About me
About me

An open letter to East Coast

Hi East Coast,

In the last year, I’ve spent almost £750 whizzing up and down the line on which your trains operate, and have rarely encountered any serious problems. And I don’t really like airing petty grievances in public. But I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’m about to do, because I’m struggling to think of an alternative strategy.

In October, I have an exam. I booked £42.50 of train tickets via your (brilliant) website, and paid £1 for them to be sent to me via first class post. This isn’t something I usually do: I normally collect the tickets at the station. But given how important this particular journey is, I paid the extra £1 so that I could be confident in plenty of time that everything was in order.

A couple of days later, I received three first-class returns from York to Glasgow. That is, someone else’s tickets. The letter which comes with the tickets tells me that I should check them, but has no contact details for if the tickets are incorrect. You might want to look into that. Looking online, I found the number for your call centre, and phoned you.

You told me to return the tickets. I asked where to, and you said “I think there’s probably an address on the back of the envelope”.

I read this address back, and you said “No, that’s not right”. I was a little confused as to how I could be wrong, given that there’s only one address to read out. But clearly, I’m an idiot, and so you read me a different address to which to return the tickets.

I asked, “Is that Freepost or something?”

“No,” you said, “you’ll have to put a stamp on there”.

This seemed a bit unusual, but as a good citizen, I didn’t sell them on eBay, but rather returned them to you in the next post. I hope they find their way into their rightful owner’s hands.

I asked what would happen to my own tickets. You told me they’d been posted to me. I observed that this seemed unlikely: why would two ticket carriers be printed with my details? Surely my tickets had just been put in someone else’s envelope, like some poor sod’s were put in mine. You said that my tickets had definitely been sent directly to me, and that there was no chance that a similar error had occurred. These errors are, after all, very rare.

In fact, you told me, the tickets had been sent at the same time as the Glasgow ones. “If they haven’t arrived by Monday,” you said, “give us a ring and we’ll sort it out.”

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t ring on Monday, but waited until Tuesday, just to see if they’d turn up. They didn’t, so I called you back.

“I can’t do anything,” you told me. “You need to wait until five days after the tickets have been posted, and give me a ring back. So, ring me if they don’t turn up tomorrow. I’ll put a note on your account saying that they can be reissued if they don’t turn up tomorrow.”

They didn’t turn up. I gave you the benefit of the doubt again, and left it until this morning to call back.

“I can’t do anything,” you told me. “You need to wait until seven days before you travel, then I can fax Newcastle station and you can pick the tickets up there. If I did it now, you’d have to travel all the way to Newcastle, and that wouldn’t be very good!”

“I live in Newcastle, it’s not problem at all. I’d rather go and pick the tickets up so that I have the security of having them,” I replied.

“Sorry, no-can-do”, you replied. “It has to be seven days before. The postman might have put your tickets through the wrong door. They might turn up!”

“Unlikely,” I said. “It seems more likely that they’ve been posted to the wrong person.”

“No,” you said. “That can’t happen.”

“But it did happen to whoever was going to Glasgow, whose tickets I received!”

“Ah. Yes. Well, there’s nothing I can do until seven days before you travel. Call me back then.”

I’m sorry, East Coast, I normally think you’re great. But this is crap service.

You charged me £1 to post me my tickets. It seems that, instead, you’ve posted them to someone else. I didn’t charge you a penny to post the wrong tickets back to you.

I’ve called you thrice, each time on your advice, and each time I’ve been unable to get the promised resolution to this problem. Each time, you’ve charged me 6p a minute to try and correct your error, and a 12p connection charge.

And, most of all, you haven’t even apologised: not on the phone, and not even when we had a brief chat via twitter.

East Coast, I want to like you. You’ve always given me reasonably good service in the past. You sometimes even let me have an extra croissant on the early morning trip to London. I’ve even pleaded with your directors in a recent web event to lower your prices, as it’s hard to justify travelling with you when British Airways’s fares are cheaper.

