In psychological terms, context is almost everything. Much as we like to think that we know how we will act and react in a given situation, without the richness of...
Before you ask, no I haven’t been to every train station in the world. But sometimes you realise that an experience is so bad that it has reached a zenith of consumer misery that would be unsurpassable.
In any quest there comes a time when the hero must dismount, and tell himself that there is no maiden fairer, no prize greater, no more land to discover that is worth the effort. Or in this case, no railway station experience more miserable.
And I’ve seen some bad ones.
Those where the only shelter remained locked during a blizzard.
Those where the only source of heat was little more than a hair dryer bolted to a wall on a timer switch. And it didn’t work.
Those where the staff are only present for a couple of hours a day and make unhelpfulness an art-form (most are friendly and helpful, but some are veritable black belts in grumpy disservice).
But these pretenders to the crown are doomed to fail. They’re too small to hurt enough people. They are minor dots on the Network Rail map: most people will never be inconvenienced by them, and regular travellers learn to adapt to their shortcomings and soon simply grunt back at the charmless nerk behind the counter in a style that owes more to cavemen than modern man.
No, we’re going to need something altogether more substantial.
I give you London’s Kings Cross Station. Nestling in the groin of London’s grime, surrounded by dirty streets, tatty convenience stores and fast food outlets that position themselves at the “will you be assaulted by a fellow customer or get food poisoning” end of the market.
The problem, however, is the way the station is run.
For some reason the station management have created an ‘information’ system (and the word really isn’t justified) that forces passengers to behave like battery-farmed animals.
Despite having eleven platforms, information is typically provided for just a couple of trains.
Yes, that’s right, a major train station, with eleven platforms, and there is information about just two.
On top of this, the information is presented in two columns. These are listed by train operator. Train operator!!
Fortunately, I only travel into London occasionally by train, but I have no idea which train operator I’m travelling with. I know which station I want to go to.
The presentation of information also doesn’t lend itself to reading the names of station that are on the route to the clearly displayed information.
So you have an information that presumes you know which rail operator you’re using and the ultimate destination of the train beyond your chosen stop.
Rather than provide their customers with the information they need in a way that reflects how customers think about their journey, they present it according to their model of the world.
And what is the impact of only providing platform information for two trains?
Everyone must stand around gazing at the board hoping that they will receive enlightenment from the information gods operating the screens. (And my don’t we all look happy in the picture). Incidentally, this is half past two in the afternoon. You should see it when it’s busy!
And when the deities deign to release the platform information guess what happens? Masses of people charge off in one direction, anxious to secure a seat for their journey, creating the sort of scramble you see when a field of sheep realise a dog has appeared and would like to bite them.
The issues are compounded by the fact that platforms 9, 10 and 11 are situated some distance away. Passengers for trains announced at these stations can participate in a middle distance event that combines speed, stamina and agility (to negotiate the ticket barriers): I imagine it will be included in the 2012 games.
All this anxiety and lack of personal control are the antithesis of a good consumer experience. It’s a recipe for misery.
Of course, people accept it, in their downtrodden way.
But really, whoever came up with this torture should be put before some kind of International Crimes Against Consumers commission.
At London’s Liverpool Street station details are provided in advance of trains arriving for all the platforms, along with information about every stop on the journey (displayed in a clear way).
I know they have more space, but that’s not the point. They give customers as much information as possible and it’s easy to scan the lists of information to find your own (non-destination) stop.
The latest psychological research into how people who feel empowered perceive things differently sheds an important light on what clinches Kings Cross’s crown as the ultimate in poor station experiences: a recent study by the University of Kent has found that people underestimate the time it takes to complete a task when they feel powerful.
There is no danger that customers at Kings Cross will underestimate how long they are having to wait for their train… quite the reverse!
Is it any wonder that when T-Mobile wanted a location for their flash mob dance they opted for Liverpool Street station and not Kings Cross? The former is a bright, open space full of people who feel in control of their journeys. The latter is dingy shed, full of depressed customers who would probably sooner strangle someone who started dancing than tap their feet and join in!
Source: Weick et al. How Long Will It Take? Power Biases Time Predictions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.005
Image courtesy: Paolo Margari