Pedestrianizing Oxford Street is Addressing the Wrong Problem

Amongst the dismal offerings from several of those who would be mayor is the declared objective of pedestrianizing Oxford Street. Despite the rhetoric, both candidates are cautious that this is achievable and Khan wants to start by having car-free days, according to his manifesto. Oxford Street has actually been car-free during business hours since 1972 and the congestion there now is almost entirely the buses and taxis fighting to get along a road whose carriageways (however wide they may seem) have already been much-reduced.

Vox Pop on the predestination of Oxford Street ….

Oxford Street as we frequently see it (buses and taxis only) Daily Mail


Those who spend their lives criticizing, rather than doing, tell us the ‘problem’ is too many buses – great long lines of static empty buses – and opine that if one just got rid of them all would be well. The buses (reasonably necessary to get people to and from London’s busiest shopping street) are not of course the problem, but they are a symptom of the underlying problem which I shall turn to shortly. The ‘problem’ is a hopelessly and inappropriately shared space, not fit for purpose, that creates static traffic. Worse still, it is expensive static public transport, which is said to contribute significantly to the noxious emissions created (predominantly) by central London traffic.



Oxford Street with no rush-hour buses in it (a bus strike, January 2015). Plenty of space, but…

Oxford Street is a section of old Roman road, built up, and therefore hemmed in, in the eighteenth century and successively modernized as ever-more office development was required in central London, the council attempting to shift the building line back where possible. Today the buildings flank a road largely 80ft wide between frontages, but still with some at the old 70ft distance. Trying to achieve a balance between the traffic and pedestrian parts is bad enough, but now consider the hapless way the street has been allowed to develop. Only the very few of the largest buildings extend backwards through an entire block, so virtually all deliveries and collections have to be made from Oxford Street itself. Of course, this is largely done in the early morning and evening, but not always, and just one delivery vehicle can cause havoc. We then have taxis constantly stopping to pick up and set down.We always have some kind of road works, somewhere. We have the odd parked police car dealing with a shoplifter, an ambulance perhaps, or a pedolo doing something annoying at 1mph, and so on. In any planned city the street would have been designed as a shopping boulevard with nice wide pavements and there would be rear access for delivery vehicles and so on. Naturally we quite like London the way it has evolved, which is one of the things that makes it interesting, but there is a price to pay.

We can have the debate about whether cars should be allowed in central London at all, but I will confine myself to commenting about public transport. The Underground is an excellent way of getting to, from and across central London laterally, but it is less effective at carrying people comparatively short distances because of the time penalty in both diverting to where the stations are and in getting to and from the platforms and waiting for the train. For journeys of under a couple of miles it is likely to be more convenient to get a bus since (1) there are more change-free journey opportunities, (2) there are many more stops than stations, so getting to and from a stop will be quicker and easier, and (3) it is at street level so the time wasted plodding to and from platforms is eliminated. Moreover, bus travel is often pleasanter and it must surely be intrinsically wrong (and expensive) to force people into the unnatural world of the deep underground unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Central London average traffic speed is not fast, about 9mph, and whilst the actual amount of traffic has reduced, other measures (longer pedestrian phases at traffic lights, cycling provision etc) has apparently absorbed the slack that would otherwise have been created. Nevertheless, for comparatively short journeys the bus is king where walking has been ruled out as an option.

Bus timings along Oxford Street are quite interesting. On a 13 bus, a run from Orchard Street to Piccadilly Circus (about a mile) is an 8-minute run at 06:00 and an 18-minute run at 18:00, an average speed of just over 3mph and slower than walking. The extra 10 minutes in the peak is the congestion factor. On a 73 at 06:00, 9 minutes is scheduled from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch (1.3 miles), whilst at 18:30 some 22 minutes is allowed, an average speed of exactly 3mph and a congestion penalty of 13 minutes. You can see immediately that for most journeys under a mile no able-bodied person near Oxford Street is actually better off using a bus, even if one is at the stop and your destination is near another stop. This is not helped by the very poor positioning of (and long gaps between) stops along Oxford Street. This conjecture entirely echoes my own experience of watching passenger behaviour, where people get off and walk in exasperation. Moreover, the scheduled timings are often, in my opinion, exceeded in practice. The buses in Oxford Street are virtually unusable for very local journeys.

I am not suggesting the buses are not without use, of course. Some buses actually turn at Oxford Circus, providing a useful central London terminal point for those travelling some distance, especially along routes not necessarily duplicating the Underground. Some routes do duplicate the Underground, but actually there are people who want to spend their life at surface level and for all kinds of reasons can’t or choose not to go down into the bowels of the earth, especially when it is busy. Most of the other buses pass along Oxford Street because they provide a useful cross-London journey opportunity, for example Portman Square to Aldwych, very awkward by Underground but rather too long to expect people to walk.

In a very real sense, the problem here is London itself. If public service vehicles must pass across London from east to west, there are pretty much only three routes. You have Euston Road, Oxford Street and Piccadilly-Strand. All three routes are heavily congested and the Euston Road route doesn’t really serve very much and is a bit indirect. I suggest the Piccadilly route could hardly take half the extra buses if they were diverted from Oxford Street, and certainly not all of them, and nor is Shaftesbury Avenue credibly able to take more buses. Moreover it would leave a vast bus-free gap across the centre in the very area people want to go to.

To pedestrianize Oxford Street would seem to present some problems then, since it suggests that the buses, on very long-established routes, must either be diverted some other way or they must cease. As already noted, suitable alternatives are poor and perhaps infeasible substitutes.* It is true that there is one road, Wigmore Street, that once used to carry a bus service, and which might have a part to play in all this. However it is away from the traffic objectives and would create some challenges in getting the buses into and out of it. Moreover it is doubtful if it could carry the present numbers and would be an awkward diversion, further slowing down already desperately slow speeds, at least if it had to carry the taxi load too. In fact, diverting the whole of present Oxford Street traffic is almost certainly impossible, particularly since the affluent residents of that road are set against even one bus route going along the road. Even if feasible, it only deals with half the problem since narrower Mortimer Street would be very difficult to include in any solution towards relieving the eastern end of Oxford Street. Perhaps Wigmore Street might be a better option for a safe cycle-way, reducing cycles along Oxford Street and the conflicts with pedestrians spilling off the pavements. Or somewhere for the taxis to enjoy.

EPSON scanner image

Oxford Street in July 1955 – busy but manageable.  [Geograph – Creative Commons Licence]

London Buses is well aware of the issues and has been for decades, during which time no magic solution has presented itself. In recent years it has pandered to the clamour for a reduction in buses and either reduced frequencies or chopped routes short. Thus the westbound 8, for example, unhelpfully stops at Tottenham Court Road instead of going along Oxford Street. I am a frequent bus user and am beginning to find it irksome when travelling from the Bloomsbury or Clerkenwell area, and wanting the west end of Oxford Street, to have to change now. The arrangements for changing buses to complete an onward journey are appalling at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus and, for that matter, at Marble Arch. Split stops, crowded pavements and few if any shelters. You just wait in the wind and rain and crowds. Thank you very much: this is not public transport as I would wish to see it! I don’t suppose either mayoral candidate has ever had to do this.

