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The Computer says “You’re fired”.

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(Cross-posted from my IT testing blog, Probe probare.)

There’s been some little kerfuffle online over this story from the wonderful world of corporate HR systems:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44561838

And here’s the guy’s story in his own words:

https://idiallo.com/blog/when-a-machine-fired-me

Although it’s an example from the USA, it has relevance here in the UK even though employment law is rather different on this side of the water. (This post is written specifically from a UK perspective.) The problem was perhaps not so much the procedure itself (though I shall return to that later); it was the fact that various people tried to unwind that procedure but the system wouldn’t permit it. And there was no good reason for the original supervisor not to renew the contract (though it does suggest an area where the company’s HR policies were not aligned with business needs).

The OP makes the point that what eventually happened was that he was dismissed and then eventually re-hired after the termination process was completed. Nonetheless, that really shouldn’t have happened under those circumstances; it left the OP out of pocket and also involved him in reputational damage. The system design was based on 1) an assumption that any decision to terminate is automatically correct and unchallengeable, and 2) in any termination process, there are a series of steps to be taken that have to be taken without any option for challenge at the operational level – i.e. the security team were under a three-line whip from the system to escort the OP off the premises, even though they had had conversations with other managers and knew that there was an issue with the process that the management team were trying to reverse.

This, of course, is a real-life illustration of the Milgram experiment, where any instruction from an authority figure is complied with, no matter how unreasonable. It’s funny how often that seems to be borne out in experience.

Someone commented to me that perhaps there was an underlying issue with the OP’s attitude and the possibility of their posting rude blogs online. Personally, I think Ibrahim Diallo’s blog was completely fair and justified, and at no point does he name the company where this occurred (though some who commented accurately identified them based on their own experience). Interestingly, the risk of disparaging blogs doesn’t seem to have been considered in system design as there was no provision made to generate a non-disclosure agreement on contractor exit!

The use of the words “fired” and “job” reflect common usage rather than strict legal definitions, though it also has some bearing on the long-running debate on the status of workers in the gig economy going all the way back (for us in the UK) to the Inland Revenue’s original implementation of IR35. The thing is that there is little indication that the process would be any different for a contracted employee. The omission of a renewal action by a disgruntled supervisor would never be an admissible reason for dismissal – it certainly wouldn’t come under the heading of “some other substantial reason” for dismissal which is the catch-all reason in UK employment law which is automatically assumed to be fair. And if such a system caused such a “cascade dismissal” of a contracted employee, it might render the company liable for action, not only in an Employment Tribunal, but also in a civil court for consequential loss for putting in place a system which actually circumvented accepted procedures (although the ACAS code of practice on discipline leading to dismissal isn’t statutory, I doubt a court would take a favourable view of a system that ignored established custom and practice in such a well-established legal area).

From a system testing point of view, this entire incident illustrates areas where testers should have had greater involvement at the design stage, in challenging issues such as “is it possible to back out of the process once it has been initiated?” or “Does this actually comply with employment law?” (and hence the underlying question, “What’s the worst that can happen to us – the company – if this goes badly wrong?”). There certainly seems to have been a distinct lack of risk analysis when this system was being defined and designed; and any concerns raised by testers that may have been raised seem to have been ignored. And that’s a valid challenge to make, irrespective of variations of legal practice in different jurisdictions.

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Written by robertday154

June 27, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Loud and clear

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I’ve worn spectacles since the age of six; so regular visits to the opticians have been part of my life for many years. Over time, this has become a more and more expensive business as my optical prescription has become more and more extreme. Discount opticians – Specsavers, Vision Express and similar – can’t help me because they make their money out of the 80% of cases who present with fairly straightforward prescriptions. Just to be difficult, I’m in the 20%. To be fair, I did try a discount optician when they first appeared on the High Street. It turned out that my prescription required lenses that they had to order in specially, so their price and order turnaround promises didn’t apply. This is what you get for being different.

