The government has confirmed that it will push ahead with the worst kept secret in the railways — and close most of the ticket offices in railway stations across England. Under the plans, all ticket offices in their current form would close over the next three years, but major stations would retain ticket offices as travel centre hubs.

The argument generally being put forward is that people are increasingly buying tickets online and through ticket machines, and with the expansion of London-style contactless payments, there’s a reducing requirement for a dedicated ticket office in most stations.

So long as the staff swap from sitting behind a glass barrier to standing in front of it, there wouldn’t be a loss of human support for people buying tickets from machines at the station. It’s a method that works fairly well in London already.

The closures aren’t going to be as dramatic as people think either, as nearly half of the railway stations already don’t have a ticket office (some never have had one), and that 40 percent of ticket offices are only open part-time.

According to industry figures, less than a quarter of train journeys involve tickets bought on the day at the station — split roughly half and half between ticket offices and ticket machines.

Around half of tickets are bought in advance and the rest are paid for using smartcards and contactless.

Assuming nothing changes in how people buy tickets, then the 12 percent of people who buy tickets from a ticket office will be expected to switch to using ticket machines.

The Rail Delivery Groups says that an estimated 99% of all transactions made at ticket offices last year can be made at a ticket machine or online and where needed, ticket machines across the network will be improved and upgraded.

Of course, people will worry about unattended ticket machines breaking down, which is a valid concern, but then again, the ticket offices also break down – when staff are unavailable for some reason — so the difficulty of buying a ticket at a station is not a new problem being created, but an existing one that needs fixing.

Yes, you can buy tickets on the train if the station can’t sell you any, but that adds a sense of worry for the passengers that they won’t be treated as a fare dodger, and that’s not helpful to the concept of making rail travel a pleasant experience.

An argument already put forward is that there’s a disability access issue with closing the ticket offices, which would be a strong argument for keeping them if closing the ticket offices means the staff aren’t standing around the ticket hall to help anyway. If anything, I’d argue that having a person in the ticket hall to offer assistance in person is better for people with disabilities than having that same person sitting behind a glass wall in a ticket office.

So long as the staff are indeed in the ticket hall and visible that is. If not, then it’s a bad thing.

If the closure of the ticket offices leads to the availability of staff being reduced, then that’s a bigger problem and one that needs to be monitored closely.

Indeed, if all that is happening is that staff sitting behind the glass now start standing in front of it, what’s the fuss about?

It’s the perception that the loss of ticket offices, even if they are ultimately unnecessary makes rail travel more complicated and that could put people off rail travel. With ticket prices still rather complicated, to put it mildly, occasionally travellers mulling a choice between their car or the train for a long trip may decide that the closure of the ticket office means there’s no one to sell them tickets, and will avoid the railways.

At a time when the main argument for cuts is that revenues on the railways are below pre-pandemic levels — anything that could drive away customers is to be avoided.

Not that they have any choice now, but interestingly, the train companies may be less supportive of this than many people expect, as they are keen to boost revenues, and anything that might deter people from travelling by train is something the train companies would object to strongly.

In this sense, the classic Department for Transport (DfT) approach to the railways — as a cost to cut than a revenue source to increase — rears its head again.

Strangely, the approach being taken appears to be almost deliberately antagonistic by announing a big shakeup in a manner that will only motivate people and unions to object to the ideas being put forward, and when they are carried out anyway, to make a mockery of the consultations.

A less confrontational approach would have been to refurbish stations and upgrade ticket machines, and oh, while we’re at it, might as well close the old ticket office because it won’t be needed. If nothing else, at a time when the railways want more money, that’s a lot of small shops to rent out for extra income.

But the DfT is going for the big sharp cut rather than the gradual change.

A big risk is that doing this before Great British Railways is up and running, means there’s a decent chance that the necessary IT upgrades needed for ticket staff to work from a tablet in the ticket hall instead of the ticket office won’t be in place in time for the closures. Likewise, efforts to simplify ticketing prices so that people are more comfortable buying from ticket machines or online should come first.

Synchronising the changes to all come in together with the launch of Great British Railways would have made a lot more sense, even if it meant the DfT having to sit on its hands for another year or two.

The consultation has to come first, and by law, any ticket office closure requires a 21 day notice, with invitations for objections to the independent Transport Focus (or London Travelwatch).

It’s not expected that the changes will lead to redundancies, as staff will be trained to take on a wider set of roles within the railway, unless they choose to leave — and that’s the crux of the issue, it’s about modernising the railway so that it’s more flexible by removing vertical silos within the job descriptions that prevent staff in Dept A from working in Dept B.

Yes, a more flexible workforce with a wider set of skills means less need for dedicated specialist teams, and that means fewer staff overall are needed to run the stations. And that’s the cost-saving argument. The rail industry says that after the changes, across the network as a whole, there will be more staff available to give face to face help to customers out in stations than there are today.

However, as discussed, the changes could lead to the perception that the railways are less welcoming to passengers, and if that further reduces revenues at a time when they need to be rising, then this could be a pyrrhic victory.

