King of West Midlands Mornings

Les Ross was the kind of West Midlands morning radio for 26 years. Hear his story.

BRMB radio logoI’ve written a few times about my childhood love of radio. In the early 1980s, Piccadilly Radio was my radio station and I was a devoted listener. By the middle of the decade my family had moved to the Midlands, but an overly large FM aerial on the side of our house kept me tuned to Piccadilly 103 FM.

Post-1987, after the launch of Beacon Radio in Shropshire, interference from their Wrekin transmitter prevented any serious listening to a station from Manchester, and my allegiances shifted to Birmingham and BRMB. Les Ross was still the reigning king of West Midlands morning radio – and would be for more than a decade to follow on BRMB and XTRA.

I was only a loyal listener for two or three years. After that, I was at University in Scotland trying to figure out which morning show to listen to until, one day, some friends and I decided we’d do our own on the University’s campus radio station. Our breakfast radio career didn’t last 26 days never mind Les’ 26 years.

Last week, Les was the subject of one of David Lloyd’s “conversations“. It’s a really great listen – download it now to your favourite podcast player.

I Used To Blog

I used to blog when blogging was something that people who believed in the open web did. It was when I believed that having a place to write was good and that personal publishing was a democratising force.

I used to blog when blogging was something that people who believed in the open web did. It was when I believed that having a place to write was good and that personal publishing was a democratising force.

I used to blog when conversations happened, and ideas were shared, across blogs and not as trolling-comments or 140 character part-thoughts.

I used to blog when trolls lived under bridges before the mainstream thought of trolling as an activity you needed a keyboard to engage in.

Some of my early blogging is cringeworthy and has little substance: but the point was to share an idea, thought or experience with the world. Or with yourself. It was the status update before there was such a thing.

Very occasionally I still write something here in a way that might be considered a blog. I wish I had the patience and time to write more. I admire the people that still do it.

Even less often I look at other places in case there are some artefacts left that should have migrated here many years ago. I rarely find anything.

Sometimes, I come to visit my own website just to look at the Blast From The Past section. It’s a list of blog pieces I wrote on this day of the month in previous years. It’s a nostalgia trip: something like opening a teenage diary or journal and feeling vaguely embarrassed at the person you used to be. I didn’t keep an adolescent diary, so I’ll spare you that. This is the closest you’ll get.

Today, I arrived here and discovered 6 Blast From The Past entries: 5 of which all date from 2005. My Blast From The Past is really a rather narrow view. The blogging years were really 2003-2005. But 5 entries on a single day was unusual, but when I look closely, I find that these entries would live on Twitter today. Aside from a separate post about the G8 summit; they are all a countdown to the announcement that London had been awarded the 2012 Olympics.

Perhaps, tiny updates like this work better on Twitter. There, they are posted in real-time and shared alongside others who may be witnessing the same thing. But Twitter makes it really hard to get a sense of my past. I wish they’d do a better job surfacing my history. I love being reminded about things like I was today.

Interestingly, I don’t really need the Blast From The Past section to remember that day, but it is useful to remind me that it is today. The memory is very vivid. I wish I had blogged during the actual 2012 Olympics in as much detail. I wrote a couple of things. Not much.

Of course, I remember the next day too. For very different reasons.

Taking A Moment to Read

Stop flipping through a social feed and really read.

On this day last January, as part of my #SOLS goals, I wrote about a challenge that I had set myself to complete during 2017: to read 12 books in the year. In January 2018’s first post, I discussed my failed writing challenge and mentioned I would return to the subject of books. Of my 2017 aims, the reading objective was much more successful.

Towards the end of 2016, I realised that I was not spending enough time reading: it was too easy to flip open my phone and aimlessly scroll through a social media feed. I have a lot of books that I would like to read, but I would go for months without starting one and, when I did, I would only skim pages. People I admired are often quoted as saying how important books were to them and their careers. In my post, I quoted Bill Gates and linked to a list by Barack Obama. Equally useful would have been reading lists from Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. The signs all suggested I should read more.

At work, sometime in late 2016, each member of our team committed to a personal goal, and I decided mine would be to stop flipping through a social feed on my phone while I sat on the train to and from work. I was going to read a book and, what’s more, I decided that they would be old-fashioned, bookshop-bought, books. As January came around, I decided my reading objectives ought to be public, and so I joined the Goodreads challenge.

