Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Train in vain

I’ll never really understand what drives the authoritarian personality – you know the one that enforces ridiculous rules instead of trying to understand why people are breaking them and finding a solution.

I must say, I have a lot of sympathy for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in her confrontation with jack-booted train conductors. I had a similar encounter a few months ago on a direct train between London and Oxford where I was heading for a speaking engagement. I had a standard class ticket (paid for by my hosts) but the train was absurdly overcrowded. Of course there were no seats and even the standing room was so claustrophobic that even Gulag guards on a train to Siberia would have balked at the travelling conditions on Human Rights grounds. However, 1st Class was half empty.

I don’t understand something. I thought the point of trains was that the length (and hence number of seats) could be modified to meet the demand. Most commuter-trains are hopelessly overcrowded making commuting – the first and last public experiences of the day – an unspeakably unpleasant daily exercise. No wonder people arrive at work drained and irritable and arrive home in the evening furious and antisocial. The impact on our society cannot be underestimated.

Another thing I don’t understand is why commuter trains have first-class sections at all. Usually there is no difference besides the little tissue paper on the headrest – which can barely justify the price! Why “class” anyway? Why can’t there simply be reserved and unreserved tickets. The former would guarantee one a seat and the other would be down to luck. This system would allow conductors at their discretion to open up unused “first-class” seating when the train was clearly oversubscribed. But this system would be practical and would require common-sense decisions – so has no hope in hell of being implemented.

Anyhow – to cut a long story short – a group of us, myself, two elderly women, a younger woman and two middle-aged men in business suits – quite rightly – thought the situation ridiculous. It was an hour and a quarter commute and, quite frankly, it was a major health and safety risk to be standing under those conditions. So, we sat down in an unused part of the first-class section. Let’s face it – even when aeroplanes are overbooked, people get bumped up to business class, so why ever not on a rattly commuter train? It’s not as if we were harming (or alarming) anyone or claiming anything we hadn’t paid for. As I pointed out to the conductor, we had paid for a seat on the train, which they were unable to provide, but took our money nonetheless! In the end we insisted we would not move unless we were provided with the seats in standard-class (perhaps that should be ‘standing’ class) that we had paid for. To facilitate this, the conductor spent the next half hour bumping up other people to first-class in order to clear 6 seats in standard-class so that we could spend the last 10 minutes of our journey in steerage. Petty, to say the least.

But it wasn’t reading of Yasmin’s confrontation that sparked this train of thought. No, it was switching on to BBC1 earlier to find some programme on (The War The Door) which, contrary to expectations, was not about any serious political threat, but about the canonisation of petty officials charging around London to unleash mundane ‘justice’ on otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Digression: Have you seen these signs up at stations warning of severe penalties for any verbal or physical abuse of railway personnel? Has it ever occurred to the authorities that these might be minimised if they didn’t expect these officials to enforce silly rules that fly in the face of common sense so much that they enrage further an already furious commuter community? For example: I witnessed an exchange at the barriers a few days ago where the official was refusing to allow a man (who was already late, thanks to delays that seem to leapfrog over other delays and timetabular catastrophes) to exit. The man explained that he’d clearly been issued with the wrong ticket by the ticket office even though it was quite evidently the same price as the ticket he’d asked for and was in good faith attempting to use. The barrier guard was having none of it. Voices were raised arms were waved and as a consequence, the police were summoned… an utterly unnecessary escalation of a pointless dispute.

Another case, which I have discussed with people waiting in line at my local station, is that there is now a fine for buying one’s ticket upon arrival at London Bridge (even though there is a ticket office inside of the barriers ostensibly for this purpose) instead of at one’s small local station where there are often ticket-office malfunctions and arbitrary window closures, leading to queues snaking out onto the pavement outside. In the past, rather than miss one’s train, one could board and then pay for the ticket on arrival. No longer. Now there is a ₤10 fine on top of the ticket price for doing this. One is expected to miss the train, be late for work or miss appointments instead. What makes this doubly irksome is that this is a punishment for honesty. Those genuinely wishing to evade paying for a ticket aren’t affected (they take their chances), it is only those who of their own free will report at the ticket office to pay for the journey who are caught thus and fined. So honesty is penalised. No wonder people lose their tempers and fisticuffs with platform führers erupt.

