‘Big Ben’, the great bell of Westminster’s iconic clock, has fallen silent. Thankfully, that silence is only a temporary one. Metaphorically however it appears that a different clock may now at last be ticking, counting down the seconds until a seismic shift in the long-established political landscape is achieved.
Tomorrow, Monday 30th October 2017, MPs will debate the introduction of proportional representation for general elections in the UK. This follows a petition on the UK parliament website which attracted 103,495 signatures over a six month period. This exceed the required threshold of 100,000 signatures that triggers a debate in parliament. It is a small step along the path to a fairer system, we have won a battle but not yet the war.
Truth be told however, the First Past The Post voting system might not be the only aspect of our democracy that is seriously outdated. A proportional system will require larger constituencies, each represented by multiple MPs. If the boundaries of these were drawn up on the basis of population, some would be so large that their MPs would be unable to effectively represent the needs of constituents across their entire area. I believe the House Of Commons can seat only 427 MPs at a time. This number is divisible by 7, which is also the number of members representing each region in the proportional element of Scottish parliament elections.
Assuming 7-member constituencies, electing 427 MPs to the Westminster parliament would require 61 constituencies. Based on population sizes, 51.301 of those would represent England. With a little rounding, we could have 50 constituencies in England, 6 in Scotland, 3 in Wales and 2 in Northern Ireland. Personally, I do not think Wales can be effectively represented with fewer than six constituencies, so this is clearly not going to work.
There is, as far as I can tell, only one solution: full devolution of everything that can be handled on a more-local level. With only matters such as defence left under the control of the Westminster parliament, local representation in the house of commons would be far less important. In such a scenario, Westminster constituencies could be even fewer in number, perhaps just one for the whole of Wales, with a larger number of members in each. That would also be more-proportional, since the most-proportional system of all is one which does not have constituencies at all but simply allocates all the seats based on each party’s share of the national vote.
Soon, we will have to call time on the UK parliament in its current form (the title of this post oversteps the mark, since I am absolutely not calling for parliament to cease to be altogether). Tick-tock goes the clock…
Please excuse this somewhat hyperbole post, but I wanted to highlight the debate in the commons tomorrow and did not have enough time to comment. Hopefully ‘normal service’, as far as this autumn is concerned, will be resumed next week with the continuation of the report of my holiday in Leicester due.
My record of my August 2017 Midlands rail adventure continues (you can catch up on the previous instalment, “Moor, Please”, here).
With the weekend over, the focus returned to the modern railway. The morning of Monday 14th August saw us take the 09:48 from Leicester to Nottingham on ‘Meridian’ unit number 222015. There we changed on the ‘Robin Hood Line’ to Worksop, a route that closed to passengers in the 1960s. This fact we found rather surprising since one of the places served, Mansfield, is a rather large town. According to Wikipedia it was then probably the largest town in Britain without a station, but now has two. Both Mansfield (town) station and Mansfield Woodhouse also seem to have retained their original station buildings, at least in part, although the structure at the latter is rather odd. It looks more like an engine shed than a station building, apparently having no indoor ticket office or waiting room area. I wonder if it really is a survivor of the original railway or an unusually well-designed modern replacement dating from the line’s phased reopening in the 1990s. The service we used was the 10:26 from Nottingham, with 156411 in charge.
Despite the line’s marketing name recalling the legends of Sherwood Forest, the trees we saw (which were rather more plentiful than expected from a look at the route on Google Earth) did not appear to belong to any form of ancient woodland. I don’t suppose much true ancient woodland still exists in the area.
The ‘Robin Hood Line’ was a bit of a detour on-route to the main objective of the day, to take a photograph of a class 399 unit and investigate the route they will be used on. The class 399s are tram-train units for the ‘Sheffield Supertram’ system and were due to be added to the Supertram fleet later in 2017. Thus, after arrival at Worksop we turned west, boarding the next Sheffield-bound service. This route is operated by Northern, rather than East Midlands Trains, and I wondered what rolling stock they would use on it. The answer, it turned out, was Pacers. Ours was 142028, due off Worksop at 12:15 and bound for Adwick (reversing at Sheffield). The unit was still fitted with bench seats similar to those in old buses but in 2+3 configuration (wider benches on one side of the aisle).
