How closing all our station ticket offices will make train travel even less accessible

Manchester Victoria station, 4th June 1986

For a young lad raised on Thomas the Tank Engine and orange and white buses, there was nothing more exciting than travelling by train. Especially an InterCity one. Back in 1986, train journeys were a rare treat for me as we went everywhere by bus.

If we went anywhere by train, it was an annual event. Part of a holiday instead of a regular habit. For the six-year-old me, it was always a pleasure to get The European to Glasgow Central. This meant Class 47s and air conditioned InterCity carriages, and a change of traction from diesel to electric at Preston or Lancaster.

On the 4th June 1986, my Nana and I made that journey. After leaving our taxi at Manchester Victoria station, we went to Platform 11. Despite making this journey before in 1982 (with Mum and Dad en route to Ayr thanks to Butlins’ cut price train fares), I was awestruck by the splendour of the station. First the canopy with Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s main destinations. Then the tiled map, and the ticket office. Then the dingy steam age setting which had a certain charm that today’s version lacks.

Next, we popped into WHSmith: toffees for the train and two comics. For the six-year-old me, two DC Thomson comics was a sign of affluence. Nana chose wisely, understanding my person-centred literary needs with The Beano and Topper (I had a copy of Victor once from Mundy’s Newsagent though it wasn’t for me, still wouldn’t be for me now despite the illustrations).

As the train left Platform 11, an exciting four hours awaited us. Our friends would pick us up at Glasgow Central from the pick up point by the taxis inside the station. Thereafter we continued to Clynder via the Erskine Toll Bridge, Helensburgh and Garelochead.

Had my experience with British Rail wasn’t so rosy, I would have been telling you a different story. Despite the 20 minute delay at Lancaster and the required 15 minutes for a loco change at Preston, it was a memorable journey. One that got me loving the West Coast Main Line and benefiting from BR’s Anglo-Scottish electrification scheme of 1974. Thanks to the vagaries of rail privatisation and other competing interests, I haven’t been to Glasgow Central station since 1986 and last did an Anglo-Scottish train journey in 2003 (Edinburgh Waverley on a rail charter).

Personal experience forms a major part in our journey. Whether the vagaries of the 346 or an inter-city train, it can make or break the day itself. According to the 1982 Greater Manchester Transport manual, its introduction by the then Director General David Graham says “whether it is in one of our “showplace” bus stations or in the remote parts of Saddleworth, we should endeavour to ensure that the same high standard of consistency is achieved“.

In other words, first impressions count, whether we take a tram to Victoria or catch a Saddleworth Rambler to Denshaw. At Manchester Victoria, passengers expect ticket offices and clear information on arrival. At Denshaw, they might want to know when the last 356 is to Uppermill. On paper as well as online, and they might want to see a human being or two.

Preston station, 29 July 2022

Preston is one of my favourite stations on the National Rail network. It has the steam age feel I miss with Manchester Victoria. Due to how the station is set out, it seems to have escaped transmogrification from traditional working station to shopping-precinct-with-a-few-platforms a la Birmingham New Street.

On my way back from Fun Time Friday and FD’s Got Talent (with fellow colleague Kevin Phoenix plus contestants Emily, Nigel, Jackie, Adam and Michelle), I was back in 2022. The Shapps-Williams version of late 2022 where card tickets are a thing of the past. Where boarding the 1745 to Manchester Airport means a mortgage application for the full route and plastic instead of cash.

I was mortified to find that Preston ticket office was closed. A 5pm closure on a weekday, in the midst of the PM peak. At a station with one of two North West stops on the Caledonian Sleeper. I got off my next train from Manchester Piccadilly at Stalybridge and found the station ticket office was still open.

On alighting, I could have thought to myself TPE 1, Avanti West Coast 0. David Graham’s words on consistency didn’t apply across the three stations I used.

Since the first two RMT and ASLEF strikes, we knew about Shapps’ interpretation of a more consistent product. That of no ticket offices in English railway stations. Pullman prices and Metrolink staffing levels. A digital by default railway, where tickets are mobile only and card only. Machines instead of human beings. The card less priced out and banished from our trains.

