Elections and Callington

So, we’ve had the Police Commissioner elections. I voted and my candidate won. It’s remarkable how much say you get when nobody else turns out.

(My polling station got on the Beeb too. But I didn’t.)

It’s quite remarkable that the Government is now so out of touch that it fails to realise that the British people aren’t overly fond of voting for things; it introduces an opportunity for people to express an opinion on something and they express a complete lack of opinion. Still, this should set the Republic movement back by a few years. Imagine if we elected a President on a 15% turnout. Just think what a laughing stock we’d be against all those countries which proudly declare their republicanism in their country names and routinely manage turnouts of over 100%.

(Still, at least we can be sure that the voter fraudsters evidently didn’t bother so the result is at least accurate.)

The attitude of one Newport councillor was that the low turnout (in one Newport polling station area it ran at a really quite remarkable 0%, introducing a whole new exciting election failure sport alongside candidates getting no votes at all) was something to do with:

“People are more concerned with the bigger picture like the recession.”

Well, one of the ideas of the Police Commissioner elections was, I vaguely though (I may have just been trying to rationalise the policy when it became apparent that it existed and nobody else was going to explain it), that these Commissioners would take a more responsible approach to police funds and ensure that they were being spent properly and directed where they were wanted, freeing up money to be spent on getting us out of recession. (The police don’t directly contribute to the economy, except by arresting people believed to be interfering with its smooth running and keeping the defence equipment industry in business.)

It was partly with this in mind that I decided not to vote for the candidate offering to spend as much money as possible on the Fuzz. While they may need more money, my council tax bill (at nearly £700 per annum) is quite high enough for my liking already. And the more she took, the less I’d have available to spend on music CDs, railway publishers and meals out in Gunnislake pubs.

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Speaking of Gunnislake….

One of my recent investments was a trip to Liskeard for a journey on the Looe branch aboard a Great Western Railway Railmotor. A railmotor is a passenger carriage with a steam locomotive inside it, driving the vehicle along at a fairly much adequate speed.

Railmotor No. 93 at Liskeard from the powered end. The chimney can just be seen poking out at the top and a cylinder is visible on the bogie at the bottom.

While down there I picked up a DVD from Liskeard station shop. (Not the one in the main station building, but the one from the Looe Valley Line support group on platform 3. There is a shop in there, it’s just not open much. Try this Sunday. Failing that, certain days at specific times next summer.) It was a DVD which would have been on my wish list had I realised it existed; now I have it, so it’s still not on the wish list. It’s called Centenary of the Callington Branch and features a series of videos roughly covering the history of the erstwhile Bere Alston and Calstock Light Railway.

There’s a couple of bit in monochrome (mostly showing the beautiful 120ft-high Calstock Viaduct – only 10ft short of St Pinnock, the highest viaduct in Cornwall, located between Liskeard and Bodmin on the Cornwall mainline) but also rather a lot in full colour – including a TV/ cinema documentary on the line, made in early diesel days shortly before closure, which was sadly never finished but generated several minutes of quality footage showing traffic on the long-closed northern portion of the line (Gunnislake to Callington). Also in there is a short sequence showing the demolition of the bridge over the A389 at Gunnislake when the line was cut back again in 1994 – which attracted quite a crowd (seemingly most of the population of Gunnislake, all turning out in the pouring rain to watch a nondescript low bridge be sliced into pieces).

Wikipedia’s Callington station article described the lost northern section as follows:

The now-closed section of line north of Gunnislake had several severe gradients and speed restrictions, which made operating difficult.

For anyone who doesn’t know the Gunnislake branch, it is essentially divided into three parts. The first is the Plymouth suburban section, shared with the mainline to Cornwall and stopping at all those mysterious barren platforms that the Cornwall mainline stopping trains bounce happily through. The second is the Plymouth, Devonport & South-Western Junction Railway’s mainline as far as Bere Alston, with its magnificent earthworks driving a path across the hilly landscape. The third is the Last of the Light Railways, meandering around tight bends, over two ungated level crossings and across Calstock Viaduct. The ruling gradient of this third section is 1 in 37, although it’s predominantly 1 in 40 (rising in both directions from Calstock Viaduct). Several bends are subject to 10mph speed restrictions. The idea that the now-closed (fourth) section was worse is really quite impressive.

So it’s slightly disappointing to be confronted with a DVD showing cab views with lengthy sections of straight track. And looking at the gradient profile in the Middleton Press book on the line (Tavistock to Plymouth – pretty good, though I think one of the Tamerton Foliot pictures is actually Bere Ferrers), the ruling gradient on the northern section was a short stretch of 1 in 44. Some of it managed to be level.  Before the Bere Alston and Calstock came along, that bit of line was operated in a shorter form as the East Cornwall Mineral Railway. You can see looking at the gradient profile where the junction between the original and new alignments is. All in all, it’s a rather decent bit of railway – it’s just that, being a light railway, it was subject to a sedate 25mph speed limit.

