Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fair versus Predatory Systems: The Case of Swiss Railways

There are many ways of classifying systems that are created by humans and, in our time, one of the key ways of classifying them is by distinguishing between "fair" and "predatory" systems.

Perhaps the best way of understanding this distinction is the "evolution" (or, as is often the case with all systems since the dawn of time,"degeneration") of the Swiss Rail system.

When I first started visiting Switzerland regularly (in 1990 or so), the system was expensive but predictable. Trains were expensive, but they were more or less absolutely reliable (I never knew of a train being late). Now it is a different story. Trains are not often late but they can be late, and no one ever provides an apology or any reasonable explanation. This is in keeping with the post-modern spirit, where you are told, for example, that your flight is late because the incoming flight was late – which is a classic "non-explanation". Or to take a case more parallel with the Swiss Rail system, the British rail system was infamous for explaining, for example, that your train had been delayed because of "leaves on the line". It would have been most interesting to know why there were leaves on the line in the Spring or Summer as often as in the Autumn. Or why no one within British rail or in that historically most inventive of countries had come up with a way of getting those mighty beasts on the iron track to cut through flimsy leaves.

Moreover, Swiss Rail used to be fair in the sense that, if you did not have enough time to buy a ticket before you got on the train, it was up to you find the Ticket Checker (TC) and inform her/him of the case, so that s/he could issue you the ticket. If you went up to the TC and informed her/him, there was no extra charge for issuing the ticket. However, if s/he discovered you without a ticket, then s/he was entitled to fine you – though they rarely did, in those days: there were at least two cases where I bumped into someone and was so taken with the immediate conversation that I just found myself on the train without having stamped my "multiple travel pass" (my colleague had a "GA" which gives free travel throughout the system so did not need to stamp anything). The TC not only accepted my explanation but treated me courteously as a valued customer (which I hope I am, since I travel so frequently to so many different destinations). In fact, the system treated you courteously even if you had never travelled on Swiss Rail earlier and were never going to travel on it again, so that Swiss Rail used to be a byword in efficiency, professionalism and courtesy. The sort of thing that many commercial companies nowadays aspire to unsuccessfully, in spite of employing the best consultants to try and drum into an apparently recalcitrant workforce "customer-friendliness", "customer-focus", "delighting the customer", and so on.

Now, however (as a result of of Reaganite/Thatcherite/"free market" pressures) the TC is required to make no distinction between the different kinds of people who might be on a train without a "valid ticket".

For one thing, the system now has various fares for various routes from the same starting point to the same destination. For example, from Weinfelden to St Gallen, there are two train routes, one via Romanshorn and one via Wil. If one goes to the ticket machine, the system simply asks which route you wish to travel. If you don't know the area, or if you don't the route that "your" train is going to take, tough luck. You could of course go through the entire routine of the machine twice (causing impatient movements in the queue of people behind you) in order to work out which was the longer and more expensive route (as I did once) and buying that ticket. But that does not protect you, as I discovered on a recent train journey, where I had the embarrassment of watching a TC ticking off a hapless Swiss older customer who apparently had not kept up with the times and who had the more expensive ticket for the "longer" journey but was actually on the shorter journey. Probably against what was required of him, the TC did not fine the hapless customer.

However, in a parallel situation, my wife, travelling home from a place she does not usually start from, caught the wrong train by some mistake, and on being advised by a Swiss Rail official, took a corrective route, and was fined by a TC for "not being in possession of a valid ticket" on the corrective journey– even though the TC could see from the various tickets in my wife's possession that her story was true. He simply insisted on doing his duty according to the instructions he had received, and imposed a penalty for not being in possession of the right ticket. When she got home she was seething at the injustice, and told me the story. We decided to write to Swiss Rail with all the facts, as we did not like the slow but apparently inexorable change that is taking place in the system from having been fair to now being predatory.

Swiss Rail, to their credit, responded to our letter quickly. They did not dispute the facts of the case. And, in view of the fact that we were "valued customers", they were prepared to reduce the fine from 80 Swiss Francs to 40 Swiss Francs. Not being sure of what else we could do, we desisted from further action: there comes a point where the energy required to fight the injustice of a predatory system becomes out of proportion to the benefit you personally will receive - and you usually have too much to do anyway.

So we paid the "reduced" fine, which probably represented a good "Swiss compromise" from Swiss Rail's point of view, but left a bad taste in our mouths as customers. It is experiences such as these that alienate customers, but the problem is not the TC in question (he was simply doing his duty as he had been instructed to do, unlike the TC who let the older customer hapless customer off in the earlier incident I reported above). The problem is the transformation of the entire system from being fair to being predatory.

To go back to the question of what is a valid ticket within a predatory system and the matter of ticket machines: if, instead of trusting the ticket machine, you go to the ticket counter, you will find the people there courteously explaining the different routings and the fare difference, and issuing you the right ticket. However, mistakes do happen and, as I experienced recently, if a mistake happens, it is of course not the Swiss Rail official's fault, it is your fault (fortunately, on this occasion the TC did not comply with his duty of fining me – principally because it was a TC with whom I had a sort of chatty relationship – the advantage of being in a small country for a considerable length of time).

