diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 05, 2014

Some ideas take 50 years to come to fruition. Like the innovation that was introduced on 5th January 1964 at Stamford Brook station. That's the time and place, half a century ago, that the Underground's first electronic ticket barrier was introduced. Why use people to deal with fares when you can use machines instead? In 2014 we'll get rid of the people altogether.

This being the mid 1960s, London Underground were very keen to experiment with automation. They'd need an electronic gate, just the one, for testing on the general public. How would passengers react to a machine allowing them passage, and could it be made to work reliably? They'd also need some special tickets, in this case yellow rectangles of card printed with magnetic ink. The tickets used a very simple code using parallel bars - with one track across the top edge of the ticket and another along the bottom. Once these were ready the public trial could begin, and Stamford Brook on the District line was selected for initial rollout.

The set-up was cleverly simple. Two ticket barriers were set up across the entrance to the station. One was the special electronic barrier, for use only by passengers entering the system. The other was a normal manual barrier, basically a bloke checking tickets as you walked past - once ubiquitous in London, now almost unheard of. The manual barrier was also used by everyone leaving the station. This was partly because no other station issued electronic tickets, and also so that the specially printed card only had to survive the short walk from point of sale to the slot in the barrier.

Two large signs with downward pointing arrows made it extremely obvious to passengers which way to go. The one on the left said YELLOW TICKETS HERE above a lightbox reading EXPERIMENTAL TICKET GATE. The one on the right said ALL OTHER TICKETS HERE above a lightbox reading SEASON TICKETS WAY IN. Additional signs were placed at eye level, just to make certain, so that only those who'd just bought a special yellow piece of card went left. This was a different age, 1964. People actually queued to buy tickets every time they entered a station - can you imagine that today?

The automated gate didn't look especially modern to our modern eyes, it was more a clunky chunky box with another box on top. The slot was on the right with a sign above which read INSERT TICKET HERE. In it went, then out again at a slot marked COLLECT TICKET HERE, because you had to label these things for people who'd never seen them before. A separate lightbox flashed up beyond the gate, switching from STOP to GO so long as the ticket was valid. The barriers didn't open by themselves, oh no, you had to give them a little push, and then the small chunky blighters parted. And if you had a briefcase, as many men did in those days, this could be lifted smoothly over the top via a set of rollers. Sheer elegance.

Enough of the description, you'll want to see what this set-up looked like. So let me offer you the following. Please, dig in.
» Several black and white photos of the Stamford Brook ticket barrier from January 1964, courtesy of the London Transport Museum archive (photos 12 to 16)
» Film footage (yes an actual video) of (mostly) ladies using the barrier while (mostly) gentlemen stand around and watch, courtesy of Pathé News (2 mins 45 seconds, oh yes)
» A 25 page article entitled "Automatic Fare Collection on the London Underground" by M.A.C. Horne (for those of you with a need for splendidly intricate detail)

Two further trials involving electronic ticket barriers were conducted shortly afterwards at two neighbouring stations. In March a two-stage gate was installed at Chiswick Park. Here a valid ticket let you through the first gate, and this then closed before the second opened, the idea being to speed up passenger flow. It didn't catch on. A month later Ravenscourt Park got a much simpler design - a three-pronged turnstile with a bar to push - but again only for passengers entering the station. Further systems were trialled elsewhere in SW London in later years, with exit barriers proving the biggest headache because the tickets needed to open them could have been purchased anywhere.

Electronic ticketing eventually helped introduce a uniform barrier system across the network, and that's what's in place at Stamford Brook station today. The gateline is located in the ticket hall, much nearer the entrance than the original (which was installed round the corner immediately before the foot of the stairs). Today's set-up has three normal-sized gates, the middle one bidirectional to cope with peak flow, plus a sidegate for those with luggage. The latter is operational only by staff, it's not the cutting-edge wide design found elsewhere across the network. But generally it's now perfectly normal for passengers to validate their own entry and exit, and indeed to purchase their tickets entirely independently.

Later this year the ticket office at Stamford Brook will close and passengers will have to seek assistance from a member of staff hovering in the ticket hall. TfL can't get rid of all their ticketing people just yet, the system isn't foolproof enough to cope. But the revolution which started here precisely 50 years ago is almost complete, and it all began with a prototype gate and a pile of small yellow tickets.

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