Female passenger operating ticket machine

England’s blanket ticket office closures met with widespread anger

Female passenger operating ticket machine at Hayes and Harlington station in the west of London Network Rail media centre

Passenger train operators have proposed widespread closures to the majority of rail station ticket offices in England. Even in the age of online booking and smart cards, ticket offices remain at many main line stations, and the public are up in arms, even if the majority prefer to use their iPhones, rather than face the station master eye to eye. Unions say it’s yet another attack on loyal railway employees. The government says the railway has to modernise if it is to survive.

It is widely believed that the UK government, which underwrites the railways in England, is behind the proposals to closure the vast majority of railway station ticket offices in England. The speed with which the proposals have been tabled has brought about a furious reaction from all over the country. Civic groups and supporters around the country have rallied to the cause, and forced the government to extend its implausibly brief public consultation period. Memories are being evoked of the unseemly haste with which the rationalisation of the 1960s was pushed through. Battle lines are being drawn.

Passengers and stakeholders share their viewstickpas

The passenger train operators’ proposals have sparked widespread debate as the public expresses their concerns about ticket office closures and their impact on passenger experience. The UK government backed initiative to close all railway station ticket offices in England has stirred significant controversy and public concern. As part of the consultation process, passengers and stakeholders have been invited to share their views on the potential changes, with the deadline extended until the end of August to gather comprehensive feedback. Already many a quill has been sharpened, and very of the huge volume of words has been in support of the idea of denuding the railway of the traditional ticket office, with the alternative of putting staff on the platform being widely derided.

The proposal has been met with resistance from various groups. Critics argue that closing ticket offices will lead to reduced service quality, longer waiting times, and challenges in purchasing tickets, particularly for those unfamiliar with digital systems. This potential reduction in customer support could disproportionately impact elderly passengers, people with disabilities, and those less tech-savvy, limiting their access to rail services. In short, they say, it’s a disincentive to travel by rail, offsetting any short term and ill-advised financial savings. The train drivers’ union ASLEF has launched a coordinated campaign to “Save Our Railway Ticket Offices.” The union argues that closing ticket offices would have adverse effects on passengers and rail staff, reducing access to assistance and customer support, particularly for those who prefer face-to-face interactions or have specific travel needs.

Local concerns could swamp national question

Transport Focus, an independent watchdog representing passengers’ interests, is facilitating the consultation process. Under legislation called the Ticketing and Settlement Agreement, train operators are required to consult with Transport Focus and provide passengers with an opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposed changes. Notices have been posted at affected ticket offices, directing passengers to provide feedback through Transport Focus. In the capital, which has the biggest suburban network in the UK, the organisation called London Travelwatch is handling the process for passengers using stations in and around the London area. Additionally, train operating companies have published detailed information about the plans online for public review. Generally there is good visibility of the proposals and the consultation. However, their remains a widespread concern that the travelling public and station staff already face a fait accompli.

The ornate roof of the booking hall at Edinburgh Waverley station
The ornate roof of the booking hall at Edinburgh Waverley station. This World Heritage Site was developed for the purpose of issuing train tickets. If England’s plans extend to Scotland, the future might see it reduced to burger bars and benches.

In the bizarre context of the fracture British railway hierarchy, the consultation process is unique for each train company, leading to thirteen separate consultations running simultaneously. This does mean that feedback on individual stations and specific train companies is prevalent, responses expressing national-level concerns or general views will also be recording alongside any local concerns. Opposition bodies might reasonably claim that the volume of local concerns will drown out the bigger picture.

Extended consultation period ends this month

The situation in Scotland and Wales stands in contrast, where different approaches have been taken to maintain ticket offices and improve passenger experience. That said, there is no universal implementation of ticket office staffing. For example, the opening of the improved Bathgate station in West Lothian saw a ticket office added to cope with increasing demand. However, in the Scottish Borders, the entire Borders Railway opened in 2016, with only one station (Galasheils) having any provision for a ticket office – and then only as part of a wider transport hub. Nevertheless, both the Scottish and Welsh rail networks will continue to benefit from the presence of ticket offices, offering travellers in-person assistance, ticket purchasing options, and a higher level of customer service. Northern Ireland, where the public transport administration is significantly different, and significantly more integrated, is not part of these proposals.

With the extended consultation period ending on Friday, 1 September 2023, public feedback and stakeholder responses will play a crucial role in shaping the final decision on railway station ticket offices throughout England. As the debate continues, passengers and industry representatives say the government must find a balanced approach that considers both technological advancements and the diverse needs of rail users, ensuring a seamless and accessible rail system for all. It would only be the most blinkered of observers that said this was in no way a response to the ongoing acrimonious Industrail disputes that blight the network.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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