Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why does wet weather stuff the trams up?

When it rains or the weather turns sour, there's usually an increase in the number of complaints about the service. There are several things that aren't usually explained to passengers for whatever reason, and it's only been after people asking that they've discovered the reasons why rain can stuff up the service. I'm not excusing the performance of drivers here or making up bullshit to excuse the company. This is what happens out there.

Firstly, wet weather makes gripping much more difficult. Metal wheels on metal tracks can become quite lubricated with water and this can be compounded by things on the road, such as leaves and oil. I've you've spent time near some track or been up close to a cabin, you might have seen the SAND button or sand around the tracks. The button used to deploy sand in front of the wheels to help increase adhesion. This works great until you're on a curve and the tubes no longer line up with the tracks! If you even look carefully enough, you will find windows just above the floor on some trams indicating the level of sand in that chute. If you live near a depot, about once a week a large truck comes to deliver sand to an upright silo. Yep - sand. And this isn't just dug up from the beach stuff. It's a specific grade that reduces clogging in the tubes and is reclaimed as much as possible. The EPA is aware of this and so long as it's used sparingly, the impact is minimal. You will often find sand around stops on hills or around stops near trees. 

Secondly, there are usually additional cars on the road because people don't want to ride/motorbike/walk/catch public transport when it's raining. Compounding this problem is that people tend to drive at speeds without regard for the rain or slippery surfaces, hence the increase in any accidents on wet days (another issue that can stuff things up - two crashed cars blocking tram tracks). 

Thirdly, we drive slower to account for the slippery track and additional traffic. All the anger and impatience in the world doesn't mean shit to any decent driver if it's wet and dangerous. If we can't brake with the same adhesion as dry weather, we're going to slow down and take it easy. It's better to get there late than not get there at all.

Fourth, points can get silted up. With sand, dirt and all sorts of crap that gets on the road, points can get clogged up and may fail, leading to drivers having to get out and change them manually. Sure, this isn't a huge issue, but miss a set of lights because of it, and it's no help to an already crappy situation.

Fifth, the entire tram can get held up by one person attempting to open or close their umbrella on the step. Not only is this slowing trams down, but it's also rude at best and dangerous at worst. If you can't handle just a tiny bit of rain on your head as you walk the 2.5 metres to the tram door from the shelter (yes, I've seen people pop the umbrella out to do this), don't read the following:

THE HUMAN BODY IS ABOUT 60% WATER. Yep. Not worth it.

I can understand some people who aren't under shelter, but do you have to wait until you almost get on board before you attempt to close it? Or try to open it when you're not even out the door? One drop of water will not hurt you!

Sixth, some people decide that as they left their umbrella at home, they're going to jump on a tram for a stop or two instead. Fare-evader or not, this can slow things down, especially in busy areas such as the city. It's silly though, because in the city there are eaves that shelter most of the footpaths from rain. 

Seven, while designed not to clog and using sand that tries not to, sometimes sand pipes get blocked. And funnily enough, sometimes electrical equipment (yes, trams too) can fail when exposed to water. Trams can and do break down and this can sometimes lead to a shortage of rolling stock. During peak times, most depots are empty and there's not always trams or staff lying around on the off chance something goes wrong (privatisation yay!). So if a tram or two come off the road due to rain-related defects, this can cause other issues around the system, particularly if one of those trams were supposed to be in front of the one I'm driving.

There are a number of different things that can mess up the system during wet weather and many of these can also impact on trains. Yes, it's uber shit when trams don't arrive on time, but we can't control the weather, loading or the traffic. Those passengers who are patient and understanding are much appreciated!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Things they don't tell you during training Pt 2

Yes, it's time for Part 2 of the epic lessons I've learned.

21. Some passengers think there's some sort of magical place where extra trams, buses and staff wait on mass standby for the slightest interruption. Like some sort of Lasseter's Reef, the fact that it doesn't exist will not prevent them from demanding it appear right before their eyes (Truth is, bus replacements aren't usually arranged unless the delay will last a long time AND the bus companies can spare drivers and buses). They also expect that every tram driver be able to communicate with every bus driver. If soldiers are still getting killed by friendly fire, you know they're expecting too much.

22. Don't be rude to passengers. One of them might just be the Transport Minister. Whoever that is this week.

23. You might complain and belly-ache about the most dangerous place on the system for years and see hundreds of near-misses, but someone at VicRoads in an air-conditioned office earning four times your salary can knock it back in a split second because nobody actually gets killed or injured. Any normal person finds this

24. Pedestrians and motorists will try all sorts of crazy shit in front of a 30 tonne tram. Replace it with a 30 tonne truck that has steering, and they won't go near it because it's "dangerous". The tonne of feathers/tonne of lead riddle still hasn't penetrated.

