Friday, 11 January 2008

And God said unto Noah....

Fear not, this post does not have any religious connotations, it's just a glib way for me to segue into the events of today. I will respond to the commenst on my last post as and when I can, but a couple of things cropped up today, as you may have noticed.

I'm having flashbacks to 20 July last year. For the heavans opened again today and there was flooding. Oh so much flooding. Bristol, underwater with reports of snow storms (!), some of South Wales under water, flooding by Chipping Sodbury, and by Flax Bourton in Devon. This was entirely unexpected. The weather had been rough, but we did not expect to have free flowing water down both main lines at Wooton Bassett. The water flooded the lineside equipment and caused multiple track circuit failures, most notably at patchway. When I look ed at the TV above my desk and saw the amount of red on it, to say I was disheartened would be an understatement.

I left work at 4.30 because there was not much I could do about the situation and the top train in the list, the 11.15 from Paddington to Cardiff had just hit Newport. 204 minutes delayed, all because of flooding.

I know the vast majority of you who read this were caught up in the floods last year so I won't bore you by discussing it all over again. Those of you who got caught in this do have my sympathy, for what it's worth.

I'm not sure if this will be as big a deal as last July, but I can guess that, once again, it is going to take a while to clear things up. Hopefully, most of this can be done over the weekend and we can get back to normal next week.

The second issue I would like to address is the impending strike by the RMT members. My anonymous commenter, (the last comment on 'Oh Dear, Oh Dear') suggested that this is politically motivated as a supposed final straw for the DfT who will finally revoke the FGW franchise.

I'm not sure what the RMT's motivations for this are. I don't beleive that it is over managers performing the duties of guards, that is merely an emergency measure proposed by our lovely COO to cover some trains if the strike goes ahead. Managers don't normally like to get out there unless they have too. It's also, I'm almost certain not about Sunday working, as the official line goes.

I think that this is politically motivated, but it is not intended to affect the DfT. (Let's face it, as long as the DfT gets their franchise payment, does anyone actually believe, based on thier actions so far, that they give a toss). This is intended to appeal to FGW management to show just how low morale is for the vast majority of staff. From what I hear, those who like their jobs are in a minority.

I think this is intended as a protest against the management structure at FGW which, quite frankly, is over-complicated with far too many layers and nobody really knowing what their role actually encompasses. It's a protest against stupid decisions, impotent management and far too many demands placed on far too few people.

I don't mean to romanticise this because, it's a pain in the ass. Andrew Haines wrote a letter to the RMT members asking them not to strike. He got responses. I read a few of these, for example, a conductor who was asked to work a 1 carriage train from Weymouth, left 60 people on the platform and got an hour of verbal abuse for his troubles and was ignored when he pointed out that this 1 carriage train would form the busiest commuter train from Bristol and should be reinforced.

I can see their point much of the time. It does suck having to deal with frustrated passengers when it's not your fault and their's nothing you can do about it. Maybe this kind of a wake up call is what is needed. I fear though that, in the long run, it will make bugger all difference.


Monday, 7 January 2008

Up close and personal

By which I mean crowding, but I thought that 'up close and personal' was a more interesting title. Sit comfortably, this is going to be a long one.

It's a tricky subject as no-one likes to stand on trains, especially for long stretches.

The final commenter on my last post did kinda ruin the surpise, because I'm sure it will be a suprise to some, if not most, of you. That being that the legal limit for the number of passengers on a train is, da, da, da: none. That's right, there is absolutely no limit to the number of passengers that can be crammed on to a train.

That may seem outrageous because planes, buses, taxis and seemingly every other form of transport has capacity limits imposed on it, but not the railway. This is, supposedly, because the railway is intended to be a flexible form of transport.

Now, here's another piece of knowledge that you may not like to hear. Many studies were done for the HSE on the subject of crowding on the railway and then for the ORR when it took oevr the HSE's safety responsbilities. Most notable perhaps, is Dr Bottomley's report of 1999. Largely based on that report, the HSE took the view that standing passengers were not a safety issue. Standing is an issue of passenger comfort and there is no additional risk to standing passengers.

If I may provide you with a few choice pieces from that report:

'For collisions occurring at higher speeds, serious injuries can be sustained by both seated and standing passengers ... There is no evidence to suggest a difference in severity.'

'severe chest injuries leading to asphyxiation are a real possibility in heavily overcrowded situations, but there is no evidence to suggest the degree of overcrowding experienced on trains ever reaches the densities witnessed in extreme circumstances.'

