#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.

£75k fine a drop in the ocean for First Group

Train operator First Capital Connect has just been fined £75,000 by a UK judge regarding an incident in which up to 700 passengers were stuck for over 3 hours on a train, partially in a tunnel, with no toilets, no ventilation and minimal lighting.

To a conglomerate such as First, which reported over £200m profits in 2012, this has to be a drop in the ocean, and is an absolutely derisory amount compared to the  – just over £100 per stranded passenger.

It also begs the question about who is going to pay for this. First Group shareholders? Unlikely. It feels more likely to come out of our pockets, as fare increases, reduced franchise payments to the Treasury, or increased subsidy from the DfT.

We can’t change the “token” fine imposed by the judge – it should probably have had an extra couple of zeros on the end, really – but what might be reasonable is an assurance from the First Capital Connect MD David Statham or Group CEO Tim O’Toole that this fine will ring-fenced, such that it is paid entirely out of group surplus, and must not be allowed to impact the travelling public at large.

Better still, maybe they could pay it out of their no doubt generous bonuses, given the buck stops with them?

I’m also wondering how much has actually been learned from this incident, given the “analysis paralysis” that seems to affect rail operating incidents at the moment?

Third Runway, or not Third Runway?

Hot news today is Heathrow Airport’s third runway plans. It seems there’s some realisation that a “Boris Island” won’t be built early enough to satisfy the needs of the South East’s demand for landing slots, and something needs to be done now rather than in 20-odd years.

There is a perception that London lags behind Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles De Gaulle or Frankfurt, in the sense that it’s not an “airline hub” of the same magnitude, and dear old London Town is being left behind.

If anyone has been through any of the above airports recently, I’m not entirely sure that being like them is something we should be aspiring to!

I’ve already made my views known about Frankfurt‘s recent redevelopments, trying to make it less painful than before, and still managing to miss the target.

Anyone who flies to Amsterdam often enough will have experienced the mind-numbingly long taxi to or from their relatively new runway, which far enough away to be built in a completely different town to the airport itself. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re driving to the UK, as the taxi time is often as long as the flight itself, unless you’re lucky enough that the prevailing wind lets you take off and land closer to the terminal.

As for Charles De Gaulle… I’ll just give you a Gallic shrug.

While Heathrow is BA’s “hub”, it’s not really a hub operation in the sense of a US air carrier. Flights don’t arrive and depart in deliberately orchestrated waves, purposely designed to connect, such as Delta’s operations in Atlanta. BA’s hub operation is more by accident, because of the sheer volume of the operation, rather than schedule design. Flights “happen” to connect, rather than do so by design.

Following the effective breakup of the BAA, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are now owned by different operators, and from reading this BBC article each of them seem to be vying for a bit of the cherry, while Boris would like to demolish Heathrow entirely.

What it’s left me wondering is why there is a complete lack of joined up approach?

Danger Will Robinson! Radical thinking…

In terms of land and environmental concerns such as noise, a 2nd runway at Gatwick seems to be an easy win when compared against putting a 3rd runway at Heathrow.

Given that we’re seemingly hell bent on building HS2 (let’s ignore the fact that less than half of the money being spent on HS2 could revolutionise rail in the North of England) , wouldn’t it be eminently sensible to extend it such that it touches Heathrow and extends South to Gatwick? Use the train as a complementary form of transport to the train, rather than as a competitor.

It could then serve a dual-purpose of making it more convenient for those in the Midlands to access Heathrow and Gatwick, while also handling connecting traffic between Gatwick and Heathrow.

What would the Gatwick to Heathrow travel time be on such a train? About 20-25 minutes? I know some airports where it can take just as long to transfer between terminals, or to get from departure lounge to gate!

Might it even be possible to provide trains, or designated sections of trains, for “sterile transit” between the airports, without the need to officially enter the UK?

Yes, this will involve taking on the fearsome NIMBYs of Surrey, but isn’t it all for the “greater good”?

Should we ever decide to build “Boris Island” or devastate Hoo with a big International airport, it’s close enough to HS1 to be hooked up to that. We can offer fast train connections into Central London, and maybe even to France or Brussels from the airport. Just think, it might be preferable to fly in to Boris Island then get the train, if you’re travelling to Lille!

But, as I say, that would require some joined-up thinking. Something we need to get better at.

You’ve now got to be big to do IT for Network Rail

I noticed this article appear on The Register this afternoon. Caught my interests as it’s crosses tech and travel industries.

The main gist of this is that Network Rail, the organisation responsible for rail infrastructure in Great Britain, has changed it’s IT procurement strategy, creating a framework with 5 massive players able to bid for the work in the future.

No doubt dealing with just 5 large organisations is helpful to whoever is managing contracts at Network Rail, who up until now may have had over 250 different IT suppliers.

