Don’t moan so much

I know that it’s commonly believed that train fares in this county are confusing, but it is really necessary for us to be subjected to ‘interns’ moaning about the fact they can’t afford hundred-quid plus train fares when they’ve not done their research AND refuse to travel on a cheaper route?

I’m a commuter too. I know train travel is expensive and I know that having about £400 out of my wages each month feels insulting when I think hard enough about it. Even still, I get upset when I see people moaning in the media or wherever about the amount they pay for train travel because it’s just not that expensive.

Buying a ticket for £4,760 might seem a rip off but when you consider that for that money I’ll have travelled in excess of 17,700 miles (and most of them asleep, listening to a Radio 4 download or reading) it’s not actually that bad.

In fact, it’ll have cost about 27p per mile – far less when you consider I’ve not included the tube travel that’s included in the price nor any of the ‘leisure’ journeys I’ve made and the 3rd off other rail fares that I get too.

The railway is a cruel mistress, but she can’t be claimed of not rewarding you for commitment.

So I think I was rightly enraged when I read a blog by Georgia May on HuffPost UK last week. She’s an intern in London apparently, and she wrote that she and other young commuters like her would face losing their jobs because a discount offered by a Train Operator was being discontinued.

Georgia says she travels from Rugby to London for work. It was costing her £27 per day to travel and now, she says, it’ll cost £86 after the discount was removed. She also adds that she can’t afford to move to London because of expensive rents, so I’ll give her that at least: the girl needs to commute for the job she’s worked hard to get.

But all is not as it seems, because in fact she could cut her costs down to just £24 per day with a one-operator ticket or face an increase to just £32 per day with the ‘any permitted’ option. Both on 12-month tickets, granted, but they’re available to many more than they were (even Interns on zero hour contracts) with schemes like Commuter Club. I’ll admit to anyone that I’m not the best at maths, but neither of those figures sounds anything like £86 per day to me.

In fact, even going for ‘Advance’ tickets for specific trains up to 12 weeks in advance gets the costs down to about £64 a day. Still not close to the £86 walk-on fare being quoted, even if it still seems expensive.

Georgia is by no means alone in her feeling under attack by the removal of discounts and getting media attention for it, though.

South West Trains were under fire for not extending their summer ‘travel anywhere for £15’ offer to allow veterans to travel into London for VJ Day celebrations for cheap earlier in the month too.

South West Trains rightly said they’d not offered the promotion on that day as it’d lead to overcrowding, but still got accused of trying to profit at the expense of the vulnerable who needed to travel.

I’d like to have seen the press they’d have got for offering the promotion and running overcrowded trains all day long. I don’t think it would’ve been any better, and it might even have been worse.

For some reason when an offer or promotion starts, it seems to have become ‘nasty’ to remove it again and when someone says they can’t afford something it seems to be obligatory that it comes with undertones that they should be able to.

Running a railway isn’t cheap, and running one that didn’t get the investment it needed in the past is even worse.

Given that the railways cost us all so much to run (Network Rail has £38bn of debt alone), we should be pleased that the companies we’ve trusted to run them are doing their best to fill seats up by offering attractive deals and not getting upset that when they do, it works.

Banging on about… student grants becoming loans, again.

Sorry to bang on about this, but it’s student maintenance grants becoming loans again.

The Indie have reported that the Government didn’t do any research on whether increasing the burden on students would do anything to the number of people applying for Uni.

Labour have said the admission means that it’s clear Osborne has “abandoned evidence-based policy” in his most recent budget and that that’s definitely a bad thing.

That seems a sensible argument, for once, because it is reasonable to assume that someone will have looked into the effects of these kinds of changes before they do them.

There’s two sides to every coin, though, and as with any research the question at the start is going to make a difference to whether the research fidings help a particular cause.

So if, as I suspect, Mr Osborne was simply concerned with cutting costs and not about keeping students wanting to go to Uni then it’s safe to say that the research would’ve given him the answer he wanted.

But actually, hold on. Wasn’t it only a week or so since Labour were on the Today programme arguing that Mr Osborne was wrong to be taking advice from experts on what he chose to do?

Barbara Keeley, the shadow treasury minister, said when it was put to her that an early sale of RBS shares would ‘stoke the market’ and that was advice from the industry and the independent Bank of England that the sale was “a decision for the chancellor” and agreed when asked if the BoE should keep its nose out.

