A Clockwork Orange: How Glasgow's Subway system failed to break out of its circle

No train in sight: the Partick stop on the Glasgow Subway. Image: Gary Ferguson/Wikimedia Commons.

Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, has the world’s third-oldest underground metro system. Only London and Budapest boast more experience in lugging people about their merry way below our feet.

And Glasgow manages to do this with a stunning simplicity. Opened in 1896, its Subway route is circular, with two lines (“inner” and “outer”) circumnavigating a loop which twice crosses the River Clyde. The network (a term I use loosely) links 15 stations, and runs from the city centre to the West End, and across to the South Side.

In all, the seven mile route takes approximately 25 minutes to complete. In 2013-2014, the Glasgow Subway averaged almost 35,000 passengers daily – around 12.5m each year.

The existing network. Image: SPT.

So, the network is a simple one. But it could have been a lot more complex if the visions of a few Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) chiefs had come to pass a decade or so ago.

In 2007, a “feasibility study” outlined the SPT’s desire to expand the Subway network before the 2014 Commonwealth Games came to town. The plan would have involved creating a second circle, covering the east of the city, where the newly created Emirates Arena and Athlete’s Village were to be housed.

At the time Alistair Watson, a Labour councilor, released a statement promising:

 “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

Unequivocal, no less.

The proposed line would have interchanged with the existing network at its busiest station, Buchanan Street (which connects with the Queen Street mainline station), as well St. Enoch’s station. There would have been seven new stops, too, including Celtic Park. The whole lot was projected to cost £2.3bn.To research the project, in 2007, SPT executives flew to New Delhi to learn more about their underground set-up and transport preparations ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Despite this promising maneuver, no extensions ever materialised beneath the streets of the East End.

An extract from a 2007 leaflet showing the proposed extension. Image: SPT.

That’s a shame. Because Glasgow boasts an abundance of very usable and intact underground tunnels and old railway lines, some of which would have been re-used in an East End extension. Throw in road improvements and some new cycle routes, and there would have been clear benefits for a fairly tattered and beaten up part of the city.

The area certainly did benefit from hosting the Commonwealth Games. According to a post-games survey, the residents of Glasgow’s East End, where much of the regeneration activity was focused, welcomed the physical improvements to their neighbourhoods, and “felt safer living there than they had before” after a post-2014 Games survey.  Venues like the Emirates arena have attracted more events to the city, and an estimated £18m worth of new contracts have already been credited to the 2014 Games’ legacy.

And SPT’s “Subway Modernisation Programme” is very much in full swing. Some £270m has been spent or set aside for improving stations across the existing network, and the introduction of a Smartcard system has proved popular amongst travelers. It looks a lot better, too, with a chunk of the 1970s stylings now gone from the city.


But there remains a widespread feeling of frustration. The Commonwealth Games seemed to be the perfect opportunity – the perfect excuse – to radically upgrade Glasgow’s Subway system. But the city missed it. Only time will tell if this bold and radical idea will rear its head once more.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.