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Metrolink: The Operator Gets Confused

Jonathan Schofield interviews MRDL MD Chris Coleman about Monday 7 November's network failure

Written by . Published on November 11th 2011.

Metrolink: The Operator Gets Confused

CHAPTER ONE - In which Metrolink passengers are frustrated and ignored by the Metrolink operator

IT HAPPENS every time and you wonder why it happens every time.

A train, tram, road or plane network collapses and customers are left without any information or explanation.

In the aftermath, the chairman/ managing director/ press spokesperson issues a statement, stating that keeping customers informed is the big priority and they’ve learnt lessons and next time they’ll do so much better.

Then next time comes along and nothing has improved.

In fact it’s worse because the promise has been broken and nobody but nobody takes the blame or resigns or gets sacked.

Then there’s a statement released which says how the company has really the learnt lessons this time and they’ll do so much better if there should be a repeat. 

Round and round the cycle of failure turns.

So on Monday 7 November, the next time came along on Metrolink and nothing had improved.

I got to Firswood Station on the South Manchester Line of the Metrolink system at about 8.40am. There was the dreaded sign from hell scrolling down the Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) informing us that a '12 minute service is in operation'.

The South Manchester Line is always a 12 minute service. Already carelessness and crassness in the control rooms at Queens Road was starting to get people annoyed.

Something was clearly up, but the display resolutely refused to say what and the number of people on the platform began to build. 

After about 17 minutes and no tannoy announcements no tram had arrived. 

There was an irritating noise bleeping away on the platform.

It turned out someone had pushed the customer service button on the Passenger Help Point before I'd arrived.

Boardroom And Browns 025

After several minutes it was answered by a human, a real human.

"Can I help you?" said a sympathetic metallic female voice.

"Yes," I said, "could you tell us when the next tram to the city centre is expected?"

The voice promptly cut off.

People at the station tittered and shrugged their shoulders or glared. 

I pressed the customer service button again. Bleep, bleep, bleep.

After several more minutes the voice returned.

"Can I help you?" said a metallic female voice

"Yes," I said, "could you tell us when the next tram to the city centre is? And please don't hang up this time."

"I'll check," said the voice and disappeared in a haze of radio static.

"Ah," said the voice coming back, "the nearest tram to you is on its way past Cornbrook, so it will have to go into Chorlton and then come back out again...."

"So we're talking what, twenty five, thirty minutes more, are we?"

"Something like that. You can always use your tickets on the buses," said the voice before reeling off some numbers of buses on nearby routes. 

"Thanks but how come you didn't let us know about the fact the tram was only at Cornbrook either on the display or on the tannoy?" I asked.

Our old friend radio static replied blankly. The woman had gone.

"Why don't they just put the information on the screens? Or even tell us why there is a delay?" asked another passenger as we all trooped off to get taxis or buses. 

It was only later that we learned that a minor, tidsy bit of frost had broken the de-icing tram and thus brought on the delays. 

This was alarming: it was a such a severely cold night water hadn't bothered to freeze. What might happen if temperatures really plummeted?

Even the local authority run Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) showed their exasperation with the company they'd contracted to operate the system, Metrolink RATP Dev UK Ltd (MRDL). 

Customer services director of TfGM, Susan Wildman, said: "We expect our operator, MRDL, to be better prepared and to take action to prevent it happening again."

So we thought we'd ask that operator. 

CHAPTER TWO - In which Confidential talked to a Metrolink operator boss

JS (Jonathan Schofield): So why couldn't you put the information on the Passenger Information Displays at Firswood? Surely you can just type in the information and hey presto! we all know what's happening. They are - as you say - called Passenger Information Displays after all. Information being the operative word.

CC (Chris Coleman, Managing Director, Metrolink RATP Dev Ltd (MRDL)): There is no scope for that type of functionality. I'll check on-going functionality developments to see what may be possible in future. This is clearly something we'd like to do. 

JS: So you can't simply type in individual messages for individual screens at each station? It all has to be one message and a fairly useless and uninformative one at that. That's very inflexible given the technology involved, surely it should be easy?

CC: As I say there's no functionality for that. I'll look into it.

(DOH! He did look into it. And found he was wrong.

This comes from the written statement sent to Confidential subsequent to my conversation with Mr Coleman. 'The tram stops along the South Manchester line are equipped to provide live and announcements (sic) and the Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) provide ‘live information’ on tram services as well as specific notices/information for each tram stop. Currently the South Manchester Line stops are the only parts of the network with PIDs that can provide this ‘live’ information.

