My My My… My Get Me There – A Travel Ticketing Travesty

There have been a few blogs and articles written in the past year or so regarding Manchester’s erstwhile attempt at Smartcard travel but having now battled with it for around six months, I thought it was high time to share my thoughts. If nothing else I need to for my own sanity…

Firstly, a bit of background. Back in 2007, yes over 10 years ago, trials of the Bolton Citizen Card were apparently that successful that Transport for Greater Manchester thought it would be worth rolling out a Smartcard system to the already-complex Greater Manchester public transport network. In fairness, it actually seemed like a good idea with so many companies operating across the network, both Victoria and Piccadillly Station began to install more and more barriers and ticket prices rose year on year, so getting the most cost effective ticket quickly and easily seemed like a plan.

Unfortunately we should have all seen the signs when the sack-the-marketing-agency levels of clunky “My Get Me There” name for the system was revealed in 2013. There was still a grand plan though, a way to shorten horrendous Travelshop queues and also a way to combat the variety of different companies, all with their own individual ticketing systems and prices that it was possible to encounter on a single, relatively short commute. A case in point, my 425 bus was run at one time by FirstBus during the day and Stagecoach in the evening, meaning I couldn’t get a cheaper First-only ticket, just in case. Anyway, we digress.

Fast forward to 2015 and disaster strikes! It turns out that Atos, the company charged with designing and managing the system are next to useless and can no longer do their job for the money TfGM were giving them. Having already installed smart readers at tram stops, TfGM pressed ahead with using concessionary pass holders as guinea pigs whilst quickly knocking together an app that allowed stop to stop, weekly and monthly tram tickets to be purchased; this might have also been a reaction to Metrolink ticketing machines located at tram stops being notoriously temperamental, but that’s pure speculation, of course.

The app was and is actually pretty good. Although you still officially needed to buy a ticket before boarding, you were now able to jump aboard an approaching tram rather than miss it and quickly buy a stop-to-stop ticket there and then rather than being stuck in a queue on the platform behind doddering dullards fishing through their purses for the right change as numerous trams come and go. Obviously people grumbled when caught by inspectors that they didn’t have any battery left and so couldn’t show their ticket, but that’s the general public, not Metrolink’s fault.

Get Me There Website

ttps://affs69.wordpress.com/2018/01/12/my-my-my-my-get-me-there-a-travel-ticketing-travesty/get-me-there-website/” rel=”attachment wp-att-1216″> What the Get Me There website professes the system can do.

[/caption]The only downside to all this was that you could only get tram tickets on the app so for me, it wasn’t that useful for my regular bus and tram combi-commute. Fast forward again to 2017. The My Get Me There card is unveiled and upon visiting a Travelshop to buy my normal bus and tram combination monthly pass for £112.50 I was informed I could get a whole Metrolink network card along with my bus pass for only £3 a month more rather than the named stop to named stop one I had currently. This sounded good on non-paper; I took the odd journey to Chorlton or on another tram line so this would save me the extra money in one trip. I could also renew it online each month so I wouldn’t have to visit a Travelshop ever again. Bonus! There must be a catch. Well, yes of course there was. In fact there’s more than one as I’m about to explain.

Firstly, despite my card having full network validity, I am still required to tap onto and off my tram. Not a huge hassle I suppose, but something I didn’t have to do with my paper ticket and an utterly pointless task when I’m not having money taken off me depending on the journey I’ve taken a la Oyster.

Secondly, what happens if the card or a reader fails? I soon found out when a bus driver told me my card was “empty” despite it having another two weeks or so to run. I phoned the Get Me There helpline after this embarrassing incident to be told the best thing to do was to keep my paper receipt with me at all times to prove the card’s validity. Yes, that’s right, keep a piece of paper with a new shiny paperless transport ticket. The mind boggles.

Thirdly, picture the scene. It’s January. The month when you’ve eked out the most cost-effective tickets in December to get you through the odd days you’re working. Remember kids, for no good reason you need to buy your new My Get Me There pass the day before you need it! Okay Dad, I’ll go online and buy it on the 2nd so I can use it on the 3rd. But wait! I’ve bought it, and now it says it will only be valid once tapped on a Metrolink card reader? But I use my card to get the bus to the tram stop where the readers are? What am I to do? Onto customer services again, “that’s something we’re looking at in the future”. How about looking into such a fundamental flaw before launching such an inept system?

Lastly, what happens when it ALL breaks down? Having had my card for about three months, it started being a bit temperamental when tapping in and out at Metrolink card readers. I spoke to customer services again and they could find nothing wrong with the card. I took it to a Travelshop (remember I thought I’d never have to do THAT again) and the woman scanned it and said it was fine. It may well have worked for her on that single occasion but there was no getting through to her that it only worked on about 50% of scans for me. Taking the hit, I asked to transfer my pass to a new card in case the physical item was the issue, and here’s the good bit; to do so would take a week. So, for that week, I’d not be able to use the pass I’d already paid for and would have to buy a separate weekly ticket. What on Earth is “smart” about that? Where do they send these cards to transfer an ELECTRONIC balance, Gibraltar?!?!?!? Obviously, an easy way for Get Me There to get around this would be to keep it all electronic, right? Then I could tap my phone or watch on a reader instead. The apps already live and working after all. No, that would be too easy – the app and the physical card are on two separate systems. You cannot see your card in the app, and you even need a completely separate account to use the app and the card’s top up/renewal website. Whoever dreamt that one up honestly needs taking out the back and putting out of their misery.

