What I. learned this week 1

A probably weekly hodgepodge of interesting – to me anyway – titbits that I learned this week. Writing this mainly for myself and as an exercise to keep me writing more often. As you can tell from this first one I have a fairly high tolerance for tedious reading and facts.

London to Dublin

This week I’ve been reading a lot about the history of the route from London to Holyhead. So far I’ve crossed the Irish Sea 8 times this year (one journey Liverpool – Belfast, 3 journeys Holyhead – Dublin), with probably at least another 6 this year to go.

In the present day it takes a minimum of 8 hours to get from London to Dublin – and more often than not it takes closer to 10 hours. Then it’s a further at least 3 hours to get to Limerick. So you can see that I also have a lot of time to think about the route and how it could be better.

Irish Mail from London to Holyhead

The steam train known as the Irish Mail took 5 hours 35 minutes from London to Holyhead, which is not all that much longer than it takes currently. The fastest time nowadays is slightly less than 3 hours 37 minutes, though it’s more typically at least 4 hours as the trains and ferries are mismatched.

Railway electrification and high-speed rail

North Wales may at some point be electrified, but there are no actual plans of when or how it will be funded. The new-ish trains on the route can travel at up to 90mph (no likelihood of high speed), but are limited to 60mph on large parts of the route. It also doesn’t help that it stops frequently along the route.

Ireland has no national electrified railway and nor has Norway. Neither have any high speed rail either. This baffles me in the case of Norway particularly as it has long spans of open countryside that high speed rail would be ideal for. And because it’s so open it’d be much cheaper than in the UK as you won’t have to demolish villages and pay for valuable land.

HS1 & HS2 loading gauge

The loading gauge of a railway is the maximum allowed height and width of the trains that can fit on it. This is limited in part by bridges, tunnels and overhead infrastructure. Britain in general has a very, very small loading gauge because the majority of its route is very ancient and was built long before double-decker trains were a thing.

Mainland Europe mostly shares a standard loading gauge so that trains for one country can smoothly fit into the next (with some exceptions outside of main lines and in a handful of countries). Incidentally Britain’s small loading gauge is a bit of a hindrance to British train companies building larger trains for the continent, because the cheapest way to transport new train carriages is unsurprisingly by rail.

HS1 and the planned HS2 will have a larger loading gauge than the rest of the UK because they are brand new lines. Upgrading existing lines is very expensive and in some cases actually not at all possible, so for now only new lines are likely to have increased loading gauge. There are several potential advantages to this: double decker trains, higher speed routes, and 

The one I thought would be a no brainer is that the railway could then fit ISO standard containers on trains (standard shipping containers that can be hauled on and off trucks and ships). Alas, HS2 is to be used for passengers service only. This will free up the old line to increase freight and slow speed passenger capacity, but seems slightly unsatisfying when there’s the prospect of integrating international standards into everything.

I’m actually mainly interested in HS2 because it will reduce the travel time to Crewe consequently reducing the travel time to Holyhead by up to an hour. I have seen no mention anywhere of this being utilised to increase the use of ferries to Ireland. It’s a very much overlooked part of our infrastructure.

Sailing across the Irish Sea

Prior to the steamers, crossing the Irish Sea sounds like a right pain. Journey times could take many days depending on the weather, and the whole setup wasn’t exactly customer friendly.

Profit maximisation was important then as now, and the boats would wait for the capacity of the boat to be completely full before departing. The weather also caused frequent cancellation of services and delays to departure, so travellers could be stuck in Holyhead for weeks.

I can’t imagine anything worse.

“It’s straight, but is it Roman?”

A month or so ago I bought a book called Hidden Histories: A spotter’s guide to the British landscape. It’s designed to be the sort of coffee table book you dip in and out of, with interesting.

I’ve been reading it cover to cover so far, and have found it to be very good. I did get a little bit hard to remain fully attentive for the extensive sections on stones, but predominantly the chapters are bite-size with enough to keep you intrigued and wanting to go out and explore the world further to see the ideas in person.

The section I’m currently reading is called ‘Lines’ – its section titles could do with being a bit more enticing – which is about roads, aqueducts, walls and more. My favourite chapter title so far is “It’s straight, but is it Roman?”, and it turns out the answer is ‘probably not’. Nicely following Betteridge’s law of headlines.

Dulwich Estate & scheme of management

Last year we received a mysterious bill from our freeholder’s management company instructing us to pay £25 to Dulwich Estate. I was confused, because so far as I was aware we had no legal relationship of any kind with the Dulwich Estate, and I queried why it was necessary. The response was essentially a shoulder shrug.

So this year (a little late I appreciate) I looked up why this bill appeared. It turns out Dulwich estate used to own the freehold on most of the Dulwich area, and still holds sway through something through an Estate Management Scheme.

When a wealthy estate has to sell freehold to long-term leaseholders – various rights to this effect have come into force in the last 100 years – it could register an estate management scheme. What this effectively does is imposes rights for the former freeholder despite them no longer holding the freehold on properties. If you need to do building work on your property in the Dulwich area, you need not just the council’s permission (which seems fair enough), but also the permission of Dulwich Estate. And because there are fewer restrictions on estate management schemes they can be even more of a pain than if you were the leaseholder attempting to do work.

This doesn’t directly hit me because we don’t own freehold anyway, but it does seem a right bastard of a law.

Dulwich Estate incidentally is a ‘charitable’ concern, and last year gave out 84% of its £7.74m charitable disbursement to the 3 private colleges in Dulwich. This is for means-tested bursaries (they make quite a big thing about the fact they are means-tested), but it strikes me that their boast of funding 336 bursaries isn’t particularly impressive for £6.5 million. That’s almost £19,500 per student.

This seems bafflingly stupid to me, but then I’m not a wealthy landowner. I’m almost thinking of getting involved in the local community committees out of spite.