The more far-fetched solutions have already been examined, though the armchair experts keep bringing it up. Why not have a nice environmentally friendly tram along [otherwise pedestrianized] Oxford Street? Remember the recent Edinburgh tram challenge with endless excavation? Oxford Street is a very old road with a vast number of services and sewers just under the surface, and four Underground station ticket halls with ceilings only just under the road. Not impossible but very, very expensive, disruptive and risky. Furthermore, since the value in the Oxford Street route is primarily not for local bus traffic, we are now asking the predominant through passengers to change at least once, and perhaps twice. Where, exactly? People hate changing anyway. Providing a depot would be fun. Trams may be an answer to some problems, but not this one.

Is pedestrianization feasible? Between Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch there are 13 north-south road crossings punctuating the main road at regular and frequent intervals. These are mainly quite narrow roads converted to one-way many years ago and an important part of the local area. One or two might be closed off perhaps, but without banning cars altogether it is hard to see how they could all be closed off as there are few alternatives. One could therefore not have a wholly pedestrianized street because of all these roads that cross. What happens to the residual delivery vehicles, and so on?

I wonder, with ever-tighter control of noxious emissions from buses and taxis and the fact that cars are already banned, whether so far as poisoning the air is concerned the emissions from public transport along Oxford Street will in due course fix itself, and whether evicting buses and taxis is something of an over-reaction. Furthermore, if we want to reduce congestion and make the buses more useful, then it seems to me there might be a case for banning all the vehicles except buses, which would thus be speeded up and more useful (particularly if there was a more favourable arrangement of traffic light phasing, at present it is at least open to debate). I do recall when Oxford Street had more bus routes than now and they moved fairly rapidly. It can be done, I think, if one wanted to.

Having said all that, if we really want pedestrianized shopping areas in central London then I wonder whether Oxford Street should be a candidate. It is obviously true that there are some high-end and attractive shops in Oxford Street (some of them useful). Many shops, though, are tired and tatty places in old Edwardian or Victorian buildings used mainly for offices. This would include the tourist ‘memorabilia’ type shops, and the chains you can find anywhere and so-on. Much of it is actually not very nice. One would be better off pedestrianizing Bond Street and perhaps one or two others nearby. If Oxford Street is to be more pedestrian-friendly then it needs a great deal of work from the bulldozer and the builder, a greater practical width and effective rear access for collections and delivery. I am certainly not the only one to think this, and I am sure many readers will be aware of decades-old plans to install an uninterrupted pedestrianized deck along Oxford Street, moving the entrances to all the shops to first floor level and leaving the ground floor route to delivery vehicles, buses and, I suppose, taxis. Not cheap, but a better option perhaps than throwing the public transport somewhere else. Another plan elevated a bus and taxi-only roadway leaving the ground for pedestrians, but this required more massive engineering and still took the transport away from where it was wanted.

Whatever the answer I don’t think you need to pedestrianize Oxford Street and the practicalities are also very considerable, particularly if you want to improve public transport and speed it up (which means making access easier and not more difficult). It is said that Crossrail provides an opportunity to revisit the challenge. Really? There will be Crossrail stations at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street and it will be a most unsuitable means of travelling just between the two (in any case already served by more accessible Central Line). So, we must ignore the short-distance user. The existing buses, in the main, do not follow the Crossrail alignment and, in particular, the Bayswater Road and Edgware Road and Baker Street routes that then go down Regent Street are quite unaffected by Crossrail. This is, I suspect, a bus-red herring. But anyway, do the sums and the forecasts for pedestrianization, but it doesn’t get over the main problems. London may or may not need a classier, shopping-friendly pedestrianized space, but, if it does, fiddling with Oxford Street isn’t it.

By the way, lest anyone runs away with the idea that the only problem street is Oxford Street, the image below is Strand which, too, is often full of near standing traffic and slower-than-walking buses. You would find something similar in Piccadilly at certain times of the day, too.


A much more worthwhile objective is how to get London’s very expensive to buy and operate buses to run at more than 3mph. If any prospective mayor will promise me that, he (or she) will get my vote.


Oxford Street in happier times. It’s busy. That’s how it is.

  • I’m not going into it here, but I spent some time considering the alternative ‘unfeasible’, or the get-out ‘not feasible’.


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No Turning Back – around north side of Circle

None of today’s Underground lines is a good example of optimal track layout for the train services required today. The Victoria line was close for a while. This was designed as a complete entity to deliver a particular train service, but, even here, a half-century after it was built, train service patterns have changed in a way that was not expected.

Other lines are in a far worse position with track layouts sometimes dating to the steam age. Modern requirements are also frustrated by the removal of flexibility a few decades ago, at a time when traffic levels were falling. The result today is a largely arbitrary collection of reversing points, crossovers and sidings that no competent planner or operator would dream of installing if they were building an equivalent line today.

What one really wants is something along the following:

  • Sufficient capacity at terminal points to reverse the service required and provide a suitable amount of recovery time.
  • Intermediate terminating points where full capacity is not required to the end of the line and arranged so not to delay through trains. These can also be used to reduce late running and relieve congestion by turning trains short.
  • Emergency reversing points in order (1) to enable emergencies to be handled and avoid trains with passengers on them getting trapped, and (2) to provide reversing points during engineering work to minimise the length of track where a service must be withdrawn.

The Metropolitan Line affords an example of the problem. It also provides an example of a problem that has been recognised over many years and has got so near to resolution without anything happening!

The problem is the railway between Edgware Road and Aldgate where today two factors conspired to make the life of the operator difficult. The first is the succession of busy flat junctions where a train passing through one route conflicts with an alternative route. Perfect timetabling would schedule what is known as parallel pathing at flat junctions, where conflicts and hence delays are avoided. This is easy where there are only odd junctions but it is unachievable where there is a succession. Lots of stand time and an optimistic outlook on behalf service operator works better than might be expected, but as service levels increase the inappropriate layouts become more obvious and ultimately limit capacity. The second factor is that once the train leaves Baker Street eastbound it is effectively committed to go all the way to Aldgate and back, as turning short Moorgate (now the only place available) is usually an act of desperation as it interrupts service in the other direction and ultimately saves so little time that it isn’t worth the bother. This makes it more difficult to recover from delays. Let us look at how the world might very nearly have been.

Baker Street

The problems at Baker street are threefold. First there is a very awkward flat junction, with the turnout on a sharp curve, so train speeds are low (and therefore trains occupy the junction for a long time and further reduce capacity). Secondly it is not feasible to reverse H&C or District trains east to west here, requiring trains to turn at Edgware Road when passengers really want to get to Baker Street (and there is only a 5-minute service between the two when better intervals are really needed). Thirdly, about a third of the Metropolitan main line service must turn round at Baker Street, but with the terminating platforms at either side of the through lines reversing trains obstruct other movements.

