Thursday, 16 August 2007

It's All Gone Quiet At The Front

Apologies for my absence blog fans. I regret that I have been out of the country (well, in Bristol, but that might as well be another planet to me) with little time to do anything other than explain exactly what libel means and chip in a bit with the promise of this post.

Since my last post, you've been letting me know about how horrible things were last Saturday night and I do sympathise. Ollie has helped me out in my absence with a bit of info and he is right again but the core of the problem seems to be lack of and incorrect info.

This is not a new story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is FGW's biggest failing among things that they have total control over. Well that's not really fair. They have total control over how they disseminate the information but not always total control over what information is available.

I'll give you an example of this. Remember back on 2 July when the lightnig hit the signals and everybody was stranded. There were a whole lot of complaints that customers were not being kept up to date and staff could not tell them what was best to do. Problem is, the staff weren't being kept up to date and they didn't know the best thing to do. As you all know, Network Rail fix the signals and they provide FGW with info on how it's going and timescales and all that jazz. Or, at least, they are supposed to. They very often don't.

Staff don't know what is happening. They can't tell customers when the problem is likely to be fixed. They don't want to tell customers to go to Waterloo and get a SW train to Reading if the problem is going to be fixed in 20 minutes so they say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing and get labeled (unfairly I feel) as unhelpful and uncommunicative. Your experience Tim, is an example of when staff have guessed and been wrong and subsequently looked bad.

Yes FGW should and do push Network Rail for updates but if they won't tell, we can't make 'em. I think maybe we should consider station announcements to say 'Sorry you're delayed. We'd like to tell you what's going on but Network Rail won't tell us. Sorry.'

Some of the time, you can substitute Network Rail for another TOC or an external organisation, like the Coroner in the case of fatality or the Fire Department in the case of, well, a fire. So next time, you're stuck at a station and the train is delayed, and you don't know what's happening, think about why you might not know.

Of course, that is not to say that FGW is totally faultless. When customers are not even told what is wrong, that is inexcusable because that is easy to find out. Control know what has happened and one quick phone call from a station and Control will tell them, it comes up on the tracking system. Sometimes, staff do know what is happening and don't tell people.

Sometimes, this is laziness on the part of the staff. Sometimes, it is fear. I know that I would not really want to face the whole of Paddington station, full of commuters and have to tell them that they aren't going anywhere for 3 hours. It's easy to say to the staff that customers will be less angry knowing than not knowing but it seems like a different story when you're the poor sod who has to do the telling. (I've done both parts of it, so I can sympathise). Ditto for Train Managers.

Sometimes TMs will deliberately keep passengers in the dark or lie to them. Not very ethical, I know, but long experience has shown us that if a TM announces a fatality or a fire or something like that, it sprks panic in some and a morbid curiosity in others. Either way, not something you want to have to deal with.

This applies to 'on the spot' information, but, of course, there are many other types. Like advance information on cancellations and changes to the timetable, as Tim and jp mentioned. There is no excuse for not providing this information. It's available, all stations get it, hard copies and pager messages.

I personally think that it should all be displayed on large posters so that there is absolutely no doubt about what is going on. I also think that we should go back to the paper copies of amended timetables that were in the station info racks. They were great and very useful.

I appreciate the fact that knowing what is going on and an approximate timescale can mitigate the frustration of a delay just a little and I think that FGW staff do appreciate it too and they get just as frustrated when they don't know and can't help, not least because they have a station full of people yeling at them.

To answer Tim, the staff on the Customer Service booth are not usually a different grade than the staff under the departure boards unless someone is filling in, but the staff at the booth tend to get a more varied line of questioning and the departure board staff get a little jaded, I think, at being asked the same thing all day.

That's my take on information. There's more but most of it is tangents and a bit rambling. So, to keep a bit more focused, I'll open this up to questions from the floor.


Ollie said...

