Transport for London’s Fit for the Future programme has been billed as one of the biggest shake ups in the way that the London Underground is staffed and run in its 151 year history.
950 staff positions will be cut– that’s about one in six Tube workers (although around 200 staff will be recruited to staff the 24 hour Tube on the weekend).
By 2015, it is planned, ticket machines will have taken the place of the staffed ticket office. However, many disabled and older people, including those with a learning difficulty; visually impaired people and those who are simply unfamiliar with computers could find it difficult or impossible to use ticket machines – especially when making more complicated requests, such as registering a Disabled Person’s Railcard to an Oyster.
Deaf passengers have voiced fears that the end of ticket offices will make it harder to use the Underground. Michael Theobald, a deaf activist from the Ealing Transport Action Group, said:
“Ticket offices use the loop system. Without that, a station is a very noisy environment. It is inaccessible. We cannot hear announcements“.
TfL have said that they are redesigning ticket machines. Transport for All would urge them to learn from Spain and San Francisco, where ticket machines are audio enabled so that they are useable by visually impaired passengers.
There are also fears that without the fixed point of a staffed ticket office, visually impaired people will find it harder to locate staff to assist them. At seven busy Central London stations, (Euston, Heathrow, King’s Cross St Pancras, Liverpool Street, Paddington, Victoria and Piccadilly Circus), there will be Visitor Information Centres where a member of staff will offer assistance. Elsewhere, passengers will have to find a member of staff within the station.
Jeff Harvey, a TfA member from Brent uses the Tube frequently. He said:
“Staff not only need to be visible, but they also have to be available to help. I use a power wheelchair and a ventilator. Often I cannot speak loudly and I cannot reach out to operate a ticket machine or swipe my card to open a gate. If a member of staff is dealing with something and isn’t right by the barrier, getting their attention can be difficult for me. With a ticket office, there is always a person in a known location, who I can communicate with.
“Even now, on occasion, I must wait several minutes for someone to become available to help me get through a gate, or to get a manual boarding ramp. It seems likely that this will happen more often with fewer people. Maybe they will try to be more available, but if I don’t know where someone will be, it is difficult for me to go and find them. I may have to try to recruit other passengers to help me, or to go and look for staff; in other words, to do the customer service staff’s job.“
Last week, Transport for All met with Mike Brown, Managing Director of London Underground and Gareth Powell, Service Development London Underground & London Rail. We put to them the concerns that TfA and many disabled Tube users have about the proposed changes to staffing levels on the Tube network.
At the moment, London Underground offers disabled and older passengers a ‘turn-up-and-go’ assistance service, helping us buy tickets, plan routes and get down to the right platform without having to book in advance. This assistance enables thousands of disabled Londoners to be confident to travel. Visually impaired passengers find it particularly helpful, and RNIB awarded TfL ‘exemplar’ status for this service.
The recent introduction of manual boarding ramps at 35 stations opened up many more routes to wheelchair and mobility scooter users – some for the first time ever. With cuts to staffing numbers disabled and older passengers are deeply concerned whether staff will be available to help and operate ramps.
TfL have insisted throughout that staff will become ‘more visible’ as they come ‘out from behind the glass.’ However the RMT union representing Tube workers fiercely rebut this saying that the deletion of staff positions will mean the network is run on skeleton staffing levels.
Transport for All also raised on the meeting issues that are occurring now – before any reconfiguration of staffing levels or service has even happened.
This includes the issues raised by our recent FOI that disclosed that there were over 500 hours of lift closures due to staff shortages. This includes Wood Lane station on the Central line which has its lift closed most weeks due to inadequate staffing levels – it is one of the stations which already does not have a ticket office.
A recent BBC London news report stated that the number of single staffed stations would double under new proposals.
TfA trustee, Christiane Link spoke to LU about the frustration at seeing accessible stations that have benefited from investment by adding lifts and other features – reverting to becoming inaccessible and having their lifts ‘switched off’ only because staff are not made available.
Mike Brown conceded that the closure of stations in this manor was a concern and he and would investigate why this happening. We look forward to the results of this investigation.
TfA asserted that if the Fit for Future proposals do go ahead LU need to ensure that all accessible stations keep their lifts open from the first to last train.
Any improvements to technology and the way staff communicate with passengers and each other can be of huge benefit to disabled passengers.
We therefore welcome the proposed use of tablets to access real time information on accessibility updates etc: this is something many of our tech savvy members have been doing for a while. Knowing more than front line staff – be they on Tube, bus or rail station – about what services are working and what alternatives are possible is now the norm in London. This shouldn’t be the case.
TfA has suggested that LU consider the introduction of a system where the assistance given to a disabled passenger is tracked electronically using a hand held device – as already happens in a number of European airports. This is where a disabled passenger requests assistance and the member of staff logs this on their device. This time stamped record of assistance continues till the passenger has exitted the Tube.
A system like this would mean that assistance ‘fails’ – i.e. when assistance is requested and then doesn’t turn up – could be easily tracked. Currently, when a member of staff fails to meet a disabled person off the train for assistance – because they are over stretched or have not responded – this only comes to light when the passenger complains.
A 24 hour Tube at weekends.
The prospect of 39 accessible stations (25 with access from the street to train) on the Tube network kept open for 24 hours at the weekend is great news for disabled and older Londoners. However, a crucial issue will be whether enough staff will be available to deploy ramps and offer assistance during the early hours – and this will need to be monitored closely.
Staff assistance makes the Tube safe and accessible.
Sadly, many disabled people have experienced hate crime at stations, and staff are key to deterring abuse. In a Survation survey in April 2013, “enhancing your personal security and safety” was ranked consistently as the most important benefit that staff provide to disabled passengers. CCTV cameras can never replace staff in making passengers feel safe waiting on a dark platform at night.
The relationship that disabled people have with staff on the Tube can therefore be very different to that of non-disabled transport users. Staff presence at stations can make the difference between whether we can travel or not.
We need a modern accessible tube network with enough visible and trained staff so that disabled and older people can travel with the same freedom and choice as everyone else. Nothing less befits a world class Underground network.