However, even if you do have the right ticket, you dawdle on the way or, as happened to me recently, go the wrong way in a large station with which you are unfamiliar, and you miss the train that you thought you should be able to catch if you hurried, you are left with a theoretically invalid ticket for a journey by a "different route" than you were proposing to take at the time you bought the ticket. You are then confronted by the choice of jumping into the next train which arrives a minute later and leaves two minutes later, or of walking all the way back to the ticket counter, cancelling the ticket you bought a few minutes earlier (and paying a large cancellation fee for the privilege), purchasing the "right" ticket, and walking back to another platform for whatever train might be available next. Do note that this is all for the purpose of travelling from exactly the same starting point to exactly the same destination! As getting to my destination on time was, in this case, worth more to me than the maximum fine that could be levied by the system, I jumped on the train on the route for which my ticket was not valid, and hoped that the TC would not spot that or, having spotted it, would not fine me. As it happened, the TC did not spot it (which, I see, now happens even in Switzerland – never used to!), and I rushed off the train with a feeling of relief (because of course I could have been "caught" at any time during that long journey by either a different TC getting on the train due to a change of TCs, or by a team of Special Ticket Checkers who do special spot-checks nowadays)– more employment within the Swiss Rail system for the Swiss, which I am glad to see for the sake of the extra Swiss who are now employed, but guess who eventually pays for the employment of the Special TCs….

And the system never used to need these Special TCs, in the days of the old, courteous, and fair system.

Predatory systems have proliferated across the world. Due to commercial pressures, poisonous concepts such as "dynamic pricing" have also come in (for example in airlines). These make it more expensive for more people (otherwise they would not produce more money from customers – which is the whole reason for having these concepts, because fewer and fewer people can plan their lives very far ahead, so more and more people are at the mercy of outrageously expensive prices – unless of course they don't mind where they go at the last minute. Which is certainly adds spice to life, for example during holidays when you can get last-minute deals to one or other attractive destination for a pittance. Unfortunately, life isn't a holiday for most of the time for most of us.

So what is the point of all the foregoing? How does one define a "fair" as against a "predatory" system? Well, here is my attempt at defining it: a "fair" system tries to create customer loyalty from predictability and a good customer experience, expecting eventually to earn reasonable overall returns as a result. A "predatory" system focuses on maximising returns from the company's (or, in the case of institutions, reducing costs from the institituion's point of view) on a case-by-case basis. The result is that such companies and institutions have to add additional but peripheral effort to try to make an inherently unfair system more acceptable to customers. Predatory systems also have to focus huge marketing efforts on the illusory availability of the few "cheap" tickets - usually available at the wrong times and on the wrong terms for most people.

The result is that such systems soon run down and become more unreliable: unfortunately, reliability is closely tied to redundancy of resources used within a system. The more "efficient" a system, the less likely is it that it will have the extra resources to be able to cope with the unexpected.

Of course obesity and inefficiency do not by themselves guarantee that a system will be able to cope with the unexpected either.

But there is a middle way between mere obesity and inefficiency on the one hand, and the predatory nature of an increasing number of post-modern systems on the other.

To my mind, the old Swiss Rail system has the balance about right. The newer Swiss Rail system which has emerged since the "free market" system began to take root in Switzerland (about 15 years ago?) has certainly lost the balance and become a predatory system.

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1 comment:

Alex Fear said...

Hi Prabhu,

Excellent post. I have noticed the culture of predatory systems here developing in much the same way over the last 10 years.

I believe it is a result of a combination of things- the breakdown of community, the lack of acumen amongst many of todays school-leavers and a focus on the self before others. More and more, public and customer service employees are more concerned with targets and a tick in the box than of actually achieving and having a positive impact in their jobs.

I have experienced this in Switzerland and many times in the UK, most recently where I was late for a flight at the airport and had pre-booked airport parking. I needed to find out where the car park was actually located so rather than pay an extortionate amount to park in the short stay for 5 minutes I parked up in the loading area instead.

I came back in less than 10 minutes to find a traffic warden writing out a ticket for 'No Waiting' offence. I pleaded with her and explained my predicament but I was simply repetively told that the ticket had already been written.

As a Born-Again Christian, I observe that as humans we tend to make our moral decisions based upon a line between to extremes of Justice and Mercy. Indeed these are both traits of Gods dealings with us and are implied in symbology of his left and right hand (giving and taking). The problem for us is that we tend to lean either towards the Justice side, or the Mercy side too much. This sometimes gives rise to a tinted doctrine and theology depending on our presupposition(Witness the 'Conservative right' and the 'Liberal left' in America).

In my example, I contravened a traffic order and rightly 'deserve' a fine, but where is discretion and and sense of fairness when dealing with fallible human beings?