Thursday, October 08, 2009

How National Express turned me into a criminal

Do you ever wonder what scandalous things your friends say about you when your back is turned? How hurt do you think you would be if you ever found out? In my case the low spoken rumours spread by friends and associates are probably all true. It's not that I live a particularly shocking life, but I'd be a fool to deny that there are certain aspects of my existence that regularly inspire slow disapproving head-shakes from friends and associates. Friends and associates who find themselves more entrenched in the ways of polite society than I. I claim freedom, they claim moral indignation.

If I overheard a huddle of friends chatting in hushed whispers and stifled chuckles about my pathological inability to get up early in the morning I would find myself no valid defence and spare them my interruptions. I would also wonder just how slow the week my friends had just experienced had been, that they would consider an in depth discussion of my rest routines a valid and exciting current affair fit for discussion.

I won't dwell on the fact I'm barely capable of sentient thought until around 11am, I merely mention it so you might consider it a contributing factor in what follows. I offer it as a meagre gift to the gods of fair reason, that it may tilt opinions slightly in favour of National Express. I offer up this information in the interests of fairness, and to prevent this text being seen as an entirely one sided argument.


This very morning at 7.25am my wife gently aroused me (no sniggering at the back please) and informed me of the time. I half opened one gummy eye and after swallowing to lubricate my tonsils - they do dry out so after eight hours of hearty manly snoring - and tried to form a sentence that would register without ambiguity my contempt for her news. In reality rather than uttering forth a concise 'I don't care' I probably sounded more like one of those television evangelist fellows when they speak in tongues. In fact those evangelist chaps are somewhat more complete than I - they're capable of completing their garbled sentences without passing into the world of unconsciousness, an achievement I am unable to attain at such an early hour.

My wife - who is always as fresh as a spring flower in the mornings - tusselled my hair, gently stoked by cheek and lovingly kissed my forehead. When all that failed to wake me she used the more effective method of jabbing me in the spine with her elbow. Again I demanded to know the meaning of this outrage, and requested information as to why I should fight my way to full consciousness, and I used a language with words known to neither man nor beast but it was a message clear to all.

I forced my eyelids open, and once my eyes had stopped rolling back into my head my wife was suitably convinced I was in a receptive state. She politely illuminated the fact I was supposed to have boarded a National Express train from Ipswich to London roughly five minutes previous. Again I feebly pleaded for reasons why this information should deserve a place in my current value system, and shut my eyes in a vain attempt to rejoin a rather pleasant dream I had been engaged in a few moments previously.

Eventually - and displaying an amount of patience and perseverance that would exhaust a saint - my wife convinced me that if I was to continue the profitable relationship I have with my London client that keeps us in rags and broth I should really make an effort to rise, hide my shame with said rags and head off to the big smoke.

About an hour after the above occurrences I had dunked my frame in soapy water and sucked down enough strong tea to find myself at the National Express railway station in Ipswich. As I breached the swooshing electric doors of the station I was a little dismayed to see a long queue waiting for the attention of the three ticket desk folk National Express had deined to supply its hungry public during this peak time. I would have used the ticket machine, but for some reason our franchised overlords consider their busiest time of the day to be the most appropriate opportunity to take said machine out of commission so a sad looking giant of a man can open it up and slowly count the pennies within.

As I neared the front of the queue I growled a little (internally of course) as I noticed each grinning ticket god/ goddess was genially occupied by patrons wishing to know details of every possible route on the national rail network and/ or make a new friend. I certainly don't begrudge the lonely this chance to grasp at vapid and fleeting friendship with the employees of National Express, but (much like the decommissioning of the automated ticket monkey) I wish they'd do it at any time other than between the hours of 6am to 10am in the morning on any weekday.

My train pulled into the station just as two of the habitual enquirers considered themselves sated and gave up their new friends to the ticket hungry public. While I may not be able to co-ordinate colours in the clothes I wear at that ungodly time in the morning I can (after many years of practise) order a train ticket. In fact the phrase 'return to London Liverpool Street, returning on peak, with no underground' trip so readily from my tongue that sometimes I find myself unsure as to whether I have said it or not, and repeat the phrase several times over like an excitable six foot tall toddler.

The speed at which the National Express ticket staff can process an order is nothing short of astounding, and I say this with no hint of sarcasm. They can see the train is already in the station, they can see me looking between the train and them, swinging my head left and right like I'm at a tennis match, they know speed is of the essence. True to form myself and the ticket lady conduct our transaction with such speed and grace you could be forgiven for assuming we had spent hours in rehearsal, or had possibly been previously involved in one of those 'hand is quicker than the eye' television magician shows.

