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Glorious British Transport Films 10 May 2018

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Unloading cement, from ‘They Take the High Road’

What better way to spend Ascension Day than watch some British Transport Films. They bring back the England of my childhood and evoke the sterling virtues of skilled labour and teamwork in an optimistic mood of societal reconstruction. They take for granted that work is a positive, dignified and collective thing, and are marvellous travelogues to boot.


• In Dodging the Column (1952) EW Rudd hauls a 132ft-long distillation column from Greenwich to Grangemouth up the A6 using two Scamell tractors. Occasionally they have to unhitch the rear bogie and turn it by hand, and put plates over the manhole covers. At Stoke they have to dig up a gatepost and winch a tree out of the way. It’s amazing how narrow the roads were then. At Shap, the A6 climbs 2,000’ in 3 miles. The cockney humour is fun and in keeping with its spirit – and there are London trams skittling past.

They Take the High Road is volume 5 of the BTF’s Off the Beaten Track series. It’s a funny little film about a team of 4 lorry drivers who live in a carriage in a siding at Killín station, and make two daily tips 22 miles up Glen Lyon to deliver 7.5 tons of cement to build Giorra dam on Loch an Daimh, just NE of Loch Lyon in Perthshire. The context is an integrated multimodal transport system and the moral is the importance of good maintenance. It’s lovely watching the drivers in the potty little white-painted wooden cabs of their cherry-red ERF and AEC flatbeds.

Giant Load shows Pickfords taking a 168-ton transformer from Hayes to Iver on a 12-axle demountable swan neck trailer, with 3 tractors.


Aldenham Works Routemaster London Transport, which seems to have been unofficially put together, albeit from official footage. Aldenham was originally built as a tube depot for the never-built extension to the Northern Line, and during WWII was used to make planes. From 1956-1985 it overhauled RTs and Routemasters every 4 years. The bodies were taken off the chassis but took longer to overhaul, so were remounted on a different chassis afterwards. The site is now a business park.

A Journey by a London Bus (8 mins, 1950) by the Colonial Film Unit (sic) shows two ‘African students’ catching the bus back from a walk ‘in the fields’, on the days when London was the largest city in the world. They know it runs on a route, will be punctual, and that enjoying the journey is a matter of ‘friendly co-operation’ – no need to push or jostle. Schoolchildren sense that Africans like them, and friendly hands help a disabled person aboard. Children cross the road at a crossing – with Belisha beacons but without zebra stripes – and the driver gives the slowing down sign to stop for them. ‘Four long miles for fivepence.’ False-sounding but priceless.


Wash and Brush Up (25 mins, 1953) every couple of weeks steam engines get their boilers cleaned out, which takes about 17 hours. There’s a whole succession of different quaintly (I should say exactly) named men who follow on in succession: a fire-dropper, the boilersmith and his mate, a cooler-down, some washers-out and a fire-raiser. They riddle out the grate just like in a household fire. One man has to wriggle inside the fire¬box to scrub it out. The message, delivered in appropriately stirring tones, is teamwork. Marvellously appropriate terms: the inspector taps things with his hammer to see if they “ring true”.

Work in Progress: a trip round the country looking at various rebuilding jobs: digging the new Woodhead tunnel, hump shunting at Whitemoor, Cambridge with walkie-talkie control of the shunter – which looked pretty dangerous, involving a man running along-side the trucks rolling at 15 mph to brake them. Scheduled lorry services in the Mull of Kintyre. Buses in Bristol and the channel ferry. Again the message is an integrated transport system serving the country’s economy. The whole is graphically shown by a 3D relief model of Great Britain about 15’ long, with the mountains towering up and making connecting it up look like a pretty difficult job. “No part of Britain is self-sufficient…” it starts.

Old Sam the Signalman is a homily about level crossing safety, acted unconvincingly by the judge from Porridge.

Spotlight on the Night Mail (1948) is a pale reflection of the 1936 original, with an annoying American twang to the voiceover, reversed shots, repeated sequences and no continu¬ity. But it does show the mailbags bouncing into the ‘apparatus coaches’ nicely – that’s what it seems to be called – just the ‘apparatus’ – and at the end some Aberdeen trams.

