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Railway Stations in Cumbria: Staffing Changes

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered staffing of railway stations in Cumbria.

It is an absolute privilege to serve under your guidance in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. The impact of the proposed staffing changes in Cumbria, including the loss of ticket offices, will be immense and entirely negative. With the conclusion of the consultation last month, those closures may be imminent, but the Government have the power to prevent them. That is why I am so pleased and grateful to have secured this debate at this crucial time.

I have a high regard for the Minister personally, and I am here to ask him to intervene directly to save our ticket offices in Cumbria and to prevent the removal of station staff. I draw his attention to the petition to stop the closures in Cumbria, which has been signed by more than 3,000 people. I am determined that our communities should be able to access our stations and be safe at them. Those stations should have knowledgeable professionals on hand to answer the questions we all have when we are rail users, and I want to ensure that the quality of rail travel is not further diminished because of these foolish and backward-looking proposals.

In South Lakeland and Eden alone, we face the closure of Avanti’s ticket offices at the mainline west coast stations at Penrith and Oxenholme. Penrith is set to have no ticket office and to have staff available for ticketing support from 9 am, rather than from 5.30 am. At Oxenholme station, it is a similar story: the ticket office is to close and staff are set to be on hand from 8 am rather than 5.45 am. We face the removal of ticket offices and massively reduced staffing at the Northern Rail-run stations at Appleby, Windermere, Grange-over-Sands and Ulverston.

Ulverston station, where mobility scooter users and people in wheelchairs are dependent on staff to assist them across the tracks to platform 3, will be staffed for just two hours a day, from 11 am to 1 pm, and not at all on Sundays. Grange-over-Sands station, situated in a town with a disproportionately older population, will also be staffed for just two hours a day, from 11.30 am to 1.30 pm, and not at all on Sundays. Appleby station, which has direct connections to Leeds, Carlisle and the Yorkshire Dales national park, will be staffed for just four hours a day, from 9 am to 1 pm, and not at all on Sundays. Windermere station, in the heart of the Lake district—Britain’s biggest visitor destination after London—will be staffed for just three and a half hours a day, from 10 am to 1.30 pm, and, again, not at all on Sundays.

The staff who will be present for those brief periods are to be called “journey makers”, but they will not be able to sell anyone a ticket directly. They are there only to give people guidance on how to use the ticket machines on the platform, many of which do not take cash, by the way—a feature that merely adds to the heap of barriers to access that the changes entail.

For the mainline stations at Oxenholme and Penrith, the proposals mean a huge reduction in the quality and availability of support, but for the branch line stations at Appleby, Windermere, Grange-over-Sands and Ulverston, the proposals are devastating. They effectively amount to the de-staffing of those stations, to the enormous detriment of rail users and the wider community. Unstaffed stations are unsafe stations, especially for solo travellers and even more so for women.

Unstaffed stations are inaccessible stations, too. I met William in Appleby a couple of weeks ago. He is visually impaired and cannot use the ticket machine at the station. To travel, he needs a staffed ticket office. If the changes go through, he will be able to use his local station only on the rare occasions that the “journey maker” happens to be present. Last month, I met volunteers at Sight Advice South Lakes in Kendal, most of whom have visual impairments. They told me the same story as William: de-staffed stations are, for them, unusable stations.

At Grange-over-Sands, a town with a larger, older population where the station really is a lifeline for hundreds of people, the de-staffing of the station will render it inaccessible to many. Lillian and Mohammed from Levens village, who use the station regularly, tell me that because of Mohammed’s disability—he is a wheelchair user—they need a staffed station to help with such things as the ramp to get him on and off the train.

At Ulverston, people with mobility issues need to use the crossing across the tracks to get to platform 3. They can do that only when a member of staff is present, yet the plan is for that station to be staffed for just two hours a day and not at all on Sundays. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell)—my constituency neighbour—and the disability access campaigner Tony Jennings have also rightly brought the matter to the Minister’s attention.

It is my privilege to chair the public transport group Cumbria Better Connected, and in that role I joined the hon. Member, Cumbria Tourism, Cumbria local enterprise partnership, Morecambe Bay Partnership, the RMT, Ulverston business improvement district, local rail users groups and local Westmorland and Furness councillors in sending a letter to the Secretary of State this summer outlining our objections to the plans that the rail companies have put on the table. The Minister replied:

“No currently staffed station should be unstaffed as a result of industry changes, and operators should ensure that staff are well located to meet passenger needs in future. This includes ensuring that staff are available to assist those who need additional support or do not wish to use digital tickets.”

The Minister knows that the proposals to de-staff our branch line stations for at least 80% of the time are not compliant with his pledge in that letter, so he surely cannot permit the proposals to happen.

Further to that, in a debate on ticket office closures in Westminster Hall on 13 September, the Minister stated:

“I do not expect a material reduction in the number of hours where ticketing expertise is available at stations…it is important to note that the volume of hours is similar to what we currently have.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2023; Vol. 737, c. 346WH.]

