In A Nutshell: The Ticket Office Debate

17 comments

Wednesday morning saw a rather unusual scene unfold at City Hall. The London Assembly Plenary had barely started when, en masse, the Conservative Assembly Members present walked out, leaving the meeting inquorate and thus having to be dissolved.

The reason for this exodus (or “mass flounce” as Boriswatch colourfully described it) was the second item on the agenda – something that has become a key transport issue in the Capital:

2. The following motion has been proposed in the name of Valerie Shawcross AM and will be seconded by Caroline Pidgeon AM:

“The London Assembly is concerned about Transport for London’s proposals to shed up to 800 ticket office and gateline jobs on London Underground which will adversely affect the opening times of 245 ticket offices right across the Tube network. The number of stations which will be staffed by only one person working alone for some time will increase. This round of staff cuts will damage the level of customer service to passengers who will forced to queue for longer to buy their tickets. Ticket machines alone are no replacement for the presence of trained Underground staff and the over reliance on ticket machines will disproportionately impact on those passengers who have a disability which makes it difficult to use a ticket machine. This Assembly believes that passengers will feel less safe particularly at early mornings and late evenings.

This Assembly urges Transport for London and its Chair, Mayor Boris Johnson, to review this decision and re-affirm reasonable and safe staffing levels right across the London Underground network to ensure passengers continue to receive excellent service from London Underground.”

That the issue of ticket offices has come to the fore of London politics in recent weeks is perhaps unsurprising. It is an important issue and one that forms a key part of the recent and planned strike action by the RMT and TSSA. It is also one that touches on a key manifesto promise made by Mayor Johnson – something that has become doubly contentious given today’s announcement that he plans to stand again.

Back to the Beginning

To a certain extent the public origins of the current debate can be traced back to Mayor’s Question time in March this year. There, during a session in which the Mayor came under pressure from members of the assembly over his campaign promises, the issue of Ticket Office closures was broached. Rumours of closures were circulating at the time, but the Mayor’s answer was apparently clear:

The first and most important point to make is that no ticket offices will be closed, alright? They’re not going to be closed.

Shortly afterwards, however, a document detailing proposed changes to ticket office opening hours surfaced (the full document and our summary of it can be found here). Not only did this suggest that the complete closure of several ticket offices was being contemplated, but also that opening hours at a considerable number of other stations might be drastically cut.

TfL swiftly confirmed that the document was genuine, and on March 25th they released an open letter to passengers. This confirmed that changes to London Underground’s ticket offices were planned, and provided an official list of the changes (which you can find, in full, here). Since these were laid out, it has been confirmed that the changes will also lead to 800 job roles no longer being required.

Statistics and Semantics

TfL’s arguments for the change are relatively easy to summarise:

– Only 1 in 20 journeys on the Underground now begins with a visit to a ticket office
– 80% of all journeys on the Underground now made with Oyster.
– Sales from ticket offices are down 28% over the last four years
– Some LU ticket offices now regularly sell fewer than 10 tickets an hour.
– A reduction in ticket office opening hours is possible, therefore, without compromising passenger experience.
– The staff savings that this would make possible would lead to savings of £25m a year over the course of the current business plan (i.e. up to 2018)
– No compulsory redundancies would be necessary to achieve these staff savings which will equate to 800 job roles.
– All stations with a ticket office will continue to have one.

Many of these points are self explanatory, but some are worth looking in a bit more detail.

Firstly, full details of current average ticket sales from ticket offices can be found here. This adds some clarification to the fourth point above. Currently there are 8 ticket offices on the Network (out of a total of 257) whose ticket offices average less than 10 tickets an hour – North Ealing, Latimer Road, Moor Park, Ickenham, West Acton, Royal Oak, Croxley and Goldhawk Road.

Secondly, TfL have clarified that of the 800 staff savings can be broken down into 250 roles that are currently empty and will now not be filled, 150 will be in non-forward facing roles leaving 400 to be met via staff attrition, redeployment or other means.

Thirdly, although all stations will indeed continue to have a ticket office, some stations have more than one. In some instances – such as at Aldgate East (East) and Earls Court (Warwick Road) these will permanently close. In addition, some stations will see a drastic decrease in their opening hours – Bromley-by-Bow will see its opening hours drop by 11hrs during the week, for example, going from 06:30 – 19:30 to a morning-rush-hour-only 08:00 – 09:30.

The Issues

Whilst theses arguments are easy to summarise they are not as simple as they appear – as those who have come out in opposition to the planned changes have been keen to point out.

The unions (notably the RMT and TSSA) have formed one of the most vocal groups opposed to the changes. Here, much of the opposition has focused on the planned job cuts. Any argument that these will equate to actual job losses is not overly strong. As was highlighted above, it will be through attrition and redeployment that staff savings will be met, and TfL have repeatedly reiterated that compulsory redundancies are not on the table.

The unions also claim, however, that these changes will lead to reduced staffing levels at stations, which will cause safety issues for passengers. To quote RMT General Secretary Bob Crow:

The mayor was elected on a promise of maintaining safe staffing levels and he is doing the opposite, planning to leave stations and platforms dangerously understaffed and threatening to turn the network into a muggers’ paradise.

