Friday, 29 July 2011

Mark wants to meet me!

What do you think? Should I do it? And will Sue be there?

Dear Dominic,

Thank you for your email. Just to remind you, my replies are sent on behalf of the business so I would assure you Sue sees your emails and sometimes contributes to the response!

Our 22.21 service on Tuesday night was held up by a signalling issue in Network's Slough control centre. It's something we have previously identified as an issue and Network Rail are working to fix this. Therefore, it's disappointing to have had a further problem and I have personally raised this with them. They are taking this seriously and I hope we won't see this issue again.

After passing through the problem area, your train was 10 minutes late but was given priority and we were able to make up time but still arrived into Oxford 7 minutes behind schedule. Our aim is to deliver you to your destination on time, every time and I fully appreciate how frustrating any delay can be, no matter how small and I am sorry for the inconvenience caused.

As mentioned in my previous email I am aware that performance on the Oxford-Paddington line is not as good as other routes we operate and we are working hard to address this. Both Sue and/or I would be happy to meet you to discuss current performance and what we are doing in the short and longer term. This could be on your morning journey into Paddington or at Oxford or Paddington stations or an evening service back from London. I live on the Paddington to Oxford route myself and use the trains every day for one reason or another. So, If you think this would be helpful, please let me know and we will arrange a suitable date.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

26 July 2011. Letter 11

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 22.21 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford , 26/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 8 minutes.

Afternoon Mark. 'Ow do, Sue. Thriving, I hope? Peachy and perky, I trust? Good. Splendid! Well done!

I'll be honest with you both. I'm a bit tired today. I'm a little washed out. I've got the midweek slump, the Wednesday blues. I worked late last night (you know what it's like, Mark). I didn't get home till midnight. Of course, it should have been a bit earlier than that, but then that would have meant one of your trains actually running on time, and we all know what an impossible dream that is, don't we?

So, yes. I'm un peu fatigue, as our onion-munching cousins across the Channel like to put it. These late nights in the office, they do that to a man - don't you find, Mark? Do you get tired the morning after another all-nighter with the spreadsheets and the anglepoise, the chewed biros and bitten fingernails and overflowing ashtrays and constant, nagging, relentless inability to make your company work properly? Do you wake up and wonder about your work/life balance?

How about you, Sue? Do you work too hard? Do you communicate long after your team have clocked off and gone home? Do you give your heart and soul to your job? Have you put career before all else? Has communicating taken over your whole life?

I'm intrigued about that, Sue. Actually, I'm intrigued about your working day on a far more basic level (I'll be blunt, Sue: I'm just plain intrigued full stop. You intrigue me. There! I've said it! You intrigue me, Sue! You impossible, mysterious, endlessly intriguing woman! You intrigue me! I don't care who knows it!)

I'm intrigued about what it is that a Director of Communications who doesn't appear to actually do any communicating actually does all day. I hate to keep banging on about it, Sue, but... nobody's enlightening me. Nobody's communicating. What do you do, dude? What's it all about, Alfie?

Anyway. Whatever it is, I don't doubt you're pretty darn good at it. Whatever it is, I'm sure you're the best at it. I mean, you must be. You're the Communications Director! You must be the best! Surely. Right? Whatever it is you actually do.

And it's tiring, isn't it? It's tiring, dedicating yourself to work like we three do. Don't get me wrong, Mark: I love my job. (As I'm sure you do, too, Mark - after all, one doesn't become Managing Director of First Great Western just because you used to play with Thomas the Tank Engine or your Daddy knew someone at Cambridge or whatever. You need passion. You need fire in your belly and coal in your furnace and steam in your pistons!) It's just that, sometimes, my job makes me work late. Sometimes (well, once a week at the moment, but what can you do? I work for the most powerful media organisation in the country, right? And for the bestselling English language newspaper in the world. Them's the breaks!) sometimes I'm required to stay in the office until proofs are read and pages are signed off. Deadlines, innit, Sue.

And that's ok. That's what I signed up for. But what isn't ok is that when I finally do get out of the office and trudge forlornly through Paddington station, clutching my sad little M&S pasta and plastic fork and onto the (too small, too dirty) train, I then find that my scheduled journey home isn't going to run to schedule at all. I didn't sign up for that, Mark! I didn't pay you for that!

