Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Bringing the rants back home

So I've been spamming my twitter account recently with updates on the farce of commuting with First Capital Connect.

My frustration levels have been rapidly raising the length of my tweets and twitter just isn't cutting it as a stress outlet anymore. This site has been the home of my rants for years so I'm bringing the madness back home.

First a recap for those of you lucky enough to not be prisoners of the First Capital Connect franchise area...

A couple of months back news started coming out that FCC drivers were taking action at the recommendation of their Union. The stated reason was a poor pay deal (freezes for this year with minimum 2% next year if memory serves). At the time I thought this seemed reasonable given the current financial circumstances and was pissed with the drivers.

It wasn't long until it was made clear that the action they were taking was to 'work to rule'. FCC were relying on the goodwill of their drivers to operate their business, and when those drivers decided to work only their core hours, to take the rest days they were entitled to and to refuse the offer of overtime. Because of this FCC had to introduce an emergency timetable cutting the scheduled trains by 50%.

This implies that half of their services were possible only because the drivers were working too long. I don't know about you, but I like to think that my driver is getting the rest he is entitled to. Train drivers have to concentrate for long periods of time and small mistakes can have big consequences. Stress + tiredness = fail.

Sure they say they have new drivers coming and sure training takes a long time. I still think that letting things deteriorate so far equates to monumental incompetence on the part of the managers.

Some people have suggested that the new timetable was organised such that the minimum number of trains are run without delaying anyone by more than 20 mins (the magic number before compensation can be claimed is 30 minutes). Personally I am doubtful that they would be capable of that level of organisation.

Time for an aside on compensation.

In the old days when Thameslink ran the franchise if they missed their targets everyone renewing a season ticket would get a blanket discount. Simples. First Capital Connect have a system called 'delay repay'. Under this scheme, if you are delayed by 30 minutes or more you submit a form and someone from FCC customer services will check against registered stats to try and prove you wrong. In theory it doesn't sound too bad. In practice I don't agree and have given up with it.

It doesn't take account of connections (5-10 min delay can frequently increase journey times by >30 mins but this doesn't meet the claim criteria). It is based on the original timetable (which has been taken down at the stations while the emergency timetable is in effect, meaning you have to do online research to find out if you were delayed or not). I frequently find that trains are too crowded to board (this happened before the current reduction in service too. Having to get on a slow train because the express is full extends my journey but doesn't entitle me to compensation).

When I am delayed it wastes a considerable amount of my time. Sure I am pissed that I pay so much for a crappy service but no amount of compensation is going to get that time back. Given the amount of time I have already wasted, why should I waste even more on an overcomplicated procedure that will only give me a token payment?

Yesterday FCC ran a forum on their website called 'Meet the Managers' where commuters could ask questions and supposedly get answers from FCC management. In the hour the board was open there were around 220 questions. Only a handful of answers gave a name so they could have come from anyone. Almost all the answers could have been cut and paste from recent marketing bullshit posted on the FCC site. It was clear from the questions my opinion on delay repay is far from uncommon. It was clear from the answers that the FCC management don't want to change things. There were lots of weasel words used and no comitment to act.

During the session I asked about the new steps at West Hampstead (Q 207 I think). Background: They started work on putting in a new set of steps between the platforms at West Hampstead. Eventually there will be a new entrance at the side of the station. This is desperately needed, the existing steps to the exit on West End Lane have nowhere near the required capacity and I am frequently queuing at the steps for upwards of 5 minutes just to leave the station. I viewed the steps go up quite quickly and was looking forward to a greatly improved experience. Then they stopped. It has to be near 6 months since any work was done. The construction area is surrounded by hoardings that reduce the width of the platform by about half. When I asked when we could expect the work to finish I was given a glib "summer 2010". Why on earth would you start an intrusive work and then leave it half finished for a whole year before completion? Another example of how management incompetence is causing commuters pain on the Thameslink line.

Of course the other thing they are doing at West Hampstead is increasing the platform length to accommodate 12 car trains. The question 'Why?' immediately springs to mind for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the current platforms can take 8 car trains and many existing services use this; however when the full timetable is in operation there are frequently 4 car trains running during rush hour. Many of the current overcrowding issues could be addresses merely by running 8 car trains through the existing facilities. Secondly, the current exit stairs cannot handle the people getting off of 4 car trains. With the second set in operation there may be enough to handle an 8 car train. A 12 car train is going to get us back to the current overcrowding levels when leaving the station.

So that covers some of my general gripes... now on to a couple of specifics.

Last minute platform changes. Last night I was waiting on platform 2 at West Hampstead for the 18:38. At around 18:45 I spotted the lights of the train as it approached the station. Shortly after I spotted it an announcement was made that it would now be stopping on platform 4. I was at the opposite end of the platform from the stairs (current crowding levels preclude hedging your bets and waiting by the stairs). As I was making my way down the platform and the train pulled in two things became clear. Firstly that I was not going to make it up the stairs to cross to platform 4 in time. Secondly I could see that the train pulling in was already overcrowded and that only a small fraction of thoses trying to cross would actually squeeze on.

Tonight I got to West Hampstead at around 18:38. I was just settling myself in for the wait on the freezing cold platform until the 18:51 when a train pulled in. It wasn't on the departures board. Noone knew where it was stopping. We got on anyway. Just before the doors closed (too late for anyone to get off) they announced it was fast to Mill Hill. Noone in my carriage was bothered by this. We settled in cosily in the aisles crushed together and a few people joked about the pot-luck service. Someone noticed that the display on the platform was listing a stop at Elstree but not Radlett. This made a couple of Radlett residents nervous; however there were confident replies that trains that stopped at Elstree always stop at Radlett too. When we got to Elstree and skipping Radlett was confirmed the general opinion was that getting off was a bad idea. Some people had heard that there might be another train stopping at Elstree some time in January but were unsure of the year.

I was fine because I was getting off at St Albans.

As I left the station I overheard someone say "Its quite fun really, never knowing what time your train will be."

This is no way to run a business. But then its not as if their captive audience have any alternative way to get to work so they can get away with whatever they want.