Southern Fail
July 18, 2016 2:23 AM   Subscribe

Southern Rail is the rail franchise providing overland rail service through much of South East England, including important long distance routes between London and Brighton, and South London metro services. It has gone downhill.

As recently as 2015, it boasted high quality rolling stock and a reliable service. This week it has introduced an amended timetable – axing 341 services - and still has to cancel many services per day, with delays and sudden route changes to others.

Southern has been branded an embarrassment to London by Mayor Sadiq Kahn and poor performance has forced the resignation of the Rail minister. Commuters (who can pay over £4,000 per year in season tickets) are threatening a fare strike.

Southern claims that conductors are staging a “Work to Rule” protest through frequent sickness leave in protest of plans to remove conductors from trains.

The RMT union claims this is nonsense, and that Southern is poorly managed and simply doesn’t have enough staff.

In truth, nobody seems to know what’s really going on. (Or at least, the people know aren’t talking.) Journalists and bloggers are starting to dig.

In the meantime, while you wait on the platform for you inevitably delayed service, why not play a soothing game of Southern Rail Tycoon?
posted by generichuman (55 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is not like the parent company, Thameslink, is any better.

If I need to get the train to work I walk 20mins over to Denmark Hill because I have some possibility of getting onto a Southern train from there to Blackfriars. Loughborough Junction, opposite my house but run by Thameslink, has so few trains running that people fall out when the doors open and then can't get back on. It's like that between 7:30 and 10:00 every single weekday morning. I've seen people in tears because they've failed to get on three consecutive trains.

And people wonder why I cycle most days.
posted by tinkletown at 2:32 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Some more discussion on the subject from the always-excellent London Reconnections.
posted by corvine at 2:42 AM on July 18, 2016 [6 favorites]


There is a very good article covering the Southern Rail problems at the London Reconnections blog, and like the one at The Real Blog linked above, it's well worth reading the comments for a change. I occasionally have to use Southern Rail, and the trains are abysmal at peak time, never been on such packed trains.
posted by cobrabay at 2:42 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ack! Thank you corvine! That's the link I was looking for but was having a total mind fart in trying to dig it up.
posted by generichuman at 2:44 AM on July 18, 2016


One thing that's not been emphasised is that Govia Thameslink Rail* is on an unusual management contract where the Department for Transport signs off all major decisions and pays for all profits and losses. One element of that contract is removing guards from all services and having the driver take responsibility for opening and closing the doors**.

Since GTR aren't responsible for losses, they have no reason not to push this policy through as hard as the government wants them to, which appears to be quite hard. The government seem to be using them as a test bed for rolling this out on the other franchises around the country.

(* NB: "Southern" is a brand, not a company)
(** This system is already in use on many trains already, including a lot of GTR, and has been for a couple of decades, and it doesn't seem to cause a huge increase in passenger safety incidents)
posted by grahamparks at 3:23 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


The worst train I have ever been on, in terms of the condition, cleanliness, and quality of the actual rolling stock, was a Southern train. For comparison, I have taken third class from Guangzhou to Beijing fifteen years ago, and been on old decommissioned trains used to ferry passengers from Roskilde festival site to Roskilde town (and consequently constantly filled with drunk festival-goers for a week solid). Neither even came close, and both were memorable for how bad the trains were.

It was especially surprising to me to come across a new record on the way to Brighton just a few years ago because most of the trains I'm used to here (in and around the Midlands) are really rather splendid.
posted by Dysk at 3:39 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've seen people in tears because they've failed to get on three consecutive trains.
It's like that here in the north, too. Northern Rail hasn't got the same level of industrial problems as Southern Rail, but they do have significant technical problems. Their rolling stock is largely made up of 1980s Pacers that should have been pensioned off 20 years ago - the main commuter lines into Leeds and Sheffield, for instance, usually consist of ancient two- or three-carriage efforts that fill up a few stations into their journey and are largely useless the rest of the way into the city. The Pacers should be in a museum - they are filthy, the seats often literally fall apart if you sit on them too fast, they regularly break down, they have the heaters on all summer to stop the ancient engine overheating, old people faint on them...

