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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

I’ve always wanted to be in awe of the London Underground, with its complex network of services and its myriad stations that take in incredibly varied landscapes. From the ‘little boxes’ suburbia of Upminster, to the east end of West Ham, with its rejuvenated twin in Stratford, to the eerie Bladerunner majesty of Docklands and Canary Wharf, to the lush countryside of Amersham, the lines of the London Underground go to astonishingly different places.

Frankly, though, the customer experience (I don’t dare suggest we are passengers) is appalling. A single example from a single day:

I made a visit to Amersham to see family on Friday. On the way home,  I timed my journey to take a train selected specifically because it was going all the way to Aldgate. No sooner had it departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Harrow on the Hill as there was an issue at Baker Street. We were told we should board the Baker Street train at Harrow and terminate at Baker Street, picking up another train to Aldgate. We duly did so, trooping across the platform to an empty train (of course, that makes more sense than the one we are on continuing its journey). No sooner had that departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Wembley Park. We were advised to cross to the Jubilee Line (fine for those of us who could alter our routes and go south, but what about everyone else?). As we pulled in there was an empty Jubilee Line train waiting on the southbound platform. As soon as the doors open on our terminated Metropolitan Line train, the Jubilee Line train pulled out, before we could board. It left empty.

What kind of Kafka-esque service is this? Or is it run by people who really don’t give a stuff about providing a joined up service to those who pay for it? If that is my story, from a single journey, on a single day, what are the stories like of the tens of millions of other travellers through the year?

For me it was a minor inconvenience. Irritating, but I know my way around London and the Underground. For the old, the infirm, the visitor, this level of service is embarrassing and appalling.

Arbitrary changes of destination mid-journey. Unexplained halts for minutes on end. A lack of air-conditioning on many lines, with travellers becoming ill, hitting emergency buttons and so throwing travel into chaos. Appalling packing of commuters in sweltering conditions. Platform roulette, not knowing which train is leaving first.  Bored staff who resent being asked questions about destinations. No help with heavy luggage. Only now a grudging acceptance of running some lines through the night.

In any other business where we are told we are ‘customers’ we wouldn’t stand for it. If we went to the cinema and they made us change screen three times, without explanation, and the third time put us in on a totally different film, part way through, I can’t imagine any of us sitting idly by. We would be – rightly – angry that the film was not what we paid for and not up to scratch and we would seek compensation – often willingly given by cinemas keen to maintain their reputation. Yet when it comes to the tube, we simply take the crap that’s dished out as part and parcel of the package – even though the ticket can cost more than going to the cinema! We buy the tickets in advance of travelling, on the basis that they tell us that we will be able to use certain services at certain times to reach certain destinations. Yet there appears to be no mechanism to hold them to account when it doesn’t work according to the ‘offer’. We are told we are customers, but don’t behave like them – and we aren’t treated like them. Perhaps that is because we know the language is a con and that, deep down, we realise we are still passengers.

Don’t get me wrong. The London Underground is a remarkable feat of engineering. It is still an incredible mover of people. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to its embarrassing deficiencies or make us feel guilty for challenging a level of service which should not be acceptable in a rich, world-leading city like London in the twenty-first century.

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There’s nothing quite like commuting on the London Underground to test the patience of most of us. Those who are more creatively-inclined have found an artistic outlet for their stresses. These are shamelessly lifted from Fotoz Up.

All credit to the mischievous travellers who created them – and those that snapped them with a chuckle as they were held at yet another red signal.

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I don’t drive but am fairly confident that, if I did, I would avoid this particular mistake. Even with a GPS…

Flanders News reports the rather amusing/alarming/entertaining case of a Belgian who, wanting to drive to Brussels, programmed her GPS and ended up in Zagreb:

The woman identified by Het Nieuwsblad as the 67-year-old Sabine Moureau told the paper: “I was absent-minded so I kept on putting my foot down.”

Sabine started her journey in Erquelinnes on the morning of last Saturday week. “I was going to pick up my friend in the Brussels North Station” she told the paper.

The journey should have taken just over an hour, but she ended up 1,450 km from her starting point.

Sabine continues her tale: “I switched on the GPS and punched in the address. Then I started out. My GPS seemed a bit wonky. It sent me on several diversions and that’s where it must have gone wrong.”

“I saw tons of different signposts, first in French, later in German, but I kept on driving.”

Sabine had to fill up twice and slept a few hours by the wayside, but claims she never really caught on to the fact that she might be on the wrong track.

“It was only when I ended up in Zagreb that I realised I was no longer in Belgium.”

Oops!

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Guerilla train singing

Commuting is a strange activity.

The journey in has become an opportunity to catch up with friends around the world, using the wonders of modern technology (I am still trying get my head around that – sitting on a train to Fenchurch Street and chatting away to a friend thousands of miles away as if they are the other end of the carriage). The journey home is an opportunity to order my thoughts, perhaps write a personal email or two or, if I have a drunken, leering prat next to me, to pretend I am asleep. (Just occasionally, it is a good chance to catch up on sleep!) The tube is often a hassle, people pushing and shoving and I try to lose myself in a Blackberry Sudoku.