Not far out of Worksop, and if I recall correctly also visible from the Robin Hood Line, was a large quantity of wagons. These I believe were large coal hoppers and I surmised that they were redundant following the decline in coal traffic. My grandmother suggested that somebody should try to find a way of reusing them. I think some redundant coal hoppers have been modified with the addition of covers to allow the transport of biomass for burning in power stations, but since we were travelling on a Pacer and these large coal hoppers have bogies my idea was to use the under-frames to create ‘Bogie Pacers’. The Pacers are near life-expired anyway though and the chances of the vehicle lengths being the same are quite slim, so I doubt that is a sensible idea.
While the class 399s will initially just be working ordinary tram services on the current Supertram network, the reason for their existence is a plan to extend Supertram services over Network Rail tracks through Rotherham Central station. Ordinary trams are not permitted to share tracks with conventional heavy-rail trains, hence the class 399 ‘tram-trains’ which can mix with both. On the approach to Sheffield, our Pacer passed the Supertram depot where, to my dismay, I counted at least five class 399s. Knowing the total fleet was only 6-8 units (having now checked Wikipedia, I see the planned fleet size is 7 units) I feared none might be in use that day. Sticking to the plan, we stayed on the Pacer while it reversed in Sheffield station and headed out, through Rotherham Central, to Swinton. Here we left the train, it having rejoined the Sheffield – Doncaster route (Rotherham Central is on a separate short line).
We then headed back into Sheffield, boarding the slightly delayed 13:19 service. This was bound for Lincoln and, according to Real Time Trains, had come from Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe to Lincoln via Sheffield; a strange route and a long way to go on a Pacer. Our unit was another bench-seated one, 142023. At Rotherham Central, where I had noted on the way up that works to build the low platforms for the class 399s had apparently barely started, I wondered how they would get the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) to power the trams through the station. It looked as though the station had recently been rebuilt without consideration of tram-train scheme, although Wikipedia tells me the current buildings date from February 2012 as a result of a project started in 2010 (so perhaps before the tram-train plan). Outside the station, a number of the masts to support the overhead line were in place on the section to be used for the tram-train service, but no wires as yet.
Back at Sheffield station, the dilemma of how to find and photograph a class 399 came to the fore. Having possibly seen the entire fleet in the depot my first thought was to try and get there, but down which of the tram routes that converge on the city centre was it? And would it be too far to walk? We started following one line in the direction we had come on the train until we came to the junction where the lines meet.
At this point I decided that even if we could reach the depot the fencing around it might prevent photography. We therefore reverted to my original plan to walk alongside the tram line to the cathedral, following a section that all the routes use according to the network map I’d found online. If a class 399 was in service, it would have to pass us. I spotted a poster on one of the tram stops that explained that class 399s weren’t yet in service, but might be in use for driving training. We waited outside the cathedral for a while and thankfully it turned out one was out and about. Photos taken: mission accomplished.
On our way to the cathedral, I had decided that all the trams carried the same livery of Stagecoach blue, with the class 399s having black fronts and the other trams a red front. By the time we had finished at the cathedral and walked back to the station however, we had seen at least one with a blue front and one in an interesting blue and cream livery.
Sheffield station retains well-designed ‘railway age’ buildings and canopies, the latter being an interesting grey colour. Grey, interesting? In this case yes, because it results in a steel-like finish that is rather fitting given Sheffield’s history. That history is also reflected in one of the water features just outside the station.
I had a number of options for routes back to Nottingham and thence to Leicester. In the end, after grabbing some footage for a short video about electrification cancellations, the one chosen was the 16:05 to Nottingham via Chesterfield. Northern provided a very different standard of train for this run. Almost making up for the earlier Pacers, 158794 turned up with some really nice seats and the Regional Railways original two-tone blue stripes on the luggage racks. The only issue with the interior was the legroom in the airline-style seats; not quite enough for comfort on a long journey (not that ours was particularly long on this occasion).
