Have we queued our last?

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ON the first day of the Selfridges sale in London last week, more than 1,000 bargain hunters waited in an orderly queue for the doors to open. It was a sight that would have pleased the late Harry G Selfridge, the man who invented the idea of the annual sale, which gave birth to the annual mega-queue.

But while the sales remain the same, the great British queue is changing. As it shuffles towards the end of the century, it is under attack from both queue jumpers - particularly at bus stops - and modernisers who want to use new systems to avoid people waiting at all.

In 1837 the historian Carlyle made the first recorded use of the word queue, praising the French for their 'talent of spontaneously standing in a queue'. Forty years later Paris was still being described as the best place to wait in line. Queueing theory - research into the random arrival of customers for a given service - began at the turn of the century, when it was applied to the Copenhagen telephone exchange. It soon caught on in Britain. The Second World War saw the golden age of queueing, when civilians joined any stationary line in the hope that it led to a shop actually selling something. (Second World War joke. Shopkeeper with rationed supplies: 'Excuse me, Miss, are you pregnant?' Young woman: 'Well, I wasn't when I joined the queue.') The expression 'queue jumping' did not arrive until 1959. Perhaps folk were patient before then because there were fewer occasions on which they had to hang around. Today we spend, according to a Minnesota University survey, five years of our lives queueing - as opposed to a mere 12 months that is wasted in looking for things we've lost.

Many people no longer seem to have the patience to stand in a queue. The Victoria coach station in central London is introducing an airport-style boarding system to avoid what have become unseemly battles to get on to coaches.

'The race across the tarmac has been the bane of boarding,' explained Warwick Hillman, the managing director. 'Those who were in their school scrum make it first into the coach; the old and infirm are last.'

The law of the jungle has also begun to operate at bus stops. According to Rufus Barnes, secretary of the London Regional Passengers' Committee: 'In the morning you see people piling out of Charing Cross station and it tends to be a case of everyone - and their elbows - for themselves.'

Away from these queueing black spots, though, Britain is still one of the best places in the world to queue.

'We certainly seem to do it much better than a lot of other nations,' agreed David Worthington, the guru of the queue. A lecturer in the Department of Management Science at the University of Lancaster, Dr Worthington devotes a hefty chunk of his timetable to the study of queueing.

He has just returned from Tanzania where one of his students is researching for a PhD thesis on bank queues. Another student is grappling with the overloaded Mexico City underground system.

Is Britain moving away from a tradition of organised queueing towards disorganised shoving? Dr Worthington answers carefully: 'As we get more Europeanised, that would be a tendency. You could formulate a hypothesis that we are adopting EC patterns of behaviour.'

It is not surprising that passions are high. Dr Worthington, who has carried out several studies of hospital out-patients departments, feels that the National Health Service can be seen as 'one massive queueing system'. For example, the same appointment time for the same doctor is often given to several patients at once.

''That is avoidable. You can design a system either in favour of the doctor, or of the patient. If you design it so that there are not many patients, there is a chance, given non-attendance, or the patient spending one minute instead of five with the consultant, that there is nobody in the waiting-room.

'The way to guarantee enough patients is to overbook. You see the doctor's time as being very important and there is a tendency to very much undervalue the patient's time.'

One solution lies with the medics themselves: 'Junior doctors will err on the safe side and tell a patient, 'I think you're all right, but come back in six months'.'

If their consultant kept more of an eye on them, the young doctors might have the confidence to discharge those patients for good.

While an appointments system has no excuse for lengthy delays, it is obvious that queues of some sort are bound to form at any place where people can turn up completely at random. There are formulae for this, explained Dr Worthington.

'One of the simplest queueing systems says: the average number of people queueing would be equal to the arrival rate (Greek lamda) divided by the rate at which they are served (mu) minus the arrival rate, that is, lamda over mu minus lamda.

'If there are nine people an hour and the service can handle ten people an hour, the average number in the queue would be 9 10 - 9 = 9 1 = 9.'

That is, it just copes. One way of making life easier for those nine people is to introduce 'queue elimination' or 'queue management'. Customers at supermarket cheese counters can now take a ticket with a number which will be flashed up when it is their turn, thus leaving them free to whip down a nearby aisle or two.

'The idea was first thought of in 1895 by a butcher in Scotland,' said Terry O'Donovan, of Lonsto, which provides 'thinking ticket machines' for shops and government departments, such as passport and benefit offices. 'You took a wooden peg when you went in and the butcher would call out the number.' A more sophisticated system is used in the InterCity advanced booking centre of Waverley station in Edinburgh, which provides a special ticket telling passengers how long they can expect to wait to be served. The new Channel Tunnel Terminal at Waterloo will do the same for trains leaving the same day.

This revolutionary technology can take some of the pain out of waiting, but will never banish the queue altogther. No system can eliminate the queues at the Half-price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square in London. At 2.30pm the line of hopeful theatre-goers, protected from the elements only by golfing umbrellas, can stretch over the equivalent of two sides of the square and take over an hour to reach base.

'The most frustrating thing is that although there are two huge boards listing the shows, there are people who will queue for three-quarters of an hour and completely ignore them,' said manager Brian Keeping. 'They ask for Phantom of the Opera tickets; it's completely sold out until March.'

Maybe they just like queueing. Harrods knows the type: 'Two years ago there was a gentleman who came up from Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve, queued here all night and at nine o'clock went home for breakfast without coming in,' recalled a spokesman. 'Maybe he queued for the sake of queueing.'

For people like him, the good news is that there are only 363 more queueing days to the 1995 January sales.

(Photographs omitted)