Browsed by
Month: June 2011

So whose fault is it, then?

So whose fault is it, then?

tl;dr – it’s your fault.  Yes, yours.  Read on for my reasoning…

On Monday, Southeastern trains from London into Kent were delayed due to a number of problems.  Points and signals were failing in the heat, a train broke down, and then travellers on the train behind the broken down train decided they’d rather force the doors open and walk down the track than spend another minute in the non-airconditioned carriages on the hottest day of the year.

Amusingly, these customers were then used as the reason for delays on other trains, although by that time they’d stopped being customers and started to be “trespassers”, as in “Trains delayed due to trespassers on the tracks”.  Turn that round into “Trains are delayed due to customers on the tracks”, and it paints a different picture, doesn’t it?

As if on cue, Passenger Focus released the results of their Spring 2011 National Passenger Survey today, and if you’re so inclined, you can download the full results from this page.

During the delay, I sat, staring at a more-or-less featureless length of railway embankment, and thought about whose fault this mess really is.  It’s certainly not the passengers’ fault.  Yes, they probably made things a little bit worse by forcing those doors and wandering down the tracks, but they definitely wouldn’t have done that if the train had been running properly in the first place.  They probably wouldn’t have done it had the air-conditioning been working properly.  They possibly wouldn’t have done it had the train staff been able to give them any clue as to when they might conceivably start moving again.

As a passenger, sat on a train that’s not moving, that last point is probably the most important.  You are totally in the dark about what is (or rather, isn’t) going on.  Thanks to the likes of Twitter and the #southeastern hashtag, you can generally start to get an idea of what’s afoot, but that’s only ever from other travellers’ points of view, there’s never anything official.  And even the decent staff that do try to get and disseminate information are usually just as clueless as their passengers.  The driver passes info from the mystical ‘control room’ to the ticket inspector On-Board Manager, and he passes it on to the customers.  But then contradictory news comes in, and the OBM passes that on too.  And then a passenger gets cross with the OBM (you said “X” 5 minutes ago, and now you’re saying “Y”), so eventually the OBM gives up and decides it’s better for all concerned if he just keeps the bad news to himself.

So it’s not his fault either.  He can’t influence the situation, and he’s blind to the actual problem so he can’t really offer any useful information.  He certainly doesn’t get paid enough to put up with irate customers shouting at him when he can do precisely nothing about the problem.

So, what about the rest of the company?  I think there is some responsibility here. Someone, somewhere must know what the problem is.  He probably has a BEng. or MEng. after his name.  Unfortunately, he’s probably far too busy trying to fettle the flux-capacitors, or reverse the oojamaflip, or whatever it is they do to fix their big train set (make sure all the track is pushed together properly?), but they must have someone stood just behind them asking those most annoying of questions “Why’s it broken?” and “When’s it going to be fixed?”.  They’re the answers the customers want – the real, un-spun answers from the actual bloke who’s fixing the problem, not some fluffy version that’s gone through several call centres before it’s deemed suitable for public dissemination.  We don’t get that.

But we’d still have problems.  There would still be delays; broken down trains, damaged track, vandalism, bridge strikes, trespassers (real ones), suicides.  These things happen.  The problem is that Southeastern (or rather its parent company, Govia) is a profit-making company.  If it can get away with dealing with these problems in a manner which is just-about-good-enough, then it will do.  It has a monopoly on the trains that run in its area, so it’s not like I could have abandoned my train on Monday night and jumped onto a competitor’s train instead.  The only option is to abandon the railway altogether and look for alternative means, which means a bus (which don’t run the same routes as the trains, for obvious reasons), or a taxi (which will go anywhere you like, just leave your kidney as a down-payment).

So, Southeastern know that they are my options – suffer the train, use another mode of transport, drive myself, or don’t travel.  All the time they can make their service just barely better than the alternatives, they win.  They don’t need to get their satisfaction ratings up, because they know that if you live in Kent and want to work in London, you’ll be catching the train, because there is no alternative.

You can’t blame Southeastern either then.  They’re in the business to make money, not to make their customers’ lives easier or more comfortable.  They do the minimum they can get away with to ensure that they keep their franchise, and so that not too many people think “stuff this, I’m getting a cab / bus / new job / new house”.  All the time people want or need to work in London without actually living in London (and let’s be honest, no-one actually wants to live in London), they’re going to make their money.  That means there is no contingency.  There’s no ‘spare’ capacity on the network just for when it all goes wrong. There’s little to no redundancy.  When something, anything goes wrong, the whole thing’s basically broken.

So.  Whose fault is it then?  Well, it’s ours, obviously.  Well, not mine, because I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1992, but that election saw the Tories take 41.9% of the public vote and win a 51.6% majority in the House of Commons, with the highest voter turnout since 1974.  It let them push on with the plan to privatise British Rail, something that even dear old Maggie Thatcher called a “privatisation too far”.  A plan that created 25 operating companies, all with the sole mission to make money.

Private companies exist to make money.  That’s it.  They don’t have to be green, or please their customers, or paint their trains nice colours, they just have to make money.  Generally, in the real world at least, you have to keep your customers happy because otherwise they won’t be your customers for very long.  But train companies don’t have to worry about that because unless you fancy moving, driving, sitting on a bus, or getting a new job, you’re stuck with it.

So there you go.  It’s not their fault, it’s yours.

Let’s just keep on eye on the Tories this time round, shall we, and hopefully our kids won’t be blaming us for their lives being ruined… any more than they will anyway, of course.

In the interest of full disclosure… I’ve been lining Southeastern’s pockets for three years, and can honestly say that when things are going their way it’s just fine.  It’s BLOODY expensive, of course, and you’re effectively paying to waste 3 hours of your life every day, but most of the time the train gets to where it’s supposed to be going on time, and, on my journey at least, there’s always somewhere to sit.  When it goes wrong it’s diabolical, with all the lack of info I described above.  You get the feeling that every time anything goes wrong it’s the very first time that there’s ever been a problem on the railways.  If it wasn’t stopping me getting home to my family, it would be funny.  But it usually is, so it’s not.

My time of commuting is coming to an end, though, as I’m starting a new (well, old, or new-old) job in August.  Now just watch the price of petrol go (even further) through the roof…