Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Technology Improvements

The Avantix is dead! Long live the Avantix.

The mobile ticketing system of choice for my company is called Envoy now; other TOCs have chosen something called Star. Sadly, operators have been able to choose their own bespoke product to replace Avantix, which means passengers receive inconsistency with the type of ticket they receive.

Two types of ticket can be printed on: the standard orange 'ticket stock' and a special orange and white thermal paper. I understand the latter is cheaper to procure though it does offer significant limitations when passengers wish to pass through ticket barriers and thermal paper tickets cannot be used for cross-London journeys as the Underground system doesn't employ QR codes on the ticket gates.

One major advance with all new systems is when payment is made by credit or debit card. A direct link is established between the user (train guard) and the passenger's bank when the card offered for payment is inserted into a specific card reader. Mobile data is used to request payment for the fare in question and the response is generally fast in coming.

That's when there's decent mobile data coverage, of course!

With Avantix, some passengers' card issuers were cautious about authorising the sale of a train ticket if that card had not been used 'online' for some time. As Avantix wasn't able to make a connection to any card issuer there were many occasions when a response would come back "Card Declined" and for the majority of passengers, this caused undue worry and stress as they knew there were sufficient funds on the card for the purchase; in reality they simply hadn't purchased anything using the card online for long enough for the card issuer to be sure there were sufficient funds in the account.

Guards had the option to 'force through' the transaction and the card would be charged when the Avantix and its equipment were docked that evening.

Except sometimes there genuinely were insufficient funds in passengers' accounts and for their troubles TOCs were not only denied the fare to which they were entitled, but were still accountable for the cash as a ticket had been issued and moneys collected (or not) under the Settlement Plan were required to be handed over so that they could be distributed according to how frequent an operator ran over the route that the passenger had taken.

With an establishment between card and card issuer, however, the days of the above are now almost gone.

Very little mobile data is needed to receive authorisation from a card issuer. I'm fast learning where the 'dead spots' are along my routes, though. Between Fiskerton and Lowdham is one. Sleaford and Heckington is another. The Hope Valley generally is poor - forget attempting to issue a ticket to someone paying by card in Totley, Cowburn and Disley Tunnels!

Though slowly and surely certain passengers who expect their card payment to be 'forced through' are discovering that this can no longer be done.

As 100% of fare paying passengers expect, those whose card payments are declined now (in an area where there's at least some mobile data coverage) still need to be charged for their fare and so I'm starting to write out Unpaid Fare Notices for the cost of the ticket the passenger wishes to purchase. The actual issuing of the UFN takes less than 3 minutes - inclusive of informing the passenger they are required by law to make payment within 21 days (and showing ways how this can be done on the reverse) - but the book itself is a little too large to fit in my trouser pockets so a special trip to the back cab is needed.

Sadly, however, every single UFN I've issued to date has not been paid and a number of months later I've been informed of this and have to sign a witness statement to show I've informed the passenger that they must pay within 21 days and that if they do not they can be taken to court. What happens after this I do not know, though I hope a letter threatening court action would at least make some pay up.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Overcarrying

This is a term that I've never used before in my previous employments. It refers to taking passengers beyond their station, usually against their will. This can happen for many reasons - be they asleep or too slow in getting their luggage and leaving, for example.

Of the three traction types I sign, all but the 158s have decent aisles, down which you can see the whole train and so you can be reasonably confident that everyone who wants to leave has done so before you close the doors. Sadly, the 158s are designed so that from the rear coach you can't see any further than the front of that coach.

I was working a train from Nottingham to Skegness that was formed of 2 x 158s, so four coaches in total. We were too long to be accommodated onto Aslockton and Bingham station platforms, so at these locations, I'd open just the front door. I made this very clear on a number of occasions before departing Nottingham. To complicate matters further, we'd effectively 'pinched' this four-car set from a Liverpool-Peterborough train, which was filthy inside, as plenty of Grand National-goers had returned on the service.

On departure from Nottingham I got a bin bag, donned some rubber gloves and went through the train making things a little cleaner for all those on board. I was near the front of the third coach when we arrived at our first station, Netherfield, and at the front of the second coach when we called at our second, Radcliffe. I noticed a man and a child board the rear coach here. On I went and almost got to the front of the first coach as we approached Bingham. I had no access to the public address system, but I'd made it very clear at Nottingham what the procedure was at this station and Aslockton. I opened the front door and a couple left and four boarded.

