Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Crying Into Your Ten Gallon Hat

So Mr Anschutz’s efforts down on the ranch failed to secure him the prize in the biggest government raffle since 3G. Long as the post mortem of that decision will undoubtedly be, there are a couple of points I suspect will be found missing in the traditional media.

First, of the sites involved, ask yourself this question; which site most benefits the Labour Party at large? After all, Labour’s record of abject failure in most services (pretty much the worst schools and hospitals anywhere in the country) is only defended electorally by the big ticket items in Manchester’s regeneration; without the Commonwealth Games and the new buildings in the City Centre, the Liberal Democrats would be running Manchester by now. Is there anywhere else to which the award of the super-casino is so crucial to Labour’s electoral fortunes?

Second, consider the amount of the press coverage of the award that focused on Beswick Shopping Centre and the sprawl of maisonettes that surround it. Having been a regular user of the Asda store across the road from the super-casino site, it’s an area I know rather well. Today the story was all about the terrible deprivation in East Manchester and the contribution the super-casino will make to its regeneration.

Which is odd, because up to now the only story that has Manchester and regeneration in the same sentence has been the one about the dynamic, thrusting success of everything that’s happened since the bomb. What’s more, I’m fairly sure that in a few months time, that will still be the only story with Manchester and regeneration in it. The bit in the middle will, I’m sure, be conveniently forgotten…

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How To Dismantle A Good Idea

Last, but by no means least in our brief tour of the madness of the railway network is the case study closest to my heart, inasmuch as it’s the case study from my own home town. Gloucester, for the unbelievably large population who don’t know where it is, lies between Bristol and Birmingham at the lowest bridging point of the River Severn. In railway terms, it is the location of the triangular junction of the Bristol-Birmingham and Cardiff-Birmingham lines, so theoretically a significant strategic spot.

The fly in the ointment is that Gloucester’s station sits at exactly the wrong point on the junction, specifically on the Cardiff apex of the triangle. Bristol-Birmingham trains therefore have to reverse directions to serve the city, adding a good ten minutes to journey times. Once upon a time this didn’t matter, but in the privatised world where punctuality at any cost is key, it is crucial.

Virgin Cross-Country stopped serving the city around the turn of the Millennium, claiming that Cheltenham (six miles and ten minutes up the road) could adequately serve the whole area. Political and business leaders immediately decried the move and called for a new station that could properly accommodate Bristol-Birmingham trains.

The popular choice for a site is the junction itself. A massive area of waste ground, the Barton Triangle has seen redevelopments come and go for years, with IKEA and Gloucester Rugby Club being two of the more recent candidates. The only concrete change in the last quarter-century, however, was the construction of the inner ring road in the late 1980’s, running right across the triangle and linking the city centre and the eastern suburbs. With that in place, the Birmingham apex of the triangle became a proper contender for a new station, being on a major bus route with plenty of space for parking and only ten minutes walk from the original station.

The alternative is to use a greenfield site north of the triangle towards Birmingham. The site of choice for such a station is Elmbridge Court, which consists of an old DEFRA office site and some surrounding farmland (at least theoretically). However, given the size of the Barton Triangle site and its road connections, there might seem to be little advantage to shipping the whole kit and caboodle a couple of miles out of town.

What you actually get is a bizarre and unholy alliance of special interests;

  • The train operator, Virgin Cross Country, want Elmbridge Court as it would be close enough to Cheltenham to allow them to swop their existing Cheltenham services to Gloucester and thus not interfere with the Bristol-Birmingham timings.
  • The bus operator, Stagecoach, want to use the Elmbridge Court site to boost their express Gloucester-Cheltenham bus service (Barton Triangle would be served by a different service and would only gain traffic from the Gloucester end)
  • Network Rail want the Elmbridge Court site as it would be cheaper for them (requiring two platforms rather than four and simpler signalling)

But the real villain of the piece are the group who should exist to navigate their way through all these petty concerns to the advantage of the people of Gloucester; namely, the city and county councils. To explain, notice that when I mentioned the DEFRA offices at Elmbridge Court, I did so theoretically; the plan presented recently does not use that site at all and is entirely greenfield.

The point is, for a railway station such an infringement of green belt can be justified, but for a shop it never could be. So if you can get the station built on that site, you leave the brownfield sites where you can have shops for shops. Never mind that Barton Triangle is a better site for a station and would free up the existing station site for some redevelopment, never mind that Gloucester has a number of large-scale brownfield sites that have seen plan after plan fail for a good quarter-century, if we can blow a greenfield site in order to have more sites…

I’d come up with a “clever” ending at this point, but the will has run out…

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Two Thousand Metres Of Lake

It would be nice to think that any level of individual or collective incompetence on the part of the Tocs, Roscos and Briscos (as the jargon describes the thirty-plus companies that make up our railways) could be overcome by the various quangos, and indeed gos, that have responsibilities in this field. Would that wishes were horses…

Take for example the old Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge, a line that already figures heavily in the history of Britain’s railways for the sheer boneheadedness of its closure. Admittedly in 1967 the intermediate towns it served were rather small, but in the very same year plans were announced to incorporate one of these, Bletchley, into part of a slightly larger settlement by the name of Milton Keynes

Indeed, forty years on the line runs right down the middle of a major growth region whose internal road links are poor. As well as the benefits to the development of the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc, the line would provide a strategic bypass for London itself; the line has junctions with the West Anglia Main Line, East Coast Main Line, Midland Main Line, West Coast Main Line, Chiltern Main Line and Cherwell Valley Line (or to put it another, is connected to Liverpool Street, King’s Cross, St. Pancras, Euston, Marylebone and Paddington), allowing many journeys that currently go through London to instead skirt around it.