(From: Bottomley Report for HSE, 1999)

This led to this, from the HSE:

'HSE does not believe that there is sufficient evidence or grounds for introducing new legislation to control overcrowding because of health and safety risks.'

'Trains are built to operate safely at and above the maximum passenger loads which it is physically possible to accommodate.'

'Passenger loading does not affect stability, braking performance or structural strength, and doors are designed to withstand crush loading.'

'In general overcrowding relates to passenger comfort and well-being, rather than safety.'

(From: Presentation to HSC Railway Industry Advisory Committee, Birmingham, October 2003)

The (now defunct) SRA position is that:

'There is no practicable means of preventing people from boarding a crowded train if they choose, or of compelling them to leave.'

'Published capacity targets (PIXCs) are for service planning purposes only, and unenforceable as actual ceilings on numbers carried.'

(From: Presentation to HSC Railway Industry Advisory Committee, Birmingham, October 2003)

So, to sum up. The HSE says that crowding is not dangerous and the SRA says that even if there were legal limits on passenger numbers, they would not be enforcable. Why, are trains any different from planes then? Why can't the railways predict numbers?

Planes are slightly different. Once you're on, you're there for the duration. There are no stops part way through with people getting on and off. That means that plane operators can confidently and accurately predict the maximum number of people who are going to want/going to be able to get on a partricular trip and they can avoid crowding because once the seats run out, they stop selling tickets.

As I mentioned, the railway is intended to be a bit more flexible. This is why we sell open tickets. They allow you to get on any train you want and, even if you book onto a specific train, there's no guarentee that you'll catch it. Never mind those people who buy an open ticket because they have no idea what train they actually want to catch.

This is why it bugs me so much when people accuse us of overselling trains to maximise profits. We don't oversell. The proportion of tickets that can only be used on a particular train is tiny compared to even the seating capacity of that train. If a train is crowded, it's because a lot of people want to get on that train and have chosen to do so, and most of them have flexible tickets. I find it ironic that, in my experience, the vast majority of those accusing us of overselling have flexible tickets themselves. I'm including season tickets in this. Yes, most of you are commuters and probably get the same train most days, but can you say you do so every day?

The fact is, that with the prevelance of open tickets, there is no way to accurately predict crowding. We can, and do, look at trends, and this enables us to find the worst affected services, but on a day to day basis, it's a no-go.

So, crowding is bad. What can be done to reduce it? There have been several ideas proposed. Let's see what you think.

Idea 1: No standing passengers at all. Make trains seated only.

A fair point you might think. But how many of you would not be able to get to work if you were not allowed to stand up? This reduction in capacity on trains means that there need to be more trains to accomodate the excess passengers. Over to you Dr Bottomley:

'If the excess passengers are removed and put on an extra train, there might be an increased risk to the total population of rail passengers simply due to the addition of the extra trains required to deal with the excess passengers.'

Of course, he other knotty problem is that, there are no excess carriages now. Hands up who thinks we could get enough to run extra trains. Secondly, hands up who thinks that sufficient paths can be allocated to run the extra trains.

Idea 2: Make everybody reserve on a specific train with no more open tickets. Then crowding can be controlled like the airlines do.

OK, that would probably work. You'd need platform staff at every train door checking that people had reserved on the train they were tring to board and this would delay the trains a bit, but it would work. However, it removes flexibility. You can only get on one specific train. You miss you train, tough rocks pal. You might be able to switch your reservation if there's room, but there's a fee and you may find yourself waiting a while if you're trying to get home in the peak. Want to stay a little longer for the shopping trip in London? No dice. I'm thnking that this would get irritating soon. Crowding would reduce though, because everybody would start driving.

Idea 3: Get more carriages.

Wow, it's so simple. Why didn't we think of that? We have been trying you know. It's no like we enjoy getting leters constantly complaining of crowding. Why do you think we were so narked that we had to give those 158s back? We needed those carriages so we had to get in some beat up 142s because it was never an option not to replace those trains.

I think there are a couple more out there, so now I will proicede to tell you why it doesn't matter. The two most crowded routes on the FGW network are Portsmouth to Cardiff and just about anything that goes from Reading to Paddington.

Lets take the Thames Valley first. Very crowded network, especially at the peak where all the problems are. That means no paths for additional trains so no supplemental 142s. They ussually run as 2 car, although I believe you can have two sets run as a 4 car, and they have a top speed of 75 mph. That's up to 4 cars and 15 mph less than the turbos that you've got at the moment. I won't even make a comparison to the HSTs. Also 142s use different couplers, meaning that they can't reinforce turbo services, as well as having the speed issue. Result, we're back to needing Turbos to strengthen services. If we could get any, rest assured, we would have.

