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I have only fainted once in my life. It happened last May on a tube train just as it was pulling into Turnham Green station in west London. I was standing up when I passed out and a fellow passenger helped me onto the platform. Very quickly a member of the station’s staff took over and I was able to explain to him that I had suddenly felt very ill at work after eating a takeaway salad. I can remember how through a haze of nausea the staff member looked after me for close to an hour, arranged for a cleaner to come and clear up the mess and then put me on a train home, putting me in the first carriage and telling the driver to keep an eye on me.
As I was leaving he also told me that the London mayor, Boris Johnson, was getting rid of jobs like his and that soon there would be no station staff left.
One afternoon a few days later, I went back to the station with a card and a small gift. There were no station staff around but I found someone in an office who told me the man who had helped me had a job working at a number of stations and wasn’t on duty at Turnham Green that day.
What will happen after all the ticket offices at tube stations have closed if Transport for London (TfL) and Boris Johnson get their way? TfL says on its website that all stations will be staffed and controlled at all times with more staff visible to help customers.
The RMT and TSSA unions don’t believe it and are staging a 48-hour strike starting tonight and another 48-hour stoppage next week.
Their grounds for scepticism are well-founded because TfL is giving precious few details about its plans for staffing tube stations. It says it want to cut close to 1,000 ticket office jobs and to redeploy some 200 people to work on the planned 24-hour tube service beginning in 2015. With TfL involved in a heavy investment programme it is a fair bet that it is anxious to cut staffing costs as the unions claim. The only guarantee that stations will be staffed is to keep ticket offices open. In contradiction of TfL’s current plans, Boris Johnson pledged in his 2008 manifesto to stop proposed ticket office closures in outer London saying that “manned ticket offices provide a reassuring, visible presence”.
However, even now finding a member of staff at some suburban stations is a matter of luck as my experience showed. We need staff at our stations to make us feel safe, to assist with routine enquiries and of course to help us in emergencies. There is the potential for every tube passenger to need help at some point and so staffing stations serves the common good. As the Bishops of England and Wales said in their 2010 document, "Choosing the Common Good": "'Because we are interdependent, the common good is more like a multiplication sum, where if any one number is zero then the total is always zero. If anyone is left out and deprived of what is essential, then the common good has been betrayed" (Chapter 8). Hang the expense, we can’t afford not to have station staff.
The strikes are mighty inconvenient and I am dreading the long queue at the bus stop, the overcrowded buses and the likely long walk to work. But until TfL backs up its claims with details of precisely how many staff it plans to have on each station and the hours they will work I know whose side I’m on.
Elena Curti is The Tablet's deputy editor