The history of design thesis

Testing a wheelchair spaceEverything we do becomes history, however significant might be to ourselves or to each other – a legacy, if you will. I’ve had several opportunities in my work to do this in the past through partnerships that we have. One particular partnership is with a rail operator. I received an email in December from a colleague I’ll call Sheila.

The email asked the following:

  • Do I have a passport?
  • Do I fly?

If the answer was yes, then I was to phone my colleague immediately. I did so and after establishing that 29 seconds from clicking send is immediately, I was invited to travel to Switzerland with the company to help with the design input of the new trains for a franchise. I wasn’t to be alone – a colleague with sensory needs had also been invited. The brief was clear – to look at the proposals for people with mobility and sensory needs to identify if they are appropriate. We were invited look for any improvements that can be made to further offer a better experience to customers. Our lived and professional experiences were key to our visit, to assist with the design proposals and offer our constructive thoughts.

A FLIRT train in Konstanz, GermanyThe new trains, which are of a new type to the UK, are made by Stadler and will be in service for the next 20-30 years. The trains (called FLIRT) are commonplace in Europe and now are coming to the UK. The new trains will have 3 different applications – airport, intercity and regional. The airport and intercity stock share one design and the regional trains another.

Arriving at the factory in Bussnang in the morning, we were introduced to the rolling stock types, which will be for the intercity, airport and regional trains. There are two types of wheelchair area, with the intercity and airport trains able to carry three wheelchair users in their chairs and the bi-mode regional trains carrying two wheelchair users. A mock up had been prepared (as the body shells are shortly to enter build phase), which was able to simulate the carriages and their internal layout differences.

There are some crucial differences due to the body alone. The train is “low floor”, which means that in the majority of cases the step may be as low as 100mm. This might also mean a step down. Stadler were able to simulate the different platform heights to identify the challenges of using a ramp from different heights and different degrees of incline. We discussed the elements of ingress and egress – the fact that the body has a sliding step is a new element that brings benefits. The carriage, with a lower floor, has a more pronounced curve in the lower part of the side of the body wall (to accommodate for passing through stations at speed). This means that the buttons at a metre from the floor can be reached by leaning forward.

The train, with its low floor design, is likely to not even require a ramp in some locations. It brings the possibility that completely independent travel could be closer than we realise – no ramp required. The design in place also looks to enable easier communication between on board staff and the customer.

Sat on the toilet lid making notesAt both the mock up and the meeting table, we utilised train plans to identify how wheelchair users may travel and discussed about the need for small tables, capable of holding a coffee. We went through how information may be displayed to the customers and issues conveyed through automated announcements, visual information and manual announcements. Colour contrast, toilet doors and call-for-aid buttons were discussed at length, identifying how small changes can make big differences. We discussed about how wheelchair users may transfer to a toilet (yes, there are two options now – side transfer or facing). What happens if a person falls off the toilet? What about washing your hands? Flushing the toilet? Forgetting to lock the door? Nothing was left out.

With the regional trains, we identified how small and large changes offer a completely different experience to a person travelling. We looked at how the position of priority seats and wheelchair spaces then led to other (non-disability) elements to be considered, giving an improved experience for customers without mobility issues. Suggesting one change meant that wooden panels were produced, measured, marked and used to show that the theory behind suggestions were possible. We discussed tip up seats, traveling with family, traveling alone, the need for people to have choice for their journey (which, to the credit of all involved, had already been considered). The accessible toilet now sits away from the wheelchair user on the opposite side of the vestibule door from the wheelchair spaces, for example. On intercity services, the buffet is within eye sight. 240v and USB power plugs will be available.

All the while, my colleague with a sensory need was giving her own feedback and input, feeding back about how she may undertake a journey, how her guide dog would be involved in her travel needs and how she would identify a priority seat. We looked at the internal colours in use and how these could affect a person with visual requirements. Audio and Visual displays were shown and positions noted to make it easy for a customer to find what they need to know. Automated announcements and visual announcements will help people who have hearing impairments.

I’m covering all this in a short space with no intention of discredit or not mentioning anything. Rail professionals were listening, writing, measuring to achieve the suggestions . I was impressed at the seriousness that they were showing in looking to gather all of the data and identify that they had interpreted our thoughts and ideas correctly. Action lists were drawn up immediately and signed off at the end of the day. At no point did it ever feel like “lip service” either – we are professionals with experience and the teams wanted to learn.

