Five-and-a-half long years ago I got a job in Cardiff. I had just moved to Bath and academia being what it is ― with one or two employers per city ― I cast a fairly wide net in looking for a job. I got one in Cardiff. It was at the very limit of commute-a-bility. Just over an hour on the train. For about the first two years I used to tell people my commute was an hour. That was until the awful truth dawned on me that my door-to-door commute was twice that. Just over two hours.

If you follow me on twitter you’ll have an idea of how frequently individual journeys are late or cancelled or full and standing. If you’ve been with me since the start, you might also recall my previous blog in which I let off steam about First Great Western (FGW) when it really bothered me. I’ve mellowed a lot, if you can believe that. But I felt it was time to bring some of my train-travelling woes together in a blogpost again. Don’t worry I wont make a regular habit of it; there’s plenty of other places on the interwebs where you can find more regular commuter woes if that is your preferred brand of schadenfreude.

There are the obvious complaints about overcrowded trains, late trains and often late & overcrowded trains. There’s also the cost. Tickets are really fucking expensive. I spend more than £250 per month to travel a route of less than 50 miles. In my opinion a fair price would be around half that. The train companies attempt to wash their hands of any responsibility in the pricing of train tickets, particularly season tickets. Reminding us that these are regulated fares set by the government. Well successive governments have got this wrong and it’s getting wrong-er. Season ticket fares increase by more than inflation every year, meaning these fares are getting more and more expensive in real terms.

But it’s not just season tickets – I need to travel to Edinburgh this summer for a conference and the cheapest tickets are more than £250 – that’s booking four months in advance as we are told we have to do to secure the cheapest deals. If that’s a cheap deal I’d hate to see how much full whack is. Despite wanting to take the greenest possible method of transport I will instead have to fly, since Bristol-Edinburgh flights are almost a quarter of the train price. Madness.

Subsidised Railways

Why do season tickets go up by more than inflation every year? We’re told this is because investments need to be made in the railway. Right, agreed – it’s a Victorian infrastructure that has done incredibly well to last the best part of 200 years. I’ve heard politicians and members of the public say that the railways need to pay for themselves, that the public subsidy has to be removed entirely. This should be the subject of a politically-tinged blog post in its own right, and indeed at some point I may write one, but for now I shall add a quick thought on it; this aim is bollocks.

No-one in their right mind would suggest that road users should pay a fair price for using roads. In fact, a policy of fair road-pricing would probably kill any election campaign stone dead; and quite right too. Roads are an essential part of the infrastructure of this country. They’re essential for business to flourish and for most people to go about their lives without getting on a horse. But so are Railways. The argument that only those that use the railways should pay for them is absurd. No one suggests that they shouldn’t pay for hospitals and schools because they’re not ill or don’t have children. Nor do they suggest that only those whose houses are on fire should pay for the fire brigade. These are vital public services for a modern, happy, safe and productive society. But no, apparently only those that use the railways should pay for them. This is despite railways being much cheaper than roads, which, even with soaring fuel taxes, still command a larger subsidy than railways.

Faceless Corporation

Anyway, back to the faceless corporate bastards who are my Train operator of no choice; First Great Fucking Western. I should give them some credit; their services have improved a lot since they first took over the Wessex franchise. But frankly they were barely offering a service at all back then. But at their core they’re still money grabbing bastards who don’t give a shit about their customers. As a regular commuter I am hugely taken for granted. They take my extortionate fare and offer almost nothing in return.

For example the FGW twitter feed to answer passenger queries is only manned from 8 till 4, when the majority of commuters are already at work and before they leave for home. The cheap deals you see advertised, are not useful to me as a regular commuter. This year FGW made a big deal about how they’d frozen advanced fares, whilst the cost of season tickets increased by 6%. Thanks for rewarding my loyal custom! Those advanced tickets come with seat reservations, my ticket does not. So when the train is crammed with students with their cheap tickets going home for the weekend, it is season ticket holders ― who have paid more for their tickets ― who have to stand. Nice. When a service is severely delayed by more than an hour ― which happens more often than I care to remember ― those whose tickets have cost a fraction of mine are offered a refund. Season ticket holders on these services can go fuck themselves.

