Monday, 29 March 2010

Ticket to Ride

Having done a couple of stints on the Nene Valley Railway as Travelling Ticket Inspector and Platform Bouncer, I was now ready to start learning the next step of Booking Office Sales. This entails selling tickets in the booking office; obvious I know, but in this day and age it’s refreshing to find a job title that does what it says on the tin. I imagine that on the ‘real’ railway these days they call themselves Executive Mobility Solutions Co-ordinators or suchlike.

So it came to pass that on Sunday I turned up at Wansford ready to get to grips with the job. The till system is all computerised, and like any such task it’s easy enough once you do what the computer wants you to do, and not what you want to do. Or what you think the computer wants to do now but doesn’t because it wants to do that later and will freeze up if you ask it to do anything complicated. Like issuing a ticket two minutes before the train departs. Slow but steady is the key here – just like driving an Actros with a tiptronic gearbox, really. Without all the swearing.

I enjoyed my time in the booking office a lot more than I thought I would – there was plenty of interaction with the public, who were generally very friendly and tolerant about the rather slow process of getting their tickets. The age-old adage of first impressions really does matter, though (speaking as a grumpy old git who actually thinks customer service should be a given, and not a script dreamed up by some marketing guru). For many visitors the booking office is the first point of contact with the railway, and making everyone feel welcome is a key part of their overall enjoyment. One of the reasons I joined the NVR in the first place was precisely because of the pleasant atmosphere I’ve encountered during previous visits.

To be fair, here – digressing a bit as usual – one of the things Britain generally gets right are its tourist attractions that are run by volunteers or people interested in the environment that they’re working in. All my trips last year to places such as Beamish, The National Coal Mining Museum, Crich Tramway and various preserved railways last year were enhanced by people being genuinely welcoming and creating a pleasant atmosphere in the process. It’s when you step outside into the real world of McDonalds, Starbucks, Carphone Warehouse and B&Q that you wonder if you’re actually in a parallel orbit that has been taken over by 12 year old grunting monosyllabic texting zombies that have a mobile phone welded to their palm and i-pods glued into their ears. This would explain why they are unaware of your presence even when you’re stood 2 feet in front of them over the counter – and when it does finally dawn on them that you are there, ready to part with money in order to get a product that they alone can provide at that moment in time, gaze blankly over your shoulder at a fixed point in the distance and welcome you warmly to their world with something along the lines of, “ ‘elp yer?” Or if you’re really lucky, a straightforward, “Yeah?”

I really do think that it’s time for an overhaul of the gun laws in this country.

Wanna go large yeah wotever. Do I look bovvered? Do I?

But back to the point, and the booking office. The railway wasn’t overly busy, although we had passengers for all three train services that ran during the day. I switched with another trainee at lunchtime and took a ride as relief TTI on the 12:30 train up and down the line, which provided an opportunity to inspect the tickets I’d just sold!

I enjoyed this aspect of the day as it was a great opportunity to build up a good rapport with the visitors and it was a chance to show the human side of the railway operation. Once the train returned to Wansford I finished off in the Booking Office and that was that.

During the day I was able to catch up on the news, and found out that we have two locos coming into traffic shortly. The first is that Austerity J94 number 22 is arriving shortly for a long-term stay on the line (I know who’ll be interested in that snippet!) Secondly, the massive Polish 0-8-0 Slask tank 5485 is almost ready for service after a lengthy overhaul, and hopefully will be in steam over Easter. This loco was employed in its native Poland at the coal mines until they closed down – then, like so many of its countrymen, came to Peterborough to start a new life. Fortunately all the Polish plumbers came too, so the boiler has finally been repaired …

During overhaul, 5485 received a new coat of green paint that matches the DSB coaches. It will be pleasing to see a foreign loco hauling the European stock up and down the line – much more of an authentic appearance. I look forward to experiencing the sights and sounds of this interesting beast in due course. More information about this loco can be read here.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Twist & Shunt

It was back to the swinging sixties at the Great Central Railway this weekend, with an impressive line up of motive power and workings to keep visitors entertained. Steam and diesel locos were rostered together with a two-car Met-Cam DMU, and along with passenger services the GCR ran some freight and parcels diagrams.

There was plenty of action during the day with five steam locos, two diesels and the DMU in operation. Notable amongst the line up was class 25 D5185 that I last saw, ironically enough, in the Nene Valley sixties gala back in September. Standard 2-6-4T 80072, recently returned to steam was looking great, along with my personal favourite 5690 Leander and, top of the bill, 60163 Tornado which is an enjoying a short holiday on the line before taking up mainline duties after Easter. Not having seen Tornado before (am I the only one left?), this was a must-see. And I have to say that I’m very impressed by this awesome locomotive.

My day began at Kinchley Lane in very dull and threatening weather, but the rain stayed away even if the wind didn’t. When things improved I ventured down to Woodthorpe before rounding off the day at Quorn station. I was pleased to see that all trains were well patronised, but surprised at the rather low number of photographers who turned out. Mind you, this was a good thing for me personally as it meant that many good vantage points were available and I didn’t end up photographing elbows, backpacks and beer bellies that so often occurs at such events.