The outcome is that today we wrote history. A train interior was designed with people who are going to use it for the next 20 years. We were given the opportunity to have a positive impact on a project and I truly hope that we delivered. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the partnership that I have through my work with the train service provider and my thanks must go to them for the opportunity. My gratitude cannot be measured.

I look forward to the delivery in the next few years. I’ll be proud to look at the train and know that I’ve had that smallest of hands in a huge and significant project.

The Feng Shui of the Class 321 equilibrium

On Friday 16 December, I was invited to join Greater Anglia aboard a newly refurbished class 321 trainset.  This unit in particular has been internally refreshed to meet the needs of the 21st century customer.  Built in the 1980s using the Mk3 bodyshell, there has been very limited redesign of the internal layout… until now.

My own experience has shown me that a clean vehicle can hide a multitude of sins, so I was keen to have a good crawl all over to identify the pitfalls I could – not to shame, instead to seek rectification and improve the new product further.  I believe in quick wins, too – usually the simplest improvement can be the cheapest and best.

For me, as a wheelchair user, the door I should was obvious from the traditional blue symbols – what awaited me was anything but traditional.  Once on board, I had a choice of turning left into the central saloon, or right to the carriage end and a space beside the lavatory.  Let me emphasis that word again a moment: choice.

Daddydoink in the wheelchair spaceThe space is at the minimum the standard dimensions and is slightly larger in the central saloon.  In both cases there are several tip-up seats available, both also with a fold-away table.  Yes, you read that correctly – a table.  This is invaluable, especially if you get hand shake or need to be able to put your sandwich down a moment.  The table would take a seat out of availability and can only be used if the seat is empty.  Opposite the wheelchair space beside the toilet is a luggage space, big enough for two large cases or eight small, laid flat.  There are seats opposite (proper seats) for friends and family, meaning friends no longer have to give up a tip-up seat for another wheelchair user.  There is a choice between sitting next to the toilet or not.

Toilet door entrance with no lipThe toilet is a standard loo, with both a toilet bowl and a sink.  There is a baby change table and a multitude of signs warning and instructing as to the use of various buttons.  The entrance has no lip (and therefore is a level ingress/egress).  The buttons are clear and the labeling is due to be improved to be clear that unlocking the door opens it, too.  Moving from a train with no loo to this is a huge step forward (or not, as there is no step).

The doors come with audio warnings and buttons at a decent height.  The width of the vestibules has expanded by over 6 inches, giving additional space to both wheelchair users and fellow passengers.  The grab poles that previously restricted access have been moved closer to the vehicle walls and further apart, giving over a meter of space for wheelchairs to get through.

The seats are now higher off the floor and have a good angle between the seat and back for a comfortable journey.  This means it will be easier for an ambulant disabled person to stand from them.  There are grab handles at nearly every seat.

All of this means a journey is very possible.  A journey can be a very emotional thing for a disabled person, too.  By making this easier, with better wheelchair spaces, more priority seats, higher seats – the emotions are positive ones.

This train is not a case of too little, too late.  It’s a case of benchmarking what can be achieved, with the life of this train now extended beyond 2020.  The re-traction project will only extend that life further.

The question is, who’s going to follow suit and copy this brilliant bit of work?  And for Greater Anglia, what is the next good idea?

Photos below – for use please contact me via twitter or a comment.

Refurbished Class 321 – Greater Anglia

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The Journal of a Transportation Human Trial

Planning a journey is hard enough – you have to know the times, then if you want to “guarantee” some help, book assistance – then find out how to book that assistance… its an endless stream of “how do I” and “where do I find out how to…”

Even if you know what to do there is the blind bit of faith you have to invest and hold there.  If you’ve had a bad experience before, this makes the journey before harder still.

Lets take my journey to Hampshire yesterday.  I was going to Havant for work. So, Wednesday night I phoned up the train booking system to book my journey outward – I didn’t know what time I’d be coming back though.  Book the journey – done.

Leaving my home station, they said they’d confirm to Stratford station where I was and that I was on-board.  Job done.  Or so I’d hope, as I arrived at Stratford and there was no one waiting to meet me.  Double whammy failure. Fortunately my manager, who was with me for his second taste of traveling á la Doink, helped me wheel off backwards. Note for Greater Anglia – it gets cold in the doorway of your old, 321 class stock. Really.

Next target for my own personal taste in fun was the Jubilee line to London Waterloo.  I had no problems with this line and scooted towards Waterloo.  There I did find a snag – the lift from Waterloo Road to Waterloo Concourse was out of action.  Fortunately there was a sign with a telephone number… and two “Metro” employees (venders) who were keen to shoe me away from their hiding hole.  Network Rail – take note please! 

