Friday, December 06, 2013

City of water

Hull was awash last night. A record 5.8 metre tidal surge was held up by the barrier on the Humber, but still parts of the city and surrounding areas flooded as the river overcame all the defences. Some of the city blacked out as power failed. The main through road, the Clive Sullivan Way, was under water and was closed. All trains out were cancelled as the main westerly rail line runs right by the river. And who thought it might be a good idea to have a day-trip over to see friends yesterday? Yes, you guessed right.

I got increasingly anxious about my train back, checked on the internet in the bar I was in and saw it was cancelled. The information on the web site was limited. I tried to ring the station, but it was hard to find the right number. Every one I rang gave out a similar long taped message. All asked you to ring National Rail Enquiries, so I did. An Indian voice answered. The conversation was not easy.

"Where are you travelling from?"


"I am sorry, I can't quite get that name, where is it?"


"Where, sorry?"

"Hull ... 'Ull ... Hawl," every possible pronunciation.

"Could you spell that for me."

"H U L L"

She then proceeded to read what was on the web site and said that they had no further updates. I had tried to phone somewhere a mile away and had ended up in Bangalore. I couldn't believe it, surely they hadn't outsourced train information to India? Yes they have. The BBC reported:
A union representing UK call centre workers has criticised the chief executive of National Rail Enquiries for saying that Indian staff were better than their British counterparts.Rail enquiries chief executive Chris Scoggins said the service could be improved if outsourced to India.He said the move could also save rail firms up to £25m over several years.But Amicus union said: "This attitude is an example of the idiocy of moving the inquiry service 10,000 miles away."
It is the curse of the call centre. Stressed staff may be able to answer general queries, but in a crisis or for anything that needs some local knowledge they are useless and end up being abused by frustrated customers, whose real anger should be directed at the management who think that all we need is an underpaid person reading a prepared script and calling us customers instead of passengers.

I used my initiative, got down to the station early and spoke to the station staff face-to-face. They were fantastic. I was given information and when the situation changed, Selby station had closed as well and the replacement buses were stuck in the chaos, they ordered taxis to take the passengers to Leeds. All the time they were calm, helpful and friendly, even though one had a house near the river and was worried. They got us home eventually. And I bet they are paid peanuts too.

This was a microcosm of the British economy. Stupid management cutting costs by any means they can devise and the poor bloody infantry who actually do the job making it work in spite of it all. It is time we abandoned the cult of the manager in favour of investing in the worker; the local expert who knows what is going on and can make things happen. Now that would make a refreshing change.


looby said...

Rail enquiries have been getting further and further away. When I were a lad, and wanted to get information, I rang my local station, Lancaster. When Lancaster closed at night the phone were diverted through to Manchester Piccadilly, which is open 24/7.

Then they centralised it all to two call centres, one in Plymouth, the other in Newcastle.

Now it's gone to Bangalore. I was in Kendal a few weeks ago and the Indian operative insisted that there was no such station by that name.

It'd be interesting to write to the TOCs and ask them if, in the light of what's happened in the East of England recently, let alone Scotland (although that might have its own system, I'm not sure), whether it would be a good idea to bring it back, at least to the UK.

(The second word of the captcha is "Northern" :) )

Anonymous said...

My local station is unstaffed so at least there is a phone provided to ring the local signal box down the line. But overall privitisaton has been a disaster for rail services in my area (also near Lancaster!).

looby said...

I suppose there's always the live departure boards on the internet but that's not available to everyone, or at all in the wild hinterland of Lancaster!