The improbable rant of someone approaching 40..

29 10 2008

I think I’m turning into a Daily Mail reader.

I have found myself in the last few days becoming more and more annoyed with the stupidest things. It’s almost like my old tolerant self has gone on holiday and a new ‘annoyed of derbyshire’ has moved in.

I really wish I had some sort of auto-blogging-brain-connection thing, although if you’re reading this you’re probably glad I don’t, so that I could blog about the things that have really annoyed me as and when they do. As it stands I have to wait till I find the time to do it..

I have about 12 posts in draft that I have started and been diverted onto doing something else before finishing them.. Titles like ‘Why would I pay £25 for that ?’ and ‘Do you know who I am ?’ are still sitting unfinished. Let alone the series I started about my diving exploits.. I still aim to finish those along with the unedited video from my recent Scapa Flow trip.

So, right now I’m sitting on the train wondering why on earth I bother. I mean I have proven to myself yet again that I am probably either very very stupid, forgetful or optimistic. I’m not sure whether it’s one trait or maybe a blend of them all.

Here I sit on a Virgin train to Edinburgh wishing I hadn’t bothered. Every time I do it it annoys me. The people annoy me, the staff annoy me, the low standards annoy me, the lack of space annoys me, the expense annoys me, in fact pretty much the whole experience annoys and frustrates me. Reggie Perrin had it right in the seventies, running down the beach and stripping off my clothes seems an appropriate response right now.

Let me explain, no, please, let me..

“Let the train take the strain” they used to say..

As part of my job I often travel to Edinburgh. I don’t mind, Edinburgh is a nice city and I like going there. Getting there, however, is another matter.

More often than not, I drive. It’s 240 miles from where I live and takes approx 4hrs 10 mins assuming I only stop once for a pee at the services after shap (where I often get suckered into buying a ‘home made’ pie for £3.50 and then regretting it).

The drive north is picturesque once you get past Preston/Blackpool. The roads open out and the traffic thins down. I have rarely had any issue on the motorway between Preston and the Biggar turn off. I like driving, it’s a period of solitude, alone with my thoughts and the radio. Time to reflect and percolate things in my head. Problem is, thats all you can do – think. You can’t get anything done and there are other factors to consider.. I don’t get a company car (not that I’d have one anyway – thanks for the tax Gordo) so every mile I do for business adds to the already eye-watering depreciation of my truck. Not to mention the maintenance costs, tyres and monumental fuel cost. OK, I get £0.40/mile in govmt allowances but I’m not convinced about the sums.. Not only that, my employer is a small business, and I feel honour-bound to reduce costs wherever is reasonably possible.

So.. last week I’m thinking about my trip to Edinburgh this week and thinking about driving.. I have a romantic relationship with the train, but she keeps letting me down. Like an unrequited love you have admired from afar or the girl in chemistry who you would brush past to smell her hair only to receive that withering look that only women can deliver.

I digress. I’m not sure I want to drive next week, thinks I. In the past I have flown regularly (usually when I need to go up and back in day) but I didn’t necessarily need to go up and back in one day and the prices were up because it was half-term week. So my thoughts turned to the train (again).. I half-heartedly logged onto (I make a point of trying to never ever ever use because of a previous spat) and typed in the details of my journey..

Funnily enough, I didn’t want to make 4 changes and spend ALL day sitting around on various stations dotted around the north of england so I re-jigged my selection and was amazed to be presented with what seemed like an improbable offer.. £75 return and only 2 changes starting from the station half a mile from my house and taking me to within 2 miles of the office.. Then the little demon on my shoulder says “hey, you could take your bike (cycle) and see if it’s really possible to do without a car (i.e. taxi)”..

Cool !

I could reduce my carbon-footprint (for once) and get some work done on the train (blogging is work !).. ah but what if they don’t allow cycles on the train ?

I checked on the web, they all have a cycle policy which is as clear as the “fair usage” policy imposed by most ISP’s.. Basically you can try and bring your bike but there is no guarantee they will accommodate it..

Ach, it’ll be fine I thought.

Last night, I’m thinking to myself.. “do you really trust those train wallahs not to shaft you and leave you standing at crewe or haymarket with your bike or make you leave it behind ?”

Conclusion ?

No, I don’t. What about a dry-run ? Good idea, so I’m on the train without my bike but looking out for fellow healthy do-gooders..

Train 1 : A local train to Crewe; A guy gets on with a bike and dumps it next to another one right in front of the doors. Luckily he sits opposite me and I strike up a conversation with him. Yes, he’s been to further places than Crewe with his bike on the train but not for a while, he reckons you can dump it either in the space where the carriages connect or in the area reserved for wheelchairs (!) which is usually near coach D (on Virgin anyway).. However, opinions aside, I am buoyed by the fact there are two bikes on my carriage and maybe other bikes on the whole train. A good start.

Train 2 : The biggy from Crewe to Haymarket. I have to ride on Virgin trains because of where I live. I wish I didn’t. I’m convinced (without evidence) that other train company’s are better. Less crowded, less expensive, less perfunctory and in general a whole lot more of a pleasurable experience.

That said, the train turns up on time and I get on. My seat is an ‘airline’ seat and it’s at this point that the rumblings in the back of my mind start.. I hate airline seats. I hate them for many reasons. Today, it is their very existence that starts my spiral down into bleak despair.

I remember as a child traveling on the train where the majority of seats would be 4 seats facing each other on either side of a table. The whole point being that you had something to lean on and you could work, read, eat on them etc.. Their existence meant that, people with children could sit together and so-on.. Not now.

