London snows, part three

snowy rush hour at charing cross

Looks like it’s time for my not-quite-yearly post about how strange and wonderful London is when it snows. For example, if you can squeeze onto a train, and can see past armpits and elbows, you might start a conversation and meet some very nice, interesting people. Breaking through the usual reserve + urban commuting cocoon is acceptable.

I’ll leave for another post, or for you to post, reflections on the research regarding increasing weather extremes and climate change. However, note that two years ago, I wrote my first snow post in February. Last year, the first snow was in January. You can see where this paragraph is headed, so I’ll move on.

Today, I decided to work at home, rather than face the crush and uncertainty of the reduced Southeastern Railway services. Southeastern has had a number of issues to deal with in the last few days, including a tree on the line, train failures, probably frozen switches, and, sadly, a fatality on one line during the first day of snow.

The Southeastern site details what they are doing to address the probability that we will have more severe (snowy) winters. Efforts include issuing Blackberrys to train drivers to “receive immediate updates from Control and pass information to customers” (which makes me wonder about the role of old-skool radio comms, in the age of mobility). They have also redesigned the site to make status more visible, rebuilt the backend to support greater traffic volumes, and are using Twitter.

They have apparently taken a systems approach to severe weather, and created a reduced schedule. I would imagine this is with the philosophy that fewer trains running more predictably is better than full-on chaos.

From a service design perspective it’s good and helpful… but reactive.

On the prevention side, they are testing heating strips for the third rail, and running a trial of anti and de-icing techniques with the University of Birmingham.

The Network Rail site describes their own work in fighting weather conditions, which includes “Two £1.6m multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), fitted with lasers to blast leaf mulch off the track.” (Lasers! In my day, we just had the sand train!)

Still, this isn’t happening fast enough, is it? And so much of it is about fighting weather incidents. As we can all tell from never-ending weekend engineering work, there are general improvement works, but do they include fully upgrading the signal system, or installing switch heaters across the board? Further, are they exploring machine to machine (internet-of-things), comms? What about new forms of data visualisation? Couldn’t these kinds of technology help?

I would hazard a guess there isn’t enough investment to catch up fast enough, and, the excuse would be that there isn’t enough money. Here is where the armchair economist steps in. Last year, the Federation of Small Businesses estimated the productivity losses from a single day of snow absence as £1.2 billion. Surely, with the increasing incidence of snow, the economic argument for increased investment is there. And, it would create employment, and perhaps even become another(?) opportunity for the UK to lead in technology innovation in aid of infrastructure. That would be cool.
Footnote: while having a quick look around the web for train telematics and railway M2M, I came across some interesting work being done at the University of Lancaster, including

  • the Palpable Computing Project – the premise of which includes a design approach to ubiquitious computing that challenges the usual expectation of invisibility, instead “support(ing) people in making their actual and potential activities and affordances clearly available to their senses. Palpable systems support people in understanding what is going on at a level they choose and they support the user’s control and choice.” They are particularly interested in using fieldwork to understand user needs.
  • the anthology Ethnographies of Diagnostic Work, edited by Monika Büscher, Dawn Goodwin and Dr Jessica Mesman. Quick search results: Monika Büscher has been working in design research and participatory design, so I will check out more of her work.
  • I came across Palcom through finding a link to a working paper by Johan M Sanne (the basis of a chapter in the anthology), on an ethnographic study he did with railway workers about how they troubleshoot and communicate problems with infrastructure. His approach is informative for those of us doing design ethnography.