The Met Railway became perfectly aware how unsatisfactory the arrangements were as soon as the main line rush-hour services were extended through to the City in 1909/12. When the station was entirely reconstructed between 1910 and 1913 provision was made for a low-level platform in its own tunnel, more or less following the line of platform 2, but underneath. At the south end, the line was aimed so as to continue in a curve beneath the Circle Line and rise to the surface a few hundred yards further east where it would diverge from the westbound line. At the north end it would rise to the surface in the covered way. By this means the conflicting movements would be avoided. Most of this tunnel (more correctly a covered way) was actually constructed, though the route to the upper Bakerloo escalators installed in 1939 now pierce the route.

London Transport was quick to decide that the Baker Street junction was not fit for purpose and obtained powers in their 1935 Act to rearrange things. A flyunder was to be built diving under the Circle Line but it would have a low level platform on the site of the existing Platform 1, using some of the 1912 works. However the widening under the Marylebone Road would be much more extensive and would provide width for a reversing siding, enabling trains from Edgware Road to turn round without fouling movements to and from platforms 2 and 3. This would allow the District’s Edgware Road reversing trains to proceed to Baker Street though I do not have the precise service details. In addition, platform 4 would become the main through platform for City trains, reducing fouling movements north of the station. This work would have been immensely useful and would probably allow today’s proposals for 32 trains an hour around the top of the Circle to be improved upon. Unfortunately nothing was done.

Baker Street

New track arrangement at Baker Street with new low level line and reversing siding, authorized in 1935.


King’s Cross

London Transport’s view was that traffic between Baker Street and the important interchange at Kings Cross deserved off peak trains but the City (to and from which traffic was dead outside the peaks) did not. As the existing station was not well sited, a relocated station with reversing facilities appeared to be called for and the present station location was arranged with two widely-spaced side platforms and a central reversing bay, with a platform either side, for Kings Cross reversers and long enough for 8-car trains. War broke out and although the track was rearranged and the central bay was built, and track laid, the signalling had not been installed when heavy bombing destroyed much of the old station and the new one was brought into use early. The signalling never was finished and after the war priorities changed. For some years there was just this dead track in place, but in 1957 the east end was nibbled off to enlarge the concourse, later much more enlarged and now there is no trace of the original plan. For many years it would have been a useful point to have a short working terminal available but traffic is so busy now that it would be rather a luxury and the space is better used as a concourse. Be it noted that a new crossover west of the station means it is now a viable emergency reversing point, but not for turning round a late running service.


Moorgate station has an unusually complicated history. Before 1925 the only reversing facility available to Metropolitan trains was a bay road and siding on the north side of the through lines. Arrangements were then made to electrify part of the Widened Lines (today’s Thameslink tracks) so that City-bound Metropolitan trains could use the Widened Lines to Moorgate to reverse and return on the Met tracks at either Moorgate or Farringdon. To facilitate this, the station was rearranged to give Met trains access to two platforms on the south side of the through lines. In later years this pair of platforms was disconnected from the widened lines, resulting in the two Metropolitan reversing bays still there today. These are theoretically useful for short-reversing trains but the signalling requires incoming trains to be brought to a stand at the home signals before the route can be set, after which trains can creep into the platforms at 10mph, meanwhile blocking the westbound line. This so much reduces the advantages of using these bays at all that they are seldom used for reversing except in the direst emergency.

In 1989 London Underground investigated a proposal to install a short connection at the east end of the station that would convert platform 3 into a through line, leaving platform 2 available for reversing trains without any conflicting movements. This would have provided a lasting solution to the need for a turning point west of Moorgate. It was not, however, pursued and the construction of the new Crossrail ticket hall would seem to make such a link in the future impossible. It would have been easy and cheap to do this during the 1960s reconstruction, but with service levels falling I don’t suppose anyone thought this important.

Moorgate 1986

The working at Aldgate is so intensive that the slightest hitch means that trains can block back to Kings Cross, or even further west, and some kind of safety valve where trains can turn would be useful but hard for the financial wizards to justify against competing schemes to provide new facilities. Nevertheless, if along the north side of the Circle an opportunity arose for an intermediate reversing point, it would be useful to install one.

Liverpool Street

For many years Liverpool Street had a bay road on the south side, by tradition used by Amersham and Chesham trains. Again, the problem here was that eastbound arrivals interfered with the service on the westbound line. During the early 1980s, Metropolitan Line management felt that extending these trains to and from Aldgate should be tried in order to improve the running. This was found satisfactory and the bay road fell out of use and is now beyond putting back.

What is still possible

The new crossover west of Kings Cross is useful for reducing impact of engineering work but cannot realistically be used for short-working trains in a long queue. The only space left now appears to be the largely open area between Farringdon and Barbican, some of which are earmarked for use as siding space. A possible arrangement is shown below and involves re-routing the westbound line along the old widened lines route from east of Barbican (through one of the screen walls) and along the old ‘down’ track. In view of the Crossrail works it is preferable to use a widened central platform rather than the narrow platform on the south. There is space across the old siding area to reconnect with the existing line east of Farringdon station. The old route would be used to form a new central bay road. There is space for stabling sidings either side of the rerouted line (and into the old Moorgate platforms), if required. Easy to do now. Very difficult if any more development takes place.



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London’s Getting a New Mayor – but don’t get too excited

Our system of having a London mayor is not a traditional one. The position was inspired by what is done in several widely dispersed cities around the world, and perhaps most of all in New York, famous for larger than life characters who seem to be able to create camaraderie and get things done, or so we are encouraged to believe. In the ’90s London, you may recall, had no cross city civic government at all. The bloated and ponderous Greater London Council was not everybody’s idea of good local government but central government’s vindictive and arguably undemocratic abolition of that body in 1984 left London with no city government and no sensible mechanism for developing any coherent policies. That this had to be fixed, without replicating the GLC, provided an opportunity for a more suitable solution and for some reason the government was pre-occupied with the idea that strong local mayors needed to be sold to us. The general British response was deep suspicion about having executive mayors foisted upon us, but a referendum in London was favourable to the idea. Remember that the existing arrangement had been no city government at all and we weren’t actually offered an alternative model. So, a mayor we got.

It was with greatly satisfying irony that the first mayor was not only someone that the government was very keen should not win, but the very person who was running the GLC when the government abolished it. Excellent. Not often people at large get the opportunity to raise two fingers! It was also excellent that this winner stood as an independent and London shunned the wretched political offerings that were  presented to us. Whatever one might think of Ken Livingstone and his policies, you knew where you stood and he was a character; he also understood the issues and had calmed down a bit since his time at the GLC – more carmine than red, perhaps. It is much too close to events to know what long term impact Mayor Boris has had, but at least we know who he is, and it is probably safe to say that around the world those who are professionally interested in London know who he is as well. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘character’ as he no doubt trades on that, but you know what I mean. He is a politician, so you do not necessarily have to like him or his policies, but from a London point of view it is no surprise to see him as mayor.

