Sunday, 14 December 2014

Blogger or Wordpress? That is the question

I have been finding this blog site very clunky to use. I often have to go into the coding to achieve very basic results or put right some very eccentric things that go wrong, especially with spacing. Tabular work is nearly impossible without huge persistence. In addition I am getting reports of strange things happening at the viewer's end, such as third party pop-ups appearing.

I thought I would investigate Wordpress. This has its own challenges, but I think the appearnce is cleaner and it seems slightly more adaptable to my needs.

I have therefore duplicated this blog at, if you want to have a look, or you can click the link HERE.

I will run the two in parallel for a bit (which is not as easy as it should be) and then see which one to run with. I have imported the whole archive. Some of the formatting is thrown out slightly, but not so much that I will correct it as it is only an archive.

If anyone has any opinions about which 'platform' is best at the receiving end, I would be interested to hear. Sometimes it is not possible for me to replicate what the viewer actually sees.


Friday, 12 December 2014

London Bus Services - A Route to Perfection?

I had intended to applaud the present state of London’s bus services and support this highly subjective view with a mass of statistical data showing just how superb things now are. Unfortunately, when I searched for the evidence, I not only found it very inconvenient to tease out, but what I teased didn’t support what I had intended to say!

I am not giving up on the project and getting trustworthy data is now a priority, to be followed by a rather different set of conclusions to those I was expecting. All this will be the subject of a later blog. For now may I just leave it that whilst, on pretty much any measure, London’s bus services are far better than anything being offered in the mid-1980s, if one goes further back I am not so confident that things will be so clear cut. Whilst the number of buses may be comparable with (say) the 1950s, nearly all the efficiency measures do not seem so good, even allowing for London’s growth and that of its population. This seems counter-intuitive, so, more anon.

Notwithstanding the statistical conundrum I do think London’s bus services are quite good these days. I say this from the point of view of someone who is a frequent user, and has had cause to be using them in lots of unfamiliar parts of the capital. However, there are some features that in part puzzle me, and in part really annoy. After initially just observing them and regarding them as a London eccentricity, I started to think that the only reason an organization like TfL tolerates them is because they (at least officially) do not know they are happening. It is perfectly possible to see things without actually ‘observing’ anything, even quite innocently! This is a pity, because (to me) they take the edge away from what is actually rather a good service and don’t seem to me all that difficult to fix. They are mere annoyances, but annoy they do and on occasions they have cost me and other passengers time and frustration. I list them below.

The Bus Map

I use buses quite a bit, and over the last few years have found myself using them all over London and in areas I do not know at all. For this I have found the bus map invaluable. Whilst a fan of new technology, such technology (at the moment) works best where both start and end points are known. This is hopeless for my particular purpose where I am having to make rapid decisions on the fly and do not necessarily know where I need to get off, or I want to ‘take a view’ about changing buses or travelling further and walking. The bus map is perfect for my needs, I always carry one and would be inconvenienced without it.

The splitting of the maps into four zones is understandable and only a mild irritation given the generous overlap between the four quarters. For example the overlap between north-east and north-west quarters is 8½ inches, or a little under 6½ miles at the drawn scale. Where it becomes a nightmare is at the interface with the central area. Because of the eccentric way the overlap is managed it is hard to give an accurate extent to this region, but it is not only not very much but it is achieved in a quite different way to the overlap of the quarters. I don't think you could regard the overlap, to the extent it exists at all, as much more than half an inch (less than a 5-minute walk).

If we take, as an example, the north-west London bus map and look at the western boundary with the central area, it runs in a straight line from Harrow Road to Lillie Road. This precisely matches the western extremity of the central area map, where the world simply stops at its edge with little indication what happens farther west. Thus, to the extent the concept of overlap exists at all, it only exists on the relevant quarter-London map and within the yellow boxed area marked ‘see overleaf’ (in itself an inconvenience I will return to).

Along this boundary, eight roads pass into the central area. In several areas it is quite possible to work out which buses, along which roads, pass from one map to the other, but in some cases it is far from obvious what happens and a degree of persistence is needed. Do look at the Shepherds Bush area where I am not sure it is possible to know with certainty how what is shown on one map translates across the boundary to the other. Please consider, also, that these maps are on different sides of the same sheet of paper, and not side by side, as I have put them below.

But wait a minute. Tracking a route from one map to another is all very interesting but it isn't what the maps are for. What I can do pretty much anywhere else on the bus map is have some conception of where I am, and of where I want to go, and identify a suitable bus route that will take me between the two and, if there be a choice, to offer me a delightful selection of alternatives from which to choose. This is simply impossible where your origin is on one map and your destination on the other side and the maps are to a different scale, there is virtually no overlap and they don't marry up very well.

Examples of the difficulty are pitifully easy to find. If one wanted to travel between (say) the Chalk Farm area to Shepherds Bush the obvious route darts in and out of the central area and the north-west London side of the map several times and with virtually no overlap one really struggles to work out what is happening. I think it is impossible to work out, between these two maps, what happens to the 187 at the northern end of its journey until you work out that the top left area of the yellow shading does not mean ‘central area’, but might mean it is only shown in full in one of the small Local Area Maps, but there are few clues how to identify the correct one. And so on. Some of the rest of the cartography isn’t very good; either it’s tired or careless, or just doesn’t take what passengers can see into account. What, exactly uses the one-way road just beneath Abbey Wood station, for example?  Where, exactly, do the buses go in the area between Westcombe Park station and the adjacent roundabout next to Westcombe Hill. I was recently on a bus here and was a bit disconcerted when the bus appeared to be going the wrong way.

In short, the map design is now very old and needs revisiting. I don’t think the quartering needs changing, but the interface with central London is dreadful and needs rethinking as it just isn’t fit for purpose. Surely it cannot have been ‘designed’ by anyone who actually uses buses? Managers, with the encyclopaedic knowledge we know some of them have, probably never need to use a bus map and just cannot see this serious and unnecessary fault.

Another handy thing to add would be the hail-and-ride areas. I recently needed to go somewhere in the middle of one of these (on the B11) but had no idea there was a hail and ride section, which isn’t referred to on the map at all. I eventually worked out what was happening and induced the driver to stop in the middle of a section of road with no houses or footpath. When I needed to get another bus to start the next leg of my trip I had no idea where the hail and ride section started or stopped and ended up walking a long way to a fixed stop to be certain of catching a bus. What’s the point of a bus map not showing a feature like this – surely the only way of making it clear precisely where a hail and ride zone is located? I have no idea where hail and ride areas are, or how I am supposed to know about them.

These bus maps are very useful but the cartographic quality has failed to keep up to expectations and the workarounds (like the large number of local map insets) are far too numerous and very irksome to keep switching to. The lack of overlap between central and outer maps is much too small given the bus density in this area. Also the paper on which printed, though no doubt cheap, is too cheap and even a fresh map quickly splits along the folded creases, so I have to change maps more frequently than I otherwise need to. I’m sure slightly fewer need be printed if the quality were better. I do realize that with modern technology maps may not be as useful as they were, but they do fulfill a role the technology is not (by some way) yet capable of and deserve a bit more attention to detail.

(By the way I co-authored an article for Information Design Journal on this map's appalling predecessor some years ago so do think some of these points are valid - this map is a delight compared with what went before).

On-board Bus Journey Information

Any Underground user will be all too aware of the constant barrage of information that is being hurled at passengers. I say information, for some of it is borders on mere propaganda. Nevertheless , one occasionally feels that there is some kind of imperative to ‘give information’ even if what is given has yet to reach that plateau of consistency and usefulness that real passengers would wish for. Sometimes, of course, it is very useful and has an immediate impact on what passengers do next.

