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Within an hour or two of sending this letter to The Daily Mail, they got back to me with plans to make it the main letter. Suddenly, we had 24 hours to publication and a photographer was rushed to my flat to capture the intrigue. He spent an hour coaxing me into all sorts of poses in front of Chatham Station, which was uncommonly busy. It was somewhat embarrassing becoming the centre of attention; three teenagers passing by asked if I was on a TV show! It’s funny how, being a photographer, I find it awkward having my own picture taken; now I know how models feel when I get them to strike lots of poses.

It was all good fun and I greatly appreciate the Daily Mail giving me this opportunity to voice my opinion. My letter was published as the ‘Main Letter’ in the  Fri., April 10 edition of the Daily Mail, albeit in a truncated form.

The entire letter is presented below:

In my opinion, there is no standout candidate in the upcoming general election. I’m seriously considering scribbling “Anarchy in the UK” across my ballot, when the time comes; but I can’t see myself making the trip to the polling station just to be sardonic. However, if someone was to embrace the plight of the common people and pledge an end to deplorable train service, they’d get my vote.

Considering that the train lines are the lifeblood feeding the economic heart of England, I think it’s important to ensure taxpaying, hard-working commuters are getting to work on time without any stress affecting their productivity. But too often this isn’t happening. It appears that Southeastern is not up to the task. When I refer to “Southeastern” I refer to management – those responsible for scheduling, availability etc. – and not the employees who work at ticket windows and move from car to car checking tickets; overall, I think the front line workers do an excellent job. In my opinion, Southeastern management is failing in three regards.

Firstly, there’s overcrowding. Recently, on a trip from Chatham to Stratford, I counted thirty-one people standing in my car alone, including myself and a couple who were seated side-by-side on the floor, blocking the door. The train stopped at Ebbsfleet and I gave up trying to count; the aisle was too packed. Now, I paid just over £40 (return ticket) for the privilege of standing for three-quarters of my journey. I feel for those who have paid between £4000 and £5000 for an annual season ticket, only to end up standing. And what about the elderly or the injured who suffer in silence, trapped like sides of beef in crowded cars? My understanding is there are regulations governing how much space there is between cattle in transit – and they don’t even have to buy tickets! Too bad the same doesn’t apply to us. It says a lot about the passengers when they grin and bear this, day after day; we give up seats to the elderly etc. This has everything to do with good citizenship, and nothing to do with a train company that seems to hold its customers in contempt. Now, I’m no train expert, but surely the solution is simple. I can count people standing on their service every day. In addition, they have cameras on us at all times. Between employee observations (provided they can make their way through packed cars) and video surveillance, they must know exactly how many people are standing; so why don’t they just use some common sense and add another train car? I guess they’re too busy counting all the pounds pouring in; there’s no time to count passengers.

Secondly, there’s the delays and cancellations. In this regard, I feel for those poor people commuting from Brighton to London who are apparently late for work every day; clearly they’re worst off than me. Let’s go through some our favourite excuses, shall we? “Object on the tracks” is often used, but what does that mean? What’s on the tracks that’s big enough to stop a train? A lorry? An escaped elephant? Trains can plough through just about anything. Haven’t they seen Runaway Train? They need to get Jon Voight driving some of these trains. Surely he’s available. Then there’s my personal favourite: “train leaving depot late” – which for me says “We just can’t be bothered. We’re not even trying anymore.” I’ve only heard this particular excuse announced once or twice: “lack of stock”. This one really irritated me; what am I supposed to do with this information? What does it mean? Did some train cars go missing overnight? Maybe that one’s meant for trainspotters. Last, but by no means least, is the crowd favourite: “signal failure”. You’d think that after the one-thousandth failure they’d finally catch on and decide to do something about this. I look at it this way – Homo sapiens put a man on the moon; surely we can get some trains running on time.

Lastly, I think Southeastern fails to award appropriate refunds for late and cancelled trains. As an example, I recently made around eight claims, owing to delayed and cancelled trains, and received a grand total of just over £3 for my efforts. This experience discouraged me from making further applications, which I guess is all part of their insidious master plan.

Up to this point, I’ve subjected you to a lot of moaning and complaining, which is one option in a healthy democracy; but what do I propose? What needs to be done? If I was a politician, I wouldn’t make any decision without the data to back it up; thus, I’d conduct a series of studies on any problematic train service. First of all, I’d like to compare rail service prior to privatization to what we put up with now. I’d want to know if privatization was good value for tax payers – shouldn’t that be the goal of any politician? If privatization is so wonderful, then – in the true spirit of capitalism and free enterprise – I’d allow competing train companies to run services on lines that Southeastern currently has a monopoly on. For example, if Virgin ran a competing service then financially strapped passengers would have more chances to get to work on time, competition would (hopefully) drive prices lower and lazy, sub-standard service would be a thing of the past due to the climate of competition. Secondly, I’d compare Southeastern’s service to train services in other countries. I’ve been around, and I usually enjoy travelling by train. I lived on Long Island New York for two years and was very reliant on the train service. I do not recall a single cancelled or delayed train during my time there. I suspect that other countries with a more adverse climate – political and otherwise – can keep trains running on time. Why can’t we?

In conclusion, I’m no optimist; I apologize if this letter has given that impression. I’m sceptical that any politician will act on rail passengers’ behalf. They only seem to take notice when there’s a major, news-worthy screw-up (e.g. near riots at Blackfriars Station); that’s what gives them headlines. This is highly unfortunate; in the meantime, commuting workers suffer on daily basis, worn down … and down … and down. The train companies know we can’t go anywhere without them, so we’re stuck in purgatory. It goes without saying that a government should be very concerned with getting taxpaying citizens to work on time – hopefully before this nonsense has a noticeable, measurable economic and social impact (if it hasn’t already). Let’s show some respect to passengers – the lifeblood. Let’s keep the arteries flowing properly and make sure the heart of England is beating strong, shall we?

Cameron A. Straughan

UPDATE: A lot has happened since this was published …

1) Announcement on train that any off-duty staff vacate their seats for standing customers. Heard that a day or two after the article was published – coincidence?
2) “Failing Network Rail chief Richard Parry-Jones was dramatically moved by the Government today after losing control of a £38billion plan to overhaul the railways. He was replaced with the controversial boss of Transport for London Sir Peter Hendy who has been ordered to ‘get a grip’ on the spiralling costs of improving the rail network.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk
3) “Rail passengers who suffer travel delays can now claim refunds in cash instead of vouchers as new compensation arrangements come into effect.” BBC.
4) Now this is TRULY incredible – rail staff handing out free chocolate bars at Chatham Station as part of a “customer appreciation” initiative. Of course, I STOOD on the train almost ALL the way to Chatham – but FREE CHOCOLATE!

Now these are responses to years of poor service and complaints, yet I’d like to think my little letter played its part in making everyone’s commute just a little more enjoyable.

 

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