Of course, I could have spectacles through the National Health Service – but the range of frames is limited  and there would be no option over the type of lens I could have. I really need two different prescriptions, so I have varifocals – two lens types in one optic. I’ve never asked, but I suspect that varifocals aren’t available on the NHS, meaning that I’d have to have two pairs of spectacles and keep swapping them over for different situations. Also, given the extreme nature of my prescription, my lenses are pretty thick – so I have top-end “thin” branded lenses, which I also doubt are available through the NHS. Even with the hi-tech thin lenses, mine resemble the bottom of a beer bottle in thickness, so again I dread to think what the NHS equivalents are like.

Last year, the opthamologist said that I needed a new pair of spectacles because of a change in ‘prism’ – the way that my eyes work together to  deliver stereoscopic vision (or in my case, not). The technology of opthamology is improving all the time, and there have been new tests introduced for prism in the past couple of years which give a far more accurate evaluation of the patient’s needs. However, I have one “lazy” eye – it works fine, but contributes very little to my overall vision field. So my stereoscopic vision is pretty poor – one reason why I was never much good at ball games when I was in school – and the tests for prism are actually measuring something which I hardly find myself experiencing in everyday life. So I had a new pair of spectacles last year that I found made almost no difference to my everyday vision. I was not impressed.

And then, as if I don’t give my opticians enough trade, the last time I went in, I was offered a free hearing check. Now, I’ve fallen foul of this before. It’s administered in the normal shop, and if there’s a lot of external noise, or other customers in the shop, the result is going to be pretty poor. Added to that, I have tinnitus, so the quieter tones in the hearing test require me to concentrate very hard to pick them out from amongst the continuous “noise” that the tinnitus gives me. This concentration can easily be broken if there are distractions such as other customers and conversations. So I ended up seeing the audiometrist at the beginning of the year as well as having my annual vision test.

The vision test, I’m pleased to say, resulted in no significant change in my prescription, though I was told that I have the beginnings of a cataract in one eye (though that won’t become a problem, all being well, for a good five to ten years). The audiometry was something else. I first had a full audiometric examination two years ago, when I was told that I have the beginnings of age-related hearing loss at the upper end of the hearing register. This came as no surprise to me. In my varied past, I spent five years working for the Social Security Industrial Injuries Unit in Birmingham. The area I covered included parts of the Werst Midlands where there had been a lot of engineering works, and so a lot of industrial deafness cases. Part of my job involved commissioning consultant audiometrists’ reports, having those reports interpreted by the department’s Regional Medical Officers, and sometimes dealing with appeals against the decisions on those industrial deafness claims, including writing the Secretary of State’s submission to the appeal tribunal. So I know a reasonable amount about audiograms, and I could broadly interpret the results as easily as the audiometrist. I had no cause to doubt the diagnosis.

Last year, the initial in-shop screening told me nothing I didn’t already know, but was administered on a good day when I was able to give good responses to the test. But this year, it was not a good day. So I ended up seeing the audiometrist again; and this time, the verdict was a lot of hearing loss at the 4 kHz level, almost to the stage of being defined, she said, as “profound”. The audiogram correspondingly showed a dramatic plunge of the trace to bear this out. Almost immediately, she was saying “We really strongly recommend that you consider being fitted for a hearing aid – or even two, so we can balance out the effect properly.”

The hearing aids on offer start at £450 each, these being the type that fits behind the ear. Once you start looking at types that fit partially or fully in the ear canal, the prices go up accordingly until you are looking at £1250 or more per ear. Other suppliers can also supply hearing aids at a range of costs – I have even heard tghe figure of £3000 per device mentioned!

