Thursday 14 July 2016

Trainspotting Live - On The Right Track?

When Trainspotting Live, which aired on BBC4 this week was announced, it was described as "Springwatch for rail enthusiasts". It was designed not for the hard core spotter permanently camped at the end of a platform at Clapham Junction or Crewe, but for those who have an interest in trains that doesn't border on obsession, and an attempt to throw off the "nerd in an anorak" image rail enthusiasm has. A commendable aim, so I watched with interest to see what transpired.

Springwatch has been a phenomenal success. It took natural history from the rain forests and African savannas into viewer's back gardens, showing that what was going on in front of your eyes was worth sitting up and taking notice of. As a result more bird boxes and feeders than ever are in back gardens, there are organised barn owl watching walks, toad crossing patrols etc etc as people have realised you don't have to be David Attenborough to enjoy, or interact with nature.

Key to that initial success were the presenters. Bill Oddie and Kate Humble, both experts in their field, who were able to explain the basics of what was presented to the viewer without patronising anyone, and just as importantly some humour. There was banter as to if Bill's tits or Kate's tits would fledge first etc and viewers felt really involved. Simon King was despatched to a remote island to live with seagulls or red deer to demonstrate the other side of nature watching - cold, wet, windy and hours of waiting to see what you want.

So obviously it was assumed that the BBC would find a couple of presenters to ignite the same kind of enthusiasm for the railways. Peter Snow, former Newsnight presenter and "Swingometer" operator seemed completely lost at Didcot Railway Centre, and reminded me of a well meaning grandad trying to be enthusiastic about his grandchild's latest computer game, without having the faintest idea what is going on. That is unfortunate if you are reading texts and tweets out from people who DO know what they are talking about on live television, as every gap in knowledge is and was exposed to almost cringeworthy proportions, "Spirit of Sunderland vinyls - whatever that is". Had Bill Oddie not known what plumage is it's unlikely Springwatch would have had the same success.

Teamed up with Peter Snow was Hannah Fry, a mathematician, who promised us to go through the huge amount of maths and numbers involved in the railway. Except she didn't. The first night was spent working out the maximum speed a train number could be spotted from 20 yards. Turns out to be around 680mph but doesn't take into account speed blurring........Yes ok that's useful to know then. The second programme was all about torque - a word I have never heard spoken on the railway before - and the difference in torque between steam and diesel locomotion. The third programme did try to delve into the maths involved in timetabling, but spent time looking at unintelligible graphs rather than taking specific examples.

None of those will have sparked enthusiasm in anyone new. I was expecting total miles of track on the network, number of sleepers per mile, maximum train/freight lengths, how many trains operate in the country per day, how many stations there are, the cost of maintaining the railway per mile, the difference between overhead line and 3rd rail traction etc etc - information relevant to today's railway. Hannah did her bit competently, but showed no more knowledge of the railway than her co-presenter did.

The word "Live" was also taken a bit loosely. Springwatch have always said if something was pre-recorded or filmed a bit earlier etc. On the first show Trainspotting showed some footage "just come in" of a convoy of new gbrf Class 66's being delivered which completely threw the poor guy at Didcot. Not surprising really as I had seen one of them at Ipswich a month ago! That made the front page of The Sun and a grovelling apology ensued at the start of Wednesday's programme. In fact very little was actually live, and quite often what was planned to be live either failed to materialise or sneaked into a platform while someone was talking. Dick Strawbridge was enthusiastic to the point of gushing on location, trying to make the very people the programme set out not to aim at interesting, whilst not making anything very clear. Tim Dunn was the roving reporter, up in Mallaig to see the Jacobite Steamer at just about the least spectacular spot on the line on Monday, in Carlisle to see Class 37's on Tuesday, except when it arrived they decided to cut away before anyone could hear the engine, and for some unknown reason at Stafford for the 3rd programme to see Class 325 mail trains, which had a disproportionate exposure in the programme. It was by chance that 66779, the last 66 built made an appearance, and no one appeared to have done any research, or timetable reading to see what operated where and when.

