Posted 26th July 2023 | 6 Comments

COMMENT: Last orders at the ticket office?

11.35 Updated following extension of consultation period.

This had been the last day for lodging responses with Transport Focus and London TravelWatch on the proposals to close most station ticket offices in England, before the time allowed was extended
 (writes Sim Harris).

The consultation was announced on 5 July, and the barrage of public protest has grown day by day. We cannot recall having received so many messages before on a single subject from our readers, all of whom are opposed to the idea of closing almost every ticket office between Glasgow Central and Penzance.

We have been reassured by official sources that the staff who used to work behind the glass will move into the public areas of stations, such as concourses and platforms, where they will be able to help passengers by selling them tickets directly or explaining how to use the ticket machines.

But that won’t be the complete answer. Operators have conceded that some tickets and services will no longer be available at stations without conventional offices.

LNER has said 8 per cent of all ticket types will not be available at such stations, naming them as ‘Season Replacement, Rovers and Rangers, Excesses, Photocards, Refunds, Seat Reservations and Railcards’.

Passengers at Berwick-upon-Tweed, for example, who need these services will be advised to use the surviving offices at Edinburgh or Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

This kind of advice would be pointless on an operator like GWR. Passengers at, say, Newton Abbot, won’t find what they want at the nearest larger stations like Plymouth or Exeter St David’s, because every GWR office is proposed for closure by the end of next year, including Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington.

At London Waterloo, another prospective casualty, something like 14,000 passengers still use the ticket windows each day.

However, London Fenchurch Street, a much smaller terminus, is going to keep its windows, which are run by c2c rather than GWR or South Western Railway.

The closures, wherever they are, have been attributed to the individual operators. But this is a smokescreen carefully created in Whitehall and Westminster to shift the blame, perhaps because there will be a General Election within a year.

Today’s operators are contractors. The revenue goes to the government, while the government pays the operators’ costs, plus a management fee to make it worth their while.

To quote a briefing from the Rail Delivery Group, which was issued a week ago: ‘How the railway is funded has changed. The franchise model no longer exists. Train operators are paid a fixed fee of 0.5 per cent of costs to provide a service – just like other government suppliers.’

Precisely. And government suppliers don’t usually make changes in midstream to the services they provide – at least, not if they want to keep their contracts.

The structure which the RDG describes is not, perhaps, likely to encourage economies. As the operators’ fees are based on their costs, reducing those costs would presumably reduce their income.

But the closure proposals have been published nonetheless, while the government keeps its head down.

Rail minister Huw Merriman was on guard in the Commons this week when Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who is shadow transport minister, put down this question: ‘To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, if he will publish his correspondence with the (a) Chair of the Rail Delivery Group and (b) chief executive officers of train operating companies which have passenger service contracts with his Department on the proposals to close ticket offices.’

Mr Merriman could see a googly coming, and swiftly took evasive action: ‘There are no current plans for any general publication of this correspondence.’

Mr Dhesi followed up with a further question, asking when and by what means had the minister become aware of the closure proposals? Again, following established ministerial practice, Mr Merriman carefully avoided giving a direct answer: ‘Ministers regularly hold meetings with stakeholders, including the Rail Delivery Group and train operating companies, on challenges to the rail network. This includes discussions on modernising and improving the customer experience.’

Mr Merriman must know by now that the customers are not looking forward to his singular ‘improvements’.

To quote from just a few of the many messages received at Railnews:

‘This is a cynical cost-cutting and union-breaking exercise, glossily dressed up as “modernisation”. I am not convinced and am totally against it. Those proposing it say that most people buy their tickets using the station ticket machines. That doesn’t mean that we enjoy or prefer using them. I much prefer talking with a live person about ticket options and ways to reduce the fares. The options on the ticket machines are limited.’ (Charles Littleton, Stevenage)

‘Shutting ticket offices would be a retrograde step. I accept that many people now use the internet. However many do not, and I reverted to buying tickets at Exmouth ticket office a couple of years ago. Frankly, it’s much easier. The staff there are knowledgeable, patient and helpful. The ticket office was modernised recently. The staff could not do their job on the platform without access to their computers.’ (Jonathan Edward Liggins, Exmouth)

