Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Integrated Transport System on Mars

12 years ago, on the crest of a landslide wave, Labour swept to power and the John Prescott, as the new Transport Minister, boldly proclaimed that Britain would have an Integrated Transport System.

Like so much of the proclamations of the Government but especially John Prescott, it was a load of twaddle. A hard man of the left, he soon embraced the new concept of the 'Champagne Socialist', leaving behind his amateur boxing past almost completely, and indulged in the fruits of some hospitality, a cowboy suit and some free rides by bidders for the National Lottery. Later in his extensive but unglittering career, he even took up croquet in order to while away the time when he should have been working. But that was John 'Judge me by my results' Prescott and perhaps the most remarkable thing about him personally was that someone other than his wife found him attractive enough to go to bed with. It makes a shudder go down your spine.

Why the Sunday morning rant about a failed politician living off his autobiography and a TV program? Well, yesterday I did something really curious, I used public transport on a Saturday for almost a whole day and it was a real eye opener.

To explain, I had decided to add moral support to two Friends, Jamie West and Keith Lewis, who are undertaking an extraordinary marathon. After their wives Liz and Susan respectively along with two other 'Crazy girls from St Albans', Sian and Lisa, ran last year's London Marathon for various superb charitable causes, the boys decided to emulate the feat with a marathon of their own. I am sure they would not be upset if I said they were not superb specimens of athletes, so their original plan of wheeling a loaded trolley with beer around the course of the marathon was rejected as potentially too strenuous. They came up with a better idea - they would have a drink at the nearest drinking establishment to every tube station on the London Tube Map.

Take a look - there are some 270 stations and the whole effort has taken a full year and will end in a final day's drinking in Central London stations on 3 October. The whole marathon has been recorded on their excellent blog at http://www.tracksofmybeers.wordpress.com/ where Jamie and Keith have given details of each pub or bar visited, the price of the drink (which must be brewed or distilled in the UK) and what they saw and said. They have been joined at various times by guest stars, thankfully I have paid my dues yesterday along with Nick 'Shirt' Gray for the morning while others joined in the evening. Yesterday we solved crucial matters like the make up of the pack of the world's best players in the professional rugby era, but sort of got side tracked into the best villains in films, excluding James Bond ones - my favourite has always been Emperor Ming, for the record. We also got a bit carried away on the Argentinian front row forwards but agreed that a front row of Noriega, Pinochet with Thatcher as hooker would be hard to beat.

The boys had to start their journey at Uxbridge and work their way in to pick up stations along the west Central Line. None of us could drive, obviously, and we were not able to cadge lifts off our spouses who were all suitably otherwise engaged, so they took the 724 bus from St Albans at 10.20am (which originated in Harlow) and I joined them at Watford Junction at 10.52am for which the bus was fashionably late. The first nitpick was that my fare was exactly the same as theirs even though they had been on the bus for 32 minutes and around 15 miles - so I paid £7.50 for single to Uxbridge from Watford, the same as from St Albans. The bus wended its way to Uxbridge and we arrived some 15 minutes after we should have, but found the first bar was a pleasant brasserie called 'Baroosh' on the corner of the High St not 30 yards from the station's entrance.

After the drink we made for the station and I went to man at the window and asked for a ticket that would get me around all zones and then back to Watford Junction. It again cost £7.50 for zones 1 to 6 - it is worth noting the man had official clothing on and he confirmed that my ticket did what I had asked for - I did not notice if he was green or had a small aerial on his head.

Several interesting stations later, and mostly nice pubs (although The Swallow at Hillingdon was slightly dodgy), I bid my farewells at Greenford to go home. The young lady behind the bar recommended that I catch a bus at the station and go to Wembley Central and pick up the Silverlink Line to Watford from there. However, the TV told us there was current travel mayhem around Wembley as England were due to play a friendly football game against the might of Slovenia so I took the second option of a taxi which took ages via Kingsbury and cost £12 to get to Harrow & Wealdstone Station where I picked up a slow train to Watford.