But it got that decent route because the landscape was reasonably easy – so there are also some pretty decent roads up there and the railway’s cheap construction came home to roost. It lasted 58 years, closing in 1966.

Nowadays it would probably be a good tourist line, although it manages to avoid serving anywhere much. Anywhere else it would be a splendid scenic railway. Unfortunately, as the northern end of the Gunnislake branch it would struggle not to be overwhelmed by the southern bit.

Anyway, the Wikipedia article has been modified.

Off the steel track – the view looking north from Clitters Mine, above Gunnislake, giving an idea of the view from the amputated Gunnislake to Callington line.

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All this Gunnislake scribbling and watching the DVD and subsequently immersing myself in the Middleton Press book leaves me feeling like a Gunnislake branch trip. Not that there are any trains on the Light Railway this weekend. The 2nd of December is tempting since the mainline from Plymouth to Liskeard is closed, so the only trains heading west from Plymouth into Cornwall will be the Gunni ones. However, I’ll probably leave it until next summer.

Seasonal Area November 2012

The November Seasonal Area takes us to the Wye Valley area for the first time in quite a while – the closest in the online archive was January 2009. As a general rule the attitude has been that Tintern, Bigsweir, Redbrook et al all feature quite enough on the rest of the website.

Readers should rest assured that the sudden appearance of a picture showing the landscape above Tintern is not going to result in the rest of the website mysteriously vanishing. It may instead result in something happening to the masses of scenic non-railway Wye Valley pictures which litter the Order’s picture archive.

It was a pleasant, sunny and mildly hilly walk around one of the more obscure side-valleys of the Wye, though the gloom of the time of year meant that the last bit was completed in conditions starting to verge on the dark.

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West Coast Mainline update – current betting would seem to be that Virgin Trains has obtained a further extension of a year or so on relatively favourable terms based on the awkwardness of getting the franchise off them ready for the 9th of December. In due course everyone will be invited to spend another £10million each on bids for a two-year franchise and then, probably after the next General Election at the current rate, the franchise will be re-let on a term intended to take it up to the opening of Phase 1 of High Speed 2 (around 2026 – possibly sooner, since it’s the only thing the Government has left that they can be seen to be doing so they have plenty of time and resources to rush it along).

The curiosity about West Coast going on hold while the Government restructures the franchising system is that the new franchise should actually have begun in April, 15 years plus a tidy rounding bit since the Virgin franchise began in those heady days of 1997 when everyone said franchising was doomed, the industry was screwed and Labour would almost certainly renationalise when they came to power. However, the letting of the contract was delayed while the Government restructured the franchising system.

It’s hard to argue that the post-2005 system worked, but at least franchises were eventually let without too much argument.

(Rail franchising divides easily into a batch of distinct phases over its 16-year career, though this summary is a bit sweeping and they aren’t by any means official phases. Phase 1 was 1996-97, when the Office for Passenger Rail Franchising let lengthy franchises on vague bids about growth, fare cuts and investment at a rate of 25 franchises in 8 months. For Phase 2 (2001 to 2005) Labour abolished the Office and replaced it with the Strategic Rail Authority, which didn’t get to let any franchises until after the Hatfield crash encouraged costs to explode and so went with lengthy franchises on tighter bids promising steady-state zero-growth. As it became apparent that passenger levels were growing despite a refusal to buy new trains the Government decided to initiate Phase 3 (2006 to 2010) by abolishing the Authority and doing the whole business itself. This resulted in tight bids detailing the refurbishment of station toilets, purchases of pencils and so forth on the basis that passenger levels would grow massively and therefore the operators would be able to pay the Government bags of money to run the franchise (albeit without any extra trains to carry the passengers in because extra trains cost more money). Labour didn’t really like privatisation so this phase was also politically useful as several of the franchises didn’t actually generate 10% annual growth  and therefore went to the wall (they peaked at about 8%, which over a course of several years with turnover in the hundreds of millions becomes an awfully big difference in hard cash). We now have Phase 4 – since no long-term franchise has yet been successfully let under Phase 4 it is difficult to note any form of legacy except for a massive nostalgia for the efficiency of Phase 1. Throughout all of this the huge, lumbering 19th-century mass-transport rail industry has carried ever-growing numbers of presumably happy passengers in ever safer conditions, but for some odd unaccountable reason costs have gone up.)