12 November 2018

Stan Lee 1922-2018

Getting to 95 is an achievement. Creating an iconic comic character is a major achievement. 

Creating iconic comic characters in their dozens makes you a complete and utter legend. 

So long and thanks for everything. Not least all the great cameos, which were a highlight of any Marvel movie.

Rest in Peace. 

11 November 2018

100 Years Since The Armistice

I was in time to see the moment yesterday where Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were together in the replica of the carriage used to sign the Armistice in the morning of 11 November 1918, resulting in the guns falling silent at 11am that day. The end of that war started a very turbulent century for the latter's home country, something that she experienced all too well as she grew up in the former East Germany.

The world isn't perfect, not by a long chalk. There are threats to the international order from many directions. I won't name them, everyone knows who they are.

However, seeing that sight today showed us just how far most of Europe has come since the horrors of the two world wars. Because people didn't forget. They worked to build bridges and tear down walls, both metaphorical and literal. 

Today, German built high speed trains transport passengers from London to Amsterdam through what was once the land of mud and death.

Those who fought there are now all in the next world. It is our job to make sure that the events of the first half of the 20th century are not repeated in the 21st.

When all have gone, we will need to take up the torch of Remembrance and remember those who gave their lives.

We will remember them.

13 October 2018

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Jodie Whittaker has hit it out of the park at the first attempt. The 13th Doctor's era presents a new twist on the Time Lord while still remaining recognisably Who, with stunning new cinematography and music.

Let's be honest, much of it is down to the new lead. Jodie just inhabits the part from the get go, with a strong charisma and presence that dominates the scene, but not in a bad way. The new companions aren't bad either.

Very much looking forward to tomorrow's episode.

9/10.

06 October 2018

Brett Kavanaugh

I'll just say that there is something truly rotten in the culture of American politics, especially in the Republican Party.

22 September 2018

Some random thoughts on Brexit

  1. The EU27 cannot allow a half way successful Brexit because it undermines the entire project by giving a massive boost to other anti-EU movements. Some Eurosceptic groups would move to full 'Exit' if it worked for the UK.
  2. The EU similarly cannot compromise freedom of movement if it is to survive in the medium term. In the long term, FOM may be what does it in. Goods quickly disappear. People stay around for decades and while immigration may have a positive effect on the UK overall, many people do not see it that way.
  3. Accepting freedom of movement would be seen by many British people as a betrayal of the referendum result.
  4. We should have come up with a more acceptable plan before triggering Article 50.
  5. A No Deal Brexit, if it is bad as people predict, cannot hold for more than a few months without a climbdown or a compromise. We have become too tightly integrated for No Deal to work.
  6. Brexit will harm our economy and Vote Leave should have the intellectual honesty to admit that.
  7. May's failure to gain an overall majority in 2017 has cost her big time - if she'd gained a majority of 100+, she would have a lot more political capital.
  8. Remain need a better argument for staying in the EU than Project Fear... because if it is in anyway better than they predict, then their main weapon loses its use.
  9. Our WW2 myth is badly affecting our decision making. Most of those involved in the war are now dead, so people have this not entirely correct view of what it was like and how we won.
  10. Don't troll people you're negotiating with. That means you, Mr. Tusk.

13 September 2018

The end of the beginning: The Trump situation

Donald Trump is facing legal challenges on multiple fronts: the Special Counsel investigation (which has yet to fully report), the Cohen investigation where he is already a non-charged co-conspirator and the New York investigation. There is no way he can shut any of these down now without making the situation worse for himself.

In chess, this is called zugzwang, with any move possible making the player's position worse. Trump's only reasonable move is to resign in return for no criminal charges and Donald Trump is not a reasonable man.

With mid-terms less than two months away, a Democratic takeover of the House looks very likely and the Senate is up for grabs. If the former happens, an impeachment is certain and the Republicans will have no good options - they can force Trump to resign with the loss of much of their base or keep him in power, with the loss of much of their base. While Trump is somewhat compos mentis, the 25th Amendment is not a realistic option.

We're probably stuck with Trump for the rest of this year. 2019 is a different question.

03 September 2018

Armchair Time Traveller #2: 1963 East German International Timetable



The Electronic Reading Room of the Central Intelligence Agency's Freedom of Information Act wing is a source for a lot of very interesting data from the Cold War era. What I was not expecting when I was doing research for my 1960s set spy RP game Secret '67 was to find a number of train timetables scanned and uploaded within the archives.

Anyway, I managed to find a particular gem that has become a useful resource for the game; the Summer 1963 International and Domestic Timetable for Deutsche Reichsbahn, the East German state operator.

(Reich is a German word literally meaning 'realm' or more figuratively meaning 'nation'. While most English speakers would automatically associate the word with Hitler and the Third Reich, it is not in itself a negative term, but Germany does not use the term any more for official use. Therefore the name of the company is 'German National Railways')

The document, declassified in 2011 and uploaded in 2016 only ever bore a CONFIDENTIAL classification due to the (redacted) information on the front as to the sourcing of the document. The main timetable contains nothing at all secret; being a publicly purchasable document that would have been obtained from the DR ticket office at Berlin Zoologischer Garten station in West Berlin. That's right, you didn't even need to cross over the Berlin Wall to get one.

I will be focussing solely on the international timetable for the purpose of this article.

The historical context

The idea of the Iron Curtain being some fortified barrier that one tried to cross only at one's mortal peril was true... but mostly for the people who lived on the eastern side of it. The communist governments over time became increasingly keen for the tourist dollar - and I mean the tourist dollar. Certain goods needed for their economies - and their leadership - had to be imported from the West; with Western businesses not exactly keen on taking East German marks or Soviet roubles, actual dollars or pounds were needed.

