A Commuter’s Dictionary – ‘On The Train’

The English language is very versatile but many words never even make it into the spoken lexicon despite describing some of the sights we see day in day out. Well, all of that is about to change as we begin an occasional series aimed at enlightening you into a few terms that you may find useful in everyday use.

Today, we look at the topic of ‘On The Train’

Avoiding eye contact with the person who occupies the same position opposite you on board public transport each day and could be a future lover.

The line of back-arching commuters whose spines fit into the curved shape of many train doors in order to be the last ones who make it aboard an overcrowded service.

The insistence on reading a broadsheet newspaper aboard said overcrowded service.

The art of dodging ground-based urine whilst using on-board facilities.

The teenage gang doing pull ups on the luggage rack.

The youth who falls and injures himself undertaking said feat.

The ingestion of entire fruits including pips and cores to avoid the trip to a litter bin.

Fat controller
A train conductor who insists on making public address system japes on all topics including lateness and the train turning a sleeping hobo into mincemeat.

Being able to Shazam the music emanating from a particularly leaky set of £400 headphones.

Starfleet commando
The person commandeering an entire table with upwards of six gadgets under the pretence of doing work of a higher importance than anyone else.

The sneer given to anyone eating a pasty or burger on a train during commuting hours. See also: Cheese Doritos.

Those carrying suspiciously large items of luggage aboard a train.

The uncertainty over whether to give up one’s seat to an apparently pregnant bystander who may just have ingested one too many items from Greggs.

The gentle shimmy away from a snoring stranger as their head lolls towards a resting place upon your shoulder.

I hope you find these useful as we guide you through the perils of your day to day life. You’re welcome.


The Ten Commuting Commandments

The Ten Commandments

Brought to you in association with Charlton Heston.

It’s no use pretending that commuting is easy. Considering we do it at the busiest times of day, surrounded by hundreds of people all with their own agenda, it was never going to be the most fun part of the working week. Fortunately, there are some simple rules to follow which I picked up on a recent commute to Mount Sinai…

1) Thou shalt always move down the carriage

Possibly the golden rule of commuting on all forms of transport, there is very little point in simply boarding a vehicle and then just standing there at the nearest available area. The herd behind you still need to board and so you’re delaying your own journey. It’s a relatively simple equation and one that makes even more sense when the aisle spec actually gives you MORE room than being pig-penned in when the train fills up further at the next stop. Expect me to shout if you don’t do this. As Bobby Brown quite rightly once commented, that’s my prerogative.

2) Thou shalt not pay for purchases under £5 with thy Switch card

Whether I’m in a hurry or killing time waiting for a delayed train, there isn’t anything more frustrating than being behind someone in Starbucks who is using a card to make a regulation loose change payment. We don’t live in a cashless society, and the use of cards simply causes a myriad of mis-read chips, declined transactions and machine failures that could be avoided via the use of old fashioned pound notes. This one is intrinsically linked to the unwritten eleventh commandment about sensible cashpoint usage; you can usually guarantee that there are other ATMs available other than those directly next to the station platforms, so stop queuing in a triple snake of 400 people and getting in my way.

3) Thou shalt not conduct banal conversation

There are a few occasions when it is acceptable to speak to someone on a train:

a) When asking the conductor for a ticket.

b) When apologising for accidentally bumping into someone due to a sudden train sway.

c) Asking someone to move themselves and their increasingly offensive family of mouthbreathers out of your way so you can either move down the aisle (see Commandment 1) or somehow extricate yourself from the rickety deathtrap.

Every other reason for opening your stupid trap on public transport is entirely unacceptable. Do I care that Margaret is back in the ‘hospikal’? No. Am I bothered about how you got to the station and how much traffic there was? No. Do I need to know what you had for tea last night (bearing in mind I can probably still smell it)? No. Keep all thoughts to yourself.

Commuter Train

How to make friends on the train.

4) Thou shalt not make friends on public transport

Sometimes this can go hand in hand with the above, leading to dangerously repetitive conversations spilling over from the previous day. Presumably, if I have overheard that same joke before (accompanied by that same forced laugh) then you’re a pretty boring dullard and your accomplice is only speaking to you out of sympathy and because you historically assumed the same spec on the platform. This practice is very risky, and can lead to going for coffee or even an alcoholic beverage together. Be warned.

5) Thou shalt not bring thine own wheels onto public transport

Ah, the bicycle. A wonderful invention for a weekend jaunt into the countryside or a quick trip to the shops in the daytime in order to save the ozone layer. But let’s face it, it isn’t for carrying around with you like some sort of wheeled handbag. If you’re so serious about being a helmeted lycra-clad warrior, then maybe consider sitting on your little saddle and moving your legs in a circular motion? The trend of taking bikes on trains (without having to pay extra for the additional space taken, natch) is getting worse with the now-mandatory Brompton hate machines turning up in each carriage. Handy tip – in the time it’s taken you to transform your Decepticon, I’ve walked to work.

