Thursday, December 21, 2006

Yuletide approaches

It’s coming up to Christmas and the festive season, but never has it felt so unseasonable. We have had the warmest autumn on record. There was a hard frost yesterday morning that turned the fields and house roofs around Harrow quite white, but it’s not the same as snow.

For the past two days there has been a thick fog over London, sufficient to cause many flight cancellations out of Heathrow, but it doesn’t have the feel of the old “pea-soupers”. These were exacerbated by the coal fires that heated every building in the city; now there are almost none. From my new office eyrie at Waterloo, I can see a few plumes of white smoke here and there but they dissipate quickly. Where once people would grope through the streets be-hatted and muffled, casual dress is the norm. In short, we may be on the cusp of the shortest day of the year but it feels like the back end of September. The times are indeed out of joint and global warming is having a noticeable effect.

Christmas used to mark the start of the cold part of winter. It is rather hard to say what it does mark, now (other than the obvious religious and shopping frenzy aspects). If winters are going to be cool rather than cold, rainy rather than snowy, then only the shortness of the days will distinguish this time of the year. And as the spring starts earlier and earlier, how long before plants bloom all year long, birds cease to migrate and the grass keeps on growing? Increasingly the winter will be a relatively pleasant time of year and the summers, with the threat of heat waves and water shortages, may be the periods that people come to dread.

This has major significance for those of us who commute into London. Whether by car, bus, tube or train the prospect of regular journeys under the sort of blistering heat we had in 2005 is disquieting. A sensible Government would be trying to move jobs out of the centre of cities, creating more even flows of people travelling and thereby speeding it up for everyone, hence cutting energy use and emissions and promoting public health. I wonder if, under the pressure of events, we will ever vote for one?

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Arriving at my tube station yesterday, I was met with an old familiar announcement, about delays on the Piccadilly Line. There was, apparently, no service between Hammersmith and Uxbridge. Whether that meant they were turning them round at Hammersmith was not clear, because if they were then there was no service to Heathrow either and that is important to many travellers. And if they were running trains to Heathrow then presumably they were running them from Hammersmith to Acton Town, so what they really meant was either that there was no service on the Rayners Lane branch or that there were no services at all west of Hammersmith.
And while I was mulling this over a wave of calm and relaxation broke over me and my soul was refreshed, if not gladdened. For I was not travelling by the benighted Piccadilly but the dear old Metropolitan and was not in the least concerned by signal failures at Acton (The cause of the problem as it turned out) or any other defect. And lo! A Metropolitan duly arrived and my journey commenced.
I don’t take any sadistic pleasure in the travails of would-be Piccadilly users forced to take a longer route this morning. It is just that the announcement brought back so many memories, none of them enjoyable. Indeed, one of the main reasons for writing this blog was as an outlet for my frustrations and dissatisfaction with the daily commute. So, Piccadilly users, I feel your pain. I really do, honest.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Touch me, touch me*

London Underground is making a big fuss about the need correctly to ticket one’s journey if using an Oyster card. They want people to “touch in” and “touch out”, as they like to put it, on the machines that read the cards as you enter or leave a station. Trouble is, they don’t seem to understand their own system. They keep making a half-witted announcement that “If you don’t touch in and touch out, then will pay the maximum cash fare”. Wrong. If you fail to touch in but touch out then you will pay the max fare. And ditto if you touch in but do not touch out. But if you neither touch in nor touch out then London Underground has no record of your journey and you will pay the grand sum of nothing whatsoever. Unless you are caught by an inspector, and when was the last time you saw one of those?

*Older readers will surely recall Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich and Tich’s immortal hit. Or not.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Grains of sand

When you upend an hourglass and watch the grains of sand trickle out to form a little pyramid below, it is not possible to predict the progress of any individual grain. You know that the sand will fall in always the same amount of time but the rules of fluid mechanics, and possibly chaos, govern the paths taken by each grain.

I had some practical experience of this today. My Metropolitan to Baker Street was no more crowded than usual but we had a rather slow journey in, and a very large number of people converged on the hopelessly inadequate stairs linking down to the Jubilee and Bakerloo platforms. Just like the sand, we formed an inverted pyramid, each person jostling and inching forward as the people at the apex got into the top of the steps. You could not predict the order in which people moved. Once inside the huddle one had to keep on moving, because the pressure behind was gentle but remorseless. Also another train was close behind and nobody wanted to be on the platform when another hundred people joined in.

For some moments I barely moved, then it was possible to take a half step, and another, and suddenly there were just a few backs in front of me. Yet still people were pressing on both sides, some moving straight into any gap that allowed, others hanging back a little and so we continued in this chaotic fashion until I in turn reached the steps and at once surged forward into the relatively empty space ahead.

I guess that if you take a given number of people, say 80, they would always take the same amount of time to pass down the stairs. It is an odd feeling to be part of this process, subject to the same forces that make hourglasses work.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Mutterings #2

You know that feeling when you arrive on a crowded platform, stand back and let everyone board the first train to arrive, wait for the next and then just as it pulls in, get flattened by a mob of latecomers who get what few seats are available? You do? I didn’t see you on the Bakerloo at Baker Street this morning.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Mutterings #1

You know how people are always stereotyping today’s youth. Let me add my two penn’orth* to the debate.

Last night I was leaving Ruislip Manor station. As I touched my ticket on the exit gate, a young man went out of the emergency gate (the station is unmanned at night). There was a loud bleep but he took no notice. Presumably he had no ticket.
I now draw the jury’s attention to the fact that he was wearing a hood. Exhibit three in this catalogue of shame is that he went directly into a fast-food chicken’n’ribs outlet where he greeted another similar person.

So I tut-tutted (quietly) and moved on. If young people wish to wear clumsy and ugly clothing, ruin their digestions and long-term health, and break the law, then I guess it is their lookout.

*Two penn’orth m’lud? An ancient expression, derived from “two pennies worth”, meaning not a lot. Actually two pennies were worth something,  <begin northern accent> When I were a lad (strike up brass band and sepia-coloured jerky film footage) you could buy 8 chews for two pennies. More nourishment there than in a bargain bucket of dubious chicken-based grease sticks any day.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A diversion at Finchley Road

I’ve commented before on the lack of communications in the tube network. There was an excellent example today.  I was on a London-bound Metropolitan train approaching Finchley Road. The driver announced a problem with the brakes and that we were to be turned out.  The train was pretty full. He told us that the station staff knew of our arrival.

Just as we pulled in, a Jubilee train on the adjacent platform, almost empty, pulled out.  Perhaps 700 people emerged from the Met train, of which at least 40% stood and waited for the next Jubilee. So why did the waiting Jubilee not wait just a few seconds longer and remove 300 people from a severely overcrowded platform? Had nobody told the driver? Or did he think “to hell with it” and go as soon as he could?

The trains are frequent enough during peak hours and the congestion cleared fairly quickly. So I’m not making a fuss about it, just adding the incident to my ever-growing casebook.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Creaking at the seams

After the bomb attacks on the Tube in July last year, I had to use the Central Line for several weeks, and to alight at Shepherds Bush station in order to get to work. The down escalator failed almost exactly at that time and for weeks a forlorn notice in front it said that it was temporarily out of action and work to fix it would soon begin. In fact it was not fixed until November.

Now I am using the Shell Centre exit at Waterloo station and exactly the same thing has happened. The down escalator is roped off, we are told that it will be fixed real soon but there is no sign of anything happening.

