There is foolishness, insanity and utter and complete madness. It is difficult to characterise the announcement on the closure of 1,000 or so booking offices as anything but the latter. What on earth are those in charge of our wonderful railways up to?
I wrote a piece, half-jokingly, for The Independent suggesting that this was all part of a cunning plan by ministers to deter people from using the railways. It was all part of a scheme, I suggested, involving cutting back services, scrapping wifi on trains, installing impenetrable ticket machines and now this – the complete depersonalisation of the ticket retail process. I now suspect this was rather closer to the truth than I had thought.
Let’s just first debunk the ostensible reasons for doing this. We are told that only 10 per cent of travellers buy their tickets from a booking office and this compares with 80 per cent in the 1990s (when, in fact, there was no other way of doing it apart from for season ticket purchases). The implication is that this will now head down towards zero as more use is made of online ways of buying tickets. Moreover, these staff will be out there in front of house able to help people with their purchases.
Well, there’s more holes in that argument than in a chunk of Emmental. The fact that 13 per cent of revenue still comes via booking offices shows that these are, on average, high value transactions that may well be too complex for a dumb machine to cope with. There has been no analysis of the reasons that people use booking offices. As the numerous photographs published on the internet after the announcement was made demonstrate, many offices are extremely busy with a very wide range of users – not just the old ladies who rarely use trains but young people, tourists, regular travellers who want to ensure they are getting the best deal and so on. While in some stations putting more staff in front of the glass may be feasible, the need for access to the vast complex ticketing system for those selling them will nevertheless remain.
Passengers may find themselves in a Catch 22 situation, unable to buy a ticket for any number of reasons ranging from an out of order ticket vending machine to a lengthy queue to use one, and yet then fall foul of the penalty fare regime. Many might well not dare to get on a train through fear of falling foul of the law. As any regular rail user will know, the ticket vending machines do not offer anything like the full range of tickets. Just as an example, as I take advantage of my ‘Freedom Pass’ in London, the paid-for part of my journeys starts from the edge of Zone 6 but many machines do not offer the facility to buy these tickets.
I could go on as to why this is a bad idea for more than the usual length of this column as it all too obviously makes no sense but it is the wider issues around this announcement I want to consider. First of all, how has this come about? Quite possibly the worst aspect of this is the role of the train operating companies and their representative body, the ineptly named Rail Delivery Group. Ostensibly the plan has come from them but in reality, as any fule kno, this has been driven entirely by government which asked each train operator to draw up plans for its area. Much of the press coverage, including for a time the BBC, suggested that the plan was an initiative by the train companies who wanted to cut costs and boost profits. This was, of course, completely wrong but the RDG, by taking responsibility for the announcement and the ridiculously short 21 day consultation, encouraged this myth to be perpetrated. I have been critical of the RDG in the past for merely being a cypher for government announcements, but the failure of its members to make a stand on this issue and not be complicit in the government’s subterfuge is a shocking indictment of their failure to protect the industry. I can’t imagine Peter Parker or Robert Reid or any other of the British Rail chairmen going along with such a self-destructive plan.
What, after all, to the train operators have to lose? In the offing are new passenger service contracts that offer them a couple of percent of turnover in exchange for running a highly constrained service with all decisions being made by a ‘guiding mind’ over which they will have no influence. By taking responsibility for these cuts, their reputation has been tarnished and even commercially their collaboration seems a bad move.
There is only one possible point in their favour. Some of these announcements have been so extreme and nonsensical that it does appear that they are actually attempts to sabotage the whole plan. As Railfuture has pointed out in the first of its 101 questions about the scheme, how can it make sense to suggest closing the office at Manchester Piccadilly but retaining the one at Glossop. Or indeed, closing those at Birmingham New Street and Euston as well – as a famous tennis player once said, ‘You cannot be serious’?
