Archive for Transport

Auto Cruise

Posted in Cars, Transport with tags , on April 3, 2014 by pieman70

Sorry, drifting close to politics here.

There has been much said recently regarding self driving cars.  This seemingly Sci-fi idea is getting very close to becoming a reality as companies like Google are developing systems that can reliably navigate urban environments without mowing down pedestrians.  It really is exciting stuff.

Sadly this has given a mass of clueless pundits a stick to beat any public transport project with.  Mention purchasing new buses, or worse, building railways and out they come shouting “this is obsolete technology, driverless cars are the future”. Usually combined with a demand to build more roads instead, unsurprisingly something that will help them in the short term while doing very little for everyone else who relies on public transport.

The argument sounds tempting, why should a government invest in railways when we will soon be whizzing to our destination in our personal travel pod?

The argument has two problems.

First, the argument is a bit like saying we shouldn’t build coal/nuclear fission/wind/tidal/giant bicycle power stations because Nuclear fusion is the future.  Or indeed don’t buy an electric car because hydrogen fuel cells are the future.  In short they probably are the future but are no where near there yet.

To give an idea of how distant self drive tech is, lets look at how common self drive elements are in today’s cars.  First, automatic parallel parking.  First commercially released around 2002 this tech has now filtered into several models of car as a high end extra.  Considering how long extras like cruise control have taken to become commonplace and that self driving cars have yet to leave the prototype phase, this is at least 5-10 years away from being a plaything for the rich let alone a standard feature.

Second, while some US states have passed laws to allow self driving cars there is still a sticking point over having entirely autonomous vehicles and with good reason.  Those who deride older forms of public transport see a futuristic dream where your car drops you off before driving away to park itself, returning when summoned to take the driver home again.  Sadly I see this as a pipe dream.  For the immediate future I can’t see laws allowing cars to operate without a human being on hand to take over.  Why?  Responsibility.  We currently technically have self flying aircraft.  A commercial jet can land on auto pilot, so why have a fallible human at the controls.  Partly it is a final backup but mainly because someone has to be responsible for the aircraft.  This is the same with a car.  While an automated vehicle is significantly less likely to be involved in an accident, nothing is impossible and when you get hit by a car with no driver who is to blame?  And while reading or watching a film while the car does  the driving would be OK being in any way unfit to drive, i.e. Drunk would be out of the question.  The closest to this would probably be a robotic taxi, where a person would observe the vehicle remotely with an override available.

We will see auto driving cars within the next decade but they are no reason to neglect the current public transport infrastructure.

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Snowmageddon

Posted in Government, Transport, Weather with tags , , on January 5, 2011 by pieman70

We’re all doomed, the icy white stuff has trapped us, quick, stockpile bread, milk and petrol in case they run out.

Yes, it has snowed, a function of weather.  Its snowed a lot, we also got trapped by a wave of idiot commentators and idiotic members of the public spouting uninformed opinions regarding the way our infrastructure stands up to the snow.  I thought I’d take a look and try to explain why we appear to grind to a halt in the snow and hopefully bust a few of the myths in the process.

So, to begin, why do our roads, rails and runways seem to shut down entirely when the snow hits while no other country seems to have this problem.

This is actually part of our first mini myth; countries with a similar or warmer climate, such as Belgium, Germany and France do suffer in the snow, to roughly the same extent.  In the previous snow fall there were massive tailbacks on the autobahn and deaths in France due to accidents.  Their trains get slowed down as well.  Their rail networks hold up slightly better, but this is due to their relatively recent construction (Around 1940s-50s) and the lower frequency of services.  As to why we survived better when we got similar snowfalls in the 1960s, quite frankly fewer of us travelled smaller distances to work and did not expect shops to run 24/7.  Back then it was also not unthinkable to call and say you were snowed in.

So, what about countries with snowy climates, Russia, Canada, North America, even Sweden, Norway etc.  How do they keep things running during their far more severe winters?  Well two reasons.

First, they Engineer for it, their infrastructure is built with snow in mind, such as better facilities for clearing points when they freeze and snow drift breaks.  Similarly more of their vehicles can be equipped for snow.  They also have a larger stand-by level of snow ploughs gritters etc, as anyone who had to deal with bitter cold and severe snow and ice every year will have.  Why don’t we, because we won’t pay for the gritters or the stand by crews, and I assure you if we did then come the first mild winter some lump like Eric Pickles or the Tax Payers alliance would be out asking why we are wasting so much money on gritters that are not needed, using the usual faulty memory that plagues those who resent paying a penny of their vast fortunes in tax.

