Closing ticket offices was a terrible idea that no-one wants to own. They should remain, but there are things we can do differently

Thankfully, plans to close ticket office have been abandoned

I said shame shame shame shame shame shame shame.
Shame on you.

It’s one of my favourite musical quotes and it’s from the song Shame, Shame, Shame by Shirley and Co – one of the best hits of all time, particularly as I’ve become addicted to ‘Heart 70s’ whilst working from home. The lyrics chimed last week stronger than ever, a description that could be levied at those with their paws on the ticket office closure charade.

The problem is that it’s impossible to know who Shirley and Co are pinpointing their ire on if there was a re-release of this song today to describe the ticket office farce. Rishi Sunak? The Treasury? The Department for Transport? The Railway Delivery Group? Train company top brass? Who knows? In a real world of accountability, it would be easy to deduce who was responsible and they’d be fired for presiding over such a mess, but the structure of the railway is such a labyrinth, devoid of consequence, that your guess is as good as mine. Everyone is also keeping their head down.

The rail industry got its comeuppance. Some claim the operators were stitched up by the DfT, dishing out orders then saying they were content with the proposals and then stepping back when it hit the fan. Whatever, it’s an unedifying spectacle, epitomising a dereliction of duty towards customers. Years in which parts of the sector – but not all – took customers for granted, failed to engage with communities, over inflated fares and didn’t have the collective strength and nous to take on a government with zero interest in transport, came home to roost.

This was Transport Focus’ finest hour. What a performance by their dynamic chair Nigel Stevens and an impactful swansong for their legendary outgoing CEO Anthony Smith. I have always admired consumer groups but admit to each year getting just a little frustrated at them for not railing more effectively against the January fares hikes. Not this time, as Transport Focus set off a process that was well managed by them, probing, interrogative and demanding. Then they collated it effectively and fed back a masterpiece – ‘get knotted, this isn’t good enough at all’, they indicated to operators. Not just one, two or a majority – but the full trainset!

The failure of the ticket office proposals was the railway’s poll tax riots

The failure of the ticket office proposals was the railway’s poll tax riots – a defining moment when the people said, ‘enough is enough’. There’s been anger in the shires, towns and villages across England and the people rallied around with unity and impassioned, deeply emotional pleas. I saw this on a late-night train from Manchester to Leeds when a blind man with a dog handed me a petition and explained he wouldn’t be able to travel any longer. And my wife, normally not one to get worked up about decisions in transport, was moved by a similar tale from a blind woman who phoned in to LBC Radio to share her deep worry.

The train operators have been noticeably quiet since the decision. As I mentioned last time round, Robin Gisby of Directly Operated Railways bravely mused at the Transport Select Committee that the ideas came from the industry managers. There are some in the sector who I’ve heard pontificating about the wonders of technology and it being a catalyst to a far easier world, with fewer staff – those horrible dinosaurs who just want more money or they’ll strike. They say it as though they are trying to prove they are cool and in touch with market needs, even if, classic railway-style, there is limited, if any, lens shone on outcomes for customers – particularly when analysing this from the perspective of the full panoply of customer types. These same folk love posting selfies on the patch with people they would happily see “displaced from the organisation structure” if it made their “scorecard” cosmetically better and their bonus bigger.

There are talented TOC top dogs who privately think the ticket office closure proposals constituted buffoonery on an unprecedented scale. They are pig-sick of being told how to run their railway. If there’s mutiny among customers, there’s a building rebellion within the train operating company community. I wish you well. These managers are those who will be picking up the mess when the loonies have long exited transport, having manipulated the flaws of the industry as a leg-up to create a narrative in a job interview where they describe the amazing, transformational job they did in adversity.

It’s impossible to believe that this was anything but a cost saving exercise. That those corporate comms clowns genuinely thought that we’d swallow the line that this was about revolutionising staff to be more customer-facing is incredulous. Has there ever been an instance of where this has happened to positive effect for customers?

The TOCs didn’t help themselves. There were some, I gather, whose submissions to Transport Focus somehow got worse, second time round, having been told to go back and up their game. There were others who, I sense, were just plain awkward.

The role of the DfT is interesting. They clearly were under intense pressure from the Treasury. It’s a lazy headline to suggest that the DfT doesn’t understand the railway. There are enough excellent people there who actually get the industry and care intensely about its role in the community. Yes, they micro-manage, but from passionate and impressive Pete Wilkinson down, the railway is in the blood of many, and they do try to understand customer needs.

The ticket office debacle was a watershed moment, reinforcing, with a few exceptions, how disconnected some parts of the industry have become from customers, particularly around community engagement. Over the years, the railway has retreated in this area, with TOCs pruning back stakeholder teams or making those in them so junior they just pay lip service. Back in the day, station managers had a remit to be big in their communities, now this has been taken off them and shoved to someone in the centre who makes the right sound bites but has no authority or tools to improve the experience at the local station.

Many rail industry managers turn their noses up at a lot of the volunteer community groups as though they are ‘has beens’ or like me, ‘weirdo anoraks who spot trains and have too much time on their hands’. I was at a packed event organised by a Community Rail Partnership on Bolton station last December to dream up a future model for railway stations. Transport Focus were present, so too Transport for Greater Manchester, and there were interesting speakers. Volunteers gave up their time on a freezing Friday afternoon because they cared and yet there was not a single attendee from any train company – not even those in whose own backyard this event was happening! We got an audience after the event with Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill, chair of Network Rail, and he appreciated the outputs even if the TOCs couldn’t deign themselves to turn up.

