BBC BLOGS - Mind The Gap

Archives for February 2011

Small link makes a big difference for the rail orbital

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 12:53 UK time, Monday, 28 February 2011

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Sometimes a very small addition can lead to massive changes.

No surprise that a small 1.3 mile long rail link was opened today between Dalston Junction and Highbury Islington.

It cost £50m and based an old disused train line. What it does though is complete three "sides" of the outer london rail orbital.

So if you live in Crystal Palace you will for the first time be able to change at Highbury and travel round to West Hampstead and even onto Richmond.

The final link from Clapham Junction to Surrey Quays will be finished by the end of 2012.

It will help to relieve busy stations in the centre of the capital. So for the first time commuters will be able to skirt round central London.

It will also make it much easier for many to get to Stratford and the Olympic Park.

Follow me on Twitter: @TomSEdwards

Overcharge possibility 'a drawback' of Oyster card

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 11:42 UK time, Friday, 25 February 2011

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Oyster is fast and convenient but the system is not perfect.

I've been given a break-down by the Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly
of where passengers are being overcharged on their Oyster cards and at which stations.

Last year passengers were overcharged a whopping £60 million in total.

The top ten stations where passengers were overcharged in 2010 were:

Waterloo (National Rail) £2,452,000
London Bridge (National Rail) £2,300,000
Liverpool Street (National Rail) £1,615,000
Bank (London Underground) £1,339,000
King's Cross (London Underground) £1,073,000
Victoria (London Underground) £982,000
Stratford (National Rail) £877,000
Wimbledon (National Rail) £825,000
Oxford Circus (London Underground) £862,000
Liverpool Street (London Underground) £670,000

The full lists are here (PDF).

Transport for London says commuters would have paid most of the overcharges anyway in actual fares but the Lib Dems say it is not just people forgetting to touch in and touch out.

I agree.

I've discovered there are flaws with the Oyster system, particularly when large crowds are involved.

When there is a football match for example they open the barriers and implement something called "autocomplete".

That means the system in effect touches you out of the system automatically without you having to do it. Sensors pick up cards going through the barriers.

The problem is that to make sure your journey is completed by the system you have to touch in at the same station within three days. Or you get a maximum fare.

So many people obviously do not return to that station and get the maximum fare and perhaps do not realise.

TfL today admitted to me: "It is a drawback of the tool that we have."

Have you been wrongly overcharged? Let me know...

Twitter: @TomSEdwards

A step forward for the outer London rail orbital

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 14:58 UK time, Tuesday, 22 February 2011

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London Overground map from the Transport for London website


I've just found out that the crucial rail link between the East London Line and the rest of the Overground rail network is due to open next week.

The extension will join Dalston junction to Highbury and Islington.

It'll mean travellers, for example, will be able to travel from Crystal Palace round to Willesden Junction on the Overground network. And this will form another part of the outer London rail orbital.

There will be a reduced service from midday on Sunday 27th, with the full service beginning on the Monday.

I'm told though that travellers will have to switch trains and walk across the platform at Highbury.

There are some nice pictures of it on London Reconnections here.

Follow me on Twitter: TomSEdwards

Don't count your chickens for mobiles on the Tube

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 17:19 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

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There's been much reported on the fact we might get mobile phones on the Tube network.

It's a story that's been around for a while and we have blogged on it before here.

The TfL line is that they are talking to mobile phone operators but the cost has to be met by them.

There are also concerns about the difficulty of doing it technically given the room in the tunnels.

City Hall swears blind the stories did not come from them about a Chinese company willing to pay £50m for the privilege.

And the Mayor said he was "cautious" about it.

I asked him about it at his launch of the transport crime figures. This is what he said and I quote:

"I'm not ruling it out .. I'm not ruling it in either .. It's on the way but don't count your chickens."

Note the wry look to camera by the Mayor when I ask the first question. Has City Hall been bounced into something?

Not sure where that leaves us. Although it would not surprise me at all if we're close to a deal.

