£75k fine a drop in the ocean for First Group

Train operator First Capital Connect has just been fined £75,000 by a UK judge regarding an incident in which up to 700 passengers were stuck for over 3 hours on a train, partially in a tunnel, with no toilets, no ventilation and minimal lighting.

To a conglomerate such as First, which reported over £200m profits in 2012, this has to be a drop in the ocean, and is an absolutely derisory amount compared to the  – just over £100 per stranded passenger.

It also begs the question about who is going to pay for this. First Group shareholders? Unlikely. It feels more likely to come out of our pockets, as fare increases, reduced franchise payments to the Treasury, or increased subsidy from the DfT.

We can’t change the “token” fine imposed by the judge – it should probably have had an extra couple of zeros on the end, really – but what might be reasonable is an assurance from the First Capital Connect MD David Statham or Group CEO Tim O’Toole that this fine will ring-fenced, such that it is paid entirely out of group surplus, and must not be allowed to impact the travelling public at large.

Better still, maybe they could pay it out of their no doubt generous bonuses, given the buck stops with them?

I’m also wondering how much has actually been learned from this incident, given the “analysis paralysis” that seems to affect rail operating incidents at the moment?

Heathrow – where clean loos are an inconvenience…

My partner came back from South Africa this morning, and had asked if I could go and collect her from Heathrow.

Nipping to the Gents in the T5 arrivals hall was a mixture of what I can only describe as unpleasantness crossed with a few surreal moments.

I had to try about 4 stalls before I found one which didn’t have one or all of the following:

  • Urine sprayed all over the floor, seat and toilet pan.
  • Pubic hair stuck to the seat and toilet pan.
  • Dirty shoe prints on the toilet seat.
  • Diarrhoea sprayed all over the toilet and seat.
  • Faeces on the toilet seat.
  • No toilet paper.

Even the one I ended up using had to be swabbed down a bit first.

While looking for an (almost) acceptable stall, I came across a guy in the middle of emptying his bowels, sat with the toilet door wide open, with his luggage on a trolley in front of it, so that “he didn’t let his belongings out of his sight”.

I accept that some people have different toilet culture to us Brits, but this was getting quite bizarre, as well as inconvenient.

More than half the sinks did not seem to have soap in the dispensers, took trying 4 sinks before I found one with soap, and many of the hand dryers did not work (and had signs saying this was the case, in some cases).

I know public toilets aren’t always the best places on Earth, but this was a truly disgusting experience.

Why are these toilets so unloved?

I do wonder if they are cleaned and maintained by a minimum wage, zero hours employee, working for an outsourced cleaning contractor, who seems to have a very different idea of “clean” to you and me, that quite simply doesn’t care as long as they get paid?

Providing a clean and properly working facility is part of your brand. Why allow your brand to be smeared by such a lack of care and attention?

Welcome to Britain, eh?

Third Runway, or not Third Runway?

Hot news today is Heathrow Airport’s third runway plans. It seems there’s some realisation that a “Boris Island” won’t be built early enough to satisfy the needs of the South East’s demand for landing slots, and something needs to be done now rather than in 20-odd years.

There is a perception that London lags behind Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles De Gaulle or Frankfurt, in the sense that it’s not an “airline hub” of the same magnitude, and dear old London Town is being left behind.

If anyone has been through any of the above airports recently, I’m not entirely sure that being like them is something we should be aspiring to!

I’ve already made my views known about Frankfurt‘s recent redevelopments, trying to make it less painful than before, and still managing to miss the target.

Anyone who flies to Amsterdam often enough will have experienced the mind-numbingly long taxi to or from their relatively new runway, which far enough away to be built in a completely different town to the airport itself. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re driving to the UK, as the taxi time is often as long as the flight itself, unless you’re lucky enough that the prevailing wind lets you take off and land closer to the terminal.

As for Charles De Gaulle… I’ll just give you a Gallic shrug.

While Heathrow is BA’s “hub”, it’s not really a hub operation in the sense of a US air carrier. Flights don’t arrive and depart in deliberately orchestrated waves, purposely designed to connect, such as Delta’s operations in Atlanta. BA’s hub operation is more by accident, because of the sheer volume of the operation, rather than schedule design. Flights “happen” to connect, rather than do so by design.

Following the effective breakup of the BAA, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are now owned by different operators, and from reading this BBC article each of them seem to be vying for a bit of the cherry, while Boris would like to demolish Heathrow entirely.

What it’s left me wondering is why there is a complete lack of joined up approach?

Danger Will Robinson! Radical thinking…

In terms of land and environmental concerns such as noise, a 2nd runway at Gatwick seems to be an easy win when compared against putting a 3rd runway at Heathrow.

Given that we’re seemingly hell bent on building HS2 (let’s ignore the fact that less than half of the money being spent on HS2 could revolutionise rail in the North of England) , wouldn’t it be eminently sensible to extend it such that it touches Heathrow and extends South to Gatwick? Use the train as a complementary form of transport to the train, rather than as a competitor.

It could then serve a dual-purpose of making it more convenient for those in the Midlands to access Heathrow and Gatwick, while also handling connecting traffic between Gatwick and Heathrow.

What would the Gatwick to Heathrow travel time be on such a train? About 20-25 minutes? I know some airports where it can take just as long to transfer between terminals, or to get from departure lounge to gate!

Might it even be possible to provide trains, or designated sections of trains, for “sterile transit” between the airports, without the need to officially enter the UK?

Yes, this will involve taking on the fearsome NIMBYs of Surrey, but isn’t it all for the “greater good”?

Should we ever decide to build “Boris Island” or devastate Hoo with a big International airport, it’s close enough to HS1 to be hooked up to that. We can offer fast train connections into Central London, and maybe even to France or Brussels from the airport. Just think, it might be preferable to fly in to Boris Island then get the train, if you’re travelling to Lille!

But, as I say, that would require some joined-up thinking. Something we need to get better at.

Why can’t all parcel deliveries be like this?

Today I received a delivery of a consignment from Amazon. Sounds relatively trivial, right? Why am I blogging about something so commonplace?

Because the parcel not only arrived on the day I expected it, but at the time I expected it.

People often slag off parcel companies, and with good reason. Ask around (or look online) and you hear horror stories of fragile items being thrown over fences or gates, items being left out in the rain, items arriving damaged, or the dreaded outcome of being left a calling card when you had actually stayed in all day to receive the parcel.

Amazon chose to ship via DPD, who I’ve not got much experience with. All I can say having received the delivery is “Please can you use them every time”.

Once they had a waybill open for the package, I got an email and a text message informing me of the consignment number, and giving me the expected delivery date – along with options (via SMS or Online) to rearrange delivery to a neighbour, or a different day, or arrange collection.

The parcel was easy to track on their website, with details of which stage in the process the consignment was.

This morning, I got an email and message when the delivery van left the depot, not only confirming that the package was out for delivery but what time I could expect the delivery – I was given as a one hour window, and again, options to have the item left with a neighbour, delivered on a different day, or be collected.

What a massive help. You could plan your day around when the delivery was expected, and what’s more, they kept to their estimate – arriving about 10-15 minutes into the delivery window.

I’m really impressed that a parcels courier has been able to properly design harness it’s business IT systems, automation and processes to deliver such a great experience. Why can’t more be like this?