Interested In Everything | Dr Dave Tipper's blog

Disclaimer: I am writing the following entirely from memory, so don’t be too harsh on me if I get the small details a bit wrong.


I’ve never really written anything with a railway theme before.  I don’t know why, as, along with astronomy, engineering design, crap old cars and Jethro Tull, it’s something that interests me quite a bit.   Two things inspired this post.  The first was a message from a friend reminding me that last week was the 55th anniversary of the publication of the Beeching Report, the second was a walk I took last weekend along what is now referred to as “Clowne Linear Park” but, a long time ago, was once called the “LD&ECR Beighton Branch”.  It’s something I’ve done many times before – it’s a nice walk and a bit of a short cut to get to my parents’ place.    To put this in some kind of context, back in the late Victorian era, the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway built a double track line from Beighton to Langwith Junction as part of a grand project that involved shifting coal from one side of the country to the other.  Very little of the proposed traffic materialised so, after a takeover by the Great Central and eventual nationalisation, it was quietly closed and the track lifted in the late 1960s.  After about 30 years of being ignored, a section of the track bed was tidied up and turned into a tree-lined path for us good folk to walk up and down.  At the time of closure, it was just another victim of Beeching’s famous axe that saw a huge chunk of our rail network disappear as rail passenger numbers dwindled and BR was losing huge amounts of money.


Fast forward to the early 21st century and there are many disgruntled rumblings about lack of rail capacity and the need to re-open lines or even build new ones.  Rail passenger numbers are at their highest since about 1960 and the system is running far over capacity.  Countless people have asked if it was necessary to lose so much infrastructure back in the 60s and received opinion is that Beeching was nought more that a hatchet man who was only interested in the bottom line.  I’ve also heard it said that the whole thing was pushed by the road transport lobby and we wouldn’t have half the congestion and pollution problems we’ve got today if our railway system was as it was in the 1950s.  I sometimes think that many people who criticise the Beeching report and the subsequent railway closures often don’t quite grasp the context and time it was produced in.  Just for the record, then, here’s my take on the whole thing:

The railway system was a product of the Victorian era and was built in a somewhat haphazard fashion.  Railway companies competed  to build lines throughout the country and the mid 19th century saw a frenzy of activity in which some investors must have lost the equivalent of millions in today’s money.  All this railway building by competing private companies threw up some peculiar situations – the prime example being the village in which I live: a small, ex-mining community that only has a population of about 8,000 (as of 2018) ending up with two (yes, two) completely different railway stations within 100 yards of each other.  In what world does that make economic sense?  With such a system, surely some rationalisation should have been on the cards.


It seemed to work fairly well for quite a long time, however.  As always, though, situations change and the railways started to show a decline long before Beeching showed up, one major factor being lack of investment due to the Second World War.  After nationalisation in 1948, the newly formed British Railways set about trying to reverse some of the wartime neglect.  As steam was still the dominant power source for the railways, BR started building more steam locomotives – not only to the pre-war designs that had proved to be so useful, but also new machines to a set of “standard” classes, showing that the engineers of this new, publicly owned venture were just as capable as Gresley, Ivatt and Bulleid had been.  A few years later, it was soon realised that BR was in dire need of investment and something needed to be done if we were to have a modern rail system suited to the second half of the 20th century.  With all this in mind, 1955 saw the birth of the modernisation plan.  This grand effort was funded by the government to the tune of something like £120 million per year over ten years, with the intention of having BR completely free of government subsidy by its completion in 1965.  That’s £120 million at 1955 prices, by the way.  So, what did the modernisation plan do?  By this time, steam was seen something of a throwback to the Victorian era that really didn’t have a place in modern Britain, so it was decided to phase out steam traction and concentrate on diesel and electric motive power.  As no-one had much experience of diesel locomotives (although the LMS had experimented with 10000 and 10001 in the late 40s), a whole load of unproven prototypes were bought, some of which were successful and some less so.  One minor quirk was that, even though steam was destined for the scrapheap by 1968, BR still continued to build steam locos up until 1960.  These machines generally had a design life of at least 30 years, so that alone seemed like economic madness.


