A Word From Me…

Just to make a point…

I am not an important person. Far from it – I am but a small gear in an enormous, millions-of-cogs machine that is the railway, and every person, every piece of rolling stock, manager, signal, and track bed that forms it.

What I am is someone who, from the moment he joined it 30 months ago, has fallen in love with the industry. I love the hustle and bustle of busy Monday mornings, waking up the 1am drunks at their stop, meeting people and pets and children and unusual luggage that people bring, from 4VeP seats to tortoises named Hamish. Hell, I even love taking charge on football specials and being invited to drop my ticket machine and put on the spare suit for the Rugby 7s Monster Weekend (and I was tempted, the ticket was free!).

What I do not love is politicians playing soundbite games or political football for cheap digs with my industry. We may not be perfect (may?!), and there are days where we’re certainly not pretty, but we’re fiercely loyal to each other and to our role as (whether you believe it or not) public servants. We want this industry to work for the good of its customers and for the public as a whole, to serve in the way it always should do. Whether it does this as a private or public enterprise is, to me, irrelevant; I don’t mind who employs me, so long as I am employed, paid a decent wage for a day’s work, and where my main priority is my customers and not ensuring employer’s profits.

As an industry, things occasionally go wrong. Network Rail’s work at Holloway was a clear example of what happens when it goes very wrong. It doesn’t happen often (certainly not to that scale, and not in terms of the amount of work that actually goes on), but it’s well-accepted that if it could have been finished on time, it would have been. It would not, as one Nicholas Soames would suggest, have been unplanned, untimed work with no contingency plans. Nor, as Michael Dugher would suggest, is it the fault of a transport secretary who “shut down the network”.

Soundbites and petty political point scoring will do little to help this industry or the people that it serves, and will do even less to help those who work in it, whether demoralising them or putting them up against a public with an already seriously negative impression of the industry. What the industry needs is political support, a willingness to hold management to account without the traditional cry of “sack them” “strip the franchise” “bad customer service”. Claire Perry, for all her faults of being a Conservative (sorry Claire), has proven herself to be engaged, eager to learn, and willing to go out and experience what the public experience, much the same as Andrew Adonis during his time.

The railways will always be a politically charged subject – as a central and vital piece of national infrastructure how could it be otherwise – but frankly as an individual whose livelihood and passion relies on it, I expect much better from elected representatives. I hope we get it eventually.

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Mood

One of the worst things about my depression is the sudden, drastic mood changes that can come with it. Take today – in a great mood for most of the day, including being recognised as “the nice man” at the pharmacy by the assistants! This afternoon however, my mood dipped, unexpectedly and without reason, and left me staring at a wall, completely helpless and hopeless, unable to see a point to doing anything and just wanting to sleep and ignore the world. This change took place over around 5 minutes, and was completely unwarranted and unexpected.

This mood change requires no trigger, though it’s often brought on when I’ve gotten something wrong – forgotten to pick something up or upset someone or similar (which unfortunately happens rather often) – which exacerbates any depressive feelings I have with worthlessness and low self-esteem issues. It feeds into anxiousness, causing me difficulty in social situations, and prevents me from doing my job with the passion it deserves, which then feeds back into the worthlessness! A horrible cycle, and one which is difficult to break – it often requires a night’s sleep to get a fresh start with any chance of bringing my mood back up again.

It has left me with little love of the things I once did – swimming, my work on heritage railways, my love of dancing (not helped by not being able to go to lessons as often, but nonetheless the loss of my enthusiasm for it has really hit me hard, as it was a major passion of mine – and the way I met my wonderful Poonam!)

My GP has increased my dosage of my antidepressants from yesterday – it’s felt that whilst I am improving (my good days are starting to happen more often), it’s not as quick as we would like. That said, any improvement is a good improvement, I guess! Hopefully I start my counselling next week, and hopefully things will look up again.

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A letter to no-one

So, I was diagnosed with depression 3 weeks ago. Not for the first time, I might add, but this time worse, and this time with medication.

It sucks. It really, really, genuinely sucks. Unable to get up, unable to function – as I see it – like a normal human being, to react to problems like a normal human being, to not feel the levels of sadness and despair and desperation – desperation to shut myself off from a world that simply moves too quickly for me – that I do. I live in a world where I see upset, death, despair staring at me from every front page and every television scree, showcasing the evils of this world and this human race.

It pains me when I see sadness and hurt in the face of one of my passengers, pain that people shouldn’t have to bear, that should in this day and age should be things of the past. I do what I can to help every passenger in my charge, not as a professional duty, but as a personal one, because no-one should be sad, or hurting, in an ideal world. I see those teary-eyed phone calls, hear the desperation in a voice or see sadness in a smile, a smile that could mirror my own often enough.

