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.

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.

Why can’t all parcel deliveries be like this?

Today I received a delivery of a consignment from Amazon. Sounds relatively trivial, right? Why am I blogging about something so commonplace?

Because the parcel not only arrived on the day I expected it, but at the time I expected it.

People often slag off parcel companies, and with good reason. Ask around (or look online) and you hear horror stories of fragile items being thrown over fences or gates, items being left out in the rain, items arriving damaged, or the dreaded outcome of being left a calling card when you had actually stayed in all day to receive the parcel.

Amazon chose to ship via DPD, who I’ve not got much experience with. All I can say having received the delivery is “Please can you use them every time”.

Once they had a waybill open for the package, I got an email and a text message informing me of the consignment number, and giving me the expected delivery date – along with options (via SMS or Online) to rearrange delivery to a neighbour, or a different day, or arrange collection.

The parcel was easy to track on their website, with details of which stage in the process the consignment was.

This morning, I got an email and message when the delivery van left the depot, not only confirming that the package was out for delivery but what time I could expect the delivery – I was given as a one hour window, and again, options to have the item left with a neighbour, delivered on a different day, or be collected.

What a massive help. You could plan your day around when the delivery was expected, and what’s more, they kept to their estimate – arriving about 10-15 minutes into the delivery window.

I’m really impressed that a parcels courier has been able to properly design harness it’s business IT systems, automation and processes to deliver such a great experience. Why can’t more be like this?

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?

Planes, Trains, and a couple of bus companies from Scotland…

Well, the Great British Public have rallied around the underdog, as per usual, this in the Great Train Sale. There have been huge outpourings of support for Virgin Trains since the news that they would not be running the services out of Euston from December, and there is even an e-petition to urge the Government to look again at the decision which is gaining a lot of support.

It’s also going to be more than a co-incidence that Virgin Atlantic have announced a move into UK domestic operations the week after the news that the WCML franchise would be going to a competitor. Even though there has been speculation that this was on the cards since BA bought UK competitor BMI, and there must have been planning going on in the background, launching when they did has maximised publicity for the new VAA operation, riding the wave of publicity around Richard Branson saying words to the effect “We probably won’t bid for another rail franchise again, unless things change”. Because it’s diversified, Virgin can afford to “walk away”, or at least appear to, and at the same time deliver a parting blow to both the DfT and the incoming WCML franchisee, First Group.

Of course, being the underdog is nothing new to Branson – think of the “Dirty Tricks” affair with BA – so he knows how to play this role pretty well, and the man in the street finds it easy to get behind Branson as being a “people’s champion” versus the dull, bland corporates.

However, what happens next? Well, unless Virgin decide to back off, accept the franchise loss, and decide to compete in the air, it’s going to cost us (and by “us”, I mean the UK taxpayer) even more money:

If the franchise is debated in Parliament as a result of the petition, it will cost the taxpayer money.

If Virgin decide to appeal the decision, and take it to a judicial review, this will cost the taxpayer money.

If the DfT make a u-turn and decide to take the franchise away from First Group, and award it to Virgin, then First will likely want a review of their own, and/or seek compensation. Who’s going to pay for that? The taxpayer. Not First shareholders, not Stagecoach shareholders (remember, they own 49% of VT), not Richard Branson, who I’m thinking was evidently right when he dismissed rail franchising as “insane”.

The whole crazy privatisation, hashed together by the bungling Major Government, of Britain’s railways has cost the taxpayer billions, and delivered minimal benefit to the passenger.

The normal rules of a deregulated market do not apply on the majority of Britain’s railways. There is often no consumer choice other than “take it or leave it” for the majority of rail journeys, as only one operator provides a service. Many attempts at competition and open access have either failed (such as Wrexham & Shropshire), have been blocked because it threatens the incumbent franchisee, or are simply non-starters because there’s insufficient capacity in the infrastructure.

If a rail operator fails, then services aren’t allowed to stop running, because that would have disastrous consequences, instead the Government step in and constitute a quango to run the service, while the private company skulks off.

A bit like bailing out the banks when they screwed up. It’s already been done with the failure of Railtrack, and with a couple of franchises.

So, instead of competition and choice, we have an expensive raft of lawyers, consultants, and contract managers that has evolved to support our dysfunctional railway franchising and track access ecosystem.

For instance, because of the punitive blame-placing system of managing delays on the modern railway, there are teams of people known as “delay attributors” who trace train delays through the system, and work out how they were initially caused. Not so that the cause is avoided in future, so the delays are reduced, but primarily so that someone is “blamed” for the delay, so a settlement plan can push “pretend money” around between Network Rail and the train operators, because at the end of the day, it all likely balances out over time, and little real money actually changes hands.

