My former boss, ‘Sir’ Michael Holden, recently caused a stir by suggesting they could be closed. A rethink is certainly required

Ticket offices aren’t always as bright and appealing as this one

That Workplace Reform discussion, which I wrote in the last issue won’t go away. My first-rate, former gaffer, Michael Holden – ‘Sir Michael’ to you and I – caused a stir with an article he wrote in RAIL magazine a fortnight ago in which he suggested closing ticket offices, providing that Great British Railways delivered the long promised fares simplification.

I wasn’t surprised by Holden’s comments – he was my boss back in the glory days at South Eastern Trains, and on the front foot to deliver change in the way in which ticket offices operated. While others might have been ‘on the beach’ in the final weeks of the franchise before we handed it back to the private sector, he had the bit between his teeth trying to change Schedule 17 (the committed ticket office opening times), irking London Travelwatch and Transport Focus and getting me to work out how much we could save through roster changes and more effective deployment of staff. Sir Michael was unafraid to potentially sour an otherwise unsullied hero status with the trade unions who saw him as the saviour of this beleaguered franchise during his three years at the helm. You had to admire his determination.

In principle, Holden’s right in suggesting ticket offices might not be needed if fares can be simplified. However, what genuinely constitutes “fares simplification”? Smart ticketing is the supposedly panacea to all the ills of the ticketing system. Geo-fencing technology will enable our movements to be tracked by our phones and the cheapest fare deducted from our bank. Easy peasy, you’d think, but it’s not foolproof. And what of the technologically disenfranchised, the not insignificant minority who choose not to have or cannot afford a mobile phone?

If smart ticketing isn’t the answer for everyone, then what alternatively constitutes ‘fares simplification’? Surely the ultimate set-up is one that merely offers a ‘single’ or ‘return’ ticket? In this scenario we just accept that peak and off-peak or any other time band no longer exists. With commuting continuing in freefall, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate between flows in terms of segments and demands or to justify a premium during traditional peak hours. But to create this simplicity, it would mean obliterating the dynamic pricing that has taken the industry two decades to iteratively build through complex yield management systems.

Ticket office employees bear some responsibility. On the various mystery shopping programmes I have overseen, the product knowledge is pretty abysmal

Back to ticket offices, they haven’t really done themselves any favours over the years. Ticket office employees bear some responsibility. On the various mystery shopping programmes I have overseen, the product knowledge is pretty abysmal. Try and ask about Railcard products and you’ll just be handed a leaflet and told to read it yourself. The information provided over the counter will be minimal – “it’s all available online, mate”. Employees will seldom provide details around time or travel restrictions and are unlikely to regale you with the benefits and how much you’ll save, let alone the great availability or the large geographical area they can be used on. Engineering works is another knowledge gap – most of the time they will just point you to the out of date, scruffy poster in the ticket hall or give you the most basic ‘information’ possible, or, more often than not, they’ll claim they are clueless. The standing joke where I live is that you only go to the ticket office at my local station as a last resort because most of the time the information provided is inaccurate and you end up advising the ticket seller which ticket is the best, rather than them advise you.

The design of ticket offices is archaic and doesn’t lend itself to creating a sense that these are indispensable hubs of information full of energy and a proactive desire to meet the needs of customers. Many of them look like Fort Knox and are also fringed by unappealing signage or their windows are covered in poorly displayed notices – all different shapes, sizes, fonts and brands positioned at disjointed angles and places, as well as a variety of ‘clear off’ type messages to customers.

Then when you glance through the window, invariably the ticket seller won’t be there, and you’ll have to shout or cough loudly to get their attention. They will then appear half-asleep or looking at you with ingratitude for getting in the way of their break or conversation with a colleague. Or, if they are at the window, they’ll be engrossed with their smartphones. The backdrop to their window will enhance this soporific feel – old fashioned furniture and décor that looks like the room where your grandad used to go to listen to his wireless. There may be a litter tray on the floor for the resident cat, or a grubby fridge and a selection of mags and books, none of which suggests a vibrant, customer-centric workplace.

Holden talks about London Underground’s removal of ticket offices, citing it as a positive. In many cases, it hasn’t led to the end of the world, though I cite my experiences mystery shopping at South Ruislip station. Two members of staff regularly sit in what used to be the ticket office but is now an information office. Try knocking on the window to get their attention in an emergency let alone information about Chiltern. Cough, shout, scream, they’ll still have their backs to you. Good luck!

