The Shape of Things to Come Part 1: What the Operational Strategy Discussion Paper Means for the Underground


Last week saw the future of the Underground thrust firmly into the light again thanks to the leak, by the RMT, of an internal London Underground Operation Strategy Discussion Paper to selected news sources. The OSDP, produced earlier this summer, had provoked the ire of the RMT and soon had newspaper editors reaching for the 72pt type.

The reasons for this reaction are pretty obvious. The paper features two of the hottest topics in the arena of London transport – ticket office closures and driverless trains.

Both are topics that provoke strong – often emotive – reactions from supporters and opponents alike. For London’s travelling public, “safety” and “staffing” aren’t just abstract arguments, they’re words of power. They provoke very real memories of what has happened in the recent past, and tug at that subconscious nagging fear that exists somewhere within us all of travelling deep beneath the ground in narrow tubes filled with hundreds of tons of metal moving at high speeds. A fear that’s normally mitigated by the knowledge that somewhere nearby, at all times, is someone who hopefully knows what they’re doing.

Yet almost paradoxically, the idea of increased automation is no longer to many the bogeyman that it once was. This is largely thanks to the wholesale breakdown in industrial relations that has plagued London’s transport network now for well over a decade. There is plenty of fault for this to be found on both sides of the table, but the net result is that the idea of a network that is less susceptible to strike action is now one that has found fans on the left as well as the right.

Given that the OSD Paper touches on both these crucial areas (and, frankly, because any internal paper is like a moth to a flame here at LR Towers), we have thus worked to put together a full summary of its contents. As with our previous summaries of internal reports (such as the DLR Horizon 2020 and Bakerloo Extension report), the LR Team have not seen the full OSDP. As with those previous reports, however, we are confident that the analysis here, based on what has appeared in the public sphere and what we have built up through sources, is accurate.

And here, to our own admitted surprise, is where it gets interesting because the OSDP isn’t really about ticket office closures or driverless trains. It’s the first outline of something far, far, more wide reaching and complex – a complete programme of organisational and cultural change aimed at modernising London Underground, in the course of which changes to the way ticketing and trains work both naturally feature.

As a result, this analysis is split into three parts. The first two of those focus primarily on providing as much detail on the Paper’s contents as possible, with this first article focusing on the changes to ticketing and station staffing that the Paper appears to suggest. This will then shortly be followed by a piece focusing on the Paper’s suggestions with regards to trains and line operation. Finally, in the third piece, we will focus on analysis of the Paper’s contents. As will become clear to readers, its suggestions appear to be wide-ranging and very much challenge the accepted status quo with regards to many aspects of London Underground’s current operations. Implementing them in any format would require wholesale organisational and cultural change that would need to be carefully managed, and just what that might mean for management and staff is something we will look at it in more detail later.

Putting the Paper in Context

Finally, before digging deep into the analysis, it is worth pausing briefly to place the Paper into the appropriate context. The RMT have painted the OSDP as a fully-fledged strategy document with corporate buy-in at a senior level. In contrast, TfL and London Underground (largely through the words of Mike Brown) have claimed it is very much a bare-bones middle-management document, one of the many “what-if” concept papers that can be found in any major organisation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the truth lies somewhere between both views. The OSDP is not a fully fledged strategy document, but it is the framework around which one could be built. It broadly addresses all the key evidence and issues, and highlights what further actions and exploration would be necessary to take things forward. It is also very clearly a senior management paper – the product of the lower echelons of that be-suited order, but as our esteemed friend the FactCompiler would no doubt point out, it is really at that level that most real decisions are made.

Overall, therefore, the Paper should perhaps pragmatically be treated as representing the spirit, but not yet the law. It is probably reflective of a general feeling at a senior level as to how London Underground might best push forward, but at the same time is certainly not a firm strategy (or at least not yet) whose numbers and ideas should be considered as entirely reliable.

Overall Goals

Sources indicated that the Paper’s overall objective is to address a relatively basic problem. Over the next 10 years, London Underground will need not only to meet all their existing objectives and targets – including already identified needs to improve customer service and reliability – but also any new ones that arise . They will also need to do so with less resources than they have now.

To address this, it appears the Paper suggests some rather radical ideas (at least in contrast to how things operate now):

1) A complete overhaul of how ticketing works and is accessed.
2) A rethink of how stations are staffed, managed and operated
3) A movement away from cab-based driver operations to something more similar to the DLR “train captain” approach.
4) Greater centralisation, where possible, of line operations – particularly on the Sub-Surface Lines (SSL).
5) Increased use of technology to facilitate all the above.

