How many motorways does a big city need? And what sort of city do we want?

On Friday, The Age reported that Infrastructure Australia has put out a report that asks what sort of city we’d like to have in 2046:

  • The Expanded Low Density scenario – similar to Los Angeles – sprawling, dispersed suburbs, even more car-dominated than today
  • The Centralised High Density scenario – similar to New York City – concentrating jobs and housing in the inner 15km ring
  • The Rebalanced Medium Density scenario – similar to London – medium-density over a wider area, and jobs closer to where people live

IA’s question is a good one, and put in terms many people can understand.

If the populations of Melbourne and Sydney continue to grow, we will end up being more like the population of LA, NY or London.

What outcome do we want? Because that’s the one we should plan for.

Sunday afternoon traffic on M1 exit to Kingsway

As it happens, also on Friday, the Financial Review reported that the International Monetary Fund says Australia has been spending too much on roads, and the pendulum needs to swing to railways, ports and airports.

All this raises many questions, but here’s one I’d already been looking into:

Do more populous cities have more motorways?

How many motorways are there in LA, NY and London, and other big cities, compared to Melbourne?

I looked at the total kilometre length of motorways in the three cities – plus a few others where I could easily find data.

Motorway kms by city

Some caveats:

  • I went looking for numbers, and in some cases got lists of motorways (freeways and tollways) from Wikipedia and added their lengths together, or found an official source (LA, NY)… a more exhaustive study would probably have better sources than this.
  • You could argue that motorway lane kilometres are more important than just length, as the number of lanes can radically alter carrying capacity.
  • You can also argue that other types of roads, such as major arterials, can play a big part in overall road space and capacity in a city, but let’s keep it simple and focus on motorways.

…taking that into account, you will note that Melbourne already has more motorways by length than London and Sydney.

In fact we’ve already got more kilometres of freeways than any other city in Australia, but the WestGate Tunnel and North East Link, which the current government wants to build, will see go even further beyond the others.

Houston is the clear king, at least in this small sample. That’s the city where they keep massively expanding their freeways, but their traffic doesn’t get any better.

Westgate Freeway, Sunday morning

What do the big cities do?

Motorway length is obviously dependent on city size.

Some people argue that as our cities grow in population, they need more motorways.

What happens when we divide by population (for the same area) to find the motorway kilometres per million people?

Motorway kms by city and population

Obviously a more exhaustive study, with more cities, using this type of methodology would be interesting.

Nonetheless… by this measure, what’s striking is that we in Melbourne have more motorways per person than London or New York City. If we keep building them, we’ll creep closer to Los Angeles.

Back to the IA question: what do we want for our city? LA, NY, or LDN?

I don’t think we want to be like LA. Sprawling, dispersed suburbs dominated by cars? LA’s bad traffic is notorious. No thanks.

New York or London? I’d personally prefer London. Gentler medium density, and spreading employment centres over a wider area.

The key thing to remember is which transport modes move people efficiently as cities get bigger. As I said recently: Roads get less efficient the more people use them … Public transport gets more efficient.

And we will get the city that we plan for and build for.

On the measure of motorways at least, if we want to be like London or New York, there’s a lot to do to achieve that… but building more motorways isn’t one of them. Time to look for more efficient ways to move people around.

Update 26/2/2018 9:45pm. Found an error in the Brisbane data. Corrected.
Update 27/2/2018 7:00pm. Sydney data also corrected. Thanks for the feedback.

PS. Tony Morton said it well:

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Overground, Underground, wombling free

Backdated. Posted 29/10/2017.

Before we headed back to Australia, one more day in London to explore… at least for most of us. Three of us were catching an evening flight, but M had to head back 12 hours earlier, departing on a morning flight. I walked her to the station and helped her (and her luggage) get on the right train to the airport.

For the rest of us, we packed up all our stuff from the Air BNB flat. Just our cases were left, by arrangement with our host to pick them up later.

So, how to spend the last day?

I had in mind to head south of the river to Croydon. The District Line wasn’t running for the weekend, due to works. Note in this photo in the top-left you can see me on the CCTV, taking the photo…

London Underground service information

So instead, using Google Maps as a guide (again!) we caught a bus east to Shepherd’s Bush.

Notably, the bus lanes were plentiful (and enforced by cameras), and automated signs inside the bus advised passengers of the District Line disruption. Ever seen that on a bus or tram in Melbourne?

London bus alert for Underground

London bus lane and service station

Also note the price of petrol: ยฃ1.17, which is about A$2 per litre.

From Shepherd’s Bush we changed to a train – one of the London Overground routes. The Overground is set of suburban lines gradually transitioning into a metro-like service — in a similar way to Melbourne’s suburban train lines transitioning to a metro. In fact, the Overground operator from 2007 to 2016 was a joint venture with Hong Kong’s MTR, the operator of Melbourne’s suburban trains.

Overground has branding similar to the Underground, and is moving to more frequent trains, mostly now every 15 minutes. The lines form a set of mostly orbital services around much of London – a couple of the services go into the central city terminus stations, but they’re not the main emphasis of the network.

Note the adjacent Westfield shopping centre.
London Overground: Shepherd's Bush station

London Overground: Shepherd's Bush station

The pace of the Overground train seemed slower than the Underground – this was part of what prompted my blog post about the disadvantages of sticking strictly to a timetable.

That train took us to Clapham Junction, memorable to me for being in an old Guinness Book of Records for being the busiest station in Britain — in fact it’s now said to be the busiest station in Europe by number of trains passing through it; up to 180 per hour.

From there we caught an express train to East Croydon.

Many suburban trips in London are actually served by long distance trains; this one was heading to the south coast somewhere, and had first class accommodation (within the carriages, not in separate carriages) and toilets aboard.

The conductor came through and checked tickets – some passengers were travelling on those orange National Rail tickets you see everywhere around Britain, some like us on Oyster and credit cards – for which he had a reader.

Southern Rail UK, First class section of carriage

Also notable on that train was emergency information above the doorways, including the advice to stay on the train unless advised… but if you needed to evacuate, detailed instructions for doing so. I wonder how often it happens.