A few years ago, not long before Holden led us on his journey of exploration to revolutionise ticket offices, many train companies referred to stations as ‘profit centres’. Some companies loved to create profit and loss accounts for stations. At South Central Trains, under Go-Ahead, I was called ‘retail manager’, then ‘retail director’ at South Eastern Trains. I had it drummed into me that if one of my station (or ‘retail’ managers) didn’t know the turnover of their station, then they were for the high jump! Connex, who loved this profit centre philosophy, were more innovative than most, they opened and ran nurseries at Brighton and Victoria, to make it easier for parents to drop their kids off on their daily commute – they also turned a few ticket offices into mini supermarkets. The problem was that these initiatives were non-core, out of traditional railway skillset, and in the case of supermarkets they didn’t really sell anything that you couldn’t or wouldn’t get yards away in the street outside.

Around this post privatisation period when the railway deluded itself that the station was as much a retail outlet as your High Street store, they became obsessed with attracting shop managers from the big flagship retailers. The difficulty was that the train company recruiters became entranced by the name of the brand that candidates came from as opposed to their capability or level of seniority. So, with a few exceptions, they attracted low-skilled folk. They thought that they could smoothly migrate into station management and inspire old school, set in their ways railway staff to imbue a profit hungry retailer’s philosophy and transform their tatty, under-invested station, with its problems of folk climbing over gates to bunk their fare and hoodlums taking heroin in the platform toilets or dissing the staff, into family-friendly, pristine shops with all their pizzazz. It was never going to happen and these folk either floundered or got so disillusioned with what they found that they scarpered.

The train operators haven’t helped their case. By not even prioritising a penny for decent poster frames or a coat of paint in the company’s branded colours or by deciding to get shot of in-house local maintenance teams in favour of some online, outsourced facilities management function that’s far removed from the station staff and their needs, they’ve created environments that are the opposite of that you would find at your local retail park or High Street. They’ve also moved away from trying to turn stations into community hubs. Most station managers these days don’t see that creatively looking at ways to work with local stakeholders to make their station more at the heart of the localities they serve, is part of their job. That’s the role of the HQ-based regional stakeholder managers, except no one actually told the station managers that these posts have long been written out of the organisation structure and there’s now a vacuum.

It would, of course, be remiss not to mention the folly of plans to emancipate ticket office staff into being out and about on the station, visibly anticipating customer needs. Human nature is such that faced with an eight-hour shift, even you and I will just retreat to the luxury of the warm ticket office, with a mug of tea, the radio playing in the background and a nice chair to sit on, rather than going outside and vigorously approaching customers. Managers won’t be around to work out whether we’re acting like mobile customer service staff. They’ll be in the comfort of their own offices or at home on Teams calls, assuming they’re not cut to the bone with one person overseeing 40 stations, nine-to-five, Monday to Friday only, of course.

I’d prefer a situation where dosh was invested to make ticket offices look more appealing and more like conduits of information, modernity and pro-activity; surroundings that sub-consciously force staff to up their game

All is not lost though, and there is a future for ticket offices. In the overall scheme of workplace reform and the context of the real material costs for train companies being in track access and rolling stock leasing, eradicating ticket office staff is still only marginal savings. I’d prefer a situation where dosh was invested to make ticket offices look more appealing and more like conduits of information, modernity and pro-activity; surroundings that sub-consciously force staff to up their game. And, if we are to extend their services, Connex-style, then I’d like them to do something that is indispensable. Think of Post Offices and the role they play at the heart of the communities. Okay, so they suffer the same blights in terms of aesthetics and variable standards as many railway stations, but they provide similar services. Could they double up with ticket offices in our stations?

Furthermore, ticket office staff could be more proactive and focused not just on being product and sales ambassadors (I know, I know, we’ve been trying that for years), but also on multi-modal integration. They could take responsibility for the bus stops and surrounding areas and for co-ordinating activity and information provision that creates a more seamless end-to-end experience? It’s about getting people to make a journey now, and all modes need to come together to achieve this.

Finally, revenue protection. We’ve become so intent on reducing ticket office and station staffing and focusing on ticketing technology, that we’ve forgotten that somehow, we do need to police all this. If we de-staff stations wholesale, who is going to create the right presence to remind customers that they do actually have to buy a valid ticket to travel and there will be some kind of enforcement?

Similarly, without staff who is going to explain to new generations how they indeed travel? The Rail Ombudsman recently launched ‘The Young Person’s Train Guide’, a campaign that includes a resource pack explaining aspects such as penalty ticketing and including worksheets for pupils. This is what it’s come to, even if it’s a good initiative.

Sir Michael isn’t wrong, but the future of ticket offices isn’t binary – to eradicate or keep – a lot needs to happen before we go down that road just yet. That the solution seems no further progressed since he was last my esteemed gaffer, 16 years ago, proves how complicated it is.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 28 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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