The Way to the Sea, another 1936 Britten-Auden collaboration celebrating the 1935 electrification of the Waterloo–Portsmouth line. There’s some poetic scriptwriting: following a sequence on power transmission we set off: “A signal box; a power station. We pass the areas of greatest congestion, the homes of those who have least power of choice.” And the amazing list of reasons people went on holiday on the Isle of Wight: “to eat out of doors, to exchange confidences with strangers, the opportunity to be admired.”

These last to are both now seemingly offline.

Horizontigo 27 February 2016

Posted by cooperatoby in Uncategorized.
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CIMG9333 Horizontigo. Twiske mill in the distanceI thought I’d coined a new word to describe that feeling of disorientation I still get when faced with an entirely unrelievedly flat landscape – horizontigo. It still gets to me even after 2 decades of constantly travelling through it in Flanders and Holland; I long for a rolling Chiltern hill or a Yorkshire moor.
So I was disappointed to find the Urban Dictionary has got there first, defining it as the feeling you are going backwards when the vehicle next to you starts up. I think the Germans have a great train-related word for that, but I can’t find it.

Fyra – poster twins 2 June 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, rail.
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The Fyra saga has driven me to criminality. I don’t like graffiti, but a new poster campaign by Thalys was too great a temptation – could it be it was wickedly designed with this in mind? At the Albert Cuyp tramstop on our way home from our habitual curry in the Balti House on Friday night, we found ourselves confronted by the giant slogan Met Thalys is Parijs nog nooit so dichtbij (‘With Thalys, Paris has never been so near’). I could not resist scrawling underneath (with a soluble marker of course) Met Fyra, Brussel is nog nooit zo ver weg.

Regained property 7 May 2013

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I’m moved to tell a good news story about Belgian railways, just for a change.
Last week I rode from Amsterdam to Brussels on the reborn Beneluxtrein – or alternatively the proto-Lage Landen Lijn, which has now settled into a 2-hourly service. It only goes as far as the Hague (the line north of there is apparently already full of trains) and takes slightly longer than in the ‘good old days’, about 3 1/4 hours from Amsterdam. But it’s very comfortable: the wait in the Hague is just long enough to buy a sausage roll and coffee, and you don’t have to scurry from platform to platform and miss your connections like you do on the other stupidly arranged services that make you change at Roosendaal and Antwerp. I say it’s comfortable – but it isn’t for the many passengers who just want to hop the 100 km from Rotterdam to Antwerp, because it was standing room only for that stretch. I really don’t see why cross-border collaboration in this busy and linguistically unified market is so difficult for the Dutch and Belgian railways to achieve.
Anyway, back to the good news I started to tell. In the mood for a stroll down through the Grand’ Place in the sun, I got off the train a stop early at Centrale – and going up the escalator realised that the bulge in my pocket where my phone should be wasn’t there. Drama – I must have left it on the seat. I got back on the next train to Midi and spotted the international train parked at platform 21 – but just as I got out, it pulled away to go to its sidings. I took the guard’s advice and went to the lost property office under platform 8. The clerk enquired when I’d left the Hague, looked up the train, filled in a form, asked for my phone number, phlegmatically dialled it (he had obviously done this sort of thing before)… and it rang out audibly! I could have kicked myself, and started to mumble my apologies and scrabble in my rucksack – fruitlessly. The clerk pointed over my shoulder. Right behind me stood the guard off the international train, holding my phone. He had done his duty of walking through the train, found the phone, and brought it to the lost-property office in the same 5 minutes it had taken me to catch him up. And so phone and I were reunited for the modest sum of €4 and we are both living happily ever after. Thanks to him and to NMBS/SNCB for being so efficient.
By the way I’m glad to note that after being stored for 50 days, things you lose on the railway are disposed of by my local social economy 2nd-hand shop, Les Petits Riens/Spullenhulp.