I am lucky, though; I make no bones or delude myself in any way that I am not. I have a loving family, a mother, father, grandparents and brothers who care and ask after me. I have an amazing partner, a lady who valiantly deals with her own responsibilities (of which there are numerous) without complaint, yet still finds the love and care and concern to pull me headlong from my darkest corners when I can’t see the way out, who coaxes me gently into admitting my feelings and how I am when my brain and my subconscious desperately try and shut the world out. She makes me human again when this illness makes me feel more husk than man – or simply turns me into a crying, shaking wreck.

I am being medicated now; alongside other therapies I have elected to pursue antidepressants to try and adjust my brain chemistry, to bring me out of the depths and to a place I can take over and manage my feelings more appropriately. I don’t know if they’ll work – the process can take weeks, or months. I’m hopeful some days. Others I despair, wonder if I’ll ever get better, ever be any more than someone who can hide the desire to cry for hours at a time when he works, who talks to a thousand people a day but still feels lonely, in charge of trainloads of human beings but unable to help in the way it matters most.

I hope it works; I hope I can come back in 6 months or a year and say “look at me, I’m better.” I hope I can see things the way people see them, with empathy and realisation, but without the crippling sadness that empathy brings. I hope I can be a support to my partner and pay her back for the amazing things she has done for me these past years. I hope I can.

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Train and Railway Safety Systems

It’s recently been noted by various posters from the Rail Delivery Group that the UK rail network is the safest in Europe. Much of this is through the hard work and diligence of bodies like the Office of Rail Regulation, the Rail Accident Investigation Board, as well as the many Train Operating Companies and Department for Transport. The Rail Safety Standards Board also plays a key role in ensuring our trains and the railway remains safe to use through the development of the Rule Book – and the staff and train crews on the ground who follow the myriad rules and regulations required to ensure your train stays safe no matter what the conditions.

So what tools are available to staff in keeping you safe? Inside the modern train cab (or even not-so-modern cabs) there are now a number of devices used to ensure your safety. In modern trains, even the design of the cab is there to ensure that in an emergency, the train is kept as safe as possible.

  • Power-Brake Controller (PBC) – controls the speed and braking of the train in one control mechanism. Converse to what you may think, to make the train move forward, the PBC is moved backwards. In the event of the driver losing consciousness, this means if they slump forward, the PBC is likely to be pushed forward – applying the brakes rather than increasing the speed of the train. On modern trains, a button must be pressed to allow you to move it, preventing accidental movement. If it fails, the train is taken out of service. On Multiple Unit trains, the Guard can also use the PBC in other, non-driving cabs, to activate the brakes in an emergency.
  • Driver’s Safety Device (DSD) – commonly known as the Dead Man’s Switch, and one of the oldest pieces of safety equipment in use. Now a pedal on the floor of the cab, the driver must apply active pressure to keep it pressed down – or emergency brakes are applied to the train. Note that resting your feet on the pedal will not cause it to press down; rather, the driver must push the pedal down and keep it that way. If it breaks, the train can continue in service – but only with a Competent Person in the cab with the driver (that is, a Guard or Driver, etc. trained in Rules knowledge linked to the DSD) to ensure the driver remains vigilant and focussed on driving, as well as operating the emergency brake if required.
  • Driver’s Vigilance Device (DVD) – linked to the DSD, the DVD comes into action after time of inactivity. If the driver has not moved any controls for a certain amount of time (which, on long runs like Waterloo-Weymouth services, which may call at Clapham Junction and then Basingstoke, is not unthinkable), then an alarm sounds -they must then relieve the pressure on the DSD pedal, and reapply it in a short amount of time. If they fail to do so, then the emergency brakes apply to the train. With modern radio systems (GSM-R), this also now causes an alarm at the nearest signalling centre, so the signaller must contact the driver to establish the status of the train. A faulty DVD is dealt with as per the DSD.
  • Automatic Warning System (AWS) – the AWS is another relatively old system of train protection, having been around in some form since the 1930s! The AWS activates when the train approaches a signal that is displaying anything other than a green “proceed” signal via a beacon on the track between the rails. If a colour other than green is displayed, the AWS sounds an alarm in the cab – which requires the driver to acknowledge by pressing a button within 6 seconds and releasing it. If they do not release (e.g. they have lost consciousness and are leant on the button) then the system will apply the brakes. If this equipment breaks in service, it can be isolated to allow the train to continue – often a competent person will travel with the driver, and the driver must provide a running commentary of the route ahead as they drive to show their acknowledgment of signals ahead – or the train’s speed must be severely limited. Additionally, temporary AWS beacons can be placed on the line to warn drivers of impending speed restrictions or other hazards.
  • Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) – a more modern version of the AWS – although AWS is still in use. This system is used for preventing collisions between trains by stopping trains that are travelling at unsafe speeds. It does this with two electronic grids set (normally) one second apart at a safe speed – either the speed of the line or a speed so that a train can stop safely in front of a signal. If the train is travelling too fast – crossing between the grids in less than one second, then the brakes are applied. In this event, and with AWS activations, the driver must contact the signaller and wait for a 60 second timeout before he can continue.
  • Wheel Slip Protection (WSP) – analogous to ABS in cars, this helps to prevent a train losing control in slippery conditions by releasing the brakes on affected wheels, before reapplying them as traction is gained again. It is often noticed by hissing from the wheels as air in the brake reservoir is vented, as well as a back-and-forth rocking as brakes are applied and released.
  • Radio System (CSR/GSM-R) – radio systems allow the driver to contact the signaller in the event of any issues, or for the signaller to contact the train. Cab Secure Radio is the current standard, but is being upgraded progressively to GSM-R, which is based on mobile telephone frequencies and offers much more functionality – including specific buttons for emergency usage that stop all trains, as well as priority calls to the signaller. The signal centre can also use the system to broadcast messages and even utilise train PA system to address passengers. In failure of this system, the train will be taken out of service – a reflection of just how important the system is, as well as the zero-tolerance approach of all TOCs towards mobile telephones in the driving cab!
  • Emergency Stop Buttons, Passenger Alarm Units/Passenger Communication Cords, Egress Device – These are various systems, both in cabs and saloon areas, to allow you to contact and communicate with the driver. In older trains, they will just apply brakes or sound alarms in the cab. On more modern trains, they also allow you to talk to the driver and for the driver to talk back.
  • Crumple Zones – modern train design features crumple zones to help negate the force of impact on carriages – this is why modern train designs often have creatively shaped fronts!
  • Anti-climb bumpers – after the Clapham rail crash in 1988, significant issues were found with the structure of the carriages, which led to them telescoping through one another, as well as riding on top of each other. Modern train design features anti-climb bumpers, located at the chassis level of the carriage, which are the ribbed end shapes at the end of the carriage. These lock together in the event of the carriages being forced together, and prevent them from riding up and landing on top of each other.