Southern Rail: Safety information

Southern Rail: How to evacuate a train

It was pouring down with rain when we got to East Croydon station. We exited the station and hopped on a Tramlink ummm… tram — it was so quick I didn’t even snap a photo of the outside of the tram, but here’s one of the interior: note the step; the design is mostly low-floor, but not 100% low-floor. I suspect this has cost and other benefits, at the expense of not being entirely accessible.

London Tramlink

We caught the tram just one stop to North End, where the main shopping area is located.

My goal was a place called Heart Of Gaming in the Whitgift Centre. I+J weren’t that interested, so they looked around while I paid ยฃ10 to play some video games for a while. It was good fun, though I’d really been hoping for 80s games – these were mostly 90s. (Memo for next UK visit: Visit Manchester)

We found some lunch nearby in some coffee/sandwich shop, which was cheap and quick, though a bit crappy.

No matter, we decided to head back into Central London. West Croydon station was slightly closer, even if the trains were less frequent and slower, and at least it had stopped raining.

The suburban train took us back through Clapham Junction, past the remains of Battersea Power Station – I remember when it was a huge and imposing monolith; now they seem to be only leaving the facade as they redevelop the area.

Battersea Power Station, London

We arrived into Victoria Station, and had planned to catch a Tube up towards Oxford Street, one of central London’s main shopping streets.

No go. As you sometimes see on those Tube documentaries I’m so fond of, they’d closed the entrance to Victoria Underground Station. It wasn’t obvious why – but the queues to get in made the impact obvious. When it eventually re-opened, there’d be severe crowding while the backlog of people cleared.

London Victoria Underground station disruption

Bus seemed like a better option in the circumstances, and might well get us closer to where we wanted to be, as we had a couple of specific shops in mind. As I’d learnt the day before, to the outsider, the central London bus network is confusing mess of spaghetti.

Google Maps saved the day yet again, telling us which route to catch, and the frequent service meant only a couple of minutes’ waiting. In fact, for all our roaming around on this day, we didn’t wait more than five minutes at any one point. As they say in public transport advocacy circles, Frequency Is Freedom.

London in the rain

The rain was really coming down now. It was the first really bad weather on the entire holiday – must be a sign that you should go home.

We hopped off the bus in Oxford Street – J wanted to look in the Doc Martens store.

After that we continued exploring and walking, but at one point took shelter in a John Lewis department store, which allowed us to re-fuel with a cup of tea and a muffin, and use the facilities.

London Crossrail under construction

The rain had slowed to a drizzle, so we continued on, passing one of the Crossrail construction sites. It’s a huge project, and the new stations are expected to start opening in 2018.

And so to our ultimate goal: the Forbidden Planet London Megastore.

Forbidden Planet, London

It’s like Minotaur books in Melbourne, but more tidily organised, better stocked, and not as dark. We spent quite some time browsing its shelves, particularly the books and CDs, where we found numerous titles I hadn’t seen available in Australia. (In contrast, most of the other merchandise looked fairly familiar.)

I bought myself this: Space Helmet For A Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1963-1989). A very amusingly-written history of the TV show, which I started reading on the way home. Highly recommended for fans of the show; I’ve subsequently been given volume 2 for my birthday, and am enjoying that too.

From there, we headed to Covent Garden, where we’d visited on our first (proper) day in London. J found another Doc Martens store (he was looking for a specific design) while I ducked back into the London Transport Museum to buy that District Line cushion I’d been coveting.

It was expensive (ยฃ45), but it was unlikely I’d be back anytime soon to be able to buy it. FOMO. It appears to be genuine moquette, so it’ll probably outlast the couch and everything else in the house.

Unpacking the London Underground District line cushion at home

There was also a book in the Museum shop that I’d noticed, but it was bulky and heavy and also expensive, so I’d ended up ordering that online. It arrived back at home a couple of weeks later: British Rail Designed 1948-1997. I’m so far finding it a good read if you’re interested in design and railways.

But there were lots of other goodies. Honestly, if I didn’t have my head together, I could do an awful lot of damage to my credit card in there.

London Transport Museum

It was 5pm, so we hopped back on the Piccadilly Line to head back to Chiswick/Turnham Green.

(Most of the time, only District Line trains serve Turnham Green, but due to works, those weren’t running, and some Piccadilly services were stopping there instead. As it happens, the District Line works ran overtime, and ended up causing huge disruptions on Monday morning.)

Back to the flat, and we picked up our bags and headed to the airport, which was quick and easy on the Tube — despite the warning notice at the station of delays, which I only noticed later was dated a month before. Hmmm… maybe it was relevant but they just hadn’t fully updated it.

London Undeground: Service information

Many of the Underground trains into Heathrow do a loop; terminal 4 first, then terminal 2/3, then back to Central London. We needed T3, and after checking in our bags, we found some food for dinner, and checked emails.

London Piccadilly line map

Among the emails, I found one just in from a contact at London Underground. Alas, I hadn’t thought to email him about being in town until after I’d arrived. He’d replied that he’d love to arrange to meet up and organise a look around behind the scenes. Too late! Damn. When can I come back???

Oh well. We still had a bit of time to kill before the flight. J looked for a place to charge his phone; I took my remaining UK currency to buy some chocolates to eat on the plane.

The plane took off on time, and we headed towards Singapore.

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See London by bus

(Backdated. Posted 21/10/2017)

Our second last day on London. While the others had breakfast, I ducked out of the flat to try and find a post office, as I’d neglected to give one of my relatives a souvineer from Australia, and thought it best to mail it while we were still in England.

The nearest post office was embedded in a kind of supermarket/newsagent, a not unfamiliar scenario that occurs in Australia, but it did throw me somewhat that I had to buy the envelope first, then buy the stamps separately. Okay, whatever.

By finding the post office, down the high street in the direction we hadn’t explored, I also discovered the reason we’d seen so many police vehicles screaming through the streets wasn’t that Chiswick is a deadly crime-infested suburb, it’s just that down there was where the police station was.

