Thursday, June 30, 2005

Delays all round

My normal journey home is on a Piccadilly line train from Barons Court to Ruislip Manor. In emergency I take a Central Line from Shepherd's Bush to Ruislip Gardens, a longer walk at each end but a slightly shorter train journey. Having a fall-back is a great comfort, meaning that I can easily change my travel plans if the Piccadilly has problems.

Imagine my feelings yesterday then, when the TFL website displayed "severe delays" on the Picc due a person under a train at Kings X (and signal failure at Hammersmith for good measure), and also severe delays on the Central due to some obscure problem miles away at Gants Hill. Things cheered up later when the notice about the Central disappeared. "Ah-ha", I thought, "At least my lifeline is working". When I left to go home the notice about the Piccadilly was still there (6 hours after the original incident!!) so I trudged up to Shepherd's Bush where a suitable train came in quite quickly. And then, having moved about 200 yards, we stopped in the tunnel. And waited. And waited. Then moved from one signal to the next. And waited. Eventually the driver informed us this was all due to 2 (yes 2) faulty trains at - wait for it - Leytonstone (miles away at the other end of the line).

Anyway I got home after a journey of about 85 minutes. Now for an interesting problem. The Customer Charter refund scheme gives you your money back if you are delayed by 15 minutes or more. As indeed I was. But the guts of the delay was because I had to take another route other than the one I had planned. The refund form asks you where you had intended to travel from and on which line were you travelling when the delay occurred. How on earth do I answer that? I had intended to go from Baron's Court but did not. I was delayed essentially by the absence of trains on the Piccadilly but the line I actually went on was the Central. There isn't a box to tick to say that you went one route (which itself may have been running normally) because your chosen route was not working.

Such are the dilemmas of modern life, and such indeed is the lack of imagination of the people who design refund forms.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Size and history

Our Victorian forebears were small people. We know this because if you put two average sized men into two adjacent seats on a typical Underground train (say, for the sake of example, the Piccadilly Line) then their shoulders will touch and forearms overlap. Such enforced bodily contact would have horrified the bewhiskered gentlemen in waistcoasts (and fob watches) and stovepipe hats (or is that IK Brunel?) who designed the system. They probably imagined people sitting comfortably, marvelling at how much personal space they had. Actually if Brunel had designed the Tube it would have been so much better. His wide gauge tracks would have allowed much bigger carriages, with space for luggage and for people to walk between the seats without tripping over legs at every step. And the trains would not jolt and sway so much, inducing fewer incidents involving clashes of flailing limbs.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Health and Safety Insanity

The papers reported that power failures brought some GNER trains to a halt during the recent heatwave. After two hours in the full force of the sun, the airconditioning failing and temperatures rising to 115F, passengers were forced to smash the windows. Why? Because the doors were shut. Why? Oh, "health and safety reasons".

My temperature rose dangerously when I read this. Health and Safety rules have nothing whatsoever to do with Health and Safety but are purely to prevent lawsuits for negligence. It doesn't matter if people faint in the overheated trains (as some did), and they have medical conditions that will be dangerously exacerbated by their ordeal, well they can get knotted as far as the H&S people are concerned. But it is vital that the doors stay shut in case, HORROR, someone might get out and graze their knee on the gravel in the track bed.

I hope the passengers sue, personally, whoever makes these vicious rules and trains the railway staff how to apply them. But of course they won't be able to. 10 people die every day on the roads in Britain. That's fine. Health and Safety couldn't care less. Making people sweat to death in train carriages, yes, that definitely is good for them and much much better than enabling either windows that open (in an emergency) or doors that open (in an emergency).

One good thing about Underground trains is that the doors at the end of each carriage have opening windows and the doors themselves can be used to cross into the next carriage merely by turning a handle. Power or not, passengers can escape if they have to, even get down on to the track if all else fails. I suppose the H&S people will be along soon to lock up the doors and bolt the windows shut. In case some stupid git has an accident. Never mind what the overwhelming vast majority of passengers want.

Let me give you another, albeit much more trivial example of the stupidity of H & S rules. In my office all the interior doors have to self-closing. Because of "fire risks". So if I am carrying something awkward, like a computer, I must either prop the door open (oops, illegal) or put down the computer, open the door, jam it open with my foot, bend down to pick up the computer and then repeat on the other side to close the door. Now I have bad back and picking heavy objects off the floor is not good for it. Let us do a risk analysis and compare the real damage to me and the much worse, but much less probable, risk to me of a fire. There is at the least a bloody good case for saying that the closure of the interior doors is a greater risk to health and safety than keeping them open. But it is not a case we are allowed to make. Only the opinions of the local Council and the Fire service matter.