Surely you can see that you’ve left me in a crazy situation? You’ve charged me for a service, not delivered, and charged me again to try and get the problem sorted. I could sell my flyer miles and be there quicker but no instead I still don’t have the tickets I’ve paid for, nor the peace of mind.

I really hope you can put this right. I really hope that you can work out some way around your inflexible system to post me the tickets that I’ve paid to receive. Or, if you can’t do that, then find some way around your prohibitive refund system to give me my money back, so that I can just go and book with someone else.

You can email me, any time, via the mail link on this page. You can send me a reply or a direct message on twitter – I’m @sjhoward. I won’t hide your light under a bushell: I’ll update the good readers of this site with your response.

So please, East Coast: let’s be friends.

Best wishes,


Update: 6th September 2012, 6pm

East Coast have been in touch, apologised, and agreed to let me pick up the tickets at Newcastle tomorrow. I’ll update this post to let you know how that goes! Thanks, East Coast, for your help so far!

Update: 7th September 2012, 7pm

I’ve successfully collected my tickets: success at last! Thanks to everyone at East Coast who helped to sort this out.

This 1,797th post was filed under: Headliner, , , .

Photo-a-day 201: Polite notice


This isn’t the cheeriest of signs to feature, but I drive past it quite often and it always strikes me that, despite its title, it really isn’t a very polite notice. There’s no “please”, no “thank you”, and not even a friendly request. It simply states the desired outcome.

By these rules, me saying “I will have a cup of tea now” is a polite way of asking for a drink. Or perhaps the polite way of discouraging cold calling is to post a note saying “this doorbell is not for salespeople”. Or perhaps not.

This 1,731st post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, .

Photo-a-day 172: Frustrating forms


Last week, Wendy needed something posting quickly, so I took it to the local Post Office and coughed up £7.55 to send it via Special Delivery, expecting it to arrive the next working day.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, Royal Mail’s definition of “special” fell short of both my expectations and their service specification: it took almost a week. Their website clearly reports the postage and delivery date.

So given that Royal Mail know from their tracking system that the item was delayed, claiming the refund to which I’m entitled should be straightforward, right? Sadly not. It turns out that I have to fill in a form giving all sorts of details about the parcel, including the posting and delivery dates and times which they clearly already know, and submit this along with my original Post Office receipts (luckily, I’m a hoarder of Post Office receipts after previous bad experiences). I then have to wait 30 days – thirty days – for them to consider the claim, when it is already abundantly clear from the data they have that a refund is appropriate.

Why can’t I just go to the local Post Office, or phone a number, and get an immediate apology and refund based on the data they already have? The current system seems convoluted, illogical, and puts a totally unnecessary burden on the consumer. Rant over!

This 1,695th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , .

Moaning to the media

Every now and again, I find myself moaning to Sky News about some report or other they’re running, usually on a medical topic. This might put me in the same box as the green-ink angry brigade of old, but I kind of hope it doesn’t.

Sky News is normally the outlet on the receiving end of my moans because Wendy likes to watch Sunrise in the mornings, so they tend to be the ones to irk me when I’m sleepy-eyed and vulnerable. Usually, they’ve misunderstood the findings of some piece of research, or are giving advice that needs a little more nuance. Generally, I fire off an email to them, and they correct either their script or package pretty quickly, or else get back to me to explain why they won’t. I actually think I have a pretty good relationship with them.

A few years ago when the whole MTAS debacle was kicking off in the medical world, I helped Channel 4 News with some of their reporting, and also found them really helpful, willing to listen to my explanations, and good at accurate reportage.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I’ve ever complained about a BBC News report. But then, the BBC News website published this article about the Queen’s faith role. This couldn’t be further from the stuff I’d usually moan about, but the report was based on a COMRES poll, and originally opened with the claim that 80% of the population supported the Queen’s faith role. I didn’t believe this, and so checked out the original data on the COMRES website, which revealed that 80% responded positively to a question about whether the Queen has a faith role. This is, of course, different from giving support – it’s a question of fact, and, as the Queen is the head of the Church of England, it seems pretty undeniable that she has a faith role, whether or not it’s supported.

