diamond geezer

 Monday, September 07, 2015

When all of TfL's ticket offices have gone, Visitor Centres will remain. There are (or will soon be) eight of them, mostly at airports and major London rail termini, each aimed at making sure visitors to the capital have the right tickets to see them on their way. Ostensibly that's Oyster cards, but these establishments go way beyond the usual tube station brief and also flog tickets to other services and attractions.
• Planning your visit to London and any onward journeys
• Choosing and buying the right travel ticket
• Buying tickets for top London attractions, theatre shows and the London Transport Museum
• Information and booking Heathrow and Gatwick Express and Southern train services between central London and airports
• Booking and advice on rail and coach tours in Britain and Paris
• Advice on accessibility
They're not really aimed at you and me, indeed TfL would rather we went to a ticket machine or newsagent, or simply moved over to contactless cards. But by the end of the year they will be the only counters to offer a TfL ticketing service from a TfL member of staff, so maybe you'll be visiting one sooner or later.

Visitor Centres are an important part of London's visitor experience, providing an official welcome and dedicated service to those unfamiliar with the capital. The Visitor Centre's distinctive design will offer a modern retail feel in a well-lit, welcoming environment.
I thought I'd roadtest three Visitor Centres to see what they're like and to find out what sort of travel advice they give. I visited on Saturday morning, a busy time in the capital for tourists, and used the same spiel each time. First I said I was in London over the weekend and asked if they had any "maps and stuff" to help me out. Then I said I needed to get from Bloomsbury to Heathrow on Monday, and asked for the best way to get there. I had three very different experiences.

Liverpool Street
This is one of the old Travel Information Centres, but has been given a modern spruce up with 2012-magenta branding. It's located on a raised area above the main ticket hall, easily accessible from the mainline station. The existing ticket office hasn't yet closed, so there were queues for that, and queues for the machines, and queues for the Visitor Centre, but none of the queues were anything too terrible while I was there. A small display rack outside the Visitor Centre included a perspex central London tube map and an abundant supply of a very small number of leaflets, plus lots of free branded Oyster wallets reminding you to carry a bottle of Evian water when travelling. The biggest upgrade is an advertising screen to the left of the windows on which promos for expensive attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Shard, London Zoo and the Shrek 4D Adventure play out, and you can pick up the relevant leaflets underneath. I looked in vain at all three TfL Visitor Centres for any mention of any attraction with free admission, and could only conclude that they must be on commission.

Do you have any maps and stuff to help me get around?
Four pieces of paperwork were whipped out from a drawer or rack beneath the counter. First I was given a copy of the tube map, as you'd expect. To that was added the Xperience London Tourist Map - not a TfL production but a commercial enterprise whose cartography prominently highlights the location of the advertisers. A true Londoner would throw it away, whereas tourists are likely to see the selection of bus trips, restaurants, walks and museums as somehow approved. Next I received a copy of the London Planner, Visit London's generally excellent monthly guide to what's on in the capital, except I was given the August edition in which the Mayor recommended a visit to the Notting Hill Carnival and the events pages detailed things I'd already missed. And finally the bloke behind the counter reached for a purple voucher which entitled me to £10 off entry at Ripley's Believe It or Not, then got out a biro and wrote his personal identification number in the corner. Ripley's appears to be the promotion of choice at TfL's Visitor Centres at the moment, and at £26.95 a ticket I guess would-be patrons need all the incentive they can get.

How do I get to Heathrow from Bloomsbury?
That's near Holborn isn't it? You'll want the Piccadilly line, then. Thanks.

King's Cross
This is a new Visitor Centre, open for a few months now, located at the top of the steps by the southern entrance to St Pancras. As such it's easily found by Eurostar travellers, but rather a trek for anyone coming into King's Cross. All the ticket offices here closed a while back, and I had wondered what would happen to the mammoth queues that used to snake out into the hall. The answer appears to be that they've gone away, not because demand has died down but because there are now 21 ticket machines by the H&C entrance and substantially more elsewhere. On Saturday this meant that the queue for the Visitor Centre was fairly short, probably three or four minutes, as I waited for one of the half dozen serving positions to become vacant. A member of staff with a tablet hung around by the entrance armed with a tablet and a couple of maps, fielding simple queries and telling anybody in need of an Oyster that yes they really did have to join the queue. Meanwhile a selection of TfL goodies were for sale to one side, including mouse mats, mugs, magnets, models and other things not beginning with M, not that anyone was biting.

