Friday 14 March 2014

Don't you know there's a war on?

It's a funny thing, but travelling by rail is a much easier experience in the UK these days.  It is one of those areas of public life that have improved dramatically - especially on the London underground.  I belong in the generation when we would stand for hours, peering hopelessly up a tunnel, waiting for the old newspapers to swirl around to show there was a train on the way.

I even went on Virgin Trains to Lancashire on Monday and was bang on time, there and back.  There are other reasons I don't enjoy Virgin Trains - the peculiar smell of urine in their coaches for example, and the way their staff seem disempowered and disinclined to help when things go wrong - but I'd never associated them with punctuality before.

The only place, in my direct experience, where this improvement has failed to take place is on Southern, which operates my regular commute from Norbury to Victoria.

Trains regularly disappear and I haven't caught one that was on time for weeks, since before the storms.  What is most irritating is that, if you catch the 0926 you have to pay £3 more than if you catch one after 0930 - but the 0926 it hasn't arrived before 0930 for weeks.

I had a fascinating conversation recently (thanks, Paul) about the effect of the storms and floods on the rail services. Broadly, there seem to be two possible impacts on staff:

1.  They are motivated to make huge efforts, beyond the call of duty, to get their passengers home.

2.  The opposite happens, because the storms provide them with an excuse for poor service.

This latter effect can be summed up in the old 1940s excuse for not trying very hard: "Don't you know there's a war on?".

I've no idea if this is the reason why Southern seems unable to operate to their own timetable, but it occurs to me that the "Don't you know there's a storm on?" attitude can be a direct result of a corporate culture too dependent on targets.

We know from research into volunteering and behavioural economics that, if you offer to reward people for things they were doing before for altruistic or idealistic reasons then, after a while, the altruism disappears.

It is the same with targets.  If you treat your staff like automatons, and are continually using carrots and sticks, then in the end that takes over the corporate culture.  When you treat people like amoral automatons, that is what they become.

In those circumstances, storms and floods become - not so much a challenge to overcome - but an excuse not to meet targets.  It is another way that McKinsey-style corporate culture has hollowed out our institutions.

Whether that explains yet another delay this morning, I have no idea.  But they do have an excuse: there was a storm last month.


Simon said...

Two things about trains in the south east to bear in mind

1 - the network is a lot more complex than most of the rest of the country (partly because it always was, partly because the Beaching cuts were less savage) and has a mixture of electric and non electric lines that reduces resilience since not all the trains can go to all the places.

2 - it has to constantly subsidize the rest of the rail network. Again this is partly because Beaching didn't get his way (though if he did it might not really have helped).

Actually these may or may not be strictly true, but they make you think (or at least they make anyone who, like me, was brought up to think that Dr Beaching was on balance about slightly worse than Hitler and Stalin combined want to wash my mouth out with soap).

Jane said...

Simon, who was this Dr Beaching you refer to? Do you mean Dr Beeching?