#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

#didsburydoubles – What might it take to put doubles back on the Didsbury line?

I’m a transport geek. I find stuff like timetables absolutely¬†irresistible.

So thanks to the working timetables exposed in the FOIA request I took a look over lunch to find out what extra resources would be required to provide double trams once again on the Didsbury line.

Firstly, the notionally “busier” Cross-City services – the Didsbury-Shaw trams.

The Didsbury-Shaw 12 minute frequency service requires 12 trams on a circuit to operate it Рi.e. it takes 144 minutes for one tram to complete a full round-trip.

There are two Metrolink depots, the original one at Queens Road, and the newer and larger depot at Trafford.

The duties for the Didsbury-Shaw service are split between the depots, 5 duties are provided by Queens Road, and 7 by Trafford.

So, to increase all the Didsbury-Shaw trams, that would require all 12 duties to be double trams, an extra 5 trams provided by Queens Road, and 7 from Trafford.

I don’t know what sort of spare resources Metrolink has around. I can usually see more than 8 trams sat stabled at Trafford depot when I go past in the morning – though I accept they could be stopped due to a fault or awaiting scheduled maintenance such as a planned servicing.

Secondly, the Didsbury-Deansgate service.

This is a much simpler operation, composed of 4 single-tram duties from Trafford depot, on a self-contained “shuttle” operation between Didsbury and Deansgate.

It is therefore theoretically simpler to double, requiring an additional 4 trams to be supplied from Trafford.

To provide double trams on both the Didsbury-Shaw and Didsbury-Deansgate services would require 16 extra trams to be available for traffic.

We’ll assume providing all 16 trams is a non-starter, that Metrolink simply don’t have 16 spare trams available on a daily basis for the moment.

There are three options, as I see them, assuming no significant service changes:

  • The least resource intensive is for Trafford to provide an extra 4 trams each day and convert the 4 Didsbury-Deansgate shuttle duties to double trams.
  • The other is to double all the Didsbury-Shaw duties, which requires 12 extra trams, a somewhat tougher ask.
  • The slightly more radical option is to cancel the Didsbury-Deansgate shuttle, and revert to a 12 minute headway. Use those 4 released trams to strengthen 4 of the Trafford Dids-Shaw duties, only requiring a further 8 trams to be provided, 4 from each depot.

Right now, it seems that the path of least resistance and possibly most rapid solution is for Didsbury-Deansgate trams to be doubled. It feels less than ideal, as the notionally busier trams are the Cross-City ones. But this might at least encourage some passengers to choose to change at Deansgate rather than wait for the direct tram and alleviate some pressure on the Didsbury-Shaw.

However, I feel all doubles on a 12 minute headway used to work okay before. Do we want to go back to that?

#didsburydoubles update – Metrolink Working Timetable via FOIA request

Thanks to Twitter follower @ppixx I’ve been pointed in the direction of a FOIA request which resulted in the release of the Working Timetables currently in use (as of 28th August 2016) on Metrolink.

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/manchester_metrolink_working_tim_5#incoming-849104

The “Working Timetable” is the hidden “technical” timetable that Metrolink staff¬†use to manage and maintain the service. As such it contains movements of empty trams, like¬†workings to and from depots at the start and end of service. It’s not written to be read by mere mortals.

In terms of what’s happened with our Cross-city Didsbury line commutes, the useful information here is the sequence of trams through the network. This is the bit of information I told you in my last post we didn’t readily have, yet need, to help us make decisions whether to wait for the direct tram or take the first tram and change.

I’ve done the hard work so you don’t have to: What it shows is that if you are travelling to a point beyond Deansgate from the East Didsbury line, during the 6 minute headway period, you may as well almost¬†always wait for the direct tram.

By taking the Deansgate tram and changing, you will have a 4 minute wait for the Altrincham – Bury tram to continue toward Market St, Shudehill and Victoria.

