Category Archives: Transports of Delight

Exploring Australia: XPT trains

NSW TrainLink XPT power car 2000, Sydney Central Station

NSW TrainLink XPT power car 2000, Sydney Central Station

Three times I’ve travelled by train from Melbourne to Sydney – never, as it happens, in the opposite direction.

I wrote up the first journey in a blog article about my introduction to travel in Australia in 2010-11 [http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=851], when I was completely oblivious of the border between the states of Victoria and New South Wales.

The second time, the border was very obvious, because I took the train only as far as Albury, where until 1962 you had to change trains because the two states’ rail systems were built to different gauges:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2245.

By my third trip, early in 2017, I felt I was beginning to find my way around.  I’m used to the fact that the daytime train from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station doesn’t always leave on time.  Indeed, it often doesn’t arrive until after it’s due to depart.

There’s a good reason for this.

The New South Wales’ Railways XPT trains that operate the inter-state TrainLink service are based on the British High Speed Train.  The sound of the power cars’ Paxman engines is immediately recognisable to British ears.

These Australian workhorses have been in use since 1982, whereas the British version began operating in 1976, and with overhauls and modifications both continue to give sterling service.

The Australian-built version was adapted at the outset for the different conditions down under:  the engines are down-rated and the suspension enhanced to cope with inferior track and longer distances;  the Australian power cars have headlights at roof level to cope with the darkness of the empty rural areas at night.  The trailer cars are completely different from the British Mark III carriages, designed instead under licence from the American Budd company by the Australian builder Comeng.

The astonishing thing about these 35-year-old veterans is the intensity of their schedules.

While one unit runs seven days a week between Sydney and Dubbo and back (287 miles each way), the others run an intensive seven-day carousel between Sydney and Melbourne, Grafton (in the north of New South Wales, 432 miles each way), Melbourne again, Casino (north of Grafton, 500 miles from Sydney) and Brisbane (over the border in Queensland, 614 miles each way).

During this weekly routine each unit is serviced at Sydney only three times.

There isn’t a great deal of leeway, which explains why departures from Southern Cross are often delayed.

Until they are replaced sometime in the next few years, these tough trains earn their keep and represent outstanding value for money.

Nottingham Midland

Nottingham Station (2017)

Nottingham Station (2017)

I’m no fan of Twitter.  My Twitter account @Mike_Hig aims to be the most boring in the world.  I have six followers.  I rely on journalists and others to wade through the twitterings of the twitterati to alert me to the glimpses of sense and wit that intelligent, sensitive people actually broadcast on Twitter.

By this means I was impressed by some of the Twitter comments about the recent fire at Nottingham Midland station.  Several people made appreciative observations about the building, including Lisa Allison @LisaJaneAllison, who wrote, “This makes me sad, it’s really sad to see the damage done to #NottinghamStation because of the fire. It’s such a beautiful building.”

It is indeed a beautiful building, all the more thanks to a comprehensive £150-million refurbishment in 2013-14:  https://www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk/news/terracotta-decorations-complete-gbp-60m-redevelopment-at-nottingham-station#.

The present Nottingham station of 1904, presenting a grand frontage with a porte-cochère to Carrington Street, replaced an earlier station that fronted Station Street.  It was the Midland Railway’s response to the opening four years earlier of the grand Nottingham Victoria Station which served its competitors the Great Central and Great Northern Railways.

The Carrington Street entrance building, bridging the Midland’s tracks, served to hide the fact that the Great Central’s trains crossed over the platforms of Nottingham Midland on a lengthy viaduct.  Its alignment is now used by Nottingham’s NET trams.

The brick and terracotta façade was the work of the same local architect, Albert Edward Lambert, who had designed Nottingham Victoria.  He collaborated with the Midland Railway house architect, Charles Trubshaw, who had also designed the stations as Bradford Forster Square, Sheffield Midland and Leicester London Road, as well as the Midland Hotel in Manchester.

The architects made full use of the repertoire of Edwardian Baroque – rustication, pediments, Gibbs surrounds – and provided elegant Art Nouveau wrought-iron gates, all intended to outdo Victoria Station across town.  The platform buildings, in the same brick and terracotta, provided public facilities in rich interiors with glazed tiles, coved ceilings and elaborate chimney pieces, some of which survive.

When the lines through Victoria closed in the 1960s, Nottingham Midland became the city’s only railway station.  Remaining services that had used Victoria were shoehorned into Midland’s platforms, and trains between London and the North via Nottingham were forced to reverse, whereas before Beeching there was a direct line via Old Dalby.

The recent restoration is a matter of pride to Nottingham people.  The taxis have been turned out of the porte-cochère, which is now a light, spacious if sometimes draughty concourse leading to the dignified booking hall.  Nottingham station is a place to linger, even if you’re not catching a train.

It’s gratifying that more than one Twitter user thought of the building when they heard of the casualty-free fire.

Friday January 12th 2018 was a hectic day in the centre of Nottingham.  A police crime-scene had cut the tram service at Waverley Street north of the city-centre shortly before the station evacuation blocked tram services to the south and jammed road traffic in all directions.  Then a city-centre power cut blacked out the shops and much of the Nottingham Trent University campus, and caused the Council House clock to chime and strike at the same time, confusing people with a plethora of bongs.

As another delightful Twitter user that day remarked, “Nottingham needs a KitKat this morning…”

The tour Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) is based in Nottingham.  For further details please click here.

Nottingham Victoria

Victoria Centre, Nottingham (1978)

Victoria Centre, Nottingham (1978)

In the closing years of the nineteenth century a huge hole appeared in the centre of Nottingham.

This became the city’s Victoria Station, connected through tunnels north and south to the new main line of the Great Central Railway, with an additional connection on a viaduct to the Great Northern Railway line heading east to Newark.

The GCR London Extension was a prodigious engineering feat from end to end, and the Nottingham station, with its tracks below street level, made a greater impact than any of the company’s other new stations.

Over a thousand houses, two dozen pubs and a church were swept away and replaced by a grand brick entrance building with a hundred-foot clock tower and a splendid hotel alongside fronting Mansfield Road, designed by a young Nottingham architect, Albert Edward Lambert (1869-1929).  Below street level, there were twelve platform faces with avoiding lines for through goods trains and two turntables for locomotives.

The Great Northern was determined not to run its trains into a station called Nottingham Central, and printed the name ‘Nottingham Joint Station’ on its tickets and timetables, until the Nottingham town clerk ventured a diplomatic solution.  Because the opening day, May 24th 1900, was the Queen’s eighty-first birthday, he made a proposal virtually impossible to refuse:  as the Great Central station in Sheffield had been ‘Victoria’ for years, the Nottingham station was duly named after the Queen.

Britain’s last main line, London Marylebone to Manchester London Road, had a short life:  it was far better engineered, at least as far as Nottingham, than any other railway in the country, because it was intended to link with the Channel Tunnel (commenced in 1881 and abandoned a year later) and so to Paris.

The GCR and its successor, the L&NER, put up strong competition:  its services to Sheffield, Leicester and London were significantly faster than those of its rival, the Midland Railway.

Nevertheless, in the post-war decline of railways in Britain, the GCR lost out to its older rivals;  express passenger services ended in 1960 and the main line passenger services south of Rugby was abandoned in 1966.

Nottingham Victoria Station itself closed a year later on September 4th 1967, and for a short while services from Rugby to Nottingham ended at Arkwright Street station, perched on a viaduct half a mile out of town:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvvO9GkjtK0.

The land on which Victoria Station stood was far too valuable to leave unused, and the Victoria Centre, consisting of shopping malls, a bus station and a twenty-six storey apartment complex, opened in 1972.

The only parts of the original station to survive are the clock tower and the hotel, now the Hilton Nottingham:  http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/united-kingdom/hilton-nottingham-EMANOHN/index.html.

The magnificent train shed, with its overall roof, footbridges across the tracks and spacious staircases to platform level, is still mourned by Nottingham people and rail enthusiasts.  There is poignant footage of its declining years [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D60XNfJPk8M and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-FQeUKrnNM], and the station is described and amply illustrated at http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/n/nottingham_victoria/index.shtml.

By the magic of digital technology Nottingham Victoria lives on in visualisation – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JZTk0Nij-E] – and simulation – [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gZ_ukwNMWw].

The tour Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) is based in Nottingham.  For further details please click here.

Great Northern Goods Warehouse, Derby

Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse, Friargate, Derby (1977)

Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse, Friargate, Derby (1977)

The largest building in Derby has stood derelict for over fifty years, and figures in the Victorian Society’s 2017 Top 10 Endangered Buildings list:  http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/the-great-northern-railway-warehouse-in-derby-on-its-2017-top-10-endangered.

