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Scunthorpe Station Ticket Office

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 20 July 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the proposed closure of the ticket office at Scunthorpe train station. I waited for an Adjournment debate for several weeks, and two have come along at once. I feel fortunate today.

I thank the Minister for his time today. I know he will be having a busy day, so I am grateful we have the opportunity to talk about this issue. Earlier this month, many Members, including me, received an email from TransPennine Express to tell us that, in conjunction with train operators across the country, it will be consulting on closing a number of ticket offices that it is responsible for staffing and reducing the number of hours that staff are present in stations.

The proposals as they stand are for the entire closure of the ticket office in Scunthorpe station and to change the number of hours that staff will be present in the station. Currently, it is staffed from 5.15 am to 8.15 pm, Monday to Saturday. That will change to 7 am to 2 pm. On Sundays, the current hours of 8.30 am to 8.30 pm will change to 9 am to 4 pm. That is ridiculous. It is a halving of the hours that staff will be there. To be clear, that is completely and entirely unacceptable.

I am particularly concerned about the impact the cuts could have on elderly residents in my constituency. The closure of the ticket office will force people to use the machines or their phones, or to pay for tickets at home using their computer. My understanding is that older travellers are less likely to be digitally connected and to have the know-how to use the machines. I accept that for some it will be fine, but for many it will not. In the absence of a ticket office, they may find themselves stuck. They are also more likely to be dependent on cash. One in five older people relies on cash for payments, according to Age UK, and under these proposals it may not always be possible for people to go into a station and buy a ticket using cash. That cannot be right.

The Minister will know that I have expressed concerns about the proposed ticket office closure at Darlington. With £139 million of intervention in Darlington station, it seems short-sighted to lose that facility. Does my hon. Friend agree that the needs of disabled people, including those with visual impairment and wheelchair users who cannot reach the screens of ticket machines, will be severely impacted?

My hon. Friend is spot on in his observation. I am also concerned about the impact that the closures could have on disabled people, and that issue has been raised with me by disabled members of my community in Scunthorpe.

According to the UK consumer digital index from Lloyds bank, people with a disability are 35% less likely to have digital skills for life, meaning that in the absence of a ticket office they may be left at a disadvantage. It is just not acceptable that we would make it harder for disabled people to travel around the country.

On top of the difficulty in accessing tickets, the reduction in staffing time is of huge concern. In relation to disabled members of the community and passengers who need extra help, customers with hearing impairments, for example, may find it difficult to obtain information if staffing hours are reduced, particularly if they rely on lip reading. The screens that have the information up for the trains do not always work.

I can give my hon. Friend a practical example. I used Scunthorpe station last Thursday after attending an event just outside the town. The ticket office was closed. I checked train times before, and everything was running. I got on to the platform, the information board was not working and no train turned up at the due time. People were left scratching their heads, trying to find out the information from their phones. The information has to be readily available for all people, including blind people and the disabled, and I fully support my hon. Friend in her efforts to keep the ticket office open.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which we did not even set up.

Ticket machines are, of course, not infallible. They can break, and can take a while to be replaced or repaired. It will simply be more difficult for some passengers to get the best deal possible without having a person there to speak to. I am also concerned about having waiting rooms open without staff supervision, which may make them a magnet for antisocial behaviour—something that we work really hard in Scunthorpe to tackle. We do not want to invite that.

I am not alone in making these objections; they are shared widely by residents in Scunthorpe. Ahead of the debate, and immediately after the proposals were announced, I reached out to my constituents on this issue. We are not backward in coming forward in Scunthorpe, and my constituents have been very clear what their views are. Of the respondents to the survey, an overwhelming 95%—these are broadly people who use the station; we have recorded that information—did not support the closure of the ticket office and the changes to staffing hours.

