Fare Whom The Bell Tolls: The end of the TfL Ticket Office?

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Recently, with minimal publicity, there has been a proposal made that would close the vast majority of ticket offices at London Overground stations. If the proposal is fully acted upon the total number of TfL ticket offices remaining will probably number fewer than thirty and that total will inevitably only go down. This makes it a suitable time to look at what future – if any – there is for TfL-run ticket offices.

The start of the demise of dedicated ticket sales

For many years, bus and train travel involved purchasing a ticket of some description from an employee whose job it was to sell tickets. Until relatively recently, only small inroads had been made into eliminating this dedicated function.

At lightly-used rural stations outside London, even in a pre-Beeching age, it wasn’t unknown for the signaller to also sell the tickets. In a similar manner, some lightly-used single-decker bus routes had the role of driving and issuing tickets combined and carried out by one person. The resulting extra efficiency probably enabled a lot of routes to be run that would otherwise be uneconomical.

Automated ticket vending is introduced

When it came to automated ticketing, as in a lot of areas of transport development, London Transport led the way. The substantial number of passengers travelling on the Underground to a limited number of destinations, combined with the limited space available below surface level, meant there needed to be another way of doing things. The significance of the Underground ticket machines was not just the use of technology. It was also the willingness to look at the issue of ticket sales without being wedded to the idea that the passenger needs to state their destination in advance – something that was ahead of its time. As the ticket system developed into the 21st century it is as much this ability to ‘think different’, as it is technology, that spurred development on.

Early fixed value ticket machines at Piccadilly Circus 1928

Ticket machines on the Underground used to sell tickets with a fixed monetary value. A list of stations that could be legitimately travelled to on the ticket issued was prominent on the ticket machine. By selling tickets showing just the originating station and the fare, the system could be simplified to the extent that passengers could purchase their own ticket without human intervention.

By 1951 the ticket machines at Piccadilly Circus were far more compact

This system was largely possible in London because the fare structure on the Underground was (relatively) straightforward. In general, the national rail network was far too large and complex for such a system to be implemented there. It wasn’t just a matter of complexity either. The varied number of destinations and different types of tickets meant that it just was not cost effective to have a dedicated ticket machine for each fare.

In 1964 little had changed – except the prices and the fashion

On the buses too

In the 1960s, London Transport went one step further on the buses and introduced its first ‘Red Arrow’ service. This was a central London, single-deck service with a flat fare of 6d. No tickets were issued and there were two turnstiles on the bus by the entrance. Separate doors were used for exiting the bus.

Pay as your enter turnstiles on a Red Arrow bus

Initially only used on one-man-operated single decker buses, the multi-fare version was introduced on ordinary routes

Also in the 1960s, Mars Ltd (of Mars bar fame) came up with a far more sophisticated vending machine that used early electronics and could sell different products at different prices. You made your selection and put in the appropriate coins. London Transport was clearly receptive to new ideas and new technology and was quick to spot the potential of the new vending machine. Unfortunately, they then made a decision that in hindsight seems inexplicable. The obvious application was to replace the Underground ticket machines with something more flexible. This would then eliminate the need to attempt to match the different fixed-value ticket machines with demand – something that was always problematic with a fare increase each year. Instead, London Transport decided to introduce a turnstile on many ‘one-man’ buses with the idea that passengers could choose between paying the driver or, if they had the correct fare, buying one of the four most common fares from a machine which incorporated the turnstile.

Turnstile on a double-decker DMS bus in the 1970s

The turnstile on the buses was widely implemented but little used. It was something of a mystery why London Transport persisted with it. The main problem was that whilst the technology worked well in a fixed-location vending machine, a rattling bus that was on the go for more than 12 hours a day was probably one of the worst environments you could think of for this emerging technology. Passengers learnt not to trust it and it was generally shunned.

The Underground Ticketing System

Meanwhile, on the Underground, the lack of investment in the ticketing process did have a silver lining. This was that the entire network was ripe for a comprehensive update using the latest technology, when money did emerge. The Underground Ticketing System (UTS) was conceived and introduced in the 1980s as ticket machines had the potential to become more sophisticated, reliable and easier to use. It also enabled individual and auditable accountability for takings. This was something that was not easy with the system previously in place, which led to large internal losses due to either fraud or outright theft.

An early example of UTS – Finchley Road in 1987 or 1988

Partly as a need to handle cash securely, the free-standing fixed-fare ticket machines were done away with and – probably for the first time ever – ticket halls on the Underground became less cluttered.