I could hear some of the doors on the ancient Intercity train slamming shut as I propelled myself across the station concourse with all the speed of a mature racehorse and all the grace of a newborn racehorse. I could see my prize before me - the last open door on the train - but an obstacle stood between me and my goal; the ticket barrier.

The ticket barrier is a relatively new addition to Ipswich Station, and one that seems most unwelcome to everyone. In this instance luck prevailed and the machine sucked up my ticket, spat it out and granted me access to the platform without trying to crush my innards by closing while I was half way through its jaws. I did catch my train, but I would have caught it by a far safer margin if I hadn't of had to negotiate that ticket barrier. The normal routine involves me putting my ticket through so many times that it ends up looking like a museum relic until I am granted access. Once half way through the barrier the 'kill paddles' attempt to separate my front from my back by prematurely closing. This debacle is normally concluded by paying a visit to the tired looking ticket inspector who is the guardian of the large disabled access gate. So whereas I used to be able to buy my ticket and walk the three or four metres to the platform, I now have to engage in a battle of wits with a belligerent bit of machinery and start my journey from Ipswich to London Liverpool Street with a light bit of internal bleeding.

So why were the ticket barriers installed? There are already ticket barriers at my destination, and my ticket will be checked en-route to London, so why does it also need to be checked in Ipswich? The addition of this extra level of security means that my ticket is now checked six times every time I travel to and from London. I've travelled through security at middle eastern airports and had my ticket checked less often. Putting barriers between the outside world (let's call it the free world just for fun) and the platform also robs me of the chance to buy my ticket on the train; something that is often essential when the ticket hall is teeming with the great grey moronic hordes of civilisation - every one of them wanting to know the variables for travelling between Leiston and Skegness.

To digress for a moment let's touch on the cost of rail travel. Today I paid £60 for a standard open return from Ipswich to London Liverpool Street, a journey that (god willing) takes just over an hour each way. When I was travelling to London and back every day - and bearing in mind I got a discount for buying my season ticket monthly - I was paying out twice as much for my rail fare each month as I was my mortgage, and my mortgage was only a year old! There are rarely any seats on peak time trains, and any seats that are available are often foul and dirty. This morning I paid £60 for the privilege of sitting in a coffee soaked seat. At least I hope it was coffee.

In their defence National Express would say that ticket barriers are essential to combat fare dodgers, but do all the fare paying passenger have to foot the bill for a few bad eggs? So if these ner do wells manage to cross the platform, and (with a cartoon villain cackle) actually board a train then National Express are saying they've got away with the crime of the century? What about the conductor on the train? I've seen what happens to people that disagree with conductors on trains, they get picked up by the transport police as soon as they reach their destination. Even if fare dodgers evade the conductor they still won't be able to get through the ticket barriers at London Liverpool Street. It's game over you evil fare-dodging genius.

So why am I being punished for the crimes of others, or (I guess) being punished for any fare dodging crimes I may commit in the future? In America they have a policy of 'innocent until proved guilty', it's not something that exists in Britain, and maybe these ticket barriers are proof. One of the only other sections of commerce that acts in this way are insurance companies, but that's a tale for another time.

I find this mentality of metering out punishment before the crime has been committed utterly self defeating and ultimately pointless. Deterrents do not work, the death penalty is constant proof of this. Fortunately we don't have the death penalty in Britain; if the law enforecement authorities employed the logic of National Express we would all receive a lethal injection moments after birth, just in case we commit murder in the future.

So what's next in the National Express valiant crusade against crime? I can't imagine, and I don't want to, but I'm sure they'll think of something. Maybe in ten years time catching a train will be as time consuming and frustrating as catching a plane? Actually that's an unfair comparison, planes are considerably cheaper to use than trains and lot more reliable. In their defence National Express are keeping the trains running a lot better than their predecessors, but I still wouldn't fancy getting in a plane they're responsible for maintaining.

I could force myself to get up earlier in the morning thus rendering the ticket barriers at Ipswich station less of a time delay, and more of a standard run of the mill matter for my moral indignation. In order to try and fundamentally change my genetic make up I could try and force myself to become a morning person - I could endure months of mental morning anguish until I become used to the hours and hardened to the fatigue. But that's really quite unlikely, instead I'll just whine about things I have no control over that ultimately don't have much of a bearing on my quality of life; that's the English way!