June 2007

30 June 2007
Probably the world’s most beautiful petrol station
Mark Holland


It’s in Asmara, which is, as you doubtless all know, the capital of Eritrea.

The Red Sea country was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941. Presumably, along with Libya, it was their bit of the “Scramble for Africa” that kicked off when the newly unified nations of Germany and Italy along with that other 19th Century new nation Belgium looked at the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portugese and Russian Empires and thought, “hey, we want some of that, what bit of the world isn’t yet taken?” Thus the city of Asmara has a distinctly Italian feel. But not only that. Mussolini let Italian architects loose on the place from 1936 onwards so it is therefore full of futuristic buildings celebrating and heralding the technological age.

From The Daily Telegraph:

Giuseppe Pettazzi was one of those architects, and took his passions to almost comic proportions in the building of the iconic Fiat Tagliero building - probably the world’s most beautiful petrol station, and also one of the world’s supreme examples of Futurism, its vertical and horizontal lines extolling speed and motion and urgency.

Basing his building on the contours of an aeroplane, Pettazzi was forced by Italian planning laws to include pillar supports for the two concrete ‘wings’. Legend has it that during the inauguration he demanded the wooden props removed, and when the builders refused, he took a pistol and threatened to shoot their headman, demonstrating absolute faith in his design by standing on the tip of one wing during the de-posting process

Although I’d have expected other such windswept and interesting places about which I know little such as Dakar or Algiers - and why does La corniche Oranaise spring to mind? - to have retained some of the architecture of the period: apparently there’s nothing else quite like it in Africa.

Mark Holland

Whereupon we attempt to out You Tube (that’s a verb that is) James Hamilton. Even with a doubtless rich seam of transport related video to mine, I’m fairly certain that such a feat is not possible.

Coming out with guns blazing, or rather with LMS firebox blazing; surely the greatest transport film of all time. It’s a shame about the “Cor blimey Bert, How’s your missus, Rovers lost again then dintcha you know Alf” cheeky patter the voice over man does when the working classes talk, mind. I chalk that down to the era and instead wallow in the sight of LMS Royal Scot Class 6115 Scots Guardsman cresting Beattock Summit and dropping into Glasgow.

I’m not sure it’s possible to ever tire of that.

29 June 2007
“Damn You, Clarkson, and your time-wasting “Cool Wall” application” - indeed  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Top Gear
28 June 2007
Holy Rollers
Mark Holland

The Pope obviously has friends in high places.

Watch out for his (His?) car driving edicts which Brian mentioned the other day get a boost from our new Transport Secretary: Ruth - Holy Moly - Kelly.

Related exit thought: Heathens are surely going to be safer drivers than believers in an after-life for whom a fatal crash is merely a stepping stone rather than a full stop. No?

27 June 2007
Rob Fisher buys something - and then sits back and tracks its progress across the Atlantic  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (2)
Why railways are doomed
Patrick Crozier
The future of rail

As promised...

The British rail network peaked in 1912.  After that, vehicles based on the internal combustion engine, such as cars and lorries, started to eat into rail’s market. They did so because for all sorts of tasks they were better.  They were more convenient, more flexible and, in many cases, both cheaper and faster. they also gave the traveller with private space when travelling - the freedom to listen to his own taste in music and pick his nose.

From 1950 or thereabouts the British railway started to lose money.  In the 1960s the network was cut back dramatically.  Since then it has stabilised.  It needs about £1bn a year in subsidy but due to the crazy way it is structured receives far more.

Frankly, if railways were forced to stand on their own two feet - freed of both subsidy and regulation, there would be little left other than the main lines and the London commuter network - something that the Serpell Report concluded way back in 1982.

But it gets worse than that.  If Britain’s ridiculous planning laws were abolished, there would be a vast expansion of the city into what is currently the countryside.  This would be very bad news for the railway.  Railways need density.  They thrive on moving large numbers of people or large quantities of goods from point A to point B. Take the density away as urban expansion (not, not, not sprawl) would do and railways would find it ever harder, if not impossible, to exist.

