So What is so Special About Sutton (and other exciting railway loop journeys)

It is a strange thing. I wanted to do a certain train journey and in spite of my understanding of how the service pattern worked I was advised I had to change trains. I ignored the ‘advice’, stuck to my belief and found I didn’t have to change at all. What is going on?

A Peculiarly Sutton Problem

I wanted to travel from St Pancras to Wimbledon Chase via Sutton. The National Rail website wasn’t very encouraging and sought to direct me via Wimbledon, offering me no alternative. Forcing the routing via Sutton produced a succession of trains all requiring a change of train at Sutton (with just a 1-minute connection time, much less than normally offered for interchanging).

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Resort to a quickly downloaded Thameslink printed timetable produced a booklet where the tables all stopped at Sutton, whether by Wimbledon or Mitcham. This was really unhelpful, for if one wanted to go (say) from Carshalton to West Sutton (just two stations) one had to look at the ‘down’ table to reach Sutton then change to the ‘up’ table to carry on in the same direction to find a train for West Sutton. There was no indication in the tables that trains might not actually terminate at Sutton. If one had troubled to check the map at the front (and why would anyone?) then one might have spotted a note to the effect that when trains arrived at Sutton on one route they might continue on a different one, but even so the tables do not explain what happens.

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On checking the national rail timetable one first discovers Table 52. Like the Thameslink timetable this shows trains via either Wimbledon or Mitcham simply terminating at Sutton with not a hint that they might go onwards. But wait! What are all the references in the station names column to a Table 179?  Why would I need to check a different table when this one seems complete?

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All I can say is that if one does trouble to check Table 179 then one discovers it is devoted entirely to the Luton-Wimbledon-Sutton service group and, though simply duplicating most of the information in Table 52, it lays it out differently. This time the Wimbledon Chase to West Sutton section is duplicated, with one of the sections in reverse, as it were. By this means one can here (and only here) see at a glance how to make a journey from Carshalton to West Sutton! However, one still seems to have to change trains. For example the 12.33 from Carshalton arrives at Sutton at 12:36. In the next column there is a 12:37 train that arrives at West Sutton at 12.40.

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Note the 1236 arrival and the apparently quite separate 1237 departure

Let us be clear. This is one and the same train. The whole service is laid out like this and all the apparent connections are also the same trains undertaking a single journey around the loop. No change is required. This seems to me unhelpful, if not downright peculiar.

Moreover this fiction is perpetuated on the trains with the announcements insisting the train only goes to Sutton and inviting you to change as it pulls in. So do the live departure boards and all the other paraphernalia fed from the same systems.

I later noticed at the bottom of the page of NR Table 52 a note (like the one on the Thameslink map) indicating that trains actually carried on, but I didn’t think this was conspicuous and it was cast in rather general terms that invited passengers to seek further guidance, which was not obvious. The network map (correctly) shows a complete loop via Wimbledon and Sutton but made no reference to the fact you would be kidded into thinking trains would for no obvious reason cease operation at Sutton. The information is inconsistent and not very helpful, I thought.

Why Would You Show Information In Such a Strange Way?

I concluded from all this that the railway timetable, and all the systems that are dependent on it, are not suited to handling loop services and for operational or technical convenience (but not passenger convenience) they must always have a terminus. Fair enough, but there ought, surely, to be a way of over-riding this when giving local information, for example by stating that a train then continues to so-and so in relevant timetable columns.Relying on passengers to cross-check what they are told is hopeless.

I wondered if the need to show a train actually terminating was driven by the fares process. I’m sure you are all familiar with the impenetrable Permitted Route system (most ‘anytime’ tickets are valid only via ‘permitted routes’). The system is so arcane I won’t attempt to represent it here beyond saying that (in general) a route is a permitted route if it is the shortest route according to the national rail timetable OR if the journey is undertaken on a through train. By arbitrarily deeming a train to ‘terminate’ en route (as it were) then the permitted route availability is thereby extinguished at that location too.

The Wimbledon-Sutton routes bifurcate at Streatham and the mid point of the loop journey is a quarter mile south of Sutton Common (at 7½ miles), towards West Sutton (coinciding with boundary of zones 4 and 5). Thus one can see that denying the ‘through train’ option might result in those travelling via Sutton to stations Sutton Common and beyond having to pay a higher fare. I think we might be onto something here. For example the Thameslink journey planner shows I can get a direct train from London to Sutton Common for £5.20, but if I chose to go via Sutton and change then the fare is £6.10. The journey specifically says change train, though the train to which directed is of course the same train carrying on in the same direction. I do not say this is the answer, but it seems the simplest explanation to fit the facts.

The Pernicious Permitted Route?

Single fares on the main line are inevitably based on the zonal concept in zonal areas so fares from London to Wimbledon and Wimbledon Chase (Z3) are £4.30, to stations South Merton to Sutton Common (Z4) are £5.20 and to West Sutton and Sutton (Z5) are £6.10. These are the rates in the fares guide and on the Thameslink website and are what you need to pay if you travel via Wimbledon (or, to Sutton and West Sutton, by either route). Thameslink allows you to book the ‘wrong way’, via the mythical train change at Sutton, in which case the £6.10 applies (the website is very reluctant indeed to disclose this is possible at all, but do persist, though it will not let you get as far as Wimbledon Chase). I think this may be responsible for the breaking journey peculiarity.

Whilst on, I notice the National Rail Enquiries website offers different information. For stations Sutton Common to Morden South the choice of routes is offered (the Sutton one requiring a ‘change’) and alternative prices of £6.10 via Sutton or £5.20 via Wimbledon are offered. At neither South Merton nor Wimbledon Case is a choice offered, only the route via Wimbledon. If a via Sutton routing is forced, then the South Merton price is given as a whacking £9.10 (at variance with the Thameslink website price and national fares guide) and the Wimbledon Chase price rises to £9.70 (no Thameslink price volunteered).

Both Sutton and Wimbledon are routing points for the purposes of the awful Permitted Route system and having attempted to get to grips with it I can see that a Sutton route is not permitted where the cheap day single price is greater than the route via Wimbledon (don’t ask!). Do you remember the days when tickets were issued on an ‘any reasonable route’ basis? Privatizatation introduced the restrictive and impenetrable permitted route system to facilitate cross-company accounting. Sod the passenger then! I’m still waiting for the courts to rule about the legality of this enforced routing in contract law – a reasonable person doing no more than a reasonable journey when the conditions are patently very complicated and rarely brought to the passenger’s attention at the time the bargain is made. Anyway, that is for another day.

Back to Sutton, do bear in mind that with trains running at 15-minute intervals alternately either way round the Wimbledon loop, in virtually all cases (except to Wimbledon Chase) it will be quicker to travel via Sutton, if that is the first train, than wait for a train via Wimbledon. Given the nature of the area and the pattern of train service I think we should do better than this ‘Sutton’s the end’ business. I’m not sure I believe these £9+ prices, and imagine the fun we’ll all have at the ticket office if trying to buy a ticket via the Sutton route! The issue does not arise in quite the same way with Travelcards as they operate zonally by different number of zones travelled through, which is clearer even if in circumstances like the Wimbledon-Sutton loop it may not seem fairer.

By the way, when I did actually undertake the journey, it was going round the loop that the only ticket check took place, perhaps suggesting a sensitivity about checking which way people were travelling?

An alternative, or perhaps a connected, theory for artificially terminating trains is the way train performance is calculated (and the associated system for paying refunds). A commuter train is deemed ‘late’ if it arrives at the final destination five minutes or more after its booked time. For this to be established in each direction I suppose that means there needs to be an agreed terminus. Mind you, this is an internal thing really, and shouldn’t be allowed to drive what is shown on the front of a train, thereby misleading the public.

