#didsburydoubles – the current state of play

So, the weekend has passed and the kids are back to school. I’m working from home today so haven’t experienced the Metrolink this morning.

Travelling in last Friday…

Following that tweet, I was told by Metrolink social media that they can’t discuss the matter over social media and I should put my complaint regarding the withdrawal of double trams in writing to TfGM’s “customer services”.

Over 24 hours later, while I have received an auto-reply acknowledging receipt, I’ve yet to get a case number or any other correspondance from TfGM.

Over the weekend I noticed that the advertised Double tram service Bury – Altrincham was running as single trams. I contacted Metrolink about that too. They say that Bury – Altrincham directs are now reduced to single trams at weekends and their own timetable is wrong!

What on earth is going on at TfGM and Metrolink towers?

I do wonder if the running of lots and lots of double trams (Bury-Dids, Alty-Etihad, Eccles line) during the period of “contraflow” on Mosely Street while St Peter’s Square was closed has actually caused the fleet to accumulate mileage quicker than anticipated, and the operation of single trams now is what is known in the industry as mileage conservation – stretching the period of time between planned examination and servicing by those affected trams running fewer miles.

This is also common in the aviation industry, where aircraft undergo checks based on hours flown – an aircraft approaching a major maintenance check can be put on restricted use, so it’s only used if absolutely necessary, until it’s place in the hangar is assured.

Back to the main subject, the loss of the much needed double trams from the Didsbury line, it seems people are still experiencing unpleasant journeys on overcrowded trams.

Here’s a quick scan of social media from this morning:

It’s also not just the Didsbury line. Eccles line users are grumpy too. Both about the basic quality of the service, and the fact that Eccles line trams don’t serve MediaCity UK for the majority of the day, which seems like a total chocolate teapot.

One can only imagine the answer to the question below:

What seems to be getting people’s hackles up further is the way we’re being talked down to by TfGM and Metrolink. The tone of the replies is like a parent trying to placate a child having a tantrum, rather than accept and acknowledge there has been a service delivery failure and that something positive will be done:

I don’t blame the people running the social media accounts at TfGM and Metrolink. I accept their hands are somewhat tied by the decisions of their bosses. But they need to stop talking down to us. We need to see there is some action being taken, rather than head-in-sand apologism.

However this particular exchange seems at least churlish, and possibly out-of-order, especially for a public servant talking to a member of the public they are meant to be working on behalf of. Maybe it’s a chink in the armour, showing that tempers are even getting frayed at Metrolink HQ, behind the calm veneer of the “Shush, shush… Everything’s okay, it will be all fine once 2CC opens” party-line:

What seems to be worse still is that at least one Didsbury councillor is acting as a TfGM apologist rather than representing their constituents:

Evidently, according to Andrew, we should just shut up and be grateful that we even have a tram:

This goes on to the extent that he’s openly disagreeing with other Manchester City Councillors from neighbouring wards who agree with residents that the new single tram service is a retrograde step:

Why would you change at Cornbrook and St Werburghs if you had the choice of a direct tram? The above feels like a load of old tosh. Also note that Andrew’s tweets there were sent from outside of Manchester, so it seems that he can’t have experienced this new single tram overcrowded fiasco for himself recently if he’s been out of town.

I’m honestly glad I’m not in the East Didsbury ward if that’s the standard of representation I can expect.

So what next?

Metrolink wish we would put up and shut up.

TfGM wish we would put up and shut up.

Now, one of our elected representatives also seems to wish we would put up and shut up – rather than doing what he’s been elected to do!

Remind me that we’re meant to be living in a democracy? Remind me that public servants are meant to be accountable?

A former BBC journalist friend said “Don’t give up. Keep kicking off. Make as much noise as you can until they open a proper two-way dialogue with you.”

We need to make as much noise as we possibly can until we are listened to on this issue:

  • Please tweet about your overcrowding experiences, and use the hashtag #didsburydoubles, so the trend is visible.
  • Tweet Metrolink every time you experience an overcrowded Didsbury line tram.
  • Please retweet what others say as well so we’re reaching as many people as possible.
  • Write to TfGM – customer.relations@tfgm.com – request that a formal complaint is opened.
  • Write to your Councillors – use www.writetothem.com

Driving in Malta – signs of madness?

