Travel By Train? Why would you bother if there were other options?

My wife and I have just travelled to Birmingham from Exeter, with a ‘side trip’ to Gobowen (Shropshire): Christmas with family.  We had taken the precaution of booking and reserving seats well ahead, a decision that was both well justified and also completely pointless.  I will explain.  The process of reserving a seat offers various options: facing direction of travel, table, near luggage racks, near toilets, near power outlet (for the inevitable I.T.) and so on.  What these options do not allow you to do is select a different option for each of what may be multiple seats: travelling together but selecting aisle seat may result in being separated (i.e. not adjacent) – there is no option for adjacency.  On one of our journeys this meant being in different rows.  On another journey our ‘facing direction of travel’ selection was completely nullified by the inability of the person who applies the little ‘reserved’ tickets to apply them to the correct seats!  On the type of train deployed between Exeter and Birmingham this reservation identifier is a scrolling L.E.D screen which shows whether a seat is available and for what portion of the overall route.  Quite clever, you might think.  However when the train is very crowded, and people arrive at variable times before departure, the whole process of boarding is slowed down while people stand in the aisle waiting to read the scrolling information.  This builds delay into the system at the point of origin but, en-route, people just want to get on the train before the doors close.  Even people with reservations, who presumably know which seat they should be in, get in the wrong carriage or through the wrong door and then have to negotiate their way (with their luggage) to the right place.  For those without reservations it ought to be possible for a simple Red/Green light to identify a seat available, for at least the next portion of the journey, from the carriage end.

Our journey to Birmingham was uneventful but understandably, given the season, crowded.  There was, predictably, a great deal of larger-than-normal holiday luggage, and many bags of awkward sized gifts which would not fit in the overhead shelf.  The baggage storage facilities on trains are barely equal to the demand at the busy times, but when overlaid by the frequently selfish and stupid behaviour of passengers, who insist on having their baggage as near as possible (even blocking the aisle or occupying a seat) is made totally inadequate.  Those few who try to be sensible, by placing bags under the seat in front, inevitably displace their feet and legs into the aisle.  On our journey the catering cart was unable to pass down the train, neither could passengers easily walk to where the cart was.  Someone left a huge case in the doorway when, two feet to the right, was an available floor level storage bay.  These are not uncommon experiences on the UK rail network on busy services at any time of year, not just at Christmas.

The train from Birmingham to Gobowen (an hour and a half) was actually going all the way to Holyhead (a ferry port).  It consisted of only 4 cars and was so overcrowded that people were standing from one end of the train to the other from the start.  People with reserved seats were simply unable to reach them.  One woman selfishly prevented anyone from taking the vacant seat allocated to her husband, despite the fact that he’d found a seat elsewhere and, by ‘phone from there, told her he didn’t need the one she was guarding!  Worse still, the train divided at Shrewsbury so those who needed to get to the other portion of the train had to try to get off, run down the platform, and then fight their way back onto the half-train with all the people already waiting on the platform at Shrewsbury.  It was an utter shambles: one old lady gave up and got off, hoping to catch a later train.  The delayed boarding caused a delayed departure, no doubt with consequences for many other trains in  the network.

None of this was well managed by the on-train staff who were in crisis-management mode, but in any event could not pass down the train to exert any influence.  This brings me to another point: managing passenger behaviour (or misbehaviour).  At its core the attraction of travel by train, rather than by road or domestically by air, is that you can go from city or town, place to place, in relative comfort and security and you have access to sanitation and refreshment.  You can guarantee a seat by reservation and the journey should be relatively stress free.  If this falls down in any way the journey becomes a matter of endurance, and any future journey an unattractive prospect.  Furthermore it cannot be safe having people standing everywhere, and escape routes blocked by bags.  There must be a concerted effort to eliminate it and one measure might be to have, at least some, ‘no standing’ services: you have a seat or you don’t travel.

There are (largely ineffectual) posters encouraging passengers to be considerate to others when using electronic devices.  If you should find yourself near someone who just talks incessantly, and loudly, is foul-mouthed, drunk or generally anti-social, a long journey becomes a nightmare.  All of this we experienced at some point.

There has to be a way for the train operators to pull people up, of saying “shape up or get off”.  I realise this puts the on-train staff in a difficult, potentially confrontational, position – but airlines manage it.  Of course, generally, there are more staff to react to an escalating situation on an aircraft, perhaps 2 or 3 for the equivalent of two train carriages.

In other countries where rail travel is widely used, anti-social behaviour isn’t tolerated and in some, Japan for example, it simply wouldn’t arise in the first place.  So is there a cultural dimension here: is Britain just more anarchic, selfish and anti-social?  Maybe we are, but it wasn’t always like this and it doesn’t need to be now.

