. My advice for anyone going into the world of politics with the aim for executive public office (whether at local or national level) is to learn how large organisations function, and learn about how partnerships between organisations function. And malfunction – for both cases.

“What about Blackpool?”

I tend to hear about it in a ballroom dancing context. Blackpool is seen as the capital of competitive ballroom dancing. (Vienna being the capital of social ballroom dancing in my view – hence having been there a couple of times for some very grand balls during my dancing days). I can’t recall ever having been to Blackpool. In East Anglia we’ve got our own seaside resorts – ones which suffer similar challenges (though perhaps not on the same scale) as Blackpool. It’s one of the things that got me thinking during my civil service days about the role of transport.

Blackpool and Great Yarmouth – similarities

Early in my civil service career I was taken on a tour of the latter to see for myself the challenges faced by local councils there. Ditto with Harlow – Conservative MP Robert Halfon’s neck of the woods. (He’s been following Puffles for quite some time). In all cases, I kept on coming back to the issue of public transport – railways in particular. It was nearly a decade ago that I was in Great Yarmouth, but I remember traffic-clogged single lanes into and out of the town. I also remember a dilapidated railway station too – similar to the scene that I stumbled across when I was recently in Felixstowe town. Just by looking at the station architecture you could see that these buildings had seen better days.

If you look at both towns, you’ll notice that the transport system isn’t one that can benefit from passing traffic easily. If you’re going to go to either, you have to make a conscious decision to go there. What I mean by that is that neither appear to be convenient ‘stop off’ points en route to somewhere else. Thus it’s easy to see how such places can become forgotten about in the national political mindset. Out of sight, out of mind. Whether we’ll see the resurgence of some seaside resorts on the back of offshore windfarm maintenance needs (such as the one mentioned here) remains to be seen. Transport infrastructure is just one of the basic requirements. Decent homes and training facilities for the local population are also needed. Because as Frances Coppola states in her blogpost here, firms given the choice would rather take on someone already skilled up rather than investing in the training themselves. (For me, this is a market failure where through taxation of firms, the state needs to provide at least some of the training needs for businesses).

Looking at the transport maps

  • The first one I had a look at was the National Rail Infrastructure Map for 2010 – see here.
  • The second one I looked at was this one – the map of electrified rail lines – see here.
  • Then I looked at a paper by Louise Butcher for the House of Commons – see here (scroll to pages 10 & 11).

Have a look at all of them. What do you see? What stands out?

For me, the following stand out:

  1. There’s no outer London rail orbital enabling services to easily bypass London
  2. There’s no East-West rail link in the middle of the country (though there is announced work on this), meaning lots of needless journeys into London
  3. There is a huge lack of electrification in the north of England.
  4. There are no direct East-West rail links linking up the great northern towns (though one has been announced as per Louise’s paper.

Looking at the main national map (this one) I like playing ‘dot-to-dot’, pondering which bits would be good to join up and why. Not just in terms of improved services but also in terms of improved resilience when there’s a disruption on a busy route. The much-talked of Lewes-Uckfield railway in Sussex is one that has been regularly talked of by Labour’s Lord Bassam (their chief whip in the Lords, & former Brighton Council Leader when I was living there) as a line that could take the strain off the existing & overcrowded Brighton-London line. Closer to me, a London-Harlow-Stansted-Braintree-Ipswich-Great Yarmouth-Norwich line could take some of the strain off the London-Chelmsford-Ipswich line, while an electrified Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough-Birmingham line would make the route a damn sight more faster and more reliable than the 3 hour diesel chugmobile service that makes the journey into and out of London to get to Birmingham a safer bet.

Looking at the maps, I’m sure you can come up with your own – feel free to add them in the comments, especially if you’re in Scotland or Wales. What about a tunnel linking Scotland and Northern/Republic of Ireland?

“Yeah, but where’s this money going to come from?”

Prior to the banking crisis, I’d have said that was a good question. But for me the banking crisis threw out all of the old assumptions given the amount of cash outlay £133billion according to the National Audit Office and the guarantees of over £1trillion – see here for the source. If you can afford to bail out the banks to the tune of £133billion and not have anyone taking the hit for it – rather giving one of them a seat in the House of Lords (read this and get f—ing angry) you can sort of understand why voters are not apathetic, they are angry and pissed off. This I feel sums up the mood of more than a few people. I know it doesn’t really answer the question though.

