Metrolink Service Recovery Challenges – Pt2

Despite looking alike, not all of Metrolink’s trams are created equal.

This is because Metrolink has: Two Different Signalling Systems

When Metrolink was built initially, and the Altrincham and Bury lines were converted from British Rail operations, it used a railway style signalling system, and part of this is a safety system called ATS fitted to the trams. The plan when the system was expanded in the 2000s was to replace the railway style signalling on the Bury and Altrincham lines with a tram/metro signalling (known in Manchester as “TMS”) coupled with “line of sight” driving, which is being used on the new-build lines to Ashton, East Didsbury, Manchester Airport, and the converted railway line to Rochdale via Oldham. This system doesn’t require ATS.

The majority of the network is now on the newer system, but parts of the Bury Line remain unconverted, as is the section between Timperley and Altrincham Station, which is currently controlled from the Network Rail signalbox on Deansgate Lane, by Navigation Road station. These require use of the ATS fitted trams, which can go anywhere on the network.

Not all the trams are fitted with ATS: only half of them are (the ones numbered 3060 and below, if you’re interested). Therefore these are rostered to work on the lines that require them first (Bury-Picc, Bury-Altrincham, Altrincham-Etihad), but also can appear on other lines, as not all the ATS trams available are needed to operate the Altrincham and Bury services.

The other 50% of the fleet doesn’t have ATS and so can’t operate in the areas with the older signalling. This means they only work on the Ashton, Eccles, Rochdale, Didsbury and Airport lines.

Therefore it’s not necessarily possible to just take a tram that started out in Eccles that was going to Ashton, send it round the 2CC and run it onward to Bury, as that’s likely to be a non-ATS tram.

So there are only two places that a non-ATS tram could be sent once diverted via 2CC to Victoria: either to continue up via Oldham to Shaw or all the way to Rochdale, or empty out at Victoria and run empty to Queens Road.

The decision was taken not to fit the whole fleet with ATS because the plan is to phase it out completely. It seemed a sensible and rational decision at the time.

There are works in progress to convert the Bury line to line-of-sight with TMS signalling, but they are yet to be finished. I’m not entirely sure what the longer term plan is with signalling on Timperley-Altrincham.

This adds another level of complexity for the controllers to manage.

Got Amps?

The other issue to consider even if it’s possible to divert the displaced trams to other lines is whether there is sufficient power available to handle the extra demand placed by the additional trams.

The overhead power lines are split into sections, so that they can be de-energised for maintenance, be fed from different parts of the power grid to help localise impact of mains supply interruptions, and more importantly manage the power loads imposed by the trams.

Control need to be careful that trams don’t just run willy-nilly into the same power supply section, or it can overload the power supply and cause even worse disruption, so that needs to be taken into consideration in those parts of the network which have constraints.

It is therefore necessary to regulate the service to ensure that this bunching up of the trams doesn’t happen, because not only can it cause issues on the power supplies, but it can cause congestion on both the tram network itself, and road congestion in areas with street running.

However, neither of these feel like good enough reasons why the entire network needed to be brought to a halt for over half an hour during the peak period.

Next time, I’ll write about what I believe could have been done to minimise the impact to services and not stop the entire network in the middle of rush-hour.

Metrolink Service Recovery Challenges – Pt 1

In the opening post in this series, I put forward a series of probably common questions as to why it took so long to recover service following the Metrolink disruption on 10th November:

  • Why couldn’t the trams be diverted via 2CC?
  • Why couldn’t the trams be turned around short of the destination?
  • Why couldn’t the trams just run to a different destination?
  • Why was the Bury-Piccadilly service, which doesn’t go anywhere near the incident, stopped?

Let’s take the first of these:

Why couldn’t some trams be diverted via 2CC (the Second City Crossing)?

Once it was ascertained that the incident was only affecting one line, the one which fed trams from St Peter’s Square toward Piccadilly Gardens, then you would think it becomes feasible to divert the approaching City-bound trams from Deansgate via 2CC, taking them “off-route”.

The problem arises with what you do with them once they reach the other side of the City Centre.

