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Park and Loop

December 18, 2010 5 comments

New delivery methods threaten the integrity of the mail

Restructuring

Royal Mail will be spending £20m on speeding up Christmas mail before the next cold snap arrives. Photograph: Hartshead Services

It hardly needs saying, but Christmas is the busiest time of the year for postal workers. There’s a veritable assault of mail bearing down on us: more so this year than any year, as so many more people are buying on-line these days.

In previous years we took it in our stride. It was hard work, but we enjoyed it. We got on with the job and we got it done, to the best of our ability.

This year, however, things are different. This is due to the introduction of new working methods in a large number of delivery offices around the country. Quite why the Royal Mail decided to undertake a wholesale restructuring of our job just before the Christmas rush is anybody’s guess. It’s only one of a series of increasingly insane decisions we’ve been subjected to this year.

The process is called “revision”. First of all they got rid of our bikes and replaced them with vans: two posties to a van doing two extended rounds between them.

This is called “park & loop”. We park up the van, fill up our trolleys, head off in two different directions, spend 40 minutes or so completing the loop, then come back to the van to drive off to the next parking spot.

Now this would be fair enough if it actually worked, but it doesn’t. Someone somewhere has made a serious error in their calculations. The company has spent millions of pounds buying a brand new fleet of vans, but they are actually too small for the job. We have to carry our trolleys in the back, plus up to twenty-four ten kilo pouches, and then all the packets, both large and small.

And therein lies the problem. There’s not enough room for the packets, and, having dispensed with the dedicated packets delivery rounds which were part of the old method, there are serious backlogs building up in the offices as we struggle to get them out. The backlogs were already there before the Christmas rush started. I suspect that many people around the country won’t be getting their presents this year.

Priorities

Calculations

The next problem lies in the figures they’ve used to calculate the rounds. They took a sample week in June, a notoriously light month, and have extrapolated from that. On that basis they’ve estimated that we have around 26,000 items of mail passing through our office in any one day, when we all know it is more like 42,000.

What this means is that the sorting process takes a lot longer than their calculations allow for. We are allowed one hour to sort the mail into the individual rounds (known as “Internal Preparatory Sorting”) and then another hour to “prep” our frames: that is to slot the letters into the frame, into the sequence they will be taken out in. I never have time to complete this task, which means that most days there are at least six boxes of mail left unsorted under my frame, which are then “prepped” by managers or office staff while I am out on my round. So every day I come in to an already half-full frame of mail left over from the day before.

In this time we are also supposed to have prepped the door-to-door leaflets – usually referred to as “junk mail” by you, the customer – which we take out at the rate of 1/6th a day, and which can amount to anything up to six items per household. We are given six minutes to do this in when it actually takes more like 15 minutes. We are not allowed to leave the junk mail behind, which means that these days junk mail is given precedence over the normal mail, which quite often does get left behind.

That’s the measure of the Royal Mail’s priorities these days.

When the planners first came to the office to discuss the revision they made it quite clear that their aim was to reduce the workforce and therefore the number of man-hours in the office. When the revision was implemented it amounted to eight full time jobs lost. But so huge is the backlog of mail that’s been building up – at one time there were up to 26,000 items of mail, backed into a corner and filling up half of the office – that they’ve had to re-employ the eight full-time employees who had previously taken voluntary redundancy, just to clear it.

They’ve now agreed that the office actually needs five more full-time staff. But, here’s the trick: the new staff will be working on much less favourable contracts than the guys they are replacing.

Which, you might suggest, is the entire purpose of the exercise.

Second Class Post

December 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Christmas chaos in the Royal Mail. New working methods disrupt Christmas deliveries.

Last posting day

The last posting day before Christmas for second class post is the 18th of December. The last posting day for first class post is the 21st of December. Aside from this, did you know that during the last three weeks in December there is actually no difference between the two services? That’s because the normal “quality of service” targets for first class post, ensuring that 93 per cent of first class post is delivered the next day, don’t apply for most of December at all. Some cards and letters bearing first class stamps will still get there the next day but, for this period, the Royal Mail is fully entitled to deliver them the day after or, indeed, the day after that too. Pretty much whenever, in fact. So we might as well all save our money and stick second class stamps on the whole lot. After all, that’s how they’re going to be treated.

I have to say the fact that service targets for first class post don’t apply in December was news to me, despite me having been a postman for many years. But, given the endless stream of nonsense that flows down from our unseen senior management – a management more preoccupied with privatisation and profits than minor things like getting the Christmas post delivered – it certainly doesn’t surprise me.

Our postal system is in chaos and this Christmas it could easily reach breaking point. A combination of demoralised staff, local sorting office closures and the wholesale introduction of new and untried working methods could easily result in millions of items simply not getting delivered by December 24th. And that, I can honestly tell you, breaks my old postie‘s heart.

