#NorthernFail – or why the Ordsall Chord hasn’t saved us

The past 14 days have been a torrid time for the North’s rail commuters – widespread cancellations, heavy delays, overcrowding, short-formed trains with fewer coaches than planned, and timetable changes that have made some journeys longer rather than shorter, or even no-longer possible.

The alleged cause is the rollout of a new timetable on 20th May which was intended to exploit recently electrified routes, and a new piece of railway in the Manchester Area, the Ordsall Chord. It was intended to help increase capacity on some key routes, and increase some through journey opportunities.

However the results have been quite the opposite.

A Brief History Lesson

For a long time, Manchester’s railways were basically broken up into a North network, centred around Victoria, and a South network, focused on Piccadilly. Drivers and Guards were similarly split, and so a driver from the North Manchester network (whether they were based at Victoria, or further out such as Wigan, Preston or Blackpool) didn’t have need to know the routes of the South network, and vice versa, because their trains didn’t go there.

Drivers and Guards knew the various routes which connected the two parts of the network, for the rare number of trains which crossed between them (mostly empty carriage moves), but that was all.

This changed in 1988 with the opening of the Windsor Link – this bridged the network from the North West of Manchester – the lines from Wigan, Bolton and Preston – with the lines into Manchester Piccadilly. It was part of the fulfilment of a long held ambition of the city to reduce the need for passengers to shuffle between Piccadilly and Victoria, the other being the opening of the Metrolink system in 1992.

This emphasised the importance of Piccadilly as Manchester’s primary station, and a significant number of trains were switched over from using Victoria over the years following the link opening. Coupled with the Metrolink taking over the Bury line, this facilitated the downsizing of Victoria from the enormous 17 platform station into the smaller 6 platform station of today, and the construction of the Manchester Arena over the remainder of the Victoria site. This was also against a backdrop of rail travel falling in popularity since the 1960s.

The Windsor Link, concentration of primary services in Piccadilly, and reduction of Victoria to a secondary station was planned against these expectations, rather than the burgeoning demand we see now, 30 years later.

Oxford Road becomes “edge of the world” for some Train Crew

For operational convenience, when the Windsor Link became operational, many services from the North side of Manchester were joined up with those from the South side. From a marketing perspective, this facilitated new “through journey opportunities”, with no need for a passenger to change train, or only change once – though actually these seemed to be of niche value (e.g. Blackpool to Buxton, or Wigan to Chester via Stockport) and seldom exploited until the opening of the line to Manchester Airport in 1993.

The through working also helped the operational railway boost rolling stock utilisation, as trains spent less time “turning around” at Piccadilly and Victoria.

However, some of the Train Crew remained quite firmly “North” and “South”, and where this was the case they changed crew over at Oxford Road if the train was to cross or had crossed the Windsor Link. This is an important point, as this arrangement somewhat persists through to the present day for a number of trains. It has changed somewhat over time with the addition of the line to Manchester Airport which opened in 1993, and some “classically North” depots such as Wigan did (and I believe still do) sign routes as far South as Crewe via Wilmslow, while “South” depots such as Buxton know the way to Blackpool North, but there are still a number of crew changes needed at Oxford Road, even today.

This 30 year old legacy explains why there have been numerous reports of all the platforms being blocked by trains waiting for relieving crew at Oxford Road.

Uncontainable Damage

The other thing that the Windsor Link enabled is for delays and cancellations to spread between the previously separated North and South networks.

Even if a train appeared to the passenger to only operate in the North network (e.g. Bolton to Manchester Victoria), the coaches could have worked in a disrupted South network earlier in the day, or have become delayed behind some other late running service off the South network.

Previously, reactionary delays could be relatively well contained to the side of the network that the root-cause originated on.

The addition of the Ordsall Curve now allows delays and cancellations from the North East of Manchester to spread toward Piccadilly and the South network, in the same way the Windsor Link allowed this to happen with the North network.

