No Windmill spirit

It was hardly surprising that there were transport problems today, given the amount of snow that has fallen.  But it is pretty inexcusable that there has been the worst weather related transport crisis in living memory. The fact that Transport for London did not put out a single bus this morning is nothing short of disgraceful.

One can detect the heavy hand of Health and Safety here. The TfL spokespeople and the mayor himself have been saying that the roads in and out of the depots have been impassable and therefore it has been impossible to get the buses out. But every depot in every part of London? Hardly. My knowledge is patchy but there are some depots which are virtually on a main road – Chalk Farm, Westbourne Park – and there must be countless others.

What is missing is the old ‘the show must go on’ Windmill spirit. The spinelessness is reflected elsewhere, too: Camden’s parks are all closed for safety reasons and the government building where my daughter works was threatened with closure because not enough security staff had got through the snow.

On the trains, the National Rail website foundered in the first snow drift, with clearly no contingeny plans to ensure that it could run in an emergency. Yes, it would cost extra to build in say 5 times the normal requirement, but the whole point of a transport system is that it should be able to cope in an emergency. It is not good enough to say there was unprecedented demand. Accidents, bad weather, floods and sudden increases demand should be factored into the software systems as they are bound to happen at some time.

Of course, to be fair, this is the worst weather that I, as a Londoner, can remember in my near 60 years of living in the capital. But nevertheless, we give up too easily. There is no readiness to try to make sure that at least some services are running. And it is understandable why staff cannot be bothered to go the extra mile. The whole ethos of the privatised transport industry is to make a fast buck and to forget the old virtues of public services. People who are threatened with redundancy at the first sign of a downturn are hardly likely to make that effort. The trouble is, it is not National Express or FirstGroup that suffers, but the passengers.

  • RapidAssistant

    And then you have Boris publically urging Londoners not to go on a “mass skive”, and congratulates the motorists who struggled into work today…..I suppose that didn’t include his own bus operators who by the looks of it, decided to stay at home…

  • Paul O

    I remember back in autumn 2002, the West Coast mainline was shut due to high winds playing havoc with the overheads, no trains ran and no replacement coaches were provided because the police had advised that coaches should not be out on the motorway. Virgin Trains basically threw in the towel and just told everyone to come back tomorrow, doing something in the old Dunkirk style was just too much hassle and probably of no betterment to the shareholders. Back then the seeds were already being sown for what has happened today, you could see it coming and the depressing part of this is that you can’t make the case for public transport if it shuts down at the first sign of something a tiny little bit outside of the ordinary envelope. (I would apply that statement to railfrieght as well) Whats happening is we are seeing a story being told on the news and the story is, the private car and the lorry can cope, road transport – except for buses of course – can cope, road is king, public transport is, an expensive irrelevance, very depressing really.

  • Dan

    I recall a couple of years ago waiting for a train at Inverness station. I noticed a rather nice Small plaque dating from some time in the 80s marking with thanks the efforts of BR staff to keep the Highland Railway network running in the face of severe winter conditions – it was signed as I recall, by the then Scotrail MD Chris Green. In fact I think it is to the left of this Victorian plaque in this pic (although you can’t read it in this pic)

    Not much chance of any similar plaques being erected now I presume!

  • Nick

    The bizarre thing was to contrast the headline advice from the NR website (go home and hide under the table) with the real time running information for anywhere more than 30 miles from London; most trains are running and many are on time.

  • Mike

    What a smack in the face for all those Londoners (and non-Londoners!) that made the effort to get in to work today.

    No buses in London, but in Kent, (East Kent) Stagecoach were running buses between Whitstable and Canterbury [at least] despite a dump overnight of three or so inches.

    Boris Johnson has failed……Maybe he should spend less time on boats out in the Thames estuary on voyages of fancy.

  • Peter

    I have to say well done to SWT – for a change. They got me to and from work, albeit with some delay. The snow was well over the conductor rail, but still the trains moved seemingly unaffected. More than its fellow third rail operators could manage!

  • SteveB

    On Monday afternoon, I had no choice but to drive from near Reading to Gatwick to pick up my son on his return from Turin, since FGW were unable to get their Reading – Gatwick service beyond Redhill, and there was no service from Gatwick to Victoria. I was unable to use the M25 because of the 30-mile-plus traffic jam, but made it without hold-ups via more minor roads. The level crossing at Farnham looked bizarre – the tracks were covered in pristine snow. Where were the snowploughs? This snowfall had been predicted well in advance, but of course it was on a Sunday night.

  • RapidAssistant

    Think though that the reality is that local authorities can’t justify procuring millions of pounds worth of equipment for dealing with extreme weather conditions that nowadays only happen once in a decade – you buy for the average snowfall, and then you make do as best you can when disaster strikes.

