Nowhere for tickets?

Rail enthusiasts may be on to something when they suggest that there is a deliberate plot afoot in the Government to try to stop people from using the railways. Last month in my Calling All Stations podcast, I revealed that ministers were asking train operators to stop providing wi-fi on trains in order to cut costs. Not surprisingly, that caused a stir with rail passengers arguing that even the lousy service on offer on many lines was at least better than nothing. But the buggers kept on coming, with passenger numbers rapidly approaching pre-Covid levels.

It appears that somewhere in the Department for Transport, a bright spark decided that something had to be done to sop this rush of eager rail travellers. So this clever chap who probably goes by the name of Mark Harper who is nominally Secretary of State for Transport but clearly whose heart is really in his original job as an accountant, decided on a much wider scheme to put off anyone letting the train take the strain. It took him a few weeks but now he has hit the jackpot: ‘let’s close all [or at least nearly all] the ticket offices to make it hard for people to buy them.’ That will show ‘em. Our wonderful ticket machines and the upcoming deployment of electronic ticket will replace those silly red and yellow paper things, he suggested. After all only 12 per cent of passengers now use ticket offices when a couple of decades ago it was more than 80 per cent (he omitted to say that was hardly surprising given this was the pre-digital age and there was no other way of buying them apart from season tickets).

Let’s first dispense with the only point in his favour. Yes, of course there are a few ticket offices which are not doing enough business to justify their existence and in those cases it might make sense to redeploy the personnel. At the beginning of this process, ministers had agreed to retain any ticket office which was selling at least an average of a dozen tickets per hour, but in the rush to make cuts and put people off, this stricture was set aside and now only really major stations will retain their ticket offices – though this apparently varies from area to area as the train operators have interpreted the rules differently. But it would be a mistake to think this was all part of a carefully managed system to modernise the railway. Instead, it is a short term response to arguments from the Treasury that the subsidy for the railway has reached ‘unsustainable’ levels, though what leve is sustainable has never been determined.

It is important to emphasise that this is not – as the BBC wrongly reported – an initiative that has come from the train operators although the train companies have gone along with it like lambs to the abattoir. Indeed, it is the last thing they want to do. They had a quarter of a century of running the railways when they were paying for running these ticket offices and they cut very few. Now, in the post pandemic world, the cost is all on the Department for Transport because Covid put paid to the old franchising system and the operators are effectively mere cyphers for government policy.

No, this initiative is entirely down to Government, with Mr Harper bowing to pressure from the Treasury which thinks this will save money and reduce the cost of running the railway. Well, there’s clear evidence to show this will not be the case. Many people will be deterred from using the railway if they are unable to buy a ticket from a well-informed clerk in a booking office. That’s because the ticketing system is so arcane that working one’s way around it at times requires a PhD in advance maths combined with geographic and timetable knowledge. Moreover, there are many people whose needs are too complex because, for example, they may be disabled or taking a bicycle, or their journey requires numerous changes. Moreover, in Mr Harper’s cunning plan, he has already allowed operators, such as Avanti, restrict the types of tickets available from their ticket machines – try for example, going to Euston and buying a n open return ticket without specifying the train you want to come back on – it’s impossible.

It is, therefore, difficult not to agree that this is all part of a wider passenger deterrence scheme. Everyone knows that people like a personal presence at stations. The argument that these booking clerks will be redeployed to front of house is clearly a lie – as revealed by some of the train operators, such as Northern, admitting that staff reductions are all part of the plan. The big long term idea is for a railway without any human operators – already Harper has asked train operators to look at the possibility of ‘driverless’ trains as that would be a way of ensuring that there are no strikes. We humble passengers therefore must look forward to a dystopian world where the railway system has no visible human presence – I suspect it will have no passengers, either, and Mr Harper will be a happy chap.

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