Friday, 6 December 2013

Too Much Information?

Amongst perhaps the more lesser-known recordings of The Police is a track called "Too Much Information". 
"Too much information, running through my brain. Too much information, driving me insane", warbled the great Sting. Perhaps, in this pre-internet, pre-twitter era, it was a song ahead of it's time. 
Why the reference to an 80s pop song on a transport blog? 
Because, in all the years of advocating more and more information being given in the world of public transport - especially at times of disruption - I wonder if, perhaps, sometimes, we have too much of it. 
Most of the time, for regular travellers, it's a godsend. We have more chance of knowing if our bus or train is going to be late than ever before. The information via our smartphones allows us to seeth at least in knowledge if our train is cancelled, or if our bus is delayed. 
But there still persists, sadly in a number of media circles, a belief that delays are caused by public transport operators intent on heaving misery on us hapless travellers. 
I've just read a newspaper article about delayed trains in the London area due to "slippery tracks" (their inverted commas, not mine). And that's where the bile begins. Why is "slippery tracks" expressed in such a way that it may be unbelievable? Ever since the railways moved out of shifting coal to shifting passengers, weather conditions, especially in inclement weather, have had an influence on the ability of trains to get a grip on the rails. It's always happened. But because train operators now provide the "excuse" (my inverted commas), it appears that some people simply don't want to believe it. Twitter, this force for "good" (again, my inverted commas) becomes a vehicle for torrents of mindless abuse from some of the very people the train operators are trying to help. 
It's the same on the buses. 
Birmingham City Centre experiences it's traditional festive Armageddon around late November onwards. Every man, dog and living creature has to descend onto the City in order to fulfill their "Christmas shopping" and visit the German market (which often resembles a frightening football crowd). The roads are one ridiculous mess of gridlock. So when bus operators tweet information about routes caught up in the quagmire, out come the armchair experts, tapping their ill-informed claptrap into their phones, so that their 6 followers can see the full extent of their ignorance. How "liberating" (my inverted commas) social media is. 
Mind you, the transport industry sometimes doesn't help. 
I stood in central Birmingham last week watching the "real time" information for my bus count down from 10 minutes to "due". Then nothing. It only raises expectations in a child-like Santa expectancy on Christmas Eve, only to have your hopes dashed. Maybe I haven't been a good boy this year. 
But really, judging by the state of the roads, was I hoping beyond all hope that my bus really was "due", just around the corner? I'm old enough and daft enough to know otherwise, and probably daft in the first place to be standing in the middle of Brum waiting for a bus in the run up to Christmas. 
And the "apologies". 
Why do some transport operators do this? 
"Sorry, Not In Service" says the bus. They don't do this in London. The buses there just proclaim "Not In Service". Fair enough. I know that, somewhere, a controller is trying to recover the service from the appalling mess uncontrolled traffic access has on the bus service. I've seen how hard service controllers in the bus and rail industry work to sort things out after its gone wrong, only for lazy, ignorant journalists to write some claptrap in the hope of whipping up some minor hysteria amongst some people who can't think for themselves. I suppose it's what the media does. 
But back to the "apology" bit. A Twitter friend tweeted to me that she gets annoyed by all of the automated "apologies" that accompany every bit of train delay information. It's a fair point. On one hand, train operators are trying to be sincere when they announce the delay of a service, but do we really take a blind bit of notice when they apologise via a computer voice? 
Let's be clear here. I work in the transport industry, on the "coalface". Whenever there is a delay, I am as frustrated and concerned as anyone else is. And I don't know anyone else who isn't. We all want the best for passengers. Yes, we can apologise, and it often comes over better if it is face-to-face, not a computer-recorded version, but we really need to, as a general public, start to get over this idea that travel delays are things manufactured for the fun of it, with various mocked "excuses", such as "the wrong sort of snow", etc. 
How do "other countries" do better than us? 
Actually, they don't. I can recall only earlier on this year being stranded both in Cologne and Rotterdam stations due to "weather-related" incidents. What I do recall in both incidents is good, clear, concise information, provided via tannoys, on screens, and via multi-lingual staff on the platform. What I don't recall much of was apologies. And, actually, I didn't want one. My German delay had been caused by overhead wires coming down. They were working hard to fix it. That's all I needed to know. And I'm sure, when the leaves come down, the Germans have the same issues as we have with gripping the rails effectively. 
Train delays have always been. Traffic congestion similarly. It isn't a new phenomenon. But because we tell people about it in real-time, in a way that is supposed to be helpful and informative, it somehow becomes a symbol of how "useless" public transport is, in a new kind of way. We don't write newspaper headlines about how people circle shopping centre car parks for hours on end looking for a space, or how they spend more hours trying to escape at closing time. We don't write headlines about how snow sends cars slipping and sliding into each other because the tyres can't grip in inclement weather. No one ever "apologies" when ignorant people park their cars poorly, blocking roads. And who apolgises for congestion on our roads? Indeed Eric Pickles MP and the Mayor of Liverpool appear only too happy to create more congestion for ill-thought out reasons. You won't find them saying sorry via a computer-generated voice every few minutes. We need less pre-recorded "sorrys", less lazily written attacks on public transport delays and more real, long-term action and investment in our public transport.  

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