Rayners Lane Ticket Office
At the beginning of November this poster appeared at Rayners Lane, announcing that the ticket office will close on 16th November. The station opened on 26th May 1906 and has always had a staffed ticket office, albeit a very rudimentary one in the early days, when the catchment was rather thin (to say the least). From 1930 the area developed rapidly and London Transport quickly decided facilities were inadequate. A large wooden, single-storey temporary ticket office had appeared by April 1935 (with three ticket windows) but it was not until 1938 when, belatedly, a proper station building was provided, completion being proclaimed on 7th August. The main ticket office was of London Transport’s favoured free-standing booth style, though an auxiliary ticket office was also provided against the north wall, probably to assist on Mondays when season renewals were heavy. The vast (and draughty) brick ticket hall then dominated, and still dominates, the area.
In those days most tickets were sold manually from either of the two ticket windows, many selected from the ticket racks but the more popular sales would have been machine-printed by a rapid printer operated by the booking clerk; these could issue tickets extremely quickly.
This was all well and good until London Transport decided to automate ticket issuing in the 1980s. Hitherto, stocks of printed tickets of every possible type (which could amount to many dozens) were kept on hand at each station, every combination repeated for each individual ticket window.
Every sale had to be reconciled with cash, a time-consuming and inefficient process and since the tickets had a monetary value their open storage was also an invitation to fraud and theft. The integrity of the fare collection system relied on tickets being checked properly at both ends of a journey, but this was problematic and became more so during times of staff shortage when ‘barriers’ were left open. Even when done well, checking that every ticket was correct was challenging, but it wasn’t done well and fare evasion was rife. The new, automated system (called UTS – the Underground Ticketing System) was intended to deal with these inadequacies and also improve general ticket office security as large amounts of cash might be kept on hand.
The UTS Ticket Office
The UTS concept required the ticket office to become a complete self-contained unit, or ‘secure suite’, which would include a staff toilet, mess-room and access to the rear of the new automatic machines that were to be provided, so the machines could be serviced from inside the office. It will be appreciated that all this would take up a lot of space, all of which had to be internally connected and therefore contiguous.
For stations that had the free-standing booths this was a problem as new space had to be found, where usually none existed, even if existing rooms were reassigned. At poor old Rayners Lane the old auxiliary ticket office was nothing like big enough for all this and the only way the new facilities could be provided was to steal a strip of ticket hall as well, and then extend it across the north side entrances (reducing the entrance doors from eight to four and making people from north of the railway walk round to the south entrance). By this means two new ticket issuing windows were available roughly where the old auxiliary office had been (but further forward within the ticket hall), and new automatic machines were placed where the old north entrance had been. The new ticket office came into use on 31st October 1987 and has served the area for about 28 years.
So why change?
The prevailing imperative to close ticket office windows is a response to the transformational switch from paper-based tickets. First there was a switch from paper (actually it was card) travelcards to their equivalents loaded onto Oyster cards from mid-2003. Then we had the introduction of pay-as-you-go, itself resulting in a drastic reduction of paper ticket sales, partly fuelled by differential pricing that favoured Oyster. Much more recently we have had ‘wave-and-pay’ payments taken directly from debit (or credit) cards using near-field technology, the card itself becoming the ticket throughout the journey. This further reduced the sale of paper tickets, the purchase of which, at a practical level, is subject to a premium. TfL claims that fewer than 3 per cent of all tickets are now issued from ticket office windows.
Is it just about money?
Those at TfL have taken the view that anyone still requiring a paper ticket can perfectly well get one from a machine and that staff will be on hand to assist anyone uncertain about what to do. That being the case, there is no point in having under-employed staff incarcerated inside the ticket office where help is less readily given and is a very expensive use of a resource. TfL is also under cost pressure and the closure of ticket office windows will (so TfL has said) save £50m per year.
Up Side – or Down Side?
On the face of it, this is a seductive argument. We all understand that fares must be paid to cover the maintenance and operation of travel, but surely as little as possible of that fare should be wasted in the cost of merely collecting it. Other European cities have, in the main, already ditched manual ticket selling on their metros and have arrangements not unlike what is now being implemented in London, seemingly without any great problem.
