People are very open-minded about new things, as long as they’re exactly like the old ones,’ said American engineer and inventor Charles Kettering.
Kettering is probably best known for inventing the key-operated car ignition but he was also heavily involved in railways, contributing research that pioneered innovations in the production of diesel locomotives. Although Charles Kettering died over half a century ago, the statement is true of the modern rail industry.
In a drab building overlooking the District line platforms at West Kensington station in central London, a change is taking place; not with the building itself – although from the outside it could sorely use a makeover – but for the people inside.
London Underground staff from across the network have been coming to the site since January to complete a five-day training course. It is the largest training programme of its kind ever carried out within London Underground and it’s being delivered to prepare staff for one of the biggest operational changes in the Underground’s 150-year history: the closure of all ticket offices.
RailStaff was invited to meet the team delivering the programme and some of those taking part.
The fate of the LU ticket office was finally made public at the end of 2013. The number of journeys starting at the ticket office was falling, said LU, and the rise in smart cards, better ticket machines and contactless payment, which is growing in popularity quicker than even LU’s most optimistic estimations, was making them obsolete. They are now gradually being closed to become control rooms, shops and in some cases, are being demolished to make more room.
But convincing people about the benefits of closing ticket offices has been challenging for LU.
Within LU, the process is called the ‘change programme’; it’s also known as ‘Fit for the Future – Stations’. The vision is to move ticket office staff onto the platform where they can engage with passengers. Hundreds of station staff faced an uncertain future and so, understandably, the proposals were treated with suspicion and the unions naturally challenged. What followed was more than a hundred meetings between the two organisations. As a result, LU said there would be no compulsory redundancies.
‘This is the biggest operational change to hit the Underground for a generation,’ says Xavier Brice, who is leading the change programme.
‘We’ve now got around a quarter of the network operating without a ticket office.
‘We’ve got King’s Cross St Pancras operating without a ticket office in the western ticket hall, Oxford Circus is now operating without a ticket office, so a quarter of the network is obviously substantial… By the end of the year we will have closed almost all of the ticket offices.’
Since the interview took place, things have moved on and the programme has been rolled out to around a third of the network.
Shouting and tears
Around 100,000 working days of training will underpin the change. For such an extensive training programme, London Underground wanted to approach things a little differently and so decided to bring in actors to simulate the challenging, real-world scenarios that ticket office workers will face outside the booth.
One scenario pitted an unwitting volunteer against a wheelchair user who had alighted her train only to find the lift on the platform was out of service – cue shouting, tears and a very apologetic LU staff member.
The acting was believable, toe- curlingly so at times. Gary Flint, who works at Woodford station on the Central line, volunteered to go first for a grilling, carefully measuring his responses, trying not to make promises that he couldn’t keep.
But is there a danger that a network- wide training programme could suggest that something’s wrong. That LU believes its staff don’t know how to engage with passengers?
‘Our staff are not bad at customer service,’ said Xavier. ‘The vast majority of our staff are excellent at customer service. I don’t want to make it sound like our staff are in need of remedial training.’
Xavier said the training programme signalled a new approach to customer service within London Underground and something that gives staff confidence to deal with the significant changes taking place. In reality, customer satisfaction levels are higher than they’ve ever been.
He added, ‘This is big change and big change is challenging especially in an organisation that doesn’t change that regularly, that easily.
‘Around a third of people are going to be working in different locations, the way we do rosters is changing, grades that have been unaffected since company plans in the early 90s are changing; that understandably creates anxiety because change takes time.
‘Anxiety about where am I going to work, who am I going to be working for.
‘Now we’ve given guarantees to staff, we’ve guaranteed there will be no compulsory redundancies. Everyone’s got a job if they want one.’ There is also a guarantee on salary and no one will be required to move more than 30 minutes from their station.
By the middle of 2016, almost 5,000 members of station staff will have completed the five-day course. To signal the change, staff are being issued with new uniforms, eight new visitor centres are opening and 150 additional ticket machines are being installed.
Brightening up the travel centres makes the stations more pleasant, more attractive but it also serves a functional purpose. At King’s Cross, for example, hesitant international visitors, who may otherwise have joined the queue for the ticket office, are now funnelled towards the travel centre instead.
‘I’m not going to pretend that it’s all gone amazingly smooth and we’re working to understand and tweak and refine,’ said Xavier.
Queensway and South Wimbledon closed in February, followed by Shepherd’s Bush and King’s Cross. But in many stations it isn’t just a case of shutting up ticket offices and relying on the existing facilities. New ticket machines are being installed in some stations to replace any lost capacity, but the bigger issue LU has lies around machine reliability. LU has already engaged manufacturer Cubic to update its ticketing software.
Says Xavier, ‘We don’t believe that bulletproof glass, people trapped in an office, is the way to serve customers.
‘Instead it’s about people coming out into the ticket hall and doing what people do best, which isn’t just pushing buttons on a machine but it’s giving human help and being proactive.’
He added, ‘We don’t want people doing what machines do. We want people doing what people do.’
But LU staff will at least have to work in harmony with technology. Every member of station staff is being given an iPad. For some it will be an overdue vital tool and for others another thing to master.
‘We’ve always had this issue where customers knew about any disruptions before we did,’ said Jahangir Miah, a project coordinator for the training programme.
The iPads are pre-loaded with apps for ticketing and service information.
Says Jahangir, ‘Once the announcements were made, everyone was very nervous about how the changes would be implemented and the impact it would have on everybody.
‘And you have the same thing when you come into the training programme on day one, but I’ve seen that most of the staff that leave on day five, they feel like they’ve gone away with more confidence.’
Confidence could be key. If this change gives station staff a little more confidence in their skills, confidence in their knowledge of the network, it will ultimately result in a better service for passengers.
Archive photo courtesy of Transport for London Collection of London Transport Museum.