04 June 2010

When to complain?

Over on Omnibuses at the minute, the blog's author has been in discussion with commenters recently about an entry that was uploaded a few days ago in which he experienced a less-than-pleasurable ride on a bus service.

M'colleague and I travel comprehensively by public transport throughout the UK and share many of the minimum standards shown by the Omnibuses author. So far as I can recall, we've only had cause to complain on two occasions since we've both been editing the UK's third-longest running transport journal.

The Disappearing Bus

The first concerned the non-operation of an advertised bus service in the LEYTR area. The now-defunct operator claimed to have ticket machine evidence that their driver was issuing tickets in the town centre at the time we claimed not to have seen the service, yet it most certainly did not operate from the bus station, as it was timetabled to do. This town in question has two central boarding points and we strongly inferred that, despite the operator's apologetic response for not being able to resolve our complaint, that due to late running, the drive of the service in question omitted the bus station in favour of starting his journey at the second, more populus, locality in the town centre.

This really inconvenienced us as we were at the peripheral of the LEYTR area and were catching said bus service to photograph a special train working a few miles up the road. The route in question was very rural in nature and ran to an incredibly sporadic timetable. In this case we felt totally justified to complain to the operator as we knew, categorically, the company had failed in its obligation to operate as per the published timetable, despite this not being proven.

M'colleague, looking back through his photos taken while we were stood at the bus station in question, spotted our vehicle operating a town service 30 minutes before it should have formed our service (the operator volunteered the vehicle's registration plate in our communication). Drilling down further showed that the time he snapped the 'decker, the bus was operating the town service 12 minutes late. We waited 30 minutes before giving up. The company in question claimed the service left punctually. Even checking m'colleagues photos taken at the time our service was due, it wasn't to be found in the bus station, even with an incorrect destination or parked at the wrong stand (in the case of the latter, no one would have surely boarded in any case).

It was a very odd situation, which clearly frustrated both the passengers and management alike. The driver held the key to the answer, but under investigation claimed not to have any recollection of the incident.

The Scottish Incident

The second occasion concerned a bus service that operated, but in a manner that both of us would rather it hadn't. It was last summer while holidaying in Scotland. We boarded in a very large, populated city at around 2230 hours bound for where were were staying, on the outskirts. In our opinion this operator is an absolute bastion of bus operation here in the UK. Their vehicles are spotless, both inside and out; they offer incrible value for money through their limited ticket range; and have a massive retail presence in their home city.

We boarded at the end of a queue of foreign tourists, all of whom were headed for our destination, too. I placed my exact fare on the hopper and asked for the same destination as those before me. The driver, before accepting my money, pointed to the ticket that had clearly already been printed and waiting to be pulled from the dispenser. This I duly did and sat down. M'colleague paid an identical fare to me, but commented to me while we were both sat down upstairs that my money didn't find its way into the hopper.

CCTV cameras littered the bus and sensing the whiff of gross misconduct at play, I was not happy. We both inferred that the gaggle of foreign tourists who'd boarded immediately before us had not all taken their tickets and the driver, spotting this, thought he'd wave me through, effectively selling the same ticket twice. A few minutes later, while still in the city centre, we turned right at some traffic lights, only to all be thrown forward seconds later as the driver stood the bus on its nose. There was a nasty bang, too. I brushed myself down and ran to the front and saw that we were incredibly close to a black Range Rover in front and assumed we'd hit it.

A minute or two later and we're off again. Now, there are two different routes to our destination; hitherto, we'd travelled on the other of the two routes - this being our first time on this route. The complex at the end, to which we were destined, has a number of stops within it and we were to alight at the very last one. With 4 people on board, we came to a halt at the penultimate stop in the complex and remained stationary for a couple of minutes. We both ventured downstairs and I asked the driver whether he'd be travelling to the next stop or if he'd like us to leave here.

He half-nodded - that is he dropped his head to signify 'yes' (yes to what - he would call at the final stop or he would like us to alight?) - and then pulled his assault screen right the way down to the base. He might as well have punched me in the face. We joined the other two now in the lower saloon and waited another minute or two before the bus continued to the terminal point.

What a journey. There are some operators out there - I'm sure we could all name at least one - who provide drivers that regularly undertake journeys in this manner. Our main reason for complaining was due to this operator's reputation being so high and their value-added aspects, that aren't necessarily spotted by the average passenger, being ranked so highly on our radar that we felt compelled to ensure this individual was brought to book.

I emailed the company in a clear, concise and clinical fashion and a week later received a response befitting the operator in question. They weren't in agreement with everything we stated - namely the first 'issue' of my ticket being printed before I requested it. They said the driver claimed he issued one too many and since the ticket dispenser is too far from his cab to be retrieved manually, he'd offered it to me. Now I know my ticket machines and this model offers a 'take-back' function, which he is instructed to use. The company will have known this (since it is on their instruction that he does it) but thought it pragmatic not to detail this in writing to me.

The second incident saw them go one further. The bang we heard wasn't the bus hitting the Range Rover in front, but 'driver error' that saw the Plaxton President-bodied ADL Trident 2 hitting the high kerb protecting the central island on which stood a traffic light. This collision caused damage to the bus' bodywork.

The third incident of pure ignorance at the penultimate stop at our complex saw the company offer no excuse other than a full and frank apology. They assured me that they do not accept behaviour in this manner and that the driver would face the full weight of their internal disciplinary procedure as a consequence. They hinted at the fact that the driver in question may not have been English-speaking. We did not seek compensation in the form of a voucher of some sort (as is so often the case with many complainants nowadays) and nor did we expect them to offer us this kind of remuneration.

Writing a letter of complaint is not something either of us take lightly. I remember with the Scottish Incident that for the following fifteen minutes we actually attempted to understand why the driver behaved as he did - even contemplating the possibility that we may have both done something to annoy him by accident. Of course, this wasn't the case. I hope that the individual involved in the Scottish Incident has learned from the incident and has improved. The manner in which the company responded has ensured that we won't desert them for another operator or a private motor vehicle. This must surely have been one of their greatest fears.

In communication of this sort, neither of us state we're magazine editors as we both feel that, in so doing, it offers politely threatening undertones. We most certainly do not expect to be treated differently in any way while travelling by any mode of public transport, though the occasional free First Class upgrade is always welcome :-)

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