"Due to technical problems..." - Stuart Pinfold's Blog

Govia Thameslink Railway: Welcome to the future?

A company I have long complained about, First Capital Connect (FCC), ceases to be tomorrow. A new franchise operator, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), takes over on the same date. Over the years I have come to realise that actually FCC actually have very little control over the things that used to make me angry. The only thing they really could control was the communication and recovery plan at times of disruption. This was, and is, top of my complaints list but the others – ticket prices, lack of seats, amount of engineering work disrupting journeys, slow pace of innovation, etc – were being dictated to them by government. Maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly by FCC’s attitude of “we not contracted to do it, we’re not gonna do it”.

So I am writing this blog post on Saturday night, on the very last journey I will take with FCC for at least seven years, the initial duration of GTR’s franchise contract. I thought I would take a look at what GTR are promising for their franchise. I may revisit this post after the expected delivery dates to see how progress is going. This refers only to the Thameslink line, part of an expanded franchise area covering around 1 in 5 of all train journeys in the UK once fully up and running.

New Trains

A new fleet of Siemens trains are promised between 2016 and 2018 to replace the ageing (early 1970s and counting) existing metal boxes. You may remember the furore when Bombardier lost the bid to provide these trains; this was under FCC’s franchise – not that it matters because the train operator has no say in the design or competitive process. All they’ll do is stick their stickers on the side and cover the seats in their chosen company colours.

More reliable and faster services

At the time of writing, there is a news article on GTR’s holding site stating they are “pleased to announce” that the Bedford-Brighton service pattern (4 trains per hour, more at peak times, less overnight) will be retained. That’s great news but ideally we would be treated to more services in the shoulders of the peak. They also say they will double the extreme overnight service from 1 train to 2 trains per hour, between Gatwick and Luton airports.

Once the Thameslink Programme is complete, up to 24 trains per hour will run through the central London “core” between St Pancras International and London Bridge – again, great news as long as there is contingency plans if there is disruption in this section. At the moment, a single train breaking down at, say, Farringdon (where drivers make the switch between overheard power lines used in the north and third-rail in the south) can cripple the service due to the single-track in this section. With more trains running through, and thus more risk, there absolutely has to be a quick decision (and implementation) to split the service and provide a northern branch starting and terminating at St Pancras, and a southern equivalent to and from London Bridge, until the central lines are clear again. This should be possible with the extra paths going in to connect the Thameslink line to the Great Northern line in order to quickly turn around trains at St Pancras without ending up with a backlog.

Easier journeys and better information

This is the major gripe I had with First Capital Connect. There was very little information about a service until it arrived on the platform. GTR are promising, by this November, to introduce a mobile phone app which gives live ‘loading’ information about their trains. I’d hope this tells you exactly how many carriages it has (FCC were normally right on the dot-matrix systems on the platform, but not always, resulting in a run down the platform and a crush in the front or back carriage when a shorter train arrived), the number or percentage of seats still available, and where it is scheduled to stop. Another part of the app would be a carpark availability display – this would be invaluable for me as I often arrive at the car park to either get one of the last three spaces, or have just been beaten to them and then have to either pay more in the adjacent car park (which doesn’t have off-peak pricing), or try my luck at the next Thameslink station down the line, a fifteen minute drive.

“Real-time running information (audio and visual) on all trains by 2016” is another promise GTR are making. I’m not sure I understand this – I’d prefer the driver to manually tell us what is going on when there are problems, rather than an automated voice with the only pre-record available being “due to problems on the line”, or whatever that day’s excuse is.

A bid bonus for me would be the way they are proposing to structure their fares, as well as offering advanced tickets for the first time (that I remember) on the Thameslink route. GTR propose introducing smart cards, part-time season tickets, making a “peak outbound and off-peak inbound” (or vice-versa) ticket which is cheaper than the current options of buying a peak return, or two single tickets, both of which are very expensive and not pro-rata of the full peak return; and working with TfL to extend the Oyster service out to Gatwick and Luton airports.

I’d hope the smartcard – branded as “the key” – really is smart enough to work out the cheapest price ticket for your journeys – not just on a daily basis, but on an annual or at least monthly basis. If I originally put return daily tickets on the smartcard, but then spend more in a year than if I had just bought an annual ticket, I would expect to never be charged again until the next 365-day period begins.

Responsive to customer priorities on station and on train

There is the usual bumph here about improving CCTV, more toilets and new information screens. One interesting idea that stands out is a £1m “annual fund (from 2016) for local communities to spend on improvements to small stations [with a footfall of less than] 1m [passengers]”. Putting aside the question of why this money will take so long to arrive, it would be great to see garden areas maintained, better accessible facilities, more staff on-station, improved catering facilities (especially if community-run) and possibly heritage information and displays.