A silent, unnoticed end: RIP London Travelwatch

Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 12:20 UK time, Friday, 18 February 2011

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It does seem the death knell is ringing loud and clear for London Travelwatch. For those of you that don't know according to its website:

"We can assist with complaints about transport in London when the service provider has not satisfactorily resolved them. We deal with services operated or licensed by Transport for London, which includes London Underground, London's buses, Docklands Light Railway, Croydon Tramlink, Dial-a-Ride services, London River Services, Woolwich Free Ferry, taxis, private hire cars and most of the major roads in Greater London. In addition, we deal with services operated by the national rail companies, Heathrow Express and Eurostar."

Contract termination notices have already been served to many of the 20 staff but the demise of this non-departmental government body has raised barely a whimper. In fact it has been hardly reported and it seems there are very few supporters of London Travelwatch.

The Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservatives on the London Assembly Transport Committee want it scrapped. The report on that is here [296KB PDF].

The Transport Committee says scrapping it would save £1m a year on items like accommodation by moving the staff into City Hall. The report says the recommendation is not taken lightly.

"In short, we envisage folding the organisation within the London Assembly to achieve significant savings in the sharing of back office functions such as accommodation, corporate management, communications, finance, human resources and committee administration.

"The board would be replaced by a small number of Assembly Members who would oversee the work to support passenger representation in the capital. We would expect that this work would be carried out by a small secretariat in City Hall which would fulfil the casework and research functions relating to Transport for London. Passenger Focus would be commissioned by the Assembly to take on responsibility for rail passenger representation in the London rail area."

The accusation broadly is that in terms of casework, London Travelwatch has not done a good enough job, and there is no point having an independent board.

The casework team consists of seven staff.

Last year they received 3,594 initial complaints from members of the public about transport operators, and had 7,000 telephone enquiries. They then dealt with 2,200 appeals which were resolved one way or the other.

The proposal is to still have a casework unit within the London Assembly, and leave the rail complaints to the national body Passenger Focus.

There are a number of concerns in doing this and the phrase I've heard is: "throwing the baby out with the bathwater".

1. If rail is handed back over to Passenger Focus, a national body, who will deal with Oyster card complaints? 60% of the complaints dealt with by London Travelwatch are about rail and most of them about the Oyster card. As it stands Passenger Focus is not set up to deal with Oyster complaints. That would have to change. Presumably extra funds would have to be given to Passenger Focus to deal with these extra complaints? Will that be a saving then?

2. If the new case work unit is brought under the control of politicians, then it will no longer be independent. It would be much easier with that structure for party political agendas to come into play. Some complaints could be highlighted above others. Also the elected politicians are voted in by residents and businesses and rightly defend and highlight their interests - and although they overlap, they're not necessarily the same interests as commuters. Who would be solely defending the traveller under the new structure?

3. The concern is we will lose specialist knowledge of London's transport system. For example when the East London Line was closed to be rebuilt, commuters could travel into zone one with no extra charge for the duration of the works. That was introduced after lobbying by London Travelwatch, a whole 18 months before the actual closure. Who would do that under the new structure?

4. Who will speak out independently on issues regarding transport in the capital? Even from a journalistic point of view, London Travelwatch have always put forward a point of view that solely reflects the interests of the traveller. Who will do that in the future without party politics coming into play?

The bottom-line is when every major party on the Assembly wants you out, your days are numbered.

But perhaps these are issues that should be addressed in any new structure.

I'd be interested if anyone has any opinions about London Travelwatch, if it has helped you in the past, and indeed if it will be missed at all...

Cycle hire gremlins uncovered

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 11:25 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

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Bike docking station

I've again been given some interesting documents by the BBC's Freedom of Information researcher Julia Ross on the Cycle Hire scheme. They date from 27th August 2010, so the scheme had then been operational for a month.

They give you a glimpse of the gremlins that hit the system and the way the operator Serco dealt with them.