Nottingham, along with Sheffield and Swansea, has recently suffered the indignity of having its promised electrification cancelled. With footage of Sheffield in the camera and Swansea, as railways go, practically on my doorstep Nottingham was the obvious next target. I might have left it a day or two and made a special trip up to Nottingham later in the holiday, but fate intervened. As I walked along the platforms, I noticed that the class 222 due to depart in a few minutes was named ‘Invest In Nottingham’. You couldn’t have made it up; it seemed it was just meant to be, so I filmed its departure. That did mean a wait of nearly half an hour for the next London-bound service, the 17:32, but since that train was already in the platform I wasn’t bothered.
Taking the 17:32 also meant I got my first ride on an East Midlands Trains IC125 set. 43044 led us to Leicester with 43066 on the rear. The seats were the original British Rail ones with the slightly awkward fixed armrests. That wasn’t the only shortcoming either; assuming the interior layout is unchanged I’m not entirely impressed with BR’s efforts. Despite the mark 3 coaches having reasonably large windows, some of the table bays managed to offer an obstructed view to half their occupants.
The seats themselves were a reasonable shape (the armrest problem aside) and the seat-base cushions were ok, but the seat-back was hard. Unlike on the Great Western, where first class has been reduced to 1.5 coaches out of 8 the EMT sets seem to have 2.5 coaches of first class. As we left Nottingham, I managed a slightly blurry photo of an unidentified large building on a hill top that had caught my eye previously.
This is the third instalment of my Midlands rail adventure write-up, following on from Rutland Ramblings.
Planning for Sunday 13th August was frustrated by a terrible timetable. As part of my holiday I wanted to travel over the Erewash Valley Line, the direct route from East Midlands Parkway to Chesterfield passing Toton TMD (Traction Maintenance Depot). Prior to the trip, I had established that the route had hardly any passenger services, but on Sundays a 10:08 service from Nottingham was booked to use part of the route, including passing the TMD. I had decided to aim for that service (and then going from Chesterfield to Birmingham to see the Shakespeare Express) but was horrified to discover that there were no northbound services from Leicester before 10am on a Sunday.
Thus thwarted, I was forced to abandon the idea of riding the Erewash Valley Line. We therefore reverted to our Heart Of England (3-in-7 days) Rover tickets earlier than planned and went directly to Birmingham New Street on the 10:22 from Leicester (CrossCountry’s 170101). With very little rail mileage the previous day (all of which was using the ‘East Midlands Rover’), I was keen to make the most of the rover and so added a return trip from Birmingham to Redditch which also helped fill the time that would have been spent on the trip up to Chesterfield. The third day of the ‘Heart Of England’ rover would be used later in the week for our return journey to Wales.
For the Redditch trip, we travelled on London Midland’s 323202 which was coupled to a second class 323 to form a longer train on the 11:45 from Birmingham. We did not note down the departure time from Redditch (which was 12:27) on the day’s itinerary, so to avoid the risk of being left behind I didn’t even step onto the platform there to take a look at the station. Back at Birmingham New Street I was very pleased to discover that there were open toilets (as opposed to ones behind a pay barrier as some other large stations managed by Network Rail have). This forced me to somewhat adjust my opinion of the station, which I had previously considered a hell-hole to be avoided like the plague. We then headed out of the station in search of Birmingham Moor Street, somewhere I’ve wanted to see more of ever since my first visit, which was rather brief.
On the way between the stations we took a wrong turn but happily still managed to find Birmingham’s attractive GWR station with ample time for a look round. 5043 ‘Earl of Mount Edgcumbe’, heading north, then brought ‘The Shakespeare Express’ into the station at around 13:36 and off into the tunnel to Birmingham Snow Hill.
The station still has a water tower and water crane, though I’m not sure if they’re connected together so using it as a water stop for the ‘Shakespeare Express’ might not be possible. The station looks quite authentic but on closer inspection I was dubious about some of the colours used; rather than just ‘light stone’ and ‘dark stone’ there seemed to be at least three shades in use. There was also a baby changing facility, which my grandmother informed me the railways didn’t have in the old days. The signage for it though did not look at all out of place, it being in the same white-on-black style as the rest. It really is a very good-looking station.