"Buzz-buzz" and off we went. As Aslockton is just three minutes down the line I remained where I was and chatted to the people now stood at the front who wanted to alight here. Once in Aslockton station, I disposed of my bind bag on the platform and said goodbye to those leaving. The man and girl who'd boarded at Radcliffe left and the man said they'd attempted to leave at Bingham, but the doors didn't open. Then it struck me that he'd not heard my announcement. I apologised and he said not to worry as we were only just beyond Bingham and that he had arranged for a lift to get him back.

I felt bad, but had rightly adopted what my company call the Safety-Service-Revenue protocol. That is, Safety is number 1, then service, then revenue. A clean train, devoid of detritus (Service) is more important than chasing fares, hence my decision to clean the train before checking tickets. Inso doing,  I'd 'missed' the man and girl who'd boarded at Radcliffe to go one stop to Bingham. Whoops! I reported the incident to my Incident Controller.

On the return journey we called at Bingham after Grantham, and again the train is longer than the platform so I could only open the front door of the front coach here. On departure from Grantham, where quite a few boarded from ECML services ex London, I made my standard, thorough announcement concerning this. Three or so minutes before Bingham, I made the announcement again and then walked the full length of the train so that I was positioned at the front upon arrival. One passenger left and none boarded.

Since the resignalling of this line in December 2015, Bingham has a starting signal in the direction of Nottingham, and even when you're late, you have to wait for the signal to 'clear' (turn yellow or green). I was chatting to the driver while we were waiting for this to happen and when it did, I closed the door and off we went.

Heading to the back cab a lady came rushing up to me in some distress. She wanted to leave at Bingham but didn't know where the front of the train was. I'd not come across this concept before. She saw a Coach A sticker on the windows of the coach she was in and so assumed that as A was the first letter of the alphabet, it must be the front coach. In this instance, Coach A was the rear coach, which wasn't even platformed. The next stop was Nottingham and the lady said she would arrange for a lift home.

Again I had to report this to the Incident Controller. I was a little more content on this occasion that I'd done all I could.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

So close!

Having had some success with the British Transport Police recently, where despite being in the Hope Valley and having to contend with tunnels and valleys, managed to get a message to the BTP who attended with just 15 minutes' notice and removed three fare evaders from my train.

This time, I thought I'd see if I could have a second 'textbook' removal of fare evaders on my train.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of 'those guards' who go looking for confrontation and seemingly thrive from antagonising people by being a typical jobsworth when the obvious thing to do it show discretion. In my relatively short time on the railway, and working trains in rural areas of Lincolnshire and the East Midlands, I'm all too aware that having the BTP attend my train is nigh on impossible. I once called them regarding youths congregating at Boston and causing a nuisance to the passengers leaving my train. The nearest police officer who could attend was "80 miles away", so I hoped that, at best, my call would be part of a larger picture, in building up a case against these anti-social youths at Boston, where eventually, action could be taken.

Yet last week I was still riding high from my textbook Sheffield event.

I was working a train from Skegness to Nottingham formed of a 156 and a 153, so three coaches in total. On departure from Grantham the 153 was leading. A large group of a dozen or so men in their early 20s boarded, as well as lots of others, keen to have a day's shopping in Nottingham. It was a Saturday and Nottingham Forest was playing at home so there was likely to be a decent BTP presence on Nottingham station.

I was in the process of checking tickets of those who'd boarded at Grantham and moved into the front coach, the 153. The large group of lads was at the very front and as I made my way towards them, checking others' tickets, I was mindful that three of the 'party' separately made their way past me, likely on a mission to visit the loo.

At the front I now issued tickets to the lads - a GroupSave 4 and a GroupSave 5 to nine people in total. I was going to get into a polite debate about the other three who'd walked past me but we were slowing for Aslockton station. I remained at the front and worked the doors. We were 1 minute early and while we were waiting, I stepped back onto the train and looked down the aisle only to see the three toilet-goers sneaking their way back towards the front. They saw I was watching them and all ran off back into the loo at the front of the 156. Their friends who'd paid saw this and looked at me for a response. I said they could come back and sit down but they'd have to pay like everyone else.

We departed from Aslockton and the nine lads at the front had no idea about any other people travelling with them when I questioned them. So, with there being a likely high presence of BTP on Nottingham station, and this being the location of said group of lads, I left it there and headed to the back cab to make the phone call. I even resisted forcing the toilet door open in the 156 where there was more than one person inside!

The call to BTP was very similar to all my others. I made the location of the group very clear - the front of the first coach - and that out arrival time was likely to be punctual.

