Call me mad, but I must be one of the very few people in the UK who actually enjoys the thrill of travelling by train. Over the last year there has been a morass of negative publicity about the railways in the UK, ranging from the seemingly endless weekend strikes, to the above-inflation fare increases, to the trains that are so overcrowded you can hardly even get on - let alone find a seat! The list of complaints from regular train travellers goes on and on and on.
But despite everything, I always look forward to my journeys by train. I suppose I'm in a lucky position though. I own a lovely sporty Mercedes which I use for most work journeys, and I always avoid using the railways at peak times or for commuting purposes.
So whenever I do use trains for travel, it is for leisure purposes at off-peak times when it is easy to get a seat by the window, where I can relax, enjoy an overpriced coffee, and watch the beautiful English countryside flash by me - without having to worry about slamming on my brakes because some idiot van driver has decided to pull out into the fast lane without signalling!
The British media is always full of negativity and complaints from the public about train services. But for me, somebody who only uses trains for leisure purposes, I'm happy to sing the praises of the railways, and to say what a pleasant experience it (usually) is to travel by train.
My local station is in the centre of Leeds, West Yorkshire. It's officially one of the busiest stations in the whole country. I know this might sound crazy to a lot of readers, but sometimes I like to just go there and wander around, even when I'm not going on a train journey!
I just love the excitement of the place, with tens of thousands of people constantly dashing in and out throughout the day. Within the space of just a few hours the station goes from being packed full of stressed commuters in smart expensive suits, to armies of football fans, teenagers in nightclub attire, excited kids going to a pantomime with their parents, elderly couples going to the theatre or opera, and squealing young ladies on 'hen' nights, wearing skirts that are so short that I’m embarrassed even to look at them!
It's a wonderful place. You can stand there for hours and see the whole world go by in front of your eyes. No matter what time of day, Leeds station is always packed full of interesting people rushing from city-to-city for work or for leisure.
And so to my story…
A few weeks ago, I was on my way to Manchester for a concert, and I needed to purchase my ticket as quickly as possible. Leeds station has quite a large ticket booking area, with lots of automatic ticket machines and also 10 ticket windows where you can buy tickets in the old fashioned traditional way from a human being. You would think that everybody would try to save time by using the automatic machines, but sometimes this just isn't possible. For example, if you need to ask about a train service, or if you have some specific question about your journey that needs specialist help. Machines are not very good at answering questions.
And machines don’t smile and wish you a pleasant journey.
In my case, I needed to ask a specific question about the journey, and I couldn’t just buy my ticket from the machine. So I went over to the ticket windows to discover that there were literally just two people serving customers, with the other 8 ticket windows out of use.
Now I could understand this situation if it had been near midnight, or perhaps in the middle of the day when the station is less busy. But this was at 5pm on a weekday - quite literally the busiest time of the day at any train station. They have 10 windows for buying tickets - and yet only two of them were in use. And that was despite a very long queue of people, all desperately rushing to catch their train.
Clearly there wasn't an issue about having the physical facilities to serve customers. There were plenty of ticket windows available. It was simply a shortage of staff to actually work on the ticket windows!
Obviously I don’t know the exact reasons for the shortage of staff. It might just be that a lot of staff were off work sick on that day, or were away on holiday. But I doubt it.
It seems a crazy situation to build a new ticket hall with 10 windows, but only have two of them in operation at the very busiest time of day.
And this got me wondering about what was really going on.
You see, as I walked around the station, I spotted loads of other staff employed doing other things, like cleaning up litter, giving directions and other advice, helping people get through the ticket barriers, security staff, etc.
Leeds station employs hundreds of people doing other jobs, but only two people manning the ticket windows to sell tickets, at the very busiest time of day when there was already a long queue of people waiting to buy tickets.
It reminded me of earlier on the same day when I had been in my local branch of Nat West bank, only a few hundred yards from the station.
Despite a very long queue, there were just two staff working on the service desks in the bank, but lots of other staff seemingly doing very little, except chatting with customers, welcoming people as they entered the bank, and even (bizarrely) holding clipboards and standing around doing nothing at all.
And then the penny dropped.
The whole thing is a deliberate ploy. Leeds train station is doing exactly the same thing as Nat West bank (and probably every other bank in the country). They are deliberately creating a large queue so that people will get fed-up of waiting, and will use the automated machines instead. And then the bank (or the station) will be able to sack their workers on the basis that they are “no longer needed” because the customers have “chosen” to use the automatic machines instead!!
It’s a cynical piece of social engineering designed to force customers into using automatic technology rather than dealing with real human beings.
And this is a massive mistake. Because most customers like dealing with real people, not machines. Sooner or later, those companies that realise their customers prefer human interaction, will gain a major competitive advantage over their competitors who are forcing unwary customers into automation that they don’t want.
The sensible companies that try to keep the personal touch alive will eventually be able to charge more for their goods and services, and they will be more profitable as a result. Automation might save money in the short term. But in the long term, the human touch makes better business sense.
To see hundreds more articles click here to visit our archive
To see hundreds more articles click here to visit our archive