diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Time once again for diamond geezer to go totally tubular, with yet another week devoted to the London Underground. Except this time the week starts on a Tuesday. And, just for a change, I'm devoting the entire series to one particularly annoying station fixture - 'next train' indicators. Because too often they're rubbish. And here's part 1 of why...

Next train: Bow Road

Forgive my indulgence if I kick off a week of ranting about 'next train' indicators by telling you about my local station. In particular, that's the new(-ish) electronic displays at Bow Road. This is the station I use every morning, where I stand expectant and bleary eyed awaiting a train to carry me westward. Sometimes I care about which train is coming next, because it makes a difference whether it's heading for Tower Hill or Kings Cross. Usually I don't care which train's arriving next, because every train on the District and Hammersmith & City lines goes to Mile End, which is where I want to change. But I always care about when it arrives. And there's the problem.

Until three years ago, the eastbound 'next train' indicator at Bow Road looked like this. Standard mid 20th century issue, just a lightbox with illuminable destinations, all black and simple. The indicator on the westbound platform was held together with sticky tape and was even simpler. No destinations here, just an alternating display to tell passengers whether the next train would be on the District line or the Metropolitan line (highly misleading because the Hammersmith and City usurped the Metropolitan out here way back in 1990). And also no overt indication either as to when the next train would arrive. When a westbound train was expected, the box would light up less than a minute before the train rattled into the platform. If the next train was more than a minute away there were no clues, nothing. A blank box could mean two minutes (wait on platform), could mean ten (exit station and walk to Mile End), could mean no trains at all (go home).

So Metronet ripped the old boxes out and installed new state-of the art 'next train' indicators' instead. Huge long dot matrix displays, weakly lit in orange, with updated more detailed scrollable information. Now the westbound indicator could tell us where our trains were going, be it Richmond, Ealing Broadway, Wimbledon or Hammersmith. And, erm, that was it. Still no indication of how far away the next train was, nor any mention of where trains two and three might be going. In short, this expensive upgrade provided virtually no value-added whatsoever. Indeed, given that the new indicators were five seconds slower than their predecessors in announcing the arrival of an approaching train, one could argue they were worse.

Meanwhile, up in the ticket hall, a new 'next train' indicator appeared. It was one of the first of a new breed appearing across the network, listing upcoming destinations to passengers fresh off the street. Alas, this provided no better information than on the platforms. Indeed, with any advance warning being less than a minute, this ticket hall sign usually signalled a train that was already rushing into the platform below. I know, from wearisome experience, that every time I enter the ticket hall to see a westbound train flashed up on the board, I have a less than 50-50 of getting downstairs in time to board it. Sorry TfL, that's not useful information, that's impractical optimism.

And the reason this really annoys me is that at Mile End, one minute down the line, the 'next train' indicators are fully functional. Westbound passengers know precisely where the next three District/H&C trains are heading, not just the next one. And they also know how many minutes away each of those trains is, up to a maximum of six. Hmmm. If Mile End passengers have maximum information, it really shouldn't be rocket science to provide the same half a mile away at Bow Road. It's not as if trains appear or vanish in the tunnel between the two - everything that arrives at Mile End must previously have passed through Bow Road. But no, one station gets the full monty while the station nextdoor merits no monty at all. I feel like a lesser class of traveller.

But there is a reason for TfL's apparent incompetence. It's the signalling that's rubbish, not the displays. Metronet installed the best most appropriate displays available back in 2005, but the District line's signalling system has yet to catch up. Bow Road's 'next train' indicator displays may look modern, but as yet they're incapable of displaying any better 'next train' information than their predecessors. Heritage cabling infrastructure provides only very limited last minute information, and nobody's yet thrown sufficient millions at the signalling problem to fund an upgrade. One day these next train indicators will be able to tell me how long it is until the next three trains arrive, but right now enabling that information is not a priority. I live in hope. But I'm not holding my breath.

NTI uselessness, category 1a: Stations with what look like modern displays, but which await a signalling upgrade
• most of the District line east of Mile End (& especially east of Barking)
• the Metropolitan line west of Rayners Lane: Shiny new displays on both platforms have nothing to report. At Ruislip Manor a carefully positioned leafy branch blocks physical sight of the next train until it's pretty much arrived. Thankfully the lines out here attempt to run to a predictable timetable.
• the Piccadilly line between South Harrow and North Ealing: modern displays, zero information
• Wood Green (southbound): Martin says "the indicator only tells you about the next train as it's pulling into the platform. Apparently this is due to the system's inability to cope with trains which might be emerging from the sidings just to the north of the station (although that doesn't happen very often). The other day it had got the idea that an Uxbridge train was imminent, so that was permanently displayed on the top line, while the train that was actually about to turn up was displayed as the second. Bravo!"
• Turnham Green: Alex says "Big LED screen replacing little light up one with no extra info. Two minutes warning about the next train."
• Ravenscourt Park: Phill says "Only shows the direction of the trains, and occasionally a no smoking flashes up. Even in the ticket hall they have a mini one and all it says is eastbound and westbound. Only been there a year."
• Ealing Common (eastbound): Chloe says "Both platforms only tell you the destination of the approaching train when it's almost in the platform, but the eastbound also flags up "special" at various times in off-peak hours, to indicate that the District Line train pulling into the platform is actually heading for the sidings just past the station, and is just stopping while they alter the points. It's that 'ah, train!...oh, not my train' feeling. And yet someone always walks up to it and presses the button."
• Turnpike Lane
• any more?

NTI uselessness, category 1b: Stations which have no 'next train' indicator whatsoever (awaiting signalling upgrade)
• the Hammersmith & City line between Hammersmith and Paddington (including the newest station on the Underground - Wood Lane). No point in having a 'next train' indicator if the current signalling can't support it. Please listen for announcements.
• West Kensington
• any more?

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