25. Allowing a car to turn from a side street into your lane will see it stop shortly up ahead and hold you up to turn right or practice reverse parking. For what feels like an eternity. No good deed goes unpunished. Cars with no idea what's in front of you will wildly attempt to overtake you and hit the anchors when they realise it's not you holding them up - it's the cars in front of you. They're dicks. Nothing you can do can ever change this. It's just like physics, the class that most of these motoring morons skipped.

26. The same people who stand and block doorways are fully aware of the dangers of cholesterol and engage in diet and exercise, yet fail to appreciate their efforts on hardening the tram's arteries. 

27. Every year the same things happen for specific events, such as Anzac Day, Moomba, etc. Notices will go up on trams, at stops, in papers, online, but passengers will forget this and it will be all your fault. Similarly, there is a strong positive correlation between the complexity of what you're about to ask your passengers and the time since they last used public transport.

28. Passengers from out of town will love you for being courteous, informed and well-presented. The passengers who live here and see you every day want you to die.

29. The louder, longer and more inane the mobile conversation, the closer they will stand to the cabin. They struggle with their conversation and the task of finding their stop. This in itself is evidence to ban their use in cars. Don't think it has anything to do with them wanting to be obnoxious dickheads. It will make you long for the days of really short and expensive calls.

30. A woman applying makeup on your tram as you move is perhaps the highest unsaid compliment you can ever get. Don't be an arse and test the emergency brakes. However, feel free to screw up the day of someone using nail clippers on the tram.

31. Appreciate the fact that this is a rare job where gorgeous people will chase after you and thank you for stopping. However when things go wrong, all these beauties will become ugly as all hell faster than you can say "bad news".

32. Pedestrians on the road will step into the path of a 30,000kg tram to avoid a 900kg car travelling at the same speed. Similarly, a car turning into traffic will let the 900kg car go only to cut off the 30,000kg tram once again travelling at the same speed. The single most terrifying aspect of this is that these people are required by law to vote in elections. This will explain quite a bit.

33. You think the lights will change to red, so you wait it out like a good driver and it stays green forever. Touch the accelerator and it'll change from orange to red literally at the speed of light. The same law applies to doors - leave them open and there'll be no passengers and the light will stay red longer. Close them, and like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface, you'll be fighting them off. And you won't have a little friend there to make your defeat look cool.

34. Passengers will reward your display of landing a tram smoothly with the front door right at their feet by waiting for it to open and then promptly walking to the next door. Or the door after that. On an empty tram. And then they'll come down to the cabin and have a go at you for running late.

35. By all means be grateful if passengers approach you to pay a compliment. However, be prepared to grit your teeth when it's something like "It's so easy to understand you. Much better than those foreigners" or "Great to see an Aussie doing your job". They don't seem to understand that "those foreigners" are your mates. Or that every tram driver happens to be "an Aussie".

36. Sunday's paper is great for public transport news, but not so great for circulation figures. And yes, those two facts are related.

37. Whenever there's trouble, AOs will be waiting precisely two stops down the line after the troublemakers have alighted. Also, AOs are rare as hen's teeth on Saturday night when there's the most problems with drunks and trouble. Come Sunday morning, when it's double time for pay and the biggest threat is the church-goers, you need to fend them off with sticks.

38. The company has a list of problems. The union has a list of problems. Drivers have a list of problems. These lists are like Swanston, Elizabeth and Spencer - always full and slow moving, but never meeting up.

39. The less important the message, the louder and more frequently the "bionic bitch" will make on-board announcements. The very important messages won't even get mentioned.

40. If you drive on a a route shared by another depot, they will never announce disruptions to that line on your tram over the radio. The only way you will find out if there's a problem is when you pull up at the stop and passengers have found torches and pitchforks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I See Red!

While it might appear that we have scant regard for red lights, it also appears people are willing to apply the same laws of physics to a tram that they do to a car (which is often 5% of less the weight!). These people include those who design the timing of lights between the orange and the red. It's a common complaint and without actually driving a tram, it is rather difficult to appreciate what's going on.

