Network Rail disrespects Welsh passengers

by The Curious Scribbler

The Scribbler made a rare excursion to London this weekend and travelled home on Sunday evening, from Euston to Abersytwyth.

At Birmingham New Street I spent 40 minutes, bought a cup of tea and fell into brief conversation with another passenger in the concourse.  She was a fashionably tweedy woman with a medium sized suitcase, accompanied by two well behaved gentle-eyed dogs and a child who carried a white pet rat in a red topped plastic travelling box. I don’t know where they had travelled from but it had already involved other trains.  She remarked that fellow travellers had been nice to them, and indeed that more people spoke to them than she would have expected were she alone. Like me she was travelling westward. For lack of a real name I shall call her ‘Mrs Weasley’.

The Arriva 18-24 service to Aberystwyth was on time and expected on Platform 5A.  Dog’s claws are at risk on escalators and some ten minutes early we shared a ride in the lift to platform level.  There was already a dense crowd assembled for the train and she and I took up separate waiting points where we could find a space in the crowd.  I favoured the front row near where the front of the train might be expected.  With her animals, she took up a position further down the platform and farther from the edge.

The tannoy rang out, confirming that the next train to arrive at Platform 5A would be the Arriva Wales service.  But it was not.  Instead, in rolled a London Midland special train packed to capacity with returning football fans. It did not even pull forward to the unoccupied platform 5B.  Instead it stopped exactly at Platform 5A where we stood waiting already crowded five deep.  The tannoy spoke again, to tell us that this London Midland train was in special service and no one was to get aboard it. Instead its passengers disembarked into our midst and jostled their way towards the escalators.

The train was a long one and every seat was taken with many more standing.  Probably as many as a thousand men and boys eased their way in several strands through our crowd, one strand moving along the platform edge were constantly impeded by further disembarkers, other strands formed a conga and pushed their way single file through the body of our crowd.  Toes collided with our feet and our suitcases, rucksacks swung in our faces.  There was no spare capacity on the platform, and every fan from the back carriages had to push through the entire throng of Arriva passengers to reach the exit. It must have been horrible for the dogs, though they were too mannerly to make a sound.

After some minutes of this onslaught the flow of departing passengers slowed, and soon, we imagined, the special train would depart and make way for ours.  The time was just after 18-24.  The tannoy spoke again.  The 18-24 would depart from platform 2A.  No doubt it was already there, but Network Rail had, till now, omitted to inform us of the fact.

So I and the Wales-bound crowd turned en masse and struggled hastily to join the flow of ambling supporters who had been pushing through our midst.  We queued for the escalator or fought our way up the stairs.  We ran along the concourse and descended to platform 2.  I squeezed onto the first carriage and secured a remaining reserved seat.  And as I was about to sit I saw ‘Mrs Weasley’ and the child, and the dogs running to press the ‘Open’ button on the then-closing door of our carriage.  Perhaps she should have stuck her foot in the closing gap.  As it was, the door continued to close and the train dispatcher stood by with a walkie-talkie, unmoved by Mrs Weasley’s furious protests.  The train started on its way.  Arriva Wales has a schedule to keep, and they will doubtless say it was not their fault that Network Rail (who run the station) had wilfully separated the Wales-bound passengers from their train.

As for the other travellers with slower mobility, – the parents with buggies, the old lady with swollen legs and a small terrier peeping out of a large handbag, the man in a wheelchair, all of whom I noticed on Platform 5A.  Well, I guess we left them behind too.  They’d be waiting another two hours for a train to Wales.

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The National Plant Phenomics Centre at Gogerddan

by The Curious Scribbler

Plants, mainly grasses, have been being selected and improved at Aberystwyth for almost a hundred years.  Modern experimental oat breeding, for example, began here in 1919 along with experiments designed to improve the properties of forage grasses for sheep and cattle.  In those bygone days the research organisation was called the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (WPBS) and it was directed from 1919 to1942 by George Stapledon, who was duly knighted for his endeavours towards achieving what we now call ‘Sustainability and Food Security’.  In those days it was called ‘Autarky’.  In the Seventies we called it ‘Self-Sufficiency’.  (In any case, all these terms mean producing more, with less dependence on imports and political alliances).

I recently saw some charming photos of the early days of plant breeding at Aberystwyth.  Airy greenhouses contained bevies of women in pretty dresses, meticulously stripping the male parts (the anthers) from oats or other grasses and pollinating the stigmas with paintbrushes loaded with the chosen pollen.  Over the years the Welsh Plant Breeding Station grew in size and importance, moving in 1953 to the Gogerddan estate, of one of the former great mansions of Ceredigion, at Penrhyncoch.  The Queen came to open the new establishment.  The former walled garden of the estate soon disappeared under a complex of modern buildings. 


Traditional experimental plots trialling many varieties of rye-grass at IBERS, Gogerddan


 In the 1990s after various mergers WPBS renamed itself the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and then to the bewilderment of many, mutated once more, by merger with Rural and Biological Sciences at Aberystwyth University into IBERS (The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences).  Many still know it by its older acronymns, especially the large local workforce who since its inception found employment in its  glasshouses, fields and experimental plots. Today IGER oats account for 65% of the oats planted in Britain and IGER varieties of rye-grass are contentedly masticated all over the world.  IGER turf has been developed for the particular needs of different sporting venues, and even to grow on vertical surfaces to enrobe green sculptures.

Meanwhile the sophistication of genetic engineering moved on from the days of girls in pretty dresses and now involves the scrutiny not just of new hybrids but of individual genes. And to mark the twenty-first century IBERS has a startling new toy, The National Plant Phenomics Centre, one of the most advanced experimental greenhouses in the world.    

In the National Plant Phenomics Centre glasshouse, plants leave the artificial sunlight for a visit to the measuring chambers.


Here in a giant brightly lit glasshouse, plants reside in identical individual pots, moving gently around the huge space on whirring, clicking conveyor belts.  Each pot contains a microchip which identifies its programmed needs. Each plant may have been designated for a personalised regime of water, fertiliser, pesticide.  And each plant is daily monitored.  As its progresses along the conveyor belt it pauses, turns to the left and passes into a chamber like a lift, whereupon the automatic doors close it from view. Inside it is rotated and photographed from four sides and above so that a computer programme can compute its precise enlargement since yesterday’s visit to the chamber.  In another chamber it may be lifted out of its pot to measure the root growth under infra red light, or measured for fluorescence.  Then the doors open and the belt moves on.  Then there is a breathless pause.  The plant pot stands upon a scale by which its weight indicates the amount of water it has lost or used since last it visited this point.  The pause continues, the computer deliberates, and then according to its needs and the experimental programme, a downward angled gun delivers a precisely measured bolt of water to the roots.  There is a further click and the patient moves on, to be followed by another and then another.  There is a remarkable sense of suspense in watching a series of identical plants passing the weigh station, some to be rewarded with a drink of water, others assessed, measured and sent on their way thirsty.


This lucky plant receives a squirt of water before returning to the bench


The multi-million pound National Plant Phenomics Centre opened very recently. It is a magnificent piece of sci-fi, with all the man-appeal of a train set.  Quietly clicking and whirring belts drive continual motion, not a human in sight.  Watch the You Tube animation here.

It looks as if fewer local jobs will arise from the National Plant Phenomic Centre than from the old techniques of watering cans and trial plots, for it is all controlled by computer from a single work station.  In the animation you will find that the sole operative of the laboratory computer terminal looks suspiciously like superheroine Lara Croft.  The film is accompanied by a mind numbingly repetitive electronic music sound track.  Only in this respect does the animation exceed reality.


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