Everyday there was a daily task for viewers - a "Holy Grail" as Peter Snow said as often as possible. Monday was to see the "Flying Banana" - a Network Rail Measurement Train topped and tailed by HST125 power cars. This one train was allegedly spotted everywhere from Kings Cross to Inverness! On Tuesday the task was the mail trains, rather interestingly not realising that between 2000 - 2100 most of the mail trains are either at Willesden or Warrington being loaded up..... On Wednesday it was Virgin East Coast Class 91 91110 which is dedicated to the fallen. It failed to show up.

To start new enthusiasts off, though, there were easier tasks. Monday was devoted to Class 66 locos, or Sheds as they are known by enthusiasts. Although I personally can't stand the things they can be seen on virtually every line in the country so a good choice to use as bait to hook new spotters. On Tuesday you had to spot a Class 43, otherwise known as a 125. Not so good if you don't live on either the East Coast, Midland or Great Western mainlines. Wednesday we were encouraged to spot an EMU, acronym for Electrical Multiple Unit, something that Peter Snow seemed to find highly amusing yet unfathomable at the same time. Of course no one realised that the Class 325 mail trains we had to spot the night before are actually, erm, EMU's!

However, in an effort to show viewers you don't have to be obsessed to be a rail enthusiast, Peter Snow had a daily guest. On Monday a chap who has photographed every station in Britain, on Tuesday a man who collects engine plates and has his house covered in them, and on Wednesday a prolific collector of tickets. No obsession required there then!

Of course the lack of knowledge of the railway network manifested itself rather sadly in some of the texts and tweets read out. A Pendolino was apparently spotted in Wick - which is roughly 250 miles from the nearest electrified line. An HST 125 spotted in Carlisle, which is on the West Coast Mainline and doesn't get them. Another EMU was seen on the Sudbury branch - yes it's not electrified, and a Class 45 EMU was spotted somewhere - a 45 is a massive loco! I'm not sure the same lack of basic knowledge of the network would have been allowed on Springwatch.

But above all the programme failed in its mission to demonstrate you DON'T have to be standing at the end of a platform, notebook clutched in hand, to have an interest in the railways. It can be a picnic in the woods by a line, sitting on the wall at Dawlish (if you don't cheat and watch the spectacular Dawlish Beach cameras), from the comfort of your own home by watching the superb Railcam. It didn't demonstrate how solitary the hobby can be, how theraputic - an escape from the trials of normal life can be, that travelling by train for pleasure can be so rewarding if you don't have a deadline to meet. That it's not all about train numbers, just being in the right place at the right time to hear a 37 roar past, or see a Eurostar (of which there was no mention at all or HS1) come across the Medway Bridge doing 186mph. Seeing a steamer on the mainline bringing back childhood memories for so many people. It isn't all about taking numbers in a notebook on a platform. It really isn't.

There was also the opportunity to explode urban myths about the railway. A practical demonstration of the effect leaves can have for example. I'll never forget the first time I saw black rails on the line between Tonbridge and Redhill, and I finally understood what it was all about. Everyone is held up by signal failures, so an explanation of those would have been useful, how points operate etc etc - things that affect ordinary people on a day to day basis. That would have interested a lot more people than the difference in torque between steam and diesel.

However, it was good that finally a programme focusing on the trains themselves was aired. At least we didn't see Peter Snow boarding a 156, an aerial shot of a 170, then seeing him alight from a Voyager like you do in Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys. The more exposure railways get the better, but as a programme aimed at getting more people involved in railway enthusiasm I think it missed the target by a considerable distance.

I hope a second series is commissioned, but get presenters who know something about the railway, make it known there are sites such as Railcam and Dawlish Beach that people unable to get around the country can use to spot trains from their living room, go to locations other than busy stations, talk about aspects of the railway that affect everyone, and above all plan it better, using people who know what they are talking about to plan what is featured and spoken about. There is a big potential there, but the lasting impression I got was lack of preparation, rehearsal, and basic knowledge. It could, and should have been so much better.