So this means it’s important to have plans and procedures in place to contain the spread of disruption to what would be otherwise unaffected lines, or minimise reactionary issues.

What do I mean by that? A good example could be a passenger left confused as to why their Preston to Blackpool train is cancelled because of snow in the Peak District. To the railway operator, this makes sense, because the train started in Buxton and discovered a snow drift near Whaley Bridge. But to the passenger on Preston station, they don’t really understand why it should disrupt them, and nor should they need to.

Slip Sliding Away: Hobbled by Hand-me-downs

The long-awaited electrification of lines in the North West of England is finally happening, some would say over 40 years overdue. Why it wasn’t done as a “follow-on” project to the WCML electrification to Glasgow in 1974 is a question for the politicians of that era.

With the extra overhead wires comes a fleet of “new” trains – except they aren’t really new, they are “cascaded” from their previous sphere of operation to the North West, given a lick of paint and a tidy up. These are the Class 319 “Northern Electrics” – based on a 1980’s design. These trains were up until recently used on the Thameslink network around London, where again they were largely inadequate for the work they needed to do, and built by BR on a limited budget, thanks to a Government who’s usual reply regarding investment in rolling stock was “You need three trains, but you can only have the money for two.”

The biggest problem with the Class 319 units seems to be they simply can’t keep time on schedules which contain a number of station calls. This is demonstrated by their introduction on the Manchester to Crewe local trains with the timetable change. These contain frequent stops, and the timekeeping is poor. Here the Class 319s actually replaced newer and more advanced Class 323 units, which were proven on the route.

The big difference between the Class 319 and the Class 323 (or a Class 319 and a diesel unit) is the rail equivalent of “rubber on the road”.

In the Class 319, all the traction equipment, and all the powered wheels, are situated under a single coach – one of the two middle coaches. This gives the train 4 powered axles for a 4-coach train, compared to the 323 where it’s the two end (Driving) coaches which contain the powered axles – giving a total of 8 powered axles for just 3 coaches on the 323. In this respect, the 323 is already superior in poor rail conditions by having the driven axles more evenly distributed along the train. That’s without the more advanced features of the Class 323 such as better wheelslip control and regenerative braking.

Even on a 2-car diesel unit, the power is more distributed, there being a total of four driven axles spread throughout – one powered axle on each bogie.

Basically, the Class 319 has long suffered from problems with rail adhesion, even when used in the South of the country.

The unit is basically unsuited to the frequently damp conditions found in the North West of England and frequent stops and starts.

It may be able to keep time on more “express” level journeys, such as Manchester to Blackpool via Wigan, but it presently seems a dubious performer on all-stations work. Things may improve as staff gain handling experience, but it’s doubtful.

This is a situation which may only get worse as Northern were planning to release all their Class 323 trains back to the leasing company at the end of 2018.

Squeezing a Quart into a Pint Pot

This is happening on a number of fronts.

Firstly, infrastructure.

The Ordsall Chord helps in some respects – it removes some of the criss-crossing of trains across the main station throat just south of Manchester Piccadilly. Since the timetable change, fewer trains cross all the way from one side to the other – several of these were TransPennine Express trains between Manchester Airport and the line to Huddersfield, Leeds and beyond. These trains now operate through Oxford Road, take the Ordsall Chord to Victoria, then route up Miles Platting bank and via Ashton to regain the route at Stalybridge – in effect back to “classic” North TransPennine route.

However this does increase some pressure on the the twin-tracked section between Manchester Piccadilly’s platforms 13 and 14, through Oxford Road to Deansgate. At Piccadilly, as there are only two platforms, this limits trains to a bare-minimum of a 4 minute headway – that’s how long is allowed for a train to slow down, arrive at Platform 13 or 14 at Piccadilly, unload and load passengers, and depart. Realistically, this allows a maximum of 12 trains per hour between Piccadilly and Oxford Road if and only if everything is running on time.