    Up here in the Central Scotland, where such winters happen more frequently, councils are more equipped for dealing with said weather conditions – there is a council depot 5 minutes walk from my house which has an army of snowploughs. If the snow had struck this neck of the woods in the way that it has done in Southern England I’d be willing to bet there wouldn’t have been as much travel disruption – but it makes me chuckle at the way the London based media has almost declared a national emergency because of weather conditions that used to be quite common.

    I think an element of complacency has crept in as these short, wet and mild winters have become the norm, and we’ve forgotten how to deal with “proper winters” when they strike.

  • Dan

    Steve – I guess you’re talking rail snow ploughs in this post – I wonder how many now remain – of course you also need a fleet of diesel locos to push them. In fairness I recal winter of probably 85-86 and I was working for BR then on south coast in third rail territory – snow was similar to recent downfall by the look of it – and BR gave up the 3rd rail service about 4pm ish on the Coastway service as a I recall on this particular day (I remember being sent home early as I used Coast way trains to get to / from work). Primarily a 3rd rail problem – so interesting that another post says SWT kept it going (is this a refelction on German built Desiro performance?)

    With snow I guess you also need the number of p-way people to keep snow out of point blades etc (unless all have point heaters designed to do that?) – I’m no P-way expert so don’t know how feasible that is.

    I’d have thought that apart from sizeable wind created drifts on non 3rd rail routes the mini ploughs fitted to the front of units would deal with snow of the sort we’ve recently had?

    But, as Christian says, it’s just easier to shut it down and forget about it. IMHO the situation with schools is more pathetic than the public transport situation (bad though that was)

  • On the Sussex area of NWR we recently had a list disseminated of point heaters that aren’t working properly. Effort that could have been better spent fixing the things. You are quite right about the “cant do” attitude that exists on the modern railway and it depresses the staff as much as the passengers.

  • Daphne

    There has not been a bus garage at Chalk Farm for some years, the closure of small garages may be contributing to the problem. Remember too public transport staff have to get into work in the first place, they don’t take their buses and trains home with them. Another problem is that car drivers on the road prevents the road clearing gritting services from functioning very well. I remember that last snow fall I drove home in it 4 hours for about 4 miles my battery was wrecked by the experience, i was just desperate for the loo.

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  • western52

    This ‘just close the railway till things get better’ would never have happened in the days of Gerry Fiennes on the Eastern, Dick Hardy on the LM , and even Chris Green on Scotrail or NSE, what would have happened would be services altered to make additional stops, or extended etc ; the Ok it would still be chaotic but at least something would run ; now the system; in any kind of adverse conditions be it hot sun wind rain or snow just gives up – can somebody tell me whatever happened to real railwaymen?

  • John G

    Some thirty years ago, I needed to travel one Sunday from my home in Newcastle to my parents in Whitley Bay. Normally I would have gone by train, but at the time the B.R. line had closed for construction of the Tyne & Wear metro and the service was operated by buses of Tyne & Wear PTE, who also ran Newcastle’s local bus services. Unfortunately there had been a fall of snow overnight, so the PTE decided not to run any buses at all. However from my home, I could see in the distance the red buses of the local NBC subsidiary, United and as they ran to Whitley Bay, I was able, after a 15 minute walk to the nearest United bus stop to get an ordinary bus to Whitley Bay. The roads were not too bad, and the only problem was at one point, the bus was supposed to divert off the main road through a village, but missed it out. However the rail replacement service was supposed to run along the main road anyway, and I could see no reason whatsoever why it could not have run. It is true that local bus services in Newcastle might have had difficulty getting onto some of the housing estates, but surely they could have attempted to run some sort of service. The failure to do so can hardly be blamed on privatisation as this was long before buses were privatised.

