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The Stonehenge muddle

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If I believed in reincarnation, what I’d most like to come back as is a traffic planner, because I think they have the most fun of all. With one sweep of my irresponsible pen, I could bugger up a whole city or a vast tract of landscape without leaving my desk. Oh, the enjoyment I could have just by “playing” with traffic light phasings. And roadsigns.

I wrote earlier this week about the daft roadsigns that you now find on the A303, the main direct route between London and the south west. The joy of the A303, usually, is that it isn’t a motorway and is therefore relatively interesting to drive. Also it doesn’t pass through any towns and only a few villages, so there are no massive hold-ups. And some of the scenery is terrific. Some sections aren’t very fast, it’s true, but speed in these things is relative and overrated: I’m happy to arrive 15 minutes later if it means I don’t feel like I’ve been through some form of racetrack competition.

But the A303 now has “Queues likely” signs near Stonehenge and has lost some of its relaxed charm. That is because of the traffic planners. They have, indeed, created queues: pretty much an hour in each direction when I took the road to Devon and back last week. What fun they must have had. And what little knowledge of human nature they have displayed in so doing.

The difficulty is, of course, that the A303 road passes very close to the ancient monument of Stonehenge, a World Heritage Site. You get quite a decent view from the road and you used, before the planners got their way, to be able to turn off on to a dozier road called the A344 where you could dawdle along to get an even closer view or go into the official car park to pay a proper visit.

That easy turn-off has now been blocked. To get a better, or more lingering, view of the stones of Stonehenge, you continue on the A303 (if you’re coming from London) to a distant roundabout, turn right and then right again and then you’re in the official car park. In other words, you now have to decide to visit properly. The easy dawdle option on the A344 has been removed.

So instead people are dawdling on the A303. Or turning off into a track next to the pig farm on the other side of the road. Or wandering among the cars and along the roadside, where there is no pavement, to get a better view. Or reversing out of the track into the traffic. All of this I saw last week. I had plenty of time to watch it, stuck in the queue for up to an hour each way. Though mostly, of course, I was watching the rear of the car in front.

Of course, the gawpers shouldn’t be doing any of this, and in the idealised world populated by traffic planners they wouldn’t be. But the reality is that people don’t and won’t do as they’re told, and traffic planning should take account of that. I can recognise that Stonehenge’s proximity to the A303 is a difficult problem, but the new “solution” creates a new problem that dramatically affects the road’s value as a through-route.

Anyway, if I’m reincarnated at any point soon, I promise to come back as a traffic planner to see if I can do any worse than the current road scheme at Stonehenge. I suspect I won’t be able to. But it’ll be fun trying. Though not for those wanting to use the roads to get around.

PS, a week or so later, I came through without any hold-up… but it was mid-evening on a Tuesday, cold and blustery.

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Written by johnpullin

August 20, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Transport

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Traffic signs: a roadside broadside

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There’s a generalised government promise out there that no one has any intention of acting upon to reduce street clutter, and specifically the number of roadside signs. I’ve written about this before in relation to urban signage – the apparent requirement that every Elim Pentecostal Church in south London should be signposted from every direction, for example.

The smiling English countryside has, however, what I contend is the most useless sign of them all. There are examples on the A303, the main road to the south west, about a mile either side of Stonehenge. The sign says “Queues Likely”, with a graphic of queuing cars in a red triangle.

I can’t see what use this sign is to anybody. If you’re in a queue when you trudge past it, you’re probably not unaware of the fact. If you’re not, then you don’t need it. If there was a sign five miles back saying “Queue Ahead: Turn off to Avoid it” it might be helpful. But on this road at least there isn’t. If it indicated how far the queue ahead was likely to extend, that might be useful information; but it doesn’t. The sign just sits there, passively, with a slightly smug tone of “I told you so”. Even though it didn’t.

But of course it does convey some information, though not necessarily the sort the sign owners intended. It tells you, for instance, that the road planners know they have a bottleneck that they’re incapable or unwilling to sort out. It advertises clearly their inadequacies.

It shows, too, that while they can’t or won’t sort out the road, they’ve got time to commission and erect a sign or two. There’s presumably been measurement and analysis to determine that queues are indeed likely at these spots: pencils sucked, heads nodded in sage agreement, judgements made. Instead of holding meetings to sort out the road, they probably held meetings to sort out a sign that tells you they didn’t sort out the road.

All pretty useless, really. And in these days of the internet of things and intelligent transport systems, a reminder that there’s still a lot of unconnected unintelligence about.

Written by johnpullin

August 18, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Transport

Pentecostal pandemonium

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Sunday mornings in your area may currently be calm and serene: the sounds of sponge on car bodywork, a languid dog bark in the distance, the scraping sound as last year’s congealed carbon is scrubbed from the barbecue. That’s how it is now. But if the government has its way, it’s going to be different: carnage, chaos, crisis will ensue.

