Podcast: The Iron Road to Europe

The golden age of steam. Image: Getty.

This week on the podcast we are talking about trains. You might think that we talked about trains a mere two episodes back. To which I respond – trains! Trains are great! Woohoo, trains!

Okay, so one big reason why we’re back on public transport again is because it’s what this week’s guest really wanted to talk about. As well as being the political editor of Buzzfeed UK, Jim Waterson is a massive railway nerd, and is the only person ever to – I don’t use this word lightly – beg to appear on this podcast.

He tells me the delightfully screwy story of regional Eurostars: how the British government spent hundreds of millions of pounds commissioning trains and building infrastructure so that you could get sleeper trains from Manchester, Wolverhampton or Swansea to the continent – yet never managed to run a single train.

Before recording, he also provided us with these delightful historic maps showing how British Rail intended those trains to get between London and the Channel Tunnel:

In the end, of course, we got an entirely different route the cross the Thames into Essex and approaches north London from the East.

Before we hear from Jim, though, I bore Stephanie to tears by enthusiastically recounting everything I’ve learnt about the history of the British railways from a book he’s just finished reading, Matthew Engel’s Eleven Minutes Late.

Afterwards we read out some tweets in which people recount their biggest transport horror stories. And we attempt to answer a question for the ages: what the hell is it with men masturbating at women on public transport?

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

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London Overground is experimenting with telling passengers which bits of the next train is busiest

There must be a better way than this: Tokyo during a 1972 rail strike. Image: Getty.

One of the most fun things to do, for those who enjoy claustrophobia and other people’s body odour, is to attempt to use a mass transit system at rush hour.

Travelling on the Central line at 6pm, for example, gives you all sorts of exciting opportunities to share a single square inch of floor space with a fellow passenger, all the while becoming intimately familiar with any personal hygiene problems they may happen to have. On some, particularly lovely days you might find you don’t even get to do this for ages, but first have to spend some exciting time enjoying it as a spectator sport, before actually being able to pack yourself into one unoccupied cranny of a train.

But fear not! Transport for London has come up with a plan: telling passengers which bits of the train have the most space on them.

Here’s the science part. Many trains include automatic train weighing systems, which do exactly what the name suggests: monitoring the downward force on any individual wheel axis in real time. The data thus gathered is used mostly to optimise the braking.

But it also serves as a good proxy for how crowded a particular carriage is. All TfL are doing here is translating that into real time information visible to passengers. It’s using the standard, traffic light colour system: green means go, yellow means “hmm, maybe not”, red means “oh dear god, no, no, no”. 

All this will, hopefully, encourage some to move down the platform to where the train is less crowded, spreading the load and reducing the number of passengers who find themselves becoming overly familiar with a total stranger’s armpit.

The system is not unique, even in London: trains on the Thameslink route, a heavy-rail line which runs north/south across town (past CityMetric towers!) has a similar system visible to passengers on board. And so far it’s only a trial, at a single station, Shoreditch High Street.

But you can, if you’re so minded, watch the information update every few seconds or so here.

Can’t see why you would, but I can’t see why I would either, and that hasn’t stopped me spending much of the day watching it, so, knock yourselves out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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