As you can see, there are a plethora of safety features already mounted on trains of most ages in the UK – and all trains, even steam engines used on the mainline in the UK are required to have the basic safety features fitted. Research is consistently underway to improve safety, from new brake designs, carriage structure and seating improvements, as well making current systems more effective.

On top of this, there is the crews’ knowledge of their routes (to be gone over in a later post) and their stock, as well as their rules training, which allows them to respond proactively and promptly to any emergency thrown their way.

All part of keeping the railway the safest it has ever been.

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Delay Propagation

Delays are, naturally, the worst enemy of the railway. They disrupt the movement of trains, and the hours of train crew, and most of all get people late to where they want to go! The biggest question often asked in these situations is “how are so many trains delayed by one cause on one train?”

The immediate answer is simply because of how busy the railway is – particularly at the London end of the network. I’ll look at a potential peak-time disruption at Vauxhall and how that might disrupt the service. For rail staff, this might read like a RED DVD! This will use actual services that are scheduled to run in the morning peak – the number of services isn’t emphasised.

0753, Vauxhall Railway Station

Vauxhall is one of the busiest stations on the network during the rush hour. Trains on both Windsor and Suburban services call at Vauxhall, at a frequency of one roughly every 4 minutes. Delays at Vauxhall are often critical situations the moment they occur, and any “overstay” – a station stop taking longer than normal – is to be avoided. A delay of 30 seconds here can result in delay to services behind.

2F11 is the 0750 London Waterloo – Guildford stopping service via Woking. It develops an issue at Vauxhall on Platform 8, where the driver can no longer take power – the train cannot move. The driver tries the normal procedures to reset the train – checking circuit breakers and various electrical cupboards. The driver’s next action is to alert the Signaller at Wimbledon ASC, who connects him to the Fleet “Phone a Friend” desk – the emergency helpline when trains result in a fault. The driver explains the issue, and a member of maintenance personnel (a fitter) is required – who is promptly despatched from Waterloo. The train has now been stationary approximately 4 minutes, and 1D11, the Waterloo-Dorking service, is waiting outside the station – and is supposed to have left Vauxhall a minute ago.

0809, Vauxhall Railway Station

The fitter has arrived on 2O13 – the next service to leave Waterloo for Vauxhall on the Windsor side, as Suburban services are now queuing. The queue for trains to Vauxhall now runs back to London Waterloo – 3 trains between Waterloo and Vauxhall, and one in the platform – not yet departed from Waterloo, yet supposed to be departing Vauxhall. Incident Controllers at the Wessex Integrated Control Centre have taken charge of the situation, and Route Controllers are now determining an action plan to try and rescue the morning suburban service. 2F11 has now been at a stand for 15 minutes.