Of the 14 books I completed, I found Elon Musk’s biography inspirational and Jony Ive’s story was remarkable, showing how vital your passions are in life. David Ogilvy’s experience, told through The King of Madison Avenue, was a fascinating blast from the advertising past. I read David Lloyd’s Radio Moments book – a marvellous insight into life in the British radio industry from the 1970s to the present day – in one sitting on a flight I was taking for work. That one brought back a lot of memories. It took considerably longer to get through Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express which I found a hard to plough through even though the voyage across the South American continent sounded fascinating.

My favourite books were both surprises. The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman was an imaginative look into the future and what the world will be like in one hundred years. Although I will never know how much of it comes true, it’s fun to imagine and more accessible to comprehend when there are the theories George brings to support his predictions. The other big surprise was also a story of the future – and the past – in Elan Mastai’s novel All Our Wrong Todays.

I ended the year with perhaps the least challenging of all the books I read across the 12 months. A trio of crime/action fiction novels – from Grisham, Connelly and Flynn – was a lovely easy read to end the year: all three were gripping in a way only master story-tellers like these can do.

What was most unexpected was that I discovered that I was enjoying reading and, even more, the act of turning pages in a book was especially satisfying. At the end of the day, I was arriving home more relaxed, and I believe much of that was to do with the ability to focus on something other than work. My boss encouraged all of his team to commit to something through the year, and I’m happy I chose a book challenge because it reminded me how much I enjoy – and can learn from – something more in-depth than a 160 character social post.

My Goodreads Reading Challenge 2017 can be found here. I have publicly committed to reading a few more books in 2018, so you might want to follow my progress.

Challenge – Failed

The #SOLS challenge failed in 2017 so I am trying again in 2018.

It’s the last Sunday of January 2018 and I have a decision to make. Shall I continue with the #SOLS project?

#SOLS (Sermon of the Last Sunday) was a self-inflicted challenge to see if I could write on this website at least once a month and make the hosting costs somewhat worth paying. It almost worked.

January started off strong with a note about the reading challenge (more on that in another post). In February, I used the #SOLS challenge to post an entry about my amazing trip to Japan. I failed to make the last Sunday in March and the post about Google dominating UK digital advertising was written at the start of April. There was no post at the end of April, nor in May, but the fascinating diary exhibition formed the basis of June’s “Dear Digital Diary“.

Major rail engineering works outside London Waterloo station and a shake-up of the train service in South West London formed a trilogy of #SOLS in July, August and September. As we moved into winter time, I wrote about adjusting the clocks in October and a great visit to the top of London’s BT Tower for the nighttime view finished November. Somehow, I missed writing anything in December which means I failed in my goal of writing something every month.

Even though I failed the specific challenge, I actually wrote more here in 2017 than I have done for a while. I’m enjoying the experience of trying to be creative at least once a month and so, for 2018, I have decided to try again. I want to go for a full house: an entry every month this year. Stick with me.

Tower of Technology, London

It experience was as incredible as I’d expected it to be.

BT Tower (previously, the Post Office Tower) was once the tallest building in the UK. Officially opened in October 1965, it was built to provide London with microwave communication links to the rest of the country.

Interestingly, this icon of the London Skyline was, apparently, an Official Secret for its early life. In theory, you couldn’t admit it existed. It originally opened with a rotating restaurant operated by the Butlins holiday company. I wonder how you made a booking if you couldn’t say where it was? For security reasons public access, including the restaurant, closed in the early 1980s.

BT Tower: Broadcast Hub

View of the BT Tower from Charlotte Street, London
View of the BT Tower from Charlotte Street, London

In the mid 1990s, when I worked for the audio distribution company, SMS, we had audio circuits connecting our satellite network to ‘Tower’ to allow us to send –  and receive audio from – BT’s broadcast network.  We were based only a 9-minute walk away from the tower with a perfect line of sight (if we leaned out the front door). We didn’t use the circuits very often but there was always a little excitement when we called BT to arrange a connection.

Years later, I was back in the Euston Tower for work which provided a birds-eye view of the rotating screens. By then, many of the dish-shaped aerials had been removed for safety reasons but the Tower was still at the heart the UK’s broadcast network even if the signals had migrated to underground fibre cables.  And even now, at least until we move offices at the start of December, I walk along Tottenham Court Road every morning past Maple Street, the Tower’s official address, with a daily view of whatever message is set to appear on the big screen 167m (548 ft) up in the London sky.

Rotating View

I’ve been to the top of many buildings with a birds-eye view of London but, until last week, I’d never been to the top of the Tower. The charity RedR arranged an evening of visits as a fund-raising activity so I got to look backwards to my former, and current, work places.