Not so, on the buses. In fact it is hard to believe we are dealing with the same organization. I do understand how much more difficult a challenge it is to give up-to-date information on a bus service, for all kinds of reasons, but there doesn’t seem to be any will. For example, within the last few months I have been turfed off several buses which have turned short of the destination advertised when I got on (I thought this kind of thing had stopped years ago, but evidently not). On each occasion, the only advice was from the electronic announcement made when a driver alters the destination blind setting. On no occasion was any human announcement made offering, for example, an apology, an explanation, or any advice about what to do, or the prognosis for another useful bus arriving. In this day and age, I do feel we can do better than this.

There have also been several occasions recently when I have been on buses that have been very badly affected by severe traffic congestion. It is perfectly obvious that bus staff were aware of it because I made a point of overhearing the radio chatter. I can’t begin to describe how helpful it would have been if this information had been shared with passengers in the same way that a prognosis of a slow journey on the Underground would have been made by a train operator. People would have got off and walked in some cases, or found another route, or not got on the bus at all. The bus live departures displays (of which I am a huge fan) cannot either now or in the future offer any advice about onward journey time or other useful information such as diversions. Whether the driver says anything useful when one gets on is at best rather unusual (and in any case only applies on buses where one passes the driver). On-board PA, it seems, is very rarely used. The passengers are just left to get on with it. This ought to be fixable.


This is really an extension of my previous point. The gripe is that diversions are only rarely spontaneous and therefore it should be possible to get better information out. I have been the victim of a number of buses running off route in the last few weeks and I’ve been fascinated to observe what happens. Except for long-planned diversions, what happens is that passengers don’t get much, if any, forewarning. On all of the ones I have experienced there is an automated announcement saying the bus is about to embark on a diversion but no clue is given about how long the diversion is or where the bus goes back onto its route. This is hopeless, for if one is near the desired destination one doesn’t know whether to stay on the bus or not. Off the bus goes, on some mystery tour, and the ‘next stop’ indicator goes dark as it cannot cope with going off-route. And there we all sit. In several instances people (including me) have wanted to get off along the diverted portion, either through panic or because they recognize somewhere as being near where they want. But what is the protocol? Is the driver going to stop anywhere? We don’t know. Is the driver allowed to stop? We don’t know. Myself, if I want to get off, I shuffle up to the driver and ask if he’s going to stop anywhere soon and usually we contrive to pull up at some random nearby bus stop and those who want to escape get out. But what we supposed to do? Guidance would be helpful but proper announcements would be more helpful. It isn’t as though TfL has only just discovered buses have to divert – the fact it happens occasionally is entirely predictable and can be planned for.

I am aware that sometimes diversions make it onto the TfL twitter feed. Sorry. Not good enough (nor is the quality of what is put, often so vague a generalization as to be useless for any practical purpose beyond satisfying the corporate conscience that ‘we did warn you…’). What is the public address system for if it is not used in circumstances like this?


This is a problem resulting in part from the lack of information issues already highlighted and it occurs when there are substantial and unexpected delays (ie unexpected by passengers) on buses where one becomes desperate to get off but ‘for our own good’ we are not allowed to. Now, as a transport professional I do understand why there is this rule, but read on.

I was recently attempting to get from Wembley Park to Wembley Central and as I passed the bus stop an 83 bus happened along and I got on it, a decision I soon regretted. It was full-ish and I was standing, but I had expected the journey to take no more than about five minutes. Within a few seconds of leaving the next stop (ie about a minute into the journey) we found the end of a line of traffic pretty much stationary (but not visible from where I’d boarded). After about ten minutes, during which time the bus had moved perhaps 50 yards, the passengers were getting very restless, to say the least. The bell was being rung continuously and shouts were made to open the doors, to no avail. The driver was clearly determined to obey orders. Now, fair enough, one might think, even though the bus was next to the kerb and nobody getting off was likely to have had any problem. However, the bus behind, a 182, was another Metroline vehicle and I was able to see from where I was standing that its driver had opened the doors between stops and virtually everyone on it had got off and was now walking past us. Others could see this too and this gave rise to more frantic bell ringing. We then crept forward into an area of road junction where it was clearly unwise to open doors and it was another five minutes before we got to the other side. We had still not reached the next bus stop when, unexpectedly, the driver now did open the doors and the bus virtually emptied and a lot of hot and bad tempered people got off and stomped up the Hill. Now if a rule is a rule and he broke it now, we were all wondering why he couldn’t have broken it ten minutes earlier…  Again, there were no announcements, no apologies, just a complete lack of engagement with the passengers on board. Lest anyone thinks what I am describing is unusual, it is not: I see this kind of thing all too frequently. The aggravating thing is not knowing about the delay ahead, and not knowing whether the driver will or will not open doors intermediately. 

So, what are the rules about opening doors under circumstances like this? Someone will surely say they would hope drivers apply common sense. Oh dear – I would like to see that in a contractual bus operator’s agreement.

(If anyone’s interested, this misfortune was on 6 November involving vehicles VW1760 on 83 and VP622 on the 182 at about 15:25 near Wembley Hill).

After release from our confinement I walked up the hill, passing all the stationary buses in this photo. By the way, when I got to the road junction with the High Road, at the head of this lot, what did I find? Nothing. No road works, accidents or the like. Not even a badly parked car. Extraordinary.

When is a bus at a bus stop?

Usually a bus will stop somewhere near the bus stop post and we all know it has arrived. However, if there is already a bus at the stop, then the next one will pull up right behind. Its doors will open, but passengers wanting that particular bus will already have begun moving towards it and by some unsaid means we all know that it, too, has arrived. After loading it will simply carry on along its merry way.

We can probably extend this phenomenon to a three-bus situation, but, after that, things begin to get a bit less certain and there must be a break point where, as we further increment the number of arriving buses to implausible proportions, we can say a bus has not actually arrived at the stop.

I was a bit surprised to find myself in Bishopsgate recently, attempting to head north, when great swathes of buses turned up. This is a hideous stop serving (so it seemed to me) at least ten routes and located awkwardly amongst very busy road crossings. At one point there were six buses one behind the other (the first definitely at the stop and the others with diminishing certainty). One problem was that with the buses arriving in this way we actually had no idea what routes were being served by the buses at the rear as their fronts could not be seen. One or two people panicked and set off to find out, and I noticed that they were let on. I took the view that the two or three buses at the rear were not at the stop and would pull forward when the buses in front had gone away, and in fact that is exactly what buses five and six did (I actually found bus six was the one I wanted, a 48).

Once more I speculated about what the rules for this were, and how unfamiliar passengers were supposed to know. I have certainly been on buses that have had to stop well back from a stop and having performed peremptory stop duties just set off, not actually calling at the stop itself and clearly (judging by the arm waving) leaving people behind. What were they supposed to do? What are the rules?

Is the bus going to stop at all?

That brings me to the subject of bus stops. It seems to me that somehow something once so straightforward has got into a bit of a mess. In two-person days the system of compulsory and request stops always appeared to me to work reasonably well. The instructions were clearly printed on London Transport publicity (and I think occasionally at stops). Basically a bus would always call at a compulsory stop but at a request stop a waiting passenger had to make a hand signal whilst someone on a bus had to ring the bell once. Conductors used to help out (no doubt irregularly). Usually on late-running buses a conductor would see that no-one wanted to get off, and perhaps look out and observe no-one was waiting to get on, and give a double ring of the bell which told the driver he needn’t bother to stop. The practice was particularly noticeable on garage journeys, for reasons that might be fairly obvious (I have lived near several garages and had some of the fastest bus journeys ever on late night garage journeys).