The problem that’s looming is the one of lost souls, and the cause of this is going to be the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, who has just announced incentives for local authorities to “de-clutter” their roads of duplicated and unnecessary roadsigns. A good thing you might think, and I’d agree. But there are consequences.

Around here, a large proportion of the roadsigns seem to relate to places of worship. It’s a pretty non-denominational thing, with signs to churches, chapels, mosques and temples – there do seem to be, however, large numbers pointing, not necessarily in consistent directions, to “Elim Pentecostal Church”. There’s one at the nearest A-road junction to my house pointing north, and one a mile or so south which points, er, south. Maybe there’s a lot of Elim Pentecostal Churches around. Or maybe the gist of the Elim Pentecostal Church is that there are lots of signs, but few destinations, and that north and south are essentially the same. I don’t know.

What I do know is that these signs must have been put up for a purpose in pre-McLoughlin days. Then, presumably, there were hundreds, even thousands, of people descending on my part of south London every Sunday morning, each of them pondering the same question: “I wonder where on earth the Elim Pentecostal Church is? If only someone would give us a sign.”

Well, someone did. And now someone else wants to take it away. That may be biblically apposite, but I do wonder if the consequences have been thought through. Or whether pentecostal pandemonium is about to return to our quiet Sundays.

Written by johnpullin

March 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Transport

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High-speed rights and wrongs

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The government has today announced the route for the extension to the UK’s second high-speed rail line which will take passengers on from Birmingham, the current scheme’s projected terminus, to Manchester and Leeds. I’ve written before that I like the idea of a brand-new high-speed rail link for the UK – well, mostly for England, as Wales isn’t included and Scotland on present timelines won’t be reached before everyone currently alive is at least on a senior citizen’s rail pass, if not beyond the reach of all earthly transports.

My feeling is that we should get comfortable with the idea that there are merits to building something new, and not merely content ourselves with patching up systems that the Victorians left behind. The Victorians did a great job – for the Victorians. They weren’t catering for the way we live now, for the size, location and mobility of today’s populations, or for the technology developments both within transport systems themselves and more widely. (You can bet that if they had been, Brunel would have built a line to Heathrow.)

For speed, capacity, modernity, and to serve current and future needs, we ought to be thinking new railways, not just making-do and mending old ones (though there’s nothing wrong with extracting as much as you can out of the old stuff as well, of course). I’m not being prescriptive about actual routes, but I know that high-speed trains run better in straight-ish lines. For preference, I think you’d try to keep your new lines as close as possible to existing infrastructure such as motorways to minimise environmental impact. And you’d site your stations to be hubs for other modern urban transport systems to feed into: so they don’t need to be city centre, they just have to have good connections into city centres and elsewhere.

Anyway, that’s what I think and I’m sure it isn’t a popular line to take in the Chilterns, which already face a high-speed train coming through by 2026,  or Lichfield where the new high-speed extension that’s been announced today will go.

But if I’m broadly in favour of high-speed rail, then what I’m not in favour of is that it is being dressed up in terms of “economic growth”. There are even people on the radio today saying that this is George Osborne, our beloved Chancellor, giving the economy a shot in the arm while showing that Britain means business.

This is nonsense. If we’re pinning our hopes of economic recovery on a train that might arrive in 19 years’ time, then things are even worse than we thought. And if the government wanted to provide an infrastructure boost to alleviate current woes, then there are far faster ways to do it and ways that would also be much more effective in terms of spreading benefit to a lot more people. £33 billion would buy a lot of schools, or hospitals, or houses, even if spread over 19 years. (In fact, it’s only the timescale that makes the figure look that boggling, I suspect: it’s really only £1.7 billion a year, which is chickenfeed in Osborne’s ledgers.)

Worse still, I fear that lumping high-speed rail into the column marked “infrastructure” may have the effect of depleting even further the real infrastructure investments that might provide growth and a quicker return: or might stop current assets degrading further. Ah, says George, I don’t need to set aside any more money for school buildings or hospital A&E departments or potholes in roads; I’m already covering infrastructure. No George, you’re not.

The reason for doing the high-speed rail line is that it’s a good idea. Full stop. Getting growth back into the economy is different thing altogether. On which we’re still waiting to see some action.

 

Written by johnpullin

January 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm

London’s new tube line: missing the opportunity

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This is a long one. But stick with it. There is a point.Northern_line_extension_to_Battersea_via_Nine_Elms

Down in the depths of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement of government finances last week was the announcement of the go-ahead for the extension of London Underground’s Northern Line (Charing Cross Branch) to terminate at a new station close to Battersea power station (and Battersea Cats and Dogs Home). The scheme, which has been mooted for a while, takes the tube into an area that has not had a service before, though there are national rail stations locally to take passengers into Victoria and Waterloo.