I suppose you could call this continuity. Bits of the tube system break and they patch them up and then other bits break. No matter where you are on the network, you are never more than a couple of stops from a defective lift, a jammed escalator or a signal failure. People comment on the calm and uncomplaining nature of the English. But complaining in these cases is a waste of time. Station staff are sympathetic but powerless. The people who control the budgets and the repair crews are somewhere else; they do not inhabit the same plane as us commuting mortals, our voices may ascend to their lofty heights wherein they dwell but all we get back is the sound of laughter, very faint and far away (I think this enchanting image originates with the fantasy writer Lord Dunsany or one of his ilk).

At least the Bakerloo line, which I have now settled on as the best way to get from Baker Street to Waterloo, seems pretty reliable, running trains every two to three minutes. Although it is often overcrowded and amazingly hot (I’m not looking forward to the next heatwave), the journeys in the central area are short enough to be tolerable. The Met has no live in-car information at all, the Piccadilly displays only the destination of the train but at each station on the Bakerloo there is an announcement about where you are and where the train is going. Very civilised. As long as one is not deaf.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Points failure at Baker Street

Just two weeks since I began regular commuting on the Metropolitan/Bakerloo to get from Ruislip Manor to Waterloo and I’ve encountered the first real problem.  Arriving at Baker Street last night I was struck by the number of people pouring down from the Met platforms towards the Jubilee/Bakerloo platforms. So dense indeed was the flow that I was unable to make any progress in climbing the stairs and had to wait until several hundred had passed. Gathering from this that something was wrong, I found two northbound Mets, both jammed full, and announcements of a points failure. After a fruitless wait in case they fixed it, and already knowing that my main alternative route, the Piccadilly was up the spout with “severe delays”, I had to resort to the emergency route, the Central Line and a long wait for a bus from South Ruislip.

This was an irritating experience because had it happened a little earlier I would have diverted onto the Central Line first and not wasted half an hour. And had it happened a little later, I would have been on a Met moving away from the stuck points and would not have been delayed at all.  Communications within the tube network remain awful. Some fifteen minutes after the Met came to a halt, the announcer at Oxford Circus (where I was transferring to the Central) did not know that anything was amiss.

So, 11 days of travelling, a couple of minor glitches, just one headache so far. Seems reasonably promising.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Metroland revisited

It’s funny but now I am travelling on the Metropolitan, a lot of the frustrations I experienced during my eight years taking the Piccadilly from beautiful Ruislip to Hammersmith have dissolved into a mist and floated off into the autumnal twilight (getting poetic again, must have been drinking: Ed.) The Met has the comfortable feeling of an old jumper. It may be out-of-fashion, grubby and unravelling, but it fits. I am a veteran of this line. I rode it from Preston Road to Northwood Hills for 7 years as a schoolboy, then commuted to work in the City throughout the 1970s, and much of the 80s. And my memory goes back further, as a child with my mother visiting friends in Pinner in the mid 1950s. I recall the brown, slam-door carriages, with the overhead baskets for luggage and the heavy leather straps for opening the windows. The maps displayed inside the carriage went up to Aylesbury. We never went so far – had we done so we would have experienced the pleasure of being steam-hauled north of Rickmansworth, for the electrification of the line had gone no farther since 1925.

But my imagination was always captured by the remoteness, the almost legendary quality of those distant stations along the way – Great Missenden, Wendover, Stoke Mandeville, and fabled Aylesbury itself. It might have been a continent away to me, for whom the 5 short stops up to Pinner was an adventure in itself. Even today, when we drive up the A41 and reach these places in well under an hour, they seem to be in some foreign land where Londoners must carry passports and phrase-books, and frequently consult the map. To think that one could take a tube train from central London and alight in Aylesbury, a market town surrounded by empty fields in the heart of Buckinghamshire.

From 1890 to 1936 (and between 1943 and 48) the Met went even further, out towards Quainton Road  (now a superb heritage centre) and Verney Junction, with a strange branch line to Brill. You can find photos and histories on the web. God knows who commuted from there – I suspect nobody did, all the traffic was local and to those people coming down from the villages on the Oxfordshire border to shop in Aylesbury, the thought of going on down to London must have been as strange to them as their travel arrangements now seem to me.

John Betjeman’s wonderful documentary Metroland captures some of this lost glory and is heartily recommended.  Images from this film blend in my mind with the reality of today as I pass the site of the Wembley Tower, the estates of Preston Road, Northwick Park and Harrow, and the junction with the Grand Central railway. It was this “new route” from Neasden through Ruislip and Denham that ended the ambitions of the Met’s directors to run a train service from the midlands right through London and onto the Channel Tunnel.

Somehow the Piccadilly, chugging slowly on its meandering route to Ealing and Acton, has none of this magic. It is just a way to get to work.

Friday, September 29, 2006

New directions

Coming to the end of my first week travelling from Ruislip to Waterloo, it is time for some early impressions.  There are two – the journeys are both better and worse. Better because on the three lines I use – the Metropolitan and then a choice of Bakerloo or Jubilee – the services run at reasonable intervals and the indicator boards in the stations give you accurate information about the trains about to arrive. Worse because all three lines are so crowded in the morning. (The evenings are better, probably because I leave when the worst of the rush hour is over). The strangest experience was yesterday when I experimented with taking the Jubilee from Wembley Park. The train was full as it pulled in. Hardly anyone got off to use the Met waiting on the adjacent platform. We then progressed through the half a dozen stations to Finchley Road. At each a few more people squeezed on but nobody left. At Finchley Road I thought surely some would take the Met – there must be loads of people who work in the Euston Road area or Kings Cross or who go on to the northern part of the city. Nope. One or two left but more got on. And so we went on into the tunnels, jammed full, and not until Westminster was there a bit of breathing space.

Now the Piccadilly trains could fill up as well but generally not until Acton Town, more than half way into the journey. It is the sheer length of time that people have to travel in this way that is the most singular feature – and the lack of complaints. I can expect to sit for most of my journey because I start so far back up the line. Those who live in the inner outer suburbs (if you see what I mean) do not have that pleasure. The trains arrive full, and given the relative lack of seats on the Jubilee, it doesn’t take much to have all the seats occupied.

More next week

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Parting Shot #2

My last day travelling on the Piccadilly before my office moves to Waterloo and the Metropolitan becomes my normal route in to London. So you know what happened. Signal failure at Ruislip, some trains towards Rayners Lane diverted to Heathrow, no service offered beyond Rayners Lane. Your correspondent de-trained at South Harrow and took a bus, arriving home about half an hour later than normal.

As Harry Hill might have said “What are the odds on that happening?”. Pretty low Harry, believe me.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Parting shot

Just two more days and I will be free from the Piccadilly, when my office moves from Hammersmith to Waterloo. Here are some of the things that make it unworthy of respect.
  • You come down to the platform just in time to see one leave, going to Northfields. You don’t know as you enter the station where a train is going, you only find out on the platform.

  • Trains do not normally go to Northfields. This one should have been for Rayners Lane. The station announcer tells us that a good service is operating. Plainly he is lying.

  • After a longer than usual wait my train arrives. It is packed, naturally because at least one train going on the same branch (to Uxbridge) was cancelled (see above).

  • People can barely get in at Hammersmith and at Acton Town. For all I know, standing very uncomfortably with one swollen foot, there may another just behind. But naturally nobody tells us, for the simple reason that nobody knows. Well, perhaps the line controller knows. But why should he tell us – we are only the paying customers. The indicator boards do not supply the answer because they are incapable of displaying this information. On other lines, they do so.
All of this happened tonight, as you have probably gathered.