Other Loop Services

What of other loop services? Surely this ‘terminating’ eccentricity must apply to all? The Hounslow loop trains (Waterloo-Barnes-Hounslow-Barnes-Waterloo in both directions) are labelled up as Whitton on the outward journey, whichever way they are routed.They are also scheduled as Whitton in the NR timetable (Table 149), but significantly there is a column note explaining the train then proceeds to Waterloo round the rest of the loop.

The Live Departures feature, on the other hand, describes outbound trains from Waterloo as ‘London Waterloo via Hounslow & Richmond (circular route)’. or the equivalent if the circuit is the other way. Furthermore, if checking the online national journey planner, if one selects (for example) a loop extremity journey such as Twickenham to Syon Lane then one is offered a through train and not a fictitious train change at Whitton. The national rail diagram shows the Hounslow loop is continuous so all is consistent apart from the arbitrary selection of Whitton to put on platform indicators and the front of trains. The fares either way around this loop appear to be the same, reinforcing my hypothesis that the Sutton banality might be fares related.

What about the Kingston loop? In this case the London network map does not show any through services between Strawberry Hill and Norbiton even though through trains run throughout the day. On the other hand the ATOC London Rail map shows the Kingston loop as continuous. This is not very helpful and the quite artificial rupture seems to be caused for the convenience of the schedule compiler who wishes to put the Richmond services in table 149 and the Wimbledon services in table 152 though both show the same trains along different parts of the same loop. If one wants to travel from Twickenham to Norbiton (surely a plausible journey) one has to consult two tables to discover the 1533 from Twickenham is shown only as far as Kingston (arr 1546), then table 152 to discover a 1537 ex Strawberry Hill train that departs Kingston at 1548 and arrives at Norbiton at 1550. It is of course the same train on one unbroken journey. The column notes indicate in general terms that it is a loop service but having it broken in this way is unhelpful. Why the Wimbledon loop has its own table (but no column notes) whilst this one has an at-a-glance table but does have column notes is anyone’s guess.

Kingston

Right. So no loop service here then.

The online journey planner condescends to show through trains when calling up journeys such as Raynes Park to Twickenham. Again, plausible journeys either way around the loop are route-indifferent (though one be much longer than the other) and we do not have the fictitious change of trains nonsense we have at Sutton.

On the whole I concluded that none of this was at all clear and that the passenger’s needs were not being factored into what was happening or how the information was presented. I have looked at three London loop services and all are treated differently. The two west London examples are explainable, but the Thameslink way of dealing with things by means of a fictitious train change at Sutton seems perverse and unhelpful and capable of rapid improvement.

I’ve made these notes out of genuine puzzlement from the point of view of some poor sod just trying to travel somewhere, but now I’m into loops I’d be interested to know of what happens at any other railway loops that readers might know about.

 

 

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Sir Albert’s First Holiday

One of the joys of doing research is the serendipitous process of discovery of things one didn’t know one wanted to know. I say joy, of course, but naturally some restraint is necessary as, so often, the stuff you didn’t know you wanted to know is a great deal more interesting than the stuff one was tediously searching for, perhaps for some time.

One such piece of information had exactly this effect. For a forthcoming book I was trying to establish the kind of things Sir Albert Stanley got involved with whilst he ran the Board of Trade (some readers will know Sir Albert better as Lord Ashfield, his title from 1920). It seems that we may have been fortunate he was in a position to undertake this task as a story told some years later in a particularly obscure newspaper explains.

Stanley did not like holidays and it was unusual during his early time with the Underground for him to be off for more than a day at a time. Whether or not he had misgivings we may never know, but it seems that he was definitely having more than one day off when he found himself in Germany on 1st August 1914, a Saturday, presumably not unduly concerned about world events. This was, apparently, his ever first ‘proper’ holiday. He was, for reasons we do not know, in Baden (which I think means the state of that name). Whilst he was in conversation with a German officer during the morning the officer warned him to ‘get out’ and go home that same afternoon, a message which Stanley was induced to take rather seriously.

Stanley first considered leaving by train but discovered that (already) he was not permitted to travel. With a friend, he then purchased two motor cars, costing the equivalent of £1500, and proceeded to get away by road. They were stopped in Freyberg, so the story goes, but this must surely be Freiberg which is at least in Baden. At any rate, the cars were confiscated.

In desperation Stanley and friend managed to get themselves on board what was described as a luggage train, though the train was also heavily occupied by soldiers (sadly we are not told whose). He managed to reach Holland in due course and succeeded in getting back to England on the evening of 3rd August, the eve of Britain declaring war on Germany.

Germany had in fact declared war against Russia on the evening of 1st August and invaded Luxembourg the following day, so troop movements and travel restrictions would have been very evident already. Although Germany was a great deal more relaxed about foreign travellers and residents on its soil than Britain was when war broke out (the British rather liked locking people up) there were restrictions and foreigners were at first subject to curfew and various other deprivations and it would have got increasingly more difficult to get away. Foreign nationals were eventually subject to internment, but more as a matter of principle as German nationals in Britain were interned and treated shamefully even for just having a Germanic-sounding name (such as Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the family name of Britain’s monarch and diplomatically changed to Windsor in 1917!).

Indeed, the Underground’s chairman Sir Edgar Speyer, a music-loving philanthropist and pillar of respectability and about as British as one can get, was treated shamefully by the country as his reward for funding and later helping to rescue the Underground’s finances, and all because of his name. He was eventually hounded out and went to America. Even more shamefully he was later stripped of his British citizenship and branded a traitor. But the problem was that his name was not Jones (or Saxe-Coburg, or Battenberg, another example of a hasty rebranding).

Anyway, that is the tale for what it is worth of Sir Albert Stanley’s first holiday! Perhaps he thought all holidays were like this: perhaps that’s what had put him off. So Many questions are generated. Many Britains and certainly the Cabinet (which was meeting while Stanley was chatting to the German officer) had felt for days that war could break out and certainly knew several countries were mobilizing troops. An interesting place to choose for a holiday, one might think, but then Stanley was an interesting chap. Such a pity he is remembered only by the obsessives for the relatively unimportant fiddling about with signage he was associated with and not some of the truly crucial stuff he did. We do need a proper biography of the man.

One wonders how things would have panned out if he hadn’t been resourceful enough to get the luggage train.

I wonder if he spoke German.

 

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Scrabbling for Letters in Hampstead

Hampstead is always full of interest, and this little alleyway is perhaps more interesting than others.

I don’t like public money being wasted and I was impressed by the lengths gone to in order to make use of (presumably) rarely-used characters in one of Hampstead’s well-known tilework-style street name signs. I think it is wonderful, but whoever did this can surely not have been a credible scrabble player.

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In case it is not perfectly obvious, the sign, when erected, included a certain amount of black or dark brown paint, enough to make the sign pass muster without drawing attention to anything amiss. This essential addition does not seem to have made it to any maintenance schedules and through the effluxion of time, and perhaps the assistance of those spotting something amiss and using a coin to help things along, the sign is now a bit of an anomaly.

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The use of a Q for an O is a good way of getting rid of extra Qs, so well done for that. Why Hampstead had a lot of extra 8s is a mystery. Small parts of Hampstead parish and metropolitan borough were in NW8 but surely they cannot have over-ordered large quantities of this number? Nearly all of Hampstead was in NW3.

This is not, of course, an accident since postal delivery offices were based in sensible centres such as Hampstead and 3 was the number allocated to the Hampstead office. You will probably know that the numerical part of the postal district was created only in 1917 and, prior to that, street signs just showed the lettered postal district, in this case NW. Hampstead had then to add a very large number of tile number 3s to the end of many of its signs, making all the 2-line ones slightly unsymmetrical (if you see a symmetrical one it is probably later than 1917). Anyway, here we have an 8 converted into a 3. Since a real 3 is quite a different shape, it does stand out slightly. For some reason even some quite important signs never seem to have had the 3 added, which given the obscure mews ones that were adjusted seems strange.