It was the audiometrist’s eagerness to set me down the road to more and more expenditure that made me hesitate. Even £450 isn’t money that I can put together at the drop of a hat; and I found her enthusiasm rather off-putting, especially as the loss is in the sort of range where I would only really be missing top-end harmonics. I hadn’t noticed that I was missing conversations, altthough I do find the television often difficult to hear (mainly because the speakers on flat screens are on the back of the set and face the wall), and I have missed the odd conversation in the office (mainly because I sit with my back to everyone else and the test manager does tend to sometimes speak from behind his desk screens without standing up). But I consider that I still have hearing that is perfectly good for everyday purposes. So I thought I’d get a second, less biased opinion, and so I went to see my doctor, who in turn referred me to the local hospital hearing centre.

I went a couple of weeks ago. It was quite illuminating. I was shownb into a proper consulkting room whoch was properly soundproofed and away from the main circulating areas of the hospital. the audiometrist explaiuned the test, and i let her, though I did have to warn her to expect some false positives becasue of the masking effdect of tinnitus. She t hen proceed to administer not only the normal audiometric tests, but also did something I’d not had done before, tests using a bone conduction headset – sound waves transmitted through the skeleton, especially the skull, play a surprising part in our hearing sense. The software the hospital had access to was able to integrate all the results including the bone conduction. They confirmed the diagnosis, as I expected them  to. But the audiogram I was shown was drawn up with a far shallower vertical axis, so the amount of loss at the top end didn’t look so dramatic. Also, the NHS audiometrist’s interpretation of how far up the graph the boundaries between “moderate” and “profound” hearing loss occur was rather different to the private one.

She then proceeded to offer me a behind-the-ear aid for each ear. Completely free of charge. And looking pretty well identical to the £450 base model that my opticians wanted me to shell out for.

My sister, who is older than I am, has also had hearing aids prescribed, though she doesn’t wear them all the time. She made the excellent point that if I bought a private hearing aid, I would have to buy all my batteries; whereas with the NHS aid, the batteries are also supplied free of charge. And if I used the aid full-time, the batteries would last about a week.

I’ve decided that I don’t want to have hearing aids just yet. I shall take advice from other friends I know who have them, and I shall take up any offer of further hearing screening tests to keep an eye on my ears. And if I do have an NHS aid fitted, I can always upgrade in future years if I find I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. (Ha!) In any case; I’ve paid tax into the system all my working life. Why should I go out and pay for something I’ve paid in for already?

They say that getting old is a full-time job, given the number of appointments and arrangements that have to be made for health reasons. Thinking of last year’s brush with prostate problems, I thought then that I was in the best place to have these problems assessed without having to worry about the bill – especially as if the results of all those invasive tests I had had not been so favourable, I would have been fast-tracked for treatment – again, no questions asked, no form-filling, no waiting for an insurance decision on whether the claim was allowable. My experience of the insurance industry over the past few years makes me relectant to have them involved in anything as important as my healthcare and treatment. This experience over my hearing, where I was able to directly compare public and private provision, has not changed my opinion.

Written by robertday154

June 14, 2018 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Lord of the Files

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The political scene in the UK this week has been rather taken aback by the treatment of “Windrush children”, West Indians who came to the UK at the government’s request to help full post-war labour shortages but who are now at risk of deportation because after a change in the law in 2012, they are required to be able to produce documentary evidence of their right to reside in the UK or of their continuous residence in the UK since their arrival – evidence which was never pointed out to them that they would need, and which the government never provided them with in then first place.

The government has said that this is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of circumstances, that the “Windrush generation” made an invaluable contribution to the post-war regeneration of Britain and is of course fully entitled to reside in the UK, and that they will take the necessary steps to assist anyone in navigating their way through Home Office bureaucracy in establishing their right of residency.

I’m not going to get involved in this argument directly; I think the rights and wrongs of the case are too obvious to need pointing out by me. However, in the course of political argument, it emerged that the Home Office destroyed a large quantity of immigration landing cards from that era in 2010 as a general administrative clearout of obsolete files. At first, the government countered that these would not have proved right of residency (though they would have acted as the starting point for any potential paper trail of evidence); and then the Prime Minister, at PMQs, responded to criticism from Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, that the destruction was ordered in 2009 by the then Labour Government.

