Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Seduced by a flapjack

Oooh, first class is nice!
I took advantage of my upgrade this morning, as mentioned in yesterday's post. The empty carriage was a haven of calm in which I was able to concentrate on reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (children's version, I'm not one of those who needs to pretend to be reading a grown-up book) without having to listen to the usual babble of people on their mobile phones and children on their summer holidays.
Then, even better, a man appeared, offering tea and cake! Flustered at such generosity, I took the nearest, a date and honey flapjack, and extremely nice it was too.
I can see why the First Class ticket holders wouldn't want to give up this kind of treatment. There was even a copy of the Times newspaper tucked unobtrusively into the pocket of the seat back. I had no need of this, being fully armed with a large hardbacked book, as previously mentioned, but put it into my bag anyway. It's not often you get anything free from First Great Western, and I wanted to make the most of it.
Well, I'm sold. Delays feel much better when there's a man poised by your elbow offering a selection of hot drinks and cake. If FGW realised this, they'd give out a few biscuits to customers in cattle class. I tell you what, I bet the number of complaints would fall rapidly.

Monday, July 30, 2007

First Class Upgrades

As a season ticket holder you are one of First Great Western’s most important customers, apparently, and as a thank you for your continued custom, they would like to offer you a free First Class upgrade during off-peak journeys on your normal route for three months.
Go here and fill in the form to print off your upgrade voucher.
I know it's not much use to those who only use the train during commuter hours, but if you've been working late, why not take advantage of the comfy seats? I know I will be.
I don't want to sound an ungrateful note here, but do you know how I found out about this promotion? Not on the FGW website, not on a poster at the station (though apparently there are some, maybe I'm not paying enough attention), but on a FGW customer's forum. I sometimes get the feeling FGW have a tendency to bury their good news, why would they do that? Still, there it is, sign up today!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bigger, stronger... and more expensive, perchance?

I see the government has announced its plans for a "bigger, stronger" railway, carrying twice as many passengers by 2030. Among the schemes in Ruth Kelly's masterplan are the enlargement of Reading Station and a rehaul of the signalling system, both of which I heartily applaud.
But, hang on a minute, how are these schemes to be paid for I wonder?
Well, the plan is that the extra passengers will provide the money, except that it's going to take an awful lot of extra passengers to pay for all this improvement, which includes longer platforms and more carriages on trains, again, great ideas, which I welcome.
I fear that the cost will be passed on to the passengers, who already pay a premium for a crap service. Will we be prepared to pay more for a good service? Surely we can't be expected to pay more to endure years of work on the lines, while we wait in queues outside the station?
Government ministers insist there won't be a big rise in fares. But I don't believe them. We'll end up paying in advance for a service which is bound to get worse before it gets better. What a surprise.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mark Thomas Hates First Great Western!

At least he does tomorrow. That's when my McDemo is due to take place in Parliament Square. For more on McDemos, see here.
Between 09.30 and 10.00am tomorrow, Mark Thomas will hate FGW on our behalf, and will send me a photograph to prove it.
Tragically, I can't be there because of work commitments, but if anyone happens to be down that way in the morning, please go and have a look, and make sure he's hating them as much as we would like him to.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Glug glug

Well, what can I say? A mini-monsoon descended on the south of England at the end of last week, and I'm sure we've all felt the effects.
Strangely, the worst delays to my journeys to work and back have been caused by the roads rather than the rails. My village sadly disappeared under water, as you can see. The picture on the left is courtesy of the BBC and local resident Phill Nederend, see more here. I've been leaving my car in Reading, which is lucky, as that's one of the only places the trains were still going to at the height of the flooding, so I was able to drive home, though I had to turn back several times as I tried to find a road into Pangbourne that wasn't under several feet of water.
The village is now once again passable, but now I have new worries. As the water flows down from the tributaries into the River Thames, there are new flood warnings. And where is my parking space in Reading, you may ask? Yes, it's at a friend's house right next to the river, near Caversham where the river is threatening to break its banks.
Strange times indeed. Should we start building an ark?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A commuter out of water

