“A Tweet Too Far,” or “The Woes of Stubborn Rail’s Social Media Manager”

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TICKET OFFICE

“So tell me,” said Lucy, breathing heavily with the resigned attitude of someone who has been asking the same question all day, “Why do you want to be the social media manager for Stubborn Rail?”

Gary’s smile was almost bursting with enthusiasm. He’d debated wearing a vibrant bottle green tie with pictures of different train designs to highlight his passion, but he’d refrained, rather reluctantly. Instead, he was wearing an aqua blue tie covered in hashtags, with a Twitter logo towards the top. He’d debated not wearing that one either, but in the end he thought it was best to wear a tie and look professional.

“Well… I remember the first time I saw a train,” Gary remarked. “I thought to myself, “I like that.” I also remember the first time I saw Twitter on my friend’s phone, and I thought, “I like that.” Then I saw Stubborn Rail’s account and you know what I thought? I love that.”

He spoke with the pace of a train pulling into its final platform. Lucy smiled, partly because she couldn’t help but admire the sentiment he was aiming towards, but also as it was bemusing to imagine a wave of affection towards a social media page.

“You realise how much responsibility you would have?” Lucy replied, her eyebrows slightly raised. “How many services we run, the hundreds of thousands of followers that rely on our updates? It’s a lot to get into 140 characters.”

Gary took a deep breath. In his mind, he envisioned running onto a platform and boarding a train just as the doors were closing. This was his make or break moment.

“Look Lucy, I’ve managed plenty of social media accounts in the past. Give me a few words and I’ll give you a great hashtag. But you know what I also know? Your service map inside out. How many carriages there are on your peak services. I even know which carriages have those power sockets with the signs warning they are not for public use. And you know why I know these things, Lucy?” At this point, he stood up, thrusting out his aqua blue social media tie as he did.

“Because I care about Stubborn’s train services. I’m a huge believer in public transport. I don’t want to provide just a service to your customers, I want to provide an experience. I’m not just Gary Buffer. I am all-change; the change, that YOU all need to your service.”

Lucy smiled again. It was the second time she had smiled that day, second time she had smiled that week, second time she had smiled that month. Stubborn Rail were all about efficiency; time for smiling was rare. He was easily the best candidate she’d had all day; one of the applicants had never even been on a train, and didn’t realise there was such a thing as “first class.” She stood up and held her hand out to him, like she was helping him onto a carriage. “Welcome aboard, Gary.”

DEPARTURE

Three weeks later, and Gary was slumped at his computer screen. There were just so many complaints. He’d had no idea of the mess he was getting himself into. He’d always worked from home before, so he rarely had to use trains regularly, and never at peak times. He’d never felt so depressed; all of the cancellations in front of him, and there was nothing he could do. Shockingly, the life of a social media manager was not as glamorous as he had expected.

He’d never realised just how much hate could be fitted into 140 characters. He couldn’t even remember the last time he saw a nice tweet. But what made it worse was that he had to personally sign on at the start of each shift, so now he was being singled out as the source of all the commuter’s woes. The insults were getting worse and worse; admittedly some were very creative, but others were borderline sadistic. He’d started a tally of how many users wanted to tie him down to the train tracks.

He was so busy wallowing in his despair that he didn’t even notice his line manager Elliot wandering over. “Bad news I’m afraid,” he said in a voice so nonchalant it made you wonder how bad the news could really be. “Temporary shortage of train crew again at Clapham Junction. Who would have thought it? Schedule some reminders over the next couple of hours.”

Breathing in deeply, Gary readied himself for the barrage of abuse that was about to greet him. His fingers were shaking as he raised them to the keyboard. Sweat began to pour down his face as he stared at his screen; his whole body was beginning to shake. His index struggled towards the first key… but he couldn’t. He turned to Elliot and looked him defiantly in the eyes.

“Is… isn’t there anything else we can do?”

Elliot had to hide his disbelief. His army of tweeters had never questioned his orders before; they just typed.

“Well, I’m afraid not. There is simply not enough staff, not to mention the signal faults further up the line.”

“But what does that even mean?!” demanded Gary, his voice getting stronger with every word. “Engineering works, signal faults, temporary shortage of train crews… these are just phrases bandied about! They have no significance to the everyday commuter!”

He was on his feet now. Most of the office had stopped what they were doing to watch him. Elliot was shuffling awkwardly, quickly glancing around at the bemused expressions across each workstation. “Now Gary, I think you’re being a little over-dramatic.”

“Oh am I?!” Gary spluttered, his eyes popping at the accusation. “I just want some positivity, for once! Is that too much to ask?! I mean seriously, can you remember when trains used to actually run on time? I bet people who haven’t even heard of our company think that we’re useless! It makes me wonder why we’re even running trains at all!”