We haven’t engineered our infrastructure for this in the past because there has been little to no requirement.  It make it pretty clear that this weather is unprecedented, or at any rate rare when it doesn’t qualify to be included in the engineering specs for the construction of new roads and railways or the abilities of council vehicles and trains.

Similarly, in places like the Northern US and Canada, a “snow day” is not an uncommon occurrence, where whole schools and workplaces will close for a day.  This official closure allows the authorities to clear the roads without the rush hour traffic getting in the way and compacting the snow into ice.

Finally, as people they are better prepared, many in those parts own snow tyres or snow chains, and just about every municipal vehicle will have access to these as well.  At least now our authorities are looking into buying such things for the next cold snap, hopefully allowing ambulances and police vehicles to avoid getting stuck.

The second question is “Why do we start running out of simple things like bread and milk?”  This is easy.  Particularly for perishable goods such as bread, milk and fresh fruit and veg, most stores now work on a principal of receiving supplies of these on a daily basis, this allows them to minimise losses through spoilage by only stocking around a days worth of such items.  The down side is if the supply chain is interrupted supplies can run short.  This is not helped by people panic buying the minute the snow hits, the stores can take a small run on bread but people filling their freezers quickly wipes out their supplies.  Fuel is a similar case although will usually last slightly longer.  The pres don’t help as the minute they say there are shortages it promotes even more panic buying.  Again in cold countries, this just doesn’t happen because people are used to the weather and don’t get driven into a panic by the possibility of 24hrs without being able to drive to Tescos, something which seems to affect most brits judging by the rushes around the Xmas Day and new years closures.

People also do need to pitch in.  In Edinburgh the Army were drafted in to clear the streets, conversely, in Aberdeen, where this weather is more common most know in heavy snow you dig yourself out, then start digging out the street.  We have a certain complacency that it is the council’s job to clear the snow, which it is, however they will usually have more important routes to clear, so if you want your street cleared quickly, do it yourself.

Finally, and this will sound bad, its high expectations.  In cold countries people understand that it’s best to wait out the snow, allow the authorities to clear the roads then carry on.  We seem to insist that in the face of adverse weather everything must carry on regardless.  People seem to think that with the passing of a snowplough and gritter that roads will magically return to black tarmac.  Well sorry, a snow plough will be wrecked by hardened ice and grit ceases to melt anything below -10.  Grit is tricky to do right, too soon and it will simply be washed away or destroyed by traffic, too late and the snow can dilute the effect.  Finally, things can and still do go wrong.  The M8 closure should not have cost a transport minister his job, no opposition MSP has been able to explain how they would have acted differently.  The M8 was hit by heavy snow during the morning rush hour where, as anyone who has driven it during that time will tell you, it is full.  You could not have got a gritter through that traffic, the traffic then compacted the fresh snow to ice and this causes accidents and in some cases made some hills completely impassable.  I drove a more minor road that day and it was an experience I would not like to repeat.  We need to learn the world will not end if we take one day off work, and the govt needs to stop kowtowing to businesses complaining of the cost and call a few snow days, for the long term good.

High Speed Rail

Posted in Transport with tags on October 30, 2009 by pieman70

Recently Network Rail proposed a plan to build a new High speed line from scratch; it would be 200+mph, travel from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London via Birmingham and have a Journey time of around 2hrs 30 mins.  Now, I think this is a fantastic idea, think about it, that is faster than flying.  Some will say that the flight to London is under an hour, however neither Glasgow, Prestwick or Edinburgh airports are in the city centres, and factoring in check in times and all the interminable waiting that airlines seem to want you to do, and your City Centre to City Centre time is closer to 3-4 Hours flying.  This link would be on a train in Glasgow, and 2.5 hrs later you’re in the centre of London.  It’s cleaner than flying or driving, ok so electric trains are only as clean as the power station available, but it’s better than burning aviation fuel or diesel and way more sustainable.  In fact not much of this project doesn’t make sense.

