It all began on a Sunday at Stansted airport. The Ryanair flight, full of people, like me, who had said they would never fly Ryanair again, was on time. The arrivals e-gate accepted my passport. Our two pieces of luggage bumped speedily onto the conveyor. Stansted Express announced a departure in four minutes. Down the ramps as fast as we could. Train marked Stansted doors still open. On we got, luggage into overhead racks, congratulating ourselves. Hubris. The conductor announced the train was going to Norwich via Cambridge.
We, and some others, struggled off with our luggage as fast as we could. On the opposite platform a train really going to London Liverpool Street in 20 minutes. But where was the green knapsack with our laptop and house keys? On its way to Norwich via Cambridge.
Human beings still survive as station employees though in many ticket offices staff have already been sent their redundancy notices. A real woman, what luck, behind a desk marked Stansted Express was kind and concerned. I hope she keeps her job. She ushered me into a Greater Anglia holy of holies, the station manager’s office. Nice man. He phoned Cambridge and asked for a conductor to find and hand in the knapsack there. Fingers crossed.
On towards London, four scheduled stops, one longish delay – this was nobody's idea of an express - and a dead stop far from our destination at Harlow Town. And then a chirpy driver on the intercom to inform us of fire on the overhead wires ahead and “we’ll be here for hours” and “you all will have to make your own way home”. Could he really have said that? He spoke the exact truth.
In Harlow Town station a lone railway worker at the ticket gate. Neither he nor the driver allowed the magic words “replacement buses” to pass their lips. And none appeared. Hundreds of heavily laden travellers decanted into a Sunday-quiet, broiling, empty, station concourse. Eventually a handful of local cabs and an uber or two summoned by born survivors arrived. And after some forty minutes the first London-style taxis pulled up at the head of a vast queue. Fierce defence of our £10 places in a six-seater before we could set off to Epping.
Epping is one of those exotic end stations on the Tube, like Mill Hill East and Morden, known to battle-hardened commuters. On hot or overcrowded days, lacking air conditioning, the Central Line temperatures are life-threatening. And it was hot. But joy - a text from the Stansted Airport station manager - the knapsack had been handed in at Cambridge. A granddaughter fills in a form online and says she will pick it up next day.
To avoid a wasted journey for her, I phone Greater Anglia Customer Services to ask how long lost items are held. A voice at the other end monotonously repeats that lost property is handled by another company with which they can’t communicate. Eventually I extract the words “two weeks”. More joy, more hubris Next day at Cambridge station we are told the knapsack is not there.
I decide to make a formal complaint and call Customer Services again. Foolish move. But, I get myself bumped up to management - almost certainly in the Philippines - a triumph of the will. The helpful call-centre manager, offers to put me through to a UK Greater Anglia number that I already know is automated. It has eight options. There should be a ninth: despair. So a dead end. Emotionally exhausted, I hear myself insisting “No, I need to speak to a human being”.
Three days later a text arrived saying the knapsack was on its way. It turned up, all contents in order. And so ended my attempt at getting long-suffering Tagalog-speakers to join an international endeavour to discover what had happened to a green knapsack mistakenly left on a train to Cambridge.
Lost Property used by Greater Anglia should be renamed the Silent Service. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for believing the Lost Property Service does not involve any human beings. Or they are carefully hidden. At least you can’t speak to them. I imagine a Wallace and Gromit contraption grabbing the green knapsack, like Wallace pulled into his trousers, then dropping it into a pool of lost knapsacks somewhere in East Anglia. Finally, the deus ex machina, or AI, texts the equivalent of ‘trousers are secured’, automated procedures extract your knapsack from the pool and send it to you. But, several days of unarmed struggle with automation has not been a pleasant daydream, more a nightmare.
No-one escapes these impersonal labyrinths set up by business, labyrinths built on redundancy notices and corporate profits. If we do encounter people on our confused phone and on-line wanderings, they are people with fixed protocols trained to act as robots, fearful of losing the jobs which support their families, and so can’t hear what we say, whose replies, which are mostly not replies to our questions and pleadings, reduce us to helpless frustration.
Even though they may make mistakes, experienced human beings are our best bet for sorting out most problems. But because of difficulties with my own website, I’ve discovered that payment for the privilege of talking to a human being, rather than struggling with an automated system, is fast coming in. We may sooner rather than later be obliged to pay a premium to speak to an actual person when we are dealing with most corporations, banks and mobile phone companies. It’s called progress.
See TheArticle 26/09/2023