Elliot was doing his best to remain calm. He had always taken his line manager training very seriously, and one of the underlying principles was never to lose your temper. So he smiled through gritted teeth and asked “well then Gary, seeing as you’re obviously an expert on the operation of railways, what would be your solution?”

“Hire more staff!” Gary proclaimed, raising his arms like this was the most obvious thing in the world. “Get more people out there on the rails! People like trains, people like driving, people can drive trains!”

Elliot laughed timidly, daring not to be too audible less his suppressed rage manifest itself in some way. “Now Gary, you know perfectly well that we can’t just send more people out on the track. We haven’t got enough staff. Where do you suppose these people are going to come from?”

His forced smile suddenly faltered at the mad glint in Gary’s eye. “Maybe…” Gary began, now pacing back and forth. “Maybe… WE could drive the trains!”

Elliot’s smile had now completely collapsed. But his anger had vanished too, replaced by a growing anxiety. Where had this freewheeling radical of a social media manager come from?

“Now Gary, be reasonable. There’s no logic in that kind of thinking. We’re not train drivers, for God’s sake! We’re tweets. We’re hashtags. We’re the soul of new marketing! We ride timelines, not train tracks. Whoever heard of a social media manager driving a train? In this day and age?!”

“But the commuters Elliot! They’re not just angry tweeters in suits and jackets! They’re real, living people that need to get home! We can help them do that! Every time it’s a temporary shortage, but WE can turn that all around!”

“But then who will post our updates Gary?” retorted Elliot, his checkmate response. “Twitter needs tweets. Our audience needs the latest information. You say these commuters are real, living people? Give them what they want- the most efficient announcements known to man!”

“We could do it while driving the trains! You’re the one always telling us to multitask, have you any idea how impressed people would be by a workforce that could send a tweet while driving a train?!” The whole office was captivated by Gary’s performance; it was arguably the most inspirational speech a social media manager had ever given.

“Well maybe one day Gary, but today is not that day. I expect to see that update on our timeline shortly,” said Elliot firmly. He was putting his line manager voice on now; this was not just a statement, it was a warning. He wanted things to return to normal, but as he returned to his desk, he couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder at Gary, who was now back at his computer, his face like shattered glass.

But Elliot was right; Gary was a social media manager, and that was that.

Until lunch break.

ARRIVAL

It wasn’t sandwiches on his mind for once: it was Stubborn Rail’s train depot. Such a stroke of luck that the site was only twenty minutes across town! No one batted an eyelid as he entered the depot; he had a staff badge, surely he was on official business. Common knowledge dictates that no one turns up at a train depot for the sheer hell of it. It was only when he tried to get one of the trains moving that suspicions were raised.

No one accelerates out of their starting position at THAT kind of speed. Security were running for the train, but no one could stop him. Somehow, Gary just knew how to drive a train. It felt like destiny. Before he knew it, he was heading for Clapham Junction, famous for constantly boasting about being “the UK’s busiest railway station,” an achievement that was as depressing as it was daunting.

He was nearly at a platform when they stopped him. He could have got those passengers home. He could have got them back on time. But somehow, conductors had managed to get onto the train, and suddenly the driver’s door was being forced open and a sea of whistles were being blown in his face. Gary would never control social media channels for a train operator again. He wouldn’t be allowed into a station for five years.

But hey, it could be worse. He could be commuting by train in 2016.

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The Half Five Drive

Half Five Drive Field

Considering I’ve always wanted to work in radio, it seems silly that I never foresaw how difficult it would be to get up for work. After all, the breakfast show heralds the start of the day, so spare a thought for those who have to get up BEFORE the start of the day. But two months in to freelancing for local radio, mostly BBC Radio Kent, forcing myself awake just after half four is not getting any easier. However, asides from the bleary eyes, the even-earlier-than-early rise does have its perks.

BBC Radio Kent broadcasts from the Great Hall Arcade in the centre of Tunbridge Wells, on perhaps the most western corner of the county. With the TV studios for South East Today and digital teams also sharing the building, it’s an impressive operation that you’re proud to be part of. Normally the dozen or so miles to the office would be half an hour at peak times, but for me, it’s under twenty minutes. Why? Because there’s practically no one on the roads at half five in the morning, and it’s bloody lovely.

Most adults know the repetitive grind of the nine-to-five commute- endless queues, constant delays, the slog from one set of traffic lights to another. But before everyone else is up, the roads are motionless, a driver’s dream. The number of cars you encounter are so few that you wonder the reason they’re there in the first place. There’s the occasional taxi, a handful of delivery drivers, and others like me who reject the traditional work hours for whatever reason. The easy flow of the journey certainly beats the stagnant congestion and slight panic that you’re going to be late, which greets you every morning.

