People used to say being a postman was the best job in the world. You’re up and out, in the fresh air, meeting people; it’s a healthy job, you’re active. It gave you a good feeling; everyone used to look forward to getting their post, especially at Christmas. I’ve been a postman for more than 10 years and I do, even now, genuinely love my job. And Christmas is the best – and worst – of times for a postal worker like me.
Postal worker Roy Mayall loves his job – the fresh air, the early starts, even the Christmas rush. But this year it’s not quite so much fun. The service is being ‘modernised’, resulting in backlogs and delays. So will your cards get through?
It’s been a tough few weeks. I tend to forget from year to year just how demanding Christmas is. It’s like an avalanche of mail bearing down upon you; a huge mountain of letters giving way and falling on your head.
Let me give you some comparisons. Normally we would expect to carry mail to around 85% of households; at Christmas it is nearly 100%. Normally we would expect to deliver between one and three items per household; at Christmas it could be 30 or 40. A round usually takes three and a half hours; at Christmas it could be six. Ordinarily we take out 30 parcels. At Christmas it could be 150. That’s when I start to panic, as I’m dragging the third or fourth sack of parcels to my frame for sorting; I break into a cold sweat, wondering where it is all supposed to go.
But, cold sweats apart, we manage. We sort the mail into its proper sequence. We bundle it up ready to go out. We get the right parcels with the right letters so that they are delivered to the right addresses (generally speaking). We load up our bikes, with a tottering mound of mail in front, parcels in the panniers, and yet more packages in a pouch over our shoulders and balanced on the rack.
After that, it’s just a question of delivering it all. That’s the good bit. That’s why kids love us. We’re like Father Christmas, dressed in our red-and-blue waterproofs, with a bright red sack on our shoulders, riding a red bike, bringing presents to your door. Every year is exhausting, but we get through it. It’s a fantastic effort, and there’s a real sense of satisfaction in completing it. Until this year, that is.
This year, the higher echelons of Royal Mail management have decided to implement some changes. So, for example, they are getting rid of our bikes, and we’re getting vans instead. To do this, they are restructuring offices, restructuring rounds, reordering the frames, and reassigning roles: offices are being turned upside down and the workforce is demoralised.
Some of you will be aware that this is happening, some won’t. It depends on where you live. The changes are being rolled out in stages. Some parts of the country have already started to implement them, others will have to wait until next year. So if you live in Dundee, for instance, or Warwick, Formby or Herne Bay, or in any one of 30 to 40 affected towns around the country, then you will already realise something is afoot. You’ll know because your mail will fail to arrive for five days in succession, but will come in one large lump at the end of the week. You will know because you’ll have missed your hospital appointment, which arrived too late in the post, or because your copy of the Radio Times landed on your mat after your programmes had finished.
You may also know because your local paper is reporting it. Here are some samples of headlines around the country: “Formby residents fear postal backlog will ruin Christmas” (Sefton & West Lancashire). “Royal Mail’s battle to clear backlog of post” (Dundee). “Warwick post delivery ‘in a gigantic mess‘” (Warwickshire).
In each of these stories, the journalist gets the same response from Royal Mail. This is from the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald: “As part of Royal Mail’s £2bn investment in modernising its operations, changes are being made at delivery offices across the country to make them more efficient. When any such major change is implemented, some disruption is possible until the changes bed in.”
You will notice the use of that word “modernising”. So we are throwing away our bikes and demolishing the whole of the Royal Mail network – every frame and every process, through every office in every town – in order to accommodate the new “modern” working methods.
Why we are getting rid of the bikes? In 2009 they said it was for efficiency reasons. Earlier this year they said it was for safety reasons. But us posties have known all along the real reason. It’s so we can carry more weight, take out more packets, and do more work in the same number of hours.
