Trails from the Rails 6: Ascott-under-Wychwood to Charlbury

  • Area: Oxfordshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: None really
  • OS maps – Explorer 180 & 191 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 164 (1:50,000)

This is actually a fairly simple walk which involves following a waymarked long-distance path and can thus be done pretty well without a map. Still, maps are handy things to have around even if it does inconsiderately involve two of them.

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The starting point of this walk is not celebrated much in song or story; despite its picturesque name, it turns out to be two unloved platforms next to a level crossing and an unattractive signal box. Most of the Wychwood has gone, leaving a wood at the top of a small neighbouring hill. This walk follows the valley back around the bottom of this hill from Ascott to the next station at Charlbury.

Ascott-under-Wychwood 1 JPG.jpg

Once the train has left Ascott-under-Wychwood station, head northwards (up the road on the opposite side to the signal box) to the first right and turn in towards the Manor House. Walk down the lane towards the manor, turn left at the end, follow the field boundary around, cross the stream and turn right.

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This is not an overly taxing walk on the gradients front and this first leg is reasonably typical; steady plodding around the edge of a field on a broad track. On the third field the Oxfordshire Way suddenly decides to be more interesting; it follows a field boundary around seven sides of an eight-sided field, past a gate which it appears to go through (but doesn’t) and then goes out again on the opposite side to where it came in. In this manner it continues in an easterly sort of direction to Pudlicote House.

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Pass along the bottom of Pudlicote House’s back lawn and cross Pudlicote Lane, continuing to follow the Oxfordshire Way signs. The path easily undulates along the bottom of the gentle hill, keeping near the River Evenlode.

After crossing Catsham Lane the Oxfordshire Way flicks to a north-easterly heading around the top of the Evenlode’s meandering curve to the south-east (a very meandering curve). This involves the first gradient of note, around the top of Greenhill Copse and down into a dell beyond. Take the right fork on crossing the stream and entering the wood beyond. This works rapidly back out of the wood and follows the top edge of a field. On reaching the other side, turn right along the field boundary (not working around the hedge through to the lane) and drop gently down the hill alongside Dean Grove.

After the end of the Grove, pass one field to the left and then follow the signs through the hedgerow down the gentle slope towards the Coldron Brook.

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The path crosses Water Lane and runs across three fields on the outskirts of Charlbury. Keep reasonably well-down these fields. Signposting is limited and the final gate well-hidden.

The Oxfordshire Way abruptly returns to trafficked roads on the village boundary at the bottom of Pound Hill.

Charlbury 1 JPG.jpg

Head up the hill and into the village.

The takeaway is unhelpfully (for walks from Ascott) on the other side of town. Carry straight on down Sheep Street and Hixet Wood then double back to the left at the end into Sturt Road. There are also several pubs in the village centre – a rather shorter explore. Walkers not in need of such refreshment can take the second right after topping Pound Hill to drop down Dyers Hill and cross the river to Charlbury station.

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Charlbury station is a well-maintained little place with a footbridge that can be seen from outer space. Most of it is the result of recent rejuvenation of the line; for many years the only bit of platform here was a couple of hundred feet in front of the station building on the then-single-track line. The main building survived because the Chairman of the British Railways Board commuted from here and the user group persuaded him to sign the petition against British Rail’s plans for its demolition.

Optimism Bias

This is worth a glance through (it’s a bit heavy for casual reading, although if readers have nothing else to do):

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rail-infrastructure-optimism-bias-study

The main document is of course the 39-page one.

On first glance it’s tempting to argue that figure E-1 (page 4) is shown wrong; the main budget should be remaining the same across all the stages and the optimism top-up reducing (rather than a consistent total cost as the estimate eats the optimism bias). After all, the optimism bias is an accounting trick to stop the project bankrupting the funder; the budget is the project manager’s estimate. The project manager, being a manager, should, one feels, have a rough idea of how long the project will take and at what cost; as development work goes on this should be proved right unless unexpected problems arise. Unfortunately the chart on page 19 goes on to show that the modal project involves starting with a figure, adding the optimism bias and then spending both. (Evidently railway projects involve a lot of unexpected problems.)

Recommendation 2 on page 29 also adds some amusement. The fact that most projects spend almost exactly the estimate and the optimism bias leads to an immediate conclusion that the optimism bias is encouraging slack spending. (“There’s money left, perhaps if we bought some nice gardens for our new station/ put in that crossover the operator wanted and we said they couldn’t have/ cleaned a few culverts while we’re here.”) The footnote then points out that equally the optimism bias might be inadequate and the project is being pruned to stop it going over that budget. (“There’s no money left, so let’s drop the second culvert/ push that bit of commissioning into someone else’s possession/ remove that crossover that the whole thing won’t work without.”)

It’s slightly scary to reflect that actually this does mirror my own workload, where I had four or five little tasks after Christmas that I intended to complete in a couple of weeks which have turned into big tasks that aren’t done (happily one has been overtaken by events and has gone away – not that the deadline’s passed, merely that someone has decided the work doesn’t need doing). It is with this sort of thing in mind that it might be worth tossing this unusually interesting Government report in the direction of anyone involved in workload management.

Corsica

An obvious subject for the middle of December is Corsica in September…

marine-de-sant-ambrogio-1-jpg… seen onshore and offshore…

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Corsica is an island off the west coast of Italy. To the south lies Sardinia. Sardinia belongs to Italy. Corsica, in a spirit of balance, belongs to France.

This concept of belonging to France is not one that always appeals to Corsica. Around the beginning of the 19th Century it could be reasonably said that France belonged to Corsica – the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio on the island’s south-west coast. The first removal of Napoleon from power exiled him to Elba, which is located between Corsica and the Italian province of Tuscany (it is visible from ferries between the island and Livorno). When he was removed again, a trifle over a year later, he was sent rather further from home to the island of St Helena. Since then Corsica has had a few doubts about the precise benefits of the arrangement.

The island is oval in general shape, with a mountainous spine down the middle and an arm sticking out the top. It is about half the size of Sardinia. The eastern shore – the Plaine Orientale – is cut quite straight, mostly with a flattish bit along the seaside. The western shore is more rugged, with many inlets and rather more vertical landscape. The northern shore is a bit of a compromise, with a few flat bits scattered along the edge of the hills. Corsica has no southern shore worth speaking of.

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Corsica is too far off the Italian shore for a bridge, so access is by boat and plane. Above is a picture of a plane coming in to land on Corsica. Below are a couple of the boat option.

Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe approach to Bastia, the island’s northern port, with the town scattered up the mountainous flanks above it.

MV Pascal Paoli @ Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe large, red form of the MV Pascal Paoli, docked in Bastia.

MV Moby Vincent @ Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe roll-on/ roll-off Moby Ferries vessel Moby Vincent, with her loud Bugs Bunny-themed square sides, rests by the Bastia quayside having arrived from Livorno. Moby and Corsica Ferries boats leave Livorno around the same time each morning and, after turnarounds taking about the same amount of time, work home shortly after lunch. Departure from Livorno is too early for hotel breakfasts or coming in from further afield (say Pisa). Not that a lack of breakfast will worry the paranoid mal de mer sufferer.

Place Saint Nicolas 1 JPG.jpgPalm trees provide welcome shade over the Place Saint Nicolas, above the seafront in the centre of Bastia.

Church Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe Church of St Felicity and St Lucy, perched on the end of a ridge high above Bastia, as seen from the railway station.

Bastia Station 1 JPG.jpgYes, railway station. Much of Corsica can be explored by rail using the metre-gauge network. This is encouraged by the 7-day “Carte-Zoom” Rover tickets. Two of the modern AMG800 units operated by the island’s railway authority stand in Bastia’s rather basic station (815/ 816 on the left and 823/ 824 on the right; each car is numbered individually, but they operate in consecutive pairs). The basic livery is grey and white with red doors, but several units carry additional vinyls. (Not to mention the considerable variety on cab-front branding, which sometimes seems to double as a means of identifying units.) The section forward of the doors is largely laid out like an auditorium, with forward-facing seats stepping gently downwards for a panoramic view through the windscreen. This is obscured by full-height frosted glass panels around the back of the cab (a relatively recent development). The units have conventional central buffers (standard for narrow-gauge) and screw-link chain couplings. Since their arrival there has been the usual embarrassing increase in passenger numbers, making it feel like a third coach would be a good idea. Still, the loadings don’t detract much from the scenery and the journey is accordingly recommended by the Compilers of the European Rail Timetable. After a rapid trot down the coast to Casamozza, through Bastia’s suburbs and alongside the main road, the line abruptly leaves the east coast (and its long-abandoned mainline) and climbs up a delightful part-wooded, part-rocky valley into the heart of the island.

