David Behrens: Service with a shrug from the pointless platform vigilantes

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Our people are our best asset: it’s the standard claptrap trotted out by personnel departments, or human relations, as they insist on calling themselves, usually while in the course of getting rid of large numbers of them.

But there isn’t a spin doctor in the world who would go to bat for the people who inspect the tickets on our railways. They’re just a liability.

Every regular commuter is struck by the ambiguity of the ticketing policy on Northern Rail. Buy before you board, if the ticket office isn’t closed or the machine broken, they say, yet on most trains there is someone who will, if they get around to it, sell you a ticket.

Sometimes, they do this with good grace; often, not. Many times, they will tell you on the tannoy to buy one at the station when you alight, thus supplying ticket-bait for the “revenue protection” officials who scan the queue and hoik out vulnerable passengers around whom they can throw their weight.

Then there are the people in yellow jackets who patrol suburban platforms like vigilantes. They don’t sell tickets – which would be a helpful service – but merely check them. If, as was the case on Tuesday morning, there are no trains because of “signalling problems” down the line, they do nothing at all.

Here is the conversation I had with two of them at Menston station that day. The platform was crammed with people waiting for information and with their flat-out refusal to provide any, they were the very personification of Jobsworths.

Me: Will there be any trains?

Yellow-jacket: We don’t know.

Me: Could you find out?

Yellow-jacket: No.

Me: Why not?

Yellow-jacket: It’s not our job. We haven’t got a number to call.

Me: But you work for Northern.

Yellow-jacket: No, we don’t.

Me: It says Northern in big letters on your jackets.

Yellow-jacket: We’re contracted by another company.

Me: To do what?

Yellow-jacket: Check tickets.

Me: But there are no trains to check tickets for. So what are you doing now?

Yellow-jacket: [Shrug of shoulders] You’ll have to ask at the ticket office over the bridge. They can tell you about the trains.

Me: Can’t they tell you so you can relay the information to everyone?

Yellow-jacket: No.

Me: So there are no lines of communication whereby they can walk across and pass information to you? Yellow-jacket: No.

On a platform bursting at the seams, these two jokers were, literally, a waste of space. A waste of money, too, as Northern was paying them to do nothing. In fact, lacking the initiative to gain information and pass it on, they were doing less than nothing.

Meanwhile, no-one came on the tannoy and no-one emerged from the ticket office with tidings, glad or otherwise. I was grateful for a lift from a fellow passenger.

Charlie Barnes is another Menston commuter. His 16-year-old daughter was bullied by inspectors while she queued to buy a ticket and, at his bidding, two MPs – Stuart Andrew and Philip Davies – wrote to Northern Rail to tell them to lay off.

Could you imagine that happening anywhere else? A store detective demanding to check the contents of your trolley before you got to the till, to see if you were trying to pull a fast one?

In reply to Mr Davies, Northern said it was required under the terms of its new franchise to take the protection of revenue more seriously. I haven’t checked the small print but I doubt that Chris Grayling’s transport department intended “revenue protection” to be taken in the Al Capone sense.

Northern also told Mr Davies that during peak hours they put extra staff with ticket machines on platforms. I’d like to know which platforms these are – I take the train every morning and I’ve never seen any on mine.

It was, they said, “a reasonably complex issue”. But it really isn’t – if it’s hard for their staff to grasp, it’s because they have not the slightest concept of customer service.

I don’t honestly think Northern Rail is capable of change, unless it is imposed on them – and that’s where Chris Grayling comes in. It’s his job to enfranchise the rail companies and his focus should be on protecting their passengers, not their revenue.