We wouldn’t be making it to Birmingham to visit old friends Ian and Louise, so they had come to London to stay for a couple of days – a stone’s throw from where we were staying in Chiswick.

Unbelievably, I’ve known Ian for almost 20 years, having met him via blogging (or to be precise, posting to Usenet) my 1998 trip to England, Scotland, Belgium and Holland.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

So after breakfast, we met up with them at Turnham Green tube station and we all hopped on a train towards central London, alighting at Victoria and walking up towards Buckingham Palace. The flag was up. They were home.

Crowds were gathering for the Changing of the Guard, a grand spectacle indeed, even if it’s just a glorified shift change.

There were plenty of police around, and I noticed them eyeing off one bloke in the crowd who had brought a large suitcase with him. Without being aggressive, they told him he couldn’t stay here with it, and moved him on. Given the security situation, it’s hardly surprising they wouldn’t want him hanging about in a big crowd.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

A community support policeman (I don’t quite understand why they have the role, but they seem to have limited duties, in a similar way to Victorian Protective Service Officers) was doing both crowd control and running commentary, which was handy, as he knew exactly when and where and in which direction the next soldiers would be marching at each stage of the ceremony.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

The sun was beating down, but watching it was proof that nobody does ceremony like the Brits.

One minor hiccup – a mounted policewoman had to get off her horse at one point, and couldn’t get back up on it. She brought the horse over to us in the crowd and climbed up the fence to get back on, giving us a close equine encounter.

Police horse at Buckingham Palace

Cleaning up after the Changing Of The Guards, Buckingham Palace, London

When it was finished, the Queen’s Own Royal Poo Cleaning Truck rolled through, and the crowds dispersed.

New Zealand War Memorial, London

We headed up towards Hyde Park Corner, and up towards the war memorials, including those for NZ and Australia. The latter is made up of granite slabs inscribed with thousands of names of towns where Australian soldiers were born, with larger letters forming the names of battles.

Australian War Memorial, London

In the hustle of bustle of busy London, it was good to stop and pause and reflect.

We found a nearby bus stop. Ian, being a tour guide and transport nerd, would give us a quick tour of central London by bus. It’s much larger than somewhere like Melbourne’s central business district, which you can walk across in about 20 minutes.

One thing that’s notable is that London buses are still using canvas destination rolls, not digital LEDs as seen in many parts of the world (including Melbourne). Ian tells me that’s a deliberate decision from Transport For London, who believe they are more readable. They’re right of course, though it comes at a cost. More flexible LEDs are catching up; the resolution has improved a lot in recent years.

London bus near Trafalgar Square

Piccadilly, London

The bus network, especially in central London, is a myriad of routes, and with a lack of a grid street pattern as in central Melbourne, it’s quite confusing. The development of Google Maps and other smartphone journey planners has made it a lot easier to navigate — though Ian knew precisely where he was going without having to resort to an app.

We caught a number 9 bus along busy Piccadilly, past St James Palace and Trafalgar Square.

These blokes spotted along the way seemed to be doing a remake of The Plank. With more high-vis.

The Plank remake? London

We hopped off to look for some lunch, which we found at a burger place. Next we headed back to the bus stop to catch a… wait. Ian had left his camera behind.

Cue mad panic back to the restaurant. He came back, triumphant – it had been recovered.

We thought we’d catch a number 15 bus. Why route 15? It’s the only remaining “heritage” route running the classic London Routemaster buses — not on all of its services, but some.

Unlike Melbourne’s City Circle, which is free, this is a paid route, with a conductor… of sorts. The difference is, this conductor just makes sure you’ve paid – they can’t sell you a ticket.

There’s a catch. While most of us had been happily wandering the London transport system using our credit cards, the heritage 15s only accept an actual Oyster card for fare payment.

We only discovered this when we tried to board. The conductor, spotting our credit cards in hand, looked rather pleased with himself to be able to tell us they weren’t valid for payment. We hopped off again and the bus rumbled away, almost empty. Good customer service? No.

Routemaster bus, London

And so we downgraded to a regular bus, towards St Paul’s Cathedral.

From there we walked down towards the river, pausing at the spot where the Cybermen famously walked with the Cathedral in the background, in the classic Doctor Who story The Invasion.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

Not far away, Ian reckoned, was the manhole from the same story, that a Cyberman had come out of the drains. Alas, on this day, it was underneath a parked coach.

London Bridge

We walked down to the Millennium Bridge, which is adjacent to the Tate Modern, where we’d been the day before.

A lovely view of the river, then we headed east along the north bank, passing underneath London Bridge, and in view of Tower Bridge, doing its thing again.

Tower Bridge, London

Monument Underground station, London

The Monument to the Fire Of London

We found the Monument – the Monument to the Great Fire of London, that is.

It’s possible to climb up the stairs inside it, but we decided to keep moving, Ian leading us on an exploration of some of London’s more obscure streets and laneways, with a stop along the way at Leadenhall Market for a snack.

Leadenhall Market, London

Beside Mansion House, we found a Police Post – a kind of budget-cut version of a Police Box. If it is used for time travel, hopefully it’s bigger on the inside.

Police Post at Mansion House, London

Then we headed for St Paul’s Cathedral, where the evensong was due.

As it turned out, the choir was on holiday (!) so no evensong for us, but the inside of the building is rather stunning.

The sun was still up and shining, and there were major delays on the District Line, so rather than head back towards Chiswick, we decided to head back for a proper look at Trafalgar Square – passing by Australia House along the way.

Australia House, London

Note these traffic signal designs near Trafalgar Square.

Traffic lights at Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Eventually it seemed like the Tube had returned to normal, and we headed back.

Sam Schwartz’s book has a reference to tuxedos on the subway being a sign that public transport is used by the broad population, not just those who can’t afford to drive. I’ve seen the occasional person in a tuxedo on Melbourne PT, but on this occasion in London, managed to snap a photo.

Embankment station, London

In Chiswick we found an Italian restaurant to have a great dinner and a very good chat.

