Thursday 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas Commuters

Christmas eve is not a public holiday here in the UK. Sure there are plenty of people with the day off but many of us still need to get to work on time.

For the past few days the 7:44 has been advertised as having 8 cars then arriving with 4. The 7:18 has been cancelled the past 2 days. 7:32 was cancelled this morning and from memory its not the first time this week. The 7:44 was advertised as being on time up until 7:45. Then suddenly its running 15 minutes late? Wtf?

So I'm on the 7:50. Now to see what time I arrive at West Hampstead so I can get off the wind up version and onto a real train to complete the journey...

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Platform Ping-pong

Damn. My rant has been deflated just as I was starting it...

Arrived in Wet Hamster just after 18:00. Board reporting that the 17:36 was due at 18:29.  I learnt my lesson yesterday and didn't assume that I would have time to grab some food.

Today's picture shows the crowd on the footbridge.  Many people have learnt how much they can trust the boards and wait until they can see the train before commiting to a platform.

So at 18:19 a train pulls into platform 4. I can see it is full, as are the platform and the stairs.  I don't even make it past the top step before the train pulls away at 18:22.

Just afterwards (within a minute) a train arrives on platform 2.  Of course platform 2 has just been drained by people trying unsuccesfully trying to get the train that just left.  I am towards the front of the crowd when I get down to the platform and even manage to get on the train quick enough to snag the last seat in the carriage.

As I write we are stood still after having just left the platform with no clues when we might move, but I'm in the warm and have a seat which is pretty good going.

While I'm waiting I'll backtrack a little.  I have been checking the live departure boards online which I hoped would give me an edge.  The boards at the station had been disabled and were just displaying an "Dear flock, our trains are screwed.  Wait patiently like the sheep you are." message.  The online info wasn't looking quite so bleak.

Tonight's excuse?  A broken down train at Farringdon stopping all through London services.  Yes, that's right, a single faulty train has managed to bring one of the busiest commuter lines to a standstill. Again.

Has it been snowing recently? Not for nearly 24 hours.  This must be another case of a train with a leak. This is England.  This is outside.  Wet should be standard procedure.

I did a bit of research earlier.  The injury claim vultures reckon that neglecting to grit in stations, carparks, etc is a carcass worth circling around. There are long standing regulations that can be leveraged for litigation. The grit embargo on the platforms has the potential to blow up in their faces but no matter how much I want them to suffer, there are two problems: people would need to slip badly enough to get hurt and any penalties they pay would end up coming out of the cattle's pockets.

Back in st albans at 19:00. Amazing how such a screwed up system can get me back home so quickly.

Monday 21 December 2009

Is there a right kind of Snow?

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Aaah, the joys of rail travel in the Snow.

What excuses did they roll out this time? Broken down trains. Signalling faults. Translation: "Our kit is worn out and isn't waterproof any more".

Overall this morning wasn't actually too bad. Sure the train was running late, and was tremendously overcrowded. At Elstree there was a guy who had taken all he could of waiting in the snow and physically forced his way onto the train. Uncomfortable for those of us already aboard, but I can understand his frustration. It took 20 minutes to go two stops; however when I finally got into Canary Wharf I found that I was actually back on schedule and wasn't late into the office at all. Bit of a result really.

Then comes the trip back.

Around 4:30, when the snow was coming down hard again, the boss gave us an out, so I was a little early leaving. I had a phone call to make on the way to the station so didn't wear my gloves. By the time I got across the footbridge and indoors my fingers had pretty much seized up. When I got down onto the Jubilee Line platform the crowd was immediately apparent. I considered changing at London Bridge and getting the Northern line up to St Pancake but decided against that. It turns out that was a good plan, as I saw a little while later on Twitter that London Bridge station was closed for safety reasons due to overcrowding.

So I got the Jubilee straight through to Wet Hamster. Arrived at the Thameslink station to see a board full of delays (surprise!). There was about half an hour to the next departure northbound according to the board so I grabbed myself a kebab while I was waiting.

