Torrential Tannoys – can’t we just have a quiet life?

They say life imitates art, and one area I think this is true is in the growing number of speakers blasting out banal “information” tannoys. If you think of any fiction set in the future with some controlling regime (1984, Brave New World, Blakes 7), there are droning announcements blighting the lives of the citizens as they try to go about their daily business.

Anyone who uses public transport in the UK should be able to relate to this – the never-ending torrent of automated announcements that seem to bury useful information (like which station is next) in a stream of verbose drivel (to mind the gap, take our stuff with us, and remember to breathe).

Is “tannoy” really a portmanteau of “to annoy”?

Continue reading “Torrential Tannoys – can’t we just have a quiet life?”

WCML Blocked at Bletchley 3/2/2012: How do I get to…

I see that the @NetworkRail, @LondonMidland and @VirginTrains twitter folks are having a tough day today.This is the train we need to rerail at #Bletchley, with all w... on Twitpic

To use railway speak the “job is stopped” (i.e. no trains can run) through the Bletchley area because of this locomotive coming off the rails in the middle of the night last night. Apparently, the driver had to be taken to hospital.

This has had the effect of meaning no services out of London Euston getting further North than Tring, and services heading from the North to Euston getting beyond Milton Keynes.

If you can avoid travelling today, it’s probably a good idea to put off making your trip. It’s going to take a long time to get the line re-opened. You can see that it’s derailed across two tracks, plus the overhead wires which supply electricity to the trains have reportedly been damaged too.

Services are going to be disrupted all day, and most likely into the weekend as well.

There are a lot of folk asking on social media how they can work around this if they need to make the journey. There’s lots of redundancy in the rail network, but the alternatives aren’t always the most obvious.

Getting the Virgin train in to Milton Keynes if you’re heading for London is probably the worst option, as you’re then looking at road transport from Milton Keynes to somewhere like Luton or Aylesbury to get around the disruption.

A number of train operators will be accepting tickets on alternative routes, including those that would normally only be valid on a Virgin train. Please look at the National Rail page to check for these. Virgin have also released some very clear maps of alternatives.

Here’s a basic rundown of my recommendations for alternatives:

London – Scotland: East Coast from/to London Kings Cross, changing at Edinburgh, is likely your best bet.

London – Carlisle: Probably best on Virgin to Birmingham New Street, and then proceed as for Birmingham, on Chiltern. Going across to Newcastle or over the S&C to Leeds is likely to be slow, but is also an alternative, and one of Virgin’s own recommendations.

London – Preston: Again possibly stick with Virgin to Birmingham, and change for Chiltern to Marylebone, as getting across to Leeds from Preston (via Halifax) while one of Virgin’s recommendations, may be slow.

London – Birmingham: Chiltern Trains – Snow Hill or Moor Street to/from Marylebone, direct train, at least 2 trains per hour, approx 1h45 journey time. Or, First Great Western Paddington-Reading, changing for Cross Country Reading-Birmingham.

London – Coventry: First Great Western Paddington-Reading, and change for Cross Country for Reading-Coventry, or Chiltern to/from Marylebone, change at Leamington Spa.

London – Nuneaton: East Midlands Trains to/from Leicester, changing for connections to Nuneaton. This may also work for Coventry.

London – Stoke-on-Trent/Crewe: East Midlands Trains to/from Derby, changing there for Stoke-on-Trent/Crewe, or Chiltern Marylebone to Leamington Spa, and Cross Country from Leamington Spa to Stoke.

London – Manchester: East Midlands Trains to/from Sheffield, or East Coast to/from Leeds, changing there for Manchester. This is probably a good alternative for Liverpool too, as there are direct trains to Liverpool from Sheffield and Leeds.

London – Liverpool: As for Manchester, or route via Birmingham and Chiltern to/from London.

If you’re travelling Virgin north of Milton Keynes (e.g Birmingham-Scotland or Preston-Scotland), the trains are running, but are subject to delay, short notice cancellation, and may make additional stops. Birmingham-Euston and Manchester-Euston services seem to be down to 2 trains per hour and terminate at Milton Keynes in any case.

London Midland Euston-Milton Keynes-Northampton line north of Tring, my advice is to put off your trip. It’s going to be a slow experience and likely involve road transport/buses.