Why Hampstead should have been short of blank tiles we can only guess at, but here we have an attempt to use all sorts of rubbish.  The 6 we can explain as part of Hampstead was in NW6 (where I used to live). What about the figure 1 then? Was there a slither in NW1 which meant buying some 1s? What is the dot after the W in ‘MEWS’ all about? My attention was then drawn to the Ss? Are they upside down or am I beginning to imagine things? No, I am advised that they are upside down: every one of them.

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Immediately opposite is another tiled name-sign with pretty much the same issues, which is interesting. I think the gap between the two words is a 4 rather than a 1 though (I couldn’t make out what was behind the pipe). Cannot think why Hampstead needed any 4s for postal districts.

Hampstead did use these lettered and numbered tiles for some direction signs too. There are still quite a few in existence and I think some of them might not be very old. I have put another puzzling photo here partly because it shows another use of the figured tiles. These have dots at the end, like the postal district tiles, so we don’t know whether there was a different batch of tiles, without the dots, for more general use. Clearly there is something quite important missing from this sign. I wonder how many types of pointing hands there are?

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Finally, what is this picture unearthing?

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I can see no possible reason why a frugal borough such as Hampstead would place two street names-signs so close. I can tell you that the London County Council caused the whole section of road to be renamed Hampstead High Street in 1938, prior to which it was just High Street. This would suggest the name on the right has had ‘Hampstead’ added above the existing letters ‘High Street NW3’, which, you will note, is symmetrically laid out so we know this must have been done after 1917. Note the ‘correct’ 3.

The one on the left is clearly in a 2-line frame, suggesting it must have been made during or after 1938. There is another framed one with the same name at the north end of the street, but, otherwise, framed signs like this are uncommon. Perhaps they were made in advance of renaming to be affixed in front of the several ‘High Street’ signs on the day of the renaming; that would do the job in an instant and avoid having to interfere with somebody else’s buildings. Perhaps the framed one here was a spare, or became redundant when the one on the right was actually modified, being put here as rather than discarding it? I don’r suppose we’ll ever know. It might be more useful attached to the Underground station though, as there isn’t one on that side of the road. Note the framed one here uses a modified 8 (the one opposite Hampstead station uses a proper 3).

 

 

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Pedestrianizing Oxford Street is Addressing the Wrong Problem

Amongst the dismal offerings from several of those who would be mayor is the declared objective of pedestrianizing Oxford Street. Despite the rhetoric, both candidates are cautious that this is achievable and Khan wants to start by having car-free days, according to his manifesto. Oxford Street has actually been car-free during business hours since 1972 and the congestion there now is almost entirely the buses and taxis fighting to get along a road whose carriageways (however wide they may seem) have already been much-reduced.

Vox Pop on the predestination of Oxford Street ….

Oxford Street as we frequently see it (buses and taxis only) Daily Mail

 

Those who spend their lives criticizing, rather than doing, tell us the ‘problem’ is too many buses – great long lines of static empty buses – and opine that if one just got rid of them all would be well. The buses (reasonably necessary to get people to and from London’s busiest shopping street) are not of course the problem, but they are a symptom of the underlying problem which I shall turn to shortly. The ‘problem’ is a hopelessly and inappropriately shared space, not fit for purpose, that creates static traffic. Worse still, it is expensive static public transport, which is said to contribute significantly to the noxious emissions created (predominantly) by central London traffic.

 

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Oxford Street with no rush-hour buses in it (a bus strike, January 2015). Plenty of space, but…

Oxford Street is a section of old Roman road, built up, and therefore hemmed in, in the eighteenth century and successively modernized as ever-more office development was required in central London, the council attempting to shift the building line back where possible. Today the buildings flank a road largely 80ft wide between frontages, but still with some at the old 70ft distance. Trying to achieve a balance between the traffic and pedestrian parts is bad enough, but now consider the hapless way the street has been allowed to develop. Only the very few of the largest buildings extend backwards through an entire block, so virtually all deliveries and collections have to be made from Oxford Street itself. Of course, this is largely done in the early morning and evening, but not always, and just one delivery vehicle can cause havoc. We then have taxis constantly stopping to pick up and set down.We always have some kind of road works, somewhere. We have the odd parked police car dealing with a shoplifter, an ambulance perhaps, or a pedolo doing something annoying at 1mph, and so on. In any planned city the street would have been designed as a shopping boulevard with nice wide pavements and there would be rear access for delivery vehicles and so on. Naturally we quite like London the way it has evolved, which is one of the things that makes it interesting, but there is a price to pay.

We can have the debate about whether cars should be allowed in central London at all, but I will confine myself to commenting about public transport. The Underground is an excellent way of getting to, from and across central London laterally, but it is less effective at carrying people comparatively short distances because of the time penalty in both diverting to where the stations are and in getting to and from the platforms and waiting for the train. For journeys of under a couple of miles it is likely to be more convenient to get a bus since (1) there are more change-free journey opportunities, (2) there are many more stops than stations, so getting to and from a stop will be quicker and easier, and (3) it is at street level so the time wasted plodding to and from platforms is eliminated. Moreover, bus travel is often pleasanter and it must surely be intrinsically wrong (and expensive) to force people into the unnatural world of the deep underground unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Central London average traffic speed is not fast, about 9mph, and whilst the actual amount of traffic has reduced, other measures (longer pedestrian phases at traffic lights, cycling provision etc) has apparently absorbed the slack that would otherwise have been created. Nevertheless, for comparatively short journeys the bus is king where walking has been ruled out as an option.

Bus timings along Oxford Street are quite interesting. On a 13 bus, a run from Orchard Street to Piccadilly Circus (about a mile) is an 8-minute run at 06:00 and an 18-minute run at 18:00, an average speed of just over 3mph and slower than walking. The extra 10 minutes in the peak is the congestion factor. On a 73 at 06:00, 9 minutes is scheduled from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch (1.3 miles), whilst at 18:30 some 22 minutes is allowed, an average speed of exactly 3mph and a congestion penalty of 13 minutes. You can see immediately that for most journeys under a mile no able-bodied person near Oxford Street is actually better off using a bus, even if one is at the stop and your destination is near another stop. This is not helped by the very poor positioning of (and long gaps between) stops along Oxford Street. This conjecture entirely echoes my own experience of watching passenger behaviour, where people get off and walk in exasperation. Moreover, the scheduled timings are often, in my opinion, exceeded in practice. The buses in Oxford Street are virtually unusable for very local journeys.

I am not suggesting the buses are not without use, of course. Some buses actually turn at Oxford Circus, providing a useful central London terminal point for those travelling some distance, especially along routes not necessarily duplicating the Underground. Some routes do duplicate the Underground, but actually there are people who want to spend their life at surface level and for all kinds of reasons can’t or choose not to go down into the bowels of the earth, especially when it is busy. Most of the other buses pass along Oxford Street because they provide a useful cross-London journey opportunity, for example Portman Square to Aldwych, very awkward by Underground but rather too long to expect people to walk.

In a very real sense, the problem here is London itself. If public service vehicles must pass across London from east to west, there are pretty much only three routes. You have Euston Road, Oxford Street and Piccadilly-Strand. All three routes are heavily congested and the Euston Road route doesn’t really serve very much and is a bit indirect. I suggest the Piccadilly route could hardly take half the extra buses if they were diverted from Oxford Street, and certainly not all of them, and nor is Shaftesbury Avenue credibly able to take more buses. Moreover it would leave a vast bus-free gap across the centre in the very area people want to go to.

