On the Buses

83

This is a photograph of the front of one of the buses I took to get home this evening, taken so that I could get a record of the vehicle number. What you can’t see in this photograph is the driver – clearly one of First Manchester‘s finest – giving me the finger through the windscreen. Presumably this is what they mean in their customer promise when they pledge to provide “helpful, friendly driving staff”.

It hadn’t been a very successful evening. I’d got to the bus stop at the top of Oldham Street in Manchester at about 8.40pm, hoping to catch a bus towards Oldham. Between the 83 and the 183/184 services, there should, at that time on a Sunday night, be a bus every ten minutes. Nearly thirty minutes later (!), an 83 arrived (this kind of interruption in this particular service, unfortunately, is not at all unusual) – destination Sholver, so this was the 9.10pm service (God only knows what happened to the 8.50pm 180 or the 9.00pm 83, but that’s all part of the joy of travelling with First Manchester). There was quite a crowd waiting to board this service – this stop is the terminus – and as I boarded, there were a lot of people behind me who were also trying to get on the bus. In front of me, there was a woman who was trying to buy a ticket from the driver. In order to avoid creating a bottleneck at the door, I stepped around her while showing the driver my pass. You’d think this would be the sensible thing to do, right?

Wrong.

The driver didn’t like it. Oh no, he didn’t like it at all. He started shouting at me – I hadn’t said a word to him at this point – telling me off as if I was a naughty schoolboy. The best gem in his stream of invective was the part where he told me he couldn’t bloody multitask because he wasn’t a bloody woman. Now, yes, there is a way of delivering that line that would put a (sexist) comic spin on it – but no, he was deadly serious. It was a full-on tempter tantrum – one which other passengers commented on – and it was provoked by nothing more than my trying to step aside so that other people could step onto the bus. Since there were a lot of people trying to board behind me, I said nothing and took a seat; a couple of people behind me, though, did tell the driver he was out of order.

When the bus arrived in Oldham about thirty minutes later – I connect there to another service – I had a choice. I could get off the bus and say nothing, which would probably have been the wisest move, or I could tell this driver that I found his behaviour unacceptable and ask for an apology. On the one hand, given his temper tantrum when I boarded, clearly there was no way any complaint about his behaviour would end well. On the other hand, I am a paying customer, and I am not prepared to be yelled at for the heinous crime of stepping to one side while holding up a bus pass. I do, though, understand that sometimes people snap in the heat of the moment (because, really, my holding up a bus pass while simultaneously stepping aside to allow space for other people to step up onto the bus must have been so excruciatingly stressful for him that it’s a wonder he didn’t end up with PTSD), and I think it’s only fair to ask for an apology directly before putting in any kind of complaint – if he’d said sorry, that would have been that. There was, sure, probably also an element of my having just Had Enough after enduring day after day after week after week after year after year of appalling service from this company. And anyway,  First Manchester‘s complaints process, more often than not, is a waste of time – either they don’t bother to respond, or they send an insincere and sometimes badly-spelled letter of apology, and then three days later the exact same thing you just complained about invariably happens again.

So, when the bus had stopped at Oldham bus station, I went to the driver, told him I’d found his behaviour unacceptable, and suggested he owed me an apology. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t use bad language. I did, I suppose, offend him simply because I refuse to be bullied, but that’s not my problem.  The predictable result: more yelling. He doesn’t come to my workplace to tell me how to do his job, apparently, and I could bloody get off his bloody bus. During this rant – which went on for rather longer than those couple of sentences – he was pink and shaking with rage, and repeatedly jabbed his finger at me. Nice.

Again, let’s go back to First Manchester‘s pledge to provide “friendly, helpful driving staff”. This particular gentleman was so friendly and helpful, he must have undergone intensive training. When you encounter this level of rudeness, the management deserve at least some of the credit. This driver would not have started shouting in the first place unless he knew he could get away with it.

I got off the bus – I was getting off there anyway – and stepped in front of the vehicle (which wasn’t going to be leaving for a couple of minutes, there was a line of people waiting to board), and got out my BlackBerry to take a photo of the vehicle number on the front (on First Manchester‘s newest buses, this number is not clearly visible anywhere inside – it’s somewhere up above the driver’s head, and given that he was yelling at me and shaking with rage, asking him to move his head a bit so I could see the vehicle number was probably a non-starter). Guess what? More yelling, loud enough that I could hear it through the windscreen. I wasn’t going to take his photograph (I wasn’t trying to), and if I didn’t put my ****ing phone away he’d call the… whatever, that’s when I stopped listening and walked away. As I walked away, he gave me the finger; he’d already done so once as I was taking the photograph. Again, nice. Presumably there’s a page in his training manual which outlines in detail under exactly which circumstances that gesture may be employed.