Waterloo operates with one reserve platform in the morning peak at any one time, and this is quickly used. Trains from destinations such as Epsom, Strawberry Hill, Dorking, Cobham, and Wimbledon will within minutes begin queuing outside Waterloo to arrive. Some of the key train movements – empty trains returning to places like Effingham Junction, Kingston and other key stations – are being delayed, which will result in delayed and cancelled trains later in the morning. Services are now being cancelled and started from earlier stations – Fleet Controllers are now managing the change in maintenance schedules as required. The delay is being advertised as potentially 30 minutes, with alterations and cancellations possible, and tickets are valid via Southern services to London Victoria.

Some Suburban services may be routed via Platform 6 at Vauxhall – however, this is the main route for fast services on the main line to Woking, so trains will not call there. They will also need to be moved to the slow line – the first place this can be done is after Queenstown Road. The change of lines blocks the suburban line towards Waterloo, causing further delays, and must be done at 20mph instead of 60mph – slowing trains down further.

Platform 6, however, also receives trains at around 1 every 4  minutes, albeit on the move, so the additional services will begin delaying trains departing Waterloo. Delayed trains leaving Waterloo will mean delays for trains entering Waterloo, and trains will begin stacking up on arrival. Delays are also caused when trains make the earlier mentioned switch between train lines; this means it takes them longer to clear the line in front of the next train, causing the next train to have to slow down or even stop – and so on for the next service, and the next, and the next. With a headway of just a couple of minutes, it’s very easy for delays to escalate. Delays for Suburban Services are now around 20 minutes or more for suburban services arriving to Waterloo, as trains are beginning to stack up on approach due to unavailable platforms, and services to Suburban destinations are being cancelled. Some trains are being used to work different trains than were planned, by being terminated at Clapham Junction or Wimbledon – both busy stations and so causing further delay to trains in the Raynes Park area – both Suburban and Mainline (trains terminating at Wimbledon must cross fast lines to and from Waterloo to be able to change direction at Wimbledon). Delays to mainline services are being maintained at around 5 minutes due to services departing late – resulting in their platform being rendered unavailable.

0821, Vauxhall Railway Station

2F11 is now on the move – it has been terminated at Vauxhall and will run empty to Wimbledon depot for investigation into the fault. It has been stationary for 28 minutes, causing delays of half an hour for services entering Waterloo.

Much like clearing a backlog on the motorways, it can take some time before the cars at the back of the queue begins to move after the blockage is cleared. Service Recovery is initiated, which results in alterations and delays for at least an hour after the event – trains that are 30 minutes behind arriving at Waterloo are already supposed to be halfway through their next journey! As a result, services leaving for Waterloo from further destinations (Woking, Guildford, Kingston, Epsom for example) will see delays for some time – and caused by a delay at Vauxhall, at the other end of their journey.

Something similar happening to mainline services can be even more catastrophic, resulting in delays to services bound for Southampton and Portsmouth due to the sheer intensity of services. Ultimately, the only way to guard against disruption without massive capital expenditure to alter the infrastructure, new trains, or reducing service frequency is proactive maintenance (not easy when trains are approaching their 30th birthday) and robust plans to recover services. Both of these have been refined – one by the fantastic team at Wimbledon Train Care Depot, who have won a number of awards for their work (including the turnaround of fortunes for the Class 458), and the other by a team of experienced Controllers and Managers at the Wessex Integrated Control Centre – using plans refined and modified from years of experience at control centres managing the network, and assisted by Signallers, without who’s knowledge of track, speeds and their quick thinking would leave our network in a much more shaky state!

With thanks to Ady (@Worthy_Driver) for his assistance in clarifying fault-finding procedures and timescales!

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Ticketing and Condition 2

Condition 2, and it’s application, is a difficult and often controversial area, particularly where penalty fares are concerned! I thought a post detailing the differences between Guards, Commercial Guards and Revenue Protection would help to clear some of the differences up, as well as some of the thinking that goes into the application of Condition 2 and ticketless travel.

Please note, this post is not intended as a commentary on the value of fares, season tickets or otherwise; it is aimed solely as an explanation of Condition 2 and how things work. As ever, I am happy to answer on-topic questions.

So Who’s Who?

  • Guard: Trained in the safe operation of trains. They are trained in basic ticket checks (e.g. basic validity checks – date, stations, class of accommodation), but not in issuing tickets.
  • Commercial Guard: Trained in the safe operation of trains and in ticketing matters. Qualified in full ticket checks (routing etc) as well as application of Conditions of Carriage and issuing tickets via Avantix or Unpaid Fare Notices.
  • Revenue Protection Assistant/Inspector: Qualified in full ticket checks only – no safety critical roles. They are also able to check routing matters, application of Conditions of Carriage, and issue of tickets via Avantix. They are also Authorised Collectors for South West Trains, meaning they can issue Penalty Fares and, where the RPA/RPI is PACE-trained, MG11 forms (witness statements collected under caution, and are submittable as evidence to a court).