Perhaps one shouldn’t read too much into models 6 May 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Brussels.
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Derailed mini-ThalysWe visited Mini-Europe the other week (see photo album), a temptation I’ve denied myself for two decades that was finally made inevitable by the visit to Brussels of my two step-grandsons Tijme and Siem (along with their parents Roos and Michiel of course). It was a now-or-never decision, given the rumours that the attraction is to close.
Mini-Europe's entirely ineffectual fireboats
I enjoyed the fine architectural models and I loved the jokes: Don Quixote plods along a path in La Mancha; in a nearby lake three dolphins leap, and nearby a diver is pursued to the end of time by a shark – the boys love sharks. Their favourite though was the ‘fire at the oil terminal’ scenario in which a tank goes up in flames and is attended by two fireboats drawn by underwater cables. These squirt water in entirely the wrong direction – and the fire obediently goes out anyway. Unfortunately Vesuvius waited till we were leaving before it exploded.
There are a number of entertaining sideshows which on that Sunday morning were uncrowded: you can pilot radio-controlled boats, help a gendarme to catch a robber, and compose a customised electronic postcard to e-mail to your friends
Mini-Europe mirrors the rise and fall of Europe’s self-confidence – the early EU countries are represented in force – and so is fractious Britain – and the high point of European optimism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, is enacted before one’s very eyes (thankfully the famous Brezhnev-Honecker kiss is not animated). More recently, the obligation to include each new EU member state seems to have grown too onerous – Malta is represented rather minimally by a prehistoric stone circle.
Symbolic derailment?
And the park is showing its age. Nothing is left of some exhibits (Pisa cathedral, what I imagine was an Alpine cable-car) but a ghostly impression, so it seem that the owners have decided that maintaining them is no longer worth the candle – although the first building that greets one is the renovated Berlaymont, so some money (whose?) has been invested recently. Most of the lorries that used to drive around following cleverly buried wires now sit stationary.
Perhaps what best symbolises Mini-Europe’s decline is the model of the Thalys high-speed train. Various other trains shuttle to and from advertising sponsors such as DHL, but the Thalys has toppled off its track, and no one has rescued it. This is inappropriate because the real-life Thalys (unlike a certain other attempt at a high-speed train in these parts) actually works rather well.
Outside the gates, there is a jolly fairground roundabout and disappointing catering establishments that visitors to tourist attractions have to suffer.

Sex on rails – tram-trains 19 December 2012

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Mate a tram with train and you get a tram-train, it seems obvious enough. They’ve been doing it in Germany – Karlsruhe, Kassel, Zwickau – for ages, and have cottoned on in France (Mulhouse) and Holland (Rotterdam) too. To differentiate it from an interurban (like Swiss mountain railways or the Belgian Kusttram) it uses vehicles that can operate on both systems – a Zweisystem-Stadtbahn. It means more than BR talked about doing on the Penistone line, which is running light railcars on ordinary railway track. It means actually joining the Sheffield tramlines up to the main line to Rotherham, as is now the plan.
tram-train logicThe benefit is that it suddenly opens up a seamless journey from outlying areas into the city centre, as this diagram shows. It is borrowed for educational purposes from my favourite magazine, Tramways and Urban Transit, which in its November edition runs an excellent article by Günter Koch from DB International. He sets out the conditions planners have to take into account.
Not cheaper
• The first lesson is that the aim should not be to save money. If you replace a heavy train with a light one, you have to run a more frequent service to retain capacity. You can run more trains but they have a smaller capacity. The benefit it does bring is shorter headways – i.e. a more convenient service.
• You need stops between 400 metres and 2 km apart as the top speed is 100 km/h, giving a commercial speed of 40-60 km/h. This requires a certain population/employment density.
• The minimum demand for a new line would be 3,000 passengers per day, or 1,500 for converting an existing track. The maximum would be 15,000 ppd – above that stay with an ordinary train.
• You can mix tram with high-speed and goods trains – the Karlsruhe trams share track with the Basel-Amsterdam ICE! – but only over short distances.
• The fastest trains on the lien should only go at twice the speed of the slowest.
• Maximum line length is 35 km which gives a 60-minute journey time.

Hello Fyra – for your rail annoyance 10 December 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, Uncategorized.
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As Truus said, I’m a guinea pig. The ‘high speed’ Fyra, wouldn’t we have guessed it, is experiencing teething problems. To be fair the Thalys did too. I’ve just completed a ride on the “12:41” from Amsterdam, scheduled to arrive at Brussels Midi at 14:42. The trainset arrived in Amsterdam at 12:51 and then sat at platform 13 for a further half hour as a technical problem was sorted out. Meanwhile a competing Thalys loaded up at platform 15, and we pulled out together in perfect parallel formation. Unfortunately there’s only one track, and of course it was us who had to give way somewhere near the romantically-named Transformatorweg. The driver put his foot down through the groene hart and we made it to Rotterdam, but stayed there longer than expected as we broke down again. After that we really got moving and enjoyed a particularly fine view from 24 metres’ altitude (high for Holland remember) on top of the new 1.2 km long Moerdijkbrug over Hollands Diep, which marks the boundary between Holland and Brabant. We were an hour late but making up time…