Alongside all this, a huge amount of money was pumped into building vast, automated shunting yards where goods trains could be marshalled easily, quickly and efficiently.  The problem here, however, was that containerisation of freight was beginning to become standard practice and old style wagon load freight was on the way out.  After a few years, it was fairly obvious that all this money was being poured straight down a massive drain.  Over a billion pounds had bought some very short life steam locomotives, some dubious diesels and a load of pointless goods yards.  By the early sixties, BR were seriously in the red and the situation was getting worse.  Passenger numbers were declining and the private car was starting to become more affordable for your average family.  As more people were abandoning the railways for the convenience of their Austin Cambridges, something had to be done.


Enter Richard Beeching and his (in)famous report, “The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways”, published in March 1963.  Months of research had showed that something like 80% of rail traffic used 20% of the network and the report recommended closure of a huge swathe of under used and loss making lines.  It can be argued that the analysis behind the report was somewhat simplistic and only looked at ticket receipts for certain periods of the year, plus it completely ignored the social cost of depriving communities, particularly rural ones, of their rail links, but, with BR losing money hand over fist and no end to the losses in sight, what was the solution?  At the time, it looked as though car was king and, as passenger numbers dwindled year on year, no-one could have possibly predicted the upturn in rail travel in the early 21st century.  It’s very easy to look back and call Beeching short sighted, but what were the options?  Yes, many mistakes were made, but back in 1963, BR was a huge money pit and something had to be done.  Investment in railways should naturally be long term, but, with passenger revenue dwindling and road transport increasing, did it really make sense to keep barely-used lines and stations open on the off chance that they might be needed again half a century later?


Maybe, if the modernisation plan had allowed for steam to be run until the end of its service life, possibly around 1980, and diesel traction used as an interim step until large scale electrification could be completed, the whole thing might have been different.  Who knows?

I’ve not done much stargazing for a while. This is partly due to almost an entire semester of early starts, meaning I’ve not had the inclination to sit up all night looking through a telescope and partly due to cloud, because, well, I’m in England. Still, the prospect of a clear weekend and a bit more free time had me looking through the astronomy yearbook to see what was coming up in March.

Firstly, the night of the 1st and 2nd is a full moon, the first of two putting in an appearance this month, with the second one showing its face on the 31st. As I’m sure you’re aware, this second appearance of a full moon in any calendar month is generally referred to as a blue moon, hence the well known phrase. If it’s clear, you should be able to see it throughout the night, rising at around sunset in the east and setting in the west just before sunrise. In case you didn’t know, a precise full moon occurs at the moment that it’s exactly opposite to the sun in the ecliptic (the imaginary line that marks out the annual path of the sun) and this exact full moon moment happens at 00:51 on the morning of Friday, 2nd March.

March is going to be good for viewing the five bright planets, especially just after sunset or just before sunrise. The five bright planets are, of course, the ones that are easily visible without using any optical aids and are, in order going outwards from the sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Mercury and Venus should be close to one another and visible just after sunset, while the others should be visible further east, with Jupiter appearing first, followed by Mars and then Saturn a little later.


Now, I wrote that short guide to the early March sky with the intention of putting it up on the blog a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, the weather’s turned a bit since then and you probably won’t see much for a few days. The much hyped “Beast From the East”, as the media keep referring to it, has swept in and here we’re covered in a blanket of snow. The temperature has hardly been above freezing since Tuesday night and this corner of Derbyshire seems to have ground to a halt. The roads are just about passable, there are no buses running and I have no desire to get stuck out in the car, so I’ve been working at home. The world won’t end if I have to postpone a few lectures so, if any of my lot are reading this: sorry, folks, we’ll pick up again next week.