  • Jack

    May I offer my warm congratulations to the people at National Rail Enquiries for their development of the train departure times ‘gadget’ for use in the Windows Vista sidebar. It makes it so convenient to view live train departure information between two specified stations which allows you to see the status of up to the next 7 trains running from your station. What is especially clever is that for laptop users who undertake the same regular trip, the journey will reverse at a time you specify so you need do nothing in order to get train information for your return trip.
    What is not very clever however, is the accuracy of the information which goes in to such devices. For me, the recent wintry weather exposed some serious problems with the way information about delayed trains is conveyed to rail users.
    Yesterday, before departing for Saltaire station (about a 5 minute walk), in order to travel by train to get to my class at the at Leeds University yesterday, I glanced at the NRE ‘gadget’ to see that my train (the 11:40) was running ‘on time’ despite the snowy weather. Just to be safe, I double checked the West Yorkshire Metro website which declared that there were no significant delays being incurred on any rail routes within the region. I shut down my computer and embarked for the station. To my dismay, once at the station, the ominous green writing on the monitor indicated the train was in fact delayed by 9 minutes. To make things worse, as the revised arrival time approached, it was subsequently revised again, and again, and again, and again. It was a case of 3 minutes forwards and then two minutes back each time. Eventually, the train did arrive, albeit 25 minutes late and I arrived at my economics of transport appraisal lecture 20 minutes late as a result.
    Today, the same happened for a later train and I turned into my transport econometrics class 25 minutes late. Bizarrely, it’s still going on now as I write. As I look at the national rail website, a train is due to arrive at Saltaire at 22:14, but my synchronised PC clock says the time is 22:15. Even more ridiculous is that the train is still two stops away, having just left Keighley, so everyone knows that the Saltaire ETA has to be false and is due for an imminent sequence of 2 minute revisions. I have the screen dumps saved on my computer to prove this! The running information seen on the screens by the poor cold souls down at the station will be no use to man nor beast!
    I simply do not believe that both trains I attempted to catch suddenly incurred delays in the moments between my leaving my house and arriving at the station. I suspect that the delays were the compound result of the morning’s journeys up and down the line being incrementally delayed due to the wintry weather. Ok, that I do not have a problem with. What I do take issue with is that there is a system which purports to deal with these changes automatically, but which in fact performs appallingly so. It is as if the system asks whether the train is due to arrive within the next few minutes before it activates the ‘revise arrival time?’ function and that it refuses to notify of a delay which is fully known about up the line unless there are less than ten minutes until its planned arrival time. However it works, the algorithms used on the Airedale line are in need of significant overhaul for them to be of any use to rail travellers.
    Then again, perhaps it is nothing to do with the algorithms. Could it be that this same system is also connected to the Northern Rail KPI and management bonus scheme and that to actually display information required by the travelling public to make informed transport decisions would make things look worse in the stats? Could it be that all delays which show more than, say, 15 minutes drop into a box which over a certain number would mean no Christmas party for the gang at Northern? Who knows?
    One thing I learned in my previous occupation as a Rail Quantity Surveyor is that if I doubled my forecast cost of a railway track renewal at every monthly cost-value meeting, I would be accused by my seniors of complete incompetence, and probably rightly so. Therefore, why does the railway think that it is fair for the travelling public to be subject to such nonsense? A real-time train delay notification system which says the train always 2 minutes away until it finally arrives 25 minutes later is not a real-time notification system at all.
    For these reasons, the estimated arrival time information on the Airedale line is worse than useless. Worse, because it leads passengers to rely on information which is knowingly false, drawing them in to think all is ok when the railway knows too well that it isn’t. Under typical contractual arrangements, a claim for such breaches could quite reasonably be lodged if damages were incurred as a result of such erroneous information. This of course is the railway, so such checks and balances do not apply. It’s time for an overhaul of this wretched system, so thank goodness for the snow for exposing it. How about using mobile phone technology or satellites instead?
    So, ‘yay’ to the ‘gadget’ but ‘boo’ to the train progress information. Sort it out please.

  • RapidAssistant

    Good points John – ever noticed, that as privatisation has evolved, the long distance operators have started adding on a buffer at the booked arrival time at termini. Frequently on Virgin and NXEC services that I’ve been on and the delay keeps on racking up as the journey progresses, then miraculously on the last 50 miles into Euston or King’s Cross the time is all of a sudden made up and the train manager (or whatever they call themselves these days) heroically announces this fact as the train pulls into the station.

    Good example is the booked arrival time of the fastest Edinburgh-London times – InterCity East Coast and in the early days of GNER quoted 3:58-3:59 (or thereabouts), yet nowaways its in the 4:10-4:20 territory for the same journey with the same stops. Talk about pulling the wool over the people’s eyes!

  • Dan

    Good point Jack – I find this infutraiting too. I was under the impression that the tiems were probably predicted by axle counters that count the trains position, and then software predicts how long it takes to get from that position (under normal circs) to the destination / next station – and then refreshed when passing the next axle counter. So in these conditions it can pass counter A at a moment in time a predicted 10 mins from destination (so the screen says 10 mins to arrive), but then in fact train gets delayed and does not pass Counter B (say a sceheduled 2 mins later) until in fact 15 mins later – thus the screen makes a big jump. ie it is not a continouus GPS based system? Maybe others who know more could advise?

    Rapid – you’re right there – you can smoke this out by looking at the times it takes a train to get from the penultimate stopping point to the destination in the timetable, compared with one going the same way in the other direction (eg Slough to Paddington takes x mins, but for some strange reason Paddington to Slough takes 50% of x mins) aren’t these padding outs called ‘charter minutes’ to ensure the services meet the passenger’s charter committment.