  1. Agree 100%. Tim Dunn and Hannah were the only two presenters who intrigued me to keep watching. Tim had the knowledge and enthusiasm and Hannah has experience in the maths side. Except she didn't have enough time really to explain in full all of her evidence. Maybe a two hour show would be better.

    Perhaps Peter Snow would be good if they brought back another series? He's an excellent historian and at least he actually had interest in the railways.

    More coverage in a Network Rail control room would help them locate what they're looking for. Perhaps also an online site for the show to state where the trains operate.

    A 2 hour programme would help people to go out and see. For example, in the first hour of the show state some interesting stuff. Then go to another off-topic programme after the hour to let people find time to go out and spot the trains. Then come back to show later the evening to showcase findings.

    Presenters need more experience though, so having more experts would help. Even rail staff sections would help. They even said there was a Pendo at Wick and EMU on Sudbury branch. Lies. Lies. Lies.

    1. And Peter was a complete idiot anyway. Patronising, I didn't like his attitude. he didn't have a clue anyway so no need to act that way. Bring back Hannah and Tim next time, and Get rid of Dick and Peter.

    2. No, to the question. I suspect the BBC has too many under-employed news bods lying around and needed to find a "cheap and easy" something for them to do.

      However, would someone please invent a television with the option to cut out the inane commentary and retain the original background sound? In the meantime I'll enjoy the pictures (well, some of them when the humans don't keep popping up), keep the sound off and make up my own commentary; to the sound of Radio 3, if I need some noise. It improves the programming; well, just a bit.

  2. The latest First Bus trading update does not make good reading it talks of closing and merging depots and other cost efficiencies which usually translates to cuts to services

    Go Ahead Local companies have still not filled their accounts. There is a fine of about £250 a month for not filing them on time

    The constant cuts to bus services tend to hit areas where rail services are sparse hardest and there really needs to be investment in them and not the constant cost cutting and standards and quality need to be improved. In most cases even basic such as bus stations seem to be regarded by bus companies and councils as an un needed luxury. Cuts to school transport is also likely to have a knock on impact on commercial bus services. There is not much positive news

  3. Maybe; but if I wanted an industry to thrive rather than end up as a museum piece it's exactly what I'd be looking at too. What's wrong with efficiency? When it comes to your cost base, surely reducing them seems to help to protect services rather than necessarily destroy them? At least that seems to me the case with First's recent expanded services in this area. Some cuts, sure but buses need passengers too. I'd rather have thought First were too slow to organise themselves efficiently in the past, so that problems festered and then required major surgery.

    1. When efficiency cuts reduce the services below a minimum acceptable level then you are in trouble. Many town services are at best hourly and frequently just a few journeys a day. For such a basic services the fares are far to high and make the car and taxis more attactive

    2. Yep, paying passengers may feel they are milked. But the money has to come from somewhere. When I calculate the cost per mile of running my modest car though, bus fares aren't uncompetitive, even more so with a little bit of effort to get the best fare. The main issue is time, but frankly that is poor planning on my part. Why do I have to rush about so much? Does it make life any more enjoyable, and how much time am I really saving? Less than I think.

      I have to say my recent experience is different: town services at least 2 and usually 3, or 4 or even 5 and occasionally 6 services per hour during the week daytimes, higher frequencies slightly reduced usually on Sats. Reliability and traffic are issues, but aren't they for car drivers too? They seem to me to be the biggest grumbles and aren't related to frequency. A real bugbear for commuters, who may lose pay. The companies have to do something about it. If they can't get you to and from work, why will you trust them for anything else, or recommend them to anyone? A frequent service can be more unreliable, and often is.

      The make up of fleets does change with a tendency to smaller vehicles, and some inevitable overcrowding (when you're lucky enough to have the passengers).

      Inter-urbans often 2-3 per hour, but hourly or even two hourly for longer routes; which may also service the "large village" but towns-in-name. Admittedly 2 hourly or hourly Sunday and evenings where they exist, though often hourly in town. Does the demand justify more?