There persists an uneasy feeling that, for all I know, things may be worse on the lines I shall be using from next Monday onwards. Watch this space.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A postcard from Cornwall

To Cornwall for a week’s holiday living in a 15th century manor house. No trains, no daily commuting and only the sound of birdsong in the evenings when the visitors departed. Ah well, I return to work tomorrow for a final week on the Piccadilly before the office moves to Waterloo and whole new era begins for this blog. What a contrast! Bowling along the empty lanes of the Tamar valley compared to a crowded and slow moving tube train. Mind you, the three mile tail-back on the Stonehenge section of the A303 was uncannily reminiscent of a queue of trains stuck outside Acton Town. Both are exercises in futility.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Where's the fire?

I’ll be glad to see the back of the Piccadilly line when my office moves from Hammersmith to Waterloo in a few weeks. Here’s why. Yesterday there was a “fire alert” at Holborn. It was all over by 5:09pm. At 6:30, westbound services out of Hammersmith were almost non-existent. The hapless platform announcer had to explain that the indicator boards were unreliable (regular passengers know that). I took a District line train up to Acton Town. We passed two Piccadillys stationary just outside and there was a third at the platform. Amazing – although the indicator board said Heathrow the station announcer told us it was going to Ruislip. So I hastened aboard. From the demeanour of the passengers it had been there for some time. We waited. The driver told us he did not know but probably the train would turn round at Rayners Lane. The announcer apologised for the delay. We waited (remember there were two trains stuck behind us on the track). After about ten minutes we left. By now the train was crowded. On arrival at Rayners Lane, no sooner had our train moved into the siding, in order to turn round, than another arrived, almost empty.

So what was going on here? The delays should have been to trains to the east of Holborn, not trains moving away from it westbound. Why was our train held at Acton? Why was there another Rayners Lane immediately behind when normally after a delay nearly all trains are diverted to the Heathrow branch? Why couldn’t they tell us about the second train so that some people could have waited for it and reduced the overcrowding on the first? How can they possibly say, as they did several times over the PA, that the delays we were experiencing were due to an earlier fire alert? They clearly were not. They were due to the instructions that the trains should wait at Acton Town.

To my mind the purpose of a public transport system is to move people. Keeping the trains halted with people aboard, unless obviously there is a hazard ahead, should be anathema. I’d fine the operating companies for each unnecessary delay – just give me the power!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A mislaid paper

It was just another sleepy Monday morning on the Piccadilly line. The train was in Sudbury Town station, on its way into London. Only half the seats were taken. The train was on time. What on earth could go wrong?

So imagine my surprise to hear the following announcement over the station loudspeaker system. “This is a message for the man who has just bought a ticket. You left your newspaper by the booking office”.

Let us put this in context. This is the transport organisation that blithely dismisses waits of 20 minutes for grossly overcrowded trains as “minor delays”. This is the Piccadilly line, which routinely fails to explain when trains are cancelled or to announce which trains are actually running at times of difficulty. This vital part of the entire London transport network will happily boast about there being severe delays 6 hours or more after a signal problem has been fixed. But today the comfort and well-being of one absent-minded passenger was enough to cause a normally mute announcer to leap to his microphone, clear his throat and broadcast a few well-modulated words for the edification of all.

No, I am not really carping [Seems like it from here: Ed]. It is really very nice that the station booking clerk took the trouble to make the announcement, rather than simply half-inching the paper and filling in his racing selections. Such a concern for one’s fellow man is the bedrock of the civilisation that binds us together.  In a small way it gladdens the heart. It’s just that [Here it comes: Ed], well, why if they can get the little things right why can’t they at least make some sort of effort to get the big things right?

Oh, well, I shall not be travelling regularly on the Piccadilly for much longer. My place of work is moving to Waterloo. More, much more, about all this and the searing implications for this blog, in due course

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

An intimate conversation with 20 people

The Piccadilly line train heading westward out of London was fairly full last Friday. I was fortunate to have a seat; several people were standing around me. I had my mp3 player on but it was a radio show and at a low volume so I could also hear everything that was going on in the carriage. I became aware of one woman speaking quite loudly into a mobile, and found that not only was she effortlessly overriding the voices in my headphones, but several others were listening, and reacting, too.

She was talking to a husband or lover. She wanted him to take her out but it seemed he wanted to play rugby with his mates. If he came in late there was some food in the fridge.

The woman was aware that gradually we were all paying attention to her. She said something like “everyone’s listening, this is embarrassing” and a woman seated opposite interjected “Tell him to take you out”. The caller handed the phone across and said “you tell him”. The second woman spoke into the phone “take her out”. At this point everyone close enough to see was agog. The caller said “As a black woman I don’t go red very easily but I am now”. Then she said to us all “He’s got all his mates listening”.

I suggested we take a vote on it and there seemed to be general support for her position. The second woman handed the phone back and the caller invited us all to say goodbye to her boyfriend, which we did with a rousing cheer.

Nice to be able to sort the social lives of total strangers.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A thundery day

Well, the heatwave broke with a vengeance yesterday. After a morning of steady drizzle, we thought it was clearing and went out shopping. As we left Sainsbury’s with a full trolley, the heavens opened and trapped quite a few people in the store or in their cars. There was a lull and we made it home but what came before was nothing to what came after. Sheets of rain, thunderclaps and dense black clouds overheads for hours. Over an inch of rain was recorded at Heathrow – about 15 days worth for a normal August. Our pond flooded for the first time in many months.

It’s a little odd because it has been much cooler this past week and it seemed the chance of thunderstorms had passed. And as for the forecasts of record temperatures in August that apparently some bookies were taking bets on a few weeks ago, it now seems as unlikely as a white Christmas. Mind you with the climate getting more extreme, this may be more likely in future.

Surprisingly there were no knock-on effects this morning. The tube was running well. Ruislip Manor station was affected by the water though, and not for the first time. They had to turn off the ticket machines because the rain was getting in from the platform level above. This is the station that was extensively rebuilt during 2005, let me remind you.

I had to go to hospital for a check-up this morning and so actually travelled into London around 11:00. Arrived at Acton Town to find a crowded platform and an empty Piccadilly pulling away – presumably defective. Everybody got in my train. Then they announced that the next London-bound train was on the adjoining platform so everyone got out again and crowded into a Piccadilly arriving from Heathrow. I stayed put and our train, blissfully empty again, left a minute or so later.

There ought to be a punch line to this little story but I can’t think of one right now.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A trip to Dungeness

To Kent for a few days break and respite from the summer unpleasantness of commuting into London. By chance (and some cunning planning), we spent a night in a delightful guest-house in Dymchurch. At the bottom of the garden run the tracks of the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway so naturally we took a ride on it, including the remote destination of Dungeness.

This railway was built in the late 1920s and has hovered on the edge of extinction for a lot of that time. Whilst it does provide a useful link between the towns along the seaward edge of Romney Marsh, its slow speed and limited schedule make it impractical for commuting and it must therefore rely on tourism. It runs on a 1 foot gauge, so the rolling stock is tiny – your correspondent could only just squeeze into the carriage –but everything is built perfectly to scale, as this picture of the locomotive shows.

It is certainly the most relaxed railway I have ever travelled on. The driver chatted to passengers at each stop, we could open the doors and lean out to touch the bushes by the trackside as we passed, nobody bothered to check our tickets and the trains left dead on time (although with one service every 20 - 40 minutes, it probably wasn’t too hard to keep to the timetable.