And as we dribble through the sad suburbs around Slough and people nod off into their Whopper meals and dark little streams run down the carriage from the toilet and the stench of urine grows and the train slows, and slows, and stops... I can't help thinking to myself: this is not a wonderful world, Mark. This is, in fact, utterly rubbish.

It's not up to you whether I work late or not, Mark, and I would never dream of suggesting it was. But it is up to you to make sure that, even when I do work late, I can rely on your trains to get me home at the time they're supposed to and in a manner befitting that of a highly profitable company operating in a first world country. I think we can all agree on that, can't we? Or should we all get our money back?

What do you say, Mark? What do you say, Sue? Or is that a pointless question?

Au revoir!


Monday, 25 July 2011

Another reply from Marky Mark

He's frustrated. Aren't we all?

Dear Dominic

Thank you for your recent emails about your journey experiences. I am very aware that reliability of services on the Paddington to Oxford route is not as good as other routes in the business or as good as it should be and we are working hard with Network Rail to address this.

On Wednesday night your service lost time leaving Reading station due to congestion and was regrettably unable to make this up by the time it arrived into Oxford. Delays to services arriving into and leaving Reading are frustrating and with the number of services passing through the station any problem has a knock on effect of causing a number of following services to also be delayed. The significant changes and £800m investment at Reading Station will provide a solution to these problems. However, this is a long term project and the benefits will not be apparent immediately. In the mean time we will try all we can to keep such delays to an absolute minimum.

Apologies also for the belated start to your day on Thursday morning, a signal problem in the Moreton-in-Marsh area caused a number of services to fall behind schedule after a signalling cable was cut adjacent to the line overnight.

Yesterday morning one of our services suffered a mechanical problem in the Acton area and despite our best efforts we were not able to get it moving in time to prevent delays to following trains, including the 0806 from Oxford.

I agree that to arrive into Paddington late two days running is very disappointing and I appreciate that you and many other passengers require and quite rightly expect to arrive into London as scheduled. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that is the case and I am sorry for the inconvenience caused by the recent problems.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Friday, 22 July 2011

22 July 2011. Letter 10

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 22/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 24 minutes.

Mark! Sue! How goes the war? Bad guys still winning? Hang in there, soldiers. The sun also rises. Some day this thing's gonna end. I promise.

But not today. Today things don't look so peachy at all, do they? Today you're going to have to kick back and listen to my nonsense for a loooong time. Loosen your tie, Mark. Spark up a cigar, Sue. Prepare yourselves... because I've got a lot of talking to do. Sorry about that. But, as all three of us know, it hurts me more than it hurts either of you. And if you will waste my time... I will waste yours. That's the deal.

First things first, however. Mark: I wanted to say thankyou again for your personal responses to my complaints. I know that it can appear sometimes as though I'm rather flippant, or sarcastic, or even, as one particularly saucy girl in the office put it yesterday, as though I'm trying to bully you. (Bully you! You with your classical education and your heroic spreadsheet-studying and your fancy watch and your whole, well, Managing Directorship and all... and me with my most-hated-profession-in-the-world journalism job and my general ill-treatment at the hands of your company! I'm not the bully, Mark! I'm the kid who's just handed all his dinner money to the biggest boy in the playground and still got my (metaphorical, admittedly) head flushed down the (still metaphorical) toilet for my trouble. Is it any wonder I get a bit snarky? Is it any wonder I flick you the (once again metaphorical) Vs in return?)

Anyway. I do hope you don't think that's the case. And I do hope that you know how much I do appreciate you taking the time out to reply to me personally. It makes you a big man, Mark. A Big Man. A man's man. A man's Big Man.

So. That's the polite stuff over and done with. Now to business. Much as I love you Mark (Sue, I feel strangely shy expressing any kind of feelings towards you: you're an enigma to me right now, Sue. You're a mystery, a fable, a wispy, intangible, half-remembered dream. How can I profess love for a dream, Sue? How can we build a relationship on memory and imaginings?)

Sorry, for a minute there I lost myself. Where was I? Oh yes. Much as I respect you as a man's Big Man, Mark, and much as I yearn for something more tangible between us, Sue, I find myself once again let down by you and your service.

