Not dropped off the face of the earth

Apologies for not blogging so much recently, I’ve got a lot on my plate with work and home life at the moment. The Margobarge is off the road because she failed the MOT and needs work to correct it (specifically, the LCD dashboard display needs to be replaced so I can read the mileage, I need the mileage to get an MOT certificate, and I need the MOT certificate to tax it and get it back on the road). So I’m walking and training it to work at the moment and for a couple of month which has doubled my commuting time but since i’m going to be walking 4km each day it’s not going to do me any harm. Would have been better if it was still summer though, obviously!

Ignore this is you are not a train geek: I’m back on the Class 323s which I was on when I was living in Manchester and worked in Cheadle Hulme, They’re packed every morning and the uphosterly’s a horrible green. The Class 323 is the one with the really whiny gearbox. In this area they’re run by London Midland.

I did make it to Manchester Pride 2010 but only for a couple of days, it’s kind of hard to make a whole weekend of it when you don’t live 300 yards down the road from it any more, but for the time I was there I did enjoy myself. I especially enjoyed the debut Cubstars perfomance, which stars (amongst others) my friend Brian.

I will get photos onto this site once I’ve fixed the plugin that sucks them up from Facebook but which has stopped working properly since the WordPress 3.0 rollout. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll be able to see them in my photo albums.

It wasn’t the best of Prides I’ve ever had but I did make the best of it. I’m a bit skint and stressed at the moment and I’m chalking it up to my head not being in the right space for it. Perhaps next year when I can save up for it and do it properly, who knows. I shall be trying Birmingham Pride for the first time first, next summer.

It was a little strange being back in Manchester for the first time in a number of months. I still do miss the place, and I think one day I would like to move back. But I’ve got a lot of hard work to do and shit to sort out before I can even consider it. We’ll see. Manchester has been such a big part of my life and had I been given the choice I would not have left. My current surroundings are by no means unpleasant but they are, basically, alien to me given my limited knowledge of the area, although in fairness that knowledge is improving every day.

I’ve got a lot of hard work to do between now and the end of the and I’ve no choice but to grit my teeth and bear it. I’m still looking for a few side consultancy projects that I can do in my spare time, so if you think you can take advantage of my skillset please get in touch.


HST cab ride treat

A few weeks ago my friend John, who’s been a train driver since he left school, took me for a ride in the cab of an HST (InterCity 125 type trains). I’ve always wanted a ride in the cab of a train and John’s been promising to take me for years, so this was a real treat. We drove down from Manchester to Birmingham in a class 220 “Voyager” DMU, which was exciting enough, but those trains are cheap and nasty and really not a patch on the classic HST, which have been going for 30 years or so now. Nothing they make new these days even comes close to them, in my opinion. We drove back to Manchester in an HST set on loan from National Express East Coast (John works for CrossCountry).

Riding in the cab, as opposed to riding as a passenger, gives you a completely different perspective on rail travel. Obviously there’s the unusual visual aspect of riding in the front, but you also get a very sincere understanding of how train driving works. John explained everything he was doing to me as he drove the trains, and you get to understand exactly why the train has to travel slowly sometimes, or why it has to stop; things that seem random, arbitrary and annoying when you’re a passenger.

Indeed, John was so busy explaining the intricacies of train driving to me that he forgot to open the train doors when he pulled into a station on one occasion. A shout and a bang on the door from the staff soon jolted his memory though!

National Express HST power car

National Express HST power car

Inside the cab of the power car

Inside the cab of the power car


It must be great living in Railway World

What is it with train companies? Like banks, they seem to live on a completely different planet to the rest of us. Last night Chris and I were booking transport from Heathrow to Manchester for when we return from Gran Canaria and, on failing to book a domestic flight because we get into Heathrow too late in the evening, we were left with no alternative other than a train. This is fine, trains from London to Manchester are fast and frequent and usually very well priced, not to mention the fact that they’re way more environmentally friendly than domestic flights.

So I went onto thetrainline.com, which is apparently the only national rail booking service (so it’s not like they have any competition to be price-conscious with), and searched for trains from Heathrow terminal 1 to Manchester on the evening of Monday 12th May. I specified standard class and two adults. The minimum price quoted was £159. First class tickets were in excess of £400.

