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Rail Ticket Offices

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 6 July.

“There has been a huge shift in the way in which passengers purchase tickets at railway stations, with about one in every 10 transactions taking place in ticket offices in 2022-23. That is down from one in three a decade earlier and equates to 13% of rail revenue. Despite this, 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. I am pleased that the rail industry has launched consultations on the future of ticket offices under the ticketing and settlement agreement process, which will give the public an opportunity to scrutinise the train operating companies’ proposals to ensure that they work in the best possible way for passengers.

These changes are about modernising the passenger experience by moving staff out of ticket offices to be more visible and accessible around the station. Crucially, no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed as a result of this reform—staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it—and the new approach will take into consideration the potential impact on individuals with protected characteristics. It is of course vital that our railway is accessible to all, and I have engaged directly with accessibility groups and will continue to do so.

This is an industry process, so I encourage Members and their constituents to engage with their local train operators to find out more about the proposals for their local stations. If passengers want to raise any views, they can contact the relevant passenger body. I believe that the industry’s proposed reforms could enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service, creating the modern experience that people expect.”

My Lords, it is difficult to overestimate just how valued the staff and services provided by station ticket offices are by the travelling public. This major change affecting 150 million passenger journeys, hitting the disabled and vulnerable elderly the hardest, is proposed to be completed in just three weeks.

Yesterday, in answer to my question on ticket office closures, the Minister said that the industry will of course do an impact assessment. The Royal National Institute of Blind People has said:

“A mass closure of rail ticket offices would have a hugely detrimental impact on blind and partially sighted people’s ability to buy tickets, arrange assistance and, critically, travel independently”.

Should that impact assessment have been carried out and published before the decision was taken? How credible does the Minister believe any consultation can be with a proposal being rammed through so quickly?

Ticket offices were used 150 million times last year, and assessments contained in consultation documents suggest that millions of those sales would be impossible through ticket machines, which simply do not have the full range of fares and services. The fares and ticketing on our railways are notoriously complicated, and it is often ticket office staff who help passengers navigate that complexity. Should the whole system of ticketing have been reviewed and simplified before this step was taken?

Lastly, I urge the Minister to consider extending the consultation period for this proposal to allow all those who will be affected to make their views known.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for a succession of questions there. She is right that the staff are valued. They are very much valued by the Government and indeed by the train operating companies, so much so that we have concluded that they do not need to be sitting in a ticket office to help passengers in whichever way they need.

The noble Baroness talked about ticketing and availability. It is the case that 99% of all tickets are available through ticket vending machines or online. On the question of an impact assessment, the impacts for each station are assessed individually under the process, which I am sure the noble Baroness is aware of as it was in place during the last Labour Government.

My Lords, the train operators have made it clear that this is being imposed on them by the Government. The Government have said that only 12% of tickets are bought through ticket offices, but what does that 12% mean? In the past year there were 1.4 billion separate rail journeys, so 168 million tickets were bought in ticket offices. Passengers who use ticket offices will be inconvenienced and deterred by the closure of those offices. That will hit elderly, disabled and poorer people most of all.

What assessment have the Government made of the particular impact on those in our society less able to buy tickets from machines? Does the Minister accept that the truth is that this is a question of trust? We do not believe government promises that there will be people wandering around stations to help people. There will be for the first few weeks, but they will disappear after that. The Government will tell us that there have to be reductions. We do not trust the Government to deliver on their promises.

Finally, does the Minister agree that at the very least there should be no ticket office closures until the Government have delivered on their long-awaited commitment to simplify the fare structure?

The Government have an ongoing commitment to simplify the fare structure and we are continuing to do so. The Rail Minister has engaged extensively and directly with accessibility groups and will continue to do so. We are also engaging with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to ensure that we hear its views as well.

As I said in answer to a previous question, 99% of tickets can be bought through a ticket vending machine or online, and members of staff will be around to help anybody who has any problems in buying their tickets.

My Lords, does the Minister know that the delay repay system, which I referred to in a question last week, often rewards people with vouchers from the companies? They often will not put money into your account. You are able to cash in those vouchers only at offices that sell railway tickets, so we could be in a very difficult situation here. If the Minister needs to write to me about this, I would quite understand.

I will certainly write to the noble Lord about this, but there will be various functionality within the new system, which will be more mobile than it is now and will allow people using cash, for example, to buy a ticket or a ticket to ride, which is one of the options available. On vouchers, I will write to him but I am fairly sure that will have been taken into account by the train operating companies when they put forward their proposals.

My Lords, I use the ticket office at Staplehurst station and its staff are outstanding. The care that they show the customers and the way in which they help them plan their journey and buy the correct tickets is a credit to them. I truly hope that their skills will be kept, because the business will be the poorer without them. I am afraid that the ticket machines do not quite match up to the staff. Can my noble friend tell me if the new ticket machines will be able to replicate this service and whether AI will be used to enhance them?

I am grateful to my noble friend for her exposition of the greatness of the staff. We absolutely value the staff, which is why we want to get them out there to enable them to help more people. Ticket vending machines are being continually upgraded and there are all sorts of ways we can upgrade them: for example, we are adding video calling to enable people to ask the absolute experts if they wish to take a particularly complicated route. If AI is appropriate, I am sure that the train operating companies are looking at it.

My Lords, I speak from personal experience, having travelled up and down from Liverpool twice this week alone. Only this morning, I was listening to the staff there who were worried sick about their jobs, but more importantly, I watched a partially sighted customer trying to get help and support which would not have been available had there been no assistant to help them. This is not about people; it is about profits and wiping people’s jobs out. I urge others to make sure, as I have already done today, that in respect of the consultation paper they vote no to this outrageous proposal.

My Lords, those staff will still be there to help the passenger, whether they be partially sighted or for whatever reason they need help. The noble Lord says that this is about profits but it is not at all, because the costs of running the railways fall to the taxpayer. We need to have a modern seven-day railway and that is what this Government are going to deliver.

My Lords, this is a necessary modernisation of the railways but what we have heard is the kind of thing that is argued about any change. The railways do not make money and need to be more modern; we ought to accept this and celebrate it.

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. There have been various interventions with technology over recent years. For example, the addition of gate lines necessarily meant that certain members of staff did not need to check tickets, and that is absolutely right. They can do far more valuable things. It is about helping passengers to get where they need to go, whether they have reduced mobility or not.

My Lords, there has been mention of the issues for disabled passengers. The Office of Rail and Road published its annual report today, which showed that only 66% of those with physical impairments received their pre-booked assistance. That is a one in three chance of not getting assistance, despite booking in advance. Can the Minister please explore how this situation can be improved, so that people with disabilities can use the railways?

That is absolutely at the front of our minds when considering these changes. The ORR also published statistics which showed that there has been a 68% increase in passengers who need assistance to use our railways. Of course, getting people out from ticket offices and on to platforms and into gathering areas and waiting rooms to enable those people to travel more freely is top of mind.

My Lords, the Minister said that people can buy tickets online. That presupposes that people have a good mobile phone or a computer and a broadband line. Can the Minister tell the House how many individuals and households do not have a good phone, access to a computer or a broadband link? What help will the Government be offering to those who do not have these things?

There are all sorts of channels for reaching train operating companies, including by traditional telephone. As I mentioned, not a single station which is currently staffed will be unstaffed in the future. There will therefore be no change for such individuals. They will be able to go to the station to seek the help of the staff, who will be able to assist them in buying a ticket.