Northern treats customers with contempt

According to stereotype, the Germans run railways very efficiently. Not so in the case of my local train service. It is operated by a company wholly owned by the German government, and goes by the rather vague name Northern.

A more descriptive brand name would be something like Passengers are a Nuisance or Take-it-or-Leave-It Trains.

Not content with making customers’ lives a misery with monumental timetable cock-ups this summer, they have now thought of another way to alienate the travelling public. Having hitherto had a rather laid back attitude to collecting fares, they have obviously put together a committee to look into the problem of people travelling without paying.

Unfortunately, the committee also apparently set itself two further goals; to lend its weight to the drive towards a cashless society, and to punish those choosing to use its services.

In the olden days, when the ticket office was closed, one could board the train and buy a ticket from the guard en route. Failing that, passengers could pay up at the destination station, if it was manned. The trouble is, guards don’t always appear, and smaller stations are not always staffed.

So they installed ticket machines with touch screens large enough to be seen from outer space (or at least so that everyone in the queue can shoulder surf your itinerary). They don’t take cash, only cards, which you would think would make them inexpensive to install, being in essence just a computer terminal and printer. However, that vandal-proof screen, the size of all three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, means that Northern didn’t want to buy very many of them.

Despite the introduction of these machines, some passengers were still boarding trains without a ticket, either because the machine was out of order, or there was no machine on the platform. (Or because people were trying to dodge the fare.)

The committee met again, and decided that it was best to treat everyone as a fare-dodger. But how could they insist on passengers holding a ticket before boarding the train, when they hadn’t installed enough machines, and anyway they don’t take cash?

The solution they came up with is a monument to bureaucratic ingenuity. Because now, you must be in possession of either a ticket you have paid for, or one you haven’t paid for. If you haven’t got either, you pay a penalty fare of at least £20. I told you it was brilliant!

The vending/stand-up tanning machines were modified to issue these free tickets. Then they modified them again when mischievous people realised you could just keep pressing the button until the platform was strewn with ticket confetti and the machine was empty. Now you have to tell it all about your journey, to slow the whole process down and infuriate the people behind you.

How does the issuing of free tickets solve anything? Well, it’s a good question. With the same guard/station staffing situation as before, fare-dodgers are no more out-of-pocket. Northern, on the other hand, has to give out free tickets at its own expense. Not very good for the environment, or the German taxpayer!

The lack of machines is a real headache with this new rule. For example, if someone turns up at Heaton Chapel station wishing to travel south, they will discover that the one and only ticket machine is on the northbound platform. To get to this machine involves a walk up 41 steps, out of the station, crossing a busy main road at a pelican crossing, and down a long ramp to the other platform. A round trip of some 300 metres.

If you cannot use the stairs, perhaps because you are a wheelchair user or the staircase is locked shut, the round trip is over 900 metres.

You might think Northern would allow you to buy tickets online and print them out. Nope. They do have an app for smartphones running Android or iOS (but not for Windows phones like mine). However, out of 832 reviews to date, the app has received only 189 5-star ratings, but a whopping 355 1-star ratings, with comments like, “After a purchase it takes ages for the tickets to appear,” and, “Bought a ticket, however it would not load up in the my tickets section, and kept showing retry until well after my train arrived.”

This is what happens when the government tries to run the railway. Trains should be attractive and easy to use. People with mobility difficulties, and those wishing to pay in cash, should not be gratuitously penalised in this way.

Bring back privatisation!

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