Corte 1 JPG.jpgThe railway having found its way with only minor difficulty into the centre of the island, the trains, if not already packed, fill up at Corte. This is the main town for the interior, guarded by a citadel on a rock at the head of the town (seen centre). In gloomy weather Corte is not an attractive place; it is a very urbanised small town that does good impressions of a much larger one. While Bastia is laid back and Riviera, Corte has a shabbier air reminiscent of the island’s Genoese backstory. Matters are not helped by the harsh landscape above the town. In good weather it seems to have more of a rugged glow, though how much the modern flats can ever be softened is debatable.

Corte 2 JPG.jpgThe centre of Corte, with its jumble of tall, shuttered, hard-used buildings around the main square. It was a warm evening, though had come cloudy mid-afternoon. The weather can be rather changeable in the centre of Corsica (and in Corsica generally, but particularly in the centre).

Corte 3 JPG.jpgCorte station, one of the main stations on the island in terms of layout and facilities. The loop is used as a matter of course because of the basic signalling system, but relatively few trains cross here. Most prefer to do so at Venaco. Car hire is available. The line makes an easy southwards departure and then rapidly becomes more difficult to push through the hills. Ignoring the struggles of the rumbling 800s, this makes the line scenically far more interesting. Unusually (for Corsica) the station has two wide platforms facing each other, rather than one “main” platform and a narrow island between the two running lines.

Corte 4 JPG.jpgIt also has two watertowers, seen here in the distance beyond 807/ 808 waiting with a train to Bastia (the nearer tank is blue, with a concrete one beyond). Sulky mountains gaze down on the station, which has the air of having undergone a budget overhaul and then been forgotten about.

Casanova 1 JPG.jpgThis is the main road as it sails into Casanova from the south, on its way north to Corte, leaving the village of Santo Pietro de Venaco in the process. Most of Casanova is just off the main road and slightly down the hill. It is a pleasant little village which, after a brief knot by the junction, scatters on down one of the lanes that heads to the Poggio-di-Venaco promontory. 

poggio-1-jpgPoggio-di-Venaco; Poggio for short, as it sounds much friendlier (and this is the name given on the end of the station building too). A tightly-packed village, it lies on the upper ridge of a rocky outcrop with its church perched on a knoll at the west (mountain) end. Scattered around the village are some helpful bilingual signs (French and Italian) explaining the history of civilisation on this rock and passing comment on its climate (“exposed to the winds, but benefitting from exceptional levels of sunshine”).

View from Poggio 1 JPG.jpgThe outcrop gives splendid views north, south and east across the Corsican interior. This is the view northwards towards Corte. The valley is used by the Avon Tavignano, which quietly flows far below down from Corte to its mouth on the east coast near Aleria.

View from Poggio 2 JPG.jpgAnother view from Poggio, this time looking south-eastwards off the church steps as a bird flies overhead. The steps, leading up to a church perched on a rock on top of a lump on top of a narrow outcrop, can create a certain feeling of vertigo. The Tavignano works its way off under the hazy blue sky into the distance.

Poggio 2 JPG.jpgPoggio-Riventosa station, now a request stop, seen from the church steps (not a hot air balloon). To the south of the village, it is a mere 100 metres below the community it purports to serve and reached by a kilometre walk down a back road. Vehicles come down occasionally, realise there is nothing much to see, and go away. Most stations on the Corsican rail network were laid out much the same way (excluding Corte and other large places) – a two-storey house provides booking office and staff accommodation, while a few yards a way a 1¾-storey warehouse looks after the goods traffic. Loops were provided for trains to pass with a siding or two running up to the goods shed. The goods sheds had an awning on each side provided by extending the roof down away from the building. More important stations also had a water tower or two – most of these towers remain standing. Time has been unkind to Poggio’s station. The station building is abandoned (and barely secured); the goods shed has lost its awnings on both sides; the sidings have gone and the loop has been removed (although, close up, its route can just be made out). A single plain line bustles past a vague attempt to maintain a platform; the platform is hidden from view here by a tree. Riventosa is another small Corsican community, 80 metres above Poggio and a half-kilometre to the south-west.

Poggio 3 JPG.jpgPoggio station road, as train 5 growls through without stopping (there were no passengers, a usual state of affairs). The church sits high above, burnt out in the lunchtime light contrast.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 1 JPG.jpgSanto-Pietro-di-Venaco, south-west of Poggio. The village is located on a ridge of land two hundred metres above and a kilometre to the north of Venaco itself. It is seen here from the southern side, with the church tower sticking up a little on the right of the skyline.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 2 JPG.jpgSanto-Pietro centres on a little square outside its church. One road leads east, sloping down the promontory to where the main road makes a slightly lower crossing on its way north. One leads west, into the mountains. To the south is Venaco. This is the road headed north, sloping down to join the main road at Sambuco, just south of Casanova.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 4 JPG.jpgThe road to the west, scrambling on up the ridge. Woodland cloaks the lower slopes of the mountains as they rise, eventually exposed, rocky and barren, to form the flanks of Punta Lattiniccia (2,413 metres, and hidden behind its relative foothills).

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 3 JPG.jpgThe church, with its well in the right foreground, stands stark in the morning sun set against a clear sky. Behind is the peak of Pinzo Corbino, less than 300 metres above the village and about two-thirds of a kilometre away.

Venaco 3 JPG.jpgSunrise over the mountains to the east of Venaco, from a window of one of the village’s hotels. Venaco is located high up in the mountains of Corsica, roughly halfway along the railway and main road which link Bastia with Ajaccio. On the continent such a road would have been diverted at enormous expense to avoid passing through the middle of Venaco. In Corsica, it has had a couple of the nastier curves smoothed but otherwise works its way noisily up narrow streets and past the front doors of restaurants. Not that this is as bad as it sounds. There’s not that much traffic anyway. 

Venaco 6 JPG.jpgVenaco, seen from the south on a horrible morning. The area looks particularly lush; there is a passing air of the Darjeeling area of the Himalayas. A side road drops sharply down and swings below the town at lower right. The main road clambers round the hillside to the left and crosses the upper centre of the picture (below a large, prominent orange three-storey building). The railway slides through centre left. This is merely the southern flank of the southern promontory; the town continues in the dell on the other side. Santo Pietro is on the very distant ridge top right, lost in the mist.

Venaco viaduct 1 JPG.jpgThe railway has a rather awkward route into Venaco from Ajaccio and the south; after passing over a ridge of land and through the former halt at Piscine d’Venaco, it crosses a viaduct, goes through a tunnel, swings around the hillside between two roads, uses a second viaduct to pass over a gully (centre-left of previous picture), cuts into a second tunnel amongst back lanes and houses and then crosses a third viaduct before rising through a cutting to Venaco station. Such is the tight nature of the landscape that all this is over in a few seconds. Access from Bastia, Corte and the north is gained more simply by a pair of tunnels through relatively open country. Here an AMG800 pairing scuttles over the more southerly viaduct, with the site of Piscine d’Venaco just beyond the trees in the background. This viaduct crosses a small indentation in the hillside; the road goes around the inside of the indentation and passes under the railway. Behind the camera the two run briefly side-by-side; then the road climbs over the railway and the railway dives into its tunnel.

Venaco 4 JPG.jpgVenaco station. A small, agreeable place perched high on the mountainside, gazed upon by rocky summits. 824 is leading 823 in with train 4, the 08:12 from Ajaccio which reaches Venaco at 10:02 and Bastia at 11:56. An old goods van from the days when freight went by rail hides by the goods shed. Venaco’s goods shed has had its awning pruned on the platform side, though the stubs of the timbers remain. The main line, running between the side and island platforms, has been allowed to become grassy despite this being the main crossing loop. The station building doubles as the station house and is still used as a booking office.