Against this background, the one hope for the railways is climate change.  Or rather the hope that it is happening, that it is caused by CO2, that it is a bad thing and that the proper response is to cut down on CO2.  Because, in most cases, though by no means all, for the same length of journey, railways produce less pollution.

But rail is not the only alternative.  Staying at home is another - something that the internet has made massively easier.  I have even heard it said that when cities are allowed to develop naturally ie without the dubious benefit of state intervention, less, not more CO2 pollution is the result.  Possibly because drivers spend less time in jams.  Possibly because people live nearer their places of work.  Who knows.

Worse still, worries about climate change are cyclical.  People can forget about it pretty quickly when they are wondering how to pay the mortgage.  When lots of people are worried about paying the mortgage…

The more I think about it the more I think the “hope” of climate change is a forlorn one.

Railways appeal to people in all sorts of ways.  To some it’s nostalgia.  To some it’s the system.  To some it’s the promise of planetary salvation.  To some it’s the promise of not having to drive.  Unfortunately for the railways, none of these desires are strong enough when competing against the “hard needs” of flexibility and convenience that only the internal combusion engine can satisfy.  Railways, have changed the world in all sorts of wonderful ways, but their days are numbered.

24 June 2007
Thou shalt drive safely
Brian Micklethwait

From the BBC:

The Vatican has issued a set of “10 commandments” for motorists to promote safer driving.

The “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road” call on drivers to respect speed limits, refrain from drinking before driving and avoid cursing.

Roman Catholics are also urged to make the sign of the cross before setting off on a journey.

This is said to be the first time the Vatican has specifically dealt with the growing worldwide problem of road rage.

Amen.  Via him.

20 June 2007
Julian Taylor admires France's TGV system. I quite agree with him. Just like it's Japanese counterpart, it is wonderful. Until, that is, you start looking at the bills - I seem to remember an estimate of £30bn from a few years ago.

There is another problem specific to the French system. The pursuit of high-speed services has apparently distorted the French railway leaving the rest of the network starved of funds struggling along with infrequent and irregular services.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (5)French RailwaysHigh Speed Rail
15 June 2007
The Southern Travellers Handbook for 1965/66
Mark Holland

Arty farty, enduring image, photo blog “if charlie parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats” has a new category as of today.

One of their contributors has obviously discovered a copy of a British Rail publication, “The Southern Travellers Handbook for 1965/66”, mouldering in a drawer or antique shop somewhere and is scanning its contents for our enjoyment. Thus far he’s posted a portrait of the manager of Southern Region and a great phalanx of commuters making their way from a train across the heaving platform to the exits. Enduring image.

You can find it here.

Of special interest to us is the regional manager’s introduction:

We shall be revising and re-issuing this handbook each year and recovering most of its cost from advertisements and the revenue from sales.

I’d have hoped they’d want to recoup that hole in the publication’s costs through increased ticket sales myself. The BR Southern Region’s predecessor, The Southern Railway, published an awful lot of material - “Sunny South Sam’s Hints for the Holidays”, that sort of thing - but this was in order to get more passengers on their trains, not out of vanity.

The fastest milk carts in the west
Mark Holland

Further to the silent but deadly electric cars below, check out these funky electric and/or fuel efficient cars in Wired! here as an accompaniment to this article. They’re not your average milk float. Some of them do nought to sixty in about 4 seconds!

I’m well impressed by this/these:

PML Flightlink’s electric wheel motor, which the company calls the Quad Electric Drive, or QED, replaces a car’s brakes as well as its gasoline engine. All braking is done by the motors, which act as electrical generators while slowing the car, returning energy back to the battery. Another plus: Each motor delivers precisely controlled torque to keep its wheel in contact with the pavement, providing skid control during hard acceleration and automatic antilock braking.

What’s Two-Ton Ted going to say about this?


The sound of silence
Mark Holland

There’s an advert running on the radio the moment for a Lexus hybrid. Although, if I recall Jeremy Clarkson correctly, said car rarely if ever runs off its batteries. The advert obviously doesn’t let that get in the way of its spiel.

