On the consequences of making decisions

There are a number of industries where simple decisions made for pragmatic reasons at the time have made subsequent change very difficult. In the telecoms industry, for example, the speech circuit and ringing voltages on the so-called ‘local loop’ are pretty much the same now as they were 120 years ago; the reason is that it is one network with thousands of exchanges and millions of subscribers, with new equipment being introduced piecemeal and having to work with old equipment, so overnight step-change is impossible.

In the railway industry the most obvious example of this phenomenon is track gauge. This goes back 150 years and was chosen by some for pragmatic reasons; it is hard to see this ever being altered, though if the railway promoters of that time had known how rail was to develop then surely something a little wider might have been better? The pretty much international gauge won’t change now, though. There are lots of examples like this, if you look. 3rd/4th rail electrification arrangements could be another one. Choice of 11ft 8¼ins tunnel size on the tubes would be another.

One example I hadn’t expected to find relates to the height of London Underground station platforms. Many have cursed the sharp step up into Underground carriages, an issue only now being remedied after 150 years or thereabouts. Indeed a former London Transport senior manager with responsibilities for improving facilities for disabled people asked shortly after he joined why such a step was necessary; he was told it had always been like that. True, perhaps  but not very helpful!

I now discover that when the redoubtable Charles Yerkes arrived in Britain to rebuild the Metropolitan District Railway he asked pretty much the same question. At that time there was a 10-inch step up into the carriages. The Board of Trade’s Railway Inspectorate was the safety authority at the time and he consulted them about the new electric carriages he was proposing to introduce. His American rapid transit background told him a 10-inch step was not a good thing to have at all. He was stuck with a design for his new cars (he was an American) that required 36-inch wheels so that the motor casings would clear the central negative rail and could not reduce the floor height of the cars.

His solution was to raise platform heights so they would be level with the car floors. This meant raising them 10 inches or so. In those days it was not disabled passengers he was contending with but the general flow of traffic. He had engaged in research (presumably in America) on a railway carrying over half a million passengers a day and had 600 observations made. His conclusion was that with a level platform and the kinds of cars he had in mind it was possible  for the station dwell time to be reduced to eleven seconds. That is right, eleven seconds, perhaps a third of that actually prevailing on the Underground today. He pointed out that such performance would be impossible with a 10-inch step. Obviously (he argued), at foreign companies’ stations at which District trains called the step would be no greater than at present so no additional risk was introduced; at those stations the additional performance was not required anyway. What an incredible opportunity. 

What happened next brings me back to my original theme about arbitrary decisions. The matter fell to Colonel Yorke to deal with. His initial response suggested he understood the desire for level boarding but suggested making the conductor rails or motors smaller. Yerkes patiently explained why the motors had to be the size they were and that the conductor rail size was irrelevant. The file is covered with handwritten notes of discussions within the Inspectorate hinting at some unease about having to make a definite decision on the matter. Col. Yorke observed that it was not unusual for passengers to fall off platforms and raising the height to 3ft 11ins or so would increase the risk of them hurting themselves. He was also (incredibly) concerned about the station staff and bookstall operators who had constant need to cross the lines, sometimes with luggage or stock.

To me and no doubt others this seems extraordinary and suggests no thought to the obvious alternative of stopping people crossing the track without a by-your-leave, which is pretty much what happened anyway when frequent electric trains began running (actually raising the height would discourage this behaviour). The question of the number of people ‘falling off’, and the extent of further injury likely to result from the extra inches, presumably only applicable to those not actually run over, I will leave to the reader. No numbers are actually given. More reasonably the observation was made that if foreign rolling stock operated over the District then a step down would be necessary; of course foreign trains pretty much disappeared upon District electrification, other than rare Circles of Metropolitan origin. It was not suggested these would be dangerous, more a case of scratching around for reasons not to rush towards having to make a decision.

In the end a written response was unavoidable. It said that for the reasons given the Chief Inspecting Officer felt that it would not be advisable to alter platforms from existing height of 3ft and that rolling stock should be designed accordingly. It is as though they hadn’t listened to the arguments and just felt uncomfortable with putting their name on anything altering the status quo (that might subsequently open them to criticism). In any event we know that the proposal was not taken forward and the files fall silent. There were other priorities, though if Yerkes had really pushed the point it would have been quite interesting as the inspectorate was inclined to give way to marginal things under serious pressure. In the event, the step height did allow trains to be a little wider than they would otherwise have been, the bodies being capable of slightly over-sailing the platform edge. It has not been until the introduction of ‘S’ stock, with small motors and heavily tapered bodysides that it has been practical to reduce train floors to traditional platform heights. This is 100 years after the previous decision point!

It seems to me that the decision to resist change in 1902 was based on pragmatic and immediate reasons not entirely founded in having thought things through in any depth and possibly not understanding the issues. To me it seems a good example of such decisions, of which there are many, that can have really inconvenient long-term effects that are simply not considered.

Now, I wonder if that could happen today? What thought is given to fossilizing train layout arrangements by modern signalling systems, or introduction of platform edge doors? I’m sure these are all being thought about, together with the long term implications. They are, aren’t they… ? Surely?


About machorne

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
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One Response to On the consequences of making decisions

  1. Nathanael says:

    We're making a complete mess of platform heights and spacing here in the US. I cannot imagine how we will ever sort it out.


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