Another idea which grabs my attention is “free WiFi at 104 stations”. Although no mention is made of which stations (I assume the larger and central London ones, as 104 isn’t very many when considering the whole of the enlarged Thameslink franchise area), there is no mention of any WiFi on trains. In 2014, on a very large commuter route, you would expect this – not necessarily free, but at least available. I would suggest maybe £1 per journey or up to £250 a year for WiFi on all trains would be a good and popular pricing point.

What else could they do?

I would love to see on my train network:

  • A monthly/quarterly free magazine, advertising-funded, highlighting events across the network, a monthly focus on different areas, the latest performance figures and franchise news, engineering works information and competitions.
  • A review of “delay repay”. Currently, train companies receive compensation from Network Rail after 5 minutes of delays when the fault lies in their domain (signals, tracks, etc); however the customer can only claim when the delay is over 30 minutes. If you arrive 29 minutes late, you get nada. This system is infinitely better than the previous franchise (also Govia) whereby season tickets were discounted based on the previous year’s performance, but daily ticket holders (or those not renewing their season ticket for whatever reason) got nothing at all for any delay.
  • Work with the taxi operators at smaller station when there is disruption. FCC used to promise a bus which would arrive at some unspecified point in the future (even longer during the morning peak, when they were all being used for school services), which would then proceed to call at every other small station en route to a larger one. Why not use the taxi operators at stations like Harlington or Radlett to get people to Bedford/Luton/St Albans/wherever the service is running from? First Group would have argued that – as a bus company – they have access to buses on-demand; in practice this never worked very well, meaning people were left at stations with no access to any transport and no information about when, or if, it would arrive. A deal with the taxis to get them to a larger station or even – shock horror – a rival train operating company’s station would be in the best interests of passengers during disruption.
  • On that theme, I would love to see better co-operation with other stations, and even other TOCs, which goes wider than just accepting tickets for train travel. FCC used to operate the Thameslink and Great Northern lines, which will continue under GTR. However, while a Flitwick-London train ticket would be made valid for travel from, say, Hitchin instead, there was no such arrangement even with car park tickets (ironically, operated by the same company). Plus that didn’t help if both lines were disrupted, something more likely to happen when trains from both routes start travelling through the central London core. Why not start negotiations with London Midland, Virgin Trains and other operators south of the capital to get a “whole package” of help with trains are disrupted?

What are your hopes for the new train operator? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

1 Reply - Posted: 13th September 2014, 9:39pm - Category: General

Removal of Web Apps and review of the Travels section

I’ve taken the tough decision to retire the two long-running Web Apps from this site. At the same time I’ve done a full review of all my travel reports. Details below:

Train Times for iGoogle

Although I know there is a core fanbase using the app on a regular basis, I have closed the live training running times app designed for the iGoogle home page. This sapped bandwidth on my server to the extreme, as it was constantly checking station departure boards all around the country. With iGoogle due to close at the end of the month and with no obvious place to relocate the app, it has now gone. All data will be deleted by Christmas Day or earlier.

BBC Correspondents Map

This well-respected website showed the locations and biographical information of the BBC’s network of foreign correspondents, plotted on a Google Map and listing each correspondent’s recent published stories on the BBC News website. Or, more accurately, it showed the location and correspondents from two years ago. The Correspondents Map was saved from closure in 2008 when I left the department at the BBC which looked after all the correspondent’s incoming lines, but I made a promise to myself to meet up with my former colleagues every 6 months or so with the purpose of keeping the map up to date. Although this has happened on a number of occasions since then (normally with gaps of about 18 months in between!) it hadn’t been updated for at least two years. To avoid further embarrassment, this has also been closed.

Travels section review

I have been though all of my travel reviews, updating web-links, noting out-of-date or inaccurate information, and adding a map and advertising throughout articles. Why not take a look?

Leave a reply - Posted: 18th October 2013, 4:27pm - Category: Web Apps, Websites

Happy birthday, BBC Swahili TV

I was proud to be part of the launch team of BBC Swahili TV back in August 2012. At the time it was ground-breaking – the first World Service TV programme (beyond the five-minute bulletins provided by the Russian service to a partner in Moscow) since the launch of Arabic and Persian TV in 2008 and 2009 respectively, as well as testing the new “Multi-Purpose Area” studio in the BBC’s New Broadcasting House to its limits.