Them: “If you listen very carefully you can just about hear…”
Me mentally interjecting: “The sound of hapless pedestrians and cyclists getting mown down because they never heard you coming.”

I’m pretty certain some high end German sports cars play engine noises through internal speakers to “enhance the driving experience”, or sommat. Perhaps stealth motors ought to broadcast an artificial engine noise - like the odour which inserted into otherwise odourless gas - so that others might hear your couple of tons of steel heading their way?

Alex Singleton. Communist
Patrick Crozier
Alex appears in the top part of this image

My good friend, Alex Singleton, writing for the Globalisation Institute, has been singing the praises of British rail “privatisation”.

Yup, scare quotes.  They’re there for a reason.

To privatise means to alter the ownership of an institution from the state to the private sector.  To own means to control.  In the economic sphere it means to be able to decide what you sell, to whom you sell it and at what price.

On privatisation, Railtrack was supposed to “own” the infrastructure - the tracks, the stations, the control centres.  The main services it had to sell were what are known as track “paths”.  Could it decide how many of these to sell?  Not really, that was decided by the government in the form of the Rail Regulator.  Could it decide to whom to sell them?  No.  That too, was decided by the Rail Regulator.  Could it decide at what price to sell these paths?  In almost all circumstances, no.  That, again, was decided by the Rail Regulator.

We have a term for a system where the government decides everything.  It is known as communism.  And Alex Singleton (at least, when it comes to the railways) is in favour of it.

And, just like communism in every other sphere, it doesn’t work.

14 June 2007
Exciting stuff from the frozen north.

Jay Jardine reports on Private Ice Roads in the Northwest Territories.

Mark Holland • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road
13 June 2007
Most of the time Moscow's roads (according to English Russia) are crowded. But sometimes they look this:


It all rather depends on whether President Putin is in town or not.

This is not how it works in London. When the bigwigs are in town it is only the traffic immediately in front of them that gets moved out of the way. Still, it seems to work. Adonis reckons he once managed to do Heathrow to Parliament Square in 17 minutes.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road
G-Wiz G-Wiz
Brian Micklethwait

Spotted by David Tebbutt on June 5th, blogged by David Tebbutt June 6th, spotted by me there yesterday, and blogged here today.  Two cars in one parking space:


This car really is called G-WizBoris has more on the subject.

11 June 2007
George Monbiot buys a car - you'd need a heart of stone, etc, etc  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road:Climate Change
09 June 2007
The Wemyss Bay Incident
David Farrer

I read about this story on the scot-rail.co.uk discussion site.

Wemyss Bay is a small village on the north Ayrshire coast. It serves as the terminal for ferries to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. A train service from Glasgow “connects” with the ferry.

On the day of the “incident” the ferry arrived about 10 minutes late at Wemyss Bay and the 25-or-so passengers rushed up the ramp to the rather beautiful station to make the train connection. You can probably guess what happened next. Yes, the conductor shut the doors and let the train leave a few seconds before any of the passengers were able to board. The next train is an hour later.


The station supervisor, hastily beat a retreat to his booking office and pointed to a sign ,in true jobsworth tradition ,stating that trains would not be held for late boats!
This event has generated a lot of interesting comments, but it seems likely that the conductor may well have been acting rationally - if he wanted to keep his job.

The train itself is operated by First ScotRail but the track and stations are under the control of Network Rail, essentially an arm of the government. Train operators must pay substantial fines to Network Rail should any of their trains run late. But Wemyss Bay is a tiny station with one train per hour, you may think. Yes, but a few miles down the track the line is joined by the one from Gourock with three trains per hour (each way). A little bit further and you’re at Paisley Gilmour Street where the line from Ayr and Largs comes in with four more passenger trains per hour in both directions as well as coal trains running up from Ayrshire and aviation fuel going down to Prestwick airport. Ten minutes later you’ll be approaching Glasgow Central, the busiest UK station outside London. So a couple of minutes’ delay at Wemyss Bay could have led to a series of hold ups, literally down the line, that could have inconvenienced thousands of people, costing goodness knows how much in money terms.

