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spikegifted - The "London Blackout" (August 28, 2003)


Welcome to a modern industrialized country!

If you have had a chance to have a look around this site, you would've known that I live in London, England. London prides itself as one of the major cities of the world and aspire to be mentioned in the same breath as New York, Paris, Tokyo, etc... After the recent power outage in North America (August 15) which affected an estimated 50 million people in Canada and the US, the British electricity transmission company, Transco, "refused to speculate about the likelihood of a similar event in the UK until the cause of the US blackout had been determined". The government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) "has promised an assessment to examine what implications the blackout could have for the UK system", but stated that "there are significant differences between the way UK and US energy networks operate".

For many people in the UK, the thought of parts of the UK suffering a sudden power outage is something we haven't considered. Some (I guess these include certain parts of the government and Transco) choose to believe that the UK has a far better grid system that in the US and the UK has a sufficiently high level of surplus capacity to handle any surge in demand or sudden failure of a small portion of the generation capacity. Others choose to believe that it simply cannot believe that such things can happen here simply because the US and Canada is such a large place and problems are magnified by scale.

Well, today, August 28, 2003, parts of southeast England had a taste of what happens to London if there is a brief power outage.

A Journey from Hell

Since I'm currently not working, I don't have the 'pleasure' of commuting through the transport chaos in London, so I didn't have the first hand experience of the kind of chaos experienced by nearly a quarter of a million commuters this evening. However, I shall related their misery through the Ruler_of_spike's longer-than-expect journey home this evening... For illustration purpose, I've enlist the Journey Planner Map, thoughtfully taken for the body that is suppose to mastermind London's transportation strategies - Transport for London.

To give you a reference, I shall first describe to you her normal journey. This will provide a reasonable benchmark in terms of ease of use of the system and journey time, in the unlikely event of things running smoothly. In order to distinguish her journeys, I've marked her normal commuting route in red dotted line and the journey she had to take this evening in purple.

When she finishes work in the evening, she takes a 3-minute walk from her workplace to the nearest London Underground (Tube) station, which happens to be Bond Street. From there she picks up the Jubilee Line going south and she leaves the Tube system at Waterloo. Waterloo serves as an interchange between the Tube and over-ground trains, as well as the terminal for the Eurostar service which links London with Paris and Brussels. From Waterloo, she can join one of many trains bound for southwest parts of London and she'll alight at Putney train station. It is a further 10-minute walk from the train station to our apartment. Total journey time, depending on the inter-connections, lengths of waiting time at each of the stations and a number of other factors (leaves on track, snow on tracks, incorrect track temperature, etc...), is around 45 to 65 minutes. It is not a bad commute, for there are lots of people spending over 1.5 hours traveling each way to and from work.

This evening, however, her journey took a significantly more interest route... What she did not realized was that at around 6:00pm, a major power outage has occurred and it affected nearly all the Tube lines and most of the over-ground train services south of the River Thames. Fortunately, power was restored by 6:30pm, so with exception of some knock-on effects, things should have run smoothly.

Thursdays evening are "late-night shopping" on Oxford Street, which means shops will stay open until around 8:30pm. Oxford Street runs from Tottenham Court Road in the east and ends at Marble Arch. En route, there are two Tube stations, Bond Street and Oxford Circus. When she got to Bond Street Tube station, at around 8:00pm, she saw people were rushing out of the station. There was no announcement of any sort. Being a brave girl and not likely to be deterred by a crowd of people rushing out of the station for no good reason (after all, it is late-night shopping, so crowds of people rushing out on the street is not unexpected), she headed against the flow and got down to the station concourse. Upon arrival, she discovered on a board announcing that the Jubilee Line has been suspended, so she decided to take the Central Line to head towards Oxford Circus and change for the Bakerloo Line which also runs to Waterloo. The platform was jammed full of people and after a wait of over 5 minutes, she boarded an east-bound train toward Oxford Circus. Just before arriving at the station, the train driver announced over the intercom that Oxford Circus station was closed and the train was not going to stop; the next stop was Tottenham Court Road. She got off the train and headed towards the Northern Line south-bound platform. The Charing Cross branch of the Northern Line also stops at Waterloo.

Needless to say, the platform was again full, so she waited for a number of trains to go past before making her mind up to brave the sardine can. The journey south was a stop-start affair... Upon departing the platform at Tottenham Court Road station, the train grinned to a halt. There was no announcement from the driver, but the train just sat there for over 5 minutes. Then it restarted and slowly made its way towards Leicester Square. Just as the train was pulling into the station, the driver announced that the train would not be stopping! So, it carried on past the station. The train then went past Charing Cross and Embankment stations without stopping and there was again no details from the driver. A lot of people had very puzzled looks on their faces. After leaving the platform of Embankment, the train stopped and plunged into total darkness. Again, there was no announcement. I guess if there was a loss of power, the intercom will not be working either. After around 15 minutes of sitting in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, power was finally restored and the train moved at turtle pace toward Waterloo and the driver came on to apologize for not stopping at the two previous stops, due to the fact that the stations were closed. He continued that the train would be stopping at Waterloo, so a collective sigh of relieve was heard. Waterloo station is just across the River Thames from Embankment station and both Charing Cross and Leicester Square are easily "walkable" distance. To add to that Waterloo is a major train terminal for destinations throughout the south and southwest of London. However, just before she got too relieved with the prospect of leaving the Underground system, the train arrived at Waterloo and continued without stopping. Somewhere between Waterloo and Kennington, the train stopped moving yet again. Again, there was no information from the driver. Finally, the train arrived at Kennington and the doors opened. Pretty much the entire train emptied itself.