Its very strange. I'm the same, I wear the same clothes, I take the same route to work. But everything else is different, everyone else is on holiday, towing enormous suitcases, wearing garish t-shirts, and having absolutely no sense of urgency whatsoever.
My summer of late shifts means that I travel to work in the middle of the day, and it's making me feel like I've landed on a different planet. Normally, when I tut and shuffle, trying to get to the front of the queue for the train door, I'm surrounded by other people dressed in dark clothes, tutting and shuffling along with me. And it works fine. We're like a moody river, all moving in the same direction, all in a bit of a rush because of some signal failure or other, all moving smartly away from the train upon exit and striking out with purpose towards our chosen tube line. And absolutely never, and I mean never ever, stepping down from the train, stopping dead still, and looking around in amazement at the sheer excitement of being on Paddington station, suitcase blocking what's left of the doorway, with no awareness whatsoever of the commuter standing behind you, fit to burst with frustration and almost falling over your stupid suitcase.
There were actually a million people on Paddington station today. Where they hell were they all going? And why did they feel it necessary to sit all over the floor, so that I couldn't find a way through the milling, disoriented, bag-dragging, stopping-suddenly-for-no-reason-whatsoever-and-then-staring-around-in-wonder crowd to get to the underground entrance.
I think I need a holiday. And when I do have one, I will be sensible and get into my car. Like normal people do.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Great big gigantic signal failure

Well, last night's trip home was a bundle of fun I can tell you.
Due to what I eventually found out was a great big gigantic signal failure (that is the technical term), we were all turfed off our late night train at Slough, and treated to a double decker bus ride through Maidenhead and Twyford, before being deposited at Reading. Through a stroke of luck, my car happened to be at a friend's house in Reading, otherwise I shudder to think how I would have got home to Pangbourne, where another dreaded rail replacement bus is also in place from Tilehurst because of work on the line. I still didn't make it home until after 1am, but at least it didn't cost me anything.
So, this leads me to another question - why do signals fail so frequently, and why can't they be fixed or replaced so that they don't fail so often?
Signal failure is one of the most common reasons why trains are delayed, so I feel I should try and learn a bit more about it. I realise that the signals are not part of FGW's remit, but I don't care about that, I just want to know why the system doesn't work, and how to fix it.
This is all I know so far from a brief foray on the internet: signals can fail for a variety of reasons (what reasons?) and when they do, they always "fail safe", which means they go to red for safety reasons. That's about it. I can't find anything more helpful, apart from very technical descriptions of type of signal and signal procedures, which I can't bring myself to read.
So, rail fans, what's the answer? Whose fault is it and why isn't it being sorted?

Friday, July 13, 2007

What a lot of old Potter

Reading station may not have enough platforms, but it does have ten, which is why I was getting quite irate at having to wait outside it at midnight last night. When we eventually got into the station and I finally got off and began to wait for my connection to Pangbourne, I heard one of the station staff say that the reason the train couldn't use any of the other platforms was that work was being done on the line.
Does that also explain why we had to wait outside Paddington station at one o'clock this afternoon? Why am I always sitting on trains outside platforms, is it simply that work is always being done on the line, or is it a lack of staff, or simply bad management?
I have another theory. In the middle of the night, when the ghosts are abroad, I think the line is cleared for the Hogwarts Express, and assorted ghost trains, leaving us mere mortals on First Great Western crawling along in the dark, slowly losing our minds.
I'm afraid that the late shifts might be taking their toll on my sanity, but I would like to know the answer to this question. Why are the late trains always so badly delayed when there's so little traffic at that time of night?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Not sure whether to laugh or cry

Poor First Great Western. Sometimes I feel almost sorry for them. As regular visitors will know, I've been trying for some time to get a refund of £12.00 for a taxi I had to take when a replacement bus service failed to turn up. Since then, I've been exchanging letters with the Customer Service Department, who eventually agreed to give me a refund. However, a month later, I'd still not received a cheque, so I sent a third letter, chasing up the payment. These are selected highlights from the letter I received yesterday:
"I regret there has been an administrative error, and the ordering of your cheque has been severely delayed. However, I have arranged for another cheque to be sent to you at the earliest available opportunity"
"As a goodwill gesture ... I would like to offer you a complimentary Standard Class ticket to make a return journey with First Great Western at any time in the next twelve months"
"I am happy to enclose a Rail Travel Voucher for £5.00"
"I would like to thank you for your letter and your patience in this matter and hope that this will be resolved to your satisfaction soon"
Honestly, all I want is my £12.00 back, but FGW seem utterly unable to send it to me. So, instead, they've so far given me £30.00 in rail vouchers and a free return ticket, valid for 12 months. Which must be worth a few pounds as it's a standard return, which as we know is almost as expensive per mile as a charter rocket flight to Mars.
It almost makes me feel guilty, as though I'm kicking a puppy, when they're so grovellingly sorry for not being able to give me what I want.
But then, I think back to my journey this morning, in which my train from Pangbourne was delayed, and I only made my connection at Reading by sprinting full tilt across the entire station in a most undignified fashion, even though I'd allowed plenty of time for delays.
And, I read articles like this one in the Times, and it turns out I don't feel so bad after all.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The left luggage ... found!

