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Friday, 3 December 2010

The Mighty Trek To Snowhere - "South West Trains Can I Have Some Information Please?"

Yesterday, I struggled in vain to get to a party. I suppose the lure of nibbles, socialising, intellectual conversation and alcohol would entice anyone. Yet I failed; foiled in my efforts to get to London by the culprit in most of Britain’s current travel worries, snow. The reality is that this is a story about not travelling on trains; after all, I travelled much further on busses yesterday. Instead, the tale is about the gaps in information that were endemic amongst South West Trains (SWT) staff and subsequently their customers.

My journey started at on the 3.54 train from Hampton Court. As I boarded the train there was no indication that anything was amiss. Thus, I settled in my seat, comfortable in the knowledge that the train was going to stop at the usual places and get me to Waterloo (sorry, ‘London Waterloo’) on time. However, out of the corner of my eye I did notice the guard move in a hurry to the back of the train. On reflection, this should have been my first warning something was up. Anyway, I forgot about it and began to read my book. One of the things about being savvy about the railways is that I notice the small changes in what the trains do. So, when after starting the train immediately jerked to the right onto the outside line, I realised that information had departed from reality on the SWT passenger information boards.

Then the voice of doom came over the speaker system “Ladies and Gentleman, due to adverse weather conditions we are running a shuttle service between Hampton Court and Surbiton, you will need to change trains at Surbiton to continue onto London Waterloo.” I don’t know if this was a practical joke that SWT was playing, but surely that is information I should receive before I commit to a journey, before I tap my Oyster card on the reader, before I start the next page of my book and definitely before the train starts moving. The frustrating thing was that it wouldn’t even have been hard to announce the change in the service just before the train started. I realise that the guard may have been thinking that the passengers may have been able to change at Surbiton, but in reality some of us may not have wanted the hassle, may have put our journey off, or may have travelled via another medium. After all, if one train’s timetable had been affected, we could be pretty certain that every other’s had also.

So, in an annoyed state, I got off the train at Surbiton and wandered over to platforms 1 and 2. Ominously, there were a lot of people already there waiting for a train. My onward journey didn’t look hopeful, and after descending the stairs a quick glance at the signals told me as such. Every signal was red, nothing would be moving from Surbiton for some while. After waiting for about 5 minutes on platform 2, which trains usually streak past without stopping, a class 444 Desiro came to a halt. Now, the class of the locomotive is significant as the class 444s are the long-distance Desiros. They never stop at Surbiton and usually can’t be seen adequately as they are moving so fast.

A frankly bewildered guard stuck his head out. And then the barrage of questions started, “is this train going to Waterloo?” “When do you expect to be on the move?” “How long are you going to be here?” Apart from the simple fact that his next stop, if the train was to move, was going to be Waterloo, he himself was in the dark regarding many of these questions. That said, the source of all the tribulations was finally known, and he informed us that all the signals at Wimbledon had gone down and nothing was moving on the main line. But, many people got on the train in the hope that at some point they would be on the move.

One of the joyful things in such times of trial is that generally people pull together and are good natured, and one of the reoccurring themes in this story is that people try their best to support strangers. Thus, once I had heard what was going on I spent a couple of minutes explaining the situation to a number of people that asked me what I had just heard. Other people did this too. Of course, I put my unique train-twist on things, (“there are two red lights…”) but people were thankful to be better informed, even if they were stuck.

Suddenly, another train arrived on platform one. I don’t know why they thought it would help, but to the cries of “oo, another one,” many people abandoned the class 444, and trotted over to the newcomer. I suppose they thought that, as a train they recognised (it being a local one), it may do better in getting to Waterloo. I watched them moving round the doors, clustering to get on, and then thought hard about my options. I could continue fight from here to get to the party, or I could try another station on a different line. I took the latter option. Kingston was my new destination. I thought that maybe SWT would do what they usually do when works are going on on the main line, in reversing trains there and sending them back to Waterloo. I ‘touched out’ of Surbiton with my Oyster at about 4.20. On my way out I went to the ticket booth to ask if trains from Kingston were still running. I don’t know what I expected, but the response was heartening, “yes, trains are running from Kingston.” That was positive I thought, at least someone, somewhere, knows something.