I'll knock out the basics. In some intersections, T-lights are separate to the traditional light sequences. Sometimes you get the three signals (white, orange and red) and other times you get a white 'T' that flashes up briefly during the sequence. These can function independently of the traditional vehicle lights, so while a tram might appear to be going through a red light, it is in fact using a separate light. Most drivers gong before moving off, as it might be a surprise for jaywalkers, etc. If I was breaking the law in a massive vehicle like a tram, I doubt drawing attention to the fact by gonging would help! Some signals have been around forever, and some have been installed under the Think Tram program to help get trams moving. For the most part it works very well, but can suffer from:

1. Cars blocking the intersection.
2. Jaywalkers (especially intending passengers running in front, who probably moan about late trams or grumpy drivers on Twitter afterwards).
3. Not enough space on the opposite side to clear the intersection.
4. Defective lantern (the light's blown).

One rather major problem with this design is that the tram has to be stationary long enough for the sensor to pick it up. That, and the fact that sometimes they appear to work randomly and are often biased towards traffic exiting the city. Sometimes they don't even work at all during certain hours in certain directions. I'm sure VicRoads could answer plenty of questions, but I digress.

Regular traffic lights present a rather unique set of problems for Tram Drivers. Off the bat, the lights are designed for other vehicles, cars mainly. T-light sequences are usually longer as they take into account the different speed of trams. The best way to communicate this is perhaps by using gas and electric cooking as an example. They both cook, but gas heats up much faster than electricity. Then there's the weight difference. The lightest tram without passengers is almost 20 tonnes. Yes, 20,000kg. Put this up against your average 900-1100kg car, and you can see why we're a little slower. Unlike cars, we have can have a large number of unrestrained passengers, some standing. We need to consider our load (something @96tram does more often on Twitter I think. If you don't follow, do it now). And now this is where it gets mildly technical, but bear with me.

The massive tram network is broken down into sections and these are separated by section insulators. These are essentially points where the massive circuit can be broken without shutting down the whole network. Say a truck hits an overhead pole at Flinders and Swanston. Trams throughout the city and along most of those routes can still continue. Anyway, the actual section insulators are "dead" zones in the overhead without power and as we cross them, we need to stop accelerating. Ever see those large flashes of light at intersections in the city? Yep, that's them. Even if we burn them or stop accelerating to drift under them, we lose power. Due to the intersections, many of them are placed at either side of the middle, so just as we're speeding up from a stop, we have to ease up. This, added to all the other issues that trams face, contributes to our lack of success at sometimes making across the intersection in time.

Oh, and there's a final reason that is usually the one most passengers and pedestrians think of when trams run lights - we're in a hurry. I've seen trams go through reds before and not just by a whisker either, so I know it happens. It could be fatigue, impatience, late running, any number of things. I know I've a couple of close calls and I'm going to do an entry on fatigue issues later on that might explain that we're not all impatient shits. If you're on a tram and the driver is running the reds (and not using white Ts instead), get in touch with Yarra Trams on the website. It gives us all problems, with rostering issues and other fun things. And besides, it's always nice to know legitimate discipline works - not just that initiated by tabloid newspapers.

So what does a professional tram driver like me do to avoid such danger and embarrassment? My trainer taught me that as soon as the red man starts flashing, sit back and relax for the next set. So far that's worked well, except for the abusive set who see green with no tram moving and then see red. Yes, you're going to be late for your train/bus/brain transplant/yum cha/pilates session, but leaving things so late that a single change of lights can make or break your day is not anyone's fault but your own.

Some things to remember as a pedestrian when you're around trams:
1. We're big, heavy and have plenty of blind spots. You don't ever want to find out where they are.
2. Even if the green man is up, it's not some magical protective shield that stops the laws of physics. If you're lying on the slab down at the coroner's office or eating food through a straw for the rest of your life, knowing whose fault it was or who broke the law won't change a thing. Always look where you're going! This goes for all kinds of traffic and is not some sort of threat. There are plenty of dipshits out there on drugs, raging against talkback radio, tired, sleepy, angry, in a rush, drunk and just plain dumb. They speed, can't read, fail to indicate, run lights and do all sorts of stuff. They may or may not have licenses, registered, serviced or roadworthy vehicles, insurance or the balls to stop after an accident. It might be stolen. They might be old, frail, blind, deaf. They might hit the accelerator instead of the brakes, they might get hit from behind, they might have a pregnant woman on board. The truth is even if you know or are related to that person driving the vehicle, how can you ever be 100% about it? How on earth does a parent reverse over their own child? Shit happens, and the important thing is to have your wits about you when it does to avoid getting stained or to avoid it all in the first place.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Things they don't tell you during training Pt 1

I've been quiet for a while. Part of that is being busy and another part has been constructing some cardinal rules of tram driving. It's a list (so far quite large) of stuff they don't tell you when you're being trained and it's from a driver's perspective, so don't get crabby if you feel left out - you can leave a passengers perspective in the comments section if you feel that way inclined! If you can imagine a conversation between the new recruit and the battle-hardened sergeant in a war movie before the newbie gets killed.