Now, OK, asking for an apology, given his previous volatility, was probably “asking for it”. But this is a company whose front-line employees, again and again, seem to be under the impression that they are entitled to treat their customers like dirt (it speaks volumes for First Manchester‘s management that the vast majority of drivers can’t even manage basic courtesies like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), and really, enough is enough. His original behaviour was thoroughly unacceptable, and I don’t have to stand there meekly and accept being yelled at for no good reason by some arrogant jerk in a tatty uniform who gets off on treating his customers like crap, just because he can. This evening’s experience, granted, was particularly bad, but it’s not as if rude drivers are at all unusual. Polite drivers are the exception, and they’re rare enough to be worth remarking on. This evening’s driver, though, was something else. For a start, somebody that angry is probably not fit to be in charge of a vehicle on the public highway, much less any kind of vehicle carrying paying passengers.

So, yes, I’m still waiting for that apology. I won’t be holding my breath. For First Manchester, awful customer service is simply par for the course, and unless they start employing people who know the difference between customers and cattle, that isn’t going to change.

Note – credit where it’s due: over the past week or so, the weather here has been dreadful, and has caused significant disruption on the roads; First Manchester have done a much better job, this year, of keeping services running through bad weather and keeping their customers informed than they ever have in the past, and that’s an encouraging sign. But today the snow was mostly gone, and services were running normally, and their impressive work over the weekend does not excuse or in any way mitigate the treatment I received this evening.

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Unenchanted evening

Or rather, afternoon, although Thursday evening was in some ways similarly unenchanting. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today, I’m afraid, was just one of those days. I had a ticket this afternoon to the UK tour of South Pacific at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I love the show, it’s a terrific production, I was looking forward to it. I left home just before 12.30pm to catch a bus into the city – or rather, to catch a bus to somewhere where I could catch a bus into the city – and arrived at the stop a few minutes before the bus (supposed to run every thirty minutes) was due. And I waited… and waited, and waited, and waited, until 1.15pm, thirteen minutes after the following bus was supposed to have come and gone, at which point I realised that even if a bus turned up at that very moment, there was basically no way the bus was going to get me into Manchester in time to make a 2.30pm curtain up at the Palace. I called a taxi. It’s about eleven miles from here into Manchester via the route the taxi took; the fare was significantly expensive. That, I’m afraid, is what you run the risk of getting when you travel with First Manchester. Today was the sixth time in two weeks that I have had to wait for over thirty minutes for one of their services, and they have, in fact, just been fined by the regulator because their services are so consistently unreliable, so I’m a little curious to know what their managing director, Mr. Richard Soper, does to earn his presumably very comfortable salary. Given the generally appalling standard of the bus service around here, I assume not much.

So I wasn’t in a great mood when I got to the theatre, and the fun was only just beginning. The really special portion of the day began when the house lights went down. Between the candy wrappers, the talking, the nearly constant procession of people getting up during the performance to go to the loo, and the cell phones, there was very little of the first half that wasn’t in some way interrupted by some kind of breach of audience etiquette. And the crisps. Oh my God, the crisps. Is bringing large bags of designer crisps to the theatre now a thing? Is it what people do? Because it’s completely obnoxious. If you add the constant munching, crunching, and rustling of plastic wrappers to the talking and the cellphones… well, I might as well have been watching the show from a seat in the food court at a mall.

Unfortunately, when it comes to audience etiquette, the Palace’s management are a useless waste of space. This afternoon, they didn’t even make any announcement asking people to switch off their mobile phones before the show started – so guess what? In the part of the theatre where I was sitting, phones went off three times in the first half and twice in the second. The front-of-house staff, of course, were nowhere to be seen at the interval. They did, however, take the time to open the outside doors – yes, to the street – before the show’s final scene was over. The street is up a flight of stairs from where I was sitting, true, but the moment when Emile appears from the verandah to join Nellie and the children singing ‘Dites-Moi’ at the end of the show was – how can I say this nicely? – not improved at all by the addition of a blast of cold air and traffic noise from Whitworth Street outside. And that’s a pity; an understudy was on as Emile – Stephen John Davis, he was superb, and his ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ raised goosebumps and stopped the show – and it would have been nice to let him get to the end of his (terrific) performance without outside interference. Particularly since, God knows, there was enough interference going in inside the auditorium already.

And unfortunately this sort of appalling audience behaviour is becoming more and more common. The audience was equally delightful when I saw this production during its first stint at the Palace last year, and at a screening of the New York Philharmonic‘s concert of Sondheim‘s Company the other night the two “ladies” sitting behind me had brought sandwiches from home – wrapped in aluminium foil, which they were incapable of unwrapping quietly. They, too, had brought crisps, although their crisps were slightly quieter than the aluminium foil.

