Is this the worst job in the world?

Not for Rob Marchant - he stays cool as he calms angry commuters.
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The Independent Culture
CANNON STREET train station is calm and peaceful. The coffee shop is quiet, the WH Smith newspaper rack is full, and the platforms are empty. It's only 7am, though, and things are about to change. The ticket inspectors take up their positions at the end of each platform and Rob Marchant, the Customer Welcome Host, sets up shop behind the information desk.

"It's 7am until about 9.30am," says Rob. "Then the station is totally quiet until 4.30pm when the madness starts all over again." During the morning rush-hour alone, some 48 trains enter Cannon Street, carrying nearly 39,000 passengers. And this morning there is a points failure just outside the station, so Rob is in for a busy few hours.

At 7.05am, the first complaint comes in. A 43-year-old businessman from Kent, who has travelled to the City for an important meeting, is furious. He doesn't accept Rob's explanation and believes that Connex is being economical with the truth. "The reason why my train is late," he says, "is because it stopped at every station en route. Connex have too few carriages and services, so they cram all their trains." Rob helps him to fill out a complaint form.

How does Rob cope with rude passengers? "I don't take it personally," he says. "As a Customer Welcome Host, I've been given good training. I know how to grin and bear it." Even when things turn nasty? "Mostly, I just get verbal abuse. Most people come off a train, see me, and let off steam."

As Rob is dealing with a young trader who has lost his umbrella, a high- flying lawyer barges past and challenges him. "Why has the Orpington service been five minutes late every morning this week?" she enquires. "And why is there never an explanation given?" "That's right," interject a middle- aged couple who use the service regularly. "The worst thing since privatisation is bad communication. Connex staff uniforms changed, for example, and no one was informed," says the woman.

Certainly the majority of complaints seem to revolve around two issues: lateness, and lack of communication. Passengers, it appears, can just about deal with delays, but not with silence. "I could just tell them anything, to make them feel better," says Rob, "but that isn't a solution. I want to find out exactly why their train was late, and sometimes that can take time." As a volatile crowd gathers, Rob remains calm and collected. If passengers have a straightforward complaint, they are provided with pre-paid forms. Connex says it deals with all complaints within 10 working days. Sometimes, though, as with a man who complained aggressively about the rise in fares, Rob will call them personally with an explanation.

Back at the desk, Rob is dealing with a woman who is unhappy at the over- heating of the carriages. "It's so bloody hot that people were struggling to stay on their feet," she cries. " And because it was raining, we couldn't open the windows. I know it's winter, but carriages should have a thermostat or something." Rob hands her a complaint form and offers to pass her comments on to the management. "There's nothing else I can do now. The important thing is for every passenger to leave the station feeling satisfied."

It's nearly 9.30am. In a few minutes, Cannon Street will be virtually deserted for the best part of seven hours. Rob will leave his desk and attend to his other duty, namely the lost property section. "Oh! we get all sorts. Umbrellas, of course, but we've also recovered cameras, phones, pagers and diaries. Once we even found a vibrator. Nobody ever claimed that back."

Rob's rush-hour duties are nearly over then. Most of today's problems were due to a points failure outside the station, a fault for which Connex is not responsible. "Technically, it's the problem of Railtrack - the company in charge of the running and upkeep of all the railway tracks - but customers don't want to hear that."