We often hear complaints in the media about overcrowding on our railway system here in the UK, normally with reference to peak commutes in and out of our big cities. But this is about a Sunday afternoon…
On the way back from visiting my partner’s family in North London, we changed train at Herne Hill to head home to Bromley.
The train arrived from Victoria, only four coaches long, and looked very busy – lots of people already standing up. As we both had an overnight bag and a couple of other things, we actually ended up split across different coaches in order to board. The train also left two young women behind on the platform, who both had luggage and couldn’t find a doorway that they could get in with their suitcases. The driver closed the doors while they were still looking for space, and set off, leaving them to wait half an hour for the next train.
I doubt the driver deliberately left them, for all he or she knew, the women with the luggage could have just got off the train, but the fact is, it’s going to suck getting left behind and having to wait ages for your next train, especially if you’re coming to the end of a long journey.
But, the driver is under an amount of pressure to depart on time because of the way delays are aggressively accounted for, attributed and traced back to their root cause, on the modern UK rail network. (For those who need some serious bedtime reading, here’s a link to a rather dry 116 page document called the Delay Attribution Guide. It’s purpose being to guide Delay Attributors, yes, there really is such a job, in identifying the source of delays.)
Onboard, the train didn’t have quite as many people as a crush-loaded train typical rush hour, but was just as full in other ways – the space being taken up with pushchairs, bicycles and luggage – people coming back from days out and trips away from home.
The fact is that weekends can now be just as busy as midweek rush-hours, but with a noticeable difference in the type of passenger – not only do they have more and bulkier belongings with them, but they also that some of them don’t make that journey every day. This means they don’t know the drill, and therefore can’t really follow the seemingly unspoken rules of being a commuter that make the system deal with the pressure during the work week.
The design of the train doesn’t particularly help those with prams or bulky luggage either. These surburban trains are designed for their main duty of rush-hour people carriers, and maximise seating and standing areas. They don’t have proper cycle spaces, and only small overhead luggage racks – no good for larger cases, so these tend to block the doorways. Nothing “wrong” per-se given the design decision made, bearing in mind the main purpose of the train, but travel habits have changed since they were designed in the 1990s (e.g. cheap air travel, internet-enabled last minute deals on weekends away, etc.).
Adding to this, engineering work can displace passengers from their normal routes, and events can create spikes in loadings.
The trains on many routes are also more sparse on Sundays, e.g. every 30 minutes instead of every 15, so with rising passenger numbers, and more bulky belongings being carried at the weekends, why are the trains shorter on Sunday than during the week?
If the train operators are running shorter trains “because Sundays are quieter”, this might be a valid statement in terms of total passenger count carried per day, but the passenger count per train can be as high as it is midweek, and if so, can this form a basis to run trains which are the same length as those midweek?
Their research has shown that because so much drivel comes out of the public address systems, the travelling public are conditioning themselves to tune out, because every time the train arrives at a station they are reminded to mind the gap (even when there isn’t much of one), take personal belongings, report anything suspicious, and just in case they’ve forgotten, to remember to breathe.
As for the person (I nearly found myself calling them something far more impolite) from industry watchdog Passenger Focus, who appears to be suggesting that these lengthy hectoring announcements are necessary, I find myself wondering when was the last time he travelled on a train?
Announcements need to be more like tweets… Concise, but able to get all the important information across, and in as few words as possible.
Anyone else notice how a train journey in or out of a city such as London, is a view of the “back” of the city?
The view from the windows is almost always of the “back” of things. Backs of houses, back gardens, faceless backs of warehouses, shops, offices, interspersed with car parks, yards and allotments, with glimpses of the “front” peeking through the gaps.
Recently seen on a journey from Victoria – this train was to split en-route at Faversham, with the front 8 coaches going to one place, and the rear 4 going forward to somewhere else.
Thanks to a software bug in the train’s passenger information displays and automated announcements, it gave out confusing information as shown in this picture. The software could understand the train would split, but couldn’t understand it was a 12 coach train at this point.
I’ve written about this sort of automated ridiculousness that we have to put up with before – Torrential Tannoys – all about the endless stream of hectoring announcements a user of public transport has to deal with in the UK.
What’s doubly annoying is that the announcements are frequently verbose and use patronising language, or worse still, use flowery and unclear language, which means they don’t get their message across.
