There is not much positive to say about Oxford railway station. Its operator is First Great Western, presently bottom of the table of worst performing railway companies, with a record for poor service, late arrivals and over-crowding which is second to none (or strictly, joint-equal at the bottom of the table).
FGW was the company which was forced to restore some of the Oxford services which it slashed at the beginning of the year after protests both locally and in Parliament. There was a fares strike. Alison Forster, the woman in charge, brazened it out for a few weeks at the turn of the year and then was forced into a humiliating climb-down.
Further embarrassment followed in August 2007 when FGW threatened to sue London TravelWatch, the official passenger watchdog, for revealing its poor performance. As with the January climb-down, FGW did not follow through with its threat. The very idea of suing the watchdog shows that FGW is more concerned with suppressing news of the problems than in fixing them. One sees why First Group employs Alastair Campbell to advise on strategic communications (why do companies do this, actually? Even if Campbell is really as pure as snow, as no doubt he is, his name has become shorthand for lies, concealment, spin and exaggeration, and the mere mention of it shrieks “something to hide”. His appointment to FGW tells us something very negative about their PR).
So, a shambles then, on a national basis as well as locally, with fewer trains, late trains, shorter trains and over-crowded trains. Unless they are deprived of their franchise (here’s hoping), we are stuck with them until 2015.
Oxford Station is representative of the FGW commitment to service, which shows mainly in the inadequacy of the ticket offices. The staff are individually fine, but there are not enough of them. There is no understanding, for example, of the ebb and flow of demand, of matching open tills to peak times. This may just be incompetence, but I suspect it is the contempt of the monopoly supplier with a long franchise. Why bother, when passengers have no alternative but to use the train for many destinations?
Oxford Station did, however, have one extremely useful facility – a Travel Centre. If you were defeated by the complexity of the timetable and the fare structure, baffled by the Internet booking system, or infuriated by lengthy discussions with people from Bangalore whose grasp of spoken English was matched only by their ignorance of British geography, you could go to the Travel Centre and be helped by polite, attentive people. This was an enormous boon, not just for the convenience of locals, but to keep the foreign tourists away from the ticket queues.
Now the Travel Centre has gone, to be replaced, so rumour has it, by a shop. The result, naturally, is that the queues for the ticket windows have lengthened. FGW has met the challenge – by providing a longer roped queue.
If I knew nothing more about Alison Forster than her handling of the Oxford timetable changes, I would say she was unfit for the purpose for which she was appointed, and would think that a pity – it is good to see women rise high in large companies, even ones with a reputation like First Great Western has, and correspondingly disappointing to find them useless.
Keen to find someone with something good to say about her, I searched the web. I did find one positive entry – a traveller recounting a journey from Hell (Paddington, that is) who came across Forster pushing a trolley on a packed and delayed train in an attempt to show that FGW cared. Frankly, I would rather she sat in her office deciding who to sack. If the best thing anyone says about the Chief Executive of a large railway company is that she is a dab hand with a food trolley, then that explains a lot.
If, however, she likes to get out and about, why not visit Oxford and try and buy a ticket for the first off-peak train to London? With any luck, she will find herself at the back of a long queue, perhaps behind a Chinese family keen to find the best way of travelling from Oxford to Penzance the week after next with a return journey to Bangor. At least one of the ticket windows will be closed and the rest taken up with other foreigners with similar requests, bewildered grannies wanting to book a front-facing seat to Charlbury, and frugal students buying Travel Cards. She might then see why the Travel Centre was so important.