Britain’s Victorian pleasure piers are unique – and under threat

Eastbourne Pier, Sussex. Image: Getty.

A stroll along a pier remains the most popular activity for visitors to the British seaside, with 70 per cent of them enjoying a walk over the waves. And for many, the seaside pier is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the British seaside holiday and the epitome of excursions to the coast. Piers have always provided holidaymakers with entertainment, from the grand pavilions and theatres of the Victorian era, to the amusement arcades of the 1980s. For two centuries, piers have been the place to see and be seen at the seaside.

Victorian pleasure piers are unique to the UK, but they are under threat: in the early 20th century nearly 100 piers graced the UK coastline, but almost half of of these have now gone.

By their very nature, seaside piers are risky structures. When piers were constructed, British seaside resorts were at the height of their popularity. The Victorians wanted to demonstrate engineering prowess and their ability to master the force of the sea. Some lasted longer than others, with Aldeburgh pier in Suffolk lasting than a decade before it was swept away by a drifting vessel. At the other end of the spectrum is the Isle of Wight’s Ryde pier, which at over 200 years is the oldest pleasure pier in the UK.

Yet the longevity of such piers presents them with new risks: fire, maintenance issues, rising costs, and climate change. Piers face an uncertain future. The National Piers Society estimates that 20 per cent of today’s piers are at risk of being lost.

Piers at risk

Over the last 40 years, many notable piers have succumbed to time and tide. Perhaps the most iconic of these losses is Brighton West Pier, which has suffered multiple storms and fires since closure in 1975, leaving an isolated skeleton as a haunting reminder. Now there is growing recognition that seaside piers are vital to coastal communities in terms of resort identity, heritage, employment, community pride, and tourism. In fact, the UK government now offers funding to enable the revival of piers and other seaside heritage.

Brighton West Pier. Image: National Piers Society.

Despite the sea change in the perceived importance of seaside piers, many remain derelict and in a state of decay. One such pier is Weston-Super-Mare’s Birnbeck Pier, on the west coast, which has been closed for over three decades. Birnbeck Pier is unusual in that it is the only pier which links to an island, but as time has passed, parts of the structure have crumbled into the sea. Despite the endeavours of the local community and groups such as The Birnbeck Regeneration Trust, the owner of the pier refuses to sell or regenerate the pier.

This is in stark contrast to nearby Clevedon Pier, which was deemed “the most beautiful pier in England” by the poet Sir John Betjeman. After partial collapse and subsequent closure of the pier in 1970 there were calls for its demolition. Clevedon Pier was saved and reopened in 1998, and is now the UK’s only Grade I listed seaside pier. Today it stands as a testament to The Clevedon Pier Heritage Trust which continues to develop the pier with a new visitor centre, wedding venue, and conferencing space. Recently, the pier gained a new group of fans as it featured as a backdrop to a One Direction music video.

Thriving piers

Despite their advancing years, since the turn of the 21st century many piers have found a new lease of life. The high-profile regeneration of Hastings Pier, led by a local community trust and backed by Heritage Lottery Funding, has spearheaded the revitalisation of many seaside piers (although the pier, controversially, was recently sold to a commercial investor). Nevertheless, a number of coastal communities have successfully regenerated their piers through the formation of pier trusts, including those at Swanage and Herne Bay. Other seaside towns are being even more ambitious and hoping to rebuild their piers or to build brand new piers.

Swanage Pier. Image: National Piers Society.

Local authorities within seaside resorts are also promoting their piers as flagship tourist attractions and investing in their refurbishment and new facilities. Southport Pier, which narrowly escaped demolition during the 1990s, is now at the heart of the resort’s development strategy and is currently undergoing a £2.9m refurbishment which includes the addition of new catering and retail facilities.

The piers that are thriving in the 21st century are those that provide a unique selling point. Bournemouth Pier now features the only pier-to-beach zip line, and its former theatre now houses adrenaline-packed activities such as climbing walls, an aerial assault course, and a vertical drop slide. In Folkestone, the Harbour Arm, which was redeveloped as a pleasure pier in 2016, provides a range of pop-up bars and restaurants and its very own champagne bar. Weston’s Grand Pier offers family fun with a modern twist and even boasts an indoor suspended go-kart track. Southwold Pier boasts a novelty automaton arcade.

Weston-Super Mare Grand Pier. Image: National Piers Society.

By staying tuned to modern desires as well as a sense of nostalgia, piers will continue to adapt to changing tastes and provide entertainment and pleasure for seaside visitors.

The ConversationBut perhaps the biggest threat they face today is climate change, and the attendant rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storm surges. Cromer, Saltburn, and Blackpool North Pier have all recently been significantly damaged by storms. The World Monuments Fund has recognised the threat of extreme weather events to seaside piers by adding Blackpool’s three piers to their 2018 Watch List. With seaside piers regaining their popularity, their next big challenge will literally be finding a way to weather the storm.

Anya Chapman, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, Bournemouth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.