The planned closure of most railway station ticket offices in England was scrapped in a sensational U-turn today amid growing fears over accessibility, safety and security.
Controversial plans to close the majority of ticket offices had been brought forward by train operators and their representative body the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
Ticket offices at 974 stations could have been affected after train companies came up with the idea to cut costs amid the drop in revenue caused by the pandemic.
But passenger watchdogs Transport Focus and London TravelWatch both confirmed today that they had objected to all of the proposals to close ticket offices in England.
Unions and campaigners had claimed that the closures would lead to job losses and difficulties for passengers such as the elderly and disabled in paying for travel.
And Transport Secretary Mark Harper has now revealed that train operators have been asked to withdraw their closure proposals following public consultations.
The ticket office at Windsor & Eton Central railway station in Berkshire, pictured yesterday
Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch (third left) protests in London with rail workers on August 31 against the closure of station ticket offices
The RDG had said the plans were ‘designed to move staff out of ticket offices and onto station platforms and concourses to support better, face-to-face interactions’.
But the proposals sparked fierce criticism from opposition politicians, trade unions, disability groups and public transport campaigners.
Concerns were raised about the impact on accessibility, safety and security, difficulties using ticket machines and how stations will be staffed in future.
Following today’s announcement, a train operator source told the PA news agency: ‘There is quiet fury in the rail industry about where we’ve got to. The plan was signed off by civil servants and ministers. They’ve U-turned.’
And a senior rail source told BBC News that train bosses were angry, saying: ‘They have been made to sell these plans, defend them and change them to try and get them over the line. All in the face of the inevitable onslaught of criticism.
‘All of these plans were approved by officials and ministers at the DfT (Department for Transport). To say they fell short of their expectations is totally disingenuous.’
It comes after Mr Harper said: ‘The consultation on ticket offices has now ended, with the Government making clear to the rail industry throughout the process that any resulting proposals must meet a high threshold of serving passengers.
‘We have engaged with accessibility groups throughout this process and listened carefully to passengers as well as my colleagues in Parliament. The proposals that have resulted from this process do not meet the high thresholds set by ministers, and so the Government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals.
‘We will continue our work to reform our railways with the expansion of contactless Pay As You Go ticketing, making stations more accessible through our Access for All programme and £350million funding through our Network North plan to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations.’
More than 680,000 responses were submitted to consultations on the closures.
Transport Focus and London TravelWatch were required to review each proposal to close a ticket office based on criteria relating to customer service, accessibility and cost-effectiveness, before deciding whether or not to object.
Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘Following analysis of the 750,000 responses to the consultation and in-depth discussions with train companies Transport Focus is objecting to the proposals to close ticket offices.
‘Significant amendments and changes have been secured by the watchdog – for example, reverting to existing times when staff will be on hand at many stations. Some train companies were closer than others in meeting our criteria.
‘However, serious overall concerns remain about how potentially useful innovations, such as ‘welcome points’ would work in practice. We also have questions about how the impact of these changes would be measured and how future consultation on staffing levels will work.
‘Some train companies were unable to convince us about their ability to sell a full range of tickets, handle cash payments and avoid excessive queues at ticket machines.
‘Passengers must be confident they can get help when needed and buy the right ticket in time for the right train.’
There are 1,766 railway stations in England run by train operators controlled by the DfT.
Closed windows at the ticket office at London Waterloo station on Thursday, September 28
A closed ticket office at Datchet railway station in Berkshire is seen on Wednesday, October 25
Of these, 43 per cent operate without a ticket office, 40 per cent have ticket offices staffed part-time and 17 per cent full-time.
Ministers and rail bosses had said the closures were needed to make savings after the industry was bailed out by more than £15billion during the pandemic.
They pointed out that only around 12 per cent of fares are bought from a ticket office, with most opting to buy online.
Michael Roberts, chief executive of London TravelWatch, said: ‘The way many passengers buy tickets is changing and so we understand the need to adapt and change with the times.
‘But the key question for us is whether there is evidence to show that these proposals to close ticket offices represent a genuine improvement for passengers.
‘The three big issues for the public arising from the consultation were how to buy tickets in future, how to get travel advice and information at stations, and how Disabled passengers can get assistance when they need it.
‘Despite improving on their original proposals, we don’t think the train companies have gone far enough.