This, as you will agree, is quite ridiculous. I know that trains to Manchester, off peak, in standard class and booked far enough in advance can be booked for as little as £13.00 per person. I also know that the Heathrow Express and the tube, which the quoted price included, cost £15.50 and £3.50 per person respectively. So I did another search, this time for the last train from London Euston to Manchester, and sure enough it came up as £26.00 for both of us (£13.00 each). This means that the previously quoted price included £133 for 2 adults to travel from Heathrow T1 to London Euston, when I know that the actual price will be £38, buying walk-up tickets.

Where the hell are they getting this extra £95.00 from? For the privilege of not having to buy separate tickets for the various legs of the journey? We could buy the walk-up tickets, throw them in the bin and take a cab to Euston and still have a decent number of notes in our pocket out of that £133 that they wanted me to pay to get 20 miles from the airport to Euston. What the fuck?

Incidentally, were we able to take a carbon-belching domestic flight from Heathrow to Manchester it would have been £88 for the two of us, including all the taxes. Go figure.


Railair links

What is it about these “Railair links”. They are neither rail nor air; they’re frigging bus services, nothing more, stop trying to dress it up. Buses are shit and not a viable form of transport unless you’re poor, a murderer, or a combination thereof. Don’t make bus services out to be anything more glamourous than they actually are with poncy names like “Railair”, it’s not fooling anyone. It’s a bus; a cheap and inadequate substitute for proper public transport.


Record £14m fine for rail company

BBC NEWS | UK | Record £14m fine for rail company – I’m sorry, but I must’ve missed something here. Are you actually trying to tell me that a government-funded agency has fined a government-funded firm £14 million quid? Where the fuck do they expect they will get the money from to pay it? Who funds the government that funds this government-funded company, in addition to paying a portion of their rail fares directly to this government-funded company? That’s right. Most people are at least one of taxpayer and rail passenger, many are both.

There will be no penalty that might actually mean something to those responsible. Network Rail directors will not only keep their jobs but they’ll likely keep their bonuses too, safe in the knowledge that someone else will clear up their mess and bail them out of their incompetence. The entire board should be fired. That would hit them where it hurts.

I also notice that no form of compensation has been awarded to the affected passengers, who now face a £14m fine for their trouble. It’s just pointless money recycling, with suitably inflated administrative fees being creamed off where it’s deemed appropriate. Stupidity and shortsightedness compounded on top of stupidity and shortsightedness. I’ve come to expect little else from 11 years of the New Labour regime, which seems to prioritise some sort of war on common sense. The scary thing is that it’s winning it, hands-down.


Railway robbery

My rail fare was increased by 5.3% yesterday along with above-inflation fare hikes from most train operating companies. This amounts to an extra £60 per year for me, assuming daily tickets and traveling 47 out of 52 weeks, which equates to about 12 days’ worth of travel at the previous rates. This is quite annoying, and although it doesn’t quite make rail travel unworkable for me, another price increase and I will have to seriously question it. This would be a shame, because I’m one of the few people in the country for whom rail travel is physically convenient.

The rail companies claim that they “need” this extra money in order to fund improvements in the railway system, which is the same excuse we’ve had for year upon year upon year with little return on the promises made. In fact, the only major railway infrastructure development that’s taken place since privatisation is the electrification of the West Coast Mainline, which is currently the subject of another fiasco, which, thankfully, does not affect me. I’d be pretty fucking annoyed if it did though, especially considering the fare hikes.

However, what does rile me is when, on the day when the fare hikes came into effect, my train home was six minutes late, leaving me and my fellow passengers freezing our tits off on the platform. What provision in the Passenger Charter is made for this sort of delay? None. I’d have to freeze my tits off for an hour before Northern Rail would even think about giving a proportion of my extortionate fare back.

Then this morning, the guard on the 08:32 watched me buy my ticket from his colleague, then closed the doors of the train as I was approaching it. He just shrugged at me through the window, in the fully knowledge that I intended to board the train and that I was being held up by his incompetent ticket-vending mate. Fucking unacceptable, they’re just taking the fucking piss.

Like I say, rail travel still just about suits me, but another fare increase and further examples of this sort of contempt for their customers will probably put me back in a car. That would definitely be a shame.


