Railways – Call Up The Royal Engineers?


Oldies may recall the halcyon days when General Brian Robertson Late RE (ennobled by Labour Premier Clement Attlee as 1st Baron Robertson of Oakridge) filled the post of Chairman[i] of the British Transport Commission. That said, the General may not have agreed that those railways days were idyllically happy and peaceful ones for him as the judgment on his tenure has been summarised as “In the end, the task of modernising the railway system proved to be beyond even his talents”. Bearing in mind that Dr Richard Beeching took over it’s a pity he did not succeed! Yes – the same Beeching who inflicted more damage on our national infrastructure since a cancellation of the Woolwich Ferry made me late for a parade. The good Doc decided that future of transport lay with vehicular transport (personal and freight) and, in so doing, seemingly ignored such basic factors as: increasing personal wealth that allowed for wider car ownership; the inexorable rise in the movement of goods and materials; population growth; and the exponential need for roads.

Plus ça change

A couple of years a particularly miserable train journey spawned this widely unread piece: Beast From The East https://forcesbusinessnet.com/2018/03/05/the-beast-from-the-east-lest-we-forget-travelling-backwards/  This year threw up yet more frustration with two memorable journeys from Waterloo in a five day period that each took over three and a half hours against an advertised time of some 40 minutes. More recent experiences demonstrate that the Train Operator is well able to spread the misery to a more local level which has prompted this article.

Before embarking on yet another rant, it is important, for me at least, to make the point that I am a reasonable man and not given to factitious objections. Reasonable people accept that ‘things go wrong’ but they are less forgiving about the incompetent consequential management of the aftermath when they do. It may be that our just in time instant gratification society does not allow either the time or resources to undertake contingency planning. Indeed, recent Brexit events suggest that most of us do not understand the difference between a worst case scenario and other more benign possibilities. The resultant unappetising stew is vigorously stirred by instant professional and social media responses, leading to outbreaks of mini earthquakes of hysteria often compounded by an army of virtue-signallers. In this context the bottom-line is that, across the board, the passage of information in tricky circumstances at all levels is generally appalling and is exacerbated by wide ranging situational ignorance by public facing staff.

Without rehearsing the Beast From The East contribution there are some observations it made suggest that little has changed in the last two years:

  • The inclement weather resulted in: ” the ticket office clerk, widely known as Mr Grumpy opting not to walk the few hundred yards to his work station[ii]”
  • “…the locked waiting room on a bitterly cold day”
  • “.. the bricked-up toilets”
  • “… no bespoke bus service had been arranged and we were required to walk to the bus station; needless to say the train station staff had no idea of its location. It transpired that getting to the bus station necessitated a 500 yard walk in a snow storm”[iii]
  • “…delays were partly attributable to the mal-location of rail staff”
  • “….no station staff deployed to the platforms and the assumption made that, standing on a bitterly cold platform, all have access to the Internet in order to garner up-to-date and complete information”. My Nokia brick is certainly not up to the task.

Although little seems to have changed in recent years, it is certainly the case that rail travel is a very different experience to the 1960s; it now has a more Orwellian flavour. We can no longer open windows or doors, adjust the carriage temperature, go to a Restaurant Car or even guarantee that the high-tech loos are functioning. Gone are those wickedly social Whisky Club days when members took on board a miniature Scotch as the train stopped at each station that began with a W. So, having stopped at Woking, Worplesdon and Witley passengers (as they were then called) for Haslemere were nicely oiled on arrival. The Guard’s Carriage offered oodles of space for bicycles and frequently proved to be a happy party overspill when the rest of the train had reached capacity. Of course, in today’s world such vans don’t bring in equal profit to bums on seats and had to go. So, in that world we are obliged to share a confined space with the pungent aroma of Big Macs (ugh) being devoured by joyless Lap Top operatives; there really is something deeply unappealing about the second hand smell of another’s food – especially meat. The mirthless nature of such a repast is accompanied by a can of fizzy drink or a plastic dispenser of water that will end up in the oceans.

