England’s ticket offices saved after government aborts mass closure plan
The people have spoken in a furious response to a consultation. A petition to parliament, signed in unprecedented numbers, has forced an abandonment of government plans to close hundreds of ticket offices at stations across England. The news has been met with cautious joy from passengers, representative groups and trades unions. However, the sudden reversal of the plans has left train operating companies indignant. They had already made extensive plans to implement the closures at the behest of government directives.
After initially proposed the hugely unpopular plan, the UK transport secretary Mark Harper has now told train operators to withdraw their plans to close almost all ticket offices in England. His directive is in response to a public outcry at the proposals, which roundly derided the scheme. Harper says the plans failed to meet high passenger standards, although most observers say he radically misjudged public feeling on the issue. Passenger representative groups had lobbied vigorously for the plans to be dropped, despite widely circulated figures which claim only about one ticket in eight is bought at a ticket office. Rail bosses however are unrepentant, and have been outraged at yet another government u-turn, and having the blame cast upon them for the debacle.
Overwhelming response against closures
The decision from transport secretary Mark Harper comes after widespread concerns from rail users, trade unions, and disability advocacy groups. Harper told train operating companies in the passenger sector that they must cut costs, in return for the massive government subsidies handed out during the pandemic. The government minister commissioned the industry to come up with ideas, suggesting the review of station staffing and ticket offices. Originally, train companies had argued that staff would be better utilised assisting passengers, in person at various stations, contending that only twelve per cent of tickets were purchased at station ticket offices. The reasons behind that figure may be self-fulfilling. Public perception of ticket offices has declined in the digital age, and train companies themselves, in line with many other retail sectors, have been actively encouraging customers to book online.
Ticket office purchases tend to be routine transactions, with no facility for in-depth consultation with ticket clerks. A queue of commuters keen to renew travel passes would not welcome such a delay. However, passenger watchdogs Transport Focus and London Travelwatch strongly objected to the proposals. They cited an overwhelming response of 750,000 individuals and organisations in a public consultation, which expressed a litany of concerns about potential changes. It would seem the power of the people has won the day, in what might legitimately be described as a “no brainer”.
Travel consultancy not on the agenda
While the watchdogs managed to secure significant changes, including maintaining existing staff availability times at many stations, serious concerns still linger. These included apprehensions about ticket machine capabilities, accessibility, and the delivery of passenger assistance and information in the future. Nowhere in the revised proposals are there any expectations of a travel consultancy style provision in addition to the ticket window interface, which has hardly changed since the Victorian era. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had initially supported the closures in September, stating that it was in the best interest of the British public and taxpayers. His views were clearly his own. Fellow parliamentarians cautioned that the plans were moving too swiftly and too aggressively.
In a high-handed announcement, the transport secretary Mark Harper has emphasised that the government had consistently communicated to the rail industry that any resulting proposals must meet a high threshold in serving passengers. That seems at odds with the huge public outcry, and his attempts to blame the rail industry have been met with anger among passenger train operators, who claim the proposals were endorsed by officials and ministers at the Department for Transport and that claiming they fell short of expectations was disingenuous.
Opposition politicians just as angry
“Train companies committed to a genuine consultation, and worked closely with passenger bodies to build and improve on the original plans”, said Jacqueline Starr, the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the interests of operators in the UK. “We listened, and we pledged that the vast majority of cases, stations with staff today would continue to be staffed tomorrow and with similar operating hours. We pledged to upgrade ticket vending machines and that all stations will have a single welcome point, developed in partnership with accessibility groups and passenger bodies. We pledged any changes would be introduced gradually, with regular feedback and review in a process fully involving London TravelWatch and Transport Focus.”
Opposition politicians were no less angry. The socialist Labour Party’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh labeled the reversal as shambolic and a humiliating climbdown. She said that the exercise had been a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. Nevertheless, trades unions, who are largely aligned with the party called the turnaround a victory. TSSA, the union representing rail ticket office workers, expressed delight, while cautioning that over 2,000 jobs would have been at risk if the closures had proceeded.
Entire project was ill-conceived
The Rail Delivery Group has confirmed that no redundancy notices have been issued to staff. However, discussions have been initiated with rail unions regarding staff retraining, potential role transitions, and the consideration of a voluntary severance scheme. Disability campaigners welcomed the reversal as a bittersweet victory. “It’s not a step forward”, said Katie Pennick of Transport for All, their campaigns manager. “Instead we have resisted things getting worse. While we are proud of the incredible tenacity of disabled people and our community for securing this major campaign victory, the outcome is bittersweet. The disastrous and discriminatory proposals should never have been put forward.”
The scheme was limited to England. The other nations of the United Kingdom have devolved responsibility for transport issues and did not participate in the scheme. It is hard to disagree with the consensus that the entire project was ill-conceived and has met with the only fate it could have expected. Recriminations are likely to continue between the train operators and the government for some time to come. To witness the argument, the public may well want a ringside seat. At least they’ll have an office from which to buy their tickets.