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Enough of the stupid

I had an interesting and difficult journey home last night. Three hours of train. Two hours of cycling (on ice). But I got home.

The train bit was only really “train journey” in parts. Most of it was sitting in a stationary train, delayed by broken down stock, failed points, missing crew and the like. I got through it minute by minute, making up whimsical stories about the celebrity in the same carriage (true) and the fight we had over the buffet trolley (not true). Nobody died.

The cycling bit was rather more dangerous. Roads caked in thick black ice, dusted with light snow, temperatures well below freezing. I learnt that a Brompton can still be ridden when both wheels are locked and are sliding sideways across the road. I learnt that stationary car drivers still think it’s funny to shout “get out of the way” at a bike, even in these most extreme of circumstances. Nobody died.

I enjoyed being in the moment, to be honest. I had a reasonably urgentish phone call to make, about this morning’s TV silliness. I had no phone battery, so it would have to wait. I had no choice. I had some cycling to do. I even took a chance picture of a passing unicyclist (as you do), which has already become my most viewed Flickr picture ever. Being there. Just doing what I do, playing the cards I’m dealt. But I did some thinking too, particularly about those icy roads.

We’re hearing lots of it today, of course. It started when I put the radio on at 4am this morning, driving up to Shepherd’s Bush. London talk radio doing its bit. “’Ow shtyoopid can they be, I mean honestly, I knew it was gonna snow, yew knew it was gonna snow, so where were the blahhdy gritters ’ey?” Caller after caller, headline after headline, even tweet after tweet, indulging in that most British of post-event pursuits: the search for blame and vengeance.

As I slithered the bike between the (mostly) stationary trucks on the A23 I was thinking, fairly calmly, about two questions. Did the decision-makers have access to information that they could trust about the impending weather? And if they did, where were the points of failure in the logistics of getting the roads treated (which there really must have been, given the state of the roads)?

What I didn’t do was fill up my head with imprecations about their state of mind, capability to do their job, and all that stuff. Now I normally like a fair bit of evidence before giving a view, but I’m going to take a punt here and suggest that the Highways Director at Croydon Council (who I suspect is having a pretty awful day right now) didn’t sit there a couple of days back, slumped over his desk, head in hands, shrieking “These weather reports – I just don’t understand them! They’re so…so…complicated.” Neither do I think it’s very likely that he crouched in the corner of a dark cellar in Taberner House, playing with little models of cars made from his own excrement, stamping on them and shouting “Ha – you will LOSE on Tuesday evening, because I have the information, I have the power, I have the gritters and I CHOOSE to HURT you.”

So. Enough of the derogatory stuff. Stuff about people, and how well they’re doing their jobs. How you could do their job better. I’m sure many people could draw a rough map of their area with some grit bins on it. And probably even show where they’d load up their trucks and how often they might run them. Would they go as far as to plan for the rostering of the crews, for the resupply of grit and salt, for ensuring the crews could reach their gritters, for the long-term financing, maintenance and storage of the fleet? No. Probably not. Because in most heads these are just units of service – to be created, moved around, and then disposed of when not needed any more. It isn’t like that. Really, it isn’t.

We live within fragile systems. Trains and planes run at very close to 100% of their theoretically achievable capacity. Road networks are congested and full of bottlenecks. Single points of failure abound. Very slight disruptions cause knock-on effects. Major disruptions cause melt-down. It’s not always the obvious stuff: there may be no snow at the station, causing commuters to wonder where the hell the train is, but if the train driver lives five miles away and a stranded car blocks his driveway… It’s complicated. Really complicated. And probably beyond the capabilities of an amateur speculator to get their head round to any great extent. That’s how stuff is in the real world. Stuff like services that supply millions of people.

We can mitigate the fragility of systems either by reducing our use of them to a safer threshold within their maximum capacity, by increasing that capacity, or by providing extra resilience. Unfortunately we’re not very good at this. Will you put your hand in your pocket (directly or indirectly through taxation) to provide dormitories where spare train drivers are paid to sleep at stations so there will never be another “we’re waiting for a crew member” announcement? We’ve had a related experience to this in fire stations. Will you be prepared to see the frequency of your services cut back so the system isn’t so stressed (you’ll have to stand a bit more often on your train)? Will you shift public expenditure towards the construction of major additional capacity, or massive behaviour and infrastructure investment to change travel patterns entirely? And what will you give up to do so? Indeed.

We have a deadly combination of fragility and infrequency in this country when it comes to extreme weather. Maybe the choices made are rational; maybe they’re not. I’d like a bit more data available on the research that supports these choices; more of a focus on evidence, and less on human weakness, real or perceived.

Yes, there will still be mistakes*. Human errors. All I ask is that we don’t habitually make them our starting point. Next time you hear someone say “they should have…” [ok, more realistically “they should of…”] take a tiny sidestep and look for the questions that will actually be helpful.

Question the systems you can see. Question why it is that it is so. Question why you can’t see what you can’t. Pursue the forensic separation of fact from myth with gusto.

But less of the “stupid” talk, please. It doesn’t help.

*As it happens, the Highways Agency did bugger something up. A conclusion backed up with visible evidence. I’ll cover that one in another post.

