Category Archives: Transports of Delight

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.

The St Pancras clock

British Horological Institute Museum, Upton Hall, Nottinghamshire:  St Pancras Station clock hands

British Horological Institute Museum, Upton Hall, Nottinghamshire: St Pancras Station clock hands

The clock at St Pancras Station has long been a rendezvous for couples to meet, a tradition now symbolised by Paul Day’s magnificently kitsch thirty-foot-high sculpture The Meeting Place (2007).  (The frieze below the huge figures, added in 2008, is actually much more interesting.)

The clock itself is not original.

The original eighteen-foot-diameter dial was sold to an American collector in the 1970s for £250,000, but during the removal fell to the concourse and smashed to pieces.

Mr Roland Hoggard, a railwayman and clock enthusiast, paid £25 for the pieces, including the hands and clock mechanism, and took it all back to his home village of Thurgaton in Nottinghamshire.

There he reconstructed the dial on the side of his barn and powered the hands by the original motion.

When the station was refurbished as the permanent terminus for Eurostar, the clockmakers Dent & Co took moulds and samples and reproduced the dial and hands exactly, with new Swithland slate numerals and much 23-carat gold leaf.

In 2015 the artist Cornelia Parker devised a second, black dial to hang in front of the not-original clock-face.  The installation was entitled ‘One More Time’  [https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/cornelia-parker-st-pancras-international].

When Mr Hoggard died in 2013 at the age of 96 he bequeathed the clock to the British Horological Institute museum, five miles away from Thurgaton at Upton Hall, where for the moment the hands sit incongruously on top of a doorcase.

The BHI museum conservators are restoring the clock mechanism.  Where they’ll find space to put the dial remains to be seen.

The BHI Museum at Upton Hall is open on a limited basis: http://bhi.co.uk/museum/museum-events

Exploring Melbourne – the Karachi to Melbourne tram

 

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria:  tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria: tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria:  tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria: tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria:  tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria: tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

As you would expect of a tram city, there is a Melbourne Tram Museum, in the former Hawthorn tram depot, not far from Boroondara Cemetery.

The Museum has an encyclopaedic collection of vehicles dating right back to the cable-tramway (which began in 1885 and finally expired as late as 1940), parked in densely packed lines which make them difficult to see and sometimes impossible to photograph.

Its saving grace is that visitors have the run of all the vehicles.  This was apparent as I walked through the doors by the cacophony of tram bells.  Melbourne Tram Museum is the antithesis of places like Crich or Prague where the interiors of vehicles are mostly treated as shrines unless you’re actually riding on them.

I particularly enjoyed the “Karachi W11” tram – a superannuated 1970s vehicle that was decorated to within an inch of its life by a team of Pakistani artists for the Commonwealth Games of 2006.  It’s great fun, done up like a Karachi minibus with flashing lights, tassels and all manner of glitter and carrying the number of a Karachi bus-route.

Originally fleet-number 81, dating from 1977, it was the first of the Z1 class, one of the generation of Melbourne trams that began to replace the long-lived W class which are still the emblem of the city’s transport.

The Karachi tram’s side-panels carry the message “Love is Life” in English and Urdu, and inside are invocations in both languages to “Respect your elders” and “Travel in silence”.

The newly decorated tram ran on the City Circle for the duration of the Games, March 14th-26th 2006, and again on Friday evenings during the summer of 2006-7 as part of the City of Melbourne Living Arts Program.

Otherwise it remained in store until it was transferred to the Museum in June 2015.

By far the most amusing tram in the city, it deserves an occasional outing as an alternative to the celebrated Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.

Because the Museum is staffed by volunteers it’s only accessible on open days, and it’s well worth a visit:  http://www.hawthorntramdepot.org.au.

Exploring Victoria – Puffing Billy Railway

Puffing Billy Railway, Victoria, Australia:  Monbulk Creek viaduct

Puffing Billy Railway, Victoria, Australia: Monbulk Creek viaduct

The rail-traveller’s approach to the Puffing Billy Railway is by suburban electric train from the City Loop eastwards to Belgrave.

