It was the best of TOCs, it was the worst of TOCs

For the uninitiated, a TOC is a Train Operating Company – one of the menagerie of new entities created when the railways were privatised in a particularly idiotic manner a few years back.  The TOCs are responsible for running trains and managing some of the stations.  The TOC under the spotlight in this post is the Greater Anglia franchise, run by the Dutch group abellio which also runs the railways in the Netherlands.

In a recent Which? study, Greater Anglia was rated (almost) the worst of the UK’s TOCs in terms of customer satisfaction.  It was only the presence of First Capital Connect (the other TOC serving Cambridge, which I presume is only a coincidence) which kept Greater Anglia out of last place (and then only just).  In terms of the management of the franchise, and in particular its provision of reliable services and station management, I would suggest that Greater Anglia more than deserves its reputation at the bottom of the heap.  Though in terms of speed of re-branding the operation they were very effective – which must give some indication that their priorities lie more in self-aggrandisement than in running a railway franchise.

However, in terms of the staff one actually meets and interacts with as a passenger, I would suggest Greater Anglia must be one of the best of the TOCs and I could not ask for better.  My experience of their front-line staff has been universally positive – and this was strongly reinforced on my journey home last night.  I (only) just caught the 22:58 from Liverpool Street which I had expected to stop at Whittlesford Parkway (as all trains from London stop there) – but when we reached Whittlesford it kept going through the station at some 80mph (though it obeyed all the other normal station stops).  So, instead of being re-united with my bike I was delivered instead to Cambridge a little after midnight.  Chatting with the very helpful and cheery driver, I learned that for some reason the train was instructed not to stop at Whittlesford and that he had made frequent announcements.  Sadly, he was at the front of the train and I was in the eighth carriage – an antique example of Class 317/1 rolling stock – in which the PA system was clearly broken.  Actually, the 317/1s are older than the space shuttle and have probably racked up more miles – and so it is a miracle they work at all (in rain, I have seen water pouring into the coaches through the light fittings which can’t good).  Greater Anglia did away with guards years ago – so the driver was on his own and had no way to know I couldn’t hear him and I had no way to know there was something to hear.

The staff at Cambridge station were also really helpful and from them I learned why the 317/1s are in such a state.  The current franchise is only short, and so it makes no economic sense to do anything but the most basic cosmetic upgrades (well, I did say the method of privatisation was idiotic).  The next holder of the franchise (which will be for 15 years – well, unless the government make a complete mess of the tender process, again) will have some major upgrade costs to swallow.  I also discovered that useless as Stansted Airport may be for the business traveller (well, this business traveller), I still have cause to be grateful to it.  The airport funded much of the cost of the new Class 379 units which make some journeys a much more pleasant and comfortable experience (well, as long as there are no issues with the GPS).  Finally, I learned why all trains stop at Audley End: the farmer who originally sold the land to the railways made this a condition of the sale.  His wishes remain in force all these years later and it must be more than 150 years later!  So the 400 residents of Wendons Ambo (where the station lies) have a very decent rail service all thanks to that long-dead farmer.  You can learn so many things if you just chat to people – even in these days of the internet and search engines.

As my stranding could largely be placed at the door of poor carriage maintenance, or perhaps because they were just sympathetic to a chap with an interest in the railways, the Cambridge station staff put me in a taxi back to Whittlesford.  Once again, excellent customer service from their front-line staff – who no doubt spend much of their time fighting against the more senior management who have probably never seen a train, let alone a passenger (I refuse to be a customer).  Still, this situation is hardly unique to the privatised railways: I could tell you some stories from my own working life (but for the sake of what I like to call my career, I won’t).

So, somewhat after 00:30 I was reunited with my bike – and it was properly cold out (-3°C feels like -10°C, with the wind chill, according to the Met Office).  So cold that the hub gear wouldn’t change – its vital fluids had solidified – but luckily I had left it in a low enough gear to make it home.  I was not cold, largely because I had slightly overly prepared on the warm clothing front (I am not at home to Mr Frostbite) though the wind did blow icy cold air past my gloves and up my sleeves.  I think I need arm garters or perhaps I should just drive to the station like a normal person?  I will admit that I do try and avoid this (driving rather than being a normal person – though some would say I avoid that too) as I feel NCP charge an extortionate (and ever increasing) amount to park at Whittlesford Parkway.  As the owner of the only car park within 2 miles of the station, I feel they are abusing their monopoly position and they certainly aren’t using the income to maintain the car park or its one ticket machine.  I wonder if I could interest the Competition Commission in the case?  This is far from the only such abuse of position – just look at the costs of hospital parking (though one can at least hope that this is propping up the NHS, despite the very real fear that it is just be lining the pockets of the car park owners) – perhaps it’s time I started a crusade…

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