Number two on the list of things not to do in Malta, according to my guidebook, is drive.

To a Maltese driver, it seems that road markings, signs, signals, and speed limits are advisory rather than mandatory. This means you need your wits about you.

That bit I actually found easy to cope with by reading the road, anticipating well ahead and driving assertively myself, or assertive as I could be in a tiny Kia with a sewing machine of an engine. Hills, of which Malta has many, meant changing down to 2nd and flooring it, thanks partly to the two suitcases in the boot. Fortunately, many natives also go for the small car too, so you know they are almost in the same boat as you. However, the locals have one big head start… Continue reading “Driving in Malta – signs of madness?”

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.

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.

Shine a light!

Or, go somewhere really cold and be astounded…

Abisko Aurora

I’ve just come back from a fantastic weekend in Northern Sweden. Inside the Arctic Circle. Landing and taking off from a snow-covered runway at Kiruna Airport. Mostly eating reindeer.

Looking up from time to time, so I’ve been able to take amazing photos like the one above.

I’ve learned how to ride a snowmobile. I’ve also learned how to crash a snowmobile. Fortunately, landing in a couple of feet of snow is a cushioning experience, and the only bruises I came away with were to my pride, and to my wallet because a small plastic fairing got broken.

I’ve glid across deserted frozen rivers, almost silently, moved by nothing but dog power.

I’ve spent a (very chilly, -29C!) evening with top Aurora photographer Chad Blakley, picking up tips on how to get the best out of your Aurora photography, and how to set up and look after your camera in freezing conditions.

When the temperature gets down below about -15C, ice forms on any exposed hair (such as eyebrows and facial hair), up your nose, and in my case, sometimes on my glasses, as the moisture from your breath freezes.

The whole experience has been fantastic, and everyone we dealt with has been friendly, welcoming, and shared their love of the amazing area around Abisko.

We arranged the trip through Weekend a la Carte, who gave us first class advice in terms of being prepared for the Arctic, and put together a seamless experience for us.

What an amazing experience. Brilliant. Coming home to a damp 11C feels positively balmy.

Lapporten IMG_7912.jpg

“Snackboxes”: Cutesy, yes. Wasteful, probably.

I’m just heading up North on a Virgin Train (thought I’d better try one while I still can).

I ended up going 1st Class because it was cheaper than Standard, when booking in advance. Not that uncommon actually, and sometimes it’s even worth doing if it’s a couple of quid more expensive, because of the inclusives: light refreshments such as tea and coffee, and wifi access at no extra charge. Basically, you can sometimes get good value for money, and Virgin (and other train companies) get to put bums on 1st class seats which would otherwise go empty off-peak, and it reduces the pressure on the cheap seats.

In common with most train operators, the weekend 1st Class at-seat service is a shadow of it’s midweek counterpart: limited to tea, coffee, water and snacks. This used to be things such as (normal-sized packets of) crisps, nibbles, and biscuits.

Today, this has been replaced with “A little box of snacks” – about 2×3″. Now, it looks cute. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a childlike feeling about opening one for the first time.

But the contents are distinctly underwhelming:

  • The smallest bag of pretzels I’ve probably ever seen (and if you don’t like “sour cream and chive”, you’ll be left feeling a bit sour)
  • A micro-flapjack that would leave a hobbit’s tum rumbling
  • A pack of cream crackers and soft cheese
  • A continental “speculoos” biscuit for with coffee
  • A bit of Valrhona chocolate (yum)

I had the pretzels and the chocolate, as I didn’t really fancy the rest of the contents. The rest will no doubt go in the bin.

While I’m in no doubt that it makes inventory control much simpler (and may well be cheaper), it is effectively a reduction in choice for the passenger, and surely increases waste in an era when a huge part of companies’ social responsibility is dedicated to reducing their environmental impact?

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…