6) Thou shalt have thine ticket ready for inspection

Picture the scene; you get the same train to the same station every single day. You’re in a rush. So why is the last thing you bother to think of to prepare your annual gazillion quid pass for inspection once disembarked? It isn’t hard to keep it in the same pocket, or maybe even in a special pouch on your utility belt, so please don’t make me walk straight into you as if I’m performing a particularly violent piece of early-morning anal savagery whilst you fumble about. It’ll only end in tears. Oh, and you’ve just missed that connecting train.

7) Thou shalt not read large newspapers in enclosed spaces

Common sense once again, if we’re all cramped up like a jar of particularly over-friendly anchovy fillets, there probably isn’t room for you to whip out your daily rag. Even more importantly, if you decided instead to pull out your mobile telecommunication device and boot up the icon labelled “Internet”, you’d probably find news that is less than a week old anyway. I can probably reveal today what will be in next week’s editions of the litterer’s favourite “Metro” anyway:

  • Man makes pair of shoes out of lobsters.
  • Leathery celebrity mistaken for antique bedside table.
  • Being alive makes you dead one day.

Newspapers on trains – it’s what Kindles were invented for.

8) Thou shalt not buy leaky headphones

Let’s face it, very few people have exactly the same taste in music, so it’s pretty frustrating when even your own headphones can’t drown out the wailing of the latest R&B chart-botherer or the jungle bass crunk of a dance floor anthem. The only positive spin on this is my invention of the soon-to-be-turned-into-a-TV-show-hosted-by-Ant-‘N’-Dec game, Leaky Headphone ShazamTM. Not only does being able to use your own mobile device to identify the track in question highlight the biggest offenders, it also tells you which are the latest, most hateful ‘artists’ in the hit parade. Two wins for the price of one.

9) Thou shalt not bring an entourage of children and shopping bags onto commuter trains.

The scourge of many a commuter, the last minute dash for a soon to be departing train is acceptable when unavoidably delayed, but not when you’re too self-important to avoid busier times and laden with 739 bags of tat from your once a year trip to town. Let’s face it, all you’ve spent the past five hours doing is trying to squeeze your fifty stone frame into a £4.99 Primark bikini for ‘yours holidays’. No excuse for being late. And leave your caterwauling lifestyle choice on the OUTSIDE of the train next time would you?

Ecco The Dolphin

Ecco – Texting away on his very own TransPennine Express.

10) Thou shalt set ALL mobile device tones to ‘off’.

The fact that I can no longer count on both of my hands AND feet the number of times I have assumed Ecco the Dolphin is aboard the same train as me, clicking away, is deeply, deeply disturbing. I really have no idea what people get from having keypad tones set to tap-tap mode, other than it being some form of reminder that their hearing still works, or that they are still alive despite their obvious lack of mental capability. Also on this list are those still chuckling to themselves at their ‘hilarious’ “Help! I’m in your pocket!” ringtones, along with the clown car horn honk and the radar text alert. For clarity, no, you’re not a ship’s captain or a kidnapper. Well actually, you might be. And you’re definitely a clown…

The Commuter Scoring System

Regular subscribers here and to my Twitter feed will be more than aware that I have lots of fun each and every day dealing with transport, the general public; pretty much life in general. To sum up how my mind works on a day to day basis, I’ve decided to reveal the factors that determine just how miserable I’m likely to be on any given morning.

I begin each day with 100 Morning Points, but a selection of events can make this rise or fall, and here are just a few examples of how:
(Note – these are in no way copyrighted by me, so feel free to play along at home. And when you hear this noise *ting*, please turn the page).

Train Delays

Minus 456 points.

-10 points for having to get up at 5.30am.
-10 points for the bus being late.
Additional -5 points if it’s so late you miss your train.
-5 points for every banal conversation overheard before having a chance to insert headphones.
+10 points for seeing someone run for the train only to have the doors shut in their face.
-20 points if it is you.
-10 points if the train is so busy you are massively interfered with.
+5 points refunded if it’s by a fitty.
+10 points for beating Running Man out of the station.
+15 points for your preferred Starbucks staff being on duty and having your coffee ready before you’ve even ordered it.
+5 points for Mentalist Man making beheading gestures.
+10 points for seeing someone trip up the stairs in Piccadilly Station.
Additional +5 points if they were carrying coffee.
+5 points for getting your favourite spec on the tram.
-10 points for the tram breaking down or being insufferably slow.
+5 points per fare-dodging scumbag getting hoisted off the tram and publicly ridiculed at Pomona.
-5 points for every copy of the Metro left on a public transport seat.
-5 points for each person getting the work lift to anything lower than the Third Floor.