I’ve written before that Company is a favourite show of mine; the concert was great fun, and even Ms. Patti LuPone (of whom I am not always a fan) was on her best behaviour, by which I mean her performance did actually include some consonants. Not all of them, obviously, but far more than she usually manages, and she only tortured about a quarter of her vowels. There were lovely performances from everybody else, but particularly from Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton, who gave, on I assume relatively little rehearsal, a sharply funny account of the karate scene  (Colbert is no great shakes as a singer, but he did a touching, sweetly sad job of his portion of ‘Sorry-Grateful’). I really enjoyed it, and I expect to enjoy it even more when I watch it on DVD without the additional, unwanted soundtrack of other people eating, talking, and rustling food wrappers.

One more thing: this is not about young people not knowing how to behave. Most of the rude behaviour I’m talking about came from people who are at least ten years older than I am.  It’s not as if either performance was completely ruined for me – on the contrary, I enjoyed both shows very much. In both cases, though, the whispering, the noisy eating sounds, the rustling wrappers, cellphones and all the rest of it were significantly distracting, and significantly annoying, and – God, I sound like a grumpy old man here – it’s depressing to think that the people I’m writing about have no idea – not a clue – of how their rude, disruptive, selfish behaviour spoiled the show for the people around them.

And, once again, for their failure to even make a gesture towards enforcing any kind of audience etiquette by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and for their crass, intrusive choice of precisely the wrong moment to open the exit doors at the end of the show, the Palace Theatre Manchester’s front-of-house staff deserve some kind of prize for their absolute, gold-plated, copper-bottomed, neon-lit uselessness.

Weather 1, UK 0

It snowed a bit here today. And I do mean just a bit – three or four inches on high ground, maybe half that lower down. That’s a light snowfall, as far as I’m concerned. Judging by the news here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s Armageddon. More fool me, I went out in it… and it took me pushing three hours to travel about ten miles to get home.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was the scene in Manchester city centre at about 6pm:

That’s a light dusting of snow, nothing more (to be fair, there is more here, ten miles to the north-east). Note the complete absence of salt or grit on either the road or the pavement. This was far from the most treacherous place in the city centre – the pavements in front of Debenhams in Market Street were slick with ice and very slippery (and no, neither Debenhams nor Manchester City Council had put any salt down). The Market Street Metrolink platform was just as bad – there had been no attempt to clear the lying snow, which had been compacted to ice under passengers’ feet, and nobody had put grit down.

Where I live is fairly high up, a few hundred feet higher than the city centre, and it’s not all that unusual for the public transport system here to experience some disruption when snow falls. I grew up here, I know what the weather can do, and I have the bus and train company websites bookmarked on my BlackBerry so that I can check for service updates if I go out when there’s snow on the ground (it slightly irritates me to do this, given that I’ve spent a big chunk of my adult life living in Toronto, a city that deals with far larger snowfalls every winter, usually without anything like the level of disruption snow causes here). I checked First Manchester‘s service updates page regularly; for most of the day (until some point after I got home, in fact) it showed only a bland message saying that there may be some weather-related delays. In the past, when there have been problems, this page has carried a fairly extensive list of specific services that are cancelled or diverted due to the weather. Since no such list was displayed, I assumed I was OK, and didn’t rush to come home.

The fun started when I went to catch a bus out of Manchester. There were no departing buses to be seen at my stop. Inbound buses (it’s the terminus) were dropping off passengers then going out of service, which isn’t a good sign (there’s supposed to be a bus between Manchester and Oldham town centre every ten minutes at that time of day). Rather than wait, I went to catch a train. The train departed exactly on time, and arrived at my station exactly on time. The station, however, was a mess:

That’s the platform, stairs and footbridge at Greenfield station. Nobody had made any attempt to clear the snow. No salt had been put down anywhere, even on the stairs. The station is staffed on Saturdays until 3.30pm, and sees one train an hour in each direction, timetabled to leave at more or less the same time. Aside from a window of about 15 minutes before both trains depart, it’s never that busy, so the lack of any salt anywhere on the platforms, staircases and footbridge basically comes down to laziness. It’s not as if this snowfall was unexpected. It was forecast 72 hours in advance, and arrived more or less exactly on schedule – and yet, obviously, the station’s staff (and their managers) didn’t bother to take even the simplest steps to mitigate the effect of the snowfall. I don’t know why this surprised me – I use Northern Rail regularly, and they’re committed to excellence in customer service in roughly the same way as the Communist Party of China is committed to promoting democracy – but it did. They usually make at least some effort, but they didn’t today.