This is also why some services from the Deansgate direction are planned to terminate at Oxford Road. There isn’t the space for them on the infrastructure further along.

Secondly, planning.

A number of the detailed working timetables for this timetable change were not available until very late in the day. This is because Network Rail are reportedly under-resourced in the train planning department, especially when a significant “recast” of the plan is requested, as with this timetable change, caused by the delays in completion of the various North West Electrification schemes – Blackpool to Preston was handed back late, and Euxton Jn to Bolton remains incomplete.

Also, the planning on the part of Northern seems to have gone awry. They don’t appear to have enough Drivers or Guards available to provide the booked service, even if they work those they do have as intensely as possible.

Thirdly, Train Crew.

Shortages here seem to be the major cause of the cancellations since the introduction of the new timetable. Part of the reason is that Northern are trying do more, but with the same number of people. It was part of their franchise bid, that they could deliver these new services with no significant increase in the train crew complement.

It’s a common mantra in a lot of companies, you may hear it in your own workplace.

However the fact is that a train driver can only be one place at once. To squeeze the extra trains out, Northern Train Crew diagrammers have had to work the existing crews harder. This has meant cutting back on allowances built into the crew diagrams to handle out-of-course situations – for instance where a driver might get relieved from one train, and have 20 to 30 minutes to wait for their next train, maybe now they only have a few minutes between their trains. Of course, you can now see how if the incoming train is late, the driver might be delayed getting to their next booked train, which then departs late. Eventually this will have reactionary effects with crews and trains out of position.

The other issue which may also be rearing it’s ugly head is route knowledge. We’re back to the Oxford Road “boundary” thing again, for instance the Liverpool Lime St – Crewe trains have to change crew at Oxford Road, as Liverpool drivers don’t know the route to Crewe, while Manchester Picc drivers don’t know the route to Liverpool via Chat Moss.

Employee relations also play a role here. If you think your relationship with Northern as a passenger is currently bad, don’t think it’s all rosy for the employees either. I believe there is currently no valid Rest Day Working agreement in place between the drivers’ union (ASLEF) and Northern.

For a long time, it’s been common for Train Crew members to work some of their days off (Rest Days in rail-speak) to cover for colleagues who were unable to do their booked duty. Maybe it’s due to holidays, sickness, or sometimes it’s because they are at work, but it’s their turn to be in the classroom, learning new routes, learning new trains, or just part of their regular training and assessment processes to ensure they are competent and safe to do their job. It’s some welcome extra cash for the person covering the work, and it ensures service levels are maintained without having to employ too many standby or reserve staff. Sometimes a driver might work a Rest Day in order to attend training sessions.

The lack of an agreement for RDW is no-doubt partially behind the lack of Train Crew and in particular Drivers, and I’m almost certain that any negotiations will be a game of chicken and seeing who flinches first.

What could have been done differently?

The impression I get is that the various management entities, Network Rail, Northern, GTR down South, and even the DfT, chose to doggedly press ahead with rolling out this timetable when clearly there hadn’t been enough preparation, the planning was of dubious quality and appeared to have been rushed, while some things basically just weren’t ready – whether that’s infrastructure or driver training – to deliver the new timetable.

What would have been the most sensible thing to do in these circumstances would be to delay rolling out the new timetable, probably by 8 to 12 weeks, and instead extend the validity of the old timetable.

This has been done before, back in BR days. There was a similar significant change in timetabling and rolling stock disposition enabled by the East Coast Main Line electrification in 1991. The May 1991 timetable change was to herald introduction of electric services to Edinburgh and the cascade of a number of HSTs to cover more “Cross Country” work – i.e. those Intercity services which avoided London.

However, because of the tightly-coupled nature of the various projects, things weren’t ready. The decision was taken by BR to extend the validity of the 1990 timetable through to July, rather than take the risk of the sort of disruption we see now.

So there is a precedent for delaying rollout of a new timetable, however in the privatised railway, I suspect it is more complex than in the days of BR.