It is very difficult for a Piccadilly, Etihad or Ashton-bound tram to regain the booked line of route, as there is no easy way from the far end of 2CC to head back in to town via Market St. There is no direct link between 2CC and this line without reversing direction.

So, the route via 2CC becomes an easy option for the existing Altrincham-Bury services, but that’s largely it without a more complex operation.

It’s also likely that routing all the trams down the 2CC would cause road congestion as well, as Cross Street is a shared right of way between trams and road traffic. So it becomes necessary to “thin out” the service.

Once the trams get to Victoria you have to do something with them, either turning them short of destination, reversing them, or doing something else with them, such as taking them out of traffic and running them to depot.

This leads us nicely onto…

Limited Places to turnback or “recess” trams

While Metrolink has a number of emergency turnback crossings which can be used to maintain service during periods of disruption, these effectively block the line while the driver changes from one end of the tram to the other, then receives a slot to cross over to the other line and return in the opposite direction. A queue of trams could quickly build up if this happened along a busy section of line. Some of these are also “unsignalled moves” so are only useable under very specific circumstances.

Besides the outer ends of the network, there are some specific turnback locations which have extra platforms or sidings to cater for reversing trams:

  • Timperley – has a siding so a Southbound tram can turn around and return toward the City Centre. This is most commonly used when trams can’t operate on the Network Rail managed section between Timperley and Altrincham, but is occasionally used to manage late running.
  • Cornbrook – there is a long centre siding here, this was until recently the usual terminus for the Airport Line, it can hold a good number of trams, and is useful during emergencies, both for recessing trams and reversing trams approaching the City Centre.
  • Deansgate – there is a centre platform which is bi-directionally signalled – that is trams can arrive and depart in either direction and reverse. It is currently regularly used for reversing the Airport service.
  • Piccadilly (Sheffield Street) – outside the back wall of Piccadilly station undercroft this has a centre track for reversing trams that have arrived from the City Centre and sending them back into Piccadilly station and thence toward Piccadilly Gardens. This is normally used for reversing two services, MediaCity-Piccadilly and Bury-Piccadilly. There are a further pair of crossovers in the “tunnel” underneath Piccadilly Station, these are most commonly used for reversing a tram from the Ashton direction and sending it back that way.
  • Etihad Campus – there is a long reversing track between the Etihad and Velopark stations. This is normally used for reversing trams on the Altrincham-Etihad service.
  • Shaw & Crompton – there is one dead-end platform as well as the two through platforms. This is normally used for reversing trams on the Didsbury-Shaw services.

What’s clear to see is that except for Shaw there are no dedicated reversing loops on the Northern side of the City Centre.

That means there’s nowhere convenient to reverse trams without blocking the line to “through traffic”, which causes more delays.

“But what about that third platform at Victoria, the one in the middle?” I hear you ask.

Regular users of the network will be used to this “white elephant”. Installed during the recent Victoria redevelopment, it has rarely been used. I believe it may have been used on one or two occasions during some planned engineering works, but it otherwise sits there, and is never used in normal service. There are even “Tensabarriers” across the centre tracks here, that’s how unused it is.

If this was operational during Friday’s incident then diverting Eccles-Ashton or Altrincham-Etihad trams via 2CC, reversing at Victoria then running via Market St, and regaining their booked route at Piccadilly Gardens might have been possible, but it wasn’t.

There might be very good reasons why it is not used, but these are not shared with us mere mortals. Instead it sits there as an embarrassment.

Trams from the South of the city which are currently shown as terminating at Victoria actually run empty to Queens Road after emptying out – there they have to reverse direction on one of the main lines, either to return South or enter the tram depot at Queens Road. There is no shunting line or reversing siding provided to do this move, and limited space to build one even if there was funding to do it.

There used to be a reversing siding just outside Victoria that would have been useful, but I also believe that to be disconnected/decommissioned and not available for use.

So, in spite of the additional flexibility added by 2CC, there are still some fairly significant constraints facing the controllers, and a big risk of trams backing up.

The redevelopment work for Crumpsall station will provide a new “turnback” facility, which will normally be used as part of the new Trafford Park service, but again provides Metrolink controllers with another useful option on the Northern side of the network when handling disruption.

