Thursday, 12 February 2015

Just a reminder

Several new blogs on my new Wordpress blog site, which may be found HERE.

Do please visit the new site and bookmark me there.

It is time consuming to maintain two sites and I cannot keep this one going as well (especially with its known 'issues').

Thanks

Mike


Sunday, 11 January 2015

London Underground - What was going on a hundred years ago in 1915.

I have posted an article on this in my new Wordpress blog which may be found at https://machorne.wordpress.com or by clicking THIS LINK.

The move has been necessitated by excessive pop up advertising on this site that has created some concerns. I also think Wordpress is the more professional product (for now).

I will retain this site for archive purposes and will post notifications of new blogs here for those who get automatic notifications (but you might want to use the 'follow' button on the new site, and 'unfollow' this one).

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

New Blog

I have posted a new blog item on my Wordpress Blog, which may be found HERE.

I will keep this 'Blogger' blog for archive purposes, but unless there are howls of protest I won't add to it as it is time consuming copying stuff across and maintaining two blogs.

I think Wordpress has persuaded me it is the one to operate (though it is far from perfect from a blogger point of view!).

Latest blog is a review of 1915 events on the Underground.

M

Sunday, 28 December 2014

"The Blunders of our Governments" - the name says it all

I don’t intend to make a habit of doing this, but I have felt moved to write a brief book review.
The book is called ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ and I was initially put off by the sensationalist-sounding title of a book that appeared much too thin for such a large landscape of possibilities. Finally, I was intrigued enough to look within. The book was purchased forthwith and I’ve been unable to put it down since.
Far from being sensationalist, the book is an incisive examination of the workings of government over the last 35-40 years or so. A number of seriously poor and extremely expensive decisions have been identified (the ‘blunders’) and are used more as case studies to illustrate the defects inherent in government decision-making and how long the wrong paths are followed until inevitable collapse or reversal follows. The writers studiously avoid making any party political points and observe that the colour of parties is largely irrelevant in their capacity to take foolish decisions.
There are some surprises. First the sheer enormity of the wasted money is breathtaking. Secondly, there were some disasters that I’d never heard about, such as the short-lived assets recovery agency. Of interest to readers of this blog is the coverage of Metronet and how the PPP was allowed to happen. The Poll Tax is one of the earlier examples offered. Nobody, it seems, wanted to be the one to point out it couldn’t work, though they all thought it. It is so very difficult to listen to the constant bleating about the need to save taxpayer’s money in the context of a dysfunctional organism that can waste tens of billions of our money time after time with no lessons learned (the book hints at hundreds of billions over the period of its review – yes billions with a ‘b’). The main ‘surprise’ is the near complete immunity that our politicians and senior civil servants have from any kind of resulting sanction. If a company director (but maybe not a bank director) was as reckless and incompetent as some of the actors in this horror story have been they would have been locked up. One reason, of course, is the frequency with which ministers move.
Some myths are debunked. For example the myth that a minister is in any way accountable for the actions of his department. Unless a specific decision can be pinned on an individual minister there is (and never was) any mantra that says they must either resign or be made to go, and the odd cases where this has occurred (eg Lord Carrington) are exceedingly few and untypical. It is true many ministers do resign or are encouraged to go, but usually this is for, let us say, ‘personal’ reasons rather than political ones.
The book, in seeking to discover how appalling decisions are arrived at and then pursued, observes that nobody is ever, actually, in charge. Either nobody, or in a very real sense, too many people. And often the wrong people. At no point do the authors suggest that the people making policy or finding ways to implement the machinery decided upon are in any way unintelligent or less than well-intentioned. One of the problems, it seems that the ministers live in a very strange world of their own, a world that predisposes them to imagine that everyone else lives as they do. The bright people (often consultants) who help to develop policy have little experience of the world either. The bright and helpful officials who are then asked to deliver the resulting policy are either not consulted at the right point in the process, or, astonishingly, in many cases they are not consulted at all. There is a whole section on this extraordinary way of going about things.
I do not jest. You can’t make this kind of stuff up!
The book finishes with a range of helpful and practical suggestions for improving matters, but in essence it concludes that the main problem with government is nothing to do with party politics or any of that kind of thing, it is the way the entire structure of government is arranged. It just isn’t fit for purpose, and it seems ill-adapted to a complicated, connected world where increasingly events and policy opportunities are entirely out of its control.
I do commend the book. I had quite independently concluded that government systems and processes were not fit for purpose, so I suppose I would be keen on an evidence-based book which had arrived at a similar conclusion. With an election next year, I think as many people as possible should read this book before the next luckless batch of political cannon-fodder comes preaching at our doorsteps to read out their prepared PR-speak briefs at us, whilst taking care not to say anything that will commit themselves to anything firm. Ask them what they are going to do to sort out the mess the book alludes to before the final twenty per cent of the population finally gives up on politics! If parliament isn’t going to fix it, then who is then? There is in fact a whole chapter about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny to which the worst cases were subject, and how meaningless a contribution an average MP from any party can make to a potentially unravelling disaster.
There is something very wrong with the decision making process itself, the book asserts, and there are in fact no constraints placed on what is attempted to be done, however inane. If disaster is possible (and Murphy’s law suggests that if disaster is possible then at some point it will happen), government policy will plough headlong into it and the only question is how big and expensive it will be. There isn’t even any evidence of risk analysis being carried out, let alone any contingency plans to handle any unravelling, or even a Plan B in case it fully unravels. This would be unforgivable in any modestly large project, but is that much harder to understand, or forgive, when the magnitude of these errors are considered.
I am afraid that if you do read the book, the scale of apparent incompetence, and the money wasted thereby, might make you quite angry at what people are doing in our name, without any kind of come-back at all. It isn’t often a book will do that.
I have no doubt that the authors have done a good job with a difficult subject. One is Millennium Professor of British Government at University of Essex and the other is Master of University College Oxford. I feel that it is very likely the facts reported are likely to be substantially accurate and the inferences drawn measured and reasonable. (They are more measured than I could have achieved).
By the way, there is an entertaining epilogue of current potential ‘disasters in waiting’ to give you something to think about during the New Year.
The Blunders of Our Governments. Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe. Oneworld Books. 496pp. No more than £9.99.