I was 24 minutes late for work today, Mark. Sue: it meant I arrived late for an important meeting about our social networking strategy. I had to walk in late, all elbows and knees, clutching a half-sipped coffee and dropping my notepad and mumbling apologies as everyone stopped talking and watched. In silence. In disapproving silence. I wanted to say: "Don't judge me! Judge Mark Hopwood and Sue Evans! Be silent and disapproving towards them! It's their fault! It's all their fault!" But of course I couldn't. I had to grin foolishly and take it like a man. And not a big man, either. Not a man's Big Man. I had to take it like a small man.

So. I'm guessing this is an email you knew was going to come today, didn't you, Mark? I'm betting you turned up for work this morning, Sue (how do you get to work, Sue? Do you drive? Or are you also often late?) I bet you fired up the First Great Western Super Mainframe Megacomputer and felt your little hearts sink.

There was an incident this morning. One of your trains, Mark, it broke down! I know! It totally broke down! Like it was too old or poorly maintained or something! (I've been thinking about the whole malevolent supernatural power explanation we discussed a week or two ago, and, I'll be honest with you, I've largely dismissed it. I'm a rational man, Mark, and as a rational man I know it's deeply unlucky to believe in superstition.)

So, keeping things in the sphere of the explicable, one of your trains broke down this morning. Due, presumably, to something your company could have done something about. And as a result, I had to stare out of a window at some godforsaken part of Acton for the best part of half an hour. And then turn up late for work and miss the beginning of my meeting and have to go through all that elbows and coffee stuff I mentioned. None of which, Sue, has left a particularly pleasant imprint on my tiny mind. Or, I'm guessing, on the minds of everyone else in the meeting.

That makes three journeys out of the last four that have been delayed, Mark. That's 75 per cent of my commute over just two-and-a-half days, Sue. How do you explain such a pitiful service? How do you communicate such ineptitude? Enlighten me, Sue! Educate, inform or at least entertain me. Let's get communicating! Let's communicate, in the words of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, like it's 1999.

Although, thinking about it, if it was 1999, that communicating would presumably be by post. Or, I dunno, telegram, or carrier pigeon. Or semaphore. Okay, bad lyric choice. Let's not communicate like it's 1999. Let's communicate like it's 2011! Whaddyasay, Sue? Are you with me? Are you game?

Alright! Go Sue! I feel energised! I feel invigorated! I feel like... like a Big Man! This could be a new beginning for me and you, Sue! Let's make it happen!

Yours, in breathless expectation...

Au revoir


Thursday, 21 July 2011

21 July 2011. Letter 9

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 21/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 8 minutes.

Mark! Sue! What's shakin'? Two letters in one day! We've become penpals! We're totally e-buddies! I'm developing a more regular relationship with you than I have with my own mother! I feel we're getting... intimate.

Guess what, Mark? That train I was on this morning, as I tap-tappity-tapped my last letter into my phone and the burnished rooftops of Reading town reflected the rosy-fingered dawn in all its glory outside the (extraordinarily slow-moving) train windows... it did end up delayed in the end. Doh! We limped into London's Gateway to the West some eight minutes behind schedule. I won't pretend I'm not disappointed.

What happened? I assume something awful and tragic and utterly out of your control. I assume (from your last letter) something happened about which I should be feeling bad - rather than (for example) anything that might be your responsibility. Was it my fault again, Mark, for expecting the service I paid for? Am I just too naive? Do I just not get it?

Particularly nasty fatalities (whilst being so much worse than the pleasant variety of fatality, or the tolerable kind, or even the quite nasty type of fatality) are naturally beyond your control. You can't be everywhere at once Mark! You are, after all, and in the words of Freddie Mercury, just a man, with a man's courage. I know you try your hardest to stop those particularly nasty fatalities, Mark (where are you when all this is going down, Sue?) and I know that you can't save everyone. I hear you, brother. I feel that pain.

On the other hand, what you could do... is concentrate on running a business that can cope with the occasional emergency. (I say "occasional" - but these occasions do seem to crop up quite regularly, don't they? Familiarity, I don't mind telling you, may be beginning to breed the beginnings of contempt on that front.) What you could do, Mark, is put your energies, abilities and (whisper it) budget into making First Great Western trains the kind of company that doesn't fall apart every time something awkward happens.

