Multiple Signal Failures
Wherever possible when writing these tales I try to avoid repeating situations, but so many of the problems that we encounter have the same root causes this isn't always possible. The following is such an event.
There are times when weeks seem to go by with few significant problems, but some weeks seem to be plagued with them; the week when the following occurred had been one of 'those'; we'd had both signal and/or train related difficulties practically every day, and the following events had built up during the course of the day, but came to a head during the Friday evening 'peak' - one of the worst times this kind of event can happen.
Often if we have problems at the west end of our line these are diminished a little by the close proximity of the Piccadilly Line, but on this day they too were in trouble.
I'm also able to add a few bits of detail and experiences I've heard of from colleagues, so these will be dropped in at appropriate points.
Anyway, to the tale itself.........
I'd arranged to meet my trainee at Earls Court at about 17:30 and we had an outline plan for how we were going to spend the evening. He was approaching the end of his Road Training and we intended clearing up a few loose ends that hadn't been covered to date and to do a bit of refreshing on moves he hadn't done for a couple of weeks, so that with his Road Test approaching and then going out on his own for the first time after that he'd be fully prepared for whatever duties he was given.
I booked on at Acton Town at about 16:45 and checked my mail drop and e-mails. On enquiring of the DMT on the desk how the service was running I was told 'there's been signal problems around High Street Ken and Earls Court for most of the day, and they're not sorted out yet; all the Edgware Road's are going round at High Street'. Quite a few trains had been cancelled already, either not coming into service for the 'peak' or had already been stabled at various locations. Whilst not exactly scuppering my plans (the major objective of the evening was to do some Edgware Road - Wimbledon trips and then cap those off with the stabling of a train into Triangle Sidings), it meant that there may need to be a bit of a rethink, depending on how matters developed during the evening. A fellow Instructor who was also just booking on also had similar plans for his trainee. We headed off together to go to Earls Court.
Acton Town's platforms were all pretty full and it was apparent that the 'Picc' had problems - they were running to an emergency timetable because of radio difficulties through the tunnel sections, and if this occurs their trains must have an additional member of staff in the cab in case of emergencies. One of 'our' trains came in and we rode with the driver to Earls Court. He confirmed that there were delays round Earls Court, that he was late already and the radio suggested that there was extensive queuing into Earls Court. This proved to be the case!
The run from Acton Town to Earls Court should take about fifteen minutes, and we made good progress until we got to Barons Court, though we had started to see red signals as we approached Hammersmith which suggested that we were catching the train ahead up. On arrival at Barons Court the station starting signal was at danger and though we couldn't see the train ahead we heard a couple of calls to the Line Controller who confirmed the 'blocking back' into Earls Court. The driver whose train it was let the passengers know what was going on and suggested that they may wish to take the Piccadilly Line, should one of 'theirs' arrive before we departed. In the end we were at Barons Court for about fifteen minutes, and during that time only one 'Picc' train came through and to say that was packed is something of an understatement!
Whilst waiting at Barons Court things started to become even more unravelled! It seems that two trains have had passenger alarms operated and, of course, this means that those trains are now stationery until the matters are resolved and that trains behind them cannot move forward either. But these delays start to pale into insignificance when a message is broadcast that there is a major signalling failure in the Hornchurch area and that the service was suspended between Dagenham East and Upminster in both directions; this at about 1745; just about the worst possible time that this could happen. Furthermore, it would mean that an already reduced service would be reduced further, particularly to Dagenham East with most trains having to be reversed at Barking.
Eventually we were on the move and finally arrived at Earls Court - but forty seven minutes after we'd left Acton Town! I checked in with the DMT, told him what I was planning to do for the evening. To this he responded 'at the moment we've no real idea what's going to happen - we'll have to play it by ear. The Controller's just bringing in an emergency timetable'. So I said I'd find my trainee and if he (the DMT) needed help to let me know (though the situation of too many drivers and too few trains was starting to develop), but to bear in mind my main aim of the C Stock work until it stabled; he promised he would.