Of course, my mistake was a) to have believed every word that John Prescott had said 12 years ago and believe that we have an integrated transport system and b) believe the offcial who sat at the window at Uxbridge Station and sold me my ticket. I actually believed I had paid the right amount of money to get back to Watford. I have travelled the system enough to know the stupid zone systems are infuriating and the 'extra fares' are just outright rip offs. But it did come as a surprise yesterday that I was held by an official at Watford and demanded I pay an extra £3.20 as I had travelled from Harrow & Wealdstone although he was initially keen to charge me from Euston. Thankfully, the lady behind me vouched for the fact I had got on at Harrow. I paid but made the stupid mistake of asking why I had to pay.

There came a short diatribe about there being 26 different franchises and each has their own tariffs, then there was Underground this and Overground that. I pointed out that I had bought my ticket from a man just like him at Uxbridge and he laughed, saying, 'Was he from Mars?'. I didn't seem to get the joke but I think he was illustrating the different franchises or something. He went on and I was amazed at the vast array of knowledge he had and how it sounded so logical that I should pay this money.

Perhaps it was the several halves of beer I had but I said, 'I'm sorry, but I'm a customer. All that is pretty irrelevant to the average traveller. I started my journey this morning from outside the station door and it has cost me £18.20 to get back here and I have travelled no more than 30 or so miles using 3 different forms of public transport at off peak times. It doesn't make sense. Why should customers have to memorise all 26 different franchises and do your job for you?'

My point having been made, I put the ticket he had just given me into the automatic turnstile and stepped through it. At that point, he said, 'Come back here, mate. I should have charged you £20 Penalty Fare. Come on, come back.'

'Why?' I asked. 'Because I don't have to take that from you - I only charged you £3.20, I should have charged you £20 - I was doing you a favour,' said the official and his colleague now joined in, gesticulating that I should come back through the barrier.

Fortunately I had the presence of mind to play my trump card. 'I don't know what you are talking about,' I said. 'I just paid you personally for a valid ticket and went through the turnstiles, are you saying you did your job wrong like the spaceman at Uxbridge or in doing so did I do something illegal?' He was still trying to get the turnstile open when I turned and walked away. I had enough of the 'Integrated Transport System' for one day and got a taxi home for a further £9.

You could go on about the travel system for ages but the bit that really gets me about our system is that it is an immensely complex array of interconnected strands of private businesses and that the ticket counters you queue at are not actually part of. A for example, if you travel to London at off peak and return at peak, you are charged a surcharge. There is no option to buy a ticket that allows you to do this and so the first time it happened to me I was stung a £10 Penalty Charge and my address was taken. Some while later, the officials would only take the 'fare difference' off you as one someone had pointed out to the train companies that charging penalties for this was racketeering. The only way, according to rail staff, to pay the fare at the start is to buy a full peak travel ticket which defeats the purpose of going at non-rush hour time which is what people advise you to do.

The travel staff don't deserve idiots like me questioning how they do their jobs because they are not the problem although yesterday's behaviour was a little bizarre. The problem is that we have an even more disperate and non-connected system since Prescott's immortal brag 12 years ago. His answer to the public transport system was to lay on two jags for himself. Later he spawned a brand new Government Department, called the 'Office of the Deputy Prime Minister' - even that bureaucratic overloaded nightmare wasn't big enough for his ego.

So the news is - Uxbridge has been invaded by Martians and the price for a round trip from Watford to Uxbridge back to Watford has gone up accordingly.

1 comment:

tracksofmybeers said...

A fine, fine piece of work, my friend. Love the fact that you stood up to the ineptitude of our transport officials.
Thanks for joining us on the quest by the way, and sorry because I had no idea you had such trauma getting home....next time I see you I'll tell you about our own journey back - an epic tale of long walks, incorrectly sized taxis, and dreadful fare negotiations.
JW