'However, all stops will provide this under a new tram management system which will be rolled out across the network in future. (Previously, information displays at stops on the rest of the network only provided scheduled information, not real-time information, as per the information provided to you by the TfGM press office on Monday.) 

'I note your comments that announcements were not being made at Firswood and that no information was posted on the PIDs to advise about delays and am currently reviewing why this could have been the case.'

But surely Chris Coleman as MD should have known this about the South Manchester line PIDs?

It gets worse too, because our first enquiry to TfGM showed that they had no idea the South Manchester Line displays could be individually programmed either.

Their initial comment read: 'With regards to displays at tram stops this morning, the displays cannot currently show ‘real-time’ information on when the next tram is going to arrive, only the standard service intervals. The usual procedure during major disruption is for Metrolink’s operator, MRDL, to give information to passengers over the public address system or via Metrolink staff at the stops, and this is something we are likely to be addressing with MRDL. Real-time information is something we will, however, be able to provide in future when new technology is rolled out across the network.'

But surprise, surprise the South Manchester Line could have dished out 'real time' information all along. The new technology was there.

JS: That strange situation with the Passenger Information Displays aside, why were there no tannoy announcements given that you must have known the 12 minute service displays were telling fibs. The delays were far longer?

CC: We did make regular announcements on the restricted service and the problems.

JS: Not in the thirty minutes I was there. 

CC: Are you sure? We were making announcements across all the lines.

JS: I'm sure. Oh yes. 

CC: I'll look into that. We also sent staff out on the trams to talk to people.

JS: But there were no trams in either direction so no staff could get off them and talk to us.

CC: Oh right. (Pause) We have talked to TfGM about this. Had an emergency meeting on the morning of the problems but the more I hear the more I wonder how we really did. 

JS: Why did it take so long for staff to answer the Passenger Help Point calls?

CC: It was a very busy morning...

JS: Maybe I should approach the question like this. How many information staff do you employ at peak moments? Are there enough and can you get back-up staff?

CC: We can when there is a problem, but this situation built up at short notice, there was a service fail when the ice-breaking tram broke down and then more and more trams broke down.

JS: But that must have been very early in the morning, at least three or four hours before I got to Firswood. When did the service start to fail with the ice-breaking tram?

CC: I haven't got the details about the times.

JS: Haven't you? So how many staff do you employ at peak times?

CC: I don't want to be drawn on that, I just have to make sure we have the right resources.

JS: I think our readers, and passengers affected, would like to make up their own minds. Letting them know how many information staff you had would allow them to come to a conclusion.

CC: I don't want to be drawn on actual numbers.

The conversation meandered a little more.

I delivered the speech that this long article opens with, about how on each occasion when something goes wrong with informing the paying public about infrastructure problems, promises are made which are then broken. 

Mr Coleman talked about getting the right staff and getting them in the right place, he was at pains to state and repeat, "We really care what happens to our passengers. We really want to serve them the best we can."

Clearly he was being sincere.

But his answers didn't add up, and he was evasive over the number of people employed to let passengers know what was going on in moments of crisis on Metrolink. I feel a Freedom Of Information Act request being banged over to MRDL.

In the end it's hard to have confidence that a repeat situation wouldn't deliver a similar outcome.

If the powers at the top of MRDL don't even know the functionality of their own systems what's to say that next time a tram breaks down passengers won't be left in the dark as to what is happening, why, and when their next tram might turn up. 

Boardroom And Browns 028

There was a final blast of silliness from MRDL in their written statement about plans going foward to make sure the ice-breaking tram failure incident is contained.

'We’ve undertaken a detailed joint review of the disruption with TfGM to understand what we can do better to prevent a similar incident.  There are two key issues regarding passenger communications (which we’ve discussed) and being better informed about the weather conditions so that we can proactively mitigate any potential issues that could affect our service. We’re therefore reviewing our current communications plan and are working with the Met Office to have access to more detailed weather forecasts.'

So they're going to look at the weather in a bit more detail. Jeez. What did they do previously?

Stay up and watch Eno doing the weather on BBC North West Tonight?

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

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35 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousNovember 9th 2011.

Since buying my annual season ticket, I have been told by Metrolink officials at various junctures that trams can struggle in extreme heat, when its very wet and now apparently in the lightest of frosts.

One thing is for sure, if there are regular repeats of Monday's chaos, I will be seeking a refund for the annual season ticket I bought during the summer. As handy as the tram might be for where I live in Chorlton, if I cannot rely on its efficiency then I will have to go back to either driving in or using the bus.

tblzebraNovember 9th 2011.