My plan was almost entirely based around videoing the trains, so still photos had to take a back seat. The end results of the shoot are extremely good on the Quicktime player, but inevitably suffer from loss of quality after conversion to a format suitable for editing. Not an easy problem to get round while Microsoft and Apple refuse to allow cross-compatibility between their products. As I started with a Beatles song, I’ll end on one – Help!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Dieselly Led - Photos

The photos from the Nene Valley Railway Diesel Gala may now be viewed here. As I was ostensibly working during the gala, there's not much variety in terms of locations or composition. In truth, I was grabbing quick snaps whenever there was a quiet moment on Wansford Station during my mornings on the ticket barrier. Afternoons saw me working on the trains, so I popped out for some shots as locos ran round at Peterborough and Yarwell.

This was the debut of my new camera, and I just put it into auto mode and took pictures. I'm pleased that the camera coped very well with some difficult conditions, including shooting directly into the sun, low light and sunset. Since then I've even read the manual - well, a few pages at least - and with some practise at various techniques, the camera seems to offer great potential.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Dieselly Led

Last weekend I started as a working volunteer on the Nene Valley Railway, so this weekend I plunged headfirst into one of the busiest events of the year – The Spring Diesel Gala. My chosen role, covered in the previous post, is Travelling Ticket Inspector – and that role is being expanded to Booking Office and all things ticketing related in the future. The gala was already staffed by the time I joined, but extra hands are always welcome on such occasions as it provides more flexibility – and for me, an excellent opportunity to learn the job and meet other members.

The duty began at 07:30, but worth arriving early in order to fill up on one of Jayne’s breakfasts – and on a gala day, fill up when you can. Consequently I made sure on Sunday that I was at Wansford early doors! Once things kick off, there’s no going back. My roster for the morning meant that I would man the ticket gate at the platform entrance. Well, I am the new boy! However, I discovered it was the prime place to be given my position as new starter, as everybody had to come past at some point. Thus I got to meet many people who I’d work with later on, and it was an opportunity to match names with faces of the volunteers. I also met a number of familiar faces from the model railway exhibition circuit – but when you see such people out of their natural environment, you think, ‘I know you from somewhere …’ During quiet moments I also had the chance to play with my new camera, and early results are pleasing.

A quiet moment at Wansford, reminiscent of the Sixties.

My role on the ticket gate was to ensure that everybody had a valid ticket to travel on the trains, or a platform ticket if they just wanted to see the locos parked up on shed and run through the station. Passengers were no problem – they had all purchased tickets at the booking office, and were quite happy to produce them for inspection. The platform tickets were another matter! Several photographers resented having to contribute to the (significant) expense of putting on the event, and expected to wander around for free. This sort of behaviour was annoying on several counts –
- The Railway is a charity, not a business that makes a profit for shareholders.
- Galas are very expensive to organise, due to the costs of the visiting locos.
- The line is 7 miles long, and 5 miles of it runs adjacent to a public footpath – so there is ample opportunity to take excellent photographs for free. Of course, this means that some walking is involved, and these days getting from the car to the counter in McDonalds manages to tax a sizeable (in every sense) portion of the population, so a bit of linesiding is certainly out of the question.

Don't want to buy a platform ticket? This shot was taken less than
one minute's walk from the station. Amazing what you can find if you actually look!

Generally speaking, most people happily paid up and indeed they became regulars passing in and out of the barrier from the platform to the cafĂ© and toilets etc, which meant that it was possible to build up a good rapport – the overall atmosphere was pleasurable and friendly. Two incidents stood out, however. The first man approached early on Saturday morning and I asked for his ticket.
“I don’t need one, I’m a founder member.”
“Unless you’re a working member, with a pass, you have to pay.”
“I’ve never paid before!”
“Welcome to my world sir. No ticket, no entry.”
With that he stomped off to the booking office to complain. And returned five minutes later with – a valid platform ticket!
I made a point of scrutinising his ticket while he moaned about the travesty of having to pay money to visit the line, which, by all accounts, he had built single-handed. My reply was simple, “Surely sir, as a founder member of the line, you will wish to actively contribute to the running of galas like this, and will therefore endorse the raising of revenue to ensure that such events may be held in the future?”
That stopped him in his tracks, and off he went, muttering away under his breath. But I’d made my (very valid) point.