An example of the bus stop flag instructions from the days when crew-operated buses predominated. I will forebear from commenting just now about the death of queuing.
Basically this well-honed custom and practice began its long and tedious collapse when one-person operation became the norm. With no conductor, drivers took it upon themselves to decide when to stop, or not, irrespective of flag type. Today, it seems to me, it is an utter free for all. There are no instructions or explanations for passengers that relate to the two stop types – each pedantically identified by its flag according to some formula, no doubt. We do not know what drivers are instructed to do either. As a result there is almost always someone in a crowd at a compulsory bus stop who wants to wave a paw about, even though it is not necessary. Whether they know the difference between stop types I could not say, but why would they know? In any case they probably just don’t trust drivers to stop, even where several people are waiting and there is only one route.

On board, of course, there is a cacophony of bell-ringing pretty much at every stop, whether compulsory or request (and how is a passenger supposed to know what kind of stop is approaching anyway?). I think the maximum number of ‘non-deliberate’ rings I’ve heard is 12. Whether everyone is deaf and also doesn’t understand the purpose of the on-board ‘bus stopping’ sign we will never know. The point is that if this system worked properly, then at most bus stops in London it ought not to be necessary to operate the bell at all: the bus should stop.

I recently came a cropper on an H10 when I wanted to get off at North Harrow station and the bus just sailed by. I had not rung the bell knowing the stop to be compulsory and it served a station where usually one can rely on someone getting on or off. It is true I hadn’t got up from my seat, but that is because it was next to the door. I was over-carried. Now, this was a driver making that decision but it is surely not reasonable to say ‘I won’t stop if nobody has got up and walked to the door’ because old people would be daft to stand up too soon and risk falling over as the bus decelerated. This lack of discipline or control cannot fail to confuse, mislead and sometimes inconvenience passengers and seems such an obvious shortcoming I am curious it is tolerated.

I am not myself sure there is the slightest point in maintaining two different types of bus stop in this day and age and at a time where it seems impossible to manage crew behaviour or passenger expectations and knowledge alike. That battle, I fear, has well and truly been lost. Better to have one system, educate the passengers (so far as one can) and enforce whatever the rules are upon staff. It seems to me that pretty much every stop in London is now de facto a request stop and if TfL harbours any ideas to the contrary then it will have to show a great deal more energy and enthusiasm in explaining what the policy actually is and then enforcing it. I cannot see this happening.

I notice the present bus maps have only a picture of a 'compulsory' flag, but the instructions for getting on or off buses are for 'request' stops. How, then, are request stops intended to differ? I have recently noticed some new request stops in surprising places, like outside Dalston Kingsland station, not exactly a quiet, secluded spot with only the occasional passenger. This is chaotic. 

What lessons can we learn from foreign cities, I wonder?

Boarding guidance that is offered by today's bus maps

Closed stops

Another source of mystery and puzzlement is the closed bus stop. This is usually because of road or pavement works. In the days gone by when a bus stop had to be closed London Transport went to great lengths to offer some kind of nearby alternative, often marked with a temporary stop (they were nicknamed dolly stops). For a number of reasons this does not happen anything like to the same extent as previously, and stops are simply closed. The first people on the bus know about this is when an automated announcement simply says ‘next stop is closed’. There is never a human voice or an apology, or advice about what to do, and as the notice given is rather short I’m not sure passengers have enough time to consider their options properly.

Last year, two consecutive stops on the H10 were closed for a couple of days with no alternative offered; imagine how hilarious some of the older passengers found this. Sometimes I am baffled by the decisions made. Recently a bit of road surface was disturbed at The Cricketers on Wimbledon Common, so the adjacent stop was simply closed, even though there was an adjacent bus yard (still in use), the location is a minor interchange and it was some distance to walk from stops either side. It was a wide road where a temporary stop appeared to be possible if, for some reason, it was not possible to stop in the bus yard. I had planned on getting on a bus here and it was far from clear from the inadequate notices where I was supposed to go. Not a twenty-first century experience, I thought.

I understand that local councils are difficult to communicate with about coordinating bus stopping needs with road or utility works. I also appreciate that with so many front gardens now converted into car parks it is hard to identify suitable alternative stopping points. Even so, I can see only a school-master’s 7/10 mark for ‘effort’ for handling temporary stop closures when it should be 8/10! Some people depend really heavily on buses stopping where expected and it is a huge problem for them if it doesn’t and if there is no prior information.


I had thought that with modern technology the sin of dawdling had long been consigned to history. Dawdling used to be a sin committed by early-running drivers who, having had no regard for timekeeping along most of the route, would proceed ever more slowly as they approached timing points. I’m sure you know the kind of thing: driving slowly; stopping at every stop whether there’s anyone there or not; timing one’s departure from a stop to catch the traffic lights changing to red; slowing down at lights whilst praying for them to change to red, sometimes doing an emergency stop on a late yellow. And so on. My father (a policemen in the 1950s) told me the police forbade dawdling because in central London such buses became an obstruction. Dawdlers had to be reported.

Anyway, it still happens – though perhaps not very frequently. Whether drivers know how irritating this is for on-board passengers to endure is a matter for speculation, but irritating it is for people who have paid money and invested time in their journey to find themselves sitting on a bus obviously dawdling along an empty road. I cannot believe today’s tech-savvy managers don’t know it’s happening now (as they always knew it happened, but providing drivers didn’t get caught they preferred not to see it).

I do not doubt it is hard to deal with, but to admit that it happens would seem to be a necessary first step.


That buses bunch at all is rarely the fault of drivers unless they are particularly reckless timekeepers. Bus schedules are inherently unstable because any delay to a bus means it carries a heavier load than expected and is therefore liable to lose further time. Naturally this allows the bus behind to start catching up, and since this means the bus in rear carrying fewer passengers than expected it is liable to catch up the delayed bus in front quite quickly, condemning them to run forward as a pair. Then the next bus catches up, and so on. If this isn’t attended to, the service is liable to fall apart quickly with enormous gaps appearing and very long waiting times.

Since bus operation is a dynamic activity, the management attention needed is constant. In later LT days it was, to say the least, at best indifferently managed and often it was appalling. There was no technology in those days and the passing of buses was noted by road inspectors who had few remedies available, mainly confined to turning buses already in a bunch short to try and fill an expected gap the other way (whether such gap actually appeared or not). There is no excuse today, where pretty much anyone can find out where any or all of the buses are at any moment, thanks to new technology. If I can do it from my mobile phone, I have no doubt a specialist control room ought to be able to do it better.

But bunching we still get. And where you have a bunch, someone somewhere else is getting a corresponding gap. Unfortunately, in the passengers’ mind, a bunch of buses only counts as a single vehicle since he or she can only take advantage of one of them. A gap, however, becomes very noticeable, and because more and more people arrive during gaps everyone gets to see it. This has a disproportionate impact on waiting times because the longer a gap is the more people are exposed to it. If one wants to reduce waiting times, then for a given number of buses you must run them regularly.

There was quite a crowd waiting patiently for this bunch. Thinking I wouldn't get on the first, I boarded the second. This was turned short en route, with nothing more than a recorded announcement and the internal lights being flashed on and off at Archway by an irritated driver. Several disgruntled passengers.

I don’t propose to say what can be done beyond all the new technology we have installed already that should be regulating buses in real time, but having done a lot of riding around it seems to me that London traffic is a lot more unpredictable than I recall, and that cannot help. Why it should be I don’t know, but with all the data that is available to us these days I think we ought to know and it ought to be making bus services more regular than they appear to be. With TfL responsible for many of the bus roads, dealing with bus-impacting traffic congestion should surely be easier? If it isn’t, then perhaps the Greater London mayoral social experiment needs another look.