What do other train companies do, I wonder, when faced with particularly nasty fatalities? Or is it only your trains that attract the tragic? In Japan, for example? Or Switzerland? Or, I dunno, Lancashire? I'm genuinely interested. Do they have contingency plans? Do they have special communication set-ups? (Sue! Wake up! We're talking about communications again!) Do they plan ahead? Or does everyone just kind of wing it and hope for the best?

What I'm sure they don't do is try to make their own customers feel bad about the situation. What I'm sure they don't do is attempt to transfer some kind of spurious guilt onto those people who hand over their money and expect to be taken home on time.

Or perhaps they do. Maybe, as I said, I'm just hopelessly naive.

Oh dear, I've just read this back and realised that now I'm sounding very cross. I'm not generally a cross person, Mark. You should see me normally, Sue, I'm lovely. I'm a pussy cat. Go on, tickle me. Tickle me there! See! Aren't we having fun again?

Au revoir!


A new reply from Mark! And a possible grab for the moral high ground!

Oh dear, Mark sounds a touch upset. I hope you're all feeling ashamed of yourselves now...


Thank you for your email. I realise I have monopolised our responses and I am sorry . Sue does read all your emails but as MD I feel its the least I can do to personally offer an apology when your journey home has been delayed.

I fully understand your irritation with the delay on Tuesday night, and note your concerns that your readers seem to value your comments more than they value you having a trouble free journey.

I suspect however that what they did not explain in their tweets, was that the delay was due to a particularly nasty fatality at Hayes and Harlington. It did take some time to reopen the line, partly due to the actions needed after any death on the railway, but also due to the driver of the Heathrow Connect service having to be relieved from duty due to the trauma.

I am sure there are always things we could do better, and I expect that this was true last night. However there are times when the circumstances are genuinely outside our control. Clearly last night's incident was not something you could be aware of, nor indeed would our customers have realised quite how difficult the situation was at Hayes. If they had I very much doubt that they would have been quite so pleased at the potential for you to write about it.

We work closely with British Transport Police and Network Rail to prevent suicides, sadly we are not always successful. Line closures at peak time will lead to long delays due to congestion. We took a number of measures to reduce these, but there was a lengthy period where trains were all stopped and this inevitably caused problems for our customers. Delays then knocked on to later services such as the 2148.

I am sorry for the inconvenience this caused.


20 July 2011. Letter 8

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.21 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 20/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 3 minutes.

Three minutes. "Oh come on!" you're thinking. "Give us a break! Cut us some slack! Three minutes? What's three minutes?"

Three minutes, Mark, is three minutes. Three minutes, Sue, is 180 seconds. It's one twentieth of an hour. It's half a cigarette. It's those first few sips of wine after another long day. A lot can happen in three minutes. A two-year-old boy who had been promised a kiss from Daddy before he falls asleep could drift off kiss-less (yes I know that's not a real word, Sue, but just roll with it, nobody likes a pedant) in those three minutes.

Three minutes, mes petites, can be an age, an eternity. It all depends on context. E, as I'm sure you don't need reminding Mark, totally equals mc squared.

Let me illustrate with a humiliating anecdote, if I may.

Have you ever been on the radio, Sue? I have. And let me tell you, three minutes on the radio can feel like an awfully long time. When you're on live radio, three minutes can feel like all the time in the world.

Do you want to hear about it, Sue? You do? Excellent!

So there I was, back in the year 2000 or so, brought in to the studio to grace the airwaves with my insight and analysis on the new Oasis album. All of London was listening, Mark! The nation's capital city was agog! What would I, self-styled voice of the nation's youth (and at that time rock and pop editor of the Daily and Sunday Express) have to tell this great city about les freres Gallaghers' latest? What would we all learn about Standing On The Shoulders of Giants?

London paused, Sue. London paused and cocked an ear.

And I... blew it. I floundered. Early on in my allotted three minutes, whilst trying to express my frustration with Noel's bandwaggon-jumping critics, I jumbled up the phrases "gets my goat" and "I have a beef with..." (I have no idea why those two phrases were in my mind to begin with) and I loudly declared: "That really gets my beef".

There was a terrible pause, Mark. And then I said it again. And then for three minutes I couldn't think of anything else to say. All I could think was: "what the hell does 'gets my beef' mean? Why did I say that? What kind of idiot am I anyway? Gets my beef? Gets my beef?"

Sue: it was awful. It was three minutes of abject misery. And it felt like an awful lot longer.

So please, don't tell me three minutes doesn't really matter. They do. Time is relative.

Oh: and as I write, on a train in the morning, inching past the golden suburbs of Reading, I see we're already seven or so minutes behind schedule again. Expect another letter later today. And if you thought being three minutes late got my beef...

Au revoir!


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

19 July 2011. Letter 7

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 21.48 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 19/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 11 minutes.

How the devil are you? Well I hope, Mark? In the pink, Sue? Good, good. I gather you had a rough night of it last night. I hear that all First Great Western services out of Paddington yesterday evening were - not to put too fine a point on it - up the spout. Down the swannee. Round the u-bend. That they were, as my four-year-old likes to express it, total toilet. Nothing moved, as I understand it, for hours.

I got tweets about it, Mark! I was emailed, instant-messaged, texted and telephoned, Sue! As a Director of Communications, you would have been beside yourself at all the communicating going down. It was a veritable communi-fest! Communipalooza! Communibury!

And you know what all those communications were, er, communicating? They were all saying that - you'll love this - they were all saying that the one solitary bright point in the whole sorry, shoddy, amateurish excuse for a business you run, was that I'd be delayed too... and so would have to write to you again! The cheek of it, Mark! These people - your customers, my readers - they're beginning to see your wasting of my time as a good thing! They may even be beginning to hope the trains I catch are delayed... so that I can waste your time in return!

Sue: I'm almost speechless at the thought. (You should sympathise with that, Sue. Or empathise. Or both. After all: you've clearly been rendered speechless for weeks now. Have I made you speechless, Sue? Have I struck you dumb? Taken your breath away? Am I the cat that caught the Director of Communications' tongue? Or are you just shy? Or - and I can scarcely believe this to be true - are you actually choosing not to communicate with me? That wouldn't do would it, Sue? It's your job to communicate with me! I'm your customer! I am your raison d'etre! Without me, and all the other FGW customers, Sue, you're redundant. Or have I got your job entirely wrong? Tell me, Sue. Communicate!)

Where was I? Ah, yes. Almost speechless at the thought. Because, and this is the kicker, it raises the intriguing possibility that this project of mine has a fundamental flaw at its very heart. Surely the point is for us all to improve your service? Or at least make you do your job better? And not to actually revel in your incompetence?

That, Mark, would make all this decidedly Pyrrhic. A Pyrrhic victory. Do you know what a Pyrrhic victory is? (Of course you do, Mark - you must have benefited from a classical education. What was it? Rugby? Stowe? Then... St Andrews? Cambridge?) How about you, Sue? Did you enjoy such a rarified upbringing? Or have you worked your way up from nothing? Communicated your way out of the mean streets? Was it a case of sport and communications being the only legal options for a kid from the wrong side of the tracks?

Anyway Sue, no shame in that. Pyrrhic victories. Let me explain. Once upon a time, in a country a long, long way away (well, Greece) there was a king called Pyrrhus. As Ancient Greek kings go, he was pretty tasty. Gave the emergent Roman Empire a bit of a spanking on more than one occasion. But there was a flaw, Sue. Old Pyrrhus... he was a bit over-keen. The way he saw it, winning was all that mattered. Victory had to be pursued - no matter what the cost. Until, after one particularly bloody encounter at a place called Heraclea, his defeat of the Romans was so absolute that it ended up costing him his whole army too. He won, Sue... but he also kind of lost. And a certain Mr Plutarch, who was a leading tabloid scribe of the day, coined the term "Pyrrhic victory" to describe that peculiar kind of victory that comes at a prohibitive cost to the victor.

Interesting, eh? Fascinating, huh? But also... eye-opening. A Pyrrhic victory. Are my letters Pyrrhic victories? It gives me pause, Mark. Oooh, and it makes me wonder, Sue, as Robert Plant (almost) put it. Am I the real loser here? Twicefold? First for giving you so much money for such pitiful service every day, and then second for wasting my own time in order to waste your time writing about it for the dubious pleasure of others who are now hoping for your service to get even worse so that the whole sorry cycle can continue? And is that actually threefold?

Possibly. I'd welcome your thoughts.

But on the other hand... to hell with it. I'm with Pyrrhus.