Commuting has its own routines and, with iPods, Kindles and iPads becoming a part of the regular commuter armoury, we become very defensive our own little worlds and find intrusions into it intensely irritating. (Is it irrational for me to be extremely wound up at people eating fast food on late evening trains – something which strikes me as an unnecessary intrusion into my nasal cavities!).

I don’t know if it is our traditional British reserve, but we get very suspicious of the stranger who starts talking to us as we journey together to another place.  I’ve had that reaction, too, which is odd, as I’ve always enjoyed public transport abroad precisely because people seem much happier to talk on buses, trams and trains.  Let’s face it, Jonathan Harker would have been in a lot more trouble with The Count if he hadn’t struck up conversation with the Transylvanian locals in his horse-drawn carriage.

Every now and then, though, something happens that makes me smile, shakes my reservations and reminds me how much fun it can be to lose our inhibitions and be a little more human and a little less robotic.

A friend shared this link with me – and I am sharing it with you.

Well done, Adam Street Singers. If they need tenors, perhaps I’ll join…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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So I have always loved my cool cousin and not just because he is called Kit. Which is definitely cool.

It turns out that he likes German – and for his year out he is working at the Hotel Gasthof Stern in Gößweinstein, where he seems to be having a whale of a time. Bernd and Heike run Gasthof Stern with all the love and attention they would expend on their own home. Kit seems to be fitting right in and will be looking to help see them bumped up from a four to five on Tripadvisor.

Anyway, the main reason for writing this post was to give a plug to Kit’s blog. Funny, well-written and well worth checking out, he seems to have been keeping this talent for word-smithing very quiet.

Hope you enjoy his musings.

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Each morning the C2C trains trundle into London, beginning their journey in Shoeburyness, the end of the line that lies in close proximity to the secrecy-shrouded MOD facilities of the tidal island of Foulness. One hour and ten minutes later they arrive in Fenchurch Street, the oft-forgotten commuter terminal for East Essex that hides between the contradiction of gleaming office blocks and ramshackle reminders of older, darker London such as the East India Arms.

These trains pass through the seaside excitements of Southend, on past the old-now-fashionable fishing town of Leigh and then through the connurbation of Pitsea, which, with the closure of the Motorboat Museum, has almost lost its struggle to retain a sense of its own maritime connections. From Pitsea the journey enters the sprawl of Basildon, the brash young upstart neighbour of both Pitsea and Laindon, both of which were the principal local urban centres prior to the Whitehall social laboratory experiment which was the New Towns Act 1946.

Between Laindon and the sleepiness of West Horndon lies my favourite part of my daily commute: the Bulphan Fen.

Yes, I love the bleak industrial landscape of the detours via the loop line, forced on weary travellers by endless engineering works: the vast and towering complexes of Dagenham; the faded, crumbling decay of Tilbury’s dockside menace; and the empty mystery of Purfleet and its invisible military history. Yes, I love, too, the changing landscape of East London, where clean, proud new build sits between the higgledy-piggledy tangle of scrap-yards, brick-arch businesses and the shells of now-forgotten commercial giants of Britain’s imperial past.

However, for me, nothing touches the vast, rural emptiness of the Bulphan Fen for its capacity to reassure, by reminding me I have truly left the loud metropolitan chaos of the city behind me. Perhaps it is because it is the stretch I have travelled for more years than any other, the daily schoolboy journey to Upminster a daily and extravagant adventure that took me far from the country comfort of Langdon Hills. Whatever the reason, nothing gives me the calm reassurance of the prospect of home as much as this small stretch of a rural England that is quickly vanishing.

In Summer, the setting sun casts long, warm shadows that stretch from field to field, heralding barbecue-weekends, the easy company of family sharing a glass or two under the reaches of the old vine and the wistful strains of Finzi or Vaughn-Williams teasing our souls with the melancholia of English poems and promises.

In Autumn, tendrils of mist snake between the trees and hang low in the fields. They lend the landscape an ethereal shroud worthy of Tolkein that disguises agricultural purpose and hides the pylon sentinels in their silent vigil over this corner of South Essex.

In Winter, icy frosts glitter on earth as hard as iron. These last two years such frosts foretold the blizzards which saw our landscape reborn white and pristine, the dangers of broken road and path buried by snows that harbour their own cruelties and hazards.

And in today’s Spring morning, green fields sparkled with dew under cloudless blue skies and commuters burred quietly with refreshing wonder about the sunshine, its bold appearance vanquishing the greyness of February’s dying season.

I love the Bulphan Fen – and its enduring promise of home.

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So Em and I paid the difference to travel first class because it’s nice to have a quiet space before returning to London. (It’s also cheaper to travel first when booked early than it is to travel standard off-peak booked nearer the day. Go figure.)

We don’t do it, however, to listen to some chav family shrieking at the top of their voices for the ENTIRE journey.

Gruesome bunch. Like the Royle family on acid.

Yes. It’s snow. Yes, it is snowing heavily. We have snow down south too.

No. Harry shouldn’t be running up and down the carriage. No. He really shouldn’t. AT ALL.

Parenting skills much?

And now, according to the nice lady on the intercom, the points are frozen. We are stuck here together a little longer. This is my punishment for blogging about them.

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