Four Pillars: Of trains and planes and automobiles…. and the internet

Mitch Ratcliffe pointed me at this letter, posted via Doc Searls, which gave unusual meanings to the word “unlimited”.

And it reminded me of an experience I had, nearly two decades ago, travelling on British Rail as it then was.

I was looking forward to a game of golf with some colleagues of mine from Data General. We were scheduled to tee off at 8am somewhere near Dorking, I think it was Gatton Manor at Ockley. I didn’t drive (I still don’t, never have done) and so we agreed that I would take a train from Windsor (where I still live) to Camberley. The others would pick me up from the railway station there, and we would drive off to Ockley.

All well and good.

Now in those days, the fare system on UK rail networks was unusual to say the least. It felt like there was an average of a dozen different fares for every journey, based on a variety of factors ranging from day through time of day through direction of travel and age and round-trip and advance booking and a slew of other factors.

[Remind you of anything?]

It was 530am when I marched up to the ticket counter at Windsor, stated my requirement politely, and was delighted to find out that I could have a “cheap day return” to Camberley. Which I bought, and was given two stubs of paper as a result.

The physical hub-and-spoke nature of rail networks in the south-east of England are laid out traditionally. That is to say all routes are based on going towards London or coming from there. So if, like me, you had the effrontery to want to travel north-south while living west of London, you had to go towards London, change, then come out again.

[Remind you of anything?]

So I resigned myself to the convoluted journey, got on the train, switched at Staines to head in the opposite direction, and was dreaming of hitting small white spheres great distances while nodding off. As one does.

Now all this was in the days before ubiquitous mobile phones. As we approached Bagshot, the stop before Camberley, I saw my colleagues waving madly from the station car park; they had decided to intercept me one stop earlier. So I got off, clubs and all.

The ticket inspector had other views. I couldn’t get off there. Apparently, despite having paid to go to the next station on the line (and to return from there later) I was not allowed to get off at Bagshot. Because Bagshot did not qualify for a Cheap Day Return from Windsor at that time of day. And Camberley did.

[Remind you of anything?]

I did what you would expect. Gave him my card, told him “So sue me and find this story in the Sun tomorrow”, clambered past him and went to meet my friends. I could not believe the guy. How could someone possibly tell me that I did not have the right to terminate my journey one stop short of where I’d paid to be, a stop that the train stopped at anyway? Insanity.
Not much happened later. No fines, no appearance in court, no nothing. But there was a letter. A letter that reminded me of the Laws and Bye-Laws of travelling on British Rail. Which, when summarised, stated:

  • They didn’t promise that trains would be on time.
  • They didn’t promise you would get a seat.
  • They didn’t even promise that there would be a train at all.
  • And, to top it all, the two stubs of cardboard they gave you, your “tickets”, were actually their property as well. To be returned on demand.

Remind you of anything?

So Mitch, that’s what I think of the letter. Doomed to failure. British Rail had to morph and change, but they too have a long way to go.

2 thoughts on “Four Pillars: Of trains and planes and automobiles…. and the internet”

  1. An excellent demonstration that for all our progress organizations regress, repeat and learn lessons all over rather than break old models.

    Unfortunately, this doomed business model, like British Rail before, can buy a lot of influence in government while the rest of us sit on the platform. Not very encouraging.

  2. How we would all benefit if there was more focus on simple and transparent pricing, both in the consumer and biz to biz markets. Pricing drives market efficiency and incentives but both are warped if the pricing mechanism is unclear or illogical.

    The rail example is a classic. Budget airlines, internet brokerages, a few telcos and many other disruptive service providers understand that their success is not just dependant on low prices, a simple price structure is important as well.

    But back to railways… In Britain it is still possible to save money by inquiring about a return ticket when you are travelling one way only: The return ticket is sometimes cheaper.

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