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Why London closes when there is snow

Snow Day!!! \o/

As a person who originates from Snowy Parts I'm usually somewhat dubious about disruptions due to snow in Southeast England. Generally the media seems to hype up the disruption rather more than is warranted. Naturally people hear that there is severe weather and sensibly stay home. This time though, there's sufficient snow that frankly, you all may as well go back to bed.

The southeast (and London in particular) is just not equipped to deal with snow. I mean that quite literally. Five years ago when I was fresh from Snowy Parts there was a cold snap with lots of ice piling up everywhere. When I enquired as to why it wasn't cleared I was told that London as a whole owns something like three snowploughs. I mocked this idea as clearly three snowploughs are insufficient to deal with severe weather in such a large city. But now, five years later, I'm of a different opinion. If we only get severe weather once every five years then there really is no point spending millions on preparations for something that rarely happens.

Of course, there are lots of curmudgeonly media types *waves to the Togmeister* who grumble about things like the tube not running when it snows heavily. There are accusations that LUL's shutdown means that nobody can get to work. This is true. But nobody thinks through to the logical extension. In London very few people live near to the place they work. Many come from outside using national rail. So when the big boys shut down their train service nobody gets to London. Why does this affect LUL? Because tube staff are no different from any other person who works in London. We also don't tend to live within walking distance of our place of employment and many come from outside. So if there is no national transport and road conditions are dangerous to drive on then we end up with having nobody to run the LUL network.

This reasoning impresses nobody. 'It's London UNDERGROUND!', they holler, 'There's no WEATHER underground!'. Actually no. Over half of LUL track is not in tunnel sections which means trying to get trains through appalling conditions. Not to mention that nearly all of the trains are stabled outdoors overnight as those pesky victorians were too lazy to dig out huge, underground caverns so that we could park up out of the rain. Tsk.

I hate driving in snow. Or any inclement weather really. Aside from anything else the cabs of trains are never sealed properly and the heaters are often poor. This means that the passengers might feel slightly chilly in the back but the driver is sitting in a tiny metal box with air currents (and often snow and rain) roaring through the gaps in the doors and windows. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's fucking freezing. But can we huddle over and resign ourselves to our fate and dream of hot cuppas? No we flippin' can't because of all the ice skating we need to do.

Trains have thin metal wheels. These balance on top of thin metal rails. When the rails are wet due to rain, snow or ice the train has a nasty habit of developing wheelspin. What's happening with wheelspin is a lack of traction. The driver tries to move the train forward but the wheels can't gain any grip and spin rather uselessly on the wet, slippery rails. That's not the problematic part. Wheelspin when trying to move a train is a mere inconvenience and can be mostly got round by reducing the amount of power being fed to the motors and keeping the train in shunt for a while before gradually increasing the speed. Any idiot can get a train moving in wet weather, wheelspin or no wheelspin. Even poor visibility isn't too much of a problem if the driver is mindful of what signals mean and keeps the speed down where necessary. So once the train has got going it can (assuming there's no buildup of ice or snow) race along as speedily as ever. Moving trains ain't really an issue. No, it's the stopping that's tricky.

The thing you'll have noticed about trains is they are big. Very big. And heavy. Each LUL train takes at least a thousand passengers which just adds to the weight. Fully loaded my train weights about 300 tons. As I've mentioned many times before in this blog: Trains don't just stop. It takes a while. In wet weather there are two possible methods of stopping a train - each comes with it's own difficulties.

One approach would be to bring the train slowly into the platform. Seems sensible on the face of it but that style of driving doesn't account for trainstops. Trainstops are devices fitted to the track at points where there is signalling. Their job is to knock the brakes on from underneath so that if a train goes past a danger signal for some reason, the train will automatically have an emergency brake application. They stop trains going up the arse of the one in front. This means that anyone sitting in the crumple zone (aka 'the cab') does not die. I like trainstops. Lots. They are nifty.