It would be fun to commute this way but alas, not too practical.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A motoring interlude

Regular readers will know that I commute by train, and that despite all my moans about London Underground, it is a transport system that I greatly prefer to the alternative, driving along crowded roads. But all this changes in the summer. The roads become less busy and, in the heat, the trains become far more unpleasant. So I selfishly do my little bit to enhance global warming and deplete finite petroleum reserves.

I have to say though, that I don’t feel guilty about that right now. Just working through a “normal” day in sweltering heat and sweat-inducing humidity is bad enough. At the end of the day I can’t face sitting first in a hot stinking bus and then an even hotter and probably overcrowded – so no seat – tube train. The air-conditioning in my car is not that good but at least it does cool the air, I do get a seat and the journey time is 10 minutes less than on a good day on public transport.

There isn’t much to write about though. Traffic jams on the A40 don’t have the same, how can I put it, glamour as “signal failure at Cockfosters”, or “delays due to late running”. There are no moronic announcements, such as the endless plugging of Oyster cards when all regular travellers already have one! The quirks and foibles of one’s fellow passengers are not there. One has no rapport with the drivers alongside, even in the worst of jams.

But fear not. When it cools down, I shall be back on the trains and my pen will be once more in my hand, loaded with vitriol and ready to lash.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Unfavourable climatic conditions

The heatwave continues into a second week and it’s not pleasant at all. People make jokes about why it is that we are never prepared for such weather. Crap. This is, by all historical standards, unusual weather and there is no reason why we should be prepared. In the past a few hot days were invariably followed by thunderstorms and a break. This year not only have we had the hottest July ever in England, but the heatwave and the cloying humidity go on even after the thunderstorms. People wonder why buildings are not air-conditioned. It is only in recent years that air-conditioning could be justified. My home, like the vast majority of English houses is designed for warmth. The loft is insulated, the cavity walls filled with foam, there are carpets in most rooms. It is comfortable in winter. It is a heat sink when the temperature is averaging over 22c at night.

Worse still are the underground trains. Though I don’t actually travel on any underground parts, when the Piccadilly trains emerge from the tunnels at Barons Court, they are stifling with heat and sweat, and at 6:30 pm the sun is still strong enough to scorch them further as they meander along like arthritic snails towards Acton Town. Last Thursday every tube line was shown as having “severe delays” due to “faulty communications equipment” – yes, I’ve been on about this before. It has almost replaced “signal failure” as the knee-jerk response to any problem. And of course, when I got onto a Rayners Lane at Hammersmith and into a blissful seat, naturally the train was diverted to Northfields when we reached Acton and by the time a replacement arrived it was not possible to find a seat. I was dripping with sweat when I got into the train and fairly unwell when I got home.

I feel sorry for the next generation. Global warming is not going to bring much benefit to us and living conditions will steadily deteriorate. If we can break the deadly 9-5, 5 day week working habits, move jobs outside city centres and put in some intelligent transport systems then it may be bearable. That’s a big “if”. Too big to be achieved by this generation of blinkered, gosh when is the next election, how can we look good by then, politicians. I am really glad that I will either be retired or dead when commuting to work all summer in a permanent heatwave is the norm.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A touch of damp

As regular readers will know, my home station Ruislip Manor was extensively rebuilt during 2005. Each platform was out of use for 6 months. Even today some work is still being carried out on the land around the station.

So you would think, would you not, that a little rain would present no difficulties of any sort to our newly rebuilt station? That’s a loaded question, you are now thinking, when he presents a statement like that he is always setting up a straw man to be shot down. And you are right, as always. For we had some thunderstorms yesterday, not enough to flood my pond or leave pools of water in the lawn (so not torrential by any means) yet on arrival back at Ruislip Manor last night, I found the eastbound platform closed and a large puddle of water at the foot of the stairs that lead up to it.

In the excellent book Good as Gold by Joseph Heller, the narrator unwittingly coins a slogan that is instantly taken up by the US Administration. “Nothing succeeds as planned”. I commend it to London Underground and their ilk.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Faulty Communications

Just before setting off for home on Friday night, I checked the BBC London website for the Tube news. Awesome. My normal line, the Piccadilly branch to Uxbridge was suspended due to faulty communications equipment. Oh well I could use the Met – nope, suspended between Aldgate and Wembley Park. It seems the communications equipment was faulty. And for good measure the Hammersmith and City, Circle and District lines were also down, Yup, that danged faulty communications problem yet again.

I called London Transport’s enquiries number and asked if the withdrawal of 5 key tube lines for the same excuse meant a major terrorist attack. They refused to tell me but suggested I could go home by taking a train into town, getting the Jubilee to Wembley Park and then changing to a Met down to Ruislip. Yes, there’s nothing so much fun as making a 75 minute tube journey on a blistering hot afternoon. Much better advice would have been my normal fallback – Central line from Shepherd’s Bush to South Ruislip.

Opting for the latter I took a bus down to Hammersmith (I’d normally walk to Shepherd’s Bush but came back from holiday last week with an infected foot  - altogether now – “Ahhh”.) This was like being in a sauna. The traffic on Hammersmith Road has been congested all week, due as usual to roadworks, and it took more than 20 minutes to drive about a mile. You can’t leave the bus on the street opposite the road leading to Shepherd’s Bush because there is no stop there and of course these days the buses have automatic doors. So you have to ride into the bus station atop Hammersmith station. Actually on this occasion I was glad. Passing the entrance to the station I asked if trains were actually running to South Harrow and was told they were. So I went down to the platform and the first train in was actually headed “Ruislip”. Which was nice. It got turned round at Rayners Lane, naturally but another came in soon after and I got home at a reasonable time after all without having to slog abound on my still slightly dodgy foot.

Now how on earth can 5 tube lines go down at once due to problems with the radios? Either they share the same network, which is bloody stupid, or they all simultaneously suffered from the same problem, which is bleedin’ incredible. So which is it? In these days of heightened terrorist awareness, and given the criticisms of communications systems following the attacks on 7 July last year, you might think that the comms would be diversified and employ redundancy, so that a fault in one line would not hit others and that backups would come on stream quickly.  Well you might think that but let’s face it, this is the semi-privatised London Underground we are talking about here. Such intelligent systems might reduce the operator’s profits. No, much better to let hundreds of thousands suffer with yet another bad evening’s travel.

I used to support the Labour party, you know. Now I don’t. The forgoing is one of the reasons.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Circumvesuviana

To the Sorrento coast for a week’s poking about the wonderful Greek and Roman remains around Vesuvius. But you don’t want to hear about that, you want to know how the Naples commuter railway system, (the “Circumvesuviana”), compares with ours. This is a hard one. For a start the system is almost entirely overground  and there are few of the branches and junctions that cause so much congestion on the Tube. We only used it on two days, from our base in the little town of Vico Equense to Pompeii on one day and to Sorrento the next. The service from Naples to Sorrento runs half-hourly, and the trains did come in bang on time. It’s a narrow gauge track and more reminiscent of a British Rail branch line, or perhaps the Docklands Light Railway, than the London Underground. The rolling stock is somewhat battered and graffiti-covered but there is plenty of room and a reasonable information service. Top marks for making announcements about incoming trains in English as well as Italian. And the fares? A dozen stops costs one euro.

