‘What Do You Want?’ – ‘Information!’

In which The Author encounters a telephone ‘help’line

Back in the old days when dinosaurs and Conservative governments walked the earth, it used to be easy to find information about public transport. You looked in the phone book, found the number of the bus company serving the area you were intending to travel in, and spoke to someone who lived in that area and knew the routes in the way that a local person would be expected to.
If you were really lucky, and lived in a fairly large town, there would be a bus station with an information office. Timetables and booklets were freely available, listing all the services in a particular area.
Then the services were ‘degulated’ (privatisation by any other name) back in October 1986 – and it all went to shit.
I first experienced difficulties with the new system while trying to get to Llandough Hospital in May. I tried the Traveline Cymru website, expecting a straightforward ‘from’ and ‘to’ expert system which would take me instantly to the relevant timetable. Instead, I was expected to decide which bay in Cardiff Bus Station the bus would be departing from, and whether I wanted to travel via Barry, Penarth or Dinas Powis. Eventually I gave in and phoned the helpline. Fortunately, the rain held off on the day so I was able to walk from the railway station.
On a previous visit there, back in March, Mother and I had met a young student who hadn’t even bothered going through the Traveline Cymru hoops before travelling out to the hospital. She’d taken a taxi from the city centre, and consequently had no money for the return journey. She had no idea how to get back, so we walked to the station with her and gave her a couple of quid for train fare.
I’m planning a trip to Avebury shortly, so this morning I tried (for the third time) to find out about bus services in the Swindon area. After trying (and failing) to access the Wilts & Dorset Bus Company website in work, and again on Thursday evening, I spent several minutes this morning getting nowhere, mainly by trying to follow broken links from the BBC’s Wiltshire mini-site. There didn’t appear to be any buses running from Swindon to Devizes, either operated by Wilts & Dorset or Thamesdown, except for a school service which the latter runs on Mondays to Fridays in term time. Eventually, I gave up and tried the National Traveline number, quoted on the BBC’s site.
I was met by a recorded message, advising me that the number had changed, and giving me a second number to try. I dialled this new number, and was put through to Traveline Cymru. Since I was phoning from an Aberdare number, the system had assumed that I wanted information about buses in Wales. How parochial and narrow-minded is that? The girl on the phone was very friendly, so I explained that I was after some information about services in Wiltshire.
However, when she couldn’t spell the word ‘Wiltshire’ I realized that I was on a hiding to nothing.
I said, ‘Try “Swindon” instead’; after a few moments I was put through to Traveline South-West.
I told the chap there that I was travelling from Swindon to Avebury.
He keyed something into his computer, and then said, ‘The only Aylesbury I’ve got is in Buckinghamshire.’
I said, ‘No – Avebury,’ and started to spell it out for him.
He found it on the second attempt. It turns out that the Swindon – Devizes bus is operated by Stagecoach.
Back in the old days, it used to be so easy to get from A to B. Now, you spend ages going up your own arse on websites which are less than useless, and then even longer on the phone to someone in a call centre who has no knowledge of geography, and who is simply reading off a screen.
And woe betide you if the bus doesn’t make the connection. I remember travelling from Ross-on-Wye to Abergavenny, many years ago, and the connecting bus was actually held back to allow the late-running service to arrive. Now, it’s a fair bet that they wouldn’t even be operated by the same company, never mind waiting for the incoming service to arrive. Returning from Hereford one day, I had to travel into Cardiff, and then on to Aberdare by train, as there was no way the bus was going to make it to Merthyr before the last bus over the mountain departed.
This is supposed to be the Information Age, and we’re supposed to be making everything easier for ourselves. Coupled to that, the government and the chattering classes keep telling everyone to ‘leave their cars at home’. Fat chance of that, when half the bus drivers don’t even speak English and the guy at the information desk hasn’t heard of one the most important archaeological sites in England!
Maybe, instead of ‘hold’ muzak when you’re trying to get through, these companies should just play a tape loop of voices from the cult 1960s TV show The Prisoner:
‘What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?’
‘Information!’ followed by Number Two’s ruthless laughter as the caller hangs up the phone …

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