London mayor Boris Johnson plans to sack up to 1,000 London Underground station staff and close all ticket offices next year.
The plan is part of a 12.5 percent cut to Transport for London’s (TfL) budget.
It will make an already dire situation worse for London’s disabled people. For thousands the Tube is so inaccessible that they have almost no way of travelling from one part of the city to another.
And for those who do make it, station staff are a crucial part of making their journeys possible.
“I couldn’t travel without them—it’s as simple as that,” lecturer Rob told Socialist Worker. He is visually impaired and has an assistance dog.
Rob explained how he is accompanied from the moment he starts his journey entering his local station, Arsenal in north London.
Workers escort him to the platform and radio through to the station he’s travelling to have someone meet him there. They make sure the driver is also aware that Rob is on the train.
But he added, “Already there are difficulties because of staff cuts.”
Despite Tube bosses’ reassurances that their cuts plan will mean “more visible staff” they mean fewer staff overall. This has huge implications for safety, accessibility and the quality of the service.
Having fewer workers to deal with any incidents or emergencies will make the network less safe.
Accessibility on the Tube is already woefully inadequate. Statistics about the number of accessible stations are skewed by a few of the newer lines outside the centre.
About a quarter of all Tube stations are in the central Zone one. Only one in four of these have some degree of step free access.
That is to say they are accessible from the street to the ticket hall, from the ticket hall to the platform and from the platform onto the train. But even in most of these the gap between the train and the platform is too big for an independent wheelchair user to get across without assistance.
And what use is an accessible station without enough staff to operate its accessible features? The latest figures show step free access was unavailable at accessible stations for nearly 500 hours in 2013. That number has trebled in just five years—and the reason was staff shortages.
Roger works with disabled adults and is severely visually impaired.
“Just knowing staff are there and in the control room is a real safety net for me,” he said. “It makes the difference between travelling and being confined to the house.
“It’s that constant interaction they have with disabled passengers that’s crucial to giving me my confidence to travel around.”
Roger is worried about the consequences of the cuts.
“The workers have had a lot of training and they adapt to our needs,” he said.
“I worry TfL will start using more agency workers, with more turnover of staff, and they won’t have the training to know what to do.
“We’ve got very little confidence in TfL. There has been little, if any, consultation with disabled organisations, or any risk assessment done.”
Campaign groups Action for Rail, Transport for All, Disabled Passengers Against Cuts and the National Pensioners Convention jointly commissioned a survey of passengers.
It showed that 81 percent said the loss of staff at stations would make travel difficult, and more than 70 percent said they require assistance from staff at stations and on trains. Over half needed help buying tickets.
Workers’ unions oppose the cuts and many passengers are uneasy at the prospect of less staff around coupled with the closure of ticket offices.
Tube bosses argue that closing ticket offices will have little impact as just 3 percent of all tube journeys involve ticket office sales.
But even if ticket sellers only dealt with sales that’s still over 100,000 people a day—an average of one every three minutes at each one of the 260 staffed stations. And in practice they do much more.
A survey for the RMT tube workers’ union last year found over 70 percent of passengers expressed concern about the ticket office closures.
Over half had been unable to buy tickets from a machine because it was broken.
Ticket seller and RMT member Lynda told Socialist Worker, “A lot of elderly people don’t like to use the machines. They don’t have the experience using the technology and like to come to a ticket office.”
Even the automated Oyster card system that most passengers use would be a nightmare without staff.
“We spend a lot of our day dealing with customers who have Oyster problems,” said Lynda.
“People also use the ticket office because they’ve had a bad experience with the machines in the past—they bought the wrong ticket or lost money in the machine.”
And it is not only ticket office staff that will disappear. Workers will also be slashed from station control rooms.
“They are saying that the work of the control room does not have to be done from a control room,” said Lynda. “They’re talking about using iPads for that.
“But we don’t know what this is going to mean. They are talking about absolutely massive changes but there is no detail.
“If they have evidence of how it will work they’ve not shown it to us.”
The current cuts are part of a long term project from Tube bosses, who think the the introduction of
new technology means they can do away with staff.
In the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005, the then managing director of London Underground said, “Invest in your staff, rely on them. Invest in technology but do not rely on it”.
But now bosses are fully automating ticketing and relying on machines with fewer workers in stations.
This will make the Tube a worse experience for everyone—and when things go wrong, the effect could be enormous for people with disabilities.
“What’s really worrying is that this is only the start of their cuts,” said Roger.
“A lot of disabled people won’t be able to work. It’s all about having the confidence to travel around—and TfL’s cuts won’t provide that.”
Fewer staff will be dangerous
Bosses dream of a transport system with as few workers as possible.
When privatisation handed the buses over to cost-cutting firms it meant the beginning of the end of bus conductors.
London mayor Boris Johnson made a big point of bringing back Routemaster-style buses with conductors in 2012 (see picture).
But within 18 months some conductors were disappearing again and the “hop-on, hop-off” rear open platform that had been the buses’ main selling point were out of use.
Trains still have people to catch passengers with the wrong ticket. But train guards who can help those in need are rare.
All of this throws workers on the dole and increases the stress for passengers.
Now Johnson wants to see more driverless trains. But while robot systems can perform many basic tasks, a startling reminder of the irreplaceable role of drivers came two years ago.
A child fell between the train and platform of Finchley Road station. The train’s automated sensors said it was safe to depart—which would have crushed the boy.
Disaster was only averted when the driver saw a tiny hand on his CCTV monitor.
The Tories will try to pit commuters against workers who are trying to save their jobs.
But the stark reality is that a Tube without staff would be a death trap.
Stuck without a lift for 500 hours
Boris Johnson claimed in his election manifesto that he would “make Transport More Convenient” by “halting the proposed Tube ticket office closures, and ensuring there is always a manned ticket office at every station.”
The reality is different:
- London Underground bosses left stations unstaffed due to staff shortages 135 times in December 2013. That’s before the cuts.
- For 500 hours in the last year disabled passengers were left unable to use lifts because of a shortage of staff at accessible stations. Again that’s before the cuts.
- Tube bosses and the Tory mayor are getting rid of supervisors from many stations, creating more managers, while cutting frontline staff. Over 1,000 jobs are set to go on the Tube.
- Bosses claim this will mean staff that are more visible, but there will be fewer workers. That means fewer will be able to assist with mobility needs, ticket queries or passenger safety at stations.