As usual, there are the same voices complaining about how we can’t cope with a few flakes of snow and other countries cope remarkably well. In reply to that, I have to say that of course they do. Places like Scandinavia are used to it, get it regularly and can plan for it. In good old Blighty, we have some serious snow-related disruption every now and again. I think the last time I had a day at home because of the weather was back in 2010. We also have a maritime climate, which essentially means that our ambient temperature hovers around freezing point at times like this and there is a constant freeze-thaw cycle going on, meaning that light and fluffy snow quickly turns to slush and then to ice and so on and so on, making it a pain to deal with. I don’t have snow tyres as it’s not worth the expense and hassle for something that might be needed for a week every couple of years, so I’m not taking the car out. In fact, half of the problem is not the snow itself, but people who think they can still drive like it’s a summer’s day and end up causing accidents!

Anyway, that’s enough before I get into full rant mode again. If it clears up, enjoy some planet spotting. If not, keep safe in the bad weather.

Recently, various sources have been reporting on some findings that processed foods have been linked to cancer.
The BBC, for example, have a take on it here:

It seems that hardly a week goes by without someone publishing a report linking some foodstuff to a slow and lingering death, so I thought I’d investigate some of the claims.  My intention was to find published sources, read through them carefully and see if the conclusions that had been reached are anything like what the journalists reporting these findings are actually telling me.  However, the thought of having to wade through all that information after a hard day at work put me off a bit, so I’ll just leave this message out there:

For the love of all that is holy, please, please, GIVE IT A REST!  We are living far longer and healthier lives than at any point in the history of mankind. I have absolutely no intention of being terrified of the contents of my dinner plate.

Right. I’m off for a bacon sandwich…

I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks in the midst of a minor domestic crisis, thanks to my old central heating boiler giving up the ghost on possibly the coldest weekend of the year.  With all the upheaval this entails, I take my eye off the science news for a short while and what happens? Somebody sends a sports car into outer space!

Assuming that you’ve not been hiding away somewhere recently, you probably know that, on Tuesday last week, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket, currently the most powerful launch system on Earth, so you don’t really need me to tell you all about it.  Being something of a space travel geek (and just too young to have really appreciated Apollo properly first hand), I’m a little bit excited about this and it’s notable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the rocket’s boosters are reusable.  Until recently, rockets designed to do this kind of thing have essentially been seen as not much more than a consumable – massive tanks full of fuel and oxygen that burn until the fuel is exhausted and then themselves get destroyed as they fall back to Earth.  When you consider the enormous cost of building these things, that’s an awful lot of money to burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere.  This time, though, two of Falcon Heavy’s boosters landed successfully back on solid ground, ready to be used again.

Secondly, because of the reusable nature of said boosters, it’s brought the cost of launch down significantly, compared to previous missions.  If you’re not throwing your engines away, you can use them again.  The upshot of this is that Falcon Heavy will cost around $90 million per launch – still a lot of money compared to a lecturer’s salary, but something like a tenth of the amount it costs NASA to launch a similar payload.

Thirdly, they’ve sent a car into space!

When I first saw the pictures of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster floating around above the planet, I had to go and find out more and, after a bit of searching around the interwebs, I came away feeling slightly deflated.  Not because of the amazing engineering feat of getting a sports car out of the atmosphere, which I think is both fantastically wonderful and slightly barking at the same time, but because of some of the articles and comments that seem to have appeared claiming what a waste of time and effort it all was.  I’m not going to link to any of them, because I don’t want to send them any traffic from my blog, but if you have a quick search, you can probably find one or two.  I must say I was particularly disappointed with one mainstream newspaper (one that shall remain nameless, but used to be a leading liberal voice before editorial standards started to drop considerably) for churning out the usual “why are people engaging in this folly when there are people living in poverty” guff that gets thrown around at times like this.  The rest of this post is my response to the short sighted luddites.

SpaceX haven’t just blown $90 million on pointlessly putting a sports car into space on the whim of a megalomaniac.  They have spent that money on the test launch of a rocket that is capable of sending a hefty payload into Earth orbit and bringing its booster rockets back again successfully.  This has got to be the biggest launch since the Saturn V days (back when I was in primary school).  The thing has shown that it is capable of putting 64 tons up there at a fraction of the cost of any previous mission, which is absolutely fantastic news in terms of space exploration.

