Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Suggested supplementary training for ticket-inspection staff

To whom it may concern,

I wish to bring to your attention a recent encounter with Virgin-affiliated ticket-checking staff working at Preston Station, following my journey on a Northern Rail service. In doing so, I hope to make staff at both Northern Rail and Virgin aware of the levels of rage they are conspiring to evoke in customers unlucky enough to have to negotiate between them.

At 8.55am on Wednesday 24th August, myself and around 40 other passengers boarded Northern Rail's Colne service at Ansdell and Fairhaven. Railcard in hand, I was ready and waiting to pay for an open return to Manchester. Anyone familiar with this service will know that there is no means of buying or collecting tickets at the station (or at the next two stops) and that during the summer in particular, this hourly service can reach sardine-tin levels of overcrowding. Unsurprisingly and despite his best efforts, the conductor on this train was unable to sell every passenger a ticket by the time the train reached Preston, where most of us disembarked.

It transpired that the unsmiling, bouncer-like ticket inspection staff at Preston were not at all familiar with the hourly train from Ansdell and Fairhaven, as first evidenced by their inability to find "Ansdell" on their machines. Never having found myself mid-journey without a ticket before, I assumed that the staff were stationed between platforms partly as an auxiliary means of selling honest passengers coming from unstaffed platforms on overcrowded trains the correct tickets. Apparently not. Apparently the job of these enforcement personnel is first and foremost to make people without tickets - whatever the reason - feel as though they were about to be hauled into custody at any moment.

I was told, sniffily, that railcard discounts could not be applied to tickets bought "after you've set off", by which I assume was meant "after one leg of the journey has been completed". Unwilling to add another 50% to my travel costs due to my own honesty in the light of circumstances beyond my control, I explained the situation again, emphasising that this really was the earliest time I could have bought a ticket. Taking on the tones of the strictest of Victorian schoolmistresses , the woman in question told me that it was my responsibility to find the conductor, wherever he may be on the train. She repeated this statement at least four more times, despite my increasingly vivid accounts of the conductor's valiant passage down the train, pausing in his epic task of supplying tickets only when called upon to open the train doors. No, it was still my responsibility to procure from him a ticket, presumably via some kind of death-match competition against other passengers. Regarding her manner, I cannot remember having been subjected to such tones of belittlement and assumed guilt since I was last falsely accused of eating in class at primary school.

A further suggestion from the front-line, friendly face of Virgin customer service: "You should have found the conductor on the platform when you got off here". If this is standard practice, and I have to say that I've never seen it attempted, I think we may have identified a major cause of those delays you're all so keen to cut down on.

I had tried my best to remain calm and polite throughout this exchange, but I fear I was only saved from paying the penalty (for that is what the extra 50% most certainly is) by the fact that a far more openly enraged (and smartly-dressed) ex-banker next to me was having the same argument regarding her daughter's fare. Maybe if my t-shirt had featured "Mature Student and Ex-Teacher" in an imposing font, rather than a cartoon picture of an owl, I'd have been treated with less obvious contempt. On the other hand, maybe the supposed social standing and lung capacity of the passenger should have no bearing on how they are treated.

I am long beyond hoping that the overcrowding on my local branch-line will one day cease to be a problem. If, however, you are to continue with the system of having staff from one company check that passengers travelling with another company have bought a ticket when they should have done, then those staff should be familiar with the conditions on that route. I therefore recommend a "gauntlet day" to be added to whatever training ticket inspection staff currently receive. This will consist of the following:
  • Trainees should be deposited at one of the unstaffed stations on the Blackpool South line, preferably coinciding with the Pleasure Beach's opening weekend, the Illuminations switch-on ceremony, or a local derby at Bloomfield Road, and instructed to purchase a ticket from the conductor before the train reaches Preston. In the interests of health and safety, helmets and knuckle-dusters should be supplied.
  • If unsuccessful, they will be required to accost the conductor on the platform and purchase the required number of tickets from him or her, in the face of those passengers still on the train, whose journey they are now delaying.
  • To ensure that this training exercise conforms as closely as possible to the real-life user experience, trainees will be expected to figure out this final step on their own, as there are no signs in either train or station - or, I suspect, anywhere outside of certain ticket-inspectors' imaginations - indicating that this is an acceptable course of action.
Of course I do not expect my suggested remedy to be adopted immediately. In the meantime, I would like to have official confirmation that I should have either jumped in ahead of other customers on the train, or held up the conductor on the platform, in order to avoid paying a much higher fare a few metres further into the station.

Yours faithfully,


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Stefan Collini on University Funding Reforms

The full article is well worth a read as it goes into some detail about how the government will attempt to control student numbers while maintaining the fa├žade of university autonomy and student choice. This passage is from the final paragraph, and states something which should be right at the core of education policy:

The expansion of the proportion of the age-cohort entering higher education from 6 per cent to 44 per cent is a great democratic gain that this society should not wish to retreat from. To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded.