Government scraps ticket office closures

The Government has climbed down over plans to close station ticket offices in England, after the transport watchdogs Transport Focus and London TravelWatch said they would not be recommending any closures.

► Consultation revealed ‘powerful and passionate concerns’
► Government says proposals did not ‘meet high thresholds’ 
► RMT union hails ‘resounding victory’ for its campaign

The watchdogs’ announcements today have followed an extended consultation which had attracted 750,000 responses, many of which ’contained powerful and passionate concerns about the potential changes‘, according to Transport Focus.

The Government had wanted to see more 900 offices closed to reduce railway costs, but transport secretary Mark Harper said: ‘We have engaged with accessibility groups throughout this process and listened carefully to passengers as well as my colleagues in Parliament. The proposals that have resulted from this process do not meet the high thresholds set by Ministers, and so the Government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals.

‘We will continue our work to reform our railways with the expansion of contactless Pay As You Go ticketing, making stations more accessible through our Access for All programme and £350 million funding through our Network North plan to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations.’

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘Significant amendments and changes have been secured by the watchdog – for example, reverting to existing times when staff will be on hand at many stations. Some train companies were closer than others in meeting our criteria.

‘However, serious overall concerns remain about how potentially useful innovations, such as “welcome points” would work in practice. We also have questions about how the impact of these changes would be measured and how future consultation on staffing levels will work.

‘Some train companies were unable to convince us about their ability to sell a full range of tickets, handle cash payments and avoid excessive queues at ticket machines.

’Passengers must be confident they can get help when needed and buy the right ticket in time for the right train.’

However, he added: ‘Transport Focus is supportive of the principle of redeploying staff from ticket offices to improve the overall offer to the passenger. We also recognise the extreme financial pressure facing the railways and the need to find new, cost-effective ways of working. We will continue to work with the train companies to help them resolve the issues raised by passengers during this process.’

Some industry sources are claiming that operators were privately irritated by having to make the closure proposals at all, but as government contractors they would have had little choice.

Rail Delivery Group chief executive Jacqueline Starr said: ‘Train companies committed to a genuine consultation, and worked closely with passenger bodies to build and improve on the original plans. We thank everybody who participated and for helping to make our proposals better and welcome the recognition by Transport Focus that the principle of moving staff to where they can better help passengers, is the right one.

‘These proposals were about adapting the railway to the changing needs of customers in the smartphone era, balanced against the significant financial challenge faced by the industry as it recovers from the pandemic. At a time when the use of ticket offices is irreversibly declining, we also want to give our people more enriching and rewarding careers geared towards giving passengers more visible face-to-face support. While these plans won’t now be taken forward, we will continue to look at other ways to improve passenger experience while delivering value for the taxpayer. Our priority remains to secure a vibrant long-term future for the industry and all those who work in it.’

The RMT, meanwhile, had feared that thousands of jobs could be lost.

General secretary Mick Lynch said it was a ‘resounding victory for the union’s campaign and a win for passengers, community groups and rail workers alike’.

He continued: ‘We are now calling for an urgent summit with the government, train operating companies, disabled and community organisations and passenger groups to agree a different route for the rail network that guarantees the future of our ticket offices and stations staff jobs to delivers a safe, secure and accessible service that puts passengers before profit.’

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