Category Archives: Transports of Delight

New use for Catesby Tunnel

Former Great Central Railway: Catesby Tunnel, Northamptonshire (1984)

One summer’s day in 1984 I was driving around Northamptonshire and decided to find out what remained in the area of the former Great Central Railway main line, which had been closed in 1966.

Twenty years later most of the formation remained, though the track and buildings had mostly been dismantled.

I wandered around Woodford Halse, a railway town near Daventry but in fact in the middle of nowhere, where the GCR made an elaborate junction with the earlier East & West Junction Railway that wandered across country between Stratford-on-Avon and Bedford.

Afterwards I found my way to the site of Charwelton Station and walked up the line to the south portal of Catesby Tunnel.

There I stared down the 1¾-mile dead-straight bore and, in the days of 35mm colour-slides – expensive photography – took a single shot at the light at the end of the tunnel that actually came out.

Much more recently I wrote a blog-article about Catesby Tunnel at a time when there was debate about whether the proposed High Speed Two should be routed in places over the old Great Central, which was itself a nineteenth-century attempt at an express route from Manchester to Paris.

There was talk of using the tunnel to carry one HS2 track and dig a parallel bore for the other.  The idea came to nothing.

But now someone has found an ingenious way of making money out of a Victorian tunnel that has been abandoned and unmaintained for over half a century but was so well-built that it has remained in good condition .

Aero Research Partners, a consortium which provides facilities for aerodynamic vehicle testing [https://www.totalsimulation.co.uk/computational-fluid-dynamics/catesby-tunnel], has leased the trackbed from Daventry District Council to build an indoor test track for motor vehicles:  https://www.daventrydc.gov.uk/your-council/news/tunnel-transformation-project-making-good-progress-05-10-20.

Catesby Tunnel is uniquely suited to this purpose.  Apart from being dead straight, it has a constant gradient of 1 in 172 and is bigger than any other British tunnel of its length because it was built to continental loading gauge to accommodate Channel Tunnel trains:  https://www.tunneltalk.com/UK-30Jan2020-progress-challenges-Catesby-Tunnel.php.

The project is expected to cost around £13 million and will command worldwide demand as a unique facility for the motor industry.  Not only will it respect the resident bat population, but at weekends it will welcome members of the public who wish to cycle its length, following in the tyre-tracks of the TV presenter Rob Bell:  https://www.my5.tv/walking-britain-s-lost-railways/season-3/episode-4.

It’s an admirable solution for making use of one of Dr Beeching’s white elephants.  There’s another such project in West Yorkshire that’s still the subject of argument.  It’s to be hoped that Queensbury Tunnel isn’t squandered like the string of tunnels north of central Nottingham that could have saved a great deal of 21st-century traffic congestion.  

There is a well-illustrated account of the Catesby Tunnel in its derelict state at http://www.forgottenrelics.co.uk/tunnels/gallery/catesby.html, and a knowledgeable survey of the conversion at https://www.railengineer.co.uk/video-catesby-tunnel.

Italian job

Lingotto Building, Turin, Italy: former test track

It’s not feasible to travel by train from Florence to London within a day.

When I took the Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ tour [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany]  our return journey was broken at Turin.

As we drove through the Turin suburbs our guide Caroline mentioned that our hotel, the Nh Lingotto Congress [https://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-torino-lingotto-congress], was a conversion of a former Fiat car factory.  I’d vaguely heard about an Italian car factory turned into a hotel but I was unprepared for the luxurious splendour to which we were treated.

The building is a lengthy concrete-framed oblong with an elegant façade, built 1916-23 to the designs of Giacomo Matté-Trucco (1869-1934), originally the Fiat company’s in-house architect and engineer, but in private practice by the time he conceived the Lingotto factory.

When car production ceased in 1982 its renovation was entrusted to the Genoese architect Renzo Piano (b 1937), already well-known for collaborating with Richard Rodgers on the Centre Georges Pompidou (1971-77) in Paris and latterly famous for the Shard (2000-2012) at London Bridge.

Piano’s scheme embraces an exhibition centre (1992), an auditorium (1994), two hotels (1995) and a shopping centre.  The site includes a helipad and an art gallery stocked with pieces from the collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli:  Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) was customarily known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather and namesake (1866-1945), the founder of the Fiat company.

The hotel lobby is cool and modern, and the space within the outer wings of the factory buildings is filled with a dense jungle visible through glazed walls.  The bedrooms are beautifully finished, reflecting the calibre of the designer, using the high ceilings of the original factory design, spacious and comfortable.