‘We cannot say with confidence that these proposals would improve things for passengers and that is why we have objected to all 269 ticket office closures.’
Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch said that it was a ‘resounding victory’ for the campaign against the closures.
He added: ‘We are now calling for an urgent summit with the Government, train operating companies, disabled and community organisations and passenger groups to agree a different route for the rail network that guarantees the future of our ticket offices and station staff jobs, to deliver a safe, secure and accessible service that puts passengers before profit.’
Katie Pennick, campaigns manager at accessibility charity Transport for All, said: ‘While we are proud of the incredible tenacity of disabled people and our community for securing this major campaign victory, the outcome is bittersweet.
‘The disastrous and discriminatory proposals should never have been put forward.’
And shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said on X: ‘The Tories’ shambolic plans have fallen apart. They have finally admitted their damaging proposals put accessibility and jobs at risk.
‘What an utterly colossal waste of time and taxpayers’ money, and another example of how this broken government’s time is up.’
A spokesman for train drivers’ union Aslef said today: ‘Thanks to everyone who campaigned to #SaveOurTicketOffices against these unachievable and unnecessary proposals by the government. We will not accept the managed decline of our railway.’
A closed ticket office at Slough railway station in Berkshire is pictured on September 1
And a spokesman for the TSSA union said: ‘Excellent news. Train companies need to take this as the final nail in the coffin for these unpopular plans.’
But RDG chief executive Jacqueline Starr claimed the proposals were about adapting the railway to the changing needs of customers ‘in the smartphone era’, balanced with the ‘significant financial challenge faced by the industry’.
She said: ‘Train companies committed to a genuine consultation, and worked closely with passenger bodies to build and improve on the original plans. We thank everybody who participated and for helping to make our proposals better and welcome the recognition by Transport Focus that the principle of moving staff to where they can better help passengers, is the right one.
‘We listened, and we pledged that the vast majority of cases, stations with staff today would continue to be staffed tomorrow and with similar operating hours.
‘We pledged to upgrade ticket vending machines and that all stations will have a single welcome point, developed in partnership with accessibility groups and passenger bodies.
‘We pledged any changes would be introduced gradually, with regular feedback and review in a process fully involving London Travel Watch and Transport Focus.
‘These proposals were about adapting the railway to the changing needs of customers in the smartphone era, balanced against the significant financial challenge faced by the industry as it recovers from the pandemic.
There were plans to close the vast majority of station ticket offices in England, plus Avanti West Coast’s ticket office at Glasgow Central (where campaigners are pictured in July)
‘At a time when the use of ticket offices is irreversibly declining, we also want to give our people more enriching and rewarding careers geared towards giving passengers more visible face-to-face support.
‘While these plans won’t now be taken forward, we will continue to look at other ways to improve passenger experience while delivering value for the taxpayer. Our priority remains to secure a vibrant long-term future for the industry and all those who work in it.’
Last week, the Commons’ Transport Select Committee wrote to rail minister Huw Merriman, warning that the proposals ‘go too far, too fast, towards a situation that risks excluding some passengers from the railway’.
The committee expressed its concern in particular about how office closures would impact on disabled passengers.
In the letter, dated October 20 and signed by Conservative MP and committee chair Iain Stewart, MPs also express concern about the ‘unacceptable’ lack of information about the proposals from operators, the RDG and the Department for Transport.
On October 6, two disabled rail passengers applied for a judicial review of the consultation.
Sarah Leadbetter from Leicestershire, who is registered blind, and Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user from West Yorkshire who has hearing loss, said the consultation was unfair because it did not give people the opportunity to meaningfully respond to the proposals.
The consultation was originally opened in July for 21 days but was extended to September 1 after a huge response from the public.
Customers at the ticket office at London Marylebone in 2019. The RDG said the proportion of tickets bought from offices had fallen from 24 per cent in 2019 to 12 per cent last year
Ms Leadbetter and Mr Paulley claimed the consultation had ‘multiple, serious flaws’ including failure to provide disabled people with enough information about how the changes will affect them and to provide accessible consultation documents.
But train operating companies denied that the consultation was inadequate and argued that they did provide consultation material in accessible formats.
On September 10, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested that the proposed mass closure of ticket offices was ‘the right thing for the British public’.