One e-mail breaks down the number of customers who had been overcharged. This works out as:

£300 - 9 customers

£450 - 1 customer

£600 - 1 customer

£750 - 3 customers

£1050 - 1 customer

The e-mail goes on to highlight the gremlins causing the problems:

"At this time we cannot see a pattern that links these customers together and which could prove a clue to the root cause of this defect. We have raised a Severity 1 incident with Logica, and this will be worked on over the weekend as a matter of absolute priority. In addition, a Service Management Incident is being raised. As a precaution, we have changed the Late Return Charge to £0 in the Tariff Table to prevent future issues of this kind. This means we will have to monitor late return activity on an individual basis, and manually apply charges as they arise."

What they also show is Serco went to extreme lengths to try and refund mistakes. In the case of the customer who was wrongly overcharged £1,050, a manager refunded the customer himself, writing: "I will transfer funds into his account from my personal account."

The e-mails also show these glitches caused the operator Serco to drop the automatic late return charge of £150 and look at them on a case by case basis.

One says:

"The £0 late return charge remains in place, and Logica have advised 'turning-off' the Late Return billing process in the interim. Thus the risk of any further issues of this particular kind are mitigated."

I assume the automatic late return charge is now in place... let me know though...

Twitter: @tomsedwards

The politics of upgrading the Tube

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 15:13 UK time, Monday, 14 February 2011

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The upgrade of the Jubilee line is at long last entering its final stages and transport bosses say it should be finished by June 2011 at the latest.

Better late than never - that will make it nearly two years late.

I was given the chance to go and see the new Automatic Train Operation System being used. The old signals are taped over and now the driver can sit there doing nothing while the computer controls the train.

The drivers job now is to control the doors at platforms, but they can switch the system to manual in an emergency.

What it means technically, I'm told, is that the computer can run trains much closer together and brake the trains much harder into the stations. It can also still land them right next to the platform door to within a few centimetres.

This means London Underground can run more trains and it hopes increase capacity by 30%.

There have been some glitches with the new signalling system but new software has just been downloaded onto the trains which seems to be working (so far).

The wider picture is the future of the other upgrades - remember this is the first of many and there's at least 10 years to go.

They are extremely politically sensitive and will continue to be so especially during the 2012 Mayoral election.

London Underground says it has learnt a lot of lessons from taking over the Jubilee and the Victoria Lines and believes the Northern will not be as painful.

However, there will be an upgrade "freeze" in the run up to the Olympics.

By an incredible coincidence the Mayoral election is also that summer. Is that the first transport project "purdah"?

Twitter: @BBCTravelAlert

Not all Tube staff sharing TfL's 'world class vision'?

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 11:52 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011

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Photo taken at Canary Wharf station

This picture (taken by @briwebb) shows you how disgruntled some staff are on London Underground about the reductions in ticket office opening hours. Not surprising perhaps.

Remember this is why we had four 24 hour tube strikes and there had been talk about 72 hour strikes over this very issue.

So far though there have been stern words from both the RMT and TSSA unions but no definite indication on what or if they're going to take any more action.

Does that mean this issue is over?

Or, as is probably more likely, are the transport unions planning their next move considering more job losses are bound to be tied up with the next efficiency review called "Project Horizon"?

(Somewhat grand name agreed - I also looked it up - the first Project Horizon in 1959 was a US plan to put a military base on the moon)

On the Tube network, I have been told about barriers having to be left open at some stations due to a lack of staff.

But what has your experience been like so far on the Tube with these new reduced ticket office opening hours?

Let me know, good or bad...

Follow me on Twitter: @TomSEdwards

The Jubilee Line & the trains that can't reverse?

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 11:59 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011

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Closed tube station. Reuters

It may have settled down for now, but if you're a Jubilee Line commuter you can, I'm afraid, expect more problems as the new systems bed in and gremlins are ironed out.


I was stuck in the mess last Friday and it was ugly. Even with the unprecendented refund given to commuters at Canary Wharf, there were a lot of angry people.

It's all due to glitches in the new signalling system. The signalling and the train systems sometimes don't communicate and when that happens the whole system has to be rebooted.

You can imagine the response the IT helpdesk gets when they tell control : "Turn it off and back on again."

