diamond geezer

 Friday, February 03, 2023

TfL closed all their ticket offices at Underground stations in 2013 to much initial outcry.

But the Overground is a completely different kettle of fish, coming instead under the National Rail umbrella, so their ticket offices have mostly lingered on. You can still rock up at Acton Central, Dalston Junction or Penge West and buy an actual ticket from an actual human, should you so desire, so long as you rock up during the designated hours the ticket office is actually open.

So how many people are still buying tickets from ticket offices at Overground stations? Thanks to a Freedom of Information request published this week we can answer that question, and it turns out that last year just over 150,000 tickets were sold. The top performing ticket office was Walthamstow Central with total sales exceeding 300 tickets a week. But many Overground ticket offices are selling a lot less than that, and at one station the annual ticket sales equate to less than two tickets a month. We'll get to that...

A bit of background for you. TfL only operate ticket offices at 62 Overground stations. They don't have responsibility for larger National Rail stations like Richmond, Watford Junction, Barking and New Cross, or indeed smaller ones like Cheshunt and Denmark Hill. They've never sold tickets on the Gospel Oak-Barking line because those ticket offices had gone before TfL took over. Back in 2018 they proposed closing ticket offices at 51 of their Overground stations but, against the usual run of things, backed down and merely reduced the opening hours. The only Overground stations to have lost their ticket offices over the last five years are Stamford Hill, White Hart Lane and Theobalds Grove where 'temporary closures' were quietly made permanent.

The FoI request concerns ticket sales at each Overground ticket office during the period 01/01/2022 to 31/12/2022, i.e the whole of 2022. You can download the spreadsheet here, have a look at an ordered list here or just stare at this map.

Some of those numbers are very very low indeed.

The Overground stations with the highest ticket sales in 2022
  1) Walthamstow Central 17381
  2) West Croydon 13461
  3) Norwood Junction 13097
  4) Enfield Town 10056
  5) Edmonton Green 8782
  6) Bushey 7723
  7) Forest Hill 7648
  8) Crystal Palace 7536
  9) Chingford 6941
10) Brockley 6925

Top of the heap, by some distance, is Walthamstow Central. It serves the Victoria line as well as the Overground so has a bit of a head start. West Croydon is also served by Southern trains, and Norwood Junction by Southern and Thameslink, and they're on this list because TfL ultimately run the station. Enfield Town is the highest placed station served solely by the Overground. A lot of these stations are at the end of the line so bridgeheads to a much wider area. The West Croydon, Crystal Palace and Chingford branches feature strongly.

But although these numbers may look strong, if you divide annual sales down into weeks or days they start to look weaker. Only Walthamstow Central, West Croydon and Norwood Junction are selling more than 200 tickets a week. Chingford and Brockley aren't even managing 20 tickets a day. The only other Overground stations selling more than 10 tickets a day are New Cross Gate, Sydenham, Willesden Junction and Highams Park. Admittedly 2022 was a tough year on the rail network, affected initially by the pandemic and later by rail strikes, but these are not especially high figures.

Typically when I dropped in at Walthamstow Central yesterday the ticket office was temporarily closed, but that may have been down to the member of staff fiddling with the innards of a ticket machine by the gateline.

Brace yourself.

The Overground stations with the lowest ticket sales in 2022
  1) Caledonian Road & Barnsbury 18
  2) Rotherhithe 63
  3) Brondesbury 77
  4) South Acton 80
  5) Hoxton 86
  6) Bruce Grove 89
  7) South Hampstead 92
  8) Brondesbury Park 104
  9) Haggerston 120
10) Shadwell 132

Theses are staggeringly low totals for ticket sales during an entire calendar year. None of these stations are averaging more than three ticket sales a week. Rotherhithe is barely managing one a week. Caledonian Road & Barnsbury has rock bottom ticket sales averaging one sale every three weeks. Scroll further down the list and another dozen stations failed to sell more than 365 tickets last year.

All the stations with weak sales have reduced opening hours, introduced just before the pandemic, with the shutters up between 7.30-10am on weekdays only. That's 12½ hours a week, whereas (for example) Walthamstow Central is open more than 12½ hours a day. This suggests that, on average, staff at Brondesbury Park are selling one ticket every 6 hours, staff at Rotherhithe one ticket every 10 hours and staff at Caledonian Road & Barnsbury one ticket every 35 hours. I think it's fair to say those ticket sales aren't enough to pay the staff's wages.

Staff in ticket offices can of course perform a number of useful tasks for the public, such as being able to sort out awkward ticketing enquiries, selling unfamiliar tickets and offering complex advice. But when I dropped in at Caledonian Road & Barnsbury yesterday a second member of staff was also available by the card reader and poised to offer most of the assistance passengers might have needed, even how to use the machines to buy an off-peak return between two towns in Scotland had that been requested. Meanwhile the member of staff in the ticket office was looking down at the counter, their head at a slightly defeated angle, as they waited for the end of their morning shift to tick round. I could have asked for a ticket just to give them something to do, but I already have a chip in my pocket which enables me to travel so like everyone else I swept past, and therein lies the issue.

Looking at the overall figures, ticket sales appear to be especially low on the core Overground section between Dalston and Surrey Quays. With a few exceptions annual sales are also very low on at stations on the line between Richmond and Stratford. It would be tempting to point The Finger of Efficiency at these ticket offices and close the majority, even the lot, although it's notable that TfL haven't tried, perhaps because co-existing with National Rail regulations makes such a move harder. But if past consultations had highlighted real data like this, rather than bland weasel phrases like "to meet changing customer needs" and "to better meet demand", maybe they'd have been more successful in getting the wider public onside.

And while we're at it...

The Crossrail stations with the highest ticket sales in 2022
  1) Stratford 159,584
  2) Romford 101,375
  3) Hayes & Harlington 81,634
  4) Abbey Wood 78,213
  5) Brentwood 77,811
The next 5: Ealing Broadway, Burnham, Southall, Ilford, Langley

That's more like it. All these ticket offices are selling over 200 tickets a day, very much justifying their existence.

The Crossrail stations with the lowest ticket sales in 2022
  1) Acton Main Line 1818
  2) Maryland 2862
  3) Hanwell 3196
  4) West Ealing 6001
  5) Manor Park 8520
The next 5: Forest Gate, Seven Kings, Goodmayes, Iver, Taplow

But these are a bit low, even for a railway that only really kicked into action halfway through the year. It's the stations closest to central London with the lowest totals, although compared to the Overground they're doing relatively well. Look at poor old Acton Main Line though, a brand new station building, a welcoming ticket office facing the street, opening hours exceeding 27 hours a week, friendly staff waiting expectantly behind the counter... and they still only managed an average of five ticket sales a day.

Use it or lose it, or as things currently stand Don't use it but keep it.

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