The consultations will only affect stations within England owned by Network Rail, so not Scotland or Wales, Merseyrail, or the handful of stations in England looked after by Transport for Wales.

Although the formal consultations will be on a per-station basis, both Transport Focus and London Travelwatch are collecting opinions about the implications of the wider changes to the ticket offices across the rail network.

The closing date for comments for the consultation process is 26th July 2023.


Be the first to know what's on in London, and the latest news published on ianVisits.

You can unsubscribe at any time from my weekly emails.

Tagged with:

This website has been running now for over a decade, and while advertising revenue contributes to funding the website, it doesn't cover the costs. That is why I have set up a facility with DonorBox where you can contribute to the costs of the website and time invested in writing and research for the news articles.

It's very similar to the way The Guardian and many smaller websites are now seeking to generate an income in the face of rising costs and declining advertising.

Whether it's a one-off donation or a regular giver, every additional support goes a long way to covering the running costs of this website, and keeping you regularly topped up doses of Londony news and facts.

If you like what you read on here, then please support the website here.

Thank you

  1. Richard Martin says:

    Thank you Ian for your balanced, comprehensive and constructive commentary of this emotive subject. Since around half of the stations have a ticket office and many are only open part time, I believe that a phased closure over several years alongside the introduction of more machines would be more acceptable to the public. I guess the unions will still oppose wholesale closures, so while staff redeployment seems a fair it must ultimately be accepted by the unions as fair too.

  2. David Hawkins says:

    “That’s a lot of small shops to rent out for extra income.” So why can’t the small shops sell tickets to the small minority who can’t use ticket machines ? A kind of sub post office solution?

    • ianVisits says:

      I didn’t say they couldn’t – you should suggest that in the consultation.

    • Dave Jones says:

      There are a small number of stations where this is already done – e.g. Gobowen.

    • Moe El-Busaid says:

      As a member of station staff who has worked on the railways for 5 years, I’ve seen the benefits and drawbacks of ticket office closures, both from company perspective, staff perspective and the public perspective.

      Operationally it is beneficial having multi skilled staff who operate outside of the ticket office. Staff are mobile and can assist with situations on the platforms, or trains a lot quicker, which in turn can lead to less train delays, and greater customer satisfaction. However, when staff become mobile sometimes it’s harder for customers to find assistance. On the flip side with a ticket office there’s an easy reference point to direct all queries. In the case of London, the fare structure with London Underground is fairly simple, there’s 1 flat fare of £6.70 to all destinations irrespective of time, route or destination, so buying a ticket is fairly simple and having a ticket office is not really necessary, especially when you have the daily and weekly capping in place for oyster and contactless users, and staff members in ticket halls.

      However, on national rail ticketing is a lot more complex, there’s different routes, different train operators, peak, off peak, super off peak tickets, singles, day returns, open month returns. The fare structure is very complex, and for this reason, from the public perspective I would say wholesale closures of ticket offices to be a bad idea. You would need better ticket machines and payment methods, as well as the simplification of the whole fare structure to remove the need for ticket offices. Until that happens closing ticket offices will only lead to more instances of incorrect tickets being bought, which will lead to more confrontation with staff, which will ultimately lead to more assaults and feeling of disdain towards the whole railway system.

      From a staff members perspective being in the ticket office you are in a place of safety. So when instances arise when someone is really angry because their train is delayed, they got the wrong ticket, they need a refund or anything like that, the staff member is in a safe secure room. With mobile staff they are more susceptible to assaults. Another thing with mobile staff, is they are not able to process refunds. Unless this functionality is introduced on the machines or via handheld devices, this means all refunds are pushed online or via call centres, all of which is a lot more inconvenient and frustrating for the customer. Most customers would rather wait in a queue for 5 mins, and get there money back there and then, rather than have to call or go online later to get a refund. While closing ticket offices may save the train operators money on staffing in stations, in reality moving all refunds online/to call centres just means shifting the staffing costs from station operations to IT systems, call centres, etc etc. So in reality the saving made may not be that huge. I wonder how much TfL spends on its remote customer service centre, staffing and all the infrastructure related costs.

  3. Tim says:

    I appreciate that with declining sales of tickets from offices something needs to change, but I would challenge the idea that getting staff roving in the ticket hall is an improvement on having them behind a desk. Put them behind a desk and customers know where to find them, they have all their equipment with them and most importantly people know where to queue so that the system is fair. Some banks have done away with their desks and have their staff roaming the floor and it is a nightmare with noone knowing who’s turn it is to be seen next and tension and resentment resulting from that

  4. Alan O'Connor says:

    Leaving former ticket office staff simply to wander around the station concourse doesn’t seem a very good idea. My experience of this is that they disappear into corners to chat with colleagues. Better to have an obvious “customer services” booth in a central position for enquiries.
    Regarding the much lower railway passenger levels now being experienced, I find that many people are now unable or unwilling to use the railways because of the high cost of fares. This is particularly so for groups of people, where using a car is so much cheaper. In my view, railways operators are pricing themselves beyond the reach of most ordinary working people.