Having summoned some help to get up to the concourse via the external route (the assistance people quite prompt – only 3 or 4 minutes in this case.) An aside, the reason for the lift closure I was told was that there was a cherry picker in the way. I am suspect of the truth of this but I reported it on twitter anyway. I then went to the desk, where the assistance service were expecting me and arranged for someone to provide a ramp to get on board my train – the 08:00 Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour. 

class-444-paul-biglandThis was slightly interesting.  My train, a 10 car “444-Class” train, split at Guildford.  I needed to be in the front 5 carriages to continue on to Havant.  So, we went to the front, where the Network Rail employee had issues trying to get the ramp out of the cupboard.  It took a good 5-7 minutes and when you are trying to get on a specific train – too much time to allow for someone to run back and get a platform ramp. Another hint for Network Rail? Get more ramps at Waterloo.  We might be out of the Paralympics, but disabled people traveling are going to stay (or leave, actually).

The guard aboard the train (South West Trains) was very courteous – he made a call there and then to Havant to ensure that they were expecting me and explained there would be a guard change at Guildford.  This is good to see – it could be unsettling if the friendly face you had seen earlier disappeared.  Come Havant, the new guard knew where I was going too, the station staff were ready and waiting – I exited quickly.

Outward (APRS booked) journey score:
Greater Anglia: 1 (Clacton Staff) 0 (Stratford)
TfL: 2 (It just worked for once)
Network Rail: 1 (for the prompt assistance appearance), 0 for the lack of ramps
Southwest Trains: 2 (Friendly staff, Ramp being there at Havant).

My return journey though was not booked. I turned up at Havant at about 15:20 – not bad timing (if you don’t mind a bit of liquid sunshine). There were no staff anywhere in sight but there was a help point with two buttons: Information and Emergency.

Now, slap me round the face and call me Mr Silly if you like, but my wanting to get the next fast service to London Waterloo is not an emergency in my book. An emergency is, you know – blood, danger, etc. So, I got my mobile out and instead made a call that ended up in me getting through to Portsmouth and Southsea (don’t ask). Suddenly, as if by magic – a staff member appears!  He seemed a little put out that Portsmouth and Southsea had called him but never the less, assisted me on the train (a 450, for the nerds out there) and promised to phone Waterloo.

Another friendly guard – he checked tickets and promised to return for Waterloo.  A bike appeared on board at Guildford and the catering staff advised them where to park the bike in the future (designated spaces on SouthWest Trains). Come Waterloo, there were very friendly staff waiting with a ramp – the guard also appeared and was ready to go with a ramp.

Next up – a trip to Liverpool Street via Green Park and Kings Cross.  I headed (still with my manager, the poor bloke!) towards the lift. No cherry picker but the lift stopped halfway between levels and no sign. There was also an older lady and her companion looking disappointed. 

A quick call on their behalf – I was feeling ok to take myself down the wet, dusk ramps – to get someone to assist them downstairs and I rocketed off via the street to Waterloo Road and the tube. I wish to disclose that I did offer my manager the opportunity to use the escalator and keep dry. 

clear-liftOn the tube – bit busy on the Jubilee; Green Park was tremendous fun, if not full of lazy people using the lift (running for it and diving in is a give-away); and Kings Cross – ever a maze but people keeping left a bit more.

At Kings Cross, apologising again for the monster I become to Clive, he said “Doink, I admire the way you go for it in the tube, but if there is a next time, may I pay for a cab?”

Back to the journey – Met line to Liverpool Street and out – making the 18:12. A quick call on the phone to Alpha 6 and he met me on the platform to get me on my train home.  He called Colchester to alert the guard who boards there (its driver only until Colchester) and then before telling the driver as well. Impressed.

Apart from a small delay and a draught down the back of my neck (the twitter control room have since promised to knit me a scarf, hat and gloves. Not holding my breath.), I got home at 19:45, the depot driver grabbed the ramp before the guard could and I left.

Score for the journey home (unbooked):
SouthWest Trains: 1 (Friendly train staff but lost one for lack of staff at Havant)
Network Rail Waterloo: 1 (Promptly there at the train but the lift, no signs? Lost points there)
TfL: 1 point
Network Rail Liverpool Street: 2 Points (For phoning and telling the driver)
Greater Anglia: 1 Point (Would have been 2 but for the draught).

That was my journey. Sorry its so long. Ultimately – not a bad day. However, it highlighted some shortcomings that still should not have been there. Lifts – the thing I ever rely on – and staff. Or lack of, in this case.

