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8 things that have to happen before I and the general population stop complaining about public transport

September 29, 2013

 Any article by me would not be complete without the acknowledgement that some people are part of the group I am about to complain about. If you do work for any of the national rail services or as a bus driver, I apologise for all of us, the public. I’m sure you do your job to the best of your ability and we all complain about you, The Driver, The Diver, The Evil One who lets us all be late to work because you don’t do your job properly. You must be sick of it. And yet, you probably have similar feelings about your colleagues whenever you are a member of the public attempting to travel, as opposed to behind the wheel.

I don’t claim to be any expert in travel, finance or government goings on, nor privatisation and public service. I can however identify 8 things that need to change if people are to stop pulling their hair out over the transport.

1) Reductions in ticket price for lateness, for any reason other than nationwide calamity.

I’m insistent on this. For rail in particular, there is no comeback at all for bad service. The fact is, you don’t get a lot of choice as a commuter as to what transport you take to get into work. There are few options available to you and there is usually one that is by far the best without actually being particularly good. To have the people responsible for your journey constantly mess it up and have someone who is nothing but the front man for the service (your driver) or worse, an automated message, give a factory standard apology, is not good enough. There is no motivation for the train companies to improve their service in a world where most people have to use their system. That needs to change.

If you know, as a service provider, that you have to give a refund for a bad service, then you damn well make sure you give a good service. This is how other services work but as a public service, transport is more or less exempt. It shouldn’t be. We pay a ridiculous amount of money for it much of the time and if we are not satisfied, those responsible need to be accountable. Full refunds may be impossible, but the prices being charged should always reflect the service that is offered. If it doesn’t, we’ll keep on whining, probably at the government. And the government does hate whining It looks bad on them, you see.

2) Culling of illogical price reduction / increase.

Look, do yourself a favour, train companies. Don’t charge £5-10 extra for a paper ticket than you will for Oyster, and don’t charge only 20p extra for a return ticket compared to a single (I know that second issue is currently being addressed – about time). You know what that does? It tells us, the customer, that you know your prices are unreasonable. You see, if you charge me about the same amount of money for a single ticket, then that means you either a) gave a heavy discount for the return ticket, meaning you know the equivalent price would be way too high, or b) you bumped up the price of a single ticket to make more profit for less. Twice the service should be twice the price, and any discount for multiple purchases should be small enough to pass for a happy little reward for frequent customers, like buying supermarket jam.

A public service should not be legally allowed to manipulate price figure to that extent. If you can afford to offer return tickets at that price, you can afford to offer single for less, since obviously most people going out want to come back in, so most people are buying returns. As far as I know, South West trains doesn’t offer day trips to the Bermuda Triangle. Similarly, if you can charge £5-10 less for oyster – a system that requires up-to-speed electronic, online, direct debit, bankery futuristic shit – you can afford to offer a poxy piece of crumbled, easily lost and oft-ineffective piece of cardboard for the same approximate price. Cardboard doesn’t cost three times the price of a train. Once again, most people travelling in London are travelling by Oyster, so that’s the majority share comes from. I don’t understand this frankly punitive charge for people going on a day trip or people who have forgotten their ticket. And you wonder why so many people skip the fare or try to travel on a child’s ticket.

3) Free fares for kids, or at least for kids from low income backgrounds.

Come on, this has to be a no brainer. Kids are being forced to stay in one area; one school, one library, one set of resources and connections. The whole reason why “bad areas” even exist is because people can’t get the fuck out. The nice town a bus ride away might as well be in New Zealand as far as school kids are concerned, if they can’t afford that bus ride. A greater blending due to freedom of travel could only bring up the standard of schools, towns, and the live of kids generally – since it shouldn’t be restricted just to school trips, when clubs and youth groups may not be in the immediate area. The problem with cycling or being driven is that first, you have to be rich enough to have bike or a car.

In a society that recognises the need for free essentials, like school lunches, travel has to be the next step. Its fundamental, a bottom-line equaliser that changes the shape of pre-teen’s choice of secondary school. The Labour government’s EMA scheme involved an allowance being given to 16 year olds from low income families as an aid and incentive to continue into higher education

The innovators of that scheme had their hearts in the right place, but it was useless; quite apart from the fact that all our books and materials were either very cheap or completely free, of the two recipients I knew personally who considered EMA an adequate incentive for continuing higher education, both dropped out without any qualifications regardless – though not before spending a considerable amount of the money on all manner of useless trinkets that kids from high income families did not own, if only because their parents (responsible, full-grown adults as they were) did not tend to offer that amount of pocket money to their kids so that they could make frivolous purchases on a whim. It was inevitable that your average 16 year old would if they could, and there was no attempt made to stop the misuse of EMA by having a register plus receipts of purchases made using it (which, apart from anything else, would have been good training in responsible expenditure and the value of money, something all young adults would strongly benefit from).

Compared to that utter flop, surely a system of free transport would be a better (and more widespread) use of our tight financial resources? Yes, times have changed since Tony Blair, but ever there was a time to think long term solutions to long term problems like youth crime and education, it is now – even if schemes can only be instigated in coming years when the budget is a little more forgiving. As far as I know, there is no talk of any such scheme and my first question is why. All right, it’s not a priority, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for reasons.

4) Reduced rates for people in higher education, particularly those not on a student loan.

