London Underground's last three ticket offices closed for good last night. You'd be excused for not noticing.
This time last week 24 London Underground ticket offices were still open. But TfL had set themselves a target of the end of 2015 to have every single ticket office closed, and targets must be met, so an accelerated closure programme was put in place. Instead of closing for good on a Sunday evening, as had previously always been the case, a small number of stations have been shuttered every day this week, until yesterday only three remained.
One of these was St James's Park, which is ironic, because this is the station that serves London Underground's head office. Everyone else had their ticket window closed early, but the windows beneath Tube HQ have been allowed to linger longer than all the others. I didn't have time to go and take a look at the St James's Park ticket office window yesterday evening because I was kept late at work. But I did turn up in person at the other two, both of which are on the eastern end of the District line and rather nearer home.
By the time I reached Aldgate East, the ticket office was already shut. Its weekday evening opening hours were 5pm-6.15pm, and I arrived after that, so the death knell had already been sounded. Instead the blinds in the windows in the western ticket hall had been pulled down, and tickets were available only from the machine. You could tell staff weren't entirely happy because behind the glass was the small wipeclean board which normally shows "Ticket office closed", underneath which someone had written PERMANENTLY FOREVER in big bold capital letters in green marker pen.
To add insult to injury, someone had pushed an information board in front of the ticket window promoting contactless travel. "In a hurry?" asked the headline on the poster, a further salvo in TfL's ongoing battle to get us all to use a bank card instead of Oyster. It's this relentless switch to microchipped plastic that's enabled buses to go cash-free and ticket offices to be closed, as the transfer of fare money is outsourced to external suppliers. This cuts costs but also requires fewer staff, which cuts costs further, which is brilliant unless you happen to be one of the members of staff losing their job.
One of the members of staff at Aldgate East who hadn't lost their job was standing watching proceedings from across the concourse, now in customer-friendly interactive mode, so I decided against taking a photo and moved on.
And so to Upton Park, the unlikely third part of the Last Day Closure Trinity. Upton Park is a quintessentially ordinary station, neither too busy nor too quiet, serving its local Newham neighbourhood in an efficient and understated way. I arrived at the end of the evening rush hour and an incredibly rare site met my eyes - the ticket office was open! Two unobscured windows were visible to the side of the gateline, both with light streaming through if not with anybody obvious standing behind. Several years ago this sort of sight would have been commonplace, indeed there'd likely have been a queue of people waiting to be served, but outside central London those queues died away some time back, and all those windows are now mostly boarded up.
I debated going over to the window and asking for something, but it was hard to decide exactly what. My annual travelcard doesn't generally need topping up, and I've already had my Gold Card discount added. I went for a short walk outside and took in the seasonal sights of Green Street, as the traders at Queen's Market packed away their stalls and punters at the nearby pub spilled out onto the streets for a smoke. Eventually I decided a tube map would be a good thing to ask for, maybe one of those large print versions they always keep behind the counter, as a souvenir of The Day The Ticket Office Ended. But when I returned, damn... too late, the shutters were down.
The stream of passengers pulsing in and out of the station hadn't noticed, because closed ticket offices are a regular sight these days around the capital, and to most an irrelevance anyway. But I can confirm that Upton Park joined the Post-Ticket-Office Era just after seven o'clock on the evening of Friday 18th December 2015. It's hard to be certain whether it beat St James's Park to the title of Last Ticket Office Standing, because SJP had a normal closing time of 7.15pm, and I can't be in two places at once. But one of these was the last to go, and both are now no more, and the ticket office is very much a thing of the past.
Apart from the ticket offices that remain open, that is. Not every London Underground station is run by London Underground, and where TfL have no jurisdiction the ticket office won't be closing. Stations like Barking, Wimbledon and Upminster are run by National Rail, or the appropriate franchisee, and they still have ticket offices selling actual paper tickets. But they're not especially Oyster friendly, nor do they serve a range of TfL products, so they don't really count in the grand scheme of things.
And then there are the eleven ticket offices that are very much still open.
They're the nine stations at the top end of the Bakerloo line from Queens Park to Harrow and Wealdstone, plus Gunnersbury and Kew Gardens on the Richmond branch of the District line. What both these stretches of line have in common is that tube trains share the tracks with Overground trains, a fact which means the stations themselves are under slightly different ownership. Once upon a time these eleven stations were run by Silverlink, the franchise eliminated to create the Overground. When stations and staff were transferred to TfL they came with different terms and conditions, which means London Underground can't simply do whatever it likes and bring down the shutters.
Under the ticketing and settlement agreement these eleven ticket offices legally require a proper consultation before closure, an additional administrative step that's prolonged these ticket windows into 2016. No consultation has yet begun, so far as I know, nor have any final dates been set. Plus these are ticket offices with a restricted set of services - for example they're unable to replace a failed Oyster card if yours goes wrong - so they can't do everything you might want them to. But eleven not-quite Underground ticket offices remain open on the Underground, probably for several more months, if you still have a genuine need to interact with a human being behind glass.
The dawn of the Ticket-Office-Free Tube has gone generally unreported by the media, who prefer to reprint the press releases TfL send them rather than engage in any kind of investigative journalism. Indeed a cynic might suggest that TfL deliberately released news yesterday of a major station upgrade at Bank and the proposed extension of the Bakerloo line to Lewisham as a massive diversion from this final cull. Two years ago London was up in arms at the thought of losing its ticket offices, and rounds of disruptive strike action were on the cards. Yesterday TfL successfully snuffed out its last remaining ticket offices to a chorus of no disapproval whatsoever, as well-trained passengers embraced a digital future, almost without even noticing.