Friday, 28 March 2008

T5 versus St Pancras

To say that Terminal 5's opening has been poorly managed would be a generous appraisal. The media have certainly not been so kind. What was particularly striking to me was the contrast between this news story and the opening of St Pancras international.

I thought this evening that they generate two polar-opposite media responses. St Pancras was lauded as an amazing achievement, the return of the age of travel by rail and a truly wonderful piece of architecture that the country could be proud of. It seems I'm not the only one to notice the comparison. The Times have an article with the following quote:

The folk at BAA should take a short ride down to St Pancras International rail station to see how a 21st century terminal should be done. Tasteful, efficient, with only selected quality retail. Today's airport terminals are little more than downmarket shopping malls."

"Oh dear, oh dear - another own goal for BA.....Or BAA? Or both?? Whatever, the CEOs should be forced to resign over this ridiculous affair. "

The reception for St Pancras couldn't have been better. Here's a quote from the International Herald Tribune's article:

But the mood among travelers Wednesday suggested that there was more to the new route than the speed of the journeys, and that St. Pancras has every prospect of fulfilling its ambition of becoming a "destination" in itself.

Forty years after the poet John Betjeman led a campaign to save St. Pancras from demolition, it has emerged from its years of restoration as one of the grandest public buildings in Britain. Architecture critics have been virtually unanimous in praising the result, and, judging by the reaction of travelers and others who crowded into the station for its commercial inauguration, the public loves it just as much.

So what happened? Why is one so praised and the other not. Many of the articles on the problems at T5 point to a lack of testing and training. I attended a breakfast talk on St Pancras in November 2006 and what was emphasised there was the meticulous planning and testing that went into every aspect of moving from Waterloo to St Pancras.

Interestingly there are many parallels between the two projects. Despite T5 being on a bigger scale, they are both the highest level of terminal in their respective fields. Both industries are maligned with strikes (although note how when St Pancras opened Eurostar luckily or skilfully avoided the French strike action). Both are in industries where people often complain about the regular level of service - here's what the Economist has to say about the opening of T5:

Heathrow airport's new Terminal Five made the news for all the usual reasons on its opening day: lengthy delays, appalling overcrowding and lost baggage. This time it was blamed on teething troubles rather than bad weather, terrorist threats or uppity unions that often turn the barely tolerable experience of flight into an ordeal.

However LCR (project owners of St Pancras) seemed to get it right. They took rail travel, which has a hint of romance, but is sullied by the general dislike of the morning commute and the poor reputation of many national franchise holders, and made it something attractive. St Pancras was branded as a destination station; a place one would visit in its own right. The opening was impeccable, the transfer from Waterloo seamless. The opening date for the station was published a year beforehand and was kept to. The project itself embraced the architecture of the original station, but built in new developments to provide a contemporary space. Something genuinely new was provided for the customer (high-speed rail end to end) and it was packaged in a masterful way. Most skilful of all, they named it High Speed One and gave the impression that LCR were the people to deliver further high-speed rail benefits to the UK.

Compare for T5. The architecture may or may not be impressive, but if it is it's been mentioned as an exception. Sentences such as The Independent's:

Eddie Loryman seemed oblivious to the grandeur of Heathrow's soaring new terminal 5 building with its cutting-edge architecture...he was more concerned with finding a lift that was actually working.

litter the press coverage. The Sun is less kind, criticising the architecture and facilities. There is not a feeling that T5 is a break from the norm - The Independent article (ibid) states "For [the terminal's] many critics it was merely a case of service as normal." There is a feeling in several articles that not only has BAA and BA's response been hopeless, it has also shown how they can not be trusted with such a project. They have been portrayed as complacent and uncaring. They have entrenched the perception that flying is a chore, and airports doubly so.

In a few months' time the airport will no doubt be operating fine. However, it will be very hard to shake the damage done here. LCR can still bask in the glory of St Pancras' opening four months after the event. BAA and BA have got no honeymoon from this story, in fact they are fighting fire even harder than usual. As opposition continues to grow to further expansion, and not just from the usual sources, there may not be much for BAA and BA to celebrate for quite some time.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Mobile Design

Go away

Nokia have a certain kind of design wisdom with phones. The final release of their tool, Share Online, that allows one to send pictures directly to Flickr is on my phone.

The trouble is I want to get it off my phone. It's a cumbersome program that doesn't allow me to do anything that I can't do simply by e-mailing the photo to my Flickr account. It also, as you can see in the picture, puts more clutter on the phone's home screen.