I heard an announcement at Finsbury Park a few weeks ago, advising of upcoming weekend engineering work. The announcement went on for about two minutes, starting with something along the lines of “Can I have your attention please, this is special information for customers who might be travelling this weekend. As we invest in the railway, we will need to make changes to the train services at the weekend”, blah, blah, waffling on about “services will be subject to alteration and road transport might be provided if appropriate”.
Why couldn’t it just say, “Travelling this weekend? There is engineering work, a different timetable will be in operation, some trains will be replaced with buses. Check your train times.”
We also have the situation where the staff on a train will use the PA, and then the automated announcement will repeat, almost word for word, what the human being has just said – reminding us to “watch the gap”, “take personal belongings with us”, “look out it’s raining and you might slip”, and “report anything suspicious to the Perrlice“… Why say something once when you can repeat yourself, eh?
Which brings me onto the terrible pronunciation on these recorded (or synthesised) announcements. If you’ve been through Kings Cross St Pancras tube station, you can’t have failed to notice “Laydees and Gentle Men”, right? Apparently, one of the speech synthesis systems can’t even pronounce “Wrotham” (which is pronounced “Roo-tem”), so the station is now just referred to as “Borough Green” by the automatic system.
The Transport Minister, Norman Baker, has now spoken out in the media against the never ending announcements. I don’t know if it will do any good.
Really, the people responsible for this at the train companies need to actually realise that by bombarding us with automatic announcements, we’re making the actual important stuff less easy to pick out. Announcements need to be clear, concise, correct, and to the point.
In the glory days of the railway, the British Rail restaurant car breakfast was something of a treat. Cereals, toast, juice, and full English – offered to you “service Anglaise” from a tray, so you could get what you wished. They even had kippers.
Even despite “modernisation” of the BR buffet car under InterCity in the 1980s and early 90s – think along the lines of moving away from Mr Kipling cakes and Maxpax coffee to croissants and the chewy microwaved burger – the Great British breakfast was left well alone, lest the Great British businessman kick up a stink…
For a while, this even survived into privatisation, most notably perpetuated by the late GNER: “Great” for so many reasons, and not just the fact that even when travelling in the cheap seats one could still sit in the restaurant car and eat real food at 100mph-plus, as I often did.
Where freshly cooked food is still available on British trains, the current trend is a move away from the classic restaurant car to an at-seat service for 1st Class passengers only, called “complimentary” by the train companies, as opposed to inclusive, so they are able to weasel their way out if the service can’t be provided as advertised. Generally, this service includes a cooked breakfast, light food across the day and sometimes a cooked evening meal, which is what Virgin Trains provide on their routes out of London.
I’d recently travelled from London up to the Northwest, and by a quirk of the UK railway fares structure, it was one of those trips where by booking in advance, it was cheaper to go 1st Class as opposed to Standard. “Great”, I think, it’s a train where they serve breakfast, and while I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as in days of yore (as they never are!), I’ll happily admit to looking forward to it.
So, you can imagine my disappointment when I was offered “the last rasher of bacon”, which was overdone to the extent of being tooth-breakingly crispy – you couldn’t get a fork in it, a “grilled” tomato almost reduced to mush, some overdone black pudding, a dry-looking hash brown, and a rubber egg. I took one bite, and pushed the plate away, but not before I got a pic of it, so disappointed to be served such obviously second-rate tosh…
“No more bacon…”, I was told. It seems that the people sat further up from me could only be offered similarly incinerated sausage. I asked one of the crew to take it away, and I tweeted the above pic to VT’s (excellent) Twitter desk, to see what they had to say…
Either my rejection of the burnt offerings, or the message to the Twitter desk, got someone’s attention, as a few minutes later, this arrived…
“No more bacon”, apparently. Hmm. I didn’t notice us stop to pick some up, either.
But, nice save of face by the crew in the end, though the sad thing is that I had to complain before something was done. Really, that overcooked stuff shouldn’t have been served in the first place. Surely the person with the tray noticed what she had was burned? Wasn’t she ashamed to serve it?
This isn’t the only beef about the alleged “1st Class” service offered on that train. Things could have been done with a bit more style, and thought for the passenger.
For instance, there seemed to be an assumption by the crew that people sat in 1st Class knew what was on offer, and what to ask for. There were no menu cards, and no explanation offered about what was available.
