Friday, 7 December 2012

A Day In The Life...On The Stourbridge Branch Line!

The Stourbridge Line User Group (SLUG) (of whom I used to be a committee member) asked me if I could write an article about "A Day In The Life" of the Stourbridge Branch Line, as someone who drives the Stourbridge Shuttle between Junction & Town. No problem! Here is the article, which appears in their current newsletter.

It’s 5am at Stourbridge Junction and not even the birds are singing yet.
A day in the life of the Stourbridge branch line is beginning. This will consist of over 200 individual journeys on the ¾ mile journey – the shortest in Europe – and will run continuously for over 18 hours linking the Snow Hill lines and Stourbridge Town Centre. There has been a service on this line since 1879, and is now operated using the unique Class 139 “Parry People Mover” Railcars. The service is operated by Pre Metro Operations Limited, on behalf of London Midland.
After booking on duty, we check the “Late Notice Case” – information regarding operation on our line or lines nearby. This may be to do with engineering work that we need to be aware of, or – especially during Autumn – operating conditions on the line due to leaf-fall. Rail conditions vary during different types of weather and, much like driving a car, care needs to be taken to react to different types of conditions. We also check the diary to note any other operating issues from the previous crews on previous days. The emphasis is always on safety, so it’s important to always be aware of operating issues.
Then we make our way to the depot at the end of the branch line where the 2 Railcars are stabled overnight. Every morning, before service begins, there are a number of pre-service checks that need to be carried out to ensure the vehicle is fit for service. Again, safety is critical and there are 2 pages worth of checks to be made before we can enter service.
Once we are satisfied that everything is in order, we move the Railcar towards the end of the “private area”, which is protected by a piece of kit that is attached to the track. This has to be unlocked to allow us to move onto the platform. For this to happen, we also need to obtain the “staff” – a token that allows us to operate on the single line to and from Stourbridge Town. This is locked away when we aren’t operating and is only available to us via communication with the signalling centre at Saltley. Once through the “de-railer” (so named as it would literally “de-rail” the vehicle if it was hit without being unlocked) it is re-positioned to protect the depot area.
Now that this has been completed, we can move onto the platform area, although it isn’t yet time to enter service (0547 on weekdays). We inform London Midland Control via telephone of the particular vehicle in service, and whether the other vehicle is available to us, should the one in service fail. There is also time to give the Railcar a good mopping so that it is clean and fresh for our passengers!
Now we’re in service!
There are surprising amounts of people around so early in the morning. Shift workers coming home from night jobs, inevitable early risers off to work, or perhaps further afield – it isn’t long before the first Chiltern journey leaves the Junction for London – and of course late night party animals for whom “tomorrow” is already “today”!
Railcar operation is always staffed by 2 people. We’re both trained to do both jobs – drive the Railcar and Customer Service, which involves checking tickets and helping/advising passengers. We have lots of “regulars” using the service and we have got to know many of them – a friendly smile at 6 in the morning is always very welcome!
We’re soon into the high-frequency 10 minute service and we’re filling up rapidly on every journey. Commuter time is here, and we also have lots of students going to/from Stourbridge College and Hagley – these journeys are extremely busy, and we receive assistance from a 3rd member of staff on the platform who safely assists with loading and communicates between our on-board crew for a safe departure.
Soon it’s time for our “PNB” – “Personal Needs Break”, in railway speak – so the 3rd member of staff will take over to allow us our break time one at a time.
Things are beginning to quieten down following the busy commuter time, and from 0930 we begin to welcome our Concessionary Pass Holders on board. Again, we see many regulars and it is very satisfying to know that, having provided the important connections for the commuters, we’re now providing an equally-important service for off-peak travellers too!
There’s a steady stream of passengers on every journey throughout the morning. We both take our meal break towards lunchtime, again with a 3rd member of staff providing cover. Usually, every hour or so, we “change jobs” so that one drives and one provides customer assistance. Sometimes we may be required to arrange assistance for a wheelchair passenger for their connection at Stourbridge Junction, or advise passengers on ticket or journey options, as well as being aware of any operational issues on Snow Hill lines that may affect their journey.