Though the route is a conventional trip through the Melbourne suburbs, it’s noticeable that further out the track has been expensively lowered into a steep-sided cutting to eliminate dangerous at-grade road crossings.

Towards the end of the journey, the line changes character.  After Upper Ferntree Gulley the broad-gauge electric multiple unit squeezes itself on to a rural single line with passing loops until it reaches its terminus at Belgrave.

The reason for this is that when the 1889 line as far as Upper Ferntree Gulley was extended ten years later it was built as one of four experimental 2ft-6in gauge branch lines, an extreme expression of Victorian Railways’ commitment to provide rail service even to remote communities in the days before motorised road transport.

Even though none of these narrow-gauge lines ever made a profit, the line from Upper Ferntree Gulley to the far terminus at Gembrook operated until a landslip in 1953 gave VR an excuse to close it.

The manifest popularity of the numerous “farewell” specials run as far as Belgrave motivated enthusiasts to raise the possibility of running it as a volunteer-operated heritage railway, the Puffing Billy Railway, named after the local nickname for the narrow-gauge trains.

Though VR management was initially sceptical, the scheme went ahead, with the narrow-gauge trackbed from Upper Ferntree Gulley to Belgrave converted to broad gauge and electrified.

Belgrave reopened as a suburban station in 1962, the same year that the Puffing Billy Railway opened its service as far as Menzies Creek, extending it to Emerald (1965), Lakeside (1975) and to the original terminus at Gembrook in 1998, a total journey of fifteen miles.

The result is an absolute delight for tourists as well as enthusiasts.  The clearances are such that passengers are encouraged to dangle their legs out of the train windows.  The route passes through beautiful countryside and crosses two spectacular timber viaducts at Monbulk Creek and Cockatoo Creek.

The railway’s preservation credentials are impressive.  It possesses every surviving VR narrow-gauge locomotive, all but one of which are operable, as well as one magnificent G-class Garratt locomotive which is capable of hauling eighteen-coach trains.

It runs trains every day of the year except Christmas Day, with a core group of paid staff alongside a welcoming, cheerful team of volunteers.

The Puffing Billy Railway has now run for longer as a heritage line than it did as part of a main-line network.  It dates back to the time when enthusiasts first began to believe they could run a railway, and rail professionals learned to trust them.

As such it stands alongside Britain’s narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway (reopened 1951) [http://www.talyllyn.co.uk] and standard-gauge Bluebell Railway (reopened 1960) [http://www.bluebell-railway.com] demonstrating that committed, hard-headed amateurs can make heritage rail a practical success.

Perhaps the ultimate accolade is a proposal for Victorian Railways to restore an original broad-gauge Tait electric multiple-unit set to operate a complementary service between Flinders Street and Belgrave in conjunction with the Puffing Billy trains:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tait_(train)#/media/File:TaitNewportWorkshops.jpg.

Ding-dings

Hong Kong Tramway:  tourist tram 68 & 139

Hong Kong Tramway: tourist tram 68 & 139

Like San Francisco and Melbourne, Hong Kong has its own inimitable street-transport experience, the British-style four-wheel double-deck trams that the locals call “ding-dings”.  (There was a public outcry in 2000 when the bells were briefly replaced by a beeper.)

The tramway dates back to 1904, when a fleet of British-built single-deck electric trams began running between Kennedy Town and Causeway Bay.

Double-deckers, originally with open tops, arrived in 1912.

The route was later extended eastwards to Shau Kei Wan, eight miles from Kennedy Town, and in a loop round the Happy Valley racecourse.

Though the trams duck inland in places, the main line largely follows the shore line of the early 1900s.

The system was restored after the Second World War and while street tramways in Britain went into steep decline Hong Kong’s double-deckers proved invaluable as the colony’s population expanded in the 1950s.

