diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Something amazing has happened this week.
Bow Road station suddenly has next trains.

If you check most stations online or in an app you can easily find out when the next trains are due. Be it Bond Street, Barbican, Bournemouth or Bolton the time and destination of the next few trains are widely known. But not at Bow Road, alas, because we've always been a Next Train Black Hole and all you'd ever get is "we are unable to provide live updates at the moment" or "check boards at station".

TfL introduced 'Online departure boards' for all 11 tube lines on their website in April 2009. You could now sit at home or in the office and check a bespoke page for each station which told you when the next three trains were due, and this was often more information than if you were standing on the platform. If you had the right device and the station was in the open air you could also check the next trains on your phone - something we take for granted today, even underground, but which was absolutely cutting edge for 2009.

But a few stations got left out. Chesham was missing, for example, plus Bow Road and the entire Hammersmith & City line west of Paddington. Meanwhile Grange Hill only worked clockwise for some reason, Stepney Green westbound only and Mile End only for Central line trains. And while most of these eventually got sorted, the east London District line black hole lingered on and was only finally fixed this weekend, fourteen long years later. It's a total E3 gamechanger.

And it's all thanks to improvements to signalling, because TfL can only tell the public where their trains are if they know precisely themselves. Where stretches of the network had prehistoric wiring - for example Whitechapel to Bow Road - no data made it through to the Trackernet system and so nothing could be passed on.

It took until the first tranche of the Four Lines Modernisation programme in March 2019 before the western end of the Hammersmith & City got functioning Next Train displays rather than staff having to make regular announcements. And it's the implementation of stage six - SMA6 from Stepney Green to Becontree - that's finally brought Bow Road onside. It's had other effects too.

This was signal A887 shining red at the head of the eastbound platform on Friday.

And here it is on Monday, ignominiously covered with plastic sheeting and taped over with a big white X.

RIP A887 (1958-2023). It's no longer needed to tell drivers when it's safe to leave the station because the trains now drive themselves. Instead the new visual signal that it's safe for the train to depart is that a light on the exterior of each carriage shines white just before the doors close. Last week the trains at Bow Road never ever lit up white and now they all do.

But have the Next Train indicators finally started working properly? Alas no, not yet.

The Next Train Indicators at Bow Road were first switched on in April 2005. Metronet installed them as part of their bungled upgrade of the station with the promise that even if they didn't work to start with they would eventually. At first they showed no more information that the old lightbox, i.e. just the destination of one next train. And so things stayed for the next twelve years, apart from the six months when condensation got into the mechanism and the display showed nothing at all.

Then in August 2017 an upgrade of the underlying software permitted the display of the next three trains, which should have been the end of the matter except those next three trains were generally false. It was as if someone was rolling dice behind the scenes and picking potential destinations at random, then rolling them again and again, sometimes several times a minute, presenting gibberish which bore no relation to what was actually on its way.

TfL should have switched off Bow Road's Next Train Indicators but for some reason they left the electronic tombola running, perhaps because fiction is more reassuring than a blank screen. For the last few years they've made regular announcements warning that "Some of the information boards on the platforms are not showing the correct destinations", but it's hardly a substitute for something passengers at other tube stations take completely for granted.

I had high hopes that last weekend's signalling upgrade would finally end 18 years of utter Next Train Indicator inadequacy but alas not. On Monday morning (sigh) the boards were blank other than a generic message... then (ooh) sprang into life listing three next trains... then within a minute (meh) reverted back to generic nothingness again. This repeated in an unhelpful, mostly blank, way, then petered out.

On Tuesday I was hopeful because the westbound display said Hammersmith in 2, Wimbledon in 3, Richmond in 5. Unfortunately it still said Hammersmith in 2, Wimbledon in 3, Richmond in 5 ten minutes later, having not changed at all, suggesting the display was somehow stuck and therefore still completely useless. I understand the problem's in the Hammersmith control room, not here at Bow Road, and the underlying issue has been identified but not fixed.

The eastbound indicator and the display upstairs in the ticket hall look like they might now be correct, but the westbound is still hopelessly frozen. I'm hopeful that Wednesday (or some day soon) will bring the successful update required and I will report on this amazing event in the box below, should it ever happen.

Hallelujah! The westbound display was fixed at 11:30am on Wednesday, according to a reader in the know. I can confirm it was still frozen when I left this morning and was working properly when I came back this afternoon. It now seems to be listing the next three trains in the correct order with genuine timings, a treat Bow Road's passengers haven't previously enjoyed. But the "Some of the information boards on the platforms are not showing the correct destinations" announcement continues to play every five minutes, so either they're not yet working properly or somebody's failed to turn the message off.

In the meantime I'm comforting myself that that the online Next Train webpage appears to be working perfectly, indeed I've sat and watched it for an hour and seen a succession of fully plausible trains travelling east and west towards the station and arriving pretty much when they said they would. I'm also excited that I can now open up an app on the platform to discover what's coming, indeed I've stood there and done just that, a minor miracle which wouldn't have worked this time last week.

The Bow Road black hole is finally closing after almost two decades of digital inadequacy, and it'll be a red letter day if and when it vanishes for good.

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