It’s seen as a quick financial fix, but the experience of the London Underground reveals the true cost of closing down ticket offices
We would be better off re-designing ticket offices so that they become beacons not just of the station but of the wider area
A fortnight ago it was revealed that between December 2022 and May 2023, crime on London Underground had soared by almost 40% compared to pre-pandemic levels, despite there being 18% fewer customers. Fare dodging also hit record highs and the growth in crime was fuelled by a four-fold jump in robbery and a 68% increase in thefts. Crime on the bus network also rose by 19%.
I’m not remotely a criminologist so may be talking cobblers here, but I would surmise that what happens on public transport reflects the wider society – if there are more law-breaking then it is inevitable that it will also be our buses and trains. I would also suggest that Transport for London and transport per se hasn’t exactly helped itself. The RMT cites these unedifying statistics as an inevitable outcome of the closure of ticket offices and the shape of things to come if similar plans to do so on National Railcome to pass.
From my perspective, there were smaller stations where staffed ticket offices were insipid. In terms of their décor, they resembled cubby holes or unapproachable offices – certainly lacking in anything you would find in a typical retail environment. They weren’t exactly magnets for customers to gravitate to in times of need. Quite often they had a soporific feel about them. On a lazy afternoon the staff would be hidden away in the messroom, half asleep with the radio on.
However, for some hoodlums I would surmise that the presence of staffed ticket offices was a mere deterrent in itself. I’ve worked in a few London Underground ticket offices and if you are observant and motivated, you can be very much the eyes and ears of the station. This is not just in real time, but over a prolonged period, finding out issues in the community and prevalent anti-social behaviour as well as identifying those nefarious individuals for the railway to keep a look out for. Ticket office staff forged close relationships with local BTP beat officers and were great informants.
The closure of ticket offices at London Underground stations still rests uncomfortably with me. The so-called objective was to redeploy staff elsewhere, but from my personal anecdotes, the situation is worse
The closure of ticket offices at London Underground stations still rests uncomfortably with me. The so-called objective was to redeploy staff elsewhere, but from my personal anecdotes, the situation is worse. For several years, I ran a mystery shopping programme for Chiltern and the stations they served that were run by London Underground scored the lowest. At South Ruislip, the ticket office was rebranded as an Information Point. I lost track of how many times I knocked on the window, seeing two employees inside, facing away from customers, ensconced on their computers and refusing to answer queries. I felt sorry for Chiltern, whose brand was undermined by the pathetic management of the station by TfL.
Elsewhere across London Underground, I see no evidence of more visible staff now ticket offices have shut. In terms of revenue protection, it seems an entirely different epoque from the days when you would see the yellow-striped hats of a gaggle of gravitas-exuding RPOs. You used to see them regularly, but I can’t recall when I last saw an RPO on London Underground. You also seldom see posters reminding customers of the need to buy a valid ticket and of the consequences, both personal and monetary of not doing so.
The concept of staff being redeployed elsewhere is a folly and the general public should not be railroaded during the consultation process relating to National Rail ticket office closures into believing this is going to happen
The concept of staff being redeployed elsewhere is a folly and the general public should not be railroaded during the consultation process relating to National Rail ticket office closures into believing this is going to happen. Well may there be no compulsory redundancies, but over time, natural wastage will mean that these mythical mobile roles would never be filled. The history of the railway is littered with situations where, under pressure, station managers chose to freeze recruitment of those platform or concourse vacancies that aren’t classified as ‘safety critical’. If they can get away with it, they will and in fact they will be lauded by their one-dimensional, bonus-hungry senior managers for doing so.
This fictitious roving role wouldn’t be a success even if it existed. Two words – human nature – will make a mockery of it and that is because, without a static sentry post, desk or office to be positioned within or behind, staff will revert to type and seek a place of retreat, or will just feel too insular to proactively approach customers in the way that us customer service protagonists dream of them doing. Standing on your feet for eight hours without a place to lean against or hide behind, in the glare of the public eye, is challenging, so too is conjuring up tasks of sufficient variety to sustain energy and genuinely add value.
I speak from recent experience. In June, I undertook two assignments that reinforced my view around the challenge. The first was helping out on a bus company’s display for two days at the Royal Cornwall County Show. It was during a hot spell of weather and I found it hard patrolling our large display area without the comfort blanket of a physical stand to position myself by and bereft of an explicit ‘to do’ list, apart from ‘keep people happy’. I felt inhibited and self-conscious standing up, not knowing where to look and who to make eye contact with. I’ll be honest, it didn’t take me long to seek shelter in the tent which doubled up as the place where we stored our leaflets, doughnuts and cans of coke, and where we had our conflabs.
Back to TfL, and notwithstanding the ticket office closures, as a customer I’m not surprised by the creeping fare evasion and crime. I’ve seen more ticket office gates open than previously and a lot more folk tailgating or blagging their way through side gates. Partly driven by the prolonged funding issues and also in my view by the drain of experienced managers, stations haven’t looked as shoddy and grubby at any time since the Kings Cross fire in 1987.
