It would be useful (for the passengers at least) if the people who run First Great Western stations were to spend some time standing around on platforms, like the rest of us have to, totting up the ratio between the endless announcements thrown at us and the information actually conveyed by them.
They would find that, like the notices erected by the dumb animals who work in local authorities, and the stream of nannying advice poured over us by government and its many agencies, the value of the messages is in inverse proportion to their quantity.
I had to go from Oxford to Manchester by train last week to attend a seminar. Since I was the only speaker at it, and have long ceased to expect trains to run to time, it seemed prudent to allow a margin equal to the timetabled journey, and so reached Oxford Station with five hours in hand for a two and a half hour journey.
I have referred before to the fact that train information at Oxford is apparently derived from three distinct sources, and that is often the case that no two of them match. On this occasion, however, all three information boards on the entrance side agreed that my train was running four minutes late. By the time I reached the opposite platform, that had slipped by a few minutes, and as the minutes went by, the estimated arrival time grew later and later until it was estimated at 30 minutes late.
Eventually, I went back to see if anyone could tell me what was happening. Two of the three boards showed that my train was running to time – tomorrow, presumably, since the advertised time for today had long passed. The third did not show it at all. One of the several staff lounging around by the gate opined that my train had already left – impossible since no train had passed by on the down line. I tried to interest them in the discrepancy between the boards – one still resolutely showing that my train was running to time – but got not a spark of interest from any of them.
The one whom I engaged in conversation had a label on his tit proclaiming him to be a Revenue Protection Officer. This is a good indicator of First Great Western’s approach to customer care really – no one willing or able to help in relation to the running of the service, but someone there to make sure that you had paid the fare. This one, it transpired, did not include spoken English amongst his skills, which must limit his ability to engage in discussions as to whether your ticket is correctly priced for your journey.
I gave up trying to get any sense from the human information systems and went back over the tracks. By then, my train had disappeared entirely from the schedules. A constant stream of announcements poured out of the loudspeakers, including half a dozen in succession about a train which had been due to terminate here two hours previously but which would not be turning up. Who amongst those on the platforms cared very much about that? Of information about my train there was none, nor was there a single staff member to ask – they were all still chattering to each other on the other side.
Eventually a train hove into view. The platform indicator said nothing about it – it referred to a terminating train which had long since come and gone. At that point a staff member appeared, with two things in her favour – one that she was female and other that she spoke – indeed was – English and therefore not only willing, but able, to help (most of the other staff are native English speakers as well, I should add, but seem unprepared to use their linguistic skills in any way which is helpful to passengers).
I must have heard 50 announcements during my long wait. Perhaps ten of them added to passengers’ knowledge about their trains. I had to change at Birmingham New Street, surely the announcements capital of the world (see The silence of the tannoys), with a constant stream of platform changes, non-arrivals and delays with every gap filled by a patronising homily about staying with your luggage and not smoking.
It is no better on the train. As you pull out of every station, a whining drone welcomes new passengers and tells them where the train is going – they presumably knew that before they got on the train, and it is a bit late by then to find out you are on the wrong one. Then the shop girl joins in, telling us all that teas, coffees, drinks and light refreshments together with a selection of sandwiches are available from the buffet and you had better get a move on because they are going to close it soon.
It was refreshingly different at Manchester Piccadilly. The only announcements were about actual departure times and platforms, given crisply and in intelligible tones.
We have long given up expecting our trains to arrive on time. The least the management can do is to deliver us accurate information as to the length of the estimated delay.