While at the top of The Tower, they turned the rotation on for a full sweep of the London skyline which, at night, is very impressive.  As we are in the season of Christmas lights, there were some spectacular views of the lights along Tottenham Court Road, at Regent’s Place and of the Hyde Park Winder Wonderland. It experience was as incredible as I’d expected it to be.

According to the London Landmarks site, the Tower is the “only building in the country which is allowed to be evacuated by lift (an oddity which required Parliamentary legislation to be passed)”. Fortunately, an evacuation was not required this evening.

A few more pictures from the visit to BT Tower on Flickr.

#SOLS

#SOLS is the project to have something written on this site on the last Sunday of every month.  I covered topics such as a visit to Japan, the state of the trains and why we change the clocks. I have one more expected in 2017 at the end of the year.  I wonder what that will cover? Follow the sequence with handy sols tag.

History of Online Advertising

Thankfully, somebody is preserving the history of online advertising.

I’ve worked for a number of digital advertising companies. Many of these no longer exist: Engage, Accipiter, aiMatch and StickyADS.tv to name four. Three of these were bought and their legacy lives on with other companies. Engage moved on from the digital advertising world in 2002.

There’s a history of the internet – and more importantly of the way our media adapted to the rise of a connected digital world – buried in the history of those and many other companies that existed in the early days of the world wide web. Much of that history is probably lost. I think that’s a shame so, earlier today, it was really good to see Digiday publish an oral history of the first banner ad.

(Of note: I got the new Twitter 280 character option today so this was the first of my longer tweets)

In related nostalgia, I’ve been working in London 24 years today. I haven’t the time to write anything about that but I just discovered I did write about it in 2004 after 11 years in the city which is probably still relevant.

File in ‘unintended Consequences of a pointless election’

Here’s an interesting snippest about how a wholly unrelated decision in government (Theresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election earlier this year) can add an additional £13 millon pounds to a London transport project

For anybody with even a passing interest in how transport infrastructure works and impacts society, London Reconnections is a must read. Although articles explore the London’s transport, the nuances of transport policy probably apply everywhere in the world. For example, if you really want to understand the complexities of Transport for London’s ban on Uber and don’t want to rely on the social media outrage, then “Understanding Uber: It’s Not About The App” (and related articles) paints a much more complex (and fascinating) picture.

Buried away in a piece published earlier today is an interesting snippest about how a wholly unrelated decision in government (Theresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election earlier this year) can add an additional (un-budgeted) £13 millon pounds to a London transport project (in this case, Crossrail 2),

It is an unfortunate fact that the election and campaign may have only been around six weeks long and have seen the same party returned to government, yet the disruption caused to presenting a Crossrail 2 bill to Parliament has probably put the project back by a full year.

£13m sounds like a lot but isn’t in the case of these multi-billion pound projects. It does still have to come from some unplanned budget which must frustrate planners … but pushing the whole project back by a year? Wow.

I wonder how many other projects and plans across the country saw similar issues and what they cost.

Related:

Occasionally I write, not as well as London Reconnections, about transport issues that I see. Why not take a moment to have a look?

It’s Not (All) About The Farmers

The clocks changed. Here comes festive fun.

The clocks went back last night. Thanks to the marvels of jet lag I missed it and saw no benefit to the extra hour in bed. I’ll spend the rest of the week trying to determine which devices don’t automatically reset themselves and I’ll find my kitchen clock out by an hour until next weekend. Then, when I realise, I’ll struggle to synchronise the clocks on the top and bottom ovens. Admittedly, nothing compared to the 379 clocks that need to be adjusted at Windsor Castle. I wonder who adjusts HM’s bedside alarm clock? Truly, first world problems.

Timezones are fascinating. I’ve spent my life trying to remember if it’s during the ‘spring forward’ phase or the ‘fall back’ time that we don’t adjust the clocks at the same time as my colleagues across the Atlantic. I never remember. But, I think it’s now. I do know that all of our meetings are messed up for a week now and nobody is in the right place at the right time.