The second occurrence was on Sunday, and even more bizarre. A man pushed past me on the barrier, so I stopped him and asked for a ticket.
“I don’t need one,” was the flat reply.
“I’ll make that decision,” I replied. He sighed, and said, “I’m here for the class 66. I have to go and see it to see if I want to travel behind it.”
“Then you’ll need a platform ticket to go and see it, won’t you sir?”
He sighed again, and with exaggerated slow speech as if to a young child said, “You don’t understand. I’ve come a considerable distance to travel behind the 66. But I need to see which 66 it is before I make up my mind if I’m going to travel behind it.”
Unperturbed, and with equally exaggerated slow speech I told him, “No sir, it is you who doesn’t understand. To view the loco that you have travelled a considerable distance to travel behind, but don’t know if you want to travel behind it now that you’re here, you will either need to purchase a travel ticket to ride on it, or a platform ticket to look at it.”
“And how can I decide to travel behind it if I don’t know what it is?” he asked, playing right into my hands.
“By purchasing a platform ticket and going to look at it.” How hard can it be, I wondered. By now he understood that he was getting nowhere and tried a different tack. “I don’t suppose you know which loco it is?” he sneered.
“I don’t suppose I do,” I agreed. Of course, had he been polite and pleasant I could have found out in less than 30 seconds, but he hadn’t so I didn’t.
“I suggest you ask at the booking office – they have a list in there. You can buy a ticket while you’re there,” I added helpfully. Scowling, off he went. Shortly afterwards he was back, waving a travel ticket in my face.
“You were quite, quite wrong,” he smirked. “They don’t know which loco it is either. You lot don’t seem to know anything much about anything, do you?”
“Well sir, I know an arse from an elbow and I know what I’m looking at right now and it's not an elbow. Next class 66 hauled train leaves at 15:00; have a pleasant trip, sir.”
He wasn’t expecting that – actually, neither was I, it just slipped out. Must be my day job coming to the fore. Still, it shut him up once and for all because he stalked off down the platform and I didn’t have the pleasure of his company again.

Of course the booking office had got the loco roster, but faced with his attitude, temporary amnesia had set in. But to my mind, if you’re travelling a ‘considerable distance’ to travel behind a loco, wouldn’t you check first and find out what it is? I found out later from members interested in such things that news about this loco – 66720 as it happens – was all over the relevant forums and websites as it would be the first time it had hauled a passenger train, and was thus a huge crowd puller.

So that's what all the fuss was about. Happy punters enjoy the inaugural
passenger run behind 66720 as it departs from Wansford with the Wagon Lits.

Some other unknown person also disagreed about the charge for platform tickets, because mid morning on Saturday we found that the lock on the bolted gate that provides access to platform 3 had been smashed to give free access via that particular route. Hope his mother’s proud of him. But those three incidents aside, the vast majority of visitors were very friendly and pleasant and working the gate was good fun, if a touch cold.

On the Saturday, I didn’t know all that many of the volunteers, and whilst those in appropriate uniforms of drivers and traincrew were easy to spot, some came through in civvies and promptly got stopped at the gate for a ticket – including the event organiser, who was quite bemused to find out that he needed a ticket for his own gala! Nevertheless, this was a good means of finding out who was who, and if nothing else it proved that I was doing my job. Just wait till I get my peaked cap!

In the afternoons I swapped roles and went aboard some of the trains as Travelling Ticket Inspector (TTI). Three rakes of coaches were in operation on an intensive timetable, so there was plenty of activity. The 5-car BR MK1 set was popular, but harder to work as it consisted mainly of compartments that take much longer to check. The four car Danish set was a doddle – open coaches with wide gangways that were quick and easy to walk through made the job simplicity itself.

The DSB rake before departure.

The Wagon-Lits rake was only three cars long as the fourth coach is in for overhaul, but was jam packed for much of the gala as the class 66 was working it (being the only air-braked set that it could haul). I didn’t set foot on this set until the very last train on the Sunday, and by then my roster had ended. However, by that stage all the other TTI’s had knocked off and there was no one left to man the train, so I volunteered – partly because of my inbuilt sense of duty to see the job done properly, and partly because the last train was double-headed by a pair of class 31’s with the crew determined for some good old fashioned thrash. Okay, okay - it was entirely the chance to ride the class 31’s and Wagon-Lits, as I find these coaches fascinating and relish any opportunity to travel on them – they’re worth a blog post of their own at some stage. There's something to look forward to.

The atmosphere on board the trains was great, and because almost everybody had seen me on the ticket gate there was plenty of banter and greetings that made the trips very entertaining. Everyone on the trains was well behaved and there didn’t seem to be any of the loutish behaviour I’ve seen elsewhere at Diesel Galas. Even the handful of members of the general public who turned up not knowing what was going on enjoyed their visits and the general atmosphere, which was gratifying.

Class 40 on the Mk1 rake prepares to depart from Yarwell.

Overall it was a great experience to view such an event from an entirely new perspective, and I thoroughly enjoyed the two days. I certainly felt (and can still feel!) the after effects of two 11 hour shifts spent standing and walking for the whole time, but it was satisfying to be part of something. I found the volunteers to be friendly and welcoming, and thoughtful touches such as regular coffees being brought out to me on the ticket gate were very welcome indeed – especially on Sunday morning, when the temperature began at –5°. The Peak wouldn’t start from cold, and I knew how it felt - it took three coffees and a bacon butty before I could even contemplate getting out onto the barrier.

Sunday evening at 18:30, and the last train has arrived back
at Wansford after an exhilarating weekend. Time to go home!

My next rostered turn is 28th March in the Booking Office, so I’m looking forward to trying out another new role.

All photos taken on my new Panasonic TZ6 camera, using only Intelligent Auto mode as I haven't had time to read the book yet. As usual. But so far so good.

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