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In the long-lost days when elfin safety hadn't been invented and the world was governed by Victorian common-sense, railway engineers had an interesting little foible: they feared and hated facing points.
Now a set of facing points are where, as the engine-driver looks out of the front of his engine, he sees two routes (usually one straight, the "main", and one curved, the "branch"), diverging in front of him. The opposite is a set of trailing points, where the engine-driver sees another route come in and join the one he's on. The Victorian railwaymen knew that trailing points were far safer and had a greater margin for error - if they were poorly aligned or even left in the wrong position, there was a good chance that the wheels of the train would simply push the trailing point blades aside and stay on the track. Facing points, however, have the potential to suddenly divert the wheels of the train the wrong way with disastrous results.
For this reason traditional railway wisdom decreed that you should avoid the use of facing points on any piece of track carrying high-speed traffic. There were places where they were unavoidable - where two main routes diverge, for instance, or on those busy stretches where there are many running lines ("up fast", "down fast", "up slow", "down slow", "up goods", "down goods", "up relief" and so on), but these could often be concentrated in station areas where speeds were lower.
However, while trailing connections are safer, to use them all the time means that trains have to stop and reverse which clogs up the running lines and makes other trains wait. It may also involve the engine running round its train which is even more time-consuming, or having an engine at each end which doubles your wages costs.
So modern railways have made it quite normal to travel at very high speeds over facing points, and the results have been inevitable. The terrible accident at Potters Bar on 10th May 2002 was over faulty facing points, and so was this week's extraordinary accident at Greyrigg. So while it's absolutely indefensible to allow the kind of sloppy working practices we're hearing about, there is a serious flaw in modern operating practices too - we believe the section of track at Greyrigg was cleared for speeds of over 90mph.
And photographs seen on television at Greyrigg show the mangled end of a check rail which has clearly been struck by the train's wheels. But this check rail is not part of the main running line, but of the divergent branch, showing that the points had indeed diverted at least one wheelset along the wrong route.
Or have we got this wrong? Perhaps there's a railwayman out there who could visit our Guestbook and set us straight?
But there is another dimension to this accident. We called it "extraordinary" because that's just what it was. Think about it - a Virgin Pendolino train weighing 460 tons derails at an unknown speed which could well be 90 or 100mph, its coaches are strewn all over the countryside, some down an embankment and at least one sticking up into the air, and one person is killed.
Now we're very sorry about the old lady, but come on - in the past we'd have been looking at dozens of fatalities. Go far enough back and we'd be talking many more: the Victorians used a lot of common-sense but their common-sense told them that the materials and methods they had to build railway coaches dictated wooden bodies, beautifully and heavily constructed and immaculately painted with up to fifty coats of paint each put on with a brush made of Bengal tiger's pubes and then rubbed off again with sandpaper made from the inner thighs of Asiatic virgins. They looked wonderful, and in a crash they burned like tinder. Trust us, it happened, a number of times - literally hundreds of deaths.
Yet at Greyrigg there was just the one death. All the coaches are intact, and we've seen reports that not only was no glass broken but some of the coaches still had their lights on. This is a remarkable tribute to modern design methods, and deserves to be recognised.
But it probably won't be. We can already see the wicked elfin safety fairies gathering to demand that in future every rail passenger should wear a seat belt. The argument will go something like this
Elfin Safety Fairy: "We must guard the safety of rail passengers. It's our responsibility to do it, so you must all do as we say!"
GOS: "We don't want to. Trains are really safe - the safest mode of transport there is apart from sitting in an armchair which statistically is incredibly safe but rather slow."
ESF: "Every rail passenger must have a seat-belt, and we must have fifteen inspectors on each train to make sure they wear them, on pain of on-the-spot fixed penalty fines."
GOS: "That'll not only be incredibly inconvenient and annoying, but it'll treble the cost of any rail journey."
ESF: "But it'll be worth it if we can save only one life."
GOS: "No it won't!"
ESF: "Oh, so you're in favour of killing little old ladies, are you?"
GOS: "Mmmph, gurgle common-feckin'-sense .Aaaaargh!"


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