Vivario 1 JPG.jpgAt Venaco, train 4 crosses train 3 (the 07:54 from Bastia); the latter is seen here pulling out of Vivario on its way to Ajaccio, which it will reach at 11:45. 811/ 812 were doing the honours – and very popular they were too, with the train being full and standing to extremes as it growled away from Vivario. The train helps to emphasise the multi-cultural wonders of tourism and the homogenising effect that it ultimately has on humanity. When a German tourist and a young Corsican sharing a vestibule on a Corsican train wish to discuss their favourite football team they do so in their common language which is (of course) English (as indeed was the football team). Vivario has recently been refurbished and the goods shed smartened up, with both awnings tidily removed. From Venaco the line has to climb hard to its summit at Vizzavona – Venaco is 566 metres above sea level, while Vizzavona, 13km as the crow flies, is 910. En route, it has to cross the River Vecchio at Pont du Vecchio, which obliges the line to drop from Venaco to 520m to cross Gustav Eiffel’s viaduct. This gives a little over 7km for a climb of 400m, so the line circles around Vivario to gain height. Combined with local geography, this makes for some interesting photos…

Vivario 2 JPG.jpg40 seconds after leaving Vivario station, the pair of 800s glint in the sun as they scramble up the hill opposite the station. Below is the road, which is climbing the hill in the opposite direction and passes beneath the railway by Vivario station. On the peak of the hill can just be seen the ruined castle at Pasciolo.

Vivario 3 JPG.jpgThis is Vivario station, seen from a northbound train, with the road scrambling up below (note modern platform awning and water tower)…

Vivario 4 JPG.jpgAnd this is the railway below the railway, seen through a slightly grubby window, pressing northwards into one of the route’s many tunnels on its way to Venaco. (Unlike certain Swiss railways, the Darjeeling Himalayan  and the Ffestiniog at Dduallt, the Corsican line does not do a full spiral and cross itself. The climb makes do with a 270-degree bend at its south-eastern extremity.)

Vivario 5 JPG.jpgThis is Vivario proper, not too far from the station – albeit up a busy road. A variation to the Mare Nord long-distance footpath (there are several such paths on Corsica) passes through the community. The road snakes through it eastward, rising steadily, hairpins round at the east end and comes back above it. The railway can be swinging round a curve bottom left as it heads southwards on its northerly journey towards Venaco. This twirling section of route is called the “Vivario Boucle” and takes 8 kilometres to cover a few hundred metres.

Vivario Tortoise 1 JPG.jpgThis is a tortoise, pottering through the long grass by a footpath above Vivario with its house in a tortoise-like manner. Upon finding itself observed it began to retreat inside.

Fortin de Pasciolo 1 JPG.jpgAnother view of the hill hosting the “Fortin de Pasciolo”, a now rather unimpressive square stone block not quite far enough along its promontory to offer views of Eiffel’s viaduct. To the left is the Punta Corsica (820m). Straight ahead is the Pointe de Cervello (1075m). Between us and them is the gorge of the Vecchio, finding its rocky way up to the head of the valley at Vizzavona.

Vizzavona Forest 1 JPG.jpgAnd then, after a bit of rumbling along the side of a cliff, the view disappears from the train as it rumbles into the peace of the Forest of Vizzavona. This is a large expanse of larchwood around the head of the Vecchio. The railway wanders amongst the rocks and the sweet smell of larchneedles.

Tattone 1 JPG.jpgIn the middle of this wood is the well-preserved station at Tattone. The loop is out of use, but remains in place. The siding is used for storing metre-gauge permanent way vehicles – sundry-kit-carrying wagons, ballast wagons, sleeper wagons and a diminutive metre-gauge tamper. For the railway historian, it demonstrates what the goods sheds were supposed to look like – tall thin buildings with well-balanced roofs. The station provides access to campsites and an array of footpaths amongst the mountains. There is also a “Hopital” nearby. Tattone itself is a few houses scattered on the main road, which crosses the line at the south end of the station.

Vizzavona 1 JPG.jpg Vizzavona station sits at the summit of the line and the north end of the line’s main tunnel. Maps show it as dead straight; the fact that the south portal isn’t visible from the north end likely reflects the gradient within the tunnel. 805 brings up the rear of the afternoon train to Ajaccio. Several bits of trackwork remain intact here, including a wagon turntable (left centre – too short for modern wagons to use). This is where the mainline crosses the primary Corsican long-distance path – the famous GR20. Specifically the main route of the path goes over the line a couple of hundred metres beyond the tunnel portal. Accordingly the station has something of an air of a major station on a UK heritage railway – a constant supply of people wandering around, using the restaurants and generally maintaining an air of life even when a train isn’t due for a couple of hours. Other Corsican stations have a more conventional air involving people turning up shortly before it appears. Two conventional restaurants on the building side of the line are augmented by a cheaper camping supplies shop by the campsite on the other side of the tracks. Note the ruins of the Grand Hotel de la Foret at top left.

Vizzavona Hotel 1 JPG.jpgFenced off, although not exactly inaccessible, the Grand Hotel of the Forest at Vizzavona has been derelict for a very long time now. One can only gaze on and wonder when it will fall down. Not a window frame survives; it is a mere shell perched on a little plateau, built back into the hillside, above the little bustle of the station. It was intended for British tourists who took a liking to Vizzavona and the nearby Falls. The market for luxury Mediterranean destinations for British people slid away in the ’50s and for whatever reason nobody has decided to try to revive it. Not that this building would offer much scope for modern comforts without about as much work as needed to build a new one anyway. 

Corsica Interior 1 JPG.jpg Once through the mountain at Vizzavona, the railway has a simpler descent down the valley side to sea level at Ajaccio. Along the way, it offers views out of the trees across wooded valleys and terracotta-red roofs to the high rugged peaks across the way – all with their hats on.

Corsica Interior 2 JPG.jpgAnd on into deeper wilds – the forested hills sail by as the train sweeps over embankments, across viaducts and through tunnels.

Ajaccio 2 JPG.jpgAjaccio station, at the end of the line; 824 has worked Train 3’s 3hr 51m journey across from Bastia (a little longer, journey-time-wise, than London to Berwick-upon-Tweed). The large station building, set across the platform ends, has been refurbished with a standard modern interior that could be almost any booking office on any corporate railway. The station is nicely-situated for the town centre, with easy access down the high street or a couple of back roads to the central squares and the stalls, shops and museums. Ajaccio is about two-thirds of the way down the west coast of the island; the railway goes no further. The old eastern line briefly got down to Porto Vecchio, much further down the island and almost within view of Sardinia, but this was destroyed in the fierce fighting for the island in the Second World War.

Ajaccio Petit Train 1 JPG.jpgSome Corsican towns are not wholly content with having a real railway and also have road trains, or “Petit Trains”, which drive around the backstreets carrying passengers for moderate sums. As none of the towns are that big it is nonetheless tempting to take the view that after several hours stuck in a real train (quite a busy one) it is nice to enjoy a leg stretch instead – with pauses to browse the stalls, buy lunch and try to work out if the Napoleon exhibition is open on Tuesdays.

Ajaccio Cactus 1 JPG.jpgAnd, of course, doing your own walk provides an opportunity to study things that the Petit Train will sail past or not climb up to at all, like this very happy roadside cactus plant at the top of Ajaccio.

Ajaccio 1 JPG.jpgSo Bastia is Riviera, Corte is Genoese, Vizzavona is fallen grandeur and Ajaccio…? Ajaccio has an air of a modern Med town, proud and fresh, with blocks of flats and hotels scattered along the waterfront around two-storey retaining walls or swept behind the main road across the head of the bay. The main road out of town has the relatively unusual feature of being worked around a railway. We are beyond the end of the railway here, amongst a seaside park on the west side of Ajaccio, looking through the palms at one of the modernist blocks that make up this part of town.

Venaco 7 JPG.jpgBack at Venaco at ten past 5 and fleet doyenne 801 is leading 802 out on Train 7, which will be in Ajaccio at 18:55. As well as the watertower Venaco has a subsidiary watercrane (which 801 is just passing). There also used to be an inspection pit under where 801 is passing; this has been filled in. The stationmistress/ booking clerk/ dispatcher can now turn her attention to sending 823/ 824 away northwards. 

venaco-2-jpg One of the heavily-branded units trots out of Venaco over the first viaduct south of the station, heading for Ajaccio in the early evening, with the many-channelled form of the mountains above Noceta in the background.

Venaco 5 JPG.jpgVenaco from high above, seen at dusk.

Ponte Leccia 1 JPG.jpgPonte Leccia. There is not too much in the way of large-scale community here, at the top of the valley from Casamozza, but the station is nonetheless important – for this is the start of the Calvi branch. Generally a quiet spot, it provides much opportunity for complex railway working. The branch has its own dedicated bay platform from which two trains leave daily for intermediate stations to PK79+800, Ile Rousse, Algajola and Calvi. On weekdays, one of these trains is a through service from Bastia; the other starts here. Both trains to Calvi provide connections from Bastia and Ajaccio, meaning that at 18:00 three trains can be seen lined up here (specifically trains 8 and 9 on the mainline, and the set which has come up on 102 and is returning to Calvi as 103 on the branch). The station is seen looking quiet and peaceful shortly after 09:00 one Monday morning following departure of trains to and from Ajaccio (train 2 northbound, 3 southbound). The Calvi – Bastia through service (train 100) is in residence out of view to the left, waiting for the section to Ponte Novu to clear. Train 2 was late that morning, which at least emptied out of the Calvi train all the people who decided to make the unplanned connection (into a train which then borrowed the ex-Calvi train’s path to get to Bastia). It also meant that trains 2 and 3 had met here instead of doing their booked crossing at Ponte Novu. The timetable allows train 2 to get clear of train 100 and train 3 to make a nice connection out of 100. For whatever reason the designer of the paper timetables has chosen to show Calvi and Ajaccio trains in separate tables so train 100 doesn’t show amongst the main block of services into Bastia.