Underinvestment in rail services in this country is endemic and there are very few lines that run reliably and without crowding, late services, congestion and so on. Passenger numbers have gone up far faster than money spent on improving and increasing capacity. Up here, people regularly just give up (often after a workplace warning for regular lateness) and start driving, which is the opposite direction to where we should be going.
posted by winterhill at 3:40 AM on July 18, 2016 [10 favorites]


For full context, that London Reconnections piece is a sequel, of sorts, to an earlier one we wrote that laid out the full evolution and current state of Driver Only Operation (DOO) in the UK. It's an area where there's a lot of rhetoric in the mainstream media (fueled both by the DfT and the Unions) and we thought it was best to try and cut through some of that before tackling Southern in particular.

One thing I feel it's really, really important to point out is that the whole conductors strike thing is not the sole cause of the current crisis. But the media are selling it that way because it is an easy narrative to summarise in a two minute soundbite or a 500 word article, and all the key players are (for different reasons) happy to let that happen.

On the DfT part, it's because an awful lot of the current problems are the direct result of mismanagement of UK rail franchising, maintenance and rolling stock ordering and distribution over a ten year period. Whatever way you cut it, that's the DfT's fault - both on a ministerial and civil service level. Casting this as all the result of industrial action thus allows them to dodge an awful lot of questions on their own decision-making (or rather lack of it) over recent history.

On Govia's part, it allows them to escape questions on their absolute fuck up of an approach to due diligence on taking over the uber-franchise. They should have known they were going to be short of drivers (which is a massive contributing factor here) and that the Thameslink rolling stock was shit (the fixing of which has sucked resource away from the Southern fleet) and indeed they've been running a chunk of this railway into the ground long before the current uber-franchise started (Southern's performance numbers have been slowly declining for years). Always amazes me how every operator underestimates how much the previous operator will fuck them over on departure, given that they're all doing it to each other constantly.

On the Union's part having the current conversation focused on DOO is actually what they want - because they're playing a huge stakes game here (particularly the RMT) which does genuinely represent a last stand on the conductor role. The general public equating the current issues solely with the strikes is thus hugely beneficial to them in terms of putting pressure on the operator and the DfT to negotiate.

Anyway, all the above is a bit of a paraphrase of the full LR article, but like I say it's really critical to be aware of and acknowledge. Solving the strikes will not make all of these problems go away, but commuters are being set up to believe it will - and that's hugely unfair on them as this genuinely affects lives.

And both the parties involved and the mainstream media should take a long, hard look at themselves and remember that.
posted by garius at 3:47 AM on July 18, 2016 [18 favorites]


Also, rail travel in the UK is significantly more expensive for passengers than in other European countries. So it's often a bad service that costs more than a good service elsewhere.

But privatising the railways was definitely a good idea and no one could have guessed it would turn out this way, of course.
posted by terretu at 3:53 AM on July 18, 2016 [33 favorites]


Surely this would be a golden opportunity for bus companies; run a range of coaches, from no-frills budget services to deluxe offices on wheels akin to Google/Apple buses in the Bay Area, offer introductory discounts to season ticket holders, and watch the profits roll in.

Of course, the outcome would be that everybody would abandon the hopelessly mismanaged railway, and if the government and the franchise operator can't get it together long enough to sort it out, it'd end up being shut down, much as railways hamstrung with dysfunction have been elsewhere in the world. While workmen rip up the rusting rails and the populations of Sussex and south London breathe in more diesel fumes than before, we'd see smug editorials about how the railways had to die because they weren't free-market enough.
posted by acb at 4:04 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Surely this would be a golden opportunity for bus companies; run a range of coaches, from no-frills budget services to deluxe offices on wheels akin to Google/Apple buses in the Bay Area, offer introductory discounts to season ticket holders, and watch the profits roll in.

