Victoria train station the day before Good Friday

Southern Railway – market leaders … of a sort

in Out and About

Pissed-off Toff has a brief encounter with a train operator notorious for the misery it inflicts on its customers.

The clear blue morning sky and the fresh spring air brought a sense of wellbeing that not even the constant din from building work next door could dispel, and my spirits were further lifted by the prospect of travelling to Winchester tomorrow, to go for a long walk on the South Downs with a friend. “Why don’t you get yourself a Network Railcard while you’re about it?” he said, at the end of a conversation about train times. I had been meaning to do this for a while. And so to Victoria railway station, shortly after midday. 

It was no surprise to find the place heaving with humanity, nor was it a surprise to find a long queue at the ticket counter. This much was to be expected on the eve of Good Friday. The surprise lay elsewhere … because despite the fact that this was one of the busiest times of the day on one of the busiest days of the year in one of the busiest stations in London, only two of the thirteen windows at the counter were open. The queue was making no progress at all; indeed, it was lengthening as I watched; most of the people in it were tourists, as likely as not with time-consuming problems to be addressed; so if I wanted my Network Railcard in advance of my journey, I would be here for – what? – an hour at the very least. Others were making the same calculation, and from time to time various people in the queue gave up and walked away.

Determined to make some show of discontent about this situation, I approached a junior member of staff who was standing nearby. “It’s nothing to do with me,” said the girl. “It’s a company decision to reduce staff at the windows, so that people use the machines instead. It’s for your convenience.”

I duly pointed out the obvious … that the ticket machines are for same-day travel only; that you can’t use them for railcards and advance tickets; that the queue was getting longer and longer; and that this being the day before Good Friday, they should have more members of staff, not fewer, at these ticket windows.

“The machines are there for your convenience,” she repeated, parrot-like. Whereupon I walked off.

* * * * *

Back home, I shared this sorry little tale with a neighbour, who suggested that I buy a Network Railcard on-line. This was just what I didn’t want to hear.

“I’m fed up with doing everything online,” I replied. “Plus, I’ve looked at the leaflet for this railcard, and for the digital version you need a smartphone … which I don’t have. And it’s too late to get it by post.”

She emailed me the link nevertheless, and out of idle curiosity I had a look.

“Digital Railcards are available instantly, without the need to wait for post,” chirruped the railcard site. “You will just need to upload a photo and download the Railcard app to your iOS or Android smartphone. Alternatively, you can opt to have a plastic Railcard sent to you by post.”

Note the dishonest use of the word ‘just’. The customer will ‘just’ have to upload another damned photo and will ‘just’ have to download yet another accursed app … and will ‘just’ have to fill in yet another digital form and ‘just’ have to remember yet another password. All this will ‘just’ be done in a jiffy, of course. And it’s all for our own convenience. Nothing whatsoever to do with the company shedding as many of its operating functions as it can, and offloading them onto the poor customer.

* * * * *

But back to my own Network Railcard. If I want it in old-fashioned hard-copy card format (and it is clear that this is not what the railway people want me to want), another visit to the ticket counter at Victoria is the only way to get it.

Victoria train station is run by Southern Railway. When, earlier today, the junior employee said that it is the company’s policy to reduce staffing levels at ticket windows so as to make passengers use the ticket machines, she was certainly telling me something that the management does not want to admit. And when she told me that all this was for my ‘convenience’, she was not doubt repeating a line which she had been taught to say, no matter what the circumstances, and no matter how obvious the lie or how evident the in-convenience.

As my one brief experience earlier today made clear, and as millions of beleaguered commuters know only too well, Southern are quite indifferent to the needs of the passenger. What they care about is cutting costs. If as a consequence we have to stand in the aisles of overcrowded trains or queue not for a few minutes, but for an hour or so … well, that’s too bad. And just in case this notoriously incompetent operator does not get enough fun out of making our lives a misery, they add insult to injury by telling us that it is all done for our own convenience.

But let us give Southern Railway their due … because to mistreat, ignore, deceive and insult your customers all at the same time takes some doing. On this front at any rate, they show boldness, imagination, and even perhaps a touch of artistry. They are, indeed, market leaders. Of a sort.