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Monday, July 14, 2014

North of the Border

I recently made a day trip to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland and one of Europe's great cities. There is so much to see, including one of Britain's largest railway stations: Waverley.

Edinburgh / Edinbourg

Waverley has 20 platforms and trains are always moving. The station is right in the middle of the city and there are good views from vantage points above each end of the station, offering the chance for good views of the railway flanked by the city skyline.

Scotland is different from the rest of the UK in that almost all of its rail service falls under one franchise: First ScotRail. Apart from trains running into England, everything is operated by "Scotland's Railway." In truth, it is just like any other privatized franchise, but it feels like a part of the growing feeling of Scottish distinctiveness, as seen with the newly-formed Police Scotland or the unique Scottish NHS and university funding systems.

Nobody has really talked about what might happen to the rail network should Scotland vote for independence. With most services under one franchise, a split would be relatively straightforward. Cross-border trains would be a different matter.

If mainline railways don't take your fancy, Edinburgh now boasts a tram system as well. While the cost went well over-budget took much more time than expected (and ended up with a much smaller network than planned), I saw many people waiting to board airport-bound trams along Princes Street.

Princes Street Tram / Tramway de la rue Princes

I'm not sure how successful the tram system will be in the long-run. Even if Princes Street is largely reserved for public transport already, the trams are struggling to find room with all the buses, meaning that the system often runs late. Hopefully, planners will be able to find a way to speed things up.

Edinburgh is an interesting place to visit, with interesting places to walk and lots of free museums to enjoy. I hope to return in the future and explore more of the land north of the border.

Thank you East Coast!

Britain's railway gets a lot of bad press. Unfortunately, a lot of it is deserved. To counter this, here is a good news story.

This past weekend, York station was jammed with tourists, ordinary passengers, race-goers and trainspotters. On such busy days, police and security impose a lock-down of sorts, with ticket checks to help regulate the flow of people through the station. I've rarely seen the station so busy, and the smell of alcohol hung in the air. In this atmosphere, I wasn't sure if I would be able to access the platforms for some rail photography.

East Coast came to the rescue, as is outlined in this thank-you note I recently sent them:

"I wanted to thank East Coast for providing platform tickets so that non-travelling members of the public could access York station yesterday.

York has been especially busy with tourists and race-goers over the past few days and, with many people arriving by train, police and security have been operating ticket checks to control the flow of people through the station.

However, York station is also a popular destination for railway enthusiasts, including those who live in York (myself included) and did not have a ticket to travel. Since I didn't have a ticket to access the platforms yesterday, an East Coast employee kindly provided me with a platform ticket, which allowed me to spend several hours with my fellow enthusiasts on the station.

While issuing platform tickets is an ATOC requirement, I have been laughed off station platforms and refused entry before for requesting one (not at York or any other East Coast station, I hasten to add).

I really appreciate that the staff at York station took the time to offer platform tickets yesterday. It demonstrates their commitment not just to their passengers, but also to enthusiasts and to the wider public who wished to access the station.

Thank you for being so thoughtful, it is really appreciated."

Thank you again for a very sensible approach to a busy station. Railway stations have long been an important social space. I'm glad that East Coast continue to recognize this.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

ONTC workers still wondering about their future

When the Ontario government announced the sale of Ontera to Bell Aliant, the ONTC unions wondered how may jobs would be affected by the move. However, initial estimates showed few job losses, at least in the long-term.

Yesterday, it was announced that 66 jobs would be lost over the next two years, a move which will dramatically reduce Ontera's workforce. The announcement, coupled with dwindling work for the ONTC's refurbishment division, calls into question the government's commitment to the ONTC. Further, despite championing the transformation of the ONTC, the government has not clearly set out what the future ONTC might look like. The uncertainty continues.

ONTC workers still wondering about their future | North Bay Nugget

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Down to Dawlish in a Day

As the current chapter in my studies draws to a close, so does my time in England. While my feelings about leaving this island are mixed, I will certainly miss the railway network and the ability to travel virtually anywhere by train. In between days of packing, I was able to fit in a trip to a popular trainspotting location that I hadn't managed to visit before: Dawlish.

Dawlish is an incredibly photogenic part of Brunel's great seawall stretch of what would eventually become the Great Western Railway. Rather than blast a route through the Devon cliffs, Brunel built his railway right on the edge of the sea. While the result is one of the most spectacular stretches of railway anywhere in the world, it is a constant maintenance nightmare. This past February, severe winter storms battered the Devon coast and the powerful waves broke through a short stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish. The power of the stormy seas quickly eroded the railway line, leaving the track dangling in mid-air. The damage closed the railway line (the only rail connection into south Cornwall) for several months while work crews rebuilt the wall, stabilized the land and repaired the track. With the line safely reopened, I wanted to see it before the weather did any more damage.

Devon Coast
A First Great Western HST slows for a stop at Dawlish. The colourful portion of sea wall in the middle-distance is where construction crews continue to shore up the damaged section from the winter's storms.