When the Great Northern Railway extended its line from Nottingham through the middle of Derby in 1878, it made two grand statements of its arrival in the headquarters town of its competitor, the Midland Railway.  The most visible invasion was the elaborate pair of bridges across Friargate itself, slicing across a Georgian street.

The passenger station itself, built on the viaduct alongside the bridge, was undistinguished, but the vast goods warehouse, visible from the passenger platforms, was given a dignified architectural presence by the architects Kirk and Randall.

The rectangular footprint of the warehouse is extended by a triangular extension housing railway offices and a residence for the goods manager.

When I first explored it in 1977 – before security fencing prevailed – it was empty and derelict but largely intact.

The Derbyshire Historic Building Trust reports a site-visit in September 2016 – https://www.derbyshirehistoricbuildings.org.uk/single-post/2016/05/12/GNR-Site-Visit – and there are recent urban-explorer reports showing the current condition of the building at http://www.ukurbex.co.uk/great-northern-railway-bonded-warehouse-derby, https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/great-northern-railway-bonded-warehouse-derby-october-2014.t92710 and https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/industrial-sites/26846-northern-railway-warehouse-derby.html#.We2aA7pFzIU, and a more comprehensive survey at http://derbyinpictures.com/home/friargate_station_and_goods_yard.

Though the Great Northern Warehouse is inaccessible, the Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) tour includes other sites on the former GNR Derby Friargate line – the Friargate Bridge and Bennerley Viaduct.  For further details please click here.

Great Northern Goods Warehouse, Manchester

Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse, Peter Street, Manchester

Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse, Peter Street, Manchester

One of the weird complications of the geography of Victorian railway development is illustrated by the short length of Great Northern railway track that used to exist in the centre of Manchester, fifty-odd miles away from any other Great Northern route.

The Great Northern Railway, a primary component of what became the East Coast Main Line from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, gained access to Manchester and Liverpool by its membership of the Cheshire Lines Committee, in conjunction with the Midland Railway and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire (later Great Central) Railway.  The Cheshire Lines’ passenger terminus was Manchester Central station, now the conference centre.

From the approaches to Manchester Central the Great Northern ran an independent short spur (yellow in the Railway Clearing House map of 1910:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_Central_railway_station#/media/File:Manchester_RJD_47.JPG) into their Great Northern Goods Warehouse on Deansgate, which advertised the company’s presence grandly with tiled friezes on all four sides, “GREAT NORTHERN COMPANY’S GOODS WAREHOUSE”.

Goods trains entered the warehouse at viaduct level, and carts gained access by means of a carriage ramp.

Not only did the five-story fireproof brick warehouse provide interchange with Manchester’s roads, but it also picked up traffic from the truncated Manchester & Salford Junction Canal, built in 1839 to link the Rochdale Canal with the River Irwell, through two lift-shafts dropped twenty-five feet to the canal tunnel beneath the streets.

The canal connection closed in 1936, and the spaces below the warehouse were adapted as air-raid shelters during World War II:  http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/sites/m/manchester_salford_junction/index.shtml.

The warehouse itself closed in 1954 or 1963 (sources differ), and was converted into a cavernous car-park, until in 1996 planning permission was given for conversion to a leisure and retail development which controversially permitted demolition of the listed carriage ramp, much of the train deck and associated buildings on Peter Street.

The distinctive frontage of railway buildings on Deansgate survives, and at the southern end of the site stands the huge Beetham Tower.

Two sections of the canal tunnel remain:  that under the Great Northern Goods Warehouse may become accessible to the public;  the other section under the former Granada TV studios is intact but inaccessible.

Manchester Central

Manchester Central

Manchester Central

Like most Victorian cities, Manchester had more railway termini than it really needed – Victoria and Exchange, which connected end-on, London Road, latterly known as Piccadilly, and Central.

The last built was the shortest lived.

Manchester Central station was opened in July 1880, serving the Cheshire Lines services of the Midland, the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire and the Great Northern railways, which had operated into a temporary terminus, known as Manchester Free Trade Hall Station, since 1877.

Sir John Fowler’s train-shed at Manchester Central, with ironwork by Andrew Handyside of Derby, has a span of 210 feet, only thirty feet narrower than St Pancras.  Unlike St Pancras, the arch is not tied beneath the platforms because of the structure of the huge brick undercroft, which bridged and connected with the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal.

The original intention to fill the station frontage with either a hotel or an office-building never came to anything, and until the station closed on May 5th 1969 its façade was no more than a temporary wooden structure.