I've tried removing it from within the phone's application menu, I've tried removing it from within the phone's Application Manager tool (bizarrely it did let me remove "Share Online 3 Upgrade", but this made no difference).

I've had a number of problems with my N95, and this is just another, albeit minor one. Anyone know how to fix this (without a complete reset)?

Tuesday, 4 March 2008


All finished at the hospital, but it's not much of a pleasant experience going. Here are a few samples of the trip.

1. From a sign in one of the rooms where blood is extracted for tests:

Please do not use needles and vacutainer tubes to ajar this windows

2. As a woman sobbed in the corridor a concerned member of the public came to ask what could be done to help her. This person speculated that:

She has a bit of the dementia

3. As a man in front of me in the queue for the tests seemed to be having problems he explained:

Last time they tried in my hand

Despite this, a phone ringing constantly, rooms that are tiny and poorly decorated and a constant stream of patients the phlebotomist who took my blood was friendly, smiling, caring and put up with my squeamishness and silly faces. Given she has to work there all the time I haven't got much to complain about, and I was as thankful as I could be to her.

Seeing red

I'm not a fan of blood tests at the best of times. There's something very peculiar about the unpleasantly decorated waiting rooms, the tickets to enforce waiting in turn and the fact, as is always the case, there are far more people using the facility than it was designed for.

Someone just left the reception area because they couldn't speak English. Another patient offered to interpret, but the woman wasn't interested.

I'm pathetically squeamish. I loathe the thought of my own blood, but they presumably they won't take much today. I'm on number 92 at the moment - only 47 left.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Wrong route

Bendy, taken from my Flickr stream.

Boris Johnson, candidate for the Conservative Party in the London Mayoral elections, made clear today his plans to scrap the bendy bus. He also declares that he wants to bring back conductors and the Routemasters.

I should say, first of all, that all of the points I make on this blog are entirely my own and don't seek to represent anyone else. Mr Johnson is wrong on this one - these policies are often 'popular', but they fall apart when examined.

Let's start with conductors. Conductors are a member of staff, and having two members of staff (a driver and conductor) on every bus nearly doubles the staffing costs. Of course, there could be some reduction in ticket inspectors, but there are much, much less ticket inspectors than there are buses, so the potential for cost savings is small. Conductors are not a solution to the problems Mr Johnson claims he is seeking to solve. He claims that bendy-buses have become free, but conductors provide a bizarre forced fare-evasion. On so many occasions when riding on buses with conductors, especially when I've been riding on the top desk, the conductor has not even ventured upstairs, meaning that my Oyster card was never checked. This is inevitable if the conductor is busy downstairs with lots of passengers getting on and off.

Conductors don't make journeys usefully quicker either - a trial on the 55 a few years back showed that as so few London Bus users buy tickets on the bus there is little time to be saved by allowing them to walk straight passed the driver. Oyster is generally very quick, so touching in with the card is only ever so slightly slower than doing nothing while walking past. The time saved on the 55 was so small it didn't allow any reduction in the number of buses to run the route - not much help there then.

But Routemasters are wonderful aren't they? No - they're not. They are, rightfully, acknowledged as being iconic, but this does not make them a good form of public transport. They are small, cramped (I'm 189cm (6ft 2 inches) and they really don't have the leg room) and, let's not forget, much less safe. People often scoff at this, blaming an H&S culture (a fact well addressed in this article), but as someone who's broken my wrist jumping off a Routemaster when I thought it was safe to do so I can say that one might realise that an open back on a moving vehicle is not terribly safe.

Of course, the stats bear this out - this pro-Routemaster booklet (page 47) accepts that the accident rate for a Routemaster was double that of a regular bus. One of my lecturers suggests it's worse than that (2.6 times worse than a regular bus).

Finally, of course, everyone agrees the articulated buses, or "bendy buses" are awful. Except they don't. TfL did lots of customer research with simple, unambiguous questions when the bendy buses were brought in. They asked people on routes that had been converted from Routemasters (like the 36) what they thought of their replacement (in this case the 436). You know what - regardless of whether the bus being replaced was a Routemaster or a standard double-decker people preferred the bendy buses. This effect, although diminished, was still present when they revisited these users after 18 months (to try and eliminate the effect of bendy buses simply being new and thus worthy of praise).