The bag has been retrieved, with only minor disruption to its contents, and a charge of £3.00 for the dubious pleasure of rifling through my smalls. Happy days.

The left luggage

I don't know how it happened, but this morning I managed to leave a bag on the train when I got off at Paddington. Actually, I do know how it happened, because last night I was celebrating with my friend, who'd just passed her motorbike test. Champagne on a school night can have this effect on the brain, and somehow my poor fuzzy noggin managed to forget that I'd packed up some clothes for the weekend, and stashed the bag in the overhead storage area. It wasn't until I was almost at work that I stopped dead in the middle of the pavement with the horrible realisation that my bag was probably about to become the subject of a controlled explosion. It's not a very clever idea to leave things hanging around on trains in the current climate, even if it is a bag containing nothing more dangerous than a pair of jeans.
I immediately phoned the lost property office at Paddington, and got a recorded message asking me to leave my name, number and details of the lost property. This I did, and heard nothing back. When I got to work I found another number and called again, only to get hold of someone with very bad English, who could only tell me I needed to come to the Lost Property office on platform 12. Not easy, as I had to go straight into a meeting.
So, the current situation is that I don't yet know if the bag has a) avoided being blown to smithereens, or b) made it to the Lost Property office at platform 12.
I'm now going to spend my lunch hour travelling to Paddington and back, so I'll let you know.
Apologies if you were at the station earlier and this caused you any delays, it's the sort of thing I'd be really annoyed about if someone else did it. So, if you're really angry, let me know, and I'll give you the mobile number of the friend who gave me the champagne, as really it's all her fault. I'm nothing if not fair.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Straight from the horse's mouth

I am delighted to welcome members of FGW staff (and indeed those from other train companies) to the blog, who've recently become involved in the debate about how customers are treated, and why delays happen, and have put forward their points of view. It helps us no end to know that we can finally get a straight answer to a straight question, something that is sadly unforthcoming from the company's management.
So, please visit a new blog that could be very useful http://www.iworkforfgw.com/, giving out the kind of information that can help us understand the challenges involved in getting the bloody trains to run on time, something we all want, staff and customers alike.
I'd also like to take this opportunity to distance myself very clearly from the kind of people who abuse the staff, the idiots who ruin it for the rest of us by proving that we can't be trusted to behave like civilised human beings, I hate people like that even more than I hate FGW. Maybe there should be some kind of "sin carriage" which gets towed behind the back of the train, with no seat and no roof, for those kind of people. That'd learn 'em.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

We are human beings, honestly we are

Ah, July. The seemingly endless sunny days, the birds singing, the children playing in the park ... half of the country under water and rail signals being hit by lightning. What in the name of all that is normal is going on with the weather at the moment?
I arrived at Paddington last night to see the commuter's worst nightmare: a departures board with the word "cancelled" on every line, and thousands of tetchy suit-wearers milling around impatiently.
The reason, it seems, was a lightning strike at a signal at Southall. Now, I of all people realise that we can't blame FGW for the weather. But what annoys me is the way we're treated when things like this happen.
Rather than give out the latest information as quickly as they get it, we are herded behind closed gates and forced to guess which will be the next train to leave.
I wonder, does the crowd really become uncontrollable if you tell them that the train that's just arrived at platform four will be the Penzance service, calling at Slough and Reading, but please could you wait for it to be cleaned before we let you on it? Surely we're not such animals that we would charge through the barriers willy-nilly, barging the poor cleaning people out of the way as we set our sights on the prize - the empty seat? Would we?
I do wonder sometimes, when I see the way people behave during rush hour. But I like to think that we're civilised enough to be given all the information and still behave ourselves. And, actually, when it is something like a lightning strike, we don't mind so much, because we realise that's not the company's fault.
Though the trains were absolutely packed last night, people were fairly cheerful. It would have been different if trains had been cancelled because there was no driver available, or not enough carriages. So, please, try to treat us like human beings and let us prove that we are capable of behaving like them.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Will I also hate Virgin?

I'm being given the opportunity to try out another train service this week, as my work takes me to Birmingham. Not sure how that happened, but there it is.
The only things I've noticed about Virgin to date are the amount of time the trains seem to spend sitting at the platform at Reading station (long), the length of delays the services are able to rack up on a long distance journey (epic), and the fact that the staff look like airline cabin crew in their swish new red trains. This is probably not enough information for me to make a proper comparison with the services of First Great Western, so I shall be taking copious notes.
This latest development also means that I have a seat reservation on the 18:45 from Paddington to Reading on Wednesday which I won't be using. Any takers?