The Future of Smartcards

In ticketing terms, it has been well documented that the Paper advocates a long-term switch to Wave and Pay as the primary means of travel. Much work needs to be done as to the logistics and underlying technology, but early trials of this will begin on London’s buses next year with weekly Wave and Pay travel – which will include weekly capping – manifesting more widely from 2013 onwards.

That this features in the Paper is not particularly surprising. It has long been suggested that Oyster, as a product, has been seen internally at LU as having a somewhat limited shelf-life. By the middle of the decade an alternative, better solution was expected to be needed to replace the highly successful but now somewhat stretched Oyster system. Sources indicate that the Paper argues that Wave and Pay is the preferred solution here.

At first glance, this may seem an almost like-for-like deal (at least in transaction terms). Given that London Underground admit (and have reiterated this week) that they anticipate there will always be a need to have some kind of basic smartcard available for those without compatible cash or credit cards, it may also seen slightly redundant. There is, however, a potential benefit for LU. Something sources suggest the OSDP highlights.

This is in the area of ticket sales. One of Oyster’s biggest benefits for LU has been the simplification of the ticket purchase itself. Oyster – particularly through PAYG – has massively reduced the amount of ticket purchases that actually take place via the ticket window. Indeed the Paper apparently asserts that of the approximately 150m ticket window transactions each year, only 5% now actually involve ticket sales. Instead, the vast majority of face-to-face transactions are now either issue resolution or refunds, or – crucially – sales of the physical Oyster Card itself.

Oyster’s penetration and its impact on ticketing operations, the Paper thus allegedly suggests, has now reached its effective natural apogee. Wave and Pay, however, would represent an opportunity to bite into the remaining 5% of transactions, because it would remove the need to purchase the initial card.

The Future of Ticket Offices

The above also sets the context for the changes that have received the bulk of the reportage on the Paper so far – Ticket Office changes.

The changes the Papers suggests here, sources indicate, are arguably some of its most wide reaching. It is also from this section that many of the quotations that have appeared publicly have most certainly been taken. It is almost certainly from here that the figure of 30 ticket offices (re-branded as “travel centres”) to remain open has been taken.

What those quotes lack, however, is the full context – something that the smartcard changes begin to provide. For the Paper, sources suggest, argues not so much for the closure of ticket offices but a fundamental re-evaluation of the ticket hall concept in general.

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.

We will touch more on this subject later, but in the context of ticket office operations, it appears that this will see a much greater focus placed on proactive customer service and assistance in job roles, objectives and staff development.

Refocusing ticket halls and staffing above, the report apparently suggests, would make it possible to close the majority of ticket offices (rather than ticket halls) outside of major stations and interchanges – i.e. places where a greater human element (often to deal with those unfamiliar with London’s transport systems at all) is very much still needed.

Taken together and in context, therefore, the Paper’s ticketing suggestions though still huge in scope, make considerably more sense – and seem a little less like the “slash and burn” cost-saving exercise that some sources have otherwise painted them to be. Indeed that London Underground regard their current ticket office set-up as largely outmoded is not exactly a secret, and both the press office and senior management at TfL have been actively vocal on the point for some time. As Peter Hendy (in)famously opined last year:

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

A general transition to the “assisted automation” model of sales and customer service is also not a particularly new concept in the field of retail, where it is already becoming seen as the model for general low-impact transations. “Self-Service” checkouts have become an ever-increasing presence on the Supermarket shop floor and, more and more, have actually become the primary checkout option. The newer “Metro” and “Express” stores of Sainsbury and Tesco all take this approach and it is increasingly present on the station concourse as well with WH Smith.

Stations, however, obviously aren’t just places where people sell tickets, and so the suggestion of changes to staffing style and arrangements has obvious impact beyond simply ticketing. Thus it is worth turning now to what else sources suggest the Paper argues for here.

The Future of Station Staffing

Alongside and building on the reworked ticket hall concept, sources suggest the Paper argues for a wholesale rethink of how stations are staffed.

The paper, it appears, suggests that the current division between Station Supervisor (which focuses on operational issues and asset management) and Duty Manager (which has more of a staff and people focus) roles is something that should change going forward. Sources suggest the Paper argues that both roles should be combined, going forward, into a single Station Supervisor role.

This individual would be directly accountable for all aspects of station performance as well as taking a more explicit people management role. In line with the anticipated need to change the way ticket halls work, they would also be expected to take a more active role in making sure that customer service needs were met, and would be given greater flexibility to manage and deploy staff in order to balance the ops and customer service requirements in line with each station’s specific need.

In order for the above centralisation of those two roles to happen, it appears that the Paper suggests that greater centralisation of the operational side of station activity into London Underground control centres will be required. The technology to allow mobile monitoring of all key station functions by Station Supervisors would also need to be put in place.

