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Funny how common sense bites back
Having been around a very long time has its advantages. Among others it makes you resistant to the most dangerous six words in corporate life – ‘it will be different this time'. Of course, it also brands you as a reactionary old fart, but I can live with that.
Naturally, we must be open to new ideas, but discredited old ideas in new wrappers need to be ruthlessly cut down. Take gas turbine trains. There was English Electric's GT3 in the 1950s, the United Aircraft tilting train in the early 1960s, our APT -E and French Turbo Trains in the 1970s and, most recently Bombardier flirted with a gas turbine loco.
But there are features of the gas turbine that make it inherently unsuitable for rail use and in 40 years none of these attempts set the railway world on fire, although the UA trains occasionally self combusted. And yet an experience engineering chum, whose blushes I will spare because he should have known better, got terrible excited over introducing a new generation of turbine power trains for the UK .
Which brings us to steel sleepers. These first appeared in the UK in the 1860s but were soon overtaken by timber. But in the tropics where wood boring insects were rife, steel sleepers became the civil engineers' preference.
Where a wood or concrete sleeper depends largely on its mass and the friction between the base of the sleeper and the ballast to stay put, a steel sleeper has a cross section like an upside down trough and this, together with turned down spade sections at each end, means that it sits in the ballast rather than on it, giving good lateral resistance.
As a result, steel sleepers are very popular in Africa and Asia , particularly on highly curved narrow gauge routes. They are also low maintenance. After bedding into the ballast under passing trains, a track requires little further maintenance. When it is tamped, another bedding in period is needed.
Meanwhile in Britain and Europe the continuous welded rail clipped to concrete sleepers became the de-facto standard. Until Railtrack came along.
A fresh look at steel sleepers revealed significant advantages which BR had somehow overlooked. They were cheap, light, stackable and easily transported. They required less ballast and, once bedded in required less maintenance.
Just the thing, then, for the restoration of the Settle & Carlisle route, which had been battered to bits under the resurgent Anglo-Scots coal traffic. No need to renew the formation, just scarify the old ballast and lay the new sleepers on top. No new ballast to quarry and bring in, no old ballast and spoil to be removed. And seriously grown up civil engineers went along with this, even though they must have known that for a heavy haul railway in miniature, concrete sleepers and CWR was the right thing to do.
And so, the S&C fell apart again and needed another £50million or so spent on it. And my photograph sums up the whole sorry exercise. I should add that only the up line is having concrete sleepers since this carries the loaded coal trains. Steel will remain on the down, with its empty wagons.
Talking of sorry exercises, a year or so back I asked readers to explain the economics of cutting CWR up into those short lengths which you see stacked and banded at the trackside awaiting removal by road. BR policy had been to use the long Welded Rail Train, which brought in the new ‘strings', to take away the old for use on secondary routes.
A couple of brave readers tried to explain how cutting up into 15 ft lengths, taking away, melting down, rolling new rails and taking to site was cheaper overall, but I was not convinced. And, lo and behold, what should I find tucked away in an Network Rail regulatory document last year, but a reference to a new efficiency tool – reusing worn rail rather than cutting it up.
Is it just me, or is the Class 222 Meridian the 21 st Century equivalent of the facing seats in the Vickers Vanguard? Back in the 1960s I was running a press trip to a factory and on booking in at Heathrow noticed the facing table seats at the front of the plane and thought that they would allow my party to chat during the flight. I didn't pause to wonder why no one else seemed to want them, but soon found out.
As the engines started up I realised that we were sitting on a wing spar to which were bolted four Roll-Royce Tyne turbo props. And a chum in our aerospace subsidiary told me later that the Vanguard was known as the Vickers Vibrator.
Meanwhile, after four Meridian trips before Christmas, what puzzles me is that what the motor industry calls NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) was different each time. One coach bounced up and down at low frequency with the engine idling. Another vibrated as high frequency under power, causing the crockery to tinkle musically. And all had vestibule doors which sounded as if they were running in sand paper lined guides as they opened and shut.
Generally, the ride is ‘modern European', firmer and more busy than a Mk 3 coach. But it's the vibration that distracts. Too much engine in too small a loading gauge?
Feed back on this and any other of this month's topics welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org . For a bit of fun, readers are challenged to make subject heading the unofficial nickname of the Whispering Giant.