If train companies are looking for a way to spin the bad news from the latest Which? survey — which reveals that only 22% of regular rail users think their service is improving — they’ll probably have to go with the suggestion that familiarity breeds contempt. Ask one-off travellers if they’re satisfied with their journey, and you get a vastly more positive response than if you ask commuters.
People using trains every day are less charmed by them, because they spend so much on tickets. That’s in addition to the £3.5 billion we all contribute to the train companies each year to keep the wolf from their automated doors.
The least popular rail companies run commuter routes: First Capital Connect came in bottom, which makes perfect sense to anyone who’s ever mimicked illegally-transported cattle by trying to travel with them. But even the most popular company — Virgin Trains — has only a 67% satisfaction rating.
Perhaps the remaining 33% shared my experience last year, when I had to buy a ticket unexpectedly on a Bank Holiday Monday, and got stung for a full-price, weekday, rush-hour fare. And yes, I do know that travelling without booking three months ahead is now the preserve of millionaires and playboys, but my mother had fallen and broken her hand, something she rudely decided to do with no notice whatsoever. I’ve explained the system to her for next time, though, so now she knows to trip off-peak, at the weekends.
Which? also looked into the creeping menace of incomprehensible ticket machines, exposing the hopelessness of buying the cheapest legitimate ticket without a full copy of the rail company statutes in your luggage and a lawyer as your travelling companion. The Association of Train Operating Companies loves these infernal machines, saying,‘Many passengers find them a quick, convenient way to buy tickets.’ This is rather like a ready-meal manufacturer suggesting that horse-meat is really popular, because it’s been cantering off the shelves for months.
Only one in five tickets is bought from a machine, even now, when a human ticket vendor is almost exactly as rare as a minotaur. This statistic makes perfect sense to anyone who’s ever wondered which ticket they need for their journey, pressed the Information button on a ticket machine in a deserted station, and received the message, ‘Restrictions Apply, Please Enquire’.
If train companies wanted to improve their ratings, they could reduce prices. Even simplifying them would be a start. They could add coaches to crowded routes. Or — and this would cost nothing — they could stop the timetable lunacy that sees a train take 30 minutes longer on a Sunday to travel the route it goes every other day, so it can have a little rest near Peterborough.
Watching the BBC’s morning news when the NUJ is on strike is like travelling back in time. Much as I love Bill and Susanna and pine for them when they’re off the air, I could get used to the return of stern, simplified news. It’s only when you go back to watch Chris Morris’ The Day Today that you realise how many people in news broadcasting saw it as a training video, rather than a satire.
But yesterday morning, all personality was taken out of the early news. A complete stranger in a suit sat in a stripped-down studio, delivering the headlines devoid of fuss. No journos wandered randomly down streets before stopping and producing computer graphics out of their left shoulder. No-one wandered in to discuss the phenomenon of comedians over the age of 55, as happened a couple of days ago. There was just some news, and then a nice programme about horses. I could get used to this.