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 – 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.