App hoverer

A Get Me There app hoverer in action.

And these are just my issues, believe me there are plenty of others. Take the exploiters. I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people cue up a ticket on the Get Me There app, getting it all the way into their basket before hovering over “buy” in case of inspectors. Judging by my experiences too, inspectors have no way to scan a physical My Get Me There card for validity either so in theory you could just carry an empty one and wave it in their faces and get away with it time and time again. Oh and did I mention you can’t use it at all on trains? Yeah, that…

To be fair to the staff of the Get Me There/My Get Me There helplines and social media accounts, they are responsive and they do their best, but you can’t help but think they’re battling in similar ways to us commuters. As for the Travelshop staff, they seem so bitter that someone’s taken away their 1980s inkpads, they’ve reverted to computer-says-no levels of idiocy and denial just to make things even worse.

So, what are we left with? A system that doesn’t make sense. A system that was designed in 2007 FOR 2007. A system that leaves Greater Manchester public transport even more disjointed than before, and in a similar state of underfunding and complexity that the card was meant to eliminate. Hopefully there will be improvements, or it might be an idea to scrap it and start again, accepting contactless payments at readers instead. After all that seems to work okay for London, right? Either way, Manchester is a bit of a laughing stock over the whole thing and with 2018 price rises again, it seems only more and more frustrating to those of us having to deal with it day in, day out.

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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’

Glaredown
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.

Hunchbunch
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.

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

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

Yoblete
The teenage gang doing pull ups on the luggage rack.

Yobless
The youth who falls and injures himself undertaking said feat.

Horsebagging
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.

Dre-adful
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.

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

Bodybaggins
Those carrying suspiciously large items of luggage aboard a train.

Tummytrouble
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.

Somnishuffle
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.

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…

Public Transport – An Investigation

Many of you reading this will know about my regular grumbles with public transport. I’ve been commuting in and out of Manchester for the best part of a decade now, hopping on and off buses, trains and trams to get to various destinations, but this year, I decided to look a little bit more scientifically at how bad things are rather than let my ranting get the better of me.

From 3rd January I’ve (rather tragically!) been noting down when my buses and trains should have been departing and at what time they actually do. I just wanted to see how much time, money and effort I waste each and every day hanging around for companies who seem largely disinterested in my custom. So what did I find? Well I’ll elaborate shortly, but please note Metrolink fans, I left our erstwhile tram operator friends out of this because I still fail to figure out what, if any, sort of timetable they run to. Needless to say over the course of the past few weeks, they’ve been their usual inconsistent mess of broken down units, overcrowding and lack of information about when the next one might bother turning up. But I digress…

Hoverboard

As it's 2012 you'd have thought we'd be travelling around like this...

I tend to follow a similar routine each day, getting a bus to Stalybridge then a train into Manchester. If I drop lucky with times I can do this pretty quickly, although it currently costs me £160 a month to do so. My bus is a First Bus one (I don’t have a choice in this matter, it’s the only one that runs near me) and they’re one an hour. The trains are pretty frequent to Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria, but I need to get a tram back out of town so the First TransPennine Express Piccadilly ones tend to be preferable.

Over the course of 13 days, I have had the dubious pleasure of taking 22 trips via First Bus, 21 via First TransPennine Express, and two via Northern Rail. In this time I have spent a total of 164 minutes or two hours, 44 minutes waiting for late public transport.  And this is just in a two week period. That’s about 13 minutes per day on average. By far the worst offenders were First Bus who were late by 112 mins, averaging just over five minutes per bus (in fact, every single one of those were late by at least one minute, the worst one being delayed by 18 minutes). First TransPennine were a bit of a mixed bag averaging two and a half minutes of lateness per journey but this was largely due to the morning train being late 10 out of 11 times. The evening one seems generally okay with an on time percentage of about 70%.

So, rough maths time. If I take the bus, on average, 10 times a week over a year (taking off weekends) minus eight bank holidays (-16 trips) and my 25 days holiday (-50 trips)…we’re still looking at First Bus causing me to get angry because they’re not there for at least 38 hours over the course of a year. That to me is a hell of a lot. That’s a day and a half of me shuffling about on bus stops looking angry; not a sight I’d really wish upon anyone. TransPennine only make me lose 19 hours of my life per year, but in total, that is 57 hours between the two companies. That’s a lot of missed Call Of Duty time right there.

Northern Rail Train

...rather than in these 80s monstrosities.

I always give myself plenty (probably too much) time to get anywhere as I hate being late, so it’s one of the reasons why I really struggle to get on with public transport companies and their ideas of being on time. Surely, if their transport is consistently late by a certain amount of time (my morning TransPennine Express is nigh-on guaranteed to be bang on five minutes late every day; they probably blame the preceding Northern Rail), why not just change the timetable permanently? If the bus takes longer than expected in rush hour, why not stretch that timetable a little and then at least people will know what to expect? If I was that late that often for my job, well, I wouldn’t expect to still be employed.