 

The poor grammar phantom strikes again….

Two recent events have generated many media reports exemplifying the continuing decline of our national language skills.  The fact that these errors appear across written and broadcast media suggests that the problem is widespread.  It is particularly irritating when the experienced journalists fronting news broadcasts read out the scripts put in front of them knowing that what they are saying makes no sense.  Surely they must know, at least by the second time of broadcasting, that there is something wrong?

The two events of which I write are the downing of flight MH17 (apparently by missile, when overflying a war zone at 33,000 feet) and the conflagration in Gaza.  In both cases there is dispute between the parties about who is to blame; the BBC and print media report “both sides blame each other.”

I think what they mean to say is that “each side blames the other” or, less elegantly, “both sides blame the other”.  What they have actually said is that each side blames itself as well as the other.  GRR.

A shedload of (in)sanitaryware – a tale of customer quality control.

The point of this rant is that buying online often results in extended and complicated contractual relationships which make service difficult to achieve when things go wrong.  It clearly also exposes the weakness in quality control when the person you order from is just a mouthpiece for the actual makers, and has no resource to check the quality of product except through customer feedback.

We’ve been developing our small garden for a while and have reached the point where we really need a shed to store ready-for-use tools and so on.  I’m more than happy to put one together from a ‘kit’, so we trawled the net for something suitable and found one offered by a firm called ‘Greenfingers’.  Greenfingers is a portmanteau company, mostly marketing products made by others, so our chosen shed was really made by another company – Mercia Garden Products, based in Nottinghamshire.  Greenfingers seem to be in Scotland, or so I discovered once I had to deal with their customer service team.  The shed arrived, late, and the kit parts were not constructed from the material described in the brochure, nor were they properly put together.  I complained and, to their credit, Greenfingers promptly refunded us by cheque.  However, getting the unwanted shed removed has been a real hassle.  Because it is not Greenfingers who made and delivered it, Mercia have to take it back.  Mercia agreed to come on Saturday last but, as is the way of these deliveries, declined to say what time.  Conserquently we waited in all day for someone who didn’t come.  Later, in conversation with Greenfingers (with whom we had contracted), I discovered that Mercia’s carriers claimed they couldn’t find the address: odd, given they had delivered it in the first instance.

We also have been embarked on a major upgrade of our bathroom and cloakroom.  Being an expert customer I ordered everything we needed online from a well know national supplier of sanitaryware and fittings.  There have been repeated instances of manufacturing defects: poor ceramic finishes, casting errors, chrome finish failures.  The suppliers have a well oiled customer services team, so getting replacements (even multiple replacements when the replacements themselves proved faulty) has been a fairly straighforward process.  However it has not been a straightforward project: the goods were ordered 6 weeks before work was due to start but the delays caused by having to replace items has caused the programme to go off the rails and resulted in additional cost due to out of sequence, uneconomic, working by the plumber.  It has caused other trades, like electrician and carpenter, to be reprogrammed too.  Yesterday we bit the bullet and asked for a refund on one item to enable a replacement to be bought locally.  Meanwhile the ceramic tiling has also gone wrong.  Tiles bought through a local firm were different from the samples we used to select from.  These tiles are a special order item so, although replacement was easily agreed, another delay resulted.  The tile company sent the wrong number of extra tiles, and they gave us a box of completely wrong tiles occasioning more delay.  Since completion of the work we have replaced the shower screen seal with one sourced separately, from a specialist, because the item ‘bundled’ with the screen didn’t work properly.

This last demonstrates that even if you visit, and buy from, a local specialist shop, and have a relationship with that shop, there is no guarantee that the product will be as you expect.  The amount of time, and transport resources, that must be being wasted across our consumer economy is scary: huge trucks travelling the length of the country (or in the case of some of these products, across Europe) carting defective, and then replacement, produce.  When I worked on a major construction project, in my former career, I travelled to the manufacturers to carry out my own quality control.  Big businesses, with multi-million pound turnovers, who market product they don’t actually make, ought to do the same.  In the end it isn’t good enough customer service to just offer replacement.  When you leave the customer to be the quality inspector of the goods, often at the end of an extended or fractured supply chain, you leave your business (and I would argue the environment) exposed to disaster, and the customer with a shedload of hassle.

 

 

 

SO…

What is it that is behind the latest affectation, the addition of a conjunction, SO, at the beginning of a sentence?  This is a purely verbal affliction at the moment, and almost exclusively in answer to a direct question e.g. “What do you think of..”, answer “So, …

It’s a sort of punctuation device, but it somehow is meant to impart a level of expertise in the respondent – and often it seems the context of some scientific / quasi scientific topic.