Do you have any maps and stuff to help me get around?
A lesser haul of freebies emerged this time. I didn't receive a tube map. I did get another Xperience London Tourist Map, which includes a tube map but smaller than usual, and even though it's the latest edition the map is out-of-date (circa December 2014). And I was also given a copy of TfL's Central London bus map, the proper one this time, and resolutely unsponsored. It's a fine piece of work, with tube lines and over 100 places of interest marked, all the way from Portobello Road Market to Haggerston City Farm. Indeed it's precisely what I'd want if I were a visitor to the city, although I suspect it's over-complicated for some (a simplified bus map with two dozen services appears in most tourist publications).

How do I get to Heathrow from Bloomsbury?
That's near Russell Square isn't it? You'll want the Piccadilly line, then, thanks. As I turned to go, the bloke behind the counter called after me to check if I had enough money on my Oyster card. I said I did, and he suggested I checked just in case, which made me wonder if he had top-up targets to meet. But he was faultlessly polite throughout, and wished me a nice day, and off I went past the giant Dangleway advert to the exit.

And this was hell. The ticket offices at Euston have only just closed, and the downstairs ticket hall was a seething mass of passive irritation. I estimated 100 people in the queue, cajoled out of the way of passing passengers by members of staff, impatiently waiting to use not enough ticket machines. A small sign suggested would-be purchasers divert to the newsagents in the subway instead, while a massive sign urged use of contactless cards at the barrier, but still they queued. Maybe it'll be better here when 'modernisation' works are complete, just as King's Cross is relatively calm now it has umpteen more machines. In the meantime, yet another sign upstairs on the concourse proposes that "queues and crowds" can be avoided by going to the Visitor Centre on the ground floor instead.

The queue at the Visitor Centre was 30 people long, which was at least five times worse than anywhere else I'd been. The space is very new and not exactly large, in this case with just four counters (one of which wasn't operational). And so we waited outside the entrance, and round the corner, and past the end of the rope, whilst all the tourists ahead of us were served. Behind me stood three ladies from the North, not exactly delighted that their day out in London was kicking off with a lengthy wait. They wanted three Travelcards, and were grumbling about how the price had shot up, and quickly decided they should have applied for a ticket in the post before leaving home. Shrek and Shard videos played out on the big screen inside where only those at the front of the queue could see, while the TfL merchandising rack was sealed off by the line of people, inaccessible and ignored. It took almost 15 minutes to be served, in which time I reckon I could have walked to St Pancras and been served there instead.

Do you have any maps and stuff to help me get around?
And after all that, I was given only a tube map and a bus map, and nothing touristy at all. I had no complaints, these were the best things to help me get around, but this TfL Customer Experience colleague had very much concentrated on "maps", while the bloke at Liverpool Street had very much concentrated on "stuff". If nothing else, their broad range of offerings convinced me that Visitor Centres don't appear to have a set agenda to flog tickets. Indeed what almost everybody else in the queue wanted, and paid for, and got, were topped-up Oyster cards. I wonder how many of them knew, or had ever been told, that these bits of plastic can now be dispensed by ticket machines?

How do I get to Heathrow from Bloomsbury?
I got a rather longer response this time. The lady explained that the Piccadilly line was direct but slow, and the Heathrow Express was partly-fast and expensive, and didn't push me towards the latter, indeed made it pretty obvious that it wasn't the way to go. So I was again reassured that Visitor Centres merely provide the opportunity for visitors to spend lots of money, rather than encouraging them to do so.

In conclusion, London's Visitor Centres aren't a replacement for ticket offices, they're aimed squarely at infrequent and first-time visitors to the capital. They dish out transport information and tourist stuff, the latter generally something they can flog you an expensive ticket for, if you're interested. But Oysters are the best selling product, because these cards initiate you into the system, and then you need never interact with a TfL employee again. Visitor Centre staff are helpful and polite, but also inconsistent in their approach rather than process driven, which I found reassuringly human. And if you do ever need to use one because there's nowhere else to go, I'd steer clear of Euston.

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