Anyway, that’s enough for today.

Next time, we’ll find out that despite looking the same not all Manchester trams are equal, and maybe a word or two on power.

How two trams having a slow-speed “fender bender” wrecked your day…

…or at least made your morning commute difficult.

If you were trying to travel into work in Manchester this morning, you might have fallen foul of the Metrolink tram system pretty much grinding to a halt for around 30 minutes, right in the middle of the rush hour.

The cause? Two trams having a slow-speed collision at the St Peter’s Square stop.

As can be seen from the photo above, the fairings which protect the coupler (used to attach trams together to make double units) came into contact, and it looks like there might have been some bowing or warping of some of the other fairings.

Unlike when we, as road-users, have a fender-bender in a car, sadly we can’t just shunt off to the side of the road and exchange details, check nothing’s fallen off and proceed on our merry way. There’s a set procedure that has to be followed.

There was a lot of frustration directed at TfGM and Metrolink for how long it took them to respond to the incident.

Before I go on, I should probably explain that I am in a position to offer informed comment on incidents such as this.

Academically I hold a BSc in Transport Management, around 25 years ago I worked for British Rail, and in terms of current railway operations, I am a volunteer “Responsible Officer” – the Duty Operations Manager – for a heritage railway, which is governed by same basic operating rules as the National Rail network and Metrolink.

As a “Responsible Officer” it’s my job to manage problems, issues and incidents, along with subsequent recovery of the service. It’s the same sort of job that the Metrolink Control Room team perform, we use similar principles and work to similar rules, albeit they do it on a somewhat larger and more complex scale.

Back to the incident today, if there is any damage to either tram (however slight), or any significant injuries, this has to be reported immediately to the RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) by telephone. It’s known as a “Schedule 1” incident. RAIB may want to send their own representatives.

The duties of the operator in a Schedule 1 incident such as this is to not move the involved vehicles at all, until permission is given by the RAIB, and also perform actions themselves to collect and preserve any evidence. The usual response is to assign an Incident Officer to attend the scene and co-ordinate the preservation and collection of evidence. The Incident Officer is a representative of the person in overall charge of the network at the time of the incident.

Even if there was no significant damage, this is known as a “Schedule 3” incident and still requires collection of evidence, and reporting after the fact.

So we know now that we can’t move those two incident trams for some time, and the line through St Peter’s Square toward Piccadilly Gardens and Market St is blocked.

That immediately affects the following tram routes, all booked through the collision platform:

  • Altrincham – Bury
  • Altrincham – Ethiad
  • MediaCity – Piccadilly
  • Eccles – Ashton

Each of the above run on a 12 minute headway. If we assume that is evenly spread, there is a tram coming every 3 minutes from the direction of Deansgate/Castlefield to use that line.

We also need to consider the approaching trams that run via the Second City Crossing (2CC) – the track heading into the city centre splits at a junction just outside Manchester Central and runs up the side of the Midland Hotel as two separate lines toward St Peter’s Sq. These are normally the services from the East Didsbury line to Shaw or Rochdale, these run every 6 minutes.

So adding these in, there is a tram roughly every 2 minutes coming from Deansgate toward St Peter’s Square.

It is very easy to end up in a situation where trams become quickly backlogged around the incident site if action isn’t taken.

As it was, there were three trams – two single and one double tram – behind the incident trams that had become “trapped”, queueing up the side of the Midland Hotel and short of the platform at St Peter’s Square. I can only assume that Metrolink ended up evacuating the passengers from those trams to street level via the emergency ladders – the tram floors are a long way up from the ground!

So, we understand it’s necessary to stop the trams to prevent a gridlock of yellow developing and ending up in a situation where passengers are having to be evacuated down ladders.

The question that must be in most people’s heads is why the entire system remained stalled for as long as it was, and at such a crucial time of the morning commute?

  • Why couldn’t the trams be diverted via 2CC?
  • Why couldn’t the trams be turned around short of the destination?
  • Why couldn’t the trams just run to a different destination?
  • Why was the Bury-Piccadilly service, which doesn’t go anywhere near the incident, stopped?

