Posted 10th July 2023 | 4 Comments

Monday essay: confusion at the ticket office


Almost 30 years ago, the railway was fragmented by privatisation. A nationalised operator (with several business sectors) was split into more than 100 separate organisations.

Privatisation proved to be a mixed bag, and the ailing franchises were reconstructed under Emergency Measures Agreements in the spring of 2020, thanks to Covid, when the Department for Transport and the devolved governments shouldered the commercial risk. In return, they collect the revenue and meet the costs of the passenger railway.

Franchises in England were officially abolished by the DfT in September 2020. (Caledonian Sleeper was still technically a franchise until it was renationalised by the Scottish Government last month).

The Welsh Government had already assumed control of the former Wales & Borders franchise, while the Scottish Government now runs ScotRail.

In England, there is a patchwork of private sector National Rail Contracts and Direct Awards, plus four renationalised operators. Never, perhaps, has the railway been so divided, at least in living memory.

In the meantime, the DfT is determined to reduce the costs of running the passenger railway (after all, it does pay the bills), and so the axe is hovering over most ticket offices, which, we are told, are used by barely more than one passenger in ten these days.

With all the passenger operators now effectively under government control, one way or the other, you might have expected Operation Ticket Office to have been launched consistently and logically.

If so, you will have been disappointed. Although the consultation is nationwide within England, each operator has publicised it differently.

Avanti West Coast (all ticket offices closing) and c2c (most offices closing) have conscientiously published copies of the consultation posters for each of their stations on their websites.

GWR has provided a long document, with a page for each station which still has a ticket office. By the end of next year, GWR is proposing to close every one of them.

Other operators have produced documents in various styles and formats, and confusion has abounded. Govia Thameslink Railway produced its own all-stations list, but at least one national newspaper, struggling to make sense of it all, labelled the complete GTR collection ‘Southern’, which was news for those of us who had never realised until now that the Southern network extends to Hitchin and Bedford.

The same newspaper claimed that GWR was not closing any offices, heaven knows why. Perhaps it overlooked that company’s document, which gives almost exhaustive detail about the types of tickets sold at each station, and includes the ominous words ‘Ticket Office windows close’ near the bottom of every page.

However, even getting that far can be a challenge in some cases. LNER probably takes the prize for pretending that nothing is happening, because there is no obvious link on its front page to anything about ticket offices closing. The details are hiding in a folder called ‘our-stations-are-changing’, but you have to search for it. 

When you get to the detail LNER publishes its plans under the descriptive title ‘Evolving and enhancing our stations’. Quite so.

c2c is also lacking a link on its front page, and you seem to be required to click on ‘Media enquiries’ and then ‘latest news’ before you find a news release headed ‘c2c calls for customer feedback on the future of station ticket offices’. Clear enough when you get there, but it is rather buried.

At least others, like South Western Railway, provide a link on their front page. SWR’s is entitled: ‘Station Change Proposals: Modernising our retail offer’, which perhaps needs a little translation unless you have an NVQ in management speak.

GWR prefers ‘Ticket office consultation: have your say on industry proposals’, which is still on the shy side, while Avanti West Coast breaks the news with: ‘Public consultation launched on the future of ticket retailing’. (That means selling tickets, everyone.)

Southeastern has a large link on its front page, labelled ‘Ticket office consultation’. Again, you need to have read the backstory before that really makes sense.

Greater Anglia gives prominence to ‘Consultation on proposed ticket office changes’, which gives the innocent passenger a bit more of a clue.

TransPennine Express speaks of ‘Modernising customer service at stations: read our updates on the proposed changes to staffed ticket offices’, which might cause the same innocent passenger to wonder what an unstaffed ticket office would be like. (Shut, presumably.)

West Midlands Railway doesn’t beat about the bush, with ‘Consultation announcement – Proposed changes to ticket offices’, while Govia Thameslink Railway goes further: ‘Find out about the proposal to move ticket office colleagues from behind ticket windows onto the station concourse and how to take part in the consultation,’ which nearly gives the whole game away.

There are more questions to be asked, of course, such as why it should be that Runcorn East, on a local line, is to keep its ticket office, while the office at nearby Runcorn, on the West Coast Main Line, is closing.

There are many more mysteries like this. London Paddington and London Euston are losing their ticket offices, but little London Fenchurch Street (by comparison) is not. A little unfairly, St Pancras International seems set to keep two (and that’s not counting Eurostar).

So there’s another can of worms that might bear inspection, then, but it will have to wait until next Monday.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Steve Mountain, FAREHAM

    I'm not sure I follow this saga ... isn't this more about the ticket office staff actually having to venture out onto the platforms and be seen, and be more customer focussed, and help people more? Tickets will still be sold by them. They will still be able to advise people over best tickets. It's just that instead of being in their 'box', they will be out on the platform. Bit like the guards becoming customer service staff which translates (for most, not all) as 'get out of your cabin and actually be seen'.
    [That is a fair summary of what the government wants the operators to achieve. However, several objections have been raised: (1) It could be harder on a busy station to find a member of staff, rather than queuing at their ‘box’ (2) The unions are concerned about job security, because ticket offices are protected up to a point by legislation (hence the consultation), whereas the jobs of other staff can be declared redundant (3) Objections have been made on behalf of disabled people, who may be less mobile or have sight and/or hearing limitations (4) There are also question marks over cash security and the safety of staff. How much will they be expected to carry around with them? (5) The ticket system in Britain is extremely complex, and can be a problem even for an experienced booking clerk seated in front of a screen and keyboard. Sorting out queries may be much more difficult (and time-consuming) ‘on the hoof’. That’s not an exhaustive list, but these are some of the objections which have been made.--Ed.]

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    I've come across the theory that certain elements in government are anti - railway , and want to see their demise ( remember the Serpel report, some while after Beeching ?).

    Is this a poblem within Whitehall, or more to do with Westmister party politics ? Is this all tied up with differing "doctrinare" simplistic analyses, some of which have become largely irrelevent, owing to "the march of technology"?

  • Greg T, London

    The DfT, under instruction form a dogmatic right-wing misgovernment, are determined to wreck the railways through neglect µ-mis-management, whilst ensuring no real investment comes along.
    The deliberate rejection of electrification by Harper & others is significant)

    As for ticket offices - what happens when your valid ticket cannot be got from a machine?

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    For those well past retirement age, perhaps not good news ? Many of us find doing transactions by smartphone or home computer difficult and fraught with dangers. And how about younger disabled people ?

    Of course, it could save millions , as closure of bank branches does. Personally, I can accept closure of these labour intensive features, but cannot the railway keep the facilities available for those willing to pay a small surcharge for each transaction? If such facility could be retained, as far as I can see , we can get pretty close to "pleasing all the people all the time".