One of the key issues that respondents highlighted was the importance of recognising the impact that the sole use of ticket machines or online purchase would have on elderly or disabled people. Respondents pointed out that some people might not be able to use the ticket machines or purchase online without assistance, with 37% highlighting customer service. Many stated quite simply that they prefer a face-to-face service and the ability to ask for advice on the quickest routes and make other general inquiries, regardless of what time they are at the station.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of our residents understand that getting people out from behind the screen and on to the platforms would be helpful, but when hours are reduced nobody is there to help residents understand when the trains are coming? In Accrington, we see a lot of delays at our train station, and if nobody is at the ticket office we do not know what will happen next. Does she agree that the reduction in hours is key in this process?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was quite prepared to be pragmatic about this issue if the reality was that the staff member would be able to help for the exact same number of hours, but that is simply not the case.

Another issue raised by my constituents was safety and security. They said that they were very concerned about solo and elderly travellers, and people travelling late into the evening. Recently, I picked up a family member a couple of times who had been away to do a course and was using the train service to do that. I would not like to think that at 8 o’clock on a winter’s night there would be no member of staff at the station.

On its website, TransPennine Express stated:

“This more modern approach to customer service will mean the traditional ticket office is no longer required as our staff will be able to help customers purchase tickets on the concourse”.

In its impact assessment specifically for Scunthorpe, it said that

“customers will experience a more visible staff presence at stations”.

I struggle to understand how that can be the case when the staff will be there for only half the amount of time they are there at the moment. To me, that just sounds like nonsense. They are warm words from TransPennine Express, but you have to get up a little earlier in the morning to sneak something like that past the residents of Scunthorpe.

Scunthorpe ticket office is not unused: nearly 32,000 tickets were sold there last year, and an awful lot of residents rely on its services to buy their train tickets. I know that the decision has been taken by the current TransPennine Express management, but the Government are not fully removed from influence over it. I feel that it is my duty as a constituency MP to represent my constituents’ views on this matter, and push the Government to ensure that ticket offices remain open. Closure would undermine the efforts that the Government have made to improve customer service on our railways. This comes after a period when we have received a substandard level of service in Scunthorpe. Closing the ticket office would be an obvious backward step.

I hope that the Minister has taken on board the views of my constituents, and will do all that he can to ensure that we keep ticket offices open. I thank the staff who work at Scunthorpe ticket office. This must be a very worrying and difficult time for them. They do a fantastic job, and my complaints are no reflection on them. They do a wonderful job, and I express my sympathies to them at this time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) on securing this debate on the proposals regarding the Scunthorpe station ticket office. Scunthorpe station, as she stated, is managed by TransPennine trains, which I understand proposes to close all ticket office windows at Scunthorpe station and move staff to other station areas where they are better placed to help passengers buy tickets, to provide advice and to give assistance.

There has been a huge shift in the way passengers purchase tickets. Nearly half of all ticket sales in rail are made online. Around one in every 10 transactions took place at a ticket office in 2022-23, down from one in three a decade earlier, equal to 13% of rail revenue. I understand from TransPennine trains that statistics for Scunthorpe station reflect this position, with 11% of transactions from Scunthorpe station being made from the ticket office. The figures that have been supplied to me show that is equivalent to 59 transactions per day from the ticket office.

It is important that industry takes steps to modernise the passenger experience, by moving staff out from ticket offices to be more visible and accessible around the station. These reforms will bring our stations in tune with what customers expect from other modern and responsive services, including supermarkets and banks, where customer assistants help with information and support, and help make digital transactions on the shop floor.

I welcome the fact that the rail industry has started this process by launching consultations on the future of ticket offices, under the ticketing and settlement agreement process. That process sets out a well-established mechanism that train operators must follow when proposing major changes to ticket office opening hours, including closures.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a member of staff can be more visible only if they are physically in the station? It is impossible for a member of staff to assist a passenger buying a ticket from a ticket machine if they are not there.

The aim is a redeployment aim, as I understand it from the train operator, but I take the point with regard to hours. My hon. Friend will be aware that I just set out the process. This is a consultation process. Ultimately, it falls back to the passenger groups, who represent passengers, to discuss these proposals with each train operator. If they are not satisfied that, for example, the accessibility requirements will be met, which has to be legally met, they will rescope those changes. If they are not agreed by the train operator and the passenger group feels it needs to be taken further, it will be for the Secretary of State to determine. Her point is well made; I will just leave it there, given this is a live consultation.