However I’m sceptical if it will ever get built.  Its price tag is around the £34 billion.  It’s a shame that the government won’t commit to such a high spend, considering the millions it will quite readily spend for motorway enhancements and a 3rd runway at Heathrow which seems to be wanted only by BAA and airlines.  This is not all this project has stacking up against it.  I can see the air travel lobby being pretty vocal in its objections to this project, after all, if it is faster than flying, and if the tickets aren’t extortionate, then it will take passengers from domestic flights, environmentally this is a good thing but airlines tend not to see loss of custom that way.  It may also be scrapped by an incoming Tory government, which looks most likely.  The Tories have generally shown a dislike for public transport (“This is the age of the Car”) and anything north of Birmingham.  Until recently I would have said that the Scottish government would at least fund its side but after the scrapping of GARL I’m not so sure.  Finally it is possible that the city of London may try to derail this project (Pardon my pun)

There was an article about a year or so ago, suggesting that regeneration doesn’t work and that we should all move to the south east.  It was interpreted as a sign of fear from London that it may be loosing its importance to business.  Back in the day you had to have a major office in London; it was how you did business.  Problem is that London is expensive, and now many businesses are moving the bulk of their operations to regenerated areas like Manchester and Newcastle and leaving a shadow presence in London (Usually a few desks rented in a building) as modern transport and communications means that the city is only a few hours away.  2.5 hours from the central belt of Scotland to London would further erode any necessity to actually be based there.  Hell, we could probably remove the second home allowance for many Scottish MPs because 2.5 hours is a commutable distance.  Not an ideal one but definitely an option.

Of course, for everywhere else this is a great thing.  And this is who should be getting behind the project, Local governments and big business should all welcome the chance to move away from the capitol, it means lower rents for business, and more interest for abandoned industrial towns.  It means reduced overcrowding in the south and hopefully removing the need to build on flood plains.  Basically, spend the 36bn, do it properly (No bloody PFI) have reasonable fares and this could be a massive boon to the whole UK.

GARL or Who Makes up These Contracts?

Posted in Engineering, Government, Politics, Transport with tags , , , on September 30, 2009 by pieman70

Mock up

Well, I’ve not talked about politics and transport for a while, and here is a post which kind of combines both.

Just recently the SNP has announced its new budget; something that has caused much consternation was the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

Now on the political side, the SNP hasn’t exactly done itself any favours.  They must have known that this would be unpopular.  The Greens are already complaining that a public transport initiative was cut while road building continues and Labour are claiming that the SNP are anti-Glasgow.  Now, I will come to the reasons that the project is claimed to have been cancelled in a minute or so.  First I’ll go over how this could have been better handled.

The SNP should have known this would be an unpopular decision, and so I would have suggested a good offence with this one.  I still expect to hear is that Westminster has cut the Scottish budget, and so this is their fault, but I think they already know that argument has incredibly limited mileage, regardless of how much the Westminster labour government does seem to want to show up the SNP. (Still sore about loosing the Scottish parliament as their own rubber stamp service I guess) A good direction would have been to blame the Edinburgh trams, as they tried to shut down that white elephant but were blocked, and the project has now spiralled out of control, they could have argued that there would have been plenty of money to pay for GARL if the Edinburgh tram project could have been canned.

The actual reason given, although the SNP haven’t really been playing it to its full, a pretty poor move politically, is that the costs were becoming significantly greater than initially stated.  This is actually an intriguing angle.  If they played it as stopping another Scottish Parliament or Edinburgh tram wild overspend before it started, they may get some more understanding and support on the decision, after all, they would be wildly slated if the project ran wild on their watch.

What actually confuses me is this, how do these projects run wild?

I’m an engineer, and while studying my HNC we covered contracts in a little detail, much has sadly vacated my empty head, but the basic Tendering process and contract rules have not.  The basic gist is this.  Someone wants a big project undertaken, say a building built.  The client will usually provide a specification, plus surveys and all the information a contractor needs to make an estimate.  The contractors will then make up a document explaining how they would conduct the project, what timescale it would be completed in and how much it would cost.  The contract types generally hold bonuses for early completion, and also some bonuses for coming in under budget.  Similarly there are penalties for running late, and generally any cost over-runs must be covered by the contractor.  This works because it keeps both sides honest (It’s actually more complicated with clauses for various possibilities of delay but this simple explanation should fit)

However for some reason Government projects seem to work differently.  For these if a contractor runs over time or over budget, the Government covers the shortfall, and I’ve no idea why.  Why should costs spiral for a tender when a contract has been agreed.  If we are farming big projects out to private companies, particularly high profile ones such as Trams or a Parliament building, then we should basically say “Well you said you could do it for amount X, that’s what we gave you, now we want our building to spec, if you’ve under bid, that’s your problem.”