For a more detailed techincal analysis try this excellent website.

But let's not forget why we're putting up with this Jubilee Line upgrade which is now reaching its final stages.

Capacity will increase by a third as trains will be able to run closer together with automatic driving.

Transport for London took over what was already a flawed signalling upgrade from Tube Lines and they believe the system is improving.

If you believe them, they inherited a number of mistakes that included a lack of testing on the systems. However they did know what they were getting themselves into - and if they didn't - perhaps they should have.

Here is just one crazy bonkers example I've discovered about the "new" Jubilee Line.

The new signalling system doesn't allow trains to switch lines and go against the flow or "reverse" up the adjacent line, for example to clear an obstruction.

That means there is a huge lack of resilience in this new system if something goes wrong.

Failed trains (which inevitably you will get as the system beds in) can get blocked in on one part of the track and can't be put into sidings.

One LU manager said to me:

"Tubelines deleted the ability to run both ways on each track from the signalling system when they specified it, despite LU's objections. So when something goes wrong now, you can't run trains around an obstruction. If we could have done that on Friday, we'd have saved a lot of hassle for people."


So who' s paying for TfL to try to "sort" this upgrade out?

Probably all of us in taxes and higher fares and efficiencies in other services. (TfL will also say they have saved millions on lawyers fees buying out Tube Lines)

So we can probably chalk this up as another victory for the scandal that was the PPP and add it to the hundreds of millions of pounds that were wasted.

Of course, the sobering thought is we have at least 10 more years of tube upgrades.

The hope is they will be done much quicker and better than the Jubilee.

The more worrying wider picture for Transport for London is that it seems many of the travelling public have already lost faith in these upgrades just as the benefits start to materialise.

And that is an issue they have to address quickly.

Update 1400:

Just had the TfL press department on the phone. They want to clarify the reversing train issue. The Jubilee line trains can still be put into reverse manually if you override the automatic system.

So, technically you can reverse back into a platform if the safety checks are carried out and the driver switches from one end of the train to the other. (Is that still reversing??)

The real problem arises when you try to reverse the train onto an adjacent track to clear the line for example. Then the computer says no.

The point still being it still seems rather ridiculous and inflexible....and the client, LU, didn't get the system it wanted.

New DLR line delay explained...

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Steve Phillips Steve Phillips | 15:35 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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DLR trai at Custom House station

We have been inundated with a query from a Mind the Gap viewer, as to when the new DLR branch from Canning Town to Stratford International was opening.

Happy to help, we were wondering too.

I spoke to TfL, who said:

"The Stratford International extension will open to the public in late Spring 2011. This delay has been caused by joint venture contractors Skanska and Volker Rail taking longer than expected to progress some technical aspects of the project such as communications system design and installation.

While further work on these systems is required, test trains have started running on the extension. The new link will be ready well in advance of the 2012 Games and provide a lasting legacy to the East London community."

That help you?

By the way, Tom ferreted around for the reason why the Central Line was down this morning - a radio communications fault, according to sources.

You're up to date, I'm Steve Phillips...

Is the new London bus just a compromise?

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Tom Edwards Tom Edwards | 12:42 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

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This is a TV piece I did on the continuing developments of the new bus for London aka "the son of Routemaster".

Certainly it seems from what we are being told that it's on schedule for testing by September.

However, not everyone's happy with the way it's laid out inside though. In particular wheelchair users.

As you will see from the footage it does take some manoeuvering in a wheelchair to get into the disabled space.

What's also interesting is the new bus for London is one of the Mayor Boris Johnson's key election pledges. And arguably it was one of the reasons he was elected.

There's no doubt the new bus is extremely popular in some quarters and has captured the imagination of many Londoners, and to an extent capitalised on a feeling for nostalgia.

And in part due to the Mayor's design competitions for the bus, people do feel involved in the process.

The downside of that is when the design is not what a group of people want, then they get extremely annoyed and want to shout about it.

So, is this really a story about trying to manage expectations after raising hopes too high?

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