Finally, lightning does strike twice!

Remember we started with the Windsor Link?

The 1989 timetable which brought that line into full use became known as the “timetable that failed” to the operators. The service collapsed then for several similar reasons, in particular the over-dependence on good time keeping and maintaining planned station dwell times to keep the core Piccadilly – Castlefield section moving, and little in the way of wiggle room for recovery. Sound familiar?

How was that solved? Basically shifting more services back to Victoria and reducing some of the off-peak services in order to provide a “fire-break” between the morning and evening peaks.

Neither will work in this case – Victoria doesn’t have much spare capacity, the station being massively reduced in size since the early 90s, and there is little scope for reducing service, as many of the paths over the congested Piccadilly – Castlefield section are provided by other operators, such as TransPennine or East Midlands Trains, or used by freight trains to access Trafford Park. They won’t want to give up paths.

It seems that very little in terms of lessons learned from the 1989 experience got applied in the development of the disastrous May 2018 timetable.

Finally, a bit of humour, because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry…

Metrolink Service Recovery on 10th November: What could have been done?

So, my final word in this series, at least for now: My thoughts on what could have been done better, instead of suspending the network for so long.

Firstly, some opinion.

Sadly, I’m sceptical we’ll see any accountability or transparency from TfGM nor the Metrolink operator (KeolisAmey) about what could have been done better.

TfGM appears to be engaged in finger-pointing at their supplier:

“I’ve emphasised to the operator the absolute urgency in which they need to get services running” – Danny Vaughan, TfGM Head of Metrolink.

Meanwhile, the supplier, KeolisAmey Metrolink seem to be hiding behind a “cloak of safety”:

We take customer safety seriously so the decision was taken to suspend all services.” – Aline Frantzen, Managing Director of KeolisAmey Metrolink.

This isn’t the first time that KeolisAmey senior staff have hidden themselves. Following the last network-wide failure in July they refused to speak to the local press, saying they were “busy dealing with the problem”: “Aline Frantzen, new Metrolink MD, and Alistair Gordon, chief executive of Keolis UK, were not available to speak to the M.E.N.”

These people are senior folks, and putting what I call “a face on a farce” is part of their job while their staff work behind the scenes to fix whatever’s broken. It’s not their job to hide.

Okay, that’s the opinion/minor rant over.

Now the fun bit. What could have been done better at 0830 last Friday morning…

Receive report from incident trams about what has happened. Assume the incident trams cannot be moved. It is also desirable to prevent other movements in the area to preserve evidence until the Incident Officer arrives. It’s fairly certain this is going to be a long one, and we still have people to get to work. We can’t just throw our hands in the air and cry “stop the job” for the whole network, even if we have no choice but to suspend service in the incident area.

The first 15 minutes:

A “line blocked” situation now exists between:

  • Exchange Square and Deansgate/Castlefield on 2CC, both directions.
  • Piccadilly Gardens junction and Deansgate/Castlefield on 1CC, both directions.

What’s left on the network that’s good?

  • Bury to Piccadilly via Market St
  • Rochdale to Victoria
  • Victoria to Exchange Square
  • Ashton to Piccadilly
  • All the South Manchester network up to Deansgate/Castlefield

Assumptions:

  • Drivers sign all routes so can operate trams to anywhere under direction of Control.
  • We can handle most issues with relieving/re-crewing/crew out of place, either by delaying breaks within legal limits, using alternative relief points, mobilising rostered spare drivers, and amending driver duties as required – the published plan is out of the window whatever now, anyway.
  • We don’t want to block running lines unnecessarily with reversing trams, as this causes knock-on delays – reverse in loops/sidings only where possible.
  • We can’t run non-ATS trams to Bury and Altrincham.

The network is effectively split in two pieces by the incident.

It’s the morning peak and the dominant flows are people heading into Central Manchester. We need to get trams as close into Central Manchester as we can.

