Friday, 28 October 2011

27 October 2011. Letter 48

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 27/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 35 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Hello! Is it me you're looking for?

I'll level with you, chaps: I wonder where you are. And I wonder what you do. Are you somewhere feeling lonely? Or is someone loving you? I do hope you're not feeling lonely! I do hope someone's loving you! I hope lots of people are loving you! In a fraternal, non-saucy way, obviously. A familial, rather than over-familiar, way.

In fact, I like to think of the whole First Great Western family as a big... well, family. Not a dysfunctional family, like The Simpsons, or the Wests, or the Gaddafis. But a nice family. The Waltons, maybe. Or the von Trapps. A nice big musical Alpine family, Mark! Perfectly in harmony! And who hold no truck with any of those over-keen goose-stepping types who come round trying to romance the eldest daughter! That's exactly the kind of family I think of when I think of the First Great Western family!

It's a beautiful image, Mark. I shall add it to my list of favourite things. (Somewhere between whiskers on kittens and silver white winters that melt into springs.)

Anyway. Enough of these musical musings. Lovely though they are, we're here for graver, more serious reasons. The trains delay and fail, Mark! The call-centre cannot hold! Last night... oh, last night was grim. Were you called back in to the office, Mark? Were you summoned from your karaoke bar to get communicating, Sue? (Thursday night is the new Friday night, after all! I've written that feature a few times. I've also written Monday Night is the new Friday Night, Sunday Night is the new Saturday Night, Staying In is the new Going Out, Work is the new Play and, slightly bizarrely, but it was for the Sunday Times and they were paying so who was I to argue, Gambling is the new Yoga.)

Did you both immediately drop whatever you were doing (the remote control, Mark? The sambuca, Sue?), rush into the street, holler a Hansom and hot-foot it back to the First Great Western Command Centre as fast as the driver could legally, safely and responsibly take you? I'll bet you did! And quite right too! The trains were all up the proverbial and it was all hands on deck to make sure you could continue to work tirelessly to ensure the service you provide is as good as possible!

(Tirelessly, Mark! I love that! Working so hard you don't even get tired! Tiredness is for the weak! Fatigue is for the worthless! We can work and work and continue to work and not even get tired! We are First Great Western and we are tireless!)

So it seems there was an incident last night. Something had happened near Reading. Something, so the rumours go, rather grim. Our conductor announced it as a "blockage" on the line. That didn't sound nice to me. That sounded like a euphemism.

If the "blockage" was the fatality I suspect it might be, then that, in fact, is awful. If it was an accidental fatality - by which I mean the kind of fatality where the person involved did not intend anything fatal to happen at all - then it is immeasurably awful. And please don't think for a moment that I intend to trivialise or belittle that awfulness in any way. I don't.

But, Mark, it happened. And what we have to do, is deal with the consequences as they affect us in the best way we can.

Your job - or so it seems to me - is to make the trains run on time. In good times and in bad. To deal with the slings and arrows and outrageous misfortune and signal failures and busted engines and chipped windscreens and even fatalities... your job, so it seems to me, is to take arms against this sea of troubles, Mark - and by opposing, end them.

(I can't take credit for the inadvertent poetry of that paragraph, Sue, much as I'd like to. I was actually paraphrasing the immortal words of William Shatner, in the seminal 1967 Star Trek episode: Polonius and the Arras of Uranus. I know that some believe that William Shatner was not actually the author of those words, and that they were instead the work of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, but I don't think we need to lend credence to that kind of hokum, do we?)

So. We need to deal with delays when they happen, no matter why they happen. And as far as I can tell, Mark, delays occur for one of three broad reasons. Either it's Network Rail's fault, or it's your fault, or it's some random fault (like a fatality). But the responsibility for getting me home on time, for coping with the delay, for dealing with the situation, is yours alone. You're the one running the service. You're the one taking my money.

And this is the thing, Mark. You're taking my money. Not only that: I'm paying in advance!

How many other service industries can you think of operate on the model that the customer pays in advance? And not only that, but having paid in advance, if the thing he's paid for turns out not to be what he thought he was paying for - let's say he can't get a seat, or the toilets aren't working, or the service turns out to take half as long again as it was supposed to - then he's supposed to just put up with that? He's supposed to just accept it? Day after day, week after week, months and years on end until the last syllable of recorded time? (That last bit was stolen from Shatner again. Sorry.)

And not only all that - but then he's expected to be so happy with this sorry state of affairs that he'll gladly accept a price hike for that service of more than twice the rate of inflation? Two years running? For more of the same?

Mark: can you think of any other service industry that operates on such principles? That asks people to pay in advance for such a service? Sue? No? No.

So yes, Mark, a fatality on the line is an awful thing. But you know what? Maybe you should have a system in place to cope with such awfulness? And you know what else? A fatality on the line makes me feel that time is short and life is cruel and maybe every single minute is precious. And not to be wasted on unnecessary train delays.

Oh dear. Am I ranting? Am I raving? (Not that kind of raving, Sue! Not the glowsticks and saucer eyes and arms in the air kind of raving! We're not on our holidays now!) I do apologise! Let's calm things down. Let's change things up. Let us, as the late Jim Morrissey, singer of psychedelic LA rockers The Smiths, said, change the mood from sad to gladness. (Or was it the other way around?)

Whatever shall we discuss?

I'll be honest: I'm not in the mood for current affairs, Mark. The doings of the day are not floating my boat. The issues of the moment are failing to light my fires. It's all so grim! And after the whole Colonel Gadd-icky thing, I want to keep off the grimness. I want something feel-good, Sue! Something to make us all feel better!

I know! I've got it!

I read in my super soaraway today that company director's pay is up, up, up, Mark! The big men at the top - they're seeing out this recession in style! They're showing the rest of us coping on below-inflation pay rises, or no pay rises, just how to do it! Forty-nine per cent, on average, Mark! Not bad!

It cheers me up no end, Mark! I do hope you're among those corporate winners! I do hope you're getting your bonuses and incentives and share options! I'd hate to think you were the only MD in town not invited to the party! Please tell me you're not having to scrape by like the rest of us, Mark. Please let it not be that you'll be wondering how you're going to afford to travel on your own trains once the price rises kick in after Christmas!

Au revoir!


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