So there we have it. I do think London’s buses are quite good, and it is noteworthy they carry half of the entire country’s bus users. The points I have made (some, I admit, with an element of exasperation) are because I think the services could be even better, because I care and because I do wonder if managers are conscious of them (and if so what is being done about them). I may of course be entirely on my own in finding fault, but, all the things I have referred to I have seen myself and have overheard uncomplimentary remarks made by other frustrated passengers, so I don’t think so! I’ll now get back to my bus statistics.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Quainton Road: What is a train service - Food for thought

Quainton Village

My splendid 6-volume gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (dated 1897) states that the village of Quainton lies in Buckinghamshire, 4 miles NW of Aylesbury, 55 miles from London and had a population of 885 who occupied an area of 5346 acres. In this gazetteer distances to London are always quoted from the local railway station, Quainton Road in this case, about three-quarters of a mile from the village. The distance is puzzling. By 1897 the direct route to London would have been via the Metropolitan Railway, the official distance to Baker Street being 44m 21ch (about 44¼ miles) and even allowing a bit extra to reach Charing Cross (the accepted origin of London distance measurement) one cannot get anywhere near the 55 miles quoted. The only way I can resolve this is to assume the gazetteer is not fully up to date and quotes the older distance to London via Aylesbury, High Wycombe and Maidenhead to Paddington. I believe this to be 55m 62ch, but it is nearer than any other combination of routes I can think of. It draws attention to the shortening of the route achieved when the Metropolitan came along, in any case a faster line than most of the old route.

Quainton is perhaps typical of a mid-Buckinghamshire village, even today having a population of only 1200. It still has a rather pleasing (and technically functioning) windmill and eight surviving almshouses, operated for many years by Winwood's Charity and dating back to 1687. In more recent times, life around this tranquil spot has been disturbed, in particular, by the Second World War. This introduced a prisoner of war camp, occupied by Italian prisoners between, so far as I can tell, 1942 and 1946. I have struggled to locate this site (rather less is known about the large number of prisoner of war camps in the UK than one might expect), but a 1948 aerial photo suggests it might have been alongside the eastern edge of station road. Although prisoners could be moved by road this consumed time, troops and petrol all of which was scarce. Prisoners were often moved by rail, and the location near a station is unlikely to be accidental.

Another wartime feature was the establishment of a food buffer depot just south of the station. With wartime food supplies so reliant on importation the risk of serious food shortage was felt to be acute and numerous government food 'buffer' depots were established in which food could be stored safely for extended periods. The idea was that the stock could be rotated, but that in an emergency the contents could be drawn down to keep supplies available for a while. In 1943 6.5 million tons of food were being stored in the UK and the depot at Quainton stored flour in a large brick building and sugar and sultanas in large corrugated huts, supposedly secured against rodents. The depots were all located where both road and rail facilities were good. At Quainton, the depot backed onto the railway yard and was only a mile from the main A41 trunk road.
Quainton Road today the buffer depot huts in a neat military line at centre and to right.

After WW2 and the rapid emergence of the 'cold war', and the prospect of nuclear strike, the government decided to continue operating the buffer depot system. There was a degree of optimism that if the worst happened transport would somehow be available to move food, and that power would be available to cook it (and people to eat it), but that is another story. By the 1960s the government estimated that stocks in or en route to shops would provide food for 33 days, and that the strategic stockpile in the buffer depots might provide enough food for 23 further days. This fell short of the entirely arbitrary 3-months of food stocks aimed for, but even by the early 1960s cold war planning for protecting the civilian population was degenerating rapidly. In the 1960s the reserve had fallen to around 600,000 tons, and by 1971 just 400,000 tons, against a rising population. The food (some of it tinned and quite old) was in good enough condition to sell into the market and create cash to keep the system operating for a while. When the Aberdeen typhoid outbreak occurred in 1963, it was quickly traced to contaminated corned beef which local officials suggested had had been part of a 13-year old 'nuclear' stockpile, but this was wrong—the stockpiled material was OK and it was a defective fresh import that had introduced the disease (it demonstrated some political concern about old stock being sold into the market though, as well as how long the canning process can actually preserve food).

By 1991 UK stocks had fallen to just 200,000 tons and the buffer depot system was at last abolished, the site at Quainton being closed and eventually purchased to enlarge the adjacent railway preservation centre. It is perhaps sobering to think that today the stocks held by supermarkets are probably good for about 12 hours and that this would be no more than double if it included food elsewhere in the supply chain actually in the UK and moveable. There are no strategic stocks at all (the fuel strikes a few years ago brought this home forcefully).

Wartime train services

All this is said by way of introduction to certain train service improvements that were demanded for Quainton Road station during 1943. I cannot yet be sure what demanded more trains, but either the buffer depot or PoW camp, or both, are plausible explanations for a change at a time when passenger facilities were generally being reduced. My suspicion is that it was more likely to be the PoW camp that demanded better transport facilities than a series of sheds requiring minimal supervision (but perhaps just an armed guard).

These improvements have exercised the lively imagination of several transport authors who have referred to the 'resumption' of Metropolitan Line services to Quainton Road. This, I feel, wholly misrepresents the position and to the uninitiated might suggest provision a train service of the kind enjoyed by, say, Uxbridge or Oxford Circus! Nothing could be further from the truth, so I had better explain.

The railway north of Harrow-on-the-Hill, all the way to remote Verney Junction, was leased to and operated by the Metropolitan & Great Central Joint Committee, a legal entity set up in 1906. Operations included the station and goods yard at Quainton Road. By 1933 the Committee's owners were the London Passenger Transport Board (as successor to the Metropolitan Railway) and the London & North Eastern Railway, as successor to the Great Central. The Joint Committee employed its own station and goods staff, ran the stations, issued the tickets, collected the fares and was responsible for the timetable. The Committee operated no trains of its own and local train services were operated on its behalf by the LPTB or the LNER as convenient, the Committee paying the operating company for the service provided. Study of time tables suggests the Committee was largely indifferent about whose trains fulfilled the schedules, though obviously only the Metropolitan could run through trains to the City and this was a factor in the Metropolitan having the range of timings it did. In addition, LNER express trains from much farther afield had to be accommodated as that company had the right to run a certain number of through trains (but the rights did not specify set times); there were not many of these so the problem could be managed without much difficulty. There was a complex clearing system which settled at weekly intervals the respective amounts retained by the Committee from through fares and the payments to the train operators for services provided.

In those remote parts of the line north of Aylesbury, passenger traffic was not abundant. All the stations were remote from even the nearest tiny villages and the terminus at Verney Junction served only a pub and the odd poorly-timed connections with the Oxford-Cambridge railway. The summer 1934 timetable shows that between Aylesbury and Verney Junction there were six LNER shuttle trains each weekday, each way, and two Metropolitan trains. Another Metropolitan train got as far as Quainton Road, where it turned round and this connected into one of the shuttles which began and finished at Quainton Road rather than Aylesbury. These all called intermediately at Waddesden, Quainton Road, Grandborough Road and Winslow Road. It may be noted that only the Metropolitan then offered through trains to points south of Aylesbury, but these both ran late in the day and one of those only went to Harrow. Almost certainly they were provided for operational convenience as it is inconceivable the traffic required it. As the Joint Committee was indifferent to who provided the trains, it is a moot point whether these odd trips constituted a Metropolitan Line 'service' as such.

In any event, by 1936 traffic levels were dire and there was some road competition. The joint Committee therefore withdrew the local train services, resulting in the closure of Winslow Road, Grandborough Road and Waddesden stations. Quainton Road remained open and continued to be served by LNER trains along the Great Central line, with the Verney line remaining open only for freight traffic. With most of the infrastructure remaining, the cost savings from withdrawing the passenger service cannot have been very great. London Transport is often blamed for directing the closures, a variety of implausible reasons being suggested. It is true that as half-lessees of the Joint Committee the LPTB had a significant say, and it is true that this area was both outside the statutory LPTB area set up by the 1933 Act and also incapable of developing much passenger traffic. It is also true that the LPTB had some significant financial difficulties looming and not much cash to support loss-making services, either directly or through its joint lines. However, I think harder reflection suggests these stations would almost certainly have closed anyway before long, even if it had been left to the LNER alone.