Although I felt hot and exhausted I couldn’t resist exploring, and by the time I’d showered and had some lunch other tour-guests were insisting I should go to the roof to see the “race-track”. 

The key to the complex is the shopping mall, 8 (Italian number ‘otto’, echoing ‘Lingotto’).  Among the shop units is the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, where a haughty young lady behind a desk pointed towards a lift which took me up four storeys to another even more haughty female who pointed me towards a further lift which carried me to the fifth-floor art gallery and the roof.

The bijou art-gallery is a delight, containing a couple of Canova sculptures and a series of paintings by Canaletto, Bellotto, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.  No British shopping centre can boast such a life-enhancing experience above the shops.

Only when I walked on to the sunlit roof did I realise that the so-called race-track was not visible from the roof, it was the roof – an intact and well-preserved test-track, designed to run cars at 90kph at a time when the normal top speed was 70kph, with alarmingly banked curves at each end.  It features in The Italian Job (1969).

Back at shop level I got lost, which was a benefit because I came upon the helical ramp which runs through the building to give cars access to the roof. 

When I read it all up in Wikipedia Italian (in English translation, naturally,) I discovered that the raw materials were brought in at ground level, presumably from the nearby rail line, and cars were assembled as they moved upwards through the building until they emerged complete and road-ready on the roof – the exact opposite of the process in the Studebaker Building in midtown Chicago.

There’s an excellent video-essay on the Lingotto factory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciscQuVD5vo.

Volunteer effort

Rawtenstall Station, East Lancashire Railway: British Railways locomotive 33109

This article describes that East Lancashire Railway in the days before Covid 19. The railway is determinedly operating, whenever possible, in line with current coronavirus restrictions: http://www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk/events-activities.aspx.

Volunteers are the life-blood of heritage organisations, nowhere more so than on the labour-intensive steam railways.

I visited the East Lancashire Railway [http://www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk]on a freezing January day, an unforgiving time of year when tourists stay at home.

Nevertheless, the ELR was running their Blue Timetable, a full service using two trains, one hauled by steam, the other by diesel.  The ticket-office, shop, stations, cafés and the trains themselves were fully staffed and operational.

As we travelled above the snow-line to Rawtenstall, we passed a tracklaying crew, clad in hi-vis jackets, sorting out a siding in billowing snow.

The twelve-mile ELR route actually encompasses two former rail routes out of Bury – north via Ramsbottom to Rawtenstall, and east to Heywood where a link is planned to Castleton to join the Network Rail route from Manchester to Rochdale and beyond.

The railway also runs the over-stuffed Bury Transport Museum in the goods shed behind Bury Bolton Street station and offers a wide-ranging events programme from on-board dining to train-driving experiences, from days out with Thomas the Tank Engine to guided rail ale trails.

All this is made possible by a small army of volunteers – there must have been nearer a hundred than fifty on a quiet day – giving the most valuable thing they have, their time.  The satisfaction they gain from working a traditional railway and serving the public must be considerable:  they could just as easily stay at home and watch television.

Those of us who simply pay our fare, buy refreshments and maybe take home a souvenir are in a small way supporting their venture, and we shouldn’t take for granted the hidden value of the volunteers that turn out regardless to make the railway function.

Rainbow’s End

Rainbow’s end

One of the images in the ‘Sunlight’ series of my greetings-card range is a photographic fluke.

It was taken through the window of a moving train sometime in 1977.  It exists as a 35mm colour slide, and has been gently buffed up by Photoshop.

The occasion was memorable.

In those days, most of my adult-education courses were based around transport history, and it was a good time to be teaching about trains.

Dr Beeching’s reshaping of Britain’s railways had been running for the past ten years, steam had gone, and a brave new world of high-speed intercity passenger services was on the horizon.

My classes in Derbyshire were often populated by retired railwaymen who could tell stories back to the 1930s, and sometimes by current rail employees who knew what was going on in the industry.

I had an invaluable contact in British Rail’s Sheffield office, a gentleman called George who was in charge of group travel and could pull all sorts of levers if I booked a dozen or more adult-ed students on a rail trip.

It was George who gave me access to the former Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras when it was most neglected – Grade I listed and nobody could think what to do with it.

When the spanking new High Speed Train (HST), later branded as Intercity 125, came on stream on the Great Western main line and the Cross Country route from the South West to the North East in 1977, George was able to provide us with tickets to travel on both lines on the same day, beginning on the Midland Main Line at Chesterfield (which was not then served by HSTs, though they came later).