Fyra at Antwerp

Fyra at Antwerp

But this was too good to be true, because sure enough the power cut out again somewhere near Breda and we cruised to a gentle halt in the middle of nowhere where we waited for a further 20 minutes or so. By the time we got to Antwerp we were 1 hour 16 minutes late and holding up the train behind us. We were eventually turfed out unexpectedly at Brussels North, where we should not normally have even stopped, so that the train could start its return journey only half an hour late.
NS had given me a coffee voucher – but there was no opportunity to use it. Even the catering cart gave up serving the row before it reached me, its operator lying to us that she would be back. There isn’t really enough light to read by – especially in the long stretches that out of respect for the neighbours and/or wildlife are in tunnel. And it’s going to get even less convenient: from 9th January you can only get the €25 fare if you book at least a week ahead.
I completed my journey by tram – but they were running late too, with 5 trams backed up in the North-South tunnel.

PS I sent in a compensation claim and at the end of January I received a 50% refund of my fare, along with a very courteous letter, so that was nice. Meanwhile out on the snowy rails the Fyra 250s are definitely out of service until Ansaldo Breda can ensure that bits don’t drop off them! The poor old passenger has the choice of paying €79 for a Thalys or a 4 1/2-hour journey via Roosendaal or even round via liège and Maastricht. Dutch parliamentarians are pressing for an enquiry into the procurement decision, and Finmecchanica’s credit rating has been slashed to junk status.

from Brussel Deze Week

from Brussel Deze Week

PPS The Belgian rail users’ group puts the Fyra fiasco down to the Dutch and Belgian governments suppressing competition and wanting the whole cake themselves. If Die Bahn had been given the concession, it argues, NS & NMBS would have had to try harder with their existing Beneluxtrein.

Moving on – 15 Dec 2013

Today, with the introduction of the winter timetable, the Fyra brand is finally interred. Henceforth it’s called Intercity Direct.

Bye bye Beneluxtrein 9 December 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, Brussels.
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Brussels-AmsterdamOn Friday I made my last journey on the Beneluxtrein, the conventional train that has trundled between Brussels and Amsterdam every hour for the last few decades. It was an unexpectedly emotional experience. Today, the service has been replaced by the new-fangled but controversial Fyra. The good news is that it lops no less than an hour off the journey time, which drops at a stroke to two hours one minute. The bad news is that you have to book in advance and the fare is doubling. Till now, ditherers had the luxury of just turning up at the station and getting on whichever train one wanted, and if you had a Dutch voordeelurenkaart it cost €26-60 single. From now on, the full fare is €54 – over double – with advance booking bringing it down to €41 or even €25. The €25 ‘supersaver’ is a good deal, but there are two cracks on the rail. First, we depend on the quota of cheap seats, which is now 75%, being maintained. Secondly, we have to book at least a day in advance or in effect be ‘fined’ €27-40. It’s more flexible than the Thalys – €69 walk-on – but why make things difficult for everybody?
Another potential problem is capacity. The Beneluxtrein has been incredibly popular – at going-home time it is often standing room only from Brussels to the Hague and from Schiphol to Amsterdam. They have replaced 16 daily Beneluxes with just 10 Fyras, so where are the excluded 40% of passengers going to go?
The boss of NS smiled and placated his way through an interview on Buitenhof this morning, but there’s no escaping the own goals that NS has scored. It has unilaterally withdrawn the direct service between the Hague and Brussels, and the only other train crossing the border is the slow train from Roosendaal to Antwerp which stops something like 10 times. More treacherously, it has made season-tickets invalid.
Our conductress on Friday was valiant and inexplicably upbeat. She explained patiently in 3 languages why we were held up behind another train crawling from Leiden to Hoofddorp, why most of the toilets werent working (but surely they will be reusing the carriages?) and finally even coped with good humour when someone attending a rock concert in the Arena pulled the ccommunication cord just as we were about to enter the station. She thanked us for patronising the Beneluxtrein for all these years. It was a high point. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all those saved hours in the future.

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