All this left Quainton Road with just six passenger trains a day, each way, plenty for the prevailing traffic and timed to allow a day in London or an evening out in Aylesbury. The 1939 service is shown in the following table.

In all the following tables, times given are at Quainton Road (for 'up' journeys) or Aylesbury (for 'down' journeys).

Table 1. Quainton Road Train Service in 1939
Southbound trains from Quainton Road Northbound trains Aylesbury to Quainton Road
08:24 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 08:06 LNER Marylebone to Leicester
11:39 LNER Leicester to Marylebone 12:40 LNER Marylebone to Brackley
15:21 LNER Leicester to Marylebone 16:52 LNER Marylebone to Brackley
18:09 LNER Brackley to Marylebone 18:40 LNER Marylebone to Quainton Road
19:03 (start) LNER to Marylebone 19:42 LNER Marylebone to Leicester
21:36 LNER Leicester to Marylebone 21:01 LNER Marylebone to Woodford

Some of these LNER trains ran 'express' to or from Aylesbury from Harrow or Marylebone, but some trains served all (or nearly all) stations between Aylesbury and Harrow, again supporting the view that the Joint Committee was indifferent about which company provided the trains.

The onset of World War II restrictions soon saw the service culled to just three trains a day (two in the morning and one in the afternoon) which wasn't much good for anything. By 1942 another trip was being operated, restoring a usefully-timed London evening departure. These trains were long-distance main line trains to or from Brackley, Woodford and sometimes Leicester, Nottingham or Manchester (north of Aylesbury, virtually all were all-stations trains, some with excruciatingly long running times).

Table 2. Quainton Road Train Service in 1942
Southbound trains from Quainton Road Northbound trains Aylesbury to Quainton Road
07:17 LNER Brackley to Marylebone 09:50 LNER Marylebone to Leicester
08:30 LNER Woodford to Marylebone 15:25 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
09:49 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 18:05 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
16:03 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 19:27 LNER Marylebone to Woodford

It is at this point I need to return to my original theme about the need for additional trains in 1943, to meet some government purpose.

The initial change was made from 5th April 1943 when the Joint Committee arranged for the LNER put on a 17:30 departure for Marylebone; this started its journey at Quainton Road using stock normally stabled at Aylesbury. A second LNER train (17:00 ex Marylebone) was extended from Aylesbury at 18:51 to arrive at Quainton Road at 19:00; this returned south at 19:08, in passenger service, to Aylesbury where it terminated and stabled. From the same date London Transport was required to extend to Quainton Road the 22:00 train from Baker Street, which had hitherto stabled at Aylesbury; it arrived at Quainton at 23:43 and returned to Aylesbury empty. At that time there were no local LNER trains that could be redeployed and the option instead of stopping the 22:00 Marylebone - Manchester express at Quainton Road (which it was timed to pass at 23:13) was understandably regarded as unacceptable.

We should not forget that even though this lone Metropolitan train went further than Aylesbury, it was still along tracks part-owned by London Transport and in any case the locomotive power had since 1937 been provided by the LNER, with LNER drivers, on behalf of LT. This arrangement, undertaken for administrative convenience with one late-night train in one direction only, cannot, surely, justify the suggestion that the Underground had resumed operation to Quainton Road!

In fairness I should say that on Saturdays (only) the 18:51 Aylesbury-Quainton Road and 19:08 Quainton Road - Aylesbury workings were also provided by an LT train rather than an LNER one, purely because the disposition of rolling stock made this more convenient, but I don't think this seriously challenges my point.

A new timetable came into operation within the month, on 3rd May 1943 and this refined the changes. The late night Metropolitan working continued unchanged but the late evening train was adjusted to be operated Monday-Friday by LT rather than the LNER (LT already ran this train on Saturdays). The new working saw it formed northbound by the 16:43 from Liverpool Street, departing Aylesbury at 18:40 and arriving at Quainton Road at 18:49. It formed a 19:03 departure from Quainton Road for Wembley Park, thence Neasden depot (later timetables saw the train forming a Baker Street service).

Table 3. Quainton Road Train Service in 1943
Southbound trains from Quainton Road Northbound trains Aylesbury to Quainton Road
07:17 LNER Brackley to Marylebone 09:50 LNER Marylebone to Leicester
08:30 LNER Woodford to Marylebone 15:28 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
09:49 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 17:06 (start) LNER to Quainton Road
16:03 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 18:07 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
17:30 (start) LNER to Marylebone 18:37 Met Liverpool Street to Quainton Road
19:03 (start) Met to Wembley Park 19:31 LNER Marylebone to Woodford

23:34 Met Baker Street to Quainton Road

These 'extra' trains north of Aylesbury did not appear in the passenger timetable whilst the war was on, perhaps confirming they were there only for those who needed to know; they did appear in timetables when the war finished. This is all an area that needs further exploration. Another timetable is shown below showing further variations.

Table 4. Quainton Road Train Service in 1946
Southbound trains from Quainton Road Northbound trains Aylesbury to Quainton Road
08:26 LNER Marylebone to Leicester
07:12 LNER Brackley to Marylebone 11:53 LNER Marylebone to Brackley
08:28 LNER Woodford to Marylebone 15:31 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
09:29 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 17:06 LNER Marylebone to Quainton Road
13:14 LNER Brackley to Marylebone 18:09 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
16:17 LNER Nottingham to Marylebone 18:40 Met Liverpool Street to Quainton Road
17:25 (start) LNER to Marylebone 19:34 LNER Marylebone to Woodford
19:00 (start) Met to Baker Street 23:38 Met Baker Street to Quainton Road

With minor variations these arrangements carried on until 29 May 1948. From the following Monday the late night Metropolitan train was simply withdrawn north of Aylesbury, while the early evening service was adjusted to be operated by an Eastern Region train instead; this was the 18:05 from Marylebone to Woodford, departing Aylesbury at 19:34 and calling at Quainton nine minutes later.

After that, only British Railways' Eastern Region trains called at Quainton Road until the Great Central route closed in 1966. The old Verney Junction route finally closed in 1947; such freight as remained was operated via the chord at Calvert, opened during World War II and better suited to surviving operations as it avoided shunting at Verney Junction. London Transport's interest in Quainton Road ceased in 1948 when the former joint line north of Aylesbury was allocated to British Railways to operate.

Of course, we are now staring East-West Rail in the face—the scheme to rejuvenate the old Oxford-Cambridge Railway. This scheme includes the introduction of passenger trains from London via Aylesbury and the Calvert curve towards Bletchley, and will pass through Quainton Road. I am not sure whether the decision has yet been made to double the track along this section. One cannot help wondering whether the locals will clamour to reopen to ordinary passengers the station at Quainton; this is at present in the hands of the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, which probably didn't expect regular passenger trains to be tearing through (actually the Chiltern trains just need to stop there—there are precedents for privately run national rail stations!).

Quainton Road Station - what changes to come?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What's in a name? 'Driverless', it seems

During early October I visited the small display about the design of the new deep tube rolling stock that London Underground had put on view in the spacious north ticket hall at King's Cross. It was interesting enough, for a design at such a formative stage and which has not yet been tendered to the train manufacturers who might (for practical reasons) have their own ideas. Most of the intended features had previously been aired in the press so, in truth, the amount of new information was not great, but it was interesting to study the many visuals at leisure. In any case, the display was not intended for the technical press so much as Piccadilly Line passengers, who, if all goes to plan, will be the first to sample the new trains.

Just to get the details out of the way, it is proposed to form up the trains from relatively short carriages which will reduce platform gaps that would otherwise occur, there may be nine or ten such carriages, producing a train a little longer than a 1973-stock that will occupy the whole of the platform area. Intermediate carriages will share 'bogies' (LU technical people call them trucks) with neighbouring carriages, so that (say) ten carriages would have just eleven trucks, compared with the present six carriages having twelve. This not only reduces weight substantially, but provides more room under the car bodies for equipment. It also makes it easier to provide through connections between all cars (like the S stock), making the train interior continuous.

