Over the past year or so, they’ve done quite a bit of redevelopment of Brighton train station, which frankly was pretty overdue. Train stations in England – and, I’m willing to bet, in many other countries over the world – are pretty odd places. They’re meant to be the gateways of whatever city or town they’re in, perhaps even representative of that town. But more often than not, you’ll find that train stations quite often open out into the backs of buildings, on the edge of town. As soon as you arrive in a place, the place has turned away from you, demanding that you leave. Plus, there’s been an increasing tendency recently (as there has been with the high street) to ensure that all stations look pretty much the same, with a WHSmith at the end of every siding. Seriously, I think WHSmith has only survived in business this long because people are forced to buy an overpriced bar of chocolate every time their train is delayed. It can’t just be the sales of GCSE text books and misery memoirs.
But I digress. Recently, they’ve been doing a lot of work at Brighton station. I think throughout the seventies and eighties, there was a lot of effort to hide the victorian structures with cheap looking metal and plastic. There then came a point where they clearly realised that the cheap looking metal and plastic looked – well, cheap. So. They’ve been stripping it all back, exposing the victoriana, making it look slightly more unique. They still haven’t got rid of the WHSmith, they’ve simply relocated it, which isn’t really committing to the idea. I know there are rents to be paid, and a high street business has a lot more money than the local newsagent, but I’d much prefer to see a privately owned newspaper stall at train stations than WHSmith. There’s still one at Hove train station (or, at least, there was the last time I checked), and it’s brilliant. In fact, I’d go further. I’m not much of a drinker, but I miss the idea of a proper old pub at each train station (not a Wetherspoons, obviously – if you have to have a Wetherspoons, you may as well do it properly and allow Burger King to sell beer). And of course, a tea room, so that Trevor Howard can spend the rush hour saving enigmatically beautiful women from being blinded. You know, like in the good old days.
But you can’t go back. Progress marches on. Technology improves. Apparently. The latest part of the improvements over at Brighton Station is to do with the ticket office. Up until now, buying a ticket mainly involved lining up with everybody else on a Monday morning, silently muttering to yourself about why none of these idiots took the time to buy a new ticket on Friday evening when there was less of a queue, refusing to accept any such criticism for yourself (you were busy that night, come on, you’ve got a life, right?) and waiting until one of the harried cashiers were ready for you.
All that has now changed. Before you get to the door, there is now a monolithic steel and chrome structure, all beeps and digital read out, looking very much like the tall obelisk that terrifies the underdeveloped natives in 2001: A Space Osysdey. And so it proves with this computer at Brighton, where a crowd of bewildered commuters are now spending mornings gibbering wet-eyed and incoherent at this unexpected change to their morning regime. Now what happens, instead of lining up and taking your chances, you are prompted to take a ticket with a number on it, and wait to be called. This means that at best you feel like you’re about to buy some organic ham at the deli counter at Waitrose, or at worst hoping to get a cheap flat screen telly at Argos. But with a lot less guarantee that your product is going to work.
Presumably this thing was introduced to make people’s lives easier. To ensure fairness for all the passengers, so that people who rocked up late to get a ticket wouldn’t simply jump the queue. But also – and I suspect this is the main draw – to ensure that passengers no longer spend their transaction time moaning and bleating about how long it takes to get served (there really is no sense of irony amongst train passengers. Occasionally no sense, full stop). In this last aim, of course, everything has failed quite spectacularly. For a start, now that everyone has a numbered ticket, there’s not actually any need for them to line up. They can instead sit on any of the benches that have been provided (another result of the refurbishment of the station). But nobody can quite trust that, so everyone lines up anyway, mainly in the only doorway, meaning that everybody blocks the exit of anyone else. Plus, every second customer spends about five minutes to complain about the ineffiency of the new system, that it all seems to be taking a lot longer, and that everyone will be delayed as the ticket office has to put up with a lot of complaints (like I said, not a lot of irony).
I do feel sorry for the staff at the ticket office who have to politely respond to each new varariation on the same complaint, and tow the party line (I suspect they secretly think its as stupid an idea as anyone else). But the deed is done, and everyone has to deal with it, at least until the monolith gets broken (I’ve got a fiver on mid-April). Until then, the train has left the station.