Friday, 2 December 2011

2 December 2011. Letter 63

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 2/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 12 minutes.

Oh, Mark. Ooh, Sue. What are we to do! It’s Friday morning, it’s a beautiful morning, the air crackles with possibilities… and once again, I am forced to flip open the lid of my laptop and start another letter to you.

Mark! Sue! My train’s stopped moving! We’ve become… immobile. Stationary. We have halted. Paused. We’re in stasis. Suspended animation! It’s like one of those cliffhangers we were talking about, Sue! When will we start moving again? For how long will we hang here? Will we pull ourselves back? Or will we fall off the cliff completely?

Where is Michael Caine when we need him, Mark? Where is Michael Caine and his “Hang on a minute lads! I’ve got a great idea…” cliffhanging skills?

He’s not on this train, Mark. I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet two-time Academy Award winner Michael Caine is not on the 08.06 First Great Western train from Oxford to London Paddington today. Or if he is, he’ll be one of the four people occupying the three First Class coaches.


The train manager (who, incidentally, seems a very nice chap. I’m not laying the blame for any of these delays on the train managers – or the conductors (I’m not sure what the difference between a train manager and a conductor is, to be honest), I’m not blaming the ticketing staff or even the drivers… it’s not their fault, Mark. They’re just doing their jobs. Or trying to, at any rate. No – you won’t catch me writing letters of complaint to any train managers. The fault is yours, Mark. (You too, Sue! I’ve not forgotten you!) The buck stops with you lads. In fact: here it is! Here’s the buck! Look at my buck! Stop my buck!) – the train manager just apologised for the slow running of this train, Mark.

He explained that it’s due to “congestion”. Again! All this congestion, Mark! It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? Because – and excuse me if I sound hopelessly na├»ve – isn’t congestion something that happens when the number of things occupying a space exceeds the capacity of that space or its ability to handle them all? Right?

So here’s where I get confused, Mark. Train services are timetabled, right? They’re planned. There are no doubt spreadsheets involved and everything. You know where all your trains should be at any given time of the day or night. You know the exact location of every one of them. You know this, and plan this, and timetable it all precisely so that congestion never happens. Now, I can understand that in the event of unforeseen circumstances, such as a breakdown, services could get held up (congested even!) behind the stricken train… but there are presumably contingency plans in place to deal with these rare events. Right?

Mark – I’ve been delayed four days out of five this week! We keep getting congested! How can we keep getting congested? Which parts of your company aren’t working?

Is it your timetables that are at fault? Your contingency plans? Is it that so many of your trains are breaking down that all the clever timetables and contingency plans in the world wouldn’t be able to cope with the corresponding congestion?

It’s a poser, isn’t it Mark? It’s going to need some solid communication skills to unravel the intricacies of this problem, is it not, Sue? I do look forward to finding out the answers!

So. Here we go again. Here we are once more. For the fourth day out of five this week. Hanging on the edge of the cliff…

Mark! Sue! I nearly forgot! Our cliffhanger! We were going to find out just how many hours you’ve stolen from me since the end of June last year! We were waiting to hear how long my delays have been these last five months! Tim from Twitter did the maths and the answer is there, in black and white!

Shall I tell you, Mark? Would you like it fast, or slow, Sue?

Okay, okay. Here it is.

Fifteen hours, Mark. (Including the 56 minutes of my time your trains have wasted this week.) Fifteen hours! That’s pretty well two full working days! In five months!

Fifteen hours!

In just five months, you have racked up delays of 15 hours to my journeys to and from work! In just five months, I’ve spent 15 hours longer on your trains than I was supposed to! In just five months, you have wasted 15 hours of my time! Fifteen hours, Mark! Fifteen hours, Sue!

And this from the so-called Train Operator of the Year? This from a company that claims 99.3 per cent reliability? This from a company that believes two consecutive above-inflation fare rises in two years to be justified? Fifteen hours delayed in five months, Mark?

Are you having a laugh, Mark? Are you taking the mickey, Sue? Is this some kind of joke? Or do you actually believe all that 99.3 per cent reliability, Train Operator of the Year guff?

Do you read these letters of mine and think, yeah well, he’s a snarky little smartypants (with, admittedly, an astonishing knowledge of pop music and, if we’re being totally honest, devilish good looks) but, really, he’s not typical of our customers? Do you think: he shouts loudly, but doesn’t represent the silent majority? Do you think: his views, while beautifully expressed, are not worth taking too seriously?

Do you think – oh, it’s just seven minutes here, 12 minutes there, half-an-hour every now and then… why doesn’t he just shut up and deal with it like everyone else?

Do you, Mark? Et toi, Sue?

Or do you think – all these seemingly trivial delays, these eight minutes and 10 minutes and 20 minutes… they do add up! They accumulate! They’re totalling over 15 hours of wasted time in just five months!

Do you think: it’s an utter, inexcusable scandal that we can waste 15 hours of someone’s time in five months? Do you think: we should feel ashamed of ourselves for charging our customers so much for their tickets, for asking them to stand most journeys, when we subsequently go on to rack up 15 hours of delays to their journeys in just five months?

It is a long time, is it not, Mark? Fifteen hours. It’s a long time to sit still and stare at Slough. Or stand and try not to stare at all the other people standing with you. Fifteen hours of my life. Wasted.

Oh Mark. Ah, Sue. I fear you’ve destroyed my good mood. My usually sunny disposition has been clouded over. And I hate ending the week on a downer!

What we need is something to cheer us all up. And given that it’s clearly not going to come from you or your awful, amateurish, scandalous train company, I guess it’s fallen to me again. Something funny, Mark! That’s what we need! A good laugh to end the week on!

Guess what? I know just the thing! I noticed it this morning, Mark, as I trudged wearily across the Paddington concourse, Bakerloo-bound, 12 minutes late for work.

Do you know that bar at Paddington station, Mark? Have you had a drink there, Sue? The one above WHSmiths? Have you ever noticed what it’s called? It’s called Sloe.

Sloe! I have to say, lads – despite it all, that made me laugh this morning. Sloe as in the berry, the gin… or sloe as in “slow”? Is someone being rather brilliant there, Sue? Is someone having a bit of a dig at you lot? Calling a bar at Paddington train station “slow”?

I do hope so!

Au revoir!


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