The reduction in weight, caused by clever design and modern materials, means that the new trains will use usefully less energy than the 1973 stock. The LU thinking had been to re-invest this saving into providing air-cooling of the car interiors, meeting a perceived demand to make trains running through central London cooler, especially in summer. Unfortunately the huge growth in tube traffic means that a much more intensive service will be needed by the time the new trains enter service, so that total energy usage will unavoidably rise - increasing, not reducing, heat input to an already over-warm system. It is therefore recognized now that improvements to LU's tunnel ventilation systems will still be necessary if the tunnels are not to warm up further, and the 'energy balance' equation doesn't address the concerns of anyone who feels that the existing station temperatures are already much too high.

It can be hard to understand why the 'simple' issue of train cooling is constantly referred to as 'challenging' when most other metros are cheerfully addressing the issue or thinking about it. Unfortunately it is a basic rule of physics that this 'low grade' heat energy can only really be pumped around, and if you try and chill the temperature inside the train the only place you can pump the heat is to a point outside the train, raising the tunnel temperature. More importantly, it raises the air temperature in the narrow annulus between the train and the tube tunnel rings; this is not a problem when the train is moving and there is a huge passing airflow, but it gets quite interesting if a train becomes stationary for any length of time. First the very warm and perhaps static external air gets progressively less able to accept the pumped heat (reducing in-carriage cooling effect when perhaps it is most wanted) and then it will want to leak back inside the train in some form, so the carriages need good sealing at a time where on older trains people would already have opened all the windows, and older trains were notably leaky anyway. We then have to consider what would happen in the event of a major power failure stranding sealed trains in tunnels - there are of course a whole range of things that could be done to mitigate such risks, and which are being looked at, but the only point I want to make here is that 'simple' it isn't, at least in 12ft bore deep tube tunnels (another reason for not persisting with them indefinitely - see my last blog item).

We must then consider that the equipment can be quite bulky. On a normal train the air cooling (or even more bulky air-conditioning) equipment goes in the roof, next to the air ducting used to distribute conditioned air where it is needed. This is quite impossible in the deep tube where passengers are already banging their heads against an equipment-free roof. The reduction in trucks deployed does increase the space under car floors though, so it will have to go here. It will almost certainly mean rejected heat will be dissipated from beneath the train.

What did strike me about the display was the carefully crafted set of words used to describe the future of train drivers. I must start by saying it is the intention for the new trains to be delivered with a driving cab at each end, but to make the cab 'demountable' so it can be converted to passenger space in the event that it is decided no longer to have a member of staff in a driving cab (not something likely any time soon, as I have observed elsewhere).

The display made the quite proper observation that the new trains will be introduced 'from the early 2020s' [six or seven years hence seems a long time given tenders are being prepared now] and last for forty years or so, so the design should be future-proofed - they will last till at least 2060. So far so good - wish this had happened with some of our older stock.

The future-proofing message explained: '... this also means having trains that could one day be used in fully-automated mode. We would only consider implementing such a step following extensive engagement with our customers, stakeholders, staff and trade unions.' The message continues: 'TfL is committed to having a fully-staffed Tube network, on hand to assist customers and ensure safe operations.' And then: 'Given our existing train fleets, all drivers currently working at London Underground will be able to continue to drive trains for the rest of their careers'. It will be noted that though thrown together to imply some connection, these statements are each quite independent of each other and do not say that trains will remain fully staffed indefinitely. Options are obviously being kept open (and in any case what transport professional would be daft enough today to make a definite statement about what might be seen as desirable some thirty years away?).

Now, what to make of this. What I pick up on is the expression 'fully-automated mode', which isn't explained and leaves certain questions (understandably) hanging. Whatever it is, though, seems to mean that a driving cab is not necessary. In that context, what does fully-staffed tube network mean? If it means a member of staff on every [Piccadilly Line] train it doesn't actually say so.

The press (oh dear) found the display of sufficient interest to report about, though seemed to have difficulty with writing connected statements themselves. Many of the papers took the angle that 'driverless' trains were on the way, as though they were imminent and in some why connected with a threatened 'tube' strike which in the event didn't happen and was nothing in any way connected with train operations. The word 'driverless' did not appear at the exhibition, by the way and is a word the press seems to have latched onto without having any real idea what they are talking about.

Perhaps I could offer up the actual options that are open to LU, based on a slightly academic concept called Grade of Automation (or Goa).

GOA 1 means a manually driven system with some kind of automatic train protection (rather like traditional Underground).

GOA 2 means what is now called a semi-automatic system with an operator in the cab operating the doors and providing a start signal, the train driving automatically between stations. This is akin to the operation on Victoria, Central, Jubilee and Northern Lines.

GOA 3 means a fully automatic system with no need for a conventional driving cab and with the operator able to move around the train (usually, but not necessarily on every system, operating the doors and providing assistance). This is akin to the system on Docklands Light Railway.

GOA 4 means a fully automatic system without the necessity for any member of staff on board; it is sometimes called Unattended Train Operation of UTO.

Needless to say, each Goa level requires successively more sophisticated and reliable equipment that must address progressively more challenging tasks. It is accepted by transport professionals that the challenges of Goa 4 mean that because emergencies can arise (not all of which can be foreseen) staff must either be able to get to a stranded train very quickly or provide for a train being driven by remote control. In the deep tube getting to a train 'quickly' can be very difficult and some failures will inevitably occur where a train cannot be driven at all.

Goa 4 must perhaps be a very long term goal, but nobody yet has the answers to how to achieve this in the deep tube and quite rightly are not committing to anything that cannot at present be done (though this does not stop the politicos from mouthing vague threats about it).

So in that context, what might 'driverless' mean? The four lines already operating to Goa 2 are 'driverless' in that the train operators do not 'drive' in ordinary passenger service, yet Goa 4 (in the deep tube) is manifestly unachievable for at least 15 years and I suspect rather longer.

That brings us to Goa 3 then? Well I have been told by senior staff that LU has already considered Goa 3 and for exactly the same reasons I set out in my Modern Railways article on 'driverless' trains concluded that it isn't really practicable in today's busy deep tube network. I have seen odd references by LU to this form of operation, but I do not give them much credibility. In fairness, one can conceive that the more obvious practical problem of train despatch might be achievable in Goa 3 if it were managed from the platform rather than from the train, but this has its own problems and doesn't get away from some of the other shortcomings of cabless Goa 3 in a crowded deep level tube (and does not necessarily save much cost). I'll believe this is the approach only when I see it.

The problem with the word 'driverless' is that is has newspaper appeal, even if nobody knows what it means. We can hardly expect the papers leaping to explain Goa levels either - so the industry really needs to come up with some appealing terminology itself. As it happens 'Unattended Train Operation' is fairly self explanatory, and is the level likely to cause the most concern, upset or savings, depending on who it is being asked about it. 

That leaves us with the need to think of terms for Goa 2 where perhaps the term semi-automatic operation is descriptive enough. Goa 3 appears to be the problem area for a decent term, perhaps calling for something like mobile train operator operation or the like. I'm sure someone else can do better than these though.

This graphic of a doorway on one of the new trains shows level access (not done on the Victoria Line, requiring platform humps). We do not yet know if this implies narrower trains in order to achieve this, but if platform edge doors are in mind for Goa 4 operation then it is easier if trains are 'level' - but as we've found on S stock can increase gaps on curves. Another issue that needs a long term fix. Implications for door height I do not yet know.

In any event, the problems of maximizing automation in the deep tube and keeping the public and safety authorities on side are surely magnified by the need to operate trains in 12ft diameter tunnels, warming to an earlier theme. It would be good to think that by the time these 'new tube for London' trains are ripe for replacement our successors will have more space to work with.

