Friday, March 27, 2009

"Valued customer"

Excitingly, I received my first proper grown up piece of direct mail from my rail company this week. It's a significant moment. It feels like our relationship has finally moved on to the next stage, after a courtship of seven years (I never was one to rush into relationships). We have both, it seems, accepted the inevitable, and recognised the symbiotic bond that links us, I the passenger, they the transport providers. After all, what is a transport provider without passengers to transport? If a tree falls in a deserted forest and all that. The point I'm somewhat clumsily making though (and this in fact follows directly from my last post about privatisation, which is not deliberate) is that I am no longer a faceless commuter. I am now a Valued Customer. I know, because it says so on the letter.

It is of course nice to be valued. However, I have to say I am not made to feel absolutely and completely valued by the rest of the text. "According to our records," it says, "you are a FCC Monthly Season Ticket holder or have been very recently." Now, most of that sentence I'm fine with. Indeed I applaud them for the perspicacity of their record-keeping (although as I say I have been a monthly season ticket holder for seven years, with the odd break for holidays, so its not as sharp as all that).

But "or have been very recently"? No, I'm sorry but I'm not having that. I am a FCC Monthly Season Ticket holder right now, FCC, and you should know that. How is this relationship going to work if you don't keep up to date with what's going on in my life. You expect me to stay abreast of what you're doing, developments in your world, and I do, but it can't all be one way. Is this not an equal relationship?

The letter then goes on to tell me about the Seats For You programme, which is apparently going to add 4000 more seats at peak times "from May" - I'm sure that deadline has moved. Which is all well and good, except that the train I regularly get in the mornings (again, see my previous post), which was a very handy time that allowed me to have breakfast with The Little Commuter and still get to work on time, has recently without warning been cut in half, reduced form eight coaches to four. It's not too hard to figure out why, because clearly having a train running at peak times that doesn't get completely full is clearly a waste of capacity that would be welcome elsewhere on one of the exceptionally crowded services. But it's the way they've just gone ahead and done it on the sly, without so much a tannoy announcement, as if this was always part of the plan, that gets me. They make a big song and dance about how well they're doing and how great we should all be feeling ("You've never had it so good" to quote that politician bloke) and then try to sneak little things through on the sly. I feel slighted.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Private Parts

With all the coverage of the the proposed part-privatisation of the Royal Mail (a potentially prickly purpose) I find myself reflecting on the state of the railways a few years after that particular controversy. Now whilst I am certainly not in favour of large-scale privatisation of public services (the most profitable does not always equate to the best service) it is only fair to observe that privatisation has not meant the end of rail transport as we know it, led to less reliable services or stranded passengers. In fact, if anything things have got better. Punctuality has improved, rolling stock has been updated, and on intercity routes the food has undeniably got better.

I don't know whether or not the derailments and crashes of recent years were down to the greedy fat cat businessmen putting profit before passengers and not maintaining the lines properly (as the media liked to portray it at the time) or to long-standing neglect and systemic failure by successive governments (as slightly more grown-up commentators put it at the same time). I suspect it's a bit like the current furore over Sir Fred's pension, being whipped up by vote-hungry politicians and sales-hungry journos, whilst RBS's big-money sponsorship of the Six Nations goes unmentioned, presumably because the rugby draws large crowds and sells plenty of papers.

I do, however, know that the trains on my line are hardly ever more than five minutes late, that over-crowding has eased (at least a little) in the past year (for which I personally am happy to pay a bit extra on my fare) and that whenever there are changes to the timetable, the services or anything else that I need to know about, it is publicised via the web site, SMS, leaflets - genuine multimedia stuff. I can't see that happening under British Rail.

I know I sound like an unalloyed capitalist, but I go back to something Charles Handy once said (and if you don't know who he is, look it up) - the strength of public sector organisations is policy-making, the strength of private-sector companies is implementation. So surely there must be a case for some kind of partnership?

My, my. What a serious post. I think I need to finish on some kind of joke.

What did the signal say to the train?

"Don't look now, I'm changing."