Generally I am left with so few points each morning that my life force ebbs away like the skeleton graphic on Knightmare, leaving me a withered old bag of bones by the time I hit work. Nevertheless I get on with it, and look forward to out-scoring myself the very next day.

You can of course extend this into a fully-fledged game of Commuter Bingo, and to give you an example of a potential scoring system, see the gallery below. Enjoy.

The Greatest Show On Earth – Part Two

St Pancras International

St Pancras International getting into the Olympic spirit.

After the Olympics threw up such a stunningly golden day for Great Britain, I was full of anticipation leading into the event that I was due to attend on the Sunday afternoon. I was also pleased to know that if the previous day was anything to go by, my public transport fears would also be well and truly allayed.

Setting off from Croydon, I decided to take the scenic route to the ExCel Arena. The Olympic organisers had been trying to discourage people from using London Bridge Station after identifying it as a hot-spot for potential congestion, but ignoring this advice, i was pleased to see that it wasn’t too full at all. Quickly diverting to the tube, the Jubilee line took me efficiently to North Greenwich, and it was at this point I realised just how well planned the whole event was. Every route map of the City, in tube carriages, at stations, on buses, had all been replaced by new ones highlighting (in the Olympic brand purple) where to go for every Olympic venue. This must have been a mammoth undertaking and no expense was spared; these weren’t just stickers over the top of existing maps, every last one had been re-printed and replaced.

Secondly, Olympic ticket holders had all been supplied with a Travelcard for use on the day of their events. This one gesture probably saved hours upon hours of confusion and queuing, preventing tourists from having to try to figure out for themselves which ticket they needed to travel across town. A simple touch but one that no doubt worked a treat.

The Emirates Air Line

High wire fun at Olympic time.

On arriving at North Greenwich I made the decision to try the new Emirates Air Line. A £60million, one kilometre cable car trip over the Thames, the Air Line links the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks. Originally, it wasn’t intended to be ready for the Olympic Games, but as it provided such a handy (and gimmicky) route straight to the ExCel, I scanned my Oyster card and boarded a pod. Departing every 15 seconds, the cable cars take passengers over 90 metres into the air, showing them stunning views across the City. Admittedly on this particular day it was a little moist to truly get a clear view, nevertheless it proved to be a quick and thrilling route to my venue.

Despite knowing it was unlikely that Team GB had an athlete capable enough to enter into the Greco-Roman wrestling tournament, I still looked forward to seeing something that won’t often be seen on these shores in my lifetime. The venue itself is absolutely enormous, and needed to be whilst playing host to so many spectators watching all forms of martial arts as well as boxing and fencing among others.

My tickets allowed me to see the 55kg and 74kg wrestlers compete across three mats in the ExCel’s North Arena 2, and after a brief run through of the rules and regulations, it was all systems go. Initially baffling, the first round saw three matches being competed simultaneously, so it was tricky to focus on one individual or match up. Nevertheless, you were soon warned to interesting goings on in another bout by the crowd’s roar and so the frenetic action was easy enough to follow.

Greco-Roman Wrestling

Olympic-level cuddling.

Progressing quickly through to the quarter-final matches where only one bout occurred at any one time, I was then pleasantly surprised to see that in a change to the published schedule, the semi-finals were also going to be part of my session. The crowd in these later matches started picking their favourites and really hollering them along, whether they were old or young, British or Hungarian, there was a great atmosphere and a true Olympic spirit.

After the matches had finished, we were pointed efficiently towards public transport routes and I picked the Docklands Light Railway to get back to Bank from where I could get the tube towards King’s Cross. Sitting at the front of the driver-less DLR, I was reminded of how long it had been since I was last a tourist in our capital and also how much the place now has to offer with iconic sights everywhere.

After a couple of quiet pints of Suffolk cider in The Betjeman Arms in St Pancras International Station, watching the Eurostar trains come and go, I meandered to Euston and headed home, thrilled with every aspect of my first and maybe only Olympic experience.

So far, criticisms of the Games have come from all sources. Some say the events are elitist niche sports which the every-man on the street couldn’t possibly aspire to be a part of. I can’t disagree more on this; anyone can walk, run and even jump if they put their mind to it and if they put enough hard work into being the best they can possibly be. I agree that fencing and dressage may be a little pricey for the average punter to take part in, but that hasn’t hampered my enjoyment of watching events unfold at all.

I can honestly say that I will be sad to see the end of these Games. They may not have been as flashy as Sydney or Beijing but by God they’ve shown what Britain can do, both on and off the track. This truly is something for us and our children to be immensely proud of for many, many years to come.