Barons Court 1990

Although recognised at the time as a watershed moment, it was probably not appreciated just how much of a game-changer this was to be. For one thing, the integrated system was ripe for further improvement as newer technology came along. For another, this was an era where people were getting used to cash machines rather than interacting with a bank cashier. Reducing staffing levels (other than by reducing time taken to do the accounts and reconcile the shift or daily takings) was never a stated aim of the new system, but it must have substantially reduced demand for face-to-face transactions. This in turn lead to a reduced need for ticket office staff.

Oyster – the real game changer

The real revolution came with the launch of Oyster as London’s smartcard travel solution, which first came into public use in 2003. Oyster was a revolution, changing the way ticketing worked in London – and beyond – forever. Conceptually, it was completely different from anything that had happened before in the UK, although it was certainly not a world first. Paradoxically, it has also been evolutionary and readers may well be surprised to realise the length of time it has taken to fully introduce it, and all the features available today. It was trialled by staff in 2002 but it was only in 2016 that bespoke Oystercards were issued to police officers who, up until then, still showed their warrant card for their free travel. More relevant to our story, with most new phases of the introduction of Oyster, the usage of ticket offices has declined further still. A fare structure making Oyster cheaper to use than cash hastened this decline in ticket sales.

Contactless bank cards

Whilst Oyster is a good system, it placed the onus on collecting the money firmly with TfL. This costs money to administer (more so than any fee required by the banks) and it also meant that users had to have their own Oystercard for travel rather than use a card that they already possessed.

It perhaps shows how far London is ahead on the ticketing curve that whilst TfL are trying to persuade people to ditch their Oystercard and move to contactless bank cards, much of the rest of the country has only just seen the introduction of similar schemes to Oyster. Other transport operators have also incorporated contactless bank cards but, in the eyes of Oyster evangelists, they rather lose the plot by issuing a ticket paid for by the contactless transaction.

Closure of Tube ticket offices…

In 2015 only three percent of journeys involved a transaction at the ticket office. By then, closure of ticket offices was firmly in London Underground’s sights. It was a big political issue but the then Mayor, Boris Johnson, had already performed a post-election U-turn and supported the closures. It was almost certainly the stark figures involved, and the need to save money, that prompted this. Not surprisingly, transport watchdogs expressed concern and there was a lot of opposition from the unions, but the financial case to be made was clearly so compelling that the Mayor and TfL were determined to push through the proposals.

…But not all of them

What received much less publicity at the time was that it wasn’t quite true that all Underground station ticket offices would be closing. Some stations managed by London Underground were also served by London Overground and it was felt that they needed to remain open to provide a ticket office service to London Overground users. It was also the case that stations with an Underground service, but run by a train operating company (TOC) would continue to have a ticket office. So stations such as Wimbledon, Richmond, Barking and Upminster would be unaffected. There was even the slightly strange case of Farringdon. This station is managed by London Underground, yet has a GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) ticket office staffed by GTR employees.

Going, going…

With finances even tighter under the current Mayor due to various factors (mainly the loss of a large government grant) an obvious further target was the London Underground managed stations that still had a ticket office staffed by London Underground workers. For one thing, technically it didn’t break a stated intention not to close an existing ticket office at London Overground (managed) stations. So it was then that in 2018 there was a further round of Underground ticket office closures that mainly affected Kew Gardens, Gunnersbury and stations at the northern end of the Bakerloo line. This was done with very little publicity.

Consulting on the new proposals

The current consultation is officially proposed by Arriva Rail London (ARL) who run London Overground on TfL’s behalf. Despite this, one should be in no doubt that this has been done at the behest of TfL.

Clearly, once the idea emerges that it is acceptable to have London Overground stations without a ticket office, any little-used ticket office is in the firing line. Arriva is currently consulting on closing 51 ticket offices. To put this in context, if this went ahead, that would leave just 14 ticket offices that would be operated by them.

Saving Money

As with the London Underground proposal, much is made of the need for staff to be more visible. So closure doesn’t necessarily mean staff reductions though, in most cases, one would expect some saving in staffing costs to be achievable (even if that is simply through not filling posts over time). Even with no actual reduction of staff at the station, there is a potential saving of staffing costs because station assistants tend to be paid less than ticket clerks. Furthermore, there is no need to equip or maintain a ticket office, with that same space potentially reallocated to retail.

The new ticket office at Hackney Wick – proposed for closure

Unlike the London Underground proposals that preceded it, there does not appear to be any commitment to enhance the ticket vending machine functionality. Yet this may simply be because this has already been done. Certainly, you can more-or-less buy a ticket from anywhere to anywhere with the latest machines and there are few ticket transactions that cannot be made using the ticket vending machine.