To pedestrianize Oxford Street would seem to present some problems then, since it suggests that the buses, on very long-established routes, must either be diverted some other way or they must cease. As already noted, suitable alternatives are poor and perhaps infeasible substitutes.* It is true that there is one road, Wigmore Street, that once used to carry a bus service, and which might have a part to play in all this. However it is away from the traffic objectives and would create some challenges in getting the buses into and out of it. Moreover it is doubtful if it could carry the present numbers and would be an awkward diversion, further slowing down already desperately slow speeds, at least if it had to carry the taxi load too. In fact, diverting the whole of present Oxford Street traffic is almost certainly impossible, particularly since the affluent residents of that road are set against even one bus route going along the road. Even if feasible, it only deals with half the problem since narrower Mortimer Street would be very difficult to include in any solution towards relieving the eastern end of Oxford Street. Perhaps Wigmore Street might be a better option for a safe cycle-way, reducing cycles along Oxford Street and the conflicts with pedestrians spilling off the pavements. Or somewhere for the taxis to enjoy.

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Oxford Street in July 1955 – busy but manageable.  [Geograph – Creative Commons Licence]

London Buses is well aware of the issues and has been for decades, during which time no magic solution has presented itself. In recent years it has pandered to the clamour for a reduction in buses and either reduced frequencies or chopped routes short. Thus the westbound 8, for example, unhelpfully stops at Tottenham Court Road instead of going along Oxford Street. I am a frequent bus user and am beginning to find it irksome when travelling from the Bloomsbury or Clerkenwell area, and wanting the west end of Oxford Street, to have to change now. The arrangements for changing buses to complete an onward journey are appalling at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus and, for that matter, at Marble Arch. Split stops, crowded pavements and few if any shelters. You just wait in the wind and rain and crowds. Thank you very much: this is not public transport as I would wish to see it! I don’t suppose either mayoral candidate has ever had to do this.

The more far-fetched solutions have already been examined, though the armchair experts keep bringing it up. Why not have a nice environmentally friendly tram along [otherwise pedestrianized] Oxford Street? Remember the recent Edinburgh tram challenge with endless excavation? Oxford Street is a very old road with a vast number of services and sewers just under the surface, and four Underground station ticket halls with ceilings only just under the road. Not impossible but very, very expensive, disruptive and risky. Furthermore, since the value in the Oxford Street route is primarily not for local bus traffic, we are now asking the predominant through passengers to change at least once, and perhaps twice. Where, exactly? People hate changing anyway. Providing a depot would be fun. Trams may be an answer to some problems, but not this one.

Is pedestrianization feasible? Between Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch there are 13 north-south road crossings punctuating the main road at regular and frequent intervals. These are mainly quite narrow roads converted to one-way many years ago and an important part of the local area. One or two might be closed off perhaps, but without banning cars altogether it is hard to see how they could all be closed off as there are few alternatives. One could therefore not have a wholly pedestrianized street because of all these roads that cross. What happens to the residual delivery vehicles, and so on?

I wonder, with ever-tighter control of noxious emissions from buses and taxis and the fact that cars are already banned, whether so far as poisoning the air is concerned the emissions from public transport along Oxford Street will in due course fix itself, and whether evicting buses and taxis is something of an over-reaction. Furthermore, if we want to reduce congestion and make the buses more useful, then it seems to me there might be a case for banning all the vehicles except buses, which would thus be speeded up and more useful (particularly if there was a more favourable arrangement of traffic light phasing, at present it is at least open to debate). I do recall when Oxford Street had more bus routes than now and they moved fairly rapidly. It can be done, I think, if one wanted to.

Having said all that, if we really want pedestrianized shopping areas in central London then I wonder whether Oxford Street should be a candidate. It is obviously true that there are some high-end and attractive shops in Oxford Street (some of them useful). Many shops, though, are tired and tatty places in old Edwardian or Victorian buildings used mainly for offices. This would include the tourist ‘memorabilia’ type shops, and the chains you can find anywhere and so-on. Much of it is actually not very nice. One would be better off pedestrianizing Bond Street and perhaps one or two others nearby. If Oxford Street is to be more pedestrian-friendly then it needs a great deal of work from the bulldozer and the builder, a greater practical width and effective rear access for collections and delivery. I am certainly not the only one to think this, and I am sure many readers will be aware of decades-old plans to install an uninterrupted pedestrianized deck along Oxford Street, moving the entrances to all the shops to first floor level and leaving the ground floor route to delivery vehicles, buses and, I suppose, taxis. Not cheap, but a better option perhaps than throwing the public transport somewhere else. Another plan elevated a bus and taxi-only roadway leaving the ground for pedestrians, but this required more massive engineering and still took the transport away from where it was wanted.

Whatever the answer I don’t think you need to pedestrianize Oxford Street and the practicalities are also very considerable, particularly if you want to improve public transport and speed it up (which means making access easier and not more difficult). It is said that Crossrail provides an opportunity to revisit the challenge. Really? There will be Crossrail stations at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street and it will be a most unsuitable means of travelling just between the two (in any case already served by more accessible Central Line). So, we must ignore the short-distance user. The existing buses, in the main, do not follow the Crossrail alignment and, in particular, the Bayswater Road and Edgware Road and Baker Street routes that then go down Regent Street are quite unaffected by Crossrail. This is, I suspect, a bus-red herring. But anyway, do the sums and the forecasts for pedestrianization, but it doesn’t get over the main problems. London may or may not need a classier, shopping-friendly pedestrianized space, but, if it does, fiddling with Oxford Street isn’t it.

By the way, lest anyone runs away with the idea that the only problem street is Oxford Street, the image below is Strand which, too, is often full of near standing traffic and slower-than-walking buses. You would find something similar in Piccadilly at certain times of the day, too.

OXO-05_1411674138135_wps_6_Traffic_in_Central_London

A much more worthwhile objective is how to get London’s very expensive to buy and operate buses to run at more than 3mph. If any prospective mayor will promise me that, he (or she) will get my vote.

OXO-2

Oxford Street in happier times. It’s busy. That’s how it is.

  • I’m not going into it here, but I spent some time considering the alternative ‘unfeasible’, or the get-out ‘not feasible’.

 

Posted in London Buses, London Mayor | Tagged , | 1 Comment

No Turning Back – around north side of Circle

None of today’s Underground lines is a good example of optimal track layout for the train services required today. The Victoria line was close for a while. This was designed as a complete entity to deliver a particular train service, but, even here, a half-century after it was built, train service patterns have changed in a way that was not expected.

Other lines are in a far worse position with track layouts sometimes dating to the steam age. Modern requirements are also frustrated by the removal of flexibility a few decades ago, at a time when traffic levels were falling. The result today is a largely arbitrary collection of reversing points, crossovers and sidings that no competent planner or operator would dream of installing if they were building an equivalent line today.

What one really wants is something along the following:

  • Sufficient capacity at terminal points to reverse the service required and provide a suitable amount of recovery time.
  • Intermediate terminating points where full capacity is not required to the end of the line and arranged so not to delay through trains. These can also be used to reduce late running and relieve congestion by turning trains short.
  • Emergency reversing points in order (1) to enable emergencies to be handled and avoid trains with passengers on them getting trapped, and (2) to provide reversing points during engineering work to minimise the length of track where a service must be withdrawn.

The Metropolitan Line affords an example of the problem. It also provides an example of a problem that has been recognised over many years and has got so near to resolution without anything happening!