What is a ticket?

A ticket is a contract, specifically a contract between you and the train companies for your travel from A to B as specified on your ticket, by the route and on the day and class of travel specified on your ticket. The type of ticket specifies whether you can break your journey or not, and whether your ticket allows you to catch a specific train, or a range of trains. 

Note that your ticket does not specify the mode of transport (i.e. whether a bus or train or taxi or helicopter), nor does it say that the operator must run a to-the-minute timetable. There are conditions in place in the NRCoC regarding compensation and in operators’ Passenger Charter and Delay Repay schemes, available from any ticket office.

Condition 2 of the National Rail Conditions of Carriage

Condition 2 is a very important condition in the NRCoC, covering when you should purchase a ticket. Paraphrased, it effectively states that you must have a ticket before you step on the train, where you are able to get one. If you are not able to purchase a ticket, you must use the Permit to Travel (PERTIS) machine where one is available. If there are no facilities to purchase a ticket, then and only then can you buy when on board or at the end of your journey (if you are not approached during your journey).

Do note, that a valid ticket also means one for which you are carrying any applicable valid railcards – and tickets are only valid if accompanied by said railcard – not a photo, not a receipt, but the railcard itself. Photocards, too, in the case of season tickets should always accompany the season

If you do not fulfil the requirement of Condition 2 (barring the exception), then the second half of Condition 2 applies – which states which tickets you are eligible for – that is, the full “walk up” fare – Anytime and Anytime Day Singles and Returns – and no entitlement to discount them.

If you are travelling in a Penalty Fare area (which is the entire network area of South West Trains, as well as Southern, First Capital Connect, South Eastern, and parts of the First Great Western networks and others) you will also be liable for a Penalty Fare if you are approached without a ticket under Condition 2.

If nothing is working at the station (no TVMs, PERTIS or Ticket Office) – take photos! If you’re stopped by Revenue Protection, it’s always handy to have proof in your hands. They can and do call the control centre to confirm working TVMs and open ticket offices, and things do break down, but it’s always an excellent idea to ensure you are covered at every angle.

Penalty Fare is just a fine, right?

Technically speaking, no. A fine is something that can only be issued by the courts. A Penalty Fare is just that – a Fare. It is a ticket to the next station, whereupon you can buy a new (valid) ticket for the rest of your journey. As a passenger, it is your responsibility to ensure you have a valid ticket for your journey, but we can appreciate it isn’t always that easy.

So what can I do if I don’t know what’s valid, or can’t find the right ticket on the machine?

Well, there are options available to you. Most TOCs offer telesales teams, who are trained much the same as ticket office clerks in making sure you get the correct ticket for your journey, to be picked up at the machine on your arrival at the station.

Tickets can be bought in advance from the ticket office, and do not need to be for a journey starting at that station. You can also buy tickets in advance from your Guard on board the train – we’re always happy to issue tickets for future travel. We unfortunately cannot, due to limitations of our equipment, issue Advanced tickets as these require reservations which the Avantix machine cannot deal with.

You can also buy a ticket for part of your journey (ensuring that it is still valid, for example by buying a single for two or three stations on your journey) then approaching the Guard at the first opportunity – you will then be able to purchase a full ticket, paying the difference. Naturally, for those in Driver Only Operation (DOO(P)) areas, this presents an issue – as well as for those in areas where the Guard has no revenue duties – so it’s not a method I recommend unless you’re particularly struggling and all other options have been exhausted.

What if the queue is too long?

Unfortunately, the queue being “too long” is not normally a valid reason to avoid buying a ticket at the station. In many cases, however, the control centre is informed, and will send out an email to Guards and Revenue Protection, to let us know of issues at stations and to use discretion. This is also so that Revenue Protection can make their way to a station to aid ticket office staff by “queue busting”.

If you are informed that you may buy a ticket on board by station staff (once they have contacted control), find the Guard once you board the train as soon as possible – this ensures you’re not waiting at Waterloo for a ticket if we aren’t able to get round to seeing you (unfortunately highly likely on a peak-time train, when guards may have over 1000 tickets to inspect!). We as Guards are being further instructed not to sell tickets on arrival at London Waterloo, which means you will have to queue to purchase your ticket from Revenue Protection at the station.

The DfT agrees suggested queuing times at stations with the TOC through Section 17 Ticketing and Settlement Agreements, but these are ultimately suggestions rather than actual limits. If you feel that queues at your station are regularly too long, then Customer Services, Passenger Focus or London Travelwatch are the best to contact on the matter and can suggest alternatives or make representations to the TOC concerned.

So what happens if I get a Penalty Fare?