So it’s cheap and cheerful, seems pretty efficient but perhaps does not deliver the frequency of service that commuters require. But a charming line for holiday-makers as it winds around the many towns that cluster on the lower slopes of Europe’s deadliest volcano. Everyone makes jokes on the theme of “So long it doesn’t blow before we head back to the airport, then that’s ok”. But it’s not that funny really. If ever it does blow up, then they say that there will be 3 days notice. The roads are jammed in Naples and the other town centres on an ordinary day. If two million people try to drive out of town at the same time, or even over this notional 3 day period of grace, then the resulting jams will be ghastly. From the look of it the railway would be of some help but only a little since there is a lot of single track and consequent reliance on trains meeting each other at the right point to pass. And once a train had got out into the safer countryside, what brave soul is going to drive it back into the potential path of a pyroclastic flow?

Finally, it seems that there was a heatwave in London last week. Shucks. It was a most acceptable 24c in Vico most of the week and the evenings were quite chilly as we sat on our hotel terrace and gazed out over the bay. It’s all in the timing, you know.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Farewell to the builders

You may, in an idle moment, have clicked on the Photos link and gazed with a wild surmise at the pictures of the rebuild of Ruislip Manor Station. The epoch that they depict is gradually becoming history. The colony of Portakabins, clustered about like the besieging tents of the Assyrians before Jerusalem, has dwindled away as the builders wind down and steal into the night. The yellow diggers and tractors delight us no more as they grind up and down the man-made slopes of mud. The roofs are on the platform shelters, the exposed cabling is tucked away and passengers arriving at the station entrance are now greeted by a large CCTV screen showing them what the back of their heads look like.

Work continues around the fringes of the site but it no longer makes any impact on those of us who use the station. I have given up expecting the electronic information signs to give us any useful information. All in all things are back to roughly where they were before all this started, in January 2005.

There is one general trend that is slowly becoming apparent. This is the increasing lack of contact between passengers and station staff. I no longer go to the ticket window to renew my season ticket. I go to the automated machine and put cash onto my Oyster card. Departing the station, I no longer flash my ticket to the collector but touch the Oyster card to the exit gate. It used to be unusual for there to be no station staff about. Now it is normal, especially at night when the ticket office is closed and the exit gates are often left open. In the place of a friendly face or two, we have a battery of cameras. All part of the sad progression that turns us from “passengers” to “customers”.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Drought and Dennis

As the water companies start applying for drought orders, our thoughts turn inevitably to that long hot summer of ’76. I always think of it as the lager summer because we drank so much of it (the bitter wasn’t up to much in those days, in the average London pub). The Labour government responded to the endless blistering weeks of heat and the rapidly drying reservoirs by appointing dear old Dennis Howell, previously Minister for Sport (that shows just how important he was) as Grand Vizier for the Drought, or some such. And blow me, no sooner was he installed and told us all about heaving half a brick into the loo cistern, than the clouds gathered, the temperature fell and it rained for forty days and nights. Any more and he would have become Commissar for Floods as well.

Alas, he died a few years ago and is no longer available in our hour of need. Perhaps a few prayers lobbed in his direction might help us now. At least it has begun to rain again ( a few drops are pattering e’en as I pen these few words); maybe we will not need him to intercede for us, or perhaps he has already done so and is leaning back on his cloud, looking down with that famous grin and the knowledge of a job well done.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Shock, horror

Headline in of the tabloid newspapers this morning (the Daily Bilge or similar) – “Macca to separate”. Gosh. I didn’t know that the gentleman in question is really an amoeba.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

How do they get away with it?

We’ve got brand new information displays at my home station (Ruislip Manor). They are supposed to tell us what trains are due in. On Tuesday there were no Metropolitan trains for a period of at least half an hour. The information displays remained blank. The only announcement was by a driver in a Piccadilly train who informed passengers on the platform to come aboard rather than continue to wait. He made this announcement at Eastcote, the next station, naturally, rather than at Ruislip Manor.

Plus ca change, c’est la meme chose, as we say in Ruislip

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Partial Suspension, and its consequences

I left work early tonight to pick up my car from the garage where it was having an annual service. There was no indication of any problems on the Piccadilly line when I checked the Tube website shortly before I left. Nor was there any sign of problems when I arrived at the station (Barons Court). As usual I needed the Uxbridge branch, but any train to Ruislip or Rayners Lane would do. But the first train that was indicated to go to Ruislip had Northfields as its header and I knew something was wrong. As the staff at Barons Court are singularly useless at anything resembling passenger assistance, I took the first train down the line to Hammersmith. Where the next train indicated to Uxbridge also arrived showing Northfields as its destination. And the platform assistant, true to form, neither knew in advance that there was anything wrong, nor, until one or two people asked her what was going on, took the trouble to find out. “Find out” is a little strong. She radioed to someone who knew as little as she did. She was unable to explain why train were diverted. She appeared unfamiliar with the timetable of the Piccadilly Line, which at this time of day does not have any trains routed to Northfields.

So another train came in at last and this one had Ruislip as its destination. But when we reached Acton Town the driver announced that it too was going to Northfields and an entire train load disembarked to join another train load already waiting.

Eventually the station staff told us that the line was, and get this, you’ll love it, “partially suspended” between Rayners Lane and Uxbridge. A passenger asked what that meant – for example, were any trains actually running? He was told that services were partially suspended and therefore there were no trains going beyond Rayners.  He said that if nothing was running this sounded like total suspension to him. They told him that they were using the official description of the problem and why didn’t he get a bus from Rayners Lane to Uxbridge. This was roughly like saying why didn’t he get there on a pogo stick. He would need to take two or three buses, and wait at least an hour for them (if he was lucky). What they did not tell him was whether Metropolitan Line trains were running on the same route. And why should they? It’s a different tube line after all and why should they advertise the services of a rival?

Finally a train arrived actually going to Rayners Lane and we all crowded on (it was a hot afternoon to boot, though thankfully not as sweltering as yesterday) and I reached my destination about half an hour later than planned.

What have we learned, my friends?
  • Their managers treat the people manning the stations like shit. They are simply unable to do the job for which they are paid. Many of them are nice and friendly but they don’t have a clue about what is going on, and have to wait until a train arrives so they can see where it is going.

  • The attitude of managers who decide to suspend (alright, partially suspend) services but not to announce it, or inform station staff, or inform the drivers who can then pass it using the trains’ PA systems both to people inside and on the platforms – well it is hard for me to describe it without foaming at the mouth and gibbering. I would sack them, without compensation and render them liable to prosecution. Or personally responsible for refunding people who make refund claims. I wonder how many mysterious delays due to signal failures and the wrong kind of heat we would get then?

  • There was no reason to divert any trains. They can turn round at Rayners. They can turn round at South Harrow. Diverting them is an act of abject incompetence and failure of imagination. Down to the managers again.

I think the Piccadilly has improved over the last 8 years during which I have regularly taken it into work but it could be so much better if there was a management culture of responsibility. On a related political note, Charles Clarke was sacked as Home Secretary today. His department screwed up in keeping tabs on foreign convicts after release. He should have resigned honourably a week ago. But ministers rarely resign these days. It is never their fault. Nothing is. In the same way that problems on the Tube are never ever anyone’s fault or responsibility, and therefore nothing is really wrong so nothing needs to be done.