The Greatest Show On Earth – Part One

Hyde Park - BT London Live

Hyde Park – BT London Live

I still remember where I was when it was announced that London had been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. It was Wednesday 6th July 2005, and I was about to be made redundant from my job. Topping that, the very next day, some idiots decided to set about blowing up half of London’s transport network. As much of  a juxtaposed euphoric high and terrible low as you can imagine, suddenly the enormity of what London was taking on became clear and the seven years to play with almost didn’t seem long enough.

Fast forward to 2011 and after the police shot dead Mark Duggan, riots erupted in the capital and across the country. One year away from the Olympic Games and England had become some sort of feral wasteland. Surely there was no coming back from this?

I’m proud to say that the country would not be beaten. The British media have desperately tried to destroy the event before it even kicked off, claiming Danny Boyle’s opening shindig would be too ambitious, that the weather would be the worst in human history, and that security would be abysmal. I’ve debated with many (including Doctor Who companion Peri, via Twitter, randomly) whether these stories are truly in the public interest or whether the press were just desperate to derail the games and give themselves more headlines throughout the month. I for one truly believe that media and public alike should unite behind such a once in a lifetime event,  and at this point, I’m pleased to report that all of the media scaremongering hasn’t proven to be true. The only headlines we have been seeing are about the fulfilment of golden dreams.

I admit that the event hasn’t been without its teething problems. I’ve been to four Olympic football matches at Old Trafford and have seen some shoddy organisation. From slow moving frisking queues and rammed trams through to the unforgivable lack of pies before half the matches had even kicked off, you’d expect better. Even so, the atmosphere at the events has been nothing short of electric, and these specifics appear more the fault of Old Trafford and Metrolink (who really should know how to cater for large crowds) rather than the Olympic organisers themselves.

But football 200 miles from the main event isn’t really what it’s all about and this weekend I was privileged enough to journey down to London to soak up some of the Olympic buzz. And what a weekend to do so.

The event for which I had tickets, the Greco-Roman Wrestling, was on Sunday, so I decided to travel down on Saturday morning. The Virgin train was typically rapid and pulling into Euston at midday I could already see the huge number of purple-shirted Olympic helpers, pointing punters in the right direction with a smile and a giant foam hand.

My intention was to head towards Hyde Park where the BT London Live event was showing loads of the action on multiple big screens, mixed with some live music and special guests. Knowing that the triathlon had taken place in and around Hyde Park earlier that morning, I was dreading how awful and crowded everything was going to be, but getting the tube from Russell Square to Hyde Park Corner was effortless. Straight away, you could see how much thought had gone in to moving people around quickly and efficiently. Regular readers will know my thoughts on how the general public can be zombies at the best of times so it was pleasing to see that megaphoned transport workers were ensuring all spaces were filled and that people kept on moving, all the while keeping a smile on their faces.

Getting to Hyde Park, I had to wait to cross a couple of inner park paths whilst cyclists zoomed through but again, the crowd control workers were friendly and chatty, making the experience far more pleasant than it had any right to be. Arriving at the gates to the Hyde Park event I was again filled with dread at the prospect of queuing for hours to get through the airport-style security. I had my man bag with me with all manner of weekend essentials inside; iPad, tail shine, bullet belt. Yes, I was one of those people they really hate when it comes to prohibited items and general idiocy. But once again, all fears were unfounded. I found a queue that was short and the guys and girls on the gate were polite and friendly, allowing me to nip through the scanners in no time at all.

It was a gloriously sunny day at this point, made all the more wondrous by the buzz around the park. Although not as full as it would be later that night for the big athletics finals, the crowds were certainly gathering and picking a decent spec was tricky. Eventually we plonked ourselves on a picnic table next to one of the screens and took in some tennis and hockey whilst relaying beers back to the group from one of the nearby bars. Once again, the refreshment side of things was where the organisation was let down a little, as despite beer pumping machines churning out 20 pints at a time, the tent always seemed to be devoid of Heineken and the staff appeared to be more interested in flogging souvenir cups than any actual liquids. I found out later that they had a competition going to see who could sell the most cups, which wasn’t really in the spirit of the whole event.

Nevertheless, with careful queue picking, getting a little snifter in wasn’t too tricky (but was pricey) and as the sun shone down on us and our new multinational friends (hello American lady and random table of Dutch folk!) we soaked up sports from all around the event, checking in for golds over on the cycling screen, a live appearance on stage from Sir Bradley of Wiggins and even a set from snotty upstarts McFly.

Having over-indulged in sun and shenanigans it was time to head out to my accommodation and once again, all was well. A short walk to Victoria and a train to East Croydon was simple, and with every stop the news of further medals kept the atmosphere electric.