It certainly helps that the A264 from home in East Grinstead to work in Tunbridge Wells is a very pleasant one. Passing through a collection of sleepy villages at the top of Ashdown Forest, crossing one county into another, there are plenty of serene landscapes bursting with nature along the way. Of course, you get used to them when you make the same journey several times a week, but it still makes you smile occasionally, especially when you catch the different shades of colour striking the fields after sunrise.

Obviously there are a few downsides, some of which you can probably predict. Firstly, the tiredness. No matter how many times you do it, you never get used to getting up to work on a breakfast show. You can be a veteran of the industry, but that just means the bags under your eyes are even bigger. Maybe if I actually went to bed at eight like I said I would, rather than after ten and cursing my procrastination, maybe that would help. But nothing can prevent you from feeling tired at half five in the morning. Just thinking about that time makes me yawn.

But there are other factors to take into account that you might not expect. Deer, for example. Understandably, on the outskirts of an enormous forest, there are scores of the antlered animals, and they do have a habit of bolting across roads in groups. On one occasion, I came round a corner to find several of them lolloping on the tarmac. I’m still not sure who was more surprised at the encounter, but thankfully I was keeping well within the speed limit, or it would have been bye bye for Bambi.

To be honest, whatever your commuting pattern is, chances are it is not something you are likely to consider before starting the job. Okay, you may think about the distance, but not necessarily about the route itself. Rather, it is something that comes with the overall package, rather than being the deciding factor. But as a new driver, I much prefer the tranquil state of the half five drive. I’ll hold my hands up and admit it’s a tired tranquility, but you can’t have everything.

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Jack The Lad #6: End of the line for East Grinstead?

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After the news broke that East Grinstead train station could lose its ticket office, only three years after the extensive renovations were completed, I decided it was time to return to the East Grinstead Courier to air my thoughts. Have a read below and see what you think!

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If it’s estimated that over 2000 people use East Grinstead station every day, you think that would prescribe it a certain level of importance. But imagine there being absolutely no human interaction during that process: dull, grey boxes dispensing tickets to get you through stiff, stubborn barriers, before an android on wheels descends along the train making checks, like a cold, contentious C3PO.

Maybe I’m exaggerating things here, but cuts have a habit of sitting at the top of a slippery slope, and the speculation that East Grinstead may lose its ticket office has been greeted with the exact kind of negative retorts that you would expect.

Looking round the current site, you have to admit how immaculate it looks. And it should do, at a cost of £2.1 million. It’s been there just long enough for any memories of its decrepit former host to be banished from the minds of the many commuters who use it.

There was even a ceremony with the Town Mayor and our local MP present at its official opening in March 2013; it was seen as that much of an occasion, something to make a fuss about. So why is it, less than three years later, that there are talks of closing the ticket office? You might as well shut the whole station building; after all, why do these things in half measures?

Before you start to get really worried, if this were to actually happen it would not be for a long time. According to reports, the station has been listed in the third wave with the station to close outside of peak hours after a longer period of re-education, with a threat of eventual total closure of the office.

But given the size of the town and the station’s position at the end of its branch for the Oxted line, the fact that the idea is even being debated is utterly ludicrous. Sure, some of us aren’t always in the mood to talk to anyone else and appreciate the serene silence a self-service machine brings, but just picturing the prospect throws up all kinds of questions.

What about season tickets, renewing railcards, or even just a question that a machine cannot answer for you? And what if those ticket machines malfunction? It’s no good being an expert in pushing the right buttons if there aren’t any to push in the first place.

If anything, some people just like to have human interaction. You can just imagine swarms of perplexed customers piling into the Bluebell Railway office trying to renew their monthly passes, or the staff at Motown Coffee facing bemused commuters trying to jab “delay repay” forms in their faces.

Then again, you can certainly see why they’re doing it. We’re seeing more self-service checkouts at supermarkets every day, and banks are gradually encouraging us to become more machine-savvy. But you can afford a delay when you’re doing your weekly shopping; if a machine breaks down at a train station and there’s no kiosks, that’s rush hour chaos guaranteed, regardless of any cancellations.

At a time when half of Southern’s customers are unsatisfied with the franchise’s overall service, it’s hard to imagine this announcement having any kind of positive effect. The solution is simple: stop prioritizing profits over customer service, and stop trying to put us off public transport at a time when more of us should be using it.

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If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and let me know your thoughts in a comment below! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and I also have a whole host of videos to enjoy on my YouTube channel. Check them out and subscribe! (please.)