The problem is that on some platforms you can either continue on in the direction you are travelling in or be told to reverse. In which case you'd go to the other end and drive in the opposite direction. This means a signal and trainstop at either end of the platform. Trainstops at the 'wrong' end (i.e. the rear) of the platform aren't really required if the train is just going to continue on. They are only there to stop the train going the other way without permission. In fact, they are potentially a problem as they'd knock the brakes on at the rear of the train when there is no reason for it to be stopped. So as the train enters the platform they smoothly tuck down so as not to hamper the brakes. They stay down for a fixed amount of time - however long it takes for a train to enter and fully berth in the platform at normal line speed. Then they rise up again. Have you spotted the problem? Yes, it's that bit about 'normal line speed'. If the train is creeping in because the driver doesn't want to skid or overshoot the platform then it's going to take longer to fully berth. So the trainstop will rise again before the train has fully passed over and the brakes get knocked on. Then there's an eight minute delay as the driver shuts down and goes back to manually take the brakes off. Now imagine that every train which enters the platform has the same problem. Clearly driving slowly isn't a sensible option.

The alternative is to come in at normal line speed and brake normally. In dry weather that's no issue but when it's wet and slippy then the wheels lock and the train quite literally slides along the track. This happened to me over a set of very bumpy points once and my heart nearly stopped as I tried to work out if I was going to derail or not. The only way to counter the wheels locking is to release the brakes which is not exactly conducive to stopping. If the driver cannot then get the train under control then there's a good chance it will go through the station starter signal. If that's red then there's going to be a long delay as the driver phones the signaller and reports a signal passed at danger. So that's not a good plan either.

The trick to driving in the wet is to use the Westinghouse brake to add tiny amounts of air to the brake chamber. This slows the train slightly and means that once the normal brake is applied there is already some pressure in the brake chamber so the wheels don't lock and the train doesn't skid. Why not just use Westinghouse all the way in? Well it's a bit more complicated than this but basically there's only so much air held in reserve and it takes time for the compressors to create more. So the driver can only use a touch of Westinghouse and then has to use the other brake. Which requires a hell of a lot of concentration and is oddly tiring. Add to that a freezing, rain-soaked, windswept driver who is having to concentrate lots to get the train running smoothly in the first place and who is battling poor visibility and you can see why I hate driving in the rain and snow. Frankly, it sucks and I'd far rather be driving in the snuggly warm tunnels. But the only line which is wholly underground is the Victoria Line. Which brings me neatly to my next point. Or rather, points.

Points are bits of track which move between two fixed positions. They are the railway equivalent of steering wheels. Fixed in one position the train rolls onto the lefthand road. Fixed in the other position and the train takes the righthand road. Very simple, very useful, VERY much a moving metal part which is therefore prone to freezing in one position when you leave them lying around outdoors in winter. It's a bit of a bummer really. I remember a few years ago we had a moderate amount of snow. All the staff turned up, all the passengers turned up and together we all waited on the platforms for our trains to also turn up. The passengers weren't worried because there were loads of staff milling about so clearly we were running. The staff weren't worried because all week LUL management had been putting up notices advising of the coming cold-snap and had arranged for the sleet trains and de-icer units to run throughout the night, keeping the track clear of slush and snow.

After a good long wait phonecalls were made: It transpired that the drivers who had been bringing the trains out of the various depots and sidings had been unable to move them. Although points all have heaters they - crucially - didn't have very good heaters and the company supposed to be responsible for points *cough*Metronet*cough* hadn't bothered checking them. They were probably all too busy trying to find ways to spend the millions they ripped the government off for. So all the drivers trudged back to their depot and left the station staff to tell the customers. This came as something of a relief as it's somewhat embarrassing to have to tell a passenger that there are no trains available due to the cold weather only to have them turn around, point and say 'What about those eight trains though?'. 'Well.....'