Progressively, the 4-seat combo has been eradicated by train designers to make way for the airline style. The carriage I am in now has one (1) 4-seat combo per side of the train. Every other seat is airline style.

I have many issues with this..

  • Older carriages with more 4-seat combos in had room between the blocks of 4 for luggage. People could sit near their luggage.
  • The airline seats have room under the seats in-front for luggage (small only) but then you have no-where to put your feet.. duh
  • There is not enough space between the seats for you to sit and work on a laptop, unless you sit the keyboard at 45˚ and hold your hands like a praying-mantis
  • There is random power sockets posted in some airline seats and always one on both sides of the 4-seat combo
  • The seats are not wide enough for two reasonable sized men to sit side-by-side without unfortunate and uncomfortable (for me anyway) rubbing of shoulders and thighs – unless the aisle-sitter adopts that leg-in-aisle-left-lean-bum-half-off-seat posture (like I’m doing now)
  • If you adopt the aisle-pose then you are going to get bruised and bashed by the people dragging their bags down the train in fruitless search of luggage storage
  • The aircraft seats mean train companies can get more people in per carriage, but this is at the expense of luggage space. The racks above your head are only suitable for small hand-luggage and coats and the only other place you can store big bags is in a luggage store at the end of each carriage (sorry, some carriages only have one at one end)
  • The luggage ‘store’ is basically a slot at the end of the carriage which has two levels and is in place of one row of seats. This means that inevitably, bags end-up getting dumped on top of one another which then means having to take on the role of airport baggage handler when you want to get off. Sitting near there is something I try and avoid, for fear of feeling duty bound to jump up at every station and help the little old lady (with a bag twice her weight) retrieve it from the bottom of pile of rucksacks and samsonites.

I could go on.

Bottom line is, like a lot of things in our modern world cost reduction, margin increase, efficiency drives and general penny pinching mean that the drive for ‘customer service’ is doomed from the very outset. Packing the trains with more people whilst giving them no space to store their luggage is ridiculous. Do the train people expect you to travel with no luggage ? Shall I send it on ahead ?

This means that luggage ends up crammed in the ‘luggage space’ or in the aisles or in-front of doors which adds to a lack of space and a feeling of being hemmed-in like a sardine in a tin. Tempers flare and things spiral down and down until you end up with train-rage.

There are posters in most stations now-a-days that says something like “stamp it out.. our staff should expect to be safe in their work. we will not tolerate violent or aggressive behaviour. we always prosecute”

Excuse me ?

Sure, people who are merely going to work should expect to not be assualted or abused. However, this goes both ways. I am not surprised that some people resort to abusive language and occasional behaviour. The general experience for a UK train traveller is unreasonable and below-par, and we PAY for the privilege.

  • Your seat is not guaranteed. What ? OK, so do I get a reduction ? No.
  • Sorry we’re late there were leaves on the line. What ? OK, so do I get a reduction ? No.
  • Sorry, there is no heating, it broke down.. What ? OK, so do I get a reduction ? No.
  • Sorry, the loo is not working, it’s blocked. What ? OK, so do I get a reduction ? No.
  • Sorry, we have no food in the shop.. What ? OK, so do I get a reduction ? No.
  • Sorry, the reservation system is broken, you’ll have to fend for yourself. What ? OK, so do I get a reduction ? No.

You see the pattern here ?

Every time there is a problem or the operators fail to deliver there is absolutely no recompense for the weary traveller. To get any money back for the supposed service you pay for you have to jump through so many hoops and avoid so many caveats that most people just give up. Chances are, even if you did get any refund or discount you’d have to pay a £20 service charge.

Let’s get back on topic here..

The whole reason for this experience is to see whether or not it’s feasible to get to my office without using a car. Ignoring the fact that I’d failed from the start by accepting the offer of a lift to the station from SWMBO, Train 1 was definitely bike-friendly.

So, on Train 2, I asked the ‘train-manager’… (what ever happened to Guards on trains ??) “If I had a bike with me, where would I store it ?”

“At the back of the train” she replied, whilst pointing in the direction we were traveling (which confused me). “but you’d need to book it on a long journey like this”.. “does it cost extra ?” I enquire. “No, it’s included in the cost of the ticket”..

Great I think, jobs-a-goodun..

“what if I didn’t book ?”

“you probably wouldn’t get your bike on, we only have slots for 4 bikes”

What ??

Hold on a minute. You have slots for 4 (four) bicycles on a train with 5 carriages and (approx) 16 rows of seats per carriage, which ,assuming full occupancy, means when full this train could have 320 passengers on which means Virgin are catering for 1.25% of the capacity of train-travelling bicycle riders.. !!!

Can that be right ?

Surely if there was any substance to the supposed drive to increase the use of public transport the state would FORCE operators to provide more space and make it easier for people to get around without the car.

As it is, they don’t and because of that I will continue to use my car despite of the huge costs to both my wallet and the environment. I simply don’t have the time or the inclination to jump through the hoops required of me to use a service that is frankly below par and difficult to use.

I’d like to think I have an answer for all this, but I don’t. I do however, know some people who do. Every European train service I have been on was better than a british one.. Roll on an enforced Brussels take-over of the whole UK rail network..

Thanks for listening !



3 responses

31 10 2008

My God! You’re turning into your mother!

14 11 2008

of cheshire surely!

and yes you grumpy old git! lololololololol

18 11 2008

I agree. You are grumpy. Maybe born grumpy. I must check with your mum.

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