Alex Warner witnesses a series of customer service own goals on his way to watch a football match in Liverpool, travelling by train, bus and taxi

Judging by the endless procession of awards ceremonies and sometimes condescending employee recognition schemes, the old adage “self-praise is no praise” is an anathema concept for the transport industry. I’ve become cynical about the myth of staff rallying around in adversity as true heroes. This “going the extra mile” customer service text-book lark is often an illusion shared only by employees and their managers, chuntered out so repetitively they believe the spin and manage to sucker the gaffer into swallowing that they’ve actually behaved in this way.

In my heyday, I was culpable too, getting home after an evening peak spent dealing with disruption and then joining in the flurry of self-congratulatory, bedtime back-slapping emails where everyone thanks everyone for their indefatigable enthusiasm and awesome customer service in adversity, when the very next day the phone calls and letters from customers suggest a very different reality. I cringe at some of the flatulent, favour-currying claptrap I used to spew out in emails to “My People” in the immediate aftermath of meltdown scenarios.

These days, though, the wartime heroes are more so the outsourced marketing agencies responsible for social media, or the IT whizz-kids that create ingenious solutions for customers to receive instant service updates. Staff have been overtaken by technology so that their interactive senses have been nullified – we’ll find out via a tweet or text, either from the company or a mate on a nearby affected service.

A few weeks ago, ‘Er Indoors and the tin lids were stuck on Wimbledon station waiting for a train home that just disappeared off the departure screen into oblivion. In the absence of any acknowledgment or advice whatsoever from station staff, it was left to me from the keyboard at home to take on responsibility for managing Wimbledon station. I was able to tell her to inform customers that the South West Trains website was advising that the train had been cancelled and then providing minute-by-minute updates on the whereabouts of the next service as it progressed towards Waterloo on its inward journey and its eventual departure and passage through Vauxhall, through viewing National Rail’s live departure screens. This doesn’t seem right and unless station staff get a grip, they’re writing their own redundancy letters.

A few Wednesdays ago was a classic example of staff being disinterested during disruption. I’d ventured up to Stoke early morning from Euston on an empty Virgin train (customers perhaps priced out of the peak time market), then mid-afternoon caught a First bus to Crewe. Arriving close to Crewe station, something was clearly untoward as a fire engine was outside and our bus driver gave me explicit directions so that I could alight earlier and walk to the station, rather than be caught in traffic. In trying to enter the station, red-coated Virgin Trains staff just held their arms out and said “it’s closed” in a way that suggested incredulity from them that I might expect as a customer to arrive at a station and use it.

So, there we were, us losers loitering outside and ignorant as to what was going on, apart from deducing that it was something to do with the wind and rain. For 15 minutes this stand-off continued, at best we had to eavesdrop conversations from other customers and staff, but those on duty were just standing there, not attempting to do anything to provide assistance or advice. In fact, all I could pick up on was a first and foremost concern about the impact on their own duties. I heard the phrase “not our fault” mentioned countless times and that’s part of the problem in a railway industry where “force majeure” plays as prominent a role in the training manual as does the term “apology”. Staff haven’t been taught the subtle difference between “I apologise” and “I am sorry” – you can express sorrow that my day is about to be obliterated in a way that doesn’t accept liability or drop you in it with the skin-flint, uncompromising, risk-averse finance director.

The defensiveness and lack of proactive information put the onus on me to feel selfish for worrying about my own travel plans. I was off to Everton to see the amazing Crystal Palace and I’m not blaming Virgin for the weather, and I’m sorry that perhaps some folk may have been injured by part of the station roof falling down, but I’d been looking forward to this night for weeks and my train ticket cost £150 – and for that I did expect to get to the match on time. “Do buses go to Liverpool from here?” I enquire. “I haven’t a clue” the Virgin employee replies, so I asked another – “you don’t get bus services round here, none whatsoever” (which was a bit bizarre as I’ve just got off one). “What about arranging taxis for us?” – “don’t know”. Goodness me.