I feel that, for as long as I can remember, it’s been assumed that we in Britain change the time because of farmers or school children. Lighter mornings mean fewer accidents, or something like that. It always sounded plausible but I am not sure I was convinced. Today, the Telegraph notes that, back in the early 1900s, William Willett “wanted to stop Brits from wasting valuable daylight hours” by staying in bed in the summer months and introduced the concepts of daylight savings time. So, really, it’s all about combatting laziness (or, to put it another way, our health and well-being). What I never knew was that the concept of British Double Summer Time, helpfully, BDST, was introduced to help save fuel during the post 1940 war years. by making Britain work on a 2-hour offset against GMT. It seems we are always tinkering with time.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

With the nights drawing in and the world donning a Halloween mask, my thoughts turn to Christmas. Although I have not seen that many Christmas treats in the supermarkets yet, I did spend some of yesterday in the local B&Q DIY superstore looking at Christmas lights. As the Most Wonderful Time of Year is rapidly approaching, it’s time for me to start hunting out the Yuletide musical delights uncovered at My Festive Fizzy Pop. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. With just 57 days until Christmas, it’s time to start building this year’s playlist of new Christmas music and My Festive Fizzy Pop is the perfect place to start. If you love Christmas songs and have never read the Fizzy Pop festive blog then you should go and do it right now.

I am unashamedly a fan of Christmas tunes. I do, however, limit my consumption to only the newly released songs in November. Come 1st December, however, the Christmas back catalogue will be playing for the majority of my listening hours. Look at my Last.FM stats for 2015 and 2016 and you’ll see the December spikes. Most of these tracks are songs from the my ever-growing festive archive. The most limited version of the archive (which contains the material I will actually listen to) is running at almost 48 hours of total listening time. Better start now.

The year I am sharing the 2017 new Christmas music collection (which is, mainly, new versions of the old songs) via Apple Music. I think you find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/playlist/my-festive-fizzy-pop-2017/idpl.u-d89AZtMG155g

And let me be the first to wish you a very Merry …. (maybe not).

#SOLS

Sermon of the last Sunday is my weak attempt to make sure I a am not thawing the hosting fees for this site away by ensuring there is some new content every month (yes, I’ve turned all modern media and refer to this a content). The #SOLS tag helpful links to the others (although I must remember to go and tag the missing one).

New People. New Trains.

I love the fact that years ago people were thinking 50 years ahead, but is it enough?

There’s almost a week to go until the end of September but today really is #SOLS day. Today’s view from my pulpit is, once again, about transport. Is it too much of a theme.

I’ve written a couple of times in recent weeks about transport in South West London. I’ve never lived in any other part of the city so I can’t comment on issues elsewhere. Although, as I previously noted, I commute into Britain’s business station, so I feel a certain amount of attention is needed in this part of the world.

South London is woefully underserved by London Underground with 250 stations north of the Thames and just 29 south1. So, for those of us South West, the major transport options are main line services into London Waterloo; trams if you’re heading around Croydon or the “misery” Northern Line2 through to the City or West End.

Back in 1974 I don’t think I could point to London on a map (being about 4 years old at the time) but somebody, somewhere, decided that about 50 years later a Chelsea-Hackney underground line might be a good idea and so started a process that leads to this day3.

The Draft Mayor’s Transport Strategy 2017 includes a plan for Crossrail 2: a line that is described as

a new proposed railway linking the national rail networks in Surrey and Hertfordshire via an underground tunnel through London 4

The line is predicted to allow 270,000 more people to travel into the central London the morning rush hour. This is equivalent to about 10% of the current capacity into London. It’s really quite a lot.

The scheme will also “unlock 200,000 new homes”5. That also seems like a big number equating to a lot of new houses. But it also seems like room for a lot of new people because we need houses for the growing London population. If a good proportion of these new houses are near the Crossrail 2 route then it should be assume that some of the people will utilise the route for their commute, after all, why not take the shiny new trains into the office?

So, if each of those houses has at least one occupier and half of those people use the new train for a commute then we have 100,000 additional south west journeys. Much of the new capacity is used-up instantly. And, assuming a single occupier properties seems on the conservative side don’t you think?

I love the fact that years ago people were thinking 50 years ahead and started to make plans. I love the fact the Mayor is promoting the project as a strategic plan. But, is it enough?

Footnotes

1 http://londonist.com/2016/03/alternative-names-for-london-s-tube-lines, Croydon Advertiser
2 Take The Drain, The Misery Line, Then The Viking Line, Londonist
3 Crossrail, History
4 What is Crossrail 2?
5 The Importance of Being Earnest: Making the case for Crossrail 2, London Reconnections

#SOLS

#SOLS is a project to get me writing on this site in 2017. You can read more about it in an entry from the start of the year.  Recently, a few of the pieces have been about transport in South West London but can also see what else I have written about in the #SOLS index.

The UK’s (first) Country Station

Why isn’t country music bigger in the UK? Chris Country is automated in a way that gives the station a personality that shines through.

I just wrote a thing on Facebook (and copied here) about the launch of Atlantic 252 on 1 September 1989. People of a certain age remember it fondly because, at the time, there was nothing quite like it. Each year, somebody posts a memory somewhere online. I first did in it in 2004.

