London Tube ticket offices: some numbers crunched

As unions and management negotiate over a new “customer service model” for the Tube, the statistics involved can be read more than one way

As negotiations between Tube unions and management over staffing and ticket office closures continue, let’s have a good squint at some of the arguments and issues in play – especially the statistical ones.

Earlier this month the independent fact checkers Full Fact showed that David Cameron had incorrectly asserted in the House of Commons that “only 3% of transactions now involve ticket offices.” They contrasted the PM’s words with those being used by Transport for London, which has been saying that “just 3% of Tube journeys involve a visit to a ticket office.” (my italics).

There’s an important difference between “transactions” and “journeys,” which Cameron failed to observe. This meant, as Full Fact put it, that he made “the level of ticket office use seem lower than it is actually likely to be.” But do TfL’s stats too give a misleading impression?

TfL explained to Full Fact that their just-3%-of-journeys figure was arrived at by comparing the number of Tube journeys recorded during May, September and October of last year (round about 94 million in each case) with the number of tickets bought at ticket office windows during the same three months (less than three million in each month), but does the calculation accurately reflect the importance of ticket offices to London Underground passengers?

The wider picture is that the vast majority of Tube journeys don’t, in fact, involve an individual ticket purchase from either a ticket office or from a machine. That is, of course, because the vast majority of passengers have paid for journeys in advance by buying season tickets or using Oyster pay-as-you-go (and often at somewhere other than a station), or even travel for nothing with the Freedom Pass.

TfL says 87% of journeys fall into this category, leaving 13% that do entail a ticket purchase by the passenger on the way to the platform. Considered in that context, the 3% who make that purchase at a ticket office looks less puny. It shows that a significant minority of the ticket purchases that do take place at stations are conducted with a human being at a ticket office rather than with a machine – about 20% of them, as other figures provided to Full Fact by TfL confirm And while the percentage figure is small, the actual numbers of ticket office transactions are pretty hefty – they ranged from 2.4 million to 2.9 million in those three months from last year, according to the TfL stats (see the table at the bottom of the article).

It is, obviously, the passengers who make those purchases who would be most affected by the demise of ticket offices. Would a member of station staff standing at a gate line or in a ticket hall equipped with a piece of portable new tech be able to offer the same range and quality of service to those current ticket-office users as one working behind a counter, including helping them plan their journeys, arranging refunds and so on?

TfL insist the answer is yes, and that their new “customer service model” will enhance the help Tube staff can give the public generally at the same time as reducing costs. They also believe that ticket purchasing as a whole will fall with the introduction of the “contactless” bank card payment method later this year. The unions are more sceptical, and TSSA officer Luke Chester says he fears crowds of needy, possibly irate, passengers clustered around harassed and isolated customer service assistants with no counter window to form a barrier.

Feelings tend to run high about ticket offices, which are often characterised as the be all and end all of the dispute. However, they form only part of the larger story in terms of the proportion of the Tube-travelling public who will have to make do without them if they go. Most important for most passengers is, I suspect, the overall level of station staffing and its effectiveness, which would depend to some extent on staff morale and job enjoyment.

These issues and plenty more are the subject of ongoing discussions between London Underground management and the RMT and TSSA. These are scheduled to continue until 4 April, and be followed by a visit to ACAS to take stock. Much more to come on all this, I’m sure. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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