Rounding off the day with Ennis and Farah’s heroics on the track, Saturday 4th August had truly been momentous, and I was honoured to have played a small part, all before I had even attended the event for which I had travelled…

Modern Life Is Rubbish

I always feel a little resentful on the day I part with another £100 monthly train & tram ticket, but when it’s a Monday as well, you know it’s not going to be much fun.

I do think though that things could be so much better if people were more considerate and less incompetent.

I know I bleat on about First Manchester’s godawful peasant wagons but it only takes a few small tweaks to make things at least 50% better. At the moment, the things turn up late with the wrong number and/or destination on the front and the driver never has any change. Surely better training, better punctuality and greater attention to detail can’t be too hard to find?

At train stations, I know why there aren’t any bins, but what are the alternatives? Why hasn’t some genius thought up a way to prevent the strewn Metros, Gregg’s coffee cups and heart attack pasty wrappers from littering the platforms? And while they’re at it they may like to consider enforcing that smoking ban they’re so keen to bang an auto announcement out about too.

None of this is of course helped by the general public. I don’t think I can remember the last time a polite hand stifled a yawn or smothered a hacking cough. Instead there seems to be a competition going on to see who can contort their face the most whilst bellowing out a noisy yawn or how far it’s possible to shower one’s infected bodily fluids over others.

People should all have one basic mantra to live by; go about your business in a manner that respects others. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of this going on anymore.

Instead we’re left with a place that no-one cares about anymore. A place so run-down and poverty stricken that it may as well be in the third world. The cost of basic foodstuffs goes up whilst unemployment does the same. The attitude of your average man on the street is no longer full of the Bulldog spirit, it’s one of thinking they are owed all the trinkets they desire rather than having to work for them. The whole mentality of this country is wrong.

As it stands, this country doesn’t need multi-million pound infrastructure investment anymore, it needs to be taken out the back and put out of its misery.

Solving Problems On Britain’s Train Lines: Free Consultancy For National Rail

As a child I was taken to Bristol Temple Meads station during the summer holidays and would while away hours spotting some of the majestic steam and diesel locomotives that powered much of our great nation. Noting down their names and numbers in my notebook, this was a great, simple (and presumably cheap for my parents) pleasure in an age before cameraphones and Netscape Navigator, but it was all good clean, harmless fun.

Since the glory days of the mid 80s locomotive movement and the subsequent privatisation of the entire network, it could be argued that things have gotten a little silly on Britain’s trains. I for one have been using regular services into and out of Manchester for the past 11 years and before that was a frequent flyer (railer?) on trains between Sheffield and Bristol in my University days. Regular readers will be familiar with my trials and tribulations aboard the old puffers, but I thought it was time to stop moaning about the quality of the service (or lack thereof) and instead focus on a few ways in which I can help to make the whole kaboodle better. Listen up National Rail, this one’s for you.

1) Trespassers on the line.

There have been a few times when my trains have inexplicably slowed down and even stopped, even on short 15 minute journeys. After sitting there for a while presuming there had been a signal failure or somesuch, the conductor has then announced that there have been reports of “trespassers on the line” meaning the train has to either stop or run at a reduced speed. Now, to me this just means that these trespassers (whoever they may be) aren’t going to be taught a lesson, as they will have succeeded in delaying hundreds of people who are going about their daily business. My suggestion, therefore is that the trains should actually speed up, thus scaring the pubic hairs (if they have them) from these urchins. I’ve been on board a train when it’s hit someone and despite a bit of a bump (imagine a truck going over a large bag of cow legs) and a lengthy delay to hose down the nosecone, little harm was done, so I see no real reason why this delay cannot be overcome.

2) Ditherers

The act (or art) of boarding a train is relatively simple. You should stand next to the soon-to-be-open doors, allowing plenty of room for people/pushchairs/Bromptons to disembark before filing on politely and making your way to a seat or a standing position WITH AWARENESS FOR HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE STILL TO BOARD BEHIND YOU. There are many issues that can confuse matters including a) trying to find your reserved seat, b) not knowing if you’re on the right train and of course c) trying to get on a busy commuter train with a week’s worth of shopping or a full-sized mountain bike.

All three elements cause dithering as people look up and down the carriage trying to ascertain, Crystal Maze-style ‘what they have to do.’ I propose what is essentially, again, a quick and easy solution; cattle prods. Just as UEFA employs additional touchline officials at major tournaments, surely Britain’s train operators can employ additional conductors (I’m solving Britain’s unemployment crisis here too) to keep an eye on problem doors and ‘encourage’ anyone taking too long (I’m flexible on what the dither-time cut off should be) by giving them a short sharp shock?

