Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Beauty of Ballast

There's More to It Than You Think.
Back in the "good old days" railway track was looked after by a "Lengthman". His duty would be to walk his "length" of trach, usually daily, and handle any routine maintenance. He would call in a bigger team if repairs of a more substantial king were needed.

Nowadays it is all a bit different.
Network Rail is expanding its world-leading track renewal programme by purchasing a new £50m ballast cleaner and welcoming more than 500 employees, previously contractors, into the company. The move represents part of Network Rail’s commitment to minimise passenger disruption, reduce the cost of running the railway by 20 per cent over the next five years, and improve sustainability.

Network Rail maintains over 20,000 miles of track, used by over 4.5 million passengers every single day. The bed of stones the rails and sleepers rest on, known as ballast, support this network, holding the other components securely in place and allowing effective drainage, enabling a safe, smooth and comfortable ride.

Most of us give no thought to this "ballast"
A raft of crushed stone supports the sleepers (ties in the USA) that hold the rails in place. Why stones? The individual chunks lock together to to grip the track; to make sure it doesn't move with the passing of a train, often at high speeds. But it also has a little "give", just enough to prevent the weight of the train breaking the track with repeated vibration.

Because ballast is porous, it allows water (it rains from time to time) to drain away. The raft of stones can by up to half a metre deep. Every so often it needs cleaning and repacking which it where the huge and expensive machine pictured above comes in. The technical term for "packing" the ballast is "tamping".

Surely, you may ask, it would be technically simpler to lay a raft of solid concrete.
In the days of fbb's youth, British Railways tried a section just north of Derby Station. Southbound trains were slewed across to use the track as a test. Apparently the experiment was successful but the cost was higher than for traditional ballast.

Balfour Beatty Rail is trying again ...
... with a test track section near Crewe.

Balfour Beatty Rail has developed, for supply to railway clients, main contractors and track installers, an embedded rail system, invented by Charles Penny, that provides greater safety, performance and availability, with lower maintenance and reduced whole life costs. The rail is continuously supported in an elastomeric pad and a fibre reinforced plastic shell. The system enables an efficient, low profile reinforced concrete track slab. Initial installation using either slipformor pre-cast concrete is both fast and economical. 

Slab track is more common on tramway and light rail systems; it is currently in use on the IK's national rail network, particularly in placed where height is at a premium, under bridges and in tunnels, and there is a need to squeeze in electrical overhead wiring.

Why is fbb suddenly interested in ballast?

The little model railway which amuses the old man in his spare time (?) has its track laid on a sheet of patio grass.
It is a cheap way of "growing" fake grass, it is porous, plastic and impervious to the vicissitudes of the UK weather. But if real train tracks were built on a grass field, they would soon sink, twist and derail the vehicles trundling over them.

But the track really needs ballast.

Back in the early days of model railways, Trix sold a sort of ballasted track ...
... but its "shoulder" (the slope at the  edges) was too steep and it was made in black bakelite; crude but robust. Hornby Dublo was a bit better.
It was metal; the ballast and sleepers were printed on and, of course it was three rail which looked really odd when running steam locomotives. Along came Triang ...
... with a grey attempt.

Whilst most manufacturers moved into track with sleepers (black or dark brown plastic or fibre) some companies still mould a more complete track system. This is two-rail track from Kato, a Japanese firm. It is very realistic, more robust that "normal" modern track ...
... but pricey.

Märklin from Germany offers a similar structure but with "stud contact" instead of an intrusive third rail.
But most modellers prefer to lay their track and add their own ballast; a task which might offer some challenges to fbb as he tackles the ravages of our delightfully unpredictable weather. His sleepers are plastic and his rail is nickel silver so both will survive rain, snow and ice - but how can a weather-impervious but practical (and cheap!) layer of ballast be created.

Of course, one approach would be to simply say "why bother" and this was, indeed the fbb approach until he espied some developments at the little model railway club one recent Wednesday afternoon.

One thing is certain. Model railway ballast is far more complicated than the real stuff!

 Next ballast blog : Sunday 24th July  

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Answer's a Lemon (3)

And It's Small in Size But Big In Ideas
The company began in 2007 and attempted to gain a foothold in the University market operating from the centre of town to Falmer with route 42 and variations. It was a brave, and frankly foolhardy, move to try and compete with a large high quality operator. GoAhead Brighton and Hove's service 25 has always been frequent.
Today's core service offers eight buses an hour during term time ...
... reducing to every 15 minutes during the vacation.
This is supplements by a limited stop 25X running every 10 minutes.
The night bus service also runs every 10, reducing to every half an hour when the majority of students are "resting" (?) and away from their studies.
Frequencies were not quite so high when the lemon started, but, like all good lemons it was eventually squeezed.

Various attempts to make a go of the business on the Falmer road eventually had to be abandoned. Whilst the stickability of "the team" is to be admired, it does seem strange that enterprising newcomers seem to think that the incumbent operator should be only too pleased to see their profits being eroded.

So it was that in 2012 the company won a tender to run the service 52.
This was a contract with Brighton City Council ...
... and runs every 90 minutes Monday to Saturday on a "one bus in steam" basis.
But that is not to company's only business. There is traditional coach hire ...
... and a service for Brighton University (former Polytechnic) linking its two city sites of Falmer and Moulsecoomb.
But what marks the lemon as different is its passion (some would say obsession) for ethical environmental business.

To this end, The Big Lemon is a Community Interest Company.

A community interest company is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners. CICs tackle a wide range of social and environmental issues and operate in all parts of the economy. By using business solutions to achieve public good, it is believed that CICs have a distinct and valuable role to play in helping create a strong, sustainable and socially inclusive economy.

