04 March, 2010


Riding the Multiculture

I took my first ride on a 3-car DLR train yesterday. Don't I lead an exciting life, then? Originally intended for operation using single articulated railcars, each about the size and capacity of a London bendy bus, this unexpected success story is currently being upgraded to run 3-car train sets throughout, replacing the existing overcrowded 2-car sets. Three-car sets are in the process of being brought into service on the Bank-Lewisham route and currently there is a mixture of 2- and 3-car trains running.

As the train approached Cutty Sark, an announcement could be heard above the rushing din of the tunnel. At first I thought it was in Tamil or some similar South Indian language. By paying close attention, however, I was able to identify the occasional phrase in what appeared to be a poor approximation to English. These constituted between 10 and 20 percent of the announcement. In the event I was able to work out what the guy was on about, but only because of external knowledge — because in effect I didn't actually need to hear the announcement.

Let me explain. To run 3-car trains the DLR, as you might expect, has had to extend most of its platforms. In some cases, fitting in the extra car-length has proved challenging due to conflicts with nearby existing structures. In the case of Cutty Sark, they gave up. Cutty Sark station is underground and its platforms lead directly into bored tunnel at either end. To enlarge these tunnels would have been very expensive and would, so they claim, have risked undermining adjacent "historic" buildings — I assume they refer to St Alfege's. Instead, the DLR has adopted a confusing workaround known in the trade as SDO. Under this arrangement, the 3-car train stops at the existing 2-car platform with the leading half of the first car and the trailing half of the third car overhanging the ends of the platform. The foremost and hindmost passenger doors remain locked during the stop.

As it happens, I have been following the progress of the 3-car upgrade out of curiosity, so I am up to speed on all this, but many passengers, particularly tourists and others unfamiliar with the DLR, need to have the arrangement pointed out to them. I wonder how many cases of involuntary overriding there will be in the next few weeks as confused, trapped and fuming passengers find themselves having to get off at Greenwich or Island Gardens and make their way back.

I suspect most people will have no difficulty in understanding how all this works once they've been notified of it. At least I assume so; I have a visually-oriented mind so I tend to visualize it as a aerial view of a long train attempting to stand at a short platform. But putting it into non-technical words in a ten-second announcement is another matter. Getting the information across concisely and effectively as the train approaches the station in the noisy environment of a tunnel requires a well-crafted script delivered in clear English.

This manifestly did not happen on this occasion. I have made this point before and will doubtless do so again. The duties of a PSA (DLR-speak for train conductor) include communicating with passengers, both one on one and via announcements. This man's English was so poor that he could not do this, potentially to the significant inconvenience of his passengers. He was not qualified to work as a PSA and should not have been so employed.

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