The depressing effects of train travel

Last weekend I took part in a challenging adventure. My mission was to get from Exeter to Darlington and back again via Manchester, by train, three journeys, without asking Bill Gates to loan me the requisite cash.

I cheated and started back in November, during the first snowy period of the winter. No, it’s not that I thought the answer would be to walk up there and decided I had better start there and then, although hacking the horse up there might have been a good alternative. That’s how far in advance I had to book to get cheaper tickets. I tried buying via National Rail but their system wasn’t working for some reason – probably all those people logging on trying to get information about cancellations due to the weather. When I emailed them to ask what their problem was they replied that they had no problem, it’s just that shit happens (I have paraphrased that). So I turned to the I got nice cheap tickets from them but because the post was running as successfully as the trains they advised me to collect the tickets from a machine rather than have them posted to me. This seemed like a good idea so I arranged it so that I could pick all the tickets up from my nearest station, well before I was actually travelling, just in case anything went wrong. Although, what could possibly go wrong?

So two weeks beforehand I trundled down to my local station, a 20 minute walk away, with my debit card and booking references. I put the card in the ticket machine. It spat it back it back out and asked for the booking reference which I duly tapped in. The machine spat out several bits of paper – a seat reservation, a ticket, and a receipt. I put the card back in the machine, it spat it back out. I tapped in the booking reference. The machine spat out a seat reservation, a ticket and a receipt. Round three, the trip from Manchester to Exeter, was the last ticket. I put my debit card in the machine, it spat it back out. It spat out several bits of paper. It had not asked for a booking reference but I had the three bits of card I needed and by then there were impatient people breathing down my neck waiting to use the machine.

When I got home I checked all the bits of paper. It seemed unnecessary but since I have had depression I have catastrophised i.e. in any given situation I assume the worst will happen. So it seemed like a good idea to check all the tickets. When I looked at the last set I realised that I had the receipt, two seat reservations (Manchester to Birmingham and then Birmingham to Exeter) but no actual ticket. I tried to tell myself not to catastrophise and talked myself into thinking it would all be alright. The problem must have been the lack of booking reference, I would go back, tap in the booking reference and all would be right, I would get the ticket I had paid for. And, fortunately, I was sorting all this out now and hadn’t actually got on a train without a valid ticket.

So I trotted back down the train station, another 45 minute round trip. I went to the machine, I put in my debit card, it spat it back out and asked for a reference. I typed in the reference for the Manchester- Exeter leg. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing again. I looked around. I had paid The Trainline for the ticket, but who was responsible in this case? Because of course there was no-one from The Trainline at the station. But I approached someone there anyway and explained the problem to him. He checked my debit card and reference number but couldn’t get it to give him any tickets. He checked to see if any tickets had been handed in. They hadn’t. He shrugged. He couldn’t really do anything because my contract was not with his company but with a supplier.

So I went home and found The Trainline’s phone number. I obediently pressed options 1, 4 and whatever it was for ‘You bastarding bastards haven’t given me my bastard ticket. Bastards’. Eventually I got through to an actual live person. An actual person but one with a very strong Indian accent and English was obviously not his first language. At this point I realised that I was uncomfortably close to the limits of my own liberalism. I do not know where The Trainline’s call centres are located. I do not know where this person lives. I have no problem with anyone of any nationality whatsoever having any job, anywhere. I do have a problem with not being able to understand call centre staff and with them not being able to understand me since it should be a prerequisite of the job.

I talked him through the problem. He seemed concerned. He checked my booking number. So far, so good. Then we hit a wall. ‘The tickets have been issued’ he said. ‘They haven’t’ I said, what with me not having got them in my sticky paws, what with the machine not having given them to me. ‘I will talk to my manager’ he said and disappeared for several minutes, at 10p a minute on my phone bill. I considered asking him to phone me back. He returned and said he was trying to sort things out. At this point I made the mistake of saying that I had asked someone at the station for help and they had checked for the tickets but they weren’t there. ‘This is VERY important’ the call op said, ‘what was his name?’ I was stumped by this. It wasn’t that bloody important and I don’t check people’s names. I know that current research blah blah blah indicates that customers prefer to blah blah blah be given a name but frankly I prefer to have good service and a ticket. I only notice someone’s name if the service is bad. I gave the call op details of the time and date of this encounter and told him the place the member of station staff had been sitting. Given that he would have had to be logged on to a computer system, this information made him identifiable to anyone who wanted to find him.