Now back to the SNP, if they could commission some works, and have them come in on budget and on time, they could build a reputation for better practice on bug projects.  No spiralling costs with this government.  Sadly, from how it’s been played so far, this may be the breaking of them.

Electric

Posted in Cars, Driving, Transport with tags , , on April 16, 2009 by pieman70

What holds back the electric car, and who made Steve Gutenberg a Star? I will attempt to answer one of these questions in this post.

Steve Gutenberg had a cheeky smile that suited some roles during the 1980s furthermore…..

Just kidding. There are currently moves to encourage electric car ownership, with government attempting to get a network of plug in points assembled across the country. This has seen some success in London where the GeeWhiz electric car has been quite successful as a small commuting vehicle.

Electric cars have also evolved from their predecessors which often lacked speed and range. Indeed it is often said that an Electric Car’s bigges weakness is the weight of its batteries and the amount of energy it spends hauling those around. However I disagree. Range is now just about comparable to a tank of petrol and speed isn’t an issue with cars like the Tesla proving that it is possible to build an exciting electric car.

Nope, the electric car’s biggest hindrance is charging time. Take a petrol car, when you run low on petrol you stop at a petrol station and fill up the tank, this usually takes a few minutes. Batteries take hours to charge. This is irrelevant when you are driving your car to work, plugging it in for 7-8 hours, driving home and plugging in again, but what if you want to make a trip that is outside the range of your batteries, you may need 3.5 hour stopovers every time you run out of power, making long journeys longer.

So, what are the solutions. Well, most practical is the Hybrid, cars such as the Toyota Prius, which carry a petrol engine which can run the car and charge the batteries at the same time. Its not the ideal solution, the car is heavy with the weight of an engine and batteries, and this seriously affects the engine’s fuel efficiency when running on petrol. There is a plug-in version available, which allows you to charge the batteries by plugging in, but the hybrid really is a stopgap.

Far More promising is the Hydrogen fuel cell, which has been perfected, it uses a clever chemical reaction from hydrogen to generate electricity. The only by-products, water. of course, the down side is that at the moment it costs more energy to produce Hydrogen than you ever get out of it, but that’s merely the next hurdle.

Finally, there have been some encouraging experiments done in fast charging batteries. in short re-chargeable batteries that could run for 3 hours and charge in 30mins. Suddenly all an electric car does is make you take regular breaks.

Providing people are willing to invest and promote new technology I foresee a future where nearly all of us drives either a Hybrid or and Alternative fuel car

The Edinburgh Tram Farce

Posted in Engineering, Transport with tags , on January 22, 2009 by pieman70

Well, once again I, a resident of near Glasgow can have a mild chortle about the Edinburgh Tram project. Already suffering difficulties of public disinterest, anger from store owners and ignoring the fact that trams are really an obsolete technology, there have been several new events that will most likely mark this project as a gold standard to measure council waste and corruption.

Digging Up the Road

There were complaints from shop owners along the route that business was being lost due to tram works. Now any engineer will tell you one of the most important factors of working in a densely packed urban area is to minimise disruption. However the group of cowboys who paid the best kickbacks clearly haven’t considered this. There are reports of holes being dug for the moving or underground services, tarmacked over then dug up again in order to lay track (Also a really funny story about a hole in the road getting its 1 year birthday party thrown which ended in a minor scuffle but I digress)

When planning work there are several useful exercises to go through, Charts such as bar charts, activity on the arrow and activity on the node diagrams allow you to make the best use of your time. They show areas where, for example you will have the hole dug anyway. The only way I can envisage this happening is if the guy doing the diagram was slightly worse at it than I am.

Attached to this is the digging up of Princes street, which will see arguably the busiest street in Edinburgh effectively closed for over 9 months, which will include the festival period. Somehow at the planning stage no-one saw this as a problem.

Memorial

One of the mind boggling elements that again brings into question the entire team behind the running of this project was the war memorial outside Haymarket station. People were understandably upset to discover that it was to be removed to run the tramlines through. Understandably because I would assume, quite foolishly in my naivety, that whoever surveyed the route would see a war memorial and work around it, rather than just decide to flatten it.


