Staggering Piccadilly Line Trains

Does London Underground appreciate that the vast majority of tube passengers (or “customers”, “clients”, “johns” or whatever might be the latest business-speak term for the long-suffering punters) simply want to be delivered to their destination as quickly as possible (and in reasonable comfort, but let’s put that issue to one side for the moment).

Why, then, would the operators deliberately slow tube trains down?

I’ve been pondering this question on many an occasion over the last year when I’ve had the dubious pleasure of making use of the Piccadilly Line to travel into central London from Acton Town (previously I took the Central Line from Ealing Broadway, which has a different set of problems).

Take last Saturday. I was concerned how long it would take me to get to Golders Green due to the closure of the Northern Line, I understand to test new signalling. As it turned out I needn’t have worried, since a frequent replacement bus service whisked me there from Finchley Road (though anyone who didn’t twig they were best off catching the Jubilee Line there might well have arrived late at their destination). Still, credit where credit’s due.

Anyway, when I left home last Saturday morning I naturally had no foreknowledge of the impending outbreak of efficiency at Finchley Road, so I was keen to get there as soon as possible. When I saw a Piccadilly Line train on platform 4 at Acton Town, I jumped on immediately, even though there were no free seats and I had to stand. When traveling into London, Acton Town is the first station on the Piccadilly Line after two branches come together. Well, they partially come together at Acton Town, since there are two platforms serving Piccadilly Line trains in each direction and two sets of track each way, it seems for much of the distance towards Hammersmith. Sometimes there are trains at both platforms and occasionally there’s even an announcement telling you the other train will leave first.

But on Saturday there was no Piccadilly Line train waiting at platform 3.

Nevertheless, to my considerable annoyance, the full train I was on was OVERTAKEN by TWO other Piccadilly Line trains as it trundled towards Hammersmith. Since the Piccadilly Line operators like to maintain the gap between trains this happenstance added maybe as much as 10 minutes onto my 1/2 hour journey to Green Park to pick up the Jubilee Line.

And the trains that overtook us were fairly empty. That’s right: a full train with hundreds of passengers was held up to allow relatively empty trains, perhaps with only scores of passengers to pass.

What’s going on? The only conceivable explanation is that the Piccadilly Line operators are not concerned directly with the passengers at all. No, they’re simply focused on their timetable. Operational processes, I suspect, take priority over customer service. Now, a glance at the Piccadilly Line reveals there is no branch in the east, only in the west:

130717 Piccadilly Line

It’s not outwith the bounds of possibility that the Piccadilly Line timetable ensures trains join the merged section of track based on where they’ve come from. That is, it could be that trains from Uxbridge are held up to allow Heathrow trains to overtake. I know: this is stupid. The trains appear to be identical. It’s not as if there’ll be a knock-on effect if trains arrive at the other end of the line in the wrong order. In fact, the trains being identical is another problem with the Piccadilly Line: the Heathrow trains need more luggage storage space. More about that issue another time perhaps.

Another possibility is that the trains are being ordered according to their destination. Not all trains go to Cockfosters. Some terminate before then. But holding up trains to ensure that (say) every other train goes to Cockfosters is almost as stupid as ordering the trains based on where they’ve come from. The reason not every train goes to Cockfosters is presumably because they are fairly empty when they get there. So delaying trains full of hundreds of people at Acton for the convenience of a few passengers at the other end of the line would make no sense. Which isn’t to say that’s not why it’s being done.

As I mentioned earlier, Piccadilly line eastbound train ordering is usually achieved by holding trains at Acton Town station. Infuriatingly, you often can’t tell whether the train at platform 3 will leave first or the one at platform 4. Simply providing this information would save hundreds of person-hours of tube travel time every day. But maybe (understandably) the operators don’t want hundreds of people rushing from one train to the other – though not everyone would necessarily move, since there’s the issue of access to those precious seats to consider.

But why hold up any trains at all? Holding up trains ALWAYS delays many passengers whereas managing train ordering – or, as we’ll see, the intervals between them – generally speeds up very few journeys.

Here’s my advice to Transport for London: stop trying to be clever. Start trains according to a timetable, but after that just run them as fast as possible. Hold them at stations only long enough for passengers to get on and off.

The calculation the operators should be carrying out, but I very much doubt they are is whether the amount of time they are costing the passengers on held trains is less than that saved by passengers who would otherwise miss the held train.

Perhaps this becomes clearer if we consider what happens when trains are held to even the intervals between Piccadilly Line trains in Central London. There’s only one tunnel and one set of platforms there, so there’s no issue of trains overtaking each other. Yet frequently – maybe on as many as half of all journeys – you sit in a station and hear that “we’re being held to regulate the service”. But consider the effect of this procedure. ALL the passengers on a train are being held up so that a few passengers further down the line find the train hasn’t already left when they reach the platform.

Such train staggering only makes sense when trains are fairly empty and many passengers are arriving at the platform. But the reverse is the case for morning journeys into central London and evening journeys out. When I’m on staggered Piccadilly Line trains it’s almost always the case that many more passengers are being delayed than are being convenienced.

If TfL is not swayed by the simple numeric argument, perhaps they should consider the business argument that the more often people have a rapid journey, the more they will be inclined to use the Underground rather than alternatives, such as taxis.

My advice to TfL’s London Underground operations team is to stop dicking around trying to timetable Piccadilly Line trains along the whole line. Release them at regular intervals and then get them to their destination as quickly as possible. Simples.