Oh - and in case you're concerned... I missed all the shenanigans at Paddington last night. I was working late. By the time I got my train home we were only running a middling 11 minutes late. Aren't I the lucky one, Mark!

Until next time

Au revoir


PS - Oops! was this letter longer than my allotted 11 minutes? Feel free to complain about that, Sue!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Another reply from Mark

I'll be honest: I'm beginning to quite like the guy... and great to hear his sorrow is "genuine". That's important, right?

Dear Dominic

Thank you for your email and I am sorry for Tuesdays delay.

We had to cancel our 20:51 to Oxford due to a problem with the PA address system (hence why the cancellation itself wasn't announced on the train). Being a safety issue, we couldn't ignore it. Unfortunately, there was no replacement train we could step up into service and therefore we did have to ask customers to wait for the next service.

I appreciate this meant that the train you travelled on was crowded and I am genuinely sorry for yet another disappointing journey.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

12 July 2011. Letter 6

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 20.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 12/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 30 minutes.

How the devil are you both? It's been a week! And what a week, Mark. Good lord, Sue: it's been kerr-azy. Crazy as a coconut! You wouldn't believe just how crazy even if I told you. Or maybe you would. Either way, you're going to hear all about it. This is a long one, kids, you might want to make yourself comfortable. Mark: crack open the hobnobs, there's a good chap. Sue: be a love and put the kettle on, eh?

So. You'll see from the line above that my train home last night was delayed by 30 minutes. Which is sort of true and sort of not true. I could have said it was delayed by infinity minutes. It was delayed forever. It never happened at all. It simply ceased to be. My train home: it disappeared!

Picture the scene. There we all were, your paying customers, tired but happy after another day's honest toil, safely seated on one of your trains, expecting a smooth, fast, efficient service home - why, even the lady with the trolley was smiling, Mark! The air... ooh it crackled with anticipation! It was heavy with intent! It was pregnant with all the endless possibilities that only a trip between London Paddington and Oxford (with stops at Slough and Reading) could bring! We were going home! We were all going home on a First Great Western train!

The world, Sue, was our lobster. Literally. Well, not literally. But, you know, metaphorically. Figuratively. The world, Sue, was our figurative lobster!

At least, that's how it felt, sitting on the platform at ten minutes to nine o'clock. And then... and then... and then we were all told by the trolley lady (no less) to get off the train, go back through the barriers and wait half an hour for the next train. With no explanation as to why.

And so we did. I still don't know why. And guess what happened next. Can you? No? Let me employ another metaphor.

Have you ever tried to fit two pints into a one-pint glass Sue? Have you? It's not a riddle. I mean, have you actually ever tried it? Because - and here's the thing - you can't do it. What you end up with is a load of mess. Just like if you tried to fit two trainloads of people into one train.

It was not a pleasant journey thenceforth, Mark. The world was not our lobster anymore. The world just looked a bit rubbish. And overfull. And smelling of uncleaned toilets.

And here's the irony.

I was actually considering being a bit nicer to you, Mark. I was going to let you off the hook, Sue. You see, last week was quite a difficult week for me. They shut down the newspaper I worked for. Can you believe it? I was on Sky News and everything! (Smoking a fag, standing outside the office, trying not to look like a public hate figure. How do you do that, Sue? Not smoke fags, obviously, that's easy. I mean how do you try not to look like a public hate figure? Do you do courses in that, as part of your role as Director of Communications? Could you squeeze in me and a few of my tabloid journalist friends sometime?) The attention of the world was focussed on my place of work! And the world wasn't exactly cheering us on, Mark. I'll be frank with you, Sue. Much of the world seemed to be booing.

So yes, tricky week. Lots of people I know got made redundant, lots of other people got suddenly terrified for their jobs too. And a whole newspaper was shut down, just like that. Heavy. It makes a boy think, you know? It makes a boy think: at a time like this, does anyone really give a tinker's cuss whether my trains are two, or eight, or 12, 15, 30 minutes late?

But then I got some messages from fellow First Great Western passengers. I heard tales from other disgruntled customers of yours. I was told stories of appalling service and contemptuous treatment at the hands of your company... and I thought: you know what? Sometimes it can feel like us ordinary worker ants* don't have a voice. Sometimes it feels like we're helpless before the big corporate cheeses that dominate our lives. Sometimes it feels like we don't actually matter all that much, like we're treated as disposable, manipulable irrelevancies by the Managing Directors of this world... and that can't be good, can it Mark?