No, I am not saying a fire could not happen. I am saying that it would be an event with very low probability (our office is non-smoking, has no dodgy electrics, there are always people around etc etc). Whereas I have had back pain and the probability of getting it again is real and measurable.

This rant has been brought to you by The Sick and Tired Society, an organisation for people who are Sick and Tired of being told what to do by other people. Donations by credit card and PayPal will help us carry on our vital work. Thank you.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Enduring the heatwave

Walking home along Hammersmith Road last night the heat was really on. The sun, 5 hours past the zenith, was still intense and the air so warm, even in the shade, that to be out in the direct sunlight was painful. When I'm on holiday I don't go out in temperatures like that, so to have to do so at the end of a normal day's work is most uncalled-for. At least it is possible to find a seat on the Tube now that the holiday season is well underway. But before sinking gratefully into one, there is the need to draw a deep breath of relatively fresh air first, because the atmosphere in a train that has just emerged from the tunnels on a hot day is not one to savour. I know there are technical, not to mention financial, problems with air-conditioning Underground trains but if something could be done to blow fresh air through them as they come out of a tunnel, that would be much appreciated by all.

I'm glad I remembered to fill my water bottle last night before leaving the office. I used to carry a little plastic fan as well but it was a fiddly thing and the only way to switch it off was to unscrew the top which meant the battery fell out. It was worth it to see the look on the faces of my sweating fellow-travellers as they thought "What is that buzzing thing? Cor, that's clever."

The big question is when to switch to shorts? I have to wear socks and I understand that socks and shorts are strictly verboten by the fashion police. Do I risk some very snooty looks or simply dig out my very lightest trousers and have done? At the moment the anti-shorts feeling is on top and I am giving my ultralight American travelling trousers an airing, the first since I wore them in Rome earlier this year when it was about as warm as it is in London right now. Got them in a factory outlet in New England last year and so far they have been an excellent investment.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A view from the bridge

Sometimes, like last night, the Piccadilly train moving westbound out of South Harrow stops on the long embankment leading into Rayners Lane. This is where the Metropolitan line joins and there is often congestion at the station with trains queuing on both tracks. At such times one has the chance to admire what must be one of the most spectacular views available from any Underground line (obviously in this context "Underground" means a train operated by London Underground, notwithstanding that most of them run overground for much of the time).
South Harrow station is not particularly high, perched as it is on the lower slopes of Harrow Hill, but the line at this point is high above the street and the land slopes downward to Rayners Lane quite sharply. To the south and west the plains of Middlesex extend into a green-fringed horizon that speaks of the open fields of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire (mmm, quite poetic this bit). Behind us the spire of the church atop Harrow Hill and the many Victorian buildings of the school. The view appears to run for many miles - there are no hills in the way - and one ought to be able to see Windsor Castle (which you certainly can from the top of Harrow Hill).

On a fine summer evening with the sun flaring over the Thames Valley this really is quite a view, alas taken utterly for granted by my fellow passengers (and, let's face it, me on most nights). It would be even nicer if the trains did not stop so regularly awaiting a green light to proceed down the track.

Monday, June 20, 2005

A trifle on the warm side

After weeks of grey skies and mild weather we plunge straight into heatwave. Temperatures in London on Sunday exceeded 30c, hotter than Florida or the Caribbean. Combined with high humidity this made for a very sticky and uncomfortable weekend. There was no time to acclimatize - on Friday it was cool in the morning and very hot by the evening, nothing in between. It's rather unsettling.

But you can count on London Underground for consistency. There was a problem on the Metropolitan on Friday, and - dang me - there was a worse one this morning. No trains between Wembley Park and Aldgate thanks to our old friend "signal problems". (aka it was a hot weekend and our lads are still nursing giant hangovers). How does this affect me using the relatively stable Piccadilly? It meant that my train, which should have been half empty, was full early on and stayed full all the way. Just what you don't want at the start of what may or may not be a fairly unpleasant week, travel-wise. Here's hoping that, as Wimbledon gets underway, we have some good old-fashioned cloudbursts and everything cools off a little.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Summer approaches

