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How many train guards does it take to make a commuter laugh?

Train operator Chiltern Railways is hiring two comedy experts to teach its staff how to be comedians. And I can honestly say without laughing that I think it’s a good idea to bring a lighter tone to our commutes.

Chiltern Railways is getting Green Wing writer Richard Preddy and Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson to teach train staff to be funny.

My first reaction was, ‘dear Lord’. Not everyone’s a comedian and I have to admit, I’m still scarred by Robinson’s ‘hilarious’ performance in a safety video for the Ministry of Defence, which could be described as groan inducing at best.

Guard against stress

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Preddy stresses that ‘we aren’t trying to turn everyone into a comedian’, instead, it’s based on the idea that ‘comedy can help to alleviate [commuting] stress’.

I like this philosophy. Research shows that the words used can have a big effect on an audience, so delivering news in words that’ll make an impatient commuter audience more receptive seems like a good idea.

However, when people take on a job such as train guard, even the funniest person can become over-serious and, instead of relating to passengers, end up using generic, distant language.

But why does it happen? Apparently, it’s because many roles come with an expectation of how to behave. Think of greeters in shops who are bubbly regardless of how they feel, or how surly a bailiff can be.

A welcome change

I think that training staff to break this mental block and be more human is a good thing. The guards can’t control the problems they’re announcing but, as the saying goes, ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’.

Some examples of phrases the comedy duo are giving to staff include:

‘If you’ve just bumped into someone who you barely know, you now have one hour and 30 minutes of awkward small talk.’

So if this comedy message gives the opportunity for an ice-breaker with a stranger you couldn’t mind talking to, where’s the harm in that?

You’ve got my attention

I’ve been commuting in London for far too long and have heard everything from weary drivers; ‘I’ve no idea why we’re being held here ladies and gents, your guess is as good as mine’, to matronly ones; ‘Yes, the lady holding the doors in the last carriage, everyone is waiting for you’, to the wistful; “Have a safe journey, God bless on this lovely day’.

Have you heard any out-of-the-ordinary train announcements? Do you think it’s a good idea for train staff to be taught to deliver more ‘human’ messages or should they keep it to minimum?

John Symons says:
23 May 2012

To make us laugh train staff only have to mention “station stop” or “service”

I couldn’t resist chipping in to share my favourite train announcement, heard on a tube train that was crammed full of sweaty commuters:

“Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, due to overcrowding there will be no buffet service on the Central line today.”

Made my morning. I’ve actually spoken to friends since who think they heard the same announcement, so maybe it’s part of that driver’s repertoire. There was a letter in the Metro the other day that mentioned someone had overheard a driver listing ‘Narnia’ as one of the stops on the Victoria line.

I am a big fan of drivers who can make light of tricky situations – most of us know that it’s not their fault we’re delayed. I think my main worry about this, though, is that not everyone is keen to be a comedian or to make people laugh – some drivers will just want to give the basic info, do their job and go home. If there’s one thing worse than a grumpy person it’s a grumpy person being forced to make insincere jokes through gritted teeth.

My favourite announcement on a severely delayed (and almost deserted) post-midnight train was “we have just slid past the station, if anyone wishes to disembark, please proceed to the back of the train where the guard will help you off”

I recently had a tube driver who made light of the fact we had to keep on stopping. And though almost no commuter dare crack a grin to his over-enthusiastic comments “and those who will be getting off at Kings Cross, please do have yourself just a FANTASTIC evening!” I think it was miles better than the driver of my delayed commuter train who came on the radio every five minutes or so to explain why we were going slowly and/or had stopped. The updates were fine but he added at least 30 seconds of apology to each comment – almost painful to listen to the 6th time round.

To conclude a long comment, I welcome changes that see train staff becoming more light hearted, but I feel the ones who will be best at it are doing it already.

I wondered if it was 1 April when I read this.

It is a great idea if it works but some people don’t seem to have much of a sense of humour. I try to, but having experienced three delays causing missed connections on a rail journey of 400 miles after Christmas, I am not sure what my own reaction would have been.

Good point, wavechange. I imagine stand up comedians have to deal with annoying crowds of drunk people, or hecklers, but suspect that’s nothing compared to a train full of angry commuters who just want to get home on time! A very tough crowd.

….and I recall being on a ferry when the tannoy was still ‘live’ after the safety announcements when one of the staff started talking about ‘adult things’. [unintentionally].That was quite funny

“And now, British Rail wish to announce the following important joke. The train now standing at platforms 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 has come in sideways.”

Edward Stevens says:
9 March 2015

My first reaction was, ‘dear Lord’. Not everyone’s a comedian and I have to admit, I’m still scarred by Robinson’s ‘hilarious’ performance in a safety video for the Ministry of Defence, which could be described as groan inducing at best.

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