Ile Rousse 1 JPG.jpg823 trails 824 as they work train 105 into Ile Rousse from Ponte Leccia (Saturday trains do not run through to Bastia). The railway swings along the waterfront of Ile Rousse (Red Isle – usually given its full name of L’Ile Rousse, incorporating a definite article, but the railway is more informal). The road runs around the inside, between railway and shops. While traffic is relatively heavy along here, it is made to look particularly heavy by the presence of a level crossing behind the tree where the road strikes out towards Ile Rousse’s headland and causeway. In the background, docked at the Port de L’Ile Rousse, is the vehicle ferry Monte D’Ord, registered in Bastia.

Ile Rousse 6 JPG.jpgIle Rousse, the first station to actually be in somewhere since Porte Leccia, has the air of returning to civilisation at long last. The remaining leg of the line, the Tramway de Balagne, to Calvi has a more homely manner than the cross-country branch, which is aided by its local service. This is a historically summer-only operation (now generally operated in winter too) that runs in addition to the two trains from Ponte Leccia and avoids requiring capital expenditure on an extra trainset by using second-hand stock displaced by the last new-train order for the rest of the network. Currently this involves power-trailer pairs of 1980s vehicles in their classic white and blue livery. Although not much smaller than the AMG800s, they have a much more diminutive appearance (and a more angular one, and lack through gangways). They feature on the cover of the Tramway’s timetable. Ile Rousse station, the eastern extremity of this service, is seen here hiding away on the far side of a car park below the town’s ramparts. Freshly painted, it keeps a well-presented aspect and is convenient for the town.

Ile Rousse 2 JPG.jpgBoules – with an air, to this non-expert, of specifically being Petanque – in Ile Rousse. This warm September Saturday was given over to the clack of balls across the town, all in nicely marked out rectangles. Boules is very popular along the north coast (less seen in the interior) and L’Ile Rousse’s main square offers plenty of room for it. The aim is to throw heavy balls at a small previously-thrown target ball. The town also has a neat covered market just off the main square and the usual array of souvenir shops.

Ile Rousse 3 JPG.jpgA batch of not very red islands off the town of Ile Rousse are now linked to the mainland by causeway, forming the port on the sheltered (eastern) side. When the sea is enjoying the aftermath of a storm-tossed night, as on this particular morning, the waves splash onto the western side of the causeway and spray across road and ferry-waiting-area hardstanding. The high rock beyond plays host to a neat, low-lying white lighthouse, accessed by a narrow road that twists up the inland side of the rock. At the top is a fresh breeze. 

Ile Rousse 4 JPG.jpgThe twirling roadway heads down from the rock. Beyond, across the rolling blue Med, are the tumbling mountains of the Corsican north coast stretching away to Algajola and Calvi.

Ile Rousse 5 JPG.jpgThe view from the train as it heads west along the Tramway de Balagne – scrub-ground, rocky headlands, hidden coves and blue sea making foam-coated landings on the shore-line.

Algajola 4 JPG.jpgAlgajola is the main intermediate settlement between Ille Rousse and Calvi. Several hotels and cafes fill the small town centre; one of these hotels has been adapted from a castle. The railway cuts across the inside of the little knob of rock that hosts the old town. More recent development has expanded up the hill behind the railway, seen here in the early hours of the morning awaiting the arrival of train 100.  The moon still peers down out of the clear blue sky onto the quiet modern houses, with their pseudo-traditional designs, balconies and blue shutters.

Algajola 5 JPG.jpgThe castle, carefully restored with a balcony disguised as battlements, perches its ramparts on the rocks of Algajola’s little headland.

Algajola 3 JPG.jpgThe weather had been relatively fierce the previous night and the Mediterranean was still breaking hard on the shore at Algajola at 10 o’clock the next morning. Most of the north coast is beachless; the scrub simply ends in yellow rocks which fall into the tideless sea.  

Punta Spano 1 JPG.jpgBetween Algajola and the outskirts of Calvi the coastal line goes through some very wild country. With the rocky shores of the Punta Spano nature reserve in the foreground, powercar 97054 propels trailer 9701 around the distant hillside on their way from Calvi to Ile Rousse. Footpaths trickle though the scrub country, dipping onto gravelly beaches and clambering over headlands towards the hamlet at Ondari.

Punta Spano 2 JPG.jpgThe Punto Spano also hosts one of Corsica’s coastal towers, which stand on the clifftop gazing out across the waves. This one grows rather neatly out of the rubbley rock of the seashore.

Corsican Renault 1 JPG.jpgA lot of pictures of the Corsican Railways feature some marvellously imposingly fat railcars with a certain air of solidity, bulk, capacity and permanence (at time of writing, the support website still opens with a picture of one). They were built by Renault rather a long time ago to replace steam traction and some rather small Billard railcars. Renault built a lot of railcars through the 1930s for railways around France which all had the semi-streamlined styling so beloved of the era, even for lumbering railcars. Despite the longevity of their train productions, Renault seem to now prefer concentrating on cars. In their later years the Corsican Renault railcars fulfilled the role of the obsolete rolling stock deployed on the Tramway while the neater, angular 1970s/ 1980s cars worked the mainline services. After the arrival of the AMG800s the 1980s vehicles took over the Tramway. The Renaults are now out of use. This is the remains of railcar 204, dumped at Camp Raffalli.

Corsican Renault 2 JPG.jpgThe engine-room end of 204, with smashed cab window. The higher roof surrounds the exhaust pipes and radiator. Behind is the two-window engine compartment. Behind the cab at the far end is luggage space. The actual passenger saloon is the five intermediate windows. For all their bulk, they are not large vehicles internally. A utilitarian interior featured five bays of small leather armchairs on a linoleum floor (4 seats to a bay; 1 bay each side; capacity 40. It seems there were another four seats tucked away somewhere). The cab interior was seemingly designed to consider any possible creature comforts and remove them. Usually the Renaults hauled a disproportionately smaller trailer car.

Calvi 1 JPG.jpgThe citadel at Calvi, high on its rock at the end of the town conveniently sheltering the bay behind. It is a marvellous citadel, much bigger on the inside than it looks like it ought to be, with a maze of streets that feel like they offer opportunities for getting lost for hours (although the constant glimpses of the sea, even from the citadel’s heart, actually make this a very difficult exercise.) Calvi claims to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (with the consequence that a man funded by Spanish monarchs but of generally Italian background is now French). The pub quiz question for Calvi is its connection to London – the answer being that both use the Cross of St George as a coat of arms.

Tennis Club (Corsica) 1 JPG.jpgOne of the Tramway trains swings out of the woods onto the beach-head to offer its passengers the view above. This is the powercar, with bodyside radiator grills; the trailer is coupled behind. Both are fitted with cabs, so the trailer will be pushed back to Ile Rousse. It will shortly stop at Tennis Club station, the second of a line of four Calvi “suburban” stations which take being named after the places they serve very seriously. (They are Club Olympique, Tennis Club, Balagne Orizontenovu and Lido.) Some enterprising person has filled the woods hereabouts with aerial ropeways, walkways and climbing frames in the general style of one of the UK’s “Go Ape” sites. Campsites dot the remaining parts of this coastline, which provides a great draw for visiting tourists with its long sandy beach.

Calvi 2 JPG.jpgTwo generations of Corsican train at Calvi – the 1980s set to the right (trailer 9701 leading) and a 21st-century machine in the main platform to the left (823 nearest with 824 beyond). The main body of the station building is fairly standard Corsica, although with an extra window bay and an awning. The more recent extension houses ticket office and toilets. The original layout featured the standard island platform and loop, although this has always been the terminus. Various remodellings fixed the bufferstops at the platform end. Prior to remodelling in 2007 there were three platform roads, with the centre track ending by a stub platform. The furthest track has now been removed, leaving two tracks between two wide platforms. 

