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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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)

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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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


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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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Hot Weather Protocol

Much query has been made of recent actions by some Train Operating Companies in conjunction with Network Rail to invoke hot weather speed restrictions on some parts of the UK rail network. Whilst it might seem odd, hot weather can be one of the most tricky times in the year for NR, and for the TOCs.

But surely hot weather is good? No rain, no leaves, no ice?

Hot weather, whilst being a blessing in that it doesn’t provide many adverse weather effects, does however cause it’s own problems.

Steel expands in heat, and is often hotter than the air temperature around it – think Formula 1 races, where the track temperature can sometimes be tens of degrees above the air temperature. In 25-27 degree weather, the rails themselves can often be breaching 50 degrees centigrade.

At this temperature, a 1m piece of typical rail would expand by around a millimetre. Before continuous rail, expansion joints were present every 32 sleepers to account for this temperature expansion (which accounted for the “clickety-clack” sound). Nowadays, for passenger comfort and to help lengthen the life of train wheels and track, Continuous Welded Rail is used.

CWR is often applied in quarter-mile lengths (around 400m, or 20 chains in railway distance). This means an expansion of up to 400mm, far above and beyond any reasonable distance an expansion joint could account for.

EDIT: Not to say that CWR does not have expansion joints; they are designed with diagonal expansion joints to allow some lateral movement in expansion. Wheel flanges are sufficiently away from the rail that this does not pose a safety risk. It also allows the joint to accept a greater expansion than would otherwise be considered a danger. Thanks to Dennis Pocock for reminding me!

So do something about it!

Well, we do. When rail is renewed, it is now subjected to a stressing procedure, stretched by hydraulic equipment as it is laid. It’s stretched to the equivalent of being at 28 degrees, and tightly secured so that it is kept at that length. This means expansion is not so pronounced when the hot weather comes along. Design of rail has changed too, so that expansion is encouraged to form upwards to the rail head and make it wider, not longer (which is controlled by the securing of the rail).

The trouble is, if this fails (an incredibly unlikely and unlucky event), it is not a slow process. Inspections are more regularly undertaken in the heat, but failure of a rail due to overstressing is often spontaneous. Naturally, if a train is running at 100mph over a buckled rail, the consequences could be devastating (although usually results in your bags being thrown about). So potential  failure points (normally where rail is older or temperatures higher) will often have additional speed limits put in place.

But other countries manage to run in the heat? What do they do that we don’t?

The honest answer is that they are used to that heat, and they have high temperatures more often. Australia, for example, has generally quite high temperatures all year round. As a result, the rails are laid at a higher temperature, and are stressed to a higher temperature equivalent again. But they still have a hot weather protocol – enacted at 41 degrees. Arizona, USA enacts their hot weather rules between 30 and 35 degrees – a blanket speed restriction of 20mph below advertised limit for passenger services in their case (although not below 20mph in any case – but still a large restriction when you consider the huge distances that can be involved).

The UK, being a maritime climate, also has some significant cold spells, which sees some railhead temperatures dropping to almost -20 degrees. Coupled with the summer highs, that’s a potential gradient of 70 degrees across the year! So we have to be careful laying rail lines – stressing to too high a temperature can cause further problems when the rails contract in winter. It’s a delicate balancing act, far more so than simply placing them in a straight line and letting trains run on them!

But what about Clapham? It’s not a fast line!

The Clapham to Waterloo stretch is a veritable nightmare. Dozens of switches and crossovers, many of unique sizes that cannot be replaced without tearing up entire sections of track or having bespoke pieces made, cause a headache for the inspections and renewals teams that oversee the most important miles on the South West Main Line. In the summer, it is no different.

Modern signalling systems have always relied on a system of interlocking when dealing with points; that is – if the line ahead is blocked, you cannot switch the points (i.e. they are locked). If the points are not securely locked, you cannot physically give a green signal. This process is probably the most fundamental safety feature of the UK rail signalling system, and has been in place since mechanical signal boxes ruled the day with iron rodding and levers.

Unfortunately, when point blades expand, they can sometimes resist being put in exactly the right place to allow the points motors to lock them in position. When the motor forces them into the right place, they can often warp slightly too. The speed restrictions put in place allow for two things – one, the potential extra time needed for the motor to work; and two, to slow trains down over faster points (up to 40mph) in case of any warping.

I realise that the delays are a real nightmare when all you want to do is go home and see your family and relax, but we do everything we can to keep you safe on your journeys home. The UK rail network is the safest in Europe, if not the world, and we are extremely proud of that – we do everything we can to keep it that way.

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Delays, Recovery and PPM Targets

There has been some discussion lately regarding PPM, delays, and trains not calling at stations to “meet targets”, as was alleged by a recent news article. I’ve decided to try and shed a little light on the subject, which is extensive and hardly doable within the confines of twitter!

Service Recovery

Service Recovery is the term used to describe the situation between the solving the issue causing a delay and the return to Normal Running, i.e. full timetable resumption. It’s a broad term, and can involve extra services, fewer services, shorter/longer trains, as well as adding stops to services or, that old favourite, issuing a not to call order to remove stations from the timetable. It has many influencing factors, including time of day, where crews and trains are, the location of the issue and it’s nature

Meeting Targets?

First, we’ll start with PPM.

PPM, or Public Performance Measure, is the DfT method of measuring the time keeping of TOCs. The definition is simply that if a train arrives at it’s final destination within 5 (for suburban and metropolitan trains) or 10 (for intercity and long distance trains) minutes of it’s scheduled arrival time, it is on time. On time, for the individual, can often mean different things, and whilst personally I don’t like it as a measure (although final destination is a good indicator of the timekeeping of a service generally in my opinion) it is probably the easiest and simplest way to measure the timekeeping of every service that runs in the country. So the likelihood is that we’re stuck with it.