The problem is the railway between Edgware Road and Aldgate where today two factors conspired to make the life of the operator difficult. The first is the succession of busy flat junctions where a train passing through one route conflicts with an alternative route. Perfect timetabling would schedule what is known as parallel pathing at flat junctions, where conflicts and hence delays are avoided. This is easy where there are only odd junctions but it is unachievable where there is a succession. Lots of stand time and an optimistic outlook on behalf service operator works better than might be expected, but as service levels increase the inappropriate layouts become more obvious and ultimately limit capacity. The second factor is that once the train leaves Baker Street eastbound it is effectively committed to go all the way to Aldgate and back, as turning short Moorgate (now the only place available) is usually an act of desperation as it interrupts service in the other direction and ultimately saves so little time that it isn’t worth the bother. This makes it more difficult to recover from delays. Let us look at how the world might very nearly have been.

Baker Street

The problems at Baker street are threefold. First there is a very awkward flat junction, with the turnout on a sharp curve, so train speeds are low (and therefore trains occupy the junction for a long time and further reduce capacity). Secondly it is not feasible to reverse H&C or District trains east to west here, requiring trains to turn at Edgware Road when passengers really want to get to Baker Street (and there is only a 5-minute service between the two when better intervals are really needed). Thirdly, about a third of the Metropolitan main line service must turn round at Baker Street, but with the terminating platforms at either side of the through lines reversing trains obstruct other movements.

The Met Railway became perfectly aware how unsatisfactory the arrangements were as soon as the main line rush-hour services were extended through to the City in 1909/12. When the station was entirely reconstructed between 1910 and 1913 provision was made for a low-level platform in its own tunnel, more or less following the line of platform 2, but underneath. At the south end, the line was aimed so as to continue in a curve beneath the Circle Line and rise to the surface a few hundred yards further east where it would diverge from the westbound line. At the north end it would rise to the surface in the covered way. By this means the conflicting movements would be avoided. Most of this tunnel (more correctly a covered way) was actually constructed, though the route to the upper Bakerloo escalators installed in 1939 now pierce the route.

London Transport was quick to decide that the Baker Street junction was not fit for purpose and obtained powers in their 1935 Act to rearrange things. A flyunder was to be built diving under the Circle Line but it would have a low level platform on the site of the existing Platform 1, using some of the 1912 works. However the widening under the Marylebone Road would be much more extensive and would provide width for a reversing siding, enabling trains from Edgware Road to turn round without fouling movements to and from platforms 2 and 3. This would allow the District’s Edgware Road reversing trains to proceed to Baker Street though I do not have the precise service details. In addition, platform 4 would become the main through platform for City trains, reducing fouling movements north of the station. This work would have been immensely useful and would probably allow today’s proposals for 32 trains an hour around the top of the Circle to be improved upon. Unfortunately nothing was done.

Baker Street

New track arrangement at Baker Street with new low level line and reversing siding, authorized in 1935.

 

King’s Cross

London Transport’s view was that traffic between Baker Street and the important interchange at Kings Cross deserved off peak trains but the City (to and from which traffic was dead outside the peaks) did not. As the existing station was not well sited, a relocated station with reversing facilities appeared to be called for and the present station location was arranged with two widely-spaced side platforms and a central reversing bay, with a platform either side, for Kings Cross reversers and long enough for 8-car trains. War broke out and although the track was rearranged and the central bay was built, and track laid, the signalling had not been installed when heavy bombing destroyed much of the old station and the new one was brought into use early. The signalling never was finished and after the war priorities changed. For some years there was just this dead track in place, but in 1957 the east end was nibbled off to enlarge the concourse, later much more enlarged and now there is no trace of the original plan. For many years it would have been a useful point to have a short working terminal available but traffic is so busy now that it would be rather a luxury and the space is better used as a concourse. Be it noted that a new crossover west of the station means it is now a viable emergency reversing point, but not for turning round a late running service.

Moorgate

Moorgate station has an unusually complicated history. Before 1925 the only reversing facility available to Metropolitan trains was a bay road and siding on the north side of the through lines. Arrangements were then made to electrify part of the Widened Lines (today’s Thameslink tracks) so that City-bound Metropolitan trains could use the Widened Lines to Moorgate to reverse and return on the Met tracks at either Moorgate or Farringdon. To facilitate this, the station was rearranged to give Met trains access to two platforms on the south side of the through lines. In later years this pair of platforms was disconnected from the widened lines, resulting in the two Metropolitan reversing bays still there today. These are theoretically useful for short-reversing trains but the signalling requires incoming trains to be brought to a stand at the home signals before the route can be set, after which trains can creep into the platforms at 10mph, meanwhile blocking the westbound line. This so much reduces the advantages of using these bays at all that they are seldom used for reversing except in the direst emergency.

In 1989 London Underground investigated a proposal to install a short connection at the east end of the station that would convert platform 3 into a through line, leaving platform 2 available for reversing trains without any conflicting movements. This would have provided a lasting solution to the need for a turning point west of Moorgate. It was not, however, pursued and the construction of the new Crossrail ticket hall would seem to make such a link in the future impossible. It would have been easy and cheap to do this during the 1960s reconstruction, but with service levels falling I don’t suppose anyone thought this important.

Moorgate 1986

The working at Aldgate is so intensive that the slightest hitch means that trains can block back to Kings Cross, or even further west, and some kind of safety valve where trains can turn would be useful but hard for the financial wizards to justify against competing schemes to provide new facilities. Nevertheless, if along the north side of the Circle an opportunity arose for an intermediate reversing point, it would be useful to install one.

Liverpool Street

For many years Liverpool Street had a bay road on the south side, by tradition used by Amersham and Chesham trains. Again, the problem here was that eastbound arrivals interfered with the service on the westbound line. During the early 1980s, Metropolitan Line management felt that extending these trains to and from Aldgate should be tried in order to improve the running. This was found satisfactory and the bay road fell out of use and is now beyond putting back.

What is still possible

The new crossover west of Kings Cross is useful for reducing impact of engineering work but cannot realistically be used for short-working trains in a long queue. The only space left now appears to be the largely open area between Farringdon and Barbican, some of which are earmarked for use as siding space. A possible arrangement is shown below and involves re-routing the westbound line along the old widened lines route from east of Barbican (through one of the screen walls) and along the old ‘down’ track. In view of the Crossrail works it is preferable to use a widened central platform rather than the narrow platform on the south. There is space across the old siding area to reconnect with the existing line east of Farringdon station. The old route would be used to form a new central bay road. There is space for stabling sidings either side of the rerouted line (and into the old Moorgate platforms), if required. Easy to do now. Very difficult if any more development takes place.

Barbican

 

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London’s Getting a New Mayor – but don’t get too excited

Our system of having a London mayor is not a traditional one. The position was inspired by what is done in several widely dispersed cities around the world, and perhaps most of all in New York, famous for larger than life characters who seem to be able to create camaraderie and get things done, or so we are encouraged to believe. In the ’90s London, you may recall, had no cross city civic government at all. The bloated and ponderous Greater London Council was not everybody’s idea of good local government but central government’s vindictive and arguably undemocratic abolition of that body in 1984 left London with no city government and no sensible mechanism for developing any coherent policies. That this had to be fixed, without replicating the GLC, provided an opportunity for a more suitable solution and for some reason the government was pre-occupied with the idea that strong local mayors needed to be sold to us. The general British response was deep suspicion about having executive mayors foisted upon us, but a referendum in London was favourable to the idea. Remember that the existing arrangement had been no city government at all and we weren’t actually offered an alternative model. So, a mayor we got.

It was with greatly satisfying irony that the first mayor was not only someone that the government was very keen should not win, but the very person who was running the GLC when the government abolished it. Excellent. Not often people at large get the opportunity to raise two fingers! It was also excellent that this winner stood as an independent and London shunned the wretched political offerings that were  presented to us. Whatever one might think of Ken Livingstone and his policies, you knew where you stood and he was a character; he also understood the issues and had calmed down a bit since his time at the GLC – more carmine than red, perhaps. It is much too close to events to know what long term impact Mayor Boris has had, but at least we know who he is, and it is probably safe to say that around the world those who are professionally interested in London know who he is as well. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘character’ as he no doubt trades on that, but you know what I mean. He is a politician, so you do not necessarily have to like him or his policies, but from a London point of view it is no surprise to see him as mayor.