We had to head back home the next day, but at least our last full day was a good one.

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Sent to the Tower

(Backdated. Posted 1/10/2017)

Our mission today was to get locked up in the Tower Of London. Oh, sorry, I mean to see the Tower Of London.

We headed on the Tube to the Tower. Tickets booked in advance the night before meant we could bypass at least one of the queues, but it was still pretty busy, and the weather was grey and drizzly from time to time.

The Gherkin and Tower Of London

Inside the grounds there are plenty of things to see, covering various topics and periods of history. Much of it is on a kind of trail around the perimeter walls, through various individual towers.

Tower of London, and Tower Bridge

Tower of London

Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Warning sign at Tower of London

Tower of London: The White Tower

The main White Tower dates from 1078, and the others have developed around it over time. To my surprise, the complex was used as a prison as late as 1952.

The legend is that if ravens ever leave the Tower Of London, then the realm will fall. So, it was a relief to see a few.

Raven at the Tower of London

Jewel House, Tower of London

And then there’s the sparkly stuff, the Crown Jewels. They’re obviously in heavy demand, because there are railings outside the Jewel House showing where you queue (so at least you can try and time it when the queue is shorter, which we did), but much of the route inside the Jewel House is in fact more queuing, but just more elaborate, showing you various displays along the way.

By the time you get to the Jewels themselves, you’re actually on a travelator so you can’t linger looking at them for too long and hold up the crowd behind you (though you can swap back and have another pass if you want). They are spectacular – but photos are banned, so you’ll have to go and see them for yourself.

After the jewels it was drizzling a bit, so we went to the restaurant and found some lunch.

Tower Bridge during a bridge lift, London

I’d checked the times for Tower Bridge lifting to let tall boats through. They happen about 5-10 times a day, and one was imminent, so we found a good vantage point to watch it.

Apparently shipping has absolute priority, so if a vessel is on time, and has booked the bridge lift, it will happen no matter what – this once managed to disrupt President Bill Clinton’s motorcade during a state visit.

Likewise, the Tower Bridge web page “politely asks” that no lifts be requested during specific times due to public events, but it seems that’s all they can do – ask.

Tower Bridge, London

After we were Tower Of Londoned out, we exited and walked across Tower Bridge for a better look. It’s in pretty good nick for an 1890s bridge, though it had a renovation that was completed just five years ago.

Tower Bridge is a bascule bridge, meaning the drawbridges are hinged, with a counterweight. Wikipedia has this amazing page of animations of the different types of moveable bridges. Some of them, like the Curling Bridge, look slightly ridiculous.

Tower Bridge, London

Tower Bridge, London

Shad Thames, London

From here the plan was to walk along the south side of the river. Shad Thames is adjacent to the bridge, and is a historic riverside area, once neglected but now re-developed and thriving. I&J were particularly interested to see if they could spot any Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks sights.

Looking across the Thames, London

Borough Market, London

We headed west, and underneath a railway bridge found a busy marketplace: this was the Borough Market, one of the sites the previous month of a terrorist attack that killed eight people.

For all the horror just weeks before, the market seemed to be thriving, which was good to see. I was wishing we hadn’t already had lunch, as some of the food stalls looked terrific.

(The day before I posted this, a Good Weekend article had Englishman Geoff Ho’s account of the attack, and the efforts of his friend Isabelle Oderberg to locate him in the confusion afterwards. It’s a great read.)

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

We passed Shakespeare’s Globe, which opened in 1997, a re-creation of the original Globe (1599-1644), then we got to the Tate Modern and had a look around inside. It’s a massive gallery built in an old power station, and holds modern art from around the world.

Tate Modern, London

Picasso's Weeping Woman, Tate Modern, London

Babel 2001, by Cildo Meireles, Tate Modern, London

After a good look around, and a stop in the Tate cafe for a drink, we headed further along the river to the London Eye. Pre-booked tickets can let you bypass one queue, but you’ll still end up in an epic queue that takes quite some time from the ticket pickup to the point where you can actually enter the Eye.

London Eye tickets aren’t cheap at ยฃ23.45. If you’re willing to shell out even more money, you can get priority entry for ยฃ40.00 a pop. Yeah I thought thanks but no thanks… though all told, we ended up being in the various queues for almost an hour, so I can understand why some people would pay the extra.

Queues at the London Eye

But when you eventually get aboard, are the views worth it? Just about. It’s pretty spectacular up there, with a great view over central London, including many iconic buildings including the Houses Of Parliament and Big Ben, the Shard, and yes, trust me to notice the numerous railway stations.

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, viewed from the London Eye

The Shard, viewed from the London Eye

London Eye

On the London Eye

Charing Cross Station, seen from the London Eye

After a full 30 minute circuit, they let us out, tried to sell us photos for even more money (yeah no thanks), and we headed up to nearby Westminster Bridge to catch a bus. I’d arranged to meet friends R+V in nearby Peckham.

Peak hour, so the bus was busy but not overcrowded. I noticed a jogger on the footpath alongside us. As the bus drove along, we’d overtake him, then at bus stops, he’d overtake us again. So it might have been just as quick to run… if we’d had the energy.

On the bus to Peckham, London

Carrie Fisher / Princess Leia mural, Peckham, London

Our directions included watching out for a Princess Leia mural, which despite accidentally getting off one bus stop early, we found okay.

R&V got married last year. R is from Britain, V from Australia. Both being blokes, they couldn’t get married in Australia, but did so in Britain. We went out for dinner and had a great evening of good food and conversation – topics ranged from the ridiculous to the deadly serious, such as the ongoing and tragic case of Charlie Gard.

After a great night, we headed back to Chiswick via bus/tube/tube. Quick and easy. It had been a good day.

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East meets west

(Backdated. Posted 29/9/2017)

Good morning! It was garbage day in our street in Chiswick.

As usual, you notice the little things that are different from home. In the London Borough of Hounslow, the garbos (what’s the local term? Not sure) don’t have an arm on the truck that grabs the bins; they have to manually put the wheelie bins into place.