Train operators began the passenger consultations on 5 July. This is an industry-led process, with each train operator managing its own station-by-station consultation. I understand my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the impact of the changes on elderly and disabled passengers. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) made the same point. As part of the ticketing and settlement agreement process, train operators must set out the improvements or alternatives they propose to put in place to support the needs of passengers, and include that in the notice sent to the other operators and the passenger bodies, to which I just referred.

Each operator’s approach must take into consideration the potential impact on individuals with accessibility needs. I recognise that not everyone has access to a smart phone or the internet, and that some passengers will prefer to use cash or to speak to a member of staff. This week, I met with accessibility groups again, to hear their views directly and to encourage them to work with the train operators to help shape these ideas. I also met with the train operators this week, and reiterated the need to ensure proposals worked for every passenger.

ScotRail looked at this, in terms of ticket office hours and whatnot, last year. After the consultation, it rowed back from the idea; it was going to close only three ticket offices and to reduce a lot of hours. The Minister said that each operator is looking at individual stations, but I am a little confused. I travel from Glasgow Central on a regular basis. Avanti has plans to close the Glasgow Central ticket office. Even a small percentage of those tickets—the queues go literally from the platform to outside the station—is quite a lot of tickets. The LNER has chosen not to close the Edinburgh Waverley ticket office. With broadly similar ratios in ticket sales, why is one closing and the other still open? What is the difference between them?

It is certainly the case that a number of stations are not part of the proposed closures. Just over 70 ticket offices will remain open. Another example is Manchester, where the ticket office at Manchester Piccadilly will not remain open, if these proposals are followed through, but Victoria and Oxford Road ticket offices will remain open. Given that the hon. Member is also the SNP shadow transport spokesperson, I will do him the honour of writing to him so I can set out in more detail exactly why one station has been chosen over another and the methodology. Indeed, perhaps I can put that in the Library for all to read.

As modern ticketing and payment methods are rolled out more widely, we will work with industry to ensure that everyone remains able to buy a ticket. Staff will be available to provide additional support to those who need and want it, including by helping passengers to use ticket machines and providing the type of assistance that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said occurs under the current system. In the event that suitable tickets cannot be purchased from the station of departure, passengers will not be expected to travel out of their way to buy a ticket, and will be able to buy en route or at their final destination.

For a lot of people there is a great deal of anxiety about the idea of getting on a train and going somewhere when they do not have a ticket in their hand or on their phone. I am probably bolshie enough to get on the train and hope I can sort it out somewhere along the journey, but many people will not be. If that change needs to go ahead, it needs to be widely publicised and people need to be given the confidence to be able to travel in that way.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is certainly uppermost in my mind that there will need to be additional training. Forty-three per cent of all stations currently do not have a ticket office, and it is perfectly possible for passengers from those stations to travel, as they do now. Sometimes ticket machines are not operating; at that particular juncture, the staff on the train will be aware of the situation and will act accordingly. On the trains I use, I am used to people getting on board and saying, “I’ve been unable to purchase a ticket. Can I purchase one?” and in all my years I have never experienced any response but, “Yes, that’s absolutely fine,” rather than going down the penalty fare route. My hon. Friend makes a good point, though, and I will make sure it is followed up.

I want to raise a point related to his comments about moving staff out of the ticket office on to the platform to provide assistance. At Darlington station, the ticket machines are in front of the barriers. I urge him to make sure that, where staff are moved out from behind the counter, they are on the right side of the ticket barriers so that they can provide assistance. I make one further point with regard to the time: an app can provide people with the opportunity to purchase before a train leaves the station.

My hon. Friend has made some good points today, including about the design process. I encourage hon. Members to continue to come up with the examples of where things need to work better. Ninety-nine per cent of all tickets are available from ticket machines or online, but that means that 1% are not. I am working at pace to increase that number. My hon. Friend is right about the whereabouts and location of staff; they need to be there so that passengers can buy the ticket and then access the barriers. We will follow that through, and I encourage him also to continue to come up with examples.