One of the crew members walked past with a closed up solid-sided trolley (like an airline food trolley) mumbling “Anything from the snack trolley?” – wouldn’t this have been better if the trolley was more open plan so we could see what was available, or if the person had told us what they had inside the trolley?
Later in the journey, between Crewe and Warrington (and by this point, we were 30 minutes late because of a signalling problem near Stafford), the crew were starting to collect cups and things in, it looked like they would change catering crew at Preston so they were clearing away, and putting out fresh cups, etc.
At no point did anyone ask “May I clear away?”, or “Can I get you anything else?” – your place setting was just cleared away, seemingly with an unspoken message of “Right then, that’s all you’re getting”.
Unfortunately the train then ran into more trouble between Warrington and Preston (faulty windscreen wipers on the North end cab, beaten into submission by the relentless Northern rain, it seems). Initially, the train was going to be reversed by manoeuvring around a triangle of junctions (for North American readers, you’ll know this as a “wye”) just south of Wigan, so the good cab would be on the “correct” end of the train for continuing toward Glasgow. That would have taken another 30-40 minutes. Eventually, after some dithering, this reversal was abandoned and the train continued to Preston and terminated there, an hour late, where it could be swapped with another Pendolino.
By this point, after a 30 minute-plus delay, passengers in Standard are entitled to certain complimentary things (water, tea, coffee, until it runs out) from the Shop. Were those of us seated in the “good seats” taken care of during this period? Unfortunately not. Laying on some tea and coffee would have been fairly simple, and would have given the impression that our custom mattered to Virgin Trains, but it didn’t happen.
You’ve got to question why this is? Are some Virgin Trains’ staff feeling undervalued and demotivated? Uncertain of the future following the franchising fiasco? Or poorly selected and trained? Or simply only allowed to follow the prescribed service, bound by process and discouraged from using initiative?
Maybe it was summed up by a nearby passenger who said to me “If you think that breakfast was bad, you should try the evening meal. East Coast have better food.”
Are us Brits too backward about coming forward? Or is the fact that it is “complimentary” somehow meant to remove expectations of a decent service?
People petitioned hard for a rethink for Virgin to retain the West Coast franchise back in the summer. I agreed that this was the sensible thing to do, especially once the previous franchise process was declared invalid, it made sense to let Virgin continue. Now that’s happened, you’d think they would be wanting to reward passengers for showing such faith in them, and that the support was well earned, right?
Virgin’s basic railway product out of Euston isn’t horrific, with frequent trains and quick journey times (when it’s not blighted by engineering work), but with a little more attention to detail and some effort (and lining the seats up with the windows!), couldn’t it be really, really great?
Disclaimer: I should probably note that I am an ex-UK railway employee, having worked for BR in 1994/1995. That means I’m used to the consequences of disruption, but it’s how you handle it that makes the difference. Note that I pay full price for my tickets these days, this one included.
But, the biggest of these has to be that the seats don’t line up with the windows.
Despite this being cracked by railway engineers as long ago as the 1900s, the view from the window seems to have become a forgotten talent when it comes to putting together modern trains such as the Pendolino.
Fixing the existing problem on the Pendolino won’t be easy. It has significantly less window area that it’s predecessors (or the Voyagers that Virgin also use). Maybe a more sympathetic reconfiguration of the interior, such as moving luggage racks to positions which don’t have a window, will make things better for the existing equipment, which will be approaching it’s mid-life at franchise renewal time.
But, it needs to be one of the things built into the specification when ordering new trains in the future. It will improve the passenger experience by making the train seem more spacious, and help combat the travel-sickness some associate with travelling on the Pendolino.
So, a view outside. Maybe that’s the biggest single improvement that Virgin Trains could deliver. Make the #seatslineupwithwindows.
I’d been watching a transport documentary (on one of my pet hobby horses of rail privatisation) which had been uploaded to YouTube, when one of the “recommended” videos caught my eye.
It was a British TV documentary from 1991, following the colourful characters who worked on the London-Leeds train service at the time. I’d lived in Leeds for a spell around that time, and so some of the faces in the programme were familiar to me, as I’d encountered them as I’d used the trains in the area.
It was gutsy for the time (long before the boom of reality tv) that the BR publicity people let the TV crew have such direct and unfettered access to front line staff, who were allowed to freely express themselves to the cameras, especially as producers were fortunate during the period they were filming to catch British Rail suffering one of it’s most embarrassing moments – the “Wrong Kind of Snow“, which crippled many services for over a week.