3) Platform Alterations

One of the main issues that delays trains is the amount of people concentrating more on their Android mobiles and Dr Dre headphones than they are on boarding a locomotive. I would, therefore encourage more platform alterations to keep people on their toes and get them to pay attention. It’s pretty dull that I know each and every night that my 1756 train departs from Platform 3. It’s been going on for a while now, and in all honesty, I’d quite like a change, so why not mix it up? Maybe try a rogue Wednesday on Platform 10 (training people how to get on at an even-numbered platform in the process) The amount of drones left behind due to a lack of awareness would only serve to free up more space for us sensible folk and ensure that the conductor isn’t stood waiting for Jemima Waddleduck to trot up at the last-minute with her 15 Primark bags and 29 children. She would still be quacking away on Platform 3 unaware of the possibility that the train isn’t always as predictable as her.

So there we have it, three simple suggestions, and I know there will be a lot more. If only National Rail, Network Rail, or whoever bothers turning up to work in the morning and pretending to run our train lines would pay attention, I don’t hesitate to think that Britain would be a far, far better place.

Litter – How Can We Keep Britain Tidy?

Watching BBC Breakfast a couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to see a prominent feature about reducing litter on Britain’s streets.

I remember the glory days of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign in the mid-80s at a time when the organisation had just become a limited company. Teaching kids to tidy up after themselves was de rigueur in schools across the land and it became part and parcel of getting the country to smarten up its act despite a lot of deprivation. The campaign at the time made sense – a lot of people were holidaying in Britain to save money, so it was only right that we should keep the place neat and tidy for ourselves. Beaches at the time were also taking a slating and the impact of the campaign had a positive knock-on effect to these too.

But in the last decade, or possibly a little longer, standards have really slipped. This itself seems odd as it’s happened at a time when recycling has really taken off. Initial dismay towards fortnightly rubbish collections have turned into an appreciation for making sure as much waste material goes to the right place as possible, but nevertheless council cost-cutting has seen bins overflowing and city centre collections and street cleaning teams reduced in number, letting litter fly around the streets like there’s been a zombie apocalypse. In Scotland alone, around £100 millions is being spent each year on tidying up after litterers, money which could be far better spent on other economic issues.

So why do people litter in the first place? The main reason appears to be that most people really don’t deem what they are doing to be wrong. I will guarantee you that you could go to any major train station on any given morning and see a commuter drop a used Metro newspaper onto a bench. Who do they think is going to pick this up and take it away for them? Some sort of newspaper-hoarding goblin? Maybe part of the problem is that because they haven’t paid for it, they don’t really care about what happens to it. The Metro gets left everywhere as well, from seats on trains to station platforms to Starbucks tables. It got so bad a couple of years back that The Metro themselves were forced to remind people that leaving it “for someone else to read” isn’t recycling, it’s littering, with a poster campaign on trains and buses.

Another major culprit in Litter Britain is the blue and white delight, the paper Greggs bag. Not content with destroying their arteries with grease-sprayed sausage rolls, people seem only too eager to just dump the wrapper on the floor or on the nearest wall. Yes, it’s paper but that doesn’t mean it miraculously turns into nothingness when out of a human’s grasp. Similarly, fruit remnants get left almost everywhere. Again, I appreciate this is recyclable material, but a banana skin on a pavement is not going  to bio-degrade overnight.

The problem in Britain is that no-one really knows what the solution to this is? One obvious one is to use those who litter as an example. Some community service programmes already get criminals to clean up certain litter eye-sores and this is a great way to punish those who exhibit anti-social behaviour and also to help communities. But it doesn’t really hit those who litter in the first place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get a talking to from a policeman for littering despite all those who pull the wrapper off their fag packet and instantly let it slip from their hand and blow away in the wind. I would whole-heartedly support big fines for littering as long as it was properly and sensibly enforced.

Alternatively, it would be great to get kids more involved again. I strongly believe that one of the reasons I don’t chuck my trash onto the pavement is because of the way I was brought up. I remember on one school camp we went to some sort of adventure park where the owners of the place encouraged kids to collect empty drinks cans and get rewarded with different badges depending on how many they brought back to drop-off points. There was an absolute mad scramble to collect all the different badges and it made the whole situation fun. Okay, so maybe I was an unwitting victim of child slave labour, and maybe the park in question just couldn’t afford their own wardens, but even so, it gave us children an awareness about where litter should and shouldn’t go.

I want to be proud of my country again, but at the moment I’m disgusted by it everytime I set foot outside of my front door.

Leaky Headphones

Regular subscribers will know just how much other people get on my nerves, but when these same dullards fail to realise they are inflicting their misery on everyone else, it gets me even more riled.

