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Would closing ticket offices improve London Underground?

Brendan Martin, 19 August 2013

A document said to have been leaked from Transport for London (TfL) indicates that every single ticket office in London Underground’s 268 stations is to be closed.

TfL, the public body responsible for public transport in the English capital, has not confirmed the story, which was broken by the transport union TSSA.

But TfL hasn’t denied it either, leaving TSSA convinced of a real threat to the jobs of up to 2,000 staff and the safety of passengers.

I must admit that my first reaction to the idea of closing the ticket offices was “Why not?”

After all, with nearly everyone now using the prepaid electronic Oyster cards, which can be topped up at machines, only three per cent of all London Underground journeys begins with a visit to a ticket office.

So wouldn’t it be better to get the ticket office staff out from behind their sealed-off windows and in among the travellers, helping them with directions and whatever else?

The union points out that the ticket machines often break down, and that most of the work done by ticket office staff involves sorting out mistakes made by the electronic system. The closure plan also invovles getting rid of most station supervisors, who have a safety-critical role.

These are good points, but surely the human touch could be provided more effectively by staff that are not hidden away behind windows, giving passengers the impression at quiet stations that they are twiddling their thumbs between enquiries while there are no staff on platforms?

On the face of it, reorganising the work of some station staff could produce more interesting and varied jobs, better and more user-friendly service, and perhaps financial savings that could reduce future fare increases.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. In fact, an innovation that could produce wins all round if it was properly planned in consultation with service staff and users looks as though it could make services and industrial relations worse.

That is because there is no sign that London Underground does intend to redeploy the ticket office staff, and it certainly has yet to discuss the plan to get rid of their existing jobs with them or their union.

In a statement, London Underground managing director Mike Brown said:

"We are investing in London Underground to support jobs and growth in London and across the UK.  We are committed to running more trains and that all Tube stations will continue to be staffed in future, with staff visible and available to help our customers.

“Learning lessons from the successful London 2012 Games, we are looking at how we can improve the service to our customers, while delivering the best possible value for fare and taxpayers money.”
 
He added: “Any changes we propose to the way we staff our services in future will be discussed with our staff first."
 
Unless the leaked document is proved to be inauthentic that last point looks a little disingenuous, but if it is sincere then surely there is an opportunity here for a good outcome.

Last week TSSA launched a Better London Transport campaign, declaring “support for changes that lead to service improvements for passengers” as well as “staff rights, terms and conditons”.

In principle, therefore, the union supports the idea of replacing redundant jobs with others that improve services. But it fears that the ticket office plan won’t have that effect and that even if some staff are offered other jobs they will have worse terms and conditions.

According to TSSA: "The company recently launched their 'Every Journey Matters' rhetoric trying to tell us this is gernuine staff engagement on how London Underground will look and be shaped in the future. ... But it looks like the real decisions have already been taken in secret."

Isn’t it time for Mike Brown and his colleagues to sit down with TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes and his team to work out how best to achieve what both say they want, in consultation with staff as well as passenger representatives?

That way they could demonstrate an exemplary approach to public service improvement, whereas the alternative could be a damaging dispute that serves no-one’s interests.

  • For more on Public World's work on public transport, please visit the Quality Public Transport website, and for an earlier blog on London Underground at 150, go here.
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