By leaving 6 minutes earlier – because we’re assuming for this example that¬†the first tram is the Deansgate tram – and changing, this is reduced to a 2 minute advantage by the time you get off. The direct tram has almost “caught up”.

However if¬†you are travelling to St Peter’s Square, Piccadilly Gardens or Piccadilly, it makes no significant difference which tram you take from the Didsbury line, both the Deansgate and the Shaw trams have good¬†connections into Piccadilly-bound trams at Deansgate. Both are good options.

#didsburydoubles – can we get Metrolink to reinstate double trams to East Didsbury?

The summer is over, and it’s time to get back to work.

For many of us in Manchester, we breathe a sigh of relief as it also signals the reconnection of the Northern and Southern parts of the Metrolink tram network after almost two months of no service through the City Centre.

Our messed up commutes could return to something looking like normality, or so we thought…

Last week, Metrolink announced their new service patterns for the re-joined network, no longer constrained by the single-track contraflow system through the St Peter’s Square worksite:

“People of Didsbury rejoice! For we are improving your service, with trams every 6 minutes!”

Now here’s the catch and small print:

Note that while there are twice as many trams, 
they will only be half as long, 
and half of them will terminate at Deansgate, 
on the extreme south side of the city centre, 
which will mean they are no use to some of you.

So, while we get more frequent trams, at least as far as Deansgate, the overall capacity on the line has stayed the same, yet we were experiencing busy and crowded trams when they were double trams every 12 minutes, and we’ve now actually got¬†reduced capacity on cross-city journeys.

We’re already seeing complaints about crowding and reduction of tram length:

So I’ve decided to start tweeting and hashtagging when I observe¬†overcrowding due to single tram operation on the Didsbury line, using the hashtag¬†#didsburydoubles and suggest those similarly affected do the same.

We then make it easier to track and hopefully get this trending on social media and get Metrolink & TfGM to sit up, listen to their users and understand how we actually use their tram network.

On paper the capacity is the same, so what’s happened?

Metrolink planners have made an assumption that passengers will always take the first tram and change where necessary.

Taking a look at my more usual trip into town, I’m normally heading to Market Street or Shudehill:

  • Under the old service pattern there was a direct double tram every 12 minutes.
  • Under the new service pattern there is a direct single tram every 12 minutes, or I can take the Deansgate tram, which runs in between the direct tram, and change at Deansgate.

I now have to make a decision, do I take whatever turns up first and proceed accordingly, or do I always wait for the direct?

I’m missing a vital piece of information if I take the Deansgate tram and change:¬†How long will I need to wait at Deansgate for a Market Street/Shudehill tram?

What I don’t have is the planned sequence through Deansgate. I know that each “route” is planned to have a tram every 6 minutes, and it repeats on a 12 minute cycle. I just don’t know the order they are meant to come in, because Metrolink does not publish that information.

If the tram terminating at Deansgate is immediately followed by a cross-city Altrincham – Bury tram, then I’m fine. My end-to-end journey time remains basically the same, I have to change once, and don’t have to wait long.

But what if the sequence of trams means that I’m waiting, let’s say 4 minutes, for the Altrincham – Bury direct tram? Or worse still, my Didsbury – Deansgate tram arrives at Deansgate platform just in time to see the Altrincham – Bury tram pulling away?

I don’t gain anything and I may as well have taken the direct tram, and who’s to say I’ll be able to even get on to the next tram, that might be busy too?

They have not accounted for human nature: where a direct service exists we will prefer to take it.

Remember that I am a transport geek as well. I’ve studied this stuff, and have a degree from Aston Uni in Transport Management. The thought process above comes naturally to me. Heh… Maybe TfGM/Metrolink could hire me to tell them the blindingly obvious?

An average person won’t even bother going though the thought process above. They will just wait for the direct tram.

On outbound journeys in the evening commute, this situation is made even worse. People are less inclined to change on the way home, because the trams are already at their fullest in the City centre.

