To ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from (1) rail passenger groups, and (2) other stakeholders, about the proposed closure of railway station ticket offices.
My Lords, the Government regularly hold meetings with rail passenger groups and other stakeholders, including the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. Retail and workforce modernisation, including industry plans for ticket offices, forms part of those discussions. To propose any changes to the opening hours or the closure of ticket offices, train operating companies must follow the process set out in the ticketing and settlement agreement.
Would the Minister be relaxed about catching a late-night train—operated only by a driver with no other staff on it—from an unstaffed station and then leaving the train at an unstaffed station at her destination? Does she think that ticket machines would come to her assistance in the event of any problems? If something unfortunate happened and she had to use a wheelchair, how would she consider travelling in those circumstances? Bearing in mind that, in the Greater London area, the London Overground, the Underground and the Elizabeth line all have stations staffed from the first to the last train, why cannot the rest of the country be treated in the same way?
My Lords, driver-only operations have been around since about the 1980s. It is certainly not a new concept. Over half of passengers who use the railways are on trains where driver-only operations are in place and have been accepted by train drivers. If we are able to change arrangements at ticket offices in some locations, that will mean that more people will be out and about in stations, providing the eyes and ears that we need to keep passengers safe. The Government are very conscious of more vulnerable adults and how they travel. We work very closely with the police and the Rail Delivery Group.
My Lords, will the Minister comment on the fact that, in 2015-16, Transport for London closed all ticket offices on the Underground to free staff to be available for helping passengers and providing information? Why has it taken Network Rail all these years to get round to this particular modernisation? Indeed, what is happening with all the other modernisations? After all, this is fairly low-hanging fruit.
It is up to the train operating companies, which operate the ticket offices, to think about the best way to manage their resources—including people—to serve customers better. I accept that TfL is often ahead of the game in many areas. Noble Lords will recall a time when you could pay by cash for a bus ticket in London; that is the case no longer. There are ticket offices across the country where less than one ticket an hour is sold. I put it to noble Lords that the person behind that glass screen could be doing other things.
My Lords, many of the stations that I use have not had ticket offices for years, but my main concern is not just how and where you buy the ticket but how much it costs. We already have the most expensive railway in Europe. Are the Government committed to ensuring that fare increases are frozen next year to help with the cost of living in these difficult times, and to reflect the dire service that passengers have received in recent months from many train operating companies?
When it comes to the railway, DfT Ministers have front of mind the impact on passengers of recent disruption, and value for money for all taxpayers. The railway has lost 20% of its passengers since the pandemic, which means that it has also lost between £125 million and £175 million a month in revenues. Nobody wants to see fares go higher but the reality is that we need to ensure a good deal for taxpayers. Part of that involves being able to modernise the railways such that they can offer the sort of service, at the sort of fares, that people want.
My Lords, is it not the case that ticket offices are providers not just of tickets but, frequently, of essential information for travellers? Given the huge complexity of ticketing systems across the country and lack of knowledge, perhaps, about the cheapest or quickest route, does the Minister not agree that ticket offices need to remain open for that reason in addition to those pointed out by my noble friend Lord Snape?
I think the noble Lord sort of makes my point for me. I agree with him that people need help, but it may not just be about buying a ticket and that person does not necessarily have to be sitting behind glass. Some customers need all types of help, particularly if they have reduced mobility. Our view is that there may be circumstances where it is appropriate to make sure that people are out and about helping customers to learn to use ticket machines and answering questions on the platform and not downstairs at the ticket office. It is all about flexibility.
My Lords, am I not right in saying to my noble friend the Minister that we now have a new Minister for Railways in another place who will focus entirely on updating the so-called antiquated systems of ticketing and the way that the railways are managed and run?
My noble friend is quite right. Huw Merriman MP has taken over as the new Rail Minister. If I may, I will just plug the meeting I have arranged with the Rail Minister tomorrow at 5.30 pm for any noble Lord who wishes to attend to ask him questions about current services, industrial action or, indeed, the critical modernisation that he is focused on.
My Lords, the Minister has talked about driver-only trains, but the key surely is to have people on the station who can help people who are in wheelchairs or disabled in some way—my wife uses a wheelchair all the time—to get on and off the trains. Whether they are behind a ticket barrier or in an office, it does not really matter. Can she assure the House that there will be no reduction in the number of people who are on the platforms—whether they are from the train or the platform—to help people who need mobility assistance?
I can reassure the noble Lord that we are absolutely focused on making sure that every single passenger, whether they have reduced mobility or not, gets the service that they need at the place they need it. That may not be the ticket office; it may be on the platform. I am really pleased that the Government have worked closely with the Rail Delivery Group on developing the app for passengers with reduced mobility. That has proved very successful. It is but one step and there are many more things that we can do.
My Lords, yesterday morning when there was significant snowfall, I stood on the platform at my local station and watched the person who is often behind the glass—as the noble Baroness put it—in the ticket office clearing the snow from the platform and helping people, other than me, who needed help. Why is the noble Baroness making a distinction between people who are behind the glass and people who are helping other people? They are the same people now and we need them all.
That is exactly what we want to see. We want people who are multiskilled and able to clear the platform of snow, help passengers with reduced mobility and sell tickets. I am not entirely sure that I understand that there is such a differentiation.
My Lords, will the Minister take back to her department that it is extremely difficult ever to find anyone on any platform in the West Country?
A voice behind me said, “Including passengers”, but let us not go there. I will take that back to my department.
My Lords, the person who sold me my ticket yesterday certainly made her views clear. She said, “What’s all this nonsense about doing away with the House of Lords? They can’t do that, can they?”
Maybe we are headed towards the ways of ticket office workers. Who knows? I very much hope not.
My Lords, at the Conservative Party conference in October, the previous Transport Secretary, when saying that she was asking industry to launch consultations on reforming ticket office provision, suggested the move was about putting passengers first. Have the Government set out the terms of those consultations and can the Minister confirm that it will include thorough consideration of the impact on passengers with accessibility needs?
I can absolutely confirm all those things. This is not one central consultation. The train operating company that operates a ticket office will engage with passenger groups and, indeed, with passengers at the ticket office where they propose to make changes. It is all set out in the ticketing and settlement agreement, which all train operating companies must abide by. If there are any concerns, they should be registered and notified to the relevant body, which is either Transport Focus or London TravelWatch. They will then raise it with the Secretary of State, who will take that into consideration, plus various other elements, if there are concerns.