And people say corporations don’t understand irony! This is the quote which a fairly well-known corporation uses to introduce itself to the web: it even goes on to claim it has the trust of 3 million customers each day (which leads me to believe it must have an awful lot more than 3 million customers per day!). To maintain an entirely pointless level of suspense, I shall not reveal the name of this corporation (yet), but as I go on to slag it off you may (perhaps) be able to deduce its identity.
Living in Southampton has many positive aspects to it. To name but one: three weeks ago I was able to take the train to visit Bristol for the evening to go to the theatre. This still sounds mad to me, but in fact it is no further away (time-wise) than London – and both Bath and the Cotswolds are even closer. Well, were even closer – I think by now this journey would require a replacement boat service – but I have high hopes that one day the waters will subside! Just as one day, lemon-soaked paper napkins will once again be available. Please return to your seats. (And no, I am not going to be denigrating the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation).
The evening was great fun as the play, by (but not starring) the splendid Richard B Marsh (a favourite of GofaDM), was a work-in-progress: The Ministry of Secrets. This meant that it was dirt cheap, had no set and minimal props and the actors were reading from the (much amended – and once dropped) script. Despite this, it was very entertaining, thought-provoking and really well acted. Equally, even I could see that there were still some rough edges to be sanded down (if that isn’t a metaphor mixed too far). It was staged at the Bristol Old Vic, which is on the same street as the Small Bar – which offers a truly prodigious range of craft beer (and, at least initially, a worryingly hop clientele). I can see that I shall have to return to Bristol, just as soon as the land-bridge to the west is restored.
To avoid adding to the already rising rate of cardiac infarction in the land, I shall now reveal that today’s target for my ire will be the Stagecoach Group, in particular, its guise as South West Trains. In the interest of full-disclosure, I should make clear that I was pre-disposed to dislike Stagecoach even before I became a regular user of their rail services. This pre-disposition had two basic grounds:
i) I am old enough to remember how unethically they acquired their initial bus empire. Truly, to quote Banquo, they play’dst most foully for it.
ii) Recollection of the board-level homophobia of the company back in the dark days of Section 28 (strangely resonant with the current backdrop to the Winter Olympics).
Still, perhaps the company had managed to transcend the wickedness of its past – and I do like to travel by train and boycotting South West Trains from Southampton is quite tricky.
My criticism of South West Trains falls into two broad camps. Firstly, that they are never knowingly on time. It was many months after living here before I used any train on the main London line which actually arrived on time. In recent weeks, the rail network used by SWT has borne the brunt of the somewhat Biblical (albeit, stolen from earlier Mesopotamian sources) weather. Oddly, this does seem to have improved the punctuality of the services they actually manage to run. Perhaps there is some Dunkerque spirit buried deep within Stagecoach, which only emerges at times of national emergency? If only this spirit could be harnessed under less extreme conditions!
My second gripe is with their war against sitting-down. Now, I do realise that sitting-down is very bad for the back and posture, and that we really should be encouraged to squat as our ancestors did. However, I’m not sure that its should be the role of a train operating company to enforce this lifestyle shift. Now, you might expect there to be people standing on a rush-hour train, especially as it approaches London – and, indeed, you would not be disappointed. However, you will also find people standing on off-peak trains – pretty well any train out of London after 21:00 will have people standing, at least as far as Woking and often most of the way to Southampton. This is not, I would posit, as a result of the unquenchable desire to see midnight in Southampton but rather due to the lack of rolling stock provided by SWT. The generous among you might think that perhaps they are short of EMUs, but I’m pretty sure that is not the case. The 5-car Class 444 unit which is generally used for these evening journeys, tends to empty out on arrival at Southampton with only a few hardy souls going on to the fleshpots of Bournemouth or Weymouth. So it, of course, makes perfect sense that it is at this stage that a second 5-car unit is coupled to the train – presumably to allow each of the surviving passengers to enjoy a carriage to themselves.
On some particularly terrible evenings, our 5-car Class 444 unit is replaced by a 4-car Class 450 (from the same Desiro family, made by Siemens). I don’t like these units, and nor it would seem do other passengers or the staff: I think for me it is the 2+3 seating. The Class 450 is very much the 4-VEP de nos jours – a unit which seems to have been preserved (there’s one at Clapham Junction to my certain knowledge), while the vastly better 4-CIG and 4-CEP units have been allowed to drift into extinction (and what of the 4-REP and 4-TC?). This blog is not the place to find financial advice, but perhaps now might be the time to pick up a Class 450 unit on the cheap, before their value rockets on retirement. It seems that, in the absence of steam, what train enthusiasts really relish is the discomfort of yesteryear. Then again I was perhaps spoilt by the Class 379 units which sometimes conveyed me from Whittlesford Parkway. I view these very much as the prince of current EMUs, despite the occasional issue with the GPS – and the under-stated Stansted Express livery, both inside and out, one of the best currently gracing our tracks.
Anyway, I seem to have digressed – and perhaps revealed an unhealthy obsession with rolling stock. What I really want to make clear is that I am not one of the three million daily passengers who trust the Stagecoach Group – or, more accurately, I trust them only to be late and to provide insufficient rolling stock for the journey in hand.