What I wonder about these things is why no-one brought this up in the planning stage. Why no-one looked at haymarket and said “Where’s the war memorial?” or looked at the schedule and said “You’re not blocking off princes street during the festival are you, oh for how long, nope, work a different way around it,” or indeed “Project not Viable, seek alternatives” Of course, Edinburgh has been setting itself up as having some really stupid transport ideas. The guided bus routes still confuse me, exactly what are they for, as far as I see they provide all the disadvantages of bus travel with all the disadvantages of a railway. In fact my inner cynic makes me think that they were a stopgap for a tram system as a far more useful installation would have been a road with a “No entry except Buses” sign at either end. No special buses, no blocking the thing off if a bus breaks down.

On a positive note, even if the new trams do not cause the traffic chaos that similar systems in Melbourne cause, it may finally put to bed this insane love affair with the tram that runs through planning offices. Negatively, no alternatives, like the Trolley Bus mentioned in older posts, may be considered. I think this may be where my real anger at the project stems from. (My geographical location meaning that the building works and disruption don’t affect me) In effect, I’m annoyed that the problems of installing an unnecessary tram system in Edinburgh, a sure case study of Bent councillors and mysteriously appearing “Save the Tram” campaigns, will mean that the “Not viable” option will be used by councils as an excuse to do nothing, rather than “Seek Alternatives”

Pie Man’s Flaura and Fauna of the Roads #2

Posted in Cars, Driving, Transport with tags , , on October 27, 2008 by pieman70

Look, continuation, how amazing.

#2 The Middle Lain drivers.

Pootling is a made up word, by me. It describes the motorist you often see on an empty motorway, tootling along the middle lane at 50mph or less. A close relative of the outer lane moral guardian.

I often use the term pootler because its more generous, it suggest a gentle incompetence, perhaps a little of the grumpy old “this isn’t a race you know” mentality. However it only describes one of the two sub-species of the middle lane driver.

Pootlers are usually in the middle lane because they genuinely don’t really understand motorways, they may still be believing the myth that the lanes have different speeds assigned, and that the middle is 50-60, they may just be completely clueless and so stick to the middle as it seems like a compromise. Pootlers are pretty hard to identify, they drive a variety of cars and are a variety of ages.

Hogs are the other breed, they know fine well they shouldn’t be in the middle lane, but they somehow believe that the inside lane is for slow moving pensioners and girls, and not for them. Yes they can only cope doing 50, or sometimes they are doing 70, but there is still an vast stretch of unused tarmac to their left. Of course they won’t admit pride as to their poor lane management, no, they’ll make excuses, like they were preparing to overtake a slower car over the horizon, they know that in 30 miles the road becomes 2 lanes, and this is their correct one. Either way it isn’t, its just because they can’t quite stomach going to the inside unless its for slip road purposes. These hogs quite often become outside lane menaces on dual carriageways. usually identified as male, aged anywhere from 17-55 and will be driving a small hatchback with all the trimmings (Cooling tower exhaust, stereo, extra lights like a mobile disco, picnic table spoiler and mandatory fog lights regardless of visibility) older versions will be driving some sort of repmobiel, Vectra or Mondeo through to BMW and even some of the smaller Mercs.

So, why is this a problem, there’s an outside lane, you cans till overtake. This is true, however, say there is someone doing 50 in the middle lane, no traffic to their left. Someone approaches at 60 and needs to overtake on the outside, causing someone travelling at 70 to slow down. Ideally with three lanes, and everyone playing by the rules, the outside lane should only be 70+ (not counting heavy traffic) instead this starts to give us the odd situation where the outside lane is full and the inside almost empty, as everyone tries to overtake the one person sitting in the middle.

So, how do you deal. Well, first thing, Never Undertake. Its dangerous, and you remove an opportunity for them to realise the error of their ways and pull in. Don’t tailgate either, again dangerous and calling them a middle lane hog won’t help the insurance claim. No, what I do, where possible, is overtake on the outside, then pull right back into the inside, maintaining the higher speed. This often works on the confused pootler, who realises that it is Ok to do 50 in the inside lane if someone is doing 70 in it. The hog, well shouldn’t be on the road really, and no amount of instruction or guilt will move that bullish head.