Category Archives: Transport

Over the Sea to Skye

Once upon a time there were three ferry routes to Skye. The ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh, which has now been superseded by the Skye Bridge, and the longer ferry route from Mallaig exist largely thanks to the railways – the ferry route from Glenelg is a bit different – and much, much older.

Glenelg sits across a stretch of water called the Kyle Rhea narrows, the narrowest stretch of sea between Skye and the mainland, historically it was the point where routinely cattle raised on the island were made to swim across to be herded to market, it is also from here that Dr Samuel Johnson made his crossing in 1773. This was once the main route to the island. Now on both sides of the narrows the approach is via minor roads, much of it single track with passing places, and with the proximity of the bridge and the main A87 road why would anyone want to take the diversion over the Bealach pass to catch the ferry any more?

Now I have to say that the A87 is a great road, whilst you do get the odd speed freak and plenty of caravans, the road is wide enough and with enough clear stretches to make passing the caravans straightforward and give the speed freaks the chance to pass without too much tailgating. It’s certainly got some spectacular scenery along the stretch you’d miss taking the ferry, and the bridge is quite a spectacular engineering feat in itself, but it certainly isn’t quite the same experience as taking the ferry. If you’ve got the time to spend, I can recommend taking a ride on the now community owned Glenelg ferry.

Unlike the bigger ships running the route from Mallaig, the community are running the route from Glenelg with the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland, now forty years old. The service runs as required, and amazingly is operated by only two people, even turning the turntable itself with up to six cars on board. The crossing takes barely five minutes, but especially if you’ve just driven the long drive up from the lowlands there is a chance to pause and take in the quiet and stunning scenery before boarding.

On our last trip up to Skye I took the opportunity to film our whole crossing – watch out for a curious seal who pops out of the water as the ferry nears it’s destination.

So there you have it, it certainly isn’t the fastest way to Skye, but it is a much more memorable way to start your time on Skye and along with that you’ll be helping to keep a little bit of the history of the area alive.

Dreaming of a White Christmas?

This year was the first white christmas I have ever experienced. Looking around the area things all looked pretty much like your average greetings card picture (or the atypical English winter depicted in The Holiday), so we got some nice pictures of the church thanks to Richard Owen who brought his camera along with his shovel. By the 24th it was just about possible to get around, but back on the 21st December, most people around here were wishing for anything other than a white christmas, indeed for many of them getting home would have been a bonus.

I was somewhat lucky in that I can see the main road from my office, so as the snow fell and the traffic grid-locked, I stayed put. In fact along with about twenty other stranded staff I was shouted dinner by our chief executive and a couple of other directors who were also stuck in the office. By about 8:30pm, in Camberley at least, the roads were clear and I could head for home. Whilst the snow levels increased as I headed into Berkshire, the roads were passable enough for me to make it home in about an hour.

Others were less lucky. The wife of my cousin who works in Reading and lives in Amersham had a hellish eight hour journey through the areas with the biggest snowfalls. Similarly several friend who work up near Oxford had five hour journeys as again the motorways ground to a halt. Locally there were several accidents on major routes leading to traffic slowing to a halt, and trapping the gritting trucks in the jam. The situation in Basingstoke actually made the national news.

Needless to say, this has produced the other staple of a winter event in Southern England, moaning about the local councils failing to keep the roads clear, and numerous comparisons with other countries like Germany and Canada, that don’t grind to a halt in the snow.

First off, it is worth comparing what happens in a country like Canada with here. Yes the local authorities are better set up for dealing with snow, and indeed they have more equipment on standby ready to keep the roads clear, but the important thing to note is that the local drivers are properly equipped as well. It is common practice to fit special winter tyres to the cars, whereas it is unheard of in the UK – pretty well everybody was sliding around on all season or summer tyres – check out this YouTube video for the effect that winter tyres can have. Also once you get stuck, most British drivers are ill equipped. In Canada many drivers will have an emergency kit in the car, certainly Beth when she lived in rural Canada would travel in winter with a warm change of clothes in the car, a shovel to dig the car out in an emergency and a bag of grit to improve traction if needed. If you told most Brits that they needed that, they’d think it laughable, because you don’t get weather like that in England. Needless to say that is exactly the same reason the local councils don’t spend vast amounts of money on equipment that could sit largely idle in between major snow events like we had this Christmas.

