Rail 580: Barriers could prove counterproductive

Passing through Surbiton station during the evening peak the other day, I was surprised to find the barriers open and no one checking tickets. Walking through non-functioning barriers seems to happen to me most of the time I travel south of the Thames when only being a law abiding citizen leads me to buying tickets since no one ever seems to check them.

Yet, barriers have proliferated and are seen as the front line in revenue protection, in the aim of reducing ticketless travel. Indeed, barriers have become one of those rare promises of ‘investment’ in franchise bids, the latest being National Express’s commitment to install eight at various stations on the East Coast though precisely where is ‘commercially confidential’. Stagecoach, as part of its commitments for its new East Midlands franchise, is to install gates at St Pancras, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield, although the latter have difficult practical problems about access. There are already barriers at Leicester and Loughborough. But what, precisely, is all this gating for?

Ticket barriers were originally taken away from railway stations for good reasons. We may be nostalgic about the notion of having to buy 1d platform tickets but the open stations of today are far more pleasant places than they would be if access were controlled through just a few points. There are exceptions such as Leeds where the design ensures that it is quite simple to control everyone going onto the platforms. But that is still done with the aid of old fashioned ticket inspectors, although Tube-type barriers are planned here too. Installation of gates at the stations mentioned above will make train travel less pleasant for millions of people. Removing the barriers allowed considerable reduction in staff and, provided there were proper checks on trains, the impact on revenue was minimal.

Now the trend back to barriers is damaging the ‘customer experience’, another own goal of the train operators. Just look at Paddington station where barriers have been installed at the instigation of First Great Western. People with suitcases are not allowed to use the hand operated gates, but, instead, are hustled by unsmiling ticket staff through the inconvenient barriers. Since many carry tickets that are not compatible with the barriers, queues build up at the gates, and yet even as the whistles are being blown, passengers are not allowed through without a check. It is all part of what I have dubbed the Ryan Railways approach to running the train service, which is operated for the benefit of the company rather than the passenger.

(I was given a nice example of this just now. I am writing this on a GNER train, but when I tried to sit down for breakfast, with a first class ticket, at Kings Cross five minutes before the departure of on the 7am from King’s Cross to York, the manager told me that the tables were still being prepared – which was not true since they were fully laid – and could I please wait before sitting down. I politely said that I could not see why and found myself a table, prompting a revolt by my less stroppy fellow passengers who had been blocking the gangway who all then found themselves seats. The service thereafter, it must be said, was excellent.)

Things may be about to get worse and I suspect a plot by TranSec, the government agency in charge of transport and security and peopled, according to one of my sources, by ‘superannuated coppers and low grade spies, who had a very big role in Channel Tunnel arrangements, motivated by their cultural fear that Britain’s island status was threatened’. Since Network Rail is apparently committed to installing barriers at King’s Cross and St Pancras is also being targeted by Stagecoach, the aim seems to be to close up all the London termini. King’s Cross is a particularly inappropriate location since a very high proportion of travellers are long distance passengers, many of whom have luggage and, in any case, have been subjected to a ticket check on board.

Interestingly, in these days when it seems that business cases are needed for everything from installing an extra light to putting in bike racks (see my rant in Rail 448), no proper assessment of the business case for the installation of barriers has been produced. There is an intuitive perception that ‘they are a good thing’ and it may well be that there is a stronger case to protect suburban revenue (although not if the gates are left open as at Surbiton). But installing them at stations in the East Midlands, the East Coast and the London termini does not make intuitive sense especially in an age where ticketing is heading towards various new media, such as text messages or Print@Home. Yet, these barriers are being pushed very strongly by the Department in their franchise specifications.

So here’s the plot bit. Remember Gordon Brown’s recent announcement about improving security at stations. I suspect the barriers are being pushed by TranSec as the first stage of making access to major station platforms more difficult for putative terrorists. Of course, simply installing barriers does nothing in that respect since Mr Al Qaeda can buy a ticket, so the next stage would have to be checking luggage. TranSec clearly dreams of a machine that could process the thousands of people per hour seeking to get on trains at major stations seamlessly, a technological pipedream. In any case, it is nonsense. The London bombers, remember, got on at Lutonwhich has gates already, but they could equally have entered the system at any of the other 2,500 stations in the country, with their bombs. A security system is only as good as its weakest point and there will always be thousands on the railway.

This is not only the rantings of your esteemed columnist. There is great concern among many experienced railway managers at the automatic assumption that increasing use will be made of barriers and that this will improve security and boost revenue. In fact, the opposite may well be the case.

If you want to see an example of what must be security Nirvana in the underdeveloped brains of the likes of TranSec, look no further than the new St Pancras International. Having now seen it functioning, I can now more clearly see the aspects that are disappointing, and they are largely to do with security. The most intrusive is the ghastly glass screen, all of 10ft high, which separates the platforms from the open areas of the concourse. Not only is it so high that it would not be out of place on the Palestinian-Israeli border – presumably with the intention of stopping hand grenades or mortars or mad suicide bombers (though they could easily get over with the aid of a small step ladders) – but it encloses an area that is far too extensive. At the end of each platform there is an area about 20 metres long that, according to the architect, was necessary in the event that there was an attack which prevented people going downstairs but also did not allow them onto the trains.

Interestingly enough, when I bumped into a transport minister and a senior British Transport policeman recently, neither knew about this area, and yet it is a vast and ridiculous imposition on the station, for which the risk assessment must have been incredibly convoluted. TranSec, clearly, does not share its decisions very widely. After all, there are doors in the security barrier which could be opened in the event of an emergency but presumably that might allow Al Qaeda to escape along with the (already checked) passengers.

This leaves very little public space to for people to enjoy the ‘destination station’ and also rather kills the atmosphere in the station. There are no shops or signs or clutter on the platforms, which, contrary to what the PR people say, does not make for clean lines but instead means that rather than creating a hustling bustling hub, like, say, Grand Central or the Berlin Hauptbanhof, or even, more modestly, Paddington or Liverpool Street, the impression is of a sterile space more akin to the departure lounge of an airport terminal. The other piece of ridiculous security is the diversion that people are forced to make on leaving the train, passengers cannot just simply walk straight out, as at Gare du Nord or Bruxelles Midi but instead they are channelled down underneath the platforms to a customs and immigration area, despite the fact that they are checked prior to boarding the train, and into the basement concourse which is full of shopping opportunities, as the marketing people call them.

This will add another 5 minutes to the average journey of anyone wanting to go quickly to King’s Cross, further reducing the value of the overall service. Incidentally, while it is possible to go underground to Kings Cross, the road between the two stations which was narrowed during the refurbishment has been reopened. Not only is this daft, as the area between the two stations would create a lovely public space with cafes and small shops, but in terms of security it adds to the potential risks. Yet, this was not considered by TranSec. Security it seems, can always get in the way of the railway user but must never place any obstacle in the way of the motorist.

The fundamental point about all this is that we are allowing the terrorist to win. Very dubious security measures – like those ridiculous automatic warnings about taking your bags at all times – or the ban at some stations of cyclists’ pannier bags (but not of other passengers’ rucksacks or suitcases) are imposed on those least able to resist these measures.

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