As usual, Metrolink don't bother advising passengers about delays, when they easily could, and the customer service is sh*te.

Bernadette KellyNovember 9th 2011.

It's better than sitting in your car for 75 minutes to go 6 miles, pay £15 a day for parking plus the cost of petrol. Trust me, I look at taking the tram when I can. Delays or not.

AnonymousNovember 11th 2011.

Welcome to our world South Manchesterites

AnonymousNovember 11th 2011.

Can you ask your man at metrolink why it now takes about 5 minutes longer to get from Altrincham into the city than it did a year ago? The trams always stop at signals outside the new depot and near the chester road underpass and wait... for what I'm not sure, but they wait... and waiting takes time. I tried asking but they didn't answer.

As for the PIDs, it's 2011 and a lot of cities have live information on bus stops even, I think it's time they accelerated the introduction of these with or without their new signalling system which won't be fully implemented for years yet.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 15th 2011.

Interesting they were able to add CCTV to a lot of bus stops years ago, but not passenger information displays.

I'm sure the CCTV is never watched and probably broken, but I'm not sure there's much joined-up thinking when it comes to tech and public transport.

AnonymousNovember 11th 2011.

Also, please ask him about the 6% rise in ticket prices in Jan 2012, for a service thats already overpriced, overcrowded and doesn't work in winter months !

AnonymousNovember 11th 2011.

Good effort Jonathon. Keep up the pressure.

Calum McGNovember 11th 2011.

Good article - poor response from Metrolink. Time to build an underground. No frost.

MerkozyNovember 11th 2011.

Two pissy tram routes and you can't get them to work?

Somehow I cannot stop thinking that straight after Greece and Italy comes Manchester.

Can't wait to send a EU commissioner round to sort you out!

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 12th 2011.

Oh done one you sad fucker. Or at least get your facts straight before you start making irrelevant comparisons.

AnonymousNovember 14th 2011.

there's four lines....

AnonymousNovember 12th 2011.

Waiting 40 years for a tram to Reddish! Someday they might even put bus lanes on the 'Expressway'

peeNovember 12th 2011.

Keep up the pressure Jonathan. They are a supremely rubbish and incompetent company! Have noticed they sort of make a bit more effort with the tannoys (one member of staff forgot to turn hers off on Fri eve heard hilarious things about her smelly office all over manchester!). Rude, threatening, brusque staff, NO idea of customer service!

1 Response: Reply To This...
Simon SmithNovember 14th 2011.

Good customer service is a waste of money when most of your customers have to use your service or endure traffic jams and pay parking fees as the only alternative.

AnonymousNovember 15th 2011.

The lack of clear, current, detailed information is why I setup a twitterbot @manc_metrolink to scrape information of the metrolink website and try to get more information out there to us poor uninformed passengers. If metrolink could just do something like this themselves then it could be very handy for users of the network. The account has over a thousand followers so there's obviously a demand for it and it would be little work for MRDL.

AnonymousNovember 15th 2011.

Oh, the joys of the Metrolink. I pay nearly £1k a year for the pleasure of no passenger updates, surly tram drivers and the delight of watching several empty Eccles/MediaCity UK services sail by Deansgate followed by an Altrincham tram so full you can't even get on. I bloody hate the Metrolink but have very little choice.

Rob MortimerNovember 15th 2011.

It could be worse, you could use the Eccles line, the unloved half-sister of the network. I regularly watch 5 Altincham trams go past before a singke Eccles tram turns up, it's even worse with Mediacity. Half the Eccles trams now go halfway to Eccles and instead of adding one station they just stop and turn around.

Sometimes you go to eccles ahalfway there they announce it is no longer going to Eccles, please get out.

Annoying at best.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Rob MortimerNovember 15th 2011.

Sorry, not sure why it didn't register all of what I typed!

Lorraine ButterworthNovember 15th 2011.

Try living at Salford Quays. We do not have an alternative method to get into Manchester, we have to rely on the tram, get a taxi or walk, which takes 30-40 mins and there is no safe direct route into the city.
We have information boards, they were installed many months ago, but have never worked. The old information boards were disconnected in the Spring so we are left without any information at all. Tannoy announcements! What announcements. All Metrolink seem to be bothered about is customers on the Altrincham/Bury lines not the Eccles/MediaCityUK service.
We are grateful for the MediaCityUK service, at least we can now get on a tram at Salford Quays and they do arrive on a regular basis as long as there are no adverse weather conditions.
In this technological age the question remains, WHY!!