But it’s not all bad news for the trains – if only they could publicise the good bits

Every so often I buy Modern Railways Magazine. My view is that if I’m paying lots for train fares, I want to keep tabs on what the money is being spent on. Actually, as magazines go for non-scientists and non-engineers like me, it’s actually quite interesting – not least the recent edition where they showed lots of pictures of the construction of Crossrail. If you want to inspire people about big engineering, show them pictures of, and take them here – similar to what they did with the Olympics’ site which at one stage was the biggest construction site in Europe. The overhaul of that site cost less than a tenth of what it cost cash outlay-wise to bail out the misbehaving investment bankers.

What we’re capable of

I think this is one of the things that divides the traditional political left and right. The well-rehearsed slogan of the latter is that the problem with socialists is that they always run out of other people’s money. The mindset of the former is that with all of that money being splashed out on whatever celebrity, offspring of billionaire or city boy that hits the papers, couldn’t it be better spent on something for the improvement of society rather than a bottle of champers with too many 000s at the end of the price tag?

A wandering mind

To finish off with, what this blogpost I hope has given you an idea of is how my mind wanders from place to place. We started off in Blackpool, moved to Great Yarmouth, then looked at some railway maps, then moaned about politicians, then looked at railway magazines, then moaned at bankers then finished off with wondering what humanity could be capable of in a positive way.




6 thoughts on “Puffles looks at trains again

  1. There are reasonably good East-West links between the Northern Cities, the Transpennine routes connect Manchester with Leeds 4 times an hour (with various hourly links further east and west) and Manchester and Sheffield twice an hour. Mostly, the trains are nowhere near long enough though, and a lot of links between cities are not served often enough

  2. …oh, and generally the trains could do with being a little faster as well, which is something electrification will help with

  3. One issue with most of the east west routes (all north of Peterborough) is that through a combination of factors- low line speeds, signalling systems that constrain capacity, lack of passing places- Transpenine Express, the CrossCountry Birmingham-Stansted and the East Midland Trains Liverpool-Norwich services all double as both long distance and local services. This means that the short trains used can never have an optimum door/seating layout, that services are slow and end up overcrowded. Short platforms are also rampant- often where stations used to have lo nger ones (back when trains were far, far less frequent but had more carriages).

    Thankfully much of the north west is currently seeing the physical signs that the long awaited mass electrification is now underway. Unfortunately the trains they will be getting, other than a small fleet of brand new Desiros (class 350) currently being delivered to TPE, will be mainly heavily refurbished units displaced by brand new trains for Thameslink ( which will be seen in Cambridge after 2018). Initially this will be class 319s, almost as old as the Sprinters and Pacers currently used- indeed the class 150 Sprinter is the diesel version of the 319 (also the 317 & 321 seen at Cambridge). Expect a fair bit of upset that the “new” trains are “old, unwanted cast offs from the south”.

    (You can tell these things interest me too!)

  4. A London orbital would be a very useful thing. Mainly though, not for passengers! I’m not convinced that flows between say Cambridge and Bristol would be good enough to justify a regular service- my impression of cross London travel is that it consists of every possible combination each in small numbers.
    So, an orbital then. Something in the region of the M25 say? Connected to every line. With a tunnel under the Thames at Dartford. For passengers, I’d try to intercept the radial lines at stations, providing interchange- if possible with long distance services. But the main use would be to get freight out of London. It is madness that freight from the channel tunnel, Thames docks and even Felixstowe goes via busy inner city commuter lines. The upgrades to the Ipswich-Peterborough line will help, but only a bit. An orbital would solve the problems.

  5. Electrification is no guarantee of quality of service. The ECML was done “on the cheap” and so fails catastrophically whenever windspeed passes 20 MPH. The London-Portsmouth line has been electrified since the 1930s, but our 2013 trains take longer to complete the journey than the ones running in 1958 did. The most comfortable trains on the entire rail network are the nearly-40-year-old diesel HSTs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s