Extending the Underground – the numbers game

Introduction

I have for some little while been writing a book about how London Underground has expanded since it was first built. You will already realize its origins came in two bursts: the first was 1863-1868 when the first steam-operated sub-surface lines were opened and the second was in 1900-1907 when most of the central London deep tube network appeared. After each network got going, the original system was expanded to form what we have today. But the circumstances around which expansion took place, and even more expansion did not take place, is not covered at all well by the standard historical works. A huge amount of material has been left out and the nature of the difficulties that made any kind of expansion nearly impossible is quite overlooked. My book is still not ready for the world, so I thought it time to make known a few of my findings in the hope that they will be useful.
The thrust of my book will be that we have an incredible system in London, but not until the 1960s was one penny of public money contributed towards it. The problem was that the system was so marginal in making a return, and in truth probably didn’t make a real return at all, that private finance could not be freely obtained either. The outcome was a typical British fudge, the kind of thing that the British are apparently rather good at, and money was raised for extensions that were neither large enough or numerous enough, but fantastic when they happened. After WW2 things went from bad to worse and not only investment was very difficult but timely renewals (for which provision should have been available) suffered too. This has left us with a system that is in exceedingly variable condition and much harder to maintain than it should be (for which the ill-fated PPP was supposed to deal, but that is for another day).

