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Tube cuts: not just wrong but crazy

6 January 2014

Christian Wolmar argues against the Mayor of London’s plans to withdraw almost a thousand customer-facing jobs from the Underground, just as some in the industry are waking up to how much staff are valued by passengers.

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Talking to Italian visitors the other day, they told me what they liked about the London Underground was the fact that staff were available to help them on their journey. I sadly had to tell them that this might be about to change, with the closure of all ticket offices on the system proposed by the Mayor and Transport for London.

There are many reasons why this is not just a wrong decision, but a crazy one. There are enormous short term consequences, but also longer term ones too. The idea is that staff will no longer sit ‘behind the glass’ but will be around the ticket gates helping passengers use the machines and get their train. However, the fact that 950 jobs will be cut exposes the fact that this move is not about providing a better service, despite the sweeteners such as a 24 hour tube on some lines on Friday and Saturday nights and the increased availability of Wi-Fi, which were announced at the same time.

Of course, the unions recognise that changes to arrangements have to be made in response to the widespread adoption of Oyster. Only 3 per cent of journeys now use the ticket offices and that number is falling – nevertheless that still represents perhaps 100,000 people on a busy day. Keeping ticket offices open for long hours in little-used stations in the suburbs is clearly not the best use of resources. However, passengers want stations to be staffed. One reason for the growth of the London Overground services has undoubtedly been the fact that all stations are staffed throughout.

TfL has promised that all Tube stations will be staffed, but Tube workers I have discussed this with are deeply sceptical, suggesting it might mean that a supervisor is on call covering half a dozen stations at a time. Indeed, it is difficult to believe anything emerging from the mayor’s office given that during his first election campaign he actually campaigned in support of those protesting at potential closures.

And here is a bit of madness. Just as I was finishing this article, I cycled past a ‘New Bus for London’ – a vehicle which has an extra staff member on the rear platform with absolutely no role. These attendants do not sell tickets or do anything but ensure people jump on and off the back safely. This is beyond madness – our ridiculous mayor is therefore cutting back useful jobs which help people on the Tube while creating non-jobs to satisfy his vanity project of these expensive new buses. You could not make it up.

The unions have a good opportunity to enlist public support in an effort to try to reverse these cuts. Certainly, the workers I have talked to understand that it would be a mistake merely to protest about the ticket office closures rather than focusing on the wider issue of staffing. That is where the unions can be on to a winner as passengers universally want staffed stations. If this plan goes ahead, the whole feel of the Underground will be far less welcoming to visitors like my Italian friends and that is the key point.\

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It is, therefore, also important to fight against this change in a way that highlights the wider implications of a world with fewer staff and more automation. I was struck by the fact that Peter Wilkinson, the Department for Transport’s (DfT) temporary franchising director, expressed a similar thought at a recent conference I was chairing. He said that it would be a mistake for railways to try to save money by reducing service levels and consequently, by implication, staffing levels. He seemed to understand the issue from the passenger perspective in a way that many train operators do not.

The train operators seem to almost delight in the fact that much of what they do in the name of efficiencies makes life more unpleasant and difficult for passengers. Take, for example, barriers. While these are fine at heavily used suburban stations, they are a real pain at major terminals like King’s Cross and Paddington – if you have bags or a bike arriving at Euston on long distance trains is such a comparative pleasure as thankfully there are no barriers. The ones at Kings Cross are turned off more often than they are used, even at peak times, which negates their purpose. And, as an aside, the gates have created this vast area beyond the buffer stops with no catering outlets or any other shops which makes for a ghastly sterile atmosphere.

The gates, too, mean that there are far fewer ticket checks on trains. This is counterproductive not just for revenue purposes – I can open the gates with my Oyster card, something which fare dodgers soon twigged – but in terms of customer services. Having a conductor doing the rounds is part of the service that the railway provides.

Or take announcements. I wrote much of this piece on a Virgin Train and it is clearly counterproductive to bombard me with daft announcements about unattended baggage and reading the safety card. Virgin, moreover, have found a new way to annoy with a sponsored announcement advertising Anchorman 2 – funny the first time but not thereafter.

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Unstaffed ticket offices - a sign of things to come?

Train operators who are selling a far more complex range of tickets will never be able to close all their ticket offices, but one can see a risk here. As smartcard technology spreads there will be pressure to close more and more offices – this would be a fundamental mistake. It is not only about protecting jobs, but wider societal concerns. In a world where we accept 2.5 million unemployed as apparently the norm, do we want to make yet more people redundant and replace them with machines. This is not to be a Luddite – we all use and enjoy technology – but it is a question of balance. We are in danger of going too far, as the DfT’s Peter Wilkinson clearly intimated. At times, I need to be able to buy my tickets from a clerk who understands complex journey patterns, just as I want to be able to be served in the supermarket by a human being, not some idiot machine that keeps on telling me to bag an item that I have already put in one!

If Mr Wilkinson is able to persuade ministers that franchise bidders really should include genuine consideration of their passengers needs, then this decline in genuine customer service may be arrested. As for TfL and the mayor, however, it is only a campaign to boot out Boris that will bring about change.

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