Nobody, however, seems to commemorate the launch of Country 1035 on 1 September 1994. I tweeted a link to my copy of the launch audio earlier. You’ll notice it doesn’t really launch with a big bang.

I may have a copy of the opening words but I don’t remember a great deal about the radio station. I do recall John Scragg was the breakfast show presenter at one time and Capital Gold’s Randall Lee Rose was on air in the early days.

I never quite understood why there wasn’t a big country music station in the UK. The format has a large following, most of the early local stations carried a country music programme at some point. I recall Steve Penk was the presenter of Country Cousins on Piccadilly in the early 1980s. Until recently, nobody has been able to make a big country music franchise work.

Chris Country Chris Country, “the UK’s country station”, might be the format that changes that. I find myself increasingly listening to it which, given my general dislike of automated stations, is quite interesting. I think mainstream country music today has a clear rock/pop crossover which might be part of the appeal but the stories of heartbreak and hard drinking don’t seem to be any different from the music of years ago. Perhaps I just love a good story told through song.

Chris Stevens, who runs Chris Country, produces audio imaging as a day job. Perhaps that’s why the branding and sound of Chris Country is so good. There are no live presenters, a couple of recorded shows at weekends and everything else is automated. But it is automated in a way that gives the station a personality that shines through. I can’t really explain it but I wish they teach it to other predominately automated radio stations: Hearst 80s are you listening? If you don’t think you like country music, give Christ Country an try (on DAB in some areas and across you mobile everywhere).

Oh, and while I am on the subject of country music find out “why country music makes you cry, and rock and roll doesn’t” in this brilliant episode of Revisionist History. Even if you don’t like country music, and if you don’t want to try listening to the tunes, you should give this podcast a listen

Elsewhere: Everybody Remembers Long Wave Radio Atlantic 252

In the spirit that this blog is home to content posted elsewhere, I wrote this earlier on Facebook.

UK Radio geeks always remember 1 September
Atlantic 252 logo
Atlantic 252

I don’t remember the pirate radio ships of the 60s; my introduction to the world of the wireless came from the back of an AA Member’s Handbook where all Britain’s local radio stations were listed. In 1979 that list was probably fewer than two pages. The majority of UK radio listening was to national networks and the BBC hand a monopoly on those. The English service of Radio Luxembourg suffered on AM at night. It was only ever “the great 208” when I was on holiday in France, being the only English language radio station I could find.

Local radio was made up of a handful of BBC stations in a fairly random collection of towns and the fledgling Independent Radio Network. Where I lived, BBC Radio Blackburn (from 1981, Radio Lancashire) was our nearest BBC local and Piccadilly from Manchester and Radio City from Liverpool vied for their place as the North West’s biggest station. When I was nine years old, Piccadilly won because the Pete Baker breakfast show had the best jingles.

Today, with wall-to-wall pop hits on TV and radio channels (as well as all the world’s music available in a single app or on-demand videos from YouTube), it’s unimaginable that until 1988 needle time rules prevented broadcasters playing more than a few hours of recorded music. All radio was filled with speech and specialist programmes, or royalty free soundalike covers.

In 1984 somebody took a ship with a transmitter on it out into international waters in the North Sea and launched a 1980s version of the pirates, Laser 558. By then I was living in Shrewsbury and the signal was just about strong enough. Outside of the music rules – and really, outside of most of the broadcast law – it played non-stop pop hits for most of the day. Sadly, it didn’t last long.

In 1989 the Irish state broadcaster, RTÉ, teamed up with the Radio Luxembourg owners, RTL, to create a pop music station with a powerful AM transmitter that reportedly could reach over 40 million people.

On 1st September 1989, from somewhere in Ireland, Atlantic 252 launched an all-day pop format which was unique: there was nothing quite like it on the air. You know the station had an impact because, on this day each year, somebody, somewhere, writes a note about it to commemorate the day. I first did it in 2004 but I see no reason not to do it again.

I guess the station’s peak was the early 1990s. By the mid-90s radio across the UK was able to play more and more music and FM was everywhere. It didn’t stop people launching AM stations. On this day (1st September) in 1994, Country 1035 launched on AM in London and lasted a few years (also, in later years, with input from RTL). It doesn’t seem to have had quite such an impact because you don’t find too many people commemorating that launch each year.

A Trilogy of Trains

If you were expecting some kind of thrilling denouement to the train trilogy, sadly, Network Rail, South West Trains and South Western Railway look like they’ve managed the whole thing rather well considering that to do the work hundreds of trains had to be cut and thousands of people had to change their plans.

