Published 14th February
What could be simpler than taking a First Capital Connect service from Baldock to Kings Cross, or perhaps a Virgin service from Milton Keynes to Euston?
Not a lot many would suggest but these journeys were turned into the reasons why railways can provide a bad news story when the reality is far more often the opposite – or is it?
The date of the first journey was Sunday February 3 and 10 minutes was allowed to buy a ticket to Kings Cross at Baldock for a10 year old. There are two ticket vending machines at Baldock, one displayed the what seems to be the customary out of order notice so the other one was tried. The ticket selection was duly made and a £10 note inserted for the £6.25 fare.
The machine whirred and clanked for a while depositing the change but no ticket. It took a few nervous second’s waiting before the screen said it was not possible to print the ticket so it eventually returned the balance in loose change. It then displayed a helpful message to buy my ticket from the ticket office.
This is only open until 1pm except Sundays when it is closed all day so was obviously not an option at 445pm on a Sunday. A helpful poster in the ticket office window said that the office was being refurbished and that work would take 7 weeks from November 5. This work still appeared to be ongoing after 12 weeks….. The other poster on display warned of the serious consequences of travelling without a ticket.
Other passengers said that this was a regular occurrence at the station and that the only option was to get on the train and see what happened, as they previously had to do. There was no ticket check on the train so more worry was created before arrival at Kings Cross about what would happen before being able to leave the station via the ticket gates.
Much is made of fare dodging by railway authorities, but is it beyond today’s technology for a faulty ticket machine to send an automated message via its computer link saying it needs to be repaired?
The near two year old McNulty report makes much of closing booking offices and increasing the use of machines to save money, but does this policy stand a chance of working in reality?
The second less than memorable experience occurred on Friday February 8. A £14.50 day return from Milton Keynes to Euston was bought at about 1150 as the 1202pm Virgin service to London, along with all others, was shown as being on time.
Milton Keynes is a busy station and often cited as one of the fastest growing in terms of patronage in the UK. The train information screens suggested that all Virgin services were running on time and then started showing several minutes late and then as merely, delayed. The reason was variously given as a signalling failure and a mechanical failure with the train.
The announcement came after 15 minutes that a London Midland stopping service would be departing in a few minutes and that passengers were advised to take this train if they had inter-available tickets.
This use of jargon and lack of understanding by passengers at a time when they are frustrated at the delays and uncertainty was not, even with the best of intentions understood. Everybody duly joined the four car class 350 train which was full and standing after 10 minutes and calling at Leighton Buzzard, by which time two Virgin trains had already overtaken the stopping service.
This caused much annoyed discussion on the train as did the Guard when he checked tickets and told passengers without first class tickets to vacate the first class accommodation. The train was full and standing and although he made the announcement in a very apologetic way, was not the right way to deal with the situation which was not due to the passengers.
London Midland’s sister company, Southern, also runs trains from Milton Keynes to Wembley and Kensington using class 377 trains. These also offer first class seating but the advertised policy is that anybody can use these seats due to overcrowding, so there is no consistency on trains on the same route run by the same company.
Regrettably these are the type of journeys remembered by passengers, and not the other 90% that go without incident.
To make matters worse for passengers, London Midland has had a very poor reliability record after having a shortage of drivers and was censured by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Prime Minister on BBC Radio Coventry. Despite this, the DfT still extended the London Midland Franchise due to the West Coast Franchise fiasco, they had no other operator to turn to.
Now London Midland have put up posters saying that their Booking Offices are only opening for reduced hours for a few months due to a shortage of booking office staff. Once they have been recruited, many offices will be closed or opening for reduced hours, another deal agreed by the DfT.
You couldn’t make it up!
Written by Phil Marsh