Insight article

Going down the tube

We all took a sigh of relief yesterday as it was announced that the second week of planned London Underground strikes had been called off, saving us more travel chaos and disruption.

The threat of continued industrial action begs the question as to how Transport for London (TfL) has presented the proposed changes to its workers and the union. They've given us the rational side of the argument: savings of £50 million a year, reduced fares, more visible staff at stations to help customers, and all without involuntary redundancies. The union, RMT, has leapt into the rational counter argument of the potential impact of automisation: the loss of 950 jobs, unhappy customers who need help from people rather than machines, poorer service and compromised safety.

On the surface, both sides are presenting a rational argument of risks vs. benefits: a modernised, efficient service at the possible expense of customer service and jobs. But the union is also playing to the emotional arguments, which are likely to override the rational ones. Job cuts, poor service, unhappy customers, lack of safety – a dreary picture indeed. Who'd be in favour of that?

What is missing from TfL is a compelling vision of a modern, cutting-edge Underground, presented in a way that reminds people of what a fabulous transport system London has and why they should be proud of it. The threat of job cuts and risk to service and safety would be greatly diluted if the whole future scenario could be painted as a truly inspiring picture of success. They could be saying, for example, “we want to be recognised as the capital city in Europe with the safest and most efficient underground transport system”.

They could remind tube employees and the general public alike of the reasons to be so proud of a system that has been around since the 19th century and travels 43 million miles a year. It facilitates 1.2 billion passenger trips annually, keeping London’s workers and tourists moving. Nevertheless, fares are high, and as anyone who rides to work between 8:15 and 8:45am can tell you, the system is under stress. It’s tough to argue that some kind of modernisation isn’t necessary.

It may not be a silver bullet, but creating a real sense of pride, purpose and an inspiring vision will make the clunkiness of the operational changes required to get there more palatable. Dare I say, even necessary.

Nailia Tasseel