Being a postman in December used to be a wonderful job. You had to work hard – of course, you did – but as you stomped across the frosty pavements to the sorting office at 5am, steam blowing from your frozen nostrils, there was a real sense of doing something important. Yes, the overtime helped – it was Christmas, after all – but a real Dunkirk spirit set in. Every day huge amounts of mail would come in – up to 10 times the normal amount – and every day we’d get our heads down, our winter boots on and do our very utmost to make sure it was all delivered in time. And, by and large, it was.

This year, however, is going to be very different. It’s not only going to be the last Christmas I do my round by bike (confusingly, we call our rounds “walks”, even when we do them on a bike) but it’s also going to be the last one I do from the local sorting office in our town. Like dozens of others, it’s now due to close which means that next year we’ll all be based in one huge sorting office in the not-particularly-nearby city. Every morning, I’ll have to drive there to get to work and then drive back to this town in a van to deliver the post, before doing both journeys again, this time in reverse. Crazy, huh.

Compared to a bicycle, that certainly doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly, and I’m not sure it would make much economic sense either but for the fact that many of these local sorting offices are on prime, town-centre sites which, even today, are worth a fair amount of money. Back in the 70s, I have a distant memory this used to be called asset-stripping but these days, I’m told, it’s maximising total financial returns. Not sure where delivering the post fits into all this but then I’m not sure our management are either.

Longer walks

Snow

The battle for breakfast time deliveries, was lost long ago. These days, I don’t even start work until 8.40am and usually I’m not out on the road before 10.30am. Which means the lucky ones get their post mid-morning but those at the end of my walk don’t get theirs until mid afternoon. If something needs a signature, the chances of anyone being in at that time are, of course, pretty remote so, all too often, it has to come back with me to the local sorting office to be collected. People have got used to this but I don’t think they’re going to be anything like as understanding when that local sorting office closes and they have to drive to the city to pick up whatever it is.

And it’s going to get worse, thanks to the new working practices that are being rolled out all over the country. They can best be summarised as longer walks, longer hours, fewer full-time jobs, more casual labour.

In particular, you’re going to be seeing far more of something called “park and loop” which sees three or four of the old walks being done by two postmen in a van. We have all the post in the back – letters and packets – which, at predetermined stops, we then unload into those golf-trolley things. We then loop round, delivering the mail before coming back to the parked van and driving on to the next stopping-off point.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Will it work? No it won’t. In fact it is already failing as office after office are building up huge backlogs of undelivered mail. A friend of mind in a Northern office which has recently gone through this so-called “revision” process, told me that one day they had 26,000 undelivered items of mail sitting in the office waiting to be sorted, and it was only by re-employing the half a dozen blokes who had recently taken voluntary redundancy, that they were able to bring the backlog down to manageable levels again. Now there’s only about 5,000 items a day which they are failing to deliver.

The problem is that the management just haven’t thought things through properly. The theory was that we were going to take all the packets out with us. That’s the draw-back with bikes: no room for packets. But the trouble with the new vans is they are too small, so there’s still no room for the packets and, given that they have stopped the dedicated packets delivery-vans as part of the revision, sometimes the packets just aren’t getting delivered at all.

Walk sequencing

Meanwhile they have also introduced a new piece of massively expensive technology called a walk sequencing machine, a wonderful-sounding bit of kit which actually sorts the post in the order the postie is going to deliver them. The only problems are that, to do it properly, the post has to go through the machine three times and that each machine services several offices and potentially hundreds of individual frames. Also it can only sort standard sized letters, not packets. Packets still have to be sorted by hand, the old fashioned way. All of which means everything takes longer and your post gets later and later. Some postmen aren’t finishing till 4 in the afternoon these days. We used to deliver in time for your breakfast. Soon we won’t even be delivering in time for your tea.

This is already having a seriously unpopular knock-on effect during the Festive Season. More and more packets – or Christmas presents as I believe you call them – are going to be delivered at lunchtime or mid-afternoon when people are either at work or out shopping, if they are delivered at all.

Some unlucky people are going to end with more “Sorry You Were Out” cards than Christmas cards and their mood is unlikely to be improved when they traipse off to their local sorting office, where they’ve been picking things up for years, and suddenly discover it’s not there any more. Sorry but that’s the future.

I’d love to be able to come to some more positive conclusion but that’s just about impossible. Royal Mail’s management are more interested in their bonuses than they are with the long-term future of the Royal mail. They have forgotten the basics. Posties are early morning people who like the outdoors and who enjoy getting to know the folk – Granny Smith as we collectively call you – on our walks.

Now, we’re being made to keep office-hours, be stuck in a van for most of the day and won’t meet many people because most of you will be out by the time we eventually get round to delivering.

As for you, our poor, put-upon customers – I have a nasty feeling that wondering whether to stick a first or second class stamp on your Christmas cards could soon be the very least of your postal problems.

Yanis Varoufakis

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