Long read: The campaign to close the ticket office closures


Dominic Browne considers whether the 'Beeching of the ticket offices' plan can proceed after the public backlash.

The Conservative Government is having a tough time at the moment. It is probably too much to say the sky is falling in but the school roof certainly is.

There are few more politically unfavourable positions to be in than having children ‘cowering’ in classrooms at the prospect of their school building’s imminent collapse, an image Labour leader Kier Starmer threw up in PMQs this week following the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) scandal.

However, the Department for Transport (DfT) is doing its best to rival this political nightmare with the plan to shut almost a thousand ticket offices, including at stations such as Paddington, Euston, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Liverpool Lime Street.

When they first announced the proposals this summer, the train operating companies suggested the whole idea of buying a ticket from a human was obsolete – (don’t these people have smartphones?) – and the DfT nodded along.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) says the proposals 'for the 974 stations which have a DfT-controlled train operating company as the lead operator, would help bring station retailing up to date from the mid-90s, when the rules on how to sell tickets were last reviewed, long before the invention of the smartphone’.

‘Back then, an estimated 82% of all sales were from ticket offices, compared to just 12% on average today.’

The consultation on the closures, which has only just closed after being extended following pressure, produced the largest reaction ever known.

Some 680,000 responses came in - greater than the Government’s 2012 equal marriage review (228,000 responses). As RMT secretary-general Mick Lynch, presumably fairly points out, ‘people don’t write in to ask for their ticket office to be closed’.

Disability charities, women’s groups, unions and councils have all voiced criticism of the plans, with many calling them ‘unlawful’ under equalities legislation.

Added to this problematic backlash, is the fact that some of the angry calls are coming from inside the house. Conservative MPs briefed The Times newspaper that the ‘scale of opposition’ had ‘defied expectation’ – (we thought they all had smartphones).

Apparently, a ‘slew’ of cabinet ministers and ‘scores’ of backbenchers have warned about closures in their constituencies and the possibility of it becoming a wedge issue in the run-up to next year’s general election. As the main Conservative attack line at the moment is a supposed ‘war on the motorist’, Tory MPs might be well advised not to launch their own ‘war on the vulnerable train passenger’.

The policy seems to have reached 'a Truss moment' - when something is so politically unpopular that no amount of spin or denial can save it, only retreat will do. Cash-strapped ministers might be tempted to throw away their cake and quietly eat it later, but it will not be easy in the time the Government appears to have left. 

A coalition of the unwilling

Ruth Cadbury MP and Baroness Randerson (chair and vice chair of the APPG for Women in Transport) says: 'A key goal for the APPG for Women in Transport is to make women feel safe as transport workers and users. The alternatives currently being proposed do not ensure the safety of women who work and use our railways and we urge the government to reconsider these closures.

'We must recognise the invaluable role ticket offices and staff on stations play in fostering an inclusive, safe, and accessible transport system for all.'

It doesn’t help that the 'alternatives' argument made by the operating companies, as voiced by the RDG, showed a stunning combination of cynicism and naivety. Cynical in that it framed the plans as a modernisation move – ‘bringing staff out from offices’ - that would benefit passengers rather than a cost-cutting job loss exercise. Naive in that they thought anyone would believe them.

‘The changes would mean a more visible and accessible staff presence overall in stations during staffed hours, on ticket concourses and on platforms,’ the RDG says.

It is difficult to envisage a more visible staff presence than someone sitting behind a stationary desk with a giant sign over their head saying ‘ticket office’. Why arrange to meet at a fixed point if you get separated from rail staff when you can wander the entire station in the hope of bumping into each them?

Thanks again to The Times, it is largely understood that the plans could see up to 2,000 jobs lost. If it goes ahead, the blame would fall largely, if not solely, on the Department for Transport, which holds the purse strings and allowed, perhaps even actively encouraged, it to happen.

Mr Lynch told Transport Network: ‘The train operators have to listen. They have to do what the Government tells them that is in their contract. These moves will mean that we have a destaffed railway and a dehumanised railway.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi speaking at an RMT protest over the closures

‘There will be no regulations that force any rail company to put any member of staff on any railway station in the country and if they don’t have to do it, they won’t do it. That means people with disabilities and with accessibility needs won’t be able to turn up and go. We need a society where every traveller and every section of the community has the right to travel freely whenever they want to with people on tap, not an app making sure their needs are catered for.’

Ticket office closure barriers

Passenger watchdog Transport Focus and the statutory transport watchdog for London, London TravelWatch, are due to give a response to the proposals by 31 October.

The watchdogs may object to a proposal on the grounds that the change does not meet one or both of the following criteria under clause 6-18 (1) of the Ticketing and Settlement Agreement:

  • the change would represent an improvement on current arrangements in terms of quality of service and/or cost effectiveness and
  • members of the public would continue to enjoy widespread and easy access to the purchase of rail products, notwithstanding the change.

