ABBey 1234: 1938—2010

For many young people like myself, it may be hard to believe that there was an era before Google Transit, when planning a journey to an unfamiliar place on public transit meant sitting down with maps and timetables and working out the exact details by hand. If you didn’t have a complete set of timetables and maps on hand, then you had to call the transit agency’s information line. There, you’d speak to a staff member who, armed with maps and timetables, would give you the information you needed to complete your journey. Later, they had access to computers—primitive versions of today’s trip planners—but before the Internet, you couldn’t access those databases directly; you still had to call the call center first. (For a discussion of this type of system, see this article by David Maltby in Transport Reviews on a system used by Greater Manchester Transport in the late 1980s.)

In London, the number to call was 020 7222 1234, until October 25, when Transport for London withdrew that number from service and replaced it with 0843 222 1234. This may not seem like a big deal, until you realize that in doing so TfL has thrown away more than seventy years of history. For many years the number to call was 01 222 1234, which became 071 222 1234, which then became 0171 222 1234, which finally became 020 7222 1234 (this was part of the great renumberings of the 1990s). In fact, the history goes even further back than that; before the introduction of subscriber trunk dialing, 01 222 1234 would have been “ABBey 1234″—and that number goes back to April 2, 1938, according to Mike Horne’s history of telecommunications on the London Underground.

There’s more than the lost history, though; the 020 number was a local number, and the 0843 number is not. In the US, the only non-local domestic numbers which cost more than a normal toll call are 900 numbers, but in the UK, there’s a whole class of so-called “non-geographic numbers” which cost more than a normal toll call, and for which the rate charged depends on your provider and the number you’re calling, and the 0843 number is one of those non-geographic numbers. TfL has a really fantastic journey planner, but for people without Internet access, or with more complex travel needs, the best option was to call for information. Now, they’ll be connected to “a voice-activated service that will deal with simple A to B journeys between stations, hospitals, major landmarks or points of interest within the London area”, and they’ll be paying for the privilege of doing so, no less.

According to a post in uk.transport.london, this change came about as a result of infrastructure changes by TfL—but infrastructure changes alone do not strike me as sufficient reason to introduce a service which costs more, does less, and does away with 72 years of history.