In some parts of the world Britain has a reputation for its indifferent customer service. I have on occasions felt it right to defend our waiters, our ticket sellers and our tourism officials. But an incident on Southern Trains yesterday showed me the very worst of British, and left me wanting to apologise to the foreign visitors who witnessed it.
I’d been down to Brighton on a family day out to enjoy a glorious sunny day by the seaside. By late afternoon it was time to return, and along with many hundreds of others we boarded the 17.19 Southern Trains service that would take us back as far as London Victoria. The train was overcrowded, consisting as it did of a wholly inadequate six coaches, a situation that left people standing in the aisles and sitting on the floor for the duration of the 50 minute journey. Worse still, one toilet was locked leaving only one remaining one for the use of all the passengers. Even before the train left the station this toilet was in a disgusting state.
Three people however did have a comfortable journey. They were members of staff, dressed in their uniforms and happily enjoying their sandwiches and drinks in the first class seats while passengers,including older passengers and those with children, were forced to sit on the floor or stand around them. When I approached these staff members and raised the issue of the poor toilet conditions with them they shrugged their shoulders, laughed to each other and said nothing to me. I do regret not asking them whether they felt it was right that they should sit down while fare-paying customers were standing for the entire journey.
Should the train have been in such an appalling state? No, of course not. But as a frequent user of British trains I’ve become accustomed to broken toilets, unnecessary overcrowding and discomfort throughout a journey. What really shocked me was the disgraceful attitude of these three staff members.
On the one hand they were completely uninterested in acting on an issue that was creating highly unpleasant conditions for the passengers of this train, dismissing my query about opening the other toilet with a dismissive snear. More fundamentally, they were oblivious to the terrible image that they were portraying of their employers by sitting through the trip at the expense of their customers.
I can only guess that they hold their own employers in the same contempt with which they viewed the passengers who rode on that train yesterday. For if they had an ounce of self-respect in their uniforms, or even in themselves, they would have given up their seats to the many ladies and children who were standing within a metre of their table.
I wonder if Southern Trains have a policy on staff sitting while customers stand around them (from my experience, railway companies do appear to have a policy on almost everything else). They need to be aware of the damage that the dreadful behaviour of their employees does to the reputation of their company, and in the eyes of newly arrived visitors, to the UK as a whole.