Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has unveiled the region’s new “tube map”

Andy Andy Andy, oi oi oi. Image: Getty.

Well, this is exciting. Here’s the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, promising that the true capital of England should get its own tube map:

He’s referring to the imaginatively named “Our Network” programme, a 10-year plan to “deliver an integrated, accessible and affordable public transport system, which” – this bit is fluffy but inevitable – puts passengers first”.

He is, you will be amazed to learn, over-selling the “tube map” point. For one thing, the video that shows the new map in its various forms is “indicative and purely for illustrative purposes”, so it’s not clear how seriously we can take it. For another, drawing lines on maps is a lot easier than turning maps into reality.

But nonetheless, we love a map round here, so let’s take a closer look. Transport for Greater Manchester has re-imagined the conurbation as a series of concentric circles, with Manchester city centre at its heart and the various other boroughs (Stockport, Bolton and so on) on some of the outer rings. The larger blobs represent more important centres; the colours represent the transport modes on offer at each.

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Here’s how Metrolink looks on that map:

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And here’s a version with some exciting new extensions on it, as dotted lines:

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Port Salford! A quicker route to Manchester Airport! Middleton, a place which spawned one of the former hosts of our podcast! How terribly exciting.

And now here are the buses:

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That’s a lot more extensive, but also, since it’s buses, it’s not clear how excited we should be. Buses aren’t really something you’d show on a “tube map”, are they? Which you can tell from the fact that they’re, well, buses.

But! The Greater Manchester combined Authority has just agreed it should move ahead with a London-style bus franchising system, which would make it the first major city outside the capital to actually plan its bus network, rather than just allowing the market to let rip, in more than 30 years. And I don’t know much about the region’s existing bus network – but Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News tweeted yesterday that the new map showed a “cledar aspiration... to improve orbital and east-west links”. So, all this sounds like it might be rather a good thing.

The next slide is cycling and walking which is just a sort of background honeycomb arrangement which tells us nothing, so moving on we come to rail...

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...and then “tram-trains”: basically extending the Metrolink by using existing rail routes to places like Stockport, Glossop, even Warrington.

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The “tube map” label is over-selling things a little – it says more about the strength of the tube map’s own brand than Greater Manchester’s future transport network, I feel. Nonetheless, this is a fairly ambitious programme, and a sign that maybe, just maybe, the mayoral model of devolution is a pretty good idea.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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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.