The main line was double-tracked in 1949, and the tramway began to build its own cars in the traditional pattern, double-ended, fully enclosed, with four-wheel trucks and British electrical equipment, taking power by trolley poles.

Single-deck trailers were introduced in 1964, and when they disappeared in the early 1980s Hong Kong became the only tram-system in the world exclusively using double-deckers.

There are two teak-framed private-hire trams of antique appearance, convincing to the average tourist [https://bluebalu.com/2016/03/01/tramoramic-tour] though in fact they’re of no great age: no 28, Albert, dates from 1985 and 128, Victoria, was built in 1987.  They were joined by a open-balcony tour tram, 68, in 2016.

Two other trams remain unmodernised:  50 is a static exhibit in the Hong Kong Museum of History, and 120 continues to operate with its teak and rattan seating.

Travelling on a Hong Kong tram feels like a time-warp:  much more than any of the heritage tramways in Britain, this is real transportation serving ordinary workaday passengers going about their daily routine.  For tourists, moreover, the trams provide a grandstand view of shops and shoppers for miles.

Since 1976 passengers have boarded at the rear of the car through a turnstile and alighted at the front, paying their fares beside the driver.  All termini are balloon-loops, and trams are driven from one cab rather than two.

The appearance of the trams seems constant, though nowadays enlivened by all-over advertising, yet they have in fact been subtly modernised:  the heavy British controllers have been replaced by electronic controls and the seating is more comfortable.

A single flat-rate adult fare works out at around 23p in sterling:  https://www.hktramways.com/en/schedules-fares.

It’s even cheaper than the Star Ferry.

Star Ferry

'Northern Star', Hong Kong Star Ferry

‘Northern Star’, Hong Kong Star Ferry

Though it only takes a matter of seven or eight minutes, Hong Kong’s Star Ferry is one of the most memorable ferry-trips anywhere in the world.

The channel between mainland Kowloon and Hong Kong Island is perhaps a kilometre – rather less, for instance, than the distance between Liverpool’s Pier Head and the Wirral.

The Star Ferry was started by an Indian entrepreneur, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, who arrived in Hong Kong as a stowaway in 1852, traded opium and became a hotelier.

His habit of naming vessels after stars is attributed to his regard for Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889) –

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea…

He named his company Star Ferry in 1898, just before he sold it to the merchant combine Jardine Matheson & Co and retired to India.

The vessels are double-ended, with two sets of bows to facilitate fast turnarounds.  The oldest still in service, Radiant Star and Celestial Star, date from 1956:  all but the two newest were built by the local Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Co.

Until 1972, when the first cross-harbour road-tunnel opened, the ferry was the only practical means of travelling between Kowloon and Hong Kong Central.

Now there are three road and three MTR subway tunnels, and using the ferry is a deliberate choice rather than a necessity.

Though they carry far fewer passengers than in their heyday, the ferries remain popular with tourists.

A single adult trip costs roughly 25p, which is the second cheapest travel experience in Hong Kong:  http://www.starferry.com.hk/en/service.

Day or night, it’s a superb way to see the spectacular skyline with its array of skyscrapers backed by The Peak.

Steaming to Dartmouth

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway:  British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway: British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

The Dartmouth Steam Railway is part of an exceptional heritage-railway enterprise which operates as a full commercial operation, with a small amount of volunteer help at one of the five stations.

The original railway, the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, opened between Paignton and Churston in 1861 and to Kingswear in 1864.  The Kingswear terminus connected by ferry with Dartmouth, where there remains a railway station that has never seen a train, like the former station at Hull (Corporation Pier).  An independent branch line three miles long, the Torbay & Brixham Railway, opened from Churston into Brixham in 1868.  The two railways were absorbed into the Great Western Railway in 1876 and 1883 respectively.

Both branches carried heavy passenger traffic until the 1960s, when the Brixham branch closed in 1963 and most through trains to Kingswear were cut back in 1966.

Complete closure was avoided when the Dart Valley Railway Co Ltd, which had been set up to run what is now the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Buckfastleigh, agreed to purchase the Paignton-Kingswear line directly from British Rail.  The last BR train ran on December 30th 1971 and the first service by the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway, as it was then called, began on January 1st 1972.

