In the North of England we don’t have to remember British Rail: we’re still stuck with all its old trains

An Arriva Trains Northern Class 142 Pacer at Leeds. Image: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Minster was asked about rail nationalisation by Andrew Marr. She rolled out the pathetic line, “I remember British Rail”, in a tone of voice that is the preserve of the smart aleck.

Why is this argument pathetic? Because it implies that a 2017 nationalised railway would be exactly the same as BR 1992 – that there would have been no evolution, growth or change in those times.

My response to Theresa May is that I don’t have to remember BR. I live in York so, when I catch a train, 9 out of 10 times I board British Rail rolling stock. Let me take you through them.

To London!

I’ll start with the good stuff. In 1991 BR completed the electrification of the East Coast Mainline. It achieved this on budget, and only seven weeks late. Network Rail would be delighted if any of their electrification projects came in seven months late, let alone seven weeks.

New trains arrived: the Intercity 225. The electric locomotive is capable of 140mph (225kph), but because the government wouldn’t pay for upgraded signaling, they are limited to 125mph. They did bring journey time improvements: 25 years ago you could travel from York to London in 101 minutes. Today, however, it takes 110 minutes, and you’re on the same Intercity 225, albeit with new seats and carpets.

There is nothing wrong with these trains – I’m travelling on one as I write this – but it is still a BR experience, not a memory, even though a Virgin logo has superseded the Intercity Swallow on the seat across from me.

To Birmingham!

The Cross Country route also used to be served by Britain’s greatest train, the Intercity 125. Today, rather than those seven, majestic coaches of standard class luxury, I now suffer a 4 coach Voyager, a train designed by an airline.

I despise the Voyager so much, I literally go out of my way to avoid them. When I travel to Sheffield, I get on a 30 year old Express Sprinter to Leeds and change there on to another.

Never underestimate the simple pleasure of being able to look out of a train window: even Wakefield is a better to look at than the back of all those Voyager seats. In 1992 Birmingham was 131 minutes from York, but the Voyager is quicker than a 125: the torture only lasts 112 minutes.

To Manchester!

Good news: things have improved since BR, with new trains and a more frequent service.

A Class 185 Desiro Train at Manchester Piccadilly. Image: Spookster67/Wikimedia Commons.

I like the Desiro trains that run on the Transpennine route: they’re spacious and have big windows. But they are still only 3 coaches, the same as the BR ones they replaced, and because these are modern trains they have significantly less seats. So lots of people are standing, despite the increase from two trains per hour to 4 between York and Manchester. There has been a nine minute journey time improvement, though, which is good.

To Scarborough!

This route has the same new trains as Manchester, what with it being a through service between the two. But these trains are heavy: the term used in the technical press is “lard butt”.

The excess of weight means they do more damage to the track, so they aren’t allowed to run as fast as they could. They do accelerate quicker, though, which means the journey time is the same 48 minutes now as it was in 1992.

But – Northern Trains has a plan for a new York-to-Scarborough service with lightweight trains, so we may finally see a quicker service. Those new, slimline trains will be late BR Express Sprinters dating to the late 1980s.

To Hull!

I was pleasantly surprised last week when I popped over for some Culture and it only took 56 minutes. I can’t recall a time when it took less than an hour.

Turns out its a Sunday thing: it’s still 66 minutes on weekdays. For a bit of context I once cycled from York to Hull in 100 minutes, but I did have a backwind.

Last week’s train may have been quicker, but it was still very BR. By this I mean that the 30 year old train has never been refurbished. Same tables and chairs, original wall panels, overhead racks and colour scheme. Same doors, same toilets with the same confusing button to lock the door that people still don’t press. There may have been four different liveries on the outside, but once you step on board, the only thing that’s been replaced are the seat covers.

A train is generally expected to be in service for 30 years. At 15 years they receive a half-life refurbishment. At 30, if they are still needed, they will go for a life extension refurb. The entire Northern fleet missed out on the half-life refit, when all their internal fixtures and fittings should have been stripped out and replaced with new. But we still put up with the overhead racks rattle and squeak as they did when BR bought them.

To Harrogate!

This is the humdinger. If you are lucky, you get on a Sprinter, 1984’s finest. But if your luck is out you’ll find a Pacer waiting in platform 8.

The Sprinter is the more comfortable train, because it has the standard number of wheels per coach – that is, eight – and it has secondary suspension. The Pacer threw away a hundred years of coach design when it was built with only four wheels. Any chance of a comfortable train was also chucked out.

The downside of the Sprinter is that all the seats precisely misalign with the windows: it doesn’t matter which seat you get, you will be craning your neck once you’ve finished checking Twitter. Windows are the only area that a Pacer wins over every other train: they are basically strip glazing from end to end and offer a great view as you pass over Knaresborough viaduct.

The seats, however, are literally from a bus factory, and being 30 years old represent the absolute pinnacle of uncomfortable bus seat design. To make matters worse, the seat spacing is only suitable for people who don’t have knee caps.

Yet it’s not just the trains that are very British Rail: the signalling is also pre-privatisation.


A few minutes out of York the train stops at Poppleton, a small station in one of York’s detached suburbs. The observant passenger may spot the signalman leave his box and walk to the train to hand the driver a token. Only once in possession of this lump of metal, the driver is allowed to enter the single line of track: this ensure that you can never accidentally end up with two trains on the track at once.

At the next station, the train rejoins the double track, and another signalman is on hand to take back possession of the token. But the real wheeze is that a couple of miles later the whole process is repeated for the second section of single track as far as Knaresborough. This isn’t taking me back to 1992, but to 1892, at least.

What this shows is that the last major railway investment in Yorkshire and the North East happened in the 1980s. British Rail did a good job for us. But 25 years of privatisation has brought little benefit to this region, and a fraction of what was achieved by BR in the decade leading up to its sell off. BR left York with a fleet of trains with an average age of under 10 years, and that stud is all still with us today.

So, Prime Minister, you may remember British Rail – but I don’t have to, I experience it nearly every time I board a train.

That said, with BR you couldn’t travel from Dundee to York First Class for £20 and receive free beer. I’m on my fourth bottle. Cheers, Virgin Trains.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.


On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

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