Once returned to the surface, she joint a group of people walking back towards Waterloo. Having enjoyed several weeks of unbroken sunshine and warm weather, for the first time in 6 weeks, it was raining in London this evening, which made the walk back long the streets of south London less than a pleasurable experience. The group arrived at a bus stop where there were buses bound for Waterloo. The trouble was, there was no bus. Finally, one of the people she was talking to hailed an empty cab and five of the group, including the Ruler_of_spike, got in. Finally, 1 hour 15 minutes after leaving her work place, she arrived at Waterloo station. This part of her journey usually take no more than 25 minutes.

Having not been brief of the situation, she did not realize that there were hardly any train services running out of Waterloo due to the power outage. The station was being lit by emergency lighting. All the train announcement boards were blacked out and the loud speaker system was blaring out gibberish. It was impossible to obtain any information regarding train services. Normally, there is a whole regiment of representatives from the train company standing around checking train tickets as people approach the platforms to board the trains and issue fines to those without tickets upon arrival. This evening, there were less than a handful of them. Upon being queried about the status of various services, the only answer they were capable of providing was: "Just listen to the announcements over the loud speaker system." How about that for a "service with a smile"?

After standing around for a while, she heard that there was a train leaving towards the direction of Richmond. That was her train. She ran to catch only to find that it was again jammed like a sardine can. After much pushing and asking people to squeeze in, she managed to board that misery of a train. It was an old style rolling stock dated back to the 1950s, which means it has slam doors long the entire length of the carriage and people are practically standing over those who are sitting down. Before she could look forward to her imminent arrival back at our apartment, she heard, the driver's announcement over the intercom, that the train would not be stopping at Putney, but instead only at Clapham Junction and Richmond - the larger stations before and after Putney - due to the fact that this was an 'express'.

As a result, she had to leave the train system upon arriving at Clapham Junction and headed for the buses. There is a small problem with this - it was chaos at the bus stop. There are five stops between Clapham Junction and Richmond and a lot of people tend to get off at these stops. To make things worse, there were no buses. The bus that would take her to our door step was nowhere to be seen and the one bus that headed towards Putney was 15 minutes away and the next one a further 5 minutes wait. She waited patiently and the bus that arrived was not the usual double-decker, but a single deck. Having decided not to scramble for the first bus, she managed to get on board the second one. However, the adventure did not stop there. This particular bus route is one that both she and I are familiar with, I last took this route less than 3 weeks ago when I chose to take the bus back from Clapham instead of the train. However, in the past three weeks, the route has changed. Of course, there were no announcement on the route change and there was no indication of such change on the bus time table attached to each of the bus stops. Instead of taking the direct path, the route has now been changed to become more scenic and taking considerably longer, made worse by the commuting disaster and late rush hour traffic. After being taken on a tour of southwest London, the bus made its way to Putney.

The Ruler_of_spike finally arrived back at home 10:15 - 2 hours 15 minutes after the journey began. In this trip, she had walked, taken the bus, train, Tube and taxi. It has been miserable, uncomfortable, long and agonizing. For this pleasure, she pays a princely sum of 75.30 (US$118.86, 1=US$1.5785) for a Monthly Travel Pass (covering Zones 1 & 2 - all areas colored white and pale green). To make things worse, this is not a one-off incident! Disruptions and delays happen on an alarmingly regular basis and it is not uncommon that we find problems with our commutes on every day during the working week. Additionally, Saturdays and Sundays tend to have other delays due to weekend engineering works.

My Thoughts...

We, Londoners, do not deserve this kind of services, if that is a term applicable to our enforced misery. I don't pay 784 (US$1237.54) a year to be tested on my limit of endurance and patience!

The first thing I can point out is the complete lack of communication by the service providers. These companies that are quick to ask for over-inflation fare increases, quick to fine those who have incorrect fare and have representatives who are quick to be aggressive when inspecting tickets, and they simply failed at every opportunity to provide information. They are quick to boost about their success and to create the maximum spin out of every piece of positive development. However, they can't care less to give their customers the information that will affect their journeys. To use a less than polite description of our situation, they have us "by the balls". We, the traveling public, do have a choice when it comes to commuting, not with the Congestion Charge now in place in Central London and soon to expand to cover even larger areas of this city.

London, the city that hopes to be considered in the same league as other great cities in the world, is being slowly but surely choked by its inadequate transport system (amongst other things like crime and housing). London has the oldest underground train systems in the world, but that also means that it has the longest legacy, which has so many outdated parts that failure in any one of them can bring the whole network crashing down. The overall transport system in London has so many choke points that once one problem takes place, other parts of the system simply become overwhelmed and fail to cope with the additional load. When the transport system works, and in rare occasions it does, it is a very easy to use public transport system. However, it is hard to find a day when problems do not occur in some parts of the network.

How can London claim itself to be one of the premier cities in the world when it is being crippled by its transport system? For those who come to visit London, they must be god-smacked by the poor state of our public transport. How can anyone allow its underground trains to be over 5-10C higher than the street level when outdoor ambient temperature is just 20C? This, by the way, scales very well. So if outdoor temperature is 30C, it would easily be over 40C in the trains. There is little or no ventilation in the system - trains are ventilated by 'movement' through the tunnels. Many trains actually have their heaters on well into the summer! The air quality inside the London Underground tunnel system is up to 73 times worse than at street level. So, not only is traveling the Tube, uncomfortable and subject to delays, it is actually a danger to the commuters' health.

London is currently bidding to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Yet, how can the International Olympic Committee (IOC) favor a city where its infrastructure is close to collapse? One of the major rail projects for the capital, Crossrail, which will link east and west London will not be built for at least ten years. Well, that is just in time to be included in the London bid to host the 2024 games then.

No, London deserves better and we, Londoners, deserve better.


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