So that leads us neatly to the fact there is a mayoral election in the offing in May 2016. Several of the candidates I have never heard of at all but I can’t help thinking that none of them falls into my earlier description of ‘larger than life’ and natural creator of camaraderie. Apart from a Polish nobleman, who is the only true independent candidate, the others all represent political parties of one kind or another. The larger parties produce candidates according to their own obscure formulas where unelected groupings of people we’ve never heard of produce candidates according to their own self-serving criteria and in effect we have very little option but to vote for one of them or the other. The power exerted by all three of the main parties is out of all proportion to their combined membership representing only about one percent of the population. This does not, to me, reassure me that they should be trusted to provide London with the best possible candidates for an executive mayor (a job entirely different from that of an MP or local councillor).

On this occasion the public is having foisted upon it the dispiriting option of Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan. I have been through the policies they are promoting (we don’t know if they came up with them themselves) and many of them are strangely similar and none of them is very profound. It is true there are other candidates but the supplementary vote process means one of these two is bound to win. Does it actually make any difference? Well, with competent permanent officials, and the fact the winning candidate will soon discover the enormity of the real problems and the limited levers of change available to pull, then I suspect the differences between them will reduce further. Whether that is good is anyone’s guess, but I will certainly be considering the ‘none of the above’ option when I visit the polling booth. It is very frustrating. London is one of the foremost cities of the world and has huge challenges to face where all the complex issues are in some way linked. I can’t help thinking that if the present mayoral candidate list is the best that Londoner’s can expect then the system is wrong.

So why after going through the manifestos do I remain dispirited? I had better say now that I am neither going to indicate which is better or worse as you need to make up your own mind about that, nor am I going to go through the whole of them because I am not familiar with some of the territory. I will just make some observations about the TfL road and rail material that I am familiar with, which may or may not be representative.

Goldsmith’s transport manifesto is notable for (1) making promises to deliver things that are already in the pipeline, committed and pretty much inevitable, (2) vague generalizations of the ‘I will work with…’ type, (3) knocking the other lot, and (4) making the usual PR-generated statements where some attention-grabbing factoid is mentioned and a completely unconnected political point is made. It is a bit empty. There is a fifth element where he promises to do something extraordinarily specific that isn’t really a transport policy and which I suspect is already being done. More anon, but I wonder how often Goldsmith uses public transport (other than for photoshoots); with his inherited millions I suspect not very often, and mention it only because I’m not sure he actually understand the problems that have to be faced. There is nothing in the manifesto that shouts ‘Our transport system in London is chaotic and can’t cope and here is how I will fix it’ (this may be as well, as one mayor in one term would be hard put to do this). The manifesto can be found HERE (courtesy of issuu) but you may need to use a third party downloader to print it off.

Khan’s manifesto is mercifully shorter and to the point. His agency has ensured that his points are clearer and punchier, and are nearly all of the ‘I will [do something]’ type, which is a good thing, but the ‘promises’ are a bit lame and even some of those are stuff that is already happening. However, while there are more specifics than in Goldsmith’s proposals, they don’t all seem to be very central to what needs doing. Khan tries the ‘good guy’ tactic as he and his family have at least been involved in transport, but the proposals don’t shout out anything very strategic. The main plank of his strategy (if that is what it is) is to freeze fares ‘because Londoners pay some of the highest public transport fares of any major city’. Now, let no-one say our fares are cheap but this does feel like cheap politics. What is the point of comparing London fares with Moscow, Delhi, Washington and Madrid? If one ranks average transport fares in world cities and then one ranks average earnings in those same cities then one stands back in amazement to discover that the ranked list of cities is similar and that in the western world transport costs as a proportion of income largely rank similarly. This is hardly surprising as most transport operating costs are actually people costs so there is almost bound to be correlation in any city between fares charged and economic prosperity. What matters is what proportion of income is spent on the various household outgoings, of which transport is just one and probably not the largest, but, as usual in manifestos, absolutely no facts are given. I come back to this shortly. You can find it all at: HERE.

The Public Transport Elements

I list the specific public transport policies below, with observations, but I think I have only two real points to make in all this. First, the main problem facing London is the huge explosion in population and the immense pressure this will place on the transport system. The challenge for the transport operator is that a great deal more capacity is urgently needed at a time when the already ageing (and arguably under-maintained) existing infrastructure is struggling to cope and needs more and more attention. To fix the old stuff appears to suggest more temporary closures at a time when system use demands fewer closures because they are becoming disruptive to increasing numbers of people. The second, though connected, point is that the consequences of train and signalling failures and delays become more acute and less tolerable as the system becomes excessively busy; so much so, that even small incidents have the capacity to disrupt huge numbers of people causing real economic loss (apart from possible distress and fear for those immediately involved). These are formidable challenges and we need the best minds we can find to identify an imaginative long term plan. It is a great deal more than just ‘build Crossrail 2’, or whatever the present mantra might be. We need real flair, imagination and leadership.

And that is just rail. At the same time we have conflicting demands about use of our streets where there is clearly not enough space in our largely Victorian street-scape and buses are brought to a crawl in order to meet other conflicting objectives (reducing optimal capacity). To grasp all this and deal with it in a sensible, humane, affordable but practical way we need some kind of super-hero and not party apparatchiks just passing through. Just my view, of course, but if you have some sympathy with my thoughts about the challenges you can make up your own minds how either manifesto is going to move things along.



Increase capacity on London’s busiest Underground services, increasing SSL capacity by a third and protecting new trains for Jubilee and Northern.

This is all in hand already and could not rationally be stopped. No mention of New Tube For London upgrades.

Deliver Night Tube and Extend it.

The aggravation about this would appear to be sorted already and a summer start is expected with recruitment in hand. I am not sure the consequences of extending it to the SSL lines in 2017 have been thought through as this coincides with installation of new signalling. He knocks Khan for having union backers who don’t want it but fails to mention Khan also supports night tube. Cheap.

Will take stand against union bosses holding city to ransom

This is a ‘will work with government’ promise. Not sure that strikes have been very frequent in recent years (much less than in years gone by) and I wonder if this is central to most people’s concerns.

Will back a privately financed river crossing at Silvertown in SE London

This is an ‘I will back’ proposal for a scheme TfL already pursuing.

I will deliver a Southern Overground.

This is potentially more mayoral territory and obviously builds on government consultation already in hand which is very likely to support transfer of some or all inner suburban services to TfL over time and as contracts allow. However, it comes with a tremendous caution. Much of the present dissatisfaction is wrongly focused on the present operators who are delivering to a DfT spec and where most failures are capacity-related or Network Rail failures, and mere transfer to TfL won’t of itself fix any of this. It is not like the North London Line. If real improvement is going to result then it will be very, very expensive and take quite a while to deliver results. It may be a scheme whose day has come, but raising false expectations could backfire.

A Range of Tube Improvements including WiFi, more step free access and extra policing.