The Core System

I will start off with a mere observation. In Victorian and early Edwardian times there was no shortage of schemes for improving railway transport in London. Railway Acts of Parliament tumbled through the parliamentary machine and probably more than half never got built. Companies were formed and prospectuses were issued for the most implausibly ambitious schemes. Given the difficulty that even the better amongst them had in raising money, it is curious that so much effort was wasted on concepts that had little chance of going anywhere.
Then there was an ‘event’. After that event there were virtually no further wild schemes for expansion of the Underground by the buccaneers who were so evident previously, and nor did the established companies rush to put schemes before Parliament. The ‘event’ was the near bankruptcy of the Underground Group during 1908 and its voluntary receivership to allow financial restructuring of a type which got it out of its immediate difficulty but made life awkward in later years. I think I am on fairly firm ground if I state that after 1908 there was no occasion when the Underground Group ever sponsored another extension of the system, anywhere, without some kind of third party support. At any rate, the rush to build Underground railways in London took on a very different complexion.
This, not entirely trivial, change of course seems to have avoided much prominence by those covering London Underground history, yet it is the very basis of why most of the Underground’s subsequent extensions were built where and when they were, or at all. Since most of the Underground’s mileage in fact constitutes extensions to the early lines then light should surely be shed?
The 1908 problem resulted from several factors, but the main ones are that the system of lines financed by Edgar Speyer and Charles Yerkes cost more to build or electrify than was expected and when opened or improved generated less traffic than was hoped for (these were not the only reasons but made dealing with any other issues virtually impossible). This was not only instantly discouraging for anyone thinking that more lines were needed but threatened bankruptcy of the Underground Group itself. Essentially what happened next was that repayment of a very large quantity of loan notes was only possible by issuing new bonds with a long repayment date and a near-exorbitant rate of interest, required to attract finance to a company that appeared a little unstable. It worked, but at a huge price for which Londoners should be grateful but of which they probably had no understanding at the time.

The Need to Expand

The situation now was that the Underground Group and its various subsidiaries wanted to expand, and needed to expand, to make better use of the new or revitalized lines, which had lots of capacity available and were proving expensive to run for the traffic actually being carried. The problem was that the companies had no spare money and no practical means of borrowing any. With the existing finances in disarray, the only way of obtaining money for an extension is if, as a direct result of that extension, the revenue increased sufficiently to pay the additional operating costs, the cost of financing the extension and included suitable provision for keeping it up to date. If the existing central London system couldn’t be certain to do that, any extension (by its nature less busy) would seem likely to make the financial position worse and not better given the traffic levels expected. Not only would this make raising money very difficult indeed but the directors had a legal responsibility to their shareholders not to behave recklessly by embarking on any scheme likely to disadvantage further its shareholders, who were already enduring some financial pain.
It is important to understand how all this worked. Take a modest, but hypothetical, extension of a railway line on a railway where the existing shareholders are receiving a dividend of (say) 2% against an expectation of 7% claimed in the original prospectus (the ordinary shareholders own the company and usually appoint the directors). A new extension is desired, but has to be paid for. Soundings amongst the shareholders indicate there is no chance whatever of their risking any more of their own money on buying new ordinary shares. If they had spare cash, they would be better off investing it elsewhere, such as nice safe government bonds. Furthermore, railways were usually forbidden by Parliament to borrow money in any proportion greater than a third of their total shareholding, and were often already mortgaged to the hilt. So, nothing happens.
But there is one thing a railway wanting to extend can do, but it isn’t cheap: it can issue shares that guarantee a worthwhile return. These shares come in a wide variety of forms but typically take the form of ‘preference’ shares to which is attached a stated rate of income. This income is not guaranteed, but because preference shares are paid out of profits before any distribution is made to ordinary shareholders (hence the name) a railway would have to be doing disastrously badly for a preference shareholder to get nothing. [Some Underground railways did do disastrously badly, the Metropolitan District, for example, only rarely paid a dividend to ordinary shareholders and preference shareholders rarely received their full amount either (and most tube lines struggled to pay more than 1% on ordinary shares)]. For this reason preference shares had to make the ‘promised’ return quite high or nobody would be interested. Amounts between 4% and 6% were quite usual. Preference shareholders rarely had the same rights as ordinary voting shareholders. Of course, because the voting shareholders were now shunted to the back of the queue for receiving any return on their money, they, too, had to be happy that they would actually be better off and that their railway would be a better business as a result of the proposed extension being built.
So we now have a position where an extension is financed by means of a mixture of preference shares and further borrowing, which was also expensive (probably also 5 or 6%). In addition, borrowing required, at least in theory, some provision for paying it back, which was not necessary in the case of shares. Because extensions had to be financed this way, it made them even more expensive than they otherwise would have been, and therefore even more difficult to justify.
Let us look at an example of a hypothetical extension perhaps in the 1920s
An extension will cost £2 million to build, and therefore £2 million must be borrowed. The financing cost even at 5% is £100,000 a year. The additional costs incurred as a result of operating the extension (staff, electricity, maintenance and so on) will be (say) £225,000. The total annual costs to be met are therefore £325,000.
Traffic, once it has settled down, is expected to reach an average level of 15 million trips a year and it is estimated that the average fare paid will be 6d, generating £375,000. Costs appear to be £50,000 less than income, so we do it? No we don’t. Here are some reasons.
  1. The 15 million a year figure takes ten years to build up to that level and does not arrive overnight when the extension opens. A loss is inevitable initially and this needs factoring into the costs.
  2. We need to ask where the people come from. Many will be new people filling up empty suburbs, but some, say a quarter, will transfer from bus services also run by the Group. If we considered that transfer of passengers (albeit a good thing) will reduce bus profits by (say) £15,000 a year, then that cannot be counted as new money from the perspective of the group as a whole, and we must discount it too. This can equally work the other way around if bus feeder services are possible, but we will assume not in this particular example.
  3. The shareholders and lenders expect a return on their money from the moment they part with it, while the extension might take three years to build before it becomes revenue earning. Provision is therefore made for paying interest immediately out of capital, so more capital needs to be raised than is actually needed for the railway. That has a cost.
  4. Raising the money isn’t free either. Commissions have to be paid to the brokers and possibly discounts have to be offered if people don’t rush to subscribe to the shares.
When all these factors are taken into account, we find we are actually borrowing £2.1 million and perceived financing costs are more like £375,000, when all the factors I have mentioned are considered (and there are other’s I haven’t mentioned, like parliamentary costs). Meanwhile it seems that actual revenue (that means ‘extra’ money after allowing for passengers transferring from other modes) looks to be nearer £355,000 a year, and the extension, in reality, appears likely to be loss making. We therefore do not do it.