The problem with the information desks under the screens at Paddington is they do not have the resources needed to do the job.
I haven't visited any of the desks in a while, but I believe all they have is a copy of the Station Workings Book, a copy of the timetable books, and in front of them 2 screens, one for arrivals and one for departures.
If you are wanting indepth information about connections or future travel, strangely enough, the information desks are not ideal.
Whenever I next talk to a manager at Paddington I will bring this issue up as it needs to be looked into.

petsco said...

the easiest thing for everyone to do is put these links in the mobile phones/blackberries/whatever.


these will tell you anything - and it's a lot more accurate than the scores on the boards....

Anonymous said...

"I think maybe we should consider station announcements to say 'Sorry you're delayed. We'd like to tell you what's going on but Network Rail won't tell us. Sorry."

Absolutely. When FGW doesn't know what is going on they should have the honesty to admit it. Most customers would prefer this to silence.

Likewise if noone is sure whether a stopping train to Reading, SWT from Waterloo or a replacement bus service is going to be quicker, you should just say that.

Thanks for your comments Ollie about the info desks at Paddington - they ought to have access to a travel planner to help with connections, a rail map to help find alternative routes, and the phone number of someone else who they can call ifthey don't know the answer to a question themselves.

I think that having the help desks is a good idea because it makes your staff visiable to the public but they need to be properly supported to do a proper job. At the moment they are little more than window dressing because any sensible member of the public can look at departure screens himself and distribution of timetable books and compensation forms could be done by a display rack.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the FWG guy who misinformed me about the stopper train, was not at a desk. He was standing at one end of the concourse (nearish platform 1?), possibly with another member of staff I can't recall. He didn't have any screens other than the ones we could all see. He did seem to be stationed there though, possibly to direct people to the bus, except he was telling everyone to get the stopper train instead!

I agree, if they are not sure, or are offering "best judgment" advice, they should say so.

I don't think it would be helpful to say things like "Network Rail won't tell us" - sounds far to much blame passing - but it might sometimes help to say that you are waiting on an update from the signaling, track repair or whatever it is.

Remember that even when things are not directly in FGW control, the fact that there is poor information passing between NR and FGW is at least partially FGW responsibility. Certainly as far as the customer is concerned.

Anonymous said...

'We'd like to tell you what's going on but Network Rail won't tell us.'

Is this intended as a smoke-screen.

I do recall a press release issued by FGW stated that they and Network Rail had set up a JOINT control room at Swindon and the intention of this was to provide a BETTER flow of information to customers.

So how can you say that NR wont tell us or are the FGW staff in this so-called joint control room sworn to secrecy which gave rise to the comment, NR wont tell us, as a way of saying we might just know what and why the delay is but NR wont allow us to tell you the customer the reason.

Insider said...

I'm aware that the staff at the information desks do not have the most technologically advanced information sources at their disposal. But it doe snot take 2 minutes to go over to the other desk and get a copy of the relevent information for the day, like a list of planned alterations. I agree though, Ollie, that it does need to be looked into. May have to mention it to James.

Ah, the infamous 'joint control room'. You are right, Anon, it does exist. However, it relies on NR staf on the scene of the problem to pass on to NR control information about the current problem and a timescale for resolving it so that NR can tell us and we can pass it on. As the on-scene staff very often are unable or unwilling to do this, the joint control room achieves little of what it is meant to.

Ollie said...

I'm covering at a different station then off for a week, but aim to have a talk with James when I get back. Will let you know when this happens.

Timmer said...

It would be great if FGW went back to publishing their weekly timetable alteration booklets, something that they did really well was providing info on changes to train times at weekends. Even if they only published them online it would be a huge improvement on always being told to 'check the online journey planner'on their timetable alterations page.

Bringing them back would also compensate for FGW's May TT booklet 'A' where all three Sunday timetables for this route were left incomplete when published.

Anyone looking for train services on a sunday would think no services were running to/from certain stations.

I know a lot of that will be down to Network Rail not providing confirmation of train times in time for going to print but surely if FGW made the booklets smaller they could do reprints every few months including the latest times if they are not going to return to weekly or even monthly TT alteration booklets would be good.

