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Railway Stations: Ticket Office Closures

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 20 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with the Railway Group and train operators about proposed station ticket office closures.

My Lords, together with the rail industry, we want to modernise the passenger experience by moving staff out of ticket offices to provide more help and assistance in customer-focused roles. Ministers and department officials regularly engage with industry, including the Rail Delivery Group and train operating companies, to discuss a wide range of topics including how best to operate stations and serve passenger needs in the most efficient and effective way.

My Lords, the Minister in the other place keeps saying that this proposal is all about getting staff out of ticket offices and on to platforms to help people. However, in my local station, Alnmouth, the staff already help people both in the ticket office and on the platform. This proposal therefore represents a deterioration in quality, not an improvement. I have a simple question for the Minister: in cases where a clear majority of the public is against ticket office closures at their station, will their views be listened to, with no question of their views being overridden?

The important thing to understand here is that this is a genuine consultation. The people who have received all the responses to the consultation are independent—they are independent passenger bodies, including Transport Focus and London TravelWatch. They will look at the responses that they get and the proposals put to them by the TOCs. They will listen to concerns and refine the proposals with the TOCs to ensure that appropriate service levels are being offered.

My Lords, will the figures be published? Does my noble friend the Minister not realise that many of us get the feeling that it has been decided that this is what we want when many of us do not?

The independent passenger bodies will publish their responses to each of the train operating companies’ proposals.

Will the people on the platform be prepared to help the elderly and the disabled get their tickets if tickets offices do not exist?

That is the whole point: they will be more than happy to do so. We want to have multi-skilled individuals working for the railways such that they can help all sorts of passengers with a varying range of needs.

My Lords, I will share with the Minister the experience at my local station, where there is only ever one member of staff on duty. In the morning, that member of staff opens up the station, the toilets and waiting rooms, and helps people get their tickets, sold either directly or with these complicated machines. They are, in effect, the station manager; this one person is essential to the operation of the station.

I hope the noble Lord has fed that back into the consultation, where it will be taken into account by the independent passenger bodies.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Transport for London introduced an almost identical scheme a few years ago? It went extremely smoothly; nobody noticed or complained about it once it had been implemented, and it has greatly benefitted passengers.

My noble friend is exactly right. It was a former Conservative Mayor of London who took this step for ticket offices in Tube stations. The current Mayor of London came in with great fury and said he was going to review the whole thing and make changes if appropriate—not a single change was made.

My Lords, it has become clear over the last year that several train companies have ceased to recruit new staff for ticket offices, and have therefore been shutting them gradually by default. Can the Minister assure us that the Government have not sanctioned this, and that any review of the 700,000 people who have responded to the consultation will take into account firmly the balance of opinion among those respondents?

I am very concerned to hear what the noble Baroness has to say, and I hope that she will provide me with the evidence so that we can look into this further. There are 980 DfT-regulated ticket offices and that has been the case for a very long time. So if ticket offices are closing, as she says—again, I am not aware that they are—they also should have gone through the ticketing and settlement agreement. I would be very happy to look at the noble Baroness’s evidence.

My Lords, the ticket office in my local station does not do advance tickets. How can a would-be passenger who wants to book ahead, and thus save quite a lot of money, get an advance ticket with no ticket office?

I cannot comment on the noble Baroness’s ticket office specifically, but 99% of transactions at ticket offices last year could have been made either through a ticket vending machine or online.

My Lords, I travel from Banbury to Marylebone every Monday. When I approach the ticket office there is at least one person ahead of me. I hope that there will be flexibility in this: maybe some stations do not need ticket offices, but places that are busy certainly do.

My noble friend is absolutely right. This is not a one-size-fits-all process; this is a consultation, and we will look to see what the independent passenger bodies say when they have finished reviewing all the consultation responses. We believe that that will be towards the end of October.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned already the situation for disabled and elderly passengers. They already face barriers to using public transport, which will be made much worse by these proposals. Given that only 3% of blind people are able to use the ticket vending machine, how will the Government ensure that they can still use the railway network?

The Government have been consulting with various accessibility groups, alongside industry, over the period, and have taken their views into account. That has included invitations to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the National Autistic Society and the Multiple Sclerosis Society— I have an entire list, which I will not read out right now. Accessibility is at the heart of what we are doing here. We are trying to improve passenger service. The ORR’s latest annual consumer report shows that passenger assistance bookings have increased significantly. I am delighted to say that disabled people are coming back to the railways.

My Lords, under these proposals, it will not be possible to buy a senior or disabled persons railcard at the vast majority of stations, whether there are staff there or not. Is that right?

I cannot say, because the consultation process is still going ahead. At this time, 43% of stations do not have any staff at all, so the noble Lord would not be able to get those railcards at those stations. All of those considerations are being taken into account. We want people to travel on the trains, and we need them to get their tickets and their railcards. All of those are very important considerations as we go through this consultation process.

My Lords, any consultation will clearly be a snapshot of the situation now or maybe in the near future. What happens if passengers at a certain station find that there is no help when they need it, particularly with ticket machines or for advice? How can they feed that into the process to make sure that this problem is rectified?

My noble friend makes an important point, and of course that could happen now. I encourage anybody who feels they do not get the service that they need from the railways to get in touch with that train operating company. It could be that circumstances have changed, such as more people or different types of people travelling from a certain station.

My Lords, the Minister has referenced blind people. When I was in my local station the other day, getting my ticket to come to London, I stood behind a blind person who was completely confused and had no idea how to use the ticket machine. The chap in the ticket office was able to help and comfort her and tell her that she would be alright. I find it impossible to understand what the Minister is trying to make us believe—that people like that will not be disadvantaged. They will be.

That same person does not have to be in that ticket office in order to help them. That is what we are saying. There are all sorts of different people who need different help, and having somebody in a ticket office whose time is not being used effectively does not help passengers.

My Lords, I was not planning to ask a question but I find this a completely shocking proposal. Disabled and vulnerable people will be disadvantaged. Can the Minister give us a generic email address—publicly, so that it goes out across the BBC and everywhere else—to which people can write in and express their objections?

I cannot give a generic email address, although I am sure the noble Baroness could contact Transport Focus. The train operating companies have publicised this consultation widely. It is worth pointing out what the Rail Minister said very recently in a Westminster Hall debate. The consultation is ongoing, but, at this stage, he does not

“expect a material reduction in the number of hours where ticketing expertise is available at stations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/9/23; col. 346WH.]

That will help people who have sight deficiencies, as the noble Baroness mentioned, and it will help all people who need greater assistance at train stations.