Jeremy Brier: Signal failure - it’s now Tube policy to ignore fare-dodgers for fear of assault
Having foolishly left my bag on a tube train two nights ago (don’t worry: its most valuable contents was an invitation to the Harrow Conservatives barbecue which I reckon I can gatecrash), I felt I should helpfully alert the nearest Station Master to my oversight to prevent some Responsible Citizen or other pulling the emergency chord in fear of the infamous Unidentified Package.
As the kind and upright Station Master listened to my tale of incompetence and social concern with mild indifference, I witnessed an extraordinary thing: two girls (about 18 or 19 years old) leapfrogged over the ticket barriers and arrived a foot away from us, ready to head down the escalator to their train without a valid ticket. I stopped. I stared at their brazenness. And I looked at the Station Master. He looked back and he read my mind (“WHY don’t you DO something?”). The Station Master replied forlornly: “We’re not allowed to do anything anymore”.
'What?' I said. People are allowed to jump the tube barriers and not be caught out? Quite so. He told me (in strictest confidence mind, so I was sworn to secrecy) that London Underground have issued a written edict to all their station staff in London that under no circumstances are they to prevent, stop or punish barrier-jumpers on the basis that the cost to London Underground of their staff doing such a thing and then being assaulted is significantly greater than the cost to them in lost fares.
Think it through: if you can get all the law-abiding citizens of London to pay a little bit more on their tickets to cover the cost of the criminal minority who evade their fares, that is far more economically efficient (if the law abiding customers comply, which they have to) than risking your staff’s health and safety when an inevitable result of their interventions will be their injury and consequent absence from work.
While this might seem like a small incident, it is actually a tremendously concerning sign of the times. Those decent men and women who work in stations and other services run for the public, and in whom we trust to enforce the law and help us in our daily lives, are now being told that they must not stand up for proper behaviour (and so cannot feel proud of their own jobs and positions, they told me) because their management are living in fear of criminals. And they secretly rely on the honest majority to subsidize them.
There are lots of responses to this situation: the technical side needs more thought (if London Underground had constructed taller ticket barriers as in other European cities then this problem simply would not occur on the same scale); the importance of having police in our stations at night is also becoming increasingly obvious (this week, incidentally, there was another fatal stabbing outside Finsbury Park tube).
However, perhaps we also need to think harder and longer-term about our capital city (using these day-to-day microcosms of London life as a prism) if we are going to halt this tyranny of delinquency which we fund. It would be nice to think (for example) that our Mayor might devote himself to leading a debate on this rather than busying himself with entertaining President Chavez and publishing newspapers to glorify his pathetic non-achievements.
The girls ran down the escalator and smiled back at us. “They do it every day” said the Station Master. And why wouldn’t they?