Let’s look at the Northern part of the network first. This is actually going to be the easier one to maintain service on.

  • Bury – Piccadilly: This is completely unaffected by the incident and could keep going.
  • Bury – Altrincham: Can’t get past Market St.
  • Rochdale/Shaw – Didsbury: Can’t get past Exchange Square.
  • Ashton – Eccles: Can’t get past Piccadilly Gardens

Here’s how, immediately following the incident, the service could have been reformed to keep things moving:

  • Bury – Piccadilly: No change.
  • Bury – Altrincham: Continue from Market St via Piccadilly to Etihad Campus (maintains 6 minute headway between Piccadilly & Etihad).
  • Rochdale – Didsbury: Continue from Victoria via Piccadilly to Ashton, effectively taking over that end of the Eccles – Ashton service.
  • Shaw – Didsbury: Terminate at Exchange Square and reverse on crossover on Corporation St, return to Shaw.
  • Ashton – Eccles: Continue from Piccadilly Gardens via Market St to Victoria and thence to Rochdale.

We also need to get rid of any Piccadilly – MediaCity trams on this side of the blocked line as if we can’t usefully repurpose them to keep the other lines running, they are in the way. We can probably stable one in the Sheffield St turnback road, and send any more to Queens Road depot.

The above changes will keep the Northern half of the network moving. We’ve even a) theoretically preserved headway and capacity on the majority of those sections of route, and b) managed to do the right thing with the ATS fitted trams for the Bury line. The benefit of sending the Bury – Altrincham trams to Etihad also means when the line is clear and it’s time to re-form the service, we can send them forward from Etihad as Altrincham trams if we choose.

The Southern Network is more tricky as it’s more impacted by the incident. Except for the Airport – Deansgate tram, everything is going through the centre.

  • Firstly, nothing else can proceed beyond Deansgate until the incident site is cleared for operation. This could take a while.

There’s two ways we can turn trams around at Deansgate in this situation, one is in the centre platform, like the Airport trams usually do. The other is on the reversing crossing around the corner, on the viaduct up the side of Manchester Central – a tram arrives on the City Centre-bound or middle platform, unloads, departs to the crossover, reverses, and comes back on the Southbound platform to pick up passengers.

This still does limit how many trams we want running to Deansgate though. We certainly can’t support the close headway that is planned to run.

We need to thin the service down, and quickly, before it bottlenecks.

First thing would be to suspend the MediaCity – Piccadilly service, and run all Eccles trams via MediaCity to maintain service there. There are two double unit sized platforms at MediaCity, so we could berth two units there, and still leave one platform vacant for use by the remaining services, even if they happened to be formed of double units. We can also recess a couple of trams in the centre siding at Cornbrook.

Anything that’s already between Cornbrook and Deansgate is a done deal. We’re turning it around at Deansgate, whatever it is. Turn it around and send it back to the outer end of it’s route. Abandon even headwaying at this point, we just need to clear what’s between Cornbrook and Deansgate and get it back heading out of town – remember, there’s people using the network to head out of town too.

With the MediaCity service taken out, we have the following happening:

  • Didsbury line services approaching at 6 minute intervals
  • Airport line services approaching every 12 minutes
  • Altrincham line services approaching every 6 minutes
  • Eccles line services coming every 12 minutes.

So, that’s still a tram every 2 minutes, technically. Can it be done?

We know that during the Summer of 2016, they turned all routes around here during the blockade to finish and connect the new St Peter’s Square stop, and these were:

  • East Didsbury – Deansgate
  • Altrincham – Deansgate
  • Eccles – Deansgate

These all operated on 12 minute headways (the Airport line terminated at Cornbrook, as did half the Altrincham trams), which means a tram every 4 minutes, so half the trams we would be getting once we’d dropped out the MediaCity service.

I would suggest it cannot be done reliably and we need to reduce even further to prevent tailbacks on the viaduct at Castlefield.

