I can recall the precise moment I’d finally had it with South West trains. It occurred shortly before Christmas last year and I was attempting to get home from MT’s office in Twickenham back into Central London. The train I had arrived to take was late. Nothing new in that whatsoever. Punctuality is never the suburban train operator’s strong point and one of the reasons why yesterday it was announced that many of the suburban train franchises are being withdrawn and given to Transport for London. (Last year Peter Hendy, the then TFL head, memorably described these outfits to MT as ‘shit.’)
When it finally arrived the train was absolutely packed. Many passengers had to stand up as there were no seats free. Then I noticed pair of middle-aged guys occupying a pair of window seats with their arms folded. One was reading the dismal commuter paper, Metro. From their branded fleeces it soon became obvious they were SW Train drivers heading into Waterloo to drive a train out again.
So there we all were, SW Trains customers having paid many thousands of pounds for annual season tickets standing up while this pair of oafs sat in comfort ignoring their customers’ inconvenience. Nobody had the nerve to ask them to vacate their seats. There were no visible ‘Baby On Board’-badged women around. We probably felt scared: if we’d dare to ask to sit down they’d have pulled the emergency switch and demanded their colleague up front down tools for harassment. Never mind the fact we were paying their wages, they treated us with contempt.
As I stood I wondered in what other business this would be acceptable behaviour. Take British Airways or easyJet, for example. You all troop on the plane but several punters have to stand up because a pair of cabin crew are going home to base and need a seat after a long, hard day. Maybe you could squat for a couple of hours in the WC. Or Waitrose or Tesco. You go into a store and the staff ignore you when you ask where the trolleys are. They then look straight through you when you ask where the olive ciabatta is located. Then as you struggle at the till with two screaming kids filling your eco bags four staff stand and laugh at you while you try to pack your groceries.
My central point here is that passengers are not ‘customers’ to these rail businesses; they are a problem. A mere nuisance that gets in the way of their sinecure. They are able to treat customers in this way because those long-suffering individuals are trapped. If you live in Surbiton you cannot walk to work in the City of London. If you are a serious pedalhead you cycle, taking your life in your hands and turning your thighs into sheet steel.
For the role of the customer to mean anything there must be a market. There must be the possibility to walk away and penalise a business for poor goods and or services. To take one’s trade elsewhere. With suburban commuting this alternative does not exist. Nor can it, really. You simply can’t have rival train operators fighting for space on the rails. There is insufficient capacity already. It would make things even more inefficient.
This is one of the reasons why the privatisation of transport and many of the utilities was a nonsense. If you want to travel from Exeter to Glasgow you can drive, chose Flybe or go by rail - and take all day. But if Thames Water suddenly started pumping raw sewage through my shower head I could not turn off the direct debit and negotiate with Severn Trent. Instead you have a massive, cumbersome and endlessly gamed system of regulators which cost us all a fortune. It’s very disappointing.
Finally, things might improve marginally - at least in London if not elsewhere - when Transport for London take over these train services. But don't bank on it. As has been shown many times over that organisation, while massive and centralised, operates under the grave disadvantage that it has next to no control over its own low-skilled workforce. Witness the way the transport unions have held the whip hand all the way over the introduction of a nighttime tube service - a system that any self-respecting world city has had for years. The RMT does not give a monkeys that the tens of thousands of people who work in and use the nighttime economy are reliant on slow, over-crowded night buses or, god forbid, the satanic American import Uber - that destroyed honest Diamond Geezer London cabbies’ livelihoods - to get themselves home to their beds at 4am. It doesn’t care about customers. Because it doesn’t have to. It just has its members’ interests to protect.
MT’s cycle-commuting deputy ed Andy Saunders adds: It may have its hair-raising moments in heavy traffic, but I’d take cycling to work over the alternative - Southeastern Trains for me - every day, even on a day when rain is horizontal and the wind is trying to blow you into the path of that crazy-eyed skip lorry driver who just pulled out in front of you.
Sitting on my local platform with 150 other grumpy and exasperated souls, listening in the winter half-light to yet another robo-voiced ‘apology’ for yet another delayed or cancelled Southeastern service is enough to make anyone crack. So get on your bike - your local train operator won’t care one way or the other, but at least you will wrest back control of your destiny from them. And get to work faster - and fitter to boot.