As bad as Southern's services are at the moment, there's no realistic way that you'd get people into London during rush hour that way.
posted by atrazine at 4:13 AM on July 18, 2016 [10 favorites]


acb - The problem with that is that there are some companies running bus and train services - FirstGroup for one which runs Great Western and Trans Pennine Express train services as well as a lot of bus services across the UK (around 20%). Privatisation of profit, socialisation of risk is endemic in the UK and public transport has suffered immensely because of this (FirstGroup took £140m in government subsidies in 2009 for example - that's the most recent a really quick Google turned up).
posted by longbaugh at 4:15 AM on July 18, 2016


Incidentally I am lost as to why a business should receive government subsidies when it can actually turn a profit. If your business model involves taking tax payer funds and you are making a profit I believe it the government should be reimbursed those funds before you post your profits. The concept of the efficiency of the market appears to be little more than a joke to my albeit limited imagination. If it requires a government to prop it up then it's clearly not something suited to private business and should be nationalised.
posted by longbaugh at 4:21 AM on July 18, 2016 [4 favorites]


A lot of the train operating companies in the UK are nationalised. They're owned by the French and Dutch and German state-owned transport companies. Profits from the UK's overpriced and underinvested rail services go to subsidise cheaper, more reliable services in their home countries. They are literally laughing at us.
posted by winterhill at 4:39 AM on July 18, 2016 [24 favorites]


Thank God for Brexit which will re-energize the economy and cause money to fall from the sky and solve all of these pressing domestic problems!
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:42 AM on July 18, 2016 [11 favorites]


longbaugh: The rail franchises make a lot more sense if you think of them as being the same thing as the your local council paying Veolia or whoever to collect your bins. The current way franchising works (even ignoring the special GTR arrangement) almost all decisions are made by the government, the subsidy any company receives is only just below the operating costs, and for the few companies that make a profit most of that money gets paid back to the government. The pretense that they're proper independent companies is a complete distraction.

The profit margins for Train Operators are absolutely tiny and some of them run at a loss, even after subisdy. I'm surprised many companies bother bidding, and increasingly they don't. IIRC the government has only managed to attract two bidders for two of the franchises currently up for renewal.

(of course whether the council paying Veolia to collect your bins is a sensible idea or a complete racket, I don't know)
posted by grahamparks at 4:44 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


Thank God for Brexit which will re-energize the economy and cause money to fall from the sky and solve all of these pressing domestic problems!

I'm actually working on a piece looking at how Brexit will affect transport in London at the moment. It's not pretty, but could be worse.

On the plus side, unlike the Government, TfL at least bothered to work up a contingency plan!
posted by garius at 4:45 AM on July 18, 2016 [6 favorites]


Ah, SouthernRail. I've only used them twice (I live in Scotland) but I recall declining the sign-up for their newsletter and I have subsequently been the delighted recipient of emails going "You didn't want our newsletter, here's what you are missing". That alone was enough to convince me they are scumbags.
posted by kariebookish at 5:03 AM on July 18, 2016 [6 favorites]


Surely this would be a golden opportunity for bus companies; run a range of coaches, from no-frills budget services to deluxe offices on wheels akin to Google/Apple buses in the Bay Area, offer introductory discounts to season ticket holders, and watch the profits roll in.

We have loads of buses. It takes 7 minutes to get between my local station and central London on the train, or up to 90minutes on a bus depending on traffic/roadworks. I don't think you understand how slow central London traffic moves in rush hour - it is literally slower than walking speed.

I sometimes get the bus back from Oxford Street, if I've been out all day and want to sit down with a coffee and read my book instead of struggling off and on tubes with a load of bags. But it adds about an hour to the journey so no way would I do that if I had somewhere to be at the other end.
posted by tinkletown at 5:05 AM on July 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


And Winterhill my family are from Doncaster and I have been on those Pacer bus-train monstrosities many times. You're right they are awful too. I was seriously concerned about frostbite on sub-zero one trip between Sheffield and Leeds. And they are often weirdly stinky. I had blanked them from my mind.
posted by tinkletown at 5:13 AM on July 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


I was seriously concerned about frostbite on sub-zero one trip between Sheffield and Leeds. And they are often weirdly stinky. I had blanked them from my mind.
I have serious concerns about their safety. Someone with greater knowledge of rail safety than me might be able to prove me wrong, but they rattle and wobble and squeal around corners, they feel quite flimsy and unstable, they're more often than not packed like sardine cans with people in the doorwells and toilets and crushed together down the carriage. I fear that if (god forbid) there was ever an accident involving one of these rust buckets, significant injuries would ensue.
posted by winterhill at 5:21 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Pacer trains are converted Leyland buses. Not originally designed for use as trains! They are set to be replaced over the next 15 years...
posted by asok at 5:42 AM on July 18, 2016 [8 favorites]


Many pacers were sold off to Iran, but of those left although they are supposed to be gone by 2020 there is some suggestion that a little bit of retrofitting might happen and they'll be in service until 2032.
Because although they are terrible, they are very very cheap!

