Paul Salveson on the campaign to stop the closure of rail ticket offices
The last month has seen an unparalleled explosion of passenger anger over the Government’s plans to close down hundreds of station ticket offices. It is being presented as a proposal by the train companies, who manage most station ticket offices, but there is no question that this is Government -inspired.
It has been spectacularly badly managed. The original consultation period offered just over three weeks for people to respond to what is one of the biggest changes proposed for the railways since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Whilst Beeching was far worse, cutting thousands of miles of track, the attitude demonstrated by the cuts has much in common. It is a sledgehammer approach with no analysis of particular stations, still less any consideration of how ticket offices could widen their scope to take in other retail activities. Groups like the Rail Reform Group have proposed re-purposing the traditional ticket office to offer a wider range of services and goods, whilst retaining ticket sales.
It is being foisted on train operating companies by a Government which is desperate to save money on the railways, following Covid and as well as the on-going strikes. There is an element of political spite in all of it, as a way of attacking the unions and cutting staff.
It makes no sense in terms of passenger convenience, despite the hype that we will somehow get a better service. While a lot has been said, rightly, about how elderly and disabled people will be particularly hit, it cuts across most rail users. Ticket machines can be OK if you’re making a simple journey, but you may well need help if the trip involves several changes, route options and possibly starting from a different station. Tourists from abroad using the rail network need help from a friendly face, not trying to work out a route by machine – and often paying too much.
Much has been made of the figure of “only” 12% of ticket sales coming through staffed ticket offices. Yet that masks large variation across the network and we are not told what percentage of revenue is taken by the different methods. My suspicion is that ticket offices take much more than 12% of revenue, as opposed to numerical sales, because people tend to use staffed offices for longer and usually more costly journeys.
Lest anyone thinks I’m being too easy on the train companies, let’s just spell it out. This is an English, Tory Government project. There are no plans to close ticket offices where there is devolved government, including Scotland, Wales, Merseyside and Greater London where TfL control stations through their London Overground operator. In Scotland there will be the ludicrous situation of some of the busiest stations, such as Glasgow Central, having no ticket office while small local stations, run by ScotRail (owned by the Scottish Government) will keep there’s. Liverpool Lime Street, operated by Avanti, loses its ticket office but all local stations run by Merseyrail will remain open.
The proposals say that no station currently with a ticket office will be left unstaffed yet these are weasel words. At most locations there will be ‘flexible’ staff who provide assistance to passengers, but their hours of attendance will typically be no more than a couple of hours per day.
The trade unions are fighting back with petitions, marches, demonstrations, posters, leaflets and social media initiatives. The consultation process was extended to September 1st as a result of public pressure, which suggests the Government is already on the back foot. There is a Parliamentary Petition that is still open and has already attracted 76,403 signatures (as of 22nd August). It is worded ‘require train operators keep ticket offices and platform staff at train stations’. Should the petition exceed 100,000 signatures before the deadline on 18th October it will be considered for a parliamentary debate. The weblink to sign the petition is https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/636542 .
If train companies (and their Government bosses) are determined to close some of the smaller ticket offices, then offer them rent-free to social enterprises, with suitable training and assistance in purchasing equipment (much of which could be redundant if the plans go through). This model already works at stations like Gobowen and Millom, which will not of course be closed.
The ‘Beeching of the Booking Office’ can be reversed. It is part of an attempt to ‘dehumanise’ public transport at a time when people need people for all sorts of reasons – safety and security, information, reassurance. It’s time to make a stand: To the barriers, comrades!
Paul’s latest book “Lancastrians – Mills, Mines and Minarets” is now available, published by Hurst, see www.hurstpublishers.com Chartist readers can get a 25% discount by entering the code “Lancastrians25’ on checkout. Paul’s website is www.lancashireloominary.co.uk