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?