Notes From Big Ben


Notes From Big Ben

Customer Service? I Don’t Think So

I live about 50 km out of the center of London. The train in is 40 minutes in comfort; the drive is about 90 minutes of misery. The local railway station carpark is charged using pay-and-display machines, and I expected to feed in a few coins and collect my ticket in about 30 seconds. Wrong!

Someone in the train company who thinks the first two words of the headline on this column are some kind of offensive remark had had a bright idea:

“Let’s take out the coin payment option and replace it with a shiny new machine that will accept only credit cards.” (Well, they actually do accept cash as well, but this option had been taken out.) “That way we don’t have to collect the cash, and so we save loads of money.”

Now all credit card transactions have to be validated and grown-up businesses do this in real-time, taking a second or two at the most. But that costs more because the machines have to be networked.

There is a cheaper option, used by my local butcher and people selling candles at a craft fair, and that is dial-up. Each time a credit card is used, the system dials in to the central computer, and after making a connection, gets a validation. Problem is that this takes a zillion times as long.

 So here I am at one of the busiest commuter stations in the UK with 500 spaces, in the rain, and each “dial-up” payment is taking nearly two minutes to process. Brilliant!

It got even more exciting a few days later when the train company’s system crashed and no one could pay. That probably cost them almost as much as the “saving” by choosing the wrong system.

In the UK, we have more than 2 million people looking for a job. Why has this person still got his?

The truth is out there – somewhere

Two articles on the same day on the same page of a magazine recently caught my eye.

Article 1 was a report from Northern Ireland on the contract there to manage the province’s on- and off-street public parking. It told us that the £22.5m raised in fines last year was insufficient to cover the £36.1m paid to the contractor that enforces the system, even though the number of tickets issued went up by 8%.

A government spokesman from the Department of Regional Development (remember this, you’ll need it later) then waffled on how it’s not about the money and reduced illegal parking and the benefits of reduced congestion and greater road safety blah blah blah.

Article 2 had Danny Kennedy, the Minister for Regional Development (did you remember what I told you?), announcing that parking fines would be going up by 50% to combat a rise in illegal parking.

So, let me get this right. They can’t find enough people parked illegally to generate enough money to pay for the enforcement, but that doesn’t matter because of the social gain. But there is so much illegal parking that the fine has to go up to stop it. I’m confused, but I am sure that it’s not about making money – that would suggest that politicians are cynical and opportunistic.

Oh, Mr. Kennedy also gave an undertaking that they will not roll out charges to free, on-street parking in 30 towns in the province. If I were selling parking meters, I know where I would be heading.

Too smart to buy a pig in a poke

You’d think that the UK city with the biggest parking operation in Europe would run a pretty tight ship, so when Westminster decided to off-load its carparks to the private sector, we knew it would be interesting.

Unlike Chicago, they didn’t simply sell the family jewels. They offered a deal where bidders had to offer an upfront index-linked rent on a lease, plus a share of any profits over an agreed sum. This meant a win-win for the city. The market goes down, they have a guaranteed bottom line. The market goes up, or the new incumbent does something clever, then they get some of the cream.

The winner was Q-Park, the Dutch company and the biggest operator in Europe, which, it is rumored, offered significantly more than the other contenders, and they certainly know what they are doing.

However, it seems that Westminster was not quite as careful with their property as one might expect. There are horror stories emerging of carparks where more than 100 tons of silt have been taken out of the drainage systems, and at one site, the incoming operator found 10 people living in the carpark.

The people at Q-Park are too smart to have bought a pig in a poke, but I suspect that the odd eyebrow is being raised in Maastricht at just how badly these carparks were looked after under the benign indifference of the previous incumbents.


Just once … or how to make a bad thing worse

There was a break-in at a UK store and the police turned up. This incident had happened six hours before, but instead of using one of the available parking slots in the carpark, the police parked in the disabled bay.

Why? Well, first, because they could, and second, one suspects because the bay was next to the door to the store and so the cop didn’t have to walk so far.

The officer did this twice, and on both visits was photographed by members of the public, who confirmed that there were vacant parking spaces available nearby. It was a thoughtless act by someone who was probably overworked and short of time.

Did the police say, “Sorry, got it wrong” and remind their people the reason the disabled spaces are there? No, they issued a b.s. statement:

“Police officers are exempt from parking regulations for operational policing purposes, but officers are aware of the need to be considerate and park in disabled bays only as a last resort. … The police vehicle pictured was on operational duties, as the officer was investigating a burglary, which had happened overnight, and on both these occasions there were no other spaces available at the time.”

So, either the people who took the pictures were lying, or a stupid statement has given another knock to the credibility of police, who 99% of the time earn and are worthy of our respect?


Peter Guest is PT’s correspondent in the UK, Europe and the Middle East, and discusses all things parking. He can be reached at

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