So that leads us neatly to the fact there is a mayoral election in the offing in May 2016. Several of the candidates I have never heard of at all but I can’t help thinking that none of them falls into my earlier description of ‘larger than life’ and natural creator of camaraderie. Apart from a Polish nobleman, who is the only true independent candidate, the others all represent political parties of one kind or another. The larger parties produce candidates according to their own obscure formulas where unelected groupings of people we’ve never heard of produce candidates according to their own self-serving criteria and in effect we have very little option but to vote for one of them or the other. The power exerted by all three of the main parties is out of all proportion to their combined membership representing only about one percent of the population. This does not, to me, reassure me that they should be trusted to provide London with the best possible candidates for an executive mayor (a job entirely different from that of an MP or local councillor).

On this occasion the public is having foisted upon it the dispiriting option of Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan. I have been through the policies they are promoting (we don’t know if they came up with them themselves) and many of them are strangely similar and none of them is very profound. It is true there are other candidates but the supplementary vote process means one of these two is bound to win. Does it actually make any difference? Well, with competent permanent officials, and the fact the winning candidate will soon discover the enormity of the real problems and the limited levers of change available to pull, then I suspect the differences between them will reduce further. Whether that is good is anyone’s guess, but I will certainly be considering the ‘none of the above’ option when I visit the polling booth. It is very frustrating. London is one of the foremost cities of the world and has huge challenges to face where all the complex issues are in some way linked. I can’t help thinking that if the present mayoral candidate list is the best that Londoner’s can expect then the system is wrong.

So why after going through the manifestos do I remain dispirited? I had better say now that I am neither going to indicate which is better or worse as you need to make up your own mind about that, nor am I going to go through the whole of them because I am not familiar with some of the territory. I will just make some observations about the TfL road and rail material that I am familiar with, which may or may not be representative.

Goldsmith’s transport manifesto is notable for (1) making promises to deliver things that are already in the pipeline, committed and pretty much inevitable, (2) vague generalizations of the ‘I will work with…’ type, (3) knocking the other lot, and (4) making the usual PR-generated statements where some attention-grabbing factoid is mentioned and a completely unconnected political point is made. It is a bit empty. There is a fifth element where he promises to do something extraordinarily specific that isn’t really a transport policy and which I suspect is already being done. More anon, but I wonder how often Goldsmith uses public transport (other than for photoshoots); with his inherited millions I suspect not very often, and mention it only because I’m not sure he actually understand the problems that have to be faced. There is nothing in the manifesto that shouts ‘Our transport system in London is chaotic and can’t cope and here is how I will fix it’ (this may be as well, as one mayor in one term would be hard put to do this). The manifesto can be found HERE (courtesy of issuu) but you may need to use a third party downloader to print it off.

Khan’s manifesto is mercifully shorter and to the point. His agency has ensured that his points are clearer and punchier, and are nearly all of the ‘I will [do something]’ type, which is a good thing, but the ‘promises’ are a bit lame and even some of those are stuff that is already happening. However, while there are more specifics than in Goldsmith’s proposals, they don’t all seem to be very central to what needs doing. Khan tries the ‘good guy’ tactic as he and his family have at least been involved in transport, but the proposals don’t shout out anything very strategic. The main plank of his strategy (if that is what it is) is to freeze fares ‘because Londoners pay some of the highest public transport fares of any major city’. Now, let no-one say our fares are cheap but this does feel like cheap politics. What is the point of comparing London fares with Moscow, Delhi, Washington and Madrid? If one ranks average transport fares in world cities and then one ranks average earnings in those same cities then one stands back in amazement to discover that the ranked list of cities is similar and that in the western world transport costs as a proportion of income largely rank similarly. This is hardly surprising as most transport operating costs are actually people costs so there is almost bound to be correlation in any city between fares charged and economic prosperity. What matters is what proportion of income is spent on the various household outgoings, of which transport is just one and probably not the largest, but, as usual in manifestos, absolutely no facts are given. I come back to this shortly. You can find it all at: HERE.

The Public Transport Elements

I list the specific public transport policies below, with observations, but I think I have only two real points to make in all this. First, the main problem facing London is the huge explosion in population and the immense pressure this will place on the transport system. The challenge for the transport operator is that a great deal more capacity is urgently needed at a time when the already ageing (and arguably under-maintained) existing infrastructure is struggling to cope and needs more and more attention. To fix the old stuff appears to suggest more temporary closures at a time when system use demands fewer closures because they are becoming disruptive to increasing numbers of people. The second, though connected, point is that the consequences of train and signalling failures and delays become more acute and less tolerable as the system becomes excessively busy; so much so, that even small incidents have the capacity to disrupt huge numbers of people causing real economic loss (apart from possible distress and fear for those immediately involved). These are formidable challenges and we need the best minds we can find to identify an imaginative long term plan. It is a great deal more than just ‘build Crossrail 2’, or whatever the present mantra might be. We need real flair, imagination and leadership.

And that is just rail. At the same time we have conflicting demands about use of our streets where there is clearly not enough space in our largely Victorian street-scape and buses are brought to a crawl in order to meet other conflicting objectives (reducing optimal capacity). To grasp all this and deal with it in a sensible, humane, affordable but practical way we need some kind of super-hero and not party apparatchiks just passing through. Just my view, of course, but if you have some sympathy with my thoughts about the challenges you can make up your own minds how either manifesto is going to move things along.

 

GOLDSMITH TRANSPORT MANIFESTO

Increase capacity on London’s busiest Underground services, increasing SSL capacity by a third and protecting new trains for Jubilee and Northern.

This is all in hand already and could not rationally be stopped. No mention of New Tube For London upgrades.

Deliver Night Tube and Extend it.

The aggravation about this would appear to be sorted already and a summer start is expected with recruitment in hand. I am not sure the consequences of extending it to the SSL lines in 2017 have been thought through as this coincides with installation of new signalling. He knocks Khan for having union backers who don’t want it but fails to mention Khan also supports night tube. Cheap.

Will take stand against union bosses holding city to ransom

This is a ‘will work with government’ promise. Not sure that strikes have been very frequent in recent years (much less than in years gone by) and I wonder if this is central to most people’s concerns.

Will back a privately financed river crossing at Silvertown in SE London

This is an ‘I will back’ proposal for a scheme TfL already pursuing.

I will deliver a Southern Overground.

This is potentially more mayoral territory and obviously builds on government consultation already in hand which is very likely to support transfer of some or all inner suburban services to TfL over time and as contracts allow. However, it comes with a tremendous caution. Much of the present dissatisfaction is wrongly focused on the present operators who are delivering to a DfT spec and where most failures are capacity-related or Network Rail failures, and mere transfer to TfL won’t of itself fix any of this. It is not like the North London Line. If real improvement is going to result then it will be very, very expensive and take quite a while to deliver results. It may be a scheme whose day has come, but raising false expectations could backfire.

A Range of Tube Improvements including WiFi, more step free access and extra policing.

Wi-Fi and step-free are already policy but extending wi-fi into tunnels might be expensive and I shudder at the thought of making phone signals available on the tube (that is only a personal view – I find personal phone calls taking place within inches of my on a crowded tube very offensive). The benefits of the extra policing promised is not quantified, and policemen are very, very expensive. To put extra police in at a time when LU has just taken three times that number of staff out seems to me very peculiar and a policy designed to achieve nothing more than get votes from people not asking ‘why? And who’s paying?’. Am I reassured to see all these policemen? Actually there is some cause to think it might have the opposite effect.