(I sadly probably can't talk about the southern stuff. But on the plus side it may be the first MeFi thread where I'm not legally allowed to comment, how exciting!)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:45 AM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]


The reason it was so cold on that particular train was that the doors didn't shut properly. Which yeah, is not very safe.

Just this guy, I thought they had to be taken out of service by 2020 because you can't get a wheelchair into them? (Steps too steep, aisle too narrow).
posted by tinkletown at 6:29 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Many pacers were sold off to Iran

Wouldn't that be in violation of the Geneva Convention?
posted by acb at 6:46 AM on July 18, 2016 [4 favorites]


As a SEPTA regional rail commuter from the suburbs into center city Philadelphia, the one comfort I can find is that there are kindred spirits experiencing the same pain across the pond. This latest thing is just the punctuation mark to a long list of annoyances that occur almost daily.

Sorry
Excuse for
Public
Transit
Anywhere
posted by prepmonkey at 6:57 AM on July 18, 2016


Yes, the 2020 deadline was not because they are terrible and everyone hates them ,it was because there is a legal compliance deadline of 1st Jan 2020 for Heavy Rail wheelchair accessibility.

So, rather than scrap the terrible trains they are looking into lifespan extension works and wheelchair modifications to keep them running.

Some info on class 143 (Pacer) compliance is here or hereabouts.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:02 AM on July 18, 2016


Wouldn't that be in violation of the Geneva Convention?

Evidently, the UN Security Council + US + EU sanctions against Iran did not include crappy, second-hand, UK trains.
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:07 AM on July 18, 2016


"We're not doing you a favour by selling you these trains."
posted by terretu at 7:13 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Me and my daughter tried to have a day trip to Hastings on Saturday from London Victoria. I should have realised that it was a bad idea when there was standing room only in Victoria Station, with twenty minute queues for the ticket machines. Lots of services "cancelled due to staff shortages". An hour in to a two hour journey (when the train was due to split in half) we were suddenly told that everyone had to get off the train at once as it wasn't going any further.

Due to staff shortages.

We then sat on the platform for half an hour, chatting with a driver of the train that was due to replace the one we had been kicked off. He talked a bit about the work to rule, although he described it as staff choosing to actually take their rest days.

Five minutes after the next train was due to arrive, there was another sudden announcement - "Everyone for Brighton should take the other train, this ones not coming" (due to broken doors, I think). Luckily the driver quickly shouted to his friends and found that we had to hustle to get on, and we would then head on our from Brighton.

Having taken two hours to do less than a one hour journey to Brighton, I decided that I shouldn't go any further from home, so we stayed there.

The journey back was less eventful, although the train was delayed by ten minutes due to staff shortages...
posted by fizban at 7:19 AM on July 18, 2016


Just went to find out how to complain to see this on the Southern Rail homepage - "Due to a large hole affecting the track between London Bridge and East Croydon the London bound lines are blocked. This incident is expected to affect services all day."
posted by fizban at 7:20 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Just went to find out how to complain to see this on the Southern Rail homepage - Due to a large hole affecting the track [...]

This is where you send in an anthropologist, a surveyor, a biologist, and a psychologist. If they discover writings that says "Where lies the strangling fruit....", you should be very careful and may want to evacuate the entire region.
posted by effbot at 7:38 AM on July 18, 2016 [9 favorites]


Yeah, we've just been looking at pictures of that on the LR authors slack group. Proper sinkhole! It's at least 16m deep according to our inside man on the response team.