These were real users saying they liked the buses. It's amazing how many of the people complaining about them don't use them - Mr Johnson included. I use them pretty regularly - I live on the N29 route, I take the 507 quite often (hence the picture) and the 73 and 38 provide useful routes from Victoria (where I work). I like them - I like the fact I can get on them, even though they're busy. Busy buses are always tough to board, but at least on bendy buses you have three doors to try, and no need to push people to try and get upstairs only to find it's full. They also do board quicker when there are a lot of people - it's the doors that help with this. I invite anyone who doubts this to come and watch them alight/board at Victoria bus station in the morning.

Of course other road users must be taken into consideration, but the stats showing that bendy buses have a higher injury rate than other buses (for other road users) seem to be explained by the fact that these buses, by design, are used on the very busiest routes which encounter the most traffic. This isn't to diminish the importance of reducing accidents, but to say that we do have to be sure of a common base of comparison.

With money likely to be tight (Crossrail, Thameslink, PPP Upgrades and much more) it's vital that buses can spend money on useful things (more buses for routes, new routes, police on buses), not on conductors. Finally, when someone tells you that conductors make buses safer, I would always rather have a trained police officer (someone whose job it is to deal with crime) than a conductor, who understandably is trained not to put themselves in danger's way. So why doesn't the Mayor fund police officers for buses? Oh, he does.

Move to blogger

I got fed up with WordPress. So, from now onwards, the blog is here. At some point I'll redirect the old site. I had some trouble getting a template that was wide enough for large images, but didn't stretch across the whole screen - I've manually edited one - if anyone has any suggestions for anything more elegant then do say.


Taking note

Back of the class

Having recently finished the last lecture of my masters course I wanted to make some notes on how things seemed to have changed since my undergraduate course. My undergraduate course was four years of full-time study, living with friends or in college. My masters has been two years of part-time course while working at TfL. Clearly there are a lot of differences, but I don't want to write about these. What really struck me was how different the actual lecture and study process was.


The most obvious change is in the way people behave. It's difficult to write this without looking like a stuck-up malcontent, but the behaviour was much worse than while I was at Durham. I can't say if this is because of my particular class, the subject, the passage of time or the different university. People would routinely talk, quite audibly, in lectures. There were regulars who would turn up to every lecture and just talk to each other the whole way through. They not quiet about it, they're not subtle about it (as we used to try and be in Durham). I've seen people on the phone during lectures (seldom trying to hide the fact), and it is very common to see laptops open across the lecture theatre, not one of which being used for anything related to the lecture (facebook, youtube and Windows Live Messenger seem to be the distractions of choice). I find this all somewhat bizarre - no one is keeping these people at the lecture, so if they truly have no interest why not go elsewhere?

Interestingly people seem to turn up late. At Durham it was typical for a few people to drip in at five or ten minutes past the lecture start, and there would be the occasional twenty-ish minutes late arrival which usually got a chuckle from the class. This is nothing for people who attend these lectures. It was typical for people to come in half an hour late, and almost every week there were several people arriving over an hour late. Given the lectures started at the same time every week I don't understand this - the class size was fifty (smaller than in Durham), and only about 30 would turn up at all each week.

The library was also interesting - Imperial's library has two types of area - one that are "quiet study areas" and others that are for group work. Quiet doesn't seem to be a word well understood - conversations are routinely held without any effort to whisper. There is, generally, the concession made that phone calls should take place in the stairwell, but this is not always followed. The group work areas are intended to be noisier, but in reality they're just people sitting round a computer laughing at a youtube clip. In Durham we had separate computer rooms in the library - even in these people were normally very quiet.

So why the change? I have a few theories. One is that the totally ubiquitous nature of the mobile phone, along with much more common use of laptops, make people much less aware that there is a distinction between talking to someone (on the phone) and any other activity - the two blend together. In lectures it also is overwhelmingly international students who make the most noise - I don't know why this is - one guess is that if the lecture is not interesting then it may be even less interesting if it's not in your native language (and thus even harder to follow), so it's easier to lapse into talking to a friend.

It's far from all doom and gloom though. I'm amazed how far technology has come along. It's common for lecturers to e-mail out slides or further reading to the class. Laptops are so much more common, the entire site has WiFi, collaborative work is so much easier with Google Docs. The number of journals that are accessible online is vastly improved, and the creaky authentication via ATHENS is all done invisibly now. The ability to VPN into Imperial's network from home is a far cry from the glacially slow dial-up service that Durham had. A few years of technology's development have made a big difference.

I would be intrigued if other people have comments about how lectures have changed.