By the way, though not in his manifesto, it emerged in April that he proposes to pay for 500 extra police by withdrawing a staff perk. I estimate the police cost as roundly £30 million a year, over time, including recruitment and training. The perk (a frequent target of the political classes) is the so-called nominee pass (formerly called a spouse pass). The Goldsmith camp have assumed each one is worth the value of an annual travelcard and have arrived at the conclusion that if they stopped the perk it would bring in £22 million and ‘pay for’ the extra police. I won’t comment on the merits of staff perks but the child-like jam-jar accounting method is horrifying. A travelcard has far wider availability than the pass, many are not heavily used, and then only for short journeys, and the prospect of all of them converting to full-rate gold cards is just laughable. TfL (who can measure usage) reckon the true number is £5-£7 million and is a useful part of the employment package (which might otherwise have to be topped up in cash). I know whose numbers I trust and it means the extra police (which I understand the police authority has not asked for) are not actually funded. In the meantime, he has irritated very large numbers of staff at a time when things are already a bit fractious, the more so as Goldsmith’s inherited fortune is vast enough to pay for the 500 extra police each year for the whole of an 8-year double turn as mayor without it even denting his lifestyle.

There is a very specific policy to set up a partnership (Broadband for London) with the telecoms industry to deliver superfast broadband across London using TfL infrastructure. Goldsmith appears not to know that TfL infrastructure is so useful for trunk haul fibre optic cables it has worked with the telecoms industry for decades and LU actively markets the facility and already has thousands of miles of third party cables in its tunnels, lineside runs and old tramway ducts etc (the latter he doesn’t seem, to know about). The network is not suitable for house to house cabling because of the problems of getting cables into and out of stations (I used to run this arrangement). Sounds like a policy created over a drink in his club!

Publish a Review into Outer London Bus Network.

Good. Orbital travel in outer London is a nightmare, but why restrict it to buses? Goldsmith is also besotted with the issue of ‘frequent’ routes, whatever that means. Can we be clear that overall journey time is probably the most important factor and that service reliability and journey speed are factors at least as important (and maybe more important) than scheduled frequency? Unless this is grasped, the effort is entirely wasted.

Will bear down on fares by creating new sources of income.

An opportunity to knock the other lot’s policies. No specific new sources are given and there are constraint’s to TfL’s powers in the GLA Act 1999 (notwithstanding I was able to get some of them loosened in the 1998 bill, but that is another story).

Protect concessionary passes

No actual action required.

Manifesto Conclusion

The bold summary at the end includes that he will extend the Northern Line (already in hand) and the extraordinary claim that ‘South Londoners will no longer be dependent on a second rate transport system’. Now that is courageous.

Goldsmith’s housing manifesto also states that TfL’s land-holding is equivalent to the size of the London Borough of Camden [8.4 square miles] and that ‘much of this land is surplus to requirements’. I really cannot get my head around this suggestion, which seems intrinsically unlikely. Most railway surplus land is above stations and thanks to earlier government policies are already let on long leases (and were not by any means a good deal for tax payers). This invites some closer questioning to find out exactly what is meant and (therefore) whether it is feasible. There may be large tracts of TfL non-rail land lying around, but this feels unlikely.

KHAN TRANSPORT MANIFESTO

I will freeze fares for next four years, while pay growth catches up.

Fares policy is central ground for a mayor and ‘cheap fares’ feels like it is just intended to gain votes. I mention earlier that I think the statement ‘London fares are amongst the highest’ is an unsound driver of policy as people’s disposable incomes are dependent on other factors too (and housing costs in particular). If we are talking about what in reality is keeping fares down artificially then I ask (1) why is the system filling up at such a great rate and do we actually want to encourage more crowding, and (2) who pays, because it isn’t free. This isn’t gone into, but see next point.

I will fund the fares freeze by making TfL a more efficient and profitable operation.

The perceived problem (so his manifesto states) is that TfL is vast, inefficient and flabby, but no metrics are offered about what the right size might be. It spends hundreds of millions each years on agency and consultancy staff and fails to shares functions across TfL, and so on. Fine – all good knock about stuff but assuming that there are legitimate functions to be done it may be cheaper to use agency people for specific projects than be stuck with long term staff that are expensive to get rid of. The point is we don’t know because no evidence is offered so there must be a doubt about whether the aspiration is achievable, let alone enough to pay for a fares freeze (do you remember Ken Livingstone doing a fares freeze in GLC days, this was a real financial problem after a while, though inflation was far greater in those days). The plan is to cut consultants and reduce duplication. Well good luck with that. I am tempted to use the word naive here.

There is a dispute about how much a fares freeze would actually cost but even at the lower figure of £450 million (TfL says £1.9bn) costs savings (principally staff at about 20 staff to the million) comes to an implausibly high proportion of the TfL workforce. Has this been thought through, and does it take account of massive efficiency savings that TfL has already planned? I have some experience in this area and have reason to think there are several areas where TfL could save very large amounts of money, but these are not hinted at in the manifesto. I don’t see a plan at all.

Khan also wants to increase alternative income by selling expertise elsewhere (anyone remember LT International?). Well, if this is to be credible, who can we let go in large enough numbers with the right skills at a time when many key skills are already in short supply within TfL and Khan has got rid of the consultants, presumably replacing them with hard-to-get internal people with the right experience? Experience with LT International did not suggest an income stream was so great as to pay for a fares freeze: far from it, it was marginal. Land will also ‘be put to better use’, but no examples are given of what land and where that is already not let or leased. I’m not saying there isn’t any, but to gauge whether it will bring in the required money quickly I want to know. Otherwise it is just, for all I know, a daydream.

 

The use of the word ‘profitable’ in a labour manifesto is interesting.

I will Introduce a hopper ticket (a 1-hour bus ticket).

Fine. Hope this works with wave and pay contactless.

Will support Oyster and contactless with equality of benefits

Good. Isn’t this current policy?

Support Freedom pass

Good

Press for Tfl to take over more [main line] commuter routes.

Fine. Assume my comments here same as for Goldsmith (above) who supports this

Encourage more competition in the bus sector (eg not-for profit groups)

Want to make it easier for alternative suppliers and TfL commercial arm to bid. (Not clear why and to what end).

Deliver Night Tube and reduce days lost through strike action

See observations under Goldsmith

Improve accessibility for buses and step free Underground

Already long term general policy but frequently subject to funding availability. Not clear what more will be done at what cost.

Examine Impact of Ticket Office Closures

No concrete plan here even if he finds impact negative.

Other

Khan also plans to produce houses on TfL land but proposals are ’’vague.

Posted in London Mayor, London Rail, London Underground, Our Government | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Corporate Amnesia – good or bad?

I enjoyed the BBC’s ‘Analysis’ programme transmitted on Radio 4 on 21st March and, as I write, available on the BBC i-player. It was about corporate amnesia. It put forward the premise that corporations easily forget things and therefore (at the very least) repeat mistakes and incur costs of people having to discover that which is already known; it was suggested this was bad, risky and expensive. The programme put forward the equally powerful argument that corporate knowledge could be a bad thing. It encouraged a corporate culture that held back innovation by clinging onto outdated ideas, for example. For so long as the programme is available I do strongly recommend it and invite you to draw your own conclusions according to your own experiences. You can find it HERE.

I recently found myself discussing this very issue with a senior TfL manager, who had evidently formed the view that dragging along the entrails of corporate culture, developed decades earlier in response to issues that have long since been overtaken by events, is a hindrance when trying to focus staff on today’s challenges. I couldn’t agree more. When I was privileged to be involved in the Underground’s massive change management programme in the ’90s it was a real eye opener to discover the extent to which the organization meandered vaguely from day to day because we knew no better way; this predisposed many people to resist change and to accept giving indifferent service. The status quo was felt good enough. Many staff had not seen significant change for years, and a few had never seen real change at all. Getting anything done was challenging and all too often the response was ‘we tried that in 1948’, or that’ll never work, or so-and-so won’t agree to that, and so it went on. The fact that the world might have moved on was rarely entertained, let alone discussed, and super-human effort seemed to be required to get anything new actually achieved. This is nothing to do with the motivation of the staff to do the existing job (most staff did a reasonable job and more than we deserved were superb) – the issue was getting them to want to do achieve things a different way.