Of course, after forty years there are some issues to be sorted out before the line can be reinstated…

  • CambridgeSandy: This is the most difficult section from an engineering standpoint, not least because two housing estates and a number of radio telescopes occupy sections of the original line. A new route to bypass the obstructions is feasible, however and trains could be rerouted down ECML via Letchworth as an alternative.
  • SandyBedford: The trackbed here is in some state of disrepair but could be reinstated largely on the original alignment.
  • Bedford – Bletchley: This section of the line remains fully in operation, albeit single-tracked. The extension east would pose some problems in Bedford (in that it cannot serve Bedford Station itself and would require Bedford St Johns Station to be relocated) but the majority of the section is up-and-running anyway and would only need to be dualled.
  • Bletchley – Bicester: At Bletchley, a new high-level platform would be required to allow through trains to stop, but the line continues on for a time as freight and the trackbed remains in situ onwards to Claydon Junction, from where a freight line links the Chiltern Main Line to Bicester
  • Bicester – Oxford: Originally closed, this short section was reinstated in 1987 and is fully operational.

So all it requires is a bit of money and some elbow-grease? Hardly. For all this forgets the enormous range of political issues involved;

  • Using ECML as a bypass for the CambridgeSandy section would mess up GNER’s precious timetables, and in any case the existence of such a strategic link would likely require some of their trains to make an additional stop at Sandy for connections.
  • Chiltern Railways are already creeping their line northwards from Aylesbury towards its former junction with the Varsity Line. If that line were reinstated, they could run through from Aylesbury to Bletchley and steal some local business from Silverlink.
  • Similarly, passenger reinstatement of the freight line from Claydon Junction to Bicester would provide a route for Chiltern through to Oxford, stealing business from First Great Western.

Nevertheless, given the number of interested governmental parties both along the route and beyond, one might expect a united front to bring down such petty concerns in the interest of passengers. But then, I’ve not reached the real anecdote yet.

For that, we must look to the 2012 Olympics. Faced with the prospect of government funds being sucked away to the smoke, London’s outliers are now faced with a mad scramble for scraps from the top table. To this end, Bedford is putting together a bid to serve as a host town for training camps and the like. Inspired by that bid, a group of private investors assembled a proposal for a rowing lake at a new gravel quarry east of the town. This was enthusiastically taken up by Bedfordshire County Council and planning permission was granted in May.

Which is fine, except that the lake will cut straight across the existing trackbed, creating a 2km long obstruction that is essentially unbridgeable. This development of course appalled the campaign organisation set up to promote the Varsity Line and its members, particularly Bedfordshire County Council…

Joined-up (n.) form of thinking characterised by strategic concerns; prob. mythical

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Limits Of Creeping Shinyness

Our second railway case study takes us to the riverside cathedral city of Worcester. It might seem odd to consider a city with two central railway stations to be underserved, but a brief analysis of the topology of things shows a fundamental problem. The mainline (in this case the Bristol-Birmingham line) runs some miles to the east of the city, leaving the primary station, Shrub Hill, isolated on a slow loop line. Furthermore, Shrub Hill is within the city limits but is not exactly central; Foregate Street is better located, but services from Birmingham have to reverse out of Shrub Hill to call at both.

The service that really suffers from Shrub Hill’s location is, however, the Hereford-Worcester-Oxford line. This route could be a significant strategic link, providing the fast route to Oxford from Bristol and Cardiff, except that with the lack of fast trains to Worcester it requires a double change and such passengers are better off using the Birmingham-Reading line. With no long-distance passengers at the Worcester end, the Oxford-Worcester leg operates as a local stopping service, albeit one that extends thereafter to London.

But what makes all this a case study? Well, the Worcester-Oxford line crosses over the Birmingham-Bristol to the south-east of the city. It’s some way out, but no more so than somewhere like Tiverton Parkway and on a greenfield site with no real space restrictions. With a station here you could;

  • Restore Cross-Country services running fast to Birmingham, Bristol and destinations nationally
  • Restore direct semi-fast services to Derby, Nottingham, Newport and Cardiff
  • Institute true fast and semi-fast services calling at Hereford, Ledbury, Great Malvern, Worcester Foregate Street, Worcester Parkway, Pershore, Evesham, Moreton-in-Marsh, Oxford and stations to London
  • Institute a dedicated local service from Oxford to Worcester Foregate Street, giving a minimum half-hourly Park & Ride service for Worcester likely supplemented by local buses.
  • Close Shrub Hill and reduce journey times from Worcester Foregate Street to Birmingham

The only real drawback is that there would be a slight (no more than five minutes) increase in journey times for the express and semi-fast services that would have an additional stop due to the new station. And therein lies the problem; somewhere along the line, particularly in the case of Virgin Cross Country, the fundamental measure of quality became the delivery of particular journey times between the top-level settlements with no reference to what lies between them. In places like Stafford, this only manifests itself in trains stupidly passing through at low speed. In Worcester, where provision of an extra stop for the express is the prerequisite for everything else, the result is disastrous.

Service (n.) The fulfilment of arbitrary statistical measures established by a London-based regulator