Charles Trubshaw’s Midland Hotel (1898-1904), a bombastic but loveable essay in terracotta – “probably the most beautiful building in the whole city”, according to the initial publicity material, “a vast and varied affair” in Pevsner’s description – was built on a two-acre site across the road looking over St Peter’s Square, linked to the station by a covered way.

After rail-services were diverted away from Central Station in 1969 it stood neglected, used only as a car-park for some years, until in 1980 the Greater Manchester Council, in conjunction with a private developer, transformed it into an exhibition hall, G-MEX, the Greater Manchester Exhibition Centre.

The architects for the G-Mex conversion were Essex, Goodman & Suggitt.

Its use as a concert venue declined after the opening of the Manchester Arena in 1995, and G-MEX was rebranded under its original name, Manchester Central, in 2007-8:  https://www.manchestercentral.co.uk.

Under Unter den Linden

Berlin U-bahn:  U55 shuttle

Berlin U-bahn: U55 shuttle

My first encounter with the Berlin U-bahn (the underground system, as opposed to the S-bahn overground lines) was the strange little U55 shuttle between Hautbahnhof and Brandenburger Tor.

Cavernous halls lead to an enormous two-platform station.  One of the two platforms is fenced off and unused.

Into the other trundles a two-car train which shuttles back and forth every few minutes.

It’s very useful, but the station is completely out of proportion with the train.

And it’s the exact opposite of the cramped and crowded Times Square-Grand Central shuttle in Manhattan.

The trains are actually modernised museum-pieces.

It was only when I walked down Unter den Linden, where the central reservation is a building site, that I realised a short but vital underground link is under construction.

By 2019 there will be a service between Hauptbahnhof and the transport hub at Alexanderplatz where the U5 underground line currently terminates:  http://www.projekt-u5.de/en.

The 1½-mile link will bring stations to the major tourist spots on Unter den Linden and Schloßplatz, and so take road traffic and some pedestrians out of the crowded tourist area.

Then they’ll no longer have to crane the U55 rolling stock in and out of the tunnel for overhaul like they do on the Waterloo & City Line in London.

Old bore

Glenfield Tunnel, Leicester: North Leicestershire Association of the National Trust/Leicestershire Industrial History Society visit, August 11th 2017

Glenfield Tunnel, Leicester: North Leicestershire Association of the National Trust/Leicestershire Industrial History Society visit, August 11th 2017

The North Leicestershire Association of the National Trust runs particularly interesting tours.

In conjunction with the Leicestershire Industrial History Society, the Association provided a rare opportunity to visit the Glenfield Tunnel of the former Leicester & Swannington Railway, a particularly significant relic of the early days of railways.

In the canal age Leicestershire coal owners were at a grave disadvantage in comparison with their Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire competitors, because the mines around Swannington could only be served by packhorse, and were undercut by coal from the Erewash valley transported along the Soar Navigation and the Leicester Canal.

A “forest” branch of the Leicester Canal, colloquially called the Charnwood Canal, was a spectacular failure, never fully opened for lack of water, and was practically abandoned by 1802.

Two far-sighted Leicestershire grandees, William Stenson and John Ellis, aware of the success of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, contacted George Stephenson in 1828 and persuaded him to support a railway from the pits at Swannington to the West Bridge at Leicester.

Construction of the Leicester & Swannington Railway, with two steep cable-hauled inclines at Bagworth and Swannington, and the 1,796-yard tunnel at Glenfield, was overseen by George Stephenson’s son Robert, and opened in two sections in 1832 and 1833.

It enabled the Leicestershire mines to undercut Erewash coal at Leicester, and eventually to export coal by canal and railway further afield.  It made possible a complete new town, Coalville.

Glenfield Tunnel was the second railway tunnel in the world, following the shorter Tyler Hill Tunnel on the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway.

Though the later main line from Leicester to Swannington was diverted away from the tunnel and the inclines, the route through Glenfield remained open for freight until 1964.

It’s now maintained by Leicester City Council and opened occasionally by the Leicestershire Industrial History Society:  http://www.lihs.org.uk/Industrial_heritage2.html.

We were guided round to and into the tunnel by Chris and David as far as the first ventilation shaft.  The whole tunnel is a mile long, but the cutting beyond the east portal is filled in, and access to the tunnel is through a manhole in someone’s garden.