But that is not the case for the proposals at Oxenholme or Penrith, and it is especially not the case at Grange, Windermere, Appleby or Ulverston. Given that all the train companies are proposing job losses—2,300 job losses in all—as a result of their ticket office closure plans nationwide, it is surely not possible for the volume of staffing hours to be even remotely similar to what we have now, and certainly the consultation does not indicate that that is the intention. Did the Minister mean what he said in this place a month ago? If so, would I be right in assuming that he plans to block the proposals, and that in fact there will not be the job losses proposed by the rail operators?

It seems obvious to me, and I assume it is obvious to the Minister, that the proposals for our stations in Cumbria completely go against his criteria. How on earth can passengers’ needs be met when Appleby station will be staffed for just four hours a day, Windermere for just three and a half hours, Ulverston and Grange stations for a mere two hours each, and none of them staffed at all on Sundays? The loss of ticket offices and our excellent ticket office staff would be a desperate step backwards, and an incredibly foolish and short-sighted one.

The train operators justify their proposals to close ticket offices and de-staff stations by saying that only 12% of passengers book their tickets directly at the ticket office. That is misleading, because it is not the case at our stations. At Appleby, for instance, 39% of all travellers book their tickets at the station office. At Grange and Ulverston stations, more tickets were bought at booking offices than through the electronic machines for every one of the last three years. Even for those who arrive at the station with a ticket, many still have questions that need answering. I am at Oxenholme nearly every week, and the excellent, cheerful ticket office staff are always being asked for advice by rail users. Most arrive with their tickets, but they perhaps lack answers to key questions about their journeys, especially when there are delays and cancellations, as is almost always the case these days.

The proposals are also stupid from a management point of view, because they are enormously demoralising to the entire rail workforce, whether staff work on platforms, in ticket offices or on trains. Have industry bosses and the Minister not noticed the ongoing industrial relations dispute? What possessed them to think that now is the right moment to cleverly pour petrol on that fire by seeking to force through unnecessary changes that damage the industry and morale?

The impact on our economy will be significant, too. In Cumbria, we have 20 million visitors a year. As I have been collecting signatures for our petition to save the ticket offices, I have been talking to passengers at Oxenholme, Appleby, Grange-over-Sands and Windermere. One thing that struck me is that many of those who were keen to sign were tourists. Indeed, at Windermere, the very first four signatories were from Israel, Abu Dhabi, Switzerland and Pakistan. By the way, they all already had their ticket. They were all uncertain about connections, timings and delays and would all be left high and dry if Ministers permit the closures.

Our tourism economy employs 60,000 people in Cumbria. It is our biggest employer by far, generating £3.5 billion a year for our economy. It is unacceptable that our visitors should have their experience so badly damaged by the proposed decisions. Westmorland and Furness Council and the Lake District national park authority are striving to get visitors to come to the lakes but leave their cars at home to protect our world-class landscapes from pollution and congestion. It is not right that that vital work should be undone by a proposal that would downgrade the main railway station in the English Lake district. By the way, many of those who arrive in the lakes as tourists are international visitors who come to the UK via Manchester airport, where TransPennine Express is planning to halve the opening hours of the railway station ticket office. That is a cut in Manchester that would do damage to the economy of the lakes.

The closure of ticket offices at the mainline stations is equally a backward step. At Oxenholme and Penrith stations, staff will not be available for ticket sales or advice until after the first several trains of the day have been and gone. How can that be an improvement in service? The loss of the physical ticket offices is also a foolish thing. Having staff at a designated ticket office means that passengers always know precisely where they can find help and advice, rather than having to scour the platform to see whether they can find a shivering employee randomly stood in an unspecified location. Furthermore, has it occurred to the Minister that the screens in the ticket offices can play an important role? Sadly, staff sometimes find themselves on their own, confronted by agitated and occasionally potentially violent people. It is not right to force them to lose that important shield.

The Beeching cuts of the 1960s were a tragic, myopic error on a huge scale, causing lasting and largely irreparable damage to our transport infrastructure, our environment and our communities. The minds behind that colossal own goal concluded that the arrival of the shiny new motorways and mass private car ownership rendered many of our railways redundant; they were yesterday’s news or old hat. Yet, looking back, few decisions can count as being as destructive or as stupid as the Beeching cuts.

What lesson do we learn from that devastating mistake? It is surely this: that we must not be hasty to throw away the old just because something new has come along. Then, the old was the railways, and the new was the motorways. Today, the old is human beings and human interactions, and the new is technology that allows us to book tickets and manage our journeys online. The new technology is good and most of us use it, but to arrogantly assume that we are on the right side of history if we blot out the human infrastructure of our railways is to invite the same ridicule and derision in future that most of us feel today towards Beeching and the politicians who foolishly followed his recommendations.

In the debate in this Chamber on 13 September, the Minister said:

“I have no role in the consultation at this stage”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 13 September 2023; Vol 737, c. 346WH.]

Throughout the process, the Government have tried to maintain that it is industry-led. But that is not really true, is it? Documents released via a freedom of information request confirm not only that the Government had to sign off each company’s proposal before it went for public consultation, but that they were advising the train companies what to do with their closed ticket offices afterwards and were encouraging them to consider renting them out for retail use—and all of that was before the public consultations were even launched.

