16 June 2011
Brian Micklethwait

Last week, in the London Evening Standard, the now free London evening paper, hard pressed commuters (commuters are always hard pressed – it’s the law) were able to read this, about some not so lucky fellow commuters:

Rail commuters were trapped on a train for up to six hours and then threatened with arrest when they tried to escape overheated carriages.

Tens of thousands of people - including a woman who is eight months pregnant - were caught up in the chaos that left 60 trains stranded last night in the middle of Transport Secretary Philip Hammond’s Runnymede and Weybridge constituency.

The crisis, caused by thieves who stole power cable, brought the line to a standstill at 6.30pm and left passengers trapped until after 11pm. Today commuters attacked rail company South West Trains as a “shambles”, as they described how they tried to escape from carriages only to be told they were breaking the law.

The heavily pregnant woman, Emma Firth, 35, told how she and a group of passengers decided to “make a bid for freedom” at 10.30pm after being trapped on a train from Clapham Junction since 6.30pm. But as they tried to climb down on to the track, guards made an announcement saying they would be arrested for trespass if they did.

A severe delay.  Harassment of travellers, no doubt for what seemed like very good reasons (safety, basically) when the rules being followed so charmlessly that night were put in place.  So far so routine.

But later in the same report, this:

A train spokesman said a review of how it responded to train disruption has been ordered.

“We are very sorry for the significant impact last night’s signal problems had on a large number of our passengers.

“We would like to thank them for their patience during some extremely difficult circumstances.

“We appreciate that many passengers spent several hours on trains while Network Railengineers worked hard to rectify the major signalling faults. Network Rail has confirmed today that the signalling problems were caused by an attempted cable theft.

“We are extremely angry and frustrated that mindless and irresponsible vandalism meant that many of our passengers had a terrible journey last night.

“Our station, train and customer service teams did their very best to keep passengers updated at the main locations across our network and to help get customers home through the night.

“We will be working with Network Rail to review how we responded to this incident. We are committed to learning any lessons, including taking any steps required to improve the flow of information to passengers.”

My blog posting title has already given my game away, but honestly, had I not done this, would you have spotted what I spotted?  “Passengers”.

For years railway people in Britain have been calling us “customers”, a usage that I do not like for reasons I find tricky to explain even to myself.

It’s something to do with the fact that the word “passenger” describes the true relationship.  We are at their mercy.  When they called us “passengers” they were acknowledging this fact.  Calling us “customers” attributes to us a spurious degree of autonomy, like we could get out at any moment if we didn’t like the journey.  Which (see above) everyone knows we actually can’t do.  And if we got off at an earlier station because we didn’t like the journey we were being subjected to, we’d not be given our money back.  Besides which, once you’ve committed to a train journey, the only logical course is to stick with it.  If you don’t like it, you don’t do it again.  But while it lasts, you must simply endure.

I see what they’ve been trying to do with all this “customer” talk.  They want all concerned to realise that market disciplines are in play, especially their own staff.  The last thing they want is for their staff to act, in a bad way, on the idea that we are totally at their mercy.  Trouble is: we are.  This is a fact which all concerned ought to be facing, not dodging, even verbally.

I have similar feelings about the word “patient” as used by health services.  If a hospital started describing its charges as “customers”, I think I’d feel that the same kind of verbal dishonesty, the same kind of falsehood about the real relationship involved, was being perpetrated.

My guess is that this reversion to the old word was a mistake, made in stressful conditions, rather than any kind of major policy shift.  But even so, interesting, I think.

  1. THE reason for “customer” being the wrong word in the news piece (and elsewhere) is that a “customer” includes anyone who has financial dealings with the railway. A freight shipper is a customer. When using mail trains, the Post Office is a customer. A passenger is a particular type of customer - one who “takes passage” on the railway just as a passenger can take passage on a ship - passing from one place to another.

    Posted by Duncan Stewart FCILT on  28 June 2011 at 05:50 pm

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