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If it isn’t autonomous, and it isn’t a metro system, then what exactly is the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro? GARETH DENNIS dives under the hood of this strange project.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 918 (18 November 2020) of RAIL magazine.

Have you heard the word “gadgetbahn” before? It is a portmanteau coined to describe transport proposals that, to all intents and purposes, ought to be delivered using proven railway technology and yet go out of their way to be anything but a railway. Typically, such systems are intended to distract from or be at the expense of investment in proper, functional public transport.

In the last week or two, a couple of significant gadgetbahn projects have been hitting the headlines again, and one of them can tell us a lot about the future of the other. …


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This article was originally published in CityMetric on 23 March 2020.

This morning, in what can only be characterised as a whimper rather than a wail, the rail franchising system that has been in place in Britain since 1996 came to a rather unceremonious end.

With travel limited to only critical workers as a result of the rapid spread of coronavirus — EVERYONE ELSE: STAY INDOORS — there was never a chance that the over-stretched rail system would cope in its current guise, and it was likely that government would have to step in.

And step in they have. Rather than taking the franchises back in-house (as they have previously done with LNER and Northern using so-called “operators of last resort”), the government has essentially re-awarded the franchise holders with quick-and-easy “stay-put, we’ll pay you” contracts. …


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This article was originally published in CityMetric on 6 January 2020.

At the end of December, activists and celebrity supporters relaunched their #RethinkHS2 campaign opposing the UK’s new high-speed line with a rather glossy video voiced by Emma Thompson, featuring the music of Annie Lennox and front-staging the bauble-hanging skills of Chris Packham.

The video, and the whole premise of this campaign, is based on a single mistruth: that HS2 will destroy over 100 ancient woodlands (it won’t). The result is a typically misguided “green” attack on HS2, and hopefully I am about to explain why.

Firstly, let me make a crucial point: the money spent on HS2 cannot be better spent on upgrades to the existing railway network because building HS2 is an upgrade of the existing railway network. …


New report promises a railway strategy but delivers a recipe for catastrophe

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It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the clarity of their conclusions when a report’s authors have to pop up on the evening radio on the day of its release, backpedalling desperately — and, in the case of the National Infrastructure Commissions’s Rail Needs Assessment for the Midlands and the North, that’s precisely what commissioners had to do. …


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The fatal derailment at Stonehaven has put the condition of railway earthworks into sharp focus. GARETH DENNIS looks at how the extremes of weather as a result of climate change can impact on earthwork resilience.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 912 (26 August 2020) of RAIL magazine.

I originally wrote this piece whilst Coronavirus was rightly holding the attention of news cycles, but just prior to its publication, a fatal derailment occurred near Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire following very high rainfall and a spate of landslides. Suddenly the impact on our railway infrastructure of a rapidly changing climate and its impact on weather extremes became headline news.

These extremes are taking an increasing toll on all aspects of railway operation, but earthworks — hidden away out of sight in most cases, and having had little attention since being cut or laid down over a century ago (nearly two centuries ago in some cases) — are at particularly risk of failure. Whilst we shouldn’t speculate over the details of the derailment, it is vital to understand the wider impacts of climate change on the resilience of our infrastructure. …


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GARETH DENNIS takes us on a journey along a line that, perhaps like no other, conjures up pride in those who have worked or travelled on it.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 873 (27th February 2019) of RAIL magazine as part of their Seven Railway Wonders series.

It was built as a racetrack of iron. 118 miles of near-straight alignment carving its way through the English countryside. Not content with being the world’s first high speed railway, it also carried Britain’s first passenger-carrying high-speed train only 135 years later.

Despite the iconic trains that have operated upon it, this epic piece of infrastructure still manages to make the track the story, and for that reason alone I should be enthralled by it, but as a permanent way engineer, the line as originally built challenges the very core of my beliefs: that system-wide compatibility is the key to a successful railway network. …


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No list of railway wonders would be complete without including the great marvel of modern civil engineering that is the Channel Tunnel… GARETH DENNIS looks at the story of its inception, construction and operation.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 878 (8th May 2019) of RAIL magazine as part of their Seven Railway Wonders series.

It is one of the few train journeys left in the UK that can inspire the giddy joy of the early days of steam, and yet passenger travel is only a very small part of its purpose.

Without it, the UK couldn’t function. It is as simple as that. Countless vital products too time-critical to ship and too numerous to fly arrive onto our little island every day via this portal to the continent.

Of course, I’m talking about the Channel Tunnel — Britain’s railway conduit to Europe. …


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As its successful application to gain UNESCO world heritage site status so eloquently states, “No bridge is so distinctive from others as is the Forth Bridge from its peers.” GARETH DENNIS explores why he thinks this iconic structure is one of the great wonders of the world.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 872 (13th February 2019) of RAIL magazine as part of their Seven Railway Wonders series.

Built in the aftermath of one of the most infamous engineering failures in history and at a time of faltering confidence in British economic prowess, the Forth Bridge stands tall as a testament to the longevity of railway transport and is (in my opinion at least) the finest engineering monument humans have ever raised.

At the time of its opening, it connected the cities of the Scottish central belt with the coalfields and ports of Fife and the north. Strength was the name of the game, with the tapered towers and high degree of structural redundancy intended to resist the most aggressive winds that nature could throw at it without so much as a flinch. …


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The abandonment of the Great Central Main Line meant destroying a nationally strategic piece of infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean reopening it will solve today’s railway challenges. GARETH DENNIS explains why.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 898 (12 February 2020) of RAIL magazine.

Throughout the last ten years, as plans for High Speed 2 (the new dedicated passenger line connecting London, Leeds and Manchester via Birmingham) have become clearer and the route more refined, calls for its cancellation have become more frenetic.

I spend a lot of time tackling these demands and the barrage of misinformation that accompanies them. The suggestion that “reopening the Great Central Railway” is a viable alternative to HS2 is a common one, based on a variety of mistruths and misunderstandings.

The claim isn’t confined to railway forums or Twitter, either… Several publications have made the same assertion, most recently including the Spectator: Ross Clark penned his piece “There is a far better option than HS2” in August, and it makes all of the same false arguments. …


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TransPennine Express’s new trains are missing one key feature that is indispensable for other 125mph trains on the West Coast Mainline. GARETH DENNIS looks at the future of tilting trains.

A version of this article also appeared in Issue 886 (28 August 2019) of RAIL magazine.

Since 2002, tilting trains have enabled 125mph running on the curvaceous West Coast Mainline. By leaning further into curves to counteract outwards acceleration (more on the science later), these trains can reach speeds that conventional trains travelling on the line cannot.

Or at least that was the case until a few months ago.

You might not have noticed, but the first of TransPennine Express’s new Class 397 and Class 802 trains have been running up and down the West Coast Mainline (WCML) north of Preston at speeds of up to 125mph without any tilting capability at all. …

About

Gareth Dennis

Railway engineer. Writer. Sustainable transport advocate. Director of @PermanentRail. Lecturer at @BCRRE etc. Leads @PWI_York. STEMist. Feminist. He/him. 🏳️‍🌈

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