The board had said the train was due at 18:28. I got there 10 minutes before that to see a train on the platform and ready to leave. Annoyance one: The primary source of information for the cattle/product (previously known as people) on the station is the information board. It would be nice if the delay predictions were based on reality rather than guesswork. FCC arrival times are similar to Windows file transfer estimates and seem to have no connection to actual events. Sure I will be pissed about the delays either way, but if the time estimates on the boards are accurate at least it gives me a chance to do something other than wait around on a freezing cold platform.

The next one on the board was due at 18:58. I settled in for a long cold wait on platform two. Annoyance two: I am not sure whether this is true or not. When I tweeted a few days back about a lack of gritting on the platform causing me to slip on ice, someone I know informed me that current health and safety guidelines are to not use grit on walkways. The reasoning being that if you grit then people expect the surface to be ice free (and presumably are able to sue you if you have missed a bit). Whether this is the reason or not, I have not seen any gritting of rail platforms taking place this year. I can see how some H&S womble may come up with this sort of reasoning; however when I have to regularly walk along long lengths of rail platform covered in compacted snow and ice I find it hard to believe that this is in any way better for the end user. Personally I always wear military issue combat boots which have decent traction on most surfaces. Sheet ice causes problems but I rarely slip on the compacted snow. Watching other people in smooth leather soled slip ons shows that other people don't have it so easy.

About 15 minutes later I notice a train pull in behind me at platform 4. No announcement was made until the train was already at the platform. Take this last minute alteration alongside the state of the platforms and you have a scene reminiscent of a Japanese game show. 200 frozen commuters must walk 200 yards across ice to reach their train and then see how well they can convince people already on the train to sacrifice their personal space. No thanks. Annoyance three: last minute platform alterations. Are we supposed to believe that the control centre don't know which platform the trains are going to end up at? That they just can't be arsed to inform the station staff so that they can make an announcement? Or are the station staff up in the box waiting until the last minute to announce the change so they can get a laugh watching the chaos?

So after letting that train go, I decide that waiting on the platform is a bad idea. I make my way back to the footbridge and settle in midway between platforms 3 and 4. The boards show the next train arriving on 4, but I have lost all confidence. More and more people gather on 4 and I start to think I should get down there so I can be sure of squeezing on. I hold out on the bridge with a number of other people (there are enough of us waiting up there that there is little chance of people getting past and onto the platform). A few minutes after the train was due on platform 4 it finally shows up. On platform 2. Again the announcement is only made as the train is pulling into the station and the boards are updated at about the same time. My gamble paid off this time and I am one of the first couple of dozen down onto the platform. The train is already running full but there is enough room for me to squeeze on. I thought I was going to be one of the last but then some of the people from platform 4 arrive and decide enough is enough. There is a sudden push and I find myself propped at a 30 degree angle as my body is forced forward while my legs are stopped by some luggage in the aisle. I manage to retain my balance and after a couple of minutes people manage to jiggle about and while I am still pushed up against a metal pole, I am at least upright. One of the spearhead of shovers jokes "it will get better after Elstree"... which is about 6 stops away at this point.

After one of the most crowded train journeys I have had on an overground service (I have had worse on the underground though) I finally get off at St Albans only about half an hour later than usual. Which given that I left nearly 30 minutes early certainly isn't a good trip; however it isn't that bad either.

I have voluntarily let trains go past, so am not entitled to any compensation. I have heard that FCC may give 5 free trip scratch cards as a compensation measure when season ticket holders renew. There are not many details of this scheme available yet. Given that I am off to Australia on Jan 1st, and will not be renewing my season ticket until around the 20th, I doubt there will be much chance of seeing one of these cards.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Bringing Contextual Advertising into Real Life

OK.  So I'm standing at Wet Hamster zoned out waiting for my delayed (surprise) train when I realise what I'm looking at.  An ad for Google Chrome.