The Need for Another Way

The point is that many railway extensions are fairly marginal because of the high costs of building and operating them. What has put the above example into the ‘unbuildable’ category is the method of financing. We are adrift by a mere £20,000. If the financing costs were 3% and not 5% then we would be looking at a £20,000 profit and not a £20,000 loss. The way the money is raised is therefore absolutely crucial, and has hugely affected the way the Underground has expanded.
The only extensions proceeding after 1908 on the basis of raising finance this way were Bank to Liverpool Street, Edgware Road to Paddington and Paddington to Queens Park, but these received some financial support (or its equivalent) from the Great Eastern, Great Western and London & North Western Railways which assisted schemes that were not all that expensive and quite likely to be busy anyway. There were certainly no more extensions built on this basis (it will be recalled that services to Watford and Ealing ran over main line railway tracks and the financial arrangements were completely different and involved little Underground capital).
So, how did the extensions and reconstructions come about? First, both the Underground Group and the Metropolitan Railway (which had exactly the same problem) did a lot of planning. The Underground planned on an extraordinary scale under the leadership of the good Mr Pick, whilst the good Mr (shortly to be Lord) Ashfield worried about how to pay for it. Pick never intended his official’s ideas to represent any kind of plan for virtually none of it could be funded, but the process flushed out where the Underground considered new lines would be needed. Nearly all of the proposals in mind were in the open air or involved inter-running with main line trains. By 1920, some discussions had already taken place with main line railways about the possibilities. This was sensible as (with some exceptions) the main line railways found it very expensive and disruptive to handle large quantities of local traffic, which wanted to travel, all at once, for just four hours a day. The Underground was better equipped to do this and would also divert the traffic away from main line terminals which in those days were quite unsuited to such crowds.
I will set out what actually happened in my next blog, and why Pick’s grand ideas were initially sidelined for reasons of expediency. That we have the suburban extensions we do is at least in part down to Ashfield’s remarkable circles of friends and his great fondness for lunch.
More anon.

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 machorne.wordpress.com, 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.

M

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.

Diversions

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?

Imprisonment

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.

Dawdling

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.

Bunching

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.

Conclusion

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.

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 http://www.metadyne.co.uk