We travelled south to St Pancras, hopped on the Underground to Paddington, sped down the Great Western to Bristol Temple Meads, and then returned all the way to Chesterfield.

It was somewhere on the last leg of the triangular journey, south of Birmingham, that I spotted the rainbow and lined it up with a passing cottage.

The HSTs were a new experience in travel, not only for their maximum speed of 125mph but for the air-conditioning and solid comfort of their Mark 3 carriages.  Many of them are still in service, despite the fact that until recently they still had slam doors and direct discharge of lavatories on to the track.

I’ve written elsewhere about the designer Sir Kenneth Grange’s influence on the shape of the production HST, and about the export of the design to Australia, where it’s known as the XPT.

The HST was supposed to be a hastily-contrived stand-in for the tilting Advanced Passenger Train, which was aborted by British Rail and its technology sold to Fiat Ferrovia, only to return to Britain as the Pendolino in 2010.

Meanwhile, the HST has given many years of yeoman service, and hasn’t yet outlived its usefulness.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Trains to Edale

View from Edale Station towards Cowburn Tunnel, Derbyshire

Edale is the last station for stopping westbound trains from Sheffield to Stockport and Manchester before the line plunges into Cowburn Tunnel (3,702 yards).

It serves the village of Edale (population 353) and is handy for walkers setting off on the Pennine Way.

The Hope Valley Line is notable, and rare among intercity railways in the North, because all its original stations remain open to passengers, and an hourly stopping service runs in between non-stop trains serving Norwich, Nottingham and Liverpool via Sheffield.

Edale station itself offers only basic facilities.  British Rail replaced the original timber buildings with bus shelters, and eventually provided automatic ticket machines and digital information displays.

The Dore & Chinley Railway was opened in 1894 by the Midland Railway, providing a cross-country link between Sheffield and Manchester.  It gained additional traffic when G & T Earle opened their cement works, served by a private branch railway, at Hope in 1929.

The cement works is an ambivalent factor in the economy of the Peak District National Park:  it’s ugly and dirty, yet provides jobs for the local community, and its rail connection helped to save the line in the 1960s.

Though the Woodhead route between Sheffield and Manchester via Penistone had been modernised and electrified after the Second World War, it had less social value as a passenger route, and after its coal traffic declined it closed in 1981.

The Hope Valley route offers an attractive ride through some of Derbyshire’s finest scenery, even though a quarter of the mileage is in tunnel.

Each of its stations provides access to interesting tourist sites and attractive walking country.

Hope station is isolated, but has bus services to Bradwell and CastletonBamford is within walking distance of Ladybower Reservoir and the Upper Derwent dams;  Hathersage has an open-air swimming pool and the David Mellor Factory, and Grindleford boasts the best fry-up for miles around – as long as you don’t ask for mushrooms.

In the days of steam traction and non-corridor slam-door carriages, the last train back to Sheffield was nicknamed the “Passion Special”, apparently because the length of Totley Tunnel (6,230 yards) provided opportunities not commonly found in the decades before the Swinging Sixties.

In contrast, latter-day Sprinter units are passion killers.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Lodekka bus

Lincolnshire Road Car Co Bristol Lodekka 2378 (OVL 473)

It’s a sign of age when you see in a museum exhibits that you’ve used in real life.

At a South Yorkshire Transport Trust open day I came across a vision of the past in the form of the Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society’s beautifully restored Bristol FS5G ‘Lodekka’ 2376 (OVL 473) of 1960 – exactly the kind of vehicle that I and my school contemporaries, fresh out of sixth-form and off to university, conducted at Skegness depot in the late 1960s.

The Bristol Lodekka was the effective solution to the long-standing problem of building double-deck bus bodies that could negotiate bridges tighter than 14 feet 6 inches.

Bristol Commercial Vehicles, the chassis manufacturer, in combination with Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, body builders, designed a drop rear axle, which meant that there was no need for a step up into the lower deck and – more importantly – the overall height of the vehicle could be as low as 13 feet 5 or 6 inches.

The first prototype, a famously odd-looking vehicle, was launched in 1949, and by the end of the 1960s over five thousand Lodekkas had been built.

However, a legal anomaly in the arrangement of the part-nationalised British bus industry meant that this revolutionary design was unavailable to many UK operators.

Bristol Commercial Vehicles was a subsidiary of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company, which had built its own vehicles from 1908 and increasingly sold them to other operators.  By the late 1930s Bristol customarily worked in tandem with the body manufacturers Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, itself an offshoot of the United Automobile Company which had originated in East Anglia but concentrated on bus services in the north-east.