The three greatest movie trilogies of all time, according to Empire magazine, are (at 3) Back to the Future, (at 2) the original Star Wars films and (top of the pops) The Lord of the Rings. Once I have sold the film rights to this site then my current thread of posts will be competing for the top spot.

If you’re not up-to-date here’s a handy recap montage: last month’s #SOLS post was about the Battle of Waterloo (the station not the Duke of Wellington battle) and, a few days later my ‘Will Commuters Even Notice‘ became a (not-quite) best seller on Medium.  Both discussed the state of the trains, major engineering works and the small matter of the change of franchise on the railway lines into London Waterloo station.  Assuming all is on-track (every pun intended) then Network Rail will give us our trains back on Tuesday morning.

If you see this series as ‘Lord of the Rings’ then this is the thrilling conclusion to the story. If you think of this collection more like ‘Back to the Future’ then this is the weakest of the three with a mixed plot including some strange wild west space theme. If you’re thinking that this series more of a Star Wars classic then you are sadly deluded and I don’t know that you should read any further without seeking help.

In the run-up for the engineering works, the poor people running the South West Trains publicity and Twitter machines went into overdrive reminding everybody to prepare for delays. There were plenty of warnings on the trains (see the picture on my last post). My personal favourite tweet warned of the End of Days (which, if you think about it, makes this more Lord of the Rings than Back to the Future) and you really only get the effect if you click through to the actual tweet:

 

At my local station we even got a sneak preview of the queuing system we’d be expected to stand in for 20 minutes each morning.

And then came Monday morning.  The alarm went off 45 minutes earlier and, with some trepidation, I made my way to the station.  There was some of those crowd control people I previously mentioned, lined-up to help the masses form an orderly queue.  But there was a problem with all the planning: there were no crowds.   For most of the time, I’ve had a seat on a partially empty train at a time I was warned I’d have to queue.  Pulling into Clapham Junction station at around 7am would usually find a platform crowded with commuters trying to find a space: this week more people got off the train at Clapham than got on. It was emptier leaving the station than it was on approach.   People have vanished.

Response to the #WaterlooUpgrade on Twitter seems to have come in three main topics: those who are frustrated that the train timings have changed; those that campaigned for some money back because of the disruption (even after 14 months of warnings) and those who expressed shock that South West Trains were, suddenly, quite pleasant to ride at morning peak times.

Sadly, it was’t all free ice creams and a seat on a train.  If you are completely changing the way you use the infrastructure around Waterloo station, I imagine you’ll find things that break when they previously didn’t. So, of course, there have been failures and problems and the temporary timetable extended every journey into Waterloo.  Quite early on there was a derailment which, in turn, meant extra days were added to the  most severe service reductions on the last weekend. As Modern Railways said, “every sinew will have to be stretched to hold the service together”. (1)

And in the middle of it all, with not a great deal of fanfare but a few little touches, Stagecoach bowed out and handled the franchise torch to South Western Railways.  A couple of stickers and a logo, or two, added in places.  The announcements were updated and my train was now a “South Western Railways service to London Waterloo” but it looked, and behaved, the same as always.  When railways are franchised to private operators I believe it’s important to know who is actually running (and profiting from) the service.  For the south west region,  I think it’s going to take some time for the new company’s brand to land and, even longer, for people to know that this it’s a totally different company. Still, in the midst of all the disruption, a launch party would have been inappropriate.

If you were expecting some kind of thrilling denouement to the train trilogy, sadly, Network Rail, South West Trains and South Western Railway look like they’ve managed the whole thing rather well considering that to do the work hundreds of trains had to be cut and thousands of people had to change their plans.

Sadly, the #SOLS timetable means I am posting this when there are still a 36 hours until the resumption of regular services and anything could happen. Over-runing engineering works would hardly be something new.  And unfortunately, there will be limited improvements to the old timetabled services until December so it might look like this work was in vein.  Plus, there’s the added pressure that, as part of the final stage of the London Bridge Thameslink works, South Eastern trains need to use some platforms at Waterloo from Tuesday. But, given what could have happened, there has been considerably less chaos than predicted and I am grateful for that.

Well done everyone.

 

Footnotes

(1) Modern Railways, August 2017, p7

Will Commuters Even Notice?

South West Trains, South Western Trains. You say tomato.

