diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 18, 2015

Something unusual is happening on the Circle line this weekend. It's running from Barking.
CIRCLE LINE: Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 January, no service between Edgware Road and Tower Hill (via King's Cross St Pancras). A revised Circle line service operates between Edgware Road and Barking (via Victoria). This is to allow for track and drainage replacement work at Euston Square and station improvement work at Moorgate and Liverpool Street.
On the grand scale of things, this ranks well below the irrationality of the Circle line no longer being a Circle. And to be fair there are already two Circle line trains a day from Barking, both running before 6am, which I've caught and written about before. But a regular service from Barking that goes around the bottom of the inner Circle and up to Edgware Road, I think that's new.

It's also temporary, running only this weekend and next, which means the travelling public aren't generally expecting it. If they're paying attention they'll know the Circle's doing Barking to Edgware Road and the Hammersmith & City's doing Baker Street to Hammersmith, with nothing running from Baker Street to Liverpool Street at all. But your average Londoner just turns up and hopes, and your average tourist is baffled even when the system's running normally. So how's it going?

I caught this Circle line train from Bow Road. You can't tell from the picture, but I can assure you the destination on the front of the train said Circle line via Victoria. You also couldn't tell from the Next Train Indicator on the platform, because this was displaying Hammersmith (H&C) instead. It had also said Hammersmith (H&C) two trains earlier to announce a District line train to Wimbledon, but that's because Next Train Indicators on this stretch of railway are notoriously unreliable because the signalling hereabouts is ancient.

So on we hopped, those of us waiting, including several people who thought they were boarding a Hammersmith & City line train because that's what it looked like*. The onboard electronic voice confirmed the Circleness of the train in its next announcement, in case anyone realised the significance, and the driver read out a prepared script at Mile End. This startled a few people, who hopped out to change to the Central Line, which was probably the best move for getting where they wanted to go, and on we went.
* When an S Stock train turns up at Bow Road it's always a Hammersmith & City line train - it's how we tell the two possible lines apart. But from Monday we'll have to get used to the gradual replacement of the old D Stock trains on the run out to Upminster, and by the end of next year everything'll look the same.

At Aldgate East the driver read out possibly the longest onboard announcement I've ever heard. He started by confirming that this was a Circle line train via Tower Hill, and ended with the same information over a minute later. Inbetween he told us precisely what lines weren't running where, even the Metropolitan line so don't try that, and if passengers had any questions they should ask a member of station staff. Several passengers got off as a result, though I bet most got back on the next train because there was nowhere else for them to go. Anyway, full marks to the driver, an exemplary announcement.

And that should have been the end of the unusual bit. While Circle line trains are rare as hen's teeth up to Aldgate East, they're six an hour from Tower Hill, so no fresh passenger here blinked. At least not until Monument. As we left the station, the driver chipped in to apologise that the train was about to lie. "Cannon Street station is open this weekend, and every weekend," he said, "so please ignore the train when it tells you it's closed." "Cannon Street Station is closed and all trains are not stopping here" replied the train, right on cue. And then it promptly stopped at Cannon Street, having said it wouldn't, and opened its doors.

"This is Mansion House", said the train, when it patently wasn't. "The next station is Blackfriars", it continued, again incorrectly. And then we set off to Mansion House, with the train now 'one out' from the station it thought it was at. "This station is Blackfriars" it said at Mansion House, but this time only on the electronic display, and only briefly before everything at last switched back to accurate reality. These S Stock trains may be new, but their automated system appears unable to cope with the unexpected and will happily announce untruths because the programming is sub-optimal.

Finally we continued like a normal Circle line train, round the normal Circle line route, to the normal Circle line destination of Edgware Road. And here we pulled into the normal Circle line platform, which is platform 2, which is where my tale ought to end. But no, something extremely odd happened as the train prepared to return the way it came. I was expecting the display on the front and side of the train to show Circle line via Victoria, or something similar, but instead it said District line Barking.

And this was damned confusing. The District line does run from Edgware Road, but always goes to Wimbledon. There are trains from Edgware Road to Barking, but they run on the Hammersmith & City line via an entirely different route. Circle line trains do normally run through the next 17 stations this particular train would visit, so Circle line would have been a good description. But there are no District line trains that go round the curve at Gloucester Road, hence potential passengers stared at the waiting train in some confusion.

One particular young lady stared repeatedly at the electronic display, then made a point of checking the signs on the platform which said platform 2 was for Circle line trains only. She even let the first train depart, and was equally confused ten minutes later when the next terminating train claimed to be another District line train to Barking. I had to reassure her that she really did want to get on this one, it was indeed going to "Kensington" as she wanted, and on she got. But she still hovered by the door in some trepidation, pointing repeatedly at the route diagram in the carriage which showed clearly that District line trains from here don't go to Barking. Only when the onboard announcements started up, declaring this to be a Circle line train in contradiction to the externally advertised information, did she finally smile, wave to me and sit down.

Edgware Road is a confusing mess of a station at the best of times, and this weekend it's more baffling than most. So I was disappointed by the total absence of useful information on the platforms that might have made clearer to waiting passengers what was going on. There were announcements every five minutes explaining what the Hammersmith & City and Circle lines weren't doing ("no service between...") but at no point was there a positive declaration explaining what trains from here were doing. It shouldn't be rocket science to play station-specific announcements - they'd have been exceptionally useful here - but instead it seems we get generic pre-recorded announcements for use at several stations that pinpoint nothing.

And where were the station staff all this time? I didn't see one on the platforms during the lengthy period I spent at Edgware Road, though there were a number of people who'd have found having an expert to talk to very useful. Instead I found two uniformed staff upstairs by the barriers in the ticket hall, having a nice chat, as passengers went about their journeys uninterrupted close by. I gave their indifference the benefit of the doubt until I spotted the engineering works poster in the entrance hall, which explained both what wasn't running and what was, including the Circle line's unusual path. Scribbled in black marker pen beside the map was the message READ BEFORE ENTERING STATION, in a rather patronising way, as if staff were sick of ignorant passengers turning up and asking stupid questions.

It's not ideal that all the useful information at Edgware Road was targeted solely at those entering the station, not at those changing trains, which overlooks a sizeable audience. It's not ideal that staff appeared to be targeted at the ticket barrier, and not terribly efficiently, when there might instead be a greater need on the platforms. It's not ideal that this weekend's service is inconsistently labelled, as the Circle line in one direction and the District line in the other. And it would be ideal if tube passengers came prepared and knew what was going on, but life's not like that. Thank goodness this unusual situation's only for two weekends, which leaves one more to get it right.

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