On this occasion, we could hear raised voices – one of the neighbours was arguing with the garbos about what they should take.

Garbage day in Chiswick

With three and a bit days left of the holiday, we were feverishly trying to work out what to see, and when to meet up with friends.

For today, it’d be Greenwich.

On the walk to the station, we did spot Jeremy Corbyn, creepily standing in an upstairs window.

Jeremy Corbyn in Chiswick

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but one of the joys of a network of frequent public transport services is that you can get from anywhere to anywhere without the hassle of long waits when you change. The various routes mean the whole city is easily accessible. This is something London does really well.

So we caught three trains: walk to Turnham Green station / District Line to Westminster / Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf / Docklands Light Railway to Greenwich… with barely a wait between them.

Westminster Underground Station, London

Docklands Light Rail, London

Turns out the connection at Canary Wharf to the Docklands Light Railway is a few minutes’ walk; something that is in fact indicated on the Tube map.

One thing that did nearly catch us out is that the DLR stations don’t have fare gates, and we didn’t notice the Oyster readers on poles when we initially entered the station. It probably fits in with their automated trains that they wouldn’t have gates and staff at most stations. A train was just coming, and we dashed back down to touch-on.

An alternative route would have taken us via Tower Hill to connect directly from the District Line to the DLR, though Google Maps suggests another route entirely, via Cannon Street and a suburban train. But I was interested to check out the newer part of the Jubilee Line, as well as the Canary Wharf underground station used in Star Wars Rogue One.

Canary Wharf Underground Station, London

We walked through Greenwich up the hill to the Royal Observatory, admiring the view back down the hill along the way.

View from Greenwich over London Docklands

View from London looking east along the Thames

The Observatory museum is very interesting, with some good stuff on the history of fields such as navigation and astronomy, and clocks, watches and timekeeping.

It also of course has the Prime Meridian going right through the courtyard, so you can stand in the eastern and western hemispheres at the same time.

Greenwich Observatory, London, and the Prime Meridian

With an English mother and an Australian Born Chinese father, I guess I am an East Meets West kind of person.

Selfie at the Prime Meridian

Display at Greenwich Observatory

GPS information at Greenwich Observatory

A note in the courtyard mentions that the “satellite meridian” is 100 metres east of the Prime Meridian, so phone GPS might report a slightly different location. Hmm okay.

By 1pm we were ready to move on, but decided to wait for the Time Ball. At 12:55 it rises, then at 1pm it drops again, to mark the hour, visible to ships on the Thames in a similar way to the Flagstaff in Melbourne.

The Time Ball has been in use since 1833. Today, it rose all right, but then failed to drop back down. By a few minutes after 1pm, we were wondering what had happened. I heard a staff member quietly mention to somebody that clearly it was broken. Oh dear.

At present, it’s still not working: the web site says: Please note: unfortunately the the Time Ball is currently not in operation, awaiting repairs due to damage from recent weather conditions.

Greenwich Observatory time ball

We headed down the hill to the Maritime Museum, and had lunch there, though we opted not to look in the museum itself.

Instead we walked back past the Cutty Sark (kind of London’s Polly Woodside, and a similar vintage) to the mighty River Thames and queued for the Thames Clipper river boat.

The boats run roughly every 20 minutes, and accept use Oyster for payment just like the buses and Tube. The fares are more expensive than other modes, but there’s a big discount if using Oyster (or contactless credit cards): for Greenwich to central London it’s ยฃ6.50 instead of ยฃ8.70 paying cash.

Police wharf, London

The Shard, London

Tower Bridge, London

The boat headed west along the river, stopping at various wharves along the way, then under Tower Bridge. We hopped off an Embankment and caught a Tube to South Kensington.

Here’s a line map from the train, showing the eastern end of the District Line. An memorable line in the old sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey had Henry referring to someone as being “completely Dagenham East!” That’s four stops past Barking.

Line map on District Line, London Underground

Museums pedestrian tunnel, South Kensington, London

South Kensington is stop for the museums – the station is connected via pedestrian subway to the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert, and the Science Museum, as well as the Royal Albert Hall. Each of the museums has quite a few free exhibits to see. (The NHM and the SM got into an amusing Twitter spat recently – worth a read)

We started off in the V&A – it’s a delicious mix of design and art – and had a good look around there.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fine French spittoon, V&A Museum, London

A close encounter with Michaelangelo's David (replica), V&A Museum, London

Circus poster that inspired John Lennon to write the Beatles song For The Benefit Of Mr Kite

I&J decided to head off to the other museums, while M went off to look at the V&A’s Balenciaga exhibit.

I decided to look around elsewhere around the V&A, then I diverted out to have a quick look at the Royal Albert Hall – we’d tried but failed to secure tickets to a concert of John Williams music at the Proms, which were on that week.

Royal Albert Hall, London

Detail, Royal Albert Hall, London

The streets were busy, and I noticed ugly, sometimes poorly-placed bollards around the place. Hey, it’s not just a Melbourne thing!

Safety bollards outside Royal Albert Hall, London

Safety bollards in South Kensington, London

Outside the South Kensington Museums, London

On the bright side, there was some interesting street design, blended with the pedestrian area I guess as a form of traffic calming.

I ducked into the Science Museum for a nose around there. I hadn’t been in there before, and there was some good stuff for geeks people into technology and engineering.

Here’s Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine Number 2, built 1989-1991 to an 1820s design:

Babbage's Difference Engine Number 2, Science Museum, London

…whereas this is more my vintage, a Commodore PET 8032 (that’s a display with 80 characters across, and a mighty 32 Kb of memory) from 1980:

Commodore PET 8032, part of Shizuo Ishiguro's Electronic ocean model, Science Museum, London

We all met up again at South Kensington station, where peak hour was in full swing.

South Kensington Underground Station, London

Packed train — as the screens told us, there were plenty just a minute or two behind, so we could wait for the next one… but we needed to catch the correct branch anyway — we needed Richmond or Ealing Broadway.

Peak hour at South Kensington Underground Station, London

Back to the flat for a pause.