GRR

Update 16 May 2014

Surprise, surprise: BBC Breakfast today ran an item on this very topic, including an interview / contribution from an “expert”.  Maybe I’m not so curmudgeonly after all,

Mis-speaking is rife – why?

I find myself increasingly challenged to keep silent when I hear (not here), apparently educated, people ‘mis-speak’.  The majority of these linguistic errors go un-noticed because there is no verbal or audible difference – it is only context that clarifies the meaning.  For example ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ all sound the same, but are completely different in written usage and meaning.  Yet, worryingly, these words seem to be interchangeable in there (ha ha) written expression; even more worrying is that these errors go un-noticed in published documents, advertising, or on web-sites, that ought to be, and probably are, proof read by somebody who clearly doesn’t know either.

Common errors are confusing complimentary with complementary: that tie will compliment, i.e. pay respect to, your suit or complimentary (i.e. free / without cost – I wish) therapy, are both wrong.  How about sight and site (he was a pitiful site – wrong) , slither and sliver (I’ll have a slither of cake’ – wrong), home and hone (I’ll hone in on a solution – wrong). I know english is littered with opportunities for confusion when the words sound identical, such as cache and  cash, but there is no excuse for not knowing the difference in writing.

I’m not apologetic for blaming educationalists who decided that it was better to encourage expression at the expense of correctness or correction.  It is almost as if English is now being taught (or should that be tort) to our school children as if it were a foreign language.  I don’t believe it really serves the long-term interests of the educationally challenged (whether for reasons of age, opportunity, ethnicity or intellectual capacity) to abandon correct grammar or English usage.  Don’t they realise that, eventually, these mistakes will mark people out as poorly educated and, consequently, limit they’re (ha ha) opportunities  anyway?

The rise of abbreviated “text-speak” in more general written communication, and acceptance of American, or advertising gimmick, language as correct usage, is part of the problem.  Why, for example, when we mean ‘light’ is it clearer / better / more acceptable to use ‘lite’?

Recently (19 January) I saw a  short TV discussion, about an English council’s decision to drop apostrophes from road signs.  The protagonists were well selected, perhaps subliminally signalling the BBC editor’s position: a crusty old academic representing the case for retention and a thrusting young educationalist arguing for the general irrelevance of apostrophes.  I’d like to know how he would feel if the terms and conditions of his next internet purchase (or his contract of employment) were ambiguous?  Of course, that’s a bit simplistic – presumably nobody would  seriously argue for less than clear grammar, vocabulary, or punctuation in communication of legal significance – but the foundation of being able to safely relax or ‘play with’ our language is knowing what the rools are and being abel to ewes them.  BAA

 

 

 

“We’re experiencing high customer demand…”

There’s nothing so annoying, for a customer, as being blamed by an organisation for its failure to deliver a sevice.  When telephoning, and this applies especially to banks, more and more often I get a looped recorded message saying something like “We are sorry for the delay in answering.  You are moving forward in the queue (of unspecified length or time by the way)”. “We are experiencing high call volumes” or “We are experiencing high customer demand”.  What they mean is there aren’t enough staff to deal with customers trying to reach them.  And why is it there is so much demand?  Could it be there are an increasing number of customers unhappy with the service they are getting, trying to correct a mistake or complain?

I recently received an e-mail from my bank inviting me to join a debit card-use loyalty programme.  I didn’t want to join but there was only an ‘opt out’ link, not an ‘opt in’ – so I chose to opt out.  This took me to a second page which clearly implied that I was already joined to the programme and asking for my card details.  Now this had all the classic signs of a phishing scam so I rang the bank.  15 minutes of recorded crocodile tear apologies later I embarked on a conversation that lasted a further 10 minutes, I succeded in getting myself removed from the system.  25 minutes on the ‘phone at a premium rate.  Within a week we had two more e-mails, so the complaint appears to have fallen on deaf ears. It’s time to change banks.

UPDATE

Despite all, including having now switched banks, we are still getting both e-mails and text messages from Royal Bank of Scotland exhorting us to take advantage of their “Debit Card Cash Back – our way of saying thank you” promotion.  Is it any wonder that RBS is in such a mess?

ANOTHER EPISODE OF “BLAME THE CUSTOMER”

We recently visited a local town, and our business crossed over  a bank holiday Saturday lunchtime.  The economic centre of this town basically consists of a single high street, with alleyways off, where there are several places to eat.  We chose a high street wine bar where bistro-style food is available but 40 minutes after giving our order for two Panini we were still waiting and, concerned about expiry of our car park ticket, we enquired about progress: “it hasn’t started yet”.  We left, but not before the staff had the monumental cheek to say “All these people came in and we work in strict rotation in the kitchen”.  Well….there are a fixed number of covers, it’s a bank holliday weekend, the food we wanted wasn’t high end.  Either they are prepared for the customers or they are not.  If they haven’t the staff to cope when at full capacity they need to either get more staff  for predictable peak times or close off some of the covers and, whatever, tell customers when they order that there will be a delay.  It isn’t the customers’ fault for having the temerity to turn up. Hospitality industry, service industry, tourism, flatlining economy…join the dots.