So it was fluke that I was also assigned to the programme on Tuesday, when it was celebrating its first birthday – a year on-air. A year of live hip-hopping, Kung-Fu fighting and an entire 28-minute programme showing the breakdown slate because the entire studio was non-functional.

On their anniversary show, presenter Salim Kikeke took viewers on a tour of the studio, gallery and newsroom. Guess who’s in the red t-shirt in the gallery?

You cannot play this video as you have JavaScript disabled.
Please enable Javascript and refresh this page to see the content.

Leave a reply - Posted: 29th August 2013, 3:02pm - Category: World Service TV

Collaboration

A constant criticism of the BBC is that one part of the organisation rarely collaborates with others where their work overlaps. Some of this is just incorrect perception, but – especially in News – things are improving from the days when both the national news and local news would send out separate teams to cover the same story. Not just reporters, but technical staff too. Sometimes this was warranted – if you have a big story leading the headlines and only one reporter on the scene, s/he can’t report live at 6 o’Clock for the BBC1 bulletin, the Radio 4 bulletin, and the local radio station all at the same time. Likewise with domestic news and the World Service for international stories.

I’ve never understood why the BBC invests in – and boasts about – the staff based in its various overseas bureaux, nominally working for the World Service’s languages output, but then sends a London-based correspondent when a story breaks. Why not just ask the international bureau staff – or, for domestic stories, regional staff – to also report for any interested UK outlets as well?

It helps, of course, that most London production departments (and the whole of News) will very soon be together in one building in central London – New Broadcasting House. Previously, with domestic news in Stage 6 of Television Centre, World Service English-language output in one wing of Bush House, and the language services spread around the other wings, it was much harder to collaborate on stories and share material.

So I was pleased to see this week the fact that BBC World News – the commercially-funded tv channel broadcast in English for international viewers – were taking the time to interview the experts working for the BBC’s 27 language services about the Israel elections:

You cannot play this video as you have JavaScript disabled.
Please enable Javascript and refresh this page to see the content.

The video shows Ros Atkins interviewing Ehsan Amertousi and Mehdi Musawi on the set of BBC Persian, the day voting was taking place, discussing the importance of the election to their Persian and Arabic viewers.

Later in the day, Ros was back at BBC Persian while Ehsan was presenting Nowbat-e Shoma, BBC Persian’s phone-in show, which had Farsi-speaking Iranians and Israelis on-air together, discussing the issues and dispelling myths:

You cannot play this video as you have JavaScript disabled.
Please enable Javascript and refresh this page to see the content.

Of course this looks great on TV and shows BBC World News viewers other parts of the building and the services which occupy them, but the important thing is the potential for different perspectives to go on-air, or for journalism to be guided by the ex-pat producers who know the country or region better than anyone else in the building.

It’s off-air where the most striking changes will be realised from co-location. If you’re a BBC News Channel producer (due to move to New BH in March) working on a breaking story about Somalia, or Burma, or Sri Lanka, all you have to do is travel up six flights of stairs to where you will find experts from 27 different language regions, who will – if you ask nicely – provide an expert’s view, some comments from their audience, a translation, or help with further contacts. It’s good to see Richard Porter, head of English Global News, agreeing.

That is the kind of inter-departmental collaboration the BBC should have been doing for years.
Hopefully now it will.

Leave a reply - Posted: 25th January 2013, 10:50am - Category: World Service Radio, World Service TV

My job, and why I love it

I received an email from Jeremy Romeo, a student at Australia’s James Cook University, asking me questions about my work for his course. As usual, if it makes a good blog post, I’m happy to respond.

What do you do in a typical day?

My job is to mix the sound for live and pre-recorded television at the BBC World Service, mainly for the Farsi-language channel called BBC Persian, but increasingly for the other languages of the World Service.

The BBC Persian TV Gallery

BBC Persian broadcasts live via satellite for 8 hours a day (and a further 8 hours of repeat programming) to Farsi-speaking audiences in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as online streaming. The TV service only started three-and-a-half years ago, but a BBC Persian radio service has been broadcasting since 1941. Its funding currently comes direct from the British Government’s Foreign Office budget. While the BBC has complete editorial control over the content of its programmes, the Foreign Office decides which languages it should broadcast in, usually places which do not have a strong (or any) impartial media of its own. In the future, funding for the World Service (which also includes a radio and TV channel entirely in English) will come from the UK’s Television Licence Fee, so we will be competing for ‘sharing’ budgets and resources with the rest of the organisation.

