Grumpy North Londoner - March/April/May 2019

Transport Edition

From time to time I use the Great Northern line that runs into Moorgate. It is served, if that is the right word, by what I understand to be the 313s. These ancient creatures, when they are not out of service due to defects, cough and wheeze their way up and down the lines. Every start from a stationary position sounds and feels like a geriatric grandad struggling to get out of his chair. The carriages have been so affected by graffiti that the remedial job amounts to covering the affected portions with what looks like whitewash. They are so decrepit that to personify them in any way seems inappropriate.

But salvation is at hand in the form of spanking new trains. They are being teased out rather than being rolled out - the occasional one comes through and we all get excited that now is the moment of transition, but the next one is inevitably a 313. Given what we have been used to there is almost a sense of embarrassment at the luxury we now have, like a rough sleeper who struggles to come to terms with a hostel bed for the night. And there are frequent station stops so one almost wants to apologise to the train for it not being given much chance of a good run.

Whither the redundant 313s? It used to be said that the spent London taxicabs were recycled to Birmingham; Manchester; Leeds etc. I fear for the northern travelling public who might at some stage end up travelling on a tarted up (sorry, refurbished) 313.


The frequent gloom of travelling on this line is compensated for by announcements, and messages on the electronic boards. The new trains are brilliant, with text displays in addition to the soothing woman telling us that "We will shortly be arriving at....". At Finsbury Park the recorded male voice seems inappropriately cheerful in telling is where the train will be stopping. On the new trains, we have chuckled inwardly as the train progresses with the board telling us that we have been held at a red signal but should be on the move shortly.

The boards at Moorgate Station (a terminus) offer amusement. In the morning rush hour certain trains arriving will not be taking passengers back up the line. So we get a board saying that the destination of the train is "Empty to depot only", calling at "Empty to depot only" - it almost challenges the naughty schoolboy type to try and evade the check from station staff and travel to that forbidden place. More enigmatic, and arguably tautological, is the board saying that the next service will not be in public service - my annoying lawyer thinking says that if the train is not in public service then it cannot be a service. Hey ho.


But what really annoys is the cancellations. Certain of them are unavoidable - trains do (occasionally) get defects; overhead lines (not Great Northern's fault) get damaged; trespassers get on to the track. No, the ones that infuriate are "shortage of train crew", where the once occasional has become frequent, and jokes about knowing where the crew were a few minutes ago but not being able to find them now, have worn a bit thin. What became intriguing was the timing of these shortages - often late in the evening, or on weekends or Bank Holidays. The dark humour developed: "Nice weather today"; "Arsenal are playing this evening" etc. 

A chance chat with a transport journalist provided elucidation. The roster is only staffed by normal working hours up to around 80%; the balance is resourced from overtime. This gives the company flexibility on deployment of resource, but if drivers can't be bothered with overtime then they don't take it.

This suggests that fingers should be pointed at Great Northern in why it chooses a resourcing model that guarantees inconvenience to its customers. However, what the journalist went on to point out was that bidding for rail franchises is so competitive that rail companies have to cut cost to the bone eg if they rostered to 100% then sickness absence would cost them dearly. Thus perhaps the arrows should instead be fired in the direction of "Failing Grayling"?


Londoners moan at their struggles getting around the capital. But if you want to see a City public transportation system seriously under stress, try out Cairo, where I was recently, home to 20 million people, three undergound lines, and a bus system that appears to rest on overloaded VW Kombis bearing no numbers and whose route is known only to the locals. The roads are horribly congested,, and cars have to give way to donkey powered carts or even handcarts  Walking sounds sensible, but then there is the issue of how to cross the road.

The answer came from our guide: even if there are six lines of cars, you must walk out purposefully and take a steady straight line to where you are heading. Without hesitation or deviation, as Nicholas Parsons would say. If you walk as appropriate, the cars will go round you; if you stop then you could be in trouble. At one crossing near an Embassy I found that being in the company of a woman was useful; looking to get across would get a reaction from one of the security staff who would dash out into the road and stop the traffic. Chivalry is not yet dead, but if I had been crossing by myself then I am not sure I would have got the same response.


I have thought of a way to ameliorate the climate change crisis in relation to air travel. This would be to remove the First Class and Business Class sections of planes. Not only would this mean that the carbon footprint per seat would be reduced considerably if every seat were Economy, it would also mean that Emma Thompson might be more inclined to appear by videolink at the next major climate change protest in London.

Of course, it would also punch holes in the Frequent Flyer programme run by many major airlines - it must surely be a test for the PRs to explain the justification of these programmes when they are also selling their ethical environmental positions. But when I am lucky enough to be sitting in the Club Class lounge of an airport, I take an entirely different position...