No trains south of London during cold weather? Blame a pair of Herberts for choosing the wrong electrical system

Empty Southern lines into Clapham Junction, during a strike. Image: Getty.

As is often the case when the weather is below freezing, commuters around London are having a terrible time this week. The blizzard has hit services on all lines around the capital. Trains running towards the south and southeast have had the worst of it, with services cancelled on Monday before the full impact of the storm really hit.

It’s frustrating to compare the UK’s lack of readiness when extreme weather hits with services in Switzerland or Sweden, which cheerfully run in heavy snow conditions.

It’s also not really a fair comparison: you build a system to deal with the weather conditions you’re expecting, and a Swiss railway that couldn’t handle snow would be useless for half the year. Building southern England’s rail network to Swiss weatherproofing standards would add a lot of extra cost for only a couple of days’ benefit per year.

Some commuters have a much better reason to be grumpy, though. The 750V DC third rail system used on railways south of the Thames is particularly vulnerable to cold. Because of its thickness and relatively low voltage, the conductor rail tends to have ice form on top of it, whether from snow or just moisture in sub-zero conditions. Once there’s an ice layer on the rail, the train can no longer pick up electricity.

Which is a bit of a problem if you want it to go anywhere.

It didn’t have to be this way. In the early 1900s, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) began its electrification programme. It used the latest German technology from AEG to provide a high voltage 6.6kV AC overhead electrical pick-up system – very similar to the 25kV system now used on high speed main lines in the UK and the rest of Europe.

Many of the 25kV systems in use today were converted from similar systems. The electric trains in Glasgow and the ones running out of Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street in London were converted to 25kV from 6.25kV in the early 1980s, after the quality of electrical insulators improved to allow lower clearance.

High voltage overhead electrification is cold-resistant; it’s what the Swiss and the Swedes use for their systems. Snow tends to fall off the narrow overhead wires, they run hot enough to avoid icing, and the high voltages involved make it easier for the train to pick up power.

It’s also better in general: the higher voltage makes power distribution more efficient, with fewer expensive substations required. The pickup design allows overhead electrified trains to run at up to 400km/h, compared to just 160km/h for third rail trains. Since 1956, 25kV overhead electrification has been specified as the only system allowed for new mainline railway electrification in the UK.

A map of the LB&SCR network, at Victoria station. Click to expand. Image: Oxyman/Wikipedia.

By 1913, the LB&SCR’s high voltage overhead electric lines stretched from Victoria and London Bridge to much of outer south London, covering what is now the Southern Metro network. The company was preparing to electrify the main line to Brighton and the Sussex Coast – effectively the whole present-day Southern rail franchise.

But World War I disrupted equipment supplies and used up manpower, putting electrification on hold. Then came 1921’s ‘grouping’, in which all the commuter railways south of the Thames were combined into the Southern Railway.

Unfortunately for today’s commuters, the Southern Railway wasn’t interested in the overhead system. The merged company’s general manager was Herbert Walker, who had previously run the London & South Western Railway (L&SWR), which had just electrified its own suburban tracks using the low-voltage DC third rail system.

Walker and his chief electrical engineer, Herbert Jones (Herbert was a popular name in the Edwardian railway industry, apparently) picked up their experience of electric railways in the USA, where commuter lines used DC third rails. While the LB&SCR was electrifying its London lines with the German-derived high-voltage AC overhead system, the L&SWR did the same with low-voltage DC.

This had the advantage of being cheaper to install, avoiding the need to build supporting pylons and their foundations. It also allowed the L&SWR to run up a greater length of electrified track faster than its neighbour, despite being otherwise inferior. 

The new Southern Railway needed to electrify its whole network: steam trains couldn’t support the high-intensity commuter operation that it needed to become. And it needed to adopt a single system rather than have complicated switching or incompatible routes. So, although ex-LB&SCR managers lobbied to roll out their system across the network, the Herberts’ pet project unsurprisingly won out.


By 1929, the last AC train ran on the Southern Railway. The masts were unceremoniously torn down and replaced with third rail. Subsequent electrification south of the Thames was also carried out using third rail, continuing through the British Rail period as late as 1988, despite the ban on ‘new’ third rail electrification. 