Figure it out

In support of the closure proposals, Arriva Rail London have published average numbers of tickets sold at each of the ticket offices affected broken down by quarter-hour periods during the hours when the ticket office is open. The rationale behind this figure, it seems is that the Secretary of State’s guidance is that ticket sales have to reach 12 per hour for the ticket office to be declared as ‘busy’. The figures, as can be seen, are staggeringly low.

The tables for Monday-Friday and for Saturday are rather cluttered so for simplicity we will only show the table for Sunday in detail. There are 21 ticket offices open on a Sunday that are currently proposed for closure. There is not one single entry of three or more ticket sales there during a 15 minute period. And there are only three instances of sales of an average of more than two tickets in any given 15 minute period.

Only six of the ticket offices proposed for closure are currently open after 1630 and, as can be seen, sales are minimal. One wonders if any ticket office (not just the ones proposed for closure) can justify being open after this time.

One might think Sunday is a particularly bad day, but it doesn’t look much better for Saturday. 36 of the 51 ticket offices proposed for closure are open, yet selling three tickets or more in a 15 minute period is achieved only once. There are around 27 instances of two or more tickets sold in a 15 minute period.

Monday-Friday not much better

During Monday-Friday only five ticket offices proposed for closure manage to sell more than three tickets during any 15 minute period. Only Honor Oak Park achieves this twice. Some ticket offices such as Rectory Road and Haggerston do not have a single 15 minute period where the average number of tickets sold reaches one.

There is even the remarkable case of Stamford Hill that, according to the figures, cannot manage an average of 0.4 tickets in any 15 minute interval despite being open from 0715 to 1430. This is even more remarkable given the ticket office has actually been closed since November 2017 as it was structurally unsound. In this case these are historical figures prior to closure and, if the ticket office were open, maybe they would be even lower today.

Within the list are various stations on the East London line. Wapping, Shadwell, Rotherhithe and Surrey Quays are included and it seems an anomaly for these to have remained open despite being former Underground stations. The really busy station on the East London line, Canada Water, which is located very close to Rotherhithe, lost its ticket office as part of the London Underground closures. Haggerston and Hoxton have been open since April 2010 but despite decent passenger numbers, purchase at the ticket office has been extremely low.

Hoxton’s figures suggest around four ticket purchases per day. If that has been consistent since opening then that suggests in over eight years only around 9,000 tickets have been sold at the ticket office since opening.

There is also the case of the new ticket office at Hackney Wick. It is open from 0645-1500. From opening until 1000 it is expected to sell precisely five tickets. For the following five hours it is open it sells an average of 1.68 tickets.

Loss of facilities

Most objections concerning ticket office closures usually centre on purchases that cannot be made from a machine. Among the railway fraternity (but not the general public) the first concern is ‘privs’. These are privilege quarter-rate leisure-only tickets available to some staff – more usually former British Rail (and London Transport) employees who have their employment or former employment conditions protected. These cannot currently be purchased from a ticket machine. Whilst it might bother some priv card holders, this is probably is not an issue for London Overground, given minuscule sum of money involved. Conscientious priv card holders may be concerned, but their only obligation is to purchase a suitable ticket at the earliest practical opportunity (otherwise there is no attempt to avoid payment).

A second issue that comes up is the inability of ticket machines to issue ticket from the zone 6 boundary. This is quite inexplicable given that ticket machines can generally issue tickets from any station, so the original argument that this could encourage fare evasion no longer has any validity.

A third issue particularly pertinent to London Overground is the matter of residual ‘point to point’ season tickets which are cheaper than zonal season tickets. These are still available on certain routes and cannot be handled by the ticket machines. However, these are generally to places like Liverpool Street which will continue to have a ticket office. It is hard to see this as a great inconvenience for the relatively few people who require these.

Meaningless figures?

What the figures don’t tell us is why people used the ticket office. One would have thought that this was a fundamental item of information that would be needed to make an objective decision. It could be that people went to the ticket office because of a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality. Equally they could have a valid reason that we don’t know about. In a similar manner, we have no idea of the value of the transactions. They might be for a single ticket for a short journey or they may be for a more substantial purchase. Or the person could be seeking information – something that appears not to register in the figures provided.

We also don’t know what percentage of passengers buy a ticket at the ticket office at London Overground stations when the office is open. This sort of thing is kept commercially sensitive so is hard to find out but, based on 3% for London Underground in 2015, we would be surprised if the figure was as high as 2% today.

Rubber stamping?

The case for these ticket office closures seems overwhelming given the low number of ticket sales, though there may be particular issues that could need mitigating against. No doubt, London Travelwatch will be following this very closely. No suggestion is made as to when the closures, if approved, will take place.

What next on London Overground?