It’s important that TfL and BTP and other authorities get a grip quickly as both perceptions of crime and the reality can spiral at pace – made worse now that we have TikTok and other social media platforms where incidents such as looting from shops and brawls are more generally recorded, glamourised and trivialised leading to copycat acts. It could be a long summer ahead, now schools and colleges have broken up.
I recall back in the late 1980s, when crime last felt a real deterrent to travel in London. Newspapers used to report rival gangs at each end of the Northern line meeting for fights and terrorising customers. Efforts to combat crime were also hamstrung by a BTP Control Room, which I worked in, and which was only slightly more advanced than the ‘security’ hut at many a non-league football ground.
The perception of crime and the reality isn’t much better on buses. In fact, I would admit to being more insecure on a bus in some parts of inner London than a train. This is partly because of the open nature of modern railway stock, such as that on the Elizabeth Line and London Overground, meaning you don’t feel cooped up in one confined space, literally on top of malevolent individuals. And you can get an early glance of danger and re-locate. Upstairs on a bus you feel exposed more to intimidating blaring from mobile phones, bad language and fights. You also tend to hear more about stabbings and muggings on buses.
The problem is that we have two situations playing out simultaneously and it’s the perfect storm. The funding issues for TfL, of which the ridiculous plan to kill off the Travelcard is one such effect, is giving a general impression of an organisation going backwards fast. This is occurring in tandem with rising knife, drug and gun crime and anti-social behaviour in London, alongside a cost-of-living crisis that, in desperate times, can necessitate desperate responses such as habitual fare evasion.
TfL claim, almost with a sense of self-satisfaction, that the figures are heightened by them encouraging folk to report everything. That’s a traditional explanation by police and other authorities to criticise the reality of statistics that suggest they’ve lost control. In truth, they would be better off admitting mistakes made and presenting a credible and determined plan to resolve the situation.
I don’t buy this argument that the panacea to financial travails is always to cut staff. For me, it’s a false economy
I don’t buy this argument that the panacea to financial travails is always to cut staff. For me, it’s a false economy – maintenance costs, particularly those relating to crime and vandalism, will increase, and how much revenue would be lost because there isn’t an enthusiastic employee promoting rail travel, advising on Railcards and other discounts that foster repeat travel and behavioural shifts towards public transport? How much income will not be gleaned because there isn’t anyone acting as the face of the station for stakeholders, often brokering partnerships, while senior management are absent, cossetted in their HQ offices or at home on Teams calls? Or, more importantly, what about just having a presence that reassures you and your family that it’s safe to travel?
These folk do more than just staff ticket offices and where gainfully deployed, their role extends to managing disruption through to school liaison. With the latter depleted, how many kids grow up today not knowing that one touch of the third rail means they are dead? The threat of terrorism also hasn’t gone away – how many vital snippets of intelligence have been supplied to the authorities from ticket office staff?
There are other ways to reduce the cost burden if we are to insist that the railway is primarily a business
There are other ways to reduce the cost burden if we are to insist that the railway is primarily a business – HQ overheads, energy bills, fat cat bonuses, franchise bidding, service frequencies on some lines, overly long train formations, vanity projects, quangos, unnecessary investment in new rolling stock and so on. But those that are closest to the customer – the eyes, ears and ambassadors of rail in the community – why on earth would your default position be to get rid of them? I just don’t get it.
We would be better off re-designing ticket offices so that they become beacons not just of the station but of the wider area – so few have a modern, presentable and prominently located retail demeanour about them. I’m not suggesting turning them all into convenience stores, but at each location, there’s a specific dual purpose that might be particularly suited to that specific area – coffee shop, tourist information hub, soft play centre, museum, arts and craft hub, community drop-in centre – anything is possible with vision, contacts and understanding the local market intimately.
Potentially, local entrepreneurs might invest in revamping and running ticket shops as social enterprises. Where this has been trialled before, there’s been some success, but the railway makes things difficult – volunteer organisations get ground down by not being supported in providing information around train services or being equipped to sell tickets or report faults and see them fixed effectively. There’s an opportunity to partner with community-focused organisations, such as Co-Op or the Post Office, and get them to invest in and run groups of stations. They would need to be supported by a central department within GBR that provides them with the framework to do so, without being ground down by the notorious ‘you can’t do that’ culture that makes achieving anything in the rail industry complex.
Too many transport policy-makers fawn over Apps, QR codes, smart-ticketing pipedream gizmos and other tech just to feed their own narrative that they are in touch with the youth of today and the market of tomorrow. There’s an unfashionable counter argument; that relying on frontline staff in stations and those working in ticket offices may just have kept the railway ticking over the years. You don’t realise how good something was until you’ve lost it, and in the case of TfL, these crime figures were so utterly predictable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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