Ticket office closure consultation process ‘nothing but a sham’ - Mick Lynch

The consultation into proposals for a widespread closure of railway station ticket offices was “a sham”.

Telford Central Ticket Office Strike.
Telford Central Ticket Office Strike.

That’s the damning verdict of Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, who claimed the process was designed to ensure the plans are implemented despite strong opposition.

More than 680,000 responses were submitted to the consultation, which ended on September 1.

There have also been many protests in the West Midlands. All railway station ticket offices in the Black Country will close apart from Walsall and Wolverhampton, under plans to modernise sales.

In Shropshire, only Ludlow, Shrewsbury and Gobowen will stay open, as these are operated by Transport for Wales.

Mr Lynch told a Commons Transport Select Committee: “We think the whole thing has been a sham designed to be rammed through while people were looking the other way.

“It all goes back to Secretary of State Mark Harper.

“The Secretary of State initiated these changes through the contracts he has with the train operating companies.

“He directs everything they do these days, every letter that’s sent, he gets access to. Of course, if the watchdogs object to the closures on the limited basis they’re allowed to, the decision will end up with him as well. It’s a controlled show. The whole thing is designed so that they can force this all through in a way that they want.”

Katie Pennick, campaigns and communications manager at charity Transport for All, said many people “have not had a fair opportunity” to comment on the proposals.

She told the hearing that many operators did not make consultation documents available in accessible formats such as braille or British Sign Language.

“Any consultation, but especially one on proposals that will disproportionately impact disabled people, is rendered useless if it’s not accessible to the very people who will be impacted,” she said.

She added: “I’m really disappointed to see the opaqueness of these consultation documents and the number of misleading statements there were in the documents, particularly around staffing.”

Mr Lynch described claims by operators that ticket office staff will be redeployed on to station concourses and platforms as “nonsense”.

He said: “They’re not taking them out of the ticket office to work on the platforms. They’re taking them out of the ticket office to make cuts, to cut the jobs out of the system.”

He added that staff “will not be there” at off-peak periods, and people travelling then “will be left to fend for themselves”.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, which is analysing the consultation responses, told the hearing his organisation is “not in any way opposed to the principle of redeploying staff out of ticket offices on to a more visible role on to stations”.

He said this could benefit many passengers “if done properly”, but warned “it’s got to pass quite a high hurdle”.

Christopher Brooks, head of policy at charity Age UK, told the committee there is a “lack of understanding” about how difficult it is for people who are not internet users to buy tickets from machines at stations.

He said: “It is extremely difficult to expect someone to use a TVM (ticket vending machine) and be able to use the interface, however intuitive some tech-savvy designer thinks it is. It is very, very difficult – probably impossible – for many, many people who are offline.

“Over a fifth of over-65s are not internet users so to expect people to go into the station and do that is an extremely tall order. There’s a significant number of people, millions of pensioners, who will find it very, very difficult if we go down a more automated route.

“It will obviously have the impact that it will put some people off travelling altogether.”

Transport Focus’s Mr Smith said: “If it’s the case that the ticket office is either closing or the ticket office is being reduced in hours very significantly, I think the ticket vending machine has got to be able to replicate pretty much what the ticket office can do at the moment.

“So, I think we would argue that you would want to delay (changes) until you’ve got that capacity in place, otherwise people are being disadvantaged.

“There are certain types of ticket you can only get at the moment from a ticket office.

“You have to be able to get them from a ticket vending machine.”

He said it is difficult to predict the impact of a widespread closure of ticket offices.

He told MPs: “The impact is very, very hard to judge because some people at the moment turn up at a ticket office because it’s nice and easy, and they can’t be bothered with digital and fiddling around with apps.

“If that option is removed, they may well just move to digital and get on with it.

“There’s a group of people, I think, (who) will find it quite difficult and will need some adjustment and some support.

“There’s probably a group of people who will think ‘I can’t be bothered, it’s just too complicated’.”

Simon Moorhead, of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, admitted that closing station ticket offices is partly about cutting costs.

He said: “Cost is a part of it, but primarily we’re following the needs of our customers and the demands of our customers. This year, around 80 per cent of the tickets that have been issued are either bought online through digital channels or they are with customers tapping in and tapping out from gate lines or machines on platforms.”

Avanti West Coast managing director Andy Mellors defended cuts made by his company, which operates services from London, through the West Midlands and north to Glasgow. He was asked about plans to slash numbers at its Glasgow Central station by more than a third .

He said: “We have about 27 staff, I think it is, at the moment at Glasgow Central. These proposals would, if they were enacted in full as we proposed, reduce that number by about nine or 10. I must stress that we are only one of the organisations that provides customer support and presence at that station.”

He said the proportion of Avanti West Coast journeys made from Glasgow Central using a ticket bought from its office at the station is one per cent.

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