In other words, the narrative at the moment seems to be that Mr Osborne should do research and then ignore it and take the decision – and then presumably the criticism – anyway.

What bollocks.

Is there anything in 3 clicks?

I’ve just started a long, long project at work of replacing forty or so websites which have long been neglected with something more modern, but in the process I’ve come across a ‘3 click’ rule I never knew existed.

As part of the project, which is replacing healthcare websites intended for patients of all kinds of services to find out what they can get, where they should go and who they can call if they need to know something else, I get to experience agency life again: working with a client to deliver something that meets their needs and ticks all the boxes their website needs to.

I was quite surprised to find that as part of the project, one of the boxes the website needed to tick was that any piece of information was never more than 3 clicks away.

Given that this was a relatively small website, that wasn’t much of a problem – and I like a challenge – but it did leave my arguing with the Intern who was putting together the content and site map ahead of starting to build the site about how the menu should work.

I was arguing that anything titled “Patient Information” couldn’t be a menu option simply because that’s exactly the best way to sum up the purpose of the entire website, but I lost. We agreed to disagree – and that’s how it should be.

The site has been delivered, the client is happy and it’s ticking the boxes they laid out at the start. But I can’t leave it there. Because there’s 35 more of these sites to go, and I crave to know whether this is one of those situations where I’m wrong (and so I should shut up) or one of those situations where I need to come up with a better way of convincing people.

Foiled by the three clicks

On the face of it I didn’t get my way because I couldn’t think of something better to call the menu option but in reality I lost because my way would fall foul of this ‘three clicks’ thing I’d been introduced to.

If I’d been left alone to build the site from scratch with no clients or Interns to please then I’d probably have gone with five menu options with sub menus taking people further. I’d have had: Home, Our Story, Our Services, Get Help and Contact Us.

That would’ve meant that someone looking for some bits of information might have had to click through maybe three or four links but at least I think those three or four clicks would’ve been sensible ones.

I came across a similar argument with a colleague over making things easy to find on an Intranet site. Their argument: everything essential for people to do should be linked directly from the homepage. My argument: logical menu structure which puts things where people expect them.

I won that one, but then we never ended up building the site anyway.

Following it to its ultimate aim, as sites get more complex then the three clicks rule just means long and hard to use top-level menus or even longer pages of content.

Ultimately, the aim for 3-click access to any bit of content on the site is somewhat admirable. I like the concept, and the idea that putting the user and their experience (in this case saving them time and perhaps some menu-induced bother) is important because it is and it often gets forgotten.

Simple sites that just do what you want and don’t make a big fuss about it absolutely rock. But I’m concerned that setting an arbitrary number of clicks to access anything is just systematising something that can’t be boiled down like that.

What do you think – is there anything in this or am I just overthinking it? Tweet me @picnarkes.

Illustration shared on Flickr by Andy Bright, illustrated by Claire Murray. (C) Some rights reserved.

Preparing to go car free

It disgusts me that I’ve now had a driving licence for eight years, just because of how old it makes me feel – but for eight years and seven months I’ve loved driving and now I’m preparing to give up my car again.

It’s the third time I’ve had to go own-car-free. First was when I went to University (a practicality), the second time when I started working in London in a job which paid me not nearly enough to live, let alone have a car and now I’m doing it again because I don’t want to spend all of my 20s in debt.

If this time is anything like the last two times then not having a car will have the same side effects. Any of these sound familiar?


I’ll avoid going places more than I already do because everywhere is suddenly far further away, trains only go places I don’t want to go and have timetables that make the trip impractical and I’m not getting a taxi because then I might have to talk to the driver


The only time I’ll ever be arsed to go out is when it’s raining, and no matter how heavy it looks I’ll always assume it won’t be too bad. I will arrive everywhere with my hair flopped forward, hair product dripping into my mouth and my clothes more useful for putting out chip fat fires.


I’m male. I have, and carry with me at all times my phone, my keys and my wallet. The three point check takes place when I first leave the house and every 30 or so minutes until I’m back home again, when I promptly lose all three without noticing.

The only way I can currently spot my keys through a quick pat on the outside of my jean pocket is because of my chunky car key. When it’s gone, I might as well be sedated because I’m going to spend three months freaking out that I’ve lost my keys.