So I fired off an email. And, within hours, the article was changed to the current version, which reports the actual survey findings more accurately. What I hadn’t anticipated, and hadn’t had from any other outlet, was that the Religion Editor gave me a call. We had a great chat in which he explained how the article had come about, how the mistake had been made, and also a general talk about the complex rules that the BBC has around commissioning surveys. This was fantastic.

So what’s my point? Essentially, any time I personally have moaned to a media outlet about a factual reporting error, I’ve received a positive response. Granted, it would be better that the mistakes weren’t there in the first place, and it’s probably true that not all sections of the media are as responsible as those I’ve been involved with.

But journalists are humans too. They make mistakes, and many of them seem happy to have these corrected. Leveson might give the impression that all journalists are unethical idiots, and Blair might think they’re feral beasts, but some journalists are just doing a bloody hard job as well as they can, with the utmost professionalism.

I know it’s not a popular view at the moment, but maybe we can consider giving journalists a break sometimes? Just a thought.

This 1,660th post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, , , , , .

Photo-a-day 72: Annoying onscreen graphics


I really wonder about the value of these graphics. I rarely watch programmes “live”, and suspect the prevalence of behaviour like mine is growing. By the time I play back the programme and see the graphic, I’ve missed the programme.

I’ve noticed that channels are trailling programmes earlier than they used to – look at the BBC’s promotions for The Voice or Sky’s for Mad Men – which I suspect attempts to mitigate this effect of time-shifted viewing. But these onscreen graphics are rarely displayed more than 48hrs in advance.

Anyway, I guess I just wanted to use this opportunity to moan about unnecessary and obtrusive on screen graphics. Job done.

This 1,562nd post was filed under: Media, Photo-a-day 2012, .

Sainsbury’s idiotic survey scores own goal

Sainsbury's shopper (image from Sainsbury's Media Toolkit)Sainsbury’s PR operation tweeted today that it had become the UK’s second biggest online food retailer, with 165,000 orders per week. I thought, “Wow, that’s impressive, it must have beaten Asda into third place!”

To confirm this thought, I clicked through to their full PR puff piece. This is one of the worst bits of PR guff I have read to date.

It starts off by reporting the genuinely impressive news of 20% year-on-year online sales growth – no mean feat in a recession – and it’s impressive position as second in a hyper-competitive marketplace. Fantastic.

But, before the end of the second paragraph, it goes off on an utterly ludicrous tangent, and starts talking about a meaningless customer service survey. Sainsbury’s has commissioned MORI to poll people on the supermarket whose customer service they prefer, and they happily report that Sainsbury’s comes out on top.

But the sample is patently absurd: 912 Sainsbury’s shoppers, 400 Tesco shoppers, 400 Asda shoppers, and 200 Ocado shoppers. It doesn’t take a much of a leap to assume that most people will shop at the supermarket they prefer, so it would’ve been frankly astonishing if survey of a group constituted of mainly Sainsbury’s shoppers didn’t rank Sainsbury’s highest on a number of cherry-picked metrics. Equally unsurprising is the news that Ocado, with the smallest number of customers in the survey, comes bottom on each metric.

Of course, this is the sort of nonsense psuedo-science that PR offices pump out daily, and there are countless examples of the form. But the point here is that Sainsbury’s PR have managed to lump together some genuinely impressive figures with some unimpressive crap, and actually left me feeling less positive about the brand. This story is newsworthy without the tacked-on nonsense, which adds nothing to genuinely contextualise the results, and actually detracts from the key message.

This 1,559th post was filed under: Headliner, , , , .

The sheer bloody idiocy of medical journals

This morning, I was sent a list of seven papers in medical journals by a colleague. The titles looked intriguing, and I wanted to read further.

I have access to various journals via a number of means: the NHS provides me with access to a given selection via Athens, comprising about 1,500 journals; I personally pay the RSM to give me access to another 1,000 or so; and my BMA membership allows me to access perhaps 100 others. Clearly, the numbers are too large for me to retain details of which portal gives me access to which journal.