So, they were keen to advertise their nation to Western tourists who could see the socialist system in action - the parts of it that they wanted them to see at any rate. With air travel still very expensive for most, long distance train travel or driving were the common ways to get between European nations. Western tourists and visitors would need to apply for a visa of course, although you could get a day permit for East Berlin just by turning up at one of the appropriate checkpoints, such as the one at Berlin Friedrichstrasse station - more on that later.

Furthermore, Eastern Europeans could, after applying for permission, go on vacation to other countries in the Soviet bloc. A popular destination for East Germans was Czechoslovakia, which happened to be next door for one thing...

****
East Germany itself was still very much a land of steam. The Soviet Union had taken much of the pre-war electrification equipment and rolling stock back home as war reparations, leaving a war-battered East Germany (there were still uncleared ruins in East Berlin) reliant on rolling stock dating back to the 1920s and beyond. Track maintenance increasingly fell by the wayside, speed restrictions popped up all over the system and with a literally captive passenger base (car ownership not exactly being very high in the GDR), there was little incentive to improve.

The contents

After a cover, literally the first thing you encounter is an advert for the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. Founded in 1912 and still open today, it served at the time as much as a propaganda vehicle for the GDR as it did for health education; it had earlier done the same thing for the Nazis.


Other adverts for East German places to visit or things to buy also appear.

Handily enough, the explanatory notes on the timetables that follow are written in German, Russian, French and English, although the main timetables themselves are in the first language. The first part of these are bulk timetables for a particular cross-GDR route, followed by key routes in three other socialist states (Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary) and finally by individual timetables for the key trains running through East Germany.

The symbols are very similar to the ones found in modern international timetables, although notable standouts for this period include designations on a coach diagram for a mail carriage and a railcar.

In an age where far more correspondence went by post, railways were often the fastest means to transport letters and so it was entirely normal to add a mail carriage to the consist of an express train that was going that direction anyway; indeed, that carriage might have a letterbox for passengers to add items of their own. Indeed, British rail operators were legally obliged to take mail as required by the Postmaster General. There were dedicated mail trains as well.

Then there are "railcars" or as most people tend to call them these days "multiple units", whose main distinction was a more limited space for luggage if there was any at all. Mainline multi-carriage multiple units really started getting going in the 1930s, with the beautiful SVT 137 coming into service in 1935 running at speeds of up to 100mph. East Germany had produced a prototype version of its most famous DMU, the VT 18.16, later the Class 175, although series production would not begin until 1965.

Through coaches were very much the thing on international expresses. There was not exactly the demand for an entire twelve-carriage train from Paris to Moscow on a daily basis (there still isn't, hence why it only runs once a week), so you would have one carriage for the Soviet capital from Paris, another from Ostend and another connecting from Hoek van Holland, all part of a train mostly running between Paris and Warsaw.

This needs diagrams or a list to be fully understood and we have plenty of examples like below.


The travel times 

International train travel took a lot longer back then. One particular reason was border controls; while in-journey passport checking was common on sleepers and Trans Europe Express services, you'd still have checks when travelling within the EEC, let alone outside it. A 40-minute-plus layover when entering or exiting East Germany was not unheard as the Border Troops thoroughly checked papers and the carriages to make sure things that weren't supposed to cross the border were not present. This even applied to trips to fellow socialist countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia; remember permission was needed for East Germans to even go there for a holiday.

To take a similar route to my 2016 trip from London to Berlin, I would need to depart from London Victoria at 10am on one of the boat trains that connected with the ferry from Dover to Ostend in Belgium, arriving at the latter at 3.20pm; no need to change my watch as the mainland of Europe was not using Daylight Savings Time, while we were. A 4pm train, designated F 52 or the Oostende-Wien Express, depositing me at Cologne at 9.18pm. I would then have to wait for an hour to pick up D 105 as shown above, the famous Paris-Moscow service, where I could end up in one of three sleeper carriages heading for Berlin; one operated by Mitropa, the East German sleeper and restaurant car provider or the other two operated by Soviet Railways. The other option was a DR couchette car; Mitropa did not lower itself to those. Apparently the Soviet sleepers had net curtains...

Helmstedt on the West German side of the border would have been reached at 3.48am for a twelve minute stop to swap the locomotives. Then a 16 minute stop at 4.14am to 4.30am. The passport checks for the GDR would have done on route, but the need to get and pay for the transit visa would have probably meant I'd have been woken up... Hence why the Thomas Cook advice was to fly to West Berlin.

After taking 3 hours and 3 minutes (!) to travel the 118 kilometres to Berlin Zoo, I'd have arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I hope, at 7.33am. Journey time, 21 hours and 33 minutes. This has been much accelerated of course since then.

Going east, a whole string of long distance expresses operated. Some have disappeared into railway history, others have been contracted but one that definitely survives is Hungaria (EC 173); which has indeed expanded from Berlin-Budapest to Hamburg-Budapest with only one loco change at Prague. A 1963 journey time of 14 hours and 33 minutes for the former has now been reduced to 11 hours and 2 minutes, with the whole route taking under 14 hours.

Ex 154 from 1963 is described as a 'Triebwagen... mit Speiseabteil' i.e. a multiple unit with catering; the 1969 data from VagonWEB is for two Czechoslovak M 298.0 four-car DMUs, which were built from 1962-64, so one may well have run this service at the time. Today it's a locomotive hauled service using modern electric traction.

Conclusion

Train travel between countries in the communist bloc of the 1960s could be slow, bureaucratic and unreliable, unlike today's world of open borders and high speed trains. That said, the trains looked good (mostly) and you'd have been able to see steam engines in their natural element instead of pottering about on heritage lines. Just bring a good non-offensive book to read.

Can I recommend Sherlock Holmes?