What is forgotten is that neither smartphones nor ticket machines are infallible. Mobile phones could lose battery power en route, which is a problem if the train you’re on lacks USB ports. Ticket machines can be vandalised. When Northern Rail (in the Arriva Rail North era) installed cash-free ticket machines at Flowery Field, they were vandalised shortly after installation. No replacements exist.

If you get rid of the guards as well as the ticket offices, how would our railways be viable? What happens to fare revenues? Perhaps it is all a very long term plan to tarmac the railways.

Why ticket offices matter

In one of our previous articles on this subject, we said that “a journey on Great British Railways’ metals will be less inviting.” We also added that reliance on ticket vending machines could be a significant barrier for people with additional needs.

By additional needs, our passenger might be unable to reach the ticket machine. S/he may have learning disabilities that makes buying tickets harder without a carer. If there’s hardly any staff besides contracted out ticket barrier staff you are stuck. Furthermore, a ticket vending machine or online portal might lack the local knowledge of a time-served ticket office assistant. S/he could recommend other fares as seen in the Fares Manual.

At present, there are certain tickets you can’t purchase from machines or online. Some rail rovers are only available from station ticket offices and travel agents with a National Rail sign. Some regional rover tickets are only available from stations inside the rover’s ticket boundary points.

Making card payments as standard discriminates against passengers without debit or credit cards. If you only have cash on your or forgot your debit, you could either risk a fine or hope the Promise To Pay option is available on the machine. It forgets the fact that schoolchildren travel by train too (debit cards are never issued to anybody under sixteen years old). If have the wrong debit card for the machines (TVMs still don’t accept VISA Electron cards), this means a walk to the nearest cashpoint. Then you hope the TVM takes cash, or is at least in good working order.

The social value of properly staffed railway stations

Should ticket offices be taken away from English railway stations, there’s half a chance the rest of its support staff will go. As seen at Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria stations, there will be more subcontracted staff on the ticket barriers. If agency workers are used more, the Railway Family which is nurtured by strong trade unions, will be undermined. As passengers vote with their feet against a hostile travel environment, the effects of which will be seen on our roads and they will be unpleasant.

Within the Railway Family there are familial links within the workforce. Staff that have worked for several years. They might know regular passengers, talk to rail enthusiasts and provide a helping hand to passengers. A regular presence at the barrier or ticket office window could reassure passengers who feel less safe on other modes of transport. Without this degree of familiarity, passengers will take their business elsewhere.

Ticket offices, and railway stations of any size are part of our community. As a community facility, redundant parts of the station can be repurposed as galleries, museums, local barbers or cafés. A ticket office – especially those with a commodious booking hall and seating area – could become Safe Places as per the UK-wide Safe Places National Network. The same could apply to station buffet bars.

For many passengers, taking a train is an occasional treat. With British train fares being the highest in Europe – possibly the world even – the passenger’s experience should be a world away from driving. A more civilised alternative to driving – and an inclusive one which makes allowances for ticket offices and improved accessibility. An experience that is easy going from start to finish – whether you get to the station on foot or by car.

Closing ticket offices is another Tory dream of Metrolink staffing levels at Pullman prices. If we want to make our Great British Railways even greater, accessibility should be first and foremost. Not only in our ticket offices, but also in our journey to the station. One that should be step-free and fully accessible to all passengers.

S.V., 31 July 2022.

One thought on “Defending our Station Ticket Offices

  1. A week ago I braved travelling on the train for the first time in nigh-on three years. With a pair of ten pound notes on my person, I was dismayed to discover the wretched card-payment machine still in operation. From this I obtained a ‘promise to pay’ ticket, after being grilled on which train I planned to return on, down to the minute! It goes without saying that this shambles is to be expected of these Tories and their seeming obsession with destroying the country. They seem to define themselves by going out of their way to undermine any entity they perceive as ‘the enemy’, no more how deleterious the effects are on the average citizen. It’s a Lord of the Flies like scenario, wherein a group of prefects who slavishly and without imagination worship Thatcher (taking to heart her paranoid rhetoric about the ‘enemy within’) have jostled their way into control. There should be a play. There would’ve been in 1981. But now the Liberal institutions like the BBC are running terrified of the Tories, and ITN and Sky spout propaganda that Goebbels would’ve found a bit much. Blue Remembered Handbags, indeed. (and that’s just Sunak).

    Like

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