The Ianto Shrine: The Cardiff landmark that commemorates a man who never was

Never forget. Image: Ed Jefferson.

Impromptu shrines to culturally important dead people are not unheard of. More than 15 years after the death of Princess Diana, I stumbled across a small collection of messages and flowers tied to the fences of Kensington Palace. The David Bowie mural in Brixton has been flooded with tributes since his sad departure last January. And a shrine to Marc Bolan, on the site of his fatal car accident in Barnes, has become a permanent memorial.

Much rarer are shrines to people who never actually existed in the first place, but they do exist. In Cardiff Bay, for instance, on an otherwise unremarkable bit of wood-panelled wall, are dozens upon dozens of tributes to a man who never was.

What fictional character could possibly merit this treatment? Surely one of vast impact, from stories that left culture changed forever?

It’s Ianto Jones.

From Doctor Who’s dubious “adult” spin-off Torchwood.

No, not that one from Torchwood. Or that one. The other one, who didn’t really even have any character traits apart from “being slightly sarcastic”.

Click to expand, if you must.

I came across it entirely by chance a few years ago and was mesmerised. There are photos, drawings, flowers, poems, essays. There are messages from all over the world – in just the ones I took pictures of, I can see mentions of Spain, Finland, Russia. Someone’s sewn a tiny version of Ianto’s suit; someone else has hung up a tie.

The results of a poll from Poll Pigeon Dot Com have been laminated: 55 per cent of respondents say they won’t watch the next series unless Ianto is resurrected. There’s a “Keep Calm And Save Torchwood” card. There’s Ianto as the Terminator saying, “I’ll be back!”. There’s a confusing reference to Paul McCartney’s alter-ego Percy Thrillington. All human life is here.

 

So how did a character who most people probably never knew existed in the first place earn this tribute? Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s not hard to find obsessive fans of almost anything these days (there’s even Thomas The Tank Engine fan fiction where the trains turn into people and... kiss). But this stuff rarely spills over into the real world.

The one other recent example involved a far more famous character: Sherlock Holmes. When the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock fell to his death off the roof of Barts Hospital in London, a nearby telephone box became the site of tributes (you can still see some “SHERLOCK LIVES” graffiti on the phone box and the wall next to it).

This occurred even though it was made clear he hadn’t actually died within the episode where it happened – which suggests that at least some of the people behind this stuff are doing it with tongue very much in cheek.

But there’s something else going on with the Ianto shrine – something made clear by the number of “tributes” which rail against Torchwood’s creator, Russell T Davies. Though Ianto Jones may not have been a very good character, he did represent something important to many people: he was involved in a same-sex relationship with the series’ lead character, Captain Jack. That’s something that remains relatively rare in genre television, and, rightly or wrongly, there were people who felt that his death was something of a slap in the face.

The usual things that happen when people get angry about television happened. There were e-petitions. There was a “Save Ianto Jones” website. There was a campaign to send bags of coffee to the BBC (Ianto was often seen making coffee, you see) – albeit one which Davies claims that only nine people actually bothered to take part in. And then, perhaps most interestingly, in a part of Cardiff Bay used as a location on the show, some fans decided to leave tributes. And so Ianto’s Shrine was born.


The character “died” in 2009, but the Shrine’s still there. The owners of the wall it’s attached to appear to have taken it in good spirit, and at some point mounted an explanatory plaque to ensure bemused passers-by understand that the man who died fighting aliens wasn’t actually real.

The shrine has even got its own page on TripAdvisor, though not all the reviews are positive. “My daughter wanted to go here,” notes a visitor from East Hartford, Connecticut, “an absolute waste of time”. Others acknowledge that, while it may have had its moment, it is getting a bit “faded and jaded”, and that it’s time for it to go. These people are wrong.

I hope Ianto’s Shrine persists – not as a memorial to a TV character, but as a memorial to how brilliantly ludicrous people can be when they put their minds to it. Whether it’s the work of nine people or 90,000 people sort of doesn’t matter – either way, the point here is the hours put into the creation of something so essentially futile. This small, silly, human-scale stuff is as much of what makes places places as the grand-projets, garden bridges and gleaming towers. Ianto’s Shrine is a Cardiff landmark.

 

Click to expand. Honestly, it's worth it. 

May the Ianto Wall stand long after everyone has forgotten that there even was anything called Torchwood – has forgotten that there was even a thing called television. Thousands, even millions of years from now, when the sun sets on whatever remains of the human race, they should remember that there was an Ianto Jones, even if they have absolutely no idea what that means. Because it would be quite funny if they did.

It’s got three and a half stars on TripAdvisor, and is apparently the 67th best thing in Cardiff.

All photographs courtesy of Ed Jefferson, who you can also find on Twitter.

Or you can like CityMetric on Facebook if you like.

 
 
 
 

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.