Fat lot of good the taxis were – you’d think they’d be having a field day. There were only two passing-by, keeping a low-profile – one reckoned about £70 to Liverpool, but was reluctant to make the journey and another refused, despite my pressing, to do a deal – “it’s all got to go on the meter”. Replacement buses seemed out of the question – “they may be arranged, don’t know, probably won’t come, buses will be scared of blowing over”. “I don’t reckon we’d lay on taxis either”. “No trains for two hours,” and no apology for longer, if ever, in fact.

Eventually, a taxi arrived and I’d blagged my way in it alongside three local council bureaucrats. We’re off to Chester which I’d deduced might be my saving grace because Merseyrail were sufficiently “local” that they’d be running and in any case our taxi could take me alone onto Liverpool, albeit our driver, Debbie, seemed as reluctant as the rail staff. “I need money up front from all of you,” he said, and then later “the office says it’s £40 extra for you and they won’t let me take you all the way to Everton”. My travelling companions were a convivial bunch and with me stuck in the middle on the back seat, there was a titillating start as several miles were spent with the blonde lady next to me inadvertently fondling my posterior, as she claimed to be struggling to secure her seat belt. But I was more pre-occupied with getting to the match on time and the Armageddon scenario of the team taking to the field roared on by the Palace faithful and my being stuck miles away in some country lane near Wales.

We were going well on the journey, or so I thought until after 45 minutes, Debbie bemoaned, “we’re only halfway there!” and then suddenly the roads became strewn with branches, whole trees, flying debris, floodwater and gridlock traffic. With my Blackberry long having died, it was only on approaching Chester at 19:15 that the overly friendly lady on my right revealed the bad news that she had a husband and also that he had texted to tell her to let me know the match had been postponed. Actually, this wasn’t too bad as rather selfishly, if I couldn’t be there, then why should it go ahead?

Arriving at Chester, we were greeted by Arriva vehicles with “Replacement Bus Hooton” on the destination blinds. Bad luck dictated that I missed these and the next one that emerged just had a blank screen. The fairly friendly driver indicated with imprecision that he was going “towards Liverpool”, which was good enough for me, but confused others. We arrived in Hooton and everyone disembarked, only for the driver to then change his mind and admit he was “going all the way”, so we all filed back on, but not before he spotted a train on a distant platform and told us to run and get it – changing his mind a couple more times so that we all kept running back and forth and banging into each other. Further confusion ensued as the platform indicators said it was going back to Chester, but we were encouraged by Merseyrail staff telling us otherwise, even if they then advised it would sit here for 20 minutes – which it belligerently refused to do so, departing almost immediately!

I was exhausted and still doubting that the game was called off, decided to disembark at a place called Green Lane, for the only reason it was the same name as the street I live in 200 miles away. I was pining for an evening spent in the comfort of my lounge or on the model railway in the attic, so it seemed an apt place to find a pub, charge up the phone and re-connect with civilisation, which I did, before eventually arriving at my hotel in Liverpool by another cab at 10pm.

Arriving back into London late afternoon the following day (morning trains were cancelled – no apology), the highlight of the trip was bumping into the entire Crystal Palace team getting off the same train (they being in First Class). With the kind of star-struck hero worshipping that I used to have for TOC MDs in my formative years, I almost passed out, wanting to chat to them, but unable to get my words out – a combination of stage-fright and sheer exhaustion from a travel test from hell. I did get a shy half-smile from our hero, 32-goal-a-season centre-forward Glenn Murray which was more pro-active and personable a touch than anything I’d received from a whole collection of railway staff during a 24 hours in which I’d suffered endless disruption, but not a hint of contrition.

Verdict: Clearly a challenging evening for transport operators, but wartime spirit was lacking as well as a game-plan. Let’s hope the post-match reviews don’t turn into the trademark mutual “love-fest” about how everyone performed like true heroes – because they didn’t.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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