There are several oddities about this tube extension. For example, there is the fanfare that accompanied this pretty modest proposal: well, all right, the government knows it ought to be investing in infrastructure to help promote growth, and this was the biggest thing they could drum up in the time available and without spending much money.  That’s a second point – not a lot of public money seems to be going into this scheme, with a housing developer who is snapping up land around Battersea and Nine Elms putting up some of it and the Americans, who want to put a secure embassy compound there as well, likely to stump up more.

The real oddities, though, concern the scheme itself. And in particular its limited ambition. This isn’t a remote, uncharted area that’s being opened up, in the manner of Dr Livingstone: it already has bus and train links. Moreover, the new line is only an extension: it doesn’t make any new connections. A couple of miles further along, it might have run through to Clapham Junction, a hugely busy hub which now usefully has spokes radiating in virtually every direction. But it doesn’t do that.

Stranger still is the fact that it passes directly beneath Vauxhall, already a busy interchange station between the main line into Waterloo and the Victoria Line underground – but there are no proposals to link this new extension line to the other stations there. Apparently the congestion there is already too much. The new line will pass by without stopping. (The tube map I reproduce here suggests it’s some distance from Vauxhall: actually, it isn’t, it’s directly on the line.)

This is ridiculous. What we’re going to end up with is a Northern Line appendage, serving limited numbers of people and not integrated into the underground and national rail system as a whole. It’ll be like a southern version of the Mill Hill East branch (and that, of course, had history as a through route). It’ll be nice for locals in that there are any; irrelevant to the rest of us.

But if that’s a missed opportunity, then I think there’s more that could have been done. A lot more.

If you live in South London (and even if you don’t and just pass through on occasion) you probably know that Vauxhall is a dreadful bottleneck. It’s at an awkward bend in the river with umpteen busy roads converging from all directions. As a cyclist, it was always the worst part of my journey to and from the office and the traffic system there confuses and irritates – yet is probably the best that can be achieved with the current constraints.

And the biggest constraint of them all? Through the middle of Vauxhall, dividing the area into two barely conjoined halves, ploughs the immovable elevated eight-track viaduct of the London and South Western Railway on its way into Waterloo. The railway leaves no space for a proper road system, no real room for a bus station and not much for anything else either: the immediate area is blighted by it.

Why put up with this? When the LSWR first approached London from the south-west, its terminus was at Nine Elms, just to the west of Vauxhall, but that was deemed by the Victorians not to be central enough, so the extension to Waterloo was built. That Victorian decision, made for Victorian reasons and without modern-day alternatives, has dictated what has happened ever since and condemned us to everlasting congestion.

I think it’s time to revisit. If the Nine Elms and Battersea area is to be redeveloped and to get a nice new tube line, isn’t it time to put the LSWR terminus back where it was in Nine Elms, demolish the viaduct all the way from Vauxhall into Waterloo (or put apartments with stunning views up on it) and free up a whole vast area for proper roads and houses and parks and riverside walks? Turn Waterloo, which already has half a dozen unused tracks anyway following the removal of Eurostar services, into a shopping mall or flats or a Gare d’Orsay-style gallery.

A terminus station at Nine Elms would have good underground connections on the new Northern Line extension and the Victoria Line – and you could always put a single tram line or an extension of the Waterloo & City Line on the linear development site you’d create. The road system could be remodelled to something less constrained and we’d have a transport facility worth having. The new tube line wouldn’t be a dead-end any more.

And once you’d done this, my suspicion is that you’d find other places in London and in other big cities where you could do similar things – places where we’re constrained by Victorian transport infrastructure that is no longer fit for purpose.

Written by johnpullin

December 12, 2012 at 11:28 am

Being brave about airports

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My favourite story in the August issue of Environmental Engineering magazine (I’m allowed to have favourites, as I write about three quarters of the mag) is the one about the American entrepreneur who is trying to build a whole new city in the desert of New Mexico. One reason I like it is that, having got fed up with not getting much info about it, I sent a rather testy email to the entrepreneur’s corporate inbox, and the multi-squillionaire phoned me back almost instantly. That’s a nice direct way of doing business. I recommend it: just pick up that phone.

Another reason why the story is nice is the scale of the ambition. Basically the entrepreneur, Bob Brumley, has knocked around the engineering world a bit and found that “big ideas” often struggle to prove themselves because there’s nowhere to test them safely. For example, you wouldn’t really want Ford to be testing ideas for driverless roadtrains of trucks in convoy on the M1 – yet that’s where you need to test them, because that’s where they’ll operate if they’re to be a reality.