This even costs money and time at the coal face. Example: A friend who is a Guard for a national operator was harrassed by their manager as to why their train took an extra two minutes between two points on the railway that their train didn’t even stop at. Of course, they had no idea why, because the train didn’t even stop there, and they were busy checking tickets. It left the previous station on time, and the train was on time the next station. Evidently, there was some pressure from a delay attributer on these two minutes even though they had no consequence for those on board the train. How is this a good use of our money?

Of course, this never really translates to benefit for the passenger (or the freight customer) – the various bodies involved in running the trains just point fingers.

There are a number of bodies, including the Bring Back British Rail campaign, who would like to see the railways renationalised, and they may have a point.

Ironically, during the latter years of BR, some elements of the business – such as Intercity – actually delivered a significant surplus. This in turn reduced the taxpayer burden on subsidising those services which required it – the benefit of an integrated company.

There have been attempts to build franchises which use this theory, such as the single First Great Western franchise – this used to be several seperate franchises, a profitable Intercity franchise, and subsidy-dependant commuter and rural services – the idea being a franchised operator can’t just cream off the profitable stuff, and there’s a resultant overall reduction in public subsidy for the commuter and rural services, being buoyed up by revenue from the longer distance services. However, given that First Group are now exercising the break clause in the Great Western franchise, allegedly as it’s no longer viable to pay the DfT to run the franchise (due to depressed revenues due to falling commuter numbers), even this hasn’t worked out quite as planned.

We’ve also got a laughable situation where it seems that a state-owned UK company cannot theoretically bid for a railway franchise, but at the same time we’ve got the commercial/international arms of mainland European state-owned rail operators who did, and now run UK rail franchises – Arriva (who also own Chiltern) are Deutsche Bahn, Abellio (behind Greater Anglia and Northern franchises) are Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and Keolis (who are part owners of Southern, SouthEastern, and TransPennine) are actually majority owned by SNCF. Does this consititute a net flow of taxpayer subsidy out of the UK?

This was recently highlighted in the Scottish Parliament – where you consider that ScotRail is 75% publically funded through subsidy – then why was this going to a commercial for-profit operator? Why could Holyrood not incorporate a Scottish state-owned non-profit company to run the service? Apparently, there’s some red tape in the 1993 Railways Act to deal with.

So, returning back to the WCML franchise: Branson is certain the First Group bid will result in an East Coast style bail-out. Now he’s competing in the sky, that may even give this a nudge. What if others follow Branson’s lead, dismiss railfranchising as “crazy”, and no-one wants to take on the poison chalice of the ECML?

If we assume for a moment that the new WCML franchise goes bump before the DfT can re-let ECML, does the Government end up running WCML and ECML?

Is that a foundation for re-nationalisation of train operations through the back door?

Virginity Lost. First to gain Intercity West Coast Franchise…

Well, the fat lady has sung. Virgin Trains did not regain the franchise to run West Coast mainline trains out of London Euston up to Birmingham, the North West, and Glasgow. The franchise will be taken over by First Group in December this year.

I have mixed feelings, as Virgin did a lot of good things, particularly to attract business travellers out of their cars and away from domestic air travel, and their excellent use of Social Media, but they also did some pretty iffy things as well, and like so many Virgin companies, place form over function, style over substance.

But, what does this mean to you?

There’s been a lot of claptrap in the twitterverse and blogosphere (and here I am adding to it!), emotional people saying “I’m never getting a train again”, and lots of misinformed comment about the service changing overnight, the “new longer trains being taken away”, and people seem generally confused, given they seem to think that First won’t use the Pendolino fleet but draft in some old tosh from one of their other franchises, or that the journey will suddenly go back to pre-WCML modernisation speeds.

Here’s a quick list of things to help you through the transition:

Should I expect a change overnight?

In a word: No.

Will the Pendolinos and Voyagers be taken away by Virgin when they go?

No. The existing rolling stock will stay on the West Coast route. Many of the special features which make the Pendolino speedy only work on the West Coast routes out of Euston. Keep in mind that Virgin only lease the trains. The lease will be transferred to First. The trains will be de-branded/re-branded, and eventually re-painted in First’s colours.

I’m a regular passenger and I like the Virgin staff I see when I travel, what happens to them?

The operational staff, both frontline and back-office, will stay in their jobs for the immediate future, transferred to the new franchise.

Their employment is protected under TUPE. If they are uniformed staff, the colour of their uniforms will change, but the faces will mostly stay the same. If people choose to leave because they preferred working for Virgin, and don’t want to work for First, that’s their decision. The most likely changes are at HQ level, in senior management.

First is really a “brand” in this sense, as is “Virgin”, and it’s the people who are actually running the franchise on a day-to-day basis who make the difference.

Of course, if senior leadership from the parent company is poor, this would be a negative and foolish thing.

Will the timetable change?

Maybe, but initially, no. The format of the timetable, service frequencies, stopping patterns and train lengths are largely laid out in the franchise requirements from the Department for Transport, and are changed gradually over time in line with changes in passenger demand and traffic patterns.

