Track work: it happens everywhere

In keeping with the new approach to track work previously announced, yesterday WMATA released a one year look-ahead for track work and station closures on the Metrorail system. As outlined when the scheme was announced, these are complete closures. No trains will operate through the affected areas, and shuttle buses will provide replacement service. Many of the closures are related to the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, and involve closing the Orange Line between East Falls Church and West Falls Church. Some of the closures are more extensive, such as between L’Enfant Plaza and Southern Ave., Glenmont and Fort Totten, and Pentagon City and King Street (not all on the same weekend, obviously).

In related news, London Underground issued another announcement yesterday concerning the impending suspension of the District and Circle lines between High Street Kensington and Edgware Road from July 23 to August 23. This four-week closure will permit substantial infrastructure upgrades: track renewal, including drainage improvements and power upgrades to support new rolling stock.

However, unlike WMATA, London Underground will not run any dedicated shuttles. The affected by the closure are all in Zone 1, an area well-served by Tube and local bus services. Many of the stations in the closed area are accessible from multiple lines, and at those stations, only the platforms for the District and Circle lines will be closed. For the remaining stations, passengers will be able to use nearby Tube stations and local bus services.

Already, complaints have begun to come in about WMATA’s new approach. But the reality is that these kinds of closures, both on Metrorail and the London Underground, are vital. Both systems have suffered from periods of underinvestment and decay, and now they need major overhaul in order to attain a state of good repair. For Metrorail riders, the situation is worse, because the Metrorail system doesn’t offer the same kind of redundancy as the Tube. WMATA generally has no choice but to run shuttle buses, and riders loathe shuttle buses. At the same time, the work must be done. For better or worse, the periods around holidays often have lower ridership than usual for the Metrorail system, and are ideal for performing track work which requires a major closure.
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What can we do with station subtitles?

Today, the WMATA Board formally endorsed the idea of shortening some Metrorail station names by introducing station subtitles, a concept first proposed by Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert and Matt Johnson. WMATA also released detailed information on the final design for the 7000 Series railcars. Incidentally, this design work was done by Antenna Design (who I’ve endorsed several times in the past).

The 7000 Series will be WMATA’s first railcars to feature automatic voice announcements, among other advanced passenger information features. With WMATA adopting station subtitles, how should they interact with the 7000 Series’ voice announcements?
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Heritage trains and CBTC

Today (June 30, 2011) was the last day of service for the 1967 Tube Stock on the London Underground’s Victoria Line. The 1967 Stock had served the Victoria Line since it opened in 1968, but with the commissioning of new signalling (Invensys Rail’s DTG-R) along with the delivery of the 2009 Tube Stock, the 1967 Stock are no longer welcome on the Victoria Line. The new signalling means that the 2009 Tube Stock are the only trains which can run on the line in passenger service; the old system (used by the ’67 Tube Stock) will soon be decommissioned. Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that TfL will preserve an entire train, so today’s last run was probably the very last we will see of the 1967 Stock in passenger service, on any line.

At the same time, there’s a very good question to be asked: with the Victoria Line having been resignalled, where would a preserved 1967 Tube Stock run? Of course, the train could theoretically run elsewhere on the Tube, but soon there won’t be many other places to go. On the Jubilee Line, SelTrac is now in use across the entire length of the line; the conventional signal heads are all bagged up, and the trainstops pinned down. Resignalling of the Northern Line with SelTrac is in progress, and the Picadilly Line will follow it. The sub-surface lines are not far behind; according to news from TfL, they are to be resignalled with Bombardier CITYFLO 650. Eventually the whole of the Tube will be resignalled, and then where will preserved trains go?
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Where does Chromaroma’s data come from?

A few days ago, I was reading about Chromaroma, “a game that shows you your movements and location as you swipe your Oyster Card in and out of the Tube”. Immediately, a question came to mind: where are they getting the journey data from? I poked around the site and couldn’t readily find an answer, so I decided to try signing up. My own Oyster account no longer works, so I was not able to fully complete the sign-up process. That said, it looks like they’re just impersonating users and screen-scraping data from the Oyster online interface, very much akin to what Yodlee does with financial data. It’s not the worst possible approach, but it still has its flaws. If a user changes their password, the data-fetching process will fail. If TfL changes the design of the Oyster online interface, the process will fail. In the worst-case scenario, if Chromaroma suffers a breach, user data, including online credentials, could be compromised. If users have used those credentials on other sites, they could face a real problem. The ideas behind Chromaroma are sound, but we can learn from the web development community at large to provide better ways to access private transit data (like journey histories), and to provide better formats for the distribution of that data.
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ABBey 1234: 1938—2010

For many young people like myself, it may be hard to believe that there was an era before Google Transit, when planning a journey to an unfamiliar place on public transit meant sitting down with maps and timetables and working out the exact details by hand. If you didn’t have a complete set of timetables and maps on hand, then you had to call the transit agency’s information line. There, you’d speak to a staff member who, armed with maps and timetables, would give you the information you needed to complete your journey. Later, they had access to computers—primitive versions of today’s trip planners—but before the Internet, you couldn’t access those databases directly; you still had to call the call center first. (For a discussion of this type of system, see this article by David Maltby in Transport Reviews on a system used by Greater Manchester Transport in the late 1980s.)

In London, the number to call was 020 7222 1234, until October 25, when Transport for London withdrew that number from service and replaced it with 0843 222 1234. This may not seem like a big deal, until you realize that in doing so TfL has thrown away more than seventy years of history. For many years the number to call was 01 222 1234, which became 071 222 1234, which then became 0171 222 1234, which finally became 020 7222 1234 (this was part of the great renumberings of the 1990s). In fact, the history goes even further back than that; before the introduction of subscriber trunk dialing, 01 222 1234 would have been “ABBey 1234″—and that number goes back to April 2, 1938, according to Mike Horne’s history of telecommunications on the London Underground.

There’s more than the lost history, though; the 020 number was a local number, and the 0843 number is not. In the US, the only non-local domestic numbers which cost more than a normal toll call are 900 numbers, but in the UK, there’s a whole class of so-called “non-geographic numbers” which cost more than a normal toll call, and for which the rate charged depends on your provider and the number you’re calling, and the 0843 number is one of those non-geographic numbers. TfL has a really fantastic journey planner, but for people without Internet access, or with more complex travel needs, the best option was to call for information. Now, they’ll be connected to “a voice-activated service that will deal with simple A to B journeys between stations, hospitals, major landmarks or points of interest within the London area”, and they’ll be paying for the privilege of doing so, no less.

According to a post in uk.transport.london, this change came about as a result of infrastructure changes by TfL—but infrastructure changes alone do not strike me as sufficient reason to introduce a service which costs more, does less, and does away with 72 years of history.