  5. NG says:

    You are over 66, you have a London Travelcard, right?
    YOU try getting “Boundary-zone6-to-Where-I’m-going” from the machine?
    See also today’s (Thursday) “Diamond Geezer” post on this subject, where one or two people are making very similar noises!
    Alan O’Connor – that might have been true last year, but ridership is well back up, now & still growing – you are a little behind the times.

    • Jen says:

      Absolutely. Machines only sell tickets to and from Right Here. If you want a ticket to the London boundary and back you need a human to sell it to you.

    • Jen says:

      …by which I meant *from* the London boundary and back.

  6. Keith says:

    The problem I see with closing ticket office at present…
    – There isn’t universal support for contactless tap in/out and QR tickets.
    – A simple pricing system, particularly when travelling on more than one operator, let alone to support a tap in/out system.
    – Railcards aren’t generally supported with contactless credit/debit cards & Apple/Google/Samsung Pay.

    If this was in place then as per TFL it would be less problematic closing ticket offices. Until then I agree upgrading station buildings and reducing down to a single ticket office would be more preferable to a complete closure.

    I’d like to think that this announcement is in part a negotiating tactic with their current RMT dispute. Maybe they’re hoping to negotiate a less dramatic option in exchange for the unions agreeing the current pay offer.

  7. Kit Green says:

    I was on a South Western train yesterday with no tickets available as the “guard” had no machine.

    Early this year on a very frosty morning I was at Southampton. The usualy fairly busy south concourse ticket office was closed. One staff member was busy dealing with ticket issues. He was shivering from the cold and really could have done with being in an office.

  8. Gerry says:

    It’s not very inclusive: contactless payment isn’t an option for the vulnerable 1.3 million people who are unbanked. Many stations only have ATMs that don’t accept cash.

    Similarly, cash fares are often made stupidly expensive to force people to use contactless cards (the Clubcard principle).

    Blind people will find it difficult to find a roving ticket seller, especially if they are beyond the gates or on some far away platform.

    Paper tickets often cost a lot more to encourage contactless use, but how does a railcard user pay contactlessly? You can’t load a railcard onto a bank card.

    How does a turn-up-and-go adult with two children and one bank card pay contactlessly?

    The inevitable result is that many people will find it easier and cheaper to go by car, while others won’t bother to travel at all.

  9. Judy Dunn says:

    Lots to think about here – thank you. I probably use the machines half the time but if the journey is complicated – or even simple, like a ticket just to zone 1 from Herts – or I need to change something, the staff are always helpful, and human interaction should not be a luxury. If there will always be someone with a tablet, it doesn’t seem so bad… Though I have every sympathy with the staff who are seeing their conditions upended.

  10. Derek Nicholls says:

    The comparison drawn by Tim to the banks’ creeping policy of abolishing “tellers” is an alarm bell. Exactly as he describes, I witnessed the resultant chaos in a “modernised” bank branch last week, with frustration almost palpable. I pity the staff roaming the “concourse”; how do they prioritise the hyperventilating “customer” who can’t get sense or ticket out of the machine; or the wheelchair user needing help boarding the same train as the hyperventilator. And the latter can’t be done on a concourse. All points for the consultation, as you point out Ian. Thanks for a good focusing piece again.

  11. Lizebeth says:

    The majority of us readers feel the same: this is just shuffling costs to the detriment of both rail staff and passengers. I have never used a ticket machine, and I don’t want to start now, especially if I am running late due to circumstances beyond my control, and I can’t get the machine to accept my railcard, or other unusual demand. As an 80-year old, I want to ask specific questions, and get answers from a person!

    Automated Checkouts now at most Supermarkets are another example of frustrated customers and one or two poor staff members trying to make the machines work, while people get annoyed. I can only imagine what it is like at banks these days, as mentioned above. What improvement can it possibly be to have staff roaming where they can’t be found, and where they don’t have a desk or counter at which to sort things out?

    What can we do, though???

  12. Ray White says:

    A notice has appeared at our local station, informing us about the closure of the ticket office and that there will be staff for HALF of each day, instead of all day every day. NOT an improvement. This is a foolish cost-cutting exercise by a vindictive and negative-thinking government…

  13. Claire Dalby says:

    This disgraceful plan will further marginalise disabled people.

    For a start you can’t book the wheelchair space on trains online, or from a ticket machine.

    Last time I travelled solo from Scotland to Oxford and back it involved a minimum of 3 trains all operated by different companies. Even the friendly and knowledgeable staff at my station found it extremely challenging to book the wheelchair spaces, as it appeared Arriva was not communicating with Scotrail.

    They also navigated the esoteric and Byzantine pricing structure for me to get the least expensive tickets.

    There is a petition to Parliament to stop this appalling plan:
    “Require train operators keep ticket offices and platform staff at train stations”

  14. Claire Dalby says:

    Whoops I meant Avanti, not Arriva

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Home >> News >> Transport News