This advice is being provided with no warranty that your specific ticket will be valid via the alternative route. Just trying some ideas to bail you out of the crap if you still feel the need to travel today. Please ask railway staff on the train(s) on which you intend to travel. I am not an employee of a National Rail operating company or Network Rail.

Remember the alternative trains will be busy and the staff will likely feel more than a touch mithered. Please be nice to your fellow humans today. Dunkirk spirit and all that.

Good luck!

Update: As of about 1600 today, they have got one line in each direction re-opened. This is normally a four track railway, there are two sets of lines in each direction – one carrying faster Virgin expresses, the other carrying the London Midland commuter trains, local stopping trains, and slower freight trains. It’s fair to say that there will still be some disruption over the weekend, simply because the timetabled service can’t really fit over the remaining two tracks and keep to time. Keep your eyes on the information that’s available.

Bit windy out! Using social media for good…

Unless you’ve been living below ground for the last 24 hours, those of you in the UK can’t have helped notice it’s a bit windy out.

This sort of severe weather inevitably brings disruption, but I’ve been heartened to see a number of organisations using social media to spread the word quickly.

The social media folks @VirginTrains, Amy & Ste, have been doing a great job of relaying information out via Twitter, especially regarding heavily disrupted services into Scotland. Behind the scenes Virgin has been leading the UK rail industry on a project to improve the flow of information to passengers during disruption, and from what I’ve seen today, it seems to be working really well.

They are clearly providing a bi-directional conduit for information – they are getting their info from regular incident update calls (which should happen every 20 minutes, apparently), and direct from their route control, which means the information is very fresh, rather than out of date, which has classically been the normal complaint if you were to phone National Rail Enquiries.

What is missing is a copy of the Twitter feed on the Virgin Trains website – there’s currently no realtime information about the state of their service today provided on their website, no banner saying, “It is windy. Stuff is broken. Please check before you travel.” It is relatively trivial to embed an “alert bar” and/or a Twitter feed into a webpage, and would help those who happen to not use Twitter.

Also worthy mentions to @HeathrowAirport and @LondonCityAir(port) who have been using The Force for good today, providing regular updates about issues with travel to LHR due to a fallen tree on the Piccadilly Line, and to LCY due to an earlier meltdown on the DLR and the high winds making landing and taking off a challenge for the pilots on the smaller planes which fly to London City.

The main thing I think the LCY Twitter folks could do better right now is actually give more info about what is/isn’t cancelled – rather than “contact your airline” which sort of smacks of “not our problem”, even if that’s not the sentiment.

Ah well, wind has picked up again and the sideways rain has returned. I’ll see if I can spy an ark coming down the street.

Rail Re-franchising: Be careful what you wish for!

Following in the wake of the moan about Virgin Trains, a good item regarding the re-franchising of rail services was broadcast in today’s BBC Radio 4 consumer affairs programme, “You and Yours”.

Here’s a BBC iPlayer link to the article – may not work outside the UK, and will expire in the fullness of time.

Tony Miles, a contributor to the rail industry magazine, Modern Railways, explained that the Government will be re-letting a number of UK passenger railway franchises in the coming years, and that a number of European state-owned railway companies are not only showing interest in UK rail franchises, but are already proving successful in winning them, such as the impending takeover of services out of Liverpool Street by Abellio, the International commercial arm of the Dutch railway company, NS, who already operate services in the North of England under a JV with Serco (Northern Rail and Merseyrail).

The Europeans are interested in grabbing a slice of the British pie for two main reasons, firstly because there is some money to be made, and secondly because the privatisation, franchising or deregulation of their home markets is proceeding at a slow pace.

Continue reading “Rail Re-franchising: Be careful what you wish for!”

What’s wrong with VT’s at-seat 1st Class Service?

Following on from Why the Virgin Trains Pendolino is fail…, someone asked me what was actually wrong with the onboard 1st Class service. They didn’t share my negative impression of it, and had experienced, by all accounts, some enjoyable breakfasts. I think they have been incredibly fortunate, compared to my personal experience.

Firstly, there’s the token “weekend” 1st Class service… Continue reading “What’s wrong with VT’s at-seat 1st Class Service?”

Why the Virgin Trains Pendolino is fail…

A repost of a slightly old note from my Facebook profile, updated…

1) Not enough seats, especially ones with tables – yes, even in first class

2) Seats that don’t line up with windowseven in first class, if you’re unlucky enough to sit in coach H, seat 02A, which has the added bonus of the rubbish table to rub a bit more salt into the wound.

