Britain's departure boards should tell us less about train operating companies, and more about service speed

"Look how fancy I am," says the GWR train. "Yes, but I don't care what corporate entity owns you," I reply. Image: Hitachi Rail Europe.

From the train station near where I grew up, trains go in one of two directions. In a dichotomy that tells you an awful lot about everything going wrong in the UK, departures from Didcot Parkway, in Oxfordshire, pretty much go towards London or away from London.

On platforms 1 and 3 you can go to thrilling places like Oxford, Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, and (pardon me, I’m getting overexcited) Swansea. On any other platform – but mostly platform 2 – you go to London Paddington. All this is courtesy of Great Western Railway (formerly First Great Western). GWR, as it's colloquially known, is infamous for its punitive policies that make it harder to take bikes on trains – a policy so egregiously awful it was once debated in Parliament. 

And so, as I stood in Didcot Parkway with the shiny new bike I'd got for christmas, and I searched for the stopping service to Paddington, as I hadn’t managed to book a bike berth on the stupidly pedantic high-speed airliner-style service that zips along the M4 corridor at a pleasing pace... It was then, that I was hit by a revelation about trains in the UK. A revelation that can even bridge the divide between those happy with the mostly-privatised system we have now, those who would wish for full privatisation now, and the majority who want to see our railways re-nationalised. It was this:

British trains have a branding problem.

And no, I’m not talking about the fact that everyone goes on about how bad they are, even though to be perfectly honest we’re actually quite lucky.


Didcot Parkway, where dreams come to die. Image: Matt Buck.

As the minutes ticked by, and the time I would have to lug my bike up the stairs to the platform decreased, my panic grew more and more severe. Despite scouring the departure boards, the only London-bound trains I could find were the fast service to London Paddington (platform 2), and the local stopping service terminating at Ealing Broadway.

This was no use to me, as I couldn’t take my bike on the tube from Ealing Broadway all the way back to my place, and I had too many bags filled with leftover Christmas booze to be able to cycle it the ten or so miles.

I was in a blind panic – a panic so great that I did the unthinkable and actually asked for help.


At which point, I was told that the Ealing Broadway train does actually go all the way through to London Paddington, but the powers-that-be lie about its final destination so hapless commuters don’t get on it in a rush and end up an hour later into Paddington than they were planning.

Truly, I tell you, this is a failed state.

What hope for the (metaphorical, since I know we live in a Kingdom) republic when we must lie on our station departure boards so as not to mislead the public?

But it triggered a dangerous chain of thought. What information do we need from our trains, and what information is totally useless?

Does it materially affect my journey that my service provider is GWR, rather than, say Abellio Greater Anglia, Southern rail, or even – heaven forbid – Arriva Trains Wales?

Seeing as Arriva is secretly run by the German government, Abellio is run by the Dutch, and Southern is run by the shady and perpetually-incompetent Govia Thameslink Railway, it’s not even like these designations are offering any kind of corporate accountability – a mechanism by which I know at whom to get angry on the occasion of my train arriving 13 minutes behind schedule.

But while corporate branding and franchise designation reign supreme, our  railway information systems actually tell us very little of use. Contrast this with Germany.

A really German departure board with some impressively late trains. Image: Fabian 318.

At Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof you’re faced with a departures board that tells you a train destination and intermediate stops (the same as in the UK, when they’re not lying to you), the platform number, and the time of departure along with any information about delays.

But then the Germans offer a little extra nugget, a simple but vital code that makes perfect sense dem Deutschen Volke who use the system regularly. IC, says one. ICE, smugly notes another, preening its feathers. RE, whispers one, a little ashamed. RB, offers another, shunned and dejected.

Wonderful! Marvellous! The Ealing Broadway Question (the great national challenge of our time, akin to the forever rumbling East Lothian Question) is solved!

That's because what these initials do is tell the passenger what kind of service is on offer; how fast it’ll travel, and many stops it’ll visit, and what kind of train will be used.

ICE, ICE, Baby. Image: Jivee Blau

ICE, or Intercity-Express, offers high-speed travel, stopping only at key cities and interchange hubs. IC – InterCity – offers a long-distance, quite-fast way of travelling, stopping at a few more provincial cities, regional centres, and large towns. Regional-Express (RE) is a, you guessed it, more regional service, stopping more often but still offering a faster service that won’t stop at every piddly village’s sad excuse for a station. That’s what the Regionalbahn (RB) is for.

It’s a beautiful system that tells you everything you need to know without having to lie on departure boards – and it’s the same across much of the continent. The French TGV is not only an iconic brand, but one that actually tells you about the functionality offered. All the name ‘Virgin Trains’ tells you is to expect gimmicks and a high-probability of some over-moneyed blond saddo getting on for a photo-op as if it’s still the Noughties and Blair’s hanging about smiling leeringly.

We get it, you're a hip guy. Image: Hardo Müller.

It’s over, Richard.

The Spanish have Renfe’s AVE, while the Swiss have ICs, IRs, REs and ECs – a beautiful network of usefully-branded, functionally-helpful trains.

At this point, I don’t care what you do the trains. Scrap the franchising system, privatise the lot, and call me when it all goes the same was as Railtrack. Or go for full renationalisation and we can all enjoy another round of gross stagnation of passenger numbers.

But whatever you do, don’t tell me if it’s Great Northern or Chiltern Railways, Southeastern or Abellio ScotRail. Give me a useful indication of what kind of train I’m dealing with, and be done with it.

After all: you don’t really need the London Overground banging on about how it’s run by Arriva UK Trains Limited, do you? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.