Saturday 20 October 2012

Meerkats, Mere Cats Or Orcats?

And where and what is this?
It is in Seymour Street in central London; or rather it was. fbb has driven along Seymour Street c/o Google Streetview and cannot spot the esteemed edifice in any recent manifestation.

And these are mere cats ...
... fbb's Cridling and Stubbs in a camera-shy escape.

These are meerkats ...
... busily advertising insurance!

And this ...
... is where the predecesssor of "orcats" took place! This room, full of busy people, was in the Railway Clearing House in the early 1930s. Then, it was situated in Seymour Street. It was set up by the railway companies to solve an almost intractable problem. If, for example, you bought a ticket from Portsmouth to Glasgow, which railway company would get the money? Clearly the Southern Railway, who sold you the ticket, could not claim to keep it all.

So every little cardboard ticket (remember them?) ...
... found its way back to the Clearing House where they were counted and the money from their sale was shared out. It was very labour intensive ...
... and must have been an accountants' nightmare. But it worked. Certainly, there were disputes and a system of appeals and arbitration but, in the end, everyone got the money that they were owed. Not only passenger revenue was handled, but also the necessary to-and-from of lolly for freight. Again huge amounts of paper were processed daily.
With a nationalised railway, there was less need to allocate. Indeed, the much maligned Dr. Beeching was often criticised because he did not allocate a proper share of the fares to branch line termini; he worked only on ticket office sales.

But a similar process had to be re-applied to today's privatised railway. A standard (full-price) return from Portsmouth to Glasgow would obviously be valid on trains of all these companies:-

South West Trains to Waterloo
Southern Trains to Victoria
First Great Western to Bristol
Cross Country from Bristol
Virgin from Euston
East Coast from Kings Cross
Scotrail from Edinburgh to Glasgow

But it doesn't end there. With a "break of journey" the itinerary could (possibly) involve:-

Chiltern Trains between London and Birmingham
London Midland between London and Birmingham
East Midland Trains via Sheffield
Northern Trains in (guess where) the North
Trans-Pennine in various places
Scotrail via Dumfries
Cross Country from York to Glasgow
Arriva Trains Wales in the Manchester area.
Grand Central between London and York
Hull Trains between London and Doncaster

Somehow the revenue needs to be shared. But How? Answer, Orcats or, more correctly O.R.C.A.T.S. The abbreviation (!) stands for Operational Research Computerised Allocation of Tickets to Services. In other words, Orcats is the modern day equivalent of the Railway Clearing House. The complex computer program is titivated by data from regular surveys of where people are going and how. And, every so often there are minor skirmishes between companies but, generally, it seems to work.
An fbb exclusive : The Orcats computer (and staff) at work

Somehow or other, the Clearing House system looks as if it might haver been more understandable and possibly more reliable and accountable. At least it used real data, not computer generated guesswork algorithms.

The source of the Clearing House pictures will be revealed in tomorrow's blog. In the meantime, this is what a "Google" search produced when fbb asked for "orcats pictures".
The internet is a wonderful thing!

 Next Bus Blog : Sunday 21st October 


  1. Thank you fbb - the last picture made me laugh out loud. I did wonder whether it depicted an "Orcats Raid" - the process whereby one TOC manages to nick revenue from another without actually changing services.

  2. You say the clearing house used "real data". What real data ? Surely given a ticket from Portsmouth to Glasgow it would still need to be allocated between companies using some sort of guesswork/algorithm ? Or was every individual ticket examined to identify the route taken from the ticket punches ? Perhaps not as bad as it sounds as for many routes there would only be one option - although it still wouldn't deal with season tickets where people might use different routes on different days with no way of knowing the split.

  3. Good point NMcB - BUT ...
    What data avaiable, however flawed, was readily accessible in hard copy for examination by a real person, who would be able to make sensible and informed decisions. My guess is that Orcats is a dark mystery even to those that use it! [like most software systems!]

  4. ... in marked difference from bus ticketing schemes where revenue lies where it falls...