Things are getting badly obscured by the smoke of battle here. The fact was that the Labour government in 2009 set in motion the process by which government departments should start disposing of old and unneeded documents; they did not specify which documents were to be destroyed and which retained; instead, there was a process set out by the Cabinet Office (who have responsibility for these things) that Departments should follow in reviewing documents and files for disposal. It certainly seems to me that this was not being followed in the Home Office by October 2010 when the Windrush-era landing cards came up for consideration.

I took part in this exercise in the Government department I worked in at that time. The aim of the exercise was to economise on storage costs and to exploit digital scanning to keep as many documents as possible in electronic format. All files and/or documents that were considered for destruction had to be considered for scanning or retention if there was any anticipated need for them in future. And they had to be signed off by a manager individually.

I gather that the destruction of landing cards in the Home Office was opposed by caseworkers who understood their importance. My suspicion is that they were overruled, not by members of the political class, but by middle or senior managers of the sort who were parachuted into the civil service in quantity in the 1990s and 2000s from the private sector to introduce new, efficient ways of working and shake up those lazy, incompetent civil servants. Of course, these efficiencies take no account of legal requirements, precedent or best practice. Anything a “career” civil servant said to them was wrong, just because of who they were. These were the people who sent unencrypted data discs through the ordinary post because it was cheaper and quicker and it was an order they gave that had to be done right away and no argument or delay because dammit, I’m the boss. On the occasions when that went badly wrong and personal data was lost, the managers who had ordered those particular corners cut tried to blame the junior officer who had actually done the work, despite their having instructed that junior to bypass the standing instructions on encryption. That sort of manager considered such instructions to be “pointless bureaucracy”.

This all really goes back to the drive to take executive functions away from Government departments and put them in the hands of Executive Agencies in the Thatcher era. And that was done so that Ministers could continue to take the credit for good stuff that happens but weren’t responsible when things went wrong. Deputy heads could roll. It’s incompetence disguised as sound governance by people who have no idea how to run anything. (And Tony Blair’s New Labour fell for it too.) That’s Britain in 2018.

Written by robertday154

April 19, 2018 at 11:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

This IS about testing!

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Following on from my recent excursions into blogging about testing and sharing those blogs via the Ministry of Testing blog feed, I have now created a new blog for any testing blogs. The blog is named for my first post on the subject, Probe probare – to properly test, and it can be found by following the link.

Written by robertday154

April 19, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My life in books

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It’s said that I started reading at an early age because I was impatient with my bedtime stories and wanted to know how they finished. Be that as it may, it seems that I had a reading age of 12 at the age of six and rapidly outstripped the school and local junior libraries.

When I got unrestricted access to the adult library, what I found there amazed me. In those seemingly distant, pre-Internet days, there in an unremarkable mill town in Derbyshire was a building which contained, more or less, something of the whole gamut of human knowledge and intellectual endeavour, open to all. Almost inevitably, I gravitated towards working in libraries – only partly because I fancied one of the library counter staff.

Of course, working in a library soon turned out to be far harder work than I ever imagined. As a Saturday assistant, I was in the library on their busiest day, reshelving returned books. Paper in bulk is heavy! After all, it is dead tree.

Meanwhile, what was I reading? School English lessons took care of the literature, in its limited way. For pleasure, I was reading science fiction and books relating to my hobbies. The science fiction started with my exposure to the television shows of my youth, Doctor Who and the early Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray. Then I graduated to comics, such as the Eagle with Dan Dare. The odd paperback came my way from the age of 11 or so; but it was when my father accidentally brought home Brian Aldiss’ Report on Probability A instead of a Mills & Boon romance for my mother because its pre-Raphaelite cover fooled him, and he gave it to me instead, that I became hooked. Report… is unlikely material for a new reader; it is a highly experimental, non-linear novel, and I have to admit that at the age of 13 or 14, I barely understood any of it! But I found its entire off-the-walledness very exciting, and I immediately started looking for more of the same. And found it, though it’s not often that I come across anything quite as radical as that first encounter with Brian Aldiss.