I decided to peek out of the top roof windows to see what I could see. With the telephoto lens, I could easily spot the Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower; no giant kittens in sight), the Shard, and planes heading into Heathrow Airport.

BT Tower (Post Office Tower) London

Plane over west London heading towards Heathrow Airport

Taking the advice of our host, we walked south to the river and then east along it, admiring the expensive houses, to eventually find the Black Lion pub for dinner.

Homes in Chiswick, West London

The Black Lion pub, Chiswick, London

We walked back a different way, passing another pub, where we noted in the front garden was ex-Top Gear host James May, cheerfully chatting to another patron.

Back along the high street (generic term in Britain for the main street through a suburb, though in this case actually called Chiswick High Road).

You’d trust me to get a photo of Stamford Brook bus garage, which we passed along the way. (Interesting that in Australia, we’re more likely to use the term adopted from French, depot.)

Stamford Brook bus garage, London

It was just getting dark, but it was still warm.

Given that, we stopped off at a place called Oddono’s for an ice-cream before heading back and planning tomorrow’s exploration.

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The border incident, and London sightseeing

Backdated. Posted 21/9/2017

Time to head back to London for the last few days of our holiday. We packed up our stuff and left the Air BNB flat.

A word about the flat. It had been chosen for its location (walking distance to Brussels Midi/Zuid station), which along with the price, which were its best features.

The layout was curious (one bedroom on the ground floor, stairs up to a small living area/kitchen, more stairs up to a second bedroom and bathroom). Outside the living area was a courtyard, and across from there was another flat, where our host lived.

The facilities themselves were basic, and while I shouldn’t have to, I had ended up spending a few Euros to buy an extra mug and some toilet paper, as it didn’t seem our host had thought to provide enough of either. That’s okay – he was friendly enough, and like I say, it was pretty cheap.

The flat, Brussels

The cat in the flat, Brussels - quite nice actually

And did I mention the cat? I didn’t catch the name or the gender, but he or she would regularly drop past for pats, and was mostly friendly (friendlier than this photo would suggest!), though didn’t like being told to get off the table.

The flat may have been low budget, but it had been a great stay in Brussels. The weather had been mostly kind. We’d overcome enough of the language barrier to manage fine, and personally I found it a bit humbling having to adapt to make myself understood. It was a learning experience. And we’d got to meet my new cousin!

Eurostar leaving Brussels

Brussels to London

Rather than walk, we used up some of the spare rides on the Mobib ticket to catch the Metro back to Brussels Zuid/Midi/South station.

At the station, we joined the queues for admittance into the Eurostar terminal. Through bag security… through the Belgian (exit) checkpoint…

At the UK checkpoint, over on the other queue, one family group from Thailand was getting quizzed by a UK Border Force official. No such problems for us, and we got through quickly.

Then I realised.

I’d left my bag behind. Across the border. In Belgium. Back at the security screening point.

For a split second, I actually considered simply leaving it behind. But no, that would be silly, and could cause all sorts of problems later.

Putting on my most polite, humble voice, I backtracked and told the UK official about it. He thought about it for a second, and said OK, to go back and ask his Belgian colleague. He in turn said sure go and get the bag.

It was right where I left it, thank goodness, and I grabbed it, and they waved me back across the border.

Yikes. At that point I think I’d almost had a heart attack.

After calming down, I ducked into a shop in the departure lounge to spend the last of my Euros on some snacks to eat on the train, while M did the same with her money and bought us some coffees/hot chocolates.

The train was a few minutes late leaving – there had been some disruptions on Eurostar earlier in the day, and looking at the real-time updates, I saw one of the services head of us had been altered to not stop at Lille, in order to make up time. Yes, station skipping.

Eurostar service disruptions

Old Eurostar carriage interior

Our carriage this time was older – gunzels may be able to age it based on the fact that the interior was decorated in brown, and there was no Wi-Fi.

At least the toilet was classy.

Eurostar toilet

View from Eurostar of wind turbines in Belgium

View from Eurostar approaching Calais

When you get near to Calais, the wind turbines in fields, and rickety fences separating the farms from the rail line give way to serious looking security, obviously designed to keep unauthorised people from getting into the tunnel and/or onto the trains.

Apparently the lineside flag in the picture above is part of the in-cab signalling system.

High Speed 1 commemorative stone at St Pancras International Station, London

Back in London

The train zipped along, and arrived in London just a few minutes late.

We’d booked another AirBNB, in west London, and headed there on the Tube – the tiny trains of the “deep tube” Piccadilly Line, with a change to the District Line along the way.

The flat was in Chiswick, near Turnham Green station, chosen for being the right side of town for a quick getaway to Heathrow later in the week, as M needed to head there earlier than the rest of us (a long story involving separate flight bookings).

This flat was less central, more expensive, but in much better condition, with much better facilities. And it was spotless.

View from our flat in London

Escalator warning, London Underground

After dropping off the bags, we got some lunch in a local sandwich place in Chiswick, then caught the Tube back towards central London to explore for a bit.

First stop, Earls Court, where I+J finally got to check out the Police Box just outside the station. According to Google Maps, it’s bigger on the inside.

Personally, I was equally fascinated by the facade of the station entrance, with its beautiful signage.

Earls Court Station, London

Piccadilly Line, London

Next stop, Covent Garden, and the London Transport Museum.

The LT Museum is expensive, but for someone like me who is generally fascinated by public transport, it’s very interesting. (Tickets are actually valid for a year, so if I make it back before July 18th 2018, I can get back in.)

M wisely opted out of the museum, choosing to go for a walk instead, but the rest of us explored the museum for a bit, before we all met up again in the gift shop.

London Transport Museum

London Transport Museum: Why you should travel Metro (Metropolitan Line)

Early London Underground map, London Transport Museum

From Covent Garden we walked down towards the Thames to see what we could spot: the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses or Parliament – all the sights.

London bus on the Strand

Waterloo Bridge, London

London Eye

Cycle superhighway, London

We walked west along the river. There’s one of the cycle superhighways along there, and it was rush hour by now, and incredibly busy with cyclists zooming along en masse – very impressive to see.

