Agency, empathy and the 0736 service to Manchester Piccadilly

· 479 Words

I am sorry to announce that the 0736 service to Manchester Piccadilly is delayed by approximately 40 minutes due to engineering works. I am extremely sorry for the severe disruption to the service.

Luckily I wasn’t trying to get to Manchester Piccadilly, but from the reaction on the platform someone was. This well-spoken automatic pre-recorded announcement was clear, and told us everything we immediately needed to know. It was spoken courteously in perfect Recieved Pronunciation. It is the same voice that is used to announce all the official goings-on at Platform 2 of Oxford Station, and at stations across the country. I quite enjoy hearing the voice if I’m honest.

But when there is a 40 minute delay, it doesn’t quite seem right. I’ve been on the receiving end of delayed train notices, and I’ve borne the automatic announcement a grudge. I feel that it should be a human on the end of the PA system making a personal apology to all those involved. The people who conceived the system went some way toward trying to emulate this. Words like ‘extremely sorry’, human-like repetition and even a slight plaintive tone to the voice all add to the effect, in theory. But ultimately, the speaker was not addressing directly to this group of people, she was speaking of some imagined late service that may or may not have been going to occur in the future.

I think to myself ‘I don’t want a pre-recorded voice, I want a human!’. The question is agency: the right and ability of the announcer to actually account for what they are saying. Not only in terms of being in control of the situation, but also to feel the gravity in what they are saying and sympathise with the audience.

But if I did get my way, what kind of human would I get? Probably a harassed station staffer who is desperately trying to deal with suddenly-upset passengers. His apology would be mumbled and stressed, possibly not immediately understandable. The mellifluous tones of announcer lady would be replaced by scruff regional Oxford man suddenly dropped in it by engineers in another part of the country. He would be in no better situation to do anything about the situation in any case. The only difference would be that we knew that someone real knew and was being hassled about it. A severed head on a plate but not very constructive.

The wish to have a human making the announcement is, of course, nonsense. It is far better to have the pre-recorded message, voiced in clear and relaxed tones. It gets the job done, does not escalate emotions any higher than they need to be and, ultimately is no better or worse placed to pass on information provided via an automatic system by some engineers up north somewhere.

But it’s something to think about on the 0804.

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