Wi-Fi and step-free are already policy but extending wi-fi into tunnels might be expensive and I shudder at the thought of making phone signals available on the tube (that is only a personal view – I find personal phone calls taking place within inches of my on a crowded tube very offensive). The benefits of the extra policing promised is not quantified, and policemen are very, very expensive. To put extra police in at a time when LU has just taken three times that number of staff out seems to me very peculiar and a policy designed to achieve nothing more than get votes from people not asking ‘why? And who’s paying?’. Am I reassured to see all these policemen? Actually there is some cause to think it might have the opposite effect.

By the way, though not in his manifesto, it emerged in April that he proposes to pay for 500 extra police by withdrawing a staff perk. I estimate the police cost as roundly £30 million a year, over time, including recruitment and training. The perk (a frequent target of the political classes) is the so-called nominee pass (formerly called a spouse pass). The Goldsmith camp have assumed each one is worth the value of an annual travelcard and have arrived at the conclusion that if they stopped the perk it would bring in £22 million and ‘pay for’ the extra police. I won’t comment on the merits of staff perks but the child-like jam-jar accounting method is horrifying. A travelcard has far wider availability than the pass, many are not heavily used, and then only for short journeys, and the prospect of all of them converting to full-rate gold cards is just laughable. TfL (who can measure usage) reckon the true number is £5-£7 million and is a useful part of the employment package (which might otherwise have to be topped up in cash). I know whose numbers I trust and it means the extra police (which I understand the police authority has not asked for) are not actually funded. In the meantime, he has irritated very large numbers of staff at a time when things are already a bit fractious, the more so as Goldsmith’s inherited fortune is vast enough to pay for the 500 extra police each year for the whole of an 8-year double turn as mayor without it even denting his lifestyle.

There is a very specific policy to set up a partnership (Broadband for London) with the telecoms industry to deliver superfast broadband across London using TfL infrastructure. Goldsmith appears not to know that TfL infrastructure is so useful for trunk haul fibre optic cables it has worked with the telecoms industry for decades and LU actively markets the facility and already has thousands of miles of third party cables in its tunnels, lineside runs and old tramway ducts etc (the latter he doesn’t seem, to know about). The network is not suitable for house to house cabling because of the problems of getting cables into and out of stations (I used to run this arrangement). Sounds like a policy created over a drink in his club!

Publish a Review into Outer London Bus Network.

Good. Orbital travel in outer London is a nightmare, but why restrict it to buses? Goldsmith is also besotted with the issue of ‘frequent’ routes, whatever that means. Can we be clear that overall journey time is probably the most important factor and that service reliability and journey speed are factors at least as important (and maybe more important) than scheduled frequency? Unless this is grasped, the effort is entirely wasted.

Will bear down on fares by creating new sources of income.

An opportunity to knock the other lot’s policies. No specific new sources are given and there are constraint’s to TfL’s powers in the GLA Act 1999 (notwithstanding I was able to get some of them loosened in the 1998 bill, but that is another story).

Protect concessionary passes

No actual action required.

Manifesto Conclusion

The bold summary at the end includes that he will extend the Northern Line (already in hand) and the extraordinary claim that ‘South Londoners will no longer be dependent on a second rate transport system’. Now that is courageous.

Goldsmith’s housing manifesto also states that TfL’s land-holding is equivalent to the size of the London Borough of Camden [8.4 square miles] and that ‘much of this land is surplus to requirements’. I really cannot get my head around this suggestion, which seems intrinsically unlikely. Most railway surplus land is above stations and thanks to earlier government policies are already let on long leases (and were not by any means a good deal for tax payers). This invites some closer questioning to find out exactly what is meant and (therefore) whether it is feasible. There may be large tracts of TfL non-rail land lying around, but this feels unlikely.


I will freeze fares for next four years, while pay growth catches up.

Fares policy is central ground for a mayor and ‘cheap fares’ feels like it is just intended to gain votes. I mention earlier that I think the statement ‘London fares are amongst the highest’ is an unsound driver of policy as people’s disposable incomes are dependent on other factors too (and housing costs in particular). If we are talking about what in reality is keeping fares down artificially then I ask (1) why is the system filling up at such a great rate and do we actually want to encourage more crowding, and (2) who pays, because it isn’t free. This isn’t gone into, but see next point.

I will fund the fares freeze by making TfL a more efficient and profitable operation.

The perceived problem (so his manifesto states) is that TfL is vast, inefficient and flabby, but no metrics are offered about what the right size might be. It spends hundreds of millions each years on agency and consultancy staff and fails to shares functions across TfL, and so on. Fine – all good knock about stuff but assuming that there are legitimate functions to be done it may be cheaper to use agency people for specific projects than be stuck with long term staff that are expensive to get rid of. The point is we don’t know because no evidence is offered so there must be a doubt about whether the aspiration is achievable, let alone enough to pay for a fares freeze (do you remember Ken Livingstone doing a fares freeze in GLC days, this was a real financial problem after a while, though inflation was far greater in those days). The plan is to cut consultants and reduce duplication. Well good luck with that. I am tempted to use the word naive here.

There is a dispute about how much a fares freeze would actually cost but even at the lower figure of £450 million (TfL says £1.9bn) costs savings (principally staff at about 20 staff to the million) comes to an implausibly high proportion of the TfL workforce. Has this been thought through, and does it take account of massive efficiency savings that TfL has already planned? I have some experience in this area and have reason to think there are several areas where TfL could save very large amounts of money, but these are not hinted at in the manifesto. I don’t see a plan at all.

Khan also wants to increase alternative income by selling expertise elsewhere (anyone remember LT International?). Well, if this is to be credible, who can we let go in large enough numbers with the right skills at a time when many key skills are already in short supply within TfL and Khan has got rid of the consultants, presumably replacing them with hard-to-get internal people with the right experience? Experience with LT International did not suggest an income stream was so great as to pay for a fares freeze: far from it, it was marginal. Land will also ‘be put to better use’, but no examples are given of what land and where that is already not let or leased. I’m not saying there isn’t any, but to gauge whether it will bring in the required money quickly I want to know. Otherwise it is just, for all I know, a daydream.


The use of the word ‘profitable’ in a labour manifesto is interesting.

I will Introduce a hopper ticket (a 1-hour bus ticket).

Fine. Hope this works with wave and pay contactless.

Will support Oyster and contactless with equality of benefits

Good. Isn’t this current policy?

Support Freedom pass


Press for Tfl to take over more [main line] commuter routes.

Fine. Assume my comments here same as for Goldsmith (above) who supports this

Encourage more competition in the bus sector (eg not-for profit groups)

Want to make it easier for alternative suppliers and TfL commercial arm to bid. (Not clear why and to what end).

Deliver Night Tube and reduce days lost through strike action

See observations under Goldsmith

Improve accessibility for buses and step free Underground

Already long term general policy but frequently subject to funding availability. Not clear what more will be done at what cost.

Examine Impact of Ticket Office Closures

No concrete plan here even if he finds impact negative.


Khan also plans to produce houses on TfL land but proposals are ’’vague.

