This is a letter I’m planning to send to Virgin Trains. Would that be a good idea? Every word is true, except the statement that I nearly wet myself on the way to the toilet. One little embellishment I allowed myself.
Dear Virgin Trains, I bought four tickets on line with a Family Railcard to travel from King’s Cross to Inverness on the _________ . booking reference _____ . I did think that they were very expensive, but then I thought, well, that’s just the way things are, everything is so expensive these days. There was a man in the corner shop the other day, he bought two loose cigarettes, and it cost him a pound! I said to the man who runs the shop, gosh, that’s very dear! He’s Turkish, but he’s very nice. I said, you must be making quite a profit on those individual cigarettes, and he said, no, look! He showed me the price, you know, he drew back the curtain to reveal the hidden cigarettes, and they were £9.50 for twenty!! But they were Marlboro, like the cowboys smoke, very cool as they say, so I think they are dearer than other cigarettes. Anyway, I put the tickets in a drawer and forgot about them, but a few weeks later I looked at them and saw that they weren’t marked to show that they were Family Railcard tickets, they were just ordinary Saver (sic) tickets – sorry, when I put ‘sic’ I didn’t mean sick! Ha ha! I meant, well, it’s Latin for ‘thus’, it means I’m not making a mistake, it means it really did say that on the tickets, £487 and it’s called a Saver! Fancy that! Well, then I realised that a mistake had been made, and I’m sure that I had ‘clicked’ on Family Railcard. But I also counted them all up and saw that while I had four tickets for the journey out, I only had three tickets for the return journey, and I certainly had no intention of leaving anybody behind in the wilds of north west Scotland! And I know I didn’t leave a ticket behind in the machine, because one of the tickets is called a coupon and it tells you how many tickets, or how many coupons have been issued, otherwise I would have assumed it was all my fault. Actually I think I can be too trusting, because that often happens to me, I think that something is my fault, I blame myself, and then it turns out to be someone else’s mistake! So anyway then I began to try to get in touch with you to get this sorted out. This is where the story gets complicated, I’m afraid, because I can’t remember which phone numbers I tried, or which office it was that I sent an email to. I remember I spoke to one nice man in India, but he turned out to be West Coast not East Coast, and he gave me another number. I know I should keep a careful note of all these things. But maybe the calls were recorded for training purposes? But to cut a long story short, in the end, although I asked for the correct tickets, and for some of my money to be returned, the whole booking was cancelled, and all my money returned, less £10 which is the fee you charge for a change of booking, even though I didn’t want to change my booking, I only wanted to get the correct tickets for the booking I’d tried to make in the first place! And when I phoned to query this I was told that I would just have to start all over again, even though by then it was only a few days before we were due to travel. I said, but it’s your mistake! First you sent me the wrong tickets and charged me too much money, then you made things worse by refunding my money, less ten pounds! They said, well, sorry, (actually I’m not sure if they really did say ‘sorry’,) but the system doesn’t allow us to do anything else now, you will have to buy your tickets again. I thought, this is a funny sort of system, someone told me that there are people called Systems Analysts who dedicate themselves to making sure that systems work properly and are fit for purpose, as they say, so maybe you need to look at your systems and improve them. And another thing, when you sent me an email confirming my booking, it said, we hope everything is tickety-boo. Very droll! But it wasn’t! It was actually more boo hoo than tickety-boo!!
So I thought, well, nothing for it, I’ll just have to start again, but this time I went to Finsbury Park station, where there is a very helpful man, I think he’s called ‘Anthony’ and I saw him in one of the ticket booths and queued at his window, and told him my story, and asked to buy the tickets all over again, with the Family Rail Card discount. And the interesting thing is that when he told me the price, it was exactly the price I’d paid before without the discount! So I thought, well, it’s a strange coincidence, but maybe that’s the extra cost because I’m booking at the last minute. And then he looked again and saw that although he had clicked for Family Rail Card, it hadn’t gone through, he’d been quoted the full price! Just like me! So then I thought maybe it’s not to do with my computer, or the computer at Finsbury Park station, but maybe there is some kind of fault, maybe an intermittent fault, with your computer, or your website. Do you think that is possible? (Or maybe there are things wrong with my computer, the computer at Finsbury Park station, and your computer!! Maybe one of those viruses? Viruses that are resistant to anti-biotics! Ha ha! Who knows.) Anyway, he clicked again or something, and this time up came the discount! And I was lucky really, because the cost hadn’t gone up since I’d made my original booking, which was strange because I thought you saved money by booking nice and early. But the bad news was that because I was buying the tickets so close to the date of travel, I couldn’t reserve seats. Well, I could for the return journey, but not for the outward journey.