And so, trains in the south still run slowly all year round, and not at all when it’s icy.

In the long run, there may be hope for commuters. Former Network Rail head of electrification Peter Dearman (now at engineering consultancy Bechtel) says that there is no long-term future for third rail for speed and efficiency reasons, and the Office of Rail Regulation believes it is unsafe for track workers. The current electrification programme includes a pilot scheme to convert the third rail between Basingstoke and Southampton to overhead AC.

But given the delays to the Great Western electrification and the government’s recent cancellation of multiple add-on electrification projects, it doesn’t seem likely that southern commuters will see the return of the LB&SCR’s AC masts any time soon. And the best plan for icy days will still be to work from home, well beyond the 100-year anniversary of the Herberts’ botched job.

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Canada’s gay neighbourhoods are struggling. Can queer pop-ups plug the gap?

Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Queer life was highly visible in Western Canada last year. In May, Vancouver declared 2018 the “Year of the Queer,” celebrating decades of service that the city’s cultural organisations have provided for lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ/2S) people across the region.

Yet 2018 also saw the loss of multiple queer venues and gay bars. While economic forces, such as rapacious gentrification are part of the story and struggle, our research shows that something creative and generative is happening in the city as well.

In the face of changing urban landscapes, economic hardships, and more straights moving into historically gay neighbourhoods, queer pop-ups — ephemeral gathering spaces whose impact lingers among revellers long after the night is over — now play a large role in the fight for LGBTQ/2S equality.

Scattered gay places became neighbourhoods

Queer life germinated in “scattered gay places” across cities in North America from the late 1800s to the Second World War. Inside cabarets, bars, theatres or outside in public parks, washrooms and city streets, queers found spaces which could hold and celebrate transgressive sexual connections while also providing respite from daily experiences of discrimination and social exclusion.

After the Second World War, scattered gay places congealed into permanent gay bars and residential “gaybourhoods” in a period anthropologist Kath Weston calls “the great gay migration.” Queer people flocked to urban centres and sexual subcultures flourished in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The formation of queer community spaces has always been controversial. Cultural and legal backlashes marred early developments. A host of laws and regulations tried to suppress and contain homosexuality in North America by limiting its presence in the public sphere.

These measures resulted in frequent hostilities, police raids and violence. Queers congregated together not just to find love or community, but to protect themselves, to protect one another and to find refuge. Pride parades, now celebrated worldwide, commemorate these early turf wars.

Pop-ups revitalise queer spaces

Researchers have written a great deal on the cultural and political importance of gay districts in urban centres, and they have grappled with concerns that these areas, along with the establishments they house, are fading.

But innovative urban forms challenge arguments about the death and demise of queer spaces in the city. Our research suggests that queer pop-ups, or temporary cultural gathering spaces, cater to diverse and often marginalised queers.

Some gaybourhoods are dwindling in their residential concentration and gay bars are dropping like flies. But new queer place-making efforts are emerging.

Two of the authors at the queer pop-up in 2018 at East Side Studios in Vancouver. Ryan is on the far left, back row, Adriana is on the far right of the back row. Image: author provided.

Unlike gaybourhoods and gay bars, pop-ups are intentional in how they address persistent, intersectional forms of inequality. Queer pop-ups offer patrons a space to explore non-binary forms of gender and sexual identities, and especially a place to experience collective effervescence among queer people of colour, and femme lesbians.

Some pop-ups create environments that are explicitly trans-inclusive, consent-focused, and sex-positive. Pop-ups are not panaceas for queer life. Pop-ups can also be places where issues around socioeconomic status, gender identity and expression, and racial inequality are called out.

Yet these spaces directly and indirectly encourage dialogue on inequalities within the queer community, conversations that help produce safer spaces for marginalised queers to find each other and forge enduring queer consciousnesses.

Turf wars

Queer pop-ups show similar trajectories of infighting and compromise that the LGBT social movement encountered from the late 1970s through the early 2000s when trying to forge a collective consciousness, gain social visibility and win legal rights.