We're currently making bets on whether it's:

a) canal remnants
b) one of the five underground streams in the area
c) the collapsed sewer that Thames Water "repaired"
d) the gates of hell opening up to swallow GTR whole
posted by garius at 8:06 AM on July 18, 2016 [12 favorites]


Photo for y'all.
posted by garius at 8:16 AM on July 18, 2016 [9 favorites]


I like to read the London subreddit's "How was your commute today?" threads because why not and every single day, it seems like, someone is getting fucked over by Southern. The irregular cancellations seem like a total nightmare for anyone who relies on the service.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 8:21 AM on July 18, 2016


Man... even nature doesn't want me to take Southern.

I actually gave up my commute entirely last week, but for the last several months I switched from train to motorcycle for my 122 mile round trip monster from Arundel to Vauxhall.

I only went up three days a week, so Southern's lack of a carnet system made it painfully expensive when broken down per journey no matter which type of season ticket I got.

My motorbike bike turned out to be half the price all said and done, FASTER door to door, and a hell of a lot more fun.
posted by generichuman at 8:42 AM on July 18, 2016


Brighton MP Caroline Lucas had a public meeting with Southern execs to complain about their bad service, ask questions, etc. Many members of the public who wanted to attend couldn't, due to... train delays.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:31 AM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]


In an as-yet-unconfirmed tie-in for the UK release of the new Ghostbusters film, the helpless rage of stranded Southern Rail commuters will cause a giant, pissed-off avatar of Isambard Kingdom Brunel to spontaneously manifest itself in the Thames River between Rotherhithe and Wapping this week. Whether the Brunel Man will lay waste to the City, or perhaps assist in the completion of Cross Rail and the creation of additional platform capacity at London Bridge station, remains to be seen.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:52 AM on July 18, 2016 [9 favorites]


as I recall, the chief example of why British Rail was sold off and privatized was that their sandwiches weren't very good.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:44 AM on July 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


The overcrowing this causes is serious. People become aggressive about getting and staying on trains. And there are no staff around to help.
posted by radiocontrolled at 11:17 AM on July 18, 2016


People become aggressive about getting and staying on trains. And there are no staff around to help.

More staff could possibly help with overcrowded trains
posted by acb at 11:35 AM on July 18, 2016


Pacer fans may be in for a treat if the 2020 wheelchair accessibility law is based on an EU directive, if Brexit happens by then.

(I've only been on one once, somewhere in Wales. It was six in the morning and I was adjusting from an evening on Dr Hofmann's bicycle, so ascribed the 'my god, this is a bus on rails' feeling to the after-effects of battling intelligent lichen some hours earlier. Apparently not!)
posted by Devonian at 12:30 PM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Northern Rail are contractually obliged to get rid of pacers, independent of the disability law. Other companies can still run them elsewhere though.
posted by grahamparks at 3:24 PM on July 18, 2016


Southern is a story of rail failure.
We have a transport company that can’t really transport, and vast management fees paid to executives who clearly can’t manage. And the government acts as an apologist for a private company that’s meant to be providing a public service. Meanwhile, no apologies are forthcoming – in fact the boss of Go Ahead, David Brown, has just seen his annual pay soar above £2m, and the dividend payout to his shareholders has jumped to £37m. Someone is making a lot of money out of grotesque failure.
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:13 AM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


grahamparks - Driver Operated Opening ** This system is already in use on many trains already, including a lot of GTR, and has been for a couple of decades, and it doesn't seem to cause a huge increase in passenger safety incidents

My train driving friend who works for northern says there is no amount of money that would get him to work on a DOO train*. The stress of operating a train with drunk people on the platform is already about as much as he can cope with. Even at busy stations where there are station staff as well as the train guard seeing the train off, keeping the drunkards contained is difficult. If it is an unmanned station stop and the driver is on their own the situation is potentially fatal.

When he has a ticket inspector/guard working with him it is their responsibility to make sure there aren't people on the platform who are leaning on the train before it starts. If they get this wrong and someone dies, as happened in Liverpool, the guard is likely to not only lose their job, but also end up in prison on a manslaughter charge.

Recently a drunkard fell between the train and the platform as it was setting off and lost his face in the process. The guard had moved him away from the train repeatedly and checked that he was at a safe distance before shutting the doors and buzzing the driver to set off. Once the doors are shut he had a very restricted view, but he saw a shadow in the wrong place and signaled the driver to stop immediately. By that time it was all over for that drunkard; life changing injuries. If it is found that the guard did not do everything by the book, he will be liable.

