This week I changed the habit of a lifetime and travelled to London by train.
Opting to avoid the 5 hour pantomime of driving to the airport, parking the car, taking off half your clothes as part of an essential security mission, being felt up by someone you’ve never met before, putting your clothes all back on again, hanging about for an hour, flying down to London, navigating the Heathrow Express and then the tube to finally reach my destination.
This time I jumped on the train at Perth, had a quick breakfast in Edinburgh, and boarded their first class East Coast Train at 9.30am to arrive at the heart of London some four and a half hours later, having got quite a substantial amount of work done on the train.
It was, in many respects, a first class experience.
But the return journey was quite different. Same rail operator, same first class service.
They started off well – we all got breakfast. But somewhere between London and York it all went horribly wrong.
Not enough sandwiches arrived on the train at Darlington. As a result, staff were left to deal with an increasingly hungry bunch of first class passengers.
We were unabashedly offered a dry croissant (no jam or butter available) and a packet of crisps for our lunch. We were told we were lucky to be offered even that.
Passengers joined together in a first class mutinty to make suggestions to the service team:
– Couldn’t they go and get some sandwiches from the paid buffet car?
– Couldn’t they offer us vouchers so we could go and get those sandwiches all by ourselves?
Our suggestions were shot down in flames. No. You must take the “complimentary” offer. It was the other first class passengers further down the cabin who ate all the sandwiches. We were then told that the food offered up in First Class was not paid for as part of the ticket price (this was in response to the interjection of the American girl, who was sitting opposite us, who bemoaned “But we’re paying for it!”). It was a complimentary offer, not a commitment, in other words.
The rousing conversation that followed, involving people of several different nationalities, made me feel ashamed to be British. Expectations of first class service across the globe are consistent, it would seem. But the staff at East Coast Trains have obviously not grasped them.
Fast forward an hour or so and we’ve changed trains having managed to grab a sandwich at Waverley. Scotrail’s First Class experience is quite different: a free cup of coffee and a biscuit, combined with a marginally bigger seat.
Gabor, the first class attendant, who was forced to work in a compartment that was not air conditioned on an extremely hot day and packed to the gunnels, had us all cheered up instantly. So much so, that some of us were threatening to write to East Coast Trains and suggest they needed people of Gabor’s calibre on their service.
Because it is just a matter of service.
Gabor, unlike his colleagues on East Coast Trains, understood that apologising for the hot state of the train was undoubtedly the way to go. East Coast? Well, you can judge by their responses to our helpful suggestions that they clearly didn’t give a hoot.
It is worth noting that Gabor’s first language was also not English…. just in case you hadn’t made that deduction from his name. The staff on the East Coast Train service were all (and I mean all) British through and through, with accents spanning the full East Coast line.
And I found myself wondering: Is it a British thing to believe that serving people is beneath them?
Have we mistaken first “class” service to be some sort of socio-political divide?
How would their attitude shift if they knew that the majority of people I spoke to (on the way down and the way up) had “upgraded” to first class as a wee treat to themselves, and were all left bitterly disappointed. My travelling companions included tourists, students, police officers, housewives and nurses. Many of these people are employed by the same British government that owns and operates the nationalised East Coast Trains. With the exception of John Humphreys, I wasn’t aware of any of them who were celebrities, politicians and bankers……
It takes dignity and intelligence to serve people. Remember: although you serve them, you are not their servants.
In a class war, your standard of service is everything in the fight to gain and keep your customers.