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21 November 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 10:31am

A 24-hour Tube doesn’t make 750 job losses any better

It's hard not to see the prospect of all-night Tube parties as a distraction from the larger issue of budget cuts to the capital's transport network.

By Ian Steadman

Rarely has a transport announcement caused such joy, but Londoners – long jealous of their New York City cousins across the pond – are finally getting a 24-hour Tube service. It’s only on Fridays and Saturdays, and it’s only on five lines (well, four-and-a-half, technically), but this is big news.

The night bus, those post-midnight caravels that weave their way through the streets of pre-dawn London, will no longer be one of the defining experiences of the city’s nightlife.

The choice of lines to stay open is a curious one, apparently justified because of signalling and train upgrades that will make all-night operation possible by 2015. Still, it’s clearly a move that is aimed at the West End – those lines all go through there, and it’s the Northern line’s Bank branch (which goes along the edge of Shoreditch, another nightlife centre) that misses out. More lines may begin all-night operation over the years, subject to a range of factors, Transport for London has said.

It’s not all good news, though. TfL will be closing every single ticket office across the Tube network, with the loss of 750 jobs. That’s a huge cut, and directly contradicts Boris Johnson’s 2008 manifesto pledge to stop any ticket office closures.

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The justification, according to TfL, is that there will still be at least one member of staff in every station that is open at all times. However, they’re going to be given “the latest mobile technology” (read: iPads with WiFi) so they can keep an eye on things no matter where they are in the station. For some stations, this could be fine; for others, especially those in busy tourist areas – where everyone will be expected to buy their tickets from machines – it could be much worse. There will be six “information centres” kept open in the six busiest tube stations (Waterloo, Victoria, King’s Cross-St Pancras, Oxford Circus, London Bridge, Liverpool Street) but that’s your lot.

Night buses can be frightening places, especially for women. The thought of taking that experience underground, alone, in a large station with only one person on duty to offer help if needed, is a cause for concern. The RMT has made it clear that it considers these staffing changes a threat to passenger safety; ironically, considering Boris Johnson’s determination to switch the Tube to driverless trains as a way to prevent strikes, the extra night trains will probably mean new drivers will be hired, increasing the RMT’s leverage.

There are also changes to how tickets work. TfL is already phasing out cash payments for bus tickets and has introduced compatibility with contactless debit and credit cards, and a similar push is being made with the Underground. For most people this makes sense, as the changes will make it so that there’s a daily and weekly cap on how much your card is charged to create de facto travelcards. While there are no plans to get rid of Oyster, it’s clearly not going to be around forever. This creates problems of accessibility for that significant minority who will find it harder to pay for their journeys, either because they haven’t got a bank account with which to get a contactless card, or who find using ticket machines difficult.

It’s very hard not to see the announcement of a 24-hour Tube as a way of drowning out the large job losses and controversial changes to how transport in London will work. There’s a big hole in TfL’s budget thanks to a £225m drop in funding from central government, and two main tools to combat that are above-inflation fare rises (check) and staff cuts (check) – these plans, as announced, will save £270m for TfL in operation costs over five years.

Quite a lot of that funding gap would have been covered by not doing things like building a crap cable car or commissioning a pointless custom-built bus, but it’s too late now. Oh well.

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Now listen to Ian discussing this with Helen Lewis on the NS Podcast: