Big Changes Gonna Come (Part 2): A New Approach to Ticket Sales
In Part 1 of “Big Changes” we took a look at London Underground’s proposed plan for running nocturnal Tube services. Here in Part 2 we now turn to the other major change to the Underground that was announced at the same time – the decision to completely overhaul the process by which passengers buy tickets and interact with staff at every station on Underground.
There is no doubt that these changes will prove controversial. Indeed astute readers will have already noticed that the introductory paragraph of this article resorted to almost Mwmbwlsian rhetoric in order to avoid using the phrase “ticket offices.” There is a good reason for this.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In the twin worlds of politics and transport language is important. Words and terms carry, and can become loaded, with meaning. Given the complexity of transport planning and operation, terms can often carry a different, more specific, meaning for the professional than they do for the layman. In a world where news is often delivered in snippets and, almost as consequence, politics is dominated by the soundbite this can often lead to confusion – situations where the eternal greys of London’s transport reality are portrayed, sometimes deliberately, as being entirely black and white.
The debate over “driverless trains” has become the veritable poster child of the above. To the majority of the public (and to some politicians), this is a debate over whether the Underground should be fully automated and unmanned or not. The reality, however, is that “driverless” is a largely meaningless term – one that at best vaguely described a whole raft of complex future possibilities, some of which are already in operation across the network. This has not, however, stopped individuals on all sides of the debate from using and abusing this now emotive term. Often it is accidental, but sometimes it is not, for a truth misinterpreted is so much more useful than a lie.
This may seem like a tangental discussion, but if the coverage so far of TfL’s proposed changes is any guide then there is one phrase that, in this way, seems set to give “driverless trains” a run for its money in the coming year – and that phrase is “ticket office.” Before we explore the proposals in detail, therefore, it seems best to define clearly some terms used:
Ticket Hall: An area within an Underground station set aside for passengers to purchase tickets in. May include both ticket machines and a ticket office.
Ticket Office: The area within the ticket hall where tickets are purchased directly from staff. Normally a window or set of windows.
With our terms thus defined we can now begin to look at the facts, so far as they are available, of TfL’s current proposal, before finally looking at some of the politics involved.
The story so far
In March 2010 London Underground consulted on the possibility of reducing some ticket office opening hours and closing down nine ticket offices entirely. The resulting report was not intended to be for public consumption but, somewhat inevitably, it soon leaked out. That this was anything other than a concept document was something that both TfL and the Mayor (who had campaigned on a promise of no ticket office closures) were swift to proclaim.
It was, however, too late. Ticket offices had became both a political and semantic battleground – one that, in September 2010, resulted in what Boriswatch described rather aptly as a “mass flounce” by the Conservative members of the London Assembly, who walked out of a plenary session en masse in order to prevent a motion asking TfL to clarify their position on the future of ticket offices from being heard. By then, however, TfL’s message had already begun to firm up – only 1 in 20 journeys on the Underground began with a visit to a ticket office and indeed some ticket offices were now regularly selling fewer than 10 tickets an hour. Reduced operating hours and closures would save £25m a year and thus it was an option they were keen to at least explore, impolitic as it may be. As Sir Peter Hendy accurately, if perhaps a tad too bluntly, once 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.
By November 2011 TfL’s preferred approach to future ticket sales had arguably become clear. Once again, this came about due to the leak of an internal consultation – this time an Operational Strategy Discussion Paper that, with its open discussion of ticket office changes and driverless trains had London’s news media frantically reaching for the 72pt type.
It is this paper that is inarguably the father of proposals detailed on Thursday. The overall approach to staffing is the same, as is the approach suggested for the physical offices themselves. As we wrote in our detailed coverage of that report:
The current ticket hall, it argues, presents travellers with the choice between either a full human experience at the ticket window or a more limited (but often quicker) experience at the ticket machine with little human support. This is already out of balance with how the majority of users now use the network and, with Wave and Pay, will be even more out of balance in the medium-to-long term. This, the Paper argues, is bad for customers and London Underground’s finances.
Instead, the Paper suggests that the average ticket hall should comprise automatic ticket machines with comparable functionality to the current ticket office (including the ability to offer refunds, resolve journeys and sell Oyster Cards) supported by staff in the hall itself taking a more proactive customer service role.
In order to achieve the above, the Paper argues, there would need to be a long term, staged plan that would see ticket machines replaced and upgraded to add not only the newly required feature set, but also a much improved User Interface. It would also see the complete reworking of machine and ticket hall frontage, the revaluation and simplification of signage and instructions, and essentially a wholesale overhaul of the ticket hall environment.
Alongside this technical and environmental overhaul, would come an overhaul in staff roles and responsibilities in relation to ticketing. Sources suggest the Paper argues largely for ending the demarcation between station operation and transactions/customer support.
The similarities between the concepts proposed in 2011 and the future laid out on Thursday is pretty clear.
Getting down to the facts
So what, then, are the new proposals specifically?
The approach, broadly speaking, is as outlined above. As TfL’s press release explains:
[R]ather than being remote from customers behind closed doors or glass windows, Tube station staff will not be based in ticket offices, but in ticket halls, on gate lines and on platforms, ready and available to give the best personal and face-to-face service to customers.
As now, all Tube stations will continue to be staffed and controlled in future, with more staff visible and available than today in ticket halls and on gate lines and with the same number of staff on platforms. Staff equipped with the latest mobile technology, such as tablet computers, will be able to monitor and manage stations on the move.
As is clear, this will mean changes to staff roles, particularly those currently focused on the supervisory aspect of station control. Indeed it is this that TfL clearly believe will allow them to maintain the same public staffing levels whilst also achieving a 750 net reduction in overall staffing.
Just how such staffing changes will be managed remains to be seen. This is not surprising, for it will prove the hardest change both to define and to sell to staff themselves in an organisation where relations with management are far from being simple or healthy.
The operational model that TfL ultimately wish to move to, however, is now clear. At its core lies the decision to shift to an operational model that, from 2015, puts every station on the network into one of four categories. Those categories each broadly describe the way passengers interact with those stations and how those stations interact with the network. Thus whilst the stations may be physically and geographically different, they share enough common properties that their physical ticketing and staffing arrangements can largely be approached in a similar way.
Each of those four categories is described below, along with a list of the stations that TfL have indicated would likely fall within it. Obviously individual station classifications are currently provisional and subject to consultation.
Gateway Stations are those which represent the main entry points for visitors (both from within the UK and without) onto the network. They thus need to be both staffed and equipped to deal with a high percentage of passengers unfamiliar with the Underground who thus both require, and seek out, face to face support.
Although under the proposals all stations will lose their ticket offices, Gateway Stations will be equipped with “Visitor Information Centres” (VICs). These will be equipped to handle all traditional ticket office functionality – including both ticket sales and the ability to issue oyster refunds – but also, interestingly, more tourist specific functionality as well. This includes both tourist information and national rail ticket sales, and what TfL have clearly identified as potential additional revenue streams – tickets for the theatre and tourist attractions and Tube-related merchandise.
The proposed Gateway Stations (six in total) are currently:
|Euston||Heathrow Terminals 123||King’s Cross St. Pancras|
These are stations that form part of the urban fabric of London, almost always within the centre. Like Gateways they feature a high level of traffic, mixing both regular and irregular users, but generally have a higher level of “exits” at key times than entries. As can be seen from the diagram above, without a ticket office staff are intended to circulate in the ticket hall assisting passengers with transactions there.
|Baker Street||Bank & Monument||Bond Street|
|Camden Town||Canada Water||Canary Wharf|
|Earl’s Court||Elephant & Castle||Embankment|
|Farringdon||Finsbury Park||Gloucester Road|
|Green Park||Highbury & Islington||Holborn|
|Leicester Square||London Bridge||Moorgate|
|North Greenwich||Notting Hill Gate||Oxford Circus|
|Piccadilly Circus||South Kensington||Stratford|
|Tottenham Court Road||Waterloo||Wembley Park|
The Metro category encompasses stations that predominantly serve inner-London and commuter areas, with the expectation clearly being that the majority of travellers are familiar with the network.