So all in all, it's generally not worth anyone bothering to attempt going to work in London today. A far better option is to stay home and wrap up warm. Let's face it - if the weather is so bad that even Severe Delays isn't turning up then it ain't worth bothering.


ETA: Oh! I certainly wasn't expecting *this* amount of feedback! So in case I miss anyone - Welcome and thanks for stopping by. :-)

A few people have asked if they may friend. Of course you may, it does my ego good (though I may need wider doors to fit my head through).
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thanks, that was very interesting! I made it to work via the Northern Line, but I hope it'll still be running in the evening!
Hopefully someone will at least have managed to clear the main roads so that some buses can run. But keep an eye on the website for travel updates just in case lines start shutting down completely. Remember that the tube staff working the later shifts may now be unable to get to work and so there will be nobody to take over once the morning crew have finished. If the worst comes to the worst then insist they hire another jeep for you. :-)
Thanks, this should be put up as a general announcement; it's always fun to hear the not-so publicised bits about the LU.
Heh. Good idea. It might help to combat the inevitable bashing from lazy Evening Standard journalists.
very interesting, i have to admit i hadn't though of that (the staff :P).

i gave up on the tubes and walked to work instead.

and built snowmen.
Make sure you build Calvin & Hobbes style snowmen. And take photos!
Well written. And handy to point people to.
Thankyou. :-)
Hi!

Thankyou, it's lovely to get nice feedback. Makes a change from people grumping about my work all the time. :-)
I followed a link here from , and found this post really interesting. I knew it was a bit more complicated than "there isn't any weather underground", but didn't know any of the details. Thanks for giving us an informed explanation!
Thanks for this, very interesting.

Have added you to "friends" list so I can have your postings show up in my daily reading list :-)
Again, been pointed here by d_floorlandmine...

It is unfair people grump at you, and I can see why the underground would be affected - if only by the greater influx of people who decide to Tube in because the buses are crazy or they don't want to drive totally clogging it (I notice that whenever there's weather of any extreme many people forget how to drive and develop an allergy to thier indicator).

But overall I do find the general organisation of one of the biggest cities in the world when it comes to snow uttely baffling. The whole place just seems to turn to chaos. Yesterday in Melbourne huge sections of the city's electric blew due to the extreme heat and things just went on fairly normally by the sounds of it, but there were a lot of miffed people that missed the tennis final. The whole city didn't just break down like London seemed to!

Or maybe I'm just jealous because my boyfriend got the day off work in London, whereas I work in Wales - where it's also snowing - and is a lot more rural - and everything is as per normal, because the council decided that it would be a good idea to grit the streets last night!
Actually, the Melbourne transit authority cancelled over 500 train services on Friday because of the heat.

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24989508-12377,00.html



Excellent and informative blog, I shall be passing this along to curious types. I've friended you too, if that's ok?
Hi - thanks for this - I've been pointing my friends at this all day.

Count me as a Tube fan; I think the service is usually top-notch and rarely as dire as it's painted in the Evening Standard London media.
Hello, another one here via d_floorlandmine. Good edit, it's very useful to know these things!

One question (raised by my slightly more transport-geeky husband): is the Waterloo & City not entirely underground, or doesn't it count because it's so tiny?
*sniffs snootily*

It's more of a siding that we let passengers ride on.
Fascinating. I've added you btw.
Here via my delicious network; thanks for the informative and interesting read! Makes me appreciate just how well the T runs in Boston during inclement weather (though of course, we're used to snow, we've got another 6-12" coming tomorrow, sigh).
If we only get severe weather once every five years then there really is no point spending millions on preparations for something that rarely happens

I think the millions of pounds of lost earnings by the business sector might be recouped in a few million pounds worth of city investment.

From another commerce-related angle - NYC's tourism trade seems to truck right along in the winter. Considering how deserted London was today, maybe a couple million spent....