Iranian law stipulates that no news organisation, including people like Reuters, cannot share their news material to be broadcast on BBC Persian or our American counterpart, VOA Persian. Even the BBC correspondent in Tehran, Mohsen Asgari, is only permitted to report in English for the BBC’s domestic services. The authorities in Tehran have the right to immediately suspend accreditation for any person or organisation whose material appears on BBC Persian. This makes gathering news in the country extremely difficult, so we make much use of eyewitnesses rather than reporters, as well as ex-pat experts who now live in various European and American cities with a large Persian community such as London, Washington, Toronto, Bonn, Stockholm and Istanbul.

The news element therefore only makes up approximately half of the BBC Persian TV’s programming, with a mix of current affairs discussions and popular BBC entertainment and documentary programmes dubbed into Farsi making up the rest, such as Top Gear, A Year At Kew, Doctor Who, Louis Theroux, BBC Proms, Lonely Planet and Sherlock. One of the most popular non-news programmes is Word On The Street, which aims to teach the audience the English language and about British culture.

My day starts at either 09:30 or 11:30 depending on which shift I’m on, and kicks off with a series of studio preparation and checks, ensuring all microphones, speakers and other equipment is working as it should be. Sometimes there are issues to chase up with the in-house support team, perhaps if something which broke the day before was fixed overnight. The rest of the morning is then used to pre-record current affairs programmes which will be shown between the news bulletins that day or later in the week. These are often discussion programmes which involve a combination of in-studio guests, contributions via satellite or Skype from elsewhere in the world, or sometimes someone on the telephone.

At 13:30 (17:00 Tehran time), the first news bulletin goes on-air, a half-hour digest of the latest world and Persian-region news, with pre-recorded packages, live contributions via telephone, Skype or satellite from eyewitnesses, correspondents or experts, and a presenter in the studio. During this, I will be balancing the sound level for all of the sources to make it sound as good as possible (not always easy when someone is in rural Afghanistan on a mobile phone!) and – most importantly – a constant volume so that viewers don’t have to keep turning up and down their television set.

Advert:

There are four such half-hour bulletins throughout the broadcast day, at 13:30, 14:30, 16:30 and 20:00. At 15:30, there is a Sports summary (roughly 10 minutes) which updates viewers on the scores and news from international and regional sports, followed by Nowbat-e-Shoma (“Now it’s your turn”), a 50-minute phone-in programme where viewers can give their thoughts on the topic of the day. The programme also discusses the content of blogs on the subject, and encourages input via Facebook, Twitter and email. There is an hour-long news programme called 60 Minutes at 18:30 (22:00 Tehran time) which goes in-depth on the day’s news, often discussing the top story for 20 or 25 minutes.

Throughout the day, I might be asked to help editorial colleagues with technical issues, give advice about how to make something sound better, setup live translations for press conferences or contributions, or arrange for other parts of the BBC to interview one of our reporters or correspondents in our studio about Persian-region news in order to give the UK audience an expert perspective.

BBC Russian's "London Calling" Olympics special programmeIncreasingly, we are also producing programmes for other parts of the BBC. That’s because recently the whole of the World Service moved out of the iconic Bush House, a central London landmark which has been home to the BBC’s international transmissions for over 70 years, and moved into the newly-built Broadcasting House. This means the World Service (which has traditionally been focussed almost entirely on radio) and the rest of the corporation’s news output are in the same building for the first time in their history. This is obviously great news for collaboration between the two entities, and means stories and resources can be pooled, shared and used more efficiently. With the new facilities, including a new multipurpose TV studio for the exclusive use of the language services, more teams are working on creating new TV programmes. Already, we are making the Turkish Business Report, a Russian news bulletin (above right) and a new Swahili-language news bulletin is due to launch the week after next. Upcoming programmes include Turkish, Hindi and Urdu news bulletins.

What sort of equipment and software do you use on a daily basis?

Most of the studio – as other news broadcast studios – is fixed; everything we could possibly need to broadcast the news is either already set up or lying around waiting to be simply plugged in. The mixing desk is a digital DHD desk, my favourite digital desk I have used (although I still prefer the clunk-click of the 40-year-old desks in Bush House!) and lapel microphones (a combination of wireless and wired). The sound mixing desk obviously complements other desks in the broadcast gallery, such as a lighting mixer, robotic camera controls, the vision mixing desk, and controls for software.

The BBC Persian TV GalleryThe Persian TV gallery (left) is semi-automated (the new galleries in the new Broadcasting House building have gone much further with their automation), which means we’re more reliant on the technology working properly in order to broadcast properly. A lot of the automation depends on human input into ENPS (Electronic News Production System), a software package produced by Associated Press which stores all of the BBC’s running orders and scripts. As well as controlling things like the Autoscript (any changes to a script in ENPS should update automatically on Autoscript in front of the presenter), producers can also insert commands which control various parts of the picture – for example, automatically showing and hiding captions and graphics such as contributor’s names and the location to go next to the “Live” bug. It also times the programme for us so we know if we have to add or remove a story at the end of the bulletin in order to finish on time.