But maybe that is the problem; that I do still employ them to take me to places. Many people ask me why I don’t just drive and there are six reasons for that: 1) It’d probably cost more. 2) Sometimes it would probably take longer. 3) I’d probably hate other drivers even more than other commuters. 4) I wouldn’t be able to have a drink. 5) I can’t tweet/play Word With Friends/arse around on my phone whilst driving. 6) I shouldn’t have to put myself out due to the failings of a crumbling public transport infrastructure.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if bus and train staff had a few more manners and a sense of common decency. Often, the bus I get in the evening has a driver change over before setting off and the other night, the driver got on to do his pre-flight checks whilst smoking a roll up INSIDE HIS CAB. Hang on, don’t passengers get fined for that? Double standards. Also, there’s never an apology or reason for lateness given, just a nod when you show your ticket, maybe a “morning” if you’re lucky. Come on guys, it’s not hard to acknowledge those who are paying your wages. If you don’t like your job that much, maybe get another one?

Going back to money, do I think that my £160 a month is well spent? Don’t get me wrong, there have been a few good improvements made since I started doing the public transport ‘thing’ all those years ago. Stalybridge and Manchester Piccadilly stations are now both great facilities, albeit ones run by TransPennine Express. Their newer trains are also brilliant, clean and bright compared to the purple muck wagons of a few years ago. Unfortunately, this investment is few and far between across the rest of the public transport network. First Buses tend to have a destination board and number on the front illuminated by what could only be a very bad at his job  firefly, with passengers often unable to see where on earth the thing is going until it’s nearly run you over. That is if they’ve bothered to put a destination up on the board at all. Once, I let one pass as I presumed it was out of service, only to see my bus number on the back of the thing after it had driven past. Needless to say, I wasn’t best pleased.

I’ve also witnessed bus drivers drive past people waving their hands at the roadside, and they’re pretty good at nattering to their driver chums whilst driving, hitting kerbs, or listening to music instead of focusing on the basics, such as getting from A to B, safely and on time.

As for Northern Rail, where do I start? I’ve written about them before, and fortunately I don’t have to use them that much anymore, but when I do, their supposed improvements (even more unreliable 1981 coaches!) simply isn’t good enough in the face of huge hikes in ticket prices. I hear from my Twitter chums (@Loupy2000, @roj_v, @martinsmith and the gang) that things on the commuter pile ups haven’t really improved, and I must admit I don’t miss Northern Rail one bit.

Speaking of Twitter, a cursory look across social media shows the anger that builds towards some of these companies for all manner of reasons. A PR department nightmare perhaps, but I have yet to see any public transport companies in this country actually use this information for the good of the customer. Why not get us in focus groups? You know, we the people who use these various transportation means every day? We may be biased but it’s a great idea-generating opportunity and it’s always better to face up to criticism than ignore it.

My Twitter feed is generally full of (admittedly very amusing) rants from various people talking about public transport. One chap even took it upon himself to set up a fake Northern Rail customer service account (@Not_hernRail) where he would reply to complainants and admit to having rubbish old trains that were never on time and staff that could do with a lesson or two in treating customers fairly. Other Twitter users such as @manc_metrolink, @NTFail, @FirstBusFail and @FarceBus all have accounts dedicated to aggregating public transport feedback, and needless to say, much of it is not very complimentary. To be fair to both @northernrailorg and @TPExpressTrains, they do their best to help in the face of adversity through social media, updating users with service updates and getting into conversations with frustrated commuters, but they can’t do much about the foundation issues: old and late rolling stock and not enough of it to cope with increased demand.

I also must admit that the general commuting public don’t do themselves any favours. People tend not to think about when and why they are travelling, getting the same busy commuter trains as usual on their days off but with loads of additional shopping bags. People get on the Metrolink to go two eminently walkable stops, thus increasing the time it takes to get people on and off and also taking up valuable room on busy vehicles. I’ve also seen some unnecessary abuse given to conductors and other public transport staff just because there is an issue and they’re there at the coalface. The vast majority of the general public are idiots, running late and with incorrect tickets, but even so, they are all there to use a service, and if the service isn’t up to scratch, they’ve still got every right to complain, as long as it goes through the right channels.

I also appreciate that sometimes there are unavoidable issues. Weather can be a problem (although some may argue that we should be more prepared). Copper wire thieves also cause the network to grind to a halt on occasion and I’m not going to hold that against the bus and train companies. I do think though that a lack of investment could have contributed to a lot of these challenges in the first place.

So what does all of this say? Does it just tell us what we already know? Maybe. But I think that it is a little more than that. We grumble and moan and whine on about the whole situation, but we are all probably late most days because of basic public transport infrastructure problems. Shouldn’t we, as their customers, be putting pressure on them to do something about it? Or should these companies actually face facts and admit their failings, promising to spend fare increases not on more services or additional destinations, but on getting the basics right instead? I for one would be happy to pay for that.