This fuelled my career choice, and so at the age of 18 I went to Newcastle upon Tyne to study Librarianship. The course covered classification, bibliographic tools and principles of management, plus an introduction to computing (or the state of the computing art as it stood in the late 1970s); and, to cater for those who wanted to become librarians in education, the first two years of a teacher training course and some grounding in sociological studies. Those of us who wanted to go into technical librarianship did a course on the history of technology; and we generally covered a range of topics on the fringes of all these subjects. Indeed, the first year of the core course “Organisation of Knowledge” was actually teaching us the philosophical underpinnings of knowledge itself.

Meanwhile, out of college I had discovered science fiction fandom – the North East was one of the centres of British SF fandom at the time. This in turn meant that I came into contact with other fans, with fanzines, and writing, and conventions; which meant that I also started meeting authors, editors, publishers and agents. Spending time drinking with authors influenced the sort of books I was reading, and increasingly the books I was buying. Partly this was down to wanting to keep my author friends in beer money; partly this was also down to libraries beginning to cut back on the variety of their stocks as Government spending cuts began to take hold. This also influenced my acquisition of non-fiction, as one of the early casualties of the cuts was the Inter-Library Lending Scheme, so specialist books now had to be sought out for purchase rather than borrowed.

Time moved on; I graduated, but could not find permanent librarianship work, libraries having been targeted for cuts in the first Thatcher government, and commercial or business libraries in the private sector became early casualties of the recession. (And just to rub that in, at about this time some irresponsible fool was thinking about concepts that led to the Internet…) I ended up in the Civil Service, initially in a fairly minor role, but following water privatisation in 1989, I transferred across to the regulator’s office and found myself working at a much higher level with a range of highly intelligent people, including our first Director General who was the ex-husband of a Booker Prize-winning novelist.

My interests were expanding; meanwhile, my fannish friends were writing about “mainstream” novels and I was beginning to rebuild my acquaintance with “proper” literature, left mainly fallow since school. (Indeed, my sister recently accused me of “only reading SF”, until I counted up the number of non-genre novels I possessed and found over 200!)

An additional task at work led to my becoming a trade union representative, a role I held for twenty years, and that meant that I was exposed to another area of fascination, left-wing politics and history – and a canon of literature not usually explored by many mainstream libraries and bookshops.

Then, in the middle 1990s, I “discovered” Europe, visiting Austria and Germany to chase vintage electric locomotives and the remaining pockets of working steam as Eastern Europe opened up. This meant that I started acquiring books in other languages; more recently, more German literature has begun to appear in translation (I find I can cope with written German on technical subjects, with pictures and diagrams to help provide visual cues and as a quick crib for some terms; but the more abstract a text gets, the harder I find it to read until I find fiction in German to be a tough proposition).

In 2009, I answered a speculative social media post from a specialist publisher looking for potential new titles with an idea for a book of photographs of classic railway infrastructure – station buildings, signal boxes and the like – which I had taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. This became The Lost Railway – the Midlands, published in 2012, which could have been the start of a series of anything up to eight titles but which ended up as a lone publication, partly because it was a bit unusual even for a railway book (having very few pictures of actual trains in it), partly because the publisher switched editor half-way through the publication process, and as this wasn’t one of “his” projects, he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for it as the guy who commissioned it; and partly because the publisher’s  technical team didn’t make a great job out of reproducing the photographs. I still have a number of ideas for books, but they are most probably projects for my retirement years, all being well.