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 15th 2011.

Sorry, Lorraine, but you are completely wrong. You could get the number 53 bus from Trafford Road into town! Well, to the top of Oxford Road, anyway. If it turns up.

By the way, there are no buses on the 53 route newer than 1992. But you're fine with that, aren't you? Okay, so the engine fumes get into the passenger areas, the seats have no padding save for the chewing gum, the windows leak, the suspension's shot, there's no leg room, four of the seats are over the rear wheels so you sit with your knees in your face and the drivers would prefer to run you down rather than pick you up... but that's fine, isn't it?

Oh, and someone will have puked in the bus stop, and it will be there for at least three days.

(All of this is true. I now have a car.)

DaniNovember 15th 2011.

Jonathan, please, please take on First Group too, while you're at it. I have to deal with their sh*ty buses every day, which are regularly late. Very very late in fact, and then deign to stop for 10 minutes because they're supposedly "ahead of timetable". Considering my route goes down the traffic hell that is Chapel Street, they seem to have no regard for the actual traffic build up that happens there; they continue to stop if they think they're ahead of schedule, wasting 10 minutes pulled in at the bus stop just before the congestion...when they could spend those 10 minutes actually waiting in the congestion and operating on time. I've already written to them and got nowt but a 'fob off' letter back. Not even a "sorry our buses were 30 minutes late" really.

Combine this poor service with the trams and the parking charges and, apart from working there, I'm pretty much put off into coming into the city centre at all, which is a complete disgrace in and of itself given the attractions the city has...but then again, if I've got to sit on the bus for an hour/pay a small fortune in parking fees, I'd rather go to the Trafford Centre!

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 15th 2011.

Ooh, read my reply about First's 53 service above! You might enjoy it.

Peter JacobsNovember 15th 2011.

The PIDs work? They have never worked at Brooklands and I've never noticed them working in the city centre.

MahindaNovember 15th 2011.

Manchester public transport is an absolute joke, and just getting worse. It seems that every decent-sized city I visit, home and abroad, has features like up-to-date information boards and SYSTEMS THAT CAN COPE WITH A BIT OF SODDING SNOW. Years ago it was a novelty; now it's just an embarrassment.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Rob MortimerNovember 15th 2011.

I've been using a punctual, reasonably priced, convenient transport system all week. (German) Coming back to Manchester is a pain...

Robert KnightNovember 15th 2011.

perhaps you could go back to Ms Wildman and ask what sort of contractual penalties are imposed on the operator for failures such as this. It would have been nice if they could have learned something from all the experience gleaned from operating a tram for nearly 20 years .... it's truly pathetic.

Niall Ballantyne shared this on Facebook on November 15th 2011.
Lily GennersNovember 15th 2011.

I'm not really sure if it was the frost that caused the delay or if that was just an excuse for some other problem. Either way, delays are irritating but they're not really life and death. The trams are pretty great really compared to the buses, it seems there is a little way to go though still...

Tram DriverNovember 16th 2011.

I am tram driver and i am sick of having to apologise to public on a daily basis!! As for the Eccles line in my eyes the service should stop running to Eccles after 19.00,reason being me and my collegues are sick to back teeth of the idiots who find it qiuet acceptable to throw bricks/fireworks wheelie bins or basically anything they can get there hands on at us and the trams!! This a long side the daily routine of the emergency door cocks beening turned and the regular abuse we have to put up with when we change ends at Eccles or when
We have to get out of the cab to reset the emergancy door cock,and you moan that service is crap! Your lucky we run at all.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 16th 2011.

Is that why you are always so rude to paying customers???

NoMay 20th 2013.

Paying customers?!? Don't be stupid. There are none after 7pm on the Eccles line. Chavs-a-plenty.

AnonymousNovember 16th 2011.

The whole tram system is an absolute joke! Every day last week it was late; no announcements, no information and not even an ignorant and incompetent metrolink member of staff to be seen at the platforms. To improve their service they really should look at their recruitment policy, is it a pre-requisite that you have to possess few or no manners at all to work for Metrolink!?!!

moorsey78February 6th 2012.

customer service is a joke some down right rude passenger service reps !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

James SlaterFebruary 27th 2013.

I am currently complaining to Metrolink because they sound there horn as early as 5:45 in the morning I have explained to them that the law for other vehicles is no horns after11:30pm or before 7:30am they have been looking into it for two weeks now and still havent given me an explanation, lots of other irrelevant bull came though.

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