The fact is, like most rail systems, there are some constraints on the operation that affect the incident response.

Even understanding these constraints, and knowing the challenges the Metrolink Ops staff must have been facing, having dealt with incidents myself, I still felt some disappointment that it took so long to start any form of service recovery.

What I plan on doing is writing a short series of posts discussing these constraints over the next week or so. Some of them are quite peculiar to Metrolink, but maybe it will allow you to make your own mind up about how quickly things can be sorted.

How did we do? Tell us, tell us, puhleeeze…

…or “The rise of the post-purchase survey”

It seems you can’t buy a product or service anymore without receiving a survey about some aspect of it.

I’ve recently done a fair amount of travel, and my email or SMS inbox has been cluttered with pleading survey invites from:

  • Holiday Inn
  • Mercure
  • Sofitel
  • Premier Inn
  • Eurostar
  • Virgin Trains

Usually within 24 hours of you having consumed the service, you get a mithering “Please tell us what you thought” email, which links to a survey.

These organisations must think we have all the time in the world to respond to a load of tedious questioning which, at the end of the day doesn’t capture our personal journey with them at all, despite what they promise.


They can’t read all the survey responses. The data is just rolled up into spreadsheets and charts that help them make (or miss) their “key performance indicators”.

Usually, each survey normally takes around 10 to 15 minutes to complete. That’s 90 minutes of my time that these companies are asking me to give them, for the privilege of buying a service from them.

Yes, I know I don’t have to fill them in, and I’ve largely stopped completing them.

With credit to Holiday Inn, Mercure and Sofitel, they all have a link to “unsubscribe” from receiving future survey invitations. Though I’ll have to see if these actually work. I remain sceptical.

However, this isn’t the case with the last three.

Premier Inn are one of the worst. They send email survey requests with no unsubscribe link. The surveys are long, too. Often 15-30 minutes.

Virgin Trains are slightly better, at least they usually only ask you one question, but I still don’t recall there ever being a way to unsubscribe from their surveys.

Eurostar was just downright baffling. On the way back from Paris, the moment my train left the Channel Tunnel I get this:file-10-02-2017-11-54-44

Followed by these questions, coming from a completely different number:

The first question, I’d have actually liked to score a “N/A” on, as I didn’t actually interact with any Eurostar staff Gare du Nord at all. There were a lot of them standing around with radios looking like they might be important, and occasionally “hustling” late arrivers through to their train, but that was it.

I already had my ticket. I just scanned it on the turnstile and went through the various border and immigration formalities. They did an okay job of marshalling the queues. One of them sort of stood in my way with his back to me at one point, but I didn’t otherwise talk to them nor really have any need to. That’s why I gave it a 5. Neither impressed nor unimpressed.

The second question is more baffling. They have sent me the question about whether I would recommend Eurostar before my journey is complete. I can’t actually answer it yet, because for all I know the train could yet be delayed, or even explode in an enormous fireball, though I think I’d probably only give them a 1 if the fireball happened.

The third question just confirms my suspicions that no-one really reads this stuff. It’s all just parcelled up into a dull spreadsheet. They must send thousands of these a day, and must at least get a few hundred responses.

They are asking this stuff “because they can”, not because they actually care about our individual experiences. These surveys are just providing a barometer of whether there is an upward or downward trend, whether things are meeting an arbitrary target or not, and at their most cynical, providing a means for fat-cat managers to receive bonuses.

The best way to judge how your business is running is to get out on the shop floor. Actually talk to your customers. Listen to your staff. They are your bell-weather.

Also encourage your customers to give direct feedback, then and there. Hilton have recently done this with a “Make it right” policy which lets customers know that they should make their feelings known then and there to the hotel in question, and give them a chance to deal with any shortcomings in service. It also empowers the hotel operators to take corrective action on the spot.

Compare that to a situation at Premier Inn a few years ago where the disenfranchised and under empowered staff member was “Meh, here’s your money back. Take it up with management if you like. Here’s the URL of the complaints form.”