I love Chrome.  In development circles chrome refers to all the fancy bells and whistles in the user interface.  All the bells and whistles that Google have got rid of in their bare bones lightning fast browser.

Given that Chrome's promise (which it delivers) is speed, it seems ironic that this ad has been put on the platform of the worst performing train franchise in th UK.  The first thought is ironic coincidence, then the next thought is "what if this is deliberate?".  We are used  to stupid billboards. Any relevance is purely coincidental.  But this is Google. These guys know a scary amount about who we are, what we like and where we live.  These are the guys that put personally targeted advertising in front of us every day.  These are the one company in the world that I feel actually have the smarts to be behind a conspiracy theory.

If they have deliberately put these ads up on First Capital Connect platforms to target pissed off commuters experiencing real world delays every day, providing us with a promise of reduced delays in the virtual world, then I salute them.

Hats off to you Google.  You are the smartest guys around.  My earlier tweet "Google: pumping shit into the intertubes and seeing what sticks" is intended as a compliment.  Google foster innovation and produce good ideas at the speed of light.  Many of them fail, but some do not and if that leads to gmail, maps, reader, wave, etc then I say Bravo.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Bringing the rants back home

So I've been spamming my twitter account recently with updates on the farce of commuting with First Capital Connect.

My frustration levels have been rapidly raising the length of my tweets and twitter just isn't cutting it as a stress outlet anymore. This site has been the home of my rants for years so I'm bringing the madness back home.

First a recap for those of you lucky enough to not be prisoners of the First Capital Connect franchise area...

A couple of months back news started coming out that FCC drivers were taking action at the recommendation of their Union. The stated reason was a poor pay deal (freezes for this year with minimum 2% next year if memory serves). At the time I thought this seemed reasonable given the current financial circumstances and was pissed with the drivers.

It wasn't long until it was made clear that the action they were taking was to 'work to rule'. FCC were relying on the goodwill of their drivers to operate their business, and when those drivers decided to work only their core hours, to take the rest days they were entitled to and to refuse the offer of overtime. Because of this FCC had to introduce an emergency timetable cutting the scheduled trains by 50%.

This implies that half of their services were possible only because the drivers were working too long. I don't know about you, but I like to think that my driver is getting the rest he is entitled to. Train drivers have to concentrate for long periods of time and small mistakes can have big consequences. Stress + tiredness = fail.

Sure they say they have new drivers coming and sure training takes a long time. I still think that letting things deteriorate so far equates to monumental incompetence on the part of the managers.

Some people have suggested that the new timetable was organised such that the minimum number of trains are run without delaying anyone by more than 20 mins (the magic number before compensation can be claimed is 30 minutes). Personally I am doubtful that they would be capable of that level of organisation.

Time for an aside on compensation.

In the old days when Thameslink ran the franchise if they missed their targets everyone renewing a season ticket would get a blanket discount. Simples. First Capital Connect have a system called 'delay repay'. Under this scheme, if you are delayed by 30 minutes or more you submit a form and someone from FCC customer services will check against registered stats to try and prove you wrong. In theory it doesn't sound too bad. In practice I don't agree and have given up with it.

It doesn't take account of connections (5-10 min delay can frequently increase journey times by >30 mins but this doesn't meet the claim criteria). It is based on the original timetable (which has been taken down at the stations while the emergency timetable is in effect, meaning you have to do online research to find out if you were delayed or not). I frequently find that trains are too crowded to board (this happened before the current reduction in service too. Having to get on a slow train because the express is full extends my journey but doesn't entitle me to compensation).

When I am delayed it wastes a considerable amount of my time. Sure I am pissed that I pay so much for a crappy service but no amount of compensation is going to get that time back. Given the amount of time I have already wasted, why should I waste even more on an overcomplicated procedure that will only give me a token payment?