Be co-operative. Rest assured, there is such a thing called the attitude test! How you respond greatly affects how the situation is dealt with – Revenue Protection keep records of all their dealings with passengers as a matter of course, including your behaviour and language – so please don’t lie, and certainly don’t abuse or threaten staff. They will often fill out the Penalty Fare on board the train, but they are entitled to ask you to alight to continue the process. They will ask you the whys and wherefores – be as truthful as you can.

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that failure to provide your name and address to any member of railway staff for the purposes of an Unpaid Fare Notice or a Penalty Fare is a byelaw offence, and one which the BTP are routinely called for. There are appeals processes detailed on any forms you fill in, which you should follow – save the arguments for that process.

Commercial Guards cannot issue Penalty Fares. They are the reserve of Revenue Protection, as they require additional training and take time to complete properly. Commercial Guards can issue tickets in accordance with Condition 2, or Unpaid Fare Notices. These differ between TOCs, but in the South West Trains area, they are for a full-price single ticket, valid only on South West Trains services. These act as tickets, but your name and details will be required as you are expected to pay within 21 days. We use an agency to confirm name and address to ensure you are telling us the truth!

If you are an annual season ticket holder, you may receive one if you forget your ticket – you can use a photocopy of your ticket, enclosing you Unpaid Fare Notice, as your appeal to have your UFN annulled if it is your first or second time forgetting your ticket! This is added to your GoldStar record, to prevent fraudulent use of season tickets. Revenue Protection staff will follow a similar procedures and issue an Authority to Travel, for which you should follow the same process.

If you have any other ticket type, please contact on board staff as soon as you realise it’s missing! Guards have tools to deal with your situation (to an extent) and your life (and ours) is made much earlier if we can a) help you find it and b) take appropriate action. The situation is always made worse by doing nothing! A little pro-activeness can result in the difference between a stern word and an expensive letter home.

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The Guard

There seems to be an amount of confusion of the role of the Guard in today’s railway, so I thought I would elaborate on what my role involves, what I can do, what I can’t, and what inspires me in my day-to-day role.

First off, my name is Daniel Barron, as many of you may know. I am a proud Commercial Guard with South West Trains, helping with the not entirely small job of delivering 1,600 trains a day, enabling some 500,000 journeys on a single weekday. I am a small part of a frankly incredible whole. I work for the pleasure of seeing my passengers smile, and to do my small part in representing a role that in various ways is 200 years old. My role comes with a great number of privileges and powers, as well as huge responsibility. Along with my driver, I can be responsible for the safety of up to 250m of train travelling at up to 100mph with 1,500 souls on board. I am responsible for the safe movement of passengers between the train and platform, as well as their comfort and behaviour on board. It is a serious, and at times daunting responsibility, and it is one I absolutely love. I can think of greater callings, but there are none I would rather be doing!

Here to Help

I am inspired in my job by many things – some written about my job, one or two about me.

One inspiration is A real Good Samaritan, written by Bernard Hare – about a chance meeting with a British Rail Conductor who went out of his way to help him in a time of need. Words spoken by the Conductor resonate with me in my role – “I’m here to help. That’s what I’m paid for.” I like to think I carry on that tradition – that a Guard is there to help, to sooth worries about train travel and do whatever we can to make sure you get to where you’re going. We are diplomats, counsellors, security guards, entertainers of children and pets, concierges and maître d’s – jacks of all trades. I have fixed bikes, found tickets, recommended hotels, and turfed out truly sozzled smoking Irishmen from my carriages. I have comforted soldiers, those lost a hundred miles from home, provided assistance to the needy and the ill, and met some truly wonderful people – including a bomb sniffing dog complete with medals and his handler (an honour).

The other main inspiration is an article from some time ago, entitled “The Man Behind – A Layman’s Impression of a Railway Guard“. It’s from a 1934 issue of The New Zealand Railways Magazine, and whilst I can’t remember when I came across it, it has always stuck with me. It is a slightly romanticised view, certainly, and somewhat removed from today’s reality, but the principle remains of who I am and what I aspire to be in my role. It is a role that, in the words of one of my passengers, can make “the impossible possible”!

How can I help you?

As a Guard, I am in a unique position. I can make your journey the best you have ever had, or the worst. I can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, for myself and you, whether ensuring you have the right information, or a recommendation on a change to save you a vital 10 minutes or more. I may, on early morning or late night services, be the only person you see! I assist the less able, provide local directions, confirm that yes, this is the 1004 to London, then promptly dispatch with panache – and that’s before leaving the first stop!