  • Paul O

    Dan, Rapid,

    Re = Buffer time at end of journey, Even BR had some recovery time bulit into the ends of a long distance schedule, I remember that in the 1980’s Manchester – Euston had about ten mins on the end so if everything went smoothly you got in 10 mins early ( you don’t use recovery time unless you have to were the rules ) that said I think more padding or Recovery Time as it is officially called seems to have been built into the schedules and not defending anyone I can see why, the main lines are just so much more congested than they were in the 1980’s that its harder to get a clear road and run fast, also bear in mind that the days of liberally interpreting the max speed when your running late have long gone due to the constant retrospective monitoring of driving performance by black boxes etc.

    Now onto why I logged on. I need someone else to to confirm I actually did heard this…….

    On the local Radio News last night, about 11pm, They were speculating on more snow and whether the railway could cope this time around. A spokesman from ATOC came on – (I didn’t catch his name but probably the new guy, Mr safe and uncontoriversial, let’s not upset the Govenrment we are on a good thing here, I can’t remember his name, he’s that unimportant) – He said that the railway had been planning for snow for months and months and had all the plans in place, however the highway authorities had let them down by not gritting the roads and as a consequence railway staff were unable to get to work. So there you have it, I was the Highway Authorities fault not the railways.

    To be fair since Beeching staff had had to travel to keep their jobs, there was a time before that and I’m not sure when this rule was recinded, but you had to live within about two miles of your Depot / Station. So you could walk there.

    I’m going to get shouted at by someone here but it needs saying. Working on the railways was at one time a way of life and keeping the railway going was put before ones own personal life that was a culture in the organisation that was passed down but the organisation was more benevolent to you also, a sort of trade off really. Nowadays I think it is much more of a job for many people, there are still commited railway men and women but for many it is a job and what counts as going the extra mile nowadays would have been consdiered just a normal days duty in the past. You can’t blame Railway men or women as Christian rightly points out, “The whole ethos of the privatised transport industry is to make a fast buck and to forget the old virtues of public services. People who are threatened with redundancy at the first sign of a downturn are hardly likely to make that effort. The trouble is, it is not National Express or FirstGroup that suffers, but the passengers”.

    Also I’ve noticed a heavy reliance on taxis to ferry train crew to from centralised signing on points to their trains at other locations, only the other week I was talking to a taxi driver and he had just taken a Guard and Driver from Preston to Liverpool in order to work a train out, despite Liverpool being a big city with its own signing on point, though probably another companies. I’ve also heard of freightliner drivers working a train north and then with ten hours or so under their belt they get in car and drive it down the motorway to their home depot – surely that should not happen on safety grounds alone, The bottom line is that train companies are now much more reliant on the road network than they were in BR days partly because they only work their own trains / diagrams and so don’t drive a passenger down and a parcels up, they are also driven to be more productive so sometime a taxi journey can be quicker due to geography than travelling passenger and that can mean they possibly do and extra trip somehwere else. Trying to get a taxi out of BR was like trying to have an audience with the pope, you travelled passenger even if it took you longer and that was it.

  • Paul O


    I apologise to all for my attrocious smelling, sorry I mean spelling. I only have a limited time, type fast and type straight to webform without a spell check, sometimes my key sequence gets a little distorted but I think you get the gist of my messages anyway.

    Paul O

  • RapidAssistant

    Paul – thanx for that I didn’t know about the movement of staff. I know I’m not comparing like with like here, but it is standard practice in the aviation industry for airlines to allow their pilots and cabin crew to “jump seat” (their equivalent of riding “on the cushions” in railway speak), on both their own and indeed their rivals’ planes when moving between bases, or returning them to their home base at the end of their shifts. If it works for aviation, why not the railway?

  • Nigel Frampton

    I’m not really sure that you can blame it all on privatisation of those relevant parts of the transport industry. As I understand it, while the buses in London didn’t run, the story was different in other parts of the country. Agreed the operators are privatised in London, but they are also ‘regulated’ by the TfL system. In the rest of the country the system is more purely competitive, so the problem perhaps relates to the incentives contained in the contracts or ‘franchising’ system. In this case, the deregulated system would appear to have given operators the incentive to make an effort – which, of course, is part of the idea!

  • Allan Hedley

    I travelled from Whitehaven on Monday morning expecting to get to Folkestone. I arrived into Euston about 40 late and got the Northern line to Charing X, only to find the station closed due to “No Trains Currently Running from this Station”. I made my way to Victoria and the same no trains, apart from Gatwick Express.

    Was pointed to read an A4 piece of paper by the customer assistant at Victoria, which was hand written saying “No trains at all running for rest of today”. As a dedicated, long standing railwayman where has the British “Lets get on with life gone”. Would the leadership of Chris Green when he ran the southern region/Network Southeast area with a nationlised vertically operated railway have gave in so easily… i think not!