On arriving at Kingston, it appeared that I just missed a train. Looking up at the board I could see that the 4.27 to Waterloo via Wimbledon, was on time and ‘touched in’ with my Oyster. But, I trotted up to the ‘information point’ on the platform to ascertain the state of play. When I got there, two individuals were inside. They were having a conversation and the one closest the window had his back to me. “When is the next train to Waterloo?” I asked. The response was efficient to say the least, “on the other platform in a moment.” Yet, I was concerned. If the train that was due was scheduled to go ‘via Wimbledon’ and nothing was moving past that place on the Main Line, then how could the train’s onward journey be OK? I responded, “but that train is via Wimbledon, how is it going to get to Waterloo if Wimbledon is out of action?” Both of the SWT employees looked at me as though I was in a dream world. The response was far from encouraging “that next one is fine.” I wasn’t having that, and retorted that I had just come from Surbiton, where nothing was moving. He reiterated that the train that was due would get me to where I wanted to go, and so, I walked over to the other platform to wait for it. I was still very concerned, especially as it seemed that the men in the ‘information point’ didn’t know about what was going on at Wimbledon. There was no “that hasn’t affected our trains” or “we don’t foresee any problems.” No, they seemed that they just wanted to get rid of me so they could continue their chat.

I wandered up the ramp and then another ominous announcement came. “Ladies and Gentlemen, due to a signal failure at Wimbledon we are suffering severe delays. We are not sure if the next train will go any further.” The train rolled in as I reached platform level and stopped. Then it struck me. Was I the person that told them of the signal failures, a fact which they then looked up? I suppose it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility. In fact, the time difference between when I told them and when the announcement was made seemed to me long enough for them to call someone for the relevant information. If this was so, then it was simply shocking. Anyway, I was now faced with another dilemma. If I got on this train I could be stuck on it if it started to move towards Waterloo. That was something I didn’t relish. The alternatives were either to give up and go home, or try one last bid to get to the party from Twickenham. Trains from that place should have been better, as on route to Waterloo they did not go through Wimbledon. I decided to take that option.

On my way out of Kingston station I touched out with my Oyster. I reflected on the fact that, once again, there had been a severe lack of information available. Indeed, 'touching in' and then 'touching out' with my Oyster at the same station, which cost me £1.50, could have been avoided by someone standing in the main station booking hall just informing people, or even just a sign detailing the problems being present. Yet, as I exited, the station was bereft of staff. There were no staff manning the ticket office, and the barriers were open with no one guarding them. Indeed, I sort of realised that the SWT staff at Kingston did know something was up, what other reason could there be for abandoning whole sections of the station? But, the situation was simply not good enough. From the guys in the office, who seemed to know nothing (either that or they did not care), to the lack of information outside the ticket offices, there was nothing to stop 100s of people wasting their money by ‘touching in’ with their Oyster and then going nowhere. Indeed, if the rail companies come down unnecessarily hard on honest people who make mistakes in buying the wrong ticket, then in return they should inform people as to the state of play on days like this so they can avoid paying for journeys they have no hope of making.

On my way out there were a number of people clustered round the information board all looking confused. I informed them of the situation, which was that a train had pulled up; however, it wouldn’t be going anywhere as Wimbledon was out of action. 5 minutes later, and after a lot of good-natured camaraderie, I left to get the bus to Twickenham. While on it, I checked on my phone the National Rail Enquiries website for the status of trains going from Twickenham to Waterloo. The site was not a joyful one to be on. While some trains were still running, clearly most were cancelled. Given my information problems so far, I was curious to see how close to reality this information was.

Passing into Twickenham station I noticed that the barriers were open with no one manning them, that the ticket office was closed and that there was no sign detailing the state of play. Where had everyone gone? Had they abandoned their posts like rats from sinking ships. However, the digital display was showing almost exactly the same information I had seen on the National Rail Enquiries website. What a surprise it was to have accurate information. A train was due, so I touched in and went down to the platform. As it pulled in, I thought long and hard. ‘This could get me to the party.’ But if things were still terrible later, my journey home may also not materialise, leaving me stranded in London. And so, at the very moment I could have achieved my goal, I turned and walked away. It was now about 5.30. I ‘touched out’ with my Oyster, which cost me another £1.50, and went to the pub.

Whose fault was my long journey? As the failures materialised before I started out, I can safely say that SWT were not communicating with their staff effectively. This, therefore, meant that we passengers were out of the loop. From the guard who knew nothing, to the ill-informed staff at Kingston, to the lack of information outside stations, and the lack of staff generally, the state of information provision was truly shocking. I know that because of the geographically spread nature of railways that information moves on it at a slower rate, especially if there is a need to get maintenance crews on-site to diagnose a problem which takes time. But, the fact that the staff at Kingston seemingly didn’t know about the problems at Wimbledon shows that SWT’s information flows had broken down.

On the positive side, the experience showed me that when times are tough and people face adversity together, they do help each other out and band together. Indeed, what it has also showed me is that people understand railway workers’ predicaments and are much calmer when they know what is going on. And while in explaining the situation I evidently gave people bad news, once they had the information as to the state of play they were much less frustrated. I cannot say that throughout railway history information flows for passengers have been much better, and in fact I think that we recieve the most information that any generation of passengers has ever had. But, quite clearly, SWT could keep improve things greatly. The level of service that they gave me yesterday was, simply put, inexcusable.

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