Superman Returns

Dear Belgian railways,

I’ve written you several weeks ago, but somehow i haven’t heard from you since those dreadful winter days filled with snow, delays and hours spent waiting in the freezing cold on a deserted station platform. No letter, no email. No, not even those comforting words and official phrases that only a badly edited standard letter can bring.

So, you can imagine my intense joy when i received, a mere two and a half months after i filled in that marvel of paperwork engineering called the Thalys ‘regularisation form’, two seperate letters in my mailbox, carrying Thalys vouchers as reimbursement for my numerous delays this winter (190 minutes for a single teain. Not bad for a train that never reached its destination) No word however, of my official request – dare i say, complaint against the misbehaviour of your Brussels South station staff. Surely my letter, sent by express mail, must have gotten lost in the snow or -as i suspect to be more likely- in the paperbin of whoever receives those letters.

But now i’m being unfair. This is mere speculation. Or isn’t it?

A week ago, in front of this very computer screen, Thalys vouchers ready, i tried to book a trip to Paris on your website. When finally, after a long and painful battle with a failing server, ten error messages and a page that seemed to be testing my knowledge of obscure script programming languages, i was redirected to the pay screen. It was then that i had ro admit what i was suspecting all along: Superman had returned, and i was staring once again, without a veil between me and the dreadful truth, at his dirty underwear.

Just think about this: on those blue, shiny vouchers is printed in large ink a reference number. This number, somehow, is linked to an entry in a database somewhere in the hidden HQ of the belgian railways. This particular entry holds my information, my name, my bank account number, the number of my Thalys membership card and hey, even my age! But instead of a small box where i can enter this magic number to set in motion the marvels of modern technology to serve my command, your website offered me to pay. No small note saying: “those with vouchers, please make your way to this page here or here”. Nothing, nada, rien. So, you create a system where you let people wait for three entire hours on a freezing cold platform while your staff waits in a cozy -and locked- room looking at all those foolish travellers outside. And then, when they finally get their reimbursement, you let them wait again, but this time at the international ticket office of ‘selected’ railway stations, where they pay a 7 euro extra charge (impossible to be payed with vouchers, apparently). Tell me, is your boss his evilness Beelzebub himself?

Of course, i was hoping way too much when i started to queue at the ticket office, that lovely morning at 6 am before leaving for work. To ease the pain of your employee’s obvious struggle with the early hour, i had already looked up all the essential information of the train that i wanted to book. All he had to do was enter the number of the train in the same system that had previously refused me to do his work and press ‘enter’. Instead, he handed me back the vouchers, told me he couldn’t accept those, and “by the way you can’t buy a ticket for the next day or weeks here before 8:30 and after 18:00”, exactly the working hours of most people that work. I told him exactly that, pleading my case, showing him the letter attached to the voucher which clearly states that EVERY international station accepts these vouchers. Hell, the Thalys services even STOP in Antwerp on their way to Amsterdam or Paris.

Instead of accepting the inevitable logic of this all, your employee, servant and defender of the faithful costumers, did something completely different.

He threatened to call security.

Is that standard operating procedure in the Belgian railways’ Employee Book of Conduct and Chivalery? “If a costumer asks a question you can’t answer, please call security and have him removed from the premises. Problem solved”.

That is how you solve everything, isn’t it? Snow and a few thousand travellers stranded in your station? Just lock yourself in, and they can’t ask you any more nasty questions. Delay? lock yourself in the nearest stearing cabin, don’t do your ticket checking duty, and avoid eye contact with wild, restless and angry commuters. Oh, and don’t inform them on whatever might have caused the delay. Very Important.

If i hadn’t been on my way to work, he could have called security. I would have made my case. This wouldn’t have ended there. However, and as i mentioned before, some people work. So i walked out, telling him in calm anger that i would contact costumer service (that’s you..) about yet another case of shameless bad behaviour.

As i nearly reached the doors leading to that cold, cruel world outside, your employee uttered this memorable and clarifying phrase:

Just try to complain, it won’t get past the railway union.

So that’s where my last complaint went.

Yours Faithfully,

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2 thoughts on “Superman Returns

  1. This kind of story makes my blood boil. How can companies get away with treating people like this? You should start a movement for all Thalys customers to stop using them, or have sit ins in their stations maybe they’d start to take some notice of you like that.

    • Ah, but there’s the rub: Thalys is not an official railway operator. And yet it is. It depends on whether it suits them or not.

      If you complain, they say it’s not their fault. After all, they’re one third belgian railways, and two thirds SNCF. So if you try to annoy them by sending out complaints, they’ll just tell you to adress the belgian railways or the french, depending on your nationality (and not, as would be more logic, on the place where you encountered the problem)

      But, as you may have noticed, they DO have the money for flashy commercials involving green lobsters. And no reference to the SNCF or the SNCB to be seen there…

      The problem i encountered at the ticket office is, however, one of the Belgian railway company. only a few months ago, they had a ‘vicious old lady’ removed by three security people because she told the employee behind the desk to be a little more polite…

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