Redwood on Roads

John Redwood can be an interesting politician to watch. Long, long ago some thoughtful comments on his part ensured that a certain part of Cardiff kept affordable house prices when the rest of the nation went berserk. Since it’s actually a nice area to live, you get the benefits of the run-down neck of the woods and few of the downsides.

In 1995 he terminated his political career by actually responding to a “put up or shut up” challenge from his party leader. Having put up a candidate, the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories opted not to shut up. Pity that.

And now he keeps a blog which occasionally makes comments on transport. He can be a little uninformed on railways. But (to a rail expert who doesn’t drive) he doesn’t seem to be quite so bad on roads.

As someone who has long been in favour of road privatisation, I rather enjoyed reading this – Basically, cancel vehicle excise duty, flog big long franchises to toll companies for the motorways, let them charge for motorway use and pay down the National Debt with the lump sum that flogging the network brings in. (The one downside is that, like the railways, he doesn’t propose permanent sale. This has the potential to allow future governments to screw up the franchise market, increasing costs to the state rather than cutting them.)

Road privatisation has the benefit that it adjusts the road user costs towards point of use rather than as a lump sum at the beginning of the year. The latter option encourages you to use the road more to recoup the value of your investment.

My one subscriber will probably disagree with the benefits of the policy, but Wales has devolved transport so its motorways would be exempt.

How To Post a Letter and another obituary

The Order of the Bed website has been updated with a new page – How To Post a Letter. One of the Order’s top brass has been working in a sorting office lately and the resultant feedback and interesting tales have been used as the basis for this article. Naturally we refuse to take responsibility if you follow all the guidance and your letter goes missing anyway.

It aims to provide a bit of interactivity of the most basic sort in order to keep you interested.


Yesterday started off as a brilliant day. I had a conditional job offer upgraded to a firm one and am now employed by the railways. This is going to mean moving, so expect a shift in the locations of Seasonal Area pictures. (February’s Penryn picture and September’s Forest of Dean picture should survive this shift.)

Something in the back of my mind said that this was too good to last long. (When I’m in a good mood a creeping bit of subconscious looks at a full glass and says it’ll be empty soon. When I’m feeling a bit down another bit of subconscious points out that the empty glass only needs taking back to the bottle of squash and it’ll soon be full again.) However, bustling round writing emails and webpages soon suppressed this.

After a walk I woke up my Atari 520ST and did some typing. I’m rewriting a story of a dystopian world set in the Chepstow area from a series of scripts into something prose-based. Since I have work to do, radio programmes to listen to plus more scripts in this theme and another book to write, this has been progressing sedately and generally as an excuse to work on the 26-year-old Atari, of which I am very fond.

 After a couple of hours I hit Ctrl+V and left the Atari whirring happily to itself as it saved the file to disk while I went to tea (or dinner or supper or whatever your neck of the woods calls it). Upon coming back I found the bottom half of the screen had turned into a series of barcode-like strips.

“Damn,” I thought, assuming that the Atari had developed a new means of crashing. They’re always interesting, since it doesn’t crash often so the sight of them is something to be surprised by. But having some writing to do and being keen to find out if it had finished saving before it toppled, I pressed the little button on the back to reboot it. The screen went black – or, it being an Atari, 70% grey.

And there it stayed, through several attempts to turn it off on the back and at the wall. All the lights came on when booting up, but the drives didn’t spin in the familiar manner. The monitor remained blank. Twenty-four hours on, the computer remained silent.

The 520ST is possibly the  most loyal and obliging computer I’ll ever know. It’s been in the family 26 years. I’ve run it as my own since I was 5. GCSE coursework, several of my favourite scripts and two Infocom games have been completed on that computer. It runs an array of obsolete and, in a couple of instances, unique programmes. I learnt most of my core computer skills on that machine, which to be honest says more about my skills and expectations with computers than the Atari.

It’s been going downhill for a while – the mouse has been struggling for some years – and I haven’t spent much of my computing time on it lately. But there’s something about that silly curved monitor, minimal memory and whirring disk drives that ’80s computing enthusiasts will probably understand and everyone else will think I’m being weird and sentimental over…

Anyway, I’m househunting at the moment, so I will leave you with an excerpt from a skit that I wrote on the Atari some 6½ years ago (very mildly modified so the excerpt makes a trifle more sense). It remains, at the risk of sounding immodest, one of my favourite moments in my own work.