If the watchdogs object, the train companies can either withdraw their proposal or refer it to the secretary of state for a decision – which is thought to be the likely outcome. At which point transport secretary Mark Harper gets to decide whether he wants to be the 'Beeching of the ticket offices'.

Other potential barriers could also disrupt the plans.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority ‘contends that the process is unlawful because the plans to discontinue use of parts of railway stations do not comply, or commit to comply, with the procedure stipulated in section 29 of the Railways Act 2005’.

It also says ‘Equality Impact Assessments of the planned changes at individual stations should have been made available to inform consultees’ consideration of the proposals’.

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson says: ‘Stations without ticket offices could become no-go areas for many, wilfully excluding people who require in-person support, and denying access to those who can’t buy their tickets online. This is discrimination by design and must be opposed.’

The good doctor is joined by the mayors of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, Liverpool City-Region, Steve Rotheram, and South Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard.

In a joint statement, these mayors say: ‘The law is clear that operators cannot close parts of stations without following the clear procedure set out in the Railways Act 2005. This procedure has still not been followed and the process of our legal challenge with the train firms around this remains ongoing.

‘All eyes are now on Transport Focus to see how they respond to the hundreds of thousands of responses that we believe they have received.’

Over 50 organisations representing disabled people and allies also joined forces to object to the proposals. Last week, the Government rejected a Freedom of Information request from disability  charity Transport for All, in which it asked to see the DfT's analysis of how ticket office closures would impact disabled people.

‘The reasons they gave for denying our request are tenuous, and we have today submitted an appeal against this decision,’ the charity say.

Caroline Stickland, CEO of Transport for All, says: ‘These closures will lock millions of disabled people out of the rail network, reversing years of progress to make transport more accessible, and likely violating the Equality Act on multiple counts. We stand together against these discriminatory reforms, and will continue to fight for as long as it takes.’

An initial assessment from Northern Trains this July about its regional ticket office closure plans, found a host of negative impacts for those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act, from the ‘reduction in colleague numbers’ - someone should tell the RDG that staffing numbers would go down; no doubt it would be shocked.

‘Journey Makers will be at a station for an average of 29 hours per week compared to 73 hours currently staffed by Ticket Office colleagues. 49% of train stations in Great Britain have either no or only partial tactile surfaces on operational platforms. This means visually impaired customers who cannot navigate stations independently may currently rely on station colleagues to support their journey around the station. A reduction in colleagues members may adversely impact them,' the assessment states.

‘40% of visually impaired customers were not able to make all the journeys they wanted or needed to make. The stations staffing hours are decreasing resulting in less access to station staff for the visually impaired, which may increase the number of visually impaired customers who are not able to make the journeys they want.’

Northern even notes: ‘Wheelchair users may not find some of the [Ticket Vending Machines] accessible, given the screens are above seated level. In the absence of Ticket Offices, this may impact on their ability to purchase tickets independently.’

Mick Lynch addressing the media over the closures plan

Attending an RMT protest over the plans, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told Transport Network: ‘I would have thought under general equality law there would be an enormously strong legal case [against this] as clearly it is discriminatory against people with disabilities.

'I think a legal challenge is important and worth pursuing but surely the Government if it had sense would recognise that we have gone too far on the digital divide, too far in this mechanisation of everything. Keep the human face and therefore the safety on the stations.’

Let people have a choice between an app and a person he suggested, sounding almost Blairite: ‘Well I wouldn’t want to be accused of that particularly, I just think we need to recognise people have different needs in society. Take away the human face and it increases the sense of isolation for people, that’s not right.’

Labour's soft fierce opposition 

Representing the other end of the left-wing spectrum, shadow rail minister Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi said the consultation was ‘a sham’ and the Government was presiding over ‘a managed decline’ of the railways that had seen us fall behind international colleagues.

Speaking at the RMT protest the loudest cheer he received came when he reminded everyone how transport staff had kept working on the frontline during COVID and ‘this was no way to repay them’.

Though Mr Dhesi was also heckled by the excitable crowd over nationalisation.

Pushed twice by Transport Network to guarantee a protection of the ticket offices, Mr Dhesi refused to give any assurances.

‘We need to make sure we are constantly reforming our railways and that we need to be working forward,' he said.

'That is what we have outlined. We need to invest in our railways but there is always room for reform but what we cannot have is a sham consultation and this ramming through of a wholesale policy that will have a devastating impact,’ he said.

Some may argue this is par for the Starmer brand - a catch-all reassurance that almost manages not to offend anyone. Others might reply this is the political strategy that will deliver Labour the next election and could prevent these widespread staffing cuts.

Cynical perhaps, but as they all say, when in Rome, without a ticket office, do as the Romans do.

Register now for full access

Register just once to get unrestricted, real-time coverage of the issues and challenges facing UK transport and highways engineers.

Full website content includes the latest news, exclusive commentary from leading industry figures and detailed topical analysis of the highways, transportation, environment and place-shaping sectors. Use the link below to register your details for full, free access.

Already a registered? Login

comments powered by Disqus