Pushing forward plans to close ticket offices before addressing hugely inconsistent rail fares was putting the cart before the horse

Campaign for Better Transport this week published its detailed review of fares and ticketing

The grand old DfT. They marched them up to the top of the hill and they marched them down again.

The decision to pull the plug on ticket office closures, at least this side of the election, has without doubt irritated rail bosses, not least with Mark Harper shifting the blame onto the train operators, asserting that he was asking them to withdraw their proposals as they “failed to meet high passenger standards.”

As a “senior rail source” told the BBC: “They [the train operators] have been made to sell these plans, defend them and change them to try to 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 Department for Transport. To say they fell short of their expectations is totally disingenuous.”

It is difficult to argue with that analysis, and noteworthy that it comes from an industry that normally politely sucks up whatever the government throws at it. Maybe after the fiasco of the cancellation of HS2, a decision taken without discussion with the industry and not even with DfT ministers, this was one volte-face too many.

It was in any case a mistake to ask the various train companies to front this exercise. This led to a whole plethora of widely differing presentations and suggestions which only added to the impression of a chaotic scheme not worked out. The exercise, if it was to be carried out, should have been handled by the Rail Delivery Group centrally, the drifting Great British Railways Transition Team, or better still the DfT itself.

Still, without doubt, it is the correct political decision, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, to pull the plug. The idea of closing just about every ticket office, including in huge stations such as Paddington, Euston and Manchester Piccadilly, was hugely unpopular with the public and generated an enormous consultation response from 750,000 people. It was also unpopular with many Tory MPs. The Tories, already struggling in the polls, needed this like an aperture in the cranium.

Moreover, in the battle for minds with the unions, it gave the RMT a campaigning point that put them on the side of the passenger against the government and the train operators. In my judgement, ministers had to a degree been winning the argument that reform in the industry was necessary and that that was the way to fund a decent wage increase. The ticket office proposals did significant damage to that perception.

The concept of ticket office reform is not and should not be dead, but it is now off the agenda for the foreseeable future and it is not clear how it can be politically reactivated.

“Can you tell me how to get to Kilkenny?”

“Well I wouldn’t start from here, if I were you.”

So goes the legendary sardonic exchange.

The concept of ticket office reform is not and should not be dead

It was always going to be challenging to persuade the public that the times have changed, and the concept of ticket offices, which after all go back to the birth of the railway almost two centuries ago, has to change too. It is even more difficult now.

People don’t like to see the familiar go. They fight to protect their local post office, though they barely use it except to post parcels at Christmas. They campaign to save their local bank from closure though they have largely switched to internet banking. They object to their local bus service disappearing though personally they use their car. They want their post office, their bank, their bus there just in case and because it adds in a vague sort of way to a sense of community.

So it is with ticket offices. As the train companies and the government have regularly pointed out, just 12% of tickets are now sold via the ticket office window, and some stations with offices barely sell any from day to day.

Those advocating mass closures point out that 759 stations, or 43% of all stations already have no ticket offices, but these are logically the very lightly used stations where it would be absurd to have a ticket office.

However Paddington has 23.9 million passengers a year, Euston has 23.1 million, and Manchester Piccadilly 19.6 million. So 12% of that is a lot of people. In addition, some stations sell up to 50% of their tickets at the window rather than at a machine or online.

The advocates of mass closures also point out that Transport for London moved all its staff out of ticket offices in 2015 and that created barely a murmur.

And yet it is not quite as simple as that. For one thing, London had long had a simple fare structure that was widely understood. People in London happily use contactless or the familiar Oyster card to buy their travel and do so in the absolute confidence that the fare they will be charged will be correct.

Of course London is also a contained area where flat fares and fare caps can operate, and to that extent it offers a good model for other concentrated urban areas. But it does not readily translate to the country as a whole.

Research from the Rail Delivery Group of train operators had revealed that 35% of rail passengers find fares complicated and confusing. That is because they are.


And here is the central flaw in the decision to propose a whole swathe of ticket office closures. Whereas London sorted its fare and ticketing arrangements before closing its ticket offices, this latest exercise is putting the cart before the horse, or perhaps the carriage before the engine.

Getting the sequence right, early last Tuesday, before the ticket office announcement later that morning, Campaign for Better Transport published its detailed review of fares and ticketing. It makes a persuasive case that the hugely inconsistent fares structure that exists needs to be sorted first, as TfL did, before a large closure of ticket offices can be considered.

It is partly the complexity of the fares system that drives people to seek advice from those at the ticket office window. And since Covid, we have seen a drop in commuter traffic and a growth in leisure travel. Many in this latter category are new to the railway and may need more help and reassurance from a human being than those who have been regular users for years.

The industry needs to introduce a Best Price Guarantee so that passengers can have confidence that the ticket they are buying is the right one for the journey they are making and at the right price. And that the lowest price should be available through all outlets – ticket office, ticket machine or online – with that lowest price ticket appearing first in any search.

The huge variations in the system need to be ironed out as complexity upon complexity has been added to a tottering tower of variables dating back to the days of British Rail.


Why does the cost per mile for an anytime day return cost 15p on some routes, and 62p on others?

Why is a peak ticket from Southend to Fenchurch Street just 6% more expensive than the off-peak fare, whereas the peak fare from Brighton to Victoria is 132% dearer?

Why in some cases is a monthly season ticket 43% cheaper than four anytime day returns in each week, yet 20% more expensive in others? Why does the cost per mile for an anytime day return cost 15p on some routes, and 62p on others?

More fundamentally, is the sharp differentiation between peak and off-peak appropriate any more? It is likely, after all, that some of the growth in off peak travel is not in fact leisure but workers taking advantage of greater flexible working opportunities.

It will be interesting to see what Labour do if they form the next government. They will face the same logic that led the present government to kick off this process, but they will also have to deal with their union supporters who do not want to see any job losses. Under the now abandoned plans, there could have been a loss of 2,000 jobs, though some would have been reallocated to public-facing positions outside the ticket office.

There is undoubtedly a case for some rationalisation – some stations with ticket offices really do not need them – and a pilot project which saw some stations relocate staff to new roles could be a way forward.

In the meantime, the government should accelerate the rollout of the contactless pay-as-you-go area round London and hasten its introduction in other urban areas. And they might want to mend some bridges with the rail industry, the unions and indeed the passengers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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