Philip Hensher: Are the British just too phlegmatic?

When a train in India was 23 minutes late, it caused violent protest. But if we in Britain reacted like that to failures of service, where would you stop?

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While I was in Calcutta over the new year, an interestingly violent incident occurred at the railway station.

On 29 December, The Times of India reported, Howrah station "turned into a battlefield".

An angry mob "smashed ticket counters" and "fought police with bricks". The mob, the report said, was dispersed only by a police charge.

The riot was caused by delayed trains. The passengers on a late-running service set off the violence by heckling the train's "motorman" and spitting on his face, before ransacking the station manager's office and destroying the ticket office. "The vandals didn't even spare female railway employees on duty at ticket counters 1, 3 and 5". The Times of India opined that the violence was "waiting to happen".

To a British reader, the breaking out of a riot over poor service is an unexpected and unfamiliar phenomenon. It starts to sound still more peculiar when the details of the unsatisfactory train service are gone into. The mob broke into violence because the train that was carrying them was all of 23 minutes late. It was supposed to arrive at 9.55, and was delayed until 10.18. Let me just write that again, in astonishment: a train running 23 minutes late was the direct cause of a protest riot in Calcutta.

We British riot about the imposition of new burdens, such as the increase in university tuition fees, the introduction of the poll tax; occasionally over points of political principle; occasionally in protest against heavy-handed policing tactics. In the course of such riots, consumer outlets are often smashed up. But the idea of smashing them in because their service is terrible is a curious idea to us. We would not think of throwing a brick or smashing a window over a late-running train. We would shake our heads and shuffle our feet, and curiously comradely conversations between suffering strangers might start to break out.

I had an opportunity to observe this on a train journey in England just after Christmas. The arrival of the morning of 27 December came as a total surprise to the train companies, who were still dozily carrying out track maintenance. All reservations had been lost, and after half an hour the train was jammed full – some quite elderly and distressed people were forced to stand. After 40 minutes on this lunchtime service, the buffet had run out of any food. Then the train stopped dead for three-quarters of an hour. When we pulled into St Pancras an hour and a half late, did we weep, scream or start to smash things? No, we just said, "Oh well, what do you expect?"

But once you started to riot in Britain over failures of service, where would you stop? This week, it was reported that large numbers of Christmas cards were still being delivered by the Royal Mail, three weeks after they were posted – and the Royal Mail used, not 20 years ago, to be one of the most reliable and efficient organisations in the land. How we used to laugh when we heard of the Italian postal service taking 10 days to get a postcard from Tuscany to London. Not any more. But still we wouldn't riot about it.

India is not necessarily associated in the mind with great efficiency, and certainly its most elaborate systems present an antiquated face to the Western visitor. Nevertheless, the structures which unfailingly return your laundry to you, or manage to type your name on a passenger list and stick it to the door of a train compartment do deserve the accolade of systems that work.

Most remarkable is the legendary case of Bombay's tiffinwallahs, examined many times as an example of supreme efficiency. Lunch for office workers is prepared at home, in the suburbs of Bombay, and brought to the office worker in the centre by 5,000 tiffinwallahs. Some 200,000 lunches are delivered every day, identified not by dockets or writing but by a complex set of markings. The lunches arrive, and the boxes afterwards are returned. The tiffinwallahs, it is claimed, on average lose one tiffin box every two months – for all effective purposes, the system is actually perfect.

On the other hand, on three of the last four occasions I've caught a train in Britain, the buffet manager has announced that, to his astonishment, he seems to have run out of food well before the end of the journey. Customer demand for food at lunchtime is just one of many entirely novel concepts for our large organisations.

We could go on wondering why India, with its immense disadvantages of scale, investment, lack of competition and antiquated infrastructure, nevertheless seems able to serve its customers well in important areas. It might have something to do with this fact: that when a train is 23 minutes late into Howrah, the passengers are quite likely to get off, spit in the driver's face and mount a no doubt exhilarating though rather deplorable riot through the station premises. That must be quite a high incentive to run your business efficiently.

I don't recommend violent protest against the wanton inefficiencies of transport and communications in this country. Don't, whatever you do, start throwing bricks through the windows of the post office when they deliver letters three weeks late, or kicking the employees of South West Trains up the arse when, yet again, they prove incapable of getting a train 200 miles within half an hour of the promised time. That honestly wouldn't be an appropriate response, and probably rather illegal to boot. Perhaps we could, at most, upgrade from tutting and rolling of the eyes to, say, deliberately spilling the train manager's tea when he passes us by. We pay the price for our Gandhian commitment to non-violent protest in the quality of the service we get.

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