The proposals to de-staff our stations and damage our railways are not some regrettable imposition by an alien force beyond the Minister’s control. They are proposals from rail operators who are answerable to him and the Secretary of State—proposals that he has the power to quash. If he thinks these damaging proposals are a good thing for Cumbria, the Conservatives must stand behind them and accept responsibility. If they think they are a bad thing, what is the point of them being in office if they will not do the right thing and stop them? If the Minister wanted to call a halt to this process, he could. If he wanted to and if the Prime Minister wanted to, he could save our ticket offices with the stroke of a pen. On behalf of the people of Cumbria, our excellent station staff and our millions of visitors, I call on him to do just that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for securing this important debate on staffing changes and ticket offices in his constituency. I know from a chance meeting with him in his constituency that he works hard for his constituents. I was walking in the Lake district and stumbled across a “Meet your MP” sign—and there he was, so we turned it into “Meet your MP and someone else’s MP.” I thank him for his kind words at the opening of the debate.

Together with the rail industry, we want to improve and modernise the experience for passengers by moving staff out from behind the ticket office screens to provide more help and advice in customer-focused roles. There are currently about 980 Department for Transport-regulated ticket offices for stations managed by the Department for Transport-contracted operators; 43% of them currently do not have any ticket office facility. People are still able to use those stations to access trains.

There has been a huge shift in the way passengers purchase tickets at railway stations: about one in every 10 transactions in 2022-23 took place in a ticket office, down from about one in three 10 years ago. Despite that, our stations have hardly changed in the past 10 years, which means that staff are constrained to work in ticket offices although they could serve passengers better on station platforms and concourses, where all the passengers could be served.

I am pleased that the rail industry launched consultations on the future of ticket offices under the ticketing and settlement agreement process, which gave the public and stakeholders an opportunity to scrutinise the train operating companies’ proposals to ensure that they work in the best possible way for passengers. The consultations, which ended on 1 September, yielded more than 680,000 responses. We are now in a period in which the independent passenger bodies, which comprise Transport Focus and London TravelWatch, are engaging with the train operators on the basis of the consultation responses that they have received and the criteria that they have set out.

I expect train operators to work collaboratively with the passenger bodies in the remaining weeks, to respond to the concerns raised and to define their proposals accordingly. Where agreement cannot be reached between the operators and the passenger bodies, individual cases may be referred to the Secretary of State for Transport for a decision. At that point, he will look to the Secretary of State’s ticketing and settlement agreement ticket office guidance. The TSA guidance is clear that a wide range of factors should be considered, including the impact of proposals on customer support, security at stations, modernised retail practices such as the availability of pay-as-you-go ticketing, and support for passengers with disabilities, accessibility or other equalities-related needs.

It remains important that we reform the railway to enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service, creating the modern experience that people expect. We should also look for ways to ensure value for money for the UK taxpayer. I know from listening to constituents and parliamentarians that there is indeed interest in what will happen to ticket office staff, should there be any changes. Indeed, as part of my visit across the railway over the summer, I visited Appleby station in the constituency of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, as he said.

The changes are about modernising the passenger experience by moving expert ticket office staff to be more visible and accessible around the station. As only 10% of tickets are sold across the ticket office counter, that means that most passengers are not in contact with ticket office staff. The idea is to take the member of staff on to the platform or concourse to help the passengers where they need it. That includes purchasing tickets via a ticket machine or online.

As the hon. Member mentioned, I reiterated at the last Westminster Hall debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), that—crucially—the Secretary of State and I have been clear that our expectation is that no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed as a result of the reform, with staff still there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it. That includes advice on tickets and assistance in buying them. I also reiterated that I do not expect a material reduction in the number of hours where ticketing expertise is available at stations in the manner that some have described and that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale set out for the stations in his own constituency. I expect that by the end of the consultation process, there will be a differing design. When we talk about redeployment, it is important to note that the volume of hours should be similar to what we currently have. He will no doubt make note of those words.

Should ticket offices close following the process, we would expect staff to be redeployed and multi-skilled to provide advice and assistance across stations. Exact arrangements will vary operator by operator and will be the subject of collective bargaining with the trade unions. It is vital that our railway is accessible to all, and I have engaged directly with accessibility groups and will continue to do so. Alongside that, train operators are required to take into account the adequacy of the proposed alternatives in relation to the needs of passengers who are disabled, and to include that in the notice of the proposals sent to other operators and passenger groups. Operators had prepared equality impact assessments, and they were available on their websites during the consultation.

The Office of Rail and Road’s latest annual consumer report highlights that Passenger Assist booking has significantly increased since last year and that disabled people have returned to the railway largely in line with overall trends. For that reason, I firmly believe that the proposal to bring staff out from behind glass screens, to help the increased number of people who need assistance from the platform on to trains, is a step in the right direction in terms of the multi-skilling roles that I have described.

I reiterate that by bringing station staff out from behind the ticket office screen, we envisage an improved and modernised experience for passengers using the railways. It is vital that we bring forward reforms through considering changes in passenger behaviour, involving technologies and ensuring value for money for the taxpayer, while ensuring that assistance and support continue for those who require it most. I look forward to the process continuing in the design stage that I have described.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.