I was heading home late on Thursday evening when I discovered that Bow Road station was closed. I'd been waiting for a train at Mile End, expecting to be able to ride one stop down the line, with no indication to the contrary. But when I stepped on board the train the driver announced that the next station was closed, so I got off again, and walked home instead.
And this isn't the first time Bow Road's been unexpectedly closed. There have been several closures "due to an absence of staff" over the last couple of months, usually first thing in the morning or late at night. Bow Road is a Section 12 station, because part of it is underground, so staff have to be present for safety reasons at all times. And if not enough staff turn up, for whatever reason, the gates are shut and travellers have to go elsewhere instead.
Last February staffing on the tube was reduced and rejigged as part of a programme called Fit For The Future. The plan was to make staff more visible, and staffing more flexible, with stations grouped together to share personnel. Bow Road was coupled with Stepney Green, and it seems that when staff go short it's Stepney Green that takes priority. Bow Road's less than ten minutes walk from Mile End, and three buses head that way, so passengers can generally cope if Bow Road is closed.
It's closed a lot. On ten occasions since the start of December the station's closed early, including five times this week. On seven occasions in the last month it's opened late, and on 3rd December it closed for an hour in the early afternoon. When not enough staff are available it's the public that suffers, and we've been suffering more of late, because these kinds of closures weren't happening so frequently before.
So I've trawled back through Twitter to try to determine the scale of the overall problem. I've focused on the District line, and used tweets on the @districtline account to tabulate every staff-related closure since the start of December.
Tweets related to strike action or security incidents are not included. Please note that the data may be incomplete (there's no guarantee that every closure's been included), and will be inaccurate (the times given are the times of the tweets, not the closures). But with all those caveats, three stations really stand out.
District line station closures due to staff shortage
Dec 2016 - Jan 2017
3rd Dec, 3hrs, evening
4th Dec, 40m, early evening
10th Dec, 1.5hr, late afternoon
17th Dec, 6m, morning peak
31st Dec, from 07:26
1st Jan, from 07:15
7th Jan, 1.5hr, evening
14th Jan, 1hr, morning peak
20th Jan, 22:46
19th Dec, 05:38
23rd Jan, 05:52
28th Jan, 07:42
18th Dec, 22:57
22nd Jan, 22:32
3rd Jan, 05:58
13th Dec, 23:59
18th Dec, 23:58
19th Dec, 05:41
19th Dec, 23:13
24th Dec, 05:39
24th Dec, 06:17
26th Dec, from 07:27
Temple is easily the District line station with the biggest staff shortage problem. It's closed early fourteen times since the start of December, sometimes before 9pm, with closures commonplace in the weeks before Christmas. It's opened late ten times (frequently, it seems, saved by a member of staff turning up around 7am). And it's closed during the day seven times, in some cases for several hours, which must have been annoying to anyone who'd walked to the station expecting to get in.
St James's Park is an interesting one because it's the station underneath TfL's historic HQ, and it's suffered twelve closures at a wide variety of times since the start of December. I note that St James's Park is paired with Embankment as part of the Fit For The Future programme, and presumably it's deemed more important to keep Embankment open. Similarly Temple is paired with Blackfriars, and Blackfriars will always be the priority when staff numbers drop.
Other than those three stations, staff-related closures on the District line are very rare. There haven't been any at any station beyond Earl's Court, and there's only been one to the east of Bow Road. Stations underground are always going to be most at risk, because of fire regulations, and at other stations it's always possible to leave the gates open and unstaffed. Indeed at Bromley-by-Bow it's so incredibly rare to see someone in uniform that it's as if TfL have given up on staffing the station completely.
If you're thinking come on, opening slightly late in the morning doesn't hurt, think of all the people who've missed connections or got to work late. If you're thinking come on, closing early in the evening's not the end of the world, think of all the people who've been forced to travel less safely after dark. If you're thinking come on, this doesn't affect where I live, the point is that previously it hardly happened at all, and now it's a regular issue in several locations.
It's hard to know precisely why these three particular stations have been singled out, and what might be the specific situations that differentiate them from other similar locations. But when unions threaten strike action over inadequate staffing, and TfL admit they might have reduced staffing numbers too far, something about the current system is very much Unfit For The Future.