If the Airport service is cut back to Cornbrook, which is a fairly normal technique used by control during congestion or problems between Cornbrook and the City Centre, that at least drops another movement out at Deansgate.

We’ve also got the Trafford Depot available if we have too many trams around and need to get some off the road, and this depot is readily accessible from all passing lines, without a need to perform any reversing or shunting – moves to and from the depot are straight-in/straight-out. We can also readily terminate or reverse trams approaching from Firswood or Old Trafford here if we need to relieve pressure in the Cornbrook area. It doesn’t help get people to work, but it helps prevent gridlocking if it seems like it’s a risk, and is an option.

Let’s assume we can take a tram every 3 minutes at Deansgate and turn it around using one or the other of the two techniques. That’s 4 trams every 12 minutes. We also want to try and make the best use of the double units we have, if we can. We can run the following service on the South side:

  • Didsbury – Deansgate every 6 minutes, mostly single, with some double trams
  • Altrincham – Deansgate, double trams, every 12 minutes
  • Eccles – Deansgate, single trams, every 12 minutes
  • Altrincham – Cornbrook, single trams, every 12 minutes
  • Airport – Cornbrook, single trams, every 12 minutes

So, that’s the system kept mostly moving for the first 30-60 minutes following the incident.

Once rush-hour has cleared, so from 0930, the sensible move would be to drop to a 12 minute headway on the South side while the network operates in a degraded state:

  • Didsbury – Deansgate every 12 minutes
  • Altrincham – Deansgate every 12 minutes
  • Eccles – Deansgate via MediaCity every 12 minutes
  • Airport – Cornbrook every 12 minutes.

We know this service pattern can be supported, we can easily take trams out of traffic from all directions at Trafford Depot, and berth trams at Altrincham.

We can consider redeployment of the released tram drivers as necessary as well.

Once St Peter’s Square could be re-opened to traffic on all lines except the line blocked by the incident, we can reform to the following, each on 12 min headways:

  • Bury – Altrincham via 2CC
  • Didsbury – Shaw via 2CC
  • Rochdale – Ashton via Market St
  • Bury – Etihad Campus
  • Altrincham – Deansgate
  • Eccles – Deansgate via MediaCity
  • Airport – Cornbrook

I accept this involves a reduction in headway on some South Side routes, but that’s because they are constrained, both in routes through the city centre, and where services can be turned around before the blockage.

The Northern part of the network and the Ashton line have maintained their advertised headways, the Ashton line maintains through services into Piccadilly Gardens rather than turfing everyone out at Piccadilly, and with a change at Victoria, passengers can access the South side of the network from there.

So that’s the network kept moving. People arriving at work maybe only 10/15 minutes late rather than 30-60 minutes late. People in Oldham not left wondering why they can’t get where they need to go because of an incident 10 miles away.

Why didn’t the above happen? I don’t know the answer.

The impression I get from an informed rider’s perspective of incident handling at Metrolink is that they cope reasonably well with routine issues affecting a single route, but if there is a major incident, their attention becomes turned wholly to the incident, rather than breaking the responsibilities of incident handling and service recovery up.

It feels like the disruption handling procedures and training may be out-dated, maybe written for a time when the network was much simpler and a 30-35tph service didn’t exist, or that there simply aren’t enough pre-rehearsed plans for service recovery, written up into “run-books”, that could be rapidly referred to and activated.

I’m honestly happy and willing to be corrected if these things do exist, but if they do, that then that raises the question of whether they are reviewed and audited regularly, and updated where necessary.

The message that was sent last week by suspending service for 30-60 minutes network wide is “We currently have no plan for this” regardless of whether that is really the case.

Media reports in the last week state that there will be a RAIB investigation into the collision between the two trams. I don’t believe that anything I’ve written here is in any way directly related to the collision, but more the operator’s response to reforming the service in response to the reactionary effects of the incident. I don’t believe any of the above is prejudicial to the RAIB investigation.

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.

#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.