The interest in the environment is illustrated by the back of a lemon!
But chip fat is not enough for Tom Druitt, member of The Green Party; he has decided to go further.
And here is what it is all about, at least in sketch form.
All very impressive, but fbb can hear his readers, notably those with financial responsibility for a business, offering such opinions as "is he made of money", "it can't be long before he goes bust" etc etc.

But here is a report for their last Annual General Meeting.

After a presentation and questions over last year’s progress and our plans for this year we got down to the formal business of the AGM, which was to decide how to allocate the company’s surpluses, and vote fresh talent onto our Board of Directors.

Finally, we discussed how we allocate our surpluses.  There was a proposal from the Board that 80% of our profits will be re-invested, 10% will be paid in a dividend to our shareholders – the first dividend we’ve ever paid – and 10% to our staff as a thank you for all the hard work. Happily, everyone agreed unanimously to the proposal and a motion to have equal staff and shareholder ‘pots’ moving forward was also unanimously supported.

They actually paid a dividend to their shareholders for the first time!

For boss Tom Druitt ...
... and his colleagues the answer is most definitely a lemon; but, unusually, it would appear to be sweet not sour.

Well done all concerned!

 Next railway blog : Saturday 23rd July 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Answer's a Lemon? (2)

Bananas in Great Yarmouth
The years of post deregulation brought competition to Great Yarmouth. Flying Banana used mostly second-hand minibi including  a couple converted to open top.
They also had an ex London bus which, obviously, was christened ...
... the Fruitmaster.

It was later (?) acquired by First, returned to a red paint scheme ...
... and suitable re-re-named!
Thus the fruity Flying Banana passed into history, although the name remains as a Transport Consultancy company.

The name appears on-line as given to a motor bike with its own web site.
The recent Trainspotting TV programme introduced us to the Notwork Rail Measurement Train, converted from an HST; it too is known as the Flying Banana.
Even more curiously, the nickname was applied to GWR self-powered railcars from the 1930s. In this case it was the shape, not the colour that inspired the appellation.
Equally some trainspotter, no doubt pining for the lost days of steam, named the High Speed rains (HST) in their original livery after the aerial yellow fruit.
But back to the fruity bus company project.

Strawberries in Lancashire
In the North West, around Wigan, Strawberries appeared ....
... operating a range of tendered and commercial services. Part of their web site is stiull archived on-line and the publicity was very attractive indeed.
Probably their most famous PR event was the offer of free travel to redheads!
In January 2012, Strawberry merged with South Lancs Travel and moved its operations to the larger operator's depot in Atherton. South Lancs Travel had itself been acquired by D&G Bus, which held shares in Strawberry, shortly before the merge. Strawberry's founder Oliver Howarth became joint operations director of the enlarged company.

Or so says Wikipedia.

D&G no longer operate in Lancashire; South Lancs Travel was bought by Rotala and is now part of the Diamond Group.
So at last we bring our trip to the fruit shop to an end with:-

Lemons in Brighton
Getting Ready for September 4th
 Next lemon blog : Friday 22nd July 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Answer's a Lemon? (1)

Fruit Nearly Always Goes Rotten!

One on-line explanation of the origin of "The answer's a lemon" seems more plausible than most.

For years we have had slot machines in gambling joints. You put in a coin, pull a lever, and a row of the conventional objects appear on the face of the machine, bells, plums, etc. If you get a whole row of the same objects, all balls, say, you win, and out drops a handful of coins. . . . you may draw a whole row of yellow LEMONS, and YOU GET NOTHING. Lemons mean a bust, a disappointment. Hence, when someone says "I drew a lemon," the slot machine connotation is well understood.

But naming bus companies or bus routes after fruit has never brought great success.

The biggest disappointment was with First Potteries. There was this big re-launch with superb publicity by Ray Stenning. Each block of routes was colour coded and mostly named after fruit.
Timetables were colour coded ...
.. to match the map.
Each route came with extensive fares information - also colour coded.
There was a dedicated web site and the promise of colour-branded vehicles. But really only "cherry" ..
... and "raspberry" appeared.
But the whole fruit thing seems to have faded. The excellent dedicated web site did not last (as planned, management will no doubt say) and we are back to barely a mention in the timetable headers.
Since the enthusiastic fruity launch, Potteries has had garage closures and route cut-backs. One piccy on-line is of a vintage Optare solo with a blue zot.
It is lettered for service 43 to Baddeley Green and one caption says it is "branded for Sky line". Which its isn't, at least not for the original sky route 7 complex. Whatever the history, service 43 is now operated by D & G with nary a mention of First, Sky or blue livery.
The end of First's blue branded 43 happened just a year ago.
Was the fruit a failure? Was there a management change? Or does First not have the bottle to sustain the effort?

Tomorrow: Strawberries, Bananas and Lemons.

But first, a couple of snippets.

A Bristol correspondent sent in this note from Severnside transport.
It concerns road works and the company's route 625.
Maybe you need to read it agaiu?

And, yesterday, many parts of our railway network were in trouble because of the "wrong kind of sun". This was a departure screen at Waterloo as evening peak approached..
The delays were caused by "very high" track temperatures.

Now when fbb was nobbut a lad, wasn't he taught that railway tracks went diddly dum, diddly dum because little gaps were left at each join to allow for expansion in hot weather?
And then came welded track.
And wasn't a slightly older fbb taught that expansion joints were included to allow for extra stretch in very hot weather?
So why the delays? Has modern track technology failed? Should we go back to the diddly dums?

After all, it wasn't horrifically hot.

 Next lemon blog : Thursday 21st July