Posted in London Mayor, London Rail, London Underground, Our Government | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Corporate Amnesia – good or bad?

I enjoyed the BBC’s ‘Analysis’ programme transmitted on Radio 4 on 21st March and, as I write, available on the BBC i-player. It was about corporate amnesia. It put forward the premise that corporations easily forget things and therefore (at the very least) repeat mistakes and incur costs of people having to discover that which is already known; it was suggested this was bad, risky and expensive. The programme put forward the equally powerful argument that corporate knowledge could be a bad thing. It encouraged a corporate culture that held back innovation by clinging onto outdated ideas, for example. For so long as the programme is available I do strongly recommend it and invite you to draw your own conclusions according to your own experiences. You can find it HERE.

I recently found myself discussing this very issue with a senior TfL manager, who had evidently formed the view that dragging along the entrails of corporate culture, developed decades earlier in response to issues that have long since been overtaken by events, is a hindrance when trying to focus staff on today’s challenges. I couldn’t agree more. When I was privileged to be involved in the Underground’s massive change management programme in the ’90s it was a real eye opener to discover the extent to which the organization meandered vaguely from day to day because we knew no better way; this predisposed many people to resist change and to accept giving indifferent service. The status quo was felt good enough. Many staff had not seen significant change for years, and a few had never seen real change at all. Getting anything done was challenging and all too often the response was ‘we tried that in 1948’, or that’ll never work, or so-and-so won’t agree to that, and so it went on. The fact that the world might have moved on was rarely entertained, let alone discussed, and super-human effort seemed to be required to get anything new actually achieved. This is nothing to do with the motivation of the staff to do the existing job (most staff did a reasonable job and more than we deserved were superb) – the issue was getting them to want to do achieve things a different way.

So, You can see I might have had sympathy with the idea in the radio programme that corporate amnesia might perhaps be a good thing. Forget processes invented forty years ago, we are here to address today’s problems, and preferably tomorrow’s too. The object is to do the required job, not to perpetuate the past.

As an example of different corporate styles, the programme had an interesting insight into the difference between Apple and Sony. Apple (regarded as successful) insisted that whenever a new product was launched an old one was dropped; the theory being that because a product had previously been successful it did not mean that carrying it on would make any sense. Sony (much less successful) launched more new products and kept selling old ones making it a much more complicated business and continuing once-successful lines long after they ought to have done. The suggestion was it looked backwards for far too long, and this was bad.

But, hang on. What about things that were learnt as a result of a huge investment of time? The radio programme mention hugely expensive difficulties at BP where most of the lessons of the Texas City disaster in 2005 were forgotten (or never learned) and were a major underlying cause of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster. These examples are hugely expensive of time, money and reputation as well as of the consequential human misery. I mentioned in my review of the Blunders of Governments that the costs of getting things wrong may have reached hundreds of billions of pounds (yes, billions – read the review); much of the cause was put down to not learning lessons as well as assuming you have all the knowledge required to implement policy which, it turns out, is rarely the case.

The Treasury has become so concerned about corporate memory loss it has actually begun a programme to mitigate the effects. Its problem is an inclination to employ lots of bright, young and (it is imagined) very keen and ambitious staff but it has been discovered they lack experience and have only limited knowledge of events that could have assisted them. Furthermore it is no longer expected that this will be a job for life so what experience they do gain migrates to their next employers, only to be replaced by someone newer and less experienced again. The former permanent secretary admits that having a staff that had never experienced a financial depression before, let alone a run on a bank, was a wake up call. They now employ a university to help them recreate some kind of corporate memory.

A huge issue was casualization, so the programme identified. The replacement of people with skill and knowledge who might at least be loyal to a company by people whose connection to the company to whom supplied was tenuous, and whose loyalty (if they had any) was to they employing company and not to the company to whom supplied. Skill and knowledge was even more fragile and this was evidently a factor in BP’s problems. Closer to home we see much of this outsourcing (some of which is no doubt a good thing) having unexpected and unwelcome longer term consequences as knowledge and experience falls into the control of others who do not value it or want to sell it back (or even throw it away).

Contrasting examples were given by firms employing in-house staff. One in particular relied heavily on in-house skills but it was discovered that a third of the staff were coming up to retirement and something urgent was required to ensure the skills were transferred to new people. The inevitable conclusion, suggested by the programme, was that there were at least two types of knowledge. I will paraphase for brevity, but we might call it technical knowledge which is actually business-critical, and business culture, which can be quite corrosive. The problem is that there is overlap and the descriptions are in any case imprecise. Technical knowledge of systems and processes that are (or should be) redundant because they have been replaced are at least a questionable benefit, whilst some culturally related knowledge (like understanding the inevitable internal politics) can actually help get things done and can be useful. The idea of having traditional knowledge identified and formally challenged was mooted (with examples from the Royal Navy), so young people with good ideas get to test the reasons for older ways of doing things, and vice versa – sometimes there is a reason to carry on and sometimes change becomes self evidently called for. The trick, so it seems to me, is a management structure that understands this and understands the value of knowledge, both the desirable and otherwise.

As you can see, the programme fired me up and made me reflect on my own experience. I was privileged to work on a number of massive change initiatives on the Underground and was quickly persuaded that the staff know a great deal more about how best to do things, if only anyone will listen to them. As is nearly always the case, the reason for an organization under-performing is often down to the management not trusting or listening to the staff, or, in bloated organizations, simply getting in the way (nothing a bureaucracy likes more than stopping anything changing, and systems and processes often have precisely that effect). These obstacles to progress need fixing anyway, of course. I have also been made aware of several other valuable change management processes where staff knowledge and ideas, if harnessed, have produced hugely increased productivity. So, there is usually knowledge lying around for the taking that is often systematically ignored by managers. This seems very regrettable. Incidentally, there may be another factor where managers actually do not understand what their staff do, and that is that the knowledge actually needed by staff dealing with real-life problems can be quite different from the training they actually get. I see quite a lot of this…

There is also a tendency (which the programme touched upon) to treat staff as units of production where the object is to fill a position rather than to ensure functional skill sets are maintained; this is particularly so where nobody actually knows what skills are required, let alone what may or may not be present already. Getting this wrong (and I suspect the Pareto [the 60:40] principle applies here) often has a fairly small individual impact but there is a lot of it about so the detrimental effect mounts up, but occasionally it will lead to massive blunders. It is perceived as staff who actually do not seem to be very good at their job, but actually it is often the fact they do not have the knowledge or experience required, often because nobody actually knows what is required, especially if those who did know have been allowed to go without passing it on. I very much suspect this is not even recognized as an issue because it does not appear on any company’s balance sheet or P&L, or, more accurately, it does appear but is so heavily disguised as to be unrecognizable, so nobody agonizes over it.