|Acton Town||Aldgate||Aldgate East|
|Bethnal Green||Blackfriars||Blackhorse Road|
|Borough||Bounds Green||Bow Road|
|Brixton||Caledonian Road||Canning Town|
|Cannon Street||Chalk Farm||Chancery Lane|
|Charing Cross||Clapham Common||Clapham North|
|Clapham South||Cockfosters||Colliers Wood|
|Covent Garden||Edgware Road (Bak)||Edgware Road (H&C)|
|Euston Square||Finchley Road||Fulham Broadway|
|Gants Hill||Goodge Street||Great Portland Street|
|Hammersmith (D&P)||Hampstead||Harrow & Wealdstone|
|Harrow-on-the-Hill||Hatton Cross||Heathrow Terminal 4|
|High Street Kensington||Highgate||Holland Park|
|Holloway Road||Hounslow West||Hyde Park Corner|
|Kennington||Kentish Town||Kilburn Park|
|Knightsbridge||Lambeth North||Lancaster Gate|
|Maida Vale||Manor House||Mansion House|
|Marylebone||Marble Arch||Mile End|
|Regent’s Park||Russell Square||Seven Sisters|
|Shepherd’s Bush||Sloane Square||South Wimbledon|
|Southgate||Southwark||St. James’s Park|
|St. John’s Wood||St. Paul’s||Stepney Green|
|Tooting Broadway||Tooting Bec||Tottenham Hale|
|Tower Hill||Tufnell Park||Turnpike Lane|
|Warren Street||Warwick Avenue||Wembley Central|
|West Ham||Whitechapel||Wood Green|
Local Stations are generally smaller stations, mainly in outer London, or those where only a very small number of ticket office sales are made. These are the stations that will likely see the biggest change in terms in staffing, although perhaps not from a public facing perspective. This is because here the station supervisor role is likely to change, resulting in one supervisor covering a number of stations.
|Barons Court||Becontree||Boston Manor|
|Brent Cross||Bromley-by-Bow||Buckhurst Hill|
|Burnt Oak||Canons Park||Chalfont & Latimer|
|Dagenham East||Dagenham Heathway||Debden|
|Dollis Hill||Ealing Broadway||Ealing Common|
|Ealing West||East Acton||East Finchley|
|East Ham||East Putney||Eastcote|
|Golders Green||Goldhawk Road||Grange Hill|
|Hanger Lane||Harlesden||Hendon Central|
|Hounslow Central||Hounslow East||Ickenham|
|Kensal Green||Kenton||Kew Gardens|
|Loughton||Hainault||Mill Hill East|
|Moor Park||Neasden||North Acton|
|North Harrow||Northfields||Northwick Park|
|Northwood Hills||Park Royal||Perivale|
|Plaistow||Putney Bridge||Ravenscourt Park|
|Roding Valley||Ruislip||Ruislip Manor|
|Snaresbrook||South Harrow||South Ruislip|
|Theydon Bois||Newbury Park||North Ealing|
|North Wembley||Northolt||Northwood South|
|Preston Road||Queensbury||Rayners Lane|
|Rickmansworth||Royal Oak||Ruislip Gardens|
|Shepherd’s Bush Market||South Kenton||South Woodford|
|Stamford Brook||Stonebridge Park||Sudbury Town|
|Totteridge & Whetstone||Turnham Green||Upminster Bridge|
|Watford||West Acton||West Brompton|
|West Hampstead||West Harrow||West Kensington|
|West Ruislip||Westbourne Park||White City|
|Willesden Green||Wimbledon Park||Wood Lane|
Weighing up the changes
All the above may finally make TfL’s future intentions official but it also largely reflects that which has been expected from them for some time. As a result both the arguments for and against these changes have been well covered here before.