Window sticker warning of rail disruptionIn January 2016, it was reported that my local train operator, South West Trains had achieved 81% customer satisfaction. It always seems to me that there is a general feeling that our trains are no good but I think that’s a pretty decent figure. So, when Transport Focus’ autumn 2016 survey reported that the number was 83%, you’d think the company was moving in the right direction, wouldn’t you

As I noted in my piece about the upcoming disruption (starting in just a few hours) at Britain’s busiest station, London Waterloo, there are already plans to increase capacity by 30%. This increase is, in part, achieved by lengthening platforms to allow longer trains to run. This is in addition to the extension of most of the suburban platforms on the network and the extra carriages introduced in 2015/6 as well as the previously announced £210 million Desiro City trains that are due to enter service after the works are complete (part of the “biggest increase in capacity on this network for decades” [source]) adding 150 new carriages.

Given the frequency of trains at peak hours, this must mean that the lines are pretty full. From my local station, there are 12 off-peak trains per hour (or 1 every 5 minutes) into Waterloo. Network Rail are squeezing extra capacity in but that means massive disruption to get us there. But what next?

Well, despite all these longer platforms, extra trains and high customer satisfaction score, South West Trains lost their franchise. From August 20 2017, and for the next 7 years, First MTR South Western Trains Ltd (a joint venture between & Hong Kong’s MTR Corp) will run the service.

South West Trains 1990s LogoSouth West Trains been the only private operator of the service since I moved to London. Prior to 4 Feb 1996 the service was public, part of British Rail’s Network South East operations. I imagine over the coming months somebody may repaint the train. I’m sure there will be stickers over the old logo and I imagine that there will lots of promotion for new a shiny new web site and some new social media feeds.

But, really, will anybody actually notice?

South West Trains, South Western Trains. You say tomato.

Of course, franchises are not awarded on train colours or fancy logos. They’re awarded on the promises of service and money (this franchise is actually a net contributor to UK finances). I can’t argue the money part (see this article about “payments over the core period with a real net present value of £2·6bn”) because I can’t really work out who spaying who at any point in time. So, I’m looking at their services,

The first, “30% more peak seats per day at London Waterloo by December 2020” seems to be remarkably similar to service improvement already promised by South West Trains (and noted in my piece about Waterloo).

“Simpler fares with pay as you go smart cards” seems to me to be a decent proposal but no details on how it’s better that SWT’s existing smart card offering.

Of course there are promises of community engagement (“Increased engagement with local stakeholders” and “The biggest rail operator apprenticeship scheme in Britain”) which are all welcome but will have limited impact on the core railway issue: service provision.

Top of the promise list is “The introduction of 750 new suburban coaches” which are promised by 2020 (so will be in service for about two-thirds of the franchise). But these are, ultimately, replacing the new Desiro City trains that are coming later this year (they haven’t even been introduced yet). In 2020 it seems that its a case of out with the new, in with the new.

There are currently 1400 train carriages on the SWT network. It’s not clear from any of the promises (both from the incumbent and new provider) how many are really additional carriages rather than shiny new replacements.

Yes, there are train refubushments (unless you’re on the Isle of Wight there are only promises of “proposals”) which include wifi and at-seat charging. These changes are welcome if you can get a seat to plug your phone into & the on-board wifi isn’t over capacity because the train is full.

All this seems to me a change for limited gain. The new franchise will benefit from the improvement works at Waterloo and the introduction of the Desiro City trains but so would the existing supplier, who arguably, doesn’t see any benefit from all the work they have put in to get to this point. The new operator is adding new trains but taking away new trains and, even if they are better in some way, they won’t be here for a while.

I don’t doubt that there will be improvements but, as a humble commuter on the busiest line in the country, it seems to we’re getting either things that have already been promised or cosmetic changes. I wonder, has it been worth all the expense of the franchise process? As I mentioned in my last piece on the topic, if passenger growth continues, where will real new capacity come from in a few years when the promised 30% is filled?

So, what does the Mayor’s Transport Strategy propose as a solution to the overcrowding problems on the south west lines into London?

Crossrail 2 anyone?

{Have something to say about this post? I also published on Medium so why not comment there?]

Battle of Waterloo

In just a few days, from 5th August 2017, I expect a modern day battle of Waterloo as passengers at Britain’s busiest railway station fight for carriage during a period of “significantly fewer trains” when platforms 1-9 will be closed so work can start to extend those platforms for longer trains.

202 years ago, somewhere around where Belgium is on the map today, the Emperor of the French, a man who is immediately known by the use of the word Napoleon, was defeated by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle Waterloo. Those not around in 1815 may refer to the 1974 Abba song, although I think ‘surrender’ has a somewhat different meaning on the battle field than it does in the song “Waterloo – knowing my fate is to be with you”.