It is also worth mentioning, that even in Canada they get disruptive snow fall from time to time, and they can’t deal with everything. What happened around our area last week was after an initial fairly light fall of snow on 21st the forecast was for sleet, which fell initially as rain, and then turned to snow. The problem with rain is that it washes away the grit that is put on the road, if that then freezes, and then snow falls on top you get what we got on 21st – a layer of ice with snow on top – treacherous even with good tyres and experienced drivers, let alone with most UK cars.

But I’ve been in Canada in similar conditions.

One winter trip over to Alberta it rained on the Tuesday, froze overnight and then snowed on top, leading to precisely the same sorts of conditions as we had – a layer of ice covered by snow. It was chaos. The local news swapped between pictures of chaos across Calgary, with removal trucks stranded by sheet ice, multiple accidents on the major roads, and hauled up the council staff responsible for maintaining the roads who tried to explain how they’d done their best, but there was nothing they could do. Even several days later when we headed for the airport many roads weren’t clear of ice despite the road crews working around the clock to clear it. A trip that would normally have taken us three hours took over six.

The moral of the story is that snow and ice causes chaos, even to those most experienced at dealing with it. Sure the UK could invest much more money in snow clearance, and they could mandate that all drivers fit winter tyres for the winter, but when it comes down to it, most people I’m sure would consider it not worth the money, whether out of their own pockets directly in buying a second set of tyres for their cars, or indirectly through the increased taxes to pay for the equipment. And even having spent all that money, there will still be the occasional times like this last week where however much grit you use, and however much the councils try to clear the roads, things will still grind to a halt.

British Airways is NOT Ninety Years Old

Much as I’m sure British Airways are keen to promote themselves in these difficult times, I do think celebrating their ninetieth birthday today is a bit rich.

The actual anniversary today is of the first scheduled international flight from London to Paris, run by a company called Aircraft Transport and Travel. The company had been formed several years earlier in 1916, and had flown a proving flight across the channel on 15th July.

The connection to the modern day British Airways is pretty convoluted (although they are glossing over that in the press release). Aircraft Transport and Travel ceased flying three years later in 1921 along with the other British airlines that had formed in protest at the government subsidies their French competitors were receiving. They were then acquired by a private air hire company to form Daimler Airway, which in 1924 merged with three other early airlines to form Imperial Airways.

British Airways Ltd was formed in 1935 and was in competition with Imperial Airways until the government nationalised both companies and merged them into the British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1939.

BOAC was demerged into three separate corporations in 1946, and then remerged in 1974 to form British Airways that was subsequently privatised in 1987 to bring us to the company as it is today.

So as far as I’m concerned British Airways is either twenty-two or thirty-five, depending on whether you count from privatisation, or from when the present company was formed. Celebrating ninety years is like someone celebrating on their great-grandfathers birthday because they contain some of the genetic material passed down through their parents. Indeed given that we’re not even celebrating on the date of the formation of Aircraft Transport and Travel, it’s a bit like having a party on the day your great-grandfather first walked…

Really, this should be a celebration for the whole British airline industry, where alongside British Airways we also have BMI (British Midland) and Virgin Atlantic, and also EasyJet, who in terms of passenger numbers are now the largest British airline. Certainly if you look at the league table, from our beginnings with the first international scheduled service, we still make a significant contribution to the industry, which certainly can’t be said about many other industries that were born in the UK.

Not Quite Steam on the Met

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, for a number of years London Underground ran a number of successful Steam on the Met weekends. It all started with a celebration weekend in 1989 to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Metropolitan Railway into Chesham, using Met 1, the last remaining operating Metropolitan Railway steam locomotive. That first weekend was so successful that the railway organised a number of follow up events, mainly running between Watford and Amersham, but including special parallel running of trains on the main lines up from Harrow. The event was all staffed by volunteers – believe me you’ve never seen so many of London Underground’s management as you did on those weekends, and it seemed popular with passengers and staff alike – so popular that they quickly got to the point of having to bring in mainline steam locomotives rather than Met 1. On the summer weekends when it ran you could sit outside in Mum and Dad’s back garden and once again hear steam trains working their way along the steep climb up Chorleywood bank.