Trying to do Dawlish as a day trip from York is ambitious, but doable. Leaving York at around 7:30 in the morning, I changed trains in Birmingham and I alighted on the platform in Dawlish at around 12:30, giving me a good amount of time to walk along the sea wall and see the town. Construction work on the wall continues and a substantial portion of the wall remains off-limits to the public. Each end of the damaged section is protected by a security guard, who must have the cushiest job in security: sitting beside the sunny Devon coast all day long.

I walked back towards the neighbouring town of Dawlish Warren, taking photos as the trains passed me. The sea wall stretch has not yet succumbed to the ubiquitous metal security fencing which lines most of the British railway network. Instead, walkers find the sea on their one side and a low wall (only just taller than knee-height) separating them from the 75 mph mainline on the other. It is an experience every railway fan should try! I wandered back to Dawlish and them climbed up the cliffs to shoot the quintessential Dawlish scene with the town serving as a backdrop for the railway line gently curving around the coast. Having completed my photo checklist, I spent a few minutes wandering around the town itself.

Dawlish, railway and sea.

To be honest, I didn't think much of Dawlish as a town. While its railway is truly special, Dawlish felt like any retirement community. Maybe if I had had more time to explore it properly, I would have enjoyed it more.

Most trains during the afternoon had been running late, so I opted to catch a slightly earlier train back to Exeter St. Davids, where I would catch my train back to York (or at least the stretch as far as Leeds). Reassured that I would make my connection, I had some time to explore Exeter's main station. I have been used to northern stations for much of my time in England, so I enjoyed examining the GWR station's architecture and enjoying the cream and green colour scheme of the footbridge and trim. Exeter St. Davids is one of the most important stations in the southwest, but it feels like a quiet backwater. At the north end of the station is a level crossing, with cars and pedestrians being safely guided across the tracks by the crossing attendant. I can't imagine such an arrangement on the East or West Coast mainlines.

Exeter St. Davids
Crew change at Exeter St. Davids.

I caught my train to Leeds and enjoyed green and lush countryside speeding by outside the coach window. The long hours of summer daylight allowed me to enjoy the view until north of Birmingham, when the sun finally set after what had been a dry and sunny day.

I changed trains at Leeds (the messiest train I had ever seen, someone had poured styrofoam pellets all over the seats) and eventually arrived back in York just after midnight. I was tired, but happy, after a day exploring one of the most spectacular railway vistas the world has to offer.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Why Open Access Operators Matter

I recently had a lovely day trip to Robin Hood's Bay and Whitby. Having never travelled the Esk Valley line, I took the train from Whitby back to York, via Middlesbrough. I actually changed trains twice, once in Middlesbrough and then again at Eaglescliffe a few minutes later. From there, I took the Grand Central service to York.

43467 Pan
A Grand Central HST at York

So what? Grand Central have been around for years now and I have ridden them before. However, it suddenly dawned on me, while standing on the bleak Eaglescliffe platform, how crucial Grand Central is to the town. The key is that Grand Central is an Open Access Operator.

When Britain's railway network was carved up in the 1990s, the network was divided up into franchises, with each franchise comprising specific routes, (leased) rolling stock, station management and staffing. Naturally, operators favour stopping at their own stations, meaning that out-of-the-way places, such as the North East, often get overlooked.

Here is an example. While many different operators stop at York, it falls under the East Coast franchise: all the signs, station management and staff are East Coast. Virtually all East Coast trains north of Doncaster stop at York. However, Eaglescliffe isn't on East Coast's patch and so passengers need to change at York or Darlington in order to get to London.

Grand Central, on the other hand, has no stations or station staff, only trains and on-board crew. They fill in routes where they see gaps. As a result, Eaglescliffe, a relatively insignificant stop on the way to Middlesbrough, now has direct trains to London King's Cross. No need to change anymore. Not only is this convenient, but it also helps to attract business to the area because easy transport links are attractive. Grand Central has also brought this benefit to other places, such as Bradford, Sunderland and Pontefract.

Grand Central isn't alone. Hull Trains brought direct trains to the port city before East Coast finally began offering a few services. Some of the services to Heathrow Airport are also open access, as is Eurostar.

All of these operators are underdogs in the fight for space on the congested network, but their success shows that certain routes are often overlooked when the big franchises are planned out. Sometimes, taking a chance and running a train is the only way to find out whether a route will work or not. So far, Grand Central has shown that if you build it, they will come.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Steam at Whitby

Steam at Whitby / De la vapeur à Whitby

It's not every day that you see a steam locomotive in Whitby (Ontario, that is). In fact, it has been over a decade since the last steam train passed through the town.

Of course, residents of Whitby (Yorkshire) can see the North Yorkshire Moors Railway's "Yorkshire Coast Express" on most days during the summer months, such as this sunny 30 June 2014 afternoon.

Une locomotive à vapeur est rare à Whitby (Ontario). En fait, ça fait plus qu'une décennie depuis que le dernier train à vapeur a passé la ville.

Par contre, les résidents de Whitby (Yorkshire) peuvent voir le "Yorkshire Coast Express" du North Yorkshire Moors Railway presque chaque jour pendant l'été, comme cette après-midi ensoleillée du 30 juin 2014.