5043 then returned, just after 14:00, now running tender-first towards Stratford-upon-Avon. I was disappointed that the Hall class locomotive originally advertised for the Shakespeare expresses had not been reinstated, but at least that allowed me to drop the idea of taking a bus to capture it away from a station. Also, assuming the Hall would have been tender-first southbound as the Castle was, I wouldn’t have been able to get the photograph I wanted of it at Moor Street anyway.
At 14:30 we set off in pursuit of the Castle-hauled train on a service formed of 172212 and 172221. Stratford-upon-Avon station is sadly not the picturesque sight that Birmingham Moor Street is. It does retain a traditional station building, complete with canopy, and what looks like a GWR footbridge. The latter however is obscured on one side by a modern footbridge in a horrible pink colour and some of the station name-boards have a rather odd-looking golden background (rather than London Midland’s normal black).
The town however has quite a selection of attractive old-looking buildings, although by the time we had reached the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre my grandmother was so fed up of the crowds of other tourists that we did not continue to find their other theatre. Instead we headed back towards the station on back streets that, thankfully, most of the other visitors hadn’t noticed.
The railway exhibition we had seen advertised on the way down to the theatre was closing when we passed it on the way back, but they did let us in for a quick look at one of their model railways. We made it back to the station in time to see ‘Earl of Mount Edgcumbe’ making a disgraceful departure from Stratford-upon-Avon. Clouds of filthy black smoke were emitted and barely any acceleration achieved; I think it even slipped a little soon after finally making it passed the end of the platform I was standing on.
Our train back to Birmingham was shorter that the one we had arrived on, a single 3-car class 172 unit instead of a four carriage formation. Our 3-car unit was 172334, forming the 16:29 departure from Stratford-upon-Avon. Rather than alight at Birmingham however we stayed on-board through to Smethwick Galton Bridge.
Unfortunately the ‘Galton Bridge’ itself (which I think takes a road over the canal below) could not be easily photographed owing to the sides of the railway bridge that the Snow Hill line platforms are located on. We then returned to Birmingham Moor Street on the 17:46 service (172341) and managed to find our way back to New Street without the detour we had made earlier. Finally, 170637 took us back to Leicester. On this leg, as on the outward run, we were puzzled by a grand building not far from a reservoir. A quick survey on Google Earth as a write this has revealed that this was probably Whitacre Water Works, just east of Water Orton.
Following a period of ‘competitive dialogue’ with four possible partners, the Welsh Government (or their relatively new ‘Transport For Wales’ body) finally issued the Invitation To Tender (ITT) for the next Wales & Borders rail franchise in the past week. This time next year, the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise should be just a few weeks away from coming to an end.
The pre-qualified four are Abellio Rail Cymru, Arriva Rail Wales, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation. The winner will be an ‘Operator and Development Partner’ (ODP), required to play a bigger role in the development of infrastructure than train operating companies in the UK have done since privatisation. Therefore, at least some of the bidders for the new contract are joint-ventures involving an infrastructure firm along with one of the ‘usual subjects’ in UK franchise contests.
Not all the ‘usual subjects’ are represented though, First Group and Stagecoach are conspicuous by their absence from the line-up. That leaves subsidiaries of foreign railway companies leading the four hopeful groups. Arriva belongs to DB, the state-owned railway of Germany, Abellio to NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch state-owned railway), Keolis to SNCF (owned by the French state) and MTR (in part) to the Hong Kong Government.
The short listed bidders now have a little while to work up a final tender to submit to the Welsh Government / Transport For Wales. Most sources are reporting that all four bidders are still in the game, but there have been suggestions that only Arriva and Abellio remain in the contest. With any luck, the claims that the franchise will still be awarded by the end of February 2018 (despite a delay to the devolution of the powers for awarding the franchise to the Welsh Government) will prove true, allowing the new regime to begin in October 2018.
It is also to be hoped that the new contract will offer widespread improvements. However, unlike in DfT-led franchise competitions, the Welsh Government have not made many of the requirements in the ITT public for the new Welsh contract. At this point then, it is all a mystery. Fingers crossed everyone.