First have pledged to add further services on the West Coast, including restoration of direct services from London to towns which had lost service during the Virgin franchise (and previously under nationalised BR), such as Blackpool, but remember that such extras are actually being enabled by taxpayer-funded infrastructure improvements (such as electrification), and not just by First Group. It’s likely that these extra services and trains would have also happened under Virgin’s management.

Will journey times, which Virgin have brought down, increase under First?

No. The same trains will run over the same tracks, driven by the same people. Journey times should stay roughly the same.

But Virgin have just introduced new longer trains! First will make the trains shorter and increase overcrowding!

This is just rubbish and spreading FUD.

The entire Pendolino fleet is staying for the forseeable, including the 11-car Pendolinos which have been launched during 2012, likewise the Voyager fleet.

Indeed, the plan was for the franchise to change earlier in 2012, and the new franchisee would have deployed the 11-car trains, and not Virgin – at which point some of the more fickle among you would have no doubt been singing First’s praises for fixing the overcrowding with their longer trains and slagging Virgin off for keeping you “cooped up in cattle trucks”.

However, the Virgin franchise was extended and they worked with Alstom (who build and maintain the Pendolinos) to deliver the 11-car project, which was actually done through a seperate Virgin company (Virgin Rail Projects), to get the much needed extra capacity in service.

Will the trains breakdown more often?

Unlikely! The trains are leased, and include a maintenance package from the manufacturer (like a new car) – Alstom in the case of the Pendolino, and Bombardier in the case of the Voyager. The maintenance regime, the depots which do the work, and the people involved, will stay the same when the franchise changes.

Will the fares go up?

Not specifically because of the franchise change. But rail fares do go up over time. First will operate a similar range of tickets to those provided by Virgin. Certain levels of ticket have to be offered as a bare minimum anyway. What may change is that some of the cheaper offers, which are not regulated by the Government, but yield/demand managed by the franchisee themselves, may change in terms of price paid or number of seats offered at the cheaper prices.

But, remember that First Group have shown that they plan to offer a number of better value fares as part of the franchise bid.

What about the inclusive offering in First Class (food, drink, etc.)?

First offer complimentary refreshments to people in First Class on their other Intercity franchise – Great Western. This is basically unlikely to change, but what is offered may change over time (such as the complimentary food offered, and complimentary alcohol). For those who don’t remember, the catering offer has changed quite a bit during Virgin’s time running West Coast. The First bid has also pledged to improve onboard catering to all classes, but we don’t really know what this looks like as yet.

Apparently, First have already been talking to Alstom about potential modifications to the Pendolino fleet with respect to catering facilities, and there are rumours circulating that standard class catering will be reduced to a trolley service. But I suspect the 1st Class morning fry-up is not under threat, though you never know, you might end up having to pay extra for it.

Will the trains become dirtier?

I doubt it. First actually have a fairly good reputation for train presentation. The change when First took over the Thameslink franchise was noticeably positive, for instance. The smelly, dirty, graffitied trains, still containing original BR interior decor and seating trim, were very quickly cleaned up by First.

The Pendolino is uncomfortable and cramped. Will First change this?

Well, the Pendolinos are over 10 years old now, and may be due an interior facelift. We already know that both Virgin and First had been talking to Alstom about alternative interior configurations in the run-up to refranchising. Maybe First could refit the interiors and make the seats more comfortable and line up with the windows a bit better!

Will Virgin Trains’ great Twitter update service go? They’ve been a huge help to me when there’s been disruption.

It would be a rather foolish move by First Group reduce the level of social media activity of the West Coast franchise. Studies have shown that participation on services such as Twitter increase customer forgiveness during disruption because the timely flow of information helps them make informed decisions to change their plans.

In terms of style, I think the current @virgintrains Twitter staff do a fantastic job, and present a credible front for the operation. They don’t fall into the normal social media trap of asking banal questions on a “slow news day” like “What are you having for dinner?” which damage the credibility of the real information.

I hope that the social media team at VT are transferred to the new franchise and left to get on with what they do, as they do a great job of it.

The performance and satisfaction on another First franchise is really low. Will the performance drop to similiar levels with First taking over West Coast?

Probably not measurably. Low performance levels are more frequently due to route-specific conditions such as age and condition of rolling stock, tracks and signalling. As none of these actually change overnight (same tracks, same trains, same people, just different colour trains and uniforms) at the point First take over West Coast ops, there shouldn’t be a noticeable change in the performance of the service.

Whether the high performance of Virgin in the latter days of it’s franchise (and remember, this was after a terrible start – because the infrastructure was ageing and suffering from underinvestment) will be maintained throughout the First franchise remains to be seen. It largely depends on First’s business plans and strategies for West Coast. Anyone got a crystal ball? Divination rods?

I’ll try and update this as more info is known, or more frequently asked questions are seen…