Another Modern Experience

These ramblings merely serve as an excuse to share a couple of latest experiences of travelling by train which have been encapsulated in a recent complaint to our local Train Operating Company. In making my complaint the point was made that, on past form, no response is expected and that I would also ‘go public’ if only as a release of steam. There has been no response so here we go:

“Today I find myself writing to you yet again but anticipate that, as ever, you will not bother to reply let alone offer a refund. Such anticipation means that this is an open letter that will be widely circulated.

Based 0n recent experience it is my assessment that SW Trains are as useful as traffic lights in a desert and intend to over outline evidence to support that contention. In so doing I lay aside earlier observations covering such issues as: Bricked up lavatories; Information Points that are ill-informed; Waiting Rooms that are locked in winter but open in Summer; a ticket seller who Graduated from the Kim Jong-un Charm Academy (yes the man who said to me “Why can’t you people use the Ticket Machine”); insincere stomach-churning public announcements such “See it, say it, sort it”; and referring to passengers as ‘customers’ – your core function is to get us PASSENGERS from A to B not trying to purvey sandwiches.

Much of a Passenger’s frustration is linked to the poor passage of information in that it is untimely or plain wrong or both. On the ill-informed issue this is an extract from my earlier rant of some 18 months ago:

“The return journey offered a fine example of the equal misery syndrome that was topped by being told by railway staff to catch a bus to complete the journey south. Of course no bespoke bus service had been arranged and we were required to walk to the bus station; needless to say the train station staff had no idea of its location. It transpired that getting to the bus station necessitated a 500 yard walk in a snow storm so catching a taxi proved to be the only viable option. That return journey raises some questions.” [Cost me £10]

Has anything changed of late? It may have done but certainly not improved as illustrated by these two events.

On Friday 6th September I had an important Hospital Appointment. I arrived at Farncombe Station an 0731 hours just in time to see the train leave the Station – yes incredibly the train was on time. Within moments Passengers were advised that the next train had been cancelled ‘due to trespassers on the line’. After that we were quickly informed that the next train ‘”is cancelled”. Thereafter we were treated to a digital display quicksand informing us that the next train seemed to be going backwards. We eventually boarded a train at C0820 hours and arrived at Guildford at C0830 hours. Many passengers rated a journey of 59 minutes to travel 4 miles by train was no mean achievement but it proved to be one that was surpassed within 6 days (read on!).

While waiting on Farncombe Station two fast trains hammered through towards London which rather suggests that the trespassers on line had been turned into mincemeat. More seriously it raises the issue of the role of Management in dealing with ‘events’. Why could management not make a command decision to stop the fast train in such circumstances? There must have been 25 uniformed children on the platform who were destined to be late for school, quite apart from the many others with important appointments to keep.

Today, Thursday 12th September the journey to the hospital went well – thank you. On arrival at Guildford Station for the return journey at C1145 hours the public announcement advised that the Farncombe train had been delayed by 14 minutes because……wait for it…….yes ‘trespassers on the line’. In the age of the automated announcements I guess passengers are obliged to assume that such a reason is indeed true but some cynics might think that it is a catchall excuse when the offering of others would be untimely (e.g., Leaves in line, too hot, frozen points etc).

The train arrived at C1200 hours – 15 minutes late – and the passengers embarked and sat and sat…..after 8 minutes a chirpy voice told us that a crew was awaited and that he would let us know when said crew had arrived. Despite several more cheery announcements he never did tell us when the crew would arrive; indeed after exactly 30 minutes he, still chirpily, told us that the train had been cancelled and that we should make our way to another Platform. Needless to say the next train did not stop at Farncombe so I got off at Godalming and walked back to my desired destination – not a pleasant ask with an arthritic left ankle. In sum a total travel time to get from Guildford to Farncombe of 1 hour 15 minutes. Well done SW Trains!

Many believe the railways should be nationalised – not me: Bring in the Royal Engineers”.

[i] An ancient term for Chairperson.

[ii] In fairness it is believed that Mr Grumpy has now retired and the Station is now better served and buying a ticket has become a pleasant experience. Of course, the ticket cost remains unpleasant.

[iii] In Germany most, if not all, railway stations are co-located with a bus station. We have much to learn.