Calvi 3 JPG.jpgCalvi from the citadel, looking down on the town. The straight road ahead leads up from the station, serving the post office, newsagents and various shops. Down by the wall is the entrance to the old lanes – Calvi’s version of York’s Shambles. A brace of tight, twisting, crowded lanes work their way along the slope above the harbour back to the station. They are agreeable lanes in themselves, though mostly populated with more touristy/ souvenir shops with several cafes. Beyond that is the marina, which is populated by expensive yachts and overlooked by restaurants. Off to the right is the residential part of town, which is pleasant enough to amble through but not overly different in concept to any other European suburban destination. Housing scatters out into the countryside to the south and leads up the foothills of Capu Miglione.

Calvi Citadel 1 JPG.jpgInside Calvi’s citadel. Tall, interestingly-shaped buildings blend with awkward staircases, military installations and crazy paving. A procession has just emerged from the Church and is making its way down to the square to find another church. Leading are four priests, who were trying to read the words of their holy dirge from a sheet of paper that was being blown about in the breeze. The active military installation occupies the tower leaning in on the left (plus associated fort buildings and a couple more towers) and comes in the form of the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Foreign Legion.

Algajola 2 JPG.jpgSunset over the beach at Algajola.

Today’s Excitement

This feels like an awful long time ago…

Don’t bash the Americans though. Most of them didn’t vote for Trump. Owing to a certain curiosity of the electoral college (which is one of the stupidly complex methods of electing a single person known to humanity), Clinton won the popular vote.

At least first-past-the-post almost invariably gives supreme British executive power to the people who won. If anyone in the States wants to consider electoral reform one day…

(It is nonetheless tempting to suggest that Clinton not saying something publicly after conceding this morning is an indication of reasons for not getting the required breadth of support to win. And it says something about the US that all it can put up for presidency is two people that everyone wanted to vote against.)

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The incident on the Croydon Tramlink this morning comes as something of a shock. For a little tram, five people is a distractingly large number of fatalities. And looking at the tram lying on its side on a shattered bend, it is hard to picture any conclusion that doesn’t say nasty things about light rail safety. (Accidents are rare. The problem for the statistics is that they should be, because trams are hardly commonplace.)

A valuable reminder – as though we ever need any – for maintaining safety on heavy rail. Touching wood as we tick towards ten years since Greyrigg…

Scrapping Eurostars

(A case-study of asset management.)

Once upon a time someone had a great idea to build a tunnel under the English Channel between somewhere near Dover and somewhere in the region of Calais. He got some engineers to design it. Then he lost the Battle of Waterloo and was sent to St Helena, which is too far from anywhere much to contemplate escape tunnels.

Several attempts followed, which were variously scuppered by the military, by the enthusiastic railway director having accidentally spent the budget on his mainline from Manchester to London and by a Government Minister who considered that his socialist principles did not allow the sponsoring of railway tunnels, being better directed at mass transport opportunities like Concorde (which was entirely coincidentally being built in his constituency).

Agreement between Britain and France was arranged in the 1980s and a railway tunnel was duly bored with strangely little involvement of any railway engineers. As a consequence the tunnels have a weight limit that requires lorry shuttle trains to have open sides, fanning fires that periodically break out on the lorries.

Although a large portion of the traffic through the Chunnel, which opened in 1994, consists of road vehicles loaded onto shuttle trains, the iconic bit of the operation is the Eurostar – the high-speed service which primarily links London with Paris and Brussels via the Tunnel. In 1997 railway scribbler Colin Garratt described it thus:

The idea that steam is exciting while modern traction is dull and lifeless is disproved forever by Eurostar. This train combines the romance of the 1930s’ streamlined era and the cutting edge of technology. London’s Waterloo station is as magnificent as its Victorian counterpart and the Channel Tunnel, within the 37.5km (24 mile) terminal-to-terminal fixed link between Folkestone and Calais, is one of the world’s greatest civil-engineering feats.

(Garratt C, The Complete Book of Locomotives (Hermes House, London) 1997, 2000, p148)

And it was quite something. 18-coach trains with massive electric powercars based on a souped-up, lengthened, slimmed down Train a Grande Vitesse could be seen hurtling through Northern France on their way to London on a new high-speed line – which French President Mitterand observed had been built to allow more time for people to enjoy the views of Kent as they toddled through on the classic South Eastern Railway. (There were also observations about the decision to use Waterloo as the London terminal. This was mostly because it is the only South London terminal that was big enough to demolish a few platforms for an international terminal without finding there was no station left – the platforms chosen were the “Windsor Line” side of the station which had always been a bit of a disconnected oddity left over from the days when Waterloo was half-a-dozen disparate stations all owned by one company and sharing a site. The observations were because the choice of Waterloo brought the French into a station which shared the name of a place in Belgium where the British last imposed a military defeat on the French. Eurostar denied the station was named after the battle. They pointed out that its full title, until the London & South Western carried out a cost-saving exercise in timetable ink, is London Waterloo Bridge. Unfortunately for this logic, the adjacent Waterloo Bridge over the Thames after which the station is named was named after the battle.)

Official photographs of the new Class 373 units under the overall roof at Waterloo International at night, with the power cars newly painted, washed and polished, presented an air of a railway heading into the future. And they did have quite magnificent noses. They went rather well with the big maroon Thalys high-speed Paris/ Brussels/ Amsterdam service, though that had the benefit of no border controls owing to all three countries being in the Schengen area.

Eurostar St Pancras 2 JPG.jpgThe Nose, some years later after a change of logo (but not livery) and London terminal. This nose belongs to the powercar of UK-funded half-set No.373012. The coupling cover (with a little extension of the coupling protruding through a hole at the bottom) makes up the bottom of the Nose, with a clean sweep back over an angry and powerful set of persplex-covered headlights. The cab window, designed to minimise problems of tunnel-vision in the Tunnel, is neatly propped up at the top on a blue racing helmet. The UK-standard yellow end emphasises the shape. An obstacle deflector adds interest at the bottom. As with TGV powercars, most of the bodyside consists of cooling grill. By this stage in their careers they needed a bit more washing.

Not everything was sunny of course. To avoid an impression that an international service from a South of London station (Waterloo) via a South of London station (Ashford) to France and Belgium was purely for London and the South East, it was agreed to provide for regional services. These can only be described as an oddity. The Government arranged for them, paid for the trains (14-car Eurostars with two standard powercars) and then left British Rail to sort out operation (fine) and a business case for that operation (but the trains had been bought on political grounds without one…). Initially BR used some Intercity 125 sets released from regular work by the early-’90s recession to work connecting trains to Waterloo from Manchester and Edinburgh instead of deploying the Regional Eurostar sets while route clearances and the business case were sorted out. These services were pick up only southbound/ set down only northbound throughout and required Eurostar tickets for travel. Suggestions that the three passengers on board these connecting trains were on staff passes have been largely refuted by claims that staff weren’t allowed to travel on them without buying some sort of ticket. After a while BR decided these empty 125s were depriving other Intercity routes of potential capacity increases and redeployed them. That was the end of the Regional Eurostar operation.

(There were various other sundry oddities created at this time such as the “Night Riviera” Penzance Sleeper being diverted to Waterloo, which persisted for some years before reverting to Paddington, and a daily “Alphaline” Express Sprinter galloping from Waterloo to West Wales, which carried on well into the 21st Century.)

Also planned was the “Nightstar” Sleeper service from Plymouth, Swansea and Edinburgh to points on the Continent. To provide this, new high-quality sleeping cars were built, which were too heavy and power-hungry to use on internal sleeper services. Generator cars were converted from conventional UK sleeping cars to provide hotel power because pairs of diesel locomotives would be unable to climb Hemerdon Bank out of Plymouth while simultaneously powering and dragging the Nightstar coaches. Class 37 diesel locomotives were converted to haul the diesel Nightstars and Class 92 electric locomotives were built to work the electric portions from Edinburgh and through the Tunnel. Then someone decided that the average Plymouth passenger would in fact rather take a budget airline to Paris and either stay there overnight or lose half the day getting to the airport, flying and allowing for the time difference. The 92s were quietly lost in a mass of paperwork owing to their complexity, the generator cars were parked at the back of a depot and forgotten about, the 37s were transferred to nuclear flask work (where they remain) and the Nightstar coaches were parked at the MoD base in Kineton, contemplated for discreet scrapping and eventually sold to Canada.

This set the scene for the fate of Sleeper trains across Europe, except the sleeping cars are simply being scrapped rather than sold to Canada – and except in the UK, where Sleeper trains enjoy great political support.

