Thanks, First Great Western…

for royally screwing up my afternoon yesterday, and bringing on a relapse of this damned ‘flu. As a result, you’re now on my shitlist next to HSBC. ‘Whatever did we do?’, I hear you say. I’ll tell you.

For the last three months, I have travelled to Cardiff via train on Thursdays. Not all Thursdays, granted, but most Thursdays. My seminars were on Thursdays. My last one was yesterday. And apparently, you, FGW, decided to make my last Thursday train trips extra-special. The train to Cardiff in the morning was late. Frankly, that’s nothing new, and the ten minute delay barely showed up on my radar. Perhaps that’s why you decided to mix it up on the return journey in the afternoon, to give me a ride that I would not only notice, but come to regret.

I turned up on the freezing cold platform at ten past two to catch the 14.25 to London Paddington, which stops at Bristol Parkway, my home station. It’s normally a forty minute journey on the fast service, which I appreciate. I expected to wait fifteen or so minutes, but a glance at the board revealed that the 14.25 was running late. So far, so typical. Wait… what’s this? The 13.25? Good grief.

By 14.45, this is what the board said: 13.25 delayed to 14.48, 14.25 delayed to 14.52. Perhaps this is where alarm bells should have rung. I don’t know, since nothing like this has ever happened to me before, even on other occasions where trains were so late that the next one was practically up its arse.

The 13.25 eventually arrived at 14.50ish, on a different platform than had been advertised for the previous 35 minutes. The 14.25 had been put back a bit more, presumably waiting for the delayed Nottingham train on the original platform to bugger off. There were various tannoy announcements, presumably regarding the platform change, but of course they’re as meaningless to me as they ever were. I followed the people, which has been the tried-and-tested method of deaf people since the dawn of public transport. The people led me to the correct platform, happily just the next one over, and I looked at the platform screen and it said ‘London Paddington’. Train, check. Correct operator, check. Correct destination, check. This is my train. Or so I thought…

Cardiff was chaotic. I spent the time avoiding being run over by various people and got on the train. It moved off. And kept moving. Imagine my surprise when we sailed straight through Bristol Parkway. Honestly, my face must have been a picture. I haven’t had a ‘WTF?!’ moment like that since a certain phone call to HSBC in July.

A quick survey among the passengers turned up a nice guy with a French accent and a nice lady who I didn’t understand much, but the consensus was that this train was heading straight to Reading. No stops. Just as I was reeling from that, an FGW train person with a suit wandered past, possibly a train manager. I confirmed this information with her, and when I explained that I was deaf and hadn’t heard any of the announcements and that my home station was Parkway, she winced visibly. She was apologetic, and said she would get me information about the next train back to Parkway from Reading, and said the information had been on the platform screens, via the ‘calling at’ rolling info underneath the destination. I didn’t see it. I saw ‘STAND BACK: TRAIN APPROACHING’ which usually stays stuck there until about two minutes after the train has actually stopped moving, by which point I was focussing on avoiding the damn crowd. And besides, I was frozen, tired, still suffering the after-effects of ‘flu and was so happy to see a London train that it didn’t occur to me for a moment that train stops were somehow optional.

The FGW person came back and gave me the info, which she had helpfully written on a napkin for me; ETA at Reading 16.10, next train back to Parkway 16.41. I was taking things quite well I thought, nothing more than the occasional tortured groan, but I did ask in a calm, reasonable voice whether there was any recourse to contact FGW and vent. At this, they got defensive and pointed out that the information HAD been on the platform screens. I frankly didn’t see why they got defensive. It was a reasonable question. It wasn’t like I was tearing my hair out, beating my chest and screaming ‘I want your name, bitch!’. It was, I feel, a fair enquiry. That said, they did bring me a couple of bottles of water and were otherwise apologetic and did tell me that I could fill out a refund form; that would be available on the website.

So it was on the platform screen, or so I’m told. Be that as it may, were I hearing, I would have heard one of the no doubt countless announcements telling everyone but me what was happening. What did I get? A few seconds of rolling text that with various distractions, I obviously missed. Thanks a bunch. I didn’t realise I had to read it. Of course, after this experience I will be even more paranoid in future about public transport than I already am, no mean feat. Hearing people get no choice about hearing announcements. They would have heard about the change in plans whether they chose to or not. I had one little screen that clearly displayed the correct destination, told me to stand back because the train was approaching when it was already there, and standing there waiting for the roll call would have resulted in my trampling under the chaos that was platforms one and two at Cardiff. Thanks a frigging bunch.