Finally, what’s more annoying to me with these sorts of surveys is that at the point of purchase, while there is usually a means to opt-out of marketing email, there isn’t a means to opt-out of this sort of mithering, because it isn’t considered “marketing”.

So, here’s what I plan to do, should I respond to these:

Write something totally outrageous in the free form text boxes, along with an invite to contact me if someone has actually read what’s been written. That will at least I might get a feel for how many of these are seen by humans!

Post-script: While I was writing this, I got another survey mither from where I ate on Wednesday night, this time from OpenTable on behalf of @HawksmoorMCR. I’m really surprised by that because it’s so orthogonal to their non-corporate house-style when you go and eat there.

 

 

#didsburydoubles – How many trams do Metrolink need each day?

Just a quick post this evening.

Did you know that the main Monday to Friday service pattern running today, and the service pattern we had back in June, when we had through trams with a single-line operation through the St Peter’s Square worksite, with double trams on the Didsbury line, actually requires the same number of trams to be in service?

That’s 86 trams.

Out of a fleet of 119. That’s 73% availability. Hardly amazing by today’s standards.

Compare that to Alstom’s Pendolino fleet working Virgin Trains West Coast services. That currently requires 50 of the 56 sets to be available for traffic. That’s an amazing 89% availability for that fleet, which is now over 10 years old.

I guess what I’m saying is that for Metrolink to double the Didsbury – Shaw trams, it would require an extra 12 trams each day, which they do seem to have, and it would still only need 82% availability from the fleet – less than Virgin’s Pendolinos.

These are modern trams, some of which are brand new from the production line, and still being delivered, there will soon be a fleet of 120. They should not be maintenance intensive. Indeed a Manchester Evening News article a few years ago said that the current fleet has an average of 20000 miles between breakdowns, known in the industry as MPC – “Miles Per Casualty”(this doesn’t mean the tram runs someone over, the “Casualty” in this case is the tram itself!). That compares with only 5000 MPC for our old trams.

I surmise that the actual mileage being accumulated under the new timetables is less, because previously there were double trams out all day on Bury – Didsbury, Altrincham – Etihad, and Piccadilly – Eccles lines. Now there are only doubles out on Bury – Altrincham, but only during the main part of the day, and not first thing in the morning or later in the evening.

So it seems there is not a lack of resources preventing double trams being provided where there is clear demand. There is something else going on here. Quite what, I’ll leave up to the reader.

#didsburydoubles – PM Peak 5/9, AM Peak 6/9

A quick round-up of the continuing Didsbury double tram mither.

Here’s one from yesterday morning:

Metrolink did at least respond with an apology, but no real offer to do anything about it.

5/9 PM Commute:

Yesterday evening was very sultry in Manchester. Quite humid and sticky. I can only imagine how awful it must have been. One of those days when I was glad to be working from home.

Meanwhile, Metrolink continue to spin the 6 minute headway to Deansgate as an improvement:

Looks a bit hot and sticky on there, doesn’t it?

6/9 AM Commute:

Slightly less public moaning this morning, maybe people are getting used to their lot of packed sweaty trams, and Metrolink continuing to hold their ground, or they have given up and gone back to commuting on the bus?

Right to Reply:

Yesterday evening, Councillor Andrew Simcock, who I yesterday said seemed to be behaving as a TfGM apologist, chose to leave a comment on the post.

I’d like to go on record to thank the Councillor for using this right of reply to clarify his position.

While he reiterated his point of view that the 6 minute service was an improvement, it still seems terribly out of step with what I’m seeing social media, and out on the streets of Didsbury.

The Councillor also stated that he hoped with continuing TfGM investment in Metrolink, double trams may once again be provided in line with demand in the future, so this is positive.

Nevertheless, the Councillor has invited unhappy East Didsbury constituents to raise the issue with him at his regular surgery, which happens this Saturday morning , 11.30, at Didsbury Library.

If you are at all dissatisfied with the situation and Councillor Simcock is one of your representatives on the Council, please take the time to attend and make your voice heard.

I live in the Chorlton Park constituency, and have already raised the issue with my local representatives.

#didsburydoubles – the current state of play

So, the weekend has passed and the kids are back to school. I’m working from home today so haven’t experienced the Metrolink this morning.