The steam trains weren’t the only stars. All the trains needed a non-steam backup loco, and whilst for some trains it was a second hand diesel loco bought from British Rail, others used another Metropolitan Railway original, Sarah Siddons, one of the Metropolitan electric locomotives, which having been built in the nineteen twenties was older than some of the steam locomotives it was acting as backup for, was used for support.

Then in the mid-nineties the event was cancelled. There were a number of rumours as to why. Some cited health and safety concerns, but others talked about the management changes at London Underground in the lead up to the part privatisation, saying that the heritage weekends weren’t compatible with a commuter railway.

Since then, Sarah Siddons has been retained, and has run occasional special trains, however on September 14th, it’s not quite Steam on the Met, but London Underground are running a special heritage day using Sarah Siddons, and also a preserved train of 1938 Underground stock, following the Amersham, Watford and Harrow route that was used for the previous events. Based on some of the pictures coming through on Flickr they seem to be putting some effort into the event as well. Sarah Siddons has had a new paint job, and the set of retained heritage coaches (also picked up from British Rail) have all been refurbished too. Is it a prelude to resuming the steam events? I’m not sure, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens with this event.

Welcome home originally uploaded by routemaster_fan

The End of the Line

Party on the tubeSo a few weeks after coming into office, midnight saw the high profile enactment of one of Boris Johnson’s election pledges, the banning of alcohol from all London public transport, the logic being that if you curb low level disorder it will help make steps towards curbing the bigger problem. There are needless to say a number of problems, in particular being that it will be the normal staff who will have to enforce the ban – however before the ban came in, there was an internet organised final party, mainly taking place on the Circle Line – and for many it proved the point.

If you looked at the news pictures earlier on, it was all good-natured enough, with people dressing up for the occasion, indeed some people dressed for a black tie occasion sipping cocktails. One participant, a banker was quoted as saying:

“I’ve come along with a bottle of Champagne because I want to show that you can drink responsibly on the Tube and not cause trouble.â€?

Ride home for one party goerUnfortunately, that isn’t the way it turned out, and by the end of the night six stations had had to be closed and four tube drivers, three other staff members and two police officers had been assaulted and there had been seventeen arrests, proving to many who have to use the system precisely why drink should be banned.

Needless to say, whether the ban will actually be enforceable, or whether it will be widely flouted remains to be seen – this will probably be one of the first and most visible big tests of Boris Johnson as mayor. Equally whether the ban makes late night travel on the London Underground any more attractive remains to be seen – certainly if we’re coming back late from something in London we’ll tend to opt for a taxi to get us to the mainline train at Waterloo rather than using the Underground, although since more often than not we’re rushing for one of the hourly fast trains in those situations, we might well still opt for the taxi anyway!

Party on the tube” and “Ride home for one party goer” originally uploaded by kujunu.

A Lucky Escape

When I first heard the details of the plane crash at Heathrow yesterday, my first thought was quite what a lucky escape everybody had. The flight was coming in from the east, so would have done the traditional run over central and west London known to so many people – indeed news reports last night were showing this YouTube video of the same approach, on the same kind of plane, to the same runway – which does go to show you quite how populated the areas under the approach actually are. The pilot yesterday managed to get the plane across the perimeter road, and although he hit the ground before the runway, it was within the airfield.

However, the big question now is what went wrong. Reports are saying that the pilot had told an airport worker that all the electronics had failed, and he had lost all power. That would have left the pilot with nothing but the emergency manual backup to the fully fly-by-wire systems to bring the plane in.

It also reminded me of comments that I heard from someone who worked for British Airways on aircraft maintenance for many years, finishing his career working on the 777 fleet, bemoaning the differences with the modern planes. On the older planes the mechanics that keep the whole thing going are fairly straightforward – there is a mechanical link between the pilots controls and the fundamental components that keep the plane in the air. With modern planes such as the 777, the links are electronic – essentially the pilot controls a computer which then controls the fundamental components, and the computer is essentially a black box. Fixing a fault involves removing one black box and putting in another – as he said, you can’t visually check the fundamentals, and you are essentially trusting in the skill of the electronics specialists that what is inside the black box does what it says.

Whilst it could be some sort of power system fault, some component having been improperly replaced, I really wouldn’t want to be a software engineer working at Boeing over the next few days. It definitely makes me glad that the bugs in my software are not a life or death situation like this…

heathrow plane crash 3 originally uploaded by artofthestate.