I’d like to know though – has my feedback been acted on. Comments welcome, either those on those stations or from Network Rail and Greater Anglia themselves. I promise I won’t bite.

The Transportation Transition Experiment

I believe its probably fair to say that I get on quite well with Greater Anglia… in the most part. Sometimes I get a little frustrated with them when my train is late or when I buy my ticket in the morning and see, once again, that it is really just daylight robbery… that’s my opinion and I realise others – like Sheila or Bruce – might have other opinions.  However, sometimes I am out there on my own and I need to get on with it.

Like yesterday, for example.  I knew the signs were there that it was going to be a serious slog on the iron road.  Little things – trains being cancelled due to a fault, the day being a Thursday, signs saying “it’ll be a hard slog today” and so on.  Oh – and a train ticket that said “Braintree”.  I’d been asked to go at short notice – no time to book the journey there and definitely way of knowing what time I should return – this is not a slur on Braintree, just I’d not been there before.

To kick off, it seemed that Lady Luck (one of the guys at Witham) was on my side – I arrived in to Witham in the morning and in seconds… alright – two minutes – I was off the train, over the bridge and on to the next train out – they held it for me.  I was (and still am) grateful. 

I got to Braintree about 9:10 or so, assisted by a driver rather than the ticket office staff who were caught up in a micro rush. Coffee there, by the way – 80p more than Clacton station.  I got on and took some photos as it was a nice day before heading off to a school in Bocking for a Try a Bus Day.

I value these days – they help a lot of people spark that first step – often the next is travel training.  But that first introduction to the bus (or train) is a key element – done correctly, it sets the idea going that a person can travel.  I think its vital work. 

After this and a meeting (and lunch) I headed back to the station, my charmed existence running out by this time.  It was 16:15.  When I got to the station, I found it was unstaffed. Empty. Deserted.  Devoid of human members of the Greater Anglia fraternity. People had gone home. There would be no fandango.  Beeching had swung his axe. It was an ex-staff afternoon. There was no one there.  It is an unstaffed station.

Its in times like this that many people would either panic, sit tight and hope it would turn out ok or go home.

I turned to twitter.  “@greateranglia arrived at Braintree. No staff here! HELP!”  Bearing in mind that there had been an incident on two other lines – one involving a serious accident and another involving serious signals – I wasn’t hopeful.  But I regularly tweet them, so I crossed my fingers. And my legs. I might have been a little bit busting, as Monkey would say.

A few minutes later I got a reply: “Just calling them now”… and then, a message via the great unknowns of DM: “Call us – [number]”. 

This was new – but a quick way to sort it.  I called, established with them that there was no one there.  The guy on the phone – GK was also on the phone to Witham, who had put a ramp on the next train coming up with the guard.  This meant that i could get on my train with the assistance I need.

This does raise a question for me though – what if I didn’t know the Greater Anglia staff as well as I do? What happens if someone else finds themselves stranded?  Very few train operators leave their twitter accessed after 7-8PM, so what happens later at night?  If there was ever support for a business case needed – surely this is the key item to support it.

Some might argue I should book – but there is no requirement for me to book as I only require a ramp to access the train, therefore no actual other assistance.  Couple that with the unpredictability of my work travel and its rare I can and do book.

I got home bang on time – thanks to the quick reactions of the people on Twitter at Greater Anglia. It shows that once again Social Media is useful.  I just hope others have the confidence to do the same as I did in the future and that train companies react in the same way Greater Anglia did for me. 

The Electrical Multiple Unit Symposium

I think it is fair to say that I really enjoy my job.  I enjoy working with the public, even when it can be hard to explain some things to them. I also enjoy working with transport providers – no matter the mode – bus, taxi, train or even air or boat, I find it invaluable that we can call on their experience and opinion.  I have to say, although there are some dark days, most of them are pretty decent.  On this basis, today was legen – wait for it…

dary. Legendary. Flipping amazing.  And here is why.

One of our colleague providers is the rail company Greater Anglia.  I’ve worked with them and their predecessor for some considerable time – Sheila has been mentioned before in fact, as I will again now.  (Link back: This post.)  I know that when they received the new class 379 trains as I photographed in the previous post they also got a brand new sparkly simulator to train drivers on.  But I haven’t ever seen the simulator… until today.  Sheila invited me along to the Greater Anglia Academy to see the other side of what Greater Anglia do – the rigorous assessment drivers go through in order to remain on the rails, moving us from A to B.