From TfL’s perspective the positives are clear. Simplifying both the physical operations and the management and role structure within stations themselves will lead to financial savings and perhaps by overhauling roles, in the process, help to breakdown some of the long-standing issues between management and staff. The last goal may not be one that TfL will ever publicly state, but it will almost certainly have crossed a number of minds within the organisation itself.
Therein, though, lies the problem. For whilst TfL may have have developed a solid reputation in the last fifteen years as both a deliverer of large-scale projects and as a railway operator, the same cannot be said for industrial relations and its ability to deliver and manage effective organisational change. This is by no means solely TfL’s fault, but it must still deal with the consequences – one of which is that it is very hard to engineer successful organisational change when there’s little trust to be found between management and staff.
It is this that provides some clue as to why TfL are clearly working to couple the new Night Tube arrangements with this overhaul of station staffing. For the truth is that for the overwhelming majority of passengers the changes to the way ticket halls work will have very little effect on the way they interact with the network. As TfL have spent two years – correctly – pointing out, the sale of tickets via ticket offices has plummeted since the introduction of Oyster. Shifting staff roles to focus on interaction with the passenger in ticket halls, correctly implemented, would also ensure that the ticket office’s secondary role as a source of information for most travellers is still met. For the average commuter there is thus neither anything particularly positive or negative to be found in the case for making this change.
Disruption however, whether due to industrial action or difficulties in implementing the new arrangements, is something that most regular travellers will notice. By linking the Night Tube and the organisation changes in the public conscience TfL thus help to ensure that the public will feel it has a stake in the game.
For the Mayor, it is an approach that also holds considerable appeal. As mentioned above, a promise that there would be no ticket office closures featured prominently in his election manifesto (bolding his):
I will also defend local ticket offices. Ken Livingstone plans to close a large number of ticket offices at Tube stations, predominantly in outer London because he claims that the increase in Oyster use has made them surplus to requirements. However, what he has not taken into account is that local people feel it is important there is a manned ticket office at their station, as often there are not enough Oyster outlets in the local area.
There has been little consultation with local residents, and I think it is wrong that some local stations could lose this service. I will stop the planned ticket office closures, and focus on increasing the number of Oyster outlets in outer London so local people have greater access to Oyster.
It is also a position that he has repeatedly reiterated since, including a very public, almost angry, outburst in front of the London Assembly in 2010:
The first and most important point to make is that no ticket offices will be closed, alright? They’re not going to be closed.
Given all the above, the current proposals represent a considerable political u-turn – one that the commencement of Night Tube services in 2015 would go a long way to helping the public either forget or accept.
The real cost
Ultimately whatever the benefits and costs for both TfL and the travelling majority, and whatever the politics behind the decision to link the Night Tube to the organisational changes, the real cost of the proposed changes will likely fall on two groups.
The first of those, TfL’s own station staff, should at least find themselves supported through the change. TfL’s own commitment to avoiding both past and future mistakes with regards to organisational changes seems genuine, and if the execution turns out to leave something to be desired then they will certainly be able to count on the support of the Unions, who have already made their own opposition to the changes abundantly clear.
The second, however, are less well represented – those individuals who make up the 3% of ticket office sales, and the hidden (albeit small) percentage who rely on the Underground’s ticket offices (both centrals and locally) both for advice and to deal with transactions that the current automated ticketing arrangements are unable to service.
To a very real extent the success or failure of these proposals will rest on how well the new arrangements ultimately address this final group’s needs. For many businesses – and indeed Train Operators – focusing primarily on the needs of the majority is an understandable practice. TfL, however, have always proudly asserted their position as the UK’s only integrated publicly-owned railway operator and with that, many would argue, comes a duty to try and cater to the needs of the minority as well.
In the coming months it will thus be interesting to see just how TfL’s plans develop.
Those looking for further information on TfL’s overall “Fit For the Future” project can find more information on their new sub site here. We recommend reading this presentation on their station changes in particular.