The questions immediately occurring in my mind are:

  • Does this risk stifling of innovation? By excluding smaller, agile companies from participating, does it run the risk of NR’s IT becoming dominated by expensive, white elephant, gold-plated mega-systems that try to boil the sea?
  • Do the cost savings from easier contract management actually weigh up against the threat of an oligopoly developing, which could force up the price for IT services? It’s unlikely that all 5 suppliers in the framework would bid for every tender or work package, maybe two or three would?
  • How does this line up with one of the alleged benefits of rail privatisation: the dismantling of the BR monolith would allow entrepreneurial organisations to operate in the sector, this is something which has probably only had limited success and then only in specific areas.

At the end of the day, it’s public money that Network Rail is spending here. Hmm…

Life imitates parody twitter accounts…

Everyone loves to moan at UK transport operators. Me included. Too slow, too crowded, late, early, unreliable, you name it.

Many now use social media as a powerful method of quickly getting service information out to customers, but this has also given rise to the parody twitter account – gently mocking the real organisation – for instance TlF Travel Alerts and Southern Trains – the latter of which is often confused by real frustrated commuters with the real operator. Hilarity ensues.

So, this tweet shot past this morning from South Eastern trains…

se_tree_tubes

Seems reasonable, right? But to the average Londoner, this shouldn’t make sense. For those unfamiliar with Kentish geography, Stonegate & Robertsbridge are about 50 miles from London. How’s that got anything to do with the Tube accepting tickets?

It reads like something the parody TlF account would say! “Due to event A, completely unrelated consequence B will apply”

So, did their twitter account get hacked? Or just some automated system gone haywire?

 

The train now standing at platform 2… is going to leave you behind.

We often hear complaints in the media about overcrowding on our railway system here in the UK, normally with reference to peak commutes in and out of our big cities. But this is about a Sunday afternoon…

On the way back from visiting my partner’s family in North London, we changed train at Herne Hill to head home to Bromley.

The train arrived from Victoria, only four coaches long, and looked very busy – lots of people already standing up. As we both had an overnight bag and a couple of other things, we actually ended up split across different coaches in order to board. The train also left two young women behind on the platform, who both had luggage and couldn’t find a doorway that they could get in with their suitcases. The driver closed the doors while they were still looking for space, and set off, leaving them to wait half an hour for the next train.

I doubt the driver deliberately left them, for all he or she knew, the women with the luggage could have just got off the train, but the fact is, it’s going to suck getting left behind and having to wait ages for your next train, especially if you’re coming to the end of a long journey.

But, the driver is under an amount of pressure to depart on time because of the way delays are aggressively accounted for, attributed and traced back to their root cause, on the modern UK rail network. (For those who need some serious bedtime reading, here’s a link to a rather dry 116 page document called the Delay Attribution Guide. It’s purpose being to guide Delay Attributors, yes, there really is such a job, in identifying the source of delays.)

Onboard, the train didn’t have quite as many people as a crush-loaded train typical rush hour, but was just as full in other ways – the space being taken up with pushchairs, bicycles and luggage – people coming back from days out and trips away from home.

The fact is that weekends can now be just as busy as midweek rush-hours, but with a noticeable difference in the type of passenger – not only do they have more and bulkier belongings with them, but they also that some of them don’t make that journey every day. This means they don’t know the drill, and therefore can’t really follow the seemingly unspoken rules of being a commuter that make the system deal with the pressure during the work week.

The design of the train doesn’t particularly help those with prams or bulky luggage either. These surburban trains are designed for their main duty of rush-hour people carriers, and maximise seating and standing areas. They don’t have proper cycle spaces, and only small overhead luggage racks – no good for larger cases, so these tend to block the doorways. Nothing “wrong” per-se given the design decision made, bearing in mind the main purpose of the train, but travel habits have changed since they were designed in the 1990s (e.g. cheap air travel, internet-enabled last minute deals on weekends away, etc.).

Adding to this, engineering work can displace passengers from their normal routes, and events can create spikes in loadings.

The trains on many routes are also more sparse on Sundays, e.g. every 30 minutes instead of every 15, so with rising passenger numbers, and more bulky belongings being carried at the weekends, why are the trains shorter on Sunday than during the week?

If the train operators are running shorter trains “because Sundays are quieter”, this might be a valid statement in terms of total passenger count carried per day, but the passenger count per train can be as high as it is midweek, and if so, can this form a basis to run trains which are the same length as those midweek?

First Great Western pledge to cut “tosh” announcements

Hurrah! A victory for common sense and a quiet life on the horizon for First Great Western passengers, as they have promised to review all train announcements and remove as much of the extraneous tosh as possible.

Their research has shown that because so much drivel comes out of the public address systems, the travelling public are conditioning themselves to tune out, because every time the train arrives at a station they are reminded to mind the gap (even when there isn’t much of one), take personal belongings, report anything suspicious, and just in case they’ve forgotten, to remember to breathe.

As for the person (I nearly found myself calling them something far more impolite) from industry watchdog Passenger Focus, who appears to be suggesting that these lengthy hectoring announcements are necessary, I find myself wondering when was the last time he travelled on a train?

Announcements need to be more like tweets… Concise, but able to get all the important information across, and in as few words as possible.