Sweet nothings: Part with your money and become a fruit-and-nut case

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You cannot have failed to notice the new vending machines installed by London Underground. They are huge swollen-fronted devices, with stout metal legs and an enlarged, back-lit photograph of a Cadbury's Milk Chocolate bar. The machine also displays smaller photographs of a range of lesser chocolate bars - Whole Nut, Fruit and Nut, Crunchie, Wispa, chewing gums and other sweets. A small electronic screen pipes the words: 'Ready to use, ready to use.'

Occasionally, the machines work. 'Please wait, please wait, says the electronic screen and then, eventually, there is a plonking noise. While you put your hand through a metal hatch and root around for the chocolate bar, your train

arrives at the platform and the doors open and close.

But don't be fooled by this success. Last week at King's Cross I tried five machines, none of which worked. Each unhappy machine is, of course, unhappy in its own way. On the Victoria line southbound platform, 0092 let the money fall straight down its throat and out again. 0091 ate change but disgorged no confectionery. 0088 wouldn't produce any chocolate, but generously gave you back some of somebody else's money along with your own.

Meanwhile on the platform opposite there was a machine which, whatever you paid for, would give you its nastiest choice on offer, Wrigley's Juicy Fruit. As the electronic screen reiterated 'Please insert money, please insert money, my desire to smash the front in was almost overpowering.

You may think that chocolate-vending machines are not the finest way for London Underground to allocate its resources, which, we are constantly being told, are very limited. You might also believe that, out of respect for people like me, who have problems controlling restraint over chocolate, the authorities might limit themselves to one machine per platform.

Not a bit of it. The wretched machines come in packs - two, sometimes even three, to a platform. Every one of them has its own ominous disclaimer: 'The staff at this station have no responsibility. . . or 'In case of complaint, please do not approach Underground staff. . .

Call up London Transport Property Vending Services and you can speak to the courteous Don Parry. Parry, manager of LTPVS, will explain that chocolate is an 'impulse buy. Consequently the machines are 'strategically placed'. 'The vending company, he continues, 'tries its best. Machines are seen to every two days.

Refunds are available.'

But there have been problems paying customers back. Initially, the company had sent out 20p and 30p postal orders, but there had been complaints about the inconvenience. Next they had tried sending out refund vouchers to be cashed at the Underground ticket offices - this had not gone down well with visitors from outside London. Eventually, Vending Services had started Sellotaping coins to their letters of apology. From the way Parry talked, it seemed there had been many, many complaints.

Why didn't the company just use the old machines where you put your money in, turned a cog and out came your sweets?

Oh no, they were obsolete - even before the changes at the Royal Mint. 'Nobody in the vending machine industry will look at a gravity-fed machine now, Parry exclaimed.

The new machines were electronic. They had undergone rigorous safety and hygiene tests. They gave change, provided choice; indeed, with the electronic screen, you could almost say that they communicated with the customer. And then there was the special selling point - the chocolate came specially cooled.

The joy of it all, Parry thought, was that the machines were virtually vandal-proof. 'They are built like a Panzer tank. They can even withstand the imprint of a size 11 Doc Marten boot.'

However, it was true that kids had discovered that if you placed a 2p piece under the return change slot, you could jam the system, come back at the end of the day, remove the coin and pick up the day's proceeds. The product development team was presently 'looking into this.

I asked how much the machines cost and Parry floundered. He referred me to a Robin Pulford, at London Underground's press office Pulford was a mine of information.

Over the past two years, London Underground has bought 1,000 confectionery vending machines from London Transport Property, a privatised branch of itself. The machines, manufactured in Munich, cost pounds 3,500 each.

Pulford mentioned what he called some 'minor hitches and 'hiccups. The new machines were sensitive to dust and needed more frequent cleaning. There was also the problem of small surges in the electric current caused by trains leaving the platform and disturbing the machines' finely tuned electronics.

However - here Pulford became more expansive - the joy of it was that the machines were virtually vandal-proof. Factory trials had involved big strong men wielding sledge-hammers and so forth. These vending machines could withstand anything.

More's the pity.

(Photograph omitted)