13 August 2013

Ignore Labour's rage against the machines

Two months ago I walked into the railway station at Biarritz. Without thinking I headed to the ticket machine on the concourse, pressed the small Union Jack on the touchscreen, and thirty seconds later had my ticket in my hand. Very simple and stress free, which is unsurprising as modern ticket machines are beacons of sanity for the international traveller. I remember the palaver at the Polish Railways ticket counter at Wrocław in 2006, when I was saved by a local in the queue behind me who could translate ‘could I have a single to Poznan for the early morning train tomorrow, and do I have to buy a supplementary ticket for my bicycle?’ Give me a machine every time.

Yesterday, Labour and the TSSA started making a huge song and dance about leaked plans that most of London’s tube station ticket offices are to be closed and replaced by 20 ‘travel centres’ in the major hub stations. Ominously, we’ve been told that – horror of horrors – ‘passengers would have to use automatic machines instead’. Labour’s London spokesman (and rumoured 2014 Mayoralty hopeful) Sadiq Khan told us that this will have a ‘devastating effect’ on commuters.

Old London Transport ticket machines (wemadethis.co.uk)
All of which is complete nonsense. London’s workers are already perfectly happy buying their weekly and monthly tickets from the Oyster machines, and I suspect that tourists to the UK would get better treatment at dedicated travel centres rather than the local ticket counter – if indeed it is open. Most of London’s visitors are already happily navigating their way through computerised menus in their own language, just as I did in Biarritz. I can’t actually remember the last time I used a ticket office, although I think when I did the upshot was being given some sort of ghastly form that I had to post to TfL HQ. Now you can probably fill in that paperwork online; meanwhile, the latest generation of touchscreen machines is guiding Joe Public through a bewildering array of ticket-based adventures.

Of course, this ticket office hoop-la is another example of Labour's inability to stand up to the transport unions. It is madness to be arguing for the value of a chap in a cubby-hole when in most instances a machine will do the same job better. Mick Carney’s predecessors at the TSSA must have felt the same way about automatic ticket barriers – ‘dreadful things that don’t offer the certainty of a ticket clipped by a friendly conductor’ – or something like that, I imagine. Certainly, the failure to embrace modern staffing practices across Britain’s railways in the 1960s did irreparable damage to the economics of operating trains and stations, for which Harold Wilson’s governments need to shoulder a lot of the blame.

These days budgets are leaner, and failing to take advantage of modern ticketing technology ties up funds that TFL would otherwise invest in new trains, signalling and step-free access to stations, all of which are essential to the bothersome business of moving people around. And wasting money on keeping the unions happy pushes up fares – hitting those on the breadline disproportionately hard, which makes Labour’s stance all the more puzzling.

First published by Coffee House on August 13th, 2013