1. There is a strong, positive correlation between passenger loading and the distance from the cabin to the defective door that won't open or close.

2. Accidents and delays will occur during the following periods
(a) On your very last trip before finishing.
(b) On your last trip before lunchtime.
(c) When all that coffee you drank catches up with you.
(d) Right next to the only parked car for miles, causing all those lovely patient cars to remind you of your occupation, instead of reminding them they're tools for driving on tramlines.
(e) The tram in question will be followed by fifteen of the laziest, most stubborn and surly tram drivers who would rather wait for mechanics than get out and see if they can help.
(f) When you have a collision, there will be an overwhelming temptation to snot the passenger who asks how long it will be without even asking if you're ok or offering help. Don't do it.
(g) Hit the brakes to avoid an accident, and passengers will abuse you for stopping too quickly. Vomit in front of them from the shock and they still won't be convinced. Crash, and they'll get stuck into you for making them late.

3. When you need to make up time, traffic will magically appear and every stop will be in demand. When you need to lose time, these same cars and passengers will magically vanish.

4. The smaller the gap between you and the parked car, the faster and riskier they will drive to make it through. And just to prove to the world beyond a reasonable doubt they are morons, only after they risk life and limb will they put their seatbelt on.

5. A line of perfectly patient, waiting cars will be turned into utter chaos as every car behind the appearing tram tries to cut it off. Those cutting in, even faced with an empty lane hundreds of metres long, will still cut the tram off (that has massive blind spots and can't steer) instead of going up further and risking the ire of fellow motorists.

6. The van turning right in front of you will always here your gong perfectly and take it personally. Unlike the taxi speeding past your open doors and narrowly avoiding the alighting passengers whom you were aiming it at.

7. You have not "seen it all".

8. When you make plans for your day off, the depot starter will wake you at 4am begging you to come in and work because all hell's broken loose. When you have no plans at all and are first on the list, everyone will turn up to work, everything will function properly and the phone will remain silent.

9. Everyone turns up to work on a day off and drives the wrong way by mistake. Limit it to once of each, and you won't stand out.

10. The busier the traffic traveling in the more lanes available, the more stupid moves the intending passengers will pull to make the tram.

11. The frequency of the trams will matter not to the suicidal passengers who have to be on THAT tram. The following tram could be one 30 minutes away or right up your clacker - they will run at you like it's life and death (which they make it). Parents will drag their kids through danger as well.

12. When cars stuff you up, you just have to wait it out. When trams stuff up motorists, they sometimes have to be cut out. Remember this.

13. When your tram develops a defect, you will look for the most complicated issue and solution. It's never the case, but you'll waste 10 minutes before you realise this, but so long as you look like you know what you're doing, nobody else knows this little secret.

14. School holidays suck when they're on because we have to try and lose time. They suck when they go back because of more passengers/traffic/angry 4WDs. There is no win.

15. That drunk, with breath like Old Spice, will eventually get up the front and talk to you, the trapped captive audience who now has to pretend to care so as to avoid "angry drunk Old Spice guy", who is nowhere near as cool or verbally proficient as "Old Spice Guy".

16. You will cop abuse from passengers. You might stop the tram to save kids from the burning orphanage, but there'll always be someone who sees past your second-degree burns and demands to know why the tram isn't moving. You can't change this.

17. If someone insults your weight (yes, sitting down all day tends to make you fat), don't ever say it's because their mother/father bakes them cookies after you have intimate relations with her/him. It will only sound awesome to you. The manager and other passengers won't think the same.

18. Passengers will sometimes ask what you consider to be "The Stupidest Questions in the History of Stupid Questions". Now you know how your trainer felt. However unlike you or your trainer, passengers don't spend all day on the trams. Remember this.

19. Passengers running for the tram think you waiting is fantastic. Those already on board think you suck for holding up their trip.

20. Yarra Trams is not responsible for every car accident, truck/bridge crash, burst water main, freeway closure, roadworks delay, wayside collision/fatality or event that can impact a service that uses the middle of the road. Somehow, after over 100 years of electric trams, this concept manages to elude thousands of people.