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10 Responses

  1. Britt Warg says:

    This snow chaos talk reminds me of the discussion I often hear myself, when dealing with the same H2O – but the non-frozen variety.
    Every time there is a freak flooding event, people start blaming the EA or various Councils. And yes, they ‘should have known’, there really are brilliant ways of predicting floods now, especially since the Met Office and The EA started working jointly in the new Flood Forecasting Centre. There is even one in Scotland now.
    I have been to the London centre, seen how one Met Office member of staff watches the precipitation on his/her screen and how the EA member of staff next to him/her calculates from his/her screen what this water will do once it hits the ground. Brilliant. The technique is getting more and more accurate and fine-tuned but – and that’s a BIG but… We cannot always predict everything, everywhere, for everyone, and have the readiness we would like.

    As you know, I am advocating a voluntary National Flood Brigade which I think would help the flood emergency response quite significantly, if carried out the way I envisage it. But even so, I wouldn’t expect it to work every single time. There will always be events we cannot handle as sometimes, everything just becomes too complex, with knock-on effects beyond our physical capacity. It is, after all, us humans against the elements!
    Of course, we should keep trying to do our best. We should make sure we get as good a service we can for our tax money and that our elected politicians put funding forward to make sure that happens. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised if things don’t work out exactly as they should, every single time.
    When it comes to weather at least – we really are in this together.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Very eloquently said sir. I completely agree and it amazes me that people can be so narrow minded as to not conceive that there may be things beyond their immediate comprehension of a given situation.

    Trouble is that I would miss that ridiculous camaraderie that comes from 4 hours spent on 4 trains on a journey that normally takes one hour and one train, when you are so stuffed in next to each other that you’d be arrested under normal circumstances, and when you laugh so much with complete strangers, that it’s often worth the risk.

  3. Siany says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Paul. I actually did write about the state of the roads in Greenwich earlier today (and had a pop at the Council). After a bit of research on the Council website, I was told that main roads and public transport routes were a priority – the main road outside my house is that one that runs into Greenwich and there’s no grit at all. I’m effectively housebound unless I want to risk breaking my neck again.

    It’s not the issue that someone isn’t doing their job properly, for me it’s more that what’s being promised isn’t being done. When information isn’t conveyed correctly, that’s when people get angry. Not knowing when a train will arrive makes people shout, not cancelled trains.

    Conveying that information *is* someone’s job. And I think that whilst you’re right to an extent, that’s something that can always be improved on.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Very well said – it sounds like you did the right thing in finding out more information, establishing that what you could see outside didn’t match the claim, and then drawing your conclusion – that something went wrong. It leads on to the question of why it went wrong, and would (or could) those issues be fixed next time.

    I have to be careful that this doesn’t read as an apologist get-out clause for the entire public sector. There’s a fine line between organisational and individual incompetence, and sometimes it is crossed. I wrote the piece largely to explore the issues of style and attitude that accompany our reactions to system failures. I guess we find it easier to create a demon figure in our head – the fool in a suit – on whom these things can be pinned. I suspect that it’s not always that simple.

    You are so, so right about the value of information – even fairly sparse information being better than none. But most information disconnects are the result of complex system failures, not of someone who wilfully can’t or won’t do their job properly. And of resources – there may well be an intelligent answer to your question about why the Greenwich roads were treated (or not) as they were. But if it is to be an intelligent answer it will take time, effort, phone calls, emails to establish – time which may well be being spent on other priorities right now. They can never get it right, but I agree they can get it less wrong :)

  5. Stu Mitchell says:

    I liked this post. I think you’re spot on right. There is no built-in redundancy into systems that have no doubt been analysed, optimised and examined until the minimum number of folk/vehicles/resources that can cater for ‘usual circumstances’ has been implemented. The ‘risk based approach’ is literally that – and we have learned to live with that risk.

    We’re the victims of optimisation.

  6. Stefan says:

    As a general rule, any sufficiently complex system is incomprehensible to every individual actor within it.

    Some actors have a broader view than others. Some actors (not necessarily the same ones) have more power than others. But nobody can see, still less control, all of it.

    There is a corollary to that principle: providing information is more important than you think, even after allowing for the fact that you think providing information is important. Richer information allows for emergent or inductive approaches: since nobody really knows what’s going on, maximising the information in circulation is the only effective way of helping people to manage and navigate better.

  7. David P says:

    Great, thought provoking post (and thanks for all the updates last night – entertaining but info-full). The one thing I’d add – and share with Stefan – is COMMUNICATE! The lack of effective information on the trains last night – systems that clearly couldn’t cope. Staff who were willing to say to customers “we don’t know – yet – but we’ll tell you as soon as we know” got great kudos (I was on E Croydon station waiting with a friend). But that’s how individuals cope, and communicate – but not how “systems” communicate – it contrasted badly with the lack of coherent “official” info at Victoria. Tell people – how bad it is, why it is – and tell them often – and they’ll moan, but love you. Tell them little – and get it wrong – and they’ll hate you. Works at all levels… (I’m citing this at work – many times – at many levels – too.)

  8. Paul Johnston says:

    absolutely right!

  9. […] Bit of an odd week with all this snow – sadly I ended up stranded in London rather than snowed in at home as our train line gave up completely – and am feeling a little cheated that as soon as I did make it home the snow all disappeared. In common with many other people I spent a lot of time cursing the lack of real time information about what was going on – and would recommend a read of Paul Clarke’s excellent reflection on the disruption. […]

  10. Tom Ball says:

    Yay – common sense ;o))

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