I have a number of tools to help in my job – providing me with the ability to ensure you have what you need for your journey:

  • Blackberry – mobile telephone – regular emails regarding status of network, plus additional during disruption to aid me in providing you with information. In disruption, Guards can offer it for use by passengers to make telephone calls to let loved ones know where they are. Mine has even been used to reason with unhappy managers, and reassure worried partners of someone’s whereabouts.
  • Avantix – ticket machine – not my favourite equipment, but handy in its way. When the network is running smoothly, its ability to print timetables and itineraries are ideal for providing you with valuable information about your journey – whether regarding rush-hour trains to Aldershot, or that long-distance journey to Liverpool.
  • Voucher Pad – little-used, but one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal. I can authorise:
    • free travel (to an extent – a free excess to an onward destination)
    • A taxi
    • free food and drink
    • Free first class upgrade
    • A partial refund for first class passengers, in the event of not being able to find a seat
    • And even authorise dry cleaning and garment repair!

      Issued to Commercial Guards, we are expected to issue these appropriately – for example, when a last connection is missed late at night, or when you have had particularly bad service (5-minute delays notwithstanding).

  • Unpaid Fare Notice pad – used in the event you are unable to pay for your ticket (or for annual season ticket holders, when you forget it). We require your name and address for them, but it gives you an opportunity to pay in 21 days. They’re an excellent customer service tool, rather than a punishment to be feared.

What can’t I do?

  • Issue refunds or authorise refunds for delays. As much as I’d like to some days, I really can’t.
  • Tell a train to delay departure for an incoming service. I can hold my own train for a late arrival, or request a service be held through our control centre, but I have to be mindful of other services behind me and how my delay affects them. My delay may cause significant disruption to other services.
  • Fix a broken lavatory. I’m not a plumber, unfortunately! I have a small routine of tricks to check and reset the lavatory to see if I can get it working again for you, but it doesn’t work all the time. What we can try to do is organise an extended stop at a major station for passengers to use the facilities.
  • Magic a train on time again! I work with your driver to do what we can to get back any lost time on a journey, with varying degrees of success – but we operate to the conditions afforded to us.
  • Change the temperature. The air conditioning, unfortunately, is not ours to control!

But this is a (not so brief) introduction to who I am and what I do – and I am of course happy to answer any questions about my profession!

Your obedient servant

DB

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New Approach

It’s been a (very) long time since I made a post to this blog – partly due to tiredness, partly also due to laziness. Shift work and a lazy person do not mix that well unfortunately!

As such, I will be making a new push on this blog, seeing as it can be very useful and frankly, it’s quite nice to write and hopefully educate folks on what the Guard does, what we can do and what the railway does. It will be a mixture of professional observations as well as more personal posts about my life on the railway and just what my daily role involves (which is a surprisingly quiet life much of the time).

So for now, I will be enjoying my week off from getting up and going to bed at extreme hours, and instead helping family members move and planning further posts for the blog – I’m aiming for one a week at the moment, but hopefully will be able to supply more.

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I am inconvenienced, but I am ALIVE…

Today is, of course, World Mental Health Day. As an ex-depression sufferer, I know all to well the mental strain and anguish someone who sees little way out of their situation. I was lucky to have a supportive family, an excellent GP, and a fantastic local health authority who put me squarely on the right road to recovery, but even now I have bad days.

It is no small thing, the loss of a life, and to do it on the railway is a very public way of saying that you see no hope, no future for yourself, and the best action is to commit the act of putting yourself into the path of an oncoming train .

It is, of course, every train crew’s nightmare. Many drivers do not recover, and I remember such dizziness such that I had to sit down when I had to announce for the first time that a train maybe a mile from me had struck a person. It was awful to think that someone within walking distance saw such bleakness in their life that this was the only way out for them.

For those who are struggling, there is of course The Samaritans, who have posters and boards on most stations on the railway now, as well as CALM. Please don’t suffer in silence – life can, and does, get better.

Robinince's Blog

Something written in the doorway of the delayed train at Platform 4 of Northampton Station.

Before I had even reached the station, I knew today’s journey to Birmingham would be sluggish at best. A  kindly neighbour had already offered a lift to London after telling me someone had been hit by a train, a suicide in Harrow. After many years of mental training and a move out of London, now I can manage not to curse my luck, the trains and the clumsy or suicidal human who has hurled a spanner into my day. I summon my empathy from wherever it is usually hidden.

I am not sure I always succeed, sleepless grumpiness can slice into it. Having left plenty of time to get to Birmingham, and knowing I had oatcakes, water and a 5 books in my rucksack, far worse things have happened and I am not now someone…

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Idealism Abounds…

I’ve always been a big supporter of the Right Time Railway initiative, from the moment I first heard of it. The study into reducing those niggling delays, the 30 seconds to a minute that can affect it further down the line shows just how far railways have come in terms of taking punctuality, and therein customer service, seriously.

But I’ve always believed that customer service isn’t just an on-time train. Information provision is a weak point on the railways, and although they’re making improvements, it’s still an area it can fall down on.

