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The next calling point for this service will be…

I usually try to avoid ‘grumpy’ columns in magazines. As a general rule, they are not very interesting and are not nearly as funny as the author intends. Turning a ‘moan’ into interesting writing is a tricky skill to pull off.

All of that aside: In 1843 magazine, Adrian Wooldridge recently wrote about irritating announcements on public transport:

Some companies seem to revel in redundancy. In the railway world Amtrak is the champion of verbosity. Recorded announce­ments on its trains proclaim the arrival of each station with a peroration ending in a request to “please take this time to look about you and collect your bags”, as though the majority of passengers were otherwise likely to canter off the train in a spiritual ecstasy, leaving their material possessions in their wake.

This complaint touched a nerve. When I was commuting to London on a weekly basis a few years ago, there was one particular train guard whose name became lodged in my memory, so annoying were his announcements. His tone tended to convey a weary sense of superiority: it was with some mild irritation that he reminded passengers to check that their tickets were valid for this particular service, as though only a moron could be confused. He spoke extremely slowly, as though he had been told in training not to speak too fast and had overcorrected. And, most irritatingly of all, he seeemed intent on lengthening every announcement to the greatest possible extent by including superfluous words.

Peterborough would never be the ‘next stop’; it would inevitably be ‘the next station stop at which our service will be calling this morning’. Passengers should not merely content themselves with ‘reading the displayed safety instructions’; rather they should ‘be sure to fully familiarise themselves with the safety information cards displayed on the walls of the vestibules at the end of every carriage on board this service’. Customers should not simply ‘have tickets ready for inspection’; they should ‘be aware that a full ticket check will now take place in all coaches, starting from Coach B at the front of the train, and ensure that they have all tickets, travel documents and railcards to hand both at their seat and when moving around the train.’

The verbosity was almost too much to bear. So while I disagree with Adrian’s preference for not knowing the names of service workers and wearing headphones through safety demonstrations on aircraft, I find it hard not to have a little sympathy with his complaints about excessively loquacious train guards.

As an aside, on a recent train journey, the guard issued the typical reminder that passengers should “take all of their personal belongings with them”. Somebody loudly responded that this wasn’t practical, as most of their personal belongings were at home rather than on a train. I’ll laughed quite loudly, despite myself.

The image at the top is of a Virgin train at Brighton station. The full version was posted on Flickr by Matt Davis, and I’ve reproduced a cropped version here under its Creative Commons Licence.

This 2,437th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

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, , .

Some interesting rail statistics (really!)

Rail fares are going up again. Every time this happens, talking heads on the news suggest that a re-nationalised railway would be cheaper. Is this true?

That is, of course, an impossible question to answer. It is undeniable that private companies now take profits that would otherwise have been returned to the Treasury under a nationalised system. But there is some data to crunch – There’s some data I’ve located with the help of @jrothwell (he blogs here) and @welsh_lisa2 in the House of Commons library.

This sets out rail fare increases in real terms since the late 80s, using the contribution of rail fares to RPI. I don’t think it’s too erroneous to assume that this is an okay proxy for an inflation-corrected comparison of the average change in rail fares. Because it’s based on a comparison of contribution to RPI with a 1987 baseline, the data isn’t in intelligible units – it’s all comparative.

This data shows a 42% increase in the real cost of rail fares from 1987 to 2011: this seems like a bad thing. This graph shows how rail fares increased over time. It shows the percentage increase on the 1987 fare for each year (including the 42% increase over 1987 fares in 2011).

That looks fairly damning! But is it down to privatisation? Privatisation got underway in 1994. The average year-on-year increase in fares between 1987 and 1994 was 2.34%. If we assume that this level of increase would have continued had privatisation not happened, we can plot the new course of history (red) versus the old one (blue):

As the new red line shows, had fare increases continued at the pre-nationalisation level, they would’ve ended up higher: they would be 73% higher than the 1987 equivalent.

However, some people claim that between 1992, when the Conservatives were re-elected with a mandate to privatise the railways, and 1994, when this actually happened, fares were artificially inflated to make the franchises seem more desirable. So, perhaps it’s unfair to include 1993 and 1994 in our calculation of the pre-nationalisation average increase. If we exclude them, the average year-on-year increase drops to 1.73%. The graph then looks like this:

That is, fares still end up higher in real terms than they actually did: in this scenario, the 2011 fare is 53% higher than the 1987 equivalent.

It would be great to have some pre-1987 data to see if that suspicious looking flick up in 1991 is really unusual, or just part of the pattern of the background picture: certainly if the 1987-1990 trend had continued, fares would hardly have increased. Combined with the above data, this answer in Hansard from Norman Baker suggests that the change from 1980 to 1986 was of the order of 6%. If we assume a 1% year-on-year increase, as that figure suggests, then the predicated and actual fare increase from 1987 to 2011 are pretty much equal.

Bearing in mind all of the above, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that privatisation has driven up passenger fares, even if some of the revenue is now siphoned off to private profit rather than being invested in public services.

Add this decrease in the rate of increase of fares to the indisputable data showing that passenger numbers have risen, passengers satisfaction ratings with both trains and stations have risen, and delays have decreased considerably, and suddenly privatisation seems like it might not have been the disaster we’re often lead to believe it was.

Of course, this is an extremely simplified view of things. I’m ignoring the complexities of the timing of various changes, I’m ignoring the government subsidies that have happened even under the privatised system, I’m ignoring the added jeopardy of train operating companies handing back franchises and leaving the government to pick up the pieces, and I’m ignoring the potentially dubious morality of selling off national infrastructure.

I’m not left with an overwhelming sense that privatisation is the best thing since sliced bread – or even that it was the right move – but I think that perhaps the waters are a little muddier than some would have us believe. And I’m going to stop being geeky now, and resume normal service…!

This 1,733rd post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

Photo-a-day 26: Yorkshire sunrise


The quality isn’t great, but then I am travelling at about 125mph on a fairly bumpy East Coast train.

This 1,497th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , .

Photo-a-day 15: GNER


Not the best quality photo – iOS doesn’t like focussing on shiny things – but nice to see that there is still the odd reminder of the old GNER crest, and that National Express and East Coast haven’t plastered their logos over absolutely everything…

This 1,484th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 11: Train tickets


Two sets of train tickets, each of which are for specific booked East Coast trains between Newcastle and London this month. Both are sets of two singles, this being a far cheaper option than buying a return. Those on the left cost a total of £18.05, the ones on the right £172.25. The average cost per mile of rail travel might be the same as 1968, but the fare structure is many times more complex, and seems to be far less logical.

This 1,477th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , .

Diary for 22nd July 2008

Just had my first experience of booking train tickets under the new, simplified system. It was just as ludicrously time consuming as before. «

This 1,357th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, , .

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