There’s a bridge over the Thames named after Waterloo (the battle, not the song) and, in turn, when the London and South Western Railway opened a station in the area in July 1848 it was named after the bridge, in fact Wikipedia says it was originally called as ‘Waterloo Bridge Station‘.

In just a few days, from 5th August 2017, I expect a modern day battle of Waterloo as passengers at Britain’s busiest railway station, now referenced in your station guide as London Waterloo, fight for carriage during a period of “significantly fewer trains” when platforms 1-9 will be closed so work can start to extend those platforms for longer trains. Appropriate emoji’s at the point are a happy face for the prospect of longer trains and the scream for the next 23 days commuting experience.

That’s basically half the platforms closed at a station where 100 million journeys start or end every year. Even though work has been planned in the summer when — hopefully — there are marginally fewer commuters that’s still a big hole to fill. If you’re already standing with your nose in somebody’s armpit on a morning peak service, the promise of “Services and stations will be busier than usual, especially in the morning and evening peaks on weekdays” is probably pretty depressing.

For some months, Adecco (“the largest staffing firm in the world”) have been advertising for Crowd Control officers to support the “blockade project which will positively transform the journeys of millions of people”. A nice spin on, what I imagine, will be a fairly thankless task to keep commuters calm: trains and stations have been plastered with signs warning of reduced (or even, no) service for most of the year but I can already see the Twitter outrage from those who did not get a personal visit for a member of engineering team. If you use expensive noise-cancelling headphones on your morning commute you may be forgiven for having missed the non-stop announcements warning of the works. The rest of us don’t have an excuse.

There will be the usual frustrations of people failing to get somewhere important — or standing around somewhere else for a long period of time, waiting — but I don’t see how any of this is avoidable. Maybe I should make the month off.

Of course, after all this work is complete we are promised capacity for 30% more passengers during the busiest parts of the day when 100,000 people pass through the station. The trouble is, in the 24 years I have been in London passenger numbers on these lines have more than doubled, making Waterloo the busiest transport hub in Europe. That’s a more-than 100% increase over that time. If that growth carries on at a similar rate then the extra space, which we’ll probably already fill, will be also be bursting in 6 or 7 years. These works are making a better use of existing infrastructure but what options do we have beyond that? Where will new trains go in 24 years from now?

All in all seems like a sensible time to have applied to run the trains into a half-closed station, don’t you think?

“Waterloo – Finally facing my Waterloo”

Dear Digital Diary

Dear Diary is an exhibition at King’s College, Somerset House, until 7 July, that is a celebration of the art of diary keeping in all its forms. From the early almanacs, through the diaries of Pepys, online journals and YouTube, they are all covered in an interesting collection that forms this small exhibition.

Dear Diary ExhibitionIn the archive you’ll find that I posted an entry from 2002 entitled “Give Us Our Daily Blog” which is a collection of daily blogs that I read. Most of the links are now dead and I don’t recall that much about many of them. I do know that one thing that appealed to me in the early days of web publishing was the very personal nature of the content; it was the kind of window on the world I don’t think we had seen before.

Since then, we have become used to a never-ending stream of personal thoughts that pour onto the screen from blogs, social media and now YouTube videos. In the first days of the web it was like opening the padlock on somebody’s secret diary and reading their inner-most thoughts. Of course, we’re all used to it now and we all move the first things that pop into our heads onto a screen via a keyboard.

Dear Diary is an exhibition at King’s College, Somerset House, until 7 July, that is a celebration of the art of diary keeping in all its forms. From the early almanacs, through the diaries of Pepys, Kenneth Williams, online journals and, now, YouTube, they are all covered in an interesting collection that forms this small exhibition. If you are in London before 7 July 2017 then you should go and see it (and you get to see inside one of the wings of Somesert House that you would not get access to unless you were a student).

It was a thought-provoking exhibition and made me think about what element of these journals I’d like left behind. After all, a printed version of this site could hang around but – eventually – nobody will be paying for the hosting and I imagine my hosting provider will hit the big delete button. I’ve already commented this week, in the post about satellite dishes in New York, about my early online life which has already disappeared. What version of history does the web give us if much is deleted?

How do you preserve an online diary for further generations?

#SOLS

Sermon Of the Last Sunday is my attempt to ensure that there is something published on my site every month in 2017.  You can read about my attempts to force myself to write or review the full #sols collection through the handy site tag, sols. In an earlier post I wrote about a visit to Japan or maybe your more interested in digital advertising. #sols has it all.