Bristol, with its manufacturing subsidiary, came into the ownership of the huge Thomas Tilling transport combine in 1931.  The Tilling Group was nationalised in 1948, as was Eastern Coach Works, and the two manufacturers were tied to provide vehicles for the third of the British bus industry that was in government ownership.

So during the 1950s Tilling Group companies standardised on the Lodekka, including the Lincolnshire Road Car Company which operated no: 2376.

By a quirk of policy, however, Bristol and ECW were expressly forbidden to sell their products to the rest of the industry,– that is, the other great combine, British Electric Traction, and the many municipalities and independents that ran their own bus services.

Eventually, these operators were able to buy low-floor buses built on licence from Dennis of Guildford.

By an enjoyable irony, the one operator who gained the most practical advantage from the drop-centre axle was Barton of Chilwell.  They ordered a one-off Dennis Loline II with a Northern Counties lowbridge body to prove to the Traffic Commissioners that they could squeeze a double-decker under the railway bridge at what is now Long Eaton station. They made their practical point but the Commissioners refused to license the route for a double-decker and this unique vehicle – the seldom-spotted 861 (861 HAL) – spent its days as a star turn on the X42 Nottingham-Derby express service.

Lowbridge bus

Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)
Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)

Ipswich Transport Museum [https://www.ipswichtransportmuseum.co.uk] has a rich and relevant collection of vehicles and other transport material illustrating public transport and the emergency services from a local perspective.

There is a horse tram from Cambridge (1880), an Ipswich electric tram (1904), Ipswich trolleybuses from 1923 onwards and Eastern Counties motorbuses from 1927, together with emergency-services vehicles and a particularly fine Daimler hearse,– all housed in a well-lit former trolleybus depot at Priory Heath.

The collection covers local tram, trolleybus, motorbus and coach operators and the versatile Ipswich manufacturer Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries,– and features the Ipswich Corporation fleet, distinctive for long, narrow destination indicators and unpainted aluminium body panels. 

One vehicle resonated for me though I’d never before visited Ipswich.  Eastern Counties LK374 (KNG 374), a 1949 Bristol K double-decker, carries a lowbridge body, a feature I had as little to do with as possible in my 1960s travels in the East Midlands.

Double-deck buses up to the 1950s sat much higher on their chassis than later vehicles, because the lower-deck floor had to clear the rear axle and transmission shaft. 

The only practical way of reducing headroom to run a double-decker under bridges of restricted height was to align the upper-deck gangway with the offside windows and sink it into the lower-deck ceiling. 

This meant that the seats upstairs had to be four across, with obvious inconvenience and increased dwell-time when someone by the nearside window needed to alight.  It also meant that anyone seated downstairs against the offside window risked bumping their head when rising from their seat.

My Derbyshire schoolmates who were obliged to ride on these things called them “coffin buses”.

We hated them.

There was, eventually, a solution, but it was a long time coming to many bus operators…

Woodbridge Station Guest House

Woodbridge Station, Suffolk

The Station Guest House at Woodbridge – https://woodbridgestationguesthouse.co.uk – is an excellent example of practical reuse of a potentially redundant station building.  The station itself continues to operate as the first stop out of Ipswich on the line to Lowestoft and the building houses a high-quality café, the three-bedroom guest house, a florist’s shop and a taxi office. 

The station was built for the former East Suffolk Railway and opened in 1859.  A footbridge provides access both to the Ipswich-bound platform and also to the banks of the nearby River Deben.

I had a comfortable family room with a double bed and a single bed, with an en-suite which allowed me to watch people walking over the footbridge without them seeing me at my ablutions.  It’s a corner room, so from one window I could watch the trains arrive and depart over the level crossings and from the other I could watch the boats riding the tide on the river.

Breakfast is served promptly at 9.00am at a reserved table in the café and the service is admirable.  The only minor downside is that car-parking is £3.00 a day maximum and you have to feed the meter before the guy with the hi-vis jacket books you.  The notice by the machine warns that photographs may be taken, which I read as a threat.

There’s really no reason to bring a car to stay at the Station Guest House.  There’s a perfectly good train service that links with London and East Coast services via Ipswich.

Carla, the delightful lady who welcomed me to the Station Guest House , reeled off a list of places to have dinner as the café closes at 3.00pm.  For most of my stay, however, I happily picnicked each night with more than enough tea and coffee and the sound of the trains through the open window. 

