Today I was off to Mersea, which for those who have yet to visit is an “island” off Colchester, a ferry crossing to Mersea is only occasionally needed (and sadly unavailable), famed for its oyster beds (I prefer a duvet myself).
Given my antithesis to driving, I journeyed to Colchester by train – or I tried. My train was nearly ten minutes late arriving, and even then only two-thirds of it actually arrived. It took several minutes after arrival before any doors opened, and even then only 1 out of the 16 managed to part to allow ingress (or egress). After several more minutes a few more doors were persuaded to to open. The driver was forced to admit that he was having a few problems – and took the very practical approach of turning the train off and back on again. Sadly, his re-boot was not rewarded and a call to IT Support offered no further succour – but we limped on to Audley End and after a lot of coaxing doors opened. Clearly things were not going well, and so at Bishop’s Stortford the train was retired hurt and we all disembarked (after the now traditional delay of a few minutes as metaphorical carrots and sticks were employed to encourage the doors to release us from our confinement).
There was then a wait for more functional trains to arrive and take us (packed in somewhat by now) the rest of the way to London – arriving a mere 48 minutes late (for a 60 minute journey). Thereafter, my travel was blissfully trouble-free – and so need not further trouble this narrative.
Why, I can almost hear you cry, was the train so afflicted with problems? Trust me, you’ll never guess! All our problems could be explained by a fault in the train’s GPS unit, so it didn’t know where it was: poor lamb! However, it was confident that it was not in a station and so its doors should under no circumstances be permitted to open. It was also clearly very unwilling to believe that the human operator might know. I did feel as though I was in a very low budget re-make of 2001 and found myself imagining the on-board computer telling our driver, in an infuriatingly soothing voice, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that” as he desperately tried to open the pod bay (sorry, train) doors.
This led me to muse as to why the train needed a GPS unit in the first place. Outside of the truly dreadful, recent video adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, there are very few recorded incidents of trains being lost: I feel the rails do help here, with your average train having very little freedom of movement. I had always assumed that rail operators knew where their active trains were – at least to the nearest signal block – but perhaps prior to SatNav, rolling stock was getting up to all manner of high jinks?
Even if we admit that trains need GPS, why should the functioning of the doors be so irrevocably linked to its reliable operation? I would readily own that a system to prevent the doors from opening when the train is moving has some value, but I am more than happy to trust the driver (or guard, if one exists) to make the decisions as to whether the train has come to rest in a station or elsewhere. I’m already trusting them to transport me (with several hundred “chums”) at 90+ mph in a train weighing several hundred tonnes – so, it seems churlish not to let them control the doors. Even if I were willing to accept that GPS should normally be allowed to control the doors, I’d like the driver to be able over-rule the computer when it is clearly off its trolley. It would seem that Greater Anglia has very little faith in its employees: which can’t be terribly motivating.
If I were writing a Daily Mail editorial, I might be tempted to say that health and safety had parted company with traditional definitions of sanity. Or maybe it was just the usual tendency of IT departments to try to run the rest of the company for their own convenience? After all, it is well established fact that the user is always wrong.
The incident did remind of another occasion, several years ago, when a computer in charge of a train had a mad few minutes. I was on a driver-less DLR train (they are all driver-less, there is no need to imagine some sort of alien abduction incident) heading towards Shadwell (inexplicably not in Wales) from the east. As we approached the station we seemed to be going at quite a clip, and it was only as we entered the station that the computer seemed to suddenly remember that it was supposed to be stopping. It hurriedly applied the brakes and we came to a graceful halt just the far side of Shadwell station. Once again, the human operator was forced to re-boot the train (successfully on this occasion) and then manually reverse it back into the station.
I’m beginning to think that the machines have already achieved artificial intelligence, but are (mostly) successful in hiding it from we puny humans. I for one would like to wish every success to our new silicon overlords.