Help, our industrial heritage is falling down!

Temple Works is a one-off. Its construction as a flax mill in 1840 must have made a powerful statement about Leeds’ status as global pioneer of industry. At the time it was said to be the “largest single room in the world,” with innovative air conditioning under the floor and sheep grazing on a grass-covered roof above.

In the 1950s Yorkshire’s textile manufacture began to shrink, but the mill found a new use as the northern warehouse for mail order company Kays, a kind of Amazon.com of Britain’s post-war consumer culture.

Just imagine what this building has seen over half a dozen generations: the rhythms of working life for thousands of people, materials brought in and out, linking with the world’s most exotic and mundane places. I reckon Temple Works should qualify for preservation on the strength of this rich social history alone.

But in reality this sprawling single storey stone shed in an unprepossessing edge-of-city-centre location must owe its Grade I listed status to the fact that it’s the spitting image of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt. Those 19th Century industrialists knew how to make an impact! I work in a nearby building, another former mill converted to offices, and am both inspired and humbled by the scale of our predecessors’ ambitions.

Sadly the 21st Century has not been kind to Temple Works. Vacant since 2004, the building is subject to plans to convert it to a “cultural and retail facility“, but in the mean time its condition is becoming more perilous.

This week, thankfully in the early hours when the street outside was deserted, one of the works’ massive stone pillars crumbled, bringing down a section of the roof. Marshall Street, the road on which it stands, has been closed in case of further collapse. This picture shows the damage…

Temple Works damage

It is particularly cruel that Temple Works was allowed to decline at a time when Leeds was going through another building boom, with new offices, hotels and flats being thrown up at a startling pace. Yet the wake-up call of the column collapse comes just when that boom is crashing to a halt.

It’s too early to say what caused the collapse or what happens next to Temple Works. (The Yorkshire Evening Post story is here.)  But I really hope it can be the stimulus to a happier chapter in the life of a remarkable piece of our industrial heritage.

Sort it out, Leeds, or else – the Falcon God is watching.

Sous les pavés, la plage

The payphone has bluescreened…

Payphone, London King's Cross

… the departure board has 404ed…

Departure board at Edgware Road Tube Station

… the giant TV screen is somebody’s Windows desktop…

Big screen, Millennium Square, Leeds

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Since posting my three broken technology pictures, I’ve been suffering the blogger’s equivalent of what the French call “l’esprit de l’escalier,” and for which German has the deeply satisfying word “Treppenwitz”.

If I’d paused just a little longer before hitting the publish button, I’d have added a discussion of the optimistic message contained in every one of those man-behind-the-curtain snapshots.

I’d have waxed lyrical on how in every case the authorities’ intentions to constrain processing power to a single task – the kiosk, the departure board, the TV screen – were subverted by its very malfunctioning, revealing the endless possibilities implicit in this most malleable and interconnected technology.

If only I’d waited a while, I’d have told the story of how my seven-year-old son, on seeing an unattended till terminal in Ikea, grabs the mouse and tries to log on to Adventure Quest.

I’d have invoked the situationist May 68 slogansous les pavés, la plage” – “beneath the paving stones, the beach” – which speaks of the unconstrained liberty that lurks just below the locked-down surface of our civilisation.

And I’d have ended in an overblown flourish and a bold font: beneath the pixels, the silicon!

Probably just as well I didn’t.

So this is ubiquitous computing

The payphone has bluescreened…

Payphone, London King's Cross

… the departure board has 404ed…

Departure board at Edgware Road Tube Station

… the giant TV screen is somebody’s Windows desktop…

Big screen, Millennium Square, Leeds

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Help me, Usability Man!

other door
Is this door with the sign that says other door the other door or is the other door that doesn’t say other door the other door?

Originally uploaded by mattedgar.

Gee Any Arghh

News that GNER, my financially-challenged intercity train operator, has just achieved a Charter Mark for excellence in customer service, has prompted me to reflect on a peculiar scene that’s played out nearly every time I travel with them. There are many things I love about travelling GNER compared to other UK rail operators [if anyone from the company is reading this, rest assured, I only write it because I care :) ] but the exchange I hate to hear goes like this:

Guard to customer: That ticket’s not valid on this train, you’ll have to pay to upgrade it.

Customer: But no one told me that when I bought the ticket at the station/on the internet/wherever.

Guard: I don’t know what you were told then, but I did make an announcement before the train left the station that these tickets were not valid. That’ll be [insert amount between £30 and £70] .

Customer: How much? That’s ridiculous. I was told this ticket would be valid.

…and so on in variations depending on the respective cantankerousness-es of guard and customer.

Now I know there are people who will always try it on, hoping to get away with travelling at peak times with a saver and so on. And sometimes my schadenfreude gets the better of me and I quite enjoy listening to a good argument from the comfort of my wifi-enabled seat. But I can’t help feeling that the train company is doing itself no favours.

The process seems to be broken in a number of ways:

  1. Aside from being expensive, the fares themselves are bizarre and highly complex. There are 189 different ticket types offered when buying online. I Am Not Making This Up.
  2. The problem often seems to stem from restrictions on the use of a Saver, which do not apply to another ticket-type, called a “Business Saver” – many of the people caught out are not businesspeople and would have no reason to think a Business Saver was the right ticket for them.
  3. When making announcements, GNER guards speak a quaint language of yesteryear in which the refreshment trolley “makes its way through Standard Class” and mobile phone conversations “must be confined to the vestibules” (that’s the bit between the carriages, apparently). Deciphering these announcements is a special skill only acquired over countless journeys north and south.
  4. In any case, it’s a bit much to tell people which of the 189 ticket types are valid when they’ve just struggled aboard with their luggage and the train is about to depart. Returning to the booking office to change a ticket at this stage would certainly mean missing the train.
  5. If your ticket is not valid, the Guard can only upgrade you to a full-priced standard ticket. (And you won’t get much change from £100 to travel less than a quarter of the way up our small island. Double that for a return.)

This is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I do the maths in my head to get back to sleep. Disclaimer – all the numbers are my rough guesses, at round numbers to make for simpler sums, though I reckon I could be a factor of 10 out on any of them and still have a valid case.

Let’s assume they catch one customer with the wrong ticket in each of the five second (sorry, standard) class carriages on 10 peak-time trains a day, charging an average of £50 per miscreant. That’s £2500 a day, $12,500 a week, £625,000 a year. Every penny counts when you have to pay the Government £1.3 billion for the right to run trains while your new competitor gets a free ride.

But now look at the customer experience impact. That’s 12,500 customers made to feel like criminals in front of a carriage-load of passengers. Let’s imagine each of them retells their story to three friends or relatives – adding in that word of mouth effect gives us a total of 50,000 people with a negative perception of this company.

And then there are all the people on the train who witness the scene, some of them, like me, repeatedlty. Roughly 50 people per carriage, so for every extra pound raised, there’s a customer whose journey is disrupted by an uncomfortable exchange of words and a brutal reminder of the fragmented and chaotic nature of our railway system.

Depending on our assumption about repeat use of the rail route that could be 625,000 people who witness my vignette once in a year or 62,500 who hear it 10 times each on average. You decide which scenario is worse from an image point of view.

Taken together we have at least 100,000 people who have either been stung by this ticketing confusion, or know someone who has been, or have sat on a train and listened to GNER staff enforcing the policy. Maybe it seems the right thing to do on paper but from where I’m sitting I wonder what could it be worth to the bottom line if those people had a good experience instead?

Broken sign

Whoops there goes another piece of the old Holbeck :(

There must be an anagram in there, though. Collect enough old signs and you’d have a giant cast iron version of magnetic poetry…