The reality is a little more complicated. For a start TfL has made it very clear that the changes (of which the ticket office element is only a part) will result in a significant reduction of station staff, TfL has stated a reduction of 950, representing a 16½ per cent reduction (though as negotiations have dragged on the percentage has slightly reduced. The original plan also envisaged removal of supervisory staff from many stations, but this has been rescinded.
With such reductions in headcount there is inevitably a suspicion that whatever the good intentions might be, the quality of service available in ticket halls will reduce. TfL counters by indicating that staff are receiving new training and are being issued with new technology, hand-held equipment that will enable them to resolve most problems on the spot. Furthermore, TfL has stated, the reaction at the first stations to have been converted was positive. I am confident that for a majority of passengers whose requirements are straightforward all this will be quite satisfactory and I am prepared to believe that staff directly in front of a passenger may well be more helpful than if behind a bullet-proof shield. There is a minority of people, though, for whom electronic purchase of tickets that cannot be bought by a machine may be a problem. I would also add, though it is early days, that I have passed through a number of converted stations at various times and seen no staff. I naturally harbour a suspicion (having once worked at stations myself) that on cold winter’s nights at the more draughty stations staff might be harder to find now, though former ticket office staff in their nice warm offices would have been on hand before. A lot of this will come down to effective management, but I do wonder whether in the rush to save money all options, and human factors, were looked at.
I also wonder about stations that sell more complicated tickets and how well they will ‘improve’ customer service. Harrow on the Hill, and stations north thereof, directly or indirectly serve the national rail network – to Aylesbury at the moment but to Bletchley and the West Coast main line in due course. There are other stations, too, where LU operates a ticket office also serving national rail trains. I would like to believe that staff will get the requisite extra training, and that the machines will be able to provide a useful range of through tickets, but experience elsewhere does make me wonder about this factor and some journeys would better be attempted buying a ticket and getting information from a booking clerk type. I wonder what Chiltern Railways thinks about ticket office closure on this section of the Underground (or whether they were consulted)? I have no idea what one is supposed to do if one wants a zone extension ticket or extension ticket from a zone boundary to a national rail destination. It would be very shabby if this facility (easy at a staffed ticket office) became difficult.
A Political Promise
Even allowing for the huge reduction in ticket sales from the ticket office window, the decision to make the staff changes (at least, to make them just now) is precipitated by TfL’s need to do more, but with less money from central government over the next planning cycle. Like it or not, the new arrangements will in due course settle down. The concern is that there will at some future date be a huge temptation for a cash-strapped TfL to reduce staff further, perhaps just by not filling jobs, whatever today’s commitments might be. This will be a worry to staff and passengers alike, and it would be nice to see some kind of longer term commitment to a staffing regime, notwithstanding that circumstances do change.
It is not perhaps inappropriate here to note that Mayor Boris is accused of breaking commitments made to keep ticket offices open. Actually this is a moot point. He did say this when campaigning for his first term, but he was silent about it prior to his second, and with good reason. The mayor evidently takes the view that he is only committed to do (or not do) things promised during the latest election and that anything said previously is effectively ‘spent’. The fact that voters might think that promises endure across separate political turns is really not a matter that troubles him. Technically this view may be right, but it goes to show how one really has to pay attention to every utterance made and every lack of utterance as well. Politicians are weasels that need watching like a hawk, all day and every day (if that is not mixing too many metaphors). Those not wanting ticket offices closed should have seen this coming and if they do not now want station staff levels to drop further make sure that London’s prospective mayoral candidates commit beyond doubt to such a thing. The real worry is not so much in the central area, where stations are busy, but in the outer suburban open air stations where passenger security is a genuine concern, especially late at night (and arguably staff security too – it can be a bit daunting being on a station on one’s own).
Finally we have the process of changing over, which may be a wrench for some passengers and more so for staff. One hears the rumours about sudden excessive crowding at Victoria and elsewhere apparently consequent upon ticket office closure. Initial reports from the Evening Standard would be worrying if that newspaper was not such a fact-free zone just stirring things up. I found the originating trade union press notice and the suggestions that crowding at some locations is unacceptable, with queuing over 30 minutes, seems plausible but the link to ticket office closures (given the extra machines) is unfortunately tenuous. It seems entirely credible that at a few locations TfL will have to think again, but that is something I hope they have built into the migration plan.