If this were a DOO the driver would be reliant on the small CCTV screens in the cab to judge whether it is safe to set off. Any mistakes with this could cost them their job and might get them prosecuted if it results in maiming or death for someone else.

If there is an incident on a busy train and someone triggers the emergency stop, simply getting from one end of the train to the other in order to reset the trigger becomes a challenge. If there is a fight or some other horrible thing happening, it is much more likely that two members of staff could cope with it than one on their own. Until the situation is resolved the train is stranded.

Driving a few hundred tonnes of train with a few hundred people on it is stressful enough without adding in the random factor of drunk people. There is nobody who wants less staff on the trains other than the operating companies who are trying to make a profit.

One thing that's not been emphasised is that Govia Thameslink Rail* is on an unusual management contract where the Department for Transport signs off all major decisions and pays for all profits and losses.

Just to reinforce this point. Govia are underwritten by the government and don't rely on money from ticket sales. They are used as a test bed to try out ideas for 'rationalising' rail travel, which they are happy to do as they don't suffer from fines due to late trains and cancellations, these are paid by the tax payer.

* Rebranded as Driver Controlled Operation to get around the fact that their contracts explicitly state that they can't be forced to drive DOO.
posted by asok at 2:52 AM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


If this were a DOO the driver would be reliant on the small CCTV screens in the cab to judge whether it is safe to set off. Any mistakes with this could cost them their job and might get them prosecuted if it results in maiming or death for someone else.

That sounds like a shortcoming of the current (state-of-the-practice) technology, not of the whole idea of not having a human to check the doors before departure. Given an improvement of camera technology (perhaps higher dynamic range and/or infrared cameras), multiple camera angles per set of doors, a computer-vision system that interprets the data from the cameras and other sensors and detects the proximity of passengers to the doors, or even a machine-learning system that can make the judgment calls as well as having a guard in every carriage, there's no reason why human intervention should be the peak of safety.

Train guards are one of the jobs the coming wave of automation will eliminate before it does, say, doctors or solicitors. I give it a few years until Siemens or Bombardier or someone demos an intelligent self-guarding train, and a few more years until they start replacing labour.
posted by acb at 3:11 AM on July 19, 2016


How does the self guarding train ensure the safety of the drunk people on the platform?
posted by asok at 3:35 AM on July 19, 2016


They've already started to replace labour.
A lot of people are very keen on the idea of automated trains, robot drivers, self guarding trains and so on. We hear it all the time. But whenever you have large amounts of people (millions a day in London) interacting with high speed metal (or Low speed metal on the Hammersmith and City line, AMIRITE GUYS!) and dangerous voltages and doors and buttons and booze and complacency then you will get problems.

You need a human on the train, no matter if the thing drives itself or guards itself or whatever.
The problem is that staff costs are a big easy number to look at and try to cut, but it's often a false economy. Having enough staff on hand means your train departs on time, with no one under it.

Train Unions really are very safety concerned and they know what they're talking about.
no one wants to drive a train into someone, or grind a body between train and platform.

At an earlier job we had a robot for washing body parts off of trains, because it happens and it happens enough to have a robot to help clean it. We've had operational staff sent into tube tunnels to find body parts, from hands to heads. Because that happens to.
Cynically enough there is a price to put on a life. Because it is possible to spend your way to a 100% safety record, but that's gonna be a huge amount of money, so we do the best with what we can.
The disagreement is that yeah, you can cut down to just one person per train (or maybe evn talk about having a fully automated train, but what does that cost you in bodies. Because it's not zero, no matter how good your robots are.

(just fyi, I'm a roboticist, who's worked for the London underground, network rail and now as a rail consultant, so I'm very pro-robots. But, also quite pro not having to hose blood and hair from the undercarriage of trains)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:23 AM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


Winterhill: A lot of the train operating companies in the UK are nationalised. They're owned by the French and Dutch and German state-owned transport companies. Profits from the UK's overpriced and underinvested rail services go to subsidise cheaper, more reliable services in their home countries. They are literally laughing at us.