So Brumley’s idea is to build a fully-wired-up city, with roads, water systems, power and all the other kinds of modern infrastructure, but with no inhabitants, so big companies can test big systems. And New Mexico being largely empty, that’s where it’s to be built. You can run your traffic experiments without fear of casualties. (Some of the testing will, of course, be defence-related, but I’m not going to get sniffy over that: I’d rather, if those things need to be tested, that they were tested in a desert somewhere rather than in my back garden or on the streets of some war-torn city.)

I’ve no idea whether this artificial city will actually happen – there’s been some doubt in recent months. What I do know is that it’s an example of the kind of thinking that could (should) be applied elsewhere. Much of the time, we seem to potter along, patching up and squeezing more capacity out of systems we set up years ago. But once in a while, we need to break out of the constraints and do something radically new and different in order to make real progress. That is, I think, what Brumley is about.

This thinking could usefully be applied elsewhere: especially in transport. Currently, as part of the silly-season lack-of-news that afflicts us every year at this time, there’s big debate about whether the UK government should reverse its opposition to the expansion of Heathrow Airport. There seems little dispute that more airport capacity is needed; less certain is whether Heathrow is the right place to do it.

My view is that it’s not the right option. You can’t uninvent Heathrow, and I’m sure it will remain the main airport for a generation and more, but as a location for the UK’s main hub, it’s in the wrong place. The wise but brave thing to do would be to start elsewhere with a new airport that can have modern infrastructure built in and will have room to expand: shove all the tourist flights out there to start with, and then gently it might take on other roles.

Like Brumley’s testing city, you have to recognise that squeezing more out of existing ideas has limits and a big leap forward is needed. And that requires a bit of bravery. Maybe that’s easy for maverick entrepreneurs to do, but more difficult for governments. But we’re doing it with high-speed rail, and airports need the same kind of brave thinking.

Written by johnpullin

August 29, 2012 at 11:47 am

On the train to nowhere

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There is a nice little feature on the BBC website this week about “ghost” train services: the ones that run maybe only once a week and are maintained because it’s easier to do that than to close a line or an individual station completely. One example used in the BBC piece was a line between Stockport and Stalybridge in Greater Manchester, and the affable woman from the train operating company said that they’d be open to running more than the one unadvertised train a week that currently operates… if there was demand. Chickens and eggs and the precedence thereof came to mind: demand won’t be there if there’s no service and service won’t be there if there’s no demand.

The Manchester environs aren’t, in fact, particularly short on transport infrastructure, so the “Parliamentary” service on this line – so called because parliament once ruled that if a rail line is deemed to be open then you have to provide some sort of service, no matter how infrequent or undersold – may not be much of a local headache. But that isn’t always so. Take Table 19 of the National Rail timetable, for example.

Table 19 – you can find it here: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/browse%20documents/eNRT/May12/timetables/Table%20019.pdf – covers a line between Skegness and Nottingham via Grantham. You can imagine that in days of yore, in laceworkers’ wakes weeks for instance, this was heaving with traffic. D H Lawrence probably did the journey on stopping trains that called everywhere. Today, you can still do it and the journey takes around two hours, stopping only in towns you’ve probably heard of.

But several of the other village-y stations on the line are still nominally open. Havenhouse, for instance, near the Skegness end of the line, still has its station: but it only has two trains a day in each direction. If you wanted to commute by train from Havenhouse to Skegness, you could catch the 7.54 in the morning and come home by the 16.11 in the afternoon. That might make a rather circumscribed working day, but I suspect schoolchildren might just do it. Except that it seems they don’t, because Havenhouse in 2010-11 had only 100 passengers in a whole year, arriving and departing. At Elton & Orston station on the same line (but halfway between Grantham and Nottingham) there’s only one train a day to Nottingham and it leaves at 6.25 in the morning. That station had only 42 arrivals and 42 departures in 2010-11 and only eight of the 42 were children. No one had a season ticket. Not surprised: sensible folk are still in bed at 6.25 am.

There are plenty of other examples of this. Pilning, north of Bristol near the Severn Tunnel, had a service in only one direction on one day of the week last time I checked; Shippea Hill might seem a reasonable commute eastwards into Norwich, but though you can leave from it in the morning, you can’t come back. Ever. Or at any rate not by train. Unless you catch a westbound train from Norwich to Ely (passing through Shippea Hill), stay overnight, and then catch the following morning’s eastbound train and alight at Shippea Hill. Don’t try it on a Saturday morning, though: you won’t get back till Monday.

Of course, you can blame all of this on the disastrous rail line and station cuts imposed by Dr Beeching nearly 50 years ago, but though I like to blame the man wherever possible, it really doesn’t stack up this time. I hear too there are arguments that if you invest in new infrastructure, it rapidly gets oversubscribed: new roads that instantly fill with traffic are usually cited. That doesn’t seem likely to apply here. It is just daftness. And because these are mostly small places with little clout, I doubt that much will ever be done about it, and they’ll remain in the odd limbo position of having a station but no transport system.

 

Written by johnpullin

July 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm

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