Sometimes Network Rail may be carrying out track maintenance, so we need to be ever-vigilant for orange-suited staff on our near the line to give them a “toot”. We also see several forms of wildlife, from domestic cats, to badgers, foxes and a family of buzzards! Some creatures are extremely cheeky and may sit on the railhead for as long as possible before moving! Amusing as this might seem, the driver always needs to be aware of any activity on or near the line, as rail conditions may cause us to potentially slide if the brake is applied too quickly! We have on-board sand which we can administer in such situations to help us quickly regain adhesion.
Line speed on the main section is 20mph, although on approach to both stations, this drops down to 10mph, then 5mph. Again, safety and comfort for our passengers is our over-riding concern.
The early crew’s last departure from the Junction is at 1449, and then it’s time for the late team to commence duty.
It isn’t long before the evening peak is in full swing, with the flow of passengers reversed – now there are lots more heading home from Stourbridge Junction to the Town. The students are also back after their lectures and we have a few busy journeys, again assisted by a 3rd member of staff on platform.
As evening approaches, we see the night owls! The evening leisure market becomes apparent, with people heading off into Birmingham, or coming into Stourbridge town centre, especially at weekends. Some of our journeys are now inevitably quieter, but still we carry a steady stream throughout the evening, right up until our final departure at 2354, which is designed to connect with the final arrival of the day – the Chiltern service from London Marylebone. We’re especially careful to double-check that we don’t leave anyone on this service as it’s a long walk to the Town if they miss it!
On arrival back at the Junction, it’s time to switch the destination board to “Not In Service” and a reversal of the morning procedures is in operation.
We regain entry back into the private depot area and the line staff is returned to its safe and secure locked away area.
Now it’s time to prepare the vehicle for tomorrow’s service. This includes replacing the LPG gas bottles that help power this very environmentally-friendly vehicle.
Finally, once the vehicle has been “put to bed”, it is securely isolated and locked away.
In the office, we book out and fill in the diary to advise tomorrow morning’s crew of any operational issues that may be relevant. It is now 0030.
In just 4 ½ hours, the early crew will be on site, ready to kick off another day of providing the branch line service to the people of Stourbridge.
On Sundays, our early crew will also handle an LPG gas delivery from our suppliers and perform a “car swap” where we exchange the vehicles routinely. This will involve operating the points at Stourbridge Junction and communication with the signalling centre at Saltley.
The service on Sundays is slightly reduced from Mon-Sat service but there are still 4 journeys per hour in both directions.
In the 3 years of Class 139 operation on the Branch Line, we have seen passenger numbers rise and the service is now the most frequent ever (mostly every 10 mins throughout the day), the most environmentally-friendly ever (our unique flywheel operation stores braking energy to help power the vehicle), the most accessible ever (flat level entry greatly assists wheelchair users and parents with buggies) and reliability is usually between 99.7% and 100%.
We’re very proud to operate such a unique, important and reliable service!

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Why is it that every time I step off the mainline train to catch the shuttle, it pulls out? Couldn't it just wait another 30 seconds? This is all it would take. It's extremely infuriating.

  3. Hi, thanks for commenting.
    The Shuttle operates a high frequency 10 minute service, with only approximately 1-minute turnaround at each end. We have to operate to a strict timetable for several reasons.
    We have a responsibility to people making bus connections at Stourbridge Town. Likewise, we need to have an on-time departure from Town for people making connections onto Snow Hill line services. If passengers at the Junction arrive onto platform 3, it can take 2-3 minutes for them to come across to platform 1, or they may have to use the lift. Likewise at the Town, people often ask us to "wait" whilst they buy a ticket - but this process can also take time, delaying other people's connections.
    The Shuttle is digitally logged for each departure, and a constantly late-running operation would not be in anyone's interests.
    The Shuttle is not able to connect directly with every arrival and departure at Stourbridge Junction, due to the variable timetable operated on Snow Hill lines. Some services also run slightly late.
    I appreciate that it can be frustrating seeing the Shuttle leave as you arrive, but I hope the above helps to explain the wider issues in operating the service efficiently.