Woodbridge itself is an attractive town.  Beside the river is the Woodbridge Tide Mill, one of two remaining tidal watermills that are restored to working order and producing wholemeal flour for sale [https://woodbridgetidemill.org.uk] and on the opposite bank is the National Trust Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo], marking the site of the enormously significant Anglo-Saxon ship burial, excavated in 1939. 

Transportation in miniature

Hiroshima, Japan: City Transportation Museum, Chōrakuji

I had a couple of hours to spare in my last afternoon in Hiroshima, so I took to the Astram, opened in 1994, a people-mover built to connect with the major sporting arena up in the hills, Edion Stadium Hiroshima. 

The people-mover is remarkable, over eleven miles long, running underground beneath the central area and then mounting a continuous viaduct that never seems to touch the ground.  I’m not convinced about this rubber-tyred concrete technology:  it’s distinctly bumpy compared with rail and the infrastructure seems to be bulky and intrusive.

The route is up a steep-sided valley that reminded me of Halifax, or Hebden Bridge, in which every piece of flat land is built on, with low-rise housing, high-rise towers and the associated suburban public and commercial development. 

I was interested to see the Hiroshima hinterland, and I took as my destination the transportation museum at Chōrakuji, two-thirds of the way along the route.

The Hiroshima City Transportation Museum [http://www.vehicle.city.hiroshima.jp/VEHICLE_HP/Contents/01_home/0104_English/ehome.html], a five-minute walk from the Astram station, is in an expensive-looking modern building, and was not what I expected.  There are only two full-size vehicles in the whole place – a sports car and one of the atom-bomb trams, identical to the two I’d seen on the streets but painted in a different livery. 

A whole floor is given to an eclectic display of a couple of thousand models of trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes, with very perfunctory labelling in Japanese and English.  I had a go at driving a train simulator but couldn’t get on with it.

Upstairs was a two-storey hall, filled with a gigantic working model of a not-far-into-the-future city to demonstrate as many modes of public transport as possible – not only trains and cars and ships and aircraft but helicopters, monorails, travellators, even a fairground.

So there, under one roof, you can examine past, present and future transportation, most of it in miniature, some of it in motion.

Moving streetcar museum

Hiroshima Electric Tramway, Japan: “Atomic bomb” tram 652

To make the most of my two days in Hiroshima, my first mission was to get my bearings.  Armed with a day pass for the streetcars, I walked to the nearest route and rode to the railway station to find my way to the Sightseeing Loop Bus.  These are red single-deckers with vestigial commentary offering two overlapping routes which I did in succession.  My Japan Rail Pass gave me this for free:  the driver simply photographed the pass with a digital camera, but more recently the service has become entirely free [https://www.hiroshima-navi.or.jp/en/information/loopbus].

The red bus tour orientation enabled me to use streetcars for the rest of my day’s travels.  The streetcar system is a full-on transport facility, not by any means a heritage operation, though it’s billed as “the moving streetcar museum” because it runs up-to-date low-floor vehicles alongside earlier generations right back to two of the trams that survived the atom bomb, 651 and 652:  http://train.sakura.ne.jp/train/hiroden/carphoto/index.html.  Indeed, the streetcar company is proud that they had three of these trams back on the road three days after the bomb.

The tram and bus operator is the Hiroshima Electric Railway Co Ltd, known from the Japanese Hiroshima Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha as Hiroden for short.

I made use of my streetcar pass to explore the city.  I deliberately took a tram to the end of the line at Hiroshima Port, simply to gauge how big the city is.  (It has a population of around a million, equivalent to Birmingham.)  The ferry terminal provides passenger access to various outlying islands, and indicates that the harbour facility is enormous.  Otherwise there’s little to detain anyone.

The journey back in the rush hour was a farce.  The older streetcars have seats parallel to the windows, so you sit with your back to the view, gazing at the midriffs of standing passengers.  It’s impossible to see where you are;  the in-car signage is in Japanese with no indication of the stop-numbers and there was no PA system (which in Japan might be bilingual Japanese/English).  I eventually got off at a point which fitted with my mental map and took a tram in the opposite direction back to the point where I could walk back to my hotel.  I sense that the only way to deal with the Hiroshima rush-hour is to travel to the end of the line and bag the seat beside the driver.

Rush-hour is rarely fun anywhere in the world.  Hiroshima is a tram city, and though the sightseeing loop bus is useful for orientation, there’s no better way of getting around outside rush-hours than with a day pass on the streetcars.