Why can’t we make the trains run on time?

If you were expecting a lengthy rant about how other countries manage to keep the trains going in 40 feet of snow, but we roll over after two inches, move on.

Planning for unpredictable events remains a dark art. And, yes, immobilising snowfalls in this country are still somewhat unpredictable. And they don’t happen very often. And it’s this last point that’s most notable. Resilience is expensive.

Think it through. A reserve of drivers, on standby to cut through impassable roads in their 4x4s (that we’ve all paid for) to guarantee crew availability – many problems start because a driver can’t get out of a driveway, not because the trains don’t work. Ker-Ching. Additional electrical engineers, ditto. Back-up power systems in all trains? Well, let’s just add that on to the budget of all locomotive stock up front. Deathtrap country platforms? A new staff of scrapers to fund. Ker-Ching-Ching-Ching. You don’t just phone up Manpower and get a bunch of temps on the day, you know. Really. It’s the armchair business managers (well, platform, in this case) who get my goat. Pontificating about Sweden and Japan and why-can’t-we? without the faintest clue of what might actually be involved.

So, we don’t build it into the budget. Instead, we run a service which has something in the region of 355 days a year expected uptime, to put it in technology terms. But there’s a collective pretence that it’s really 365, and everything that actually happens is just terribly unfortunate. And a bit of a surprise. Making us all look stupid.

I can think of a few rational reasons why we irrationally mask what might well be rational decision-making. Firstly, the business case of £XXXm days lost to industry due to a day of travel outage has always mystified me. Who actually owns this business case? Where can I find it? Does it take into account subtleties of the modern age, for example that many information workers are actually more productive with a day at home than having lost 2 hours of it to their normal commute?

But we’re tinkering here with some fundamental tenets of the British Working Way of Life, so clearly care is needed. This story is about rather more than a bit of ice and snow, once one scrapes away at it a little.

No, what I’m focusing on here is the other word in the title of this post. Time.

Look at this picture.


At the same time, the online information said that trains were running normally, albeit with 10 minute delays. Oh, and to a different London terminus from the one they were actually going to. The station manager (connected by telephone to Southern control) had yet another picture; which also turned out to be misinformed.

So; that’s four information domains: the printed timetable; the station manager’s briefing; the platform signs; and the online feed. Hey, let’s add a fifth – peer-to-peer communication. It’s pretty easy to find on the ground reports from other travellers. Especially when incidents get very big, like Eurostar did.

So. Five interpretations of some true position of train operation. Good enough? No. I don’t think so.

I’m prepared to excuse the infrastructure and engineering constraints that result from this murky business case about how much our railways really should cost to run economically.

But I can’t excuse such divergence in the information available. Not when the actual, operational information on train running is so definitely known. Albeit locked up inside train operator internal systems.

Now, your bright ideas are required on how to convey to the train operators that the distribution of a single, accurate information feed – by whatever channels, applications or intermediaries it might take to do it well – should be their single biggest priority at times like this.

I’ll be drawing these comments to the attention of ATOC – what can you do to tell your train operator how you feel?

The benefits for the operators are surely massive. And remember that poor woman behind the ticket counter? Make her life easier. If they can’t sort out decent information flows, just give her a power switch at least to turn off the damn platform sign. Why should she, or we, suffer because they can’t be open about information?

Category: Other


8 Responses

  1. John Popham says:

    Good post Paul.

    Last week I had to tell a train guard that the alternative connection he was advising passengers on a delayed train to catch had been cancelled.

    I got the information from the National Rail website, while he had to make a phone call to confirm that what I had told him was correct.

  2. John H says:

    Exactly. The technology comparison is an excellent one. In both cases, people focus on price at the time of making the buying decision, and on service level at the time things go wrong – and fail to make any connection between the two.

    So they’ll pay for “99% uptime” (so much cheaper than 99.9%, and what’s 0.9% between friends?), and then get outraged when their website’s down for two hours – even though they’ve contracted for seven hours of potential downtime* a month. (*Excluding scheduled maintenance, exceptional events, the hours of 00.00 to 06.00, weekends, and anything else the supplier thought to include in the contract which the buyer signed without reading…)

  3. Excellent post!
    Totally agree.
    I think that many people would be a lot calmer if they knew the true situation.
    When I had a long commute to York, I used to take an emergency overnight-stay kit with me, in case the trains were affected too severely by weather. I always felt very sorry for platform staff trying to deal with very tense and grumpy passengers, whilst usually having no more than the inaccurate info on the noticeboards that we all could see.

  4. John H says:

    Janet: agreed. The most frustrating part of the experience is the powerlessness of lacking clear, credible information.

    It may have been a little irritating today to have an “enhanced Saturday service” running on Southeastern trains, but at least (thanks to the new Twitter feeds for rail updates) I knew in advance what was going on. It’s not that long ago I’d have turned up to find I had a 45 minute wait for the next train, while station staff stood around shrugging their shoulders and saying they “don’t have any information at the moment”.

  5. cyberdoyle says:

    Its amazing how truthful accurate information can help in situations like this. It should be a high priority to companies to implement it asap. We have the technology. Most social media is free. There is no excuse for misinformation these days.

  6. Britt_W says:

    Having just been affected by major train chaos when going from Stockholm to Arvika (from mid east Sweden to mid west) last Friday, http://www.thelocal.se/23938/20091219/ my mind was already set on comparing the UK and Sweden when it comes to handling disruptive situations.
    I always hear comments in the UK about how well we cope in “the Scandinavian countries” (we are not all the same BTW!). I was asking myself last Friday: “Do we?”

    I also appreciate the economic and logistic reasoning behind having a “snow and cold resilience” – or not having one. In a cold country like Sweden it makes sense to continuously spend money on keeping the infrastructure going. Less so in the UK.

    But, as you say, there is no excuse for not informing people in real time. My train was meant to leave 17.15 and ETA was 20.35. The train didn’t leave until 2 hrs later, due to a train failure and also an accident. All southbound trains were cancelled. I spent 2 hrs staring at the screen, which changed continuously. Passengers were popping up and down at various platforms, like in a Tati film.
    Ok – I was unable to a) visit the toilet b) buy something to eat before leaving, as the train could have been announced at any time and I would have missed it.

    But at least, we were told what was happening. People who – in pre-Christmas despair – went up to confront the Swedish equivalent to your ticket counter woman, were just being told to watch the screen and listen to the announcements which came regularly.

    I arrived just before midnight to my destination. The last leg of my journey had been substituted by a coach service. Other passengers who had now missed their connections, were getting personal information on the train, by two train staff, how to get home. Some were offered taxis, others coaches. Everyone was catered for – individually.

    On top of this, I can now claim the full value of the ticket back (in the form of a voucher) as I was late more than 1 hour.

    Finally, @SJ_AB is a train company twitter account which offers an excellent, informative and very human service. Anything from quirky knowledge bits provided by guest train drivers to answering customers’ Q’s – again delivered very personally.

    After years of pretty mediocre train service, i think it is fair to say SJ (the Swedish Railway) has made an effort on the information side.

  7. Richard Light says:

    I can see value in a real-time train running web app which incorporates traveller input via Twitter. We don’t have to leave it all to the TOCs.

    There could be a mobile version which allows you to log your journey in real time, and tweet out any significant delays. You could call it up while waiting for your train to see how it was really doing.

    Completed journeys could also be tweeted in a structured format which would allow user-generated performance stats to be compiled with more detail than the bland percentages we currently get. (“How late was _my_ train over the last quarter?”)

    Traveller-generated tweets might even be incorporated into the official info feed.

    Having said that, I do agree that having one official feed rather than four would be helpful!

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