There is one key thing about PPM that the article in question did not explain, and that is very key to the public perception of the train timekeeping.

If a train does not run it’s entire planned route, calling at all timetabled stations, then for the purposes of PPM, it is classed as cancelled.

So whilst it may seem like stops are missed to keep that train on time and therefore “meet the target”, it has exactly the opposite effect; and quite rightly – it is an excellent incentive to reduce the number of incidents and issues causing delay.

This is key, as the train quoted in the article was running 7 minutes late. This is not a massive delay (not to say that it is not significant, as 7 minutes is a PPM failure at final station), and can be caught up. A train would not miss 6 stations to catch up 7 minutes. Indeed, South Eastern report that the line was suffering signalling problems at the time.

A Quick Case Study

Recently I was in charge of a Basingstoke-Waterloo stopper; calling at all stops to Woking, Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames, Surbiton, Clapham, and Waterloo. On arrival at Woking, a member of platform staff handed me a “Not to Call Order”. This piece of paper informs both myself and the driver of stations we are no longer calling at. With this one piece of paper, no matter what my efforts, my until-then on-time train was registered cancelled.

As it turned out, signalling issues at Weybridge were causing issues for all trains on the Up Slow line (for trains calling at stations between Woking and Surbiton), which meant that if we went onto that line, we would likely suffer significant (20 minutes or greater) delay to our journey. As a result, all services from Alton and Basingstoke were being transferred to the Up Fast line and avoiding Weybridge station.

Passengers were advised to transfer to a service running from Woking to Waterloo that also called at these stations, which, although an inconvenience, got them home. For this, up to 8 trains were registered as cancelled, as well as the late running of the Woking-Waterloo stopping services as a result of the signal failure. Why? Good customer service. I had maybe 5 or 6 people travelling to these two stations, and maybe 50 or more to Waterloo. As much as I don’t like it, at some point we have to consider just how many people we have to inconvenience. Do we inconvenience 55 people or 5? Not to mention any trains behind us, who may be delayed longer as a result of our own delay! So, it is worth noting that for one train missing six stops, it may have allowed busier trains behind it to get more people home on time.

The Balls in the Air

Such things are a balancing act, and in the rush hour, the wrong decision can cause misery to untold thousands, but the right decision to only hundreds. Undoubtedly the role of a Route Controller is not an enviable one!

That said, it can be gotten wrong. Service Recovery is not a scientific principle; the decision often lies upon the experience of a small team of people and managers and, as has been the case, if an attempt to return to a full service is taken too early, the problem can be made worse. Whilst it is hard, it is worthwhile to remember that Controllers are human, and as such, not infallible!

Either way, this has rambled on a bit. I hope at least, it has given some insight into PPM and perhaps cleared up a few…unclear points. I am happy to answer any questions as best I can in the comments!

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HLOS and what it means for you

HLOS, or High Level Output Specification, is the DfT’s vision for the future of rail travel in the UK. Services in the commuter regions of London are becoming more and more full, resulting in delays and discomfort for passengers and staff alike.

The usual cry is for more trains, more frequent services or longer ones, which is why TOCs and Network Rajl are jnvesting millions into providing exactly that.

So what does that mean for South West Trains?

Several things, really. New (in a manner of speaking) trains, longer trains, and more efficient working methods with new technology being introduced to facilitate this.

New Trains?

Kind of. Southern currently operate several Class 456 2-car Electric Multiple Units; with their order for new carriages for newer stock, these trains will be passed down to us. Once testing and crew training is completed, they will be painted in our metropolitan livery (like the class 455, who are from the same family of trains) before being deployed. They will be used in two ways – replacing existing 4-car trains between Guildford and Ascot, freeing up larger trains in the rush hour so they can be used to create more capacity. Others still will be attached to existing 8-car services to create 10-car services in the heart of our metropolitan suburban network.

Southern previously owned class 460 trains as part of the Gatwick Express fleet. These are mechanically identical to our own class 458 (white trains working between Waterloo and Reading), and we will be operating these units too – albeit in a different format. They will be combined with our class 458 fleet, as well as having new cab ends fitted to allow you to walk through, and being painted in a colour scheme as our Desiro fleet have (blue). They will become 5-car trains, creating 36 new 5-car trains. I am informed they will provide valuable new capacity to some of our busiest routes – Windsor and suburban routes in the Hounslow area. Reading services will resume being served by our Desiro fleet.

New Technology

Currently, short platforms are dealt with by the Guard, who operates a switch in a train cab to open up the appropriate number of doors at each platform. This can be an inefficient process, leaving several carriages on the platform unable to be opened because one or two doors are off at the end.

This process is being replaced by ASDO, Automatic Selective Door Operation – using beacons at stations and on the line, the trains will now open up the correct number of doors appropriate to the length of the station – meaning you can use the full length of the platform to board your train and allows us to be in a position to help you – in the carriages and by the entrance/exit to the platform (where safe, of course!).

A new system like this, however, requires extensive testing before it can be brought into place, which is why capacity has been reduced on some services – these trains have been fitted with the new equipment and are being used on regular trial runs without passengers to ensure that this system is working 100% of the time and making sure that no passenger is ever put in danger when it is rolled out across the network. Of course, this is a major inconvenience; and results in major discomfort, however it is a necessary evil for a massive gain in efficiency and capacity gains across the network.

At any rate, this is my explanation of what HLOS will result in for you, our passengers and customers – I hope this clarifies many things!

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