So what are these hidden knowledge-absence  costs? Here are some examples that clearly have a cost. Extra training, excessive staff turnover, rework, poor quality work, work taking longer than it needs to and letting clients down, reputational risk, letting staff go and then re-employing them at higher pay because their knowledge was subsequently found useful (where do you think the big consultancies make a turn?), and so on  There is also an enhanced potential for a major safety event. I have myself seen inaccurate signalling plans issued by staff without any subject knowledge (professionals look at this and just shrug because it is no longer unusual). The point is that some types of knowledge are valuable. So valuable in fact that there are businesses now considering the need for a chief memory officer (don’t imagine this is anything resembling what an Information Management function does, by the way).

So, to wind to a close, I don’t think it is helpful to undervalue knowledge and at the same time it is management’s job to identify what is important and maintain it and to stop the cultural inertia at the same time. Quite a trick and often not done well. In particular, experience (knowledge gained on the job) is very difficult to write down and can only be exploited efficiently if an enlightened management understands that (1) it exists at all, (2) is commercially important, (3) can only realistically be passed on where job-holders overlap and interact in some way and (4) there is an incentive to transfer the knowledge. Clearly there can be staff whose own personal agenda is not met by sharing knowledge and this is unacceptable (though they, at least, recognize it is important!). Since experience by its nature it is hard to write down, it is hard to ask for when either recruiting or placing a specification in a contract (actually writing decent specifications for things is a skill I think we may have lost for ever – I have seem some dreadful examples from well known organizations that should know better and it makes suppliers despair).

It would be very interesting if a senior manager took it upon themself to facilitate a knowledge audit to identify what knowledge a business actually needed to function effectively, and how the staff matched up to that. Systems could then be put in place to try and preserve or pass on knowledge that was business critical and ditch that which got in the way. I would be mighty interested to see what turned up. What I think would turn up is that staff need to know things in order to do their job that it hadn’t occurred to managers were important (or even existed), and that staff were being taught stuff that was irrelevant. A by-product would be to assist the process of employing the right staff for the job (as you would have a better idea of what was actually involved), and it would improve the possibilities of having proper succession planning. It might also steer training programmes.

Anyway, these are the thoughts that were triggered by the radio programme. I do recommend it (words you don’t hear from me very often). Well done the BBC.


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On 3rd August last year I referred to the award by TfL of the new sub-surface lines signalling system to Thales, which had installed the Jubilee and Northern Line systems. This followed the cancellation of two previous attempts to resignal these lines, and I added my ‘take’ on the huge price London had paid for the extra cost and heavy delay to the automation that will eventually deliver improved services. You can find it HERE.

I hadn’t expected the Greater London Authority’s budget and performance committee’s review of events to be quite so scathing, but this appeared on 16th March this year. I commend it as a good read, but it comes with a warning that you may think it a depressing document – how could an apparently sensible organization like TfL, that we depend on to provide vital services each day, have fouled things up so badly? You can find it HERE.

Do read this for yourself, even if you just refer to the summary, though the useful part of the report itself is only 22 pages and is full of good stuff. There is no point in me just summarizing it here, so I will confine myself to the highlights of what it said.

  • Tfl’s procurement process was flawed and changed as it went along.
  • The tender scoring system was flawed.
  • TfL process was outmanoeuvred by Bombardier, which put in a bid priced to ensure it would win [whether or not it could deliver].
  • The capability of Bombardier to deliver the promised benefits was not adequately demonstrated or interrogated.
  • Neither TfL’s nor Bombardier’s management teams were up to the task of managing the programme and the high risk this presented was not effectively considered.
  • Contract termination clauses were based on value of money spent (even if wasted) and not value of work actually done.
  • The programme’s failure raises questions over whether TfL’s Board has the right skills and experience for the job.
  • External reviews have been highly critical of both TfL’s internal assurance function – provided by TfL’s Project Management Office (PMO) – and its external assurance function.
  • Of the Bombardier work actually paid for, (£80m but later revised to £85m) TfL initially intimated this was a useful contribution towards the project (ie would not need to be spent again). This was untrue and much of the work (nearly £50m) is actually wasted – worse than I thought, I’d costed the waste at only £30m.

The following paragraph from the report expresses the situation better than I can.

‘The [signalling] contract failure will have significant service and financial implications for many years to come and we must do all we can to try and ensure similar failures do not happen again. TfL’s reaction to the lessons learned review has been positive and the way it has set up a new delivery partnership with Thales provides some confidence. However, the nature, scale and sheer number of mistakes that were made with this programme raises cause for considerable concern. TfL has been proactive and implemented the required procedural changes. However, the broader question about the quality of judgement shown by the senior management team remains. The next Mayor will have to assure themself that TfL’s management team is equal to the task of managing TfL.’

Finally I need to add that the GLA report is heavily dependent on the Lessons Learned Review conducted by KPMG. This is less sensationalist but is perhaps more perceptive in identifying some of the real issues. For example, one major TfL skill found to be absent was in the signalling or systems area in being able to identify the gap between what LU actually needed and the off-the-shelf product that Bombardier were offering. It was obvious that the product would have to be adapted to LU requirements but the profound implications of this were not properly understood. This report, too, is well worth the read and may be found HERE.

I estimated that the extra costs of these delays were the ‘thick end’ of £900 million and the GLA report suggests a curiously precise £886 million, adding: ‘this is nothing short of a disaster for London’. The report suggests that irrespective of the cost overrun the loss of direct financial benefits (fares generated by extra people using the services had they been enhanced sooner) is a further £271 million, making overall cash loss about £1150 million, a loss somewhat exceeding the whole cost of the Northern Line extension to Battersea, or a fleet of 100 or more trains, to give this some context. As if that is not enough, the delays in the wider economic benefits to London coming on stream are not free and the report suggests these amount to ‘the hundreds of millions’, though this impact is harder to measure with precision (each year’s full benefits are believed to be worth £180 million). Would it therefore be unfair to put a price tag on this debacle of £1.5 billion?

So, who is accountable then? Yes, you’ve got it in one. Absolutely nobody.

May I draw your attention to the London Underground accounting blunder in 1990 that resulted in a £40 million budget shortfall and uncomfortable press coverage. This saw both the LU and LT finance directors vanish overnight (‘abruptly’, as the FT put it). £40 million then equates perhaps to £80 million now (a mere fraction of the recent signalling disaster). Perhaps that offers some context in which to consider whether exceedingly well paid people within the TfL organization should have been encouraged to fall on their sword: but we don’t have chairmen of the stature of Sir Wilfred Newton any more. It is surely not reassuring to Londoners that this enormous cost is just shrugged off. In other businesses one might have expected heads to have rolled. Not so here. Outgoing Mayor Johnson says he ‘accepts all responsibility for everything that happens on my watch’, thereby relieving the organization of the need to lose heads for the greater good and the scale of the misfortune feels like at least four heads-worths to me. It is interesting that the press has failed to follow up on Boris taking on the responsibility, but so far as his mayoralty is concerned I suppose he’s now irrelevant.