One popular annoyance tactic amongst the mouthbreathing public transport population, seems to be either having awful headphones that pump more music into the air than into your ears, or to have the volume pumped up so high on your generic MP3 device that all and sundry can make out every lyric to your godawful dirge.

The latter is made even more odd considering recent campaigning from numerous musicians including Chris Martin, Gary Numan and Plan B to raise awareness of the dangers of loud music and the harsh reality that is tinnitus.

I admit that I like, on occasion, music to be loud. Sometimes ear-bleedingly so. But with headphones, I tend to not only get paranoid that others may not appreciate the latest Cannibal Corpse ditty, but also that my lug-holes may not be able to take such a consistent OTT battering.

From my first ever gig, I’ve gone through the whole temporary deafness thing on more occasions than I care to remember. For some reason I’ve mainly ended up on the left side of the venue at gigs and I will fully admit that the hearing in my left ear is probably a little worse than my right and that overall, my hearing is probably only 80% of optimum. Has it been fun getting to this point? Kind of. But I should definitely have done something about it before now.

I was bought some earplugs as a youngster by a concerned father but probably only used them once, thinking I was too cool to stand out there in a metal crowd with some pink nubs in my aural canals. Nowadays I see half the crowd (the old ones at the back, natch) wearing the things and maybe they realise too that the years of loudness are taking their toll.

Back on topic, I still fail to understand the mentality of the super loud “personal” music use on the bus, train and tram, as at those times of day I prefer to relax a little. It’s all well and good blocking out other people, but to have the music that loud must be deafening these people. Similarly, I think that I would be too paranoid about having my senses so impaired crossing roads if my music was up so loud. On a positive note, I have now concocted a way to amuse myself through these people; Leaky Headphone Shazam (TM). That’s right kids, you too can name and shame the particular generic R&B artists being belted out by simply letting Shazam do the identification work for you. It’s actually quite frightening that the music can be loud enough to make this possible from across a carriage, but thoughts of a worst offender league table have crossed my mind…and I’m looking at YOU Rihanna.

The old adage goes: “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” This may be so, but I’d prefer to still be able to hear it at some volume rather than go deaf within the next ten years and hear nothing at all.

Public Transport Part Two – How Bad Can First Manchester Get?

You may remember some time ago, I did a little write-up of just how late my various forms of public transport were over a certain period of time. It was getting pretty ridiculous, so I decided to write the following to First Manchester just to try and find out why they offered such a consistently poor service and why they failed to deliver on offering service updates via social media:

Dear Sirs

I write to complain strongly about the quality, or lack thereof of the service you are providing.

I have been using the 408 route between Stalybridge and Oldham for about three years now, and in that time, I have witnessed a whole host of failures to provide what I would call a decent service and one which I would have no qualms about handing over £58 a month to be given in return.

Most recently, on Friday 2nd March, I got a train back from Manchester to Stalybridge and then stood at the bus stop outside the station waiting for the last 408 service of the day which is due at 2319 (although this isn’t strictly true as it is supposed to leave Stalybridge bus station at that time, so by the time it gets to the train station stop it is usually 2320 or 2321 at the earliest). Nevertheless I was there from 2316, and at 2340 after no bus had arrived, I had no choice but to get a taxi home, costing me an additional £10 on top of my monthly pass price. I was unable to phone your premium rate “helpline” as this had closed many hours previously, so there was really no other way to find out what was going on.

A few days before, on the 28th February I was waiting at Stalybridge bus station for the 1819 408 service but it didn’t turn up  pre-its usual driver change-over until 16 minutes over its departure time. When it did arrive, it only stopped to let the previous passengers off at a stop opposite the queue of us waiting to board, before disappearing again without letting anyone on. It was only by over-hearing a child laughing about someone being sick on the bus that we presumed it would be replaced shortly by another vehicle and had been taken off to be cleaned. Really though, it would have been far more preferable to receive some form of communication from the driver or alternatively from the driver in the pool car waiting to swap to that vehicle. Neither offered anything.

Presuming another bus would turn up as a replacement shortly, I waited. And waited, and continued to wait. Eventually it was 1919 and STILL no bus had turned up, and neither had the next one that should have departed at 1919. Eventually a bus arrived and let us on, but this was either ONE HOUR AND EIGHT MINUTES LATE if it was the 1819 or still eight minutes late if it was the 1919. Even better, no explanation or apology was offered by the driver.

These are just two recent (and in my view, inexcusable and avoidable) examples though. Last year during the heavy snow, I checked your website to confirm buses were running, which it said they were. I still ended up waiting an hour for one, which promptly drove straight past three of us waving at it. We then had to wait another hour for the next service in freezing temperatures. According to your phone helpline the bus was running normally which was obviously not true.