Helpfully, the consultation document provides an annotated diagram of the status of ticket offices on the London Overground network. Slightly less helpfully, any station not managed by London Overground is shown in grey regardless of whether or not it has a ticket office. Some London Overground stations, most notably on the Gospel Oak – Barking line, do not currently have a ticket office and these are shown in black.

South London London Overground stations (excluding Richmond and Kew Gardens)

It seems inevitable that if further stations reach the threshold whereby they never achieve an average of at least 12 transactions an hour then they too will be considered for closure. Normally these figures are not available, so one can only guess, but if Honor Oak Park is proposed for closure then one would imagine that the ticket office at the adjacent station of Brockley (around 50% busier in terms of entries and exits) would be heading any future closure list and keeping it open on Saturday afternoons and Sundays very questionable.

Bushey is intended to be the only station with a ticket office between Willesden Junction and Watford Junction

In a similar vein, Bushey, not proposed for closure, is about as busy as Watford High Street and not that much busier than Carpenders Park. Sandwiched as it is between these two stations with ticket offices that are proposed for closure, it seems unlikely that Bushey ticket office will remain open on Sundays for much longer and its long term future must be questionable. The fact that it will probably be the sole London Overground survivor north of Willesden Junction means it probably will encounter disproportionally high costs to maintain it. For example, any relief clerk sent there will cause travelling time costs to be incurred from his nominal home base which will probably be in another part of London.

A considerable number of proposed closures are in North London

It does seem quite likely that the number of London Overground ticket offices will be reduced to 14 in the not too distant future. If that happens, it would be surprising if this didn’t go down to a maximum of 12 in the next year or so. Given the incredibly low usage in the afternoons throughout the week and also throughout Sunday it would not be surprising if the hours were cut down and the remaining ticket offices were only open in the mornings on Monday-Friday or, exceptionally, Monday-Saturdays.

And elsewhere?

Ignoring the exceptional case of the cable car, the only other ticket offices at stations on TfL are currently on TfL Rail. Even the few that used to be open on the DLR (such as City Airport) are now permanently closed. So this raises the highly pertinent question of what ticket offices, if any, will there be at Elizabeth line stations?

One can immediately see how pressure could be brought to bear to close Elizabeth line ticket offices – at least at some stations. On opening, stations in the central area will be 100% reliant on ticket vending machines for ticket sales from the outset. This means that Tottenham Court Road station will not have a ticket office and so the inevitable argument will be put that if Tottenham Court Road doesn’t need one then why should others?

It is certainly hard to see how, in any rational world, TfL can have large busy stations without ticket offices, but feel a need to provide places like Acton Main Line with one. Even the fact that Acton Main Line station is being rebuilt and will have a new ticket office counts for little because, as mentioned before, the space for the ticket office could probably make money being rented out, instead of losing money being used to sell tickets.

If it is decided that one Elizabeth line station can manage without a ticket office, it is hard to see where this stops. If Acton Main Line then why not Hanwell and West Ealing? West Drayton isn’t that much busier. Iver (currently managed by TfL Rail) is extremely lightly used and the ticket office is currently only open 0630-1300 Mondays-Fridays. It is a similar situation at Taplow.

On the eastern side of the Elizabeth line it is hard to rationalise why stations there should have ticket offices while the almost-parallel District line manages without them. Maybe exceptions should be made for really busy stations like Stratford and Ilford. Shenfield isn’t managed by TfL so would be unaffected.

It would seem slightly strange if Abbey Wood did not have a ticket office, but the surrounding (Southeastern) stations did have one. There is always ‘the Farringdon option’ of having a different operator run the ticket office and at Abbey Wood that might make more sense. At Heathrow, if anything, a travel centre would probably be more appropriate than a conventional ticket office.

Few or none at all

It is very easy indeed to envisage the situation in a few years time where TfL has only two dozen ticket offices at most for all of its services. We live in a society that is becoming more accustomed to unattended service, be it at the bank machine, newer branches of McDonalds or scanning in one’s own shopping at the supermarket. It is also easy to envisage the number of ticket offices going down further as the years progress – just as is continuing to happen with bank branches. Following on from having a small number of ticket offices, there may come a point when TfL or the Mayor decides that the number of ticket offices it could usefully keep open is so low that it would be better to either do without them altogether, or to invite a TOC that serves the station in question to run the ticket office on TfL’s behalf.

It must be stressed that there is no known plan to eliminate all ticket offices on TfL, but the past few years have shown that as payment habits change and technology makes more inroads, this will doubtless be kept under close review. It seems that, in TfL, the future prospects for ticket office clerks are going the same way as bus conductors many years before them.

All photos courtesy of LT museum and used with their permission except for Hackney Wick ticket office which is Network Rail copyright

Written by Pedantic of Purley