So I figured that perhaps even my little rants might be worth something after all. I figured that anything - no matter how petty or annoying or frankly irrelevant - that impacts at all upon those responsible for treating the ordinary men and women who make your positions possible, who effectively pay your salaries, so dismissively had to be worth something.

What do you think Mark? Have I been reading too much George Orwell? (He was a big fan of the News of the World, by the way: look it up if you don't believe me.) Have I been listening to too many Smiths records? Or am I talking sense?

You know the answer already, don't you Sue! That's right! I'm talking sense! I'm totally talking sense! Go to the top of the class!

So! Sorry (I'm not really sorry) but I'm not going to let you off the hook after all. In fact, if anything, I may even be a teensy little bit more cross than before. Crosser. (More cross or crosser, Sue? How would you best communicate that sentiment?) And if you will go canceling trains and whatnot willy-nilly, what do you honestly expect? That I'd just learn to accept it? That I would factor your incompetence in to my daily routine?


But I hate to leave you on a negative. We'd been having such fun up till now! So here's some good news. Yes, the newspaper I worked for got shut down last week. But guess what! I now work for The Sun! It's super and soaraway! Whodathunkit! My commute will be unaffected! It's good news for me (I keep a roof over my head) and it's good news for you - because I keep shoveling hundreds of pounds your way every month. In the words of Errol Brown: everyone's a winner, baby, that's the truth.

So: until next time... au revoir!


*we're not really actual ants. That's another metaphor.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A new reply from Mark!

And a potentially tricky issue sorted!

Dear Dominic

Thank you for your email. I know you copy these to both Sue and I, and Sue does read them, but as MD I am happy to respond.

The 8 minute delay to our 21.21 service on Tuesday was caused by a signal problem at Appleford, for which I apologise.

To clarify, the paragraph at the end of all our emails say 'unless you are the named addressee you cannot copy, use or disclose it to anyone else'. As you are the intended recipient, there is no issue with any reproduction of the correspondence.

Thank you again for your email.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

5 July 2011. Letter 5

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 21.21 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 5/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 9 minutes.

Two delays in two days guys! That spreadsheet we were talking about must make for bleak viewing. Does it depress you, Mark? Do you read it and weep, Sue?

So here we are again. Another medium-sized message. Another average-length email. Whatever shall we discuss today?

First of all, I'd like to express my thanks, Mark, for your latest reply. It seems First Great Western certainly does have the most rotten luck! A failed train at Didcot, you say? Imagine that! A perfectly good train just failing for no reason all by itself!

I mean, if trains were failing because you hadn't invested in them properly, if they were failing because they were old, or knackered, or needed repairs, upgrades, servicings or even replacing... that I could understand. In that case the solution would be simple, wouldn't it? All we'd have to do was invest in our business properly (even if it meant denting the profit margins) and the job, as we used to say in Manchester, would be a good 'un. No more failing!

But if they're just failing all by themselves, for no discernible reason... why that's just spooky bad luck! Maybe you're cursed, Mark! And what could any of us do if occult powers are the reason behind FGW's shoddy service?

I'm assuming the train wasn't old or knackered or needed servicing or replacing or anything - because then that would mean you weren't doing your job properly, wouldn't it Mark? I'm assuming that the only rational explanation for your trains failing is the wholly irrational one of diabolical intervention by some malevolent higher power.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, Mark. And whether you think it might be prudent to get a priest in. Or a witchdoctor. Or Dumbledore, Gandalf, Aslan, Merlin. Anyone who could lift that curse. Even if it must be a mythical sorcerer. Needs must and all that. Every option must be explored!

Oh, before I forget. One other thing about your email made me laugh out loud when I read it on the train home. (You should have seen the looks I got! People tend not to laugh too much on your trains: perhaps it's another manifestation of that curse? Or perhaps it's just that paying the best part of 500 quid a month to be treated with such flippant contempt every morning and evening by your company tends to put a downer on people's moods?)

I laughed because I couldn't help but notice that at the bottom of your email there was a paragraph pointing out that the contents were meant for my eyes only and were not to be shared with anyone. Like on a blog, for instance.