P.S Does anyone know if FGW are going to put leaflet/TT racks back up at Bath Spa? Since the refurb there is only a solitary display rack in the booking hall with only a handful of publications. The old travel centre had a huge selection of leaflets and timetables. Thanks

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I was on a train and we came to a halt at a signal outside of a West Country station.

The driver got out after the usual few minutes wait and used the signal telephone and then got back in the cab.

After a couple of minutes the driver got out again and started walking towards the station when the conductor guard came on the PA and announced that there was a points failure and the driver was going to investigate.

The driver was seen to pick up something, throw it away and walk back to the train and in doing so used the signal telephone again.

The signal went to green, the driver got back in the cab and as we set off the conductor guard came on the PA again to announce that the driver had examined the point and found a tennis ball had wedged itself between the point blade and the running rail.

Now as to the 'man on the spot' not communicating with his masters, this may be so but the signallers know whether the delay is a points failure, signal failure, power supply failure, track circuit failure, tree on the line or even it they dont know they could simply state that it is due to a problem currently under investigation and relay that information to the passengers. Some information is better than no information at all.

Returning to my original comments, I am sure the operating authorities in conjunction with the safety aurhorities could devise some procedure for the drivers to hand crank and clip a failed point using the equipment from the lineside cabinet or for an emergency point clip to be carried on each train.

In the case I described, had the driver been able to do this and it was a case of a points failure I am sure a further five minute delay would have ensued. Contrast this to another incident that happened to another train I was on. The train was approaching Westerleigh Junction and we had to go up the Charfield line when we came to a stand, there was a problem. The NEAREST available person on-call to deal with the problem had to be called out from Frome in Somerset, some 25 miles away and we, the passengers were informed of this situation.

There can be be no excuse for not informing passengers of a delay and it shouldnt avoid waarning passengers that the delays could be substantial if 'the man on the spot' is unwilling to advise on possible length of delay.

JP said...

Another new "rant" I'm afraid. As per usual, Insider's views would be much appreciated.

My train this morning departed at least a minute early, and having bought my ticket I watched in horror as it pulled out whilst I made my way down on to the platform. I emailled FGW who - to give them credit - have already responded.

The implication in their response is that it was indeed early ("this was due to the fact that our staff had already started to dispatch the train, and the doors were locked"). The response then goes in to detail about the Train Dispatch Procedure (again, something to give them credit for) which is quite interesting but I was not happy with the point that "it's the passenger's responsibility to be on board before the train departure time". That is fair enough, but even allowing for the usual 40s to lock the doors prior to departure, the train was definitely early this morning. If it hadn't been I would have been able to honour my side of the bargain and been on board before it left.

Now perhaps that this goes back to an earlier discussion about allowing plenty of time for ticket queues etc, but given the fact that more often than not I am left waiting for a late train it is very difficult to justify allowing more time "in case the train is early".

Ollie said...

Normal procedure should be about 30secs before departure, lock doors and depart. This does vary station to station, but in general it is 30secs.

Anonymous said...


I have some suggestions about ticketing that I'd be interested to hear your views on. I believe that they would help encourage more passengers but at the same time spread the load onto off peak trains:

1) Why don't you sell off peak season tickets? Is this because peak time season tickets are so (relatively) cheap anyway. If there is logic in making off peak journeys cheaper and peak time journeys more expensive why doesn't that logic apply to season tickets?

2) Why are walk-on off peak singles about the same cost as returns? It would make more sense for them to be half the price of returns. There must be many people who travel to work every day and need to travel in the peak on one leg or their journey. They buy an open return which is valid on peak trains for the other leg of their journey. They therefore have no incentive to do that journey off peak even if they were able to. Before you say that savers are regulated and that you can't change them, why not just ignore savers and introducce your own ticket ranges?