Except according to Mr Call Op it didn’t and it was really important that I remember this person’s name and he told me I must try to think harder and remember it. Except I couldn’t remember it for the simple reason that I didn’t have a bloody clue what it was in the first place. He might as well have told me to think harder about Fermat’s theorem. I don’t know what it is, beyond the fact that it just might be ‘John’ and no amount of thinking harder, at 10p per minute on my fucking phone bill, is going to make me remember it. I’m not big on being patronised, especially at my own expense. We went round and round like this for a while with Mr Call Op periodically disappearing to talk to his manager and returning to admonish me for not knowing the name of station staff and saying that, since the ticket had been issued, it wasn’t his problem. After some shouting that it was his problem since I had a contract with The Trainline for a ticket and no ticket, I put the phone down.

The problem with depression is that you tend to think that in any given situation the worst thing will happen. This behaviour was just confirming it. As far as The Trainline were concerned they had issued the ticket and were not going to do anything about it, end of story. This left me with the choice of either not travelling at all or of paying another 100 pounds for a ticket. I don’t have one hundred pounds.

I took a deep breath and phoned again, this time pushing slightly different buttons in the hope of getting someone less patronising about my ability to remember names. I got through to someone whose first language was English, which seemed like a step in the right direction. He explained that there was often a problem with the ticket machines – they would issue tickets but the tickets would jam in the machine rather than be given out. The machines were the responsibility of station staff who should, if a ticket were not issued, help the traveller. Once this was explained Mr Call Op #1’s behaviour became more understandable although why he had been unable to explain the situation is beyond me. People tend to respond better if you explain things to them rather than patronise them and think they don’t need an explanation but should take your word for it.

But then we went back to square one ‘The tickets have been issued so there’s nothing I can do’ said Mr Call Op #2. So I shouted. This may be a bit of a theme. I shouted quite a lot. I shouted about the fact that I had paid for a ticket and had no ticket and needed a ticket. I shouted about never using The Trainline and never recommending them to anyone. I considered shouting about privatisation and the fact that at least when it was British Rail you didn’t have to go all round the houses blaming different companies. Instead I shouted about the fact that I didn’t care whose responsibility the machines were, it was The Trainline’s responsibility to get me my ticket. I managed the whole shouting malarkey without swearing, except once, under my breath, which is quite impressive by my standards.

Mr Call Op #2 went to talk to his manager (or possibly just to have a lie down and a break from the shouting) at 10p per minute at my expense. He came back. He signed me up as a business customer and ordered me another ticket at the Trainline’s expense for £105. I thanked him for sorting this out. I went down to the station AGAIN. Third trip but this time I got the ticket.

But the whole thing is farcical and redolent of all the things that are wrong with private enterprise. With a fractured system, there will always be someone else to blame. In this case the ticket supplier blames the station staff and the station staff blame the supplier leaving the customer wondering what to do. Which is when the shouting started.

So I have some suggestions for the Trainline and how they might make their systems run more smoothly, starting with the least technical solution first.

1. Stick a sign on the machines explaining that they are the responsibility of station staff and that tickets often jam in them. Explain that if tickets do not appear, it is the responsibility of station staff to find the tickets.

2. When customers are asked to choose how to receive their tickets, have a pop-up that explains the above.

3. Alter your system so that tickets can be reissued. Those fixed tickets are issued with a seat reservation and neither ticket nor reservation can be used without the other. I can understand not wanting to just give out tickets to any customer who claims not to have received a ticket your systems show has been issued, since they could just be blagging a free ticket. So reissue the same ticket, registered to the same seat. It costs you next to nothing and it means that they can’t blag a freebie. It also means they don’t have to shout, repeatedly, at 10p per minute just to get a ticket. Make sure this doesn’t mean you can sell the same ticket twice, just that in the event of customer complaint an identical ticket can be released again. We can fly to the moon and back. This can’t be impossible.

In the meantime I won’t be booking through The Trainline again. Sure they sorted the problem out but it shouldn’t have been a problem, I shouldn’t have had to shout, and I would rather the simple process of booking a ticket didn’t confirm the worst of my depressive beliefs.

Next week, the fun continues as I make it all the way to Bristol before the train breaks down…

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