Is that right, Mark? Are you forbidding me from publishing your replies? Can you even do that? And was that your idea Sue? (Where are you, Sue? I miss you! And sadly I'm once again beginning to doubt your actual, you know, communication skills...)

Because if you are forbidding me from reproducing your correspondence on my blog, I'd like to know why. I think the readers might feel you have something to hide, Mark. Or that you're ashamed. Do you? Are you?

Oh gosh. Look at the time! Have I ran over my allotted nine minutes? So sorry! I hate it when that happens! Let's blame it on a failed, er, I dunno, typing hand, shall we? Maybe it's cursed! Dumbledore! We need you, big guy!

Au revoir


Tuesday, 5 July 2011

4 July 2011. Letter 4

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.21 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 4/7/11. Amount of my day wasted: 11 minutes.

Gosh, this is becoming a regular correspondence isn't it? More regular than even I anticipated. The service you're providing must be worse than any of us could have guessed!

Or, at least, worse than I realised. How about you Mark? What sayest thou Sue? Are you aware just how frequently your trains run late? How closely do you monitor these things? Do you bite your fingernails and chainsmoke cigarettes fretting about it? Do you roll up your sleeves, loosen your ties (run with the metaphor here, Sue), pour yourself a stiff drink and burn the midnight oil wondering how to make things better?

Thankyou for your most recent email, Mark. Great to hear you're double-checking my tardy arrivals - you clearly have a far more expensive and accurate watch than mine. Accuracy is a good thing, don't you think? Accuracy, punctuality, transparency. Old Isambard Kingdom would be proud of you! (Well, perhaps that's not strictly true, given the appalling train service you're providing for your vastly-overcharged customers, but I'd like to think he'd at least tip his stovepipe to your timepiece.)

So then: your attention to detail concerning my last delay intrigues me. I said eight minutes, you said six. You checked, dude! You totally checked! There must, I thought, be a spreadsheet! Is there a spreadsheet, Mark? Does he let you see it, Sue?

You use spreadsheets a great deal, I imagine. Which spreadsheets do you pore over most when you're pondering the big issues at First Great Western? The ones detailing exactly which of your services ran to the times you promised they would? Or the ones detailing profit and loss, cost-effectiveness and "efficiency savings"? Which of those spreadsheets shape your corporate strategy?

I wonder.

So: the raison d'ĂȘtre for today's missive. Mark, Sue: you will be distressed to hear my train home was delayed. Again. You have wasted my time. Again. What's that now? Four times in a week or so? Dear oh dear!

Tonight's delay wasted 11 minutes of my time. Hence the length of this message.

Let's call this a middling length, shall we? Not insignificant, of course, but then not eye-wateringly impressive either. Average, I'd say. The kind of length a man needn't be ashamed of - but then not so long he'd feel compelled to boast either.

An average length then. How do you two feel about that? Do you think it's fair to describe a delay of 11 minutes to one of your services as average?

Is average something we should all learn to live with? Or should we look at both those spreadsheets again? And maybe, you know, try to do a better job? Or do our jobs better. Even if it means we don't make quite so much profit? Even if it means our bonuses won't cover the cost of a shiny new Rolex this year? Seriously chaps: I'd love to hear your "feedback" on this. Because, and I mean this at least as sincerely as you do, your views are important to me.

How are we doing for time, Mark? What's that wrist-candy of yours saying? Have we reached our allotted 11 minutes yet? We have? Oh what a shame! There's still so much to say! I was going to tell you all about the novel I'm going to write, for example. It hinges on a... well, I won't spoil it. I'll save it for next time. Because I'm sure there will be a next time.

Until then, mes amis, au revoir!


Monday, 4 July 2011

A new message from Mark!

Our watches clearly aren't synchronised...

Dear Dominic

Thank you for your email. Our 18:51 on Wednesday night was 6 minutes late arriving into Oxford after we were held up by 3 minutes at Theale by rail enthusiasts taking pictures of a steam train from beyond the safe part of the platform. This subsequently set us running behind another train, where we incurred an additional 3 minute delay.

A delay of any duration is significant. With the number of trains we have in operation, particularly at peak time, delays can easily escalate and impact on the running of others. So, every minute absolutely counts.

We want very much for you to be able to rely on us to get you home it time for whatever your commitments might be and I am sorry for the delay.

Yours sincerely