Training to complain

The UK rail network covers its tracks (no pun intended) with apologies left, right and centre, while passengers moan and whine. No wonder Richard Branson travels by balloon.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘It’s like a fucking cattle truck.’

The sweaty man in the three-piece suit spoke for us all. Forget Virgin Trains’ plea for ‘considerate use of mobile phones’ (1) – he was screaming into his Nokia: ‘I’m sweating like a prisoner of war…and there are two more hours to go!’

Picture the scene: we’re travelling from London to Manchester, a train journey that should take two-and-a-half hours but instead takes three because of ‘overheated tracks’. It’s one of the hottest days of the year and the air conditioning has broken down. There are no windows. It is so cramped that every time you stretch a leg you kick somebody who is trying to read the Guardian while desperately fanning themselves with the G2 section. And train staff, in stinky, sweat-drenched shirts, are handing out ‘free emergency beverages’…which turn out to be miniature cans of warm Virgin Cola.

No wonder Richard Branson travels by balloon.

But even worse than the sticky heat and lack of breathable air was the way Virgin staff kept apologising. Constantly. Every time one of them stumbled through the carriage he’d yelp a ‘sincere apology’, while the man on the tannoy kept assuring us that Virgin Trains is ‘really sorry for the problems with the air conditioning. Really sorry’. They even encouraged us to get our pens out and complain. ‘When you get a drink from the bar’, said the tannoy man, ‘you can also pick up a complaint form – please fill one in and post it back to us’. I’d rather a can of real Coke, thanks.

The British rail network seems to have adopted a strategy of pathological apology. In the wake of the stoppages and delays that almost brought the system to a standstill after the Hatfield crash that killed four people in October 2000, rail chiefs launched a poster featuring the word ‘Sorry’ in huge letters. And then underneath, ‘…is not enough. We realise that’. Not only were they apologising – they were apologising for apologising.

The new TV advert grovellingly asks us to ‘return to using rail’. ‘Travelling by rail hasn’t been easy’, it says, ‘for any of us’ – followed by images of smooth-running trains, smiling passengers, pleasant ticket inspectors and other myths of the heyday of British Rail. It is coming to something when the only thing the rail network can promise a ‘return’ to is…British Rail. Delayed trains and stale sandwiches, anybody?

As a Mancunian friend of mine in his seventies recalled: ‘I remember when Manchester to London took over five hours – and there were no toilets. You’d be bloody lucky to get a word out of British Rail staff, never mind an apology and a free can of fizzy drink.’

As the rail network becomes all-apologising, passengers are reduced to complainants. ‘We want to know if anything went wrong for you’, said a poster at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station. ‘Please take a form and tell us.’ And I have to admit that, for the first time in my life, I filled in a complaint form – half because I was so furious, and half because I thought it might get the crawly staff off our backs. Just don’t try communicating complaints face-to-face with a human being – passengers who cornered rail staff at Manchester to tell them the horror story that was our journey were quickly pointed in the direction of a stack of complaint forms.

Think about the meaning of the words ‘apology’ and ‘complain’ and you’ll get a idea about the relationship between the rail network and passengers today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to apologise is ‘to offer defensive arguments, to make excuses’ – while to complain is ‘to give expression to sorrow, to make moan, to emit a mournful sound’.

That just about sums it up: the rail network covers its tracks (no pun intended) with apologies left, right and centre, while passengers moan and whine – even though we know it will end up in an eternal in-box. No wonder the rail network seems always to be on the verge of collapse.

Back to my Mancunian friend – who wanted to know why I was kicking up such a stink. As a pensioner who remembers the ‘bad old days’, he is delighted that he can now get to London in under three hours for £10 – return. Later, as we were driving through Manchester, he showed me the site of the world’s first-ever railway station, where the Manchester to Liverpool route set the standard for a new form of travel that would – literally – change the world. ‘And we’ve come on leaps and bounds since then’, he said.

Of course, he’s right. But the thing is, the rail network is not likely to make any more leaps and bounds if it keeps being shirky and apologetic. Already the development of ‘tilting trains’ (which travel faster by tilting while taking corners, cutting something like the London to Glasgow journey from five hours 15 minutes to three hours 55 minutes) has been delayed by concerns that the tilt might ‘make passengers feel ill’ – and, of course, because Britain has the ‘wrong kind of tracks’ (2). But the French rail system rebuilt its tracks to enable faster trains – as anybody who has whizzed through the French countryside at 185 miles per hour will know.

If the rail network wants us to ‘return’ it will have to offer more than half-hearted apologies. Transforming our lame, overheated, post-BR, wrong-kinda-tracks system into a world-beater will need a bit of the confidence and vision that launched the Manchester to Liverpool route over 150 years ago – not more shoulder-shrugging apologetics.

But please, before you do anything else, fix the air conditioning on the London to Manchester route.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-proposals: Transport, by Austin Williams

(1) See Travelling with Virgin Trains

(2) See Our plans for the future, Virgin Trains

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Topics Politics


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