It has been a continuing feature of my journeys through Reading Station over 30 years or so that the information given to passengers is too little, too late and usually wrong. The slightest deviation from the timetable throws the whole system into confusion. Both the station and most of the services are controlled by First Great Western, so deviations from the timetable are the norm.
I am usually resigned to this, having decided long ago that getting worked up over the incompetence of railway employees is a way to an early grave. This resignation, which is now widespread, is of course one of the reasons why the railways never improve (the other is that they have us over a barrel – we have to keep using them at whatever price they charge and however poor the service, so there is no incentive for them to get any better).
I got off a Paddington to Swansea train on Thursday and noted that a fast Oxford service was due from the same platform a few minutes later at 15:22. At 15:22 precisely, the announcer expressed his regrets that the train would be 29 minutes late. I and several others cantered across to Platform 8 where a slow train to Oxford was…just leaving. Slow or not, it would have got us to Oxford before the 15:22 reached Reading. The management must have known well before the announcement that the 15:22 would be late. Why could they not have said so?
After 30 years of putting up with it, and with 25 minutes to waste, I went to find someone to complain to. The first official I found, although smartly dressed in uniform and cap, did not, apparently, include spoken English amongst his skills – presumably it is illegal to discriminate against platform staff on the basis that they cannot communicate in the language of most of the customers whom they serve. He motioned me towards a man at a desk who had a “Customer Services” label on his tit.
It was not this man’s fault that he looked like the spawn of one of the Time Bandits dwarves and a House Elf. It was not his fault either that he was too thick to understand the question, but one wonders why First Great Western thought him a suitable person to deal with customers.
I asked why we had not been told earlier that the 15:22 would be 25 minutes late. We don’t know how late it will be until it leaves Paddington, he said. I said I understood that, but Reading must have known for some time that the train would be late, and by a considerable margin. Why could they not have told us that? We don’t know how late it will be until it leaves Paddington, he said. Look, I said, the precise timing is not the point. Had we been told that the train was going to be late we could have got on another one. We don’t know how late it will be until it leaves Paddington, he said.
You now how sometimes a cliché suddenly becomes meaningful? I don’t think I ever used a speak-your-weight machine, but I bet this is what they sounded like (come to think of it, children used to be told that the voice was that of a dwarf sitting inside the machine; perhaps that was what this man used to do).
I felt myself on the point of entering a one-man dwarf-throwing contest, so I gave up and went outside for a smoke. All FGW stations now a carry big notices banning smoking anywhere, covered or not, and thanking us “for making your station a better environment”. What would make my station a better environment would be the occasional train passing through on time.
There is a large open area outside Reading Station, the closest place where all the smokers will want to go whilst waiting (waiting, waiting) for their trains. Not a bin in sight. Plenty of no-smoking notices at the entrance (all put up askew, as if no-one could be bothered even to get that right) but no bins. I found a man sweeping up and put my fag-end into his pan. He thanked me, as if I was the first person who had ever bothered. Perhaps the quality of service at Reading is so poor that the passengers reciprocate by throwing their rubbish down anywhere.
By then there was a Manchester train waiting to go. It would have been an easy matter for the announcer to tell those waiting for the Oxford train that they could make up some of the time by setting off towards Manchester and getting off at Oxford. Why did they not do this? I can think of two reasons. One is that the Manchester train was operated by Virgin and there is perhaps some obscure financial penalty or loss of face for FGW if its passengers use Virgin’s trains. The other is more likely – they just cannot be arsed to be helpful at Reading Station.