‘How on earth did we get here? I wake up at night wondering what they were thinking’ – that was the despairing remark from one senior industry insider and it reflects a widespread sentiment among railway managers. The booking office closure ‘plan’ is off the scale in relation to recent proposals from government on the future of the railways as it seems to make no sense in practical, economic, social or technical terms.
And yet, it has, shockingly, an endorsement from Rishi Sunak, a man who takes helicopters for 50 miles journeys and probably thinks a booking office is part of a library. Sunak said recently that ‘it was the right thing to do’, his favourite expression, and while his knowledge of the railways is akin to mine on 11th century Mongolian architecture, this demonstrates what a danger this government poses to the railways.
So indeed how did we get here? Well, the booking office plan was cooked up by the Department for Transport at the instigation of the Treasury angered by the extent of the rail subsidies during the pandemic but which has as much understanding of the role and functioning of the railway system as their knowledge of diseases of the hippopotamus digestive systems. The Treasury mandarins fail to recognise the very particular nature of the industry which is a unique combination of social and commercial considerations. They just see it as a series of unwanted costs and the only way to reduce the burden for the taxpayer is to reduce them, rather than attempting to generate revenue.
There were, I am told, three driving factors behind the ‘plan’: an attempt to save money, an aspiration that more tickets should be sold online and, this is more controversial but undoubtedly key, a desire by ministers to take on the unions which they see as a vote winning strategy. But they completely misunderstood people’s feelings about the railways in general and booking (to give them their older name which rightly suggests their wider function) offices in particular.
The response from the media, even the right wing press, has been overwhelmingly negative and the twice-extended consultation process organised by Transport Focus has elicited a staggering 700,000 responses – 60 per cent of which have been in a standard format elicited by organisations opposed to the move while a astonishing 40 per cent have been sent in on people’s own initiative. That is a number which is quite impossible to ignore.
The consultation has been under Schedule 17 of the Ticket and Settlement Agreement, a process that was designed as part of the privatisation process to protect passengers from booking office closures and opening hours changes. It was never designed for such a radical and wholesale change, and therefore the consultation process is inherently flawed, buckling under the weight of the response.
Indeed, the entire plan has lacked any coherent approach or clear route map. In a rational world, reducing booking office provision would have been carried out over several years in an incremental way with time for effective judgements to be made after a lengthy consultation procedure. There has been no collaboration between operators – for example where several operate from the same station – and nobody has tried to calculate the level of any possible savings – which inside sources suggest may be minimal. The whole complexity of the fares process should have been sorted out before such a radical change in the interface between the public and the railways was attempted. Buying tickets online or through ticket machines would have been made easier first to ensure there was a genuine alternative. No rational government would have given the go ahead to this botched and muddled process. But then as has now become common currency, the Department for Transport is leaderless and rudderless. Saying we are being led by donkeys is unfair to our four-legged friends.
The proposals from the various train operators, who are reluctant players in this game (‘their heart is not in it’ as one told me privately) reflect this’ The proposals vary from the reasonable, such as Chiltern and Great Western, to the utterly bonkers, such as East Midland Railway’s suggestion of mobile ticketing teams that would visit stations once a week – and lots in between.
So pity poor Transport Focus which has to cope with the near impossible task of recommending whether each suggested closure should be allowed or not – there is no grey area, Transport Focus has to make a yes or no recommendation on each of the 900 plus stations with a deadline of the end of October.
And much as ministers clearly don’t want to get involved, they will be forced to endorse decisions either way. If the answer is yes, go ahead and close the office, then the Department will have to endorse that. On the other hand, for ‘no’, it will be very difficult for ministers to approve a decision in the face of Transport Focus’s analysis and public anger.
So, if the question of how we got here is difficult to answer, a harder one is ‘how do we get out of here?’, It seems ministers are now in one of those rivers they have polluted without an appropriate paddle. It is all very well for Rishi Sunak, a prime minister for whom the expression ‘ivory tower’ could have been invented, to say that this is all a good idea, but on the ground, ministers and MPs will have to defend every decision just a time when the general election is looming. Given the huge public and media reaction to the ‘plan’, I can’t see how ministers are going to get out of this mess without significant collateral damage. The best option would be to kick the whole process into touch with talk of a ‘review’ , but Sunak’s remarks and the Treasury’s insistence on ‘savings’ make that difficult. Hopefully, transport ministers may persuade him that the political damage is just now worthwhile. Who cares if a few million are knocked off the railways’ budget? But then we have seen little rational thinking from the Department since the accountant Mark Harper took over. I thought I would neversay this, but bring back Grant Shapps – at least he had some sense of the need for a positive relationship with the fare-paying public.
Au revoir Nigel
And as this is Nigel’s final issue, I would like to express my gratitude to him for taking me on to write this column and sticking with me despite our frequent disagreements over railway policy. Nigel likes to mention our differences, but our shared passion for the railway is far more a measure of our relationship.
It is worth retelling the oft related story of how my long association with Rail came about. During the rail privatisation process when I was transport correspondent of The Independent, Nigel had noticed my tendency to ask awkward questions at press conferences and invited me to lunch near my office at Canary Wharf. Bemused, I wondered what it was all about and over chicken cacciatore he asked ‘Would you like you to write a column for Rail magazine’. Ha, I said, very flattering Nigel, but ‘I am a news man, not a comment writer’. To his credit he persisted and I accepted, being introduced in the paper as ‘Wolmar of The Independent’.
Even when soon after I left my role as transport correspondent, I kept the column – on the sound advice of my then wife Scarlett – and the rest is history. Without this column I would never had the access to key players in the rail industry that it has given me, nor would I have kept up with events in the detail required to ensure my column is fresh. My first book, on Stagecoach, came about because of these contacts and I have now written 20 more, which would not have been possible without that start.
Nigel has ensured that Rail has managed to maintain that careful balance of pleasing both its main audiences, the rail enthusiasts and those working in the rail industry – which by the way are not as separate as one might imagine. Rail remains the go to publication for both groups and his will be a difficult – if impossible – act to follow. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I wish Nigel the very best of luck in any of his future endeavours.