It is, of course, the government that is responsible for this ‘plan’ and ministers have been defending it in Parliament, but it was noticeable that Huw Merriman, the rail ministers, kept on stressing in Parliamentary answers that this was a ‘industry-led’ plan. The truth is that in a quarter of a century of franchising, the train operators by and large kept the same ticketing hours as they inherited because they knew that they were broadly revenue-generating. In other words, their costs were met by the increased use of the railway they afforded as without them people might have used alternative means of travel – the friendly, helpful ticket clerk is the equivalent of the air crew who greet you when you embark on a plane.
There is no doubt that this plan has been drawn up by the Department for Transport, under pressure from the Treasury and even Number 10. While many, including myself, celebrated at the departure of the good time boy Boris Johnson, the railways most definitely lost a friend, especially as his transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan took a close interest in the industry and, apart from his dislike of HS2, was very supportive. Now we have a in Rishi Sunak a prime minister who is happier letting helicopters take the strain for even the shortest journeys (he popped down to Portsmouth in one recently) rather than risking mixing with hoi polloi on a train. And we have a transport secretary in Mark Harper who is an accountant and thinks like one, seeing only cost-cutting – and not increasing patronage – as the only way of reducing the subsidy on the railways. In between is Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor who also has shown no interest whatsoever in the railways. Expecting any sense on the railways out of that lot is about as likely as a sex scene featuring in the Barbie movie.
This is a scorched earth policy, leaving Labour – which has made the right noises but not loudly enough – with the job of picking up the pieces. Given the incoherence of the plans, the best hope is that the public outcry – even the Daily Telegraph is against them – delays them enough for a new government to rescue most of the ticket offices from closure, but this is no way to run a railway.
Eurostar trying to get its mojo back
These have been troubling times for Eurostar. Covid brought the company, majority owned by SNCF, the French state railway, to its knees, leading to a bail out by the French government (in which the UK government refused to take part) and recovery has been slow, hampered by the additional bureaucracy imposed by Brexit. Nevertheless, Eurostar has ambitious expansion plans, hoping to bring passenger numbers up to 30 million, now that it has merged with Thalys, which runs trains on several northern European routes, notably Paris – Brussels – Amsterdam.
Despite this ambition, several Eurostar routes have been abandoned, notably London – Disneyland, and services are not stopping at either Ebbsfleet or Ashford, whose ‘international’ denominations have become redundant (and Stratford’s never materialised!). Worse, the service to Amsterdam is now threatened with a year’s closure because of redevelopment at the Centraal station, though Eurostar are trying to find a solution given this has become a very popular route.
Nevertheless, at the launch event of a new app, SmartCheck, which is designed to cut down the hassle of getting on the trains, and therefore boosting the capacity at St Pancras, Gwendoline Cazenave, the chief executive since last autumn, told me that growth is very much on the agenda: ‘We are intent on being the backbone of sustainable travel’. The new app SmartCheck is, indeed, a sign of progress. Using facial recognition, it will allow people to simple walk through a gate, carrying out both the check-in and UK border force processes. It takes very good tech to impress me, and this one certainly did. Downloading the app (the generic name for the app is iproov.me) was amazingly easy and clever. There was no need to enter passport details and the like, as you simply hold the passport next to your phone and it reads the chip embedded in your document. You then simply scan your ticket and can then walk through a gate which flashes up your picture but lets you through – up to four people at a time, Cazenave told me.
This scheme has been seven years in development – such is the pace of change on the railways –and initially it will only be available for Business Premier travellers and the regular travellers who have the Carte Blanche. Nevertheless, this is truly revolutionary, and the railways have, for once, stolen a march on the airlines, at least for the time being.
Eurostar, though, still faces an uphill battle in making better use of the available space at St Pancras, reducing the impact of the security checks and bringing back trains on to abandoned routes. Cazenave is remarkably confident that such initiatives will make a difference but she has the legacy of 25 years of Eurostar’s rather timid and dull history to overcome.