Strategically, the government, wealthy businesses, and us mugs it expects to do their dirty work, need to rethink the whole approach to ‘society’. From doctors’ appointments and dental care to having enough police on the streets, or rampant shoplifting partly because self-checkouts replaced staff, or the closure of youth clubs – all these so-called drains on financial resources have been obliterated by smart-arse, bean-counters who salivate over their spreadsheets that show an impressive number in the bottom right hand corner.

Excessive cost-cutting measures are a false economy, though, because people fail to reflect on ‘what is the point of life?’. Okay, that’s an existential, philosophical debate for the future, but we only live once and we’re here to have fun and everything should be an enabler to achieve this – education, safe streets, healthcare and amenities that encourage social enjoyment and interaction. I’m here to run my model railway, watch Crystal Palace win the Champions League, travel on scenic bus journeys, sit at county cricket matches in blissful solitude and eat Wimpy Benders in a Bun with cheese every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, even if it doesn’t make an impressive read on a spreadsheet or swanky PowerPoint presentation in PLC World.

We should re-evaluate the role of the ticket office. Instead of looking at it panic-stricken as a burdensome, cost-sucking scourge on the industry, we should view it as a positive hub – a beacon of social value to the community, in the absence of shops and other amenities. We see so much mumbo-jumbo spouted by senior professionals about ‘innovation’; isn’t it time to start ‘doing as we say’.

The concept of a ticket office doubling up as a tourist information centre or drop-in facility for healthcare, a place for community-based meetings, somewhere that folk meet to pick up shopping or goods they’ve ordered online, or just somewhere they can meet and chat over coffee, is nothing new. I’d love ticket offices to be the home for craft or antique fairs, model exhibitions, floral displays, whilst showcasing the history and legendary tales of the community with compelling imagery and information. It’s a blank sheet of paper.

As we know, many suggestions for better ticket office utilisation have been adopted in parts of the UK, inspired and run by volunteers. The challenge is how the industry’s mindset can change and this lateral approach become normalised, rather than viewed as ‘quirky’. How do we ensure that those innovators involved aren’t ground down by the intricacies of the industry processes and procedures? We must encourage local identity and innovation but within a governance framework that ensures that basics, like selling tickets, giving correct information, getting assets fixed in a quick and timely manner as well as other elements involved in running a station, such as dealing with anti-social behaviour, fraudulent travel and car parking issues, are able to be managed, as well as the fun stuff like selling tea and scones or hosting the local school choir.

It would be great if community-based entrepreneurs took over the running of their local station – they would need training in serving tickets and all other aspects, but remain emancipated and not driven into complete despair by onerous bureaucracy or the inability of the railway to provide them with a facility that is fit for purpose.

It would be great if community-based entrepreneurs took over the running of their local station

Before the trade unions get sniffy, I’m not advocating booting out existing railway employees. Among many of them, there are entrepreneurs staffing their local station who have great ideas for doing a better job than the TOC that pays their wages. If they could be re-engaged either as part of a community trust or given grant funding to establish themselves as independent self-employed individuals or within their own limited company or maybe as franchisees, I think you’d find they would be more impactful and the experience for customers and the local area enhanced. These folk currently are the eyes and ears of their community and know the key stakeholders in any case as well as the intricate needs of their customers and market trends. They ooze ideas but are suppressed by the constraints of their employment status, the workings of their company and sometimes poor leaders who don’t understand their community like they do. Many are also entrepreneurial and have small sideline family businesses in any case.

It would be good to see this model sponsored or franchised to a community-type organisation or social enterprise that is already the heartbeat of villages and towns across the UK, particularly remote locations. This might be the Post Office or Co-Op, for instance – they would invest in facilities, create a national structure, framework and foundations that would enable the individual ticket offices to flourish but provide support to those running them locally as well as ensure consistency of core standards. They would also have the clout to challenge the train operator, Network Rail or Great British Railways (in the future) to make it easier for the station team and its customers, be it avoiding pointless bureaucracy, simplifying ‘railway procedures’ and ensuring that faults were fixed to a high quality and in a timely manner.

The railway businesses could be called upon to provide ‘tools for the job’ industry training, including conflict avoidance, ticket selling, basic railway operations and so on. It could be that the Post Office or Co-Op win franchises on a subsidy or revenue risk basis, for a certain part of the UK railway, that they then franchise out to willing and suitable individuals on either a profit share basis or for a fee, ‘sub-postmaster style’. They would be bequeathed with subsidy from UK Rail plc (or whatever it is called).

Stop treating ticket offices as though they’re a noose around the railway’s neck, a disease to be obliterated. Stop being defensive, risk averse in the way of the UK rail industry of the last decade and start being creative, looking at opportunities. My love of 70s music may hint I’m in a time-warp, harking back 40 years when ticket offices were in their pomp. ‘Living in the past’ is often seen as shameful – I couldn’t give two hoots. Was the past that bad? I tell you one thing – it was miles more innovative back then in the rail industry. This current set-up couldn’t be less innovative if it tried. Shame on you. Whoever you may be.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!