London Trains

The news about the rail strike on the BBC condescendingly described it as ‘a dispute about opening train doors’.

It’s nothing of the sort. It’s about eliminating human workers inside the trains and ultimately on the platforms too. The driver, who one would hope is concentrating on driving the train, now has to ensure it’s safe to move off without any second opinion.

I suppose there would be a camera feed of the platform to his cab – unless it malfunctions. There’s unlikely to be sound. The cry of a mother to her runaway toddler, the eruption of an argument about to get violent, a lone woman traveller calling for help; all go unheard. The train moves off like a hopper on a factory conveyor belt.

It’s not just emergency response which will suffer through this shortsighted plan, underpinned by greed. The London train system isn’t just a transit tube for commuters. It’s a conduit for tourists as well.

On my return from Iceland, I landed at Luton Airport. From the ticket machines at the airport door to the unscheduled diversion which took me miles from my destination without warning, I found this system to be relentlessly user-hostile. As the commuters flicked through the small entry gates, I had to drag my heavy suitcase to the double doors. I’ve often observed that these are temperamental; luckily there were still staff around to manage them for me.

I have an Oyster card. I use it once a year or so. I have no idea how the amount of money on it relates to a train journey. I don’t want to show my credit card to a machine. I want to be able to pay in cash and ask some questions at a ticket window, but these seem to have vanished already. The new streamlined system only caters for travellers who already know it off by heart.

Communters are trapped in this system, but tourists have options. Machines can’t respond to unusual problems as humans can. The combination of ancient brickwork and automation will always look tawdry and sinister, never efficiently hi-tech. There needs to be the reassuring presence of knowledgeable and experienced people in recognisable uniforms.

Train and platform staff are crucial to the London tourist industry.

Readers of the Resilience Handbook may like to refer to one of the recommended reading books here. ‘Small World’ by Mark Buchanan, chapter 8 ‘Costs and Consequences’ (p131 in my copy), describes how transport congestion affects the expansion of airport hubs. If train services in London continue to develop down this dismal path, the third runway at Heathrow could well become redundant before it’s even completed.

I’ll be flying from regional airports in future, and I expect many other tourists will make the same decision. The network will shift focus.

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