The Department for Transport has told train operators that forthcoming franchise bids should include proposals to introduce new ticket retailing technology as a precursor to cutting ticket office opening hours.

In particular, the DfT has highlighted developments in video-linked ticket vending machine technology as a potential means to improve service quality and reduce costs. Initially, the DfT envisages that improved self-service channels and alternative means of offering ‘face-to-face’ ticket sales advice at stations should be introduced before it approves cuts in ticket office hours.

If operators can agree changes with passenger groups, who have generally resisted previous plans for reducing ticket office hours, the DfT has indicated that processes will be streamlined. In these circumstances, cost savings from innovations which reduce retailing costs and improve customer service would be retained by operators rather than passing to the DfT.

The case for dealing with the controversial issue of station ticket office costs is set out in the DfT’s conclusions on its Fares and Ticketing Review. It points out that considerable changes in the way tickets are sold mean “in many smaller stations, supporting a full ticket office service alongside newer retailing methods will not (or may already not) be sustainable”. It concludes that reducing station ticket office hours “cannot be excluded from wider efforts to improve efficiencies on the railways”.

Since 2005, the proportion of ticket office sales has declined from 44% to just over 30%, while the proportion of tickets sold through ticket machines has risen from 11% to 24% and online from 7% to 20%. On average it costs twice as much to issue a ticket through a station office as from self-service channels.

Without accompanying reductions in ticket office hours as customers change the way they buy, the DfT argues that customers and taxpayers will in effect be “paying for multiple sales channels, reducing our ability to fund other improvements for passengers or to cut rail fares”.

To ensure customer service standards are not adversely affected, changes to booking office hours must have no detrimental impact on overall station facilities such as the availability of waiting rooms and toilets. A trained member of staff must continue to be available to provide advice to passengers on ticket sales. Options suggested by the DfT include multi-skilled platform staff who can provide ticket sales information, moving ticket sales offices into station convenience stores, and providing communication links to staff in remote sales centres, potentially via video vending machines. Cubic unveiled its NextAgent ‘virtual ticket office’ concept in Geneva earlier this year.

In an indication that it may be prepared to face up to the political difficulty of reducing ticket office hours, the DfT notes that “in some cases, there may be a compelling reason for change, even where passenger groups are not wholly in favour, in order to reduce costs and release funding for other improvements”.


Further coverage on rail ticketing can be found inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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