If nothing else, London looked rather pretty today, having people indoors because of snow-related blablabl seems to be a bit of a shame really.
Did someone throw a snowday party?

While you've been getting famous I managed to land on my arse trying to clear the car out and bounced off the garden wall leaving a nice inch long gash in the scalp that bled for about two hours.

I have nice When Snowmen Attack pictures as the camera was the only way to see my own scalp.

Sadly I see someone has pipped me to the obligitory Calvin and Hobbes link.
Owies. Please not to be doing that.

Thanks

That was eloquently written and really interesting. Well done you. I might circulate it at work; I work for Faiveley Transport (who service the Westinghouse brakes amongst other things) and we are full of train geeks who would love to read this.

Re: Thanks

Feel free to circulate.

I have a love/sulk relationship with Westinghouse brakes. I love them, I love how they work, I love how there's that seemingly neverending delay before the utter precision of the slowdown...but I sulk because it's been two years of driving now and I *still* can't get the braking bang-on even half of the time. :-)
Thanks, really helps to hear your perspective to counter the other vocal opinions from a less-informed point of view!
Just another random passer-by - thank you for posting this. It was really informative and definitely an eye-opener. :)
Thanks!

A Central Line user.

How interesting! Thank you.

FF, in the not too snowy north, Cheshire Plain to be exact.
Got pointed here by Miss Doseybat.

Sure the Victorians never made giant underground train caves.. that we know about! Some day soon one of the trapped devolved Victorian MoleMen will dig their way out and the depot will be discovered.

Briefly regarding the buses, I' seem to recall in the USA they can outfit the buses with snow-ploughs on the front and tire-chains (bad for the road, but surely acceptable for a reduced service).

I'm not surprised to hear the inside story about the trains. I've noticed that component parts often seem hand-cut and screws wherever they're needed not necessarily where they were designed. I still hadn't expected the driver cab to be quite that utilitarian!
I suppose that there's far too much stock and track out there to redesign to something better outright.
Molemen??? Are you TRYING to scare me off the job forever?!?! It's bad enough having zombies down there!

I dunno what the deal with the buses was. I think that decision came from TfL as opposed to any individual bus company which is managed by TfL. But all of them were off the road which seems excessive. OK there are the obvious points like staff getting to work but in my area the roads were clear.

Rolling stock is often very old. My train is older than I am. And over the years there have been many fixes and additions until now it's a conglomeration of train.
Hello, pointed towards this by Dosybat.

I found this *very* interesting, as I was being rather bemused by the whole "London/South East Shutdown" thing. Seeing as I am in Moscow at around -20c. Aside from the "we're not accustomed to it" reason, I couldn't really quite understand why the disruption I was hearing about was so severe.

Now I understand...at least when it comes to the Tube. Thanks ever so much for that one.

Although now I do find myself wondering...how on earth do they make sure the Moscow Metro keeps on running (regular as clockwork, even at -20c...and parts of it are above ground too...although most of their depos are underground, which is quite sensible...)?

Anyway, thanks again.
Here via (lj user=doseybat)

thank you, this is very interesting and educational, and hopefully we'll complain less about it all now.

Cheers,

J.
Excellent - thanks for this info! A train driver once told me about leaves on the line which also cleared up a mystery.

Here thanks to doseybat btw....
How hard would it be for LUL to send something like this to the media the next time there's likely to be "travel chaos"? Or to inform customers of this? I appreciate most customers aren't interested in anything beyond "How am I going to get to work/home", but for the cost of a few posters, I'd have though the reduction in hassle for the station staff would be well worth it.
I think if LUL tried to put something official out then naysayers would just say it was a load of excuses rather than an explanation. Besides which, if they are from the press office then none of the people there that I've met have ever driven a train, worked on a station, operated signals, driven a bus, operated a riverboat....etc and don't know anything about the practicalities of the job (though they are great at what they do). So they'd lack the personal pov on how difficult things can be.
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