I don’t think the reason why the British travel infrastructure copes so badly with problems is actually down to a fundamental lack of capability or investment. The real problem is that the operators lack sufficient planning, and/or imagination, and/or flexibility to shift their services to alternative patterns better matched to changing circumstances. The only “plan B” seems to be “run what’s left of plan A and apologise”.
Take, for example, South West Trains, who run commuter services to the South West of London. There are two main lines out from Waterloo via Guildford and Woking, but also a number of parallel minor lines, like the secondary line to Guildford which runs past my house.
When North Surrey got a foot of snow for the first time in 30 years in February 2009, it was clear that no trains were going to run on any of these lines for a couple of days, but only a relatively short stretch of the lines was blocked. It was still possible, for example, to get from Surbiton (about 10 miles nearer to London than my home) to Waterloo.
I had to attend a course in London, and the roads were becoming passable, so I dug the car out and drove to Surbiton. It rapidly became clear that everyone else had had the same idea. How had SWT reacted? By running the same four commuter services an hour from Surbiton. These were, of course, enormously overcrowded and slow. What about the other trains which would, for example, have usually been running the express services carrying the rest of the traffic? These were nowhere to be seen, presumably sat in a siding near Waterloo. Would it have been beyond the wit of man to press some of these into use as additional shuttle services to carry the excess traffic from those stations which were accessible? Apparently so.
Last night, I got caught again. I got to Waterloo at 10:30 pm to see a blank indicator board. The cause of the trouble was signalling problems in turn due to cable theft at Woking. Now I don’t blame the rail companies for that, and I hope the perpetrators are found, hung, drawn and transported to South Georgia, but I do think the train companies’ response is inadequate.
True to form, they had reverted to “what’s left of plan A”, running a tiny number of overcrowded and delayed services under manual signalling procedures. Now theoretically my line should not have been affected. Not only should I have been able to get home, but my line is perfectly capable of carrying some additional “relief” traffic, as it does when there is planned engineering work on the main lines. (About once a month the 8 commuter services per hour are joined by about 20 express and freight services, and when planned that seems to work fine.) With a bit of ingenuity you could even alert taxi drivers at the intermediate stops to the sudden need for their services, at profitable late night rates.
Is that what happened? I should coco. Instead not even the regular services to my home station appeared to be running. I ended up on one of the overcrowded trains to Surbiton, and finished my day with a £40 cab ride.
Why is this so difficult for the train companies to get right? In both of these cases there was no fundamental problem with the remaining infrastructure or rolling stock. In both cases they even have a model for the alternative schedule. For last night it’s in a file marked “Saturday service with engineering work at Woking”. Staff flexibility might be the problem, but that must be resolvable, maybe via higher overtime rates?
There’s also an architectural lesson here. I design computer systems and networks. My clients run national power networks. In both cases the customers expect those systems and networks to be resilient, and to cope with growing demand without wholesale replacement. It’s not always possible to justify dedicated “DR” capacity, so you have to get inventive with alternative configurations of the capacity you do have, and then run tests and introduce clever asset monitoring and management practices to make sure those configurations can be used safely.
If we can do it, why can’t the transport operators?
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