Targets & Triggers

Instead season ticket holders only get a refund based on performance figures. FGW, like all train companies have two figures against which their performance is measured. They have a target, and a trigger. For my route to work the target is 92% of trains run on time, whilst the trigger value is several percent lower at 89%. They’re already given magic goalposts which mean that arriving up to 10 minutes late doesn’t actually count as late. Whilst, if you, the passenger are only 30 seconds early for your train, and “the doors are already locked ready for departure” then tough shit; you’re late.

Given they have this erroneous definition of “late” on their side, why isn’t the target to run 100% of services on time? Would you have a have an operation in a hospital that only targeted success in 92% of operations? If that’s a little bit extreme, consider; would you buy a pizza from a company that only aimed for 9 out of 10 of its pizzas to meet quality control standards? No, neither would I, there’s an 8% chance you’ll end up eating broken glass.

We all understand that mistakes happen and things don’t always go to plan, but in no other industry could a company survive when it only targeted 92% of its products to pass quality control. But the railway industry can survive because regular commuters have to turn up and pay their money no matter what manky cold pizza is served up. I asked FGW why the target wasn’t 100%. They said;

the target value is based on expected levels of performance each 4 weekly period irrespective of the cause of delay

Any idea what that means? No, me neither. But it is staggering that not even lip-service is paid to the notion that they aim to run all their trains on time. So, do FGW use the target as their “target”? Fuck no. It gets worse.

Season ticket holders don’t actually receive a discount if the target is missed. They only receive a 5% discount when the rolling annual average drops below the lower trigger value. I asked FGW what happened if the miss the target. They said;

The target is used in the calculation of the compensation arrangements as explained above and First Great Western pays out to customers under the terms of its Passengers Charter

Which is wrong, since as the Passenger Charter clearly outlines the discount applies when the trigger is missed, not the target. As far as I can tell, if the target is missed then absolutely fucking nothing happens, it is a completely pointless number. Is it any wonder that half of FGW performance targets are missed but their triggers are not? They’re using the trigger as their target in order to not incur any financial penalty.

So, to summarise this situation for the commuter; only if more than 11% of ALL services over A WHOLE YEAR are late ― including the quiet evening and middle of the day services which commuters don’t use ― do we get a 5% discount. 11% late = 5% discount. Does that sound fair? And that is irrespective of the length of the delay; I’ve been on several services more than 2 hours late in the last 6 months, for which no pro rata refund was forthcoming. Meanwhile the occasional traveller, who has paid less for their ticket, is sitting in a guaranteed seat, gets a full refund if their journey is delayed by an hour. Basically, commuters are a guaranteed source of income which rises above inflation every year, swelling the profits of this faceless corporation irrespective of the quality of the service.

Customer Service

All train companies are fairly similar in most of these regards. I have friends and twitter followees who experience similar problems all over the country. Most other train companies do at least pretend to treat the cash cow, sorry, I mean season ticket holders with some respect. Some train operators give their season ticket holders “perks” such as free network-wide travel at weekends, discounts on other services, cheap kids tickets and cheap weekend first class upgrades. Yet the only “perks” FGW have ever offered me are free first class travel at weekend on my season ticket route. Three problems with this; a) They’ve now withdrawn this offer, b) there is no first class on my route and c) I don’t want to go to fucking work at the weekend.

But look at it from a business perspective – all of these perks would cost money to give away. So what’s the point? In a proper market they would have to offer these perks otherwise commuters would take their business elsewhere. But this isn’t a proper market. There is no alternative.

And that surely is the final and most definitive argument as to why the railways are a public service. The simple fact is that commuters have no choice but to use it and there is only one company providing the service. Private corporations should not be allowed to use a public service to line the pockets of their executives and shareholders at the expense of commuters.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major; I hate your bloody guts. But not as much as I hate First Great Western.

Update August 2012

Thanks to the sterling work of Jo on the fgw twitter feed in relentlessly badgering her paymasters, the fgw twitter feed is now manned during all commuting hours.

FGW are extremely lucky that the majority of their ground troops like Jo are incredibly diligent but the organisation is not fit to run public services. Season tickets are still expensive and will go up by 6% in January despite protestations that nothing has been decided yet. They still don’t give shit about their captive market and the trains are still often late.

I’m sure Virgin trains aren’t much better, but nevertheless, good luck West Coast commuters. You’re gonna need it.