Before Christmas, I was headed to Newcastle to record an audiobook. It’s a journey I often make, though normally I’ve purchased a ticket in advance. It being a pretty hectic time for me, I hadn’t managed to do so on this occasion. I got to King’s Cross around 8.30am, and rather than queue for a teller, I decided to go the self-service route. I was completely flabbergasted to find that there was not one ticket under £200.
Now let me preface this by saying – I ultimately don’t pay for my tickets when doing audiobook narration. That’s in the hands of the publishing company I work for. Still, an extra £80+ for a ticket, dependent on when you purchase it, is not good business practice to me. I queued for a teller who explained that I needed to wait till after 9am to purchase a ticket for the same journey at a lower cost. This option was not given at that time, and, unless one was intimately well-versed in the vagaries and variances of the British railway system, this is not something that, let’s say, a traveller to these fair isles would necessarily know.
I have no patience with this, for a number of reasons. Personally, I’ve had a history of terrible customer service from Virgin Trains, who run this particular route. There was a point in time where, on a Saturday, I took their trains from Euston to Milton Keynes, and, completely dependent on the customer service representative, I would be queried about my ticket (which I normally purchased from Boundary Zone 3). Sometimes I was refused admittance, as I didn’t have a receipt with it stating that I’d a weekly Oyster card. (For a train service to operate in Central London and not to be able to check Oyster cards I would say is particularly remiss). On more than one occasion, their representatives were rude to aggressive. I complained multiple times to Virgin before deciding to travel with their slower, but politer competitors, London Midland. They might not get me there as quickly; but the journey was unfailingly less stressful.
So, going back to my pre-Xmas Newcastle excursion – I tweeted Virgin. They tweeted back telling me I should have booked earlier. I tweeted back that anyone who didn’t know the system would have unwittingly booked at the higher price and that this was unfair. And that given UK rail fares are up to 6 times more than their European counterparts for similar journeys, completely immoral. I didn’t receive any tweets after that.
A couple of weeks ago, I came to Norbury station at 11.05am to see a noticeboard that said 10.38 for the next train. On impulse, and being under time constraints, I looked for someone to query. Upon being told by the ticket office that one had to phone the central call centre in Croydon, I did so. I explained to the customer service representative there that people had been waiting a half-hour to know when their next train would be there; that there had been no announcement; and, to paraphrase the Daily Mash, it wasn’t on that Southern ran their timetable like an avant-garde poem. He then apologised, as is the custom for customer service representatives. I told him that I didn’t want his apology, as it was not necessary coming from him; but I did want him to pass on my comments to his bosses at Southern Rail.
Here’s the thing. In one of my many job incarnations as a performer, I used to coach security officers in their NVQ Level 2 in Customer Service, mainly at the Home Office and Cabinet Office. If I didn’t quite write the book on customer service, I know the man who did; and so being ‘handled’ like this doesn’t quite wash with me. Rather than being taken in the spirit that one gives the consumer the best possible experience, it seems to me that ‘customer service’ has become a way of silencing consumers’ legitimate complaints in the UK. In one of the customer service jobs I’ve held, people talked ad nauseam about ‘objection handling’ rather than working towards there not being an objection to handle in the first place. In the case of trains, customer service representatives are put out on the frontline, on their minimum wage hourly rate, rather than those at the top of the top of the pecking order being held to account to provide a service that reflects the UK’s over-inflated train prices. The statistics also uphold this: UK train prices are 6 times European ticket prices. Southern Rail made £100m in profit last year. According to ASLEF, Virgin Trains made £51m in profit last year, while being subsidised by the public. Train fares have risen by 25% in the last 6 years while wages have remained below their 2008 levels, according to Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary.
Why is this happening? While discussing this with an older friend, she summed it up like this: ‘Passengers have little power, but high interest. Employees have little power, but equally high interest in providing a good service. The bosses of the various rail companies have high power, but in truth, low interest in providing a good, affordable service. The same can be said of shareholders. Ultimately the main priority of the train bosses is to satisfy their shareholders, and their own pockets, not to listen to customers or their employees’.
I think there’s a lot of truth in this. There will not be a better, more affordable service on the rail networks in the UK unless it is the interests of the rail bosses to do so. On Friday last week I was passing through Clapham Junction and a digitised sign board had been erected by Southern. It stated that there would be cancellations because the unions were forbidding their members to work overtime (or words to that effect) and were going on strike. I went to have a word with one of the station managers, to voice my objections on the grounds that (a) workers still have the right to strike in this country (b) to strike is always a last resort, given the financial implications and (c) workers still have the right to refuse overtime – on grounds of safety may be a reason, but even if there is no reason – so what? That is their choice. The issue here, furthermore, is not that workers won’t work overtime, but that bosses are refusing to be realistic with their shareholders about the long-term implications of buying shares in a rail network that needs heavy investment, both structurally and in terms of personnel. Again, rather than shoot the messenger, I asked him to pass on my message.
The bottom line is: something has to change. The government refuses to listen to those who are on the frontline (quelle surprise!), and there is little as a consumer one can do to take action except this:
1. Complain. And to the right people. Ultimately it is not in the best interests of an employee to strike, so if a consensus has been reached that striking is the only option, then we have to accept that decision has not been reached lightly.
2. A company can withstand a certain amount of negative publicity – that’s what PR companies are for. But in the case of highlighting causes/inequities, social media is key. Name and shame.
3. Apply for refunds for every single journey delayed. It’s incredible how quickly a company can change their working practices if their profit margins are affected.
Ultimately something has to change – so why not for the greater good?