I was glad to have access to one of the monuments of Britain’s industrial history, and to gain a close-up, first-hand idea of the magnitude of the achievements of the Stephensons and their generation of pioneering engineers.

It’s one thing to read about the Glenfield Tunnel, and quite another to walk inside it – to give “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”.

Exploring Melbourne – by tram to St Kilda

Former Melbourne & Hobson's Bay Railway Albert Park station, Melbourne, Australia

Former Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Albert Park station, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne’s tram route 96 between the city and the beach resort of St Kilda was formerly a railway line, originally the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company, opened in 1857.

In 1987 the line, along with the connected rail line to Port Melbourne, was converted from heavy rail to light rail, regauged from the Victorian railway 5ft 3in to the Melbourne tramway standard gauge, with the overhead line voltage reduced from 1,500v DC to 650v DC.

A simple junction into Fitzroy Street allows trams to continue along the Esplanade to a terminus at Acland Street, serving the beach, Luna Park and the shops.  In the city, route 96 runs past Southern Cross Station, along Bourke Street and out to East Brunswick.

Because it is so heavily used it’s operated by big light-rail vehicles: the five class C2 units were leased and then bought specifically for route 96 in 2008, later supplemented by class E units from 2013.  Each unit can carry in excess of two hundred passengers, which is useful not only in rush hours but also for events such as the St Kilda Festival and the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.

It’s a hugely popular route, quicker and more comfortable than alternative tram routes between St Kilda and the city:  http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/tram-96-travels-tracks-to-glory/2008/03/07/1204780065938.html.

St Kilda railway station is barely recognisable, though it’s the oldest surviving railway building in the state of Victoria, opened in 1857.  It was the subject of a controversial redevelopment in the late 1990s, when the station building was converted to shops and an apartment block with a Woolworths supermarket was built on the site of the goods yard.

As you sit in air-conditioned comfort on a fast modern tramcar, you pass immediately recognisable steam-age railway stations, no longer usable because of the height of the platforms, all of them converted to other uses.

I called at the Albert Park station, which is a railway antiques showroom, where I was offered a working Melbourne tram destination indicator for A$1,000:  http://www.melbourneplaces.com/melbourne/railway-antiques-restored-furniture-coffee-and-cakes-at-the-albert-park-station.

It’s hardly surprising that National Geographic nominated route 96 as one of the world’s best tram rides:  http://www.theage.com.au/multimedia/2008/national/tram/index.html.

Niagara by bus

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

My explorations on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls were enlivened by the opportunity to travel by London Transport Routemaster bus:  http://www.doubledecktours.com.

The outside temperature in late July was pushing 100°F (37.8°C) and the nearest a Routemaster goes to air-conditioning is to open the top-deck quarter-drop windows and the rear emergency-exit window and hope for a through-draught.

There’s no better way to survey the passing scene than the top deck of a bus, and Niagara-based Double Deck Tours have a sizeable fleet of around twenty Routemasters:  http://www.old-bus-photos.co.uk/wp-content/themes/Old-Bus-Photos/galleries/double_deck_toures/double_deck_tours.php.

The red double-deck London bus qualifies for the over-used expression “icon”.  Alongside the San Francisco cable-car and the trams of Melbourne and Hong Kong, it’s instantly recognisable – and unlike rail-borne icons – easily exportable.

London still has heritage Routemasters running tourists across the West End, though they were removed from ordinary services in 2005.

It’s possible to ride on genuine London buses in many parts of the world:  my introduction to Christchurch, New Zealand, a few days before the 2011 earthquake, was on a Routemaster that took the steep and sharply curved Mount Pleasant Road without complaint:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=1228.

Apart from their nostalgia appeal, the Routemaster has the advantage of being an extremely robust, well-designed vehicle with extraordinary longevity, attributable to the maintenance programme which amounted to a full rebuild every five years at the London Transport works at Aldenham.

The Routemaster was an improvement on its predecessor, the RT.  It’s regrettable that when the traditional two-man-operated, open-platform Routemaster was superseded by off-the-shelf vehicles from commercial manufacturers, none of them have lasted so well.

Like the High Speed Train, the Routemaster stands as unbeatable British design that wasn’t directly followed up.

Nearly half of the 2,876 Routemasters built between 1954 and 1968 are still in existence, and there’s no difficulty in obtaining spares.  Indeed, Routemaster owners have an association to call on for assistance and rallies can attract over a hundred vehicles from far and wide:  http://routemaster.org.uk/pages/diamondjubilee.