diamond geezer

 Friday, November 22, 2013

To bury bad news, wrap it up in sparkle.


Woo, that was unexpected. After years of people demanding a 24 hour tube service, and being repeatedly told it couldn't be done, suddenly it's actually going to happen. That's a 24 hour tube service with caveats, obviously. It'll only be on Friday and Saturday nights (technically Saturday and Sunday mornings). The Night Tube will only run on five lines (Central, Jubilee, Northern, Piccadilly and Victoria). It won't be running the full length of these lines (only Ealing to Hainault on the Central, only the Charing Cross branch on the Northern line, and only the Heathrow branch on the Piccadilly line). Only select parts of London will benefit (yay to Clapham, Neasden and Canning Town, but alas for Richmond, Uxbridge and Upminster). The trains won't run as regularly as during the day (but every 15 minutes is still damned good in the middle of the night). And this won't start until autumn 2015 (that's two years hence). Still, it's pretty darned exciting.

TfL's excuse has always been the need for overnight maintenance. We can't run the tube overnight, they said, because there's important stuff needs to be done. Now it seems they've learned from abroad and thought again, and they can in fact leave trains running for two nights out of seven. Perhaps we should watch out for running hours being trimmed back at other times, like early weekday mornings. And be aware that when tube lines are closed for weekend engineering there won't be any Night Tube, only replacement buses, which is much like we have today.

It's excellent news for Londoners who have need to travel in the early hours. Those who currently leave pubs before closing time will be able to hang out later until they're paralytic. Those who currently take expensive taxis home from clubs will get to enjoy a hugely cheaper option. Those with an early flight out of Heathrow will be able to take the tube, not book a £40 minicab. Those who currently have to leave the theatre early to dash to Waterloo for their last train will find this doesn't make a blind bit of difference, because the tube runs perfectly late enough already. But it's good news for cleaners and those in the night economy who currently have to take the bus, they can enjoy a lie-in (though only at weekends, and only if they live in the right place).

You could say this is a peculiar way to spend money. We live in times of austerity and cutbacks, with fares under increasing pressure and cutbacks on the way. And yet here's TfL splashing out on running extra trains and recruiting extra drivers and keeping stations open at a time when most of us are fast asleep. This plan will provide a service at one of the 10 least busy stations on the Underground (that's Fairlop) at the least busy time in the entire week (that's around dawn on a Sunday morning). For every packed carriage at 1am rumbling through the West End, there'll be an empty train at 4am trundling up the Hainault Loop.

For most Londoners, yesterday's announcement is an irrelevance. It's good news, and it'll be comforting to know that the service is there when we need it, but at any given time only a tiny proportion of us will actually benefit.


Woo, that was unexpected. After years of running ticket office opening hours down, and promising they'd never close them all, suddenly it's actually going to happen. That's all the Underground's remaining ticket offices closing. That's every single one (even at busy central stations like Waterloo and Oxford Circus). That's everyone who currently works in one removed (either redeployed or retired, assuming no compulsory redundancies). That's additional station staff wandering around ticket halls with tablets and friendly smiles (although not every ticket hall, many of you will have to make do by yourselves). That's just seven Visitor Information Centres providing advice to baffled tourists as they attempt to enter the system (at Euston, Heathrow, King's Cross, Liverpool Street, Paddington, Victoria and, er, Piccadilly Circus). Because this is the do-it-yourself future, coming to a journey near you whether you like it or not (strikes permitting).

This is all part of TfL's continued crusade to stop faffing around with money. They introduced Oyster to speed us into stations without some employee having to check. They've slimmed ticket office opening hours, and opened new stations without a ticket office included. They've consulted on banning cash from buses, and will undoubtedly roll that plan out next year. And now they want us all to move over to contactless bank cards, because that absolves them of running the financial bit altogether so all they need to do is set and collect the fares.

It's bad news for Londoners who seek to talk to somebody behind the counter. The comforting option of talking to someone who knows what they're doing, and has a computer terminal to help them, will disappear. Especially disadvantaged will be those who need a service those blessed machines can't provide. I had to go to my local ticket office last month to get my Gold Card discount applied, because none of TfL's automated systems can manage that. Now I'll have to travel further to one of the seven tourist hubs and join the lengthy queue, or hope there's a member of staff floating in my local station with an appropriate gizmo. Sure, it'll be great to see increased staff presence across the network, offering assistance rather than hiding behind glass. But if they're busy, occupied or elsewhere, what then?

You could say this is a peculiar step for TfL to take. Three percent of Underground journeys still involve a trip to the ticket office, that's 150,000 people a day. But for the other 97% of us, swishing by with our Travelcards or poking another £10 note into the machine, the absence of a staffed ticket office won't make a blind bit of difference. Indeed it's how the DLR's run for years, and everybody copes on that. Those ever decreasing hours at your local ticket office are a direct response to you not using it so much any more, so when the occupants finally lose their jobs, it's partly your fault.

For most Londoners, yesterday's announcement is an irrelevance. It's bad news, and it'll be no comfort to know that the service isn't there when we need it, but at any given time only a tiny proportion of us will actually suffer.

Two of the most important operational decisions TfL have announced in years, both on the same day, the one to help smother the other. Bad news and sparkle, the sneaky blighters.

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