Category Archives: Silly British Things

Tube Strike and the Walk to Work

Two days after the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 tube bombings, and about two months before the planned start of all-night tube services on Fridays and Saturdays (“The Night Tube”), unions are staging a 24+hour strike that started to disrupt services during the Wednesday PM rush hour and led to no tube service at all on Thursday. This is the first strike to completely close the London Underground network since 2002 (although there have been plenty of quite disruptive partial closures due to so-called “industrial action” in our years here).

At first I thought the statement at the bottom was just a little bit ironic, but then I realized that some non-tube rail services, like the separate Docklands Light Railway and London Overground networks, were still running!

At first I thought the statement at the bottom was just a little bit ironic, but then I realized that some non-tube rail services, like the separate Docklands Light Railway and London Overground networks, were still running!

All four major unions are taking part in this strike, which is why the impact is so total. And why? Disputes over pay related to the introduction of the overnight services. Before you get too sympathetic for those poor train drivers having to work overnight, let me just remind you that the average driver salary (according to a report from the union itself!) is about $77,000 per year. Where else can you make that kind of money with no need for any special education or skills, and with excellent benefits (some reports suggest that they get around 50 days off per year)? The offer on the table is for a 2% raise along with a £2500 one-time bonus for those drivers on lines that will operate overnight. Plus, they are hiring 137 additional drivers to support the extra service, which means more jobs for the unions (isn’t that what they should want?). I can’t see how the public can really be on the unions’ side, given the massive disruption and real cost to the city as well as the terms of the deal and the fact that they don’t seem to be getting much of a message out there.  I really think such strikes should be illegal here like they are in New York!

Anyway, I was originally going to work from home to avoid the mess, but after some stern words from my employer insisting on relatively broadly defined “reasonable effort” to make it in, I decided to walk. I am in better shape than many others, as we live only a little more than 3 miles as the crow flies – but when walking that along streets and through the park that inflates to about 4.25 miles.

The straight line distance from home to work is only about 3.14 miles...but it typically takes at least 35 minutes on a normal day walking 5-10 minutes at each end and using one or two tube lines.

The straight line distance from home to work is only about 3.14 miles…but it typically takes at least 35 minutes on a normal day walking 5-10 minutes at each end and using one or two tube lines.

Here was my walking route this morning - one of the best things about London is the fact I could walk a different way each time and see new and interesting things, all while getting there and all being safe!

Here was my walking route this morning – one of the best things about London is the fact I could walk a different way each time and see new and interesting things, all while getting there and all being safe. I thought I was cutting a good diagonal across the park but ended up way too far east…but of course it isn’t so easy to get across the Serpentine in the middle!

Last night the strike was supposed to start at 6 or 630 pm, so they advised everyone to complete their journeys by 6pm. I had a late meeting and was in the office until about 630pm, but decided to still give the tube a shot. It was amazing – best commute home ever! Peak service levels were still running, but there were hardly any passengers! I should have gotten some pictures of the empty trains, but didn’t. By the time I exited at home at King’s Cross around 7pm they were starting to ramp down some services – the Metropolitan Line seemed to be the first to go, not surprisingly as it has the longest reach outside of London and also tends to be the most unionist stalwart (senior drivers seem to prefer this route because it is relatively long, has fewer passengers, and mostly outdoors in the countryside!).

To try to keep the city moving, Transport for London has mobilized about 200 extra buses – not a huge number compared to the approximately 8000 buses on the street each day, but targeted can be helpful – as well as additional Thames riverboat services. The key issue is that most* of the suburban rail services are still operating, leading to large volumes of passengers needing to travel from terminals to their final destinations (*there is a separate strike on First Great Western, the operator serving Paddington, due to concerns over reduced on-board train staff on the new long-distance trains that will be introduced in the next couple of years).

As I walked past Euston Station at 7:30 this morning, there were already big queues waiting for buses to take people onward to their destinations in the city...

As I walked past Euston Station at 7:30 this morning, there were already big queues waiting for buses to take people onward to their destinations in the city…

In addition to some non-red buses (gasp!), TfL also pressed some old Routemasters into use - here is one operating on the 205 route which runs parallel to the original 1863 tube line serving Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, King's Cross St. Pancras, and near Liverpool Street railway terminals.

In addition to some non-red buses (gasp!), TfL also pressed some old Routemasters into use – here is one operating on the 205 route which runs parallel to the original 1863 tube line serving Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, King’s Cross St. Pancras, and near Liverpool Street railway terminals.

After the long walk this morning I don’t think I’ll want to do that again tonight, but I have a work social event after work and I should be able to get a bus or use the operating Overground service to get home later in the evening. The real question, I suppose, is whether there will be additional strikes over this issue and how the dispute gets resolved (and whether it impacts the start of the night tube services in September or not!).