We spotted Cleopatra’s needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk that is one of a set of three (the others in Paris and New York) stands out. Interestingly, despite the name, it was about 1000 years old in Cleopatra’s lifetime.

Cleopatra's Needle, Embankment, London

We listened out for Big Ben’s chimes – a few weeks later they would stop for some years for refurbishment of the bells.

Big Ben, London

Entrance to Houses of Parliament, London

At Westminster, numerous armed police were on duty – understandable given recent events.

Near Houses of Parliament, London

Westminster Abbey

We went past Westminster Abbey, then walked through St James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace, London

Near Buckingham Palace, London

Replenishing the Bike Share, London

From there we walked to Victoria Station and hopped back on the Tube to Turnham Green (we were very quickly starting to learn about the various branches of the District Line). We decided to grab fish and chips along the way for dinner.

Taking out cash in London: which currency?

To pay for dinner, I needed to grab some cash from a nearby ATM cashpoint. Something I saw at a few of them in the UK: they offered to convert my UK pounds withdrawal to Australian dollars, rather than let my home bank do it. I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, so I declined.

Anyway, we went back to the flat to eat our fast food and watch some telly before bed.

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UK/Belgium holiday in planning

Very busy the last few weeks, which is why the blog has been so quiet.

Long-time readers would know that I like to write about my interstate and overseas holidays in almost excruciating detail. Well brace yourself for another one – I’ve got a European holiday in planning for later this year.

It’s looking like England, Wales, and Belgium, with catching up with various family scattered around the place being a key priority.

It’ll be the first big family holiday in many years, and my first time in Europe this century — previous trips were in 1999 and 1998.

Eurostar hadn’t even opened the last time I was there, so you can be sure we’ll be using it to get to Belgium! It’ll be my first journey on an actual High Speed Rail service (I used the Brussels to Amsterdam high speed “Thalys” in 1998, but it was at regular speed due to flooding) and my first time using Oyster card!

Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

Obviously the terrible events in Manchester this week (and previous incidents in London, Brussels and elsewhere) are a concern, but ultimately you can’t cower at home because something might happen.

On the list of touristy things already are various sights in London, Cardiff, Brussels, probably Bath and perhaps Stonehenge or Avebury since we’ll be visiting relatives in that part of the country.

Any must-see suggestions?

More notes as I ponder:

  • London transport accepts most overseas PayPass cards, which will save us buying Oyster cards for everyone.
  • I’m wary of Britrail passes – it sounds like roughly the same cost if you prebook flexible fares a few weeks in advance.
  • We’re looking at Air B’n’b for places we’ll be staying more than a day or two, as it’s useful being able to easily cook some meals and do laundry. Hotels for 1-2 day hops.

    CBD rail capacity myths: Loop tunnel usage, Stations served, the European solution

    In this blog post I hope to address a few myths around Melbourne’s rail system that I’m seeing floating around.

    Train loading at Flagstaff, 5:50pm

    The Loop tunnels have hardly any trains!

    I’ve heard from a couple of sources in the past week (one on mainstream radio) the claim that nothing needs to be done about rail capacity in the CBD, because trains only run in the tunnels every 10 minutes or so.

    It might be true in off-peak hours, but is certainly not true in peak, when most tunnels have a train every 3 minutes or so.

    Looking at evening peak, the hour 5:00-5:59pm, Loop trains departing Flinders Street:

    Clifton Hill tunnel 5:03 5:07 5:10 5:15 5:20 5:23 5:27 5:31 5:36 5:41 5:46 5:50 5:53 5:59
    Caulfield tunnel 5:00 5:06 5:09 5:12 5:15 5:18 5:22 5:24 5:27 5:30 5:35 5:38 5:41 5:44 5:47 5:50 5:53 5:56
    Burnley tunnel 5:01 5:03 5:07 5:10 5:13 5:15 5:17 5:20 5:23 5:26 5:31 5:33 5:36 5:39 5:43 5:48 5:51 5:56
    Northern tunnel 5:02 5:04 5:07 5:10 5:13 5:19 5:22 5:24 5:27 5:30 5:33 5:36 5:39 5:42 5:44 5:47 5:50 5:53 5:59

    (Trains departing Flinders Street running direct have been excluded, of course.)

    The single biggest gap is 6 minutes, and the Clifton Hill tunnel has a few 5 minute gaps (See: PTUA on capacity for Doncaster trains), but for most of the hour, gaps of about 3 minutes are the norm.

    If more trains are to run — and they need to, because some lines are very crowded during peak — something has to be done.

    Potential upgrades include:

    • Measures to speed up dwell (loading) times at stations — such as trains with more doors, indicators to show which carriages of an approaching train are less full, wheelchair “humps”, or where they aren’t possible, platform staff to help with wheelchairs
    • Higher-capacity trains — including more efficient seating layouts to fit more people aboard
    • Running more trains direct to/from Flinders Street, not via the Loop — already the case for Werribee and Sandringham trains, and some Craigieburns and Frankstons and others in peak. For minimal conflicts at junctions, and maximum legibility of the system, all services from particular lines would run direct (see below)
    • Signal upgrades — planned for the Dandenong line; remembering that the highest capacity signalling involves retrofitting the trains as well, so it can be a tad expensive
    • More tracks — this is what the government’s Melbourne Rail Link and the older Metro Rail Tunnel plans offer, in conjunction with much of the above, to separate out Melbourne’s rail network into 6 independent groups of lines

    Other measures include boosting off-peak and shoulder-peak services to encourage more people to travel outside peak hours if they can, and even pricing changes such as off-peak fares (or schemes such as Early Bird — rumoured to be being phased-out from 2015) to encourage this.

    Another crowded train

    But train X won’t serve station Y!

    This isn’t a myth — it’s already a reality, though the ALP has fallen into the trap of claiming Frankston trains won’t serve Richmond (and the sporting precinct) under the Coalition plan. That’s not quite right — Frankston trains will stop at Richmond, but only after running via the CBD.

