The Problem With TfL


I spent an hour this evening sitting on a stationary District line train in West London, so I’ve had a little time to think over what’s wrong with the transport system in London – and I think I’m getting towards understanding something (in my head, at least). The problem with Transport for London is that as they’ve grown since 2000, they’ve forgotten the things that make smaller companies nice. And actually, this isn’t at all specific to TfL - the same could be said for any large company.

The example from today was that there were three District line trains stood still in three consecutive stations. A small company (the, Pownce and Twitters of the world) would have decided that the Piccadilly line trains should make an unscheduled stop on the platform next to us so that we could move across and continue our journey at some kind of speed. The large company (Microsoft, Apple, IBM or in this case, TfL) had so much going on that it was impossible to organise and execute – our tube driver admitted that he had asked for another train to stop, but that the District line controller and Piccadilly line controller would have to “discuss” first, by which time it was far too late for us.

The ideal turn of events for this evening would have been for a Piccadilly train driver to notice the massive congestion and just stop his train so that we could all hop on – but of course that’s never actually going to happen. I know that example was convoluted, obscure and totally random, but that’s what most of my thoughts are like.

Actually, be careful what you wish for – the day Twitter goes anywhere near running our tube network will be an interesting one


By Farhan Mannan on 29 June 2008 at 13:17:

They need mathematicians well-versed in network flow and graph theory on it, I think. Yes. Definitely. Elliot?

By Chris on 15 June 2008 at 09:45:

I am not quite sure if your comparisons are valid here. Given the size of London, I don’t think there is any way that TfL could ever operate as a small company, and if you were to split it up into different smaller franchises, surely that would create even more problems in terms of logistics?

Also, there a several reasons why they couldn’t immediately send Piccadilly line trains to stop. Trains and their associated systems, especially signalling, are probably much more complicated than you give them credit for. Granted, the tube generally acts on a more simplified level than main-line trains, but still you can’t just get a whole bunch of trains to suddenly make additional stops without thinking through the effects that would have on a system as a whole. In this instance TfL already have a problem on one of the lines, do they really want to cause delays on the Piccadilly line now too? This situation would be even worse if there were separate companies running each line, as the Piccadilly line operator would then be even more unwilling to take the fallout from a problem on a competing operator’s line..

Finally, you’re not exactly comparing like with like: whilst there are some similarities in the way any company operates, internet companies are in some ways very different from traditional ones, and especially different to public transport operators.

Just my £0.02.

By Alex Muller on 15 June 2008 at 10:18:

A small company has a more personal relationship with its customers, and I don’t think anyone could argue against that being a good thing. Whether splitting TfL into a few smaller (well run) franchises is a good thing, I don’t know. All I wish is that they were more open.

I take your point - I’m not telling them how to do their job, there’s no way I could manage that. But (and we’re getting too into a specific example here) it should have been possible to stop that train - one 45 second stop wouldn’t have (I don’t think) caused delays on that line. At the end of the day, their aim as a company is to get people where they want to go as fast as possible - and while it’s easy to sit here and instruct them how to be better, as I’m doing, they do need to improve.

The service updates for this weekend are testament to that… ;)