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A Visit to Cambridge and its Transit

After getting back from Asia at the end of November I was able to take a couple of days off, and on Thanksgiving I traveled up to Cambridge to visit Astrid for lunch and see her office.

It was great to see what her commute is like – surely it must be one of the highest-quality commutes in terms of speed and space, with a non-stop train every 30 minutes all day from King’s Cross station just a five-minute walk from home…(if also one of the most expensive commutes in the world)! I couldn’t even make out the names of the local stations as we zoomed northward at 100mph on the East Coast Main Line, which is one of the premier long-distance lines in the UK from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh. About halfway to Cambridge we slowed down, near the funny-named Hitchin Station (32 miles out from King’s Cross), and turned off onto the Cambridge Line.

The new Hitchin Flyover, which opened about a year ago to enable trains from London to Cambridge to turn off the East Coast Main Line without having to cross the southbound tracks (c) Network Rail by Marcus Dawson

The new Hitchin Flyover, which opened about a year ago to enable trains from London to Cambridge to turn off the East Coast Main Line without having to cross the southbound tracks (c) Network Rail by Marcus Dawson

After a nice lunch near Astrid’s office, I had a few hours to kill before meeting her again for the train back to London on our way to a great Thanksgiving Dinner with some ex-pat friends. So what was I to do? Visit museums of historic sites in Cambridge, which is undoubtedly one of the quaintest towns in the UK? NO! I’m went to ride the busway!

I know that sounds crazy – and it is – but let me assure you that the line in Cambridge (well, really outside of Cambridge) is no ordinary busway. The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway is the world’s longest guided busway at 16 miles. Every day Astrid walks along part of the busway, the southern section near the railway station; I rode the longer northern section that starts on the outskirts of Cambridge.

The start of the busway on the edge of town, near some new-style apartment complexes. Note the marking indicating the roadway is for "GUIDED BUS" only.

The start of the busway on the edge of town, near some new-style apartment complexes. Note the marking indicating the roadway is for “GUIDED BUS” only.

The guided busway from the top of a double-decker - the busway follows a former rail alignment through open countryside.

The guided busway from the top of a double-decker – the busway follows a former rail alignment through open countryside.

Each bus that uses the busway has been specially modified with wheels on both sides, which are literally guided by the concrete curbs (kerbs in the UK!), which effectively does the steering the driver doesn’t have to. This allows two things: the right-of-way to be narrower than would be required by codes for a normal roadway (20 feet instead of 31 feet), and the buses can go faster than they otherwise could (55mph). However, it does mean that other buses can’t be substituted, and other vehicles (e.g. police/fire/ambulance) can’t use the right-of-way either. Of course, one of the concerns about bus-only roadways in some places is the temptation to convert them to car use later on – that can never happen here!

At each access point there are "car traps" to prevent access. You can also see how the guideway narrows at the starting point - you can definitely feel the bus being guided into place by the wheels and the concrete curbs.

At each access point there are “car traps” to prevent access. You can also see how the guideway narrows at the starting point – you can definitely feel the bus being guided into place by the wheels and the concrete curbs.

Here we are about to pass a single-decker. Despite the narrow width we pass at high speeds very close together!

Here we are about to pass a single-decker. Despite the narrow width we pass at high speeds very close together!

There are three services simply labeled A, B, and C that operate on the busway (A and C with single-decker buses and B with double-deckers). During weekday peak hours there is a bus every 4 minutes, and every 7.5 minutes all day. You could ask yourself, where are the riders if the busway goes through nothing? But they seem to generate enough demand with the park-and-ride lots and the small villages around Cambridge, and four buses each hour all day continue to Huntingdon, a bigger town that is more than an hour from Cambridge.

This is a screenshot of thebusway's website, where they try their best to make buses look cool! You can see the route layout on the left as well.

This is a screenshot of thebusway’s website, where they try their best to make buses look cool! You can see the route layout on the left as well.

I got off at the end of the dedicated busway at St Ives. That’s St. Ives, Huntingdonshire, not St. Ives Cornwall. The two villages are about 350 miles apart, and while there was some nice river-front areas, I can confirm that the Huntingdonshire one is far inferior to the Cornish one! Apparently it is not clear which St. Ives the famous nursery rhyme refers to, but I’ll put my money on Cornwall – although this one is apparently a long-time market town, so who knows (for the record there is also a St. Ives in Dorset, which conveniently enough is roughly halfway between the others).

A last bit of sunlight disappears across the River Great Ouse (at something like 3:30!).

A last bit of sunlight disappears across the River Great Ouse (at something like 3:30!).

St. Ives is located on the River Great Ouse, which of course itself is a great name...so great that it is given to several British rivers. This one is the largest and longest, however, and the fourth longest river in the UK. The famous Cam in Cambridge, of punting fame, is a tributary. This river flows out through Ely and King's Lynn into The Wash and the North Sea.

St. Ives is located on the River Great Ouse, which of course itself is a great name…so great that it is given to several British rivers. This one is the largest and longest, however, and the fourth longest river in the UK. The famous Cam in Cambridge, of punting fame, is a tributary. This river flows out through Ely and King’s Lynn into The Wash and the North Sea.

So, I hopped on the busway back to Cambridge to meet Astrid at the station. That’s it – I won’t bore you with any more busway stuff – but if you are interested you can read about it on Wikipedia. Although this sort of thing has been a sort of transit fad, I don’t see much more of it happening. Guided busways are kind of like monorails – always thought of as being a method of the future…we just never get there.

Speaking of Retro, Check Out the Preston Bus Station


Yes, I went to a bus station on my birthday - and not even to take a bus!

While yes, I am crazy, but there was a special reason – the Preston Bus Station is not exactly just any old bus station, and my interest in it ironically has nothing to do with buses!

It is one of the most striking examples around of Brutalist architecture, dating to 1969.  If you don’t know, Brutalism is a particular harsh (brutal, shall we say?) version of Modernism, typically carried out with sharp geometry and loads of concrete.  Wikipedia as always provides some good info, and interesting to see that its Brutalist Architecture page mentions some familiar characters – the Trellick Tower which we immortalized last year as the ugliest building in London, the Washington Metro, and three buildings at my alma mater (the law school, Forbes Quad – sorry, called Posvar Hall now, and my own School of Information Sciences building).

The main feature is the very long, repetitive facade - it almost causes optical pain as your eyes try to focus!

The Preston Bus Station, which with space for 40 buses on each side of the building is claimed as the second largest bus station in Europe, has gotten some wider attention because it is in danger – for more than 10 years now it has been on the chopping block.  This has raised some very interesting issues – on the one hand, it is an amazingly awful (hell, brutal – see pictures below) structure that certainly doesn’t seem “fit for purpose” anymore, it if ever was.  On the other hand, however, it is a landmark; the people of Preston have actually voted it as their favorite building, and it really captures the architecture and style of the time period.

Britain has a preservation movement that is even stronger than the US, but not surprisingly it is mostly focused on much older stuff.  What timeframe is appropriate for something to become historic?  Certainly lots of recent-past structures are demolished without thought, and that has happened throughout history – but after some period of time the thinking changes and those things that were viewed as so awful become quaint or retro or whatever.

The plan has been to knock it down and build a new city-center shopping complex; there have been several petitions to grant it landmark (known as “listed” here) status, all rejected.  The fight continues, and the economic slowdown has perhaps lessened the demand for the new shopping center.  Advocates have quite a nice website with a petition and a lot of other information about the building at http://www.prestonbusstation.co.uk.

So, what do you think – should this building be preserved?  Check out the rest of the pictures below to see the retro interiors!

The bus "gates" (a fancy word for whole in the wall, as there didn't seem to be any actual doors) are pretty plain queues with wooden posts between them, although the double-height gallery does allow a lot of light in.

We ventured up to the roof for a 'panoramic' view of Preston. Note the curvy edges that are supposed to reduce the impact of collisions against the outside wall. That yellow arrow in the back right looks fake but was really there (perhaps another collision avoidance measure!).

The multi-story car park above the bus station was virtually abandoned (at least on a Saturday). Note the detail of the curved, smoothed concrete (it does remind you of the vaulted ceilings in the Washington Metro, doesn't it?).

One of the real highlights was the totally-retro buffet in the middle of the concourse. Doesn't that English Breakfast look appetizing? You should note that "buffet" in British means "a small cafe at a bus or railway station."

Astrid was a bit naughty and tried to get some inside pictures of the buffet, because the whole place (including those eating inside) appeared to be a snapshot of 1973. Unfortunately, the glares caused her to only get this shot of the serving area. The seats were bright yellow rotating bucket seats, like my old high school cafeteria.

This looks like a really comfortable place to wait for a bus, doesn't it?

The worst design feature (by far) is the fact that you have to access the building by one of three "subways" (British for underground passageway). This was to not impede the flow of buses, but of course makes the building an isolated island and the subways the kind of place you would be likely to be stabbed or shot or something (at least in a US city). Apparently, for many years people have violated the rule of no crossing the bus traffic area to avoid using the subways, so the city is finally considering making an official crossing. We were quite confused by this sign until we realized that it was for people accessing taxis (not taxis driving down the ramp!).

So retro! Not exactly inviting, this is the path from the civic center (Guild Hall) to the bus station.

Overall, it was well worth our 15-min stop to see this potential landmark that is listed on the World Monument Fund’s “endangered monuments” list.  I’m certainly in favor of saving it, but I have to admit I’m not exactly sure how to do it.  It doesn’t seem to be too popular or useful as a bus station, and conversion to something else would quite possibly ruin it.  In a bigger world city it could be a cool museum of brutalism perhaps, but I’m not sure that Preston can sustain that.