It's feeling a tad more like summer now, a beautiful clear blue sky this morning and a little warmth in the air. Regular commuters judge the onset of the holiday season not by the portents of sunshine and cloud but by the availability of seats on the morning trains. LU don't change their schedules for the summer, so as soon as the kids stop going to school (whether for exams, holidays or just bunking off) and their parents start taking more time off, the trains empty out.
You might have thought that, given that the holiday season runs over three months or so and that most people would not take off more than two weeks at a time, that the numbers using the Underground would diminish by no more than 10% maximum in any one week. And tourists would more than make up the difference anyway. But it doesn't seem to work like that. This morning, although all seats were taken by the time we got to Acton Town, my train was not overcrowded and I stepped out at Baron's Court without the need to thrust through the massed ranks of strap-hangers that normally block the doors. And the schools are not even out yet, so the full holiday season has not begun.
A uncrowded train, moving at normal speed, is surprisingly restful. Without the mental stress of people leaning against your arms, and others tripping over your legs as they fight for breathing room, and with the reasonable expectation the journey will be completed on time, one can relax, enjoy the scenery and flick through the morning papers. I actually did two of the clues in the Guardian cryptic crossword. Don't sneer, this is an intellectual achievement that demands respect. Most days I fail to solve a single clue.
The rebuilding of my home station, Ruislip Manor, continues. Much of the eastbound platform has been rebuilt but the covered section where the steps lead down to the street is still a shell, and all the safety fencing, lights and cables need fixing in place. Ominously, the TFL website just says that the platform is out of action "until further notice". Who knows when it will be complete?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Bleedin' Obvious

It was Basil Fawlty who turned it into a catchphrase - "Can't we get you on Mastermind Sybil? Special subject the bleedin' obvious" and it runs through my head every time I see one of those notices about warm weather at a tube station. You probably know what I mean - "To avoid discomfort in hot weather carry water" :that sort of thing.

So are there drinking fountains at stations? No
Do they sell bottled water at stations? No (there might be a kiosk at larger stations but not as a rule)

Bleeding obvious? I should say so.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Announcer of Doom

It's a warm and pleasant evening at Baron's Court station. I descend to the westbound Piccadilly platform, passing the sign that informs me that good services are operating on all lines. I wait for the first train - Heathrow - and while I wait the station announcer (with his jarring Australian accent) tells me that good services are operating on all lines. The train comes and goes. The next train, after several minutes, is for Northfields.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the Piccadilly, Northfields is a nondescript station on the Heathrow branch, important only in that it is one of the main depots for the line and is equipped with double platforms and sidings. Trains terminate there either when going out of service or when being pulled out of the normal timetable. LU are bound by contract to supply a minimum number of trains per hour on the Heathrow branch (a station manager at Acton Town told me one day when neither of us had anything else to do given that no trains were running)and will always give priority to this route. So if a train has Northfields as its destination during normal hours this indicates a problem and given the priority of trains to Heathrow, it probably started life as an Uxbridge branch train instead.

You will understand from the foregoing that whatever the announcer may be blathering on about, the sight of Northfields as the destination is the sure indication that normal services are not running. And so it proved. The next train was one I wanted, to Ruislip, and we crawled between Hammersmith and Acton Town, at one point stopping for several minutes. The driver told us it was going to be slow going but did not say why. Yes, folks, another delay from those wonderful people who think that trains sitting idle on the track between stations constitutes a good service.

At least we did proceed normally once past Acton (I was half expecting that our train would be terminated there).

So what, I ask, and not for the first time, is the point of announcements about good service? They are a complete waste of time. Tell us about the known problems and stop being smug about your ignorance about the rest of the system.

I thought I would feel better having got that out of my system but I don't really. Hey ho, let us see what tonight may bring.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Reverting to type...

We've just enjoyed the bank holiday weekend (and what perfect weather!), and now it's back to work for some of us (the streets are eerily quiet thanks to the continuing school holidays). I reported yesterday on the morning journey. Naturally that was not good enough for LU and there was a nice little delay going home last night as well. Apparently signal problems at Earl's Court earlier in the day (it's always earlier in these announcements) caused delays westbound. I waited about 15 minutes, just long enough to trigger a refund claim.

And, as usual, one is left wondering. Why, if the problem occurred earlier and has, presumably, been fixed, are there still delays? Surely all the trains backed up behind the faulty signals are now running? They certainly were on the eastbound line - I counted over 10 in a 20 minute period. Why not divert at least one of these virtually empty trains to plug the gaps going west? There is a siding at Hammersmith perfectly placed for this function.

Oh well, at least the trains were running ok this morning. Or were they? I certainly arrived on time, fortunately, because I was attending a conference across the road at Olympia. The opening session was delayed - why? Problems on the tube, they said.