Yesterday we finally learnt the fate of the Tube network’s ticket offices – they’re all being axed.
Predictably Boris’s political rivals had some fun had at his expense by reminding Londoners that in 2008 he promised to scrap Ken Livingstone’s policy of closing ticket offices in the wake of Oyster’s success.
As I’ve said before, Londoners are entitled to be puzzled at Labour’s determination to hold Boris to a promise to undo the fiscally responsible policy of their own Mayor.
When challenged on this, some Labour figures argue that Ken’s ticket office closure policy and Boris’s ticket office closure policy are different policies.
They’re the same policy, justified with the same logic – the success of Oyster and fall in ticket office transactions – and advocated with the same assurances and promises that stations will always be staffed.
Boris’s policy just looks different than Ken’s because its been updated to reflect the passage of time.
Here’s how and why that’s true.
On June 12th 2007 Ken and Transport for London announced that Oyster – then just 4 years old – was so successful that ticket sales at traditional ticket offices had plummeted.
This meant it was necessary to axe 40 ticket offices and redeploy staff to platforms and ticket gates.
The closures weren’t Ken’s idea, they were proposed by TfL officials and Ken says he wasn’t initially keen.
A week after announcing the closures, he told London Assembly Members:
“All my instincts were to reject this policy, so I asked for the number of ticket sales at the stations. The original proposal was for 40 stations. We have now removed the two with the highest ticket sales and it is down to 38 stations.
“The worst example is Fairlop, selling 16 tickets a day. There is no justification for that. 22 of the stations are selling less than 100 tickets a day.
“That is a complete waste of resource. 32 are selling less than 150, and the 38th is selling 249. That is Sudbury Hill. Temple is selling 231. You might kick this around and there might be still some sort of case, but at the lower end there is not.”
Speaking about the impact on staff, he added: “I think the majority of our staff will find it actually better. It is not a fulfilling job to sit in a little ticket box for 40 minutes waiting for a sign that life still exists on earth and for someone to pop up and ask for a ticket.”
In September 2007 he expanded on this point, telling AMs:
“You cannot realistically say it is a good use of a human being’s time to sit in a ticket office. Most of these are already only open for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day they are not serving, they are just sitting there bored out of their skull most of the time.
“That person could be actually on the ticket gate or on the platform interacting with the public in a much more useful way.”
As the 2008 election approached Ken paused the closures and Boris made his promise to scrap them if he was elected.
It was a rash promise which failed to reflect the changes in ticket purchasing and passenger habits which were already showing in the statistics.
It was a promise he should never have made.
Yesterday, more than 6 years after Ken first mooted the closures, Boris finally unveiled his own policy – to close all the ticket offices instead of just the 40 he originally opposed.
This numerical difference is what some Labour types rely on in order to argue that the two Mayors’ policies are very different beasts.
But I’m afraid they’re wrong.
Ken’s policy was formulated when Oyster was just 4 years old. It was based on irrefutable evidence that Oyster and automated ticketing machines were starting to account for more ticket sales than ticket offices.
Being more pragmatic, more responsible with public money and less of a dinosaur than he’s often portrayed to be, Ken accepted reality and agreed to the closures.
But those 40 were never going to be the only ticket offices to fall victim to Oyster’s growth.
In December 2007 Ken said:
“The success of Oyster has shifted and will continue to shift, the way people pay for their travel. This will inevitably lead to changes in the ticketing and ticket office services provided by LU.“
He was certainly right on the first part.
In 2004 there were an average of 6.8 million ticket office transactions every 4 weeks (TfL’s standard reporting period) versus just 2.3 million in 2013.
In claiming that he was only ever going to close 40 ticket offices, Ken’s colleagues do him the disservice of suggesting he would’ve suddenly u-turned and ignored falling use at other stations as Oyster became ever more popular.
That’s a tough one to swallow given that he’d already been convinced by the numbers and made the decision not to include a ticket office “which we might then close within a few months” in the revamped Regents Park station.
Given the level of upgrade work on the Tube since 2007, how many other ticket offices might a third term Mayor Livingstone have designed out of the network?
Had ticket offices been gradually closed and mothballed between early 2008 and today as and when the numbers dictated, we’d probably be pretty much where Boris’s version of the plan now takes us – a Tube network with no ticket offices.
But because the inexperienced Boris of 2008 trapped himself with a promise to ignore reality, and because he took longer to be convinced by TfL than Ken did, we’re instead seeing the closures happening all at once.
And that’s why the current version of the closures policy looks so much worse than the original.
Labour could – and probably should – be questioning the wisdom of Boris’s original opposition to Ken’s policy and asking how much money he’s diverted from the bits of the service passengers actually use in order to keep museum pieces open.
Instead they’re opposing their own Mayor’s policy once again.
Having said all that, there are two aspects of the 2013 policy which do differ from the 2007 original.
The wireless mobile devices and CCTV-monitoring iPads to be issued to staff and on which the success of the current edition of the plan rests wouldn’t have been available in 2007.
If one was being mischievous, it’d be possible to argue that the 2013 version therefore promises better customer service than Ken’s original.
But the real difference is that Ken promised his initial 40 closures would result in no job losses while Boris has to lay-off 750 staff to make his books balance.
It’s impossible to know whether Ken too might have had to shed staff, or take fewer on, as he embarked on more closures but we do know his views on union opposition to the closures and Assembly Members who parrot their complaints.
This is what he said to former Liberal Democrat AM Geoff Pope:
“In all the great debate between Tim O’Toole [Managing Director, Transport for London] and the trade unions whose side are you really on? If you wish to be a mouthpiece for Bob Crow that might get you another couple of points up the Liberal Democrat list, but it will not serve Londoners’ interests very well!”
“If you want me to give the unions a right of veto over management that is fine, but I will have Mrs Thatcher come round to have a word with you about it! You cannot seriously expect any Trade Union is ever going to volunteer up the job of a single member however irrelevant it still is. That is not their job.”
Labour should heed those words and be a little more selective and focussed in how it responds to major reconfigurations of services.
This morning there are 750 Londoners who face losing their jobs. Labour should be seeking assurances from both Boris and TfL that wherever possible those staff are redeployed to other parts of the transport network and wider City Hall family.
And they should press hard for the passenger charter they advocate, ensuring that clear minimum standards of service are published and understood by both staff and passengers.
But they should do both these things without pretending that Ken’s policy was anything other than a more gradual implementation of the plan Boris unveiled yesterday.