0613_The Lost Railway-The Midlands_jkt vis

Keep an eye out; there are still copies out there if you know where to look…

I did have a little excursion into self-publishing, putting together a photo-book of the best pictures I took during 2011. I sold very few copies of this, as the pricing structure meant that it cost the same as a top-end coffee table book but the content was a bit too eclectic for most railway enthusiasts (looking at the Polish engine on the front cover, one potential punter dismissed it with “Huh. Not enough Great Western in it.” What can you do?). The trouble was that I never did enough really outstanding stuff in 2012 to get very far with the successor volume, though the title remains in my mind as a masthead for future projects…

The Soul of the Machine 2011

The Soul of the Machine 2011

In recent years, the growth of the second-hand book market has been a boon, first through the charity sector putting a random selection of books of all sorts onto High Streets up and down the country; and secondly, the growth of the “destination” second-hand shops becoming a major draw, up to events like the Hay Festival. And this is what has pushed my library size up to pass the magic mark of 6,000 volumes in the main collection by the first quarter of 2018. Looking back over what I’ve written, perhaps the main theme is that of leaving the mainstream, of following the path less travelled, because that’s where the discoveries can still be made.

Written by robertday154

April 11, 2018 at 2:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

That’s not about testing!

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This is a message to all those people out there who may have looked at my last blog post, “A Warship along the Ecclesbourne” when it was included in the Ministry of Testing blog feed the other day, and had the completely understandable reaction that it had no obvious application to testing.

You are completely right, and if you feel aggrieved by that, I apologise.

Having written a few blog posts on testing and TestBash recently, I submitted them to MoT with the warning that not all my blogs would be about testing, and it was entirely up to them as to whether they listed them or not. I also dropped them a line when I started drafting the last post to say “Hey, guys – the next blog post isn’t going to be about testing. How can I flag it so that you don’t put it up on the feed?” The silence has been deafening.

I started my blog seven years ago when I went freelance as part of publicising my work and abilities as an author, journalist and photographer. Unfortunately, whilst I had some considerable professional success in those directions (in the form of books and magazine articles published, and photographic awards won), I couldn’t actually make a living from it. Which is why I now work as a tester, and very interesting and fulfilling I find it too. But my blog is about anything that interests me as well as (what I think are) interesting things that I have done, so it might cover aviation, railways, motoring, music, history, science fiction or (small-p) politics, as well as testing.

Of course, you could take the view that if these are things that interest a tester, then they might be of interest to other testers. And I see a lot of interest and discussion in the testing community at the moment about communication, writing and presenting at conferences. And these are things that I’ve done plenty of in my time – see my recent post, Return to the Forbidden City. So perhaps people might gain something from my non-testing blogs.

I have a post in mind about some ideas I’ve been working on about the way that professional self-organisation in general and the testing community in particular are developing in terms of mutual support and wider social campaigning in the digital landscape. I’ve been thinking along some of these lines for a couple of years, and TestBash made me think some more about that. But I’m not quite there yet and I shall need to lie down in a darkened room for a while to let these ideas gestate before attempting to put them into words.

But in the absence of any sort of steer from MoT over how they want to me distinguish between different post subjects, I’m afraid you may be stuck with seeing non-testing stories in the MoT blog feed for a while. So I’m apologising for that in advance to anyone who finds that irksome. And to everyone else: feel free to explore! (And isn’t that one of the things that testing’s about?)

Written by robertday154

April 6, 2018 at 9:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Warship along the Ecclesbourne

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The River Ecclesbourne in Derbyshire is not one of the country’s longer or better-known rivers. It rises in the quarry town of Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District, and runs for nine miles south to a confluence with the Derbyshire Derwent at Duffield. Only slightly more than thirty feet across at its widest, there is no sense in which it could be said to be at all navigable; even canoes would have difficulty in its upper reaches. So how could I be going there to see a Warship?

Well, regular readers might guess that there is some sort of railway connection.