But luckily the kind man at Finsbury Park station had told me that the train would leave from platform 4, so we got to King’s Cross with 40 minutes to spare and got onto the almost empty train and found some unreserved seats, while all the other passengers were still staring hopefully at the departure board. Then the platform announcement must have gone up because I looked down the platform and it was like the D Day landings! A crowd of people rushing towards the train, the youngest and strongest to the front. Of course it was the beginning of half term. But it did make me wonder: how many tickets do you sell for one train? It was so full that on my way to the toilet near Peterborough, stepping over the prostrate bodies of people who’d actually managed to find enough space to stretch out on the floor, squeezing past large people with their luggage who were wedged between seats in the corridor, I nearly wet myself. Since we are all quite thin we put up the arm rests and allowed an elderly couple and their small dog to sit down. So we were six and a dog to four seats. And a very interesting dog, too, with some of its long hair shaped into little pony tails tied with ribbons to make its eyes and mouth visible. There were notices saying we should speak to a member of the train crew if we had any questions or problems, and the announcements over the intercom repeated this advice, but we didn’t see a single train crew member from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, they probably couldn’t get anywhere near us, or maybe they were worried that if they did show their faces they would have to listen to a whole lot of bad tempered grumbling and complaints all the way from coach A to coach K or whatever. And there was an announcement that the buffet car wasn’t serving hot drinks, it would be too dangerous to carry them, except to First Class passengers, who doubtless had more space. Some people near us when they heard that muttered and grumbled, but I thought it was just common sense. But I thought it would also be common sense if there were a third class for people who had to stand for four and a half hours. Then there could be a lively and entertaining trade – after all, we’re encouraged to be entrepreneurs these days! Some people might want to sell their seats and save money by standing, others might want to travel more comfortably and spend more for the privilege, and the free market would determine the prices. I did wonder, as I read the literature on safety, how we would get out of the train if there were an emergency, and what would happen if someone were taken seriously ill and nobody could get near them quickly to help them. Because of course if you have a heart attack you can die really quickly. But it would probably be your own fault, because if you weren’t fit, you’d be silly to travel on that train. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. I heard a foreign person say that they had never seen a crowd of British people be so chatty! I think the experience of that train really did bring out the spirit of the Blitz in most of us, and some of the bodies reminded me of those beautiful drawings that Henry Moore did of exhausted people sleeping in tube stations during air raids. And you should have seen the look on the faces of the people at York waiting to get onto the train as it drew into the station and they saw how full it was! That made us smile. But as it became clear that we would miss our connection at Edinburgh, and the Voice on the intercom apologised at each station for how late we were, and thanked us for choosing to travel by Virgin trains although I don’t know how else we could have travelled, it would have been nice to have been given some information about subsequent departures to Inverness. I tried to find out with my smart phone, but really it’s not smart at all. Luckily a lady near us, who also had a stupid smart phone, or no network connection or something, phoned her son, who looked up the timetable ‘on line’ and phoned her back with the information, and she told us. So that was handy, and another example of how helpful and co-operative the British can be in stressful and difficult situations. Someone said that if your train is late by a certain amount you can get compensation, but I don’t know what that amount is – the amount of lateness I mean, well also the amount of compensation I suppose – or how late the train was when it finally arrived. Do you? I mean do you have a record of such things? Anyway, having nearly an hour to wait at Edinburgh was quite a relief! We could stretch our legs, and what an extraordinary station Edinburgh Waverley is, right in the very heart of the city, and there were even some young men walking round in kilts! But when you are considering compensation do you only take into account the lateness of the first train, or do you base it on how late we were arriving at our final destination? Because our final lateness was much more than our lateness at Edinburgh. I suppose it gets complicated because then Scotrail are involved as well as yourselves. Things might be easier if Sir Richard got the Scotrail franchise too! In fact it would be altogether more efficient if he ran all the railways as one network, I think. But anyway, about compensation, someone told me that you need to keep your tickets to get compensation, is that true?and now it’s too late, because I think one of the people I was travelling with threw them away. But I thought, if that were true, surely one of the apologetic announcements on the train, on any train, I mean, and I’ve been on lots of late trains, one of the announcements would have mentioned that, and told us how we could make a claim? But I do have a photograph of the first lot of tickets, I tried to send them in an email to you, as an attachment, but needless to say I failed. A message popped up to say that the photograph was too big! It didn’t look very big to me! Then I posted them to one of your offices, in Birmingham I think it was, or maybe Wolverhampton, I sent them to the people who refunded my money.
Another thing is that when you book seats, if you can book seats, you are never asked which side of the train you would like to sit on, and I always like to sit on the right when going north, that way you get a good view – not that I had a very good view on that particular train of anything because there were even things piled up on the table in front of the window – of Peterborough cathedral, York Minster, Durham cathedral, the bridges in Newcastle, the coast line of Northumberland with Bamburgh castle in the distance, Berwick on Tweed and the Firth of Forth with Bass Rock a little pimple on the horizon, and also Grantham parish church (isn’t it strange how all the major ecclesiastical buildings between London and Edinburgh are to the east of the railway line) where I sometimes wonder, what ideas might that lofty spire have given the youthful Maggie Thatcher! So if I had a vote on how that system was organised, I would say, please can we choose a seat with a view! And if, say, I was going to Cornwall – not your department I know! – I would sit on the left hand side so as to get that beautiful view of the red rocks at Dawlish, where the line was almost washed away by those terrible storms. But then, I know you would probably say, well, actually, most people don’t care which side they sit on, they just want a seat! I agree!! And loads of people would actually rather not have a window seat, they want to be able to get out easily to go and get a cup of tea or go to the toilet or be able to stretch their legs out into the aisle, although of course if you have an aisle seat you often get disrupted by the person in the window seat next to you getting up.
And just one more thing, one of the young people I was travelling with was rather disappointed to find that they could only get free wi fi for a very short period of time – I can’t remember how long – and you know what young people are like nowadays with their phones and their tablets and their laptops, they could probably sit happily for years in a crowded and squalid refugee camp as long as they had their wi fi connection! – whereas when we got onto the Scotrail train, it was completely free. So I did think that it was a little mean of you to charge for it, though it probably wasn’t very much. And anyway, think of the money people saved by not being able to buy tea or coffee!
Hoping to hear from you soon, Yours sincerely