They got to experience delays, breakdowns, and the sight of a driver climbing into a plastic bag to protect his lower body from draughts and leaks as the planned state-of-the-art loco was replaced with an older engine from the 1960s!
Toward the end (at 47 minutes), a time-served Conductor glumly predicted that 20 years from now, we’d be sat here wishing that we’d invested heavily in improved railway infrastructure.
(I’ve embedded the programme in full, or you can use the link above just to see the “prophesy” – haven’t got a clue why the embedded video won’t start at the 47 minute mark. Answers on a postcard…)
21 years on, as we battle to keep our railway infrastructure up to date and able to cope, it’s pretty damned obvious he was right that we should have spent the money back then, rather than delaying and delaying.
So many of the railwaymen in that programme were older and approaching retirement. I know that Trains Inspector Peter Kirton only passed away last year, for instance – he was an interesting bloke and published a few books during his retirement about his railway experiences.
I wonder how many of these characters are still with us, and might say “Told you so…”?
So, some common sense at the Department for Transport has prevailed, they have extended Virgin Trains’ contract to run the West Coast Main Line trains, following the failure of the recent franchise bid.
But, they’ve only extended it for another 9-12 months. That isn’t long enough for a new specification and full franchise bid to be run.
So, why the short-term extension? Mainly because of EU Competition Law. Apparently, other operators need to be given a fair crack. This means a “short-term” WCML franchise will likely exist, which will run for around 2 to 3 years, while a new competition for the long term franchise is held.
There are legitimate concerns that the short term franchise will be financially unattractive, which implies it will require some sort of subsidy sweetener, some propping up by the taxpayer. It’s also not good for strategic development, as it favours short-term decision making, rather than a long-term vision. There’s also concerns such as uncertain futures for the employees.
How is this ridiculous short-term franchise beneficial for the passenger, the rail industry, and the taxpayer? We may as well go back to steam power and put shovelfuls of £50 notes in the fire. Thanks a lot, Brussels.
Not only was there criticism that the DfT had awarded the franchise to First largely on the basis that it offered the Treasury more money over the life of the franchise, but that the First bid was also allegedly “lower quality”, while Virgin criticised the First bid as”unsustainable”, suggesting that First’s West Coast operations would go the way of East Coast out of Kings Cross – that First would surrender the the franchise, and the Government would be left to use public money to pick up the pieces.
There was also public outcry and grass-roots “underdog support” for Virgin’s operations, including a massive e-petition to Government to urge investigation and reconsideration of the decision.
Due to give evidence this to the judicial review Virgin had requested, the Government have slammed the brakes on hard, while reportedly some DfT staff members involved in the process have been suspended pending an investigation.
So, we’re looking at shelling out something in the region of £50m of public money to the companies who applied for the franchise, to defray their expenses in placing bids.
There’s also the question of who operates the West Coast from December. There’s two main options – 1) Allow Virgin to continue, or 2) Have the DfT directly operate the railway, as on the East Coast route from Kings Cross.
Branson had previously offered to continue running the trains while the decision was reviewed.
If this offer still stands, and is non-prejudicial, it would be foolish of the DfT to squander even more public money by not taking it up.
Cheeky marketing by Birmingham to London competitor Chiltern Railways, encouraging passengers to try out their Mainline service.
Those who do try out Chiltern Mainline might be pleasantly surprised to find:
Journey times that are only slightly longer than on Virgin, and maybe be end-to-end shorter if you’re closer to one of Chiltern’s stations.
Seats which line up with the windows.
Tables and power sockets.
It’s one of the few places in the UK where you can find some genuine competition on a city centre to city centre rail service.
Chiltern have made massive improvements and real investments, i.e. spent their own cash, not claimed investment of public funds as their own, on the route and have worked hard to build a good relationship and understanding with their travelling public.
The CEO of Passenger Focus recently wrote this blog article on his positive Chiltern Mainline experience, and wondered how they can continue to grow the service. I suggested ia a comment that recommendation, word-of-mouth, is very strong in helping the Chiltern cause, but even tongue-in-cheek marketing like this has it’s place.
There’s one thing about the “wrapper ad” on the Metro which strikes me as bizarre. The words “Book now”.