The fun, for me, was only just beginning. The road outside Greenfield station is on a steep hill; it’s treacherous in ice, buses are often diverted away from there when there’s snow or ice on the ground, so I walked up to the main road (by now it was about 9pm, and the snow had long since stopped falling in any quantity). There was perhaps three inches of snow on the ground; usually, OMBC does a reasonably efficient job of clearing snow from the main roads, and you’d expect one of the borough’s major routes to be reasonably clear nine hours after the beginning of a snowfall that left an accumulation of only three or four inches. Not tonight:

It had probably been gritted, but not for several hours, and it hadn’t been ploughed. First Manchester’s mobile website still – again, nine hours after snow had begun to fall – showed only a bland message about possible snow-related delays, so I waited. Half an hour after my bus was due to arrive, I caught another service into the next village (easier place to pick up a taxi, and the bus shelter there has a seat). I asked the driver whether the service I was waiting for was running or not, and he didn’t know; he couldn’t be bothered to use his radio to try and find out. It wasn’t that cold, and the road was clearly open, so I waited… for three quarters of an hour, at which point a bus came along that would deposit me within a mile or so of home. Rather than ring a taxi, I caught it and walked. This bus ran more or less exactly on time; there was no sign at all of the service I’d been waiting for. The driver of the bus I caught thought it probably wasn’t running, but didn’t know for sure (and, again, couldn’t be bothered to get on the radio and find out); First finally got around to updating their website with a list of services that weren’t running at some point after 11pm, and the service I waited for for over an hour and a half is not listed there.

The walk home – mostly uphill through uncleared streets – was lovely.

And all of this for three or four inches of snow! It’s pathetic. More than that, it shows the management of a mostly privatised transport system on which the bottom line is corporate profit holding their paying customers in absolute, unyielding contempt. This was a minor snowfall, forecast days in advance – but the snow was forecast to fall at the weekend, which means that deploying additional personnel to clear platforms and bus stops of snow, put grit down, and keep passenger information systems properly updated with details of service disruptions would have meant paying overtime, which would eat into profits (never mind that we’ve had above-inflation fare increases on both the buses and the trains within the last month, in both cases without even the hint of a promise of any improvement in services in return). The snow falling at the weekend probably accounts for the state of the main roads as well – to be fair to the council here, on weekdays, with this amount of snow, they usually do a better job than they did today. Presumably they too wanted to avoid paying out too much overtime.

Beyond that, the prevailing mentality here does seem to be that clearing snow is somebody else’s problem. Toronto has a fairly strict bylaw outlining when and how snow must be removed from sidewalks, pathways etc following a snowfall, and this level of snow clearance is the responsibility of the owner or occupant of each building. We don’t have any such law here, so nobody bothers – including city centre businesses (and, really, it’s not as if putting salt down on the pavement in front of, say, Debenhams would have eaten up more than about 20 minutes of someone’s time – I repeat, we did not have a major snowfall today, and there was far less snow in the city centre than there is here). The snow on the pavements either piles up to the point where it gets into your shoes, or it compacts into ice, because nobody takes responsibility for clearing the pavement in front of their own property. Indeed, there’s an obnoxious perception that clearing snow and gritting in front of your home or business can get you sued if someone slips and falls on the section you cleared. And no, don’t worry, I’m not going to list every single revolting thing this says about British society.

And then there’s the private cars. When snow falls here, it’s as if parking regulations suddenly no longer apply. People bring their cars down from side roads (which, admittedly, are often steep, quickly become impassable, and are never the first to be cleared) and park them on the main road – anywhere on the main road, including on double yellow lines, around blind bends, and in front of bus stops, reducing two-lane roads to a single car-width of carriageway. Since that’s too narrow for two buses to pass, the result is severe disruption – like I experienced this evening – for anyone trying to get around by bus, even after a relatively minor snowfall. These cars, of course, are never ticketed or towed, despite being parked illegally. If we put in place a system of designated snow routes that became absolute no-parking zones after a snowfall in order to facilitate snow clearance and enable traffic to move freely in both directions, and enforced it, an awful lot of this disruption would be avoided.

Unfortunately, that would require planning, and common sense, and when snow falls in this country both of those things magically disappear. We had three or four inches of snow, and it was forecast days in advance. Some delays are understandable; letting chaos result from such a minor snowfall is not.

And the Northern Rail and Metrolink managing directors – I’m looking at YOU, Ian Bevan and Chris Coleman  – who failed to put protocols in place to ensure that station platforms would be gritted ahead of a snowfall should be fired. Even given the generally pathetic way we deal with snowfalls in the UK, that takes a special kind of incompetence.