So I went in search of my trainee and whilst looking for him my mobile phone rang - it was he! He was caught up in the delays and was doing his best to get to Earls Court but it was very slow going. I told him to try to find me when he finally made it, but that if the DMT was stuck I might have to help out with keeping some sort of service running. But eventually he arrived and as we were not required for any actual driving work at that point we settled to run through some of his other training materials and to do some question and answers on line knowledge and so on.
Whilst this was going on I got a message from one of my fellow drivers; it had taken him almost three hours to get from Ealing Broadway to West Ham - a trip that should have taken less than an hour! Trains were now blocking up the east end of the line and it seems that the Barking signallers were doing their best to get trains reversed, but that drivers were running out of driving hours; the situation was the exact opposite to that at Earls Court - too many trains and not enough drivers!
A couple of drivers getting back to Earls Court confirmed that they were very late and now the situation would start reversing itself; trains started coming back with drivers due to either finish or take their rest period and the pool of available drivers began to thin out.
After some enquiries we found out that there were a couple of C Stock trains which had been stabled at Parsons Green earlier in the evening, and these would need to be moved to Triangle sidings at some point, so it was arranged that my fellow instructor and his trainee and me and mine would deal with these; at least we would get to achieve part of our aim for the evening. We made our way to Parsons Green, the trains were prepared and the signaller slotted us into the service. Eventually we achieved the stabling as planned.
During this time we heard the Controller calling a train at Upminster Bridge telling it to continue in passenger service, so I assume that signal control had been regained. This could have been a train initially sent through to test the signals were all working correctly and only once this was confirmed was the service reinstated. But of course this is by now well towards the end of the evening.
It was then a question of us getting back to Acton Town. Again I'd planned that we'd take one of the last stabling trains for Ealing Common depot and do that move, just to refresh my trainee on it. He'd done it a good number of times by now, but the more practice that's available the better. As luck would have it whilst waiting at Earls Court for a train to get us down in the right direction an Ealing Broadway service arrived, the driver being due to finish. Having established that it was going to the depot on leaving Ealing Broadway I offered to do this, so another part of the evenings plan had (almost against all odds!) been achieved.
But it had unquestionably been an evening of significant problems, not least from the travelling public's point of view, and sadly a Friday night is not a good time to obtain sympathy from the public.
As the evening progressed so did the number of passengers whose views were a little influenced by their consumption of alcohol and, as a result the amount of abuse being thrown at staff went up too. Whilst I appreciate the frustrations that people feel it's a shame that too many seem to pick on the closest member of staff and vent their feelings - I know that the station staff do their best to explain what's the problem and the efforts that are trying to be made to keep a service running but too many people frankly aren't prepared to listen and just want someone (anyone!) in a London Underground to shout at. Of course the vast majority of passengers endure these delays with remarkable stoicism. I've said elsewhere in these pages that no-one within London Underground wants delays - it's just as inconvenient and frustrating to us too.
On checking my mail the following morning I had a couple of messages in my Inbox - one was from a friend who's on the signals technical side and the content of his mail was as follows (though this is the cleaned up and abridged version!): 'Well yesterday was a bit of a bad day for me as well! Whilst working the (signal) frame at Earls Court because of a lever operation problem I had another failure at hsk (High Street Kensington) that was rather quick in saying that 22a points were failing but it was Earls Court signals EC7(2),EC11(1&2) that were failing. Hornchurch was a signal AC main link box that blew (the silver boxes you see at signal locations).'
I wish I could say that these were one off occurrences, but I'm afraid they're not; essentially they're symptomatic of the age of the infrastructure involved and the need for its upgrade, which of course is all part of the plans that I outline in the 'Upgrade Plans' section. It is of course impossible to ever banish failures totally - they are by the nature of the equipment mechanical systems and these will always fail from time to time and, as I say above, nobody wants to see a dramatic reduction in these failures more than we who work with them on a day-to-day basis!