January 12, 2003

Egham Station – on the changing nature over the years of platform announcements – one remarkable announcement – a happy Virgin customer – reflections on other businesses at railway stations

Brian Micklethwait | Best of Transport Blog | Brians Odyssey

It is December 20th of last year, and I am at Egham station, on my way home from visiting my mother.

The man in charge at Egham station – his basic job is selling tickets – is the same one it has been for at least the last twenty years, a man of apparently Indian ancestry, but clearly now a pillar of the local community - this in a context, the British railway system, where one does expect such comforting social continuity.

But Egham station has undergone some changes recently, all of them good. I've already mentioned here the recently installed light-up signs which Egham now has, telling you when the next train is coming. There is now also a Speaking Robot. He speaks, as is appropriate for the Robot that he is, with small robotic pauses when each bit of robotic verbiage is robotically attached to the next bit of verbiage: "The train approaching" – "platform one" – "is the" – "seventeen" – "fifty five" – "calling at" – "Staines" – "Feltham" – "Richmond" – "Twickenham" – "Clapham Junction" … and so forth. (And yes, that is indeed Staines, home of Ali G and the Staines Massive, one stop towards Waterloo from Egham.)

I like this Robot. It takes me back to the far off time when a grizzled dwarf of infinite age used to bellow similar information at Egham Station with his own unaided vocal chords. "STINES''n'WardlooWonly!!!!!!" (Staines and Waterloo only.) "V'giniaWarderChertseyAddle STONE!!!! an'Weybridge!" (Virginia Water, Chertsey, Addlestone and Weybridge.) You didn't want to be standing too near to this man when he referred to Addlestone. But then when this old man vanished, silence. Until the new Robot. Just before the Robot they had a telephone on the platform that you could talk down to ask about trains, but I never liked that. Too complicated. Would anyone answer? How do you operate the thing? Above all: Do I really want to be bothering anybody with my questions?

Anyway fast forward again to December 20th. The platform is quite crowded, with commuters at the end of their day's work and with students likewise on their way to other spots, all happily chattering away to one another. The Robot has bad news for us. There are, he says, delays. There has been a "broken rail" at Clapham Junction. The Robot gets itself into a bit of a muddle, first announcing that the train still due to arrive, but a little late, has in fact been cancelled and will not now arrive at all. But then moments later he says that it will arrive, but that it will indeed be delayed. Fair enough. Even a Robot makes mistakes from time to time. Delay. Platform Robot in muddle. No big surprises there.

But then the Robot says something that really gets everyone's attention: "I apologise" – "for any inconvenience to customers" – "that result" – "from these delays". Now I may have got some of the later wording of that wrong, and I can't promise that the pauses were exactly as I've here reproduced them, but I do definitely and distinctly remember the Robot saying: "I apologise." That's right. The Robot is taking personal and individual responsibility for the difficulties we are undergoing. We none of us quite know what we think about that, but we are startled to hear it. Those of us who have been talking of other things stop talking of other things and switch to talking about that. "I apologise." How about that? Is this a welcome assumption by the Robot of personal responsibility for the consequences of its earlier decisions, or is it a sneaky attempt by the Robot's human colleagues to make the Robot take the blame for errors actually made by these humans? You tell me. Personally I liked it, if only because I knew that I would have something mysterious and diverting to write about here.

The other change at Egham station was that there is now a new coffee and snacks counter, in the waiting room. I pass the time, prolonged by that broken rail, by purchasing a cup of truly disgusting coffee and chatting to fellow "customers" (which is the odd railway-speak word for travellers or passengers on the railway system). I tell them that I write for a transport internet commentary type journal type thing, and we get talking about Virgin Trains. (I think I mention this fucked-by-Virgin story.) One of them responded that she was a regular and extremely happy customer of Virgin Trains, somewhere in the Midlands. Regular, efficient, always on top of any problems, she said. So: not fucked by Virgin. Well, well. There's a piece of news.

It occurs to me that the more unreliable the trains are, the more there will be platforms full of delayed "customers" seeking to be diverted, and the better such operations as this coffee/snack bar at Egham will do. In general, railway chaos has probably done wonders for such businesses, of which a great many have opened up in Britain's railway stations, especially at the big London termini, in recent years. You are prevented for an hour from boarding your train, so you fill your spare time by buying coffee, snacks, socks, underwear, newspapers, magazines, books, CDs, DVDs, and so forth. Maybe railway chaos is here to stay, because maybe it is good for business. No not really, but such have been some of my thoughts.

Despite all these delays and partly even because of them, I was happy. The miseries of travelling are transformed into pleasures if you can pass your somewhat prolonged journey time by describing it all in your mind in slightly florid, rather nineteenth century prose, for the Transport Blog you write for. When the next train arrived, it turned out that it would stop entirely at Staines and I'd have to get out there and wait for the London train, but I was not angry. I was going home, and was in no great hurry.

Trackbacks

Transport warm-up man
If you've ever had the fortune to have to catch a train at Edinburgh's Haymarket station, you might have heard...
thehighrise on January 18, 2004

Comments

There seem to have been a lot of new light up signs installed recently. On a couple of stations I have seen existing light up signs replaced with new light up signs that appear to do exactly the same thing as the old ones. Presumably this indicates that a system wide technology upgrade is occurring and the old signs are not compatible with the new technology. Part of this seems to be installing the signs at lots more stations, which is obviously good. (The robot at East Croydon also says "I apologise").

As for coffee, at least at the larger stations, there seem to often be three or four different coffee bars competing with each other, which (impotantly) all seem to be owned by different organisations/people. This gives the obvious benefits of competition. At Clapham Junction, for instance, it is not too difficult to get coffee that is both quite drinkable and reasonably priced. At stations with only one coffee bar, the coffee is often both horrible and overpriced.

Posted by Michael Jennings on January 12, 2003

The only thing I really hate about robots is when they are apologising for late trains etc.

They are robots, they don't care, and the idea that they are emotionally devastated about "Any. Inconvenience. This. May. Cause. You," is daft and, in my view, somewhat insulting. I really think apologies should come from human beings.

Posted by Alice Bachini on January 13, 2003

I once heard a robot announce at Bristol Temple Meads that "This service is currently delayed by one hundred and twenty minutes. I am extremely sorry for the extreme delay to this service today"

I found this announcement quite amusing, due to the fact that a robot cannot be sorry, never mind grovellingly apolegitically 'extremely sorry'

Posted by Pete on May 12, 2003

Sorry, the announcement in the last message should have read

"I am extremely sorry for the SEVERE delay to this service today"

Unfortunately, unlike a robot, i am only human and therefore will be subject to such mistakes from time to time.

I apologise for any inconvenience caused.......

Posted by Pete on May 12, 2003

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