As at Rayners Lane, passengers everywhere get advanced notice of a ticket office closing, though I’m not sure why since the TfL view is that a ‘normal’ service will still be possible. I was intrigued to see at Rayners Lane on 13th November, next to the notice indicating closure would be from 16th, that the ticket office was in fact closed and carried notices on the windows saying that in preparation for ticket office closure, the ticket office would be closed!
The staff are in an interesting position. TfL had established that 650 staff wanted to take voluntary severance and had expected to need an additional 200 station staff to manage the ‘night tube’, intended to have started in September. This accounted for 850 of the 950 reduction in ‘regular’ station staff and the balance was easy to manage through natural staff turnover. Although the headcount reduction has been slightly eased by the trades union negotiations and the discovery that rising traffic levels required some stations to have more staff, the indefinite postponement of the night tube has slightly interfered with this cunning plan as redeployment to non-existent work is not an option. Presumably TfL wouldn’t want to lose experienced staff and then need to train a large number of new recruits, all in a hurry, so perhaps short term staff losses will in fact be reduced during this transition. We wait with baited breath for more on night tube, but the rumours suggest March at the earliest and not-at-all a possibility. Meanwhile over-engineered gates have been springing up at many stations to segregate night-tube parts from the rest (none of them, incidentally, in place in time for the prospective start date).
At certain stations that have a very high tourist usage TfL is opening so-called travel centres that can give information and issue tickets. This sounds like a good thing, but in reality they don’t seem so very different from the old Travel Information Centres (except they can issue a wider range of tickets). However they are not designed in any way to replace ticket offices. I used King’s Cross during its first week and it was a thoroughly disagreeable experience. I just wanted a bus map, but after inspecting the range of free literature available I concluded the travel centres weren’t out to promote bus travel so I had to queue to ask an assistant. It wasn’t all that busy, but service was excruciatingly slow and I noticed people in the queue abandoning their wait – I got served after nearly ten minutes and the assistant seemed surprised at my simple request and had to go to the stock room to get the bus map (why on earth are bus maps usually hidden, it is as if they are supposed to be a secret known only to a select few?). I don’t think these places will do much to replace ticket offices and are pretty much an irrelevant part of the equation. I can’t help thinking that it would have been better to keep maybe a dozen proper ticket offices open.
Change is inevitable
Although I observe things that might have been done better, and will be a challenge, I am not by any means against ticket office window closures or other staffing and organizational changes that are in hand, providing that it is anchored around improving customer service (I mean really anchored, not press release anchored!). My early time with the Underground in the early 1980s was spent amongst staff who did a ‘fair’ and sometimes exceptional job but the entire operational organization was inward-looking and preoccupied by gradings and ‘line of promotion’. The King’s Cross fire suggested that the structure (pretty much unchanged for fifty years or more) was not meeting modern requirements as well as being very inflexible and expensive. The Company Plan (accepting that it was an imperfect and imprecise tool) forced the organization to work out what it was really intended to deliver and design an organization to do it and gain control of its own destiny rather than behave as a victim. Of course this was helped by the seemingly coincidental upturn in transport demand that very few could have imagined, let alone have predicted. Curiously, all this profoundly affected the ticket office where ‘clerks’, who were trained book-keepers, were brought into the proper station organization and multi-functional staff introduced. With no traditional book-keeping to do, this was sensible at the time. Now, with few ticket sales to make at many stations, a further change is perhaps no more than inevitable. The vital thing is to maintain and improve customer service. In other words, managing up to a standard and not down to a cost, and it is the prospect of the latter that is the concern of many.
Back at Rayners lane, a listed building application has recently been granted that allows the ticket office to be converted into a station control point, with the right-hand window blocked up. No other significant changes are promised. There is no proposal to reopen the north entrance, which is a pity at this ever-busier location, especially as (on a quite random basis) one of the existing four doors is often unaccountably locked, which is annoying as it isn’t obvious until one tries to push it. One hopes for the passenger’s sake this works out OK.
Finally, one suspects that TfL’s need to find savings and review working practices will one day require it to take on the train drivers with a head on fight, but this is something to be done only once and now is not the time (hasn’t it gone quiet on driverless trains). Until that day comes, then station staff will be a tempting and ongoing source of expedient future savings unless those desperate for your vote can be pinned down to making a promise they cannot back out of, deny or manoeuvre around. If I were a trade union, a member of staff or a concerned passenger, then now would be the time I would seek to extract such an undertaking from each and every one of them.