Five minutes before Nottingham, I packed my things up from the back cab and walked to the rear cab of the 153 (the leading coach). I closed the gangway doors, so that those in the front coach couldn't move to any other coach. I used the 'spy hole' in the rear door to ascertain precisely how many lads there were in the group at the front. There were categorically 12, and I'd issued tickets to nine.

Hoping the BTP were on Platform 2 at Nottingham awaiting our arrival, my plan was to release the rear door of the 153 using the 'gas key' (as it's almost certainly no longer called) and to close it behind me and then escort the Police to the front of that coach and to let them on before the lads had a chance to leave and disperse into the ether. I'd have to be quick as I had a three-coach train full of people wanting to get off and a lengthy delay in the doors opening could result in passengers pulling an egress handle.

Anyway, as we approached the platform I stuck my head out of the window and saw no BTP officer(s) at all. Nothing. I kept my head out of the window until around 5 seconds before we came to a stand. "Oh well," I thought, "some you win, some you lose!" and I released the doors allowing everyone to leave.

Back in the mess room my driver said to me: "Do you know there was a BTP officer waiting for our train to arrive?" Now that threw me! He said the officer was stood against the railings behind the buffer stop, so square on to the train meaning there was no way I could have seen him. As I released the doors he said to the driver that he was going to walk to the back to have a word with me and then walked down the wrong side of the train to that which the doors were released. Platform 2 is a one-bay platform and the doors can theoretically be released on any side, but since the 2013 Nottingham Resignalling Project, doors are opened on the 1C side, not the 3C side and it was down the latter the BTP officer walked to meet me at the back of the train, when I was at the front of the leading coach.

In my defence, I'd made it very clear that the problem was in the front coach. I had to call the BTP to explain - mindful not to apportion blame, as tempting as it might be - and to clarify why me and the officer had seemingly missed each other. This was added to the log and I've heard no more about it.

Very frustrating and the company was £27 down in total.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Diversions Aplenty

Our longest route does not serve London. While this is not particularly an unknown phenomenon, as my company also runs trains to/from the Capital, it is a little unusual that these London services don't cover the most miles end-to-end.

Norwich to Liverpool is our longest route, though no driver or guard works any journey in its entirety; a crew change takes place at Nottingham.

Our guards and drivers based at Norwich and Nottingham sign the Norwich - Nottingham section (around 50%), while guards at Derby and Nottingham and Nottingham-based drivers sign Nottingham - Liverpool.

There are a number of diversionary routes that trains can take at various times of day. They can be really useful if there is a problem on the main route somewhere, especially when you're returning 'home'. Only last month, my driver and I made good use of one such diversion when we were delayed departing Liverpool Lime Street owing to a suicidal person threatening to jump on the electrified third rail at Hunts Cross. Had we not signed the diversionary route, we'd have remained in Liverpool until the incident had ended, which could have taken well in excess of an hour.

The diversionary routes for such a lengthy main route are many in number and are as follows:

Ely West Curve - avoids having to call at Ely
Manton - avoids having to travel along the ECML and via Grantham
Toton - avoids operating via Radford Junction
Derby - avoids the Erewash Line completely
Beighton - avoids the MML north of Chesterfield, operating into Sheffield from the east
Dore South Curve - avoids having to call at Sheffield
Romiley - avoids the Stockport area
Chat Moss - avoids having to call at the Cheshire Line stations (Warrington & Widnes)

A driver's eye view DVD exists for signing the Ely West Curve. One train is booked to operate in passenger service over this route in the direction of Liverpool on Sundays only. Drivers and guards effectively sign this diversion by watching the DVD as many times as they wish.

The Manton diversion sees a number of booked passenger services in both directions. Two early morning Norwich-bound trains and one evening Nottingham-bound service (ex Spalding) use the route, as well as CrossCountry's hourly Birmingham - Stansted Airport service. Trains will operate this way if there are problems on the ECML, such as the wires coming down or signalling issues in Grantham, for example.

The Toton diversion is probably the least needed route as operating via Derby is an option if the main route is blocked; however, this would mean omitting Alfreton and if a train was already operating along the Erewash Line, returning north to Chesterfield or south to Nottingham and then operating via Derby could add a considerable delay. One early morning Liverpool-bound train is booked to travel via Toton in order to retain route familiarisation for crews.

The Derby diversion itself isn't too much of a problem, since virtually everyone at Nottingham and Derby sign this route, except on the MML between Ambergate Junction and Clay Cross South Junction, and so travelling on the London services between Sheffield - London is a good way to retain the route familiarisation here as no Liverpool - Norwich train is booked to operate this way under normal conditions.