3) reasonably priced off peak singles would also attrack more passengers to the railway as you will get people who travel one leg bu plane, car and bus and use the train for the other leg. I use National express coaches to get to Heathrow airport from Bath. The coaches are infrequent and slower than the trains but there is an early morning coach to the airport that is very convenient because it is fairly fast and connects well with my regular flight. Returning to Heathrow the coaches home are unattractive. Prebooking is difficult because I don't know with any certainty when my flight will arrive. The frequent Raillink and train service to Bath seems a better option, but I have to spend the price of a return to take a single journey. If there are two of us travelling to Bath, I've done the maths and got in a cab instead. Likewise there must be people who fly from our region to Scotland because there is a well timed evening flight that they can catch after work or an early flight that will get them to Scotland in time for a morning meeting, but who would be perfectly willing to get a daytime train home on a Saturday and avoid the hassle of the airport if the price was right.
There will also be customers who book the outward leg of their journey at a bargain advance purchase price and who are unable to do the same for their return leg because the advance purchase tickets are sold out or because they don't know exactly what time their return journey will be. An off peak single at half the price of a saver return would be attractive to them.

In the 1950s, if you wanted to travel anywhere the train was the main option. Nowadays people have more choices and the internet allows them to shop arround for bargains across all modes. If pricing singles at half the cost of returns makes sense for advance purchase tickets and for budget airlines why doesn't it make sense for off peak walk on fares?


Insider said...

OK, this is gonna be big. Firstly, I entirely gree that there is no excuse for not informing passengers of the nature of a delay. I think I alreadu said as much.

The point I was making is that specifics are not always available and that is the problem. People want to know when they stnd a chance of getting where they are going and that is the information that is mostly lacking. If you want to know the reason for a delay, that's easy, any fool can look that up. so yes, I entirely agree.

Most FGW rains do carry an emergency clip. Granted, this is usually used to force the signal behind the train to danger if the train suffers a problem on the line, but drivers do clip points when they can. However, infrastructure and regulation of trains is an NR thing and they get quite jealous if we start messing with their track. They would much prefer one of their MOMs coming on scene and deciding a course of action.

I'm sorry that your train left early jp. Sometimes it does happen. NR signaller shows green and the train dispatches and departs even though it is before regulation departure time. It's a pain I know and doesn't happen every often I'm pleased to say but there are times. If it was actually early, then you should have got an apology, rather than the e-mail you did get, but customer service use trust to check early trains and it may not have registered early on there. Either that, or you got some jelly brain who automatically assumed it was your fault. I'd ask them to re-check.

Tim, your thoghts deserve thir own post. And so you shall get it.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,
Better introduce myself first...I'm a regular FGW traveller with a bit of an insight into railway operations because I'm a guard and trainee driver on a heritage line (hence the frequent travelling on FGW, to get to and from!). Looks like there's a bit of confusion here over point clips and track circuit clips: track circuit clips are small sprung metal clips connected by a wire carried by all trains. In the event of an emergency, e.g. a derailment obstructing an adjacent running line, they are clipped between the rails. Running lines are equipped with "track circuits" i.e. a weak electric current which is short circuited through the wheels of a train: this, by and large, is how signalling systems detect a train's presence. The track circuit clip "fools" the signalling system into thinking there is a train in section thus turning signals to danger and protecting the obstruction.

Point clips are a different beast entirely: they are big chunky G-clamps that are used to clamp point blades in one position or the other. This only works when points are disconnected from any sort of point motor or facing point lock, so you can boot them across with a foot and clip them (I know because I've had to do it in the past). Points on the main line are usually motor driven and always locked mechanically if a train is travelling over them in the facing direction, which means you can't always use a size-10 boot and point clip immediately in the event of a failure.


Insider said...

James. Your point is well taken and I will be sure to read comments more carefully before replying to them in the future. Or at least not to do so when I'm very tired and hardly paying attention.

I will say that the point stands, however, that the track is NR's thing and they do like to have their engineers called oput from God-Knows-Where to fix a problem, rather than have the train staff do it.

The situation is, in my opinion, yet another argument in favour of Tocs policing their own infrastructure.