I’m glad it’s the weekend. And I have Monday off, when I shall be at the British Newspaper Library continuing my research into Frank Dickens’ immortal cartoon character Bristow. I think I’ve stopped foaming and gibbering now and it must be time for another beer.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Another election day

A year ago we went to the polls and re-elected Mr. Blair and the Labour party. I wonder if the result would be similar today? As it happens, today is the day of local elections in London and some boroughs elsewhere in England but these results will tell us little about the true national mood. In my ward in Ruislip Manor, the LibDems have been very active, leafleting on several days and culminating with a visit from one of their candidates (he lives directly opposite so he did not have too far to come) and a flyer dropped in this morning reminding us it was voting day. The other parties have been virtually invisible.

As usual the palpable sense of raw excitement in the streets was, well, definitely palpable. I saw at least one person going in to vote at the church hall in Hammersmith on my way in to work. And two tellers sitting outside in the sunshine. Let us hope that by the time I wend my way homeward this evening one or two more will have bothered to vote

Now for some train news. Yesterday I was in Clerkenwell at lunchtime and intended to take the tube to High St Kensington to go back to my office. So, and get this, I arrive at Barbican station at 13:04 to see that all services are suspended due to signal failure. The notice was timed at 13:00. There was one train, jam-packed, idle at the platform. After some delay it moved off. I waited for the next, also packed, and stood uncomfortably in the heat (yes, it had to happen on the first hot day this year) for the following ten minutes that it took us to wheeze arthritically to Faringdon (the next station and supposed site of the so-called failure). As the train showed no signs of moving any further west, I abandoned my journey, for which London Underground charged me £2, and took the bus instead.

turn on Ben Elton political tirade voice
Isn’t it great? We are still reliant on a transport system that uses a signalling system devised in the late nineteenth century. A 21st century ticketing system mark you. No problem whatsoever with raking in the money from the hapless passengers (or customers as they pathetically try to call us). I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating – how on earth is London going to host the Olympics with this sort of infrastructure?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Are we getting there?

Another exciting development in the ongoing rebuilding will-it-never-end saga of Ruislip Manor station. They switched on the information signs. Before you gasp with astonishment and call for smelling salts and therapy, let us review the facts. The sign said “Eastbound trains, Metropolitan and Piccadilly Lines” and gave the correct time. But that was all. It did not say when we could expect the next train and its destination. As I strolled up the platform a Piccadilly came in. The information display remained blank. So the intentions appear to be good and the delivery remains as crap as ever.

Oh, and on entry to the station the handwritten status board advised Piccadilly line users to go to Rayners Lane. This normally means that all Piccs are turning round there. But they were running as usual, as I have already informed you. So we have here, your honour, a clear case of no information on the electronic system and misinformation on the manual system. The prosecution rests.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A jaunt on the Overground

I had the rare pleasure of travelling on a small part of the London Overground – what used to be British Rail – today. Apart from a trip to Manchester a few years ago, I think the last time I used this form of transport was in the 1980s. If you live and work in the northern part of London then the Overground is not too relevant. Quite the reverse south of the river where huge chunks of the city are miles from the nearest Underground station.

[move into Michael Palin or your favourite TV travel presenter here mode] The first part of my journey took me from Kensington Olympia to Clapham Junction. I was, frankly, astonished that the train arrived exactly when the timetable said it would, and with no fuss went smoothly, albeit rather slowly, due south before looping round into Clapham Junction. A little later that morning, I concluded my visit to South London with the short hop from Queenstown Road to Vauxhall. Once again the train arrived in accord with the schedule on the electronic indicator. Even though it was only a four-carriage local service, there was a guard who controlled the doors, something we have not seen on the Underground for many years.

Needless to say the indicator boards at my home station, Ruislip Manor, indicate nothing whatsoever, since they have not actually been switched on yet. Fancy dear old British Rail, or whatever it’s called these days, being one up on the Tube.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A short post

Easter, warmer weather and empty trains. What a joy to travel into London at this time.

That’s all. I’m sure you have better things to do right now

Thursday, April 06, 2006

More rejoicing

OK, it’s happened. There are decent sized roofs on both of the shelters on the platforms at Ruislip Manor station. So we can tick this one off the list of long-standing moans and whinges. If you want to see what the shelter looks like without a roof (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?) then click here

Friday, March 31, 2006

Signs and portents

Another great leap forward at my home station, Ruislip Manor. I do hope I’m not boring you with my tales about the rebuilding that has dragged on now for more than 15 months (into the 2nd great year as they would say in the theatre) but today they put up an information display actually on the eastbound platform (compared to the one at the top of the stairs that you cannot see from the platform). So we will, at last, have some idea of when the next train is due.

I hold that lack of information is one of the most stressful things about travelling. You don’t mind delays if you know when you are going to get on a train. But standing about waiting when you don’t know is frustrating. Time drags. You read a bit of newspaper, look up hopefully, see a still-empty track, read a bit more, look at your watch, observe your fellow passengers doing the same things, another look at the eternally unoccupied tracks, blissful sound of a train, oh no its going the other way, lucky sods on the other platform, feel your blood pressure rise, read some more….

So the day that the new signs work will be most interesting. I will keep you posted

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Get ready to Rejoice

A glorious victory is at hand. My campaign for better platform shelters at Ruislip Manor station has achieved its fundamental goal. Previously I have recorded how inadequate shelters were put up, providing almost no protection. Last week they removed the roofs. Today they have rebuilt the supports on the eastbound platform and they extend the full width of the platform. When they put back the roof then the shelter will do the job for which it was intended. You can see this for yourself by clicking on the Photos link just under my profile on the right (or click here )

The mystery of why they built the first shelters so small may never be solved.

Update: I entitled this piece originally “Rejoice”. But let us not be hasty. The time to break out the champers is when they actually put the roofs back on.

Update to the update: They have at least put the full roof on the eastbound platform.   (4th April 2006)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Easy come, easy go

Just when you thought it could not be more exciting, yet another unexpected twist in the saga that is the rebuilding of Ruislip Manor tube station. I have been complaining for over a year about the inadequate shelters that are in the middle of each platform. They comprise no more than a metal roof perhaps 50 foot long and 5 foot wide suspended about 10 feet in the air. Useless in driving rain or wind, or indeed in blazing sun.

So I arrive at the station this morning and the roofs have gone. The supports are still there but either the builders have decided that they need the roofs for their own nefarious purposes (and I have previously written that it seems obvious that they are making a permanent colony for themselves behind the platforms), or a bold criminal gang has executed what I believe our American friends would call a “heist”. There was no sign of the police but then again maybe nobody had reported it.  After all, who would care?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Signs of the times

I’m all of a tremble. One of the recurrent themes of this blog is the shameful lack of information provided to passengers at my home station, Ruislip Manor. Even the bus stops at many points in London have electronic display signs to show the next arrivals. At my station - zilch. But all that may be about to change.
They’ve been rebuilding Ruislip Manor since January 2005. The place is festooned with cameras, speakers and electronic bits and pieces. We’ve even got a couple of those useless “information point” stands; where you press a button in order to hear a phone ringing. And today I saw what surely must be an display sign, a long narrow tube with as-yet blank face, positioned strategically as you come up the steps to the London-bound platform. Can it mean that we are about to get the same sort of information that many stations have enjoyed since the 1930s?

There is also some sort of sign over the station entrance. Now if this were also to be a live display of train movements it would mark a major departure. London Underground tells the would-be passenger almost nothing until they are passed through the barriers. (They have begun putting some train info on the Internet but naturally not for the Piccadilly line). In nearly all cases you must be on the station platform before you discover when your train is likely to arrive.  In the deep stations it may take several minutes walking down escalators, steps and dingy corridors only to find that you could have stayed up top and had a coffee because your train is not due for fifteen minutes.  I have argued for years that there should be information displays outside the stations as well as inside, and then people arriving could make intelligent decisions if they faced delays.

