Connex: Nobody should be charged for an experience so awful

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The Independent Online

Commuters with no history of mental illness have been known to stand on platforms and growl. Others have been seen smashing to bits their umbrellas. One man made a mock announcement to hundreds of passengers that the managing director of the train operator had been taken out and shot. His fellow commuters cheered.

Welcome to Connex, the company that can turn the garrulous into the catatonic, the religious into foul-mouthed sociopaths.

Apart from the lateness of services, the chewing-gummed filth one has to sit in, there is the lavatories. When the Networker trains were introduced, the company trumpeted that they were vandal-proof. Predictably, Kent's ne'er-do-wells saw this as a challenge and now they are frequently trashed and often unrepaired.

Eight-coach trains, which are divided into two four-car sections, should have a functioning lavatory in each. That is rarely the case. Sometimes neither works; rarely are they both operational.

Passengers are advised not to sit anywhere near the WC, invariably the centre of a disagreeable and health-threatening microclimate. On one occasion when I did, the lavatory door suddenly came flying across at me, having been kicked off by a drunk who stuck inside.

Connex tortures its "customers'' by only opening station toilets on platforms that are not receiving home-bound services in the evening. So commuters who go for a drink - especially those fond of beer - can be left in some discomfort because there is no guarantee the train will have one either.

It would be nice to know where the trains are going. Each locomotive has an electronic sign on the front. Sometimes they are in use, sometimes not. Inside the coaches there are other electronic displays to show which stations the train is stopping at. Sometimes they are operational, sometimes not.

Drivers are supposed to tell passengers where the services are going. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. This might be to do with the bloody-mindedness of drivers, but it is also the legacy of a recent "human relations" director at Connex whose stated aim was to destroy Aslef, the train drivers' union. The company would have been better off if his mission had been to ensure the drivers provided a decent service.

Apart from the main London stations - where occasionally a disembodied voice may vouchsafe some information - Connex does not announce the destination of trains in the evenings. On the platforms are electronic signs to show where the next few services are going. But because trains are inevitably late, the sequence of arrivals is changed. The station signs are often some way from where the train stops, so no one is entirely sure where they are going. And during serious delays, passengers are often left to speculate about the cause.

Sometimes there is violence. I once saw a man being "glassed'' on a train. I pulled the communication lever and the driver spoke to me through an intercom, but it was impossible to tell what he was saying. At last we pulled in to Gravesend - and the two assailants fled. They were never caught.

A few coaches have CCTV but security staff no longer travel on the worst trains. The only time one sees Connex employees on the train is when they try to catch passengers without tickets. It comes as something of a surprise that one has to pay for the Connex experience.