Take technology for example. Up until around 2 years ago, pagers were the most common form of information device issued to Guards. Honest-to-God pagers. Now, my tool is the BlackBerry – a huge improvement, not least because messages are stored for later referral, and I can call controllers to let them know of issues directly. But they’re limited in functionality, and the tiny keyboard presents issues when typing up a defect report for fleet (although at many TOCs, reports are still paper – very few, it seems, are making the switch to electronic reporting).

And then there’s Avantix. Oh dear. Now, there’s no denying it’s a world above the SPORTIS, far and away – no routing guides, much more portable – no 4407/4408 forms – but it’s based on technology that’s at least 10 years old – and these weren’t introduced 10 years ago! Bulky, weighty equipment with less processing power than a modern-day smartphone, obsolescence that costs a fortune to repair (latest screen replacement cost touched £400 – my own smartphone, more sensitive and finer resolution cost sub-£150 to replace) and worst of all? No outside contact. No 3G, no WiFi. So I can pull up timetables, sure – but as soon as disruption hits, the timetables are useless as they can’t be updated.

Nor can I book seat reservations for passengers travelling long-distance. Considering you can do that on a smartphone an hour before you travel, why the hell can’t I as a member of customer service staff?

It would be a joy to see print-at-home tickets, mobile ticketing (just a barcode to scan on a screen) – systems much like Switzerland uses – but frankly, it’d be an impossible task without new equipment and smarter ways for Guards and RP to work.

Our railways have so much potential. Technology is all around us, so many potential applications and ways to work and improve the service on board. In an age where your table can be a touch-screen device to order your meal on, the possibilities are surely endless?

Imagine a Guard with a tablet device – Avantix replaced by a slimline new printer. Tablet acts as his mobile Train Management System and ticket machine. Dot matrix displays and PIS are replaced by colour LCD screens, linked by the mobile network to download live service information, including bus times and traffic conditions, underground line statuses and other operators, to display as the train arrives into stations. Controlled by an app on the tablet, the Guard can also easily add and remove stops, change where the train will terminate in disruption, as well as control temperature and lighting conditions on board. Coach numbers are displayed easily, and the guard can show the location of either themselves or a trolley service on board.

Fault-reporting is made easier, as with today’s technology trains can effectively self-report to control (they already report to drivers through current TMS systems). The Guards TMS tablet can be used to report faults using a drop-down menu system – only needing to fill in unit and carriage numbers, and pinpointing on a carriage blueprint the location of a fault – saving fitters and maintenance teams having to deal with vague location descriptions. We have already begun on this tack – some rolling stock use front-mounted cameras to video the track, picking up defects and issues before a walking inspection finds them.

For customers, buying tickets is seamless, whether through smartcard at the station, on your phone via app, or print-at-home tickets with barcode. The Guard carries a handheld scanner communicating with the tablet that brings up all the information about the ticket. That’s seasons, carnets, singles, and returns – restrictions shown clearly on screen. The scanner can tap tickets in, clear tickets, as well as issue them to the smartcard. Paying by card is not an issue – mobile technology means no more offline payments – and potentially even contactless for small fares. Reservations and advance fares for travel in the future are as easily booked on board as well as at the station.

First class passengers can relax as the service becomes even more door-to-door – parking tickets arranged through the guard on providing your number plate, and, similar to SNCFs latest pilot, taxis or chauffeur cars booked for arrival at your destination – again, a snip through the tablet.

Travellers requiring an extra hand can book it alongside their tickets – transmitted directly to the Guard’s tablet. No more 24 hours in advance! The tablet reminds the Guard there is someone requiring an extra hand at the next station, reducing delays and ensuring everyone is in the right place. The Guard can, if necessary, use his tablet to book onward assistance with other TOCs or onward taxi travel.

Commuters find that information is more easily available, thanks to (and this part suggested by an equally enthusiastic colleague who would no doubt cause a customer service revolution if left in charge) weight sensors and passenger counters installed on board trains – an app on the phone can tell you the best place on the platform to stand before you’re even at the station, to ensure maximum seat-grabbing potential – or even that extra bit of personal space. WiFi is free – a limited download speed for those wanting to read the news, a paid upgrade for those wishing to stream a film. Your train keeps you informed of weekend engineering work, as well as current disruption and live expected arrival times into London. Void day information is easily disseminated, and a mixed photo/smartcard with your ticket loaded can be scanned to directly request a refund on disrupted journeys as well as find out how many days you’re due to be refunded – no paperwork necessary.

Of course, I am an idealist – I make no apology for that. But everything mentioned can be done today – nothing mentioned exists outside of modern technology.

Unfortunately, what it does require is passenger-oriented thinking from both TOCs and the DfT – more flexibility in rolling stock contracts, TOCs that are allowed to invest, and a DfT to be prepared to look at the passenger and not just how little money they can get away with putting into a franchise.

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