Mark Steel: Bumper cars may be the future for the Tube

The staff will be utterly flexible, so if they have a spare minute they can take over the busking or begging
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The Independent Online

Newspapers love a transport strike. Reporters delight in quoting commuters making statements such as "They didn't stop me getting in. I built a gondola and punted it in from Stevenage up the sewer system." And this week's strike was on the London Underground, so there were plenty of stories like "One plucky firm of accountants beat the chaos by issuing shovels to its staff so they could dig their own tunnel."

Even better, there's the threat of a strike by airline pilots. The right-wing newspapers must already be preparing a story: "Travellers to Frankfurt refused to be intimidated by the unions, and built a huge catapult to propel them to their destination." A spokesman said, 'Obviously we couldn't take as much hand luggage as normal, but we made it on time to the sales conference and that's all that matters'."

The dispute at London Underground concerns plans by management to reduce the station staff by around 450 employees, so that ticket offices will shut earlier and there will be fewer people to assist passengers. But the management's best work is the splendid name for this process - "customer-driven rostering". So presumably hundreds of underground train customers wrote letters of complaint that began, "My otherwise delightful journey from Paddington to Baker Street was utterly spoilt when I saw that the ticket office was still open at 10 past seven. This was, to say the least, unnecessary as I already had a ticket! But on top of that the blue of the booking clerk's uniform clashed horribly with the grey of the escalator to create an aesthetically displeasing vista. Rest assured that in future I will make my way home by the Paris Metro!"

The body that runs the Underground, Transport for London, says the union's two-day strike disgracefully inconvenienced the public. So the logic is, instead of taking staff off the stations, the unions should help the public by letting management get on with taking staff off the stations.

And yet most travellers on the Underground are familiar with the moment you have to call on station staff to let you through that side gate, when the barriers won't let you pass because you've upset the system by having a huge bag or a small child. I suppose in future you'll just have to wait until the child grows up enough to be able to climb over themselves, or until someone coming the other way agrees to adopt them. By the time of the Olympics, there'll be hundreds of athletes trapped in stations because their travelcard didn't work, the light flashed "Seek assistance" and now they live on the broken escalator, having given up hope of finding any.

And all this is when you'd think they'd want more staff, not less. As well as the growing number of passengers, the Underground is now a terrorist target. Or maybe Transport for London has done a deal with Bin Laden, and he's also agreed to reduce staffing levels. Perhaps he's issued a statement that "Recent developments in major transport systems have left our organisation overmanned, and to maintain a modern terrorist network will require slimming of personnel, though we are ruling out compulsory redundancies at this stage."

The union is also concerned that fewer staff will affect safety in normal times. They may have a case, as the attempt to keep stations open through the strike involved several jobs being undertaken by untrained staff. For example, Moorgate station was under the supervision of someone whose normal job is head of human resources. At least this would make for interesting dialogue - "Can you tell me which way to the southbound platform?" - "Is that the real issue? Perhaps your daily routine has become a rut. Explore your talents, face a new challenge - go north, say 'I can go to Kentish Town'. Next."

So why are they doing it? Partly it must be because the New Labour view is that for an organisation to be modern means it must have hardly any staff. If a New Labour advisor went to the Antarctic he'd think, "This is how to run a continent - not a soul." But enthusiasm for cutting staff doesn't originate with New Labour. On the underground, as more passengers now have travelcards or Oyster cards, the ticket offices sell fewer tickets - so the station staff are still needed but at times have less to do. And the management can't abide the idea that staff might be getting paid during moments when they're not doing something. Especially now that the management includes companies such as Jarvis, Bechtel and Balfour Beatty. It's the same mentality that led 19th-century mill owners to rejoice, when they discovered soft food increased productivity because "our workers no longer waste time chewing."

There's probably a business studies graduate in Bechtel proudly working on a paper that will propose franchising the whole network out to a fairground. Then the remaining workforce can spend any spare moments ushering passengers on to the trains that won't move until they're packed. Eventually the trains could all be replaced with bumper cars and they could get rid of the drivers as well.

The staff will be utterly flexible, so if they have a spare minute they can take over the busking or begging. And to exploit the commercial potential, there will be a series of customer-driven sponsored announcements, such as "Mind the GAP sale - starts tomorrow" and "Today's fatality under a train was brought to you by Exit - for a Circle Line suicide with a smile."