    It’s true: under both rail tunnel plans, some lines will serve fewer CBD stations than they do at present.

    Under both plans, the Sandringham and Glen Waverley lines won’t serve the City Loop.

    Under the Melbourne Rail Link plan (backed by the Coalition), Frankston and the Camberwell lines won’t serve Flinders Street, but will stop at the other CBD stations (as well as Richmond). Dandenong and Sunbury won’t serve the underground stations, but will stop at Flinders Street and Southern Cross. (The Coalition tends to play this down in their rhetoric.)

    Under the Metro Rail Tunnel plan (backed by Labor), Dandenong and Sunbury trains won’t serve Southern Cross, Flagstaff or Parliament, but will stop at (well, under) Flinders Street and Melbourne Central. (The ALP’s web site doesn’t seem to mention this when criticising the Coalition’s proposal.)

    These are the compromises you end up having to make as the rail system gets busier. Not every train can serve every station, particularly the underground Loop stations, which only have four tracks.

    This process started in the 90s when Sandringham trains came out of the Loop on weekdays, and has continued since then, with Werribee and most Frankston trains, as well as Glen Waverley on weekday mornings.

    Rather than have a mix of trains on each line running direct to Flinders Street and via the Loop, it’s better to have some consistency, and run some lines direct and some via the Loop, for several reasons:

    • It avoids problems with running inconsistent frequencies. If trains alternate between via the Loop and direct, you get very uneven gaps in the timetable, because the running times are so different. It also means many people wait longer than necessary for a train.
    • Consistency is less confusing — witness the daily Frankston timetable confusion between 4-5pm and 6-7pm when stopping trains run half direct, half via the Loop.
    • It means less conflicts at junctions, so fewer delays as trains wait for one another. This improves punctuality, and capacity of the network, allowing more trains to run… which is the point, remember?

    To avoid big problems, connecting services need to run frequently, and interchange needs to be as simple and quick as possible, so people can still quickly get to their destination, even if it involves changing onto another train (or for that matter onto a tram).

    #Myki gates at Flagstaff still not working

    Why not the European solution? Terminate the trains at the CBD edge, and get people to change to a shuttle service?

    In many big European cities, the suburban trains terminate at the edge of the city centre, and people have to change to a “metro” connecting train to complete their journey.

    This makes sense in old cities, where in the mid-1800s, when the trains to the suburbs (and farther afield) were first built, and they couldn’t knock down vast areas of the central city to accommodate them, and they hadn’t figured out how to put them underground yet.

    When they did start building underground railways, initially they were limited in tunnel size, so generally smaller trains were used. Hence the London “tube”, where the trains are quite cramped, and the tunnels only barely bigger than the carriages. So it’s common for people to come into the cities on larger suburban trains, and change to frequent metro services to get around the city centre.

    London’s cramped stations and Underground trains — photo by Phil Ostroff on Flickr

    But in Melbourne, and other Australian cities, the railways came as the cities were established, so our large central railway stations such as Flinders Street are already pretty central.

    You really don’t want to have thousands upon thousands of people changing trains unless you have to.

    It would be creating lots of problems, and solving none, to stop the suburban trains at Richmond, North Melbourne and Jolimont and make people change onto a short-distance CBD-only service. Providing adequate interchange and terminating facilities would mean you’d need huge expansion of those stations. And it would be a complete waste of most of the rail capacity and platforms at the existing CBD stations.

    A variation might be running all suburban trains to Flinders Street, and having dedicated City Loop (circle) services. But again, you’d be needlessly making a lot of people change trains who don’t currently have to. And remember one of the reasons for building the Loop in the first place was to reduce pressure on Flinders Street with regard to passenger numbers. With recent growth, its subways and other pedestrian routes are under strain.

    With modern engineering, newer European city railway tunnels have brought those larger suburban and longer distance trains directly into the central city: Paris’s RER is a good example of this, as is London’s Crossrail project now underway.

    There are a lot of good things to admire and copy steal adapt from European railway systems, but making people change to reach the CBD is not one of them.

    Update 17/6/2014: The anonymous Coalition blogger SpringStSource has quoted extensively from parts of this post in an article posted today. It’s worth a read, but I’m wary of the rhetoric from both sides on these issues.

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    Video from my trip to Europe in 1998

    15 years ago I got back from my first trip to Europe. Here, finally, are the video highlights.

    Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

    Includes England (south-east, London, and York), Scotland (Edinburgh, Inverness, Plockton), Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam.

    Worth noting…

    • The blog posts written at the time are available here: Europe 1998.
    • This was pre-Oyster. Most of the travel around London was old mag stripe travelcards.
    • I can’t help noticing how red my face got when walking in the wilderness of Scotland.
    • Sorry about the picture quality. This was filmed on Video 8, and has come via VHS. This edit excludes most of the footage from visiting my family in England.
    News and events

    Did some see the London riots coming?

    Terrible scenes in England. What started peacefully seems to have descended into pure opportunism from troublemakers.

    Did anybody see it coming? Well check this fascinating article from The Guardian, a week ago:

    Farewell youth clubs, hello street life โ€“ and gang warfare

    With budget cuts leading to the loss of facilities that kept many inner-city youths occupied, experts predict a rise in crime

    Others worry that a perfect storm of unemployment, the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a squeeze on programmes to help disadvantaged youths could bring more than just a rise in crime figures and result in a “lost generation”.

    “Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” [Professor John Pitts] said.

    “At a simple level that could mean an increase in antisocial behaviour and vandalism.”

    Not that the budget cuts necessarily led directly to the riots of course, but I bet it didn’t help. Take away services like that from areas with serious social problems, and you can see how there might be consequences.

    And it does leave me wondering how much money was saved in cutting services for disaffected youth, and how much more will be spent by the government bringing London and other cities back under control.

    People are responsible for their own actions of course. But whether you consider these types of schemes to be improving community ties, bettering people, or merely a distraction from more destructive activities, they would appear to be a better investment than was apparent to those who cut them.

    * * *