Having lived in all three of these countries before moving to the UK, THIS. This this this.
posted by LMGM at 4:42 AM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


You need a human on the train, no matter if the thing drives itself or guards itself or whatever.
The problem is that staff costs are a big easy number to look at and try to cut, but it's often a false economy. Having enough staff on hand means your train departs on time, with no one under it


Until the point when machines start doing the job more effectively than humans. (And it will happen; to say it never will happen is a sentimental appeal to carbon chauvinism.)
posted by acb at 4:44 AM on July 19, 2016


Maybe I'm cold-hearted, but perhaps drunk people shouldn't be in big, busy, complex, sometimes dangerous places like railway stations. Maybe people shouldn't get in such a state that they're unable to process basic information about where they are and what the dangers around them might be before heading for the transport network. We can't build our world around the safety of drunkards any more than we can make the streets and public infrastructure a safe space for an unaccompanied three-year-old. I think people in public places have to be prepared to take responsibility for their own safety up to a point.

As for robots, in more technologically progressive parts of the world it's already happening or has happened. At suburban Yorkshire stations, there are two people (with "Northern Rail Revenue Protection" tabards) standing at the entrance with ticket machines and card readers, selling tickets to people before they can enter the platforms. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that these could be replaced by a barrier with a ticket machine attached. I am sure this has happened in areas with a slightly more modern outlook on things.

Personally, I prefer the human touch. Stations can be scary places at times, especially in the winter months when it's dark in mid-afternoon, and I like the reassurance of having station staff around. But perhaps with the money saved by not having "Revenue Protection" men with card machines, they could employ security staff on the platform itself. I'm all in favour of robots being used for certain jobs, provided the money saved is used for some kind of public benefit rather than just for the profits of Wherever Rail.
posted by winterhill at 5:57 AM on July 19, 2016


That's why I added the note about my robotics background, I'm very pro-robots.

So, yes, maybe robots will do the job better eventually, but that's not for a very long time.
The reason I say this is that when you're automating a process you should never look at how a human does it and then make the robot replicate that. You look at what end result you want and redesign the task.

So, for driving trains, yes you can automate that, and we're getting there. (The first automated mainline services are currently experimental and ATO on mainline is expected as part of the Thameslink core (Blackfriars to St Pancras). On metro scale service we've had ATO or similar for nearly 50 years.
But even now only Northern, Jubilee and Victoria have full ATO. (DLR is different again, because it's light rail vs metro. slightly different challenges).
Some of my work has been on implementing some of these ATO projects.

But train guards, and a person to person interaction is a hugely difficult problem to automate. PED doors, light barriers, laser scanners, and computer vision cameras will only get you so far. They won't deal with vomit, or abuse or millions of other outside context problems that a human could currently do with an ease ranging from trivial to herculean.

So I'm not saying it will never happen. But no way will it happen soon.
Not till you can design a robot that can replace a friendly person in a high vis jacket in a dark winter station.
It may be one of the hardest robotics challenges.

The economics of robots (and the ethics therein) are a whole bigger can of worms. (which I will also rant on in great length until someone stops me)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:46 AM on July 19, 2016


How does the self guarding train ensure the safety of the drunk people on the platform?

Or the safety of the people on the train, for that matter. I've moved from a driver-only line to one with at least one other member of staff (on-board manager, maybe? - apologies, not good on nomenclature) on every train, and I'd hate to go back. It's genuinely reassuring to know that if someone's playing up, there's someone there to handle the situation without anyone having to trigger the emergency stop. I've seen plenty of rowdy passengers either getting calmed down or fleeing the train because they've no tickets, and it makes a real difference to how safe I feel, especially as the train empties out towards the end of my journey home.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:24 AM on July 19, 2016


This whole exchange is making me think that what we need is some way of automating the passengers.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:40 AM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


In Melbourne, here in Australia, guards/conductors were repurposed into roving inspectors, who work in groups of three to six. Doesn't help with safety at the stations, but not all stations are unmanned, and some that are have officers onsite during rush hour. If a driver hits the panic button, pretty much any station can quickly be reached by Police or emergency teams. Despite occasional incidents which are thoroughly headlined by the press, it seems to work pretty well.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 7:24 PM on July 19, 2016


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