Bottlenecks: Never assume the experts know better

As the saying goes: "Experts built the TitanicAmateurs built the Ark."

It seems to be human nature to rely on experts and not question their decisions. After all, if they are so clever, who are we to question them?

But sometimes it seems that they are self declared experts and/or it is us who declare them as experts and then believe our own prophecies.

Jerusalem has 2 new fast transport systems: A light rail and express buses. The aim is to eventually replace the latter with another line or 2 of trams.

I always wondered what was the advantage of transport-by-rail - especially intra-city where speed is not an issue.

Light rails are great when they work; the idea is that cars and pedestrians have to keep out of their way, as the trams are inflexible. They are quiet and don't need to tank up as they are electric.

Two weeks ago I saw that anything travelling on rails suffers from the typical bottleneck problem, as to be expected.

First I saw a train that had started pulling out the station and got stuck; I have no idea what precisely happened. For about 20 minutes it simply stood there. It was jam-packed and nobody was allowed off. Eventually the driver came around to the cabin at the back of the rain and drove it back to the station and let everybody off.

So what happens to the other trains? They have no way around the stuck train, so essentially all transport  heading North was stopped. It was a matter of time until all South bound traffic followed, obviously. (There are a few places where the North and South bound rails have an option to cross over; but running the trains in both directions on the same rail doesn't sound like a great idea.)

Later that day was one of the biggest funerals that Jerusalem has seen. It was close to the rail line. It brought the train system to its knees - for the second time in the same day. Since everybody wanted to get on the train, the train got stuck at every station, as the doors don't close if people are in the way. I sat watching the electronic devices inform us the the next train was in 10 minutes, then 15 minutes and then.... it announced "train stopped". It took 45 minutes for the train to arrive.

Despite them announcing that the next train was right behind (and probably 3 more behind that one) everybody tried to get on this one!

Buses are way more efficient! I often seen 3 buses play leap frog; one fills up at a bus stop while its twins head for the next stops.

Even in the express bus lanes, a bus will overtake another, if the first bus is stuck or taking too long to move.

There is a way to get both the advantages of quiet electric transport and not have to deal with rails.

In Johannesburg they used to have (and probably still do, but I have not been there in over 20 years) double decker electric buses with 2 antennas connected to the overhead electric lines. If a bus got stuck it could be unhitched from the wires and other buses could get by. 

They also had to do load balancing; if too many buses were behind each other trying to get up some of the steeper hills, then they all would get stuck unless some of them stopped, giving the power back to the ones in front.

Maybe the light rail was not such a brilliant idea after all...

Are all changes really improvements?

I can just imagine it: The yearly review at Egged; the Jerusalem bus cooperative. The major request for change must have been to get rid of the need to punch those paper bus tickets.

It was slow, it meant interacting with each passenger. it meant that the person driving a million-dollar bus spent a good part of his day punching holes into paper; paper handled by other people and he had no way to wash his hands.

So, many years ago they created the monthly bus pass. Now the bulk of travelers simply flash their passes and walk by. What a major improvement.

In parallel they decided to upgrade to the 21st century and computerize the system.

Welcome to CityPass. Each passenger has a debit card - this should really improve things.

But, as often happens, this was not thought through carefully. Now every single passenger needs to insert their bus card into the machine; the driver punches a button and - after the light on the machine turns from red to green - you can remove your card and the line behind you can advance slightly.

As an added bonus, at major bus stops (like the Central Bus Station) you can no longer enter by the back door after an inspector punches your card.

Net result: Travel time by bus has increased noticeably.

A spec-review would have been in order here! A project manager would have picked up on issues like:

- The machine which validates the cards better be lightning fast if the driver is to deal with each passenger

- Alternatively there could be card readers at every door so that the driver does not have to deal with any passengers. This is how the light rail has it planned out. On 1 Dec we shall find out if their system really works.

A few simulations would have picked up these issues.

Now I'm waiting to see what happens as the magnetic strip on the cards start be wear out... that will surely wreak havoc on the system as people alight and discover their bus cards are dead...

Conclusion: Not every change is an improvement.

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