Cut to see the estate agent and the buyer walking through a deserted and dusty room.

Agent: This is the dining room. Round the corner is the kitchen.

Buyer: I see.

Two doors lead from the living room into the dining room – the agent has already opened one, and the buyer opens the second one.

Agent: Oh, I wouldn’t do that sir. You see, the house can be unstable in cases of earthquakes or heavy lorries driving past, so we leave that door shut.

He tries to force it back in – it won’t fit. He wrestles with the door for some time. The frame has been bending during this bit of the sequence and deforming away from the walls; at this point it snaps with a distressingly obvious curve in it.

Agent: And if you’d just come upstairs sir.

We cut to show them entering a bedroom with a sagging rear wall.

Agent: This is the main bedroom, and across the corridor is the bathroom

The rear wall suddenly flies downwards in a cloud of dust and crashings. The door snaps in half and falls into the room, just missing the buyer. They both turn around to look at the wreckage. The bath in bathroom is now visible. The dust gently settles. The agent looks up at the ceiling, alarmed, as the crashing continues and then dies away. He hurries the man out.

Agent: The bathroom you’ve seen…

And at this moment someone will note that the Atari spends the above being referred to in the present tense and the problems are in the past. Shortly after writing this post it was passed over to the family IT expert (unusually Dad, not me; I view most computers as a tool and anyway he has more experience than me) and returned 40 minutes later with an invoice for £200. The solder in the “On” switch on the back had got a bit mucky, inhibiting current flow.

Tomorrow will be spent with some more househunting (anyone in Swindon want to share a house?) but some time on Invader.Prg may not go amiss…

(Ok, no obituary. Well, it was when I started and I hate changing titles. Don’t worry, the Atari’s next big script is due to be the tale of someone who begins a story saying that they’re looking back on how they ended up dead and, in a dramatic and unexpected plot twist, finishes up dead. This outcome is somewhat unusual at the moment.)


Finally, after mentioning the Bourne lithographs yesterday, Steve Bell of the Guardian had a cartoon yesterday in his usual slightly bad taste but with beautiful historic references

(The location is one of the giant ventilation shafts in Kilsby Tunnel.)

Obituary: The London and Birmingham Railway

Today, on the 10th of January 2012, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Right Honourable Justine Greening MP, announced the Government’s plans to press ahead with the construction of High Speed 2. This new rail link between London and Birmingham will provide additional capacity for longer and faster trains between the two cities; its announcement brings down the curtain on the 179-year history of the London and Birmingham Railway as the prime route between the UK’s two largest cities.

First plans for a railway between London and Birmingham emerged in the 1820s, but it was not until 1832 that a Bill was put before Parliament to authorise the route. This was rejected and had to be resubmitted in 1833; Parliament simultaneously accepted both it and the Grand Junction Railway, which would link Birmingham with the existing Liverpool and Manchester Railway. These two lines would make up the world’s first trunk railway and link London and the North West.

Robert Stephenson was chosen as engineer for the London and Birmingham Railway. His chosen alignment was intended to offer easy, sweeping curves and gentle gradients – apart from Camden Bank (added at a late stage in planning to allow the southern terminus of the line to be on the Euston Road in London rather than in Camden Town, two miles to the north) the line has no gradient steeper than 1 in 330 (about 0.3%). Splendid tunnel portals and viaducts with an air of permanence all gave an impression that this was a line here to stay. With the exception of a rather over-the-top Tudor-style bridge at Rugby and several overbridges modified for electrification, much of the infrastructure en route survives entirely intact.

The intermediate stations were largely diminutive affairs, but the termini were really something else. London Euston station – unfortunately a few hundred yards north of Euston Road – was given a splendid Doric Arch (so called although not really an arch) to gaze down on users of the new form of transport. The awnings over the platforms – located to the east of the arch – were relatively simple affairs, managing to be both lightweight and cluttered at the same time. Land to the west of the Arch was left free for the Great Western Railway to use should it wish to share the terminus, but the GWR opted for one of its own at Paddington.

The Grand Junction Railway opened in 1837, a year before the London and Birmingham. The two were to share a station at Birmingham Curzon Street, on the outskirts of the city. They were not competing railways; it had always been intended that they should work together. The alignment of the London and Birmingham – sweeping up to Rugby and then turning west to Birmingham – suggests that a direct connection avoiding Birmingham altogether was always planned. Nonetheless, the L&B took the opportunity to show customers which railway was the greatest when the two lines came side by side in their Birmingham terminus and built a gigantic three-storey stone block for the station building – larger than the Doric Arch at Euston, with Ionian columns and twenty-foot-high floors – to show off its grandeur.

