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On 5 July 2023 all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) under contract with the Department for Transport (DfT) started a consultation on proposals to close, or reduce the opening hours of, most train station ticket offices in England. The consultation closed on 1 September 2023, following an extension by train operators in July. The operators involved are:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • C2C
  • Chiltern
  • East Midlands Railway
  • Greater Anglia
  • GTR (Great Northern, Thameslink and Southern)
  • Great Western Railway
  • LNER
  • Southeastern
  • SouthWestern Railway
  • West Midlands (including London Northwestern Railway)
  • Transpennine Express
  • Northern

The consultation received over 680,000 responses. Two government-funded watchdogs, Transport Focus and London Travelwatch, are now analysing the responses, before they respond to the train operators by 31 October.

The consultations and proposals were co-ordinated by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) which represents train operators. An announcement by the RDG said the proposed closures, affecting 974 stations, would help operators reflect a shift in passengers increasingly buying tickets online rather than in-person, and allow staff more flexibility in assisting passengers around stations, rather than being confined to ticket offices:

These proposals are designed to move staff out of ticket offices and onto station platforms and concourses to support better, face-to-face interactions, with the potential to close ticket offices in a number of locations.

New, multi-skilled ‘customer help’ roles – which are already in place at many stations – will mean staff are able to help more customers across a whole range of needs, from buying tickets, to offering travel advice and helping those with accessibility needs.

If accepted, the proposed changes would be phased in gradually. Ticket office facilities will remain open at the busiest stations and interchanges, selling the full range of tickets. […]

The proposals 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.

Financial position of Rail industry

The Rail Minister Huw Merriman said in July 2023 that “our railways are currently not financially sustainable”. While he has also said that the ticket office closure proposals are “industry-led” and a matter for the train operators, the Government does have a significant financial stake in the rail industry. The Government has been providing extensive subsidy to the industry since the start of the Covid pandemic, when passenger numbers and revenue fell dramatically, and the Government changed the nature of its contracts and took over revenue risk from the operators.

The Office for Rail and Road (ORR) estimate that the Government provided £13.3 billion in taxpayer subsidy to the rail industry in 2021/2. In November 2022 the Rail Minister said the Government expected to spend £2.7 billion in subsidy on the railways in 2022/23.

Passenger numbers on the railways have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels. In June the ORR reported that rail usage in the first quarter of 2023 was 88% of that in the same period before the pandemic.

Objections to ticket office closures

Concerns about the proposed ticket office closures have centred around accessibility for disabled passengers, passenger safety and security, passenger access to the full range of rail products (some of which are currently only available at ticket offices), and job losses.

On 19 July 2023, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) published their submission to the ticket office consultation as a letter, co-signed by a range of groups representing older people, and people with disabilities. The letter summarised many of these concerns, including the importance of ticket office staff for passengers, substantial demand for ticket offices, and the inaccessibility of ticket vending machines for many people with disabilities or those who only use cash.

Separately, the RMT have said that the plans will lead to a “massive de-staffing of the rail network”. Similarly, the Labour Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh told the Commons on 6 July 2023 that the “process is merely a prelude to job losses”. In response, the Rail Minister Huw Merriman linked any possible job losses to the ongoing industrial dispute in the rail industry:

The honourable lady mentioned job losses. […] In the event that there are some that don’t wish to make that transition, then of course the train operators will need to look to that.

The sad reality of this situation is that there is an offer on the table which would have guaranteed no compulsory redundancies up to December 2024. But the union leaders refuse to put that offer to their members. So if there is any impact on job concerns then perhaps the RMT, and those who they back financially, might wish to take some responsibility for that.

The consultation process

The process for an operator wishing to change ticket office opening hours is set out in the rail industry’s Ticketing and Settlement Agreement (TSA). The DfT has published guidance on this process.

Under clause 6-18 (1) of the TSA [PDF], changes to opening hours are considered a “major change” and may be made if:

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

An operator wishing to make a major change must display details of the proposed change at affected stations and invite people to make representations to Transport Focus (or London TravelWatch for stations in the wider London area). 

Transport Focus and London Travelwatch receive responses from the public. Informed by these responses, the watchdogs may then object to a train operators’ proposals on the closure of specific offices (or changes to their opening hours) if they do not meet one or both of the criteria above.

Transport Focus have published the criteria they will use to assess any proposals received:

  • Passengers can easily buy the right ticket for the journey they want to make.
  • Passengers requiring assistance to travel receive that assistance in a timely and reliable manner.
  • Passengers can get the information they require to plan and make a journey, including during periods of disruption.
  • Passengers feel safe at a station.
  • Passengers are not penalised if they cannot buy the ticket they require from the station.
  • Passengers can continue to use facilities at a station.

If the watchdogs object to an operator’s office closure proposals, the train company can then refer its proposal to the Secretary of State for a final decision. The DfT has published guidance which sets out the approach the Secretary of State (SofS) will take if this happens. For ticket office closures or reductions in opening hours, the consideration are:

Where proposals have been objected to and are submitted to the SofS to consider, the SofS will take into account:

  • How any changes represent an improvement on current arrangements in terms of quality of service and/or cost effectiveness;
  • How members of the public will continue to enjoy widespread and easy access to the purchase of rail products; and
  • How any changes help deliver the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, including:
    • Modernising customer service at stations.
    • Staff providing a more personal service, which can be crucial for those who need additional support at stations and those who cannot or do not want to use contactless or mobile tickets.

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