If you want to know more about the complications of bringing these new trains into service, then click HERE. Meanwhile I note that the London Infrastructure Plan 2050 is quoting the following dates for Goa 4 operation (and note Goa 3 isn't mentioned): Piccadilly 2029, Central 2032. Silence for the rest. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The hole just isn't big enough - the end in sight for the 12ft tube?


In my last post about driverless trains (December 2013) I queried how much longer it would be that we were going to be stuck with 12ft diameter tube tunnels. The much-extended London deep tube network was a product of late Victorian thinking and while it was a brilliant solution at the time it struggles a bit today. One problem is that people have got bigger. Moreover the sclerotic stations are less efficient not just because of crowding (far more people than that for which they were designed to operate efficiently), but because of changing passenger behaviours which means flows are slowing down.

The more I travel about when it is busy (and it is now busy most of the time), the more I am surprised that nobody seems very concerned and that there is no long term plan to deal with what I see will be a problem. I am not suggesting we begin wholesale reconstruction tomorrow, of course. But in a hundred years can we honestly expect any of these tiny tunnels to be in use in today's form? I think not, for the reasons that follow, and that leads to the next question. When, between now and a hundred years hence, will something be done? There's a lot of deep tube, about 280 single track kilometres, in fact. So whatever is done will need careful phasing over many years. That being the case, some kind of plan is surely needed, and we need the debate sooner rather than later.

Why the tunnels are becoming too small for purpose

My interest in making the tubes bigger was partly stimulated by observations from others that people are getting bigger. I observed that between 1875 and 1975 men aged 21 have on average increased in height from 5ft 5ins to 5ft 10ins and that the door height of a 1972 stock train is but 6ft 1ins. If we do the statistics, based on a spread of heights of those aged between 20 and 49 it means that in 1875 pretty much everyone would have passed through a notional 1972 stock doorway, whilst today 12½ per cent of males need to stoop whilst entering the cars and even then some of them cannot stand straight up without banging their head on the roof. At first it seemed apparent that in just a few years the proportion of passengers banging their heads would double, but then I realized that the latest 2009 tube stock has doorways that are a couple of inches higher (achieved in part by lowering the floors) and this is putting off the evil day when the average person is larger than the hole in the side of the train. Nevertheless, people are getting bigger and the tunnels are not.

There are also safety issues to consider. Today's expectation for tube construction requires an escape walkway to be provided along one side of the train, whilst existing tubes (with odd exceptions) have no escape facility except at the ends of the trains. This is problem enough today, but 'grandfather rights' and experienced staff mitigate the obvious dangers. I cannot help thinking that as the decades roll by, the safety authorities will become increasingly intolerant to the lack of additional means of escape, especially if LU pursues the 'driverless train' concept, in whatever form it develops. This at least invites consideration about enlarging tunnels, and if that were to be the plan then enlarging to main line size should surely be looked into.

As a guide, the existing tubes are about 3.6m in diameter, the Jubilee Line tunnels with walkway are about 4.35m, itself considered a compromise - ideally it would have been bigger to reduce evacuation times. Crossrail tunnels have an internal diameter of 6.2m and allow for main line stock with overhead line equipment. Perhaps if the 4-rail system is to be perpetuated (itself an interesting question) then tunnels 6m in diameter would do.

To give a flavour of the effort required, enlargement would require removing almost twice as much spoil per unit length of tunnel as driving the original tunnels required. We then have the issue of whether enlarged tunnels would clear existing nearby structures and tunnels, and all which that entails. Meanwhile, more and more tall buildings with deep foundations make the task of underground tunnel enlargement harder as time progresses, and without a plan there is no attempt to safeguard enlargement that I believe inevitable. In short, this depressingly vast task is not something to embark upon lightly and my concerns are based entirely on the premise that one day, however far away that might be, the existing small-bore tubes will simply not do the job and that LU need to start grappling with this as a long-term issue.

The recent Central Line strike, and the little motor difficulty they had a few years back when the line closed entirely for weeks, made me wonder whether that line would be a good candidate for early reconstruction. I offer the following thoughts:
  1. Virtually all the open air parts of the Central were built to main line gauge and the alterations required to restore such a gauge are (in the great scheme of things) quite small.
  2. It appears that London can function without the Central Line for extended periods at present traffic levels provided reasonable alternatives are provided.
  3. Much of the Central Area of the Central Line is duplicated by or accessible from Crossrail, at least partially. Once Crossrail is opened, but before its traffic has fully developed, there appears to be a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity to close the Central Line for reconstruction. (To divert Central Line trains into Crossrail tunnels before Crossrail services start would have been a realistic option for allowing Central Line reconstruction; alas, not now possible. Crossrail 2 might have offered a second opportunity if it were to take over a Central Line branch, but this is no longer the current plan).
  4. The Central Line will be one of the lines needing new rolling stock anyway within the next decade or so, probably with entirely new signalling, so the timing is reasonably good.

Although the Central Line is mainly straight, there are a few extraordinarily sharp bends in it and these could be eliminated, with consequential speed improvements (some other lines might benefit even more from elimination of irksome curve-related speed restrictions)

As already indicated, reconstruction of any tube line would be a formidable challenge, even though it has been done before and some of the issues are well known. It is probably not feasible to attempt enlargement with trains running (as was done previously) so closure for probably at least two years seems unavoidable. But what of the stations? If one is increasing the comfort and capacity of the tunnels then major station works are also invited, and may be necessary anyway, for example where platform access subways cross tracks at tube heights. Longer platforms perhaps beckon?

It may be argued that it would be easier to build new tubes and just abandon the old ones that could perhaps make useful cable or air ducts or emergency escape routes. The problem is that it is very difficult to find new routes across London at sensible depths, while the existing tunnels self-maintain their 'right of way' between the invading deep foundations of London's vast new buildings.

And People are moving more slowly

On the subject of stations, I fear that here, too, some kind of step change will be required sooner or later. Many Underground stations (and not just in Zone 1) are already at bursting point and any delays create a real problem for the staff. I sometimes watch with astonishment at the way seemingly impossible crowds are dealt with daily at some very poorly designed stations (and I say this as someone who once managed Victoria!). Without a long term plan I fear possible crisis where a large number of stations will require massive congestion relief schemes all at once. If a whole line is to be reconstructed then obviously this aspect needs coordinating too; it might even make the job easier.

I have been looking at some LU standards relating to handling passenger flows and I wonder whether these remain fit for purpose in the light of my own observations about passenger behaviours. For example, I am not at all sure that the standards for handling traffic in passageways and other public areas match what is now happening. I have been doing my own studies recently and make four observations.
  1. In very rough terms about a third of people in any crowd (including a moving crowd) are using some kind of mobile device, be it a mobile phone or music device (often combined) or a reading device. In the majority of instances the owner is fiddling with it, and it is to the device that immediate attention is focused.
  2. In virtually all cases where a moving person is fiddling with an electronic device whilst moving, their speed drops to about half that of the 'ordinary' flow, thereby causing the whole flow to slow down in relatively crowded or narrow spaces. (I invite you to check this for yourself.)
  3. In addition to slowing down, navigation virtually ceases and users are apt to weave across spaces (causing further slowing of flows) and then suddenly correct as peripheral vision identifies 'obstructions', such as a person coming the other way.
  4. When something exciting is happening on their electronic device, some users will just stop dead where they are, causing havoc to the flow rate. This includes trying to finish off a phone call inside a station entrance before the signal fails farther in, a particularly difficult track change between pieces of music, maybe requiring both hands, or the end of a very exciting chapter on their Kindle.

Let us be clear, if this kind of behaviour were isolated (such as those reading newspapers whilst going down stairs in a busy rush hour) then we just shrug it off. My own observations (St Johns footbridge at Clapham Junction is an excellent place to do this) suggest it is a massive and growing problem and that it is beginning to interfere with flows through stations quite seriously. Go and see for yourself; I recommend those mean not-quite-wide-enough subways of the 1960s/70s to be a good place to start. I do not have an answer to what I see as a mounting problem, but do think it is a factor that may not have received due attention by planners and is getting worse.