Birmingham Curzon Street station in 2007

The last section of the line to be completed, through Kilsby Tunnel (which flooded with quicksand during construction), opened in 1838 and completed a direct chord from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.

Remarkably for such an early railway, we have an excellent and highly accurate pictorial record of its construction in the form of a series of lithographs drawn by an artist called Bourne. We know they are highly accurate because they can largely still be compared with their subject matter. They present a world yet to be industrialised and developed; the railway was built in the closing years of the reign of King William IV and opened under Queen Victoria, so Primrose Hill Tunnel (the first tunnel out of Euston) passed beneath a grassy hill where primroses could grow naturally. Now they exist purely in the back gardens of the houses which cover the hill and surround the first ten miles of the line.

The railway’s engine shed at Camden, so located partly because locomotives were not initially used on Camden Bank (it was believed too steep at the time), was swiftly rendered obsolete by growing traffic levels which left it too small for the locomotives being used and the number of locomotives required. Formal merger of the Grand Junction and London and Birmingham into the London and North Western Railway was followed by the opening of the Birmingham cut-off – the Trent Valley line between Rugby and Stafford. Extensions further north to create a mainline to Glasgow brought more traffic to concentrate on one mainline into London. Curzon Street station was abandoned to goods traffic in 1854 and replaced with New Street. Euston grew swiftly and to the degree that the Great Western would have been politely invited to build its own terminus had it not already done so. Originally the Great Northern and Midland Railways had used Euston as their London terminus but capacity problems, despite quadrupling of the mainline, forced them out into their own termini (Kings Cross and St Pancras respectively). While the east side of Euston station remained in the original lightweight but cluttered style, the west was developed with a typical heavy LNWR roof with hefty girders stretching across the departures platforms. The Arch was surrounded by waiting rooms, halls and offices before being hidden from Euston Road by an extension to the station hotel. The London and Birmingham’s inspiring face thereby vanished behind a utilitarian Victorian building.

The Grouping in 1923 resulted in the LNWR being forcibly merged with its great rival, the Midland Railway. After the shakedown period brought the two companies onto sufficiently friendly terms for the new London, Midland and Scottish Railway to work (at least, work as well as the world’s largest company ever could), the LNWR began specifying new fleets of locomotives for its great Anglo-Scottish express trains and prime services to other parts of its network – including, of course, Birmingham. The Royal Scots were superseded by the Princess Royals and the Duchesses. Services were accelerated and traffic developed further, though infrastructure modifications were inadequate. Plans to rebuild Euston station in a typical 1930s giant concrete block style, of the sort favoured in Germany at the time, were dropped as the nation moved to war.

Hitler redesigned Birmingham New Street.  The LMSR was nationalised in 1948  a few days after it inaugurated mainline diesel trains in the UK with locomotive No. 10000 on a service from London Euston. Harrow and Wealdstone, on the northern outskirts of London, had a refurbishment after playing host to Britain’s worst peacetime rail disaster in 1952.  In 1955 British Railways announced that the West Coast Mainline, as it was now called, would be electrified between Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Euston. The overhead wires were fully in line with LNWR design practices; heavy girder structures carried the wires above the railway.  But they would never be seen matching the heavy girders of Euston’s departure platforms – the unmanageable, unwieldy and unplanned station was bulldozed during 1962 and replaced with a new set of buildings in a typical 1960s mould. Had the Doric Arch been built by the kerb of Euston Road, it might have survived on the grounds that, like the gatehouses at the station entrance which still proclaim Swansea to be served from Euston, it was out of the way of the main operations of the station. Removing it allowed the station’s 18 platforms to be made a broadly consistent length.

Electrification ensured that the railway could at least put up a decent fight against the growing competition from roads and airlines. However, the declining traffic and the degree to which it could be consolidated on a single route was demonstrated by the fact that the competing route from London to Birmingham (Great Western) was downgraded to a branchline in 1968, while the alternative routes to Liverpool (Great Western), Manchester (Midland) and Rugby (Great Central) were all shut. Curzon Street station was finally decommissioned altogether and handed over to Royal Mail for a sorting office. The new electric locomotives were not completely successful, with an occasional tendency to catch fire and ride  quality so poor that drivers refused to take them over 80mph for fear of being thrown from their seats.