Whilst the language is emotive, the safety issue is a fair one to make. Small incidents happen at stations all time and a lack of staff to deal with them is obviously a potential issue.

Another argument against the cuts is that which can be found in Val Shawcross’ and Caroline Pidgeon’s proposal mentioned at the head of the page – that there are a minority of travellers for whom ticket offices continue to play a vital role – such as those with a disability. This is a point that was echoed by Transport for All in a letter to the Guardian back in August:

Transport for All is extremely concerned about how these cuts will affect older and disabled Londoners. The threatened cuts of over 7,400 hours of ticket office staffing every week across the London network will have a disastrous impact on the freedom and independence of disabled and older Londoners. Transport for London seems to think Oyster machines and CCTV can replace staff. They cannot. Many of our members have impairments such as blindness or learning difficulties which mean they simply cannot use automatic ticket machines, and without a staffed ticket office, will effectively be barred from the tube

Both the above criticisms are valid, and they highlight that the key to this issue is arguably not that which upon most of the attention has focused. The issue isn’t necessarily one of ticket office closures, its one of staffing and the key question there is this: Will these closures result in lower levels of staffing at stations?

In recent months TfL have begun to focus on this issue, and claim that it isn’t the case. The change, they argue, will see a movement of staff out from “behind the glass” to play more forward roles in the day-to-day station experience. The shift away from static staff at ticket offices will be to the benefit of passengers because it will mean more people out front, with the new dependence on ticket machines counteracted by the presence of staff who can help passengers use them. Where staff levels will drop, they argue, it will be at places were the “out front” presence is already sufficient, or needs only a small injection of resource to make it so, with the losses being in areas where ticket office staff are currently effectively under-utilized.

As Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy rather bluntly put it:

If you want to read a lot of good novels the best place to do that is as a booking clerk in a suburban Underground station.

Should the above prove true, then it would indeed address many of the concerns raised with regards to staffing. It remains to be seen, however, whether these changes will indeed not lead to a real-time drop in station staffing levels. Similarly, whilst the idea of having more staff available out front (and therefore available to answer queries) is sound in principle, it’ll be interesting to see whether it survives the practicalities of station operation. When the demands of a busy gateline, packed platform or particularly disruptive passenger are pressing, it is easy for the need for someone to help passengers at the machines to get lost in the mix.

Overall, therefore, whilst these upcoming changes are far from ideal, in practical terms they may not be as catastrophic as they initially seemed. This will depend greatly, however, on just how well TfL’s plans have been laid out, and whether the practical implementation lives up to the theory. This may well turn out to be the case – Wood Lane, of course, is already effectively operating under these very conditions due to its lack of a ticket office. Many London Overground stations, a franchise that is ultimately TfL’s responsibility, are also not disimilar in operational style and few would argue that the stations there are not a drastic improvement on the dark days of Silverlink.

TfL also claim that the newly-calculated opening hours, have been designed to factor in when each station is busiest, helping to ensure that the above issues don’t arise – and presumably that regular commuters don’t find themselves trapped behind hordes of tourists at ticket machines. Looking at the revised opening times, however, it is difficult not to think that there is at least some politics at work. It is difficult not to imagine that TfL would have prefered to close some ticket offices completely if it had been less politically sensitive, rather than operate the station equivalent of parliamentary trains.

Indeed, practicalities aside, it is on the political stage that these changes may well end up having the biggest impact. As can be seen from the opening of the article, they represent a clear and easy rod for the Assembly (and Labour’s eventual Mayoral candidate) to beat the Mayor with. “No station will be left without a ticket office” is a fair claim for TfL to make, but it is most definitely not the absolute non-closure pledge on which the current Mayor was elected – something that no amount of semantic wriggling on his part will fix. Anything that carries a question of safety will also remain a valuable weapon in the armoury of the more overtly political elements of the unions.

Overall, therefore, it is probably difficult to argue against these upcoming changes. This is not because they are ideal – or even optimal – but because circumstance forces them. That does not mean, however, that they are ultimately for the better. They represent a shift away from a situation whereby a permanent, human, sales presence exists for the convenience of passengers to a situation that is more aligned to meet the majority of needs for the majority of passengers.

In the current economic climate that may well be a fair transition to make, but it should not be made without careful scrutiny and evaluation both during and after the process. It should also not be assumed to represent a permanent ideal.

As a final footnote, it is also worth noting that this whole issue raises another question – and that is one that should be directed firmly at London’s other rail providers. For if we accept that the staffing of stations is an important and crucial thing to maintain, then we must also cast our eyes towards the national operators as well. As anyone who has found themselves traveling to or from stations such as Maze Hill or similar late at night knows, staffing levels there leave even more to be desired than these proposals made by TfL. Indeed, as soon as Oyster made its presence felt on National Rail, South West Trains were swift to reduce their own staffing levels citing similar arguments to those used by TfL above – a somewhat ironic decision given SWT’s well-known obstinance to the spread of Oyster at all.

TfL may have some questions to answer here, therefore, but if they are important, then they should probably be asked just as vocally of the DfT as well.

Written by John Bull