      And vehicles lasting anything up to 15 years, but I've been on a few older vehicles giving a better ride than modern counterparts (Ollies or Solos v Streetlites anyone?)

      Rationalising depots (as with Colchester/Braintree, 4 down to 1), standardising fleets and engineering practices, improving procurement, changing rostering and reducing overheads can be inconvenient for those affected, including sometimes the passengers, but I really cannot see the objection in principle. It seems to me to get dangerously close to the argument "we must do it this way because we always have" that protects the producer not the consumer.

      Most local authority supported routes manage hourly or two hourly (especially on Sundays where they exist), but if you are subsidising at more than £5 per passenger journey, and often paying more than the passenger, then I think the taxpayers deserve a pretty good explanation. Do you keep an empty pub or shop open, just on the off-chance? Many taxpayers too are on or near the minimum or basic living wage.

      What we miss is largely empty vehicles trundling round the villages, postman pat-style. Romantic, but romanticism is for the fiction section.

      It's improving, dramatically (at least in the private sector, though I have my doubts about the Councils) but the consistent picture I get talking to people is just how consumer-unfriendly public transport often appears. If the passengers could just be made to feel welcome rather than just a b**** nuisance or "ain't bothered" it'd help. Even getting reliable info often seems a near-impossible ask even with the modern tech, and getting your message across, well . . . even my PC doesn't need telling 2 or 3 times. I've said it before and I will say it again, I think the main problem is the Councils. Often they really couldn't care less, which given we elect them, well . . . what are we doing come election time. Sleepwalking, perhaps?

      On subject, rather like some bits of the BBC, too often just doin' the job for the pay ("why am I/how did I get, here?"). A bit more enthusaism/concentration/just plain old-fashioned trying, please.

    3. Not sure where your traveling but it has not even the remotest resemblance to most areas in the East where service are frequently a few journeys a day and an hourly service is a luxury. If you want to get anywhere that has not got a direct service forget it would take all day even if you could do it at all, Just to go to a local surgery or hospital could take 4 hours and you would be left waiting around hours for a bus that assuming you do not have to book the bus 24 hours in advance and then find it cannot take you on the day of your appointment. If you think the current shambles is acceptable you are seriously deluded. At present it is a race to the bottom

    4. It depends on our definitions. I'd call the urban towns Ipswich, Norwich, GY, Lowestoft, BSE, and Kings Lynn in this area, and they have a local network. The large village/small towns places like Cromer, Sheringham, Wickham, Sax, Leiston, Aldeburgh, Woodbridge, Sudbury, Hadleigh, Mildenhall, Thetford, Brandon, Diss, Eye, Hunstanton, Wells, for instance, mostly rely on through services, but as far as I can tell are regularly served (daytimes). Other areas are better, there are some evening services too, but greater populations e.g. locally in parts of south, mid and north east Essex, but not in Cambs too. The smaller (and often spread out) villages if they have anything, are as you describe, no doubt. But is all that any different anywhere else in the country? I know many villages that have never had a bus service at all. Now they get DRT in some areas, but of vastly of varying quality across the country. And that's the problem, even West and East Suffolk are noticeably different in provision, to my mind.

      In other news, an Essex update: the County Council have stepped in apparently with subsidies for the three links to Tollesbury withdrawn by Go-Ahead, a local service in Braintree to be withdrawn by a local operator, and the Harwich daytime local town service to be withdrawn by First. That's all of them! Mind you Hedingham (Go-Ahead) have clearly upset them with a threat of the Bus Bill powers because of their lack of consultation and suddenness of it with the minimum statutory notice "if this behaviour continues". Go-Ahead upsetting people? Now where have I heard that one before?

      Mind you they have an acive (now Cabinet) MP "very interested", and senior Cabinet members representing the area. It always was a case of who, not what, you know, though wasn't it? I know, I'm far too cynical. I just wonder if it had been around Labour Harlow!!

    5. You point to BSE having a reasonable bus service. It does indeed have a better service than many areas but is far from good. You then call Sudbury small but it is actually larger than BSE but does get a far worse bus service