So, You can see I might have had sympathy with the idea in the radio programme that corporate amnesia might perhaps be a good thing. Forget processes invented forty years ago, we are here to address today’s problems, and preferably tomorrow’s too. The object is to do the required job, not to perpetuate the past.

As an example of different corporate styles, the programme had an interesting insight into the difference between Apple and Sony. Apple (regarded as successful) insisted that whenever a new product was launched an old one was dropped; the theory being that because a product had previously been successful it did not mean that carrying it on would make any sense. Sony (much less successful) launched more new products and kept selling old ones making it a much more complicated business and continuing once-successful lines long after they ought to have done. The suggestion was it looked backwards for far too long, and this was bad.

But, hang on. What about things that were learnt as a result of a huge investment of time? The radio programme mention hugely expensive difficulties at BP where most of the lessons of the Texas City disaster in 2005 were forgotten (or never learned) and were a major underlying cause of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster. These examples are hugely expensive of time, money and reputation as well as of the consequential human misery. I mentioned in my review of the Blunders of Governments that the costs of getting things wrong may have reached hundreds of billions of pounds (yes, billions – read the review); much of the cause was put down to not learning lessons as well as assuming you have all the knowledge required to implement policy which, it turns out, is rarely the case.

The Treasury has become so concerned about corporate memory loss it has actually begun a programme to mitigate the effects. Its problem is an inclination to employ lots of bright, young and (it is imagined) very keen and ambitious staff but it has been discovered they lack experience and have only limited knowledge of events that could have assisted them. Furthermore it is no longer expected that this will be a job for life so what experience they do gain migrates to their next employers, only to be replaced by someone newer and less experienced again. The former permanent secretary admits that having a staff that had never experienced a financial depression before, let alone a run on a bank, was a wake up call. They now employ a university to help them recreate some kind of corporate memory.

A huge issue was casualization, so the programme identified. The replacement of people with skill and knowledge who might at least be loyal to a company by people whose connection to the company to whom supplied was tenuous, and whose loyalty (if they had any) was to they employing company and not to the company to whom supplied. Skill and knowledge was even more fragile and this was evidently a factor in BP’s problems. Closer to home we see much of this outsourcing (some of which is no doubt a good thing) having unexpected and unwelcome longer term consequences as knowledge and experience falls into the control of others who do not value it or want to sell it back (or even throw it away).

Contrasting examples were given by firms employing in-house staff. One in particular relied heavily on in-house skills but it was discovered that a third of the staff were coming up to retirement and something urgent was required to ensure the skills were transferred to new people. The inevitable conclusion, suggested by the programme, was that there were at least two types of knowledge. I will paraphase for brevity, but we might call it technical knowledge which is actually business-critical, and business culture, which can be quite corrosive. The problem is that there is overlap and the descriptions are in any case imprecise. Technical knowledge of systems and processes that are (or should be) redundant because they have been replaced are at least a questionable benefit, whilst some culturally related knowledge (like understanding the inevitable internal politics) can actually help get things done and can be useful. The idea of having traditional knowledge identified and formally challenged was mooted (with examples from the Royal Navy), so young people with good ideas get to test the reasons for older ways of doing things, and vice versa – sometimes there is a reason to carry on and sometimes change becomes self evidently called for. The trick, so it seems to me, is a management structure that understands this and understands the value of knowledge, both the desirable and otherwise.

As you can see, the programme fired me up and made me reflect on my own experience. I was privileged to work on a number of massive change initiatives on the Underground and was quickly persuaded that the staff know a great deal more about how best to do things, if only anyone will listen to them. As is nearly always the case, the reason for an organization under-performing is often down to the management not trusting or listening to the staff, or, in bloated organizations, simply getting in the way (nothing a bureaucracy likes more than stopping anything changing, and systems and processes often have precisely that effect). These obstacles to progress need fixing anyway, of course. I have also been made aware of several other valuable change management processes where staff knowledge and ideas, if harnessed, have produced hugely increased productivity. So, there is usually knowledge lying around for the taking that is often systematically ignored by managers. This seems very regrettable. Incidentally, there may be another factor where managers actually do not understand what their staff do, and that is that the knowledge actually needed by staff dealing with real-life problems can be quite different from the training they actually get. I see quite a lot of this…

There is also a tendency (which the programme touched upon) to treat staff as units of production where the object is to fill a position rather than to ensure functional skill sets are maintained; this is particularly so where nobody actually knows what skills are required, let alone what may or may not be present already. Getting this wrong (and I suspect the Pareto [the 60:40] principle applies here) often has a fairly small individual impact but there is a lot of it about so the detrimental effect mounts up, but occasionally it will lead to massive blunders. It is perceived as staff who actually do not seem to be very good at their job, but actually it is often the fact they do not have the knowledge or experience required, often because nobody actually knows what is required, especially if those who did know have been allowed to go without passing it on. I very much suspect this is not even recognized as an issue because it does not appear on any company’s balance sheet or P&L, or, more accurately, it does appear but is so heavily disguised as to be unrecognizable, so nobody agonizes over it.

So what are these hidden knowledge-absence  costs? Here are some examples that clearly have a cost. Extra training, excessive staff turnover, rework, poor quality work, work taking longer than it needs to and letting clients down, reputational risk, letting staff go and then re-employing them at higher pay because their knowledge was subsequently found useful (where do you think the big consultancies make a turn?), and so on  There is also an enhanced potential for a major safety event. I have myself seen inaccurate signalling plans issued by staff without any subject knowledge (professionals look at this and just shrug because it is no longer unusual). The point is that some types of knowledge are valuable. So valuable in fact that there are businesses now considering the need for a chief memory officer (don’t imagine this is anything resembling what an Information Management function does, by the way).

So, to wind to a close, I don’t think it is helpful to undervalue knowledge and at the same time it is management’s job to identify what is important and maintain it and to stop the cultural inertia at the same time. Quite a trick and often not done well. In particular, experience (knowledge gained on the job) is very difficult to write down and can only be exploited efficiently if an enlightened management understands that (1) it exists at all, (2) is commercially important, (3) can only realistically be passed on where job-holders overlap and interact in some way and (4) there is an incentive to transfer the knowledge. Clearly there can be staff whose own personal agenda is not met by sharing knowledge and this is unacceptable (though they, at least, recognize it is important!). Since experience by its nature it is hard to write down, it is hard to ask for when either recruiting or placing a specification in a contract (actually writing decent specifications for things is a skill I think we may have lost for ever – I have seem some dreadful examples from well known organizations that should know better and it makes suppliers despair).

It would be very interesting if a senior manager took it upon themself to facilitate a knowledge audit to identify what knowledge a business actually needed to function effectively, and how the staff matched up to that. Systems could then be put in place to try and preserve or pass on knowledge that was business critical and ditch that which got in the way. I would be mighty interested to see what turned up. What I think would turn up is that staff need to know things in order to do their job that it hadn’t occurred to managers were important (or even existed), and that staff were being taught stuff that was irrelevant. A by-product would be to assist the process of employing the right staff for the job (as you would have a better idea of what was actually involved), and it would improve the possibilities of having proper succession planning. It might also steer training programmes.

Anyway, these are the thoughts that were triggered by the radio programme. I do recommend it (words you don’t hear from me very often). Well done the BBC.

 

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