During March 2018, for a couple of weeks the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway hosted a visiting Class 42 diesel-hydraulic locomotive, a class known as “Warships”. Although I don’t normally make a point of following vintage diesel locomotives, in this case I made an exception. The story goes back to the nationalisation of the railways in 1948. Britain’s railways had been built by private capital; by 1914, there were some 120 or more separate companies. The First World War left the railways in poor condition; they had been run by the Government during the war specifically for the war effort, and they had been run into the ground with little thought given to essential maintenance. The backlog of work when they were handed back to their private owners was too great for many of them to afford; so the Government forced amalgamation on the railways in the 1921 Railways Act, merging the majority of companies into four. Three of these were new companies; but the fourth was the Great Western Railway, which through effective lobbying not only survived intact, but indeed absorbed many smaller companies and took over the majority of companies in mid- and South Wales. Twenty-five years later, the same process happened in the aftermath of the Second World War; this time, the Labour Government decided on nationalisation as the solution to the railways’ investment problems, creating British Railways (BR). The new BR was organised on a regional basis; and once again, the Great Western survived as a commercial entity in all but name. The new Western Region exercised a remarkable degree of autonomy, commissioning new builds of a number of Great Western locomotives and ordering unique classes of the new diesel locomotives at a time when the 1955 Modernisation Plan was calling for a range of standardised engines, both steam and the new motive power of diesel and electric.

There was some method behind this. The main line to the West was a legacy of Brunel’s obsession with the “atmospheric railway”, which promised the ability to run fast, light trains over steep gradients, powered by creating a partial vacuum in a tube laid between the tracks and propelling a train by means of a cylinder running in that tube, attached to the train through a hinged leather flap valve running the length of the top of the pipe. Having engineered the line for that method of propulsion, Brunel saddled the Great Western and its successors with a problem when the atmospheric railway proved to be a failure. Victorian technology could not make a reliable flap valve that would allow the passage of a train but at the same time seal the vacuum pipe effectively. GW locomotive superintendents oversaw a range of light but powerful locomotives that could maintain line speeds over the line to the West in the steam era; when dieselisation dawned, the Western Region went looking for a unique solution to the same problem. They found it in the form of the diesel-hydraulic locomotive, which offered a far better power-to-weight ratio than the diesel-electrics being adopted on the rest of the system.

They went to West Germany, where this type of locomotive was widespread, and for their light express passenger type arranged for licence production of a British version of the German V200 class, using German engines also built under licence in the UK (by Hawker Siddeley at Ansty in Coventry). In all, 38 locomotives were built in two batches, the first at BR’s Swindon works and the second by North British Locomotive in Glasgow. The class were all named for British warships – hence the class name. They entered service in 1958 and survived until 1971, having been finally declared non-standard in the late 1960s. Two have been preserved.

 

The one I went to see, D832 Onslaught, was the last engine of the first, Swindon-built,  production batch. It had a connection with Derby, a place they never visited in regular service. After class withdrawal, Onslaught came to the Railway Technical Centre in Derby where it spent a number of years engaged in a variety of research projects. I saw it parked at Derby on a number of occasions during that time but never managed to secure any photographs; so when I heard that it as to visit one of my favourite railways, it became important that I should go to photograph it.

 

And why is the Ecclesbourne line one of my favourites? Well, I saw it fairly regularly in my youth, and never imagined that I would ever have the opportunity to travel on it.

Although the railway wasn’t built until 1862-67, projects for a railway along the Ecclesbourne valley started much earlier, as a part of the corporate manoeuvring concerning rail links between London and Manchester. The Derby-based Midland Railway were promoting a line through the Peak District, but were blocked by the independent (and grandiosely named) Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway, which had built the railway along the Derwent valley from Ambergate to Matlock, but who were blocked in their ambition to reach Manchester by the Duke of Devonshire who refused permission for the railway to pass through the Chatsworth estate. There was an earlier railway in the area, the Cromford & High Peak, which was projected in the 1820s as a canal to link the Cromford and Peak Forest canals over the High Peak itself; realising that water supply would be a problem, the engineer, Josias Jessop, decided to make the route into one of these new-fangled railways. However, having been designed as a canal with flights of locks to get up and over the Peak, the C&HP was built as a railway to the same principles – level sections of line followed by inclined planes where wagons were drawn up by a stationary engine. This was never going to be a practical proposal for a serious passenger link (the C&HP did carry passengers in its early years, but the inclined planes – nine of them in all – made progress slow and hazardous) but the Midland saw it as a means of getting their longed-for link with Manchester and so were happy to promote the branch railway to Wirksworth as a first stage in incorporating the C&HP into their inter-city route. Construction actually started on an incline beyond Wirksworth to connect the two lines, but only the first part ever saw trains, and that only for bringing stone out of the Middle Peak quarry.