End of digression. So, this ‘The War At The Door’ programme… The programme seems to concern dumping. One segment sees a council official trying to track down the “owner” of a used carpet and a few floorboards left on a pavement, probably by the carpet fitters. A fine will be issued if the “owner” is traced. Pantomime ensues as the council official braves barking dogs, bothers neighbours, attempts to communicate with a non-English speaking potential witness and eventually establishes that the probable owners are in Zurich – a dead end. Why does this man have a job? Surely the money invested in his department could be better spent on a white-van man who could simply whip around and collect this sort of non-threatening refuse which almost everyone has from time to time. Wouldn’t that be a more profitable expenditure of our council tax? You know, on a service that actually serves us rather than persecutes us?

A second insert dealt with a sting operation to apprehend and prosecute (₤4000 penalty) fly tippers who (gasp!) have dropped inappropriate items next to bins intended for recycled materials. The ‘sting’ involved two council officials, with several more in unmarked cars waiting nearby and four police officers. Their fist victim? A man who dumps a broken TV and a small wooden stool. Their second, a man who spends ten minutes shredding cardboard and dropping it into the appropriate bin (disappointed sighs) but then victory!! As a last act, he leaves a single verboten black garbage bag behind. Jubilation! Another arrest! Then a third, for an armful of builder’s rubble.

Now, fly-tipping can be a serious problem and degrade an area. But this was in an area designated for garbage of one sort. So these people were making an effort to dispose of it in a semi-appropriate place. There were already a row of large skips for cardboard, glass, etc, so how hard could it be for the council to add another one for non-recyclable rubble? Not hard at all! But it is apparently easier to do Starsky & Hutch-style stakeouts involving half-a-dozen council officials and several police officers to catch Mr Jones who needs to get rid of that broken chair and thinks “I know, I’ll take it down to where all those bins are”. The scoundrel!

Isn’t that the point? These people aren’t indiscriminately dumping. They’re taking the junk to where – perhaps misguidedly – they believe it can conveniently be collected. Instead of multiple signs threatening them with penalties, why aren’t there educational signs explaining where this type of rubble can legally – and conveniently - be disposed of? If there is a place, tell people! If there isn’t a place, why not? Why is the council wasting our taxes and police time instead of making a plan? People have broken chairs and old carpets. They need to get rid of them. Tell them where to take them or how to have them collected! But it’s easier to rush around like The Sweeny isn’t it?

To really underline this failure of common sense, in the third insert, an intrepid council sleuth in Glasgow has to track down some lout hurling nappies of the poo-variety around an estate. Just when she thinks the trail’s gone cold (no pun intended) the culprit – some spotty teenager (face mercifully blurred by the camera) comes in and confesses. Does he get a tongue-lashing, a lecture, a strong rebuke? Is he asked to show he’s truly sorry by going around cleaning up his mess? Is he asked to do community service to cover the cost of the damage? Is he even asked for his name and address? Hell no! He’s given a wishy-washy “thanks for owning up” talk and sent on his way. The insert ends with the council officer tippy-toeing through the mud in unsuitable shoes picking up the smelly nappies herself.

And the lesson is? People who take stuff to the bins land up in court, but teenagers who hurl shit-filled nappies around their estate can play x-box while a woman from the council cleans up after then. And the “nanny state” takes on yet another meaning.

When people say they want justice, usually they don’t mean this in some huge philosophical sense that can only be notated in Latin. They simply mean that they want authority to be reasonable, measured and conducted with common sense. We pay for it. Why can’t we have it?


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