Luggage and baggage

In much the same vein I feel moved to mention the issue of luggage. When I first began using the tube in rush hours, it is my feeling that the majority of passengers did not have 'luggage' in the ordinary sense of the word. Many men carried nothing or a folded newspaper and umbrella, with a proportion having a modest sized briefcase. Women generally had just a modest-sized handbag with perhaps a shopping bag into which the handag was placed. In the evening, notably on Thursdays, carrier bags containing shopping items might be carried (anyone else remember the enhanced Central Line services on Thursday evenings to cater for 'late night' shopping, when 'late' meant 8pm?). True 'luggage' was not altogether uncommon but there was comparatively little of it, particularly in the rush hours when no-one who had given the matter any thought would bring suitcases.

Well, it isn't like that now.

Luggage is today carried in vast quantities, and not just on Heathrow trains where the grudging accommodation struggles to cope. Nor is it simply the quantity of luggage, it is the size of it and also the amount of it in relation to the people carrying it. Some luggage is so vast that it needs two people to carry it, with consequential impacts on boarding times and safety, for example on escalators, where it totters precariously and no-one can pass.. Moreover, I often see people with far more luggage than they can move alone, so bits of it are left whilst the rest is moved, to the consternation of station staff looking at what (to them) is a large suspect package. It is touching that people think it will still be there when they return! It may be my imagination, but quantities and weights of luggage seem to be going up, and this is not good for the operation of an already too busy and too small station.

I also need to mention the back-pack. Another recent survey of mine (Baker Street provides a good vantage point) suggested that very nearly half of the people I watched using an escalator for twenty minutes either wore a back pack or a large shoulder bag slung in such a way that it was effectively a pack pack, or had other large luggage with them. I will avoid wasting more than nominal space wondering why quite so many people need to be carrying items with them apparently sufficient to sustain them for a long weekend up a mountain, for the point is that they now do whilst once they did not. Now, our old friend the escalator had its material dimensions set in the days when small briefcases were the norm, and now they are not the norm. A briefcase or handbag held tightly at the side causes virtually no additional impediment to flow than its carrier would if travelling alone. This, in crowded conditions with an escalator operating at 145 ft/min (once its optimal speed) allowed the majority of treads to be occupied, or, at least, their right hand sides.

A back-pack, or its equivalent, unfortunately sticks out materially to the rear of its carrier and will often make it impractical to occupy the next step (occasionally next two steps), at least if one doesn't want a face full of back pack from a fidgety wearer oblivious of anything behind. I would not go so far as to say my study is sufficiently rigorous to redesign our station standards, but it is apparent that, on the face of it, escalator capacity is being materially reduced by this change of fashion, coupled with the luggage problem already alluded to. Again, the odd pack pack is hardly an issue but when it is apparel worn by over a third of passengers it begins to take its toll. I will forbear from other observations about this handy piece of kit, but the number of times these things get caught in train doors, or strike other passengers whilst their owners swivel about oblivious, is perhaps worthy of separate study but again wearers do not always seem conscious that the appendage sticks out to the rear a long way from their own centre of consciousness. My guess, for discussion purposes, is that escalator capacity may be reduced by about ten per cent by this change of fashion, and this is, I suggest material.

I suppose another fairly serious devourer of space is 'wheely' luggage. In the dark ages, when I grew up and then worked for LU, this form of luggage was virtually unknown; if a suitcase were carried then carried it was and although it obviously increased the effective dimensions of the carrier it was held close and occupied about the minimum of extra space possible. Not so today. The elderly, frail and encumbered may always have needed the take advantage of mechanical assistance but the numbers were low. Today. the world's sleekest, burliest and 'healthiest' of our passengers choose never to carry a suitcase and drag the tiniest item around on wheels. Whilst I myself find this very peculiar, this is immaterial. What is actually happening has three consequences: (1) the trailing luggage doubles a person's footprint in space that is very precious to start with; (2) it increases the safety risk because people moving around a busy space do not notice the trailing luggage as a person passes by and trips over it; and (3) the extraordinary behaviour of a proportion of people with wheeled luggage anywhere near an escalator scare people in keeping clear of them, further reducing capacity (I refer to those who, oblivious of the planet around them, stop dead on leaving an escalator to restore the wheels leaving no room for those behind to avoid the collision). It is no part of my job to do more than draw attention to this fad on the basis that our stations are ill-designed to cope with it and it has an impact on capacity. If it is a known problem (which I argue it must now be) then I expect to see it appearing in the flow equations, which I do not.

Consider now all these factors together. 


From this, I think I may summarize what I believe to be two strands of thought.

The first is that with people getting bigger, and walking slower whilst distracted, and carrying things that are larger and heavier, any tendency of stations to reach full capacity will be accelerated. If we think we might have a capacity problem, I think it could be worse. The second is that I am not sure that existing capacity standards (or for that matter operating procedures) are picking this up and perhaps more research needs to be done on how real people actually behave and whether the answer is to change standards or try and change behaviours.

Personally I find it selfish beyond belief that people immerse themselves in a little world of their own when using electronic busy places - almost as though the rest of the world ceases to exist. The truth is, I suspect, they don't give it a moment's thought. Apart from inviting us to mine more underground space in stations, at vast cost, the magnetic draw of electronic devices not only slows everyone down but creates material hazards. A recent project I was involved with discovered that significant numbers of people in the street were colliding with trams. They were not being hit by the trams, they were walking straight into the side of them. The suspicion was that their attention was entirely directed to their electronic device and, expecting the pedestrianized street to be clear just walk straight into the vehicle (research indicated the same phenomenon in several large European cities). We see some comparable evidence for accidents or near misses at foot way crossings over railways where electronic distractions are implicated. It would be a surprise if London Underground was in any way immune from accidents caused by this kind of distraction, but I can see no easy solution.

Returning to my theme before closing, the Underground is simply not big enough for the passenger demand now, and this is aggravated by passenger behaviours that may be impractical to change. One factor (but only one) is the size of the deep level tube lines, a legacy from Victorian times, for that is when the legislation was passed that created the core system that effectively defined the size of any further extensions. That deep-level system has served us well for a century, but I seriously question that it can do so for another hundred years, given all the prevailing pressures. Making any change will be horrendously difficult and costly, but will, I contend, have to be faced. It seems to me better that we start thinking about this now so an organized response can be considered and phased in over perhaps the next fifty years (it needs to co-ordinate with train renewal plans). It is a problem that will get worse, and not easier, the longer that it is left. However, major reconstruction does open up other opportunities that might not otherwise be considered, for example the scale and timing of station reconstructions, and even perhaps how our outer branches (and which outer branches) link to which central London deep level core lines.

I think we need the debate about the very long term future of the small bore tubes, and the time to start it is now. Perhaps at the very least, we should be insisting on passive provision being made in that any new tunnelling should contemplate eventual use of larger trains (I doubt in the planners of the Battersea extension or Bank reconstruction have this in mind). But our transport planning system is dominated by the mayor of the moment and other politicians who have little inclination to take very long term views and an electoral system that doesn't exactly reward very long term vision, especially if it costs now. Having said that, I do think Londoners would have little problem connecting with the idea that the old tubes and many of the stations are apparently far too small. We need today's practitioners and users to start any debate, so why not here and now?

By the way, on the last four out of five occasions I used London Bridge and the two flights of escalators in the exit routes, not one person was walking either up or down for the whole duration of my exit. It was so extraordinary I even photographed it: left hand side of all escalators clear.  What's going on? Is this another capacity-reducing tendency running amok? Keep your eyes open and keep asking the questions! 

About Me

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is