These turf wars, expressed as contests over space and inclusion, are generally sparked over three perennial concerns: privilege, race and gender. One interviewee, a 20-year-old self-identified queer, trans person of colour (QTPoC), who spoke about Vancouver’s gay district told us:

“I tend to avoid the gay bars on Davie [because] a lot of the gay bars there have now been taken over by cis-gender, heterosexual people. I’ve [also] heard from a lot of QTPoC friends that they are often uncomfortable going to gay bars on Davie, because it’s usually very dominated by cis-gender, white gay men.”

A 28-year-old white, cisgender, queer male found pop-ups more politically and culturally radical than gay bars. He put it this way:

“It’s very rare that we’ll ever have a conversation about politics [in gay bars]. It’s just about partying and things that we kind of see as very stereotypical portrayals of gay culture: like going out, dancing, drinking, fucking.”

Historically, gaybourhoods have served an important role in the fight for LGBT rights, but they have also developed to cater to a specific cis-gender, white, middle-class, male sensibility. One 30-year-old, white, trans DJ put it bluntly, “the mainstream scene is just not welcoming to trans people, in my experience,” adding that verbal transphobic harassment is common in the streets of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

At Vancouver Pride this year we were reminded of this schism at a local pop-up event. “Gay men won’t come here, it’s too trashy,” shouted a white Australian lesbian playfully to friends over loud music. We were at Eastside Studios, a large warehouse turned into the newest collaborative queer venue in Vancouver.


The comment was striking because it highlights the visible bifurcation occurring in queer life and queer consumption in Vancouver. Many gay men tend to patronise businesses and events in the West End, Vancouver’s official gaybourhood; whereas, other members of the LGBTQ community are scattered across the city at events and venues that are far less permanent. Eastside Studios attempts to break through the homonormative bent some gay bars perpetuate. It is a space that generously houses some of the struggling pop up events who lost space to gentrification in Vancouver’s out of control rental market.

Historically, pop-ups arose as the first signs of urban sexual transgression. They continue to emerge as spatial innovations which nurture transgressive queer diversities that do not have space or representation in the gaybourhood. Weekly social media blasts via Facebook or Instagram and word-of-mouth dissemination play an important role in linking queers around the city to these events. Pop-ups take different tones and establish different vibes among patrons. Collectively, pop-ups highlight the many important projects local queers are undertaking to increase the plurality of what queer life looks like and how it is expressed.

Struggles for equality

Marriage is the leading story in many headlines these days, but queer struggles for equality were never only about relationship recognition or acceptance into the mainstream.

Queer struggles are also fights to resist oppressive normativity, to end racial inequality and white supremacy, to end sexualised violence, to reconcile generational traumas associated with colonialism.

Continuing these fights is perhaps what makes queer pop-ups unique. Organisers of these events are intentional and responsive to such concerns. They seek to create new worlds that soften the impact of inequalities, both in gaybourhoods and in other parts of Canadian cities as well.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives; they emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. Here an image from a Man Up pop-up event in Vancouver. Image: Shot by Steph/Facebook/The Conversation.

Many of these spaces are an opportunity for patrons to travel in a re-imagined world, even if only for the night. While not all pop-ups that appear survive, the ones that do matter, fundamentally, because they create spaces that resist heteronormative culture and homonormativity, address intersecting inequalities, assert and anchor queer cultural and political identities, and promote well-being for a wider portion of the community in ways that gaybourhoods used to and have always had the potential to.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives in ways that gaybourhoods and gay bars historically had. They emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. They allow patrons to dance and comfortably explore the implications of their gender and sexual identities around like-minded individuals. At times they are more than friendly social gatherings, becoming sites where the moral arch of the community is shaped through demonstrations on urgent issues impacting queer lives and the surrounding community.

Queer pop-ups are vibrant locations that work to push forward the unfinished projects of social justice first envisioned during gay liberation.

The Conversation

Ryan Stillwagon, Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of British Columbia; Adriana Brodyn, Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia; Amin Ghaziani, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sexuality and Urban Studies, University of British Columbia, and D. Kyle Sutherland, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.