One simply daren’t take the first cross-city tram from Shudehill or Market Street and expect to change at Deansgate or Cornbrook because that will mean trying to board an already crowded tram.

This means evening commutes will likely be worse than morning commutes because people will almost certainly wait for the direct.

When the Didsbury line was first opened, there were waves of complaints because the use of the line outstripped Metrolink’s predictions, rapidly leading to the decision to run Didsbury trams as doubles, and this remained until this week.

It’s time to make sure TfGM and Metrolink hear our voices again.

We should at least have the through trams operating as double trams, so that cross-city capacity is restored to what it was before the St Peter’s Square works were completed.

This is how the Altrincham and Bury lines work – a 6 minute headway with alternate trams, the cross-city trams, as doubles.

If you experience an uncomfortably crowded journey on the East Didsbury line, or you have to let a tram depart without you onboard because it arrived already full, please tweet about it and use the #didsburydoubles hashtag.

Driving in Malta – signs of madness?

Number two on the list of things not to do in Malta, according to my guidebook, is drive.

To a Maltese driver, it seems that road markings, signs, signals, and speed limits are advisory rather than mandatory. This means you need your wits about you.

That bit I actually found easy to cope with by reading the road, anticipating well ahead and driving assertively myself, or assertive as I could be in a tiny Kia with a sewing machine of an engine. Hills, of which Malta has many, meant changing down to 2nd and flooring it, thanks partly to the two suitcases in the boot. Fortunately, many natives also go for the small car too, so you know they are almost in the same boat as you. However, the locals have one big head start… Continue reading “Driving in Malta – signs of madness?”

UK ATC Delays – a case of “Computer says No”

Many folks will have read about the ATC delays being experienced in the UK today.

Sadly, a lot of the explanations have been rather technical, not surprising since they are coming from industry experts or from those working for ATC or airlines who have a good understanding of the industry and the jargon that goes with it (e.g. “sectors”, “flow control”, “slot restrictions”, etc.).

Air Traffic Control Principles:¬†To maintain a good margin of safety, an air traffic controller can only manage (“work“) a certain number of aircraft at the same time, taking into account the amount of communication they need to make on the radio with the planes they are working and the phase of flight those planes are in (e.g. takeoff, landing, climb, descent, cruise).

To manage the amount of traffic the UK airspace needs to handle on a daily basis, the skies are carved up into areas known as “sectors“, slotting together like a big 3D jigsaw.

Sectors:¬†A sector handling traffic which is “in the cruise” – has taken off, finished climbing and is in level flight in the general direction of it’s destination – can generally handle more aircraft than a sector which is working traffic that is descending toward it’s destination.

For example, it takes more work to direct an aircraft to line up with the runway in order to land (several radio transmissions over 10-20 minutes), especially in the cloudy weather we get in the UK, than to tell it to fly in a straight line for 200 miles (one radio transmission in half an hour).

As an aircraft goes on it’s journey, it’s handed off from controller to controller.

The pieces of this jigsaw are set up for the “worst case scenario” – the busiest time of the day, when the most aircraft are flying in the UK and the most Air Traffic Controllers are needed on duty.

Control Positions: The consoles you see the controllers working at, which include screens with radar displays showing where the planes are, and display output which helps the controllers organise the traffic they are responsible for, make a record of their decisions, and communicate with neighbouring controllers. This includes the “telephones” and the VHF radio system for speaking to the aircraft, which are integrated into the console at the control position.

Merging sectors (Band-boxing):¬†At night, when less planes are in the UK’s skies, the traffic is less dense, and fewer controllers are needed. These sectors are combined together, known in industry jargon as¬†band-boxing.

The radars, radios and telephone lines for all the different sectors being combined are re-routed to the control position working the band-boxed sector. This is done using control software, and I suspect it’s this control software which has suffered a failure and become stuck in “night mode”.

It can’t “un-bandbox” the sectors, and re-route the radio and telephone lines to the right place in the control room.