Travelling in last Friday…

Following that tweet, I was told by Metrolink social media that they can’t discuss the matter over social media and I should put my complaint regarding the withdrawal of double trams in writing to TfGM’s “customer services”.

Over 24 hours later, while I have received an auto-reply acknowledging receipt, I’ve yet to get a case number or any other correspondance from TfGM.

Over the weekend I noticed that the advertised Double tram service Bury – Altrincham was running as single trams. I contacted Metrolink about that too. They say that Bury – Altrincham directs are now reduced to single trams at weekends and their own timetable is wrong!

What on earth is going on at TfGM and Metrolink towers?

I do wonder if the running of lots and lots of double trams (Bury-Dids, Alty-Etihad, Eccles line) during the period of “contraflow” on Mosely Street while St Peter’s Square was closed has actually caused the fleet to accumulate mileage quicker than anticipated, and the operation of single trams now is what is known in the industry as mileage conservation – stretching the period of time between planned examination and servicing by those affected trams running fewer miles.

This is also common in the aviation industry, where aircraft undergo checks based on hours flown – an aircraft approaching a major maintenance check can be put on restricted use, so it’s only used if absolutely necessary, until it’s place in the hangar is assured.

Back to the main subject, the loss of the much needed double trams from the Didsbury line, it seems people are still experiencing unpleasant journeys on overcrowded trams.

Here’s a quick scan of social media from this morning:

It’s also not just the Didsbury line. Eccles line users are grumpy too. Both about the basic quality of the service, and the fact that Eccles line trams don’t serve MediaCity UK for the majority of the day, which seems like a total chocolate teapot.

One can only imagine the answer to the question below:

What seems to be getting people’s hackles up further is the way we’re being talked down to by TfGM and Metrolink. The tone of the replies is like a parent trying to placate a child having a tantrum, rather than accept and acknowledge there has been a service delivery failure and that something positive will be done:

I don’t blame the people running the social media accounts at TfGM and Metrolink. I accept their hands are somewhat tied by the decisions of their bosses. But they need to stop talking down to us. We need to see there is some action being taken, rather than head-in-sand apologism.

However this particular exchange seems at least churlish, and possibly out-of-order, especially for a public servant talking to a member of the public they are meant to be working on behalf of. Maybe it’s a chink in the armour, showing that tempers are even getting frayed at Metrolink HQ, behind the calm veneer of the “Shush, shush… Everything’s okay, it will be all fine once 2CC opens” party-line:

What seems to be worse still is that at least one Didsbury councillor is acting as a TfGM apologist rather than representing their constituents:

Evidently, according to Andrew, we should just shut up and be grateful that we even have a tram:

This goes on to the extent that he’s openly disagreeing with other Manchester City Councillors from neighbouring wards who agree with residents that the new single tram service is a retrograde step:

Why would you change at Cornbrook and St Werburghs if you had the choice of a direct tram? The above feels like a load of old tosh. Also note that Andrew’s tweets there were sent from outside of Manchester, so it seems that he can’t have experienced this new single tram overcrowded fiasco for himself recently if he’s been out of town.

I’m honestly glad I’m not in the East Didsbury ward if that’s the standard of representation I can expect.

So what next?

Metrolink wish we would put up and shut up.

TfGM wish we would put up and shut up.

Now, one of our elected representatives also seems to wish we would put up and shut up – rather than doing what he’s been elected to do!

Remind me that we’re meant to be living in a democracy? Remind me that public servants are meant to be accountable?

A former BBC journalist friend said “Don’t give up. Keep kicking off. Make as much noise as you can until they open a proper two-way dialogue with you.”

We need to make as much noise as we possibly can until we are listened to on this issue:

  • Please tweet about your overcrowding experiences, and use the hashtag #didsburydoubles, so the trend is visible.
  • Tweet Metrolink every time you experience an overcrowded Didsbury line tram.
  • Please retweet what others say as well so we’re reaching as many people as possible.
  • Write to TfGM – customer.relations@tfgm.com – request that a formal complaint is opened.
  • Write to your Councillors – use www.writetothem.com