The Midland’s rival for the Manchester route, the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) then acquired th4e C&HP, putting an end to the Midland’s plan. For a while, they considered driving a tunnel between Wirksworth and Cromford, and building a parallel line to Matlock on the other side of the Derwent to the existing rival line (which the LNWR also had a major shareholding in); but then they were able to acquire that line and use it as a springboard to construct an extension from Matlock to Bakewell and through the Peak to Chinley and Manchester. From that time, the Wirksworth branch became of local interest only, with passenger services and heavy traffic in stone and milk.

The growth in road haulage saw milk trains being replaced with road tankers, with the milk service ending in 1939. The war saw the passenger services severely curtailed; the passenger service was suspended in 1947 and officially ceased in 1949. Limestone traffic continued, though, and it was as a purely freight line that I saw and knew the railway during the 1970s and 80s. The line had also always been used by Derby Locomotive Works as a “running in” venue for new or recently-repaired locomotives; when Derby restored a number of locomotives for the National Collection in the late 1950s, Wirksworth station became the location of a number of official photographs, and for a while, visitors to the transport museums at York and Clapham could buy souvenir postcards of some of the exhibits that were taken there. However, there was continuous pressure for the quarries to transfer their transport operations to the road, and in 1991 a change of ownership of the quarries precipitated the decision to cease rail transport altogether.

But by then, rail privatisation had occurred; and knowing of the proposals, a group of Derby-based railway managers had earmarked the Wirksworth branch as a possible candidate for one of the new kinds of railway, a “community railway”. Accordingly, in 1992 these managers established WyvernRail Limited, with the intention of operating such a service between Wirksworth and Derby using leased diesel units under the “Open Access” management model.  The Railways Act 1993 created the framework that would allow WyvernRail to start the process, but the industry structure the Act created also caused the whole process to slow down to a crawl. The line had been mothballed after 1991 as Wirksworth had been designated a Strategic Freight Site, protecting the whole undertaking for railway use and possible future stone traffic, and making closure of the line extremely difficult.

Changes to the structure of the industry following privatisation meant that for several years during the mid-1990s WyvernRail often experienced difficulty in maintaining a consistent business relationship with the authorities responsible for the line. However, while progress was slow on the ground, the individuals involved maintained informal links with Railtrack because of their background in the rail industry. This enabled them to be granted a Light Railway Order for the line in 1996, and then starting to explore the possibility of leasing or even an outright purchase of the line.

From the Summer of 2000, Railtrack management changed its stance and not only took an interest in the firm’s activities but provided a proactive and imaginative basis for negotiations, including granting the company’s staff and the supporters association’s volunteers access to the line. This approach led to the gradual restoration of the line, accompanied by conversion to a plc and the successful share launch of WyvernRail plc in April 2002. Re-opening of the line started in 2004 and passenger services were reinstated for the length of the line in 2011.

The Ecclesbourne valley is relatively unspoilt and Wirksworth has undergone a renaissance as a town working hard to attract tourists (as, indeed, has my neighbouring home town, Belper). The railway is a pretty professional operation; it aims to provide a service first whilst accommodating and welcoming enthusiasts, but it isn’t trying to achieve superstardom in the heritage railway firmament. I recommend it for an excursion and hope to see them flourish for many years to come.

Written by robertday154

April 5, 2018 at 12:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized