Category Archives: Transit
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).
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.
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).
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!).
Yesterday I published a look at travel statistics for 2014 – just shy of 115,000 miles flown on 61 flights, both of which were new records. Here I am going to review the year’s travel chronologically… in pictures. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I must note that most of the time on business trips is spent in non-photogenic (i.e. ugly!) conference or hotel rooms…but I’m picking out the highlights here from special events or any extra time after the work was done!
JANUARY – AN ANNUAL PILGRIMAGE
Although we started the year in Dubrovnik, I was soon off to Washington DC for my annual trip to a massive transportation conference (in 2014 there were more than 12,000 people attending!). Unlike in past years, where I added on extra time to see family or for other work on the East Coast, 2014 was a quick turnaround.
FEBRUARY – BACK TO BYZANTIUM
In February, I spent a week in Istanbul for work, returning a little more than a year after our Christmas 2013 trip. Astrid went to Istanbul later in the year with our friend Sarah. While I spent more time riding the trains, I believe they spent more time shopping in the bazaar. There are things for both of us to like in Istanbul, that is for sure!
MARCH MEANT MEXICO
March was my first time in Mexico, with a week-long trip to Mexico City. It was interesting – amazing hospitality from our local hosts, including caring for my boss when he got sick during the week (and I had to take over everything!), great food, and interesting challenges for the metro – but also the feeling of being in an armed bubble, with a big security force surrounding us at all times (even surrounding our bus in pick-up trucks – no doubt also a type of hospitality, but not one that made me feel at ease).
APRIL – A MIDWEST TOUR
At the start of April, a colleague and I made a trip through the Midwest of the US, visiting Dayton, Cleveland, suburban Chicago and Des Moines.
Although business was in suburban Chicago, we had a weekend day to spend in Chicago.
The last stop on the Midwest Tour was Des Moines. Not much to report from “flyover country”, although to be fair it was a decent place that exceeded my expectations. I thought I had a picture of a sign that said “Des Moines – not as bad as you think” but I can’t find it!
APRIL IN LOVELY LISBOA
MAY MEGA-TRIP TO THE US AND CANADA
After the work part was done, I had essentially three days on my own before meeting Astrid in Los Angeles for the family part of this massive May trip. As you can imagine, I agonized over how to spend this precious time. Visiting friends in the US was basically ruled out due to working weekday, and from a starting point of Buffalo I had to end up on the fourth day in LA. I seriously considered a visit to the Canadian Club factory in Windsor, Ontario followed by a dark tourism stop in Detroit, but I figured that wouldn’t work so well by transit and with lots of luggage.
Instead, I chose to visit Calgary and Edmonton, two Canadian cities (and two excellent modern light rail systems) that I had always wanted to see. This required a complicated travel plan, especially since air travel to and within Canada is generally pretty expensive (with the airport in Toronto, for example, having some of the highest taxes/fees of any in the world). I devised a cunning plan, combining the purchase of cheap segments with an available first-class miles redemption from Dallas to Calgary (for the expensive cross-border part). Now, you are probably thinking that Dallas is slightly off any sensible route from Buffalo to Calgary…but such is life in “air world”.
It started brilliantly; a hard but rewarding day’s work in Buffalo, with an early arrival and easy check-in at the airport, and settling down in the US Airways Club with a nice glass of wine. 30 seconds later, the iPad revealed that my flight to Dallas that night was cancelled! Instead of a relaxing night in the Hyatt Regency DFW and an easy 10am start the next morning, I had a ‘free’ night at the crappy Days Inn Buffalo Airport and a 4:30am wake-up for a 6am flight to Chicago, to then connect to Dallas all in time for my scheduled 10:55 flight to Calgary. I was actually hoping that my extensive luggage wouldn’t make it through both tight connections (so they would have to deliver it to me in Calgary instead of me carrying it!), but it did.
Some tense moments and a little running at DFW got me to the Calgary flight just in time…and the plan was back on track. Until Canadian border officials in Calgary didn’t like my reason for being there – “just to visit the city” – and decided to give me an extra private interrogation and a VERY thorough check of all my bags. I thought Canadians were all supposed to be friendly? Again, I know that a lot of people get treated like this all the time, so I shouldn’t complain – but after a 4:30am start and the hassle of the day, I wasn’t in the mood. After that, I have to say, Calgary and Edmonton were nice cities.
I then ventured even further north to Edmonton, in the comfort of a Greyhound (Canada) Express service. Who can argue with $25?
After more than a week visiting families in Los Angeles and Baltimore (where we proudly watched my little brother graduate from High School), we made a quick stop in New Jersey to visit our storage unit, pack up a few things, and then head home.
JUNE – JUST AS BUSY
After getting back home from the mega-trip, we headed right back out for a quick weekend in Manchester. We had scheduled this long before the May madness was arranged based on a great deal – the ability to add a domestic flight within the UK onto either (or both) ends of any European award flight redemption on British Airways for free. So, despite living a 5-minute walk from Euston Station, which has express trains every 20 minutes to Manchester that take about 2 hours, we actually flew from Heathrow as an add-on to our flight back from Lisbon (there can be up to a year stop-over in between, as I understand it – it just requires you knowing what you want in advance, because changes cost about $50 each).
Later in June I was very happy to be able to return to Malaysia and Singapore. Despite the extreme heat I really liked both places on my first visit in 2013, and it was great to confirm those first impressions in 2014.
JULY – HOME JAMES
We didn’t really do much in July.
AUGUST IN CHINA
After a break, it was on the road again to China in August, with the first stop being a week in Shanghai. Although I was there in 2010 on one of my first work trips, so much has changed in Shanghai in that short time, including the continued massive growth of the metro into the world’s largest.
At the end of the week I took a train from Shanghai to Nanjing, which is a little under 200 miles. The high-speed train took only about an hour and 20 minutes (even with a couple of intermediate stops). As my train proceeded northwest, the atmosphere got more and more desolate…away from the coast and the financial center of Shanghai are the factories, which produce the famously dreadful Chinese air quality.
After three days in Nanjing I flew to Hong Kong for my final stop. This was my first flight on Dragonair, the shorter-distance subsidiary of Cathay Pacific. The flight was good, although the delay on the ground was longer than the entire 2:30 flying time! I understand that this is becoming more and more common as Chinese air space is often taken up by the military. It was very stormy in Hong Kong, but having selected a hotel adjacent to the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station, I didn’t even have to go outside!
At the end of August, after so many trips through Helsinki Airport, I finally got out and entered Finland! Astrid and I had a great long weekend there, enjoying the long hours of daylight, the relatively laid back atmosphere, and especially the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
I started September in Vienna, on a quick one-day trip to that amazing city. It definitely requires a longer return with Astrid! From there I had to be in Barcelona a day later, so I took 22 hours to cross Europe by overnight sleeper train to Zurich and then on across Switzerland to Geneva and then into France and ultimately Spain by high-speed TGV train.
After Barcelona, while Astrid went to Istanbul for a week’s vacation, I headed to Delhi in India – a new country! It was overwhelming – a week of hard work but also Delhi belly, extreme poverty, and amazing transformation as they build one of the world’s biggest modern metro systems.
OCTOBER – DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
A week after returning from Delhi – just enough time for my stomach to recover from a week straight of Indian food – it was time for Tex-Mex on another trip to Texas, this time primarily to Austin.
After Austin, we hopped on a Megabus to Houston for a quick overnight stop. Houston was the largest city in the US I’d never been to, and I have to say it was a bit more cosmopolitan than I was expecting.
By far the most important happening in October, however, was getting our permanent residency here in the UK! After a lot of paperwork and money – and a test – we made it…see our separate post about it.
NOVEMBER – A FORBIDDEN CITY AND A “PRETTY GOOD” (maybe even great) WALL
After a special birthday visit to the top of the Shard in London, I headed off on Finnair (via Helsinki once more) to the Far East, this time to Beijing.
We tried for the second year in a row (and succeeded this time!) to visit the famous German Christmas Market in Birmingham – it is said to be the largest in the world not actually in Deutschland. Astrid attempted to eat a bratwurst that was 1/2 meter long, while I chomped down on some schnitzel.
To wrap it up, our very relaxing Algarve holiday in Portugal that you’ve been reading about.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading my annual chronicle. I’m sorry that more of these didn’t come out over the course of the year.
Best wishes to all for a happy and healthy 2015!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.