Ticket office U-turn ditches hated rail policy but where will savings come from now?


Photograph: Maureen McLean/Shutterstock

So, welcome back, ticket offices – not yet four months after train operators announced their wholesale closure across England. Back then, rail executives breezily assured us that virtually no one bought a ticket from a person in an office: just for 13% of journeys, in an era of trains filled with happy smartphone users.

But then it turned out, according to the passenger watchdogs who compiled and analysed 750,000 responses to the public consultation, that every single one of the 1,007 menaced offices needed to stay open after all. Transport Focus, independent but not notable for outspoken condemnation of either industry or government, said serious concerns remained despite long discussions over the detail of options proposed by train operators to serve all passengers.

Some kind of U-turn had not been unexpected – not least after similar shambolic reversals in rail policy around HS2, and given the widespread unpopularity of the move in the year before a general election. Ministers were on the back foot from the first, with the initial three-week consultation swiftly extended in the face of public fury. Beyond the general outrage, the consultation shone a particular light on the difficulties that disabled people have in accessing rail travel.

Nonetheless, the completeness of the climbdown is surprising. For every station pictured with queueing passengers at the window, or every fabled Maggie, the adored “station mistress” whose potential redeployment alarmed the Telegraph columnist Charles Moore, there must surely have been one or two where, as the train operators claimed, the cost outweighed the benefits.

The proposals sprang from the soil of the deep financial crisis that has engulfed the railway since Covid hit and the ensuing dispute between rail workers and their employers, the train operators, and by proxy the government. Ministers maintained that these cuts were industry-led but the demand for savings was dictated by a Treasury looking to slash its multibillion-pound subsidy, and rail companies are minutely controlled under contract to the Department for Transport.

Unions, who have been told for two years that pay rises depend on cost savings, saw the closure plans as a fig leaf for redundancies – although operators protested that staff would be redeployed in more varied and customer-facing roles, out on the station platforms or concourses. However, savings only came with fewer people, whether through redundancy or staff deciding their reshaped, insecure roles weren’t worth it. Well-placed sources suggest that the government lost interest in closing ticket offices when it became clear that fewer staff would go than it hoped.

For now, unions and campaigners are claiming victory, companies are quietly furious, and transport ministers are again explaining why a critical rail policy they championed has been shelved. But if closing ticket offices was not the answer, the serious question that sparked the failed plan remains – not least how rail’s finances, and the attendant industrial relations standoff, can be turned around to avoid a future of decline.


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