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 Every route map of the City, in tube carriages, at stations, on buses, had all been replaced by new ones highlighting (in the Olympic brand purple) where to go for every Olympic venue.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.

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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.

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…

Northern “Epic Fail” Rail

Well, it’s a been a long time in the offing but after yet another train-based debacle, I can’t keep it all solely to Twitter and Facebook anymore – the Northern Rail rants are going large.

For those of you who aren’t aware of Northern Rail, here is the intro on the company’s Wikipedia entry:

“Northern Rail (often referred to simply as Northern) is a train operating company that has operated local passenger services in the north of England since 2004. Northern Rail’s owner, Serco-NedRailways, is a consortium formed of NedRailways (the British unit of Nederlandse Spoorwegen) and Serco, an international operator of public transport systems. When it won the Northern England franchise, the consortium had already secured the contract to operate north-west England’s Merseyrail network in 2003.”

All sound okay so far? Well it didn’t get off to the best of starts. The new owners didn’t actually start to operate the franchise immediately, as they were expecting extra trains to be freed up by the extension of Manchester’s Metrolink tram service, which itself was hugely delayed.

The majority of my experience of Northern Rail is on the relatively short (15 minute) trip between Stalybridge and Manchester Victoria. A season ticket between these two stations currently costs £68 per month. I also have the choice of using TransPennine Express trains from Stalybridge to Manchester Piccadilly, but Manchester Victoria is generally a more convenient destination for me, for both commuting and social purposes.

The trains I get are typically British – old, tatty, smelly rattlers, some of which were built as far back as 1981, making them nearly as old as myself. The fleet of TransPennine Express trains used to be pretty ropey themselves in all their maroon glory, but following a complete overhaul of the fleet about four years ago, these trains are now a lovely, quiet, shiny transport heaven.

The 7.30am Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria service is my main commuter train most mornings. I am not that naive that I expect a commuter train to Manchester to be really quiet, after all it’s called rush hour for a reason. I’m also not that stupid that I would expect trains to always be dead on time. Delays happen and I’m not blaming Northern Rail for idiots jumping in front of trains or other issues out of their control. Even so, I would expect to be able to actually get on a train if I had chosen a particular one to use. But since the closure of the Oldham line (to free up the route for Metrolink development) many commuters have chosen to travel to other nearby stations on the Stalybridge line in order to get to work. Surely, the closure of this line should have freed up more carriages to compensate for the increased passenger numbers? No. The 7.30am was still a two-carriage affair which was generally full upon arrival at Stalybridge.

Obviously there are a few definitions of “full” when it comes to Northern Rail commuting; 1)’Nearly’ full – each seat is taken and there is a single line of people all the way down the aisle and a few standees in the areas near the doors. 2) ‘Still room for a few more’ full – People are smeared up against walls and doors and wedged into each others armpits. This ensures they cannot fall over due to train movement as there is no physical space to fall into.

Eventually Northern Rail seemed to learn that leaving so many people behind at Stalybridge and Ashton simply wasn’t acceptable, and so started to run one of the larger two carriage trains on this service. Even so, it still became too full. On one occasion, the train did not even stop at Ashton as it couldn’t be risked that more people may have crammed themselves onboard. This must’ve been a tough break for those who actually wanted to get off at Ashton.

More recently, four carriages started to appear on the 7.30am service. This isn’t guaranteed however, and I would estimate it only happens 75% of the time. For the other 25%, it goes back to being the two carriage nightmare, and on these occasions, I find myself not even trying to get on, preferring to wait for the Piccadilly train. And here’s the rub: why should we, as the paying customer be forced to put ourselves out due to the inadequacies of such a vital service?

So, this is just my morning commute. The trains in the opposite direction are equally as bad, if not worse. I generally have the choice of either the 17.14, 17.27 or 17.57 trains back to Stalybridge each evening, but I have recently learned that the best bet is the 17.27, as the other two are full to bursting a good five minutes before they even depart. Again, I appreciate they are going to be busy as they are commuter trains serving all stations out to Huddersfield, but when I’ve had half days off I find trains in the middle of the day with only a handful of passengers are still the same size. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that you need more carriages at busier times does it?

I have had plenty of other shambolic experiences on Northern Rail trains too. Only last night, a Northern Rail train back into Piccadilly failed to materialise, with no warning or explanation. The next one was half an hour later, meaning I missed my connection to Stalybridge and I was forced to spend a small fortune on taxis in order to get home. I will be outlining to Northern Rail that this is unacceptable. I could even try invoicing them for the taxi, but to be honest I don’t expect to get a response. The company has a captive audience relying heavily on it for a range of commuting and social needs, and unfortunately it simply isn’t up to the job.

I should be free to choose which train I get – I pay enough for the privilege. I should be free to travel in some form of comfort. There are always those more deserving of a seat than myself and I don’t necessarily expect to sit down, it’s only 15 minutes after all. I would just like to be able to stand somewhere without another commuter grinding against me the whole way.

It doesn’t just appear to be Northern Rail customers that have these issues either – during recent Metrolink work to “improve” the service, I have heard numerous horror stories about how trams disappear, or are hugely delayed, or break down constantly, or are too full to board. Again, customers have chosen to travel in the wrong direction for a couple of stops so that when the tram turns around they can guarantee they will be on it.

So, is this symptomatic of this country? I don’t think so. I have no idea why TransPennine Express seem far more capable of running a train service than Northern Rail. If the Government really want to cut car use and encourage people to take public transport, should they not step in and force companies such as Northern Rail to adopt some of the good practices that other companies (such as TransPennine Express) have taken on board?

People are so sick of the shambles that is Northern Rail that they have taken to editing the Northern Rail Wiki entry to express their disgust. A disgruntled individual has even taken to setting up the Twitter account @northernfailorg to retweet everyone else’s hatred of the company and the “service” it provides. People are posting pictures online of the shabby trains and the rampant overcrowding. 

The problem is, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Emails to the company are ignored. Comments to station and train staff are met with indifference. On some occasions, I have heard the train conductors encourage passengers to complain to Northern Rail in the hope that something is done. To reiterate, that is Northern Rail employees encouraging people to complain about their own employers. What sort of company is this that forces its own staff to take such drastic measures?

So, when will it change? No idea. Maybe if everyone refused to pay they would soon learn? But then Northern Rail would probably claim they couldn’t afford to run the services. All I want is a clean, efficient service that gets me from a to b in relative comfort. Is that really too much to ask?