 

British Gas In **se from Elbow shock

We moved to a rented house in August and, despite many ‘phone calls and e-mails up to now (6 November), have failed to establish a customer / supplier relationship with British Gas for energy.  I have just handed over to our landlord a sheaf of letters addressed to her, and two to previous tenants, all but one in error in one way or another.

Apparently the property is known to British Gas – power comes out of the sockets and the lights work as do the cooker and central heating.  The problem, or the main problem, is that until we have an account for each untility (it’s a dual fuel account) we cannot switch to another supplier, at a better rate, nor can we  take advantage of discounts for paperless billing and payment by direct debit and our landlord is still technically liable for all energy used.

I have spoken with so-called customer services agents in various parts of the UK and, believe it or not, South Africa: all to no avail.  I have been told that the problem at their end is a “systems issue”, but no-one can say what that means or how long it will take to fix.

I thought that privatisation was supposed to bring efficiencies to the utilities, but all it seems to have done is fragment industires, create duplication, minimise real customer care and maximise profits.

PS

Eventually this was resolved (we hope!), but it was VERY hard work.  It is no wonder that there is inertia in the public who are exhorted to ‘switch’ in all sorts of industires (telecoms, energy, banking, insurance, mortgages etc.,): I think they are legitimately fearful of the chaos that might follow – I know I am.

Civic Delinquency

I recently began using my senior person’s railcard.  Quite good, in parts, but partly prompted by the concurrrent debate on HS2 (proposed UK High Speed Rail line) I thought I would use the experience to add my two pence worth.  It seems the management (aka government) reckon spending several billion is justified on the grounds of increased network capacity.  I reckon you could get more bums on seats, without spending much at all, if the train staff were empowered to charge fares for every seat occupied by a bag, pair of feet etc. as well as the owners of same.

Last week I travelled on a morning service from Axminster to Exeter, early enough for it to be crowded with late commuters and early shoppers (like me).  A young man was sitting alone in a table-for-four.  He had placed himself on the aisle and had his feet on the seat opposite, effectively blocking access to the other two seats.  Across the aisle was a ‘mature’ lady similarly spread across two seats from the aisle where her butt actually was.  In the disabled area a young woman had filled the extra foot space with shopping bags and was sitting cross-legged on one seat, sideways, while she used the other seat as a cross between a social-media hub and office.  The conductor came through asking for tickets, and said nothing.  A community police officer came through and said nothing.  It seems that those with the brass neck to ‘claim’ as much space as they want rely on the British reticence to cause a fuss and the fear of being embroiled in an altercation: people getting on further down the line passed by looking for a seat and opted to stand.  I call this civic delinquency.  If every seat had a fare paying bum in it wouldn’t that help the capacity shortage?  Of course, those trains in the rush hour that are full to overflowing round London have no spare space – but HS2 isn’t going to ‘do’ commuting is it?

I can’t understand how, from a safety perspective, the train companies get away with that: even a minor derailment in a sardine tin is going to result in more injuries or fatalities than if everyone has a seat.  Airlines aren’t allowed to have standing passengers, yet the take-off and landing phase of a flight is the most probable time to have an aviation accident and at speeds comparable with our existing trains, never mind ones that go at 200mph.

Cream Tea Mystery Solved!

Here is the latest piece of non-research for you to get your teeth into – courtesy of the Daily Mule.

Dr Eugenia Cheng, a mathematician at Sheffield University, has apparently devised a statistical formula for the perfect combination of jam, cream and scones for a perfect cream tea.  She says that the best weight ratio is 2:1:1, which means an average scone, weighing 70g, requires 35g of jam and 35g of cream.  Dr Cheng set the ideal thickness of the scone, with all its elements added, at about 2.8cm, allowing a relaxed open width of the mouth when taking a bite.  Curiously the composition of the scone itself (flour, fat, weight of fruit) is irrelevant, as they are not mentioned.  This poor piece of research also fails to mention wasps, splinters from the picnic bench, stainless steel tea pots that pour everywhere except into the cup, and cheap florid crockery (cracks and chips optional), all of which are traditional ingredients of a cream tea, essential for full appreciation of the British summer experience.  Oh, and rain.

Who pays these people?  Oh yes, we do.  GRRR.

More loony research

I was watching the TV news the other night and in amongst all the doom gloom, the mayhem and murder, was this gem: several universities working together have decided that penguins don’t fly because of…………………………………… their wings.  Thank God for that, it’s been keeping me awake.