Saturday 20th August 2022
Southern and Thameslink seem to be going through a bad patch lately with cancellations and delays for a whole variety of announced reasons including “due to more than the usual number of trains needing repair at the moment”; “due to a shortage of train crew”; “due to a problem under investigation” (my favourite); “due to signalling problems in the South Croydon area” and many more.
That latter issue caused mayhem on Friday last week with capacity at East Croydon more than halved with the fast lines out of action due to problems with the signalling.
Trains were taking more than an hour to travel between Victoria or London Bridge and Gatwick Airport rather than the usual half hour.
Inevitably this led to cancellations of journeys putting great strain on journeys still running on a busy hot and sunny Friday heatwave afternoon coupled with the inevitable station skipping ordered by ‘Control’ to try and recoup lost time.
I got caught up in it on a journey back from London on Friday afternoon and after suffering a ‘rammed’ journey down the Brighton Main Line ended up on Haywards Heath station platform as ‘Control’ had decided Victoria to Littlehampton trains would have stops at Burgess Hill and Hassocks (among many others) cancelled on at least three consecutive half hourly trains.
The problem was alternative stopping trains at those stations on Thameslink were also caught up in the same disruption with many similarly altered with station skipping.
The upshot was I had plenty of time during a long frustrating wait to listen to the announcements playing out on the PA system; and they were playing out continuously because that’s what happens when you have an automated system with defaults for how often and after what interval any individual train journey that’s delayed must be the subject of a broadcast. So, when everything is seriously delayed, the upshot is serious PA continuous verbiage.
And what a load of complete rubbish they all are too.
Does no one in GTR take any interest at times of disruption like this? Just when passengers want helpful updates and advice, the system is useless at best and down right misleading in reality.
The problem stems from what probably seemed like a good idea at the time of auto-announcing a journey delay or cancellation coupled with a tag line that goes something like …. “we are sorry that the 16:04 Southern service to Littlehampton has been delayed by approximately 37 minutes. This is due to a fault with the signalling system. Passengers for Littlehampton, your next fastest alternative service is the 16:34 Southern service to Littlehampton. Passengers for Burgess Hill and Hassocks, your next fastest alternative service is the 16:20 Thameslink service to Brighton. Passengers for …..” and so it continues with variations for Portslade and other stations along the coast by say, going via Brighton.
The concluding remarks are particularly galling … “Please make sure you have the correct ticket for your journey” implying you can’t use a Southern ticket on a Thameslink train and vice versa, which is not true anyway as you can, as well as any journey specific advanced purchase tickets not being valid. Any business putting passengers at “the heart of everything we do” would be only too pleased at the time of such disruption to immediately waiver any ticket restrictions to ease the difficulties being faced by passengers.
You know, something like “due to this disruption which we understand is hugely frustrating for you we are only too pleased to waive any ticket restrictions to help you on your way”. Can you imagine ever hearing an announcement of that ilk on the railway?
The current announcement then signs off with the false platitude: “we are sorry for the disruption this may cause to your journey”.
No you’re not. If you truly were “sorry” you’d ensure such unhelpful verbiage noise that these impersonal unhelpful auto announcements provide would be switched off at times of disruption and a member of staff at the station and on the spot would give out personalised updates as they become available from information feeds and give a heartfelt and sincere apology.
The issue is once trains become more than half an hour late and ‘Control’ is instituting station skipping the “your next fastest alternative train” part of the announcements is useless since that train (unbeknown to the auto announcement) is also significantly late and will almost certainly NOT be stopping according to the original pattern as assumed by the auto announcement. That train being similarly delayed won’t be arriving until after the delayed train that was the subject of the announcement, so it’s a totally irrelevant and misleading announcement.
It becomes even more annoying when it announces ‘your next fastest train ….” then not long after announces that train as being delayed so it’s NOT the “next fastest train” which we all knew anyway. The system being deployed only works if one train is out of sequence, not when there’s widespread disruption.
At a station like Haywards Heath where there’s a frequent service northbound to both Victoria and London Bridge (and beyond to Bedford and Cambridge) as well as three separate routes southbound to Brighton and Coastway west and east with at least eight trains an hour in each direction (north and south) the consequence is completely useless auto announcements playing out continuously for the whole duration of the disruption supplemented by manual intervention every time a train eventually pulls in with a frantic correction that contradicts the misinformation.
It all makes for a chaotic and confusing listen which adds to the sense of despair felt by both passengers and staff, rather than conveying the impression the disruption is being managed in a calm and efficient manner.
On Friday I witnessed quite a few passengers looking totally flummoxed by the whole experience.
I asked why the announcements can’t be switched off. One member of staff shared my frustration but explained such a decision is way beyond his pay grade, another delusionally advised such announcements were helpful for passengers.
No wonder research by Transport Focus regularly finds one of passengers’ top priorities is better information at times of disruption. With all the information now available in the public domain on Apps and online there really is no excuse why train companies can’t get this sorted once and for all.
For five minutes a few months ago it was the latest whimsy of our attention grabbing useless ‘four-trains-an-hour’ Secretary of State for Transport. Seeking a sycophantic supportive headline in the Daily Mail, he pledged a war on wasteful announcements but just like registration plates on bicycles, denouncing train drivers for not working voluntary overtime at the same time saying they should not be allowed to work overtime as well as inviting voting for our favourite town to banish employees of the fledgling Great British Railways it was just a one day wonder and another excuse to expose his uselessness on the media round, just like the announcements themselves. Useless.
Turn those auto announcements off and use a human being instead.
Shut it. Stop it. Sorted.
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