Paddington 6 JPG.jpgNight Riviera Sleeper at Paddington, preparing to depart for Penzance behind 57602 Restormel Castle. It tends to load rather well, offering a combination of a bed, late night departure and early morning arrival to provide a run with a “waking journey” time of about 15 minutes. There remains a reckoning that it isn’t worth trying to emulate its success on the Paris road.

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Meanwhile the newly privatised railway was having locomotive problems.

91101-york-jpg
The doyenne of the Class 91 fleet swings out of York station en route to Edinburgh.

The 31 6,300 horsepower Class 91 electric locomotives for the East Coast Mainline were built in 1989 for hurrying rakes of Mark 4 coaches to Edinburgh and back. 6,300 horsepower is a lot of power for a locomotive to put down through four axles (each axle gets about the same power as a 37 puts down across six axles) and the locos were therefore nicely stuffed with forward-thinking equipment and technology. By 1998 they were obsolete and failing to make the necessary availability levels to operate the full service, while their operator was struggling with rising passenger levels benefiting from a good economy and intrigued by the dark-blue luxuriously-styled Great North Eastern Railway. GNER initially responded by dragging the 1980s prototype electric locomotive, No. 89001, out of preservation; it spent 1998, some of 1999 and a couple of bits of 2000 showing off its long, drooping nose on Kings Cross – Leeds services. Between these bouts of service it demonstrated a) that it was a prototype microprocessor-driven high-powered electric loco, b) why it had remained a prototype and c) how it had ended up in preservation in the mid-90s rather than continuing to be the East Coast standby electric locomotive.

So in 2000 GNER was in urgent need of extra capacity, something to cover for 89001 being back at its builder while they tried to remember why, 14 years ago, they had built it like that and another something that would cover for the 91s going off to somebody else who could make them work properly. (The following year 89001 would become surplus when Mr Gary Hart wrote off the spare rake of Mark 4 coaches with his Land Rover and a passing coal train, thereby freeing up a 91 but straining the coaching stock situation further.) There was no intercity coaching stock worth speaking of free at the time, but Eurostar had a fleet of Regional Eurostars sitting around with no prospect of any actual regional work. The result was a logical deal – Eurostar arranged to lease two regional sets daily to GNER, who provided them with work on shorter hauls (5 trips daily, initially to York and later to Leeds). After a short while two full sets were vinyled up in GNER dark blue, in which they looked rather handsome.

Various points rapidly became apparent. A Class 373 Regional Eurostar set has two powercars in place of the single 91. Between them they generate 2½ times the power rating. This means an associated increase in power consumption. As East Coast power supplies aren’t that good, the Eurostars couldn’t run into Kings Cross in the morning peak and one northbound train started at Peterborough. They also had the equivalent of three more coaches than a 91+Mk4 set, which meant considerable platforming difficulties at Kings Cross for a net gain of 4 seats. (Or, to be fair, 558 seats over what could have been provided if they hadn’t been hired.)

There was also the usual trouble at that time of getting the Eurostars through Railtrack’s approvals system.

It was shortly after this operation began that it was decided through Paris to Edinburgh trains would never run. Soon after the Eurostar depot in Manchester, proudly branded “Eurostar habite ici” was transferred to Alstom and refurbished for use as the home for the new Virgin Pendolino fleet that was taking over the West Coast Mainline.

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The opening of two phases of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link on time, to spec and within budget (such as anyone had dared set timescales or budgets), culminating in the relaunch of the magnificently refurbished Midland Railway terminal at London St Pancras, gave an impression of a thriving Eurostar operation. It was certainly doing fairly respectably for something hidebound by border controls putting 30 minutes onto whatever journey time it could achieve and badly bashing potential for the sort of walk-up intensive business and leisure travel that sustains intensive domestic intercity services from London to Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle (all two or three trains per hour, mostly eight cars or more and generally well-loaded). If compared with the continental operations with which it tends to be more in tune, it was (and is) doing very well indeed – a broadly hourly international service with quarter-mile-long trains that load heavily.

Eurostar had also expanded the destination list, with trains to Avignon, Marseille and the Alps. They always look particularly odd in the British railway computer system, which doesn’t monitor their progress after they leave UK soil until they reach their destination.

Beneath this was a sign of hopes not fulfilled. The Regional Eurostars came off-lease from GNER in December 2005 after Virgin Cross Country released conventional, go-anywhere (albeit diesel) High Speed Trains and the Class 91 overhaul programme was very successfully completed. There was still no actual Regional Eurostar work for them in the UK and (mostly) they were incorporated into the French domestic TGV fleet. Three French Eurostars went the same way. TGV branding was applied and the yellow ends painted over in silver. This was not necessarily a long-term solution for an oversized fleet (32 full sets for an operation that would struggle, even on the most inefficient diagramming, to need more than 24 sets daily). Eurostars are hideously complicated things which until they moved from Waterloo to St Pancras in 2007 had to mix in-cab signalling and high-speed pantographs with electro-magnetic warning equipment for signals from the 1950s and third-rail shoegear required as a result of an electrification decision made by the London & South Western Railway in 1913. They remain kitted out with a mass of gubbins for conventional Belgian lines, which are not compatible with French ones. In due course SNCF began laying Eurostars up in discreet yards, hidden amongst derelict TGVs, and quietly scrapping them.

Eurostar carried out periodic interior refurbishments, but externally the fleet remained in original condition and seemed to stop coming into contact with wash plants. Winter 2010 saw a series of failures in the Chunnel brought on by snow in Northern France getting into equipment and then melting. It was vaguely reminiscent of British Rail’s “wrong kind of snow,” a reminder that National Rail hadn’t pleaded “wrong kind of snow” for some years and very badly managed. In the early 2010s an agency called “Someone” was commissioned to do some form of refurbishment design, which didn’t seem to come to much except coinciding with a redesign of the Eurostar logo from three wiggling lines to a silvery “e”. An announcement of a full refurbishment was followed by an announcement of new trains to expand the operation to Amsterdam, then an announcement of more new trains and finally news that most of the original fleet will be withdrawn and “recycled”.

A year before the recycling was officially announced Eurostar donated the powercar from Regional Eurostar half-set 373308 to the National Railway Museum. It was in strikingly good condition. It is not considered that this reflects particularly on Eurostar’s care in operating it. It more reflects on the quality of modern cocooning. Nobody can find the slightest trace of a suggestion that this powercar has ever done an inch of work in its life.

A handful of the original sets, now branded e300 after their top speed in kilometres per hour, are to be refurbished with the new Eurostar livery and interior and retained for the more exotic destinations (like Avignon and Ashford – none of the new trains are fitted with the UK Automatic Warning System magnets so they can’t currently work into Ashford station). The remainder are to be dragged to either European Metals Recycling of Kingsbury, on the outskirts of Birmingham, or to Mr Booths’s scrapyard in Rotherham near Sheffield. There they will be broken up.

Rumour, based on the schedules shown in railway systems, says that the doomed sets will run into St Pancras in passenger service, drop their final loads and be collected by a Class 66 diesel that will drag them over the chord onto the Midland Mainline and off on their final journey. This seems a trifle odd, as usually withdrawn trains are taken back to depot for tidying, removal of reusable parts and a chance to say goodbye to their classmates. It seems unfair to dump a train laden with transformer oil and full Controlled Emission Toilet tanks on a scrap merchant. But Eurostar has always been a bit of a rule unto itself.

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The sight of a load of iconicly-nosed high-speed trains being dragged away for scrap at the age of 22 raises some very puzzled expressions around UK rail. The main reflection is that they are some 18 years younger than the 1976-built diesel-powered High Speed Trains, which are currently 40 and showing no signs of stopping.

St Pancras 5 JPG.jpg A High Speed Train, formerly marketed as an Intercity 125, at St Pancras station shortly before working an evening train to Nottingham. This powercar is seen on at least its seventh livery, after several moves between routes and following a period as a battery/ hybrid testbed.

This is certainly true. It is also true that the HSTs have had a lot more mid-life overhauls than the Eurostars have had, which helps with matters such as bodywork. There is a certain element of a difference between keeping a fleet running because there doesn’t seem to be much choice and having the option of deciding to buy new. One might also just as well point out that this locomotive is over 50 years old:

Lancaster 1 JPG.jpgClass 37 No. 37409 at Lancaster, a few months over 51 years old. This is not necessarily a recommendation, handsome and friendly as she looks. Her appearance on Class 2 passenger work between Lancaster and Carlisle via Barrow-in-Furness is under duress – on both sides, it sometimes seems. A slightly more heavily refurbished batch of the same fleet was supposed to work the Nightstar services.