Pendolino Farraday cages

I’m writing this aboard the 22.05 Virgin Pendolino service from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly, so I’ll be actually publishing this when I get back to Manchester. The reason why I can’t publish it straight away is ironically enough the subject of this post.

Virgin’s marvelous new Class 390 “Pendolino” electric multiple units which they use for many of their inter-city services, replacing the HST and Mark 3 hauled stock trains which were perfectly good and had many years of service left in them given a refurbishment programme, have several annoying design flaws which directly affect passengers.

You would be forgiven for assuming that modern rail vehicles such as these would have been designed with the modern rail traveler in mind, given that they were designed since the turn of the century. The modern rail traveler likes to be able to use his mobile phone on the train and, if possible, their laptop connected to the Internet using a wireless Internet connection. But this is not to be.

In order to cut costs and enable them to install cheaper air conditioning systems, the manufacturers of the Pendolino opted to use a special metallic sunscreen on the windows in order to reduce the heat inside the train produced by the sun. However, a side-effect of this sunscreen is that it effectively turns each coach into a Farraday cage when combined with the metal shell of the coach itself, making it impossible for mobile phones inside each coach to connect to their respective networks in any useful way. Genius.

Signal can be obtained in the vestibules at each end of each coach, because the metallic sunscreen has not been applied to the train door windows. This is great, until the train applies its brakes. Then it all goes wrong again.

The Class 390 Pendolino has “regenerative braking“, a technology widely publicised by Virgin, which, when applied, actually returns electricity back to the National Grid. Each Pendolino multiple unit apparently returns enough power each year to supply Birmingham with electricity for a day or something like that, the details aren’t really relevant, but it’s something along the lines of the claim that if everyone gave up toast the electricity saved each day would power Birmingham for a week. Of course, if we just unplugged Birmingham, the rest of us could all have as much fucking toast as we like, but I digress.

So yes, regenerative braking sounds like it’s a good idea, returning power to the National Grid and helping to reduce the rail vehicle’s carbon footprint, all very grand and noble. Except, when applied, these regenerative braking systems create an enormously powerful electromagnetic field which, you guessed it, knocks out your mobile signal, whether you’re in the vestibule or not. Genius.

The same problem has been flummoxing Virgin boffins charged with the design and deployment of wireless Internet connections aboard Virgin trains as successfully implemented by other train operators, namely GNER, on their East Coast Mainline services which use different types of trains (namely HST sets and Class 90 plus Mark 4 stock trains, neither of which have regenerative braking).

So I can’t publish this post right now. Not only is Virgin’s onboard wireless Internet service doomed, but I can’t even get a mobile signal to post it via GPRS. Were I on a train that was designed in the 1970s, as is the case with the HST, I might understand. But the irony is that it would actually work on the HST, in stark contrast to this soulless electric multiple unit designed thirty years later. The terrible locomotive irony.


Crossrail gets the green signal

BBC NEWS | England | London | Crossrail gets the green signal – oh look, Gordon Brown has announced funding for a major public transport project the day before the weekend that he’s tipped to decide whether or not to hold a general election, his party having previously announced it on the eves of both the 2001 and 2005 general elections. Imagine that.

Crossrail, although undoubtedly needed, is however a bit of a red herring. Most of the new route has already been built and has been in use for many decades. For the most part, the new trains will run on existing lines. The part that needs to be built, that will use up most of the £16bn, and will undoubtedly go over time and budget as all the usual suspects (consultants, New Labour cronies, etc.) jump on the gravy train is the tunnel under the centre of London. It really isn’t like they’re building a brand new east to west rail route through London, so the £16bn price tag and the planned timescale (over a decade from now) does seem a bit hefty. One has to wonder how far £16bn would go towards building one of the many shelved proposals to improve the urban motorway network in London, political correctness over climate change notwithstanding.

In any case it isn’t right that a new public transport project, which the commuting public cries out for every day of their lives as they are packed onto their sardine tins on a railway network that hasn’t seen any significant expansion since the second world war, is used as a shiny election badge. New Labour have had ten years to do something about the railway network in this country and they’ve fucked it up at every opportunity, except of course when it suits them.

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