Anyway, FGW are stuck in the 20th century. If this had been a Virgin Train, it would have had a little screen next to all of the doors clearly displaying destination and scheduled stops. It would have had a little screen at either end of each carriage, with rolling info about scheduled stops. In other words, if this had been a Virgin Train with proper visual up-to-date access, this may well not have happened. FGW has outdated carriages, with paper on the windows to show stops, if that, which aren’t exactly ideal for displaying up-to-date info. And if it was a Virgin Train, and it had current info, and I still missed it, I would have had no excuse. And if it was a Virgin Train, and they hadn’t updated the info, I would have had every excuse to do my nut. FGW = “No, but it was on the platform screens…” = massive sulk. Those screens aren’t yours anyway. They belong to Cardiff Central. What exactly is FGW doing to make themselves more accessible to deaf or HoH customers? Not a damn thing. Go to Virgin and learn. I digress.

Reading was chaos.

Every single bloody train was delayed. The main screens consisted of two little pathetic TV screens that were almost entirely taken up with delayed trains from the last two hours, with only one or two current trains and certainly no future trains, like, say, the 16.41. Luckily, the nice if slightly defensive FGW woman had also thought to include the platform number with the info she gave me, so I headed to platform 4. Eventually Swansea 16.41 came up on the platform screen (those again) but it claimed it was still coming at 16.41 despite all the delays and I could see that was a non-starter. I laid down some groundwork by finding someone in a fluorescent jacket and telling them I was deaf and was worried about missing announcements. She nodded professionally, said ‘no problem, wait here’ before disappearing. Oh, great. However, I saw her talking to a fellow fluorescent jacket and pointing at me before leaving, so I nailed my colours to that mast instead, making sure I was never more than a few feet away from him. And it paid off when, at 16.45, Swansea disappeared from the screen, and when I grabbed him he told me the correct platform without hesitation.

I hightailed it to platform 8, cutting my way through the crowd but getting stuck behind a tall, skateboard-carrying, beanie-wearing, suitcase-dragging tweenie who was probably having his own issues with the crowd on platform 8, but my internal monologue wasn’t so forgiving; “do you WANT to catch this train or not? Move your…”

We fought our way to the train, which was stuffed to the gills. The door compartments were full of people, but a quick glance through the carriage window showed that they weren’t spilling into the carriage, they were filling up the door area and not using the extra potential standing room at all. I tried to indicate this to the people, but they just stood there and looked at me like cows. It’s at times like this that I wish I could use my walking stick as an offensive weapon, or in this case, a cattle prod.

I managed to squeeze myself into another door compartment, and a couple of people managed to squeeze themselves on after me, and this is how I spent the journey from Reading to Didcot Parkway; standing with a bunch of fellow luckless sardines, making notes in the memo app on my phone for this blog, and ignoring the complaints from my feet, which by the way, are punishing me today. Like it’s my fault.

After the exodus at Didcot, I found a seat, and rued the day I’d ever heard of FGW. I eventually arrived at Bristol Parkway at 6pm, three hours after I should have done, were there no delays. I do intend to fill out a refund form, and according to FGW’s own guidelines, I qualify for a full refund. What I find amazing, is that if you’re half an hour late, you’ll only get 50% of the value of your ticket, over an hour and you get all of it. Imagine if that happened in Japan, where according to Wikipedia:

Japanese railways are among the most punctual in the world. The average delay on the Tokaido Shinkansen in fiscal 2006 was only 0.3 minutes.[9] When trains are delayed for as little as five minutes, the conductor makes an announcement apologizing for the delay and the railway company may provide a “delay certificate” (遅延証明書), as no one would expect a train to be this late. Japanese passengers rely heavily on rail transit and take it for granted that trains operate on time. When trains are delayed for an hour or more, it may even appear in the newspaper.”

Can you IMAGINE? Imagine if the UK’s train companies were held up to these standards. Just imagine. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful day? They’d spend all day apologising constantly, and handing out delay certificates to all and sundry, hell, they’d probably have to take over a factory to print them all.

I’ve also had a look at FGW’s website for their accessibility guidelines, and there’s a lot of noise about how they’re improving services and making them more accessible, for everyone, it seems, but the deaf. Braille information? Lower steps on trains? Lovely, but what are you doing about visual displays? These wonderful ‘Help Points’ that you’re installing all over the place – how many of them have visual displays? Only a select few? Oh, that’s very helpful.

My recommendation is to take a leaf out Virgin Trains’ book. Screens, screens, everywhere. FGW, you’ll be hearing from me.

P.S. This here, is a man after my own heart. Tired of delays on his daily trips with FGW, he’s started writing letters to the MD every time his train is delayed, with the length of the letter corresponding to the length of time wasted. I’d love to follow his shining example, but I’m not sure even I can write a letter of complaint that takes three hours to read…

I might try though.


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