The moral of this story is don’t travel with me. Last week, I wrote about my train being delayed by someone pulling the emergency handle before we got to the end of the platform in Liverpool [see ‘Stopped in Lime Street’ on June 26th, 2019]. Four days later, I was once again on a late afternoon train to London waiting for it to leave Lime Street station. This time we didn’t even get started before the train manager announced that a road vehicle had hit a bridge between Crewe and Liverpool; and, so we were being held in Liverpool for an unknown period of time. I sent a message to my family telling them about the delay and one, an engineer, replied that I was ‘hitting the low frequency failure modes on the service quality pareto’. The Pareto principle is also known as the 80/20 principle. I first encountered it when I was working at the University of Sheffield and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gareth Roberts, used it to describe the distribution of research output in academic departments, i.e., 80% of research was produced by 20% of the professors. In service maintenance, it is assumed that 80% of service interruptions are caused by 20% of the possible failure modes. Hence, if you can address the correct 20% of failure modes then you will prevent 80% of the service interruptions, which is an efficient use of your resources. The remaining, unaddressed failure modes are likely to occur infrequently and, hence, can be described as low frequency modes; including passengers pulling emergency handles or people driving vehicles into bridges.
How do you drive into a bridge and block the main railway lines between London and the north-west of England? Perhaps the driver was using their smart phone which was not smart enough to warn them of the impending collision with the bridge. So, there’s a new product for someone to develop: a smartphone app that connects to dashboard camera in your vehicle and warns you of impending collisions, or better still just drives the vehicle for you. Yes, I know some vehicles come with all of this installed but not everyone is driving the latest model; so, a retro-fit system should sell well and protect train passengers from unexpected delays caused by road vehicles damaging rail infrastructure.
By the way, the 14:47 to London magically became the 15:47 to London and left on time!
It is a late, slightly muggy, summer afternoon and I am sitting at the window in the last carriage of a train waiting for it to leave Liverpool for London. So far, it has been a busy day with meetings in the morning at the University’s facility at Daresbury followed by a couple on the main campus before I walked down to Lime Street station. I stopped for a bite to eat as I travelled from Daresbury to Liverpool; but I am hungry again, so I have a sandwich that I bought in the station. However, I don’t like to unpack and start eating until the train starts moving, just in case I am on the wrong train or we have to change trains. Finally, the train starts to move and as it builds up speed I reach for my sandwich. Suddenly it stops. My carriage has not even reached the end of the platform. Station staff appear outside my window talking into their radios. What’s happened? Did the train hit someone? I thought there was a small thud just before we stopped. But the station staff seem unflustered. Wouldn’t there be more urgency about their movements if there was a casualty? We sit in silence for ten minutes before the train starts to move again and the train manager announces that someone pulled the emergency handle because they decided that wanted to get off the train. Why did they want to get off the train? Did they realise they were trapped on the train to London with someone who was pursuing them? Was it a police officer who realised that their quarry had jumped off the train just before it set off? Or, have I been reading too many Eric Ambler stories (see ‘The Mask of Dimitrios‘ or ‘Journey into Fear‘) involving train journeys across Europe? Maybe it was someone who just decided that they didn’t want to go London after all and didn’t care about inconveniencing several hundred people or paying the fine for improper use of the emergency handle. But that seems unlikely too or perhaps not… I contemplate these options as the train accelerates towards London and I munch my sandwich. It reminds me of a quote from Gillian Tett (in the FT Weekend on June 17/18, 2017) about people believing they have a ‘God-given right that they should be able to organise the world around their personal views and needs instead of quietly accepting pre-packaged options’.