Yesterday FCC ran a forum on their website called 'Meet the Managers' where commuters could ask questions and supposedly get answers from FCC management. In the hour the board was open there were around 220 questions. Only a handful of answers gave a name so they could have come from anyone. Almost all the answers could have been cut and paste from recent marketing bullshit posted on the FCC site. It was clear from the questions my opinion on delay repay is far from uncommon. It was clear from the answers that the FCC management don't want to change things. There were lots of weasel words used and no comitment to act.

During the session I asked about the new steps at West Hampstead (Q 207 I think). Background: They started work on putting in a new set of steps between the platforms at West Hampstead. Eventually there will be a new entrance at the side of the station. This is desperately needed, the existing steps to the exit on West End Lane have nowhere near the required capacity and I am frequently queuing at the steps for upwards of 5 minutes just to leave the station. I viewed the steps go up quite quickly and was looking forward to a greatly improved experience. Then they stopped. It has to be near 6 months since any work was done. The construction area is surrounded by hoardings that reduce the width of the platform by about half. When I asked when we could expect the work to finish I was given a glib "summer 2010". Why on earth would you start an intrusive work and then leave it half finished for a whole year before completion? Another example of how management incompetence is causing commuters pain on the Thameslink line.

Of course the other thing they are doing at West Hampstead is increasing the platform length to accommodate 12 car trains. The question 'Why?' immediately springs to mind for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the current platforms can take 8 car trains and many existing services use this; however when the full timetable is in operation there are frequently 4 car trains running during rush hour. Many of the current overcrowding issues could be addresses merely by running 8 car trains through the existing facilities. Secondly, the current exit stairs cannot handle the people getting off of 4 car trains. With the second set in operation there may be enough to handle an 8 car train. A 12 car train is going to get us back to the current overcrowding levels when leaving the station.

So that covers some of my general gripes... now on to a couple of specifics.

Last minute platform changes. Last night I was waiting on platform 2 at West Hampstead for the 18:38. At around 18:45 I spotted the lights of the train as it approached the station. Shortly after I spotted it an announcement was made that it would now be stopping on platform 4. I was at the opposite end of the platform from the stairs (current crowding levels preclude hedging your bets and waiting by the stairs). As I was making my way down the platform and the train pulled in two things became clear. Firstly that I was not going to make it up the stairs to cross to platform 4 in time. Secondly I could see that the train pulling in was already overcrowded and that only a small fraction of thoses trying to cross would actually squeeze on.

Tonight I got to West Hampstead at around 18:38. I was just settling myself in for the wait on the freezing cold platform until the 18:51 when a train pulled in. It wasn't on the departures board. Noone knew where it was stopping. We got on anyway. Just before the doors closed (too late for anyone to get off) they announced it was fast to Mill Hill. Noone in my carriage was bothered by this. We settled in cosily in the aisles crushed together and a few people joked about the pot-luck service. Someone noticed that the display on the platform was listing a stop at Elstree but not Radlett. This made a couple of Radlett residents nervous; however there were confident replies that trains that stopped at Elstree always stop at Radlett too. When we got to Elstree and skipping Radlett was confirmed the general opinion was that getting off was a bad idea. Some people had heard that there might be another train stopping at Elstree some time in January but were unsure of the year.

I was fine because I was getting off at St Albans.

As I left the station I overheard someone say "Its quite fun really, never knowing what time your train will be."

This is no way to run a business. But then its not as if their captive audience have any alternative way to get to work so they can get away with whatever they want.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

End of an Era

So today is my last day at Viatel. Nearly seven years.

There have been a lot of good times, a lot of good people. Of course there has been bad too but in balance the good definitely outweighs the bad. For the last couple of years I haven't felt as challenged as I did before, and I needed that challenge to motivate me through the 5 hours a day commute time.

The new position should provide new challenges to motivate me as well as significantly cut down on the commute. All in all a win-win situation but I will still miss Viatel and wish all who remain the best for the future.