Some operators are proposing changes to staffed hours at stations, such as TransPennine’s proposal for Scunthorpe station, as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe and for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe). TransPennine has told me that it is clear in its consultation that all currently staffed stations will remain staffed, but I take the point about the hours. I reiterate to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe the point about the consultation process and the appeals process, should an appeal need to be made.

If we take at face value what the train companies are saying—that this is an effort to save money—and they are moving staff out of the ticket office on to the platform, is the Minister reassured by them that there will be a saving?

There will of course be some members of staff who will not wish to make that journey, as their job changes to being multi-skilled and multifaceted within the station as opposed to solely working behind the ticket office. In such cases, where there are a number of ticket office staff available, perhaps one may come out and do that multifaceted role, but the other two may not wish to go on that journey. That may be an issue for them and the station. I recognise, though, that Members have highlighted the challenge of situations in which only one staff member is present and perhaps the hours are not exactly the same. I refer again to the live consultation: that should be fed back. People will be aware of the appeals process because I have just detailed it, and we will of course see what occurs at the end of the process.

I hope I am not repeating myself when I say that passengers will remain able to secure staff assistance and will continue to have access to station facilities such as waiting rooms and toilets as currently provided.

Is the Minister concerned about the possible risk of antisocial behaviour if we move from having staffed stations to unstaffed periods of time in the evenings, which is what is proposed in Scunthorpe?

The London underground moved from having ticket-office staff to the type of model I am describing, and I do not believe there was any impact vis-à-vis antisocial behaviour. Again, I encourage my hon. Friend to put forward such points. There will of course be engagement and there is a requirement to meet thresholds to ensure that groups with characteristics are looked after and that we do not increase antisocial behaviour. I encourage her to follow up on those points, which I assure her I have raised myself.

My hon. Friend referred to station safety following the reform. The UK’s rail network is one of the safest in Europe and we will never compromise the safety of passengers on our railways. As the industry takes forward vital reforms, safety remains a top priority for all, and certainly for me. It is expected that moving staff out of ticket offices will make them more visible to passengers, and I hope that it will enhance safety when members of staff are on the platform.

I am so grateful to the Minister. I do not mean to be flippant, but I should point out that although moving staff out from ticket offices may make them more visible, moving them entirely out of the station, so that they are not there, certainly will not. I am particularly worried about periods of time when there will no longer be staff at the station.

I hear my hon. Friend’s point. I refer, of course, to the fact that there is a consultation. I hope she appreciates the argument I am making that while the staff are there, if they are away from the ticket office and on the frontline, they are accessible, can give information and can make people more secure. She made the point that, if there is a reduction in hours, there will not be a member of staff there. I refer again to the feedback to the consultation, but I absolutely take that point. I do not want to pre-empt anything in respect of the outcome, but her voice is heard in the Chamber and her points are on the record.

Mr Deputy Speaker no doubt wants me to wrap up, so I should get to the end of my speech. I encourage my hon. Friend, all right hon. and hon. Members, and all constituents to respond to the consultation, and I will encourage TransPennine trains and all other operators to take those responses into account as they finalise their approaches. The consultations provide the opportunity to scrutinise the train operating company proposals to ensure that they will work for passengers. Passengers will be able to find out more about the proposals at their local station or online. If passengers want to raise views, they can contact the relevant passenger body, London TravelWatch or Transport Focus. The passenger bodies will consider any feedback from the public on the ticket office proposals. I will meet them shortly to ensure that they have the resources to fulfil their important role.

I believe that the industry’s proposed reforms should enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service. I reiterate that my hon. Friend should encourage her constituents to engage in the consultation process for Scunthorpe station ticket office, as that is the best way to ensure that their views are considered. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate on station ticket offices. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a wonderful summer, and thank all the staff in this great place, including the police who keep us secure. I wish everyone—all the officials who work across Whitehall as well as all our great people inside this building—a wonderful summer. I will be spending three weeks on the railway, following in the footsteps of Michael Portillo, although without the dress sense. I will be looking at what our wonderful railway does and all the people who work on it. I look forward to spending my August with the great railway community.

Let me know when you get to Clitheroe, won’t you? I will now put the Question for the last time before the summer recess.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.