The new delivery method is called “park and loop”. Two posties go out together in a van. In the back of the van they carry two golf trolleys, maybe 20 full pouches of mail, all the Special Delivery and Recorded Delivery letters, and all the tracked items. They park up and head off in two different directions, dragging their golf trolleys behind them. They deliver all the mail in a big loop, circling back to the van. Then they drive off to another spot and start the process again. Which would be all very well if it actually worked. But it doesn’t.
The procedure is overseen by a computer programme called Pegasus Geo-Route. It is the Royal Mail equivalent of Google Earth. Pegasus Geo-Route tells you exactly how much time each of the loops is supposed to take: how long, on average, each postie is supposed to spend at each door, how many packets he is supposed to be carrying, how long it is supposed to take to get from one door to the next, and what speed he is supposed to be walking.
The thing about computer programmes is that they are only as good as the information that is fed into them. And the problem with the information being fed into Pegasus Geo-Route is that it grossly underestimates the time it actually takes to do things. So, for example, for something called an “attendance delivery” – when we have to knock on the door to get a signature, or to hand over a parcel – we are allowed one minute. Think about it. That’s one minute for the person to hear the doorbell, come to the door, sign the chitty and receive the parcel, and for us to note the time, put the chitty away again, go back to the trolley, and start on to the next house. What if it’s an old lady who is at the top of the house? What if she’s hard of hearing and it takes two knocks? The Royal Mail’s own rules say we are supposed to wait for three minutes for the occupant to get to the door. And then, having waited, if the occupant is out, we have to write a “Sorry You Were Out” card and drop that through the door before we can continue on our way. How long does all that take? A lot more than one minute.
This underestimation is going on throughout the revision process. So it’s estimated we will have to stop and knock on the door 23 times a day, when it’s more like 50; that it will take six minutes for us to load door-to-door leaflets into the frame, when it takes more like 15; that it will take an hour to “prep” the frame ready to go out on the round, when it takes more like two. The amount of traffic passing through the offices has also been spectacularly underestimated. One office I know is supposed to have around 26,000 items passing through it a day, when the real figure is more like 42,000.
What this means is that there is a huge backlog of mail building up in all the offices where the new processes have been introduced. In one there is so much undelivered mail that for two days there wasn’t enough room to bring any more mail in. The post was literally spilling out of the door. They had to ring up the main sorting office to ask them to halt deliveries, and every office in the region had to send one postal worker over to help clear the backlog – this despite the fact that everyone is overstretched due to the Christmas rush.
This is only the first of a series of increasingly bizarre decisions the Royal Mail has taken this year. It has also introduced expensive, state-of-the-art letter sequencing machines that actually slow down the process of sorting the mail, resulting in later deliveries to your door. Local delivery offices are being closed at a time when online shopping is on the increase, thus increasing the number of “Sorry You Were Out” cards, and the number of times you have to drive to your nearest office to pick up your package. In future, don’t be surprised if it’s not from some out-of-town mail hub just off the motorway, servicing several different towns at the same time.
Then, on the back of all this restructuring, the company has decided to reduce staff levels, on the basis that the new delivery methods are so much more efficient. So in one office I know of, they have lost four full-time staff, and in another they have lost eight. In the latter case, the management was forced to re-employ staff to help clear the growing backlog. It has since agreed that at least five more workers are needed: but it is five workers on a reduced contract, which might go part of the way to explaining the motives behind all this.
The earlier contracts were highly favourable, with a good pension plan and good employment rights. The new contracts are casual, meaning that workers have virtually no rights.
Even if you think that all of the above changes are entirely necessary, who on earth thought it would be a good idea to bring them in just before Christmas, when the sheer weight of mail is in danger of overwhelming the system? And on top of all of this, we are about to be privatised. We are about to be sold off to a private company that may well want to alter all our practices all over again.
Today is the last posting day before Christmas for second-class mail; the last posting day for first-class mail is Tuesday. But don’t bank on all your Christmas post getting through. I’m certainly not.
Roy Mayall is a pseudonym. His book Dear Granny Smith: A Letter from Your Postman is published by Short Books (£4.99).