Thursday, 26 June 2008

Surveillance Culture, George Orwell and So on Ad Infinitum

Yesterday I was waiting for Jenny to return from Budapest; I'd gone to meet her at Norwich Station. Because the conductor gave her the wrong arrival time, I ended up having to wait for quite a while. I'm an inveterate reader, and one of my favourite things to do when I have to kill time in stations is to go and look at the big connection maps showing the many (well, not that many, come to think of it) ways in which you can traverse the UK. Next to one of these maps was a big sign that said 'Dodgers' at the top - I knew instantly what it pertained to, but was shocked by the content. Apparently, due to 'National Express East Anglia's Commitment to Fare Collection' ('commitment to fare collection'? They're a business! Maybe humans should start publicising their 'commitments to breathing', and the Pope should come clean about his 'commitment to Catholicism'), said 'Train Operators' (aka 'Train-, but more frequently bus-, based beneficiaries of catastrophic privatization policy') will be operating a new iniative by which passengers will be able to anonymously inform on fellow passengers they suspect of not having paid their 'full fare'. Yes, the 'full fare' - that old fella who got mixed up at Diss and had to stay on until Stowmarket is going to PAY!

Of course, the snitch-system will be operated by text, which I suspect is less because it's a conveniently impersonal method of communication and more because businesses love taking advantage of popular neophilia. If a text is involved- so their rationale about our rationale goes - then informing on a fare-dodger will be a little bit like X Factor. Maybe they could go all out and call it Strictly Come the Transport Police Will be Waiting at the Next Station or Britain's Got Ticket Machines Installed at all Stations Now, You Will Not be Allowed to Buy Tickets Onboard Our Services and hire celebrity conductors ('Is the chav in seat 23B fare-dodging? Text Brian Harvey now on 602002!')

Seriously though, what kind of paranoid, Daily Mail-reading anti-human would even contemplate 'texting' to confess their suspicions about the provenance of another passenger's ticketing arrangements? (Clue: the answer might be in the question.) Who makes rail travel in this country such a chore- fare-dodgers or the train operators themselves? It would be sensible enough to install automatic barriers, or just to do something radically practical like, ooh, I don't know, having a conductor on the train in the first place. The jargonistic language ('a commitment to fare collection') is a cynical deployment of a vocabulary which we automatically, unquestioningly associate with the idiom of Customer Service: when we hear about a company's 'commitment' to a policy, it's usually to do with them 'sourcing the best local produce' (lies) or keeping bills at a minimum (Pinnochian lies). So, as soon as we hear a phrase like that, we assume that it's a gesture made in the favour of the customer. Utter cynicism, utter manipulation.

I don't need to wave statistics around to prove that the hike in train fares in the last decade has been astronomical, but I can tell you - with a completely straight face - that a discounted ticket in this country costs two to two and a half times the price of a full-fare, bought on the day one on the FS network in Italy. I can also tell you that the Italian network charges pro rata, which means that you pay for the distance you've travelled rather than for where you've travelled. It is, for instance, cheaper to travel to Barrow-on-Humber than Hull from Scarborough, in spite of the fact that you would have to pass through Paragon Station on your journey and that the former station is an extra thirty (or more) miles further away on the other side of the Humber. I read a year or so back that, as it is cheaper to get a ticket to Berwick-upon-Tweed from Darlington than it is to buy one to Newcastle, GNER (as it was at the time) had ticket inspectors on the platforms at Newcastle with the ludicrous task of sending people back onto trains as they had paid the lower rate to get to a station fifty miles further away. Let's try another one: unless you ask specifically, or you have a friendly ticket vendor (not uncommon, thankfully), you will not be offered the cheapest fare to your destination because the cheaper fares inevitably involve the sale of multiple tickets, and the 'commitment' to providing the lowest fare extends only as far as absolute literalness (ie, typing 'Norwich- Bristol' into the ticketing computer rather than 'Norwich - London, London- Didcot, Didcot - Bristol). It isn't expensive to travel by rail in the UK, it is a systematic rip-off exacted upon a captive market who are simultaneously being cajoled by the government into utilising greener - ie, public, ie, rail-based - modes of transport. They can talk all they like about building Maglev lines that will connect London and Newcastle in an hour and twenty minutes, but how much would the fare cost? By today's standard, an on the day ticket would be in excess of three hundred and fifty quid. And there would still be rail replacement services (aka requisitioned school buses built in 1936) at weekends.

I think National Express are trying to imply that fare dodgers cause the exorbitant prices. I'll leave you to be the judge of whether or not that is the case.


Karl said...

Judging by the ever spiralling fares on UK railways I'd imagine one should read the smallprint on the notice before ratting out fellow passengers, just in case you get stuck with some sort of two pounds a message charge.

Joe said...


Frightening, though, isn't it?