If you’ve designed something of this magnitude, you don’t risk sending up a payload such as a multi-million dollar communications satellite on the first go, it would be far too risky.  Instead you send up a dummy payload – I think it’s referred to as a “mass simulator” – to make sure it all goes to plan.  Normally, this would be some inert mass like a huge block of concrete, but Elon Musk stuck his old car in there instead.  Yes, it’s a bit mad, but it is far from pointless and, be honest, it’s got people interested in space flight again, which I can only applaud.  Those saying that it’s folly when there are people living in poverty?  Surely we can look at solving more than one problem at once, can’t we?  If we waited until we’d solved poverty and hunger before we made any technological advances, where would we be?  Never underestimate what space exploration will do (and, indeed, has done) for us – don’t get distracted by the dummy payload, but look instead at what’s been achieved here.  It’s truly spectacular.

Rant over.  Thank you.

Oh, and one other thing.  The Tesla Roadster is based around the design of the Lotus Elise.  The developers at Lotus drew on other areas of the UK car industry for some of their part designs – the door mirrors on the Series 1 Elise are, I believe, the same as used on the late model Austin Metro/Rover 100.  I like to think that there’s a little bit of British Leyland making its way through the solar system…


As I sit here typing this, it’s the 22nd of January. What I hadn’t realised, not until I was looking through a couple of science news type web pages over lunch, anyway, is that this is quite an important date.  Fifty years ago, in 1968, Apollo 5 lifted off from Cape Kennedy.  At this point, there was still another eighteen months to go before the first manned Lunar landing, but Apollo 5 was important as it was carrying the Apollo Lunar Module into space for the first time.  The Lunar Module (LM) would go on to take the first astronauts to the surface of the moon in July 1969, but in early 1968, it still hadn’t been tested in an actual space environment.


Bear in mind that space flight was still a fairly new concept at the time (remember that the first manned space flight had taken place only seven years earlier) and NASA needed to make sure that the LM was going to behave as the designers and engineers said it would, so it was attached to a Saturn 1B rocket and sent into Earth orbit.  During the flight, its ascent and descent engine systems were tested and a simulation of a “landing abort” was carried out.


After a series of rigorous tests, the two stages of the LM were left in a low orbit so that atmospheric drag would eventually cause the orbits to decay and both stages to re-enter the atmosphere, which they did several days later, with the ascent stage burning up as it re-entered and the descent stage landing in the Pacific Ocean on 12th February that year.


NASA considered the test to be a success and this paved the way for the first manned LM flight which took place in March 1969, taking them closer to the ultimate goal later that year.

If all goes to plan and I manage to get this post finished before Christmas, we should be about to experience the shortest day.  The December solstice occurs when the sun is at its southernmost point of the year and marks the beginning of astronomical winter in the northern hemisphere (and summer in the southern hemisphere), which is technically the shortest season.  This year, this will happen at 16:28 GMT on the 21st December.


In astronomical terms, a season is defined as the time between a solstice and an equinox and length varies slightly, with the time between the December solstice and March equinox being a few minutes short of 89 days.


It’s quite interesting to note the variation in season length – the longest season is our northern hemisphere summer at just over 93.5 days.  This occurs because the Earth is much closer to the sun during December and January, meaning the Earth is moving slightly quicker in its orbit.


So, winter is officially here and I’m finishing off the last of the coursework marking before I have a few days off over Christmas.  Have a great Christmas and New Year and I’ll be back posting my usual ramblings again at the beginning of January.




While I was flicking through the news yesterday, I learned of the passing of Professor Heinz Wolff, who died on the 15th December aged 89.  If you’re of a certain age, you may well remember The Great Egg Race – a TV programme I very rarely missed when I were a lad and one that never ceased to fascinate.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Professor Wolff was huge influence on my early interest in science and technology and had a wonderful talent at making science come to life.  I met him (admittedly very briefly) at an awards ceremony back in the mid-1990s and he was extremely friendly and entertaining.  He will be sadly missed.