3) What was that about “windows”? More like port-holes – the Pendolino has 50% less glazing compared to it’s predecessor, allegedly in the name of “crashworthiness”, but one informed source tells me that it was a cost cutting measure as well.

4) Crap heating and ventilation – a never-ending battle seems to be played out by the floor-level heaters and the ceiling-level air conditioner, your legs being toasted while your head is chilled, waves of sickening heat waft up to your face, while icy blasts blow down the back of your neck. Heating fights cooling fights heating. This is environmentally friendly how?

5) Noisy. Creaks, squeaks and rattles are the order of the day. Interior materials seem to be designed to reflect or even amplify noise, not absorb it.

6) Nasty, mucky, cramped, and smelly loos, with comedy handwashing. Dirty toilet bowls, tiny trickles of water, pathetic hand dryers.

7) “The Shop”. The railway buffet car meets 7-Eleven. Works on the assumption that passengers shall be denied edible food. Don’t even get me started on those “tubes” of UHT milk – nasty. But all tea and coffee is fairtrade, so that makes it okay. Not.

8) Just what did the person sat in the so-called “window” seat do that’s so bad that they are denied an armrest?

9) An apparently perfect Faraday Cage which prevented mobiles/3G dongles working – at least until a mobile phone repeater system was retro-fitted to each train.

10) Comedic (well, it would be if you hadn’t paid for it), unreliable provision of “inclusive” First Class food and drink. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not, but whatever it is, in my experience it’s frequently not as advertised, and passengers aren’t warned in advance. When I’ve raised this with on-board staff, and with VT HQ, their response is that I “only bought a journey from A to B” and they aren’t under any obligation to provide any of the services illustrated in their marketing material, as it’s a “complimentary” service as opposed to an “inclusive” service. Bunch of weasels!

Pendolino might have taken a step forward in terms of journey time, but at the expense of several steps back in terms of passenger comfort. I guess the silver lining to this cloud is that the quicker journey time means you’re not on the dratted thing for as long.

It’s predecesor, the iconic HST, was proof that designing for both the passengers and for profit can be done.

Detrain or not detrain? That is the question…

Those of you who live in London and the South East likely saw the chaos that was caused by a bungled cable theft to South West Trains commuter services yesterday.

After over three hours stuck going nowhere, and with little or no information about how longer they would be involuntarily detained on the train, a number of passengers on a train within walking distance of a station decided to self evacuate, seeing as the railway appeared, at least from their point of view, to be making no attempt to help them.

Evacuating a train to track level is not a decision which is taken lightly. It’s no easy task, regardless of whether passengers are able to sit at step level and drop down, or come down an evacuation ladder. It’s still a long way down for most folk, a slow process, and once you’re on the floor, there’s lots to trip over and fall on. Oh, and in this case, add in a high voltage electric rail, just to build the excitement.

Like the initial attempted cable robbery, the response from the railway operator seemed to be bungled too. From detaining people for excessively long periods, to the local Plods threatening to arrest and prosecute those who self-evacuated for trespass, adding to their distress, the whole thing seemed to be a mess of confusion and frustration.

(SWT have since decided that although the original cause for the problem was vandalism, they do want to compensate delayed passengers.)

The basic fact is that there doesn’t seem to be a best practice for rail staff which says, “Okay, you’ve been trying for too long, you should give up trying to move this train (or trains), and now make it safe to detrain these people to track level and walk them in.”

Right now, local staff (the driver, the station staff) can’t make that decision, unless it’s more dangerous to be on the train (i.e. it’s well alight). They need the decision to come from on high.

The decision is fractured – between the train operator, Network Rail, and the BTP. In itself it’s a problem, you’ve got to stop all other trains in the area of the train you’re evacuating (though this seemed to have largely been done for them on this occasion!). It’s also a last resort. It’s admitting defeat.

People faced with a failure situation will always want to “try one last thing”, usually several times, before saying “Okay, there’s no more we can do” and stopping. It’s human nature. Who we are and what we do. The best thing to do is give these folk some guidelines, to help them make the decision to throw the towel in, and to show them that it’s not wrong when they finally do.

There needs to be some best practice for dealing with stranded passenger trains. There needs to be some timelimit recommended, which is longer than an hour, and less than three, upon which the white flag is raised and passengers are evacuated.

Then the folk in charge can actually make a decision, with the confidence they aren’t getting fired tomorrow.