England’s plan to close ticket offices may prompt parliamentary debate
A groundswell of opposition has prompted a delay in the contentious plans to close the majority of rail station ticket offices across England. The public consultation, which concluded recently, amassed an unprecedented 680,000 responses, a record according to rail passenger watchdogs. Originally slated for assessment by 6 October, both Transport Focus and London Travelwatch requested an extension due to the sheer volume of feedback. In a government concession, they now having until the end of October to complete their evaluation.
The government-backed watchdogs, Transport Focus and London Travelwatch, have been compiling public opinions and industry feedback concerning the proposals to close almost all ticket offices at stations in England. That response has been both overwhelming and overwhelmingly angry. The concession by the government in London, to allow additional time to consider consultation responses has been grasped by opposition voices as a herald of a u-turn on the plan.
Escalate to the transport secretary
Everyone from passenger forums to trades unions and disability advocacy groups have vociferously criticised the proposed mass closure of ticket offices in England. They universally say the changes are for the worse, citing apprehensions regarding safety and accessibility. The blueprint, revealed in early July, is part of a wider directive urging train companies to trim costs, thereby intensifying the debate.
The passenger representative bodies appointed to collate the consultation responses, have been given extra time to document the extensive public input. By the end of October, they will articulate their response to each train operating company’s proposals. Should the watchdogs raise objections, operators retain the option to escalate the matter to the transport secretary for a final ruling. That seems almost inevitable, given the huge volume of objections already raised up and down the country.
Legitimate concerns voiced
Presently, nearly 300 stations, managed by train companies holding contracts with the Department for Transport, boast fully staffed ticket offices. A further 708 stations are staffed part-time. These figures underscore the scale of the impending transformation. If the proposals are given the green light, most of these facilities will be consigned to history. Overall, there are almost 2600 stations across England, meaning around two-thirds of stations already have only automated ticket machines, or are served by on-train staff.
It is true that many local groups would prefer not only to see staff retained at stations, but even to have their facilities reopened. That seems to be a forlorn hope, but the more legitimate concerns voiced during the consultation period have covered issues such as accessibility, safety and security, and issues with ticket machines and how stations will be staffed in future.
Call for further engagement in parliament
England’s Economic Heartland, a prominent sub-national development agency, has issued an impassioned call for deeper consultation with affected communities before implementing any alterations to railway ticket offices. Their response, far from going along with the plan, calls for any potential changes to prioritise passenger safety, security, and assistance. “All passengers should have easy access to help and support when utilising rail stations”, says their submission. “Ensure that the same array of ticket options remains accessible, with clear guidance on seeking assistance if needed. Changes should not disadvantage individuals with specific accessibility requirements or those unable to utilise relevant technology. The impacts on these customers should not lead to confusion regarding the provision of assistance.”
During the annual meeting of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an emergency motion was resoundingly adopted, urging an immediate meeting with the government to halt the proposed ticket office closures. The sheer magnitude of the public response, exceeding 680,000, has amplified the urgency of this matter. The consortium of rail passenger watchdogs, appointed to collate the consultation, has been given an extended period for considering public responses, setting the new deadline for 31 October. The resolve of the government may be tested. In addition to the large response, a separate petition has gathered more than enough signatures to almost certainly force a parliamentary debate on the issue.