Portsmouth Harbout to Cardiff has more overcrowding complaints than any line on the network (see, told you I'd been reading the reports). I have to admit that it has not been one of FGW's top priorities and, between you, me and the world wide web, I don't think FGW really wanted to run it. South West trains has introduced some extra services in the Salisbury area, but that's not a lot of help for the rest of the line.

So, Portsmouth to Cardiff runs 150s (mostly). It's possible that 142s could run as additional services on the line, but there would probably be platforming conflicts at some of the bigger stations along the way. Temple Meads and Cardiff spring immediately to mind. The problem is that, again, they run as 2/4 car sets, and even with 4 that's only 240 passengers max. The other problem is the speed. Slower trains means less available paths means that, ultimately, you don't achieve much of an improvement, especially once platforming and other considerations are taken into, um, consideration. This means again, that we are back to needing more modern trains to run the route. See end of Thames Valley paragraph.

I am sure that some of you have ideas to reduce crowding. If so, I'm interested in hearing them. I'm sure you also have comments on the idea of crowding not being a safety issue. As always, please fell free to comment, and I 'll try and provide the answers.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Oh dear, oh dear

Well, it's all gone to pot since the new timetable hasn't it. Luckily (!), it's not actually down to the new timetable, which is working as it supposed to work by and large. I udnerstand that many are not happy with the service cuts, but were other things working as intended, the new timetable would be a success.

However, things are not working as intended. Having read the reports, (good news on that front: after a year of hard work, the reports are now working properly. Now, if only we can actually act on them, things will be OK), it seems that the major problems recently have been lack of train crew and track problems.

The delays caused by lack of train crew are becoming a joke now, except that it's not funny. FGW are in full damage control mode and training everyone to do everything in the hope that this will create more situations where spare crew are available who can actually do the job that needs doing. In my opinion, however, things will not improve on this front until working for FGW becomes a more attractive proposition. Anyone who likes the colour blue should begin holding their breath at this point. True, the money os rather good for the job, but I've heard that peopel are also motivated by job satisfaction and there's precious little of that around at the moment. Not me, by the way, I'm actually having fun, but I get the choice about when I talk to the passengers.

Another problem would be crowding. This is not so much responsible for delays as it is responsible for frustration and annoyance. anyone interested in the ins and outs of crowding, including legalities and so on, feel free to comment and I'll post. Or I may post just for the hell of it, who can tell.

By now, thanks to Klaus, most of you have probably seen the letter from Andrew Haines. It also went out on trains by the way, so there was no deliberate attempt to hide it. At least he is honest, I suppose but in this case, I don't believe that admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it. Investment would be good, the DfT appearing with those 1300 cariages they promised would also be good.

Before I move on to perhpas to hottest topic at the moment (thanks BBC), I would like to address a point made by Klaus about Virgin standing up to NR. Good for them, it needed to be said, and maybe FGW should speak up too. I think we may find, however, that this will cost Virgin in the end.

Now, to the hot topic. The fares rise. Oh, ok, the fares rise. Yeah, that didn't go down well. In all honesty, you had to see it coming, what with that lovely franchise payment to the DfT kicking in. However, I have to admit that even I was surprised when I saw all the figures. True, regulated fares are up by 4.8% (average), but unregulated fares up 6.1% (average). I did not expect that high a rise. Especially for those whose fares went up by 11%. Ouch. It is true that the money is needed for investment, (as well as to pay off the DfT) but I think that this is excessive and, Im sorry, but I can't give you an excuse. Some have been lucky enough to see a fares freeze, but in all honesty, that comes on lesser used routes and enables us to sting well used routes for more money. The freeze on some routes keeps the averages down and, since the DfT only works on averages, stops them shouting at us.

In short, I'm sorry. Kinda hollow coming from me, I know, but FGW are in a shitty position and no-one is happy.Bring back the SRA, they were crap, but at least they had a bit of sense when it came to realising that you have to pony up some cahs if you want to pu impossible demands on TOCs.

I'm sorry that this post has kinda glossed over many issues but this is my long weekend and I want to enjoy it. Seeing as I worked every day over Christmas and the New Year with the exception of Christmas Day (and only just at that), I think I deserve it.

I'll let people get some comments in, as I'm sure you will and then see what answers I can come up with.

Happy New Year all.