Many of the commenters on the thread work in the railway industry and make it clear that the “jobsworth” conductor had no choice but to signal the train off on time, with or without the passengers.

Needless-to-say, some folk blamed all this on privatisation and the “bean counter” mentality. Forgetting for the moment that it’s the quasi-government entity Network Rail that levies the fines, I’d like to defend the “bean counters”, partly because I am one myself.

Accountants are there to tell management this:

If you want to do “X”

It’ll cost you “Y”

And - this is the most important bit - you can’t therefore use the same resources to do “Z”.

Or, putting it colloquially, “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

That’s true whether the system is capitalist or socialist, but capitalism provides the incentives that guide us to use resources in the most efficient manner, as judged by consumers.

In the ideal world there’d be a train waiting for us at the station no matter when we turned up. In fact I’d like my own personal train to be kept ready at Haymarket, steam fully primed, dining car fully stocked, and ready to take me wherever I want to go at no charge. But the world isn’t made like that and folk who think it is - let’s call them socialists - are deluded. I’ll try and remember that next time I’m at Wemyss Bay.

And that’s only the nose
Brian Micklethwait

Definitely my transport photo of the week:


That’s from here, but if it gets forgotten about by and unlinkable to at the BBC, at least it will remain here.  I first saw it at Gizmodo, which is also a fast-moving ever-changing site, where things are hard to find later.

This is what it is:

The nose of a UK Astute class nuclear submarine rolls through the streets of Barrow-In-Furness, Cumbria. The first 7,000 ton behemoth will be launched in early June.

Good to know that the UK can still do big bastard type war machines.

Down towards Glasgow she descends
Mark Holland

June 8, 1959

“Rocket mail” becomes “missile mail” when 3,000 pieces of mail are delivered by a cruise missile fired from a U.S. Navy submarine.

I wonder how they catch it? Can’t see a Nightmail style net apparatus standing up to a wallop from a missile!

Travelling in style
Mark Holland

I’m actually having my second string bike rebuilt around a new frame at the moment. One like this. It wasn’t until I rode my best bike up the hill on the way home from work the other week - I figured the weather was far too nice to “slum it” - that I realised quite what a limp noodle the other bike was. It’s a six year old aluminium frame that probably wasn’t the best in the first place. On the best bike you can feel the power going down onto the road. On the other you can feel it wilting beneath you. You get used to it of course. The novel becomes normal very quickly.

So I’m riding into work Thursay morning, on the best and presently only road bike, climbing the same hill as before but in the other direction; when I catch up with a fellow long distance commuter. “Ooh, De Rosa”, he says. “Yours isn’t too shabby either,” I reply. It was a Time VX! So there we are, at 8:30 on a beautiful sunny morning, both cruising up the hill towards Nelson’s Column on our carbon fibre bikes.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

A great comment from a member of the Veloriders forum in a discussion on an article Chris Boardman wrote in Procycling magazine about bicycle helmets:

Wearing a helmet in a serious collision with a car is like hiding under a table in Hiroshima in ‘45.

Yes, they have their uses by they’re not a panacea.

Mark Holland • PermalinkFeedback (0)Cycling
05 June 2007
The best station in the world
Patrick Crozier

Up to know my favourite station anywhere was the central station in Cologne.  That was until I clapped eyes on Berlin’s new Hauptbahnhof.  Absolutely glorious, inside and out - light, spacious, clean, logical.  It’s the way stations should be.


So, that’s a German station beating another German station and if were to do a ranking I think German stations would fill up the next few positions.  It would appear that they are on to something.

Which kind of fits in with something I learnt on my study tour of German railways a few years ago.  Apparently, Deutsche Bahnhof - Germany’s national railway - had spent a year working out what a station actually was.  “A town’s calling card” was the expression they used but I suspect there was a lot more to it than that.  Anyway, it appears to have been time well spent.  The results have been fantastic.