The £250,000 cost of the purchase was balanced by the sale of surplus land, including a hotel in Kingswear, and astute management has kept pace with demand from holidaymakers as well as rail enthusiasts ever since.

While the Dartmouth Steam Railway has developed as a commercial enterprise, the former Dart Valley Railway, now the South Devon Railway, has remained a volunteer operation, successful enough to purchase the freehold of its trackbed and premises from the Dartmouth Steam Railway PLC in 2010.

There’s more to the Paignton-Kingswear railway than trains.  As the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company it runs a fleet of river boats between Kingswear and Dartmouth, and between Dartmouth and Totnes, and its vintage bus service no 100 connects Totnes Quay with the rebuilt GWR-style railway station at Paignton (Queens Park) so that, tide permitting, it’s possible to make a full circuit within the day.

The railway also opened Greenway Halt in 2012, providing direct access to the Agatha Christie estate, Greenway, a National Trust property.

The combination of glorious seaside, heritage transport and the beauty of the River Dart and its estuary make the Kingswear peninsula a magnet for visitors.

All this is accessible by means of the Round Robin ticket [http://www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk/tours/round-robin], as well as a variety of other options to suit individual visitors’ inclinations.

The Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour includes a visit to the Dartmouth Steam Railway as part of a rail, bus and riverboat Round Robin tour of the Dart estuary.  For further details, please click here.

The branch line that Beeching opened

Buckfastleigh Station, South Devon Railway

Buckfastleigh Station, South Devon Railway

Dr Richard Beeching could open the heritage railway then called the Dart Valley Railway with a clear conscience, because it was not one of the railways that his now notorious Report had closed.

The branch line from Totnes to Ashburton, opened in 1872, had never made a worthwhile profit.  The company that built it, the Buckfastleigh, Totnes & South Devon Railway, eventually sold out to the operator, by then the Great Western Railway, at a huge loss in 1897, and by the 1930s the three stations were between them selling less than twenty tickets a day.

The last passenger train ran on November 3rd 1958 and freight continued until September 1962.  Although Dr Beeching had been appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961, the first of his two reports, The Reshaping of British Railways, came out in 1963.  Dr Beeching returned to his substantive post at ICI in 1965.

The branch line reopened as the Dart Valley Railway in April 1969.  Because service trains had always used the main-line platform at Totnes station, rather than a bay platform, access to heritage trains at Totnes remained a problem for years, until the specially constructed riverside station short of the main-line junction, Totnes (Littlehempston), was linked by a pedestrian footbridge in 1993.

Since 1991 this charming little line has been operated by the South Devon Railway Trust.  It carries far more passengers – around 100,000 a year – than it ever did as a commercial railway.

In the early days, until 1971, the Dart Valley Railway trains operated all the way to Ashburton, but an upgrade of the A38 trunk road blocked the trackbed and the terminus ever since has been Buckfastleigh.

That might seem to be the end of the matter, but Ashburton station remains intact, and the Friends of Ashburton Station [https://friendsofashburtonstation.co.uk] have put forward a business case for retaining the station’s environs and restoring the rail connection with Buckfastleigh.  Their report itemises nine such unlikely reinstatements, ranging from the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways to the linking of the two Great Central Railway lines at Loughborough:  http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/549983/FoAS-Proposal.compressed.compressed.pdf.

The South Devon Railway Trust has committed to supporting this venture, though the process of enlisting local community support is delicate:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/ashburtonstation (see January 16th 2017 post).

The chairman of the Trust, Allan Taylor, provided a statement of his board’s position under the heading ‘Background information’ at http://everythinggwr.com/save-ashburton-station.

In the meantime, on high days and holidays, there is a rail replacement bus service between Buckfastleigh and Ashburton:  http://www.rm1872.org.uk.

The Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour includes a visit to the South Devon Railway.  For further details, please click here.