And by “not on student loan” I mean people between the ages of 16 and 18. What a world, where so much effort goes into getting 16 year olds to higher education, but they are charged the price for an adult ticket on a train. I’m sorry, who’s paying for that again? The same people who were paying for it when the kid was 15 years old, I’d imagine. Either the parents could afford it, or they couldn’t. Chances are your average parent doesn’t win the lottery when their first child crosses the threshold into “adulthood” (worse; partial adulthood in the eyes of the law). When so many qualified adults are unemployed, do we really think that 16 year olds are getting Saturday jobs like in The Good Old Days?

And if they are, shit, their reward for such dedication and discipline should not be to have to pay for their own school expenses at such a tender age. Let them save it for when they have no choice but to be financially independent If we’re going to live in a society that looks down on children for not working, we could at least actively encourage them to save their money (I’d love high interest rates or other incentives for 16-21 year olds setting up savers accounts, but that isn’t going to happen). Instead, we insist that if you want a discount, you’d better pay up front for it, courtesy of the Young Person’s Railcard. And how easy it would be for the government to issue free ones to low income teenagers. Alas, as always its the people who are already disadvantaged that are exposed to more disadvantage.

5) Information on the behaviours, earnings and spending of individuals at the top of the chain.

This is an important one. You’ll notice that when major companies come under scrutiny for staff cuts or unethical practises in relation to energy and suchlike, they come under fire from journalists and members of the public who want answers. They aren’t allowed to wriggle out of it. I see surprisingly little about the rail companies and their policies and changes, considering its rubs people up the wrong way every day. I had to dig deep for that news about the cap on pricing single tickets as almost as much as return tickets and it’s not as though people aren’t interested. A service that serves the public every say should be open to scrutiny every day, at the highest level. It’s their responsibility to whether it and use it as a good solid incentive to make changes. I think we ought to be hearing almost as much from out travel companies as we do our energy companies or even our politicians. It’s that important.

6) The end of peak / off peak prices and calculated pricing for services rendered.

OK, so get this: if you buy a ticket when everyone else buys a ticket and are squashed up like sardines in a can for an hour, unable to breathe without smelling someone else’s breath or armpit, you will be charged more than if you travel in a train where you get a seat and enough elbow room to actually read a paper. Um, what? Imagine if the post office charged you more money to send your letter next door in twice the amount of time it takes to send it across the sea, and you’ve got the logical equivalent

Just to be clear; no more trains run during rush hour on weekdays. They are equally as sparse (except on a Sunday when they are half as frequent, with no change in price). The increase in price is not due to a boost in service. As far as I can tell, there is no reason for a peak price at all, other than to get more money. And for the third time, the majority of people travel in peak time during rush hour, that means that for the same service, you are making a tidy profit. If anything, it is the off-peak fare that should be more expensive.

As an aside, the varying in coach length is arbitrary and bordering on cruel. At least, I hope it’s arbitrary, because if it isn’t, its calculated and bordering on cruel. An eight coach train that could offer a seat for everybody on it is sometimes switched out for a four coach train where half the people on it have to stand. And once again, there is no price reduction for that obvious lapse in service that stresses people out and pisses them off. It’s the same price for literally half the service.

7) Service with a smile!

Much underestimated in this busy day and age. This criticism is for of buses. I’m not asking for all bus drivers to be rampant party-people, but something above sullen would be nice. Perhaps they aren’t being paid enough or get too much abuse, but there’s nothing more remote that someone locked behind a booth who never speaks. You don’t even have an interaction when you pay, if you beep in electronically, like with Oyster. My problem is that it does effect the efficiency of the job. I have had drivers drive off without me when I stopped to pick up a dropped item and refuse to grant me entry to the bus late at night, claiming it to be full when another passenger had just got off. This is cantankerousness at its worst and all sense of customer service that would, for any other service, drive people away is forgotten in favour of efficiency. If this is the policy of the bus companies, it needs rethinking.

8) Better complaints system.

If I complain in a shop, my complaint will be taken seriously because they want my patronage. They want me to review them well. Public transport is unique in how much it gets away with because there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Not one of my complaints to Transport for London has been followed up, and they introduced a cumbersome system whereby I have the physically describe the individual who has displeased me. Chance would be a fine thing; the train driver’s locked away in some compartment somewhere, the guard never walks down the train like he says he’s going to and the bus driver is so obscured by six feet of plate glass, I couldn’t see her if I had my face pressed up against it. It’s like the company refuse to acknowledge that the problem lies at the top. They just don’t want to know about it if they can’t fire someone for it. No wonder those bus drivers all look so bloody miserable.

Now, this doesn’t offer many answers as to what precisely should happen and where the money should come from for funding what shouldn’t happen. I am aware that, judging by how much repair works apparently need doing, there must be a need for a lot of money, explaining the ridiculous fares. In that case, it should definitely be an issue for tax and redistribution of government budgets. I can’t stress this enough: this is a public service. It doesn’t matter how privatised it gets, it will always be a public service because the public have to use it. I don’t know about buses, but there is one major railway system going to any one place because there is simply no room for any more than that. As such, we have no choices in provider. In that case, our choices as to how the provider operates should be heeded. If changes made need to be government enforced, so be it. Let’s at least talk about it other than to say “Oooh, I know. Isn’t it awful.”

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