Sparks are flying on GOBLIN

Monday 28th January 2019

You’ve got to feel sorry for the growing number of passengers who rely on the GOspel Oak to Barking orbital railway line in north east London, known affectionately as GOBLIN for short.

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The former down-at-heel and unloved Silverlink Metro line transferred to TfL back in 2006 when the future was bright, the future was orange, as it became born again as part of TfL’s Overground network. This higher profile, together with greatly improved service quality, released huge latent pent up demand as passengers soon discovered the extensive travel opportunities this Cinderella of commuter lines offered. Boarding a train just a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath in north London and arriving in central Barking in East London in little over half an hour is impressive. Many passengers also transfer at Gospel Oak to and from the West London line from Clapham Junction/Richmond via Willesden Junction continuing into the North London line via Highbury & Islington to Stratford and the East London line south of the Thames offering a fantastic number of convenient interchange possibilities.

It’s undeniably one of the most successful rail line turnarounds in a decade with 10,000 passenger journeys now being carried a day. Plans to electrify the line and introduce a brand new fleet of 4-carriage trains to replace the 2-carriage diesel units were therefore hugely welcomed when first announced. What a shame things haven’t quite worked out as planned.

The eastern end of the line closed in June 2016, with the western end following a few months later in September to allow Network Rail to install overhead electrification. This extensive work included rebuilding ten bridges as well as lowering the line in four places to allow for the necessary clearances. Weekday services were reinstated in February 2017 while weekend services resumed in June 2017 but passengers didn’t get to benefit from electric trains as the grossly over crowded 2-carriage diesel operated Class 172 trains carried on running with a promise of brand new Bombardier built 4-carriage Class 710 electric trains to be introduced with a new timetable from May 2018.

In pre-overhead wires days at Harringay Green Lanes

As well as an absence of electric trains, it wasn’t long before it became evident the electrification works hadn’t been properly completed either and a further eight week full line closure became necessary between November 2017 and January 2018 to finish things off.

Never mind, at least the new electric trains were due to appear in May 2018; except they didn’t despite the first train being delivered to Network Rail’s test facility in Leicestershire at the end of 2017. To make matters worse the May 2018 timetable initially removed five vital peak hour extra journeys (known as ‘PIXC-busters’ – ‘passengers in excess of capacity’) designed to cope with the crush loads. These were subsequently reinstated by TfL, except within a matter of weeks, they were withdrawn again. The problem being Class 172 diesel train availability – all eight trains were due to come off lease and transfer to the West Midlands by December 2018 and to meet this deadline one train, effectively the spare used on peak hour extras, was withdrawn so it could be overhauled and refurbished for its new owners.

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As is the way with these things, for reasons best known to PR and media people, despite no chance of the new trains being imminently introduced, TfL held a high profile launch of the brand new Class 710 trains in June 2018 (just as the ‘PIXC busters’ were withdrawn again) reassuring passengers understandably frustrated and annoyed at having a new train dangled in front of them only to be swept away again back to the test track with the rather limp commitment that “the new fleet will be in service by November”.

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The only thing that happened in November 2018 was the announcement of a reduced timetable at weekends to allow for engineers to service the fleet of hard pressed Class 172s as another was withdrawn for its new life in the West Midlands.

As 2019 began and still no sign of the much promised (and publicly launched) new trains and all the Class 172s having to be withdrawn at the latest by mid March, TfL’s been forced to come up with a Plan B, the first part of which was rolled out this morning as a modified spare Class 378 5-carriage electric train set reduced to just 4-carriages (so it will fit into the platforms along the line) took to the tracks as another Class 172 train has been withdrawn. Two more spare Class 378s are being similarly modified to hit the tracks as two more Class 172s are withdrawn in mid February.

The final three Class 172s leave in mid March when Plan C comes into play. This entails the timetable being halved to run every 30 minutes instead of every 15 minutes. TfL say in such an event “there should be adequate capacity for anyone wishing to travel along this route” pointing out four-carriage trains running every half an hour equals two-carriage trains running every fifteen minutes. Except the less frequent service will be more than twice less attractive (you really have to adjust personal travel schedules for a half hourly service in a way you don’t for a fifteen minute one) and the longer trains have much reduced (longitudinal) seating meaning more standing passengers, albeit “standing in greater comfort”.

I gave the new slimmed down Class 378 train a ride this morning. Obviously the interior and ride quality are well known from travels in these trains on other parts of the Overground orbital lines, but it was a novelty to ride the line from a longitudinal seat which is not welcome as you have to sit askew to look out of the window behind you to enjoy the fascinating suburban scenery the train passes or you have to spend the journey avoiding eye contact with the passenger opposite.

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Today’s train was well able to cope with the numbers of passengers travelling who are used to squeezing on to a two-carriage diesel. Passengers were noticeably pleasantly surprised at the extra available room, all the more so as they must have initially been disappointed thinking our train was not operating as it failed to appear on departure screens, nor, mysteriously, is it recorded in Real Time Trains records.