The Net Effect: Because of the failure, it’s not possible to un-bandbox the merged sectors, and delegate control of the airspace to a greater number of controllers. Going back to my first point, a controller can only work a certain amount of planes while maintaining an acceptable margin of safety.

If it’s not possible to have more controllers working the traffic, they simply have to make sure there are fewer planes in the same bit of sky at the same time. To do this, ATC uses a process known as¬†Flow Control, which consists of setting very specific (to within a few minutes) take-off times for aircraft. Because we know a plane is going to fly at a certain speed, at a requested height, along a known route, ATC can work out where a plane should be at a given time, based on it’s take-off time.

If there is too much traffic expected in the same place at the same time, ATC will work out the soonest it could safely work the traffic and then work that backward into take-off times for each plane Рthe slot time you hear pilots refer to.

Therefore when you hear a pilot talk about¬†missing our slot, they don’t necessarily mean missing their time to use the runway at the departure airport, but their allotted time through some point in the air, maybe a couple of hours into the future.

Obviously, when something like this happens, the¬†flow control and¬†slot restrictions become more severe, also you can’t just go on delaying flights indefinitely. Airlines must also try and do their bit to reduce the strain on the available ATC resources, and they will therefore start making¬†tactical cancellations – for instance reducing the number of flights on a given route, especially if it’s a high-frequency route with a plane every hour or two. Maybe they will cancel 50% of the flights and transfer passengers to those planes which will still operate. This frees up a slot in the airspace to be used for a flight which runs less regularly and makes sure that route is still served.

Where airlines have a fleet of planes of different sizes, so these are the larger carriers such as BA, they may try and combine two flights together on one single larger aircraft (e.g. two Airbus A319s onto a single Boeing 767). Again, this makes more space in the skies.

If you’re travelling today, I hope you get where you’re going eventually. You’ll need a lot of patience though, and resign yourself to being delayed. Sadly, being delayed is one risk you take whenever you travel, and by whatever method you choose.

If you don’t really need to make your journey today, contact your airline and offer to travel another day, they may appreciate having one less person to carry and you will release your seat for someone else that might really need it.

Latest Security Theatre: Please Remove Your Glasses

Heading back home from giving a talk at the INEX meeting in Dublin on Friday 20th September, I came across a fairly ridiculous piece of security theatre.

Welcome to Dublin Airport, by forzadagro on Flickr.
Welcome to Dublin Airport. Now remove your dignity, please.

My frequent flyer status with BA entitled me to go through the Fast-track security lane and avoid the 15-20 minute queue of glum-looking Ryanair passengers. There was a chap in front of me who had just checked in for the same BA flight.

Without seemingly flinching, the security officer supervising the loading of belongings into the x-ray machine asked the man in front to remove his spectacles and put them through the machine!¬†I was stunned to hear this, and I think, so was he. In over 15 years of regular flying, this is the first time I’ve ever heard this be asked of someone wearing spectacles (i.e. not sunglasses worn inside). Good for him, he politely declined this seemingly random request, explaining that if he did that, he would be unable to see.

Being as blind as a bat without my glasses, I was ready to similarly decline if this security lady had any ideas about asking me to give up my glasses. Fortunately, I think she’d realised her seemingly random and possibly frivolous request had overstepped the mark, she didn’t ask me to do the same.

Now, I personally would find such a request undignified. Unable to see where I’m going clearly, I would be placed at increased risk of having an accident. It’s likely I would need to be helped through security, and helped to find my glasses once through the X-ray machine.

I don’t really see how it’s different to making a person with a prosthetic leg remove it for inspection and hop through the magnetometer arch on one leg, and I don’t see airport security guards forcing people to do that.

I put it down to poor staff training and the general ridiculousness that this security theatre is “good for us”, but I’m still pretty shocked that such a loss of dignity could even be contemplated in the first place.

I will be contacting DAA and asking them to respond and explain what their policy is regarding screening of people wearing glasses.