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.