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It was noticeable how acceleration between stations was much better than with the Class 172s and we easily reached the termini ahead of schedule, even with the padding at the Gospel Oak end. I reckon passengers really will welcome the new Class 710 trains and hopefully this hiatus will be forgotten once they’re introduced just like the summer 2016 closure for bodged electrification works is now a distant memory.

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Of course, Bombardier don’t come out of all this at all well. TfL’s latest public statement claims the manufacturer “has still not been able to fix the software problems that are causing the delays”. There’s not even a date for “when the new trains will be ready for driver training to start”. No doubt TfL are hammering them with compensation claims for extra costs and loss of revenue – they’ve already extracted a promised of a months free travel on the line when the trains are finally introduced.

Meantime, it look’s like another Spring (and probably Summer) with crowded trains and longer waits for the hard pressed GOBLIN passengers.

Roger French

 

 

 

I Didn’t Get Gett

Having been plagued for some weeks by marketing emails from the London black cab App organisation called Gett, I finally relented yesterday and headed up to London to use up the £10 credit (with an expiry of 31st August) they’d recently added to my account in a last ditch attempt to entice my return custom. It wasn’t as if I’d been much of a customer, having made one solitary journey back in October 2017 to try out the new peak hours only ride-sharing Black Bus 1 route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo they’d just introduced amid much fanfare with partners Citymapper who’d worked out there was latent demand on that corridor from the enquiries they’d been monitoring on their Journey Planner App.

I thought I’d replicate my Black Bus 1 journey and see if once again I’d be sharing the intimacy of a black cab with other riders for the bargain fare of £3. I’d not been able to do my usual trip research beforehand as all the Gett App would tell me was I’m in an unsupported area down in Sussex where I live. I’d had a look at the Gett website, but that hadn’t mentioned anything about Black Bus 1 either. So it wasn’t until I came out of Highbury & Islington station at 0842 I could sus out the travel options.

I trotted along to nearby Compton Terrace on the main road just south of the station where I’d waited before and sure enough having entered Waterloo as “where I want to go” at 0844 the Citymapper App listed a taxi icon among the options (as it had done before) showing an arrival in 5 minutes and with a journey time of 45 minutes (taking 50% longer than the tube options).

I clicked it, got an encouraging ‘Book & Go’ clickable icon over a map with reassuring reference to my Smart Ride not costing the expected £3 but would be a freebie at £0.

I clicked that only to be stumped by payment options of Apple Pay or “Add Credit Card”.

I decided to add my credit card details despite that £3 fare being reassuringly struck through and then received confirmation at 0845 it was “Using £3 from your credit” and the “Driver arrives in 16 min”.

As a bit of a novice at this game I had wrongly assumed with those messages I’d done all I needed to do. It turns out I hadn’t; and despite not wanting to use Apple Pay, I needed to find another icon to “pay’; even though I had a fare of £0.

But there was I thinking I was all good to go, especially when I rechecked at 0847, as within only those two minutes the screen had updated to “Driver arrives in 2 min” and what looked like a fellow passenger appeared alongside me also staring intently at her phone.

She confirmed she’d also booked a ride and within a minute an anonymously branded black Mercedes people carrier appeared.

The driver was a bit perplexed to find two of us, and establishing we weren’t a couple he confirmed I wasn’t booked with him and needed to wait for another driver.

Clicking back on the Citymapper App showed a wait for another driver of another 15 minutes so I decided to interrogate the Gett App instead; after all they were the people who’d gifted £10 credit to me and were so keen for my return custom. In fact it puzzled me how Citymapper knew I had credit as I’d had no communication from them.

The trouble was the Gett App, like the website made no mention of Black Bus 1, and I appeared to be booking a standard black cab to take me to Waterloo.

Even more consternation as there was no mention of my credit and instead wanted me to pay with my credit card; although it did make reference to me getting “£10 off this ride” with my “coupon”.

Not being a black cab user I feared for my bank balance for such a long journey if I went through with the transaction, but decided to give it a go, only to be told the expected arrival time of a driver was another 15 minute wait and with an expected arrival time in Waterloo not until 0953 which was 57 minutes away.

As by then it was 0856, this seemed a very long time away, so after a three minute cogitation, at 0859 I decided to abandon this smart ride-share gig altogether and instead plump for a traditional ride-share gig, the humble TfL red bus to take me to Waterloo.

Despite battling with some of London’s usual peak hour congestion, we arrived in Waterloo at 0941 comfortably ahead of Gett’s prediction had I used them, and it only cost me £1.50.

I still have no idea what the relationship is between Gett and Citymapper  and how my £10 credit appeared on Citymapper. It would seem Gett no longer run a BlackBus 1 for £3  and just run traditional black cabs but Citymapper contract an anonymous ride share company to do so instead but not marketed under that Black Bus 1 brand. The whole experience was confusing and I was reassured traditional bus, tube and train are still the modes of choice for me and I won’t be disrupted.

Roger French                           1st September 2018