The Beighton diversion (also referred to as 'Old Road' or 'Barrow Hill') leaves the MML at Tapton Junction, north of Chesterfield and links to the Worksop - Sheffield line at Woodhouse Junction. It's a freight-only route, though the first and last trains in each direction between Nottingham - Liverpool are booked this way and the advantage is that, coming into Sheffield from the east, you don't have to swap ends there.

Dore South Curve is probably the most effective diversion for catching up lost time. Omitting Sheffield can save around 20 minutes. Plenty of notice is given and guards on Liverpool-bound trains ask Sheffield passengers to leave at Chesterfield and board a following EMT or XC service for Sheffield. Towards Norwich, it's not always possible for the Sheffield omission to be decided before you've left Manchester or Stockport, so a large percentage of the train is usually disadvantaged when using Dore South Curve as they need to leave at Chesterfield and use the underpass to reach the opposite platform for an EMT or XC northbound train to Sheffield. In either direction, a delay of 20 minutes can usually be recovered although the decision to operate via the Dore South Curve is not taken lightly due to the numbers of people who actually want to reach Sheffield. The early morning empty coaching stock between Nottingham - Liverpool is booked to run this way.

The Romiley diversion leaves the Hope Valley Line at New Mills South Junction and operates a parallel route to the main line but omits Stockport and Edgeley Junction. Signalling problems here are commonplace and omitting Stockport inconveniences few, as a change at Manchester Piccadilly is straightforward enough. Those with connections at Stockport can make virtually all of them at Manchester Piccadilly, though they may be on later trains. The early morning empty coaching stock between Nottingham - Liverpool is booked to run this way.

The Chat Moss diversion is fast, more linear and a more direct route between Manchester and Liverpool. The section between Manchester and Newton-le-Willows is the world's oldest stretch of railway, as it was between these two points that the first train service ran. The route omits Warrington Central, Widnes and Liverpool South Parkway stations - a trio containing around 50% of our loadings on Liverpool-bound trains, so using the Chat Moss diversion is only taken in the most desperate circumstances as passengers for those affected stations need to leave the train at Manchester, which takes time and causes a considerable bottle-neck. The early morning empty coaching stock between Nottingham - Liverpool is booked to run this way. The early morning empty coaching stock between Nottingham - Liverpool is booked to run this way.

Since signing all the routes off, I've travelled over most of them at least once now, either 'in service' or as empty coaching stock (ECS). Toton is a favourite for returning ECS from Worksop or Mansfield Woodhouse; Manton sees booked trains anyway; I've worked the last Liverpool - Nottingham train on a number of occasions now, which makes use of Beighton and as detailed at the top, I've used Chat Moss as a get-out-of-jail-free card recently. Derby, Romiley & Ely West Curve at the remaining three that elude me.

Due to engineering works on the Erewash Line this week, our last Liverpool - Nottingham service has been routed via Beighton (as normal) and then via the MML and Derby all week and yesterday I worked the train. So that's another diversion ticked off. Whether my passengers saw the significance of passing through Derby non-stop at 0020 I do not know, but it was a first for me.



Wednesday, 22 March 2017

BTP in Attendance

During our training, we are told about circumstances when we may wish to call upon the services of the British Transport Police (BTP), whose job it is to exclusively police the railway. BTP are trained to attend all manner of incidents, disturbances and such like on the rail network.

In my relatively embryonic 2 years working on the rails, I've had cause to call the BTP on three occasions - the third being yesterday, when I had the first taste of success.

The first occasion was when I was told that under no circumstances would this lady who was travelling on my train between Nottingham and Newark Castle be paying a fare and why don't I "go into the back cab there and call the Police". This I did, though the internal numbers we have for the various local BTP offices in our area don't work, so I had to call the Non-Emergency number and was put on hold for 15 minutes, at which point I decided to give up.

The second occasion was due to youths congregating on the platform at Boston station in the evening. They cause a particular nuisance to the point that an instruction has been pinned up in the mess room at Boston station informing train crews to contact BTP should youths congregate on the platforms in the evening and have no intention of travelling. I got through on this occasion, though regrettably the nearest officer was 80 miles away and would pay a visit at some point soon. On my return from Skegness some 90 minutes later, I noticed the youths still there.

Thus far, as you'll no doubt have seen, my success level was poor. Yesterday would change that.

