The trains you can ride without leaving your desk

You've trawled through the pictures on Google Images, now ride the train from your miserable desk. Image: David Gubler

If you’re a full-on transport freak like me, there’s a problem. You want to go gallivanting around the world, riding all the trains, metros, and trams you can find, mixing TGV with Shinkansen, Deutsche Bahn with Amtrak, and so on.

But the harsh reality is that economic necessity means you have to do a job and get on with life most of the time, and not just sit on trains in a pensieve but ultimately aimless way.

Suffer no longer! Where once only a tiny minority would relish the opportunity of a 55-minute YouTube journey showing the entire journey on an obscure city’s metro line, the beamed-to-your-screen train experience is becoming more mainstream.

It’s early days yet, but here are just a few trains you can ride without leaving your desk. 

It's just like being there in person, honest. Image: Google Street View.

 

Switzerland's Rhätische Bahn

In 2012, Google Street View paired up with the Rhaetische Bahn, a local railway company separate from the country’s main SBB-CFF-FFS rail provider, to get one of the world’s most beautiful railway routes added to the Street View catalogue.

The 75.8-mile route of the Albula-Bernina railway line is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and just one of the stunning scenic routes that criss-cross the curious south-eastern part of Switzerland, where the accents are so lousy with thick Swiss German and Romansch notes that they can barely understand each other.

The Google team attached a specially adapted camera carriage to the front of a Rhaetische Bahn train, and off it trundled through the Swiss mountains. And now you can enjoy it over the cheeky Pret salad you bought as a Thursday-lunch desk treat. 

Mmmm, shiny. Image: Google Street View.

 

Japan's newest Shinkansen

Admittedly, as much of the pleasure for train buffs is the interior of a train as it is the route, the landscape, or the rolling stock itself. Who doesn’t love a tastefully decorated, well-laid out carriage, with plush but not over-exuberant seating and clear but not crude signposting and layout guidance?

As of last year, Google Street View (again) means you can step inside the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the newest addition to the Shinkansen “bullet train” network stretching the two and a half hours from Tokyo to Kanazawa, and explore the train’s three classes – Grand Class, Green Class, and Standard.

Spoiler – it’s a really really nice train. 

This looks more impressive when you watch the real video. Image: Expedia.

 

Norway's virtual reality train

The Flåm railway line in Western Norway passes through some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful scenery – soaring mountains, plunging valleys, crystalline lakes and dramatic rocky outcrops – and passes by Norway’s largest national park.

But Norway’s kind of expensive, right? Even if you can afford the social and financial cost of going abroad purely to ride on some good trains, the exorbitant cost of living and terrible exchange rate will hit you where it hurts the most, and in this day and age sometimes that’s just not worth it.

But thanks to a handy partnership with Expedia, the mountain line is available as a 360-degree video played at varying speeds to the soundtrack of Edvard Grieg’s Anitras Dance, or as a virtual reality experience.

I’m not entirely clear how that virtual reality experience works, but if you’re someone in the know with a VR-capable device, then this is totally something you can explore in your own free time, as long as the sensation of being virtually strapped to a train trundling through the mountains doesn’t freak you out. 

*Nerdiness intensifies*. Image: Google Street View.

 

Tiny train trips

And if all of that from-your-desk travelling feels a little strange and fabricated, you can dive right in and actually explore an entirely fake train-centred world.

Thanks to another Google Street View special, the extraordinarily detailed and intricate fantasy land of the Miniatur Wunderland – the world’s largest model railway, in Hamburg, Germany – is available from your computer screen. You can explore the ‘Swiss’ mountain valley where they’re working on a gargantuan new bridge, or pop into the Munich beer hall and hope that nobody tries to talk politics to you.

All in all, a world of fun available at the click of a mouse.

Don’t say we don’t treat you right. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.