Intelligence is not a word normally associated with the operations of London Underground (where a 20 minute wait for a grossly over-crowded train is described routinely as “minor delays”) and perhaps the sign outside Ruislip Manor is merely going to be for advertising – (you have to imagine a standard Pearl & Dean cinema advert voice at this point)  “Why not enjoy a tasty pizza at Pedro’s? Only one minute from this station” *.

We shall see. Further bulletins will be posted as soon as there is something to report.

*One of my favourite lines from the ads for hot dogs in the cinema was the tag “An hour from now you’ll be glad you had one”. In the case of Pedro (who plies his dubious trade just opposite the station) one feels that “An hour from now make sure you are close to an A & E department” might be more appropriate.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sean O’Teeth-Puller, where are you?

I had a bad cold over the weekend and when I returned to work this morning, I left a little later than usual, hoping to travel in an empty carriage. Some hope! After the usual wait while two Metropolitans went by, the Piccadilly was pretty full. At least I found a seat, and there on the empty seat beside me, was a smart leather folder. Being a nosy sod I had a look. It was stamped with the logo and name of the Society of Irish Dentists (or something similar – I couldn’t find them doing a quick internet search afterwards) and contained notes from a conference.
Now I am not a medical man by trade. I only do the odd bit of brain surgery now and then, just to keep my hand in, and so the contents of the folder were of no real interest, though the first set of notes, about Botulism toxin, looked marginally more interesting than this morning’s Guardian, which I had finished off before we reached Acton Town. But, still feeling a bit bunged up and groggy, I put the folder on the window shelf behind the seat.

I was then taken aback when a bloke sitting opposite asked if the folder was mine, and when I denied it, asked me to pass it over to him. He had a look and seemed to draw as much interest as I had done (he was neither Irish nor dental looking). I made a jocular remark and he put me in my place by pointing out that he had once lost important documents on the tube, and no-one had bothered to hand them in, and he was going to see that this folder was returned to its rightful owner.
I was going to make a snappy rejoinder to the effect that a participant in a conference could easily get copies of all the documentation, but decided not to. Actually the folder itself was rather smart. The sort of thing one can leave lying on one’s coffee table to impress visitors. “Oh, this? Just some stuff from one of the conferences I attended recently”. I guess it will be missed and my travelling colleague was right to make sure that it was put into the tender mercies of the Lost Property Dept. Which reminds me, they owe me one light, green, almost waterproof coat, a gentleman’s cap (sized 7 ¼) and one or two umbrellas. Not all lost at the same time, you understand. In fact the coat was left behind about 5 years ago but I still miss it. Now all those painful memories of loss have been stirred up by an absent-minded tooth attendant, possibly even now winging his way back to the Emerald Isle with a suitcase a little lighter than it should be. I guess we are both a bit down in the mouth.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Revealed! The shocking truth

They are still building my home station, Ruislip Manor. Well, not so much building as endlessly messing around outside it. The platforms have been reconstructed since work began in January 2005 but the land on both sides has become a permanent tip, festooned with Portakabins, diggers, great mounds of earth, and metal fences to keep us out. Check it out here Today I observed with some bemusement some of the builders moving benches from the spot on the ground where they had been parked for several days to a spot a little nearer to the one of the Portakabins. Funny, I thought. Either those benches are destined for a station platform or they should go back to whence they came, presumably Acme Bench Supplies Inc. Why, I pondered, are the builders moving them and not for the first time?

The answer struck like a thunderbolt (oh yeah? Ed). All this guff about rebuilding the station is just a blind. Those cabins are not temporary and the earth mounds are not just spoil-heaps. They are here to stay. The builders are moving in. No wonder they want the benches. They are going to sculpt the earth into a giant rock-garden and of an evening they will sit, each with his yellow hard hat, on the benches arranged neatly outside their new homes. The building job will never end. By day they will drive up and down in the mechanical diggers, scooping up earth here and depositing it there. By night they can retreat to their wooden cabins, light up the gas lamps and cook up something tasty on the old paraffin stove. And if they are bored then there’s bound to be something on the closed circuit TV system – there must be more than 20 cameras deployed around the station. Yes, I exaggerate not one jot. Everywhere you look there is a camera looking back. Actually none of them are wired in yet. The builders might get round to it one day, when they’ve quite finished rearranging the benches.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Baby it's cold inside

Another week of grey, extremely cold weather.  But apart from the odd flurry of snow (and rather pathetic little snow particles at that), it has been an exceptionally dry period. This combination is unusual for southern England. Cold winters normally mean frosts, snow, lots of rain. We have had a fiercely unpleasant east wind for day after day but almost no precipitation at all. A drought in this part of the country seems likely for the summer (why no national pipeline for water?

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the daily journey to work so vividly brought to life in these chronicles? Quite a lot, actually. The long wait this morning for a train (no indicator boards at any of the stations on the Uxbridge branch line means the extra frustration of not knowing how long the wait will be), enhanced by a biting cold wind forcing a gaggle of commuters to huddle together at the top of the stairs at Ruislip Manor. Since the rebuilding removed the main shelter halfway down the platform there is nowhere else to go.

And there was not much relief on the train. Normally they are warm, sometimes searingly so. But the moment the doors open and a blast of freezing air enters, the carriages become almost as cold as the platforms.  Fortunately today we were not held for several minutes at Ealing Common, as often happens when there is congestion around Acton Town, because then the doors would have been open for an achingly long time.

Can the spring be far away?

Monday, February 20, 2006

In search of the lost theme

You know that Monday morning feeling when you think you really ought to update your blog but somehow you just can’t be bothered? It’s such an effort to find a new theme to galvanise and excite your critical, yet intellectually sympathetic, readership but does one really want to dredge through the detritus of past despatches (nice alliteration with the D’s there) just to satisfy the burning lust to write something?

Actually “burning lust” is a bit strong. The vaguely tepid wish – that’s a more accurate and somehow nicer way of putting it.  God knows how many blogs there are on the planet now but whatever the number, it is way way too many.   I don’t see why I should rack my brains to knock out another punchy and strangely topical piece when it is fighting for the merest nod of recognition amidst a sea of contenders.  I could go on about the two days last week when the Piccadilly failed to run a decent service whilst boasting to the world about how there were no delays.

Or you might like an account of the fight that broke out in my carriage on Friday night between a group of youths who wanted to push their bicycles up and down the compartment and another group who objected. There was ritual abuse of the sort I thought was only heard on TV soaps “I’ll hit you” “you’ll do what?” “you heard” “you’ll do what?” and yes, from a girl “leave it!” (if only she had added the essential coda “he’s not worth it”).  I had my mobile out ready to dial 999. Fortunately the bikers left at South Harrow and the others stayed on, justifying themselves in terms reminiscent of the classic Derek and Clive sketch “This bloke come up to me”  (‘ee said hello so I kicked him right in the balls. Well, I was only defending my **** self).

Oh well. I got home okay and here am writing about it. Be seeing you

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Plethora of Benches

There’s always something new going on at my home station of Ruislip Manor. They have been rebuilding it for over a year and there is no sign of the work coming to an end. Today I noticed a little cluster of benches parked on one of the huge mounds of earth thrown up by the excavations beside the eastbound platform. They had cardboard wrappers that were half torn off and two of the builders were inspecting them closely. One might conjecture that, stumbling over what may have looked like a giant Valentine’s day present left overnight, they could not resist the impulse to rip off the packaging and caress the smooth wooden sides and gleaming iron frames of the seats.

