Trains without tracks would be as useful as a chocolate teapot. So why do we talk so little about the tracks they run on? Here’s a story about tracks for a change – the track from Fishguard to Cardiff in fact – and a couple of concerns at each end of that line.
THE WEST END
Something has changed at Fishguard Harbour. The passing loop that allowed an engine to be shunted from the front of an incoming train to the rear, ready to haul it out on the return journey has gone, cut off at the level crossing. Now there’s a gap where two tracks used to cross the harbour road. Instead we have a single track level crossing and a redundant siding.
The nameplate on the new crossing gives us a clue to what’s going on. Strail is the trademark of Gummiwerk KRAIBURG Elastik GmbH, a German company contracted (amongst others) to Deutsche Bahn, owners of Arriva Trains Wales, to supply level crossing systems.
Their system uses vulcanized rubber panels, and is designed to make life pleasant for both road and rail users.
But why the need for change at Fishguard? A Fishguard Trains regular comments:
“The old crossing surface had taken a hammering from all the HGV trailers crossing it daily and by only allowing for the single platform line some standard sized heavy duty crossing panels were able to be used which are more robust than the ones they could use if the second line was done too. 2 panels of track in the runround loop have been removed to minimise restoration costs if needed.”
We’re puzzled by this. Strail systems are installed at level crossings of every kind all round the world – like this one in Belgrade. There must be plenty at twin-track crossings. Installing a new robust level crossing surely is no reason to remove our second track.
Has something been lost? We think so. If you can’t swop an engine from the front to the rear of a train any more at Fishguard Harbour, that must cut out all kind of specials in future. Like the Jazz Special that there’s already talk about, following on the heels of this year’s successful Aberjazz Festival … but that’s another story.
THE EAST END
Here’s the east end of the line from Fishguard to Cardiff (which is probably the most popular destination from Fishguard). You’re looking at the track half way along Platform Four at Cardiff Central, just like Spad was doing the other day, when a heavy freight train rumbled through the station. Each wagon made a distinctive thud as it passed this point, so Spad came to take a closer look – and saw the rail moving up and down by at least a centimetre with each passing wagon.
Look closely at the line where some litter has gathered in front of a hollow in the ballast. That’s the place where the track visibly flexes with each passing wagon.
Steel is a wonderful material, but if it bends with every passing wagon, sooner or later it must fracture. Not wanting to wait for that to happen, Spad reported the matter to the station chargehand, who came straight over, thanked us, and made notes. Next time you are at Cardiff Central, do check on Platform Four to see if the hole in the ballast has been fixed.
This is not the first time Spad has stood on a platform and watched the rails moving (as opposed to the trains). The most dramatic was at the north end of Baker Street station on the Metropolitan Line to Watford. The rails were heaving up and down as each carriage passed, a movement of several centimetres. Recalling that sadly we said nothing at the time, made us keen to report the problem at Cardiff this time.
But here’s the unsettling question: where else in some remote stretch of line, perhaps on a quiet rural branch, possibly on a high speed line, are the rails moving under each train as it speeds past? No travellers to watch, no one to report their concerns. Does anyone know? It’s not an easy thought. Are there any comforting answers?