Thursday, 5 June 2008

Tyneside Metro: 5 out of 10 - must do better

I've just spent a weekend in London, and looking at the cost of using the Tube brought home to me the shortcomings of the Tyneside Metro - specifically the cost. Using an Oyster card, each journey on the Tube costs £1.50, compared with £1.30 for a single stop up to a maximum of £2.80 on the Metro. Unlike Travelcards on the Metro, an Oyster card requires no great investment - you can charge it up with as little as £5 per time. I know that the London Underground is a vastly bigger system, but this makes me wonder how it can afford to charge lower fares when it has such enormous overheads, including staff at every station. Metro trains are almost always crowded and stop running from Newcastle city centre at about 11.45pm - in a time when we're all encouraged to use public transport, fifteen minutes earlier than they used to.

My feeling is that we have much more to complain about than users of the London Underground: infrequent, crowded and dirty trains (my 11 minute wait today at 10.30am on a Saturday is not unusual); frequent interruptions of service (part of the system has been off, I believe, every Sunday for the past several months); ticket machines that still don't take notes and very often don't work; and vandalised, graffiti-ridden stations where the No Smoking rule is regularly ignored. As the Metro system was only built in the 1970s, it doesn't have the excuse for poor service of Victorian tunnels and stations. About the only respect in which the Metro scores over the Tube is that the stations are smaller and easier to navigate than the Tube.

So why is this?

I reckon the answer is in how the Metro is managed. In the early years a couple of short-sighted and naive decisions were made, and we're all suffering for them now. 1) Having no customer services staff at any stations. Obviously this was done on cost grounds, but it may have backfired in the extra vandalism and fare dodging that has happened ever since. 2) Removing ticket barriers. How the Management could have failed to see the consequences of this is beyond me: an epidemic of fare-dodging. From anecdotal evidence and seeing how many people have tickets when inspectors come onto trains I reckon that, despite the official figures, fare-dodging is probably running at around 40%. Hence the honest ones are made to pay for the dishonest ones and the failure of the Metro management. There was a Press Release some time ago announcing that new barriers and ticket machines are coming, but without any details. So just when will we get these? Sadly, this lack of information is symptomatic of the disregard that Metro management often seems to have for its customers.

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