So, having found a given article, I then have to cycle through the three access methods, generally in the order outlined above, to find which works. That’s three sets of logins to three different sites (neither the BMA nor the RSM allows direct login from journals’ own sites). This is maddeningly frustrating, especially when I’m trying to glance through seven articles. Accessing each article can take, perhaps, five or ten minutes, which is sheer lunacy. I often don’t have that kind of time.

Now, let me share with you the process for just a couple of the seven papers I happened to be accessing this morning.

First was the Journal of Medical Ethics. I stuck the article title into Google (1 click). The second result was on a bmj.com domain. I often read things in JME, so I knew that I could access this via the BMJ domain with my NHS password. So I clicked the link (2 clicks), and ended up on the abstract page. I hunted for the “Full Text” link, which took me (3 clicks) to a login page. I clicked the “Login via Athens” button (4 clicks), which took me to an institutional login page. I clicked the “Login via Athens” link on this page (5 clicks), entered my username and password, and got redirected (6 clicks) back to the full article.

I make that six clicks and one login to get from my email to the article, for something I know how to access. Clearly, no-one in the field has heard of the three click rule.

Second on the list was a 2011 article from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Again, I copied and pasted the title into Google (1 click). The top result was from Oxford Journals, taking me to the abstract page (2 clicks). I clicked the “Full Text” link (3 clicks) to be taken to a log-in page. I clicked “Login via Athens” (4 clicks), and then “Sign in via Athens” (5 clicks) on the resulting page. I entered my NHS Athens details (6 clicks), and got redirected back to the journal’s login page, with no explanation as to why. Out of confusion, I clicked “Login via Athens” again (7 clicks), then “Sign in via Athens” (8 clicks), and again got redirected to the login page with no explanation as to why.

I assumed (correctly) that the NHS doesn’t pay for access to this journal. So I accessed the RSM website (9 clicks), and clicked “Library” (10 clicks), then “E-journals collection” (11 clicks). I logged in (12 clicks), and searched for “National Cancer Institute” (13 clicks). No results.

So I accessed the BMA website (14 clicks) and logged in (15 clicks). I went to “Library Services” (16 clicks), chose “E-resources” (17 clicks), and “Login now” under e-journals (18 clicks), despite having already logged on earlier. This gave a list of journals, on which JNCI didn’t feature.

At this point, I gave up. I could’ve requested the article from the BMJ or the RSM for a couple of quid, or emailed round to see if anyone else had access (e.g. via a university). But for an article I’m browsing for interest and to casually increase my own knowledge, it’s not worth the hassle or cost.

So now, I’m left more ignorant than I need be because of incompetence (the system is crazy), stinginess (my employer isn’t paying for access), and a touch of defeatism.

I struggle to see how conducting research and then hiding it from people is ethical – isn’t that precisely what skeptics constantly berate Big Pharma for doing? Granted, there’s are important ethical and practical differences between non-publication and sticking an article behind a crazily high pay-wall, but I’m sure there’s an extent to which people on the ground are less informed than would ideally be the case because of this broken system.

Why can’t somebody (perhaps the UK Access Management Federation) compile a composite list of journals I have from various sources, and provide some kind of auto-login toolbar or cookie that gets me straight from the abstract page to the full-text page without the faff, or morosely reports my lack of paid access if none of my providers subscribe?

And why can’t journals like PLoS and BMJ Open have more sensible publication fees for individual authors who, for want of a better metaphor, don’t want to hide their light under a bushel? Funded research should factor in the cost of publication in such journals into it’s funding; un-funded research should be admitted for a nominal fee (or, preferably, nothing).

Anyway, it strikes me that the whole system is pretty crazy – something I’ve thought frankly since I started reading medical journals almost a decade ago. And I needed a cathartic rant. Thanks for reading it.

This 1,499th post was filed under: Health, Technology, , , , , , .

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