Sources suggest the Paper argues that under this structure, Station/Deputy Supervisors could be deployed more flexibly than under the current arrangement. In Outer London this would possibly equate to Station Supervisors being responsible for small clusters of stations, for example ,with the number of deputies varying as appropriate.

Overall, this merger and revaluation of the Station Supervisor and Duty Manager roles seems to be the greatest change to station roles that the Paper suggests. Sources suggest it would result in a net reduction of approximately 750 Supervisor/Manager roles across the network, with the creation of approximately 500 lower grade roles necessary to ensure the new structure worked.

Sources suggest that this isn’t the only change that the Paper suggests, however. It appears it also argues for a wholesale rethinking of how station rostering currently works as well.

Rethinking Rostering

In rostering terms, sources suggest that the Paper argues that the current approach taken to staff rostering is no longer a good fit for the network. The current policy, it argues, of allocating a fixed percentage of permanent staff cover (about 37%) to individual Station Groups is inherently inefficient, and doesn’t allow sufficiently for the fact that needs vary greatly from day-to-day and from station-to-station. This, the Paper seems to argue, leaves London Underground paying more for its cover than any other operator, whilst still resulting in situations where individual Station Groups find themselves insufficiently staffed.

Sources suggest that to help address this, the Paper proposes converting 30% of the current fixed cover resources to a carefully evaluated and managed system of overtime allowance based on individual Station Group needs.

Whilst “overtime” has become a somewhat emotive word in itself when attached to public services (particularly the Metropolitan Police) it is easy to see why the Paper argues there’d be benefits for London Underground in such a shift. Beyond the obvious flexibility it would provide in coverage terms, in financial terms it would almost certainly also end up a cheaper proposition for

London Underground. Not only would overtime only be paid on hours worked, but it is often forgotten that sometimes overtime can work out cheaper for an organisation than paying for full time coverage as it doesn’t have implications for annual leave allowances or pension contributions.

Rethinking Network-wide Cover

Alongside this shift to a more overtime-led model, it seems the Paper also argues for a rethink of the roles of London Underground’s Special Requirements Team (SRT) and its Revenue Control Team (RCT).

The SRT’s current role is to provide additional resourcing network-wide for specific events and projects that push a station (or Station Group’s) needs beyond that of its general staffing requirement – they provide extra station staff where required during the Notting Hill Carnival, for example.

Sources suggest the Paper argues that if an overtime approach is taken to address covering needs, the role of the SRT should also be expanded to include the provision of long term cover for the likes of maternity and sickness – i.e. the more ongoing needs of station groups that would not be best served by overtime.

In a similar vein, the Revenue Control Team has also become increasingly used as a network-wide staffing resource – again used to boost staff numbers for events and projects rather than simply for specific revenue collection activity. This, the Paper apparently suggests, has meant that the number of Revenue Inspectors within London Underground has remained largely consistent for the last 10 years, whilst at the same time the actual fraud profile on the network has changed hugely.

Essentially, an almost fully-gated network and the transition to Oyster and other measures has meant that the fraud on the Underground has dropped almost 60% over the last 5 years, and the role of the Inspector has slipped further and further down the chain of importance. Yet despite this, the network still has the same amount of Inspectors as it did 10 years ago.

It appears, therefore, that the Paper argues that the size of the RCT should be scaled back and refocused on the role for which it was created, with additional resource deployed elsewhere into explicit station support roles if needed, rather than being used as a “shadow reserve” to be called upon to address holes in station staffing.

Finally, sources suggest that the Paper proposes several other changes to the way station staffing works. This includes an increase in the use of part-time staff to cover demand peaks and a revaluation of the way rosters are drawn up in general, with the intention being to swap the current manual planning methods for a more fit for purpose system.

It appears that the Paper also suggests a rethink of the approach to banked rest days. These were introduced in 2006 to compensate staff for working a 37.5 hour week. In return for doing so, station staff currently receive an extra 15 days as time off in lieu each year. The Paper, it is believed, suggests that this should not be universal, with some roles being switched to 35 hours a week where appropriate, removing the need for this provision.

Overall, as can be seen, when assessed in detail, the Operational Strategy Development Paper seems to paint a far larger picture than that which has currently been displayed. It is certainly a potentially controversial one, as the ticketing and staffing changes covered here already highlight. Managing and implementing those changes would require a careful programme of organisational change, even without the suggested changes to line and train operation which we will cover in the next part of this piece. Just what shape that change might take, and what signs exist that this change process might already be beginning to be implemented, are something we will explore at a later date.

Next: Train and Line Operation

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.