There is also the matter that Eurostar is a lot more bothered about being a lively public-facing operator than the average British Train Operating Company. It is busy being very keen on people viewing its trains as fresh and exciting. Going on the Eurostar is supposed to be part of the adventure. HST operators are now mostly after a competent high-mileage 125mph people-mover and tend to assume, quite rightly, that if you just tell the punters it’s a high-speed train most people will be entirely satisfied with this and neglect to associate the external slam doors with the possibility that they might have gone to the zoo on one of these things, several paint jobs and interior designs ago, in about 1978. In fact South West Trains got terribly proud ten years ago when they heavily refurbished a load of clearly obsolete non-air-conditioned galloping old suburban units and convinced most of the customers surveyed that these were new trains. On the back of this discovery, the trains’ owner is now putting them through a heavy mid-life overhaul. (Though this does raise the thought that perhaps SWT’s customers merely have lower expectations of train quality than Eurostar ones.)

Clapham Junction 2 JPG.jpgUnobservant passengers can be persuaded that this 1980s Class 455 was built ten years ago. In the background, in Southern green, is a train that was built ten years ago for comparison.

Very fast trains also have a very short shelf life. For the Eurostars this is partly being attributed to life in the Channel Tunnel, but it is a general feature of such equipment. To a certain extent train lives are perhaps better measured in miles than years – suburban tank engines pottering up and down Cornish branch lines can happily reach 90, while high-flying Japanese Shinkansen sets are built on an industrial scale and then similarly scrapped 20 years later. The original Shinkansen design, which actually tended not to get much above 130mph, causes some confusion by having run for 40 years. In fact the production line ran, on and off, for 20 years and later-built examples replaced the early-build ones.

Buying the old Eurostars for general use in the UK would be a tricky exercise. First there is the distinctive nose, which means they’re hard to pass off as anything more than cast-offs. Then there’s the time to overhaul them, by which point an operator could have bought new trains. Then there’s the power consumption, which would still be a problem for East Coast deployment. The limited supply of doors makes them unsuitable for interurban semi-fast work on Anglia, Midland and Western services, which are increasingly reliant on mass loading/ unloading in tight dwells specified 30 years ago for half the passenger numbers (even before anyone points out that the Midland won’t be electrified much before 2025, requiring reliable diesel locos to be found from somewhere and the trailers to be converted to hauled stock, and the Western is looking to be a bi-mode railway with core electrification and diesel outposts). They can’t tilt, which rules out use on the West Coast Mainline (drop the tilt requirement and the old Class 87s might as well be brought back from Bulgaria to work the service). The London & South Western is now looking at fast-accelerating high-capacity trains capable of complete unloading in about thirty seconds; Eurostars tend to take about five minutes. There is therefore no point in a concept involving re-fitting the shoegear.

That is before any discussion about power supply, gearing, bodywork condition, wiring, technology, the obsolescence of anything built in the late ’80s/ early ’90s, the possibility of removing coaches, complex discussions of pantographs and the pressure they place on the overhead wire, things like “loading gauge” and “kinetic envelope”, the general reckoning that a Regional Eurostar can’t get into Newcastle station because the North Eastern Railway made a mess of the southern approaches and put in too many corners, axle loadings on articulated bogies, lack of enthusiasm on the modern UK railway for articulation, total lack of similarity to anything else running in this country and a shortage of paths to run them in even if all the above was overcome.

The last major fleet disposal in this country was when the Southern Region electric train fleet was almost completely replaced between 2003 and 2005. This was mostly based on the rolling stock lacking structural integrity in accidents (it was also extremely old, but the main concern was safety). Since then rail vehicle scrapping has amounted to some Manchester trams, a load of old coal wagons, a few diesel and electric locos (very few), a handful of coaches and the Metropolitan and Circle Line trains. This means that there is not much familiarity amongst followers of UK rail these days with the idea of scrapping stuff. Everything is recycled by moving it around the network. There is suddenly a need to come to terms with the possibility that heavy rail trains are mortal for reasons other than terrible crashworthiness – something which the UK rail fleet owners’ accountants will also have to come to terms with shortly after a long period of pleasant serenity.

Eurostar have the option of refurbishing an obsolete 22-year-old ’90s-electronics train built to fit through small Southern Region bridges or buying a gleaming new thing with modern equipment, distributed power (no more powercars), standardisation with other new train fleets, a fleet size matching requirements and a bodyshell that won’t fit through Southern Region bridges because it’s to the European standard size. There isn’t really much argument in the matter.

e320-st-pancras-1-jpg New Eurostar No.374010 at St Pancras with a train from Paris Gare du Nord.

Class 374 interior.jpgInside a 374, with its high cloth seats, leather headrests and tables of a design unfamiliar to UK travellers. It’s an odd opportunity to consider interior design – the big white bodyshell should feel spacious, but the high seats with very few tables make it feel crowded.

HST interior (EMT) 1 JPG.jpgA UK loading-gauge HST coach operated by East Midlands Trains for comparison. The higher windows relative to the seat tops may help, as may the scarlet rather than black seat materials.

It is a pity that the new train, branded as the e320, is not really that great. Internally, it feels more cramped than its predecessor despite the bigger body. The old Eurostars are articulated, so the wheels are under the gangways. This is supposed to marginally improve the ride over wheels mounted under the bodyshell. But it shouldn’t have the difference it has between the old and new Eurostar fleets. The new design “hunts” (swaying from side to side on the rail) something awful, has a very heavy feel to its ride and frequently “bottoms out” on its suspension. It is nothing compared to the cheap and nasty suspension of a British Sprinter diesel unit, which gallops along with an easy, lightweight feel.

Eurostar Calais 1 JPG.jpgA Eurostar slides out of Calais station. Note the articulated bogies beneath the gangways. The centre vehicle is the buffet car with head-height windows.

One feels the e320 should be better, being the latest version of the German Intercity Express Train. Most ICEs are very spacious inside. The ride may of course be partly rail profile. Some years ago Siemens (who built the e320s) entered the UK rail market with an electric train for the London & South Western which believed that a 750v third rail was supplied with 750v and got very puzzled on meeting L&SWR substations (which will supply many voltages and assume trains running in the peaks, busy areas or longer isolated bits don’t expect 750v). The e320 may be similarly ill-equipped for reality of non-German railways.

But being the latest ICE, it has the latest ICE nose – not a very handsome one. Eurostar is has lost its distinctive face. If there’s one thing that feels odder than the Eurostar nose lying gas-axed in a muddy scrapyard, it’s the idea that the distinctive British very-high-speed train could be met somewhere else with someone else’s paint…

ice-hamburg-1-jpg Same design, with minor changes – as an ICE at Cologne.

___…___

Eurostar St Pancras 1 JPG.jpgThe spare – powercar 3999, deployed in place of the set’s unavailable usual powercar. Suggestions appear in odd places that rides can be had behind it wholly unknowing because it takes the identity of the powercar it replaces. On this 2015 evening it was very definitely running as the spare. Its medium-term fate is unclear. In a strange irony, it is probably safe until the final Class 373 works its last.

European Train Punctuality

I have been on holiday again, visiting Corsica.

As a consequence I have been spending a lot of time on European rail services getting there and back. Some punctuality statistics generated in the process are listed below.

As is often requested, punctuality is here listed as “right time means right time”. It is based on my journey (not the train’s, so whether I got to my destination at booked time not whether the train finished its journey when it was supposed to) but is also by individual train leg (so if I did a journey on two trains both of which were 15 minutes late that shows as 30 minutes delay).

Other general explanation:

  • Trains: number of trains used
  • Time spent: time spent on those trains (roughly)
  • Total minutes delay: total number of minutes late that I was deposited at each station where I got off the train (fairly accurately)
  • Minutes per hour: Rough calculation of minutes delay divided by number of hours.
  • Length of hour: Time that trains therefore took on average to cover an hour of timetabled journey.

City Metro trains omitted because they ignore their timetables too much to be assessed.