We arrived at the Academy and the first thing to note – its not like school.  The lead manager came over and introduced him self, as did the manager who would be assessing me for the day.  This isn’t just general politeness, as Bruce explained – we’re talking about a livelihood here, they focus on the driver being relaxed and not feeling pressured. Train driving is not just a job but a career and the driver must remain fully competent in his role.  30 years ago, drivers were given some training and when passing out as a fully qualified driver, they were given their keys and not seen again by their assessors unless they did something wrong.  Now, when a driver is passed, they are reviewed every year, including a short exam and a simulated scenario or two – not a run of the mill trip but with some issues.

The exam covers rules and regulations – for example where you can or cannot walk on the railway, things you should do or not do or signs you might see.  I was half expecting a pop quiz but I gave this a go.  One thing to note – there is no pass or fail.  If they have concerns then they deal with each driver individually.  My score though was not as great as I would have liked to do but considering I had no revision – 30% correct.  D’oh.  But then I was also taken through the things I had got wrong and Bruce explained why they follow the regulations and what purpose they had.  Safe working distance from Overhead Electrical Lines?  2.75 metres.  And that bit of land to the side of the train track on the left between a field and the track? It’s known as the CESS or “Formally the 10 foot”.

Class 379 CabI was introduced to the Simulator too starting with a class 379, the train class I got up close and personal with about a year and a bit ago.  Fun fact – it takes about 6 or 7 high end computers to power the simulator.  The layout is much akin to the actual train – its a mock up cab.  Every button and dial is replicated, the touchscreen is a touchscreen; the CCTV for DDO is faithfully replicated; even the lights and wiper switches function.  Oh, and the seat moves!

The controller in the office – Bruce in this case – can change everything from the time of day, the weather, the windscreen conditions (dirt or a crack), the adhesion and even obstacles on the line.  The train functions are very realistic – AWS to cancel when approaching caution aspects or danger aspects and TPWS if I don’t cancel the alert.  A DRA button to set and reset at red aspects.  Dials telling me brake cylinder pressure.  And all I had to do was sit in the seat, keep my foot down (unless it bleeps when I have to lift up and push back down again).  Sound easy still?

379-cab-with-meSheila was stood with me and observing as I took my “train” through changes in the speed limit, encountering emergency speed restrictions, snow, rail, fog and a cow on the line.  In driving a train for an hour and 10 minutes, I had experienced the worst a driver could expect to encounter from the environment.  I was surprised to hear Bruce then tell me I’d actually done ok for a first timer, which was testament to Bruce’s short but very informative tutorial.  However, my head hurt – it had taken such a lot to concentrate to where to stop, what speed limits to adhere to and when to sound my horn.  I’d only been doing it an hour – imagine a two hour run from London to Norwich!

During a short break and a chat about how I found it, Bruce explained the other aspect about the assessment – pastoral care.  Driving in shifts is demanding work and drivers have to plan their life accordingly.  This means going to bed at the right times and alcohol intake limitations before their shift.

I was also shown the wall of SPAD fame – Signals Passed At Danger – which helps drivers understand the lessons to be learnt, and the latest initiative to help drivers who rotate patterns – DISH: Do I Stop Here?  Its clear that the Academy is there to help their drivers be the best by learning from every opportunity – as someone else pointed out, messing up in the simulator, you can have another go.  You don’t get that chance in the real thing.

315-drivingBefore I left, I was given one last run on the class 315 simulator.  I could hear another assessment going on in the background too, as I was shown a completely different cab and way to drive.  The difference between old and new is astounding – seating position, controls – even the way that you key in.  I found this harder, because the core difference is a separate brake to accelerator, compared to a single controller on a 379.  I know I went over the speed limit a few times by a little but I could feel my concentration begin to waver.  How the metro drivers do it day in day out I do not know.

I left the Greater Anglia Academy with a renewed respect for train drivers everywhere.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself but learnt a lot – not just about driving trains but the investment that goes into each driver.  I was awestruck at how the drivers are put into the deep end of a scenario, not to try and get some to “fail” but to help them to identify where they can focus on.  Above all, the experience was very useful, informative being an understatement.  I hope I can translate some of their skill set in to other areas I work now.

A big thank you to Sheila for inviting me along today – I won’t shut up about this for a while…

The Momentum Upon Steel Alloy Propulsion Formula

Its not often I’ll blog about a service unless I think its been something to note.  So, the following is a positive post about a recent journey – I paid for it, I made it and this is what happened.  Continue reading