Having departed Manchester Piccadilly, working a train towards Sheffield, I started to check all passengers' tickets. In the fourth and final coach, from where I started, I came across three young lads without tickets. They spoke in a different language between themselves before one of them asking for "three child singles to the next stop". I asked if they knew where the next stop was, assuming they had no intention of travelling such a short distance, and they answered correctly: Chinley.

They were no doubt aided in their knowledge of the Hope Valley thanks to the Public Information Screens (PIS) on the train which was emblazoned with "the next stop is Chinley". However, one of the lads paid the three child single fares to Chinley. As I was giving them their change I made sure they were aware that I wanted to see them leave at Chinley. I said: "I don't want you staying on to Sheffield!" They said they wouldn't.

As we arrived at Chinley, I was near the front of the train, from where I worked the doors. The youths didn't leave the train. Upon departure I completed my ticket checks in the front coach and then made my way to the back cab, passing the three youths who were all 'asleep'.

The phone reception in the Hope Valley - some of Derbyshire's most rugged scenery - is patchy at best and so it was with some optimism that I attempted to call the BTP's Non-Emergency number. An operator answered immediately and after initially informing her of my name and position, told her about the poor reception so would rattle off my issue. I felt this was best as I'm sure they have procedures to follow which could restrict my ability to relay my issue in the time I had.

The lady who dealt with my call was first rate; absolutely spot on. I told her my headcode, my arrival time in Sheffield and the scenario concerning the three lads and how they'd not left the train at Chinley. At that point we passed through Grindleford and I had to end the call as we entered the Totley Tunnel - England's longest mainline tunnel. Emerging some minutes later into urban South Yorkshire, we called at Dore & Totley station and I was here that I was able to phone BTP back and see if my initial call was being acted upon.

To my surprise, an officer had been assigned 6 minutes ago. Upon departure from Dore & Totley, we headed into Sheffield. I acted no differently, so as not to arouse suspicion. As we pulled into Sheffield station, I stuck my head out of the cab window and saw no fewer than 2 BTP officers awaiting my arrival. The message about the youths being in the rear cab had been passed on accurately as it was here where they were headed.

I released my door first and due to the volume of people wanting to the leave the train here I couldn't see the youths and so with no other doors open I instructed one of the BTP officers to wait by the door at the other end of the fourth coach. This he did. I then released all the doors on the train and people started to leave.

There was then something of a frenzy on my part trying to identify this youthful trio amid the many other commuters leaving the train. Before long I realised they hadn't left - or had moved forward into the third or second carriage, suspicious of being met by Police, and evaded capture. I then noticed that they were still on board the train. One BTP officer boarded the train and with the second one stood next to me on the platform I blatantly pointed out the offenders. They were ushered off the train by the officer who boarded, who then took them to oneside on the platform.

While this was going on, the other officer asked me what I'd like to see happen to them. I instinctively wanted to say that I didn't want to cause the officers any trouble, but then that is their job. I also queried that there was a chance, albeit slim, that they were of child age, so would that limit the possibilities?

The officer suggested he get them to pay the fare from Chinley to Sheffield but if they were under 16 and had no money on them, he would instruct me at a later time, thorough my company channels, to issue Unpaid Fares Notices to their parents, for the fare they needed to pay. This would come with a £20 admin fee as it was being brokered by the BTP.

I said I'd leave it with them as I needed to swap ends of the train at this point as we were due to leave and the train departs from Sheffield in the direction from where we'd come and my driver was 'chomping at the bit' to get in what was my back cab. We departed punctually and I felt rather elated as I continued my journey to Nottingham, where I'd leave the train for my break.

It was during my break that one of the officers called me back to say that they were all over 16 and were intending on travelling to Nottingham. They'd left there this morning with single tickets for Manchester and were intending to return from whence they'd come for diddly-squat. The BTP officers escorted them to the Sheffield ticket office and witnessed them purchase single tickets from Chinley to Nottingham and they'd put them on the following service, provided by another operator, to Nottingham. An obvious consolation was that they had paid significantly more than they would have done had they purchased a return ticket that morning.

The officer said that the matter was now closed and that he would write this up on the file that had been opened when I first telephoned the BTP in the Hope Valley.

The system really worked well. However the BTP central office alert available officers to potential issues that require their attendance clearly works provided the resources are available. Sheffield does have a BTP office - as do, to be fair, most major main line railway stations - but for officers to be able to down tools and attend a train with just 15 minutes' notice is pretty impressive, especially for one of the more minor offences that can be committed on the rail network.