Desire Lines (EIT/DfT/HS2 RIBA Competition for aesthetic railway overhead line structures)

Two short entries this week, rather than one longer entry.

So, secondly, an opportunity for rail transport in the UK to improve its visual impact and create some eye-catching and attractive infrastructure.

There’s a lot of electrification planned for Britain’s railway network over the coming years. Overhead line electrification will be strung up along the Great Western Main Line from London to Cardiff and Swansea, across the Pennines in northern England, from Bedford to Sheffield, between Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, and more is expected to be delivered in due course. And then there’s HS2, the planned new high speed railway line from London to the north of England. Assuming the government ever pulls its finger out and gets on with it, that’s another whole railway, with electrification, which will be making its way across the country.

The only problem is that the overhead line masts used to support the wire from which modern trains draw their power aren’t very attractive. They either take the form of boxy truss girders, or very plain poles and arms of little or no visual interest. It’s unusual because most elements of railway infrastructure have had some good design applied to them from time to time, even if it has not been universally adopted. But electrification masts seem to have been left entirely to the engineers without anyone asking whether something could be designed which would not only do the job as effectively, but look nice too. At last, though, someone has.

The British rail industry’s Enabling Innovation Team (EIT), HS2 Ltd (which is charged with developing the new High Speed Line) and the UK government’s Department for Transport (DfT) have got together to fund a RIBA Competition to design something better looking. RIBA Competitions are overseen by the Royal Institute of British Architects, so this is proper above-board stuff.

It’s an almost completely overlooked field as far as I can tell. Most transport-related overhead line electricity supplies are very functional and not very pretty. To the best of my knowledge, the only examples of anything less ugly have been on tram systems, rather than mainline railways. Early twentieth century tram systems often had poles which if not exactly high art, did at least make some stab towards attractiveness. Such poles can still be seen in Britain on the Blackpool tram system, with their ball-and-spike finials:

By Terry Whalebone from Bolton, UK (Blackpool tram 700Uploaded by oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Terry Whalebone from Bolton, UK (Blackpool tram 700Uploaded by oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

But some tram poles were really genuinely attractive, and enhanced the urban environment in which they stood. Here are some in St Petersburg, Russia:

By Smiley.toerist (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
St Petersburg trams in 1982. By Smiley.toerist (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The tram poles in Bristol, UK, were beautifully ornate, and so are the poles and brackets you can see today on historic Line F in San Francisco, USA.

Concept digital designs for the “RIBA Competition for Aesthetic Overhead Line Structures for the UK Rail Network” are requested by 29 January 2014, and up to 10 different designs could be shortlisted. Each shortlisted designer will then receive up to £15,000 to produce a scale model of their design. After that, the winner could eventually see their design adopted across Britain’s mainline railway network.

Before you think that this is all pie in the sky that will never come to fruition, even after the winner of the RIBA Competition is announced, it’s worth bearing in mind that there was an earlier RIBA Competition to design a new and more attractive electricity pylon for the UK’s electricity infrastructure company National Grid, held in 2011 (see here). Construction of prototypes has already been carried out and it is expected that the new pylon design will be used on the connection between the main national grid and a new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset.

I suspect we might be returning to this topic sometime after the end of January next year…

further reading

The RIBA Competition for Aesthetic Overhead Line Structures for the UK Rail Network, launched 9 December 2013, here

RIBA’s press release for the competition, here

EIT’s blog entry on the competition, here

but finally, an apology…

email subscribers might have already seen a version of this entry, sent out in error on Monday 16 December while still at the drafting stage. I’d like to say it was a technical problem, but it was actually due to your tired author being unable to tell the difference between a “publish” button and a “schedule” button. Apologies for any confusion caused.

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