When you drive somewhere from here, it takes about 30 minutes. When you get a train from here, it takes about an hour and a half. Doesn’t matter much where you want to go – it’ll be further away.

Which means less time to do whatever it is that you wanted to do. So what’s the point? See #1.

Selborne to Alton


Despite knowing my choice is for good reasons, it aint gonna stop me looking for ways to get back on the road. No longer having a car I’ll suddenly need to know everything about all of the cars that I’d like to buy.

The best tyre to buy for a Fiesta ST? Probably in my head by next week. 0-62 time of a Fiat 500 Abarth? Yup, that’ll be there too.

Just 15 months and 30 days to go.

Ideology alone doesn’t make real people’s lives better

Whether you believe that public ownership is the right way to go about things or that everything should be run by profit-intending companies, if you’re pursuing transforming one to the other across the board then you better have a bloody good reason.

There were murmurings of the ideology debate of public v private hanging about before the election in May, but with Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Turnham currently playing one-up on what they’d buy back it seems both are missing the point that it doesn’t really matter.

When Ed Miliband got involved in the energy market we all ended up paying more

Most people couldn’t care less how something happens, just that it does. Most people (including me) don’t mind private or public, as long as it achieves what it’s supposed to and the outcomes are the best they can be.

In the same way, most people don’t see why you’d change something that was working unless you had a way of making it much better. Humans are naturally lazy, we all know that, and so we’re also naturally suspicious or untrusting of people who aren’t.

We just need you to tell us what difference it’d make to us

Take that person at work who seems super-human: promoted every couple of weeks, gym at lunch, charity fun-run at the weekend and fosters 2 or 3 children. Oh, and they’ve baked a cake and popped it in the break room if you fancy a slice. We all wonder what they’re after, deep down, while smiling politely and eating their delicious cake.

So as much as we don’t like that guy, we’re not going to vote for someone who is going to throw the railways, energy companies and whatever else into the turmoil of nationalisation purely because they’re going to do that.

We need more – and that’s a problem because neither Burnham nor Corbyn have ever run a railway or an energy company, or a water company. They are, at best, ‘expert customers’, and history tells us that when politicians get involved in running things they know nothing about it starts to get messy.

Soundbite politics demands promises of x number of trains being run on certain lines, an increase of x number of seats or a cut of x per cent of ticket prices. All impossible or incredibly difficult to achieve. And when it doesn’t happen, blame is on the boss – forced to hand back a bonus and then step aside for the next one in line, despite never really having a chance.

Just look at how Network Rail gets treated when things go wrong, a series of problems that are ultimately down to a lack of historic investment in the track, trains and people (there’s not enough of any of them) and a lack of enough money right now.

Or when Ed Miliband got involved in the energy market with his pledge to cap the prices suppliers could charge for gas and electricity, even without being in power or realistically having much chance of getting any, and we all ended up paying more as a result.

Authenticity is great, but we do actually want you to make our lives better too

Changing things because you believe in them, because you don’t like them or because you think something else would just be intrinsically better is fine when you’re picking paint for the spare bedroom but I don’t think it’s wrong to demand more than “because ideology” from our elected officials.

You see, as much as the coverage of the first tranche of share sales in RBS drove me mad last week – with the fictional lost £1bn leading Labour’s criticism – it was a massive missed opportunity for ideology and reason to come together.

Imagine a world where instead of Barbara Keeley, the shadow treasury minister, appeared on the Today programme to chastise George Osborne for following advice from people who know things about how money works and for generally being a Conservative, Labour had instead campaigned during the election for full-nationalisation of RBS.

Given that most people currently hate, dislike or aren’t really all that fussed about bankers nationalising a bank seems like about the right thing to do especially with only 20% or so to go.

A nationalised RBS could’ve been home to a much stronger Help to Buy ISA to give people a real prospect of owning a home instead of a fake one, it could’ve offered cheaper car insurance for young people priced out of the market and all those small business loans that we need to give people jobs and grow the economy back to where it should be.

That would’ve done some good, ticked the ideology box (not that it matters to most) and not have sounded all that mad really.

Perhaps I’m not quite right in the head but regardless of whether it’s hard-left, hard-right or centre-ist ideology that they’re spouting, unless politicians can translate the why beyond their own beliefs and into something that’ll make things better for me, then I fail to see why they bother at all.

RBS Photo by Mark Ramsay. Gas Burner photo by Steven Depolo