On another occasion, I was awaiting the bus at Stalybridge (where numerous First services pass through) and a bus approached the stop but had no number on the front. I assumed it was out of service, only to realise after it had passed by that it had 408 on the rear. I’m sure you’ll agree that it isn’t much use if your buses don’t publicise where they are going, unless you expect every passenger at every stop to flag down every service on the off-chance it is the one they need?

I am just really struggling to see how things are getting any better or how any efforts are being made to do so? The only improvement I can see is the new ticket machines installed recently which mean drivers no longer have to hit the things with a shovel to get them working, and in all honestly this should have been rectified years ago.

Your drivers frequently turn up with headphones in or listening to music through their phone on loudspeaker, and on more than one occasion I have seen them smoking in their cab, something which I believe carries a fine for passengers?

I would just appreciate a response as to a) how the service in general is being improved and b) how you intend to communicate better with your customers. I fully appreciate that there will be matters outside of your control that affect the running of your service such as traffic, and knowing how the general public can be at times, I also appreciate that the job your drivers do probably isn’t the easiest in the world. However if I can see some pretty basic flaws in the whole operation, surely you can? If a bus is going to be consistently late at busy times is it not better to amend your timetable rather than also disappointing your customers?

I note that you have a Twitter account, @FirstManchester, with the profile description: “Follow us for news, events & updates. For journey questions or comments ring us on 08457 88 11 55 or send your details via our Contact Us page on our website.” The last time I checked though, you don’t appear to have used it for over a month, the last tweet being back on 5th February. As it is 2012 I would strongly suggest that you look at your use of social media to better your service, rather than just setting up an account for the sake of it as appears to be the case currently. A cursory glance at Twitter shows the sort of shocking service you appear to be offering, not just to me but to hundreds of others, and by ignoring this first hand feedback, you are in real danger of irreparably damaging your company for good.

This letter was sent to First Manchester on Friday 16th March. It is now two months later and I have yet to receive a reply.

I had another “incident” with First Bus on 17th April. I had finished at an appointment early and so made it to Stalybridge bus station at 1615 ready for the 1619 bus home. I waited. And waited. And continued to wait. Eventually I telephoned the Traveline, supposedly for service updates. They confirmed that there were “no known disruptions to the 408 service”. As I didn’t want to be a victim of Mr Sod and his law, and witness a bus drive straight past me after I walked away from the stop, I waited a little longer. Eventually, nearly two hours later, I found an email contact form via the First website, and so I wrote:

Re: 408 service.

It is 1805 and I have been at Stalybridge bus station since 1615. Two buses should have arrived in this time, but none have. The advertised Traveline say they aren’t aware of any disruptions, so I want to know what on earth is going on?

I received an auto reply as follows:

I am writing following receipt of your recent comments. 

This incident is currently under investigation and the details of your complaint have been passed on to our Customer Service Team. 

We are looking into the matter and as soon as we have finished the investigation a response will be sent within 10 working days.

Thank you for your continued patience.

Kind Regards

First in Manchester
Website Team

A 408 bus eventually arrived at 1820, two hours after I had begun my wait. I asked the driver if this was a horrifically delayed service and he responded no, it was the 1819 service. Up until this point I had no idea that I resided in the North West version of the Bermuda Triangle where buses can simply disappear into the ether. To make matters worse on this occasion, the driver also got the route wrong and so the journey took an extra ten minutes than it should have.

In typical delayed First Manchester fashion, I received the following response to my email 11 working days later on 2nd May.

I write in response to your email recorded with us on 17 April 2012.

Firstly, may I say that I was sorry to read of the difficulties you encountered on the 17 April, and specifically as a result of the failure of the 408-bus service to operate as advertised from 16:10 hours. 

My enquiries into this matter have revealed that this problem resulted from traffic congestion that the services to run over 35 minutes late.

I can assure you that every effort is made to keep any delay and disruption to passengers to an absolute minimum but, unfortunately, in such situations, it is inevitable that some inconvenience will result and the inconvenience this has caused you is very much regretted. 

Please accept my apologies for this lapse in the quality of our service. I do hope that you will not be deterred from continuing to use our services and that your future journeys will be trouble free.

Yours sincerely
Miss M Shaw
Lead Customer Service Agent

So, not only do they get the bus time wrong, (it should be 1619 not 1610), their grammar is pretty poor, and apparently this bus was just running a bit late. So why didn’t it ever arrive? And why did the 1719 not arrive either? And why did it take them 11 days to tell me a load of old rubbish which I know for a fact is not true? To me, this sums up First’s attitude to customer service. I am in the process of drafting yet another letter mainly to try to get a response to my first one, but now to also ask why their email response was so incorrect.

Hands up if any of you think I will get any form of response…