Of course, I fully recognize that the history of this is drawn-out and complicated, and is not wholly unconnected with the Metronet fiasco. Nevertheless all the decisions were taken post-Metronet and this is an awful lot of money. Moreover, it is not as though there weren’t people very familiar with the LU signalling challenge that were openly questioning a Citiflo solution. One would think that in any competent organization structure there would be, somewhere, a clear point of responsibility for entering into a bad contract. If there isn’t, then the structure is wrong. Clear accountabilities are the only effective mechanism for focusing the mind.

There are things to be said about the competence of the so-called procurement industry, about TfL skills loss, and about the wisdom of outsourcing, but that is for another time. For now, I will leave it that there is a crying need for a much enhanced ‘intelligent client’ role within TfL – clients (not procurement people and not project sponsors) who are technical professionals who know as much about the products being offered for tender as the people selling them, and clients who work for the company and have an ongoing stake in getting it right.

I hope the next mayor is listening.

Posted in London general interest, London Underground | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Rayners Lane Ticket Office Closed – after 99 years

Rayners Lane Ticket Office


Rayners Lane Ticket Office Closure Notice

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.


Original Ticket Office at Rayners Lane

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.


Temporary station 1935-38

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.

Rayners Lane station, showing south entrance

Rayners Lane station, showing south entrance

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.


The ‘blinded’ north entrance – not looking very attractive. It seems regrettable that at this ever busier station there is no plan to bring this back into use.

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).

The Change-over

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).

Station Gate

The ‘Night Tube’ gate at South Kensington entirely concealed the only passenger routing information for several days until new lightweight signs (perhaps an afterthought) eventually appeared fixed to the actual gate. It was interesting in the meantime watching passengers trying to find their way by peering through the bars. The same was thing was done at Baker Street and perhaps other places. An interesting insight into the night tube project plan, methinks.

Visitor Centres

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.


The Ticket Office on its last weekday of operation (though it is actually closed, to facilitate closure…)

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New Signalling Contract Signed – but at high cost.

Today (3 August 2015) we are told that London Underground has finally concluded its single-source contract with Thales. The Thales press release (clearly written by, or severely ‘guided’ by, TfL) is more an advertorial for TfL than anything else, but at last we find the true numbers for the new signalling and the intended commissioning dates, which are largely as set out in my last blog. I summarize below:

  • Original Metronet (Westinghouse) plan at about 2005 prices £550m. Cancelled as too expensive but would have been in service by now.
  • Cost of disengaging from this, £95m at about 2008 prices, plus some unknown proportion of £80m already spent and which may not be needed as provided. Perhaps £30m wasted.
  • Cost of Bombardier Citiflo system which was abandoned in 2013, £354m. Contract delivery date 2018.
  • Cost of agreed Thales system is £760m with 2022 completion.
  • In addition to the Thales costs, we have already paid for getting out of the Westinghouse contract (described above) which adds perhaps another £125 to the final bill, which sounds all in all like the thick end of £900m. This is a lot more than a lot of people thought, and explains the softening-up press release of a few months ago.

It is hard to avoid concluding that in order to get ‘better value for money’ (a favoured TfL expression) the Westinghouse contract was cancelled in order to discover that doing so created a 7 year delay in achieving the promised benefits and added £350m to the bill.

Meanwhile, of course, the old signalling has had to soldier on, and will continue to have to soldier on for much longer than was expected. I don’t know whether a day has gone by without a significant signal failure on the Metropolitan Line, but if it has then I think it is unusual. They are more frequent (I think) than they used to be and there is a very real prospect for all this old equipment becoming a lot less reliable while we wait for the new signalling to be commissioned. I would be interested to know what the main causes of failure are and the extent to which (now we know how long it will still be needed) any practical measures can be taken to refurbish the existing equipment. This could well be worthwhile, but actually is a further cost that would not need to be borne if we had had the new signalling by now. Not to refurbish may instead mean excessive maintenance costs will need to be covered, or the cost of delays (which are not ‘free’). Either way, if we deduct the projected maintenance costs of the old equipment from the expected maintenance costs of a new system over the 7-year delay period then there is another chunk of money being spent on our behalf that would not have been necessary had we had the new signalling – maybe another £20m? My suspicion is that if we took all the actual costs of this new signalling into account (some will have been ‘lost’ under other headings), and the abortive work, and normalized them to a common inflation date, we would be looking at £1bn.

I have no particular reason to doubt that the Thales system will work, even though there are material differences from the Northern and Jubilee Line systems already installed. With the experience gained in the existing installation there is probably no reason to be pessimistic about project completion date either. Whether it is a better system than the Westinghouse one would have been I guess we will never know. There is also something to be said for having a minimum of different systems on the network, so that is good, too. This could well predispose London Underground to require the Thales system on the Piccadilly Line given the inter-running with Metropolitan and District services (something that the PPP contracts regarded as fixable detail, but, in practice, was an expensive high-risk challenge as Tubelines proposed a different signalling system from Metronet). In turn it might influence what is installed on the Bakerloo and Central Lines. This is no doubt a factor not lost on the supply industry.

The extra costs, the abortive Bombardier expedition and the delays in providing the promised upgrades are not causes for celebration and can’t really be expected to inspire confidence in the procurement and project management regime. To let an undeliverable contract to discover the ‘proper’ cost is double is quite extraordinary and cries out for restoring the role of ‘the intelligent client’ (or one which knows almost as much about the subject as the bidders – LU had these once). Whether any repetition is possible is idle speculation, but I’m sure there are a few discomforted people in TfL who are desperate to make sure the next raft of big contracts are as safe as they can be from similar misfortune.

I have a thoroughly unprovable theory that the signalling debacle, for which it seems nobody is going to be held accountable, is at least partly a consequence of the ongoing fallout from the poorly thought-through and ultimately disastrous PPP contracts. For a start, had the PPP not been imposed by naive government (ie Treasury) whim the sub surface lines would probably have had new trains and signalling a few years ago and probably (at least in the case of the trains) this would have involved a PFI deal similar to the one done for the Northern Line. As no scheme was drawn up before the PPP was imposed, all I can conclude is that something would have been done but we can only guess what. Perhaps it is better we didn’t have another PFI deal as most of the existing ones have been bought out.

More relevantly, the PPP involved reorganization and skills loss, and PPP failure involved a lot more reorganization and skills loss. For example London Underground had eight years during which it was, in essence, no longer an engineering, project management or procurement organization. The loss of knowledge and experience takes years to put right, even assuming the organization recognizes that crucial loss has occurred and is minded to do something about it. It may be that good people can be recruited, but the lack of actual system knowledge and experience cannot be replaced overnight, and nor can it (in the real world) be substituted by external consultants with no long term stake in the decisions and patchy system knowledge obtained partly by recruiting the people the Underground let go, but only partly. This is a direct consequence of enforced reorganization but won’t appear on any balance sheet (or not in a way where it is linked to the PPP). My hunch is that the money wasted in consequence of the PPP is far more than the National Audit Office imagine and is still racking up (remember the PPP is still part live).

If I am right, the sub-surface line resignalling problems, or something like it, was almost an inevitable stage on this learning curve. It doesn’t excuse the heavy losses and delays, but it might go some way to explaining it.


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