BR proposed accelerating express trains to 155mph with the tilting Advanced Passenger Train. It was of much credit to Robert Stephenson that such speeds could even be considered for his great mainline. But the train didn’t work properly before the Government axed the project and BR rebranded the remnants, so that was that. The electrics were rebuilt and some more ones bought instead.

Electrification of the East Coast Mainline in the late 1980s put the West Coast on the back foot and the  planned 1990s upgrade was put back by privatisation. Some careful working of track possessions meant that the disintegrating mainline was handed over to Railtrack by BR with no temporary speed restrictions. Virgin West Coast arranged for 140mph running, but Railtrack’s subsequent realisation that the necessary signalling technology did not exist and that more work on the track was required than previously thought meant that Railtrack entered administration instead, the project had to be cut back and the budget rose impressively.

The completed scheme involved a reworking of Euston compared to carrying out heart surgery on a conscious patient and led to the demolition of several LNWR features – in particular the huge overall roof at Rugby, which had changed little since the LNWR rebuilt it in the 1880s. It was finished late, over budget and below original specification. Unfavourable comparisons were made with the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which was ongoing around the same time – it involved less passenger disruption and came in on time, to original specification and within budget.

The completed Channel Tunnel Rail Link was promptly renamed High Speed 1, which provided a clear inference that a second high-speed railway was planned. Sure enough, campaigns for a new mainline to the northwest strengthened and in October 2008 the Conservative Party announced that they would build High Speed 2 as an alternative to Heathrow’s third runway. The Labour Government came out in support in 2009 and produced a report proposing a different route avoiding Heathrow. Upon entering government the Conservatives accepted this alignment, while Labour began its time in opposition by adopting the Tory route.

Protests against High Speed 2 intensified, branding it as a waste of money and an unnecessarily large project. The alternative was further upgrades to the West Coast Mainline – in particular the London and Birmingham section, now Europe’s busiest railway (and probably not very far down the world rankings). The upgrades required as an alternative consisted of large-scale train lengthening, mass platform lengthening, redesigning several junctions with more flyovers and laying additional running lines along what is already a 4 track railway (except south of Watford Junction, where two additional commuter lines were added and electrified by the LNWR to provide an unusual 6 track alignment.)

The authorisation of High Speed 2 means that fast trains will be removed from the London and Birmingham Railway for much of the route, although they will still use the original termini at Euston and Curzon Street (where the L&B building is to be recommissioned).  This will free up the current alignment for more semi-fast, stopping and freight trains, resulting in places like Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby and Nuneaton being offered more frequent, comfortable and consistent services. The L&B’s status of Europe’s busiest railway and as the most important section of the British rail network is ultimately not under threat, but its days as the high-profile top-link Premier Line are largely over. It has always been a victim of its own tremendous success and the next stage in its life reflects this fate.

London and Birmingham Railway – opened throughout 17th September 1838, downgrade announced 10th January 2012.

Seasonal Area January 2012

Happy New Year!

(Unless you’re not on the Gregorian Calendar. Julian Calendar followers have another 15 days or so to wait. Everyone else has calendars which I am unfamiliar with the implications of and so won’t comment on. Disclaimer over. Hello fellow law graduates.)

It being a new month, the Seasonal Area has been updated – this time with a picture from a rather nippy walk done at the beginning of last year between the rail stations at Crosskeys (Ebbw Vale line) and Lisvane and Thornhill (Rhymney Valley line). It started off well but began snowing about halfway up the Mynydd; it did clear up as we reached the bottom of the other side but remained cold and gloomy for the rest of the walk.

Meanwhile I have been reading various predictions for 2012 and would like to make the following ones for luck:

1) The Olympics will be held in London in 2012.

2) I will not be there.

3) None of my pet derelict railways – the Wye Valley, the Forest of Dean Central, the London and South Western line between Exeter and Plymouth and the Bere Alston to Callington branch – will be restored to their former full length before 31st December 2012.

I was interested to see that Steam World magazine has recently decided to court controversy by expressing a preference-based opinion – the opinion being that the line between Bere Alston and Callington was the country’s Best Branchline. Naturally I would rather have seen the Wye Valley line take that position. But I am very fond of what is now the Gunnislake branch – I have a picture of it on my wall – and am pleased that the editor has chosen the Last of the Light Railways to bestow the honour on rather than any of the usual suspects.