Britain

  • Trains: 6
  • Time spent: 6 hours
  • Total minutes delay: 7
  • Minutes per hour: 1m 10s
  • Length of hour: 61m

Eurostar

  • Trains: 2
  • Time spent: 5 hours
  • Total minutes delay: 12
  • Minutes per hour: 2m 15s
  • Length of hour: 62m

France (excluding Corsica)

  • Trains: 5
  • Time spent: 9½ hours
  • Total minutes delay: 30
  • Minutes per hour: 3m 10s
  • Length of hour: 63m

Italy

  • Trains: 7
  • Time spent: 10 hours
  • Total minutes delay: 15
  • Minutes per hour: 1m 30s
  • Length of hour: 61½m

Corsica

  • Trains: 17
  • Time spent: 15 hours
  • Total minutes delay: 60
  • Minutes per hour: 4m
  • Length of hour: 64m

France (including Corsica, for interest)

  • Trains: 23
  • Time spent: 24½ hours
  • Total minutes delay: 90
  • Minutes per hour: 3m 40s
  • Length of hour: 63½m

Switzerland

  • Trains: 4
  • Time spent: 4½ hours
  • Total minutes delay: 8
  • Minutes per hour: 1m 45s
  • Length of hour: 61½m

Total

  • Trains: 41
  • Time spent: 50 hours
  • Total minutes delay: 132
  • Minutes per hour: 2m 40s
  • Length of hour: 62½m

Total (excluding Corsica, for interest)

  • Trains: 24
  • Time spent: 35 hours
  • Total minutes delay: 72
  • Minutes per hour: 2m
  • Length of hour: 62m

So Britain is most punctual, followed by Italy, Switzerland, Eurostar and France (with or without Corsica).

It may be worth noting that Britain, France and Italy are good at providing train running information at all stations – both with on-platform screens and also concourse/ on platform full station departure boards. The Swiss are not in the same league; at Bellinzona there was no full station live departure board (just the daily departures sheet and the individual platform screens) while at intermediate stops up the Gotthard Pass there was nothing at all. If a train was late – and as often as not they were – there was no indication as to how long you might be there. Swiss platform screens also, very distractingly and seemingly now uniquely, do not show the full calling pattern but merely selected highlights. As a consequence it’s helpful to know where your train is going and where else it might be stopping. By contrast, Italian full-station departure boards, proudly displayed over booking-office windows, have the full calling pattern scrolling across.

Corsica had no platform indications at all, and passengers were expected to know where to go. This is not entirely unreasonable for a ramshackle narrow-gauge network, but as it is clearly trying not to be ramshackle (and in fact was loading very well with people who probably count as “normal”) some sort of move towards centralised control, effective train running information and late 19th-century single-line working (as opposed to what looked like a combination of a very basic signalling structure plus crossing orders) would not be unreasonable. (At least provide a few Help Points at key stations to indicate how trains were running at the last crossing point.)

help-point-1-jpgA Great Western small station help point. Marvellous invention and a very helpful investment, even at stations with only one platform and no “reporting points” for a few miles.

The French, British and largely Swiss did station announcements in one language; the Italians are bi-lingual Italian and English. The English announcements are a bit odd as the station names have only been recorded in Italian so automated announcements keep dropping from Received Pronunciation English into sharp, tuneful Italian for “Pisa Centrale”.

No connections were missed (one was held for the two-dozen of us making it) and all destinations were reached either about when the railway said it would get me there or (in three cases) without such delay as caused any inconvenience to onward connections. The connection-making was despite me having heavy luggage and not padding journeys, so overall everything went very well and I was impressed.

Voyaging to central Corsica from southern England entirely by rail, except for 8 hours of sea-crossing, very much brings home that the railways are an international network. There is a lot of inter-reliance and a great deal of potential to import delays. On that basis, wanting to allow 62½ minutes for every advertised scheduled hour (which for 50 hours travelling I think starts to become a statistically acceptable figure) is really not that bad. (In practice it does not mean that passengers should tell their friends to meet them 25 minutes after the timetable says they will arrive at the end of a 10-hour journey. It does however mean that making a 5-minute connection into the last train of the night after a 10-hour journey might be considered statistically inadvisable and if it is possible to target the penultimate train instead this will provide a nice little buffer. If of course the only way to make the journey is to do the 5-minute connection and otherwise you’re booking a hotel ten miles from your destination then punt on it. You’ll probably make it most of the time.)

The major delays were:

  • French TGVs delayed in the Avignon area (the one I was on by 15 minutes and the one I connected into at Marseille by the same, presumably due to being a following train);
  • Delays on the single-line sections between Ventimiglia and Genoa (the only Italian train I had running late, and if we went by double-line trains only Italy would have a clean record);
  • Something which knocked back the early morning Ajaccio to Bastia train on Corsica by half an hour;
  • For completeness, four minutes of the seven in the UK were waiting to follow a delayed train off the single line from Kings Lynn.

So across Europe single lines exacerbate delays – breaking news….

St Pancras 4 JPG.jpgEurostar at St Pancras (half-set 373012).

Livorno 1 JPG.jpgPunctual Trenitalia service en route to Roma Termini, seen gliding into Livorno Centrale.

Nice Ville 1 JPG.jpgNice Ville, with a French regional train in residence. Behind is the whacking great concrete flyover of the coast road which sails lightly over rooftops and the east end station throat.

Basel 1 JPG.jpgSwiss regional train at Basel, on a 9-minute turnaround at the end of a roughly 4-hour journey (it had arrived at 11:55; the turnaround included detaching the loco that had brought it in from Luzern and attaching the loco to take it back). As well as Olten, Luzern, Arth-Goldau and Bellinzona it would also call at Schwyz, Brunnen, Flüelen, Erstfeld, Göschenen, Airolo, Faido, Biasca and Cadenazzo. In other countries (excepting the UK, where the full calling pattern would invariably be displayed) the full train number (IR2323) would be shown and provide some reassurance that this is not actually an express omitting the Gottardbahn intermediate calls, but the Swiss screens only show that it’s an interregional. Its inward working had been 10 minutes late at Airolo, but judicious timetable padding had recovered the lot by departure from Luzern.

Venaco 1 JPG.jpgCorsican train at Venaco, an intermediate station high in the central mountains where most trains cross services heading in the opposite direction. The modern trains are sleek things with internal passenger information screens and push-buttons for request stops, which contrasts somewhat with the lack of running information at stations (and, at Venaco, the tasteful abandonment of a handsome goods van by the old goods shed at right). The view from Venaco station is generally quite something, but this was a gloomy morning where the mist was rolling in from the coast. A few minutes later the late-running northbound train growled out of the murk into the nearer platform.

Venaco 2 JPG.jpgAnother Venaco picture to round the post off – an Ajaccio-bound train, with its big picture windows, glides out of the station with some of Corsica’s striking mountains beyond.

 

Pedantry

Last year I was wandering around Hanborough (for Blenheim) admiring the grave of Sir Winston Churchill and puzzling at the lack of senior politicians also braving the chill to appear on television for the 50th anniversary of his death.

Anyway, some of these politicians eventually appeared and on Hanborough station this very discrete little plaque also duly appeared:

Hanborough 2 JPGA pleasing gesture, and it took me a couple of readings to start wondering where they got the number 613443 from – locomotives do not usually have six digit numbers. It probably belongs to a wagon of some description.

The question intrigued me slightly, since bungling the number of a large Bulleid “Light Pacific” involves as much effort as bothering to type “winston churchill loco” into a search engine. Researchers may be forgiven for then managing to get it into their heads that the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway used to run to Hanborough and bunging the number “9” onto their plaque. Other researchers who try really hard might stretch to “number 87019” (which wasn’t built for another nine years). However, along with a few pictures of an American-looking red engine and a big steel box with a slightly bemused expression, the typing course of action will produce several hundred pictures of a large, fat and not particularly light-looking creature like this:

Wadebridge at Bodmin 1 JPG(This Light Pacific prefers to go by the name of Wadebridge and is a “West Country” Light Pacific rather than a “Battle of Britain” Light Pacific. However, Wadebridge can also be found enjoying herself going chuff and blowing copious amounts of steam around in the open air, whereas Winston Churchill was robbed of some miscellaneous parts many years ago and hasn’t steamed since.)

Anyway, this post has been precipitated by the fact that someone who has not given up on railway pedantry yet (beyond periodic mutterings of “railway station”) appears to have pointed out the glitch to the “people of West Oxfordshire” and these people have in turn precipitated a fun game of “Spot the Difference” by replacing the plaque:

Hanborough 3 JPG.jpg

Yes – there is a second difference, but not alas involving correcting the comma usage…

(No doubt better-qualified pedants could point out that that last sentence, or indeed this sentence, shouldn’t have had a comma before the “but”, but I think we can all agree that “having departed from London Waterloo station” is what we might call a “bracketed phrase” rather than part of a list and should therefore feature a second comma between the “station” and the “and” in order to flow properly.)

This post is not in any way intended to cast any aspersions on the memory of Winston Churchill – merely upon those who put loco numbers on plaques without bothering to look them up first. If too unimportant to check, omit…