We have plenty of benches already. A few more won’t hurt but as I have previously written, it is the lack of cover that is the stumbling block.  When it rains all the benches are exposed and the only real shelter is at the ticket-office end of each platform. So why not send the benches back, guys, and put in a proper shelter at the eastern end?

Perhaps sponsorship is the name of the game. A tastefully framed sign mounted on the seat-back of the bench might say “You are parking your bum here courtesy of Pedro’s Pizza.” Pedro (just opposite the station entrance) doesn’t get much business – whenever I pass by the shop is empty and makes a sad contrast to Pizza Hut just two doors along. Question is, can our Iberian friend afford any advertising? I expect the big conglomerates in the Manor – Budgens and the more upmarket restaurants – will grab their chance. Or perhaps they will let the commuters put on messages, like the many benches you find in Kenwood marked “in memory of so and so who loved this view”. What might I put? How about “Here sat Anthony on many a boring morning wondering where his train was?” A bit mournful, perhaps. I’ll think of something better the next time I’m standing on the platform wondering where my train is.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


I had not realised, until I acquired my mp3 player*, how noisy the trains on the Underground are. The wheels squeal and scrape over the main points, the engines roar, especially in the tunnels, and the “helpful” announcements about minding the gaps drown out everything else.  Last night I was listening to Caravan’s  If I could do it all over again, I’d do it all over you whilst the Central Line did its best to drown it out. Why the Central you ask? “Severe delays on the Piccadilly” due a security alert at 11:43. Yes you heard me right. Seven hours later, and the line was still screwed up. Actually by the time I got to Shepherd’s Bush at about 6:30pm they had downgraded it to “minor delays” but that was no good to me. I had even taken the trouble to phone LU enquiries at around 6:00pm and they said the delays were indeed severe. Which is why I set out for the ‘Bush rather than go to my normal Barons Court.

Anyway, this particular album has a special place in my heart. I fell in love with Caravan at first hearing (on a BBC TV programme in 1969) and bought If I could as soon as it was released. I first heard it in the music room at the Cambridge Union in 1970, having no decent stereo record player of my own at the time. Now it is in high quality mp3 format and I can play it whenever I like. How’s that for progress? Well, if the trains were a bit quieter it would be nice for a start. This album has many extremely quiet passages (as well as the stonking riffs at full volume) and I could barely make them out.

*Yes, the Creative Zen Sleek I have been going on about. Not such a good battery life as I had expected but otherwise brilliant.    

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Big Brother station

More exciting developments at Ruislip Manor station to report today. There are 19 lamp-posts on each platform, spaced out at about 8 metre intervals, and each has been adorned with what looks like a loudspeaker.  There are cameras on no less than 7 posts on each side. This is surveillance and control with a vengeance.  Forget the Big Brother House. When they have finished rebuilding the ticket office, let’s all crowd in there and watch the commuters of our choice in their natural habitat.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A game of birdbrain

I’ve written before about the perils that await those who dare to cross the A40 by Barons Court Station. There seems to be a new game of “Chicken”, in which the winner is the person who can delay the longest in reaching safety in the face of the traffic. Let me elaborate.

People wishing to cross either wait for the traffic lights to change or they look for a break in the oncoming traffic and then walk across to the central reservation before trying their luck with the other side. There are lights and reservations on either side of the junction. On the Hammersmith College side the numbers of pedestrians are greater than on the side that I use, and the reservation is a dogleg shape, making it hard for people to move quickly through it. So when there are twenty people crossing at the same time they tend to straggle back a bit.  The traffic moves fast on this section of road. Cars, seeing an empty road ahead and the green lights, may be moving at 70mph. Motorbikes are faster. These vehicles can appear virtually out of nowhere and with their eyes fixed on the traffic lights, the drivers are not too conscious of the pedestrians spilling into the road.

The trouble is that the pedestrians do not always seem that conscious of the dangers either. They seem to think that if they are queuing to get off the road and into the reservation that they are somehow safe. Several times in recent days I have heard the blare of horns as vehicles have sped up to and through the scattering crowds. It is only a matter of time before someone skids on a wet road and loses control.

What really worries me is that the tail-enders seem unperturbed. As soon as people begin to cross, even though the pedestrian traffic light shows red, everyone moves in unison. Those at the back of the queue drift over the road, eyes ahead rather than looking to the right at the road. If a car appears they may look up or they may ever so casually quicken their pace but on no account must they show any sense of haste or unease.

Chicken is not really the right word. Sheep might be a better description. Except that sheep are very good at avoiding danger and know when to run. Birdbrain possibly?

Thursday, January 19, 2006


It’s all gone rather quiet. Services on the Piccadilly ‘twixt beautiful Ruislip and the heart of darkness, aka Hammersmith, have settled down. Frequency and reliability are back to the standards of last summer when I made far fewer claims for delays than in the past. This is not to say the service is a particularly high standard – a ten minute gap this morning with at least one Piccadilly cancelled shows that. But all things are relative.

Ruislip Manor station continues to be a builder’s tip – what do they do all day, these men with their JCBs and colony of Portakabins? Some coils of wire have appeared adorning each of the metal poles on which the station lights are mounted. Maybe they will be used to hoist some brightly coloured bunting to cheer us up in these dark January days. Or to put in a loudspeaker system? That would be a waste of time. No useful announcements are ever made at this station – there are almost no staff to do them. Today there was a plaintive message on the information board that tells you about delays – it read “Unable to display information – our computer is down”. Quite out of the question for anyone on the staff to phone for info, of course.

One blessing is that there are no advertising hoardings but no doubt they will return. Meanwhile those of us pacing up and down (thanks to unannounced ten minute gaps, see above) can at least admire the view.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


These people with rucksacks are a real nuisance. They take up so much extra space and it can be hard to squeeze past. Take this morning, when I attempted to leave a crowded Piccadilly train at Baron’s Court. Two young men each with a rucksack stood near the door. I had to push and dodge to get past, and then nearly fell over a bag someone had carefully placed on the floor.

The fact that I too carry a rucksack is neither here nor there, your honour, and I move that this be struck from the record. [objection: Ed]

Monday, January 09, 2006

Happy 2006

A new year begins [1] and once again I have been asked [2] to write a few words…

  • [1] Yes I know this is January 9th but some of us have been on holiday. An extended Christmas break including three days in the fair city of Bath communing with the Roman remain and the ghost of Ms Jane Austen, if you must know.

  • [2] This is a lie. I took this onerous duty on myself

Yes, where was I? A few words to greet 2006. It’s my first day back at work and there is a strike on the tube. How appropriate is that? Actually it is the RMT union taking “action” and it seems to be only some station staff who have walked out, closing about 25 stations. They struck over New Year’s Eve as well and hit 45 stations so it seems that they are losing support. It didn’t affect me this morning so I can’t claim to be too bothered.

At least the weather is warming up and the days can only get lighter and longer so we have something to look forward to, until we get 2cm of snow and everything comes to a complete halt in the time-honoured English, “blimey what’s that white stuff, better stop the trains at once” tradition.

And as I prepare to leave, what is this on the Transport for London website? – yes, “severe delays” on the Piccadilly line tonight. Welcome back. Its business as usual.