‘I feel this is purely a money saving exercise driven by the government. This is the government that is supposed to be reducing carbon emissions! This will force more people, particularly the elderly and disabled, off the trains – probably on to cars, or to not travel at all.’ (Gerry Powell, Gloucester)

‘The Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport say only about one in eight passengers still use ticket offices. What other business would deliberately alienate 12.5 per cent of their customers?’ (Neil Palmer, Waterloo)

‘I suffer from glaucoma and pre-cataracts so find it difficult to use both rail apps and ticket machines. It is invaluable to speak to a person when purchasing rail tickets.’ (Kevin O’Malley, Weymouth)

‘Please do not do this. Using the internet often causes a great deal of stress. Also I have a son who is disabled in his communication and needs to feel that he can take his problems re booking to a human being.’ (Maggi Deimel, Bishop Auckland)

There are still more reasons to feel unhappy. There is the question of potential fraud, because ticket office staff being asked for a railcard discount want to see the railcard, which is beyond the ability of a ticket machine or website. Staff also have a pretty good idea whether the would-be traveller is entitled to a child ticket. There is the fares structure itself, which is ludicrously complex. No wonder that many passengers need a helping hand.

Indeed, whether there is an increase in fraud or not, if people are discouraged from travelling by train the loss of revenue may outweigh any savings.

An important point made by the unions is that ticket offices can only be closed after a consultation. Displaced former ticket office staff working on the concourse can be declared redundant without any consultation with railway users. Concerns like this could easily make existing industrial tensions worse.

There are also the challenges now being mounted by Mayors in the city regions and other places, who allege that the form of consultation which has been adopted is unlawful. It is reported that the first legal notices have been served on operators this week.

Huw Merriman used to be the chairman of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, and it remains to be seen what his former colleagues will make of this Railway Pantomime.

But we can tell him this. It is not clever, it is not helpful, and it won’t work. 

Reader Comments:

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

  • Greg T, London

    Quote: "LNER has said 8 per cent of all ticket types will not be available at such stations, naming them as ‘Season Replacement, Rovers and Rangers, Excesses, Photocards, Refunds, Seat Reservations and Railcards’."
    This is the real problem, especially in London, where there are tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Over-65 "pass" hoilders + many more with 60+ cards, plus those with season tickets going out to zone 6
    "Boundary Zone 6 to $_Destination" will be unavailable, which is contrary to the law, which says that the cheapest legal option should be available, does it not?

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    Is it desirable to keep the facility of ticket offices, to help people needing help with tickets and travell information ? Does this cause extra costs ?

    Perhaps a solution might be to make a small surcharge on such transactions, so as to help defray these costs ?Likely users of such facility could often attract compensatory pension / benefit adjustments.
    [Dutch Railways did make a small charge (25c, I think) for using offices for a while. Then they closed.--Ed.]

  • Les Christmas, Littlethorpe, Leicester.

    I protest, in the strongest possible terms, to the proposed closure of the ticket office at busy Narborough railway station. Not everyone has a smart phone, or access to the internet, particularly older people. .A good proportion of the travellers using Narborough station, require assistance from a staff member, to give advice on the most cost effective way to buy tickets and as I understand it, the proposed ticket machines do not provide the option of split ticketing.

  • king arthur, buckley

    It has the whiff of Dr Beeching about it - savage cuts to valuable services, blaming 'costs', with the end result a far worse service all round.


    Ticket offices should remain open to enable older people and disabled to get assistance with tickets at train stations. There are still many many people who do not have access to the internet or mobile phones and others who cannot use websites etc. to order tickets. This move by the train operators is discriminatory in the impact it has on those two groups.


    Through fares from UK stations connecting with Eurostar, such as Euro High Saver, are *only* available from ticket offices. Will this change? Will we finally be able to buy these online or will we be forced to buy astronomically expensive Anytime or hopelessly inflexible Advance tickets, with zero guarantee of travel if a connection is missed? If not, what incentive do we have not to take a cheap flight instead?