Advances in ticketing technology are underpinning the on-going strike on the London Underground causing travel chaos for commuters.
Members of the RMT and TSSA unions will end their 48-hour walkout at 9pm tonight and officials will meet London Underground tomorrow to try to resolve a row over the closure of Tube ticket offices and avoid a further 48-hour strike next week.
The closures are due to lead to the loss of 950 jobs, which Mayor of London Boris Johnson has assured will come from voluntary redundancies, as upgrades to ticket machines are made and the ability to pay at ticket gates using contactless bank cards is introduced this year, as it already has been on London busses.
London Underground’s plan will also see staff provided with mobile technology such as tablets and moved into the ticket halls where they can help customers directly, and while Jeremy Acklam of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Transport Policy Panel sympathises with the union’s reticence at moving into a “brave new world” he believes the change is timely.
“Essentially it’s just progress. It’s something that’s reflected transport networks across the world,” he said. “It’s a step by step process which is key with transport locations and changes to things like ticketing.
“You have to take it slowly for both staff and customers so they fully understand it. And that is essentially the process that is being stepped through now; it’s not about radical technological change it’s about gradual change.”
According to Acklam, the drive to change has been the inexorable rise of contactless cards, which has slowly made the ticket office obsolete.
He said: “As we move towards a scenario where topping them up is no longer required either, essentially you get to a point where as people are not standing in a queue next to a ticket window, the modern approach is that you have some staff in the concourse with portable machines helping customers.”
One argument of the unions is that certain tasks such as administering refunds can only be provided at the ticket office and not at the automatic ticket machines, but Acklam says there is no technological barrier to providing these services elsewhere.
“TfL have automatic refunds in place at the moment. It started last year and it’s only a relatively small step to have that type of technology available on a mobile unit that then allows staff to help customers with ticketing on the concourse,” he said. “So it’s a step by step process using technology to allow staff to provide more personal services where the customer wants.”
With train drivers also downing tools in solidarity with their ticketing colleagues, the strike has also raised questions over whether technology could soon lead to an entirely unmanned underground system.
Automated driving systems have been controlling trains automatically on the Victoria Line since 1968 and are now also running on the Central and Jubilee Lines, with a driver simply there to provide reassurance to customers that there is a human failsafe.
Over the next decade similar systems will be introduced on other London Underground lines such as the Northern, Piccadilly and Sub Surface Lines and will also be part of the core section the Thameslink route.
Paula-Marie Brown, IET Head of Transport, said: “All of this technology will most certainly improve service reliability but one of the challenges for London Underground will be to reassure passengers’ safety concerns, with a visible staff presence still being required at platforms and on trains – even Docklands Light Railway, which is a ‘driveless system’ has a train manager on board who manages train dispatch from the platforms.
“The significant question is, whilst the technology exists to have totally driverless trains and staff-free platforms, what is required to convince the travelling public that they are acceptably safe?”
The RMT failed to respond to a request for comment.