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Standing up for our ticket offices

1 November 2013

Back in August the TSSA broke the news of a leaked report, subsequently confirmed by Transport for London, considering plans to close every ticket office on the Underground network.

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Boris Johnson is seeking massive cuts to Transport for London’s funding as part of the Tories’ indiscriminate cuts agenda, which has also placed hospitals and our fire service under threat, but coincidentally, created tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthy. The closure of ticket offices has long been an aspiration of the private rail companies too. McNulty and his attack on the rail industry identified closing ticket offices as an easy way to save money.

So why not close them? Surely everyone is booking tickets online now? Smart cards are just around the corner, so aren’t ticket offices just a bygone relic from days of yore? Well no they are not. They provide a customer service you would never get from a machine or from your home computer. Well-trained and well-informed ticket clerks offer invaluable assistance to elderly customers, disabled travellers and to those unfamiliar with the railway.

Surveys have consistently shown that the public are massively in favour of human contact at the station. With the cutting of platform staff this contact is increasingly provided by the ticket office staff. Ticket office staff also ensure that the customer gets the cheapest ticket. Especially important given it is often the people least likely to have access to a computer who are most in need of the cheaper tickets. The elderly, poorer members of society and again, the disabled, are likely to be hit hardest by creeping automation. A machine on the station is of no use to you if you are blind, partially-sighted or if you are affected by a neuro-diverse condition.

A few days after the leaking of the report I attended a ‘Better London Transport’ event. Amongst the speakers was Christian Wolmar, an eminent rail expert and, at the time of writing, Labour’s only declared candidate for the 2016 London Mayoral election. Much of what Christian says I agree with, but we had one fundamental difference on the future of ticket office staff. Christian believes the office staff should be a face outside of the ticket office at quieter times. I am absolutely against it. Back in 1995 I was forced into my ticket office at gun point. I was tied up and the station robbed. Luckily for me I was physically unharmed, shaken but unharmed. I have colleagues who have not been so lucky. We should not be using ticket office staff to do the duties of platform members of staff. We should be demanding the reintroduction of the platform jobs instead of allowing the grasping privateers to scrap them. I for one do not want to be walking around with a large bunch of keys in my hand – keys which leave me vulnerable to another such attack.

But there is another altogether sadder reason we should be fighting to save every station job. On the day the report was leaked I was working an early turn. A member of the public came in and reported there was a man lying motionless on the track. Fearing the worst, I went out to check and indeed there was. This was the first suicide I have ever been on duty for and I truly hope it is my last. At the time of writing I still find it upsetting and difficult to shake the memory of what I saw. When I knew little about him it was easier to deal with, but finding out details such as the fact that he had been let down over the years by the mental health services makes it harder. My thoughts remain with his family and the driver involved.

The railways have seen a rise in suicides in recent times. It is not to say that having a member of staff present will stop them all – desperate people will take desperate measures no matter what – but having a visible presence on the platform can make all the difference to whether someone lives or dies.

It is for people like Colin we need a fully staffed railway.

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