BNCS (Broadcast Network Control System) is another piece of software heavily relied on across the News department, but is configured differently in different studios depending on requirements. In Persian TV, we generally use this only to connect Outside Sources (whether a satellite feed, ISDN line, Skype contributor, etc) into the gallery, and a few functions in the studio such as changing the brightness and colour of the plasma screens. However, it can be used to transfer network control between studios, dial and connect telephone and ISDN lines, control recordings, and in some cases even control functions on the sound and vision mixer desks.

The standard audio software – such as Adobe Audition – is obviously used to create music for new programmes, and SpotOn is used to play it out on-air.

What are some of your inspirations that got you into what you do?

I’d always been passionate about radio, and decided aged 17 to go to college instead of staying on at sixth-form to study Media Production, which covered both radio and video, but not necessarily specialising in broadcast of video. At the time, I had setup and was running an internet radio station at the local youth club, which gave under-privileged young people the chance to get some training in radio production and have their own weekly show, funded by the Prince’s Trust.

After college, I was awarded a place at the University of Bedfordshire (then the University of Luton) on a three-year Master of Arts degree course in TV and Radio Production. At the university, I experienced a TV studio and gallery for the first time, but was still more interested in radio. In my third year for my final project, I was one of the managers of the University’s own radio station, broadcast on FM for four weeks to the town of Luton.

Advert:

My first job out of university was in the BBC’s Traffic department, which is a kind-of co-ordination point for dispatches and live contributions for BBC News. Correspondents from around the world would dial into Traffic and we would then record their story or patch them through to the correct studio at the correct time, saving the correspondent the hassle of having Yellow Pages-size phonebooks full of telephone numbers for all of the BBC’s studios and a schedule of when they were on-air.

I stayed in Traffic for about two years, always on short-term contracts of four months or so, until I got an attachment as a Studio Manager at World Service Radio. The BBC’s attachment scheme is one of the best things about the organisation, allowing staff to go and do a different job for a fixed amount of time and guaranteeing their original job back afterwards. It allows staff to move around, pickup new skills and meet new people, bringing back best practice to their original department. Unfortunately, as I was only on short-term contracts in Traffic, the guarantee of my job back didn’t exist, so when I was told that my attachment wasn’t being renewed, I became freelance, picking up work at the BBC on a daily basis as staff fell sick. This included working at BBC Arabic TV, similar to Persian TV but which broadcasts news 24/7 to the Arab world, which was my first job in TV.

Nearly three years after leaving my attachment, another short-term contract came up in Persian TV, which I applied for and got. This was then ‘made substantive’ (the words all BBC contractors want to hear – in other words, “made full time”) towards the end of the six months, and I have been there ever since.

I do still hanker after radio occasionally, as I think Studio Managers (radio sound mixers) can be more creative in their work than they can in TV which has a set format, but the freelance audio work I sometimes get asked to do makes up for it!

What has been the best part about your job so far?

BBC Persian TV's "London Calling" Olympics setProbably working on the London Olympics for Persian TV (right). It was a surreal experience – as the World Service did not have the rights to show any video from inside the stadium, or even the Olympics rings logo, we had to use still images to illustrate what had happened that day. We had built a special set for our nightly Olympics Update programme, “London Calling”, which involved green astroturf and red lino painted to look like a running track, with a fake flame in the foreground and some circular set (which most definitely did NOT attempt to represet the Olympics rings!) in the background.

Iran winning four golds – and a silver in Discus, the country’s first track-and-field medal ever – at the Games and watching my editorial colleagues whooping in delight and the big grins on their faces for the rest of the day will be a sight I will never forget!

Can you name a few celebrities that you have worked with in your time at BBC?

‘Celebrity’ is a weird concept. Have I ever worked with Madonna, Stevie Wonder, David Beckham? No.

How about well-known BBC personalities? Jonathan Ross? Kate Adie? Terry Wogan? Chris Moyles? No.

Ever heard of Seva Novgorodtsev, Ros Atkins or Sadeq Saba? Millions of people listen to or watch them every single day across the world – and yes, these are people I have worked with.

Leave a reply - Posted: 16th August 2012, 2:28pm - Category: World Service TV

This site uses cookies to provide and improve the service. Continue to browse this site as you would, or switch off all unnecessary cookies here.