Plans to close hundreds of railway station ticket offices across England have been withdrawn, the government and rail industry have confirmed.
Passenger watchdogs Transport Focus and London TravelWatch, who received 750,000 responses to consultations on the plans, said today they objected to all of the current proposals based on criteria relating to customer service, accessibility, and cost effectiveness.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said the government had asked train operators to withdraw their proposals, and Rail Delivery Group said the plans would not be taken forward.
Many community rail partnerships and station groups had responded to the consultation, and commenting on the announcement, Jools Townsend, chief executive of Community Rail Network, said:
“The overriding view across the community rail partnerships and station friends’ groups we heard from was that they could not support the proposals overall, so we welcome today’s announcement confirming their withdrawal.
“While we appreciate the financial pressures on the industry, our members fed back that, at a local level, the proposals looked set to undermine our ability to promote an inclusive, welcoming railway, and enable wider use of rail. Given community rail’s role to provide a voice for communities on rail while increasing the benefits rail delivers locally, we are pleased that their concerns have been heeded.
“Community rail partnerships and groups are striving more than ever to increase rail use and support modal shift towards greener, healthier, more inclusive travel with rail at its heart, and to put our stations and railways at the centre of community life. We remain committed to working with rail industry and government partners to ensure community rail’s insights and activities are utilised to create a railway that works for everyone and delivers maximum social, economic, and environmental value.”
When the proposals were first outlined by Rail Delivery Group, the plans stated that staffed stations would remain staffed, either directly or through roving mobile teams, more staff would be available overall to provide face-to-face help, and that Passenger Assist activities would not be affected.
Given community rail’s role to provide a voice for communities on local rail services, we encouraged community rail partnerships and station groups to study the proposals and consider what they meant for passengers and communities in their area(s).
The issues raised were reflected in the submissions made by individual community rail partnerships and stations groups, as well as our own response, which you can read again here.
Transport Focus said the consultation responses contained ‘powerful and passionate concerns’ about the potential changes, including around ticket machine capability, accessibility, and how passenger assistance and information would be delivered in the future.
It said that during the consultation process, its discussions with train companies had led to significant amendments and revisions to the original proposals, demonstrating the value of the independent review process. Many revised train company proposals had re-instated existing staffing hours, identified new and innovative solutions, and promised extra facilities to sell more tickets and all ticket types and cope with cash payments and refunds.
However, it said that the detail around some of the proposals, particularly new customer support arrangements, were not yet well-developed, and the lack of an overall delivery plan also raised concerns that closures might occur before new arrangements were in place.
Transport Focus said it was supportive of the principle of redeploying staff from ticket offices to improve the overall offer to the passenger, and also recognised the extreme financial pressure facing the railways and the need to find new, cost-effective ways of working. It added that it will continue to work with the train companies to help them resolve the issues raised by passengers during this process.
Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, said:
“Following analysis of the 750,000 responses to the consultation and in-depth discussions with train companies Transport Focus is objecting to the proposals to close ticket offices.
“Significant amendments and changes have been secured by the watchdog – for example, reverting to existing times when staff will be on hand at many stations. Some train companies were closer than others in meeting our criteria.
“However, serious overall concerns remain about how potentially useful innovations, such as ‘welcome points’ would work in practice. We also have questions about how the impact of these changes would be measured and how future consultation on staffing levels will work.
“Some train companies were unable to convince us about their ability to sell a full range of tickets, handle cash payments and avoid excessive queues at ticket machines.
“Passengers must be confident they can get help when needed and buy the right ticket in time for the right train.”
You can find further details on the objections and recommendations of Transport Focus, plus their responses to individual train companies, here.
In a statement, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said:
“The consultation on ticket offices has now ended, with the Government making clear to the rail industry throughout the process that any resulting proposals must meet a high threshold of serving passengers.
“We have engaged with accessibility groups throughout this process and listened carefully to passengers as well as my colleagues in Parliament. The proposals that have resulted from this process do not meet the high thresholds set by Ministers, and so the Government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals.
“We will continue our work to reform our railways with the expansion of contactless Pay As You Go ticketing, making stations more accessible through our Access for All programme and £350 million funding through our Network North plan to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations.”
The statement added that the government did not expect any proposals to be referred to the Secretary of State for a decision, and that it was aiming to consult on a draft National Rail Accessibility Strategy at some point in 2024.
Jacqueline Starr, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, said:
“Train companies committed to a genuine consultation, and worked closely with passenger bodies to build and improve on the original plans. We thank everybody who participated and for helping to make our proposals better and welcome the recognition by Transport Focus that the principle of moving staff to where they can better help passengers, is the right one.
“We listened, and we pledged that the vast majority of cases, stations with staff today would continue to be staffed tomorrow and with similar operating hours. We pledged to upgrade ticket vending machines and that all stations will have a single welcome point, developed in partnership with accessibility groups and passenger bodies. We pledged any changes would be introduced gradually, with regular feedback and review in a process fully involving London Travel Watch and Transport Focus.
“These proposals were about adapting the railway to the changing needs of customers in the smartphone era, balanced against the significant financial challenge faced by the industry as it recovers from the pandemic. At a time when the use of ticket offices is irreversibly declining, we also want to give our people more enriching and rewarding careers geared towards giving passengers more visible face-to-face support. While these plans won’t now be taken forward, we will continue to look at other ways to improve passenger experience while delivering value for the taxpayer. Our priority remains to secure a vibrant long-term future for the industry and all those who work in it.”
Should you have any queries regarding the ticket office consultation process, you can get in touch with your regular contact within the Community Rail Network team.