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.

Looking at the “back” of a city

Anyone else notice how a train journey in or out of a city such as London, is a view of the “back” of the city?

The view from the windows is almost always of the “back” of things. Backs of houses, back gardens, faceless backs of warehouses, shops, offices, interspersed with car parks, yards and allotments, with glimpses of the “front” peeking through the gaps.

“This is coach 11 of 8” and other nonsense

Coach number 11 of 8Recently seen on a journey from Victoria – this train was to split en-route at Faversham, with the front 8 coaches going to one place, and the rear 4 going forward to somewhere else.

Thanks to a software bug in the train’s passenger information displays and automated announcements, it gave out confusing information as shown in this picture. The software could understand the train would split, but couldn’t understand it was a 12 coach train at this point.

I’ve written about this sort of automated ridiculousness that we have to put up with before – Torrential Tannoys – all about the endless stream of hectoring announcements a user of public transport has to deal with in the UK.

What’s doubly annoying is that the announcements are frequently verbose and use patronising language, or worse still, use flowery and unclear language, which means they don’t get their message across.

I heard an announcement at Finsbury Park a few weeks ago, advising of upcoming weekend engineering work. The announcement went on for about two minutes, starting with something along the lines of “Can I have your attention please, this is special information for customers who might be travelling this weekend. As we invest in the railway, we will need to make changes to the train services at the weekend”, blah, blah, waffling on about “services will be subject to alteration and road transport might be provided if appropriate”.

Why couldn’t it just say, “Travelling this weekend? There is engineering work, a different timetable will be in operation, some trains will be replaced with buses. Check your train times.”

We also have the situation where the staff on a train will use the PA, and then the automated announcement will repeat, almost word for word, what the human being has just said – reminding us to “watch the gap”, “take personal belongings with us”, “look out it’s raining and you might slip”, and “report anything suspicious to the Perrlice“… Why say something once when you can repeat yourself, eh?

Which brings me onto the terrible pronunciation on these recorded (or synthesised) announcements. If you’ve been through Kings Cross St Pancras tube station, you can’t have failed to notice “Laydees and Gentle Men”, right? Apparently, one of the speech synthesis systems can’t even pronounce “Wrotham” (which is pronounced “Roo-tem”), so the station is now just referred to as “